Thursday, July 31, 2014

Confessions of a Murder Suspect

Confessions of a Murder Suspect
James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Little Brown 2012
Grades 7-Up

Tandy Angel is awaken in the middle of the night by the police banging on her New York City Dakota apartment door.  Her rich and powerful parents have been murdered in their beds inside the apartment while their three children and personal assistant slept.  An untrustworthy uncle is left in charge of the family, while the grown-up estranged brother re-enters the the family.  The Angel offspring are not like normal children.  They have super-human strength and intelligence.  While two brothers exhibit incredible strength and athletic abilities, another brother is a musical and artistic protege.  Tandy is the cleverest (and least emotional) of them all.  It is up to her to find her parent's killers.  Unfortunately, the main suspects are her own family members--including herself.  Family secrets are slowly revealed, including the truth behind the Angel children's gifts, the real nature of their parents relationship, and Tandy's past, which is buried in her subconscious.  By book's end the truth behind Malcolm and Maud Angel's deaths is uncovered, but more family mysteries have cropped up, leading the reader to run for the book's sequel: Confessions: the Private School Murders.  Soon to be released in October is the third in the series Confessions: The Paris Mysteries.

It is no accident that James Patterson is the most successful American author alive today.  His adult books are snatched up and devoured by devoted fans for their surprising plot twists, fast pace and high action.  His books for young people exhibit the same characteristics.  Patterson is passionate about getting young people to read.  The books he writes for teens and kids (with help from other authors--otherwise there is no way he could churn out so many titles every year!) have excellent story lines and are addicting to read. In Confessions of a Murder Suspect Patterson offers young people what he writes best: a traditional mystery.  What isn't traditional in mysteries for teens is the unreliable narrator, who we know is hiding something and in the back of our minds we think may be the killer.  A lot of possible suspects are introduced, but not too many to be confusing.  The conclusion of the mystery is satisfying, yet not too obvious.  The unanswered questions popping up during the investigation naturally lead readers to the sequel while still giving them the satisfaction that the book concluded.  Is Tandy a likable character?  Not really, but she is very interesting, tough as nails, confident, and rich.  Teens of both genders will eat this book up and adults will like it too.  I only wish that the cover was a bit more ambiguous.  A girl's picture on the cover will put off boys, even if she (or the book) isn't "girlie".  Hopefully boys will overlook the cover and give it a try.  They won't be disappointed. Patterson knows what readers want.  Let's hope his deep well of ideas never runs dry and he can keep putting out entertaining and exciting books that keep teens (and adults) turning pages!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Skink: No Surrender

Skink: No Surrender
Carl Hiaasen
Knopf, 2014  281 pgs
Grades 6-9

Richard's crazy cousin Malley runs off with some older guy she met in a chat room on-line. Her parents and the police are hitting dead ends.  Enter Stink; a former veteran/governor turned  wild environmentalist vigilante, who looks deceivingly like a homeless person.  Richard meets Skink while he is buried in the sand, breathing through a straw, patiently waiting to nab a turtle-egg thief.  Skink agrees to team up with Richard to find Malley, clears it with Richard's folks, and the two unlikely heroes hit the road.  Adventures and misadventures ensue involving edible road-kill, baby skunk rescues, and litter bugs who need to be taught a lesson. Stink and Richard become separated time and again, yet Skink manages to reappear just when Richard needs him the most.  Finally the team tracks Malley down on a stolen house boat in a remote part of Florida.  Malley is being held against her will and her captor is nasty, a bit unhinged, and has a gun.  Between Skink's fearless strength,  Richard and Malley's quick talking and thinking, and dumb luck they manage to escape and the evil kidnapper meets a deserving conclusion.

Hiaasen is known for his quirky characters, Florida setting, and environmental concerns.  Skink: No Surrender falls right into this expectation.  Skink is a reoccurring character in many of Hiaasen's adult novels (which I've admittingly never read, although I've read all of his novels for young people).  He is an amazing character and certainly worthy of his own book.  Skink threw fame and fortune away to follow ideals of importance to him.  He is dirty, smelly, puts weird things into the socket of his missing eye, runs around in a bathing cap and care only about doing what he believes is right and ethical.  Richard, still mourning the surprise loss of his beloved father, finds courage and confidence and, eventually, healing.  Mallie discovers some much needed humility, accountability, and appreciation of her parents.  The plot never flags and Hiaasen loves to throw some curve balls at us to keep us awake.  The mystery involves finding Mallie and identifying the kidnapper.  There is action galore, including a run-in with a gator (very Hiaasen-esque).  Boys especially will love this book, but girls will like it too.  The level of violence and suggestiveness of what may have happened to Mallie while being held captive make this this book more appropriate for a slighter older audience than Hiaasen's other books for young people.  I hope we see Skink again.  The world needs more real-life superheroes!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Because of Winn Dixie

