Sunday, August 31, 2014


Jennifer Donnelly
Delacorte, 2010 496 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Historical Fiction/Fantasy (time travel)

Brooklynite, Andi, is slogging through her senior year of high school and may not graduate.  Her life has been on a downwards spiral ever since her little brother was tragically killed in an accident.  Since the accident, Andi's mother is mentally checked out, her father left the family to start a new one, and Andi is lost in a prescription drugged cloud.  Her only solace is playing her guitar and getting lost in music.  Dad makes a surprise visit and is horrified by what he finds.  Mom is put in a mental institution and Andi is whisked off to Paris, where Dad is conducting important research.  In Paris Andi makes a love connection with a young Parisian taxi driver/rapper and discovers a hidden diary over two-hundred years old.  The diary belongs to a young girl, Alexandrine, who reluctantly plays a part in the French Revolution.  The plot now alternates between Andi's story and Alex's, as Andi reads the diary.  Eventually, Andi suffers a blow to the head, landing her in the 1700's living Alex's life.  While in the 1700's Andi has the opportunity to meet her greatest guitar hero and slowly begins to realize that she is not the only person in the world to have suffered.  By the time she lands back in the present day healing has begun and Andi starts to pick up the pieces of her life.

I love time travel and I love the French Revolution.  I had high hopes for this book and couldn't wait to crack into it.  There is a lot to commend the book.  Revolution is plot intensive and was hard to put down.  The time travel was believable and the music element added something unique to the genre.  Alex's story was more interesting to me than Andi's, mostly because Andi was such an unlikable character.  She is self-absorbed, whiny, and spoiled for much of the book.  This can be forgiven, since many main characters in YA fiction are unlikable (Bella).  Teenagers probably won't care and will relate to her relentless angst.  The book was also a little long for me, though since it was two books in one this can also be forgiven.  Revolution will appeal to girls more than boys and contains some mature subject matter.  Andi's problems are mostly sewn up by the books end, almost too tidily, although her relationship with her father remains strained.  Teens will enjoy this book and learn about the French Revolution along the way.  Revolution gave me a bit of a craving to visit Paris and to delve a little deeper into French history.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Sarah Weeks
Scholastic 2011  180 pgs.
Grades 4-6

Alice's childhood revolves around hanging out with her beloved Aunt Polly, pie baker extraordinaire.  Aunt Polly opened a pie shop in their small 1950's Pennsylvania town.  She baked for the sheer enjoyment of it and gave all her pies away.  Aunt Polly passes away suddenly, leaving a huge void both in Alice's heart and in the whole town.  At the reading of Aunt Polly's will it is determined that her secret pie crust recipe is left to Lardo, Aunt Polly's ornery cat.  Lardo is left to Alice, much to her allergic father's and crabby mother's chagrin.  Lardo turns up missing and Alice and her new friend, classmate Charlie, set out to find him.  Lardo is eventually uncovered, but he appears drugged and foul play is suspected.  Meanwhile, the whole town develops pie baking fever, trying to become the next great pie baker, including Alice's mother, who harbors inner jealousy of her sister's talents.  Alice and Charlie must find out who is after Lardo and the pie crust recipe before someone gets hurt. After several red herrings the culprit is discovered.  Aunt Polly's recipe is uncovered at last in a very fair and satisfying way.  Alice and her family may not gain fame and fortune from baking pies, but manage to find happiness and success on their own terms and with their own talents.  The book ends with Alice's life in the present day and we uncover the future of all the book's key players.

Sarah Weeks is a master at the quiet, yet thoughtful story for young people.  This simple mystery, set during an innocent time in small-town America, feels like a warm blanket and a cup of tea on a stormy day.  The characters are interesting and folksie and their quiet life styles are a welcome relief compared to our busy plugged-in presents.  I felt a personal connection to this book.  My mother was a well-known pie baker in our small upstate New York town before she passed away eight years ago.  She also made an extraordinary pie crust, of which I have never been able to duplicate, even with her recipe.  Weeks offers pie recipes as chapter headings, which I felt compelled to try.  I baked the Buttermilk Pie from the book using my mother's recipe.  It turned out great.  My family (not accustomed to homemade baked goods) happily gobbled the whole thing up in one sitting.  Pie demonstrates the way we can show love through cooking and baking. I not only was able to experience this first hand seeing my family so happy,but it allowed me to channel my late mother.  Other themes in the book include seizing the gift of doing what you are good at, happiness over success, and the importance of family.  Alice and her friends are a joy to spend time with.  My only quibble is that Alice's relationship with her mother sews up a little too easily and quickly, but kid's won't care that this is unrealistic.  They will breath a sigh of relief at the happy ending and that Alice is appreciated by her mother at long last.  I dare you to read this book and not be tempted to bake a pie of your own, or at least not run to your local bakery for a pie-fix!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone
Patrick Henry Bass
Jerry Craft, Illustrator
Scholastic, 2014 131 pg.
Grades 2-4
Science Fiction/Adventure

Bakari Katari Johnson is having a bad day. His best friend, Wardell, has nominated him to be classroom hall monitor, running against the golden boy of the elementary school, Tariq.  Keisha, Teriq's evil cousin, is on the rampage against Bakari, promising to make his life a living nightmare.  When he loses his most prized possession, a marble given to him by his late grandfather, who professed that it has magical powers and Teriq picks it up, things couldn't get much worse.  But they do.  Bakari gets mysteriously transported to an ice kingdom where a giant ice zombie king demands his ring back from him.  Of course Bakari has no idea what the ice zombie king is talking about.  It is only later, once Bakari is transported back to the school, that he sees the ring on Keisha's finger.  Bakari picks up the ring after Keisha unknowingly drops it and uses it against the ice zombies that invade the cafeteria during lunch. Keisha works it more effectively and takes control over the ring for the second invasion.  After much squabbling and a falling-out between Bakari and Wardell,the four kids must learn to work together after they are all transported back to the ice kingdom.  Do they escape and return to their own place and time?  Do Wardell and Bakari make up?  Who wins the hall monitor election?  All of these questions are satisfactorily answered by the book's conclusion.

