Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Lowriders in Space

Image result for low riders spaceLowriders in Space
Cathy Camper
Raul the Third (illustrator)
Chronicle, 2014  110 pgs
Grades 3-6
Graphic Novel

Join Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack, and Elirio Malaria as they chase their dreams.  The three friends work on cars and dream of one day being the proprietors of their own auto-body shop.  In the meantime they spend their lives working for "the man" and barely making ends meet.  Hope arrives in the form of a low-rider (customized street-racing cars popular in Mexican culture) contest for the coolest and best low-rider around with a big cash prize. They get a hold of a beat-up car and work their magic.  Obtaining throw-away parts from a defunct airplane factory, the team super-charges their vehicle and make it so awesomely cool and powerful it blasts off into outer space. They journey through space, picking up amazing features to add the their car along the way.  Finally, its back to earth just in time for the contest.  Naturally the three amigos win and they are able to buy their own garage at long last.  

Just when I think I've seen it all, a completely fresh book arrives and takes my breath away.  Lowriders in Space is such a book.  It is simple and reads fast, yet has many subtle and original elements to recommend it.  First and foremost, it is very refreshing to see a graphic novel seeped in Latin American culture, reflecting a significant portion of our population previously ignored by the genre.  Though primarily in English, the book is liberally sprinkled with Spanish words, which are defined at the bottom of the page.  The definitions are only given once and some words are repeated, encouraging the reader to retain the definition of the word.  The characters throughout the book are sometimes humanoid, but more often different animals, thus avoiding stereotyping and broadening the audience.  Our main characters are an octopus, a mosquito and some sort of a fox-like creature with elfin ears and horns.  The characters are mixed genders, further expanding the readership.  Scientific information about outer space is deceivingly included, allowing for the comic lover to also pick up a few facts without realizing it.  The illustrations are unusual and fun.  Raul the Third explains in an author's note that he intentionally used only black, blue, and red pens, thus encouraging kids everywhere to try cartooning regardless of socio-economic background.  The illustrations are on a natural brown background, appearing as if they were drawn on grocery bags.  A background of lowrider cars and a glossary of terms is included in the back.  The teaser for the next installment shows the three friends heading to the biblioteca and Raul thanks his mom in his dedication for bringing him daily to the library as a youngster, further warming my heart to Lowriders in Space.  As the face of America shifts, it is encouraging to see quality, yet entertaining choices reflecting the experiences of other cultural sub-groups.  This book is very specific to a certain place and culture (Latino California) of which I know nothing about and I could care less about cars, never before even hearing about "lowriders", yet I loved this book and know that my suburban New Jersey kids will love it too. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Red Pencil

The Red Pencil
Andrea Davis Pinkney
Shane W. Evans, Illustrator
Little Brown, 2014  308 pgs.
Grades 4-8
Narrative Poetry, Historical Fiction

Amira is a twelve-year-old girl living in a rural community in the Dafar region of Sudan.  Life is difficult, yet predictable, and she is happy with the cycle of life and her loving family.  Conflict arises as word spreads of the Janjaweed, soldiers who destroy everything in their path.  The ups and downs of African farm life are portrayed in poetry, as Amira's best friend moves to the safety of the city and Amira gains more responsibilities.  The worst is realized as the Janjaweed blows through town, murdering half the population, including Amira's father, and burning the crops, house, and life stock.  Amira, her mother, sister and the surviving members of the village travel by night to a refugee camp.  Now, poems trace the life in the camp as Amira is struck dumb by her grief and the family ekes out a bitter existence.  Hope is found in a slim red pencil, which Amira uses to draw her story and slowly heal.  Always experiencing a thirst for knowledge in a culture where education is costly and not wasted on girls, Amira now becomes unsettled.  Finally, she finds the courage within herself to leave the camp in the dead of night to journey to the city in order to attend school.  Not knowing the direction to go, the plan seems hopeless until she is joined by a family friend, who recognizes her gifts and accompanies Amira on the path leading to her dreams.

I have often said, "everything I know about the world I have learned from reading children's books".  This sentiment continues as I learned about the stories and conditions of refuges of the Dafar conflict.   I discovered that I know embarrassing little of the situation and was grateful to Pinkney for educating me in a manner that my ADD brain could process.  Pinkney's poetry is beautiful, as well as narrative.  She tells the story in an approachable way and, through the vehicle of her poetry, is honest, yet digestible.  We see the story through Amira's eyes; both through the poems and the beautiful line drawings contributed by Shane W. Evans.  The drawings help illustrate what Amira is seeing and feeling, while also connecting us to her gift of drawing.  The Red Pencil draws attention to the conflict in Dafar, while also exploring other issues; such as lack of education in developing countries and lack of rights for women, conditions of refugee camps, the power of art to heal, and giving a voice to the voiceless.  This a beautiful and important book and one that I'm better for reading.  My only complaint is that I doubt children will pick it up to read on their own for pleasure.  I didn't buy it for my library, predicting that it wouldn't circ.  If it wins a Newbery or Newbery honor I will buy it, because that award will guarantee a readership.  The Red Pencil will be best suited for school use, particularly now with the trend of learning through literature.  I would encourage the inclusion of this book into the social studies curriculum and hope that teachers and school librarians will promote the book to their students.  Meanwhile, we'll wait and see what happens when the Newbery Awards winners are revealed next month.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Sky is Everywhere

The Sky is Everywhere
Jandy Nelson
Dial, 2010  275 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction, Romance

Seventeen-year-old Lennie's life has bottomed out.  Her beloved older sister died of a freak brain aneurysm months before and she is lost in an abyss of despair.  A gifted clarinet player, Lennie has given up on lessons and has lost interest in the instrument.  Enter cute new student, Joe.  Joe is a brilliant musician and he and Lennie instantly feel a connection.  As this friendship develops, Lennie finds herself inexplicable attracted to her late sister's boyfriend Toby.  They are both grieving and feel that only the other understands what they are going through.  Even though they know its wrong, they enter into a physical relationship.  Meanwhile, Lennie's mother left both girls when they were very young with Lennie's Grandmother, with whom she now lives, and Lennie is also struggling with feelings of abandonment by her mother.  Friendship with Joe turns to romance as Lennie and Toby continue to have clandestine encounters.  Eventually, Joe catches them at the worst possible moment and ends the relationship.  Lennie must now pick up the pieces of her grieving for her mother, sister, and lost love.  She learns to reconnect with the relationships she that remain and starts to finally put her sister to rest.

