Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Wish Giver

The Wish Giver
Bill Brittain
Harper & Row, 1983  181 pgs.
Grades 2-5
Fantasy

Some time in America's past in a small town in Maine, local general store owner, Stew Meat, wanders into a mysterious tent at the town fair.  The strange proprietor of the tent is selling wishes for fifty cents.  Three young people are anxious to get their wishes and Stew Meat purchases one on a whim as well.  In three sections we track the adventures of the young people and the results of their wishes.  Polly, the youngest of the three, has a hard time making and keeping friends.  Her mouth always gets her in trouble and she is too honest for her own good.  Polly makes a wish to be invited to the house of the most popular girl in town.  Unfortunately, her wish results in a croaking sound escaping her throat whenever she says anything nasty to someone else.  Polly does eventually get her invitation, but the results are not what she anticipated.  Fifteen-year-old Rowena wishes that her crush, a young traveling salesman, would stay put in the town so would always be with her.  He stays put all right, but in a way not predicted or welcomed by Rowena.  Poor Adam lives on a farm with no water.  Tired of hauling water, he wishes for "water all over the farm" and boy does the wish ever deliver!  The three stories slightly overlap and then come together as all three young people rush to Stew Meat's store at the same time to beg him for help.  Stew Meat takes care of the situation and peace is once again restored to Coven Tree with all the wishers a bit wiser for their troubles.

This is a book that has been around a long time.  It is often seen on school reading lists and bibliographies of recommended reading for children.  Because of its relatively easy reading level and excellent content and writing style, it is a natural choice for book discussion for lower elementary children, which is why I re-read it for probably the fifth time.  After five readings, you would think that the book would get boring to me or would seem dated.  Everytime I read this book I re-discover how awesome it is.  Books for this age level tend to have very little substance.  Many are entries in a series or depend on silly or gross bits to carry them through and interest children.  Brittain writes a fully developed book that leaves readers with something to think about and propel them to the next step in their reading.  The setting is also fully conceived and is an intricate contribution to the mood and plot of the story.  I love how the book begins and ends in the first person with Stew Meat's point of view, yet the body of the book is comprised of three overlapping stories told from the third person.  Brittain subtly teaches children moral lessons, without getting preachy, and allows for the reader to make the conclusions themselves.  Because of the powerful writing and topics for discussion built nicely into the novel, it is a natural choice for classroom use and book discussion, which is why it is still in print after thirty years.  Beyond this, its a fun book to read.  The margins are wide, the print is large, and generous pictures are sprinkled through out the text, so it is not intimidating to readers.  Brittian leaves us with the message to be careful what we wish for and that happiness might be right in front of our noses the whole time.  At the risk of making a wish that ends badly, I wish that this book stays around for another thirty years!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Mr. Pants: Its Go Time!

Mr. Pants: Its Go Time
Scott McCormick
R.H. Lazzell (Illustrator)
Dial, 2014  128 pgs.
Grades 1-5
Graphic Novel
Series: Mr. Pants #1

Mr. Pants (depicted as a tabby cat) is very much a typical boy having to suffer through the last day of summer vacation with his younger sisters (also cats) and mother (a human woman).  After tricking his sister out of playing with her new toy the family gets on the road to adventure.  Unfortunately, the first stop is "The Fairy Princess Dream Factory" (similar to Build a Bear Workshop), where young people (mostly girls) make fairy princess dolls.  Mr. Pants talks all the girls into making cool warrior princess dolls, eventually making a fairy princess doll for himself.  Next its off to shopping, the true test of torture.  Mr. Pant's sisters draw the process out, making the experience even longer and distracting mother until Mr. Pants has to use ingenuity to speed things along.  Finally, after settling for a rainbow unicorn backpack just to get out of there, Shopping is over and its on to the best activity: Laser Tag!  Mr. Pants has been waiting all summer for this.  Unfortunately, his mother and sisters turn out to be better than he is and Mr. Pants can't really get any good shots in.  Finally School begins.  Mr. Pants pulls off his unicorn backpack with characteristic cleverness and even manages, in true Tom Sawyer fashion, to convince the other boys to want one of their own.