Because of Winn Dixie
Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick 2000  182 pgs
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction

Opal is struggling with settling in to her new Florida town after a move with her preacher father.  After an unfortunate scene at the Winn Dixie, Opal and a scraggly looking dog find each other and she fittingly names him Winn Dixie after the supermarket.  Winn Dixie provides Opal with companionship and a sounding board.  He gives her courage to meet new friends and to finally ask her father to tell her ten things about her estranged mother.  The friends Opal meets are a rag-tag bunch; the elderly town librarian, a five-year-old little girl, the former prison inmate pet store manager, a pinch-faced snotty girl of her own age, the town "witch" who lives alone in the woods, and two pesky boys with unfortunate haircuts and smart mouths.  As Opal makes new connections with the folks around her, she realizes that everyone is carrying burdens.  The book climaxes with a big party, gathering all of Opal's new friends and her father together.  It is then that people begin to let their guards down and feel the healing power of love and friendship, including Opal herself.

Ten Things about Because of Winn Dixie:

1.  It has quirky, flawed, well-developed, and wonderful characters.

2.  It contains a terrifically lovable dog and proves the healing power of animals.

3.  It celebrates the magic of music and contains an unforgettable scene where the manager has all the animals in the pet shop dancing to his guitar.

4.  It demonstrates to kids not judge people by the first impression.  Get to know them and see what is beneath the mask.

5.  It is a wonderful piece of Americana, solidly set in the south of a time that could be now or fifty years ago.

6.  It values the power of storytelling. features a passionate and kind librarian, and emphasizes the importance of books.

7.  It is a tribute to the importance of community, multi-generational relationship, and all of us working together to overcome the hurt in our lives.  We can't do it alone.

8. It contains magical candy and a party with twinkle lights. 

9.  It is an excellent read-aloud.

10. It is a superbly written children's book, which was awarded a Newbery Honor in 2001 (but should have won the medal). 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

City of Ember

The City of Ember
Jeanne DuPrau
Random 2003  270 pgs
Grades 4-7
Science Fiction

Lina and Doon have lived in the City of Ember their whole lives.  Lately things have been going downhill.  The once abundant storerooms are emptying and store shelves no longer contain many choices or products.  Worse of all, the electric lights that the city depends on to see have been on the fritz and the city is experiencing temporary black-outs.  As Lina and Doon graduate from school at age twelve and start their adult occupations they begin to question their way of life and wonder if there is life outside of Ember.  Lina finds a mysterious box containing a letter that looks important.  Unfortunately, Lina's baby sister gets to the note first and huge chunks are missing.  By deciphering what is left in the note, Lina and Doom are able to ascertain that it is instructions for leaving the city.  Meanwhile, they discover that the mayor is selfishly hoarding what is left of Ember's precious commodities and they attempt to expose him.  The Mayor calls for Lina and Doon's arrest, so the two adventurers must grab what they can, along with Lina's baby sister, and try to escape the city.

Although not a new book, City of Ember is a great choice to give to kids looking for currently in demand dystopian fiction, but not quite ready for Hunger Game or Divergent.  The underground world is kind of creepy and cool.  DuPrau let us in on the secret early that Ember is underground and it gives us a pleased leg-up when Doon and Lina finally figure it out by the end.  Lina and Doon are both smart, resourceful and brave.  They will inspire young people to question the world around them and to venture out of their comfort zone.  The adults are for the most part ineffectual and flawed, leaving the saving of the civilization to a couple of twelve-year-olds with minimal supervision.  The plot moves quickly, the setting is well developed and atmospheric, and the story takes many twist and turns.  The mysterious instructions with missing words adds a mystery element to the story, further creating interest.  Having both a male and female main character allows for the book to be accessible to both sexes.  A great sci-fi choice for those who don't like sci-fi, The City of Ember is a well written child-friendly adventurous story to be devoured by all.  Most of all, it makes us appreciate sunshine and electricity and think ahead to the future of our planet.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens
Libba Bray
Scholastic 2011  396 pgs
Grades 9-Up

