Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Player King

Image result for player king avi coverThe Player King
Avi
Atheneum/Simon & Shuster, Oct. 2017 
199 pages
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction


Orphan Lambert Simnel enjoys nothing more than escaping from his life of drudgery in a low-brow inn deep in the heart of medieval London to get some fresh air. One day, while sent out on an errand, he stops to observe some actors, enjoys the performance, and finds himself utilizing the same skills as he gets whisked away by a mysterious friar. The friar purchases him from the innkeeper, washes him for the first time ever, and begins to train him to be a gentleman. It turns out that Lambert resembles the Earl of Warwick, next in line to succeed the rightful King of England. The real Earl of Warwick is locked up in the tower of London, where King Henry placed him after overthrowing the crown. Now, King Henry's enemies want to regain their lost power and training Lambert to pose as the heir to the throne will help them achieve their ambitious goals. Lambert is a fast learner and before long he finds himself journeying to Ireland, where he is coronated, gathers an army, and proceeds to march into England. His noble friends have assured him that more soldiers will join the troops once they arrive, except no soldiers come. Instead, Lambert gets a sinking feeling that the "jig is up" and it won't be as easy to overthrow King Henry as he was led to believe. A fierce battle scene ends the novel with Lambert's fate hanging in the balance. What will King Henry do to the Player King once he gets his hands on him?

Avi is one of the most prolific writers for young people in our time. He especially excels at writing well-researched and exciting historical fiction for children. Avi returns to the medieval world of his Newbery winning Crispen and the Cross of Lead, although this time focusing on real world events. As written in the Author's Note at the end of the story, Lambert Simnel was a real person and this story is based on actual events. This alone should draw in readers and the exciting plot should keep them hooked. Every short chapter ends with a cliff-hanger to keep readers turning pages. The book is rather short, the print is a decent size, and the margins are big, as to not intimidate readers. The first person voice is written a bit "authentically", which may put off some kids, but will help others get into the time period. There are not enough books set in the middle ages, so I am grateful for the subject matter. I am also grateful that the book is geared towards boys and is exciting enough to make it an easy sell to this tricky audience. I loved learning about this little-known chapter of British history and did a google search to find out a bit more. Lambert is a great character and kids will relate to his reluctance to leave home, no matter how dysfunctional it is, and then experience his desire for power, only to find himself humbled again. Who wouldn't want to be the sovereign of England in the days of absolute power? A fun tale of history, adventure, mistaken identity, and greed gone wrong.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Image result for because mr terupt book coverBecause of Mr. Terupt
Rob Buyea
Delacorte, 2010 288 pages
Grades 3-7
Realistic Fiction

Seven fifth-grade students recount the school year from the class of rookie teacher, Mr. Terupt. Each narrator speaks in the first person and gives their interpretation of events reflecting their own personalities. The students range from the class clown, the class brain, queen bee, a new girl recently moved from California, a boy mourning the loss of a brother, a girl overcoming her mother's past, and a slightly chubby farm girl with no confidence. We see through the eyes and voices of the students the unconventional methods of this new teacher and how he leads the kids to independent learning. New experiences include out-of-the-box educational opportunities and visits to the special needs classroom, where they make friends. Barriers are breaking down and new friendships are forming when tragedy strikes. The children earn a reward and they chose to have an adventure outside in the Vermont snow. A snowball fight ensues, which quickly gets out of hand, and the class clown accidentally beans Mr. Terupt on the head. The teacher goes down and is taken to the hospital, where he remains in a coma. The children feel terrible and responsible for the horrible incident and for some it dregs up hurts from the past. The class gathers in the waiting room for the surgery that could save Mr. Terupt. Will he recover? Will the children find grace and peace with their involvement in the accident and learn to forgive themselves? Where do they go from here?

When this book was released seven years ago I did not purchase it for my library. Based on the reviews I didn't think it was spectacular enough or would be popular enough to garner purchase. After many, many requests from young patrons I finally gave in and purchased the book, along with the two sequels that followed. Kids love this book and it is always checked out of my library, finally encouraging me to read it. What is the appeal? The short narrations allow for a fast read. The school setting is one that all kids can relate to and the characters are easily identifiable in every classroom. The problems faced by the children in this story are real problems faced by everyday kids. Mr. Terupt is every kid's dream teacher: a teacher who makes learning fun and really GETS them. The disaster that ensues will make every young reader gasp and identify with the guilt that follows. Buyea spent most of his adult life in the classroom. He knows his way around the minds of children. The characters are all distinctly written and readers will not have any trouble telling them apart. Both boys and girls will enjoy this story and it is perfect for classroom use and book discussion. Many themes are introduced and the book can be useful on many levels to a wide audience. I personally found that the story was a bit obvious and lacked finesse, but it is at its core a book for children and the readership will find comfort in the predictability. Buyea's latest school story, which will be released in October, The Perfect Score, leaves the gang from Mr. Terupt's class and takes on the educational controversy of standardized testing.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Saving Marty

