Friday, April 20, 2018

The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Creature of the Pines

Image result for unicorn rescue society creature pines coverThe Unicorn Rescue Society: The Creature of the Pines
Adam Gidwitz
Hatem Aly, Illustrator
Dutton, 2018, 167 pages
Grades 2-5
Unicorn Rescue Society series #1

A letter from Professor Mito Fauna opens this book, insisting that unicorns are real. We next turn to the point of view of new kid Elliot Eisner, who not only has to start a new school three weeks into the school year, but his first day is a field trip. Luckily, the best choice for a bus seatmate turns out to be occupied by budding musician Uchenna, who is also fairly new. The two become instant friends and hang out together on an unconventional trip to the New Jersey Pine Barrons. The trip is led by eccentric social studies teacher Professor Fauna, who is an expert on the region. While tramping around the marshy Pine Barrons, the new friends encounter a strange creature that the children free from a pink ribbon and feed home-made granola bars. Once reunited with the group, Elliot and Uchenna learn more about the Pine Barrons and the mythological creature known as the Jersey Devil. Could this be what the mysterious animal they encountered is? The Jersey Devil is smuggled out of the region in Uchenna's backpack, from which he escapes. The children confess to Professor Fauna what has happened, which leads to a chase, and encountering bad-guys: the Schmoke brothers. All ends well with the professor confessing to the children his involvement in the secret Unicorn Rescue Society, who pledge to protect unicorns and other mythical creatures and asks the kids to join its ranks. Of course the children agree, which will lead the reader to the next installment in the series, The Basque Dragon.

I had to read this new series opener, both because I'm from New Jersey and was excited to see a book featuring Jersey Devil and because I love the work of Adam Gidwitz. This new series is lighter and meant for a younger audience than his previous titles and a bit more fun. Readers will relate to the main characters, Elliot and Uchenna, who struggle with fitting in with their classmates and the relief they feel in finding a companion. With both a male and female protagonist, both genders will feel comfortable reading this series. The books are at a perfect level for early chapter book readers and can serve as a great introduction to the fantasy genre. Short chapters, large print and cliff-hanging chapter endings will encourage readers to keep turning pages. Cartoon-like black and white illustrations are generously sprinkled throughout the book and further encourage the target audience to pick-up and complete this story. The professor is a wonderful, eccentric character, much like the professor in Back to the Future and readers will be envious of Elliot and Uchenna in that they get to run around with him. The projected series will be written by various authors under the leadership of Gidwitz and his creative team, who all receive credit in the back of the book. A three chapter insert of the next installment in the series is included in the back of the book as is information about the series' website, which is well-done. A great new series which stands a cut above the usual fare for this age group.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Out of the Wild Night

Image result for out of the wild night coverOut of the Wild Night
Blue Balliett
Scholastic, 2018 291 pages
Grades 4-7
Horror & Suspense

Mary, the town crier, wakes up from a long sleep. Construction workers are ripping apart the beloved old house next to hers and her home is next. As a long-time residential ghost where will Mary retreat to once her beloved Nantucket home is gutted? Mary must sound the alarm and alert the other ghosts, as well as human, of the dangers threatening the historic homes of Nantucket. Alternating points of view tell the story from Mary’s perspective and that of two children who are members of the Old North Gang. Gabe's dad is a town police officer. He has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts and takes it upon himself to try to settle the unrest of the recently disturbed local spirits. Another gang member, Phee, lives with her grandfather, who works hard to preserve the traditional Nantucket way of life. Her mother may be missing and her father gone, but Phee and her grandfather are close. The two decide to form a group of fellow- Nantuckians to help each other out and respect the old ways and structures. A few local contractors are determined to modernize the old homes, completely destroying the character of the houses and the residents, both ghostly and worldly, are not happy. Accidents begin to happen at construction sites, as well as mysterious doings. Are the ghosts responsible? Can anyone stop them before they go too far?