A terrible plane crash lands a group of pageant contestants for the "Miss Teen Dream" beauty contest on their own on a deserted island.  At first dazed and confused, they eventually ban together and work cooperatively on surviving.  Gradually we get to know the girls and, as the book progresses, their masks begin to slip and we see their true selves.  Friendships form and the competitive spirit of the beauty pageant fades as survival becomes a more important goal.  Unbeknownst to the girls, they are not alone on the island.  "The Corporation" has a secret lair where they are working on an arms deal with a crazy Elvis-impersonating dictator.  Just when the girls are hitting their stride, a ship of cute, British, reality TV pirates lands on the island to stir things up. After several love connections are made, the fake pirates abandon the girls, leaving it up to them to thwart the evil pans of the cooperation and escape from the island.  Written with tongue-in-cheek humor and interspersed with commercials, pageant bios of the girls, and entertaining footnotes, Beauty Queens is a satire taking on beauty pageants, big business, the media, reality television and social inequality.  It is a celebration of womanhood and what really makes us beautiful.

Beauty Queens is a "concept book";  a bunch of beauty queens stranded on an island where they discover explosive hair removal and overthrow an evil dictator.  With this concept the book seems irresistible.  In reality I found it to be a bit "over the top".  Maybe I was expecting more hard hitting adventure and less satire.  Much of the book seemed to be thinly veiled messages warning of the corruption of today's society.  That said, Beauty Queen is more teen-friendly than Bray's 2010 Prince winning Going Bovine and, honestly a lot of fun.  It reads quickly and the plot never lags.  The superficial beauty queens are a mix of race, gender, and sexuality, which was nice to see.  The girls all experience character growth throughout the book, are multidimensional, and become likable and real (even the really horrible one from Texas).  The beauty queens are resourceful, brave and celebrate "girl power".  A wide range of teens will be attracted to the concept and cover and, once diving in, will go along for the ride.  Seemingly shallow, if stranded on a deserted island, these are the peeps you want to be stuck with.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Eat Fried Worms

How to Eat Fried Worms
Thomas Rockwell
Dell, 1973  127 pgs
Grades 3-5
Realistic Fiction/Humor

Billy claims that he'll eat anything.  On a slow summer day Billy makes a $50 bet with his friend Alan that he can eat a worm a day for fifteen straight days.  The terms are that Alan gets to pick the worm and that Billy must eat it whole, although he is allowed to cook it and flavor it however he likes.  Seconds are chosen and the bet is on!  After Billy overcomes the initial disgust and fear of eating a slimy worm, he begins to enjoy himself.  He dine's on worms boiled, fried, and fricasseed with every kind of condiment imaginable.  That's when the competition gets ugly.  Alan and his second concoct devious plans to try to trick Billy out of eating his worm, including trying to get Billy's mother to stop him from eating the worms.  As the bet nears to a close the boys get desperate and their once close friendship evolves into a battle royal.  Does Billy manage to eat all fifteen worms and win the bet?  Read the book and find out!

Every once in a while I like to re-read a favorite book from my childhood to see if it stood the test of time and is still relevant to today's youth.  How to Eat Fried Worms is indeed a step back into a past where children run wild all summer, coming home when it is time for dinner.  The parents are have stereotypical roles and their are no girls in sight in this all-boy world (a female character is added to the 2006 movie).  Certain terms the boys use (they love to call each "finks") also dates the book, as does the complete absence of electronics.  Although How to Eat Fried Worms is a step into the past it is still an enjoyable read.  The title itself is a winner begging kids to pick it up.  The chapters are short, the book reads quickly, and humor abounds.  Rockwell doesn't bog the book down with heavy messages and subplots.  It is a straight forward business with a satisfying ending.  Rockwell knows the world of boys and what makes them tick.  Worms is solidly a "boy book", but, and I am proof from my own childhood, will also be enjoyed by girls. Put it in the hands of reluctant summer readers.   This forty-year-old book still does the job, offering slightly gross fun and hi-jinks.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Week in the Woods

Image result for week woodsA Week in the Woods
Andrew Clements
Simon and Schuster, 2002 190 pgs
Grades 3-6