I have to say I truly enjoyed reading Mr. Pants.  There are silly bits, as well as cleverly funny parts, making the humor universal to everyone.  Mccormick nails down a boy's point of view of the world, making this book a great choice for boys, but girls will like it too.  The vocabulary is just right for kids developing their reading skills, but never talks down to young people.  It would be a wonderful selection to give a non-reader to help them gain confidence and jump start them into a reading habit.  Lazzell's slightly retro and brightly colorful illustrations are a perfect fit with Mccormick's text.  They add a certain degree of whimsical zaniness that fits the character.  At first I was put off by the fact that the kids are cats and the adults are human, and then I stopped noticing.  Mr. Pant's mother seemed at first to be a stereotypical 1950's housewife, but then she went all ninja at laser tag.  She takes Mr. Pant's nonsense with dead pan matter-of-factness and serves as the perfect straight guy.  Whether its finding the fun in a cardboard box or telling his sister a crazy bedtime story, Mr. Pants never fails to entertain and bring the laughs.  Kids who enjoyed this first series offering can find more zany fun in Mr. Pants: Slacks, Camera, Action (released this month) and Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet coming in August.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Blythewood

Blythewood
Carol Goodman
Penguin, 2013  489 pgs
Grades 8-12
Fantasy/Historical Fiction

Ava is a recently orphaned teenager, who is employed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 New York City.  She lives through the fire, surviving only by being lifted from the burning building by what appears to be an angel.  After a traumatic stint in a mental institution, Ava is found by a long-lost grandmother and sent to attend Blythewood Academy, an elite boarding school for young ladies up the Hudson River.  Once there, Ava makes friends with her roommate, socialite Helen and simple mid-western girl Daisy, along with the head of the school's son Nathan.  Before long the true purpose of the academy is revealed: the girls are being trained to hunt magical creatures (such as fairies and sprites), all of which are thought of as evil and lurk in abundance in the woods outside the academy.  The girls control the magical beasts by ringing bells, a power which Ava can do in her head, making her special.  The angel-like figure, who saved Ava from the fire, keeps appearing to her and eventually a friendship, which slowly warms up to romance, develops.  His name is Raven and he is a Darkling, a sworn enemy to mankind.  Time and experience divulges that not all magical creatures are evil, especially Darklings.  Ava must find the proof to alert the rest of the school before innocent magical creatures are eliminated in cold blood.  Meanwhile, the truth about Ava's parentage, as well as that of others close to her at the academy, eventually comes to light.  The spy, who was working with a shady character trailing Ava throughout the book, is also exposed.  The story ends with another famous historic event, the sinking of the Titanic, in which Ava and another classmate are directly involved.  The good work continues in the next installment, Ravencliffe, which was released in 2014.

Blythewood is a very ambitious book.  A lot happens in this book from real historic events to a fully realized magical forest with connections to the land of Fairy.  Between students, faculty, and family there are also a lot of characters to keep straight.  Considering the vast amount of characters, my usual struggle keeping everyone straight in simpler books, I did okay, which is a testament to Goodman's writing.  The book was also a little long and, although there were many exciting moments, dialog heavy.  Criticisms aside, there will be an audience for this book.  Girls will be drawn to Blythewood more than boys, especially those who fall into fantasy.  Fans of Maggie Stiefvater and Sarah Maas will love a trip to Blythewood.  Although there is a lot of violence. romance, and questions of parentage, the book stays relatively innocent and never gets too graphic.  The magical creatures are cool and well-drawn and we get to experience them, as well as an excursion to Fairy, along with Ava.  Themes of friendship, loyalty, standing up for what is right, and thinking for yourself are all introduced and Ava proves herself to be both a role model and a survivor.  Not just a simple work of fantasy, the historic elements add a bit of depth to the plot and a mystery with a clear-cut solution and villain (s) add to the satisfaction of the conclusion.  Putting Blythewood in a very real time and familiar place make the story seem possible.  Could there be magical creatures lurking in the woods of New Jersey?  I like to think that maybe there could be.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Galactic Hot Dogs: Cosmoe's Wiener Getaway

Cosmoe's Wiener Getaway
Max Brallier
Rachel Maguire (Illustrator)
Simon and Schuster, 2015  283 pgs.
Galactic Hot Dogs series
Grades 3-6
Science Fiction/Humor

