Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Serpent's Secret

Image result for serpent's secret coverThe Serpent's Secret
Sayantani Dasgupta
Scholastic, 2018 338 pages
Grades 3-7
Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series vol.1

Kiranmala's life is pretty ordinary. The daughter of immigrant parents from India, she helps them at their suburban New Jersey convenience store, hangs out with her best friend, and does her school work. That is, until her twelve birthday. Kiran arrives home from school to discover that her parents have disappeared and she is in grave danger from an evil rakkhosh (demon). Huh? Two handsome Indian princes with flying horses, straight from the Bangali folktales she grew up with, come to help her with the rakkhosh. After they defeat the evil presence the princes whisk Kiranmala to their mythological home on a quest to save her parents. Along the way many dangers lurk, new friends are made, and secrets are revealed. Kiran's parentage is not what she was raised to believe. She is actually of royal blood sent to New Jersey to hide from the rakkhosh and her evil biological father. Only her pedigree is not what is necessarily desired by Indian royalty. One of the princes is transformed by a rakkhosh to an immobile orb and as she and the other prince try to transform him back, all while tracking down her parents, a friendship grows with the potential for romance in the future. Riddles, puns, deceit, and adventure lead Kiranmala and her new friends deeper into India's mythological land. Kiran proves her bravery, intelligence, and strength as she battles foes and solves problems, finally fulfilling the quest and saving the day.

My favorite element of this story is that it features an Indian-American protagonist (a group grossly underrepresented in American children's literature) and draws on the rich cannon of Indian folklore. My second favorite element is that it starts in my neck of the woods in New Jersey, an area that seems to harbor the majority of America's population, yet is also underrepresented and often portrayed negatively in popular culture. It was fun to read references to real places such as Rockaway Mall and Route 46. I think this book, written by a debut author, has my favorite first line of the year: "The day my parents got swallowed by a rakkhosh and whisked away to another galactic dimension was a pretty crap-tastic day." How could you not keep reading? This line says it all about Dasgupta's writing style, which combines adventure, believable fantasy, and humor, all told in a conversational storytelling style. Kiranmala is a flawed, yet fearless heroine, who grows and matures as pages turn. Readers will enjoy spending time with her and her new friends. Readers will also enjoy the verbal sparring, love/hate relationship with the prince and will pick up the next volume to see where this relationship leads. Since Indian folklore is untapped in America, the gods, villains and setting were fresh and new to me, yet firmly grounded in tradition. In an author's note in the back Dasgupta offers explanations behind some of the Bangali folkloric elements used within the book and offers sources for further reading. Maybe after spending time with Kiran children will be encouraged to delve into the stories of their own cultures. A welcome new series that is sure to find readers, particularly fans of Rick Riordan.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Where is the White House?

Image result for where is white house stineWhere is the White House?
Megan Stine
Grosset & Dunlap, 2015 108 pages
Grades 2-5
Who Was series

Part of the illustrious "Who Was/Where Is/What Was" series, this entry traces the history of America's most famous address, originally commissioned by George Washington himself. Starting with Washington DC's humble beginnings, Stine talks briefly about the process of selecting a location and design. The history of America reflects the history of the house, as wars wreak havoc on both the country and the structure and first families put their own mark and improvements on the large home. An oral tour is given with purposes of many of the rooms explained and the workings of the house examined. More than simply a historic primer, Stine delves into explanations of government, such as what the president's cabinet is and the Secret Service. Naturally, the book teems with interesting antidotes and personal stories and the lives of the children and pets that inhabited this important house are highlighted. Read for information or entertainment, this book will be enjoyed by a wide audience.

Why did I put time into reading another selection of this oft requested series? My third and fourth grade book group is reading a free choice "Who Was" book for this month's selection (the delivery service for my library system is currently not functioning, forcing me to get creative this month). I went to my new non-fiction section and grabbed this title because I thought it looked interesting. Imagine my surprise when I opened the cover and noticed that I actually added it to the collection in March of 2015--and it still has "new" status. This is because whenever I go through the new nonfiction to remove books that no longer should be there (four months old) this book is always checked out, demonstrating the popularity of this series. Kids gobble these books up and I can see why. They are a lot of fun and are written conversationally. They also are chock-full of interesting facts with the most child-friendly bits on a topic highlighted. This series entry was not a disappointment. I learned facts about the White House I did not know before and am interested in learning even more and trying to go visit. The cartoon-like illustrations are what draw in readers and they are plentiful. The cover of the book advertises a fold-out map, which had long disappeared. I didn't miss it and there was a diagram in the book that gave me a decent visual. Back matter includes a bibliography and a timeline of both the White House and the world. The White House timeline ends with 1962. I’m pretty sure interesting things must have happened after that, but maybe the publisher ran out of room. A compelling read from a consistent series.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Pug Power!

