Book Review: Fortunately, The Milk

Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Skottie Young
Publisher: HarperCollins (September 17, 2013)
Audience: Grades 2nd to 5th
Formats: hardcover, e-book, audiobook
Source: book for review; purchased audiobook
Fiction * Adventure * Fantasy

Description from GoodReads:
"I bought the milk," said my father. "I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road."

"Hullo," I said to myself. "That's not something you see every day. And then something odd happened."

Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

My thoughts on this book:
When I heard that Neil Gaiman was reading Fortunately, The Milk, I knew I had to listen to the audiobook.  Gaiman does a great job as the narrator for this story.  As I listened to the audiobook, I couldn't help but imagine Doctor Who as the father, who goes out for milk for his children's breakfast and gets waylaid by a fantastical story. Was the excuse real or just made up?   Fans of Doctor Who will recognize both the analogy (comparison of the Doctor to the father in the book), but also the fact that Gaiman has penned an episode or two of Doctor Who.

Fortunately, The Milk has time travel (albeit questionable at best), dinosaurs, slobbery aliens, pirates/wumpires, and ponies.  The story is a fast-paced, fantastical adventure, definitely imaginative, and would make a great read aloud (especially if you can pull off a British accent), or better yet, just play the audiobook.

Check out the videos below for a taste of Fortunately, The Milk

Watch the Official Book Trailer:

Neil Gaiman reading Fortunately, The Milk.  Gaiman reads Fortunately, The Milk in the audiobook version:

Chris Riddell illustrating Professor Steg from Fortunately, The Milk.  Chris Riddell illustrated the UK version of the book.  Though I enjoyed Skottie Young's illustrations, I would love to find a copy with Riddell's illustrations.

Look for a copy of Fortunately, The Milk at your nearest Indie Bookstore.

Book Review - Dead End in Norvelt

Author: Jack Gantos
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (BYR)
Released:  September 13, 2011
Format:  Audiobook
Source: Personal Copy
Audience: Middle Grade (10 to 14 years)
Fiction * Historical Fiction

Description from GoodReads:
Dead End in Norvelt is the winner of the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year's best contribution to children's literature and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction!

Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is a novel about an incredible two months for a kid named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation excitement are shot down when he is "grounded for life" by his feuding parents, and whose nose spews bad blood at every little shock he gets. But plenty of excitement (and shocks) are coming Jack's way once his mom loans him out to help a fiesty old neighbor with a most unusual chore—typewriting obituaries filled with stories about the people who founded his utopian town. As one obituary leads to another, Jack is launced on a strange adventure involving molten wax, Eleanor Roosevelt, twisted promises, a homemade airplane, Girl Scout cookies, a man on a trike, a dancing plague, voices from the past, Hells Angels . . . and possibly murder. Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers laugh out loud at the most unexpected things in a dead-funny depiction of growing up in a slightly off-kilter place where the past is present, the present is confusing, and the future is completely up in the air.

My reflections on the book:
I will admit that based on the title and cover I would have completely passed over this book.  Then a friend shared that she liked it so I added it to my list to read.  I was still passing it over for other books and when the announcement came that it had won a Newbery.  At this point, I questioned the decision of the committee's choice.  And still I hadn't read it.  *sigh*  I know I shouldn't judge a book or a committee's judgement by the cover.  However, I still wasn't moving the book any higher in my TBR pile. 

After listening to the interview with Jack Gantos on NPR's Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me, and learning that Gantos, himself, narrates the audiobook, I decided to try a different approach.  Maybe listening to the book would be a more successful endeavor.  It didn't take more than about one chapter to realize that the audiobook was an excellent choice.  I hadn't stopped laughing as I listened to Gantos read those first chapters of his fictionalized autobiographical story.

The challenge with an audiobook is that is typically takes longer to get through the book.  I listen in the car (though I don't have a long commute) and a little bit in the morning and again at night.  However, I found that as I listened I kept wanting to listen and wanting to find out more about Jack, and the other members of the Norvelt community.  At one point, since I can read faster than the audiobook, I even tried switching over to the book, but by that point I preferred Gantos' voice to my own and just switched back to the audio.

Dead End in Norvelt is a unique book.  As I listened, I couldn't help thinking that it was a book more for adults who want or need to reminisce about a different place and time that no longer exists.  Gantos captures the special nuances and eccentricities of growing up in a small working class community.  It is 1962.  Norvelt which was founded in the 1930's is dying out - figuratively and literally.  Twelve year old Jack is sentenced to a summer of confinement in his room when he gets caught in his parents' feud.  His only reprieve from being in his room or doing chores is when an elderly neighbor with serious arthritis needs his help to write/type up the obituaries.  For Jack, this isn't as bad as it may sound.  Jack likes history and with each death of an original Norvelt community member,  he learns from Miss Volker the history of the individual along with historical facts that she weaves into the write up.  