Fasten your seat belt for the zaniest ride around the galaxy ever!  Meet our hero, Cosmoe, a human boy who wears an alien blob on his wrist, named Goober, that helps him to fight, and his companion Humphree, an over-sized alien pirate with a big heart.  They travel through outer space in their hot dog shaped spaceship, which doubles as a food truck.  While stopping off on Space Port Funketown for an Intergalatic Food Truck Cook-Off, they pick up a stow-away: evil Princess Dagger.  Princess Dagger is tired of being evil, but her mother, the evil queen, won't let her be anything but.  Princess Dagger longs for the lifestyle Cosmoe and Humphree share; traveling around at their own pace and finding adventures.  The three friends get themselves in and out of a lot of trouble involving Alien Zombie Pirates, treasure hunting, worm wrestling, and an extreme video game competition battling all the most evil characters in the Galaxy.  Finally, the plot comes to a head as Princess Dagger must face up to her mother and make a choice between being good and evil.  Throughout all the dangerous exploits, Cosmoe and company are searching for pieces of a puzzle that, once gathered and put together, unleashes an ultimate evil monster.  The trio must battle the Ultimate Evil Monster by putting into practice a cunning plan involving Humphree's special hot sauce.  Unfamiliar terms and places are explained by super computer companion F.R.E.D., who has interesting facts to contribute at the end of each chapter.  The book ends with the promise of more adventures to come, as well as a menu for Galactic Hot Dogs and a detailed map of Brallier's Galaxy for kids to pour over.

The action never stops in this adrenalin-filled, action-packed adventure.  A comic/fiction hybrid, Galactic Hot Dogs is more Captain Underpants than Wimpy Kid, in that there is an equal reliance on illustrations as text to tell the story.  Cartoon illustration are offered on every page, making the book feel like a comic book.  But, don't rule this book out as merely a comic book: there is enough text to make it a worth-while read and a perfect choice for reluctant readers.  This is the perfect book for a fifth-grade boy who doesn't like to read, but plays a lot of video games and watches non-stop Cartoon Network.  That said, almost-fifty-year-old librarians will like it too.  I found myself laughing out-loud at some of the clever puns and was highly entertained from start to finished.  My non-reading husband, who I think sometimes was emotionally stunted at eleven years old, found the book lying around the house, picked it up, and started reading it--and was laughing out loud.  So, this book is sure to be very successful and will find a ready made audience.  The partnership of the illustration and the text is perfect.  It feels like the same person contributed both.  The situations and characters, although ridiculous, have nods to other serious science fiction movies and authors.  The humor is both clever and slapstick, offering something for everyone.  Brallier has a great imagination and introduces many new expletives, such as "What the smudge?" and Oh, bones!", that will have kids happily slinging at each other on the playground.  As I was reading along, I felt that Cosmoe was familiar.  I realized that he reminds me of Finn from Adventure Time.  The characters talk like the characters from Adventure Time, Humphree feels a bit like Jake, and Princess Dagger feels a bit like Princess Bubblegum.  Come to find out, Max Ballier has written Adventure Time comic books, so it must be part of his writing style.  If the crew of the Neon Wiener feels familiar, all the better to lure young reluctant cartoon-watching readers in.  Brallier has already created a presence on www.funbrain.com (the site which launched Wimpy Kid) and has an on-line following ready to read this book.  More offerings in the series are to follow giving fans a place to go when they finish this first exciting installment.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Pennyroyal Academy

Pennyroyal Academy
M.A. Larson
Putnam, 2014  311 pgs
Grades 5-8
Fairy Tale/Fantasy