The Sky is Everywhere is an amazing book.  It became very hard to read in some places and I had to take a break from it a few times.  Lennie's life is so sad and Nelson writes it so believably, that I had to put it down.  Nelson captures the voice of a seventeen-year-old perfectly.  The book was honest, beautiful, and realistic.  Sprinkled throughout at the beginning and endings of chapters are poems that Lenny has written on random things and left in random places.  Its the poems that bring her and Joe back together.  Lennie tries many false tactics to win back Joe, but only when she strips her soul bare and presents her genuine self does she manage to break through.  I love the relationship between Lennie and Gram.  Lennie's grandmother is an interesting character, an artist who is able to grow magical roses that make people fall in love, and her unending patience and understanding of Lennie is what brings her through.  This book celebrates the power of music, of poetry, of forgiveness and healing.  It will appeal to girls more than boys.  Even though its romantic in nature, there is much more to the novel than meets the eye.  I have read so much "dead girl fiction" in the past couple of years and put off reading this one, but, honestly, I think it's the best of the bunch and well worth the time spent.  I now have to read the author's 2014 novel I'll Give You the Sun, which is generating a lot of buzz.


Lou Anders
Crown, 2014 307 pgs
Grades 4-8
Fantasy, Adventure
Thrones & Bones Series #1

Seeped in Norse culture and mythology, alternating points of view tell the stories of Karn and Thianna.  Karn is a Norronir boy, meant to inherit his family's farm.  He is interested only in playing the game Throne and Bones and looking for ways to escape farm life.  Thianna is a mountain girl living in a community of giants, a child of mixed heritage with a giant father and a human mother, now passed away.  The two meet at a trading post and a friendship based on convenience is formed.  Karn's uncle tricks him into a near-death battle with the undead, where his father appears to be killed trying to protect him.  Karn runs away in shame, meeting up with Thianna.  Thianna has also run away to escape the human flying-beast riding warriors chasing her to retrieve a magical item formally belonging to her mother.  The two friends have many adventure outrunning their enemies, encountering dragons, and facing inner demons.  Eventually a big show-down forces Thainna and Karn to stand up to their foes.  Karn must play the Thrones and Bones game of his life to save his father and defeat his evil uncle and Thianna must embrace her mother's legacy and learn to harness her beast controlling gifts.  The book ends with the two friends parting ways, buts hints that a new adventure awaits.

Thanks to the popularity of the Percy Jackson books, mythology based fiction has exploded.  Thrones and Bones is a natural "what to read next" for Percy Jackson fans.  Anders chooses to explore the world of the ancient Vikings.  The book is true to its time and setting.  I felt magically transported to this world; I could practically feel the cold air as I was reading.  The characters were both well developed and distinctive.  It was great having both a boy and a girl, making the book an accessible read for both.  As more and more of America's children are multiracial, I love that Thianna is part giant/part human.  She eventually embraces the gifts of both of her heritages and overcomes the prejudice hurled at her from an ignorant few.  The game Thrones and Bones is somewhat of a cross between chess and Dungeons and Dragons and Anders offers the rules in the back of the book.  The title of the series led me to believe the story would be a Game of Thrones rip-off for kids.  It isn't, but I'm sure the series title was intentional to give the book some instant recognition.  Vikings are brave, magical and very interesting.  More readable for young people than Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls (my favorite Viking fantasy) this book will find an audience.  This is not an easy read, but will be enjoyed by smart kids who enjoy mythological fantasy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Saving Lucas Biggs

Saving Lucas Biggs
Marisa de los Santos and David Teague
HarperCollins, 2014  279 pgs
Grades 4-8
Fantasy, Mystery

Thirteen-year-old Margaret's father is sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit.  He dared to speak up against the mines that basically own their small Arizona town concerning their practice of fracking and other illegal and dangerous operations.  It all comes back to the judge who delivers the sentence: Lucas Biggs.  Biggs is the adopted heir to the mines and passes the sentence on Margaret's father.  Margaret's best friend Charlie's grandfather knew Biggs as a boy and knows the pivotal moments when the trajectory, ending with the sentencing of Dad, began.  Margaret employs the family gift, the ability to time travel, to go back to the depression, when things first went terribly wrong.  Even though using the gift is draining and dangerous, she travels back in time, meets a great aunt, as well as Charlie's grandfather as a boy.  Together they try to stop the labor dispute, which begins the series of events leading to Margaret's tragic present.  The past fights their efforts and all feels as if its been in vain.  Margaret, Charlie, Grandpa, and a surprising new ally all work together in the present to set things right before its too late.

This is a great book.  I love me some time travel, especially when two stories in different time periods merge together by the end.  The book is written in alternating chapters with Margaret's point of view in the present and Josh's (Grandpa's) point of view telling the story from the past.  Eventually the stories merge, as Margaret joins Josh in his time.  Even Charlie gets a turn to narrate a bit by the end.  The tale is well written and conceived and provides great entertainment.  The plot moves along, back and forth through time, seamlessly and unceasingly.  Sometimes time travel books get confusing, but this one didn't.  I always knew where I was and who was talking. The time travel element was also believable and made sense to the story.  The best part about this book is it also functions as a mystery and suspense grows as Margaret and Charlie work to save Dad and more of Bigg's story is revealed.  My only complaint is that the book is pulled together at the end a bit too tidily.  It is somewhat unrealistic that a mysterious person, formally not introduced in the story, shows up and saves the day.  I didn't love the ending, but that's typical for me.  I often find complain with book endings.  I loved the concept and the meat of the story and would highly recommend this book to both boys and girls of all reading levels and interests.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Night Gardener

The Night Gardener
Jonathan Auxier
Abrams, 2014  345 pgs
Grades 4-7
Fantasy, Horror

Molly and Kip, two down-on-their-luck Irish orphans travel to a remote mansion in Victorian England to work as servants.  The once glorious, now ram-shackled, house is creepy and the inhabitants, a family with two children, are unfriendly and strange.  With nowhere else to go, Molly and Kip move in.  Gaining admittance to a room, which is always kept locked, Molly discovers a part of the enormous tree which inhabits the grounds growing inside.  The tree is magical and can grant your wildest dreams.  Molly immediately goes to the tree for word about her missing parents and authentic sounding letters from them appear. As Molly becomes obsessed with the tree and obtaining more letters, she becomes stained and sickly, much like the rest of the family.  Eventually she comes to the conclusion that the tree slowly drains the life-force from unsuspecting people in exchange for their wishes.  Meanwhile, Molly and Kip encounter the ghostly Night Gardener, who maintains the tree and protects it at all costs.  Despite being lame, Kip, along with Molly and, eventually the rest of the family, battle the Night Gardener and try to destroy the tree in order to break the binds that hold them to it.