Fifth-grader Mark must move midyear from his beloved West Chester home to "the wilds" of New Hampshire.  He resists the move, made worse by the increasing absence of his parents.  Left at home with a cook and a handy-man, Mark discovers the beauty in the country around him and begins to explore the woods with snowshoes.  Knowing he is switching to a private school in the fall, Mark makes zero effort to connect with teachers and fellow students.  Meanwhile, we meet Mr. Maxwell, a science teacher who puts together a yearly spring "week in the woods" event.  He tries to be friendly to Mark, but after the boy is rude to him he gives up, thinking Mark a spoiled rich kid.  By the time the trip arrives Mark has had a change of heart.  He has made some new friends and has cultivated his love of the great outdoors, greatly anticipating the week-long camping trip.  The trip is ruined, however, when Mr. Maxwell discovers a camping tool/knife and Mark gets mistakenly blamed for breaking the rules and bringing along a weapon.  Mark takes his gear and disappears into the woods, where Mr. Maxwell, discovering his mistake, must find him to make things right.

Andrew Clements is the master of "the school story".  A Week in the Woods is a bit of a departure in that much of the action takes place at Mark's home or on the field trip.  Still, the main conflict is Mark adjusting to the new school and coming to an understanding with Mr. Maxwell.  The book is presented in two points of view (Mark & Mr. Maxwell's) allowing the reader to see both sides of the story.  Reading Mr. Maxwell's point of view helps the reader to understand the humanity behind their teachers, while Mark's story sheds light on what can really be going on in the heads of kids who are stand-offish, as well as offering the reader a young character to relate to.  Its wonderful to see Mark slowly adjust to a new environment, discover a new hobby, and start to heal after the hurt of the forced move.  The real conflict behind the story is Mark's estranged parents and their lack of attention on the boy's life.  By the book's end we see the parents making more of an effort to connect to Mark and to spend more time with him, leaving the reader with hope for this relationship.  A Week in the Woods is a great story that will be enjoyed by many levels of readers.  Appealing to boys more than girls, it can be appreciated by both.  Clements really knows how kids think and what is important to them and his books are always realistic and relate-able with a moral message.  I'm a big fan of Andrew Clements, my favorites being Frindle and Extra Credit, and feel that A Week in the Woods stands up as one of his best.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Selection

Image result for selection cassThe Selection
Kiera Cass
HarperCollins 2012  327 pgs
Grades 8-Up
Dystopian Romance

Sixteen-year-old America Singer has a problem.  She is member of the fifth caste in love with a member of the sixth, which isn't permissible in her futuristic society.  She and Aspen secretly meet, until Aspen breaks it off, seeing no future in the relationship.  America reluctantly enters "The Selection", a contest much like "The Bachelor" where young women compete to marry the prince and future king of the nation.  Much to her family's surprise and glee, America is chosen to compete, having to move to the castle with a group of other young hopefuls.  America makes a friend early on, but some of the other contestants aren't very nice.  America is pleasantly surprised by the approachability of the Prince.  The two become friends after America confesses that she is not quite over her past love.  Friendship is slowly turning into romance when a development threatens to ruin the new relationship: Aspen shows up as a palace guard and is assigned to watch over America.  America's feelings are confused, all while watching her prince date other women and having rebels attack the castle.  By the book's end the selection is narrowed to six hopefuls.  Who will the Prince pick?  Where does America's heart lie?  Will the rebels succeed in overthrowing the government?  Read the next two books in the trilogy to find out.

It was very strange reading The Selection on my Kindle while simultaneously reading Princess Academy on the beach.  The two are so similar in theme that I kept getting them confused.  The Princess Academy is for a younger audience and is more fairy tale driven, while The Selection is a teen dystopian romance, targeted to fans of The Hunger Games and Matched.  Both books share the same premise of a simple girl rising up to marry the prince and eventually to become the queen.  The Selection reads quickly and is hard to put down.  Its not great literature, but is an enjoyable read with likable characters.  I very rarely read on in a trilogy or series, but plan on reading Cass's next offering The Elite.  A perfect summer book, it will appeal to girls almost exclusively.  America is certainly no Katniss, but she stays true to her convictions, is relate-able, and is a good person.  Its impossible not to root for her.  The unfairness of America's world, the absurdity of reality TV, and the injustice of social classes are all addressed.  There is no true glamour in this competition and America is more thrilled with the good food than the fancy dresses.  I can't wait to crack into The Elite, but must wait for my turn on the library's reserve list, which is considerably long.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Princess Academy

Image result for princess academyPrincess Academy
Shannon Hale
Bloomsbury, 2005  314 pgs
Grades 4-7
Fairy Tale/Fantasy
Newbery Honor Book 2006

