Because of Winn-Dixie

Full disclosure: As much as I enjoy the works of Kate DiCamillo, I read Because of Winn-Dixie against my will. I did not want to read it. I am not one to pick up a “dog book” if I don’t have to. My friend’s nagging, however, was more than my meager willpower could handle, so I sat down to read this book Sunday night. Two hours later, I was finished with the book, and I reluctantly admitted that Because of Winn-Dixie was a sweet, heart-warming story. I’m glad I took the time to read it, and I now see what all of the fuss was about.

Opal Buloni doesn’t expect to become a dog-owner when she steps into her new town’s grocery store that fateful day. But that’s just what happens. She takes one look at the big, smiling, rough-around-the-edges dog and knows that she has to take him home…and save him from the angry grocery store manager. And so Winn-Dixie, a dog named after a supermarket, comes into Opal’s life and begins to change her world.

Opal isn’t sure how her father is going to feel about Winn-Dixie, but it doesn’t take long for the dog’s smile and gentle presence to do its work. The whole town feels it. This dog leads Opal to make unlikely friends, including the town librarian, a five-year-old who thinks all parties should have a theme, an ex-con who works in the pet store and has a special way with music, and a nearly blind woman who some in town believe to be a witch.

Through it all, Opal grows closer to the people in her new town…even some she made snap judgments about in the beginning. She also begins to learn more about her own mother, a woman who Opal never really got the chance to know. She becomes a more understanding, compassionate, and caring person.

And all because of Winn-Dixie.

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So, yeah…I liked this book even though I really resisted reading it in the first place. I guess that’ll teach me to judge a book by its dog.

I think Because of Winn-Dixie is wonderful if you’re looking for a book that emphasizes things like empathy, friendship (especially those that are rather unlikely), and even forgiveness. It takes a gentle look at all of these things without being too preachy…which is kind of cool since Opal’s dad is actually a preacher.

Because of Winn-Dixie is a great read for any age level. It’s a good read-aloud for younger grades, and kids in upper elementary grades on up will find it to be a quick yet powerful book that will stay with them for years to come.

If you’d like to learn more about Because of Winn-Dixie and other books by the amazing Kate DiCamillo, check out her website.

Happy reading!

Turtle in Paradise

When I first saw the title of my latest read, Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm, I immediately wanted to substitute the word “Turtle” for “Cheeseburger.”  (All of the Parrotheads out there know what I mean!)  As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off the mark.  Turtle in Paradise, a nominee for the 2012-2013 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, takes place in Key West in 1935.  The Key West we see in this book, however, is not yet the popular tourist destination that it would eventually become.  Like every other place in the nation at this time, Key West has been hit hard by the Great Depression, and our main character, a girl named Turtle, has also been hit hard by some major changes in her own life…

When Turtle’s mother gets a job as a housekeeper for a woman who hates kids, Turtle is sent all the way to Key West, Florida, to live with a bunch of relatives she’s never met. Turtle, a no-nonsense eleven-year-old, is not exactly thrilled with the arrangement. It soon becomes obvious that her aunt and cousins–all boys–aren’t what one would call happy about the situation either. But they do the best they can, and Turtle soon adapts to life in the Keys.

Turtle learns a lot about the family her mother left behind. (It seems she’s related to nearly everyone around her. The road she lives on is even named after the family.) She meets cousins and a grandmother she never knew she had. She goes on outings with the rambunctious boys in the neighborhood and discovers all kinds of things–how to care for whiny babies, nicknames for nearly everyone in the community, and how to make people think there’s a ghost playing tricks on them.

Turtle teaches the boys a thing or two as well.  She even leads them to a treasure that will change their lives forever.  But just as Turtle is finding  a home and family in her own personal paradise, something–or someone–comes along that could turn her world upside down once again.  Read Turtle in Paradise to discover how one girl finds a way to hold on to the things–and people–that really matter.

Normally, I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, but I enjoyed Turtle in Paradise, partly because it didn’t really feel like I was reading historical fiction.  Yes, there were historical details that added to the story.  (I especially enjoyed the Ernest Hemingway cameo.)  At its heart, though, I thought this book was a story of how one girl dealt with the changes in her life.  She adapted to a completely new situation, and she eventually grew to love her extended family and the new setting in which she found herself.

