Monday, September 28, 2015

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?
Avi
Random House, 1981
Grades 2-5
Mystery

Becky gets summoned to the town library to be questioned by the police. She and her twin brother, Toby, comply, only to find out that Becky is being accused of stealing five rare books recently donated to the library to be sold in the annual book sale. Becky is determined to clear her name and Toby agrees to help, but where to start? The twins first discover who the original owner of the books was: a recently deceased wealthy townswoman who loved children's books. Upon her death she bequeathed her most prized possessions to her niece (and Becky's next-year teacher): the five classic children's books. The niece, who is crabby and practical, was not happy with the inheritance and donated the books to the library. The children next contact the old lady's former companion and housekeeper, who sheds more light on the puzzle. The mystery becomes more than just clearing Becky's name; the twins are convinced that the old lady hid a real treasure. Meanwhile, Becky and Toby read the five books in order to look for patterns and clues. Eventually the children discover the actual location of the dead woman's treasure, lay a trap, and catch the book thief in the act, clearing Becky's name and freeing the long-lost treasure at last.

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz is a golden oldie, yet one that has stood the test of time. I re-read it in order to prepare for my third/fourth grade book discussion group.The book is a great level for the early school months of this group; slightly longer than introductory chapter book length, has wide margins, large print, and a few scattered pictures to break up the text. It is also a great choice for an introduction to the mystery genre. There are enough suspects to keep the reader guessing, but not so many to confuse. The culprit is "gettable" and clues lead up to the solution. The children work independently and use their wits to crack the code and pin down the thief. I love that the "real treasure" is classic children's books. In order to solve the mystery the twins must read all five classic titles, which may encourage readers to also try them out. Today's children will enjoy reading this book, solving the mystery, and running freely around Checkertown with Becky and Toby, hunting down the clues. I turn to this book often as a great choice for this age. It is a solid mystery at a great level that isn't muddled up with other plots. And, best of all, brings home the value of books and reading.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Seven Spiders Spinning

Seven Spiders Spinning
Gregory Maguire
Harper Collins, 1994 132 pgs
Grades 3-6
Mystery

A crate of deadly prehistoric Siberian Snow Spiders, previously frozen for thousands of years, has fallen off a truck in all places: Hamlet, Vermont. The spiders emerge from their eggs and instantly imprint on the first animals they see: seven fifth grade girls from Miss Earth's class. Miss Earth's class has a common problem for that age group: the boys and girls are against each other and have formed two separate clubs. Only Pearl Hotchkiss chooses to not be on either side. It is Pearl who discovers the first spider in the woods and takes it home for a pet. The students in Miss Earth's class are planning for the school's big Halloween extravaganza and organizing two plays. The boy's play is inspired by the missing spiders, which have made national headlines, all while actually being observed and infiltrated by the spiders themselves. First one and then another and then another spider is drawn to the school and one of the girls, only to reach an unfortunate and, usually quite accidental, demise. Meanwhile, the injured truck driver originally transporting the spiders, his nurse and new fiance, and a sensational newscaster are on the trail of the missing arachnids. The plot reaches a thrilling conclusion at the Halloween play, where the kids are forced from time constraints to merge their plays, and the final spider makes a dramatic attack on the last girl.

Before there was Wicked, Maguire wrote books for children, specifically The Hamlet Chronicles, a series of humor mysteries with holiday themes. Maguire has always been a devotee of folklore and re-imagining traditional tales. Seven Spider's Spinning merges viking mythology (again in fashion thanks to Mr. Riordan) with a modern day thriller. Infused through all the drama is Maguire's characteristically dry humor. The story is contemporary and will appeal to today's readers. A typical school story with a boy vrs. girls conflict takes a sinister turn with the introduction of the deadly spiders and the mystery of the townspeople figuring out their whereabouts. Because the book is over twenty years old, I was expecting it to be dated. It wasn't. There is lack of technology, but that is not missed. The book feels like it could have been written today. Seven Spiders Spinning is short and sprinkled with block print illustrations, making it appear to be for a younger audience than it is. The vocabulary is rich and the reading level is high. This story would be a great choice for older children who don't think they like to read or younger readers who read above their grade level and need a challenge. It would also make an excellent classroom read aloud for something a little creepy and Halloween related, not too long, and enriching as well as entertaining.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Loser