Not for the faint of heart, The Night Gardener is a classic Victorian Gothic tale; much like what was popular when the novel takes place.  It is dark and atmospheric and offers creepy twists and turns along the way.  The story is the stuff of nightmares and will delight young fans of the macabre.  Since it is meant to be true to Victorian England, the language is authentic and dense.  Molly and Kip are written colloquially, as uneducated Irish immigrants of the time, and can be hard to understand.  There are two deaths in the book, minor characters, one extremely unlikable and the other an old person, so it’s almost okay.  I liked this book a lot, but it’s not for everyone.  It will appeal to a certain reader; intelligent kids, who like smart, yet spooky books.  I love the concept of a magical, yet evil, tree and feel like the book is a fresh idea.  Molly, a natural storyteller, demonstrates the power of stories, the legacy of which is passed down from the old lady who is killed by the tree.  The book ends hopefully with a new life in store for Molly and Kip and the family finding peace.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Galaxy's Most Wanted

Galaxy's Most Wanted
John Kloepfer
Nick Edwards (illustrator)
HarperCollins, 2014  208 pgs.
Grades 3-5
Science Fiction/Humor
Galaxy's Most Wanted Series #1

Join Kevin and his three buddies, Warner, Tara, and TJ as they attempt to win the big science fair competition at summer science camp.  They need to beat their arch-nemesis, Alexander, whose team has created a really cool hovercraft.  Kevin and friends get an idea from a comic book to create a galactascope, a device that can contact aliens.  The device is assembled and, to everyone's surprise, works.  They attract a cute, little purple puffball with four eyes named Mim.  Mim, who eats everything in sight from candy wrappers to bugs, is in trouble.  Poachers are hunting him throughout the galaxy for his fur.  The team works to protect Mim, especially when other strange aliens arrive looking for him.  Meanwhile, its the day of the science fair.  Mim, the secret to their win, is nowhere in sight.  The hovercraft is really cool and threatens to take the trophy.  The team thinks on their feet and makes use of an alien telepathy helmet to mind-read and hypnotism the fellow campers, including Alexander.  After the fair the gang captures another alien, Klyk, who claims that Mim is not what he says he is.  He is actually an extraterrestrial criminal and plans on eating the planet earth.  Unfortunately, the team has shrunk Klyk, but he still manages to coach them from the safety of a backpack as they attempt to defeat Mim and his super-sized spider Poobah.  Kevin and his friends save the day with the help of Klyk and a giant smore.  But, just as the entire camp is celebrating, it is determined that Mim has contacted outlaw friends and they are hovering right above the planet earth, leading us to the next thrilling installment Into the Dorkness (May, 2015).

Kloepfer turns from zombies (The Zombie Chasers series) to aliens, using much the same format: exciting, humorous prose liberally sprinkled with cartoon-like illustrations.  The book reads like a comic and the action never stops.  Is Galaxy's Most Wanted great literature?  No, but it will find readers.  Fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate are the target audience.  Its is fast, funny, and contains enough gross potty humor to make the target audience chuckle.  Boys, especially, will be drawn to this book, but throwing a girl onto Kevin's team makes it accessible to females as well.  I have kids at my library that will ONLY read books with illustrations.  This book will certainly circulate well and is an easy sell to reluctant readers.  There is currently a big push to incorporate non-fiction into kid's reading experience.  I had a father in the library last week looking for fiction books dealing with science, but something fun.   I can't say that kids will walk away from this book with new scientific knowledge, but it does demonstrate that science can be entertaining and cool and is a worth while way to spend your time.  The plot twist of Mim actually being evil adds some dimension to what could be a formulaic plot and there were some genuinely funny moments.  There is no character development to speak of, but who cares?  Its not that type of book.  I will sit back and watch Galaxy's Most Wanted fly off my shelves.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Half a Chance

Half a Chance
Cynthia Lord
Scholastic, 2014  218 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Lucy has to move (again!) with her nature photographer father and mother to a cottage on a quiet lake in New Hampshire.  She is reluctant to move and is sad that her father must immediate leave for an assignment across the country.  Lucy befriends the boy next door, Nate, and becomes involved with his family, specifically Grandma Lilah.  Grandma Lilah is slowly slipping into dementia and this will probably be her last summer on the lake.  She sends various family members on "loon patrol" in kayaks to protect and report on the endangered bird's progress.  Lucy gets involved with loon patrol and with Nate's help decides to enter a photography contest for young people that her father is judging.  The two friends find photo opportunities together and, although Lucy actually takes the pictures, plan to enter under Nate's name.  The one shadow on the summer is Megan, Nate's friend from previous summers.  She is threatened by Lucy and the two experience a very strained relationship, battling for Nate's attention.  Joy and heartache accompany the adventures of the loons, as Grandma Lilah continues to become more forgetful and scared.  The contest is entered, the winner is announced, and the fallout occurs once Dad realizes Lucy's involvement.  Relationships are strained and healed as the summer ends, Nate's family leaves, and Lucy starts her new school year. finally adjusting to her new home.

Lord, author of the now-classic Rules, offers another growing up/friendship story.  Half a Chance feels like spending a summer on the lake: nothing happens, yet everything happens.  The book is quiet and no major events take place, yet the plot moves along at a steady clip and it is never boring.  Lucy matures and learns valuable lessons.  As the reader I also learned lessons about photography and loons.  I'm not a nature lover, but my heart stood still during the scene when Lucy is in a kayak in the middle of the lake trying to fend off an eagle who is trying to eat a baby loon.  I became engrossed in this story and honestly cared about the characters, including the loons.  The adults in the story are flawed, but earnest, supportive. and present.  Lucy and Nate are good and loving young people, who make mistakes and then fix them, even when its not the easy or comfortable thing to do.  I appreciate that, although the kids in the story are entering seventh grade, the battle subtly fought over Nate was about friendship, not romance.  Nate and Lucy's relationship was genuine and shows that boys and girls can be friends.  Half a Chance reads pretty quickly and, although the main character is a girl, can be enjoyed by boys as well.  Putting a boy on the cover further broadens the audience.  This is a great choice for kids who like a real story about real kids.  there is no magic, no space travel, no one dies and nothing extraordinary happens.  Yet real conflicts that kids can relate to are faced and the book is emotionally gripping.Fans of Rules are a natural audience, but anyone, really, would enjoy this book.  A solid offering from a solid author.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

All Time Favorite Books for Young People

All Time Favorite Books for Young People

My brother claims that I'm prone to hyperbole.  Often when informally book talking titles to young people needing reader's advisory or chatting about different titles during a book discussion group, I declare that a book is my "favorite book ever!"  (to my credit I really believe that statement while I'm making it)  Last week one of the members of my Bookworm Club (thank you, Ben!) asked me, "Mrs. Nafz, you always say this or that book is your favorite.  What really is your favorite book?"  Hmmmm...Ben put me on the spot as I mentally scrolled through 45 years as a reader and 21 of them as a youth service's librarian.  I realized picking one book was hopeless, but promised Ben I would narrow it down to ten and have the list ready for the next meeting.  Ben promised to also make me his list, which I will post once he hands it over.  So, here are my choices.  The first title is my hands-down favorite if I was forced to pick just one book.  The books after that are listed alphabetically by title.

All Time Favorites:

1.  From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Koningsburg
All time favorite!  Growing up in a small town in upstate New York I was raised to believe that New York City was evil.  In fact, despite growing up in New York State, I first visited the city as a college student...and a love affair began.  As a child I felt isolated, claustrophobic and weirdly bookish.  I feel strongly that reading changed my life: it exposed me to other worlds and ideas outside my homogeneous small town.  I related to Claudia and envied her adventures.  She was the girl I wished I could be.  Jamie was so much like my younger brother and I could imagine us running away together.  I could talk him into anything and he also always had money and liked "complications".  I read the book over and over again as a child and dreamed of making a similar escape.  Imagine my delight when I finally entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art and discovered that it was just as wonderful as promised.  I now live right outside of New York City and visit the city often.  Whenever I go to the MET I still feel that excited wonder and can't help looking for the sights that Claudia and Jamie encountered.  My dream is still to hide in the rest room and have my own nocturnal adventure in the museum.  To me this book represents "hope" and I still love it today.

2. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
I'm not sure if this book counts.  Its really an adult book, which over time has become a teen book.  Precocious children would also enjoy it (be aware there is some strong language).  Enders Game celebrates the capabilities and complexities of youth, all within a science fiction/video game story.  I love a boarding school story and this one is set at a battle training school.  The first time I read it my jaw dropped at the surprise ending.  A favorite pick for teen book clubs, I still enjoy every rereading, even knowing that the twist is coming.  I always thought this book would make a great movie.  Finally the movie came out last year and I was, as usual, disappointed.  I was also disappointed in the many sequels to the book, as well as other books by this author.  The only exception is Enchantment, which I also love, even though it is very different from Ender's Game.

3.Harriet the Spy by  Louise Fitzhugh
Again, this is a childhood favorite and another book set in New York City (could this be a pattern?).  I read this book so many times that my paperback copy literally fell apart.  Why did I relate to this book so much?  It was the first time I read a book with a character who wasn't sweet and cute and eager to please.  Harriet was as snarky as I was and it was a welcome relief hanging out with her.  The part where she loses her friends was so sad and relate-able.  The characters are flawed and realistic and Harriet is independent and does interesting and fearless things.  I reread this book with my own children a few years ago to see if it still holds up.  I still loved it and they didn't hate it (which is a win!).  Do kids still read Harriet the Spy?  Not really, only when their parents remember the title from their childhood and suggest it.  I don't care.  It got me through my childhood and I still love it.  And its my list, so it stays.  Besides, it has Ole Golly.  Ole Golly is the coolest cat in children's literature and I still want her to come to my house and be my nanny.

4. Holes by Louis Sachar
A tightly written book of amazing plot twists and coincidences.  This is one of the few Newbery predictions I made that actually came to fruition.  Every kid who reads this book loves it.  Its a great story with interesting characters all written conversationally and with a hint of humor.  And its very original.  The first time I read this book I was so surprises at the uniqueness of it.  Holes is like reading Kurt Vonnegut-lite.

5. Howl's Moving Castle by Dianna Wynn Jones
Fairy-tale fantasy, humor, romance, and adventure all rolled into one. The coolest part of this book is when the Wizard Howl walks into our reality present and then returns to the fantasy land.  The characters are colorful, multidimensional and lovable. This is the only movie based on a book that I like as much as the book itself, which is pretty cool.  The movie is much different.  Its an anime by Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and is the same story made a bit differently with a steam punk vibe.  The movie is like a really great cover of a classic song where you can't decide which one you like better because they are both so different, but both are great.  This book is less well known than the others on my list, so if you never read it, check it out.

6. Matilda/The Witches by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is a genius and possibly the best author of children's books of all times.  I appreciate that he never talks down to children and offers them fun, intelligent, and marvelously creative tales.The first time I read Matilda I was on a bus and kept laughing out loud.  The book is clever, as all his books are, and makes a great statement about respecting children.  I also really love The Witches and can't decide between the two.  The Witches is a modern day fairy tale, also written in Dahl's characteristic humor and outrageousness.  As movies go Matilda is a waste of time.  The Witches is a bit better (Anjelica Husten is wonderful as the head witch), but the ending is changed, which I take exception to .

7. Mr. Was by Pete Hautman
I love, love, love time travel books.  They make my brain hurt in a perfectly delicious way.  Mr. Was is the granddaddy of all time travel books for young people.  It involves a magic door, creepy characters, World War II, and romance.  So much happens in this book, its impossible to summarize, but when I get to the end (and I've read this book a lot) I always put it down and say "wow"!  I have used this book for book discussion so many times and its always a hit.  It is the perfect book for a plot-intensive reader, such as myself, who loves time travel and complications.  If you haven't read this book, and many people out there haven't, read it.  I promise it will make your brain hurt.  Warning: there is a very violent scene early on that may be disturbing to sensitive readers.

8. Out of my Mind - Sharon Draper
Not many books make me cry.  This book made me cry three different times.  It is hard to read Out of My Mind and not be affected.  Melody is one of the most courageous and heartfelt characters in children's literature.  You will never be able to get her out of your mind once you read this book.  Kids love the book, as well as adults.  Its a great book club choice and classroom read aloud.  A true winner!

9. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskins
Another favorite from childhood.  After reading countless Nancy Drew-style mysteries what a breath of fresh air when The Westing Game came out.  It is a super-smart scavenger hunt/mystery celebrating kid power and featuring zany characters.  The plot moves quickly and is infused with humor.  The mystery is get-able and the book becomes impossible to put down.  Raskin respects her readers and this book shows it.

10. Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
As I read this book I kept saying "wow"!  The illustrations are stunning, the text is well written and when the two plots come together its magic.  I thought Hugo Cabret was amazing and then Selznick created Wonderstruck.  This book is the whole package.

Honorable Mentions:

1. Running out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix
This is a great "concept" book.  A girl in the 1800s pioneer days discovers that she is part of a living history exhibit and its really present day.  The children in her small town are dying from diphtheria and its up to her to put on her mother's old "modern clothes" that no longer fit and escape the museum to find help.  I love the idea of this book so much and its a great book for discussion and kids enjoy it too.  It doesn't make the actual list because the second half doesn't live up to the overall concept, when the girl is dashing around, avoiding bad guys, and trying to find help.  Still, its an original story, a lot of fun and an easy sell to kids.

2. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Its no accident that my number one favorite book was one that I discovered as a child and two other titles are also favorites from childhood.  The Mixed-up Files gave me hope for a future out of my small town and a promise of adventure. Reading this book brings me back to that young girl I once was and comforts me like a warm blanket.  I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter series and have read (or more accurately listened to the amazing audio narration by Jim Dale) at least three times.  The young Harry Potter fans I know (my daughter included) who grew up with the series are more passionate about the books than I can ever be.  To them the world of Hogwarts is real and part of their personal story.  I feel that the books are theirs more than mine and it would not be right to add them to my list.

3. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Time travel, major plot twist, New York City.  Need I say more?  Should have made the list, but I ran out of room.

What makes in my opinion a great book for young people?  I tend to prefer plot heavy books, which I find that kids also prefer.  I also love a plot twist and a book that surprises me.  Overall, a great book for kids has to blend high writing quality with read-ability.  I love a book that helps us to see the world in a different way and makes our imaginations soar.  What a great way to end the year by making a list of favorites.  Try it for yourself!

