Once Upon a Now: The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

Cindy: I’ll say right off the top that I’m not convinced this book is entirely successful but I admire Christopher Edge for creating a story that is unique and thought-provoking. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon (Delacorte, 2020) starts with an intriguing opening:

Once upon a time doesn’t exist.
This story starts once upon a now.

Friends Charlie and Dizzy and bully Johnny become lost in the woods while trying to decode messages left there, perhaps by a child-eating monster. More dangerous, perhaps, is the woods itself and the night that falls more quickly than usual, the storms that threaten, and the stars that are not in their familiar constellations. As the night wears on and the weather changes impossibly, the children are not only lost in the woods but maybe, lost in time. Forget the monster, it may be the woods that gets them.

Edge plays with Einstein’s special theory of relativity and presents a story that is at once a page-turner creepy adventure and a thoughtful look at friendship, the fluidity of time, and who we choose to be. The book has two starred reviews already, so perhaps it is entirely successful; regardless, it’s a book for those kids who need challenging books without mature content. There’s plenty to think about here.

Lynn: Christopher Edge is doing a lot of things in this slim book. He’s got mystery, suspense and a bit of horror, a story of friendship and bullying, and kids finding their strengths. And he also has time travel. As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I am accustomed to being confused when I tackle time travel. I expect to be confused! Young readers have differing reactions to feeling off-footed by a plot. Some dislike it and others embrace it. Here, Edge helps readers to keep going when time travel adds its slippery effect by giving kids a lot of incentive to keep going. Charlie is in a dire situation and wondering what will happen next is a terrific impetus to keep turning the pages. And then there are the puzzling codes and, oh yes, the possibility of a kid-eating monster! It is cleverly designed to propel kids through what may be for some an off-putting sense of not really knowing what is going on. When they come out of the woods in the morning with the three protagonists, readers will find a lot of rewards. They’ll get a satisfying conclusion to the story, a summary of what happens to the characters when they grow up, and answers to at least some of their questions. Kids are going to want to immediately share and discuss the story, another great feature. Edge provides extensive and interesting back matter in “The Science in the Longest Night of Charlie Noon.” Here he explains the codes, code-breaking, and complicated concepts such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the speed of light.

Perhaps the biggest reward of all here for young readers is in understanding that being confused for a while in a book can be a really great thing!

 

Patrick Ness and a New Spin on Dragons

Lynn: Just when I had decided that there was nothing new and interesting in the dragon-tales category, Patrick Ness came along with his new book, Burn (Harper, June 2020), and turned that notion upside down. I shouldn’t be surprised as Ness has a habit of giving old tropes a new look and I couldn’t be happier that he has brought his imagination to this science-fiction-with-dragons story. Wonderfully crafted and totally immersive, this is a brilliant book that completely absorbed my attention and that is saying a lot in this time of pandemic fear. I couldn’t put it down and I can’t resist saying that I burned through it.

The story begins in 1957 in rural Frome, Washington where Sarah Dewhurst and her taciturn father wait to meet the dragon they have hired to clear the new field at their struggling farm. The dragon turns out to be a rare Blue and while it appears that he works for a sliver of gold, his real reason in something else entirely. The focus shifts to a pair of FBI agents also in the area. They are tracing vague rumors of some kind of cult and a rumored assassin and arrive in time to check out a grisly murder scene. The focus shifts again to meet 17-year-old Malcolm, an assassin on a critical mission. Sarah’s family farm is the focal point of these three threads. An eons-long struggle is coming to a tipping point for both dragons and men in this and other worlds. None of the people who come together in the next few days will ever be the same.

The intricate plotting is a joy to read as all the plot points have purpose, all the relationships interlock, and every thread comes together. The characters are vivid and multi-dimensional in every sense and the world-building was exquisitely done. Incorporating the tense history of 1957, the Cold War, Sputnik, and the space race, Ness has given dragons and dragon magic a whole new spin.

Get ready for twists and turns and a wild finish! The door seems slightly ajar so I am hoping there will be a sequel and another trip possible to this universe. More, please!

Cindy: Wow. Patrick Ness is one of the most original writers we have and he delivers a dragon’s hoard in this new book. In addition to the creative world-building and the surprises in the plot (the big show down I anticipated was in the middle of the book. What?) he explores the themes of the costs of war and the tragedy in prejudice. In particular, bi-racial Sarah is shunned in town for her heritage just as her white father and now deceased mother were when they married. She has to hide her relationship with her boyfriend Jason Inagawa as the small town’s prejudice is even worse against anyone of Japanese heritage in this post-WWII decade. And then there is assassin Malcolm’s acceptance and exploration of his homosexuality, a thread that is beautifully, tenderly, and heartbreakingly portrayed. All of this while the adventurous plot spins out.

