Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade

Image result for secret sheriff sixth grade coverThe Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade
Jordan Sonnenblick
Scholastic, 2017 193 pages
Grades 5-7
Realistic Fiction

Maverick's first day of middle school is off to a rocky start. Still reeling from the previous night where he had to care for his addicted mother after she was hit by her drunken boyfriend, he didn't get much sleep and had to rush to school. Once there it becomes obvious that his shabby clothes, disheveled appearance, and short stature will continue to make him a target for Bowen, his arch enemy, and the bully’s soccer cronies. But Maverick has a secret weapon. Underneath his clothes he is wearing a sheriff star that his late father purchased for him before he died and Maverick pledges to be a hero and stand up to the unjust. Trying to confront the bullies to protect a new kid, who is also vertically challenged, lands Maverick in the principal's as well as the nurse’s office, all while annoying the guy he was trying to save. His mother is too incapacitated to pick him up at school, so Maverick calls Aunt Cat instead, the only stable influence in his life, who unfortunately does not get along with his mother. The school year drags on with Maverick continuing to try to fight social wrongs, only to have his plans backfire and remain friendless, misunderstood, and still short. The reemergence of Mom’s bad boyfriend also leaves Maverick feeling helpless and powerless. A public show-down with Bowen and a fire in his home brings Maverick's problems to a head and his whole world explodes. Aunt Cat is there to pick up the pieces and shed some light on who Mav's father really was and a friend comes from an unexpected place, leaving the reader with a sense of hope and satisfaction.

Many kids will relate to Maverick. His world is chaotic and he lacks the control, tools and power to bring order to it. Because he is helpless to save his mother, he tries to save his fellow students by becoming a secret sheriff, his own version of a superhero. Maverick can't save his mother, nor can he save his classmates, who do not appreciate his gestures and are working out issues of their own. Kids living with addicted and dysfunctional parents will identify with this story and perhaps see hope in their own lives. Kids with functional families will maybe be a bit more patient and understanding with their fellow students. Supportive adults in the form of the once-scary vice principal and Aunt Cat come to Maverick's rescue and allow him some help, support, and security. This book is not terribly long and reads quickly, making it a good choice for reluctant readers, particularly boys. Even though the subject matter is serious, Sonnenblick writes humorously and lightly, making what could be laborious story fun and entertaining. Written in the first person, readers are placed directly in the shoes of this secret sheriff and although it’s not always a happy place to be, it is one of growth and redemption. By the story's end Maverick finds out the truth behind his flawed hero, but by this time he is strong and more confident on the inside and no longer needs the badge.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Super Turbo Saves the Day

Image result for super turbo saves day coverSuper Turbo Saves the Day
Lee Kirby
George O'Connor, Illustrator
Simon & Schuster, 2016 119 pages
Grades 1-3
Super Turbo series #1

Unbeknownst to Ms. Beasley's second grade class, the class pet, Turbo the hamster, has a secret life. After the humans leave for the night he keeps classroom C safe by transforming into Super Turbo. One night Super Turbo hears a mysterious noise. A covert escape mission leads him to the source of the noise: a Gecko named Leo who also has superhero powers. In fact Leo introduces Turbo to the other classroom pets in the school and they all have superhero powers. The pets, a guinea pig, rabbit, turtle, bird and fish, all have special abilities and loyalty to Sunnyview Elementary. On this particular night, when SUper Tubo meets the team for the first time, the gang is drawn to the school cafeteria, where they encounter a rat (or is it a mouse?) named Whiskerface, who lives within the walls of the school with his dastardly rodent crew. The Superpet Superhero League is on the case to make the school safe from these menaces. After one pet after another is defeated by the evil, yet tiny, rats it is left up to Super Turbo to save the day. The fun continues in Super Turbo versus the Flying Ninja Squirrels and three other titles. Two more series entries are scheduled for 2018.