Image result for saving marty griffin book coverSaving Marty
Paul Griffin
Dial/Penguin, 2017 195 pages
Grades 5-8
Animal Story/Realistic Fiction

Lorenzo is a farm kid, who is big for his age and loves animals and playing the guitar with his best friend Paloma. The guitar formerly belonged to his father, who is a deceased army hero, and Renzo is trying to learn more about him, even though he died before Renzo was born. When Mom sells off the new piglets, one accidentally gets left behind. He is adopted by the family dog, who also recently gave birth, and imprints on Renzo. The boy names him Marty after his late father and the two become inseparable. Marty thinks he's a dog and likes to cuddle and jump on his owner, which is cute when he is a piglet, but soon Marty grows to over three-hundred pounds and things spiral out of control. Mom says that they must sell Marty and Renzo starts scheming to keep his friend. Meanwhile, local thugs are out to get Marty after he beat their dog at a race and are making Renzo uncomfortable. He and Paloma join an open-mic event and Pal is offered a scholarship at a music camp. It is her dream, so leaves to pursue it and Renzo feels bereft. He digs into the mystery of learning more about his father, especially how exactly he died. As the saying goes "be careful what you wish for" and Renzo learns some painful truths about his hero. At first devastated, Renzo finally realizes that his father was a real person, warts and all, and instead of trying to be Dad, decides to become himself. Renzo discovers what may be a permanent solution for Marty, although it involves danger, all while realizing the wonderful person that he is meant to be.

Much as in last years When Friendship Followed me Home, Paul Griffin knows how to deliver a heartwarming animal story that is so much more. Yes, it's a story about a pig who thinks he is a dog and the boy must save him, but it's also a story about growing up, friendship, finding your true passion, having courage to do the right thing, standing up to bullies, and the plight of the disappearing farmer. That feels like a lot going on in 195 pages, but the story is never rushed or jumbled. Lorenzo tells his tale in the first person and Griffin manages to hold this character beautifully. Readers will feel Renzo’s pain and sympathize with his dilemma, even if they don't particularly care for pigs. All of the main characters are fully drawn with the exception of the bullies, yet Renzo never really gets to know them and he is telling the story, so it is forgiven that are stock characters. The rural Pennsylvania setting, outside of Pittsburgh, is also fully realized. Having just visited that area within the past month I can attest to the very rustic country in this area of Pennsylvania. Griffin does not shy away from violence and hard truths, making this a book more appropriate for older elementary children. Animal lovers are the obvious choice, but any reader who enjoys realistic fiction, especially problem novels which are currently hot, will enjoy this new book, released just this month.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Mockingbird

Image result for mockingbird erskine book coverMockingbird
Kathryn Erskine
Philomel/Penguin, 2010 235 page
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Fifth-grader Caitlin's life is very confusing. Her older brother Devon has always explained the world to her. Now that Devon is gone, killed at a tragic school shooting in their small rural town, Caitlin feels alone. Her father is distant and doesn't like to talk about Devon and her mother died many years before. Caitlin has Asperger's Syndrome and is gifted with an amazing art talent, which she utilizes to help process the world, yet can only draw in black and white, much as her mind works. Unfortunately, social situations bewilder her and cause discomfort. The whole town is mourning those killed in the shooting and want to offer Caitlin and her dad support, but she would rather just have Devon back. An understanding counselor helps Caitlin begin to process Devon's death and reach out socially. She is searching for "closure' but isn't sure exactly what it is and how to obtain it. An unexpected friendship is developed with a first grade boy, who lost his teacher mother in the shooting. The two children, though apart in age, have much in common and learn together how to process events and Caitlin for the first time in her life learns how to be a friend. Devon was in the process of building a hope chest for his Eagle Scout project before he died. Now the chest is covered by a sheet and pushed into a corner of the living room where it makes Caitlin sad every time she sees it. She comes up with a great idea: maybe if she and Dad finish the chest they will find "closure". Now if she can only convince Dad to help her.