Loser
Jerry Spinelli
Harper Collins, 2002 218 pgs
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction/School Story

Donald Zinkoff is in a class by himself. He (practically) never gets an "A", is horrible at sports, falls over his own feet, has no friends, is disorganized and messy, and doesn't appear to excel in anything. Through all this he is cheerful, happy, and always sees the bright side to a situation. Spinelli traces Zinkoff's school career from his first day of first grade through the middle of sixth. We see Zinkoff experience school life from the back of the classroom, because of his "Z" last name, with teachers both good and bad. We watch Zinkoff's struggle to make a friend, finally reaching out to a fellow outcast, only to be rejected by the end. Zinkoff's positive family life with baby sister Polly, patient mother, and postman father is supportive and Donald's saving grace. Field Day in fifth grade brings an all time low to Zinkoff, yet leads him to a friend in unexpected places. In fact, Zinkoff does make and sustain friendships, just not with his peers. Finally, after a fateful snowstorm in the middle of sixth grade Zinkoff disappears trying to find a lost child. Has this experience finally gained him the acceptance that he yearns for? And is it too late?

The success of Palacio's Wonder and the push towards anti-bullying both in the media and in the schools has brought Loser after more than ten years back to the forefront. Spinelli makes a compelling case for children to recognize and be kind to that goofy kid who sits in the back and who always seems to be alone. Donald Zinkoff is a well-developed one-of-a-kind character, who practically leaps off the page. For all of his flaws, he has a huge heart and compassion for folks who are generally overlooked. The reader can't resists caring about and rooting for Donald as the story unfolds. Not a lot happens plot-wise. The book is really a slice of life tracing Zinkoff's social journey during childhood, building up to a big crescendo/payoff at the end. Usually I do not like the endings of books, but I do like the ending of Loser. Spinelli keeps it open ended, yet hopeful, and gives the reader something to chew over before closing the book. It is a great choice for book discussion and classroom use. The book has substance, but is not too long, has wide margins, and large print, making it a great choice for reluctant readers. Kids will want to be Zinkoff's friend and will, perhaps, be inspired to talk to the loner who sits behind them in language arts.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No Talking

No Talking
Andrew Clements
Simon and Shuster, 2007 146 pgs
Grades 3-6
Realistic Fiction/School Story

Meet the "unshushables", the current crop of fifth graders at Laketon Elementary School, known for their incessant need to constantly be making noise and the never ending war of boys verses girls. After a project on India, where he is exposed to the peaceful protests of Ghandi, Dave decides to become silent for a day. This opens new areas of enlightenment for him and he decides to challenge girl kingpin, Lynsey to a no-talking challenge. The challenge escalates to a contest of "girls verses boys". The kids are limited to three word sentences to answer teachers and administration only and they must keep silent the rest of the time. Points are tallied by team leaders Dave and Lynsey and the kids are on the honor system at home. At first the teachers are surprised but then get use to this new development in the fifth grade and use it to their advantage while teaching. The principal on the other hand is not happy with the contest and feels it is disruptive to the school day. On day two she yells through her bullhorn at lunchtime demanding that the silent students start talking. Dave, specifically, is targeted and he must break the no talking rule to stand up for himself and his right to remain silent, even if it means getting in trouble and loosing the contest.

This book is my lead in to the Reader's Rock (grades 3&4) book club for the new year. I picked it because it is a slam dunk. It features both a boy and a girl main character, takes place in a familiar setting, and is moved along by a plot that the kids can relate to. The length is perfect for readers just emerging from introductory chapter books. There is humor and a lightness to the story, yet it contains enough "meat" to allow for a proper discussion. Clements is the master of the school story and this book is one of his best. It is probably the fourth time I've read No Talking and I still enjoyed it. I love that the principal shows her human side and respects her students enough to apologize. The kids learn to stand up for what they believe in and finally begin to work together burying their battle of the sexes. I love that this story exposes kids to the work of Ghandi, peaceful protest, and the benefits of meditation. It is right on target of the audience, relevant, solidly written, and entertaining. Most of all, this book may encourage children to try the "no talking" experiment themselves, which would be music to most parents (and librarian's) ears.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Spy School