This series is very similar in format, level and content to the Class Pet Squad series by Dan Yaccarino released earlier in 2016. That series never went beyond the first installment for some reason. The Super Turbo series is more about the whole team than Super Turbo in particular, but maybe it's named after him because the Yaccarino series got the team name first. This series in question is fun and exciting and is perfect for the target age group who are just dipping their toes into chapter books. A true fiction/comic hybrid, O'Connor, known for the more serious Olympians graphic novel series, offers a cartoon illustration on every page, sometimes in panels, that do not just demonstrate the action, but assist in propelling the plot forward. The reading level for this series is low, the print is large, there are not too many words are on a page, yet the book is not "babyish", making this section not only perfect for new readers, but for older children who may be low readers. There is an order to the series, yet they do not have to strictly be read that way in that each entry is a separate adventure and explains the team and their traits. Superheros and class pets (such as Humphrey) are currently popular and comics are also a draw, making this book a surefire winner, even for the most reluctant of readers.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Mary's Monster

Image result for mary's,monster coverMary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein
Lita Judge
Roaring Book Press, 2018 312 pages
Grades 9-Up
Biography/Narrative Poetry/Graphic

Judge traces the tremulous and rocky path that led Mary Shelley to pen one of the most influential horror stories in history. Born during a time and place of severe convention to an unconventional family, Mary was destined to have an unusual life. A famous writer in her own right, Mary's mother dies in childbirth, leaving her two children from two different relationships to her writer husband. He remarries to a difficult woman with children of her own. After a childhood filled with abandonment, disappointment, and hard work, Mary meets the married poet Percy Shelley and is instantly smitten. The two enter into a clandestine relationship, resulting in Mary running away from home with Shelley and taking her step-sister with her, away from the dysfunction and unhappiness. Life with Shelley is not as idyllic as the lovers had hoped with Shelley's financial problems and marital complications and the situation worsens as Mary discovers that she is pregnant. The loss of her child devastates her as she enters a period of depression and Shelley finds comfort and love in the arms of the stepsister. Eventually the young people encounter the poet Lord Byron and the group travels together socializing and creating. More devastating losses occur, yet through it all Mary finds her voice and learns to battle her inner demons by confronting the monster within and letting him out through the process of creating Frankenstein.

I have always known that Frankenstein was written by a teenage girl, but never knew her story. And quite a story it is. Filled with love, desperation, despair, and betrayal, Mary Shelley had a very interesting life. She managed to create a classic still read many generations later, all while struggling against the constraints of her sex, class and rigid conventions of the time period. An accomplished creator of picture books, Judge turns her sights to much darker subject matter than her usual fare. Her illustrations are breathtakingly beautiful and reflect the macabre mood of the subject matter perfectly. Her poems are accomplished and well written, all while moving the stranger than fiction storyline along. Judge demonstrates the many obstacles faced by the young author and shows her persevering through heartbreak and loss to find an artistic voice and independence. Because of the maturity of the subject matter, it is not for younger teens, but older teens and adults will find the book haunting and fascinating and not be able to put it down. As I read this volume many times I picked up my phone to find out more information about the historical figures presented within its pages. This was not completely necessary for extensive back matter is offered with historic information, brief biographies of the central players, a bibliography, source notes, and even a list of book read by Mary Shelley that most certainly influenced her writing. Both inspirational in format and execution, as well as content, readers will find much to appreciate and savor.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Image result for clayton byrd goes underground coverClayton Byrd Goes Underground
Rita Williams-Garcia
HarperCollins, 2017 166 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Clayton Byrd is one cool cat. He hangs out in Washington Square Park with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, playing the blues with Cool Papa's band on his blues harp (harmonica). One night, as Cool Papa reads to Clayton as he falls asleep, he quietly passes away. Clayton is devastated. To make matters worse, his mother sells all of Cool Papa's belongings in a lawn sale and punishes Clayton for falling asleep in class by taking away his blues harp, his last connection to Cool Papa. Clayton retaliates by stealing back the blues harp, destroying something precious to Mama and running away to find Cool Papa's band in the park. On the subway Clayton meet a gang of performing panhandlers who, although their leader is not nice, makes him feel welcome and gives him a place playing in their show. The music is hip hop, but Clayton twists his blues to make the music work. The park reveals that the Cool Papa’s band has gone south for the winter, leaving Clayton bereft and back with the Show-Time boys. When the police finally nab the gang, and Clayton with them, he must finally confront his mother and both make peace with the death of Cool Papa and each other.