It seems that every time I turn around a new books is being released about a pug dog. Now don't get me wrong, these little guys are cute in an ugly way, but it feels like they are they are getting more than their turn in the spotlight. Even Disney has jumped on the bandwagon with the release of Puppy Dog Pals, featuring an adorable pair of pug brothers. Beyond the non-fiction and picture book market, early chapter books have also been jumping on the pug bandwagon. Is this a trend? If so, don't tell my miniature schnauzer who is sure to get jealous! Many existing series are featuring a pug installment. Here are two new series centered solely around this lovable canine.
Image result for pug pals twos a crowd cover

Pug Pals: Two's a Crowd
Flora Ahn
Scholastic Press, 2018 121 pages
Grades 1-3
Animal Story/Graphic Hybrid
Pug Pals series #1

Life is pretty good for Sunny. She has her routine, toys, and person to herself. Life is rocked when a new puppy enters the small family and Sunny is told that Rosy is her new sister. Rosy is too rambunctious and ruins everything, including losing Sunny's favorite toy Mr. Bunny. Sunny finally can take it no longer and decides that Rosy has to go. It is then that she discovers that Rosy left on her own accord: to find Mr. Bunny. Now Sunny feels fiercely loyal to her little sister and must muster up all of the courage that she has to venture through the neighborhood to find her missing sib.

Children with younger sibling will completely relate to Sunny's predicament. Animal lovers will enjoy Sunny's stodgy ways, Rosy's exuberant personality, and the melting of the big sister's heart. I thought Sunny was a boy until page 113, when the pronoun "her" is finally used, indicating gender. This will allow boys to comfortably read the story and helps it to remain gender neutral. Heavily illustrated, the black and white drawings by the cartoonist-author steal the show. Ahn manages to convey emotion and humor in her drawings that enhance the text and are sure to entertain the reader and keep pages turning. A series opener that is sure to find an audience.
Image result for cowboy pug james cover

Cowboy Pug: The Dog Who Rode for Glory
Laura James
Eglantine Ceulemans, Illustrator
Bloomsbury, 2017 115 pages
Grades 1-3
Humor/Graphic Hybrid
The Adventures of Pug series #2

After spending the first installment of the series on the high seas, Lady Miranda and Pug are off on a cowboy adventure. When Lady Miranda's stick horse breaks, she requires a ride in a sedan chair carried by her two footmen to the stables for a new horse, this time a live one. Once at the stables Miranda and Cowboy Pug meet the owner's son, a budding, yet fumbling, magician. Our two adventurers find themselves accidentally whisked away to the country fair with a horse, which they arrange to buy from the Magician's dad. One crazy mishap and misunderstanding follows another until the day ends peacefully with jam tarts and a promise to abandon the cowboy life and to try something new, which will lead to Pug's next adventure Safari Pug, set for an August, 2018 release.

Not quite as strong as the first selection, this British import has some funny moments and madcap scenarios. Some parts of the plot don't make sense, but readers probably won't get caught up with the logistics. They will simply enjoy the silly premise. The cartoon-like illustration are very strong and enhance the text. Black and white with added yellow and reds, they are appropriate to the story and give the tale another dimension. I'm not sure if cowboys are still that popular with American children or that they will understand the "royalness" of the protagonist, but it is still great fun. Lady Miranda is the British Eloise with no parents in sight and only servants for company. Although this is the second of the series, readers do not need to be familiar with the first title in order to enjoy this zany tale. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Genuine Fraud

Image result for genuine fraud coverGenuine Fraud
E. Lockhart
Delacorte, 2018 262 pages
Grades 9-Up

The story opens with chapter eighteen where our seemingly British protagonist, Jule, meets a mysterious woman in a posh Mexican resort. Quickly things get crazy as it is revealed that Jule is not simple a rich tourist and the new acquaintance is for some unknown reason tracking her. After a breakneck chase scene the story backs up a beat and we see the events that have directly led Jule to this place. Each chapter decreases in number and goes a little farther back in Jule's story. We meet rich -girl Imogene Sokoloff, who has run away from her problems to spend a summer in Martha's Vineyard with her boyfriend, where she is reacquainted with Jule, an old friend from high school. Jule, a super-hero in her own mind and fanatic physical trainer, becomes obsessed with Imogene's life, ingratiating herself as a resident house-guest, and learns the ways of the wealthy. Jule is not the person that she says she is, yet Imogene has secrets of her own, weaving an intricate web of lies and intrigues. The story ends with chapter nineteen and the reader finally knows the backstory and the entire plot has been revealed and at last makes sense. Deception, romance, and murder all come into play as Lockhart delivers yet another banger of a story sure to satisfy her many fans and draw in new ones.