Our story begins with an unknown timid and uncivilized girl, who frees a prince from a witch's captivity.  She is journeying to apply to princess school, where they have allowed anyone to enroll because of recent threats to the land.  The prince is also on his way to the academy to learn to be a knight and slay dragons.  Despite initial unfriendly discrimination, the new girl is given a chance.  Some of the other recruits are welcoming and nick name the new student Evie, after her assigned name of "Eleven".  The Princesses at the Pennyroyal Academy are not learning how to sew and simply be demure.  They are being trained to fight their most lethal enemies: witches.  The academy is bewildering and difficult, but as time goes on Evie begins to adjust.  One princess, Malora, and her gang of bullies continue to taunt Evie and make her life miserable. Part of Evie's reluctance to fit in is finally revealed: she was raised by dragons, a sworn enemy to the good people of the land, and beasts that the knights, including her crush Prince Remington, are sworn to eliminate.  Familiar fairy tale elements and characters are introduced as Evie further acclimates.  She is undergoing treatment for memory loss, which finally come to fruition as she meets the mother of her enemy Malora.  A plot twist reveals that she and Malora are really sisters, which does not sit well with either girl.  Evie's first year comes to a close, as she attends her first ball and attempts to pass her final test.  Further threats to the land in the form of witch's and other evil creatures still loom at books end.  A final surprise awaits the reader as the real truth behind Evie's parentage is disclosed and she comes to terms with both sides of her heritage.  Evie makes it to the second year of her training, but what will that bring?  Read the next installment when it is released to find out!

Pennyroyal Acedemy is a very cool place.  Larson has taken familiar fairy tales and reconstructed them in a new and interesting way.  This book is original, funny, and has a great plot with a couple of surprises I didn't see coming.  Fairy tale novels are hot right now and this book has a ready-made audience.  More humorous than Hale's Princess Academy, Pennyroyal Academy is more in the style of E.D. Baker.  I love that Larson has included a male princess, named Basil, making the book inclusive to boys who identify more with princesses than knights.  I'm not a hundred percent convinced that Larson knew what to do with this character.  I was wondering how the ball scene would include Basil, but to my disappointment, it didn't.  Still, this is Evie's story and it is well told.  We see Evie's transformation from a feral dragon-girl not fitting in with either world to a fully confident princess.  Pennyroyal Academy brings forth messages of being true to yourself, finding your inner warrior, acceptance of others who may be different, and that true families may not be that of our own blood.  The title feels a little old fashioned to me.  I thought the book would be Victorian in nature, but it is, in fact, a very contemporary fairy tale story.  The cover is pretty cool looking and will attract the target audience.  Pennyroyal Academy will appeal to girls more than boys and will be picked up by young ladies who grew up on Disney Princesses.  Although this is a princess book, it is not sexist.  The princesses are strong characters, train right along with the knights, and will go to war fighting witches upon completion of their training.  Evie's crush turns into romance as the book progresses, but remains innocent to the end.  I can't wait to see what adventures await Princess Evie and the rest of the gang at the academy.

Monday, March 16, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes
Sabaa Tahir
Razorbill/Penguin, 2015  443 pgs
Grades 9-12
Adventure/Fantasy

Alternating chapters and points of view tell the story of Elias, a Martial from the ruling class and Laia a poor member of the now conquered Scholars living in an ancient Spartan-esque society.  For five hundred years the Martials have ruled the land severely discriminating against the scholars, treating them no better than slaves and completely destroying their academic culture.  Laia is born to a scholar family and must watch as her brother is arrested and her grandparents murdered.  Her late parents were leaders in the resistance and it is to them that she turns to find help for her brother.  The resistance is willing to help Laia: but for a price.  She must pose as a slave and infiltrate Blackcliff, a Martial fortress and training school, working for the cruel Commandante in order to find a secret passage through which the resistance can access the fortress.  Meanwhile, Elias is on the cusp of graduation from Blackcliff, becoming an elite assassin called a Mask, which is as prestigious as you can get in this military society.  The road to graduation has been brutal and bloody and Elias wants to desert in order to find a peaceful life.  His plans go awry as it is announced that a new emperor will be chosen from the new crop of masks and Elias is one of the chosen four set to compete.  The Augurs, an immortal elite group of holy people who advise and make important decisions for the society, have prophesied that through the competition Elias will finally find the freedom that he seeks. Because of the Augurs prediction, Elias moves forward, competing against his best friend and sole woman in the program, Helene and two worst enemies.  Laia manages to infiltrate the school and become the personal slave to the vicious Commandante (who also happens to be Elias' mother) and her story and Elias' begins to intersect.  Sparks fly between Elias and Alia, but both of them also have other potential love interests, making the path for the star-crossed lovers that much more rocky.  Violence abounds, as does non-stop action, adventure, and plot twists, finally building up to an exciting and unpredictable conclusion.