Because they Marched

Because They Marched: The People's Campaign for Voting Rights that Changed America
Russell Freedman
Holiday House, 2014
Grades 5-8, 83 pgs

Veteran non-fiction author and Newbery winner (Lincoln: a Photobiography), Freedman, offers a factual, yet moving account of the Selma to Montgomery Rights March of 1965.  A pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. led the three attempts to peacefully march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to protest the reluctance of the state government to allow African Americans the right to vote.  Freedman traces the beginning of the movement in Alabama and the events leading up to the march.  We experience the violence and racism of the time and place.  After two failed attempts at a major peace march protesting the discrimination of the most heated area of the south, a third attempt reaches the state's capital building up to 25,000 marchers.  The aftermath of the march is explored, including President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Barack Obama making a famous speech from the same spot on the forty-second anniversary, and what is happening with voting rights in the US today. Both first person accounts and incredible photos enhance Freedman's narration.

It is a big year for superbly written books on the civil rights movement.  Fifty years have passed since the movement broke ground and forced change, allowing for equal rights for Americans regardless of skin color.  Freeman, a master at penning non-fiction titles for young people, has offered his contribution to the years exception books.  I have read so much historical fiction this year on the civil rights movement, so I enjoyed learning a bit about it.  I know embarrassing little about this period in American history.  Growing up, the teachers always ran out of time at the end of the school year.  We never learned any history past WWII.  I know a bit about American history starting in 1970 because I was living it.  The civil rights era always seemed to me to be boring, angry, and so far removed from my experience.  Now, through the amazing books that have come out this year, I am finally discovering this incredible chapter of our history.  Freedman attributes the success of the movement in Alabama to young people, encouraging young readers to look at their own lives and make a difference.  This book is very readable with short and distinct chapters and a generous amount of pictures that tell could tell the story on their own.  Even though Freedman's account is very impartial, the story itself evokes emotion.  At one point I found myself tearing up, which is a very unusual reaction for me when reading non-fiction.  Martin Luther King Jr. comes off as a rock star and now I want to learn more about him.  Freedman is not cheap with his vocabulary and does not compromise his writing because his audience is children.  Because They Marched is a well researched and written work.  It may prove to be a challenge for some young readers, but those who go for it will be richly rewarded.  A time-line, source notes, bibliography, index, and the author's research process are included at the end of the book.  The battles fought by our predecessors may have happened fifty years ago, but the issues are still relevant today.  Today's news is filled with violence and hatred coming from a place of discrimination, whether its based on skin color, religion, or sexuality.  We have come a long way, but the war rages on.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Invisible Inkling

Invisible Inkling
Emily Jenkins
Harry Bliss (illustrator)
Harper Collins, 2011  154 pgs
Grades 2-5

Hank faces the beginning of a new school year without his best friend, who has moved away from his Brooklyn home.  Hank's boredom and loneliness come to an end when the neighbor's dog attacks what appears to be nothing.  Further investigation reveals a soft & furry something, but what?  After saving the nothing from the dog, Hank takes the creature home, who confesses to being an rare Bandapat, an invisible and endangered specials from lands far away.  Because of the rescue from the dog, the bandipat, who introduces himself as Inkling, pledges to return the favor before moving on.  Inkling and Hank strike up a friendship and Hank begins to feel a bit happier and miss his old friend less.  Inkling discloses his need for eating various kinds of squash and Hank attempts to acquire some for him, although his lack of money leads to several failed attempts.  Hank longs to see the appearance of his new friend, but Inkling claims it is impossible.  Quite by accident Hank discovers that he can see the reflection of Inkling in mirrors and tricks him into a full reveal.  Inkling becomes angry, the friendship is compromised, and Inkling threatens to leave Brooklyn for a Pumpkin farm in upstate New York.  After repetitive attacks by the school bully Inkling thinks he knows how to return the owed favor and hit the road.  He tries to help Hank, but the results turn out in an unpredictable and humorous fashion, landing Hank in even more trouble.

Invisible Inkling (first in a series of the same name) is a perfect choice for children ready to move up from introductory chapter books (such as magic tree house) but not ready for long and meatier ones.  The large print, wide margins, generous dialog, and comic-style illustrations ensure a quick and accessible read.  Gentle humor is liberally sprinkled throughout the book.  The real-life problems Hank (and the bully) face will resound with kids and they will feel apathy for the well drawn characters.  Any book with a bullying theme is hot right now, so Invisible Inkling has a ready-made audience.  My one complaint with the book is that all the adults who Hank approaches for help with the bully problem prove to be ineffectual.  This is a minor quibble because the useless adults are necessary for Inkling to sweep in and save the day.  It just doesn't help children facing similar problems at school, who may not have an invisible friend to bite the bully on the leg.  The bully turns out to be a regular and troubled young man, but its too bad that it takes an act of violence for this to be revealed.  Although the question arises: Is Inkling real or imaginary?  The author leaves the answer up to the reader.  By the book's end Hank realizes he had a friend all along in Chin, the girl who lives in his building.  Will he still need Inkling?  Apparently. because there are two other books in the series.  Both boys and girls will relate to this book and it is a great choice for reluctant readers.  Fun, fluffy and featuring a creative main character, Invisible Inkling will appeal to both readers who struggle to fit in or and those who just want to be entertained.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Madman of Piney Woods

The Madman of Piney Woods
Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic, 2014 363 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction

Curtis revisits Buxton, Ontario, a town founded by runaway slaves fifty years before our story takes place and the setting for his Newbery honor book Elijah of Buxton.  Alternating chapters tell the stories of Benji and Red in turn of the century Canada.  Benji is a descendant of slaves and resides in Buxton.  He longs to be a journalist and feels overshadowed by the talents of of his younger twin siblings, who are already talented carpenters.  His parents secure him an apprenticeship at a nearby newspaper, where he begins to hone his craft.  Meanwhile, Red lives in nearby Chatham with his widowed judge father and grandmother.  His grandmother is a survivor of the Irish potato famine and has a horrific tale to tell about her immigration experience.  Grandmother's past has left her bitter, intolerant and racist.  Red, often the victim of her attacks, begins to question Grandmother's behavior and make his own choices about other people and races.  At a speech making contest, where both of their friends are contestants, Red and Benji finally meet and become friends.  They have a lot in common, including a love of the woods, which Red is very knowledgeable about.  In the woods lives the famous "Madman" or "Lion Man", whose name differs depending on which town you are from.  The Madman is really a post traumatic stress suffering veteran of the Civil War, who can no longer function in society.  Red is tipped off by a friend that the Madman has been shot and the two boys rush into the woods to try to find and save him.  They do find the Madman, get help, and bring him to safety.  The identity of the Madman, the results of his recovery, and the future of the friendship of the two boys (especially after being discovered by racist Grandmother) are all resolved by book's end.