Do you really need to know more than this is written by Patrick Ness and this is the opening sentence:

On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957—the very day, in fact, that Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath of office for the second time as President of the United States of America—Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm.

I didn’t think so. Get your preorder in with your local independent bookstore, pronto.

Bloom – a Dystopian Thriller for Teens Without a Virus

Lynn: Grab your heavy-duty garden shears and get ready for a wild ride with Kenneth Oppel’s new science fiction thriller, Bloom (Random/Knopf, 2020). This series opener will have you looking at plants in a whole new way!

I always look forward to a new book by Oppel and this time he brings a scary new twist to a planetary threat that is a tip of the hat to the John Wyndham classic, The Day of the Triffids, a SF classic from 1951. Set on a Canadian island near Vancouver, readers meet three teens, two of which have severe and recent allergies and one, Seth, hides rows of small surgical scars on his arms. All are experiencing strange dreams and hide worries. When a fierce 3-day rainfall hits the island and in fact, the whole world, the two girls suddenly find their allergies improving. More startling is the overnight growth of a strange black grass that is almost impossible to destroy and that grows with terrifying speed, overwhelming farms, gardens, and cities. And that is just the start of what starts to grow. The teens begin to experience startling changes themselves as they and the world fight for their lives against the invaders.

Fast-paced and immersive, this terrific story of toxic pollen, horrifying pit plants, and a fabulous super-powers wrapped me up like one of the black vines in the story and I raced through this book as fast as I could turn the pages. Oppel uses real plant biology skillfully to nurture world-building that is terrifyingly believable. The story builds to a nail-biting climax and resolution only to land a sucker punch of a cliff-hanger event on the last page. I was very happy to discover that Book 2, Hatch, is scheduled for Fall 2020.

Cindy: There might not be a virus in this book, but there are people trapped in their homes and a shortage of toilet paper at school due to the increased allergies until the schools are closed down. Reading this while on Stay at Home orders during the COVID-19 Pandemic was a little unsettling at times.  In an insert in my advanced reader copy, Oppel says that the seed for this story came from a dream his daughter had. Perhaps she was having dreams that predicted the future just like those of his characters! I dreamt about hiding a toilet paper stash last night, and I don’t HAVE a stash.

Besides the scary invasion survival story going on here, there is a unique look at the changes during adolescence, not only misunderstandings in friendships but in an individual’s acceptance (or not) of the changes that are happening in their own bodies or to their own identities. It will be interesting to watch this thread with these three characters as the series continues as much as cheering them on against the bad guys. Sometimes, the bad guy is the person inside us who needs to be conquered. Bring on book 2, I have my wing barbs sharpened so I can fight my way to the top of the arc pile…it’s a good thing for some of you that ALA Annual has been canceled. The Random House/Knopf booth could have been quite dangerous!!! HAHAHAHA.

We’re Not From Here

Lynn: Years of working in a middle school library have taught me that if you want to talk to students about serious issues you have to get and keep their attention first. Geoff Rodkey clearly gets that important fact. Author of the New York Times bestselling Tapper Twins series, Rodkey’s new book, We’re Not From Here (Crown, 2019) takes on timely issues but in a way that is sure to captivate young readers and crack them up even as it gives them much to think about.

We're Not From Here by Geoff RodkeyEarth has been made unlivable and the few who escaped are clinging to survival on the Mars station as food, supplies, and breathable air are running out. Told by 6th-grader Lan, a nick-of-time invitation arrives allowing these remaining humans to settle on the distant Planet Choom. Twenty years in stasis travel later, the human ship arrives only to be told that the government of Choom has changed its mind. Reluctantly, Choom officials agree to a test case—one “human reproductive unit” will be allowed to settle temporarily. Lan’s family is chosen with the future of humanity riding on their shoulders. “No pressure!”

Rodkey knows his audience and this dark-edged story is packed with the sorts of elements and humor perfectly tuned to young readers. It turns out the mosquito-like Zhuri express emotion by emitting odors. Imagine where middle-school senses of humor will go with THAT concept! The Zhuri also love slap-stick comedy and cheezy videos and Lan is an expert on these. Lan’s chatty breezy tone is the perfect vehicle for this extremely funny science fiction tale. Both the humor and the suspense will keep readers turning the pages eagerly and they won’t miss the important issues along the way. Rodkey puts kids squarely in the worn-out shoes of these human immigrants, allowing them to view immigration, refugees, news manipulation, mob violence, discrimination and more from a whole new perspective. Head, heart, and funny bone are all involved in this imaginative, out-of-this-world tale.

Rodkey has some excellent resources available on his website including an interview about the book with the Nerdy Bookclub, a wonderful teacher’s guide, the opportunity for a free Skype visit and more!