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone is a recent offering in the text/comic hybrid craze.  Craft contributes entertaining cartoons which are generously sprinkled throughout the book, appearing at least every other page.  The plot is fast moving and every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger to propel the reader forward.  Its not great literature, but does the job and will appeal to reluctant readers.  It will especially attract boys, but throwing a strong female character into the mix makes it also accessible to girls.  Bass uses hip language, yet keeps the vocabulary right where it should be for this age group. I like that the plot is fresh (I've never seen ice zombies before) and I like that the book features African American characters (very rare for this age group). The Zero Degree Zombie Zone imparts the messages to be loyal to your fiends, get to know your enemies, because they might turn out to also be friends, and to respect the memories and lessons of those who have gone on before us (Bakari's grandfather).  A decent, simple book, surprisingly off the beaten path of this genre.  Although the book does not end on a cliff hanger, Scholastic is projecting this book to be the first in a series featuring Bakari Karari Johnson and his friends.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I, Freddy

I, Freddy
Dietolf Reiche/Joe Cepeda Illustrator
Translated from German by John Brownjohn
Scholastic 2003  203 pgs
Grades 3-5
Animal Fantasy

Freddy is a little golden hamster who want more out of life.  Precocious and sensible, he manages to charm a nice man into buying him, thus securing his freedom from the pet store.  The man presents him as a present to his daughter, a young girl named Sophie, with whom Freddy immediately falls in hamster love.  Sophie is learning to read and Freddy, hanging out with her at her desk, begins to pick it up himself, opening up a whole new world.  The problem with Sophie's house, however, is the presence of hamster-hating "Mom".  Once Dad is away, Mom insists that Freddy must go, persuading family friend Mr. John to take him.  At first Mr. John's house is torture, with two smelly guinea pigs and an old tom cat.  Eventually, Freddy and the other animals strike up an understanding, which blossoms into friendship.  The cat, Sir William, supports his new friend's desire to read and helps him to obtain reading material.  All is well until Sophie gets permission to take Freddy back.  Once at Sophie's, Freddy concocts a plot to escape back to Mr. John's house and his new friends, where he discovers a way to communicate to Mr. John, improving life for all the animals in his abode.

Freddy is a charmer.  Kids will fall in love with him, even if they aren't animal lovers.  The plot keeps moving and action and humor abound.My only complaint is that the book initially disses guinea pigs, but the author redeems himself in the end by having Freddy overcome his prejudices.  I, Freddy is a perfect book for reluctant readers.  There is a lot of dialog, helping it to read quickly, with generous margins and a cartoon illustration on ever other page.  This is the perfect book to give to children who don't think they like to read.  It will appeal to both boys and girls.  Originally published in Germany, I was concerned that it would put American children off, but this is not the case.  The book could be set in any city and the plights of Freddy and his friends are universal. Freddy's adventures continue in four more books, so readers will have somewhere to go upon completion of this story.  Be warned; after reading I, Freddy your offspring may be begging for a golden hamster of their own.  Freddy certainly won me over!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ginger Pye

Ginger Pye
Eleanor Estes
Harcourt, 1951  306 pg
Grades 3-6
1952 Newbery Winner!

Jerry Pye wants a dog with all of his heart.  He and his sister Rachel, Along with his three-year-old Uncle Benny, dust pews at the church to earn $1 in order to buy the dog of his dreams.  The children name the dog Ginger and are amazed at his intelligence and ability to perform tricks.  Ginger is even able to track Jerry down at school and present to him the pencil he dropped en-route.  The children have a glorious summer and fall together with their new pup.  Tragedy strikes on Thanksgiving Day when Ginger disappears.  The children spend the winter and spring knocking on doors and exploring remote areas of their town searching for their lost friend.  Was Ginger stolen?  Was the mysterious man in the mustard hat who Jerry and Rachel saw skulking around responsible?  All is revealed as Jerry is finally reunited with his dog as the best birthday present possible.

Take a trip back to simpler times with Eleanor Estes to her town of Cranberry, Connecticut, setting of the Pye books as well as the popular Moffat books.  Cranberry is a town where everyone knows each other and dogs wander around free to have adventures off-leash.  Children go home to eat their lunches on school days, served by stay at home moms.  Kids leave the house in the morning to roam free, not expected back until dinner time.  The simpler times also include a certain amount of sexism and no people of color in the whole town of Cranberry, but that is a product of the times.  Ginger Pye is indeed a sweet, simple story.  We see the day to day life of the Pyes and experience little vignettes of their escapades, all while moving forward with the main plot-line of the acquisition and disappearance of Ginger.  The characters are likable, especially that of Uncle Benny, who steals the show.  The story is interspersed with illustrations by the author making the book approachable and less daunting to young people.  The vocabulary is more advanced than books currently being published for children, making this a great choice for young readers with a high reading level.  It is an excellent selection for young kids who read above their level and need something challenging, yet not too sophisticated or mature.  Ginger Pye is a warm and cozy story with enough plot to be relevant to today's youth.  Over sixty years later it is still a worth-while selection for young people; a true mark of a Newbery winner.