I read Elijah of Buxton when it came out in 2007.  I didn't love it as much as others works of Curtis (I'm a devoted fan of The Watson's go to Birmingham).  Elijah didn't stick with me and I had to skim a bit of it before tackling The Madman of Piney Woods.  Even though the second book takes place a generation after the first book, some characters carry over (Elijah is now the mayor and the Madman's is a former character).  It is interesting to see how Buxton evolved as a town after the passing of the former slaves who founded it and to see it in relation to its neighbors.  Curtis points out the prejudices of Canadians at the time against other ethnic groups, including the Irish and then shows how survivors of discrimination can become even worse discriminators.  The book has some great lessons, both historical and moralist, and shows the power of friendship.  Some of the themes, such as discrimination and the post traumatic stress of veterans are still pertinent today.  It took me a very long time to read this book.  It was written very well, almost too well for casual reading.  I had to re-read the first chapter over three times before I finally gave up and kept going.  The first chapter made more sense by the end, when I re-read it again.  I also kept getting Benji and Red confused, which was really my own fault because Curtis helpfully names the Irish boy "Red", making it easier for the reader to know which boy is talking.  If I struggle getting into a book and continue to get confused as the I continue to read it, I can only imagine a ten year old giving it a try.  If you can make it to the end, there is a pay-off as the boys work together to find the Madman and the mystery of his identity is revealed.  So, I did like the book by the end and all the way through felt that it was well written, but I would not use it for a book discussion (the kids would all give up) or recommend it to anyone but the most serious young reader. This book may be the stuff of awards, but it is not for recreation use.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Heir Apparent

Heir Apparent
Vivian Vande Velde
Houghton Mifflin, 2002  315 pgs
Grades 5-8
Science Fiction

Despite protesters intent on protecting children from the dangers of video games outside its doors, Giannine enters a Rasmussem Gaming Center, intent on using the birthday gift certificate from her estranged father on a virtual reality game.  She chooses a game set in medieval times, putting herself as the successor to the throne of a legendary kingdom.  She has three days (in game time, real time is shorter) to convince rivals, enemies and staff that she is worthy of the crown and be declared the new monarch.  Once in the game Janine (as she is now called in the game) is informed that the protesters compromised the game and she is in real danger.  She must complete the game within a certain amount of time or suffer brain overload, resulting in permanent brain damage and, possibly, death.  The stakes become real as Janine meets her three half brothers (rivals to the throne) and the queen, her late father's widow.  Three advisers present themselves and Janine must decide which one to trust.  Disgruntled townspeople looking to overthrow the government, disloyal guardsmen, and a neighboring band of raiding barbarians all need to be appeased.  She has the help of three wizards with different powers, but they are also not to be trusted and must be cunningly dealt with.  Luckily, she has the use of certain items of magic, including a ring which commands the wearer to do her bidding, but Janine must be wise as to when to use the magical items.  After several poor attempts, taking Janine all the way back to the beginning of the game, she finally makes it almost to the end.  She must battle the fearsome dragon and make it back for the coronation.  Will she win the game before time runs out?

Reading Heir Apparent is like playing a video game.  The action is quick, the characters are vast and the game keeps restarting.  This book will appeal to today's youth and will make fantasy/science fiction approachable to realistic kids.  This book is an easy sell to boys and with a female protagonist also makes it girl-friendly.  The many restarts that Janine undergoes should make the story repetitive and tedious, but Vande Velde writes the story in a way that we experience the repetition quickly without the details and the plot picks up freshly.  There are many characters in this book, all with strange names.  I'm usually hopeless with sorting out characters, especially with names I don't have a frame of reference for.  For some reason the characters are all drawn so distinctly that this is not a problem.  The characters are a bit one dimensional (as in a video game), but that works well in this book.  I love the concept, love the fast moving plot and was satisfied with how Janine eventually played out her game.  My only complain is the bitter end, when Janine gets back to reality at Rasmussen Gaming Center.  I am often not happy with the endings of books, authors seem to struggle with them.  My favorite books are those with well written and conceived endings.  Vande Velde ends everything overly happy with the owner of Rasmussen Enterprises turning out to be a cute 16 year old boy who looks like one of the characters and then Giannine's father walks into the center, indicating that her family problems are all over.  What?  The book was really fun, but I could have done without the last seven pages.  Kids won't care.  They like a happy ending with no loose threads.  Heir Apparent is at first glance a cautionary tale against video games, but really isn't.  the bad guys are the protesters and Vande Velde is making a statement concerning people against fantasy and make believe.  Kids won't care what her statement is, they will just devour this book.  Psst...Hollywood: this would make an awesome movie. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Screaming Staircase

The Screaming Staircase
Jonathan Stroud
Hyperion, 2013  390 pgs
Grades 5-8
Lockwood & Co. series #1

Enter an alternate present day London where ghosts abound and only children and teenagers can sense and, therefore, exterminate them.  Lucy Carlye flees a devastating experience working for a ghost catcher in her rural community to London where she obtains employment with the sketchy Lockwood & Co.  Unlike bigger and more reputable agencies, Lockwood & Co. has no adult supervisors and is run entirely by its young proprietor, Anthony Lockwood and his esteemed, yet slovenly, partner George.  Lucy is blessed with the ability to hear ghosts, Lockwood with the ability to see ghosts, and George is an ace researcher.  After a bungled attempt to remove a ghost, Lucy obtains a locket from the menace's newly found skeleton, leading the youths to the mystery surrounding the ghost's death/murder.  Meanwhile, Lucy also, accidentally, while defending herself,  burns the house down.  Lockwood and Co. must pay for the damages, which proves to be an exorbitant sum.  Help arrives in the form of eccentric millionaire, John Fairfax, who offers to pay off the company's debts if they clean his notoriously haunted mansion of visitors.  The three ghost hunters must accept, leading them to the most dangerous mission of their lives, where they encounter the Screaming Staircase (of the title) and the famous and deadly Red Room (read the book to discover the origin of the room's name).  Things aren't what they seem and Lockwood & Co. gets more than they bargained for.  Eventually, a conclusion is reached, both cases come together in a satisfying course of events, and a creepy ending ensures that a new adventure (The Whispering Skull, 2014) awaits.

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus series has long been one of my favorite series to recommend, specifically to Harry Potter fans who wish that Hogwarts could be just a little creepier.  His books are deliciously eerie, yet fantastic, creative, and funny all at the same time.  Stroud's latest series, Lockwood & Co., does not disappoint.  The book is filled with sinister ghosts, as well as humans, with a speedily moving and adventurous plot, all underlined with characteristic British humor.  The mood of the book feels Victorian and dark and it is always a surprise when Stroud throws in a modern touch, bringing us back to the present.  As in the Bartimaeus series, Stroud has young people working alone and fending for themselves through a dangerous life.  The three young people are fully developed and interesting characters and make the reader want to join up with Lockwood & Co. and live in that dusty old house with them, dangers and all.  This book will be a very easy sell to boys, but, featuring a female main character, makes it also accessible to girls.  The ghosts and fantastical elements are very believable, making the book a great choice for those who don't think they like fantasy.  Stroud never is never cheap with his writing quality and vocabulary choices.  He respects his readers and does not talk down to them.  This is a superbly written book that will challenge children, as well as entertain them and make their imaginations soar.  One warning: The book is a bit scary.  Sensitive children will find the Screaming Staircase the stuff of nightmares.  For kids who like horror, this is a wonderful choice.  It never gets too graphic or gruesome and is "just right" for middle grade ghost lovers.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska
John Green
Dutton, 2005  221 pgs.
Grades 9-12
Realistic Fiction

