Friday, January 5, 2018

The Ethan I Was Before

Image result for the ethan i was before coverThe Ethan I Was Before
Ali Standish
HarperCollins, 2017 342 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction/Mystery

Ethan and his family move from Boston to coastal Georgia to escape a tragedy.  His best friend, Kacey, fell from a tree the previous winter and died and Ethan feels responsible. He has not been able to get his life back on track and keeps running away. This move is his parent's last ditch attempt to try to find him some peace, except it has disturbed his older brother's life, resulting in a loss of relationship. They move in with an estranged Grandpa, who though prickly and private, Ethan starts to bond with. This is especially true after Grandpa Ike starts teaching him to drive, even though he is only twelve. An unlikely friendship develops between Ethan and an unusual classmate named Coralee, who has many outrageous tales to tell. Are they all true or does Coralee make stuff up? And what is her history? Ethan and his new friend explore a deserted house only to encounter a mysterious figure and find a treasure. Could the figure be a ghost? Everyone has secrets in this story, which are all revealed as the tale slowly unfolds. The tale culminates with a deadly hurricane, which ties all of the loose plot threads together in a satisfying conclusion.

Debut novelist, Standish, has penned one of my favorite books of the year. It is heartfelt, yet not overly sentimental, and has a great plot. Primarily a book about grieving, healing, and secrets, the author adds a dash of mystery to keep the reader turning pages. We all want to know what the history behind Coralee is, as well as the identity of the mysterious lady. Is she a ghost? Beyond the layers of realistic fiction/healing and creepy suspense, lies an environmental message demonstrated by a plot line concerning a family of Red Wolves. The author adds more factual information about Red Wolves in the back of the volume to encourage kids to learn more and to get involved. My only criticism is that this book felt a little long, yet it reads quickly with short, labeled chapters. I had a hard time putting it down once I started and I was really curious to find out the truth behind what all of the characters seemed to be hiding. Everyone in this book is hiding something, including our narrator, which will help readers to maybe look beyond the appearance of the unpleasant person in their class, not knowing what they carry with them. All of the characters reveal their secrets and find peace by book's end. Much like the destruction left after the hurricane, they all have finally faced their problems and will now start to rebuild their lives.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Image result for fantastic mr fox coverFantastic Mr. Fox
Roald Dahl
Knopf, 1970  81 pages
Grades 2-5

Poor Mr. Fox! Tired of constantly having their poultry pinched, buffoonish farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean ban together to catch the culprit. They are armed with shovels, diggers, and shotguns to ferret the fox out of his hole and eliminate him. How is this misunderstood mammal to feed his family? Luckily Mr. Fox is as crafty as his reputation boasts. He puts his family to work digging a deeper tunnel, eventually branching out to discover the store houses of the clueless farmers who are camped outside his hole. Mr. Fox discovers other underground friends who are also being starved out by the angry farmers. They join Mr. Fox in his digging and rejoice as they hit the "mother-lode". The animals gather together for a feast and fellowship, deciding that they never again need to leave the security and comfort of the underground. Mrs. Fox has always declare Mr. Fox fantastic...and now the other animals agree as he has become the celebrated hero among the forest friends.

At least once a year I try to re-read at least one Roald Dahl book. For my money, which is admittingly limited, he is the most brilliant writer for young people in the English language. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is short on pages, but long on cleverness. The length of the book is deceiving. Even though it is short and illustrated, the vocabulary is rich and demanding of the reader. The comic-like drawings, contributed by the talented Quentin Blake, help to advance the plot and add to the humor of the situation. His depiction of the farmers alone is worth cracking into this volume. Beyond the hilarity, Dahl adds an environmental message about respecting the land and wildlife, adding an extra layer to the tale. A classic story of the underdog outwitting the greedy landowners, readers will be rooting for Mr. Fox all the way and applaud his creative outsmarting of "The Man".  Quick on his feet, never ruffled, and consistently cheerful Mr. Fox is, indeed, fantastic. Young readers will be smarter and funnier for their time spent with this Roald Dahl classic.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