Judging from the cover and Williams-Garcia's other books I thought this was historical fiction. It is not. It is very much set in current New York City and involves a practice common to many New York City commuters: a gang of boys hopping on a subway car declaring that it's "Show Time" and performing crazy dance moves with the hopes of filling a hat with cash. This is a practice that I always found uncomfortable, yet after reading this book I found myself on the New York subway hoping for the Show-Time boys to jump on the train. Williams-Garcia pens another heartfelt character-driven novel that is sure to please her fans of the series starting with the Newbery honor One Crazy Summer. The fact that she is moving from historical fiction to realistic and that problem novels have made a popular resurgence thanks to Wonder, this book will have a broad audience if put into the right hands. The chapters are short, well named, and lead in with an interesting little picture, enticing readers. The author introduces many themes, such as overcoming grief, the reality that sometimes well meaning parents make poor choices and are struggling with their own problems, owning a bad decision, and living with narcolepsy. An author's note in the back of the book tells of her music studies and how she came to appreciate the blending and history of the Blues and Hip Hop, as well as sharing her own personal battle with narcolepsy. Life is not always easy, parents aren't perfect, and we sometimes lose those we love, yet Clayton Byrd has a few things going for him that will save him in the end: the gift of music and two loving parents. Unlike the Show-Time boys he falls in with, Clayton has a safety net that catches him when he messes up and together, the reader is assured, this family will work it out and find some healing and happiness.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Orphan Island

Image result for orphan island snyder book coverOrphan Island
Laurel Snyder
Walden Pond/HarperCollins, 2017 269 pages
Grades 5-8

Jinny has lived as far back as she can remember on an island inhabited by nine children. Every year a new very small child appears in a boat and the oldest child must get in the boat and go back to no-one really knows where. The next child in line becomes the leader or "Elder" and is responsible for the newest member of the clan. When the boat comes to take away Jinny's best friend Deen she is beside herself. Only the new responsibility of taking care of young Ess seems to make the loss of her dear friend seem manageable. As the year progresses Ginny begins to have strange dream, feelings, and behaviors. She knows her time is near, yet is resistant, refusing to teach the next in line the lessons required for becoming the Elder. Besides, how will Ess survive without her? Finally a year passes and the boat returns and in it is a new small child. Will Jinny do what tradition demands and get in the boat only to return to she knows not where or will she carve a different path. What will happen if the system is questioned?

I did not initially buy this book because I had it confused with an old book called Baby Island, which was one of the few books owned by my pokey childhood library and I read that book about five times. It was a pretty good book, but I am over it. This is not a reboot of Baby Island, but a highly original and well conceived tale that will ignite a spark in the reader's imagination. Why are these kids alone on the island and who is sending them/taking them back? Jinny finds a letter written by a long-ago inhabitant that leaves some clues, but not the whole story, leading me to think that perhaps a sequel is in the works. When Jinny finally gets in the boat (apologies for the spoiler) the book ends and we never find out where she lands. I both love and hate this ending, which is reminiscent of The Giver. I almost hope that Snyder never gives us the answer so we can ponder the possibilities. Orphan Island is part adventure story/part coming of age/part dystopian. It really doesn't fit neatly in a box and is a truly unique offering. Readers of both genders will enjoy the story and the cover is ambiguous enough that boys will not immediately know that the main character is a girl and will possibly give it a try. Readers will identify with Jinny, who struggles with change, growing up, and loss of control, even if her living situation is not relatable. There is a part towards the end of the book where Jinny gets her period for the first time and doesn’t know what it is and is scared, making this book not a great choice for younger elementary students, who may be disturbed like Jinny. This selection is popping up on many possible Newbery lists and it most certainly is a contender as its clearly one of the best books I have read this year for young people.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Unlucky Lottery Winners of Classroom 13

Image result for unlucky lottery winners classroom 13The Unlucky Lottery Winners of Classroom 13
Honest Lee & Matthew J. Gilbert
Little Brown, 2017 119 pages
Grades 3-5
Classroom 13 series book 1

