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Crows and Cards


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About the Author

Joseph Helgerson lives in Minneapolis with his wife, daughter, and son. He grew up in a small town on the Mississippi River, where his parents often took him and his brothers sandbar camping. Today he carries on that tradition with his own family.


Gr 4-8-It's 1849, and though 12-year-old Zeb would rather remain in their familiar log cabin with his six siblings, Pa places him onboard a steamship bound for St. Louis and Great-Uncle Seth's tannery to learn a trade. Feeling lonely and unhappy about the prospect of working "with a bunch of smelly old hides," Zeb is thrilled when a fine gentleman strikes up a conversation with him. Chilly Larpenteur's specialty is helping wealthy travelers share their riches-through rigged card games. He asks Zeb to become his apprentice upon their arrival in St. Louis, assuring the boy that his work is philanthropic since he donates part of his winnings to orphans. Zeb accepts, but it's not long before Chilly's true colors show and the boy realizes that he has been flimflammed. However, he's made real friends along the way, including a blind old Indian chief known for his visions and a grouchy slave who burns everything he cooks. How they beat Chilly at his own game makes for a tale that Mark Twain would be proud to call his own. It takes a lot of gumption to create a protagonist who follows in the footsteps of Tom Sawyer, and Helgerson succeeds. Full-page illustrations, an author's note about 19th-century life along the Mississippi, and a hilarious glossary are added bonuses.-Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

Returning to the banks of the Mississippi in his second novel, Helgerson (Horns and Wrinkles) creates an enjoyable yarn, albeit one that feels a little rushed. Twelve-year-old Zebulon "Zeb" Crabtree is sent down the river to St. Louis to become an apprentice tanner, much to his dismay ("when I tried to point out that working with hides might rip my nose apart, Pa claimed that us Crabtrees were made of sterner stuff"). On the riverboat, a gambler named Chilly persuades him to be his apprentice instead, and Zeb is quickly inaugurated into the gambling underworld, hiding behind the wall of a poker room to signal other players' hands to Chilly and getting mixed up in Chilly's attempt to cheat a blind Native American chief. Eventually, Zeb has doubts about the life he's chosen and is forced to make some hard choices. Zeb has a strong voice and personality (though his cluelessness strains believability), and the supporting characters-including the chief's daughter and a slave named Ho-John-are well-defined. A thorough afterword and glossary nicely supplement the novel, but the quick resolution will leave readers wanting. Ages 8-12. (Apr.) Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

"Inspired by Twain's Life on the Mississippi, Helgerson's folksy and chatty tale is also reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn in Zeb's struggles with his conscience and its themes of slavery and freedom."--Kirkus "Helgerson surrounds Zeb with a lively cast of scruffy no-goodniks, a determined slave, and a mystical Indian father-daughter duo, and lets the boy work out for himself whom to trust and how to act. A glossary at the end will help kids navigate Zeb's folksy-funny narration, separating simple "blimblam" from a full-on case of the "fantods." A solid choice for fans of high-spun yarns and not-too-tall tales."--Booklist ." . . the enormous cast of characters, all of whom open the door wide for a sequel to this rousing tale. A full house of appended author's notes, including information about apprenticeships, vision quests, and traveling medicine shows, provides rich historical background, while a glossary covers vivid colloquialisms and potentially unfamiliar words and terms."--Horn Book "Zeb has a strong voice and personality . . . the supporting characters--including the chief's daughter and a slave named Ho-John--are well-defined. A thorough afterword and glossary nicely supplement the novel, but the quick resolution will leave readers wanting."--Publishers Weekly"Helgerson has given us a notable and engaging piece of historical fiction that poses some of the biggest questions with which a young person must come to terms."-Richie's Picks

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