As it sounds from the plot description offered above, a lot happens in this book.  I can promise you that while reading first-time author, Tahir's, new book coming out next month, you will not be bored.  443 pages discouraged me and I didn't love the cover.  I didn't want to commit to this book and thought it would be just another dystopian teen novel.  I told myself to try 100 pages.  After the first chapter I was hooked and couldn't put it down.  The book is dystopian-ish, although set in the past not the future.  It is an alternate ancient culture, similar to that of Sparta.  I can't think of reading a book with this setting, so to me it feels very fresh.  The plot has light magic, but its not predominate to the book, making it fantasy, but not really.  Its actually hard to pigeon-hole An Ember in the Ashes.  It seems to cross genres and will appeal to a broad audience of both boys and girls.  Teens raised on Percy Jackson will naturally gravitate towards this book.  The main characters are surprisingly developed for an adventure story.  Elias is drawn noticeably well.  Laia is more likable than Bella, softer than Katniss, and more relate-able than Triss.  In short, I liked her and didn't find her annoying, which is unusual for me.  The evil characters are a bit more uni-dimensional, but this may be because we are learning about them through Elias and Laia's eye.  Tahir keeps two very distinct voices going through out the story and it is always clear who's point of view we are experiencing.  For a large cast of characters I did not get people confused, which is a huge testament to Tahir's writing abilities. One warning: the book has some extremely violent bits and is not for the faint of heart.  I would not recommend this book for young people under age fourteen.  That said, the violence is always appropriate to the plot and is cool in a Game of Thrones way.  The plot builds up to a huge crescendo.  Some significant plot lines are solved making the reader feel a sense of closure, but the main characters have a new challenge, which serves as a natural lead-in to the next installment.  Tahir is a fresh talent and An Ember in the Ashes is a great book: quite possibly the next "big thing".

Friday, March 13, 2015

Where the Red Fern Grows

Where the Red Fern Grows
Wilson Rawls
Random, 1961  249 pgs
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction/Animal

Welcome to the 1920's Ozark Mountain back country.  Billy lives on a rural farm with his parents and little sisters.  His life-long dream is to own two hunting hounds and his dream leads to obsession.  After two years of sacrifice and doing odd jobs, Billy saves $50, enough to buy the dogs.  His supportive Grandpa, who owns the local general store, helps him secretly order the dogs.  Billy journeys two days to pick the pups up and then back to his country home.  He names the pups Dan and Ann after names he sees carved into a tree and the training begins.  After trapping a raccoon (not an easy feat!) and extensive training, Billy and the dogs are ready to hunt.  They have many nocturnal adventures, outsmarting raccoons and surviving dangerous situations to become the best hunting team in the region.  Local bullies challenge Billy to trap the legendary "ghost coon", a bet which Grandpa backs.  Billy accepts the challenge, which ends in tragedy, though not for Billy or his dogs.  Next Grandpa enters Billy in a hunting contest and the two, along with Billy's dad, travel to participate.  The contest ends in happy results, although not without misfortune.  Billy, Dan, and Ann are an stoppable team until a run-in with a mountain lion presents a challenge even these seasoned champions can't lick.

A beloved children's classic, Where the Red Fern Grows is a staple on summer reading lists, often likened to Sounder and Old Yeller.    I haven't read this book since my childhood, so when one of my Book Worm Club members suggested it as our March pick for book discussion, I though it was time to revisit this old favorite.  The book is set in the 1920s in a rural area, where my kids will not identify, which may prove problematic.  Billy is out by himself hunting all night in dangerous situations, which seems unbelievable in today's world.  Because of the nature of hunting, there is a lot of killing in the book, which also seems jarring by today's standards.  I love Gordon Korman's book No More Dead Dogs.  In this book Korman asks why the dogs always have to die in award winning books about dogs for children?  Where the Red Fern Grows is no exception to this premise.  There are a couple of places that will elicit tears.  There are also many places that will keep the reader on the edge of their seats.  The book itself is consistently written and Billy's voice is strong.  It is a bit dense and the copy I read had very small print, which may put modern readers off.  Boys will prefer it to girls, although I loved it as a child, so girls may like it too.This book offers a slice of life in a long-ago period in American history. I remember my fifth grade teacher reading this book to the class and all of us hanging on every word.  That was in the 1970's in a small town in upstate New York, where hunting was a common practice.  Is this book relevant to suburbia New Jersey in 2015?  I will find out at my next Bookworm Club meeting on Monday evening.