Image result for slider book cover hautmanSlider
Pete Hautman
Candlewick, 2017 275 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

David, a middle child stuck between an over-achieving older sister and a severely autistic younger brother often feels lost within his own family. Often serving as a caregiver for brother Mal, he feels underappreciated and invisible. To make matters worse his best friends, Cyn and HeyMan, have started spending more time alone together. Could they be dating? The one thing Davis is good at is eating. He is a bottomless pit and follows the competitive eating circuit. An on-line auction on an eBay-type site gets out of control and David finds himself the owner of a half-eaten hotdog from a competitor eater for the cost of $2,000, which has been charged to his mother's credit card. David enters panic mode and tries to brainstorm ways to raise the money before the bill arrives. Once the bill comes, David secretly kicks it behind a shelf. Luckily, hope arrives in a local competitive eating contest sponsored by his favorite pizzeria. The prize money is enough to pay off the bill with money left over. David enters the contest and begins training. He qualifies for the finals, but can he compete against adult professional eaters? Will he make it to contest before his parents discover the truth behind his rash purchase? Support comes from unexpected places and David proves that he is more than just the meat in the family slider.

Veteran author, Pete Hautman's 1996 teen novel Mr. Was continues to be one of my favorite books. Admittingly, I'm a sucker for time travel, but Mr. Was combines it with historical and gritty realistic fiction in such a page turning way that makes your brain hurt when you finish reading it. I have read many books by this author hoping for another Mr. Was, including the sequels to my favorite, yet none of his other books measure up for me. That said, Slider is an original, fun, heartwarming story that will appeal to the target audience, but is a very different book than what I was expecting from this author. Competitive eating is definitely becoming a popular "thing". My family tunes into the Coney Island hotdog competition every July 4th without fail. Young people, especially boys, are fascinated with competitive eating. After all, eating is something in which teenage boys are naturally gifted and they are all bottomless pits. It makes sense that a teenage boy should become a competitive eater and it is a topic I have previously not encountered in books for young people. Slider is funny and interesting. There is enough plot to keep readers turning pages, yet never gets bogged down. Mal, the autistic brother, gives the book an extra layer and will draw in fans of Wonder. The romance between the two friends remains innocent, as does David's budding romance at the end of the story. Mal never gets completely "fixed", but we see a significant break-through that the reader will love. Is competitive eating the healthiest pastime for young people? Uh, no. Is Slider a really fun book that tweens will loves? Yes!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Hello, Universe

Image result for hello universe kelly coverHello, Universe
Erin Entrada Kelly
Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2017 311 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Four voices tell the tale of Virgil, a shy boy who has trouble being heard. His best friends are his Filipino grandmother, who tells him wonderful and empowering stories from her homeland, and his guinea pig named Gulliver. Virgil is overshadowed by his loud family who talks only in exclamation points and wishes he had the confidence to make a friend and stand up to the school bully, Chet. Meanwhile, he consults with family friend Kaori, who is an amateur psychic and is determined to lead Virgil in the right direction. Classmate, Valencia, hears only through the use of hearing aids, yet is strong and fierce. Virgil wishes he could be more like her or at least be her friend. On the first day of summer vacation Virgil encounters Chet in the woods. After an unpleasant interlude, Chet throws Virgil's backpack down an abandoned well with Gulliver inside. Virgil must face his fears and go down the well to save his friend, only he gets stuck down at the bottom of the well. Meanwhile, Valencia is consulting with Kaori and the two strike up an unlikely friendship, bonding over the missing VIrgil. The girls, along with Kaori's little sister, find Chet in the woods and eventually locate the lost boy and guinea pig. Virgil emerges from the well a different person. Will he finally stand up to the bully and find his place within his family?