Product DetailsSpy School
Stuart Gibbs
Simon and Schuster, 2012 291 pgs
Grades 5-8
Mystery/Adventure

Twelve-year-old Ben is whisked out of his suburban Washington DC home by Alexander Hale, C.I.A. agent and into The Academy of Espionage (aka: spy school), where he begins his training as a spy. After a grueling initiation process, where he must fight for his life and field threats from the school bully, Ben settles into his room, only to be attacked by an assassin in the night. Fellow student and Hale's daughter and star pupil, Erika, befriends him and teams up with him to discover the origin of the assassin. Other friendships develop as Ben becomes entrenched in the routine of this very unorthodox school, located by the Washington Mall. Further security breachings and threats to Ben's life (it turns out he is a decoy, incorrectly labeled as a genius computer hacker to ferret out the enemy) make it clear that the administration and C.I.A. are bumbling idiots and it is up to Ben and Erika to find the mole in the school, who is leaking information and out to get him. Still keeping in touch with his friend Mike from "the outside", Mike gets caught trying to spring Ben out of school to go to a party hosted by his crush. Is Mike the mole? Or is it someone from the administration, faculty, or even a fellow student? After a dramatic kidnapping and a showdown involving a secret bunker and a live bomb, the mole is revealed and attempts to convert Ben to the dark side. Which way will Ben chose? Ben's decision and the ensuing results are offered by book's end.

Part mystery/part adventure novel, Gibbs delivers a roller-coaster ride of a story for middle grade readers. Author of the ecologically based mystery series "FunJungle" and the new "Moon Base Alpha" series, Gibbs turns to the world of espionage. This academy is Hogwarts for future government agents. Students carry weapons and classes are all based on learning spy skills. Ninjas appear out of nowhere and students are encouraged to cheat and fight. Within this environment our math-whiz hero is thrown and after a rocky start, begins to find his place. Ben is a great character. He never lets not knowing what is going on or how to do something slow him down and ventures out of his comfort zone willingly. The mystery is solid. The mole was not who I suspected and plenty of red-herrings are thrown in to distract the reader. The non-stop action will keep kids turning pages. Gibbs also throws in humor and zany characters, which adds to the fun. Because of the humor, the book never feels too violent, even though the students are constantly fighting and using weapons. The violence feels like a comic-book and the villains are one-dimensional. Real life connections can be made as to what is currently going on in the world today. All kids will enjoy this book. Spy School has a definite ending and stands alone, but there are two sequels if kids want to read more about Ben and his friends.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Baba Yaga's Assistant

Baba Yaga's Assistant
Marika McCoola
Emily Carroll, Illustrator
Candlewick, 2015   127 pgs
Grades 4-8
Graphic Novel/Contemporary Folklore

Masha is mourning the death of her beloved grandmother, who has raised her since the death of her mother, when she was a very young child. Masha's father has been emotionally distant since the death of his young wife and has left the caring of his daughter, a painful reminder of what he has lost, to the grandmother. Now Dad has found a new woman who he wishes to marry and has a daughter of her own. Danielle is much younger and sees Masha as a threat to her relationship with her mother. Masha, feeling left out, leaves home to apply for the job as Baba Yaga's assistant. Grandmother worked for and out-smarted the old witch many years before and Masha grew up immersed in the stories. Baba Yaga is less than welcoming and challenges Masha to several tests before allowing her access into the household. For the first test Masha must gain admittance into the famous house with chicken legs. Using flattery and keeping her head about her, Masha wins the house over. Masha, remembering Grandmother's stories, uses magical matriska dolls to clean the house and finds that she has other magical abilities as the tests continue. The biggest test of all comes when Baba Yaga assigns Masha to cook three naughty children that she captured, including Danielle. Masha must decide whether to save the children and risk losing her position or follow the old witch's orders, even if doing so violates her ethics. Masha makes her choice and our story ends with Masha happy, although not in the way the reader may have predicted.