I have been a fan of E. Lockhart since The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks. She manages to pen creative stories with strong characters and interesting plot twists with an underling message of Girl-Power. I wasn't sure about Genuine Fraud, especially at the beginning, and it took me a bit of time to get into it. Once the first chase scene broke out I was hooked and couldn’t put this book down. Lockhart led me on an awesome ride right to the very end. The devise of each chapter going backwards was unusual and fun. The plot was great with twist, turns, and surprises along the way. The reader slowly gets to know both of the main characters as the story unfolds, revealing motivation and fleshing out their many layers. Beyond the great plot and characterizations, many themes are included in the novel giving it substance, including the importance of functional family, class status, honesty, friendship and women finding their own strength and power. Parallels have been made to The Talented Mr. Ripley. I found it also similar to Six Degrees of Separation. The characters are around nineteen and twenty, a bit older than traditionally found in teen novels, making this book more "New Adult" than YA. Both teens and adults will enjoy it, as will both boys and girls. My only question is:” When will the movie be released?”

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Isadora Moon: Goes to School

Image result for isadora moon school coverIsadora Moon: Goes to School
Harriet Muncaster
Random House, 2016 117 pages
Grades 2-4
Fantasy/Graphic-Fiction Hybrid
Isadora Moon series vol. 1

Isadora Moon has an unconventional family. Her father is a vampire and her mother is a fairy. They keep different sleep schedules and have very different eating habits and interests. Isadora is a bit of both her parents and often feels disloyal to the other for preferring certain things. When the time comes to begin school, the family is not sure where to send their little darling. She first tries Fairy School, but her magic goes a bit wonky, she prefers black to pink, and she is not a natural at forest lore. After this disastrous day Isadora is convinced that she is more vampire and attends Vampire School. This also does not go as planned. She does not care for "red food", which is all they serve, struggles with proper grooming, and accidentally releases all of the class bats. Not fully vampire or fairy, where does Isadora fit in? How can she please both parents? Will she ever feel truly at home and be able to attend formal schooling? The answer comes as a surprise, but is a satisfying solution for all, and will lead the reader to further installments in the series as Isadora goes camping and to the ballet (released this month). Isadora has a Birthday is set for a July, 2018 release.

First published in Britain, this series has happily crossed the pond and is available to an American audience. Isadora is a likable character who kids will both identify with, despite her magical lineage, and want as a friend. She is impulsive and flawed, yet eager to please, tries her best, and has a contagiously spunky personality. Bi-racial and bi-cultural kids will especially relate to Isadora's life, as will anyone with an unconventional family. The message is that everyone has something that makes them unique and that is what makes the world an interesting place. I like how Muncaster chose to solve the problem of which parent to please and which school was best for Isadora, the solution which will lead the readers to further adventures. The whimsical illustrations are plentiful, well executed, and help to support the mood of the story and the plot, while also adding a humorous element to the tale. Colors used are black, white, and pink. The pink will appeal to some readers, but will perhaps scare boy readers off worse than a vampire father. Less clueless than Junie B. (and with better grammar), Isadora Moon will draw the same audience.
Chapter book readers will be attracted to the visual cover and format of the book, the vampire/fairy conceit, and the sparkly protagonist.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Best Books of 2017

Here are my official picks for the best books of 2017. Ever since a picture book won the Newbery I have given up making predictions for that particular award, but I do like to stay on top of what is new and these are some of my favorites for the year.

Picture Books:
Image result for antler ship

The Antlered Ship
Written by Dashka Slater
Illustrated by Terry & Eric Fan
Simply stunning illustrations make this title an immediate classic.

Image result for blue skies white stars cover

Blue Skies White Stars
Written by Sarvinder Naberhaus
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
When I opened this book I simply said, "Wow!". The pictures blew me away and made me proud to be an American. 

Image result for whens my birthday cover

When's My Birthday?
Written by Julie Fogliana
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
I dare you to try to read this book out loud and have it not stick in your head all day.

Middle Grade:

Image result for invisible emmie coverInvisible Emmie
Terri Libenson
A graphic novel with a twist, this book addresses the dichotomy living within many young readers.