Miri has a simple and pleasant life with her father and sister in their little mountain village.  The sole industry of the village is mining for linder, a very precarious business that only mountain folk can safely obtain.  A surprise royal announcement reveals that the Prince's bride will be selected from their region of the land.  Since the mountain girls are rough and uneducated, a princess academy is established three hours from home and the girls are sent to reside there for a year.  At the academy they are greeted by their strict and often cruel teacher and the princess training begins.  Snowed in for the winter, the girls gradually learn how to read and write, as well as the basics of mathematics, commerce, history, and social graces.  Through her studies Miri discovers that the linder her people mine is a valuable and rare commodity and they could improve their economy with more intentional trading.  Miri also discovers a secret way of communicating, using a method the miners have always practiced for safety, and improving on it.  By her wits, ingenuity, and kindness to others, Miri sours to the top of her class.  She wins the opportunity to meet the prince and possibly be selected.  But does she really want to be a princess, especially when her heart belongs to a young man of the village, who suddenly becomes more than just a friend?

How did I miss Princess Academy the year it received a Newbery honor?  I had read The Goose Girl, also by Shannon Hale, and assumed it was more of the same.  It took my twelve-year-old daughter, Shannon Hale's biggest fan, to be aghast at my neglect to finally pick it up.  I was not disappointed.  What a great book!  Shannon Hale manages to write fairy tales with strong and interesting female protagonists that are slightly gritty.  Princess Academy contains a slight magical element (telepathic communication shared only by the mountain people), but the magic feels realistic and believable.  The setting is cryptic. It feels like fairy tale times, but exact place and time are vague.  The plot is brisk with twists, turns, and surprises along the way.  The ending was satisfactory with a princess chosen (won't tell who: spoilers!) and all loose threads sewn up.  There is a 2012 sequel, Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, that my daughter promises is just as good, if not better than the first.  Even though the book is not "super-girlie", because of the title boys probably won't pick it up.  Most girls, however, will love it, even if they aren't that into fantasy or fairy tales.  Hopefully Shannon Hale will continue to spin her fantastical yarns for many years to come.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Akiko on the Planet Smoo

Akiko on the Plant Smoo
Mark Crilley
Random, 2001  162 pgs
Grades 3-5
Science Fiction/Humor

Its the end of the school year and most kids are looking forward to summer vacation.  Akiko has no plans and is comfortable with her predictable and stable life.  Then everything changes when a mysterious letter arrives telling Akiko to be prepared to be picked up at her seventeenth floor bedroom window.  True to the letter writer's word, a spaceship arrives and whisks Akiko away to the planet Smoo.  Once on Smoo, she is treated like royalty and brought to the King.  The King has mistakenly sent for her to rescue his kidnapped son.  With no time to spare to search for the intended Akiko, who is qualified in rescuing kidnapped princes, Akiko must accept the mission.  She is paired with an unlikely team of rescuers: a book-smart scholar, a bobbing head, a rough and tumble wild-man, and a robot.  Together the team sets out, battles pirates, is taken into custody, and then sold to compete in a gladiator-like event fighting space creatures in an arena for the entertainment of space criminals.  The new friends get out of one jam after another using ingenuity and luck, finally getting back on track to rescue the kidnapped prince.

Akiko on the Planet Smoo started as a comic book.  The book is a work of fiction, but feels like a comic as you are reading it.  The short chapters end with cliff-hangers and generous comic-like illustration are found throughout.  The action never stops, nor does the silly humor.  Although Akiko is a girl, she is very much a tom-boy, allowing the book to appeal to both boys and girls.  Readers of all sorts (comic lovers, science fiction fans, reluctant readers) will all flock to this book.  Crilley began writing the series while living in Japan.  The book has a distinct Japanese manga feel to it and Akiko, although American, is of Japanese heritage.  The situations are silly, the characters are one-dimensional, the plot is unlikely, but who cares?  Akiko on the Planet Smoo is a lot of fun and kids will love it.  The book ends with an intentional cliff-hanger leading readers to the sequel: Akiko in the Sprubly Islands.  It is my experience that once kids finish the first adventure, they can't wait for the second installment.  Will Akiko and her team of misfits rescue the kidnapped prince?  Keep reading to find out!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

We Were Liars

Image result for we were liars book coverWe Were Liars
E. Lockhart
Delacorte Press, 2014  225 pgs
Grades 9-12
Realistic Fiction

Cadence returns to the Massachusetts island her family owns for the first time in two years since the accident, which has left her brain damaged and in pain.  The story is revealed slowly, moving back and forth from the current summer to the past summer, two years ago, leading up to the events of the accident.  Cadence has selective memories about that past summer and we learn of those crucial events as she figures them out herself.  Through Cadence's journey we meet her extended family and become familiar with the island and the four houses that stand on it.  Most importantly, we meet the two cousins Cadence's age and the boy brought along as a friend, who becomes her first love.  The poetic story takes shape, bringing readers along for the ride, to the thrilling and surprising conclusion. 

