Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, June 27, 2014

Who Did What...Where...When And How?

Despite the fact numerous cultures and religions have a written or understood variation on the golden rule (See The Golden Rule written by Ilene Cooper, illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska), there always have been and always will be people who choose, for whatever reason, not to follow this simple example.  They seem to take particular delight in their choice; raising themselves up by belittling others or even worse yet, ignoring them.  For this reason the legend of Robin Hood has particular lasting appeal.

Books, television shows and movies with similar themes of one or more people covertly righting injustice or interceding before a wrong can be committed will continue to remain popular.  When Varian Johnson released his new title, The Great Greene Heist (Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic) into the world, he gave readers one of the funniest, best middle grade books with a hero who sets his sights on the end, a good end.  It's his means to the end plus his group of friends which will have everyone on the edge of their seats, turning pages faster than lightning, cheering and laughing.

As Jackson Greene sped past the Maplewood Middle School cafeteria---his trademark red tie skewed slightly to the left, a yellow No. 2 pencil balanced behind his ear, and a small spiral-bound notebook tucked in his right jacket pocket---he found himself dangerously close to sliding back into the warm confines of scheming and pranking.

Even though a meeting with another eighth grade student, close friend Charlie de la Cruz, editor of the school newspaper, has Jackson determined to stick with his promise of no more plots or secret plans, readers can sense a subtle tension; a beginning of something bigger.  As the day goes on more facts surface; a chat with tech geek pal, Hashemi Larijani, reveals additional possibilities of twists and less than proper turns in the student council election process and the aftermath.  A student running against Gabriela, Gaby, de la Cruz, Charlie's twin sister and Jackson's potential girlfriend, has suddenly dropped out of the race.

Nemesis of Jackson and his crew, Keith Sinclair, has decided to run for president at the last minute turning in his packet late.  Principal Kelsey announces he will allow it, exercising one of the loop holes in the by-laws.  Why did the other candidate withdraw from the race?  Why would Principal Kelsey, according to new information, assure Keith he will win?   To Jackson Greene this can only mean one thing.

Now wasn't a time to be normal.  Now was a time to be infamous.

The subtle tension is now full blown as this extraordinary student reveals his plan to a trusted team.  With the election only three weeks away, they need everything to work with precision; each link in the chain of events needs to be unbreakable.  Life being what it is, people being who they are, makes this particularly tricky.

Conversations, boy-girl mix-ups, basketball, school clubs, the formal dance, locks, and a voting machine all add up to more excitement than this middle school can handle. At the center is Jackson Greene working his signature magic keeping everyone guessing, including readers, right up to the final breathtaking minute.  Will this be the biggest bust or the finest hour for Jackson Greene...allegedly?

With his descriptive writing Varian Johnson captures his readers' interest with the first sentence, introducing the main character and his unique qualities.  Each subsequent chapter adds characters to the mix along with their distinct personalities.  The plot unfolds with increasing surprises more taunt with each episode, the amount of pages shortening between them.

I constantly found myself smiling at the contrast between the realism of the everyday life at this middle school with the conversations between Jackson and the members working to pull-off the heist.  It's not every day you might overhear an exchange like this one.

..."I know.  We'll need a crew." Jackson opened his notebook and began flipping through the names he had jotted down during study hall.  "There are a lot of students with a lot to lose if Keith becomes president.  We just have to find people who won't spill."
"I'm guessing you want Hashemi for tech support."
"We are venturing where few have gone before."
Charlie winced at Jackson's Star Trek joke. "Hashemi couldn't finish a project if his life depended on it."   He nibbled on his lip, then said, "We'd be better off with Megan---"
"No way."
"Rule Number Nine: Loose lips sink ships," Jackson said.  "Hashemi can handle it.  He works great under pressure."
"I hope you're right."  Charlie looked back at the map.  "What about Bradley for an inside guy?"...

Johnson's depictions of supportive parents with gifts of their own, many students breaking out of traditional molds (a cheerleader who is a tech whiz), the various clubs, Tech Club, Botany Club (Jackson is a member) and the Environmental Action Team to name only three, and the camaraderie between siblings quite simply heightens the interest for a larger group of readers.  He does not miss a beat in the dialogue between any of his characters; even with the less than savory individuals like Keith and Principal Kelsey.  You want to be a member of one of these families.  You want to be a part of Jackson Greene's team.  Here is another sample conversation.

Miranda Greene folded her napkin and dabbed at the corner of her mouth.  "Your father thinks---"
Donald Greene cleared his throat.
"Your father and I both think you should socialize more with your friends.  It's been four months since that... unfortunate incident, and your behavior has been nothing but exemplary."
Jackson put his fork down.  "I don't need to go to the formal to see my friends.  I was just at Hash's today, and Charlie was over here last week."
Miranda Greene glanced at her husband.  "We were thinking---"
"Not that we're trying to dictate your love life---"
"This is of course, your decision---"
"You should ask Gaby to the dance."
Jackson felt his body slide a few inches lower in his chair.
"She's smart," his mother said.  "She was just in the Dispatch last week for academic excellence.  I used to have a copy around here..."
Jackson slid another inch.  The newspaper now resided at the bottom of his desk drawer.
"She plays basketball," his father said.  "And she's a looker."

I guarantee once you start The Great Greene Heist written by Varian Johnson, you won't be able to stop.  Johnson's use of language is outstanding to the degree you feel like you've stepped into the pages of this book.  Make sure you read this title.  Make sure you booktalk it to your children and students.  It's absolute pure fun!  Johnson has included explanatory pages of The Greene Code of Conduct and The Great Greene Heist Cons at the conclusion.

If you want to learn more about Varian Johnson and his books, follow the link to his website embedded in his name.  Here is the link to a blog post by author Kate Messner about this title.  Varian Johnson gave an interview at Kirkus linked here.  John Schumacher of Watch. Connect. Read. and Colby Sharp of sharpread have made this title a part of their July #SharpSchu Book Club. (Follow the extra links in this post.)

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