Miles begins his junior year of high school at a private boarding school in Alabama.  He meets his new roommate, a low in stature/high in personality, boy named the Colonel, who dubs him "Pudge" and introduces him to the world of smoking, drinking, and pranks.  Through the Colonel Pudge meets Alaska, a beautiful, yet emotionally complicated young woman, and Takumi, a fellow smoker and prankster.  The four form an immediate bond and experience the philosophical discussions, rivalry with the rich kids, struggles with homework and prank-planning involved in boarding school life.  Miles must take a religion course as a school requirement and though his teacher is decrepit and strict, he begins to think about the "Labyrinth of Life" and the "Great Perhaps".   Alaska fixes Pudge up with his first girl friend, Lara, and the year moves along at a rapid and happy pace.  Then after a night of drinking Miles and Alaska make-out, fulfilling Mile's dreams and leading to complications because of previous entanglements.  Before the ensuing drama can unfurl, something makes Alaska freak out, run out of her room in the middle of the night, calling for a distraction from Miles and the Colonel, and driving away drunk, when unforeseen tragedy strikes.  Miles and the Colonel must come to terms with Alaska's death and their part in it.  As the school year draws to a close, the boys discover what made Alaska run out of the room that night and start to find closure and healing.

Looking for Alaska, John Green's first novel, was awesome when it came out in 2005, winning the 2006 Printz medal for the best book for teenagers.  It is still awesome almost ten years later.  Pudge's journey is many teenager's fantasy: leaving your old life behind and going to boarding school with a fresh start and no parents around.  The first half of the book is fun, complete with romance and high-jinx.  We don't see Alaska's death coming and then WHAM!  After Alaska dies the tone of the book is very different and we experience Pudge's healing and maturing first-hand.  The second half of the book feels almost like a mystery as Pudge and the Colonel try to discern Alaska's motivation and absolving themselves of the guilt. Pudge, the Colonel, and Alaska are all very interesting characters and practically fly off the page.   Looking for Alaska has layers and  can be read on many levels.  There are philosophical and religious themes throughout the book which may lead the reader to delve deeper.  John Green is a hot commodity right now.  The Fault in our Stars was the big teen book of last year, staying popular into this year because of the release of the movie of the same name.  Now his book Papertowns is being made into a movie.  For my money, I think Looking for Alaska is his best book and would highly recommend it for high school students of both sexes.  Warning to parents: the book contains underage drinking, smoking, strong language, and adult themes, so be aware of this if its an issue for your teens.  If not, put this in the hands of teenagers and watch them begin to contemplate the "Great Perhaps".

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles
Julie Andrews Edwards
Harper Collins, 1974  277 pgs
Grades 3-6

Siblings Ben, Tom, and Lindy meet the brilliant and eccentric Professor Savant and the four become friends.  The professor confides his knowledge of the legendary Whangdoodle and how the species once lived among humans.  He has personally been to Whangdoodle Land and starts training the children in sharpening their detection skills and using their imaginations.  After many exercises and coaching the children are ready to try to journey to the magical land.  Donning their "scrappy caps", magical hats that help them to transport, They enter Whangdoodle Land.  It is even better, more colorful and beautiful, than the professor described it.  They make friends with a "whiffle bird" who continues to help them throughout their quest to find the Whangdoodle.  After several exploratory visits to Whangdoodle Land, the evil Prok (the Whangdoodle's left-hand man) kidnaps Lindy and the other three set out to save her.  Their rescue attempt takes them close to the Whangdoodle's castle and the professor finds he cannot go on.  The three children cross the bridge to the palace and talk Prok into letting them meet the Whangdoodle.  The Whangdoodle does not disappoint.  He is as fabulous as the professor has promised, only he is very sad.  The Whangdoodle is the last of his kind and wants companionship, specifically that of a female Whangdoodle.  Lindy is given the task of coaxing the professor across the bridge and to the Whangdoodle's castle in order for him to use his knowledge of genetics to try to solve the legendary beast's dilemma.

Even though I was a child when this book came out, I have never read it.  The kids in my 5th & 6th grade book group suggested reading it, so I finally gave it a try.  The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was written by the prolific Julie Andrews (yes THAT Julie Andrews) under her married name.  Reading it feels like watching one of her movies: comforting, sweet, and slightly magical.  I never heard of Whangdoodles, but, as the children in the book discovered, they are in the dictionary as "a fanciful creature of undefined nature".  Doesn't that definition get your imagination going?  The book feels a little like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, both in being transported to a magical land and befriending creatures and in its Briticism, although without the violence.  Both girls and boys will enjoy this book and although it has 277 pages and (gasp!) no illustrations, it reads quickly.  Andrews explains in an author's note that she purposely did not want illustrations in order for children to use their own imaginations to see the Whangdoodle however they want.  The kids are likable enough, although I kept confusing the identity of the two boys were are never fully developed.    The youngest sister gets the bulk of the adventure and the professor is wonderfully eccentric, thus stealing the show.  Although it feels like an older book, modern touches and slang are thrown in to contemporize the story.  Today's kids may question the Independence given the children in the story and modern children no longer befriend adult neighbors and spend full days at their houses.  Regardless, its a blast back to a kinder, gentler time when kids grew up slower and magical lands could be just on the other side of the bushes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming
Jacqueline Woodson
Penguin, 2014  320 pgs
Grades 5-8
Narrative Poetry

Woodson offers free verse, narrative poems tracing her childhood and all its complexities in this fictionalized autobiography.  Born in Columbus, Ohio, we experience Woodson's first memories, family background, and the turbulence of her parents marriage.  She and her mother and two older siblings move into their grandparent's house in South Carolina.  Jacqueline's mother leaves the children with her parents, traveling up to New York City to seek a fresh start and better opportunities.  The Woodson children thrive in South Carolina, treating their grandparents as their parents, and exploring their rural surroundings, all while under the shadow of Jim Crow.  Eventually mother has another baby, Grandfather develops emphysema, and the children move to New York to live with their mother.  Life in New York is opposite in every way to South Carolina, in physical space, diversity of the neighborhood, and the way leisure time is spent.  After Jacqueline's baby brother contracts lead poisoning, another South Carolina summer is spent, now through the lenses of a northern city girl.  Throughout it all the Woodson family stays true to their Jehovah Witness beliefs and we observe first hand the sacrifices, time commitment, and sense of community the faith involves.  Eventually, after much heartache and growth, Jacqueline discovers that she is a writer and embraces her own story, beliefs and desires, warts and all.

