Thursday, March 12, 2015

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True) by Alison DeCamp

It’s tough to review a book when you really, really like the author. There’s always a worry that you’ll write about the person instead of the book. Alison DeCamp is a bookseller/conversationalist at one of the independent bookstores I love to visit.  She has the dry-like-a-martini-with-no-vermouth sense of humor I love, she detests the same grammatical errors that make me wince, and her reading choices usually mirror mine. My hope upon opening her acclaimed debut, My Near-Death Adventures (99% True), was that it would be just like her and I could write a love letter to the book and to Alison. Thankfully, I didn’t get my wish because DeCamp, a former teacher, has instead written a slapstick comedy for 9-to-12-year-olds that will make even the most reluctant male readers want to devour it just as Stan, the protagonist, devours bacon. And wonder of wonders - since the story’s set in an 1895 lumber camp, it will also allow teachers to assign it or use it as a read-aloud to meet Common Core standards while engaging their classrooms in uproarious laughter.

The book opens with Stan’s nemesis, his Granny Cora, getting his mother to solve their money problems by cooking at a remote Michigan Upper Peninsula lumber camp. Stan soon learns that his “dearly departed” father may have departed but is still alive. Thus, Stan starts writing himself imaginary letters he can receive from said deserter dad.  Add in Stan’s scrapbook filled with advertisements and clippings from the 1890s and Stan’s inability to discern whether he keeps his wry comments to himself or inadvertently voices them aloud. Toss in a dash of Stan’s cousin Geri, the girl in the camp who calls Stan out on his antics, and add lots and lots of bacon to nourish the lumberjacks so they can fell immense logs and you have a winner of a story.

I found myself pretending that I was back in the school library where I read to third through fifth graders every week. The boys there loved having me read “something funny” like the classic Ida Early books because her tall tales made them laugh (surely it was my accent) while her stories reminded them of their own families. Stan’s adventures and his own problems as an unreliable narrator are exactly what those boys would love to hear or even to read on their own.

Historical fiction for the middle grades can be a hard sell but the humor and pictures in My Near-Death Adventures will have kids lined up to borrow it in school libraries and then have them guffawing and breaking the silence during silent reading time as they enjoy Stan’s antics. This author’s portrait that young readers attending the book’s launch were encouraged to deface may say more about why kids will enjoy this book more than any of my words.

Even the ever serious Kirkus Reviews calls it: “A knee-slapper of a debut featuring a narrator who is rather less than 99 percent reliable but 100 percent engaging.

Summing it Up: Read this excerpt to see for yourself why third through fifth graders will eat up Stan and his antics. Put on a flannel shirt, cozy up to the fire, grab a slab of bacon, and imagine yourself in the north woods as you devour this comedic tale.

FYI: You can buy the book from Between the Covers, the bookstore where the author is a part-time employee and have it signed or personalized by calling 231-526-6658. You’ll also find autographed copies at many independent Michigan bookstores that De Camp is visiting this year. She’s also visiting a raft of schools and if you’re a teacher or librarian, you may want to visit her website to arrange a visit too.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Peanut Butter and Jelly, Historical Fiction, Super Nutrition Five Stars
Publication date: February 24, 2015
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