Postscript: The Bookworm Club discussed this book on March 16th.  Even though the print was small and the copies they were given were old and dated looking, most of the members actually read the book.  They loved it!  They were very emotional about the death's of the dogs and felt very connected to the story.  So, Where the Red Fern Grows has proven to me to still be relevant to today's readers and still packs the same punch it did forty years ago, even with young savvy suburbanites.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Circus Mirandus

Circus Mirandus
Cassie Beasley
Dial, 2015  292 pgs
Grades 4-7
Fantasy

Micah has lived with his Grandpa Ephraim ever since his parents died when he was very small.  Micah and Grandpa have always been close, so it rocks Micah's world when Grandpa becomes gravely ill and evil Aunt Gertrudis comes to stay.  Grandpa has always talked to Micah about his childhood adventures at a magical circus and the wonderful magician who transports children to the places of their dreams.  Finally, sensing that the end is near, Grandpa reaches out to the Lightbender to call in a favor owed to him from the magician saved for many years.  The Lightbender sends his talking parrot to act as messenger delivering Grandpa's request to the circus.  Meanwhile, Micah struggles with living with his hateful aunt and facing school-life, all under the gloom of Granpa's illness.  After being pair-up with nerd-girl, Jenny, the two become unlikely friends.  Micah confesses his troubles to his new friend and she agrees to help him.  Meanwhile, an answer to Grandpa's favor comes back from the Lightbender with an answer Grandpa doesn't like.  Micah and Jenny hunker down in Micah's tree house to work on their project and research the Circus Mirandus.  One night Micah hears circus music that Jenny cannot hear.  It leads him to a ticket booth that does not accept money.  Micah knows he made it to the right place, only Jenny can't see it.  He must get both of them in and find the Lightbender in order to plead for him to save Grandpa.  Entry is finally gained and the magical circus is revealed in all its splendor.  Once Micah locates the Mindbender he must get him to agree to grant Grandpa his wish, before its too late!

Projected as a major summer release, Circus Mirandus does not disappoint.  First time author, Beasley, has a lyrical storytelling voice.  The story is realistic fantasy: today's world with magical elements.  The harsh realities of Micah's life with his beloved Grandfather failing and unpleasant aunt being horrible paint a stark contrast against the magical wonderfulness and dream-like quality of the Circus Mirandus.  The circus has a Polar Express vibe (only kids who believe in magic can see it and you must be preapproved by the ringmaster) with a bit of The Night Circus (magical, moving circus) thrown in.  Micah is a likable and believable character who many kids will relate to.  His sweet and quiet nature is a perfect compliment to his new friend Jenny, who also feels familiar. Grandpa is a wonderful character and makes the reader long for such an understanding and loving person in our lives.  Aunt Gertrudis is deliciously evil and selfish.  She becomes almost a caricature, but its fun to have a villain to hate and propels us to root for our hero. Part of her back-story is revealed as the book goes on, making her motivation more believable.  This book is quiet, but reads quickly and never drags.  Both boys and girls will enjoy it.  Circus Mirandus feels timeless and is destined to find a permanent home on library shelves.  Beasley shows us the power of friendship, the importance of loyalty and keeping your word, and, of course, the wonder of magic.  She makes us believe that magic can be hiding in the most unlikely places and we can see it if we just believe and pay attention.  The Circus Mirandus will have many young people listening for circus music ready to begin their own adventure. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Young Elites