Blue Balliett, of Chasing Vermeer fame, turns away from writing mysteries to pen a creepy ghost story set on her beloved Nantucket. An author's note explains the connection Balliett has to the island and her personal account of local hauntings. The setting is fully realized and the author's love and respect for the island's culture certainly comes through. This story does deliver ghosts and strange other-worldly occurrences as promised. There is a plot-twist I didn't see coming. I had an idea of a possible plot-twist, but Balliet did something even cooler than I came up with. The problem is, most readers will probably not take the time to get there. The book is really long and meanders in parts. The musings of the elderly ghost go on far too long and feel repetitive. Even though the ghosts are interesting and exhibit some devilish behaviors, Balliett clearly has an agenda to preserve the old houses of Nantucket and that agenda often overshadows the ghost story. I am an avid preservationist. I live in a house over one-hundred years old that my husband and I have lovingly restored. I think that it’s important to educate young people in the value of our past and to respect those who have come before. This book drives the point home a bit unrelentingly and may cause young readers to lose interest in the story. It certainly is well written and would appeal to die-heart ghost story fans, nostalgic old timers, and residents of New England. A glossary of old sea-faring terms used in the book is included at the end.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Lions & Liars

Image result for lions liars coverLions & Liars
Kate Beasley
FSG, 2018 288 pages
Grades 4-8
Realistic Fiction/Humor

Frederick Fredrickson is a flea. Well, really he is a boy, but his friends have a theory that some kids on the social ladder are lions, some are gazelles and some, the lowest of the low, are fleas. Tired of being considered a flea, Frederick decides to change. An unfortunate boating incident at a friend's birthday party lands him lost in the woods. His nose leads him to pancakes, which are being prepared for a camp for boys in need of "transforming". Frederick IS in need of transforming and he decides to take the identity of notorious bad-kid, Dashiell Blackwood and joins his new bunkmates in cabin thirteen. The other guys in cabin thirteen immediate accept and respect him and the group becomes a real team. After competing in a few structured activities, the new friends decide to leave camp to go on a cruise (Frederick's idea). This leads to some serious rule breaking, squabbling, and the desertion of one of their numbers, a boy named Ant Bite. Frederick is about to come-clean about his true identity, when danger looms: a hurricane is headed straight towards the Florida camp--and Ant Bite is still missing. It is up to Frederick to find him before it’s too late. But will Ant Bite and the rest of the guys still like him, once they know that he is really a flea?

Kate Beasley's sophomore effort after the popular Gertie's Leap to Greatness, takes her in a very different direction. Similar in theme, yet lighter and less clever than HolesLions & Liars will appeal to the same audience. Boys especially will enjoy this story and it is a perfect choice for reluctant readers. Beasley keeps the action moving and throws in interesting and exciting plot points such as the boat catastrophe, the hurricane, escaped zoo animals, and an office break-in. Illustrations, contributed by Caldecott winning artist, Dan Santat, will increase the appeal and the cover is certainly eye-catching. All of the boys have different personalities and distinctive nicknames, making them easy to distinguish from each other. Frederick learns that people aren't simply black and white and can't be put into labeled boxes. We are all a little good and a little bad. Sometimes we are fleas and sometimes we are lions and if you tend to be a flea more often than a lion, it can be okay. Most of all, he learns to accept himself for who he is and discovers the importance and power of friendship. The ending is a bit over-the-top happy and unrealistic, but it will satisfy young readers, which is what matters the most. A sure-fire crowd pleaser.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Frogkisser!

Image result for frogkisserFrogkisser!
Garth Nix
Scholastic, 2017 372 pages
Grades 5-8
Fantasy

Princess Anya is stuck living with her selfish older sister, distracted stepmother, and evil sorcerer step-stepfather, Duke Rikard. Suitors keep arriving at their castle in a faraway kingdom to woo the Princess Morven and the Duke keeps scaring them off. When the latest prince is transformed to a frog, Anya tries to help and finds herself in big trouble from her evil step-stepfather. She is in need of ingredients for a magical lip-balm that can restore transformed creatures to their natural form and decides to escape the castle and go on a quest to locate all of the items. Anya sets off with one of the castle's talking guardian dogs and the transformed frog-prince. The questers meet many interesting creatures, including a Robin Hood-type of band called the Association of Responsible Robbers, who explain to Anya the evil lurking in the world, a family of druids, a boy transformed to a newt, an otter transformed to a girl, Weasels turned into soldiers, mercenary witches, and a helpful wizard with dwarf workers and invisible apprentices, as well as the great Merlin himself. Anya acquires helpers along the way as she gathers her ingredients and keeps a step ahead of the Duke. As the quest continues she meets more and more creatures in need of transforming. Will she be able to make the lip balm before the Duke catches up to her? And what will happen if and when he finally does catch up?