Image result for orphan island coverOrphan Island
Laurel Snyder
Highly original and thought provoking. This title screams for a sequel.
Image result for refugee gratz cover

Image result for see you in the cosmos coverAdam Gratz
Timely and relevant this story, told by three narrators, weaves together separate journeys at different times that merge together in unexpected ways.

Image result for thorn hill coverSee You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan
Jack Cheng
If I WAS to make a Newbery prediction, this would be it. Well written, fresh, with an unreliable narrator and interesting supporting characters, this was delicious to read.
Image result for tumble blue beasley cover

Thorn Hill
Pam Smy
Maybe my favorite book of the year. Wonderfully creepy and a great example of a very successful graphic/fiction hybrid, this book is British and, therefore not eligible for the Newbery.

Image result for wish tree beasley cover

Tumble & Blue
Cassie Beasley
Written in layers with a fully realized setting, quirky characters, and a touch of folkloric magic, this was my kind of book.

Wish Tree
Katherine Applegate
A tree narrates the tale of a changing neighborhood and the community's reaction to an emerging immigrant community.

Teen Books:

Image result for american street coverAmerican Street
Ibi Zoboi
Image result for hate u give coverEdgy, surprising, and timely, this book had me nervous for the main character all the way through and helped me to see the world a little differently.

The Hate U Give
Angie Thomas
Image result for landscape invisible hand coverThe teen book of the year, this first time author contributes a great story with themes straight from  the news.

Landscape with Invisible Hand
M.T. Anderson
Image result for long way down coverBeautifully written and thought provoking, Anderson carefully pens a cautionary tale as his hero recreates his near-futuristic world with a paintbrush.

Image result for undefeated sheinkin coverLong Way Down
Jason Reynolds
Poignant and innovative, Reynolds puts his considerable talent to current urban issues. Also my favorite cover of the year.

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team
Steve Sheinkin
My favorite non-fiction book of the year. This book demonstrates the hideous practice of reconditioning Native Americans in the turn of the century, traces the early days of football, and offers a biography of celebrated American Jim Thorpe, all within the context of a highly readable story.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Explorer

Image result for explorer rundell coversThe Explorer
Katherine Rundell
Simon & Schuster, 2017 323 pages
Grades 4-8

After the pilot dies and their small plane crashes four children are stranded in the Amazon jungle. British narrator Fred appears to be the oldest and begins to take on a leadership role. Blond Con is miserable and is a bit resistant to any survival plan. Lila and her little brother Max live in Brazil, though certainly not the jungle, and aren't really sure what to do, besides, Max is quite little. Fred has always been interested in explorers of the past and wants to make a mark on the world to impress his father. This is his chance to prove himself. The Amazon proves to be tough going as the children have no food, shelter, or the knowledge or supplies to protect themselves from the local wildlife. Eventually, the team learns how to build a fire, find bugs and berries to eat, and somehow keep alive. After discovering and following a mysterious map to a lost city the children meet a wild man simply referred to as "The Explorer". He teaches the young people basic survival skills and, eventually, we learn his backstory and reasons for his hermit lifestyle. When Max is struck with a critical illness, the team must head back to civilization to save him, but how will they get there? All of the children must find their inner strength and face their fears in order to work as a team in order to save their youngest member.

British Rundell set off to write a classic adventure story, of which she loved as a child. This story is very similar to Hatchet with a few notable exceptions: location, there are four kids instead of one, they meet a curmudgeon who helps them, and it’s much longer. In fact, it is a bit too long and will require patient readers to make it to the end. The characters are distinctly drawn and easy to tell apart. They are not overly developed, but this is typical in adventure stories. I couldn’t decide if Max was endearing or annoying, but he does serve to add interest to the tale and readers will appreciate knowing more than he does. The book picks up once the kids meet The Explorer. He is a very interesting character and readers will want to know what led him to the hidden city and a solitary life of exile. Rundell reveals the past of this intriguing man and softens his heart to, not only grow to care about the stranded children, but help them to safety. All of the characters experience growth and maturity through their adventures and come out the best for having experienced them. The book has a decidedly British slant and some terms and customs may be unfamiliar to readers. My favorite part is when the children befriend a baby sloth and the animal becomes Lila's constant companion. Although animal rights people will balk at a wild animal domesticated, who wouldn't long for a sloth pet? There is a gross-out factor of the children having to eat bugs and other unconventional foods that will attract the target audience. Kids who yearn to be explorers and discover wild areas will enjoy this survival story. Others may give up before they meet the character behind the title.