I adored the character of Turtle.  Unlike girls in a lot of children’s books, Turtle definitely didn’t see the world through rose-colored glasses.  She was a realist–some would even say a pessimist–and she was often brutally honest with those around her…kids and adults alike.  She used her wits to get by, and she didn’t sugarcoat things.  She wasn’t a girly girl, and she got right in there with the boys when they romped around the Keys. 

I wasn’t terribly impressed with most of the adults in this story–particularly Turtle’s mom and aunt–but I think a lot of that can be attributed to what life was like in 1935.  When adults are worried about being able to pay the bills and support a bunch of kids, I guess there’s not a lot of room to be overly sympathetic and sensitive.  I would have liked more resolution, though, regarding Turtle’s father and her mom’s boyfriend.  There’s more story to tell there.

All in all, I think Turtle in Paradise is a fine book for readers in upper elementary on up.  Even adult readers will appreciate the bits of nostalgia offered in this book–The Shadow, Little Orphan Annie, etc.–and this book could lead to further reading about what life was like in different parts of America during the Great Depression.  Turtle in Paradise is yet another wonderful summer read, and I think kids of all ages will enjoy it!

If you’d like more information about Jennifer L. Holm and her amazing books (including the insanely popular Babymouse series), visit http://www.jenniferholm.com/.  Happy reading!

Geek High

Geek High is your typical “pink book.” It is targeted to girls, and the story is a predictable tale of high school woes and fumbling romance. What might be a little different, however, is the main character, Miranda. She’s a math genius, and she attends the Notting Hill Independent School for Gifted Children, also known as Geek High. She’s funny, awkward, extremely intelligent, and she’s just been dropped on the doorstep of her estranged father while her flaky mother lives in London for a while.

Life is not so great for Miranda. She’s being forced to live with her evil stepmother and stepsister and a father she barely knows anymore. Her love life is nonexistent. She’s being pressured to be on the math team even though it bores her to tears. One of her best friends is writing a gossip blog that she’s being blamed for, so she’s blackmailed into planning the Geek High’s horrible Snowflake Gala. To make matters worse, the guy she’s been crushing on for two years has the hots for Miranda’s totally abhorrent stepsister, Hannah.

Could anything else go wrong for Miranda? Of course! (This wouldn’t be a high school drama if it didn’t.) But she might just find a way to turn things around. With the help of some friends–and even some “enemies”–Miranda could make things go her way. There even might be hope for her to find a date to the Snowflake Gala. Will this Cinderella story have a happy ending? Find out for yourself when you read Geek High by Piper Banks.

Although this story was predictable, and some of the pop culture references were a bit dated, I thought this was a quick, enjoyable read. If you’re looking for something light with a totally relatable main character, this might be the book for you!

FYI, Geek High is the first in a series of books. I think there are four or five books in this series right now. If you’d like more information on this series and author Piper Banks, visit http://www.piperbanks.com/.

Paper Towns

Having read John Green’s previous two novels, Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines, I was expecting another winner when I started reading Paper Towns.  At first, I thought my expectations would be met.  As I continued reading, however, I found myself getting bogged down in a story that was as unbelievable as it was wordy.  Now, I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of reality, but Paper Towns was a little too out there for me when it comes to a book that is supposed to be realistic fiction.  That being said, I’ll let you judge for yourselves as to whether or not this is a good book…

Quentin Jacobsen is a bit obsessed with his next-door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegleman.  She seems more than human to him, so when she basically orders him to accompany her on an all-night revenge-a-thon, he has little choice but to go along.  After this longest night of his life, however, Quentin discovers that Margo has gone missing.  No one knows where she’s gone, but she has seemingly left Quentin the clues to find her.  With the help of his friends, Quentin follows the clues that will hopefully lead him to Margo.  In the process, he learns more about himself and what it means to really know another person.  Will he find her?  Does Margo even want to be found?  Read Paper Towns by John Green to uncover the mystery.