I have put off reading this book for years. It just seemed too sad. Finally, after I kept seeing it pop-up on lists one of my book club members convinced me to read it. I was so glad that I did! Erskine completely captures the voice and thought process of a child with Asperger's. The character of Caitlin is carefully and respectfully drawn. Readers will get to see inside the mind of a child who is wired a bit differently and possibly treat fellow classmates who don't fit into the typical boxes with understanding and empathy. Caitlin has feelings, though she does not know how to accurately express them, and prefers clear-cut rules and definitions. Through the help of her kind councilor, a thoughtful art teacher, and her new first grade friend, she allows her world to expand, even though this is scary, and colors begin to seep into her life. Dad will not go to therapy, though he desperately needs it, and Caitlin assists his healing through the hope chest project. An author's note at the end explains that Erskine was very affected by the Virginia Tech shootings and that event served as an inspiration to Mockingbird. It is very interesting that she chose to see an unfathomable event, such as a school shooting, through the eyes of a young person that struggles with decoding. It certainly adds a layer to the story. As the title suggests, To Kill a Mockingbird also is an inspiration to the book and parallels are drawn to that classic novel. Fans of Wonder and Out of My Mind will be an easy audience for this book and this genre of stories with unconventional characters working through problems is hot right now with young people. To be enjoyed by both boys and girls, this is a beautifully written and timely tale that will resonate and make a meaningful impression on the reader.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Tumble & Blue

Image result for tumble & blue beasley book coverTumble & Blue
Cassie Beasley
Dial/Penguin 390 pages
Grades 3-6
Fantasy

Three points of view narrate this folksie tale filled with legend, magic, family, and unexpected friendships. Two hundred years ago under a red sickle moon two fugitives encounter a magical alligator named Munch. Munch is able to change the fate of one person every red sickle moon, which is a very rare occurrence. Since both seekers met him at the same time, they split the blessing, making it go haywire. For two hundred years the descendants of Almira LaFayette and Walcott Montgomery have had quirky gifts with mixed blessings. Fast forward to the present: the red sickle moon is expected to return and the Montgomery family is gathering en masse to the small Georgia town where the family homestead lies and is close to the swamp where Munch resides. The only person holding the key to finding Munch is elderly monarch Ma Myrtle and she is enjoying the royal treatment bestowed on her by desperate family members. Blue has been dumped at the family homestead by his race car driving father, who has the gift of never losing. Blue has the contrasting fate of always losing and he is anxious to have his curse reversed. He meets a new friend, who has also recently relocated to the small town, named Tumble. Tumble longs to be a hero and save the day. Unfortunately, her family connection to the LaFayettes leaves her cursed to always be in need saving. The two new friends work together to figure out a plan to reverse Munch's curse on their families. Only how will they gain Ma Myrtles favor and beat out the competing family members? And what will they say to the bewitched alligator once they find him? Are they resourceful and brave enough to see the plan through to a satisfying conclusion? Read Tumble & Blue to find out!

I loved Cassie Beasley's Circus Mirandus. This sophomore effort is equally good, yet different. Both books share a magical element, yet Tumble & Blue proves to be a bit more approachable and down-to-earth. It is reminiscent of another favorite of mine Savvy by Ingrid Law in that kids are learning to wield supernatural gifts in a believable contemporary way. The rural southern setting and folkloric quality to the story add to the overall atmosphere and invite the reader to fall into this world where a talking Alligator can change our fate, if we are only brave and bright enough to find him. The alternating points of view are done well and are easy to distinguish. Munch's side of the story is framed by a black swamp design in order to set it apart and the narration helps suspend  belief that this really is an ageless magical alligator. Offering both a male and female protagonist make this book a great choice for both boys and girls and it would be a terrific read-aloud in both the home and the classroom. Beasley includes many interesting minor characters. They are all distinct and I felt as if I knew them personally, which helped me keep everyone straight in my head. Many themes are explored within the pages of this novel including what makes a real hero, finding your inner-courage, forgiveness, changing your destiny, and family is what you chose it to be. Some of the adults in the novel are flawed, yet others really come through for our two friends. In the end, they have both grown and learned to accept certain parts of their lives that they were fighting against and have become stronger for it. Because of the beautiful writing, character development, fully realized setting, and original plot, I think this is a real Newbery contender and will be enjoyed by readers for years to come.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Solo

Image result for solo kwame alexanderSolo
Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess
Blink, 2017 457 pages
Grades 7-Up
Narrative Poetry