Jacqueline Woodson is know for her beautifully written and thoughtful books, generally reflecting the African American experience.  I have read many of her books and even used a few in book discussion groups, (Hush being my favorite).  Brown Girl Dreaming is her best offering yet.  The poems convey a story, yet are so beautifully written that they could stand on their own individually in a separate collection.  This is a big publishing year for Civil Rights books and Brown Girl Dreaming is a wonderful contribution to the topic.  We experience the struggles of growing up as an African American girl both in the south and the north during a time when change was happening.  I am the same age as Jacqueline and grew up during the same time and couldn't help comparing her experience to mine.  Our experiences where so different, yet there were fundamental similarities about family and growing up that made me identify with her and put me in the story.  I think that this is an important book for kids to read.  I'm not sure all kids will "get it".  The poetry may put readers off.  I have used Out of the Dust with book groups and, although its one of my favorite books, they don't like it because of the  poetic format.  That said, we should not give up exposing children to high quality literature and, thank goodness, publishers are still willing to publish it.  Wimpy Kid has a place and is valuable in its own right, but once in a while it wouldn't kill a child to read something that makes them think and work a little bit.  I fell into the life of young Jacquline Woodson and did not want the book to end. I would highly recommend this book to thoughtful children who like their reading to contain a little substance and to adults who would like a quick meaningful read.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Its a Funny Kind of Story

Its a Funny Kind of Story
Ned Vizzini
Hyperion, 2006  444 pgs.
Grades 9-12
Realistic Fiction

Craig is excepted to a highly competitive high school in New York City.  He celebrates with his best friend (who is also excepted to the school), watches his best friend get together with his crush, and slowly sinks into a serious depression.  Craig's concerned and supportive parents take him to a psychiatrist for medication and then to a series of therapists, until finally finding the right fit.  Craig begins high school, starts to feel better, and decides he no longer needs the medication and stops taking it.  He now sinks into a downward spiral, resulting in a call to the suicide hotline after a night of extreme blackness.  The suicide hotline suggests that he check himself into the hospital, so after leaving a note for his family that's just what he does.  Because the teen unit is being renovated, Craig must be sent to the adult psychiatric unit for a minimum of five days once the doctor's are convinced he's stable and won't hurt himself.  At the unit and away from his pressures Craig finds that he is able to be himself and slowly starts to heal.  He makes friends with the other patients, specifically a man names Humble.  A relationship begins to develop with the only other 15 year old on the floor, a girl named Noelle, and he has intentions of continuing it even after release.  Most importantly, Craig rediscovers his love of drawing maps, which he abandoned as a child.  This new found love of art encourages him to transfer from the stressful school he currently attends to an art focused high school.  We see the impact the other residents (a kooky, yet lovable lot) make on Craig's life and the impact he makes on theirs in return.  The book ends on an optimistic note, with Craig feeling hopeful and strong with plans for the future as he takes his leave of the hospital and the people that changed his life.

Don't let the title fool you.  Although there are truly funny moments, this is not a comedy.  Told in the first person, this novel is based on the five days the author actually spent in an adult psychiatric unit and was written in three weeks following his release.  Maybe this is why Its Kind of a Funny Story feels so real and authentic.  Craig is lost and depressed, but retains a certain amount of naivety, keeping the novel from feeling completely hopeless.  Even at his lowest, Craig presents himself matter-of-factly and is devoid of emo-angst.  This feels like two books: 180 pages are Craig's back story and the road to the hospital and the remainder of the novel is life on the psych ward with the quirky characters Craig meets and the connections he makes.  He treats all his fellow patients with respect and kindness and instantly makes friends.  We see the comparison between Craig's so-called friends from home (especially in a scene where his crush/best friend's girl friend visits and hits on him) and his new friends, who are crazy, yet more genuine and positive influences on Craig.  I don't know if a new relationship with a broken girl is the right direction for Craig to head into, but young reader's enjoy a touch of romance, so for the sake of the book's success, I'll forgive it.  This romance is built up further in the 2010 movie based on the book, where the story is "Hollywood-ized" and much of the subtlety is lost.  Craig is a very likable character and teens will identify with him and root for his healing.  Even though the book is long, it is dialogue heavy and reads fast.  There are funny moments, especially with the characters in the psych ward, which goes to show that there can be humor in any situation.  Craig's humor and optimism, despite his depression, stand him well as he is released in the promised five days and is ready to reenter life.  Unfortunately the author, Ned Vizzini, was not so lucky.  After several years battling his depression and maintaining a successful career and family he tragically took his own life in December 2013.  Reality mirrors fiction.  I would like to think that Craig made it and found healing and peace even if his creator could not.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Storybook of Legends

The Storybook of Legends
Shannon Hale
Little Brown, 2013  304 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Fairy Tale/Fantasy/Humor
Ever After High series #1

Raven Queen enters her second year of Ever After High with a heavy heart.  This is the year that she must sign the "Storybook of Legends" and embrace her destiny to be the wicked witch in the Snow White fairy tale.  The problem is that Raven is not wicked and doesn't have the desire to be so.  Her best friend Maddie Hatter (daughter of the Mad Hatter of Alice fame) tries to console her, but Maddie is a little too wacky and scattered to be much help.  Popular Apple White (daughter of Snow White who will share Raven's story) chooses to room with Raven so they can get to know each other since their futures are entwined.  Raven begins to question the acceptance of her destiny.  Does she HAVE to sign the Storybook of Legends?  Will she disappear if she refuses to sign as headmaster Grimm has said?  How about her fellow story-mates?  Raven with the help of her friends does some digging into a past story where an evil character refuses to sign and then makes the decision of her life.  Raven's decision to sign and the aftermath conclude the book and lead the reader to the next installment in the Ever After High series: The Unfairest of Them All.

I wanted to hate this series.  Its pink and purple, expertly marketed, flew to the top of the children's best seller list and (gasp) has a doll for purchase component.  After dragging my heels for a year I finally buckled under the pressure and read the first installment of the Ever After High series.  I loved it!  The book stars characters from famous and not-so-famous fairy tales and classic children's books and places them in a modern setting.  Humor and puns abound with clever wording (ex: the characters "hex-message" each other).  The characters themselves are all true to the nature of their classic counterparts, but are unique to themselves.  Raven is clearly torn between following the "safe" route and doing what she thinks is right and choosing not to be evil.  The third person narrator becomes a character who is only heard by Maddie Hatter, adding further dimension to the book and humor. Following the great surge of mythology spin-offs thanks to Rick Riordan, I feel like fairy tales are the next big thing.  (Land of Stories by Colfer is currently one of my most popular series).  This was started by Michael Buckley with his Sister's Grimm series of a decade ago, but that series appeals more to Harry Potter/Lemony Snickett kids, who are sophisticated readers.  Ever After High is fantasy/fractured fairy tales for the masses.  The book's design, which initially put me off, is carefully done and appeals to today's visual youth.  Every page contains a colorful boarder with the feel of a magical book.  The website for the series is interesting, vast and has free games.  The link to purchasing the dolls is in small print at the top corner of the page and the marketing for the products is much subtler than the American Girls.  The books can be enjoyed without ever entering the site or knowing about the dolls. Ever After High is a fun series that may lead kids to the original fairy tales and will encourage reluctant readers to pick up a book.  It will visually appeal to kids, while still containing enough content to make the experience worth while.  My library owns three copies of all three titles in print and currently none are on the shelf, so the popularity of the series is proven, making them a choice for girls of all interests and reading levels.