These writers grab children"s attention

Good writers start a book with a good first line. It's called ``the hook,'' and it's meant to instantly engage the reader.

And though I don't want to overgeneralize or be sexist, I would say that when it comes to kids, sometimes it's harder to hook a boy than it is a girl. That's why it is so refreshing to have found two books, both with male narrators, which start strong and keep up the momentum.

How's this for a hook? ``Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.'' That's the first line of Al Capone Does My Shirts, a book for kids in grades five through eight by Gennifer Choldenko.

It's 1935, and 12-year-old Moose Flanagan has moved with his family to Alcatraz, the famous ``Devil's Island'' in San Francisco Bay that served as a penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Alcatraz is home to some of the country's most notorious criminals, including Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Roy Gardner, who, before being sent to Alcatraz, had escaped from prison 110 times.

Choldenko has drawn on history for the setting and circumstances of her story, as outlined in an author's note at the end of the book. Turns out there actually was a civilian community of families living on Alcatraz; the warden felt that he needed his guards and other prison workers close by in case of an emergency. Children grew up in a small, safe community, and took the boat across the bay to attend school.

But Moose Flanagan is not a happy boy.

``I want to be here like I want poison oak on my private parts,'' he says.

His parents have moved from Santa Monica, Calif., to Alcatraz because his father, an electrician who doubles as a prison guard, can earn a better salary on the island. The extra money is needed so Moose's autistic sister, Natalie, can be sent to a private school.

Alcatraz provides an interesting and dramatic backdrop that helps advance the book's plot. But this story is ultimately about Moose's relationship with his sister, and about how families cope with a child with special needs. Choldenko, whose sister was severely autistic, writes this story with inside knowledge of the toll taken on siblings and parents.

``Al Capone Does My Shirts'' is replete with quirky secondary characters, including Piper, the warden's daughter. She's trouble, but she's pretty, too, and Moose has a hard time telling her ``no.'' Readers on the cusp of adolescence will appreciate Moose's hormones and his appetite.

Fat kid rules

The hook in Fat Kid Rules the World reads: ``I'm a sweating fat kid standing on the edge of the subway platform staring at the tracks.''

The narrator, 17-year-old Troy Billings, is seriously depressed. He's huge -- 300 pounds. His mother is dead; his father is emotionally distant; his younger brother is everything Troy isn't -- athletic, popular, thin. Troy has no friends, and no life. He's standing by the subway, contemplating throwing himself under a train.

Enter Curt MacCrae, an emaciated, guitar-playing, punk rock local legend. Based loosely on real rock legend Kurt Cobain, MacCrae has his own set of problems -- drugs, an evil stepfather, no place to live. He and Troy forge an unlikely friendship when Curt recruits Troy to be the drummer in a band he's putting together. The fact that Troy hasn't played drums since middle school is beside the point. According to Curt, the important attributes for a drummer are lack of pretension and the ability to hit hard.

``Fat Kid Rules the World'' is written for teenagers in grades eight and up. Author K. L. Going doesn't pull any punches. The language is frank. Kids do things that make parents crazy: skipping school, drinking, smoking joints, dressing in terrible clothes. But the voice of Troy Billings is authentic and consistent throughout, and his angst is real. Among other things, the book looks at one of the conundrums of high school, and life: how some kids have charisma, and some don't.

Going, having inserted the hook into the reader at the beginning of her book, is able to sustain the reader's interest as the story unfolds. As Troy's life expands and improves through his friendship with Curt, his self-absorption diminishes, and he's able to see his father and brother in a new light. His burgeoning self-confidence serves to even the score with Curt, and by the end of the book, the reader feels they've saved each other.

Breck Longstreth is an Island resident, and can be reached at breckon


A year or more ago, I wrote a review of I, Freddy, the story of a hamster that learned to read and write. Originally published in 1998, the book was translated from German and debuted in the United States in 2003. Since then, two sequels for children in grades two to five by author Dietlof Reiche have come out.

Freddy in Peril, published last year, tells how, after Freddy publishes his autobiography on the Internet, an evil scientist attempts to kidnap him. To avoid having his brain dissected by Professor Fleischkopf, who wants to know how a hamster could get so smart, Freddy takes refuge with a family of sewer rats.

Finally, Freddy to the Rescue, the third volume in the Golden Hamster Saga, was released last month. In this book, Freddy turns environmental crusader, rescuing a host of field hamster cousins. He's accompanied on his adventures by his usual sidekicks, including Enrico and Caruso, the two singing, theatrical guinea pigs that drive him nuts.

Freddy is full of hutzpah, and there's enough humor here to make these books good choices for parents to read to their children.

-- Breck Longstreth

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