British author, Garth Nix, delivers a truly funny spin on a traditional fantasy with all of the elements of magic, adventure, and surprises. He acknowledges borrowing from his influences in the genre and certainly the world and aspects of the quest seem very familiar. Nix adds original new characters and truly funny Monte Python-esque bits that make this story a delight to read. Frogkisser! reminds me a bit of the E.D. Baker series Frog Princess in that it is a twist on the traditional genre and very funny. I felt that the book was a little long, yet it never dragged. Smart kids and devoted readers will love this book and fly right through it. Those new to the fantasy genre might be better served elsewhere in that the best bits of the story may fly over their heads. This book is labeled as “teen” and I have seen the recommended age listed as eighth grade and up. I feel that it is actually for middle grade readers and will best be enjoyed by late elementary school students and early middle school. Nothing is particularly sophisticated that warrants the older age recommendation. The story does get a bit violent towards the end, but nothing worse than Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. The book will be more of a natural sell to female readers, but boys brave enough to get past the title and the female main character will find much to enjoy. Nix features many strong female characters that aren't afraid to fight and lead groups into battle. Wonderful fun for fans of British fantasy and anyone who enjoys a good yarn.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Hunger: a Tale of Courage

Image result for hunger napoli coverHunger: a Tale of Courage
Donna Jo Napoli
Simon & Schuster, 2018 259 pages
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction

Twelve-year-old Lorraine, along with her parents and little brother, Paddy, live in a small hut as tenant farmers in rural Ireland in the mid 1800's. The mainstay of the Irish people is Potatoes, since they must sell grains for rent and the game belongs to the British landlords. For the second year in a row the potato crop is riddled with a terrible fungus that kills the crop and leaves the people without food. Many farmers are kicked off the property they tend for lack of a crop for rent and even more leave for Scotland, England, Canada, or America for food and opportunities. Lorraine sees families roaming the countryside looking for food and work, even while her family and the other families on the estate are starving. Quite by chance, Lorraine meets Susanna, the young daughter of the landlord, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Susanna slips Lorraine some food, although she will not give her extra to help her friends and family. One family on the property dies of fever and other families talk of leaving. Susanna finally offers a solution to Lorraine in order for her to help her loved ones, but is it enough? More tragedy strikes and there are no easy solutions as Lorraine's family must make tough decisions about the future and their own survival.

There are not many books on the Irish Potato famine for young people. The ones I have read tend to be about folks leaving and immigrating to America, not trying to stick it out in Ireland. This gave an authentic Irish voice to the tragic events that wiped out a good chunk of the population over one-hundred years ago and provided the catalyst for many Americans ancestors to travel to America, thus being part of our own heritage. Seasoned author, Napoli, clearly did her research. The book is entertaining with an exciting plot, all while staying true to the actual events of the time. A brief introduction informs readers of the bacteria invading the potatoes and extensive back-matter contains an author's note with further information, a glossary of Irish terms, a bibliography for further reading, and a timeline of Irish history through the potato famine. The book boasts a great cover that will entice readers (it worked for me!) and a fresh topic for those dreaded historical fiction book reports. Many libraries have put this book in the teen section. I think it is one of those "in-between" books that straddles both juvenile and teen sections. There is nothing mature or inappropriate for kids, yet there are deaths, so sensitive kids may want to stay away. I called it Angela’s Ashes-lite, as tragedy kept striking. Lately I have had many requests for "sad books" and this one certainly fills the bill, although it does end on a hopeful note. A well-researched and written piece of historical fiction.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Magic School Bus Rides Again: Monster Power

Image result for magic school bus rides again book seriesThe Magic School Bus Rides Again: 
Monster Power
Judy Katschke
Branches/Scholastic, 2018 92 pages
Grades 2-4
Magic School Bus Rides Again series #2

The gang from the Magic School Bus is back in a new chapter book series based on the recent reboot as seen on Netflix. Ms. Frizzle has retired and her younger sister (also named Ms. Frizzle) has taken over. Arnold is expressing concerns about a monster who loves the darkness. His worst fear is imagined as Ms. Frizzle loads the class onto the bus and heads to the wilderness for an overnight camping adventure. Arnold decides that the best way to keep the monster away is to provide light, but how can he create it without electricity? Arnold and the gang learn how to create clean energy with the help of their knowledgeable teacher and class mascot, Liz. Energy sources such as solar, wind, water, people-power, as well as the use of dirty energy from a generator, are all explored. Back-matter includes a glossary of terms used, further facts about energy offered in a question/answer format from Ms. Frizzle, and ideas and discussion questions for classroom use.