Alexander and Hess co-write a volume of narrative poetry which functions as both an entertaining story and a self-described love letter to music. Blade Morrison is the son of famous rock musician and notorious addict, Rutherford Morrison. His mother passed away from a freak accident years ago and now he is living a Hollywood lifestyle, constantly dodging paparazzi, partying and buying things. What matters the most to him is his girlfriend, Chapel, and playing and writing music. His style is softer than his rocker father and sister and he shuns their excessive and decadent lifestyle. After his father makes a horrible scene at his high school graduation and he dramatically loses his girlfriend Blade gets into a terrible fight with his sister, afterwhich it is revealed that he is adopted. After some sleuthing he discovers his birth mother’s whereabouts: in a small village in Ghana. Blade impulsively decides to hunt her her down and present himself, only Ghana is about as far away from Hollywood as you can get. Eventually Blade reaches the remote village, only to discover that his birth mother is even further afield. As he waits for her he befriends a beautiful young woman/teacher appropriately named Joy and a young orphan named Sia, who latches onto him. Blade's world has been turned upside down, yet more surprises await as he continues on his journey to discover who is is and what truly matters.

I had the opportunity to hear Kwame Alexander discuss his new book in person this year and his infectious passion and personal connection to the subject matter made me excited to read it.  I was not disappointed. At first I found the 457 pages daunting, but as with other novels made up of narrative poems, it reads very quickly. The plot of the book is fast and interesting. Even though this is a story of growth and change, it does not dwell on introspective narration. Instead, the plot moves along quickly, often conveyed in text messages, conversations, and song lyrics. Alexander and Hess frame the poems within the context of favorite songs, whose titles and artists are identified, encouraging the reader to check them out. Music was a driving force in my journey, as it obviously must also have been in the the authors and continues to be in the lives of many young people, who will relate to this connection. I actually read this story by listening to the audio, which was narrated by Alexander himself. Generally I prefer professional narrators and find authors better at constructing the words, not delivering them. In this case, Alexander reads his poetry in the way it was intended and I loved hearing his voice. As an added bonus, Blade's lyrics were put to music, adding a richer dimension to the audio book. I love that the authors deliver the message that we are so materialistically blessed in America, yet often morally bankrupt. Planning my own trip to Haiti in January, I felt a further connection to Blade's journey and am excited to experience a new culture and plan to approach it with a renewed sense of humbleness, curiosity, and respect.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Save Me a Seat

Image result for save me a seat weeksSave Me a Seat
Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Scholastic, 2016 216 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Two alternating points of view relate the first week of school in Mrs. Beam's fifth grade class at Albert Einstein Elementary in suburban New Jersey. Ravi has recently emigrated from India and although he attended English school in his home country, he finds the customs much different and that people have a hard time understanding him. The only other Indian boy in class is named Dillon, who is not only more American than Indian, but not very nice. Ravi tries to befriend Dillon, only to become the brunt of his bullying. Meanwhile Joe is also having a rough start to the year. His two only friends have moved away over the summer and he feels alone, especially since he has a sensory condition that makes traditional learning difficult. Joe is also a target for Dillon, who makes him feel big and stupid. To make matters worse, Joe's mom has accepted a job as a lunch monitor and insists on talking to him as he suffers through his solitary lunch in the cafeteria. Joe finds solace in food and each new school day is named by the food on the menu that day in the cafeteria. A misunderstanding, made worse by Dillon, pits Ravi and Joe as enemies. Finally, as Ravi witnesses Dillon trying to sabotage Joe's project, he lends a hand, cementing the two outcasts in a much needed friendship.

Two authors cooperatively pen the points of view of two boys who come from very different backgrounds, yet have much in common. Sarah Weeks, a veteran children's author with over fifty books to her name, and newcomer Gita Varadarajan work beautifully together, offering two very different stories that complement each other and work together seamlessly. Working in a similar town in New Jersey with many new Americans I know that many of my readers will relate to Ravi's story. It has helped me to better serve these children by hearing Ravi's struggles, especially at the frustration of constantly having his name mispronounced, a mistake of which I am often guilty. Joe, although not new to American society, struggles to fit-in because of his disability. Many children will also relate to Joe's situation. Children who cannot personally relate to either boy's challenges should still read the book in order to better understand their classmates and to develop some compassion and empathy. The bully character, Dillon, is perhaps a bit over the top and is not fully developed as a character, but this is not his story so this is excused. Both Ravi and Joe experience personal growth through this first week of school and although they are both ready to quit, they come out by the end of the week stronger and better. Food is a strong theme in the story. It is what gives Joe comfort and also sets Ravi apart from his classmates, yet also helps him to connect to the teacher. The end of the book offers a glossary of terms used by both Ravi and Joe as well, as a recipe from both of their mothers as seen prepared within the pages of the story. A great choice to read for the  new school year.