The Young Elites
Marie Lu
Putnam, 2014  353 pgs
Grades 8-Up
Fantasy/Adventure


Welcome to the land of Kenettra.  A terrible fever swept the nation years before leaving some of the children physically marked.  These children were labeled "Malfettos" and considered evil and demonic.  Over time it became clear that some of the Malfettos have special powers.  Those with powers, now teenagers, have banned together as a special force called "The Young Elites" and work to over-throw the government and stop the inquisition that is persecuting Malfettos.  The Young Elites are led by a young man named Enzo, who is actually the rightful heir to Kenettra.  His sister has her husband murdered in order to assume control of the land and uses the lead inquisitor, himself a secret Malfetto with powers of invincibility, as well as a childhood friend of Enzo, to do her bidding.  Our protagonist, Adalina, is a Malfetto with the ability to create illusions.  After murdering her abusive father, the lead inquisitor, Teren, tries to elicit her help in eliminating the Young Elites.  Adalina refuses, faces execution, and is rescued at the zero hour by Enzo.  She now begins her training with the Young elites and pledges to help them in their mission.  Teren kidnaps Adalina's sister in order to blackmail her into spying for the bad guys.  Adalina is faced with a difficult decision: sacrifice her only living relative, a sister that she has vowed to protect, or betray the Young Elites where she is finally and slowly making friends and finding acceptance.  Matters are further complicated as romance begins to develop between Adalina and Enzo.  The plot whips around in unexpected directions as Lu brings us to the thrilling conclusion and leads us to the next in the series, projected to be released in October 2015.

I have to hand it to Marie Lu: she knows how to write an imaginative and plot driven novel for young people.  The Young Elites features a fully conceived world with fully formed, beautiful yet flawed, characters.  This story never comes up for air.  It moves at a break-neck speed with very cool and unexpected plot twists.  The premise feels original and different than other fantasy books, which I appreciate.  Written for a slightly older audience than her obscenely popular Legend series. The Young Elites is a bit darker and edgier.  I think teens will love this book and want to read on in the series.  Personally, I didn't love it as much as I thought I would, finding it difficult to get through.  The main character, Adalina, is, by the nature of her special powers, very dark.   Her childhood, spent at the expense of an abusive father, has left her damaged and scarred.  Even the Young Elites sense her potential for evil and never fully trust her, leaving Adalina as a ship alone.  It looks like she finally finds a connection with another human being, as the romance with Enzo heats up, but in reality he is attracted to her because she reminds him of his dead fiance, so that romance is never truly believable.  I waited for Adalina to come forward to the Young Elites and finally confess her connection to Teren, but she never does, increasing their distrust of her,  She made me sad and uncomfortable and I felt very sorry for her, to the point it was hard for me to read her story.  That said, I'm probably more sensitive to this sort of thing than most teenagers, who will find the plot so compelling that the hopelessness of and poor choices of Adalina won't bother them at all.  The length of the book and the pacing is spot on and reluctant readers will devour this book, even those who don't think they like fantasy.  An epilogue, introducing a new and twistedly interesting character in a distant land, will entice readers to continue on in the series.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things
Lenore Look
Random House, 2008  172 pgs
Grades 2-4
Realistic Fiction/Humor


Poor Alvin Ho!  He's the proverbial middle child, often overlooked and sandwiched between his older brother and younger sister.  All kinds of things are terrifying to Alvin from the expected (scary movies, shots, the dark) to the unexpected (school, wasabi, historic houses).  Alvin begins his second grades year with much anxiety, but hopes that this school year will be different.  He wants to fit in better with the other boys and make a friend.  Unfortunately, part of Alvin's anxiety is that he literally cannot utter a word while in school.  This makes making friends difficult and turns his school day into torture.  His loving family tries to help him and are consistently supportive, but even taking Alvin to a therapist doesn't help.  Finally, after learning some valuable lessons about taking family member's personal property without permission, Alvin finds a way to break in with the boys.  Once he finally gets into the gang, he realizes that its not all its cracked up to be and discovers that friends can be lurking in unexpected places.