Sure to appeal to fans of Wonder, Kelly offers a different heartfelt problem novel with a multiracial cast of characters. Readers will identify with Virgil and root for him as he struggles with an overwhelming world and loud and pushy people. He exhibits much growth as a character as he finds the inner courage to save his beloved pet, stand up to the school bully, and reach out to a new friend. Chet is the character that everyone loves to hate. He is intolerant of anyone who is different, from a shy and quiet boy to a girl who is hearing impaired. We see where his intolerance stems from, his overconfident dad, and feel pity for the bully as he can never please this arrogant man. The chapter headings label who is narrating a particular chapter, which is helpful for readers, and include a sweet little pencil drawing, further identifying the character in question. The book runs a little long, but reads quickly with short chapters. The danger of Virgil being stuck in the well adds tension to the plot and will encourage readers to feel further empathy for this character and hope that the girls find him. A novel of growing up, friendship, finding your place in the world, and trusting in the secrets of the universe, Kelly packs a wallop in this emotional book that will surely tug at the heartstrings of its readers.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Her Right Foot

Image result for her right foot eggersHer Right Foot
Dave Eggers
Shawn Harris
Chronicle, 2017 unpaged
Grades K-4

Eggers traces the history of what is perhaps considered America's most famous and important landmark. Some of the facts about Lady Liberty offered will be known to readers (such as the fact that she came from France), while some may be a surprise (such as a dinner party happening right above the knee during construction). Halfway through the book the author gets to his main point: that Lady Liberty is in a position of mid-stride. Eggers goes on to demonstrate the positioning of the foot as a further symbol of America, stating that we are always on the move and changing. This leads to a celebration of immigration and features the journeys of many immigrant groups from the past to today. Eggers ends with a message to readers embracing the true purpose of the statue (and therefor America) to welcome the immigrant and defend freedom for all people. Back-matter includes photos of the moving foot in question, which visitors to the landmark may not have detected, Books for further reading, and sources used in research, as well as a close-up of the famous poem by Emma Lazarus as seen on the pedestal of the famous statue.

I love this book. It is much richer than it appears at first glance. Chock full of facts, history, and tidbits, readers can't help but learn about this famous symbol of freedom. Written in a conversational tone, Eggers includes humor with some laugh-out-loud funny moments, but don't let the entertaining writing style fool you. Beneath the surface lies real issues that are timely and relevant to society today, presented in a manner that kids will understand. Teachers will find this an excellent resource for classroom sharing and since the author touches on oxidation, there is STEM potential. I was grateful for the photos of the statue and the foot. This inclusion saved me time looking up photos on my own. I also appreciated the list of books for further reading. It is an excellent kid-friendly list of materials, not only about the history of the statue, but about architecture, engineering, and immigration on different interest levels. The illustrations, contributed by newcomer Harris are stars in their own right. A multiracial cast of characters adorns the vividly cheerful pages and help to convey the message of the author. The town I live in has connections to the designer of the statue and we have a street named after Bartholdi and boast one of the smaller models in our town square. I have personally visited the statue three times and feel as if I am well informed about this beloved icon. Still, Eggers left me with facts I previously didn't know and renewed my appreciation for the importance of this great American symbol of freedom.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down

Image result for turtles all the way down coverTurtles All the Way Down
John Green
Dutton/Penguin, 2017 286 pages
Grades 7-Up
Realistic Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Aza has a problem. Her OCD has spun out of control and she is struggling more than ever to function in a normal way. Meanwhile, her best friend Daisy is trying to convince her to rekindle an old friendship with Davis, whose rich father has disappeared, in order to solve the mystery of the missing dad and collect the reward. Aza is finally convinced and upon being reunited with Davis sparks fly. Aza gets pulled into Davis's world as he copes with his father’s negligence and disappearance, all while trying to take care of his younger brother. Meanwhile, the OCD is reaching dangerous levels. To further complicate matters Daisy gets a boyfriend and is not as accessible. A confrontation with Daisy lands Aza in the hospital where the extent of her mental illness finally becomes noticeable. Will Aza find freedom from the little voice inside her head that tells her to do irrational things? Where will the romance with Davis lead? Will Aza and Daisy repair their broken relationship and solve the mystery? Some answers are happy and some are sad, yet through it all readers are left with a sense of hope and the realization that this moment will not be forever.