It is hard to describe the plot of We Were Liars without giving away what makes it cool.  The book is written like a beautiful, narrative poem.  It starts and ends with the same words, which now make sense once you make it to the end.  Cadence is a broken and unreliable narrator.  Our heart goes out to her.  She takes us on a roller coaster ride as we live life in her skin for 225 pages.  Nothing like one of my favorite teen books by this author, the whimsical The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, We Were Liars is very intense and dramatic.  It is intentionally and brilliantly crafted and Lockhart really stretches her writing muscles with this offering.  I call this genre "dead-girl-fiction" (where the main character is dead, almost dead, or dealing with a death), but Lockhart offers something new to an overcrowded genre.  Fans of Fault in Our Stars, Thirteen Reasons Why and If I Stay will love this book.  It will easily have an audience.  Already there is much buzz about Liars and teens will be looking for it and eating it up.  I figured out the major plot twist halfway in, but still loved it when it was revealed.  There were still other surprises I wasn't expecting.  We Were Liars will appeal to girls more than boys, but boys will like it too if they give it a try.  The beginning was a little tricky to get into and the characters were hard to keep straight, but Lockhart provides a family tree and map, which was a huge help.  This book is sure to be the next "big thing" in teen fiction and I'm expecting it to be flying off the library shelves..

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Dragon's Boy

The Dragon's Boy
Jane Yolen
HarperCollins, 1990  120 pgs
Grades 3-6

Thirteen-year-old Artos is smaller and weaker than the other boys.  No one pays him much attention to him or gives him much respect.  While chasing a loose dog one day he stumbles into a secret cave where he meets an ancient and mysterious dragon.  The dragon takes Artos under his wing and imparts his vast knowledge and wisdom.  Through a jewel given to him by the dragon Artos acquirers his first sword and through the wisdom offered Artos begins to gain confidence and respect from his peers and elders.   Further lessons are learned on a journey to a fair with his new friends, where he continues to mature and learn about the world for himself.  Upon his return Artos seeks out the dragon again.  Once reunited with his magical friend secrets are revealed; both concerning the true identity of the dragon, as well as the parentage and true identity of Artos.  Artos struggles with the revelations, finally excepting them, and in turn, his own destiny.

The Dragon's Boy is a variation on the legends of young King Arthur.  Arthurian legends are a special interest of mine and The Dragon's Boy is a great contribution to the genre for young readers.  Jane Yolen, one of the best and most prolific writers for young people ever, is no amateur.  She stays true to the original legends, while offering something fresh and approachable to young readers.  It is a great read for those not familiar with the legends and may encourage young readers to dip more deeply into the Arthurian genre.  The book is short, reads fast and has enough action to keep the readers turning pages.  It will appeal to boys more than girls, but girls will like it too.  Smart kids especially will be drawn to this book.  The Dragon's Boy looks like a fantasy, feels like a fantasy, but isn't a fantasy, so although fantasy lovers would enjoy it, it wouldn't work for a fantasy book report.  Dragons, swords, wrestling, rule breaking, independence;  this book has a lot going for it and is well written to boot!  Kids may not pick up The Dragon's Boy on their own, but will be hard pressed to stop reading once they start.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish

The Fourteenth Goldfish
Jennifer Holm
Random, 2014  190 pgs
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction

Eleven-year-old Ellie's life gets shaken up when her scientist grandfather moves in with her and her mother to their San Francisco bay area home.  The interesting thing is, Grandpa is now a thirteen-year-old boy.  He has discovered a formula with a secret ingredient for reversing the aging process.  The problem is that now that Grandpa is thirteen he cannot access his lab containing his secret formula or do much of anything else with out grown-up help.  Without knowing what else to do Ellie's theater teacher mom claims he's a long-lost cousin and enrolls him in Ellie's middle school.  Going to school and living with crotchety grandpa is not as bad as Ellie fears and the two become partners in crime, as well as friends.  Ellie is mourning the loss of her former best fried who has moved on to a new group of girls and welcomes the companionship Grandpa offers.  The two try unsuccessfully to break into grandpa's lab to retrieve the formula.    Grandpa enlists the help of goth boy, Raj, who's older brother has a car to get them back to the lab.  After a failed attempt the team is successful in retrieving the formula.  The questions now become what to do next with this information and is the world ready for it?  Raj evolves into a new friend and potential love interest, Ellie discovers a new found passion for science and cooking, and even mom grows, coming to terms with her relationship with her father and life choices.

I love me some Jennifer Holm.  She is an amazingly prolific writer, receiving three Newbery honors for her excellent historical fiction.  Teaming up with her brother, she also creates the Baby Mouse and Squish graphic novels.  I have read all of her well researched, yet approachable historical fiction, as well as Baby Mouse, but this is her first realistic offering I have picked up.  The Fourteenth Goldfish did not disappoint.  It is a deceptively simple book with a great concept (who wouldn't want to hang out with their grandfather at thirteen?) that has layers.  The Goldfish of the title is an analogy for the cycle of life.  Ellie's mom kept replacing her dead goldfish so Ellie wouldn't have to deal with death.  Once Ellie discovers number thirteen floating in the bowl, mom reveals the truth and Ellie feels betrayed.  Grandpa is the fourteenth goldfish and must decide with Ellie's help if he wants to go against nature, all while letting open a scientific Pandora's box.  I love the deceptive simplicity of this book, the messages it brings, and the encouragement kids will feel after reading it.  After Ellie discovers her love of science she asks Grandpa if she will ever win a Nobel prize and he answers without hesitation, "of course you will".  He offers her unwavering support all while teaching her to believe in "possibilities".  Science facts are sprinkled through the book making it a natural fit for the school curriculum.  Both boys and girls will love this book.  Even though the messages and the science element make the book a substantial read, it has a fun, quick plot peppered with humor throughout.  Grandpa may never win his Nobel prize, but The Fourteenth Goldfish is a children's literature winner!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Evil Librarian

Evil Librarian
Michelle Knudsen
Candlewick, 2014
Grades 9-12  343 pgs
Paranormal Romance

Cyn's life is all about heading the tech crew for the school play, lusting after her hopeless crush, Ryan, and hanging with her best friend, Annie.  Suddenly Annie is also in love; with the school's hot new librarian.  Annie starts behaving strangely and Cyn digs deep to find the cause of her unfamiliar behavior.  Upon meeting the librarian, who is monopolizing Annie's time, Cyn gets a strange vibe from him.  Further investigation reveals that he's a demon who has invaded their school to suck the life force from the teenage population, become the demon king, and crown Annie his queen.  Other students are also behaving strangely zombie-like as the life force is drained from their bodies.  Crush Ryan is concerned and turns to Cyn for help.  The two new friends team up to overcome the demon librarian, as well as the other demons who find their way to the school, and free their friends from his grasp.  The partnership turns to love and romance ensues.  The demon adventures are all occurring while Cyn and Ryan are participating in a school production of Sweeney Todd (Ryan plays Sweeney), which is a demon favorite.  The final show-down is the opening night climax and all the players will never be the same.

I was intrigued by this book, both from the title and the cover.  Evil librarian are always fun (especially sexy ones) and I couldn't wait to crack into this title (not released for publication until September).  It did not disappoint.  The demon librarian was deliciously creepy.  Cyn ventures to the demon underworld and actually witnesses the demon war for power, which was cool.  Through all the scary business, there is humor and a tongue-in-cheek lightness that reminds the reader that the book is meant to be enjoyed.  The romance had a lot of build-up and never moves beyond two kisses with a promise of more to come.  Cyn is a likable, brave, and stubborn character that teenagers will relate to.  She overcomes her fears to save her friend and her loyalty never wavers.  The action never stops, the books reads fast and is hard to put down.  Evil Librarian will appeal to girls more than boys and is a great choice for reluctant readers.  In order to save her friend and thwart the demon librarian, Cyn, who has an unusual trait making her resistant to demon powers, makes a deal with a female demon, who demands two more visits to the demon world.  These visits open a door to further sequels.and demon adventures for Cyn.  I just hope they involve evil and sexy librarians.