The subject matter of this book (childhood anxiety) is such that it seems pretty intense from the outside.  Written in Look's capable hands it is anything but.  Look has a vivid understanding of what it is like to be a child who fears everything.  She writes Alvin's character honestly, humorously, and realistically.  He is a likable little boy and with the help of his understanding extended family we know he will be okay.  All of the grown-ups are present, supportive and well developed.  His siblings and classmates are also flawed but lovable.  No super villains here, just the real situations that can make the life of a seven year old a scary place.  Look paints a rich setting in Concord, Massachusetts in the early autumn and brings a lot of local history into both the life of Alvin and the readers.  Alvin Ho is a great choice for kids just stepping out of chapter books.  Its a little longer than conventional chapter books and has some challenging vocabulary, all while retaining large margins, big type, and generous pictures.  The cartoon-like illustrations, by LeUyen Phan contribute to the plot, add humor to the situations, and make the book a more accessible and enjoyable read.  I will be using this book this month for my third and fourth grade book group.  This is one of my favorite choices for this age group because Alvin Ho is a "slam dunk" with both male and female readers.  Alvin must make ethical decisions (and chooses poorly in some cases) giving us topics for discussion, and the book features a  Chinese-American family, which offers some much needed diversity rarely seen in books for this age group.  Kids will relate to Alvin and feel comforted about their own fears and struggles.  The fun continues in a glossary of terms at the back of the book, that serves to define some words kids might not be familiar with, including Chinese words, and is laugh out loud funny.  Four other books follow the first title in this series, so kids who enjoy the first adventure will have somewhere to go upon completion.  A similarly hilarious series (although, unlike Alvin, features a fearless girl) by the same author begins with Ruby Lu: Brave and True and is also highly recommended. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Young Houdini: The Magician's Fire

The Magician's Fire
Simon Nicholson
Sourcebooks, 2014  232 pgs
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction/Mystery/Adventure
Young Houdini Series

Young Harry Houdini is a boy living in turn-of-the-century New York City and working as a shoe-shine boy.  He runs around the city with his two best friends: rich boy Arthur and street urchin Billie.  The three young people are a team, working to perfect Harry's tricks and drumming up an audience willing to support them.  Tragedy arrives as Harry's mentor and friend, Herbie, disappears in a cloud of purple smoke.  The three young friends vow to find Herbie and rescue him.  Meanwhile, public opinion thinks Herbie disappeared by supernatural means.  Harry thinks he has identified the culprit and tracks him down to a hotel in the city frequented by magicians.  Spying on the suspect involves cunning plans, tightrope work, and ingenuity. After disregarding and offending his friends the investigation leads Harry back to the theater where Herbie disappeared.  Harry lands in a mess of dangerous and life-threatening trouble, getting out of it only by his amazing athletic and gymnastic abilities, as well as his talents as a magician and escape artist.  Will Harry survive his dangerous predicament?  Will he make it up with his friends?  Will Herbie ever be found and rescued and who is responsible for his disappearance?  All the questions above, plus even more are answered by the books end.  A final question (who is the man following Harry and his friends and what does he want with them?) is left dangling at the end of the book leading readers to the next installment in the series, The Demon Curse, due out in May.

I love books set in New York City, especially during the turn-of-the-century and have always been obsessed with Harry Houdini.  I also love a solvable, yet not too easy mystery and a plot that never slows down.  I've had this series opener on my reading list since its release this past fall.  So why isn't it my new favorite book?  I often say that everything I know about the world is from reading fiction for young people.  The Young Houdini series is based on the real-life person Harry Houdini as a boy.  I count on my historical fiction being as accurate as possible.  Nicholson takes many liberties in developing his character, including turning him into an orphan, which he most certainly wasn't.  Maybe I'm being too picky about it.  Houdini is a recognizable name and may encourage children to pick up the book, more so than if a random aspiring magician was featured.  There isn't much in the way of character development in the story, but, again,its not that kind of a book.  The action never stops, the mystery is solid, including a major red-herring, and I love how Nicholson uses Harry's special abilities as both a gymnast and magician/escape artist to get himself out of scrapes.  My other complaint with this book is the author's choice to use poor grammar (such as "ain't") to indicate economically disadvantaged characters.  I always feel that bad grammar is a disservice to emerging readers (Hello, Junie B!) and isn't the best vehicle to use to get the point across for this age group.  Again, I may be "nit-picky" on this topic.  Young people seem to like poor grammar; it makes them feel smart.  The book reads quickly, will appeal to both boys and girls, and will be a slam-dunk for reluctant readers: especially those assigned to a dreaded historical fiction book report.  The cover is eye-catching and will appeal to young people.  Will I read on in the series? Probably not.  Will I recommend this book to young readers?  Yes, with a little hand-selling I predict that it will "disappear" from the shelves!