Ms. Linda is a very unlucky person who is late to school most days for one reason or another. On the particular day in question Ms. Linda must buy a lottery ticket in order to use the phone at a convenience store after her car breaks down. After relaying the tale to her students she agrees to split the winnings with them should the odds be in her favor. To everyone's surprise Ms. Linda goes from the unluckiest person in the world to the luckiest when she wins the lottery for 28 billion dollars. She honors her agreement with the class and splits the take evenly. The rest of the book is broken into chapters headed by different student names relating what they did with their billion dollars. In most cases the parents aren't involved as the students spend their billion dollars on crazy things such as being cheated into buying a cow (in a reversal Jack in the Beanstalk nod) to purchasing the Eiffel tower. Some use their money for environmental causes and scientific discoveries, but with the exception of two students, all of the money gets frittered away with nothing to show for it, including Ms. Linda's. The book ends with an acknowledgement that a lot of money had been lost through this lottery fiasco with no one's life particularly improving. Lee manages to slip in life-lessons that he claims the students in classroom 13 did not really learn, including the teacher, and asks the reader if they learned anything. A final page challenges readers to write their own story about what they would do with the money in a similar situation, making this a great choice for classroom use.

Fans of the Wayside School series will be the natural audience for this similar series with a twist. The twist is certainly the lottery win and allows the author a ready-made format for his plot as we explore the individual experiences of the students. Lessons are imparted about all kinds of things, yet the book never gets preachy. It stays hilarious throughout and contains some truly clever bits, yet also contains a fair amount of potty humor, which the target audience will appreciate. As unlikely as the overall scenario is and as far-fetched as each child's choice tends to be, readers will love this book and it will spark their imaginations. Lee/Gilbert even dares to break the fourth wall as he gets into a debate with a particularly argumentative students. The students themselves are a refreshingly diverse lot. Racial and religious diversity is represented, as well as including a student in a wheelchair and one who wears hearing aids. The author includes two Indian students, instead of going for just one to represent the culture. My favorite stories were the one about Emma who spends her money on cats (my daughter Emma would also spend her winnings on cats) and the boy who clones himself so he can be in various places at once (this is what I would do with my fortune), and another boy who after buying a television family gets disgusted, sells his TV, and gets a free library card. One story reveals what the character did with her money only in code, which adds another dimension to the storytelling and helps to promote thinking and another tale is told entirely in French. A second series entry concerning magic wishes was released in September and the third, which explores fame, is set for release next week.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


Image result for release nessRelease
Patrick Ness
HarperCollins, 2017 277 pages
Grades 9-12

A pivotal day in the life of almost-senior Adam Thorn. Adam is having maybe his worst day ever. It begins with his ultra-religious college-student brother confessing to him that he is about to become a father and would Adam please come out to pastor father in order to deflect the condemnation? Next Adam goes to work where he is sexually harassed by his gross older boss, who issues an ultimatum if he wants to keep his job. Adam visits his best friend and confidant, only to discover that Angela will be leaving to spend their senior year overseas. A mid-afternoon hook-up with his boyfriend Linus makes Adam realize how much he misses his ex Enzo, who's going away party is scheduled for the evening. Helping his father set up for church leads to a frank discussion about Adam's sexuality and the harassment situation and ends in conflict, hurt and disappointment. Finally the party arrives. Encountering Enzo proves to be hurtful, yet healing and Adam is finally able to allow himself to be fully open to Linus and move forward with his life. Alternating chapters leap from realistic to fantasy as they tell the story of a spirit queen who has merged with a recently deceased teenage drug addict in Adam’s home town, who was murdered by her boyfriend. The two souls are followed by a faun and seek solace, closure, and revenge before going back to the earth.

Patrick Ness is one of my favorite authors. I appreciate A Monster Calls and especially love The Knife of Never Letting Go. This is another well-written book that stretches the reader's imagination. The rural Washington state setting is integral to the plot and Ness explores the problems of drug addiction in the area (as with the entire US) and its aftermath in the subplot of Katie and the Queen. Katie's tale is told in alternating chapters and is in a different font as to not confuse the reader. The plots are happening simultaneously in the same terrain and though there is some overlap, there is no major joining of the story-lines. Adam's tale of a pivotal coming-of-age day is a classic mainstay in literature. Ness shows everything in Adam's world falling apart, which allows Adam to "clean house" and live his life on his own terms. As usual, religion is seen as a negative and stifling influence in Adam's life. As a religious person who has been taught through church to "love one another" it hurts me to only see fellow Christians portrayed as bigoted gay-bashers, but this is Ness's story and he is free to tell it reflecting his own experiences. The reader is left with a sense of hope that Adam has found his voice and some much needed self-worth. We hope that he also finds his way out of this small town and into a bigger world where he has more choices and support.