I liked Jack.  He's a good kid with very frequent nose bleeds, an interest in history, and a penchant for finding himself in unusual situations; some that get him into trouble particularly with his mother.  His friendship with Miss Volker is especially entertaining.  Every time the phone would ring, and Jack would be called to come down to Miss Volker, I would wonder what odd scenario he would find himself in this time.  And the situations are even stranger because parents and adults today would never allow children to do most of these things.  A child driving a car, or purchasing rat poison, or traipsing around checking on dead people is close to nil.  It finally occurred to me that the reason I loved listening to this rather than reading it was that it reminded me of the times when my dad and uncles would sit around the table and talk about the things they would do as children.  

Yes, I loved this one, but I especially loved listening to it.  I also appreciated the extra section in the audiobook where Gantos tells a little bit about what in the book was factual/autobiographical.  

I am afraid though that this one is going to be hard to sell.  The audience for this book is supposedly 10 to 14 year olds.  I am fascinated when I hear a teacher mention that some of her "boy" readers are really enjoying this one.  I always want to know where they are from.  I wonder if this one wouldn't do better with boys in small towns in the Northeast.  Or better yet, I think it would have more success with Baby Boomers who lived through this time period.  

I still am not a big fan of the cover.  And I still wonder about the decision of the Newbery Committee.  However, when I say that now, I can at least back that up with having read the book.  And I, at least, can now identify how I will present this book to children in a way that they hopefully will experience it as a slice of history (even if it is fictionalized). 

Check out the book trailer for Dead End in Norvelt:   

Thoughts about audiobooks...

I have a confession to make.  For as much as I promote reading aloud to children, and for as much as I have read aloud to children, I hated to be read aloud to as a child.  When I discovered that I could read a book to myself, I was in heaven.  It wasn't that I didn't like how people would read books aloud.  It was simply that I couldn't understand or follow what was being read and I was miserable.  I learned quickly to ask for a copy of something or to simply state "Let me read that. You don't have to read that aloud."  Yes, I am a visual learner.  

Consequently, audiobooks were not something that I had ever thought to purchase or listen to.  Even the thought of it made me cringe.  However, I started discovering friends who were avid readers who also listened to audiobooks.  It was one of the ways that they could increase the number of books they read during a year.  So one day I decided to explore this world of audiobooks.

Here is what I learned:

* The narrator can make or break an audiobook.  - A great narrator can take even an okay book and make it fabulous.  The wrong narrator can ruin a book.

* If a book isn't working for you, and the audiobook is read by someone you like.  Give it a try on audio.  The reverse is true too.  If you are listening to an audiobook and not liking it (even with a good narrator), try reading the book.

* Get recommendations from friends as to which narrators that they like.  What works for me may or may not work for you but it is a great place to start.  And websites like even have books rated by narrators.

* For those of us who struggle to grasp auditory information, take a page out of tricks for working with kids with learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder.  - You just may need to engage in a simple activity while you attempt to focus on auditory information.  For me this means, I need to clean a closet or wash dishes or walk on a treadmill or drive in a car or even play solitaire when listening to an audiobook.

Who are some of my favorite audiobook narrators?

Jim Dale and Katherine Kellgren are by far my favorite narrators out there.  And fortunately they do a lot of children's and young adult fiction.  I have told friends that I could listen to Jim Dale read the telephone book.  And I one time listened to six hours of an 18 hour audiobook before I abandoned the book all because I just enjoyed listening to Katherine Kellgren despite the fact that the book seemed to have no real direction.
Emerald Atlas - John Stephens, Narrated by Jim Dale
Any other narrators that I have discovered that I like?

I loved David Hyde Pierce's narration of The Phantom Tollbooth.  Jesse Eisenberg is beyond a shadow of a doubt the voice of Cassel (the main character in Holly Black's Curse Workers Series) at least in my mind.  Libba Bray is just as great/funny as a narrator (Beauty Queens) as she is a writer.  Debbie Allen brought Kadir Nelson's Heart and Soul to life.  And Nick Podehl (The Knife of Never Letting Go; Will Grayson, Will Grayson) is another fabulous narrator.

Books I will never read aloud to a class because the audiobook is so much better:

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place - Written by Maryrose Wood; Narrated by Katherine Kellgren 

Written by Maryrose Wood; Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
The Phantom Tollbooth - Written by Norton Juster; Narrated by David Hyde Pierce

Books I would never have finished this year if it wasn't for the audiobook:

The Night Circus - Written by Erin Morgenstern; Narrated by Jim Dale

So what books do you love on audiobook or who would you recommend as a narrator? 

Share your thoughts in the comment section.  And check out my Book Lover's Holiday Giveaway Hop for a chance to win an audiobook.