Pulled directly from the new television reboot, the old gang is back with a younger and more hip Ms. Frizzle. I'm not sure if young-ifying the lovable and eccentric teacher was necessary, but I suppose that's showbiz. New fans, who are the target audience for this book, may not be familiar with the original series and won't notice or care about the change. The Branches books by Scholastic are wildly popular at my library as high interest transitional chapter books and we can't keep them on the shelves. They are heavily illustrated, written on a fairly low level, and are just right for emerging readers, helping them to gain confidence. This new branch of the Branches line of books is a guided reading level "O", making it higher than the usual level. The series does deliver on the short chapters, plentiful illustrations, and high action. The black and white illustrations are on every page, sometimes in multiple, and seem to be taken directly from the television show's computer animation. Readers looking for character development and a heartfelt story have come to the wrong place. The series does offer scientific information presented in an entertaining way that will appeal to all children. The cast of characters is racially and gender mixed. The series does not need to be read in any order as each adventure stands alone. Maybe not the best piece of children's literature I've read, but the series is sure to be enjoyed by readers, who will walk away having learned something. In this STEM-mad world in which we now live there will be a wide audience for this new series reboot and it will be useful in both a school and home setting.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Rowan of Rin

Image result for rowan rinRowan of Rin
Emily Rodda
Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 1993 151 pages
Grades 3-6
Fantasy/Adventure
Rowan of Rin series #1

Rowan is a shy and quiet boy who is more comfortable with his animal charges, the bukshah, than he is with humans. His father died many years before, saving Rowan from a fire, and both the loss and the guilt has plagued him ever since. A problem develops in Rin: the fresh water that flows from the top of the nearby mountain is no longer flowing. Has something happened to the dragon who protects it? Several brave villagers volunteer to venture up the treacherous mountain to check it out, but first they must consult the town's magical wise woman. The wise woman passes to meek Rowan a map of the route, seen only when it is in his hands, ensuring that he will go along on the journey. Furthermore, she prophesizes that the weakest (Rowan) will turn out to be the bravest. Parts of the map are revealed as the journey unfolds and riddles warn the questers of challenges ahead. One by one, the brave and strong villagers who volunteered for this mission fall short and must return home. Rowan, who is the weakest and least brave, finds that he can continue no matter what the universe sends their way. Finally it is up to Rowan to save the day, but is he brave enough to handle the task set before him?

Is this book really twenty-five years old? I remember it from the early days of my career as a librarian when it was fresh and new and it is a long-time favorite for book discussion. This title has stood the test of time and since it is a fantasy set in an imaginary world with no technology, it has not obviously dated. Readers will relate to shy animal-loving Rowan who has no confidence and feels weak compared to the other robust townsfolk. To provide the clean water for his beloved bukshah he must summon courage he didn't know he had and face his worse fears. Kids will enjoy seeing the strong and confident adults get picked off one by one for reasons such as a fear of spiders or an inability to swim. I feel like this book is just the right length. The action keeps rolling along and never lags. There are very few subplots to complicate the story. Rodda offers a straight forward classic fantasy-quest that will bring new fans to the genre not quite ready for Harry Potter or the Hobbit. If this book was published today it would more than likely be illustrated. I was happy that it wasn't. What it does have is an introductory map, an indication to kids that this is a serious read. Honestly, the map doesn't show much or enhance the reading experience in any way except to give map-loving kids something to pour over. I would have preferred a copy of Rowans map, even without the missing clues so there would be no spoilers. I love that half of the team of brave journeyers from the village are women, giving the story a surprisingly feminist slant for 1993. This is the first in a series, leading readers to the second installment Rowan and the Travelers if they are inspired to read more adventures in this world.