Sure to appeal to The Fault in Our Stars fans, Green takes on another teenage tragedy: OCD. Though not as life threatening as cancer, OCD can be debilitating and lead to depression and suicide, which is currently the leading cause of death in teenagers. Green admits to struggling with this condition himself and his own person experience lends credibility to the voice of Aza. His fans may be a bit disappointed that the romance is moved to the back-burner. Aza is terrified of bacteria and disease and cannot kiss without freaking out, which puts a strain on the romance. This is more of a novel of dealing with mental illness and experiencing, through the first-person narration, what OCD feels like on a daily basis. It is also a novel of relationships between mothers and daughters, overcoming grief, what it means to be a friend and learning to see beyond your own "stuff" and realizing that the world does not rotate solely around you. By the book's end the mystery is solved, Aza's mental illness is under control, and her relationships with her mother and Daisy are somewhat healed, yet not everything ends happily. Not as brilliant as Looking for Alaska or as heartfelt as The Fault in Our Stars, Green still churned out another quality book that will be snatched up by his ever increasing super-fan base.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Mixed-Up History

Image result for abe lincoln pro wrestlerAbraham Lincoln: Pro Wrestler
Steve Sheinkin
Neil Swaab, Illustrator
Roaring Brook, 2018 147 pages
Grades 2-5
Fantasy/Historical Fiction
Mixed-Up History series #1

Step-siblings Abby and Doc, like the rest of their class, find history excruciatingly boring. Even the teacher seems to be indifferent to its value as a subject. As they read about Abraham Lincoln from their textbooks the late president reinforces this belief by doing nothing except read his paper and drink his coffee. After school the children find an empty box in the library's storage room. To their surprise who should pop out but Abraham Lincoln, who is running away because the present world no longer cares about the past. The box turns out to be time portal through which Abby, Doc, and Lincoln pop back and forth from the past to the present. In the past Lincoln is facing the results of his first presidential election. In the present a professional wrestling match is taking place at the children's school and Lincoln, a former wrestler, gets involved. It is up to Abby and Doc to get Lincoln to behave and return to his proper place and time. Mission accomplished, but will this be the end of time traveling historical figures? And did Abby and Doc break history forever?

Image result for abigail adams pirate coverAbigail Adams: Pirate of the Caribbean
Steve Sheinkin
Neil Swaab, Illustrator
Roaring Brook, 2018 151 pages
Grades 2-5
Fantasy/Historical Fiction
Mixed-Up History series #2

Abby and Doc are contacted by Lincoln to return another restless historical figure. Abigail Adams is hanging wash in the new, yet rustic, White House when she decides to run away by leaping into her laundry basket. This portal takes her back nearly one-hundred years to the days of swashbuckling pirates. Adams makes friends with the famous Anne Bonny and joins Calico Jack’s crew. Abby and Doc leap through their box and join her on the pirate ship. All travelers are put to work when, much to their surprise, John Adams shows up to join them. All seems lost when Abigail attempts a mutiny, resulting in a possible duel. Will the team find an escape portal before it's too late?

Steve Sheinkin, best known for his amazing teen non-fiction historical works, takes his talents down a peg to appeal to a younger audience. Young elementary students will enjoy these selections. They are silly, adventurous, and certainly turn history on its ear. Not quite up to the quality of magic tree house, the Mixed-Up Histories are funnier and very heavily illustrated, which will appeal to reluctant readers. I, for one, do not find history boring in the first place and would prefer Sheinkin to turn his talents to writing the quality stuff for which we love him, but I am not the audience. The children Sheinkin is attempting to reach are those who have closed themselves off from history and think that they dislike it. There are interesting facts thrown in that supports the belief that the truth is sometimes more absurd than fiction. A section at the end of the book separates the fact from the fiction and is written in such a way that kids will actually read it. The black and white cartoon-like illustrations, contributed by James Patterson's Middle School series illustrator, Swaab, are great and will draw readers. They are on every page and help to propel the plot. For some reason I don't like the covers and can't place why since I enjoyed the interiors. More Bill and Ted than tree house, this series will appeal to the Captain Underpants/Wimpy Kid crowd, who just might learn something along the way.