Category Archives: Middle grade book review

Book Review: Savvy

I love the cover of Savvy.  The swirl of contrasting colors, the raised silver letters of the title, the lightening zigzagging across the sky–all of this made me itch to pick up the book.  Fortunately, the story itself was as good at the cover artistry.  The first sentence pulls you in, “When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the face that he’d caused it.”

Soon, we learn that the narrator, Mibs (short for Mississipi) Beaumont, is turning 13 the next day.  In the Beaumont family, 13 is a significant birthday because it’s the onset of your savvy, your special power.  Fish causes hurricanes, oldest brother Rocket controls electricity, and Grandpa can create new land.  Mama is perfect, and Grandma used to bottle radio waves in special jar.  Mibs can’t wait to discover her own savvy, but a shocking phone call interrupts her birthday preparations.  The family finds out that their beloved Papa has been in a terrible car accident.

Mama and older brother Rocket rush to Papa’s side, but Mibs and her siblings are left behind with the fearsome babysitter, Miss Rosemary.  Not liking this arrangement, Mibs hitches a ride on a Bible salesman’s bus, determined to reach her Papa and save him with her oncoming savvy.  Will Junior and Bobbi, the pastor’s children, join them, and they pick up a kind lady named Lill along the way.

Savvy is the story of a journey, so of course there are bumps in the long road, and the bus doesn’t exactly beeline towards the expected destination.  Along the way, Mibs discovers her unique savvy, Fish struggles to control his ability, and Lester the Bible salesman gets some help from Lill.  In fact, nearly every character on the bus has a story line, and Law does a great job letting characters grow while keeping all events pertinent to the plot.

The story moves at a brisk pace, holding your interest the whole time.  The language for the most part is delightful and character descriptions are spot-on.  For instance, check out the first introduction of Lester the Bible salesman, “The deliveryman was wearing overalls with a button-down shirt and a stained pink necktie.  There was a wilted carnation pinned to the left strap of the man’s overalls and his thin hair was combed up and over his balding head like a blanket.  He had a kind, sad face–like the face of a man who had just lost his dog–and he was holding a clipboard out in front of him like a shield.”

My only problem with the language was the made-up words sprinkled throughout the story.  While some are great–“scumble” is what you do to control your savvy–others seemed overly cute and became tiresome by the end of the novel.  I was pleased with the conclusion though.  It’s bittersweet, striking a believable and appropriate middle ground between cloying sweetness and dark disappointment.  I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers.

It’s worth noting that Savvy was up for the Newbery in the same year as The Graveyard Book.  Having read these books back to back, I can see why The Graveyard Book won.  The Graveyard Book has a deeper, more poignant tone than Savvy.  It’s language is more consistently intriguing, and certain parts of it stirred my imagination much more than any part of Savvy.  The Graveyard Book feels like a story that can be enjoyed by any age group, while I think Savvy is best appreciated by its intended middle grade audience.

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Book Review: The Graveyard Book

I’m a fan of the Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, while still recognizing a few flaws.  I actually read the book twice in the past six months.  The first time, I gulped it all down in a 48 hour period, completely floored by the creativity, the writing, and the characters.  The second time, I read a bit more slowly, and closed it feeling like the book is good, but a bit uneven in terms of pace and plot.

The Graveyard Book is about Nobody Owens, nicknamed Bod, a young boy whose family is killed when he’s a baby.  Toddling out of his crib ahead of the killer, he wanders into the nearby graveyard and is adopted by the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Owens, two resident ghosts.  A  mysterious guardian, Silas, also cares for Bod, and the boy spends a delightful few chapters learning the ways of the graveyard.  He meets a pert yet helpful witch, ventures into a mound that contains the Sleer, discovers a ghoul-gate, and befriends a young girl named Scarlett.

The strongest chapters occur right in a row–2, 3, 4, and 5–and the rest of the book is good, but fails to match those initial winning chapters.  The engaging beginning of the book centers on Bod’s life in the graveyard.  Those chapters are whimsical, creative, and different.  Later, after Bod leaves the graveyard to give school with live humans a whirl, the plot still maintains a sense of urgency, but doesn’t quite deliver on the same level as the beginning.

The villain of the story, the man Jack, contributes to the slight downshift in the plot quality.  The man Jack is introduced in the first chapter, and he’s surely scary and creepy enough to qualify for villain status, but the book never makes clear his motivation for killing Bod’s family.  There’s no lightening scar like Harry Potter.  Bod’s family has no particular secrets.  The man Jack needs to kill Bod to finish his unfinished business, and that’s fine because a villain is needed to drive the plot, but the premise feels a bit thin on a second read-through.  I can appreciate that Gaiman didn’t bog down the story with a midichlorian type explanation, but I was left wanting more from the man Jack. One of the chapters I least enjoyed was The Convocation, where the league of Jacks get together to discuss their evil plans.  But, that chapter is barely three pages, so I can’t complain too much!

One interesting thing to note about the Graveyard Book.  Gaiman originally wrote Chapter 4: The Witch’s Headstone, first, and had it published as a short story.  That chapter could be read completely independently and still be enjoyed, as could Chapter 3: The Hounds of God and Chapter 5: The Danse Macabre.  I highly recommend the Graveyard Book and I send out a virtual cheer to the members of the Newbery Committee who selected it for the honor.

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