First time author, McCoola, offers a contemporary story with solid Russian folklore elements throughout. The book does not feel overly Russian and could be set anywhere in the world, making the tale relate-able to today's American readers. It can be enjoyed with no knowledge of Russian folklore, but background of the tales add another dimension and make the book that much more fun. Veteran illustrator Carroll captures the flavor and mood of the story perfectly and presents the reader with a truly sinister witch, with sharp pointy teeth, glowing eyes, and who appears out of nowhere, often changing in size. Yet, this Baba Yaga has a heart and becomes a surrogate Grandmother for Masha, maybe not warm and fuzzy like the first one, but perfect for where Masha presently is in her life. The book is well designed and scans well. The color pallet changes, depending on whether the story is in the past or present, and the color of the speech bubbles changes depending on who is talking. The book is macabre and dark, much like the original tales. This is not a Disney-fied version of folklore, the cautionary warnings are still there encouraging children to behave--or Baba Yaga will eat you! Because of the decidedly dark nature of the story it is best suited to older elementary and middle school kids who enjoy "things that go bump in the night". The cover is deliciously creepy and will attract the intended audience. In a growing market for quality graphic novels for young people, this book will find a place and a readership.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Diary of a Mad Brownie

Diary of a Mad Brownie
Bruce Coville
Random House, 2015
Grades 3-6
Fantasy/Humor

Angus is a small mischief making, house cleaning Brownie, serving an elderly lady in the Scottish countryside. Upon the lady's death Angus must journey across the great sea to the United States to serve the youngest female descendant over ten years old. He is sent to live with the Carhart family in Connecticut and young Alex in particular. Alex is a very messy and disorganized child and at first resists having a Brownie meddle in her mess. After some time the two reach an understanding and become friends, learning to rely on the other's strengths and abilities. Unfortunately, Angus brings with him a curse: all male residents of the house are struck with the desire to write poetry (or in Alex's father's case song lyrics). Brother Bennett quits the soccer team to devote his life to writing bad poetry, while Dad quits his job to dedicate his time fully to his music. The family is in danger of loosing their home and Angus, Alex, her little sister and the sister's teacher concoct a plan to break the curse. The plan involves returning the daughter of the queen of the Enchanted Realm (who set the curse upon Angus's father for falling in love with and taking away her daughter) back to her home. Coincidentally, the daughter happens to be the wizened old grandmother of Alex's teacher. They whisk the old lady away from the nursing home, where she currently resides, and take her across the ocean back to the Enchanted Realm. While on the journey the elderly princess gets younger by the minute, finally restored to her former glory upon reuniting with her mother. After a tearful homecoming the children are allowed to return home, where no real time has passed, but Angus must be punished for breaking Brownie rules, including exposing himself to humans and bringing them to the Enchanted Realm. What fate awaits poor Angus? Read the book to find out!

I have a soft spot in my heart for Bruce Coville, and not just because we both hail from the same upstate New York town. He has been around for my entire career, starting when I was a library page in the 1980's, and consistently puts our enjoyable books of quality for young readers. His books often take traditional elements of fantasy and science fiction and are re-worked in a digestible way to appeal to young people. Brownies are forgotten creatures of folk lore and I'm thrilled to see them reintroduced to a new audience. They are a perfect magical creature for children: not scary, small in size, tidy, and their best quality: tricksters. Coville's Brownie is a little guy with a big heart and an even bigger temper. We will root for Angus right from the start and applaud his efforts to help his humans, even when they resist it. Coville conveys his trademark humor throughout the book, making it very enjoyable and hard to put down. Diary of a Mad Brownie is clearly a work of fantasy, but light and contemporary enough that non-fantasy lovers will enjoy this work. It is a perfect choice for fantasy book reports for children who think they don't like fantasy. Cartoon-like illustration are sprinkled throughout making the book that much more welcoming to reluctant readers and adding to the fun. This book probably won't win any awards, but will be enjoyed by all who crack into it and it will enjoy a long shelf life in the library.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Lost in the Sun

Lost in the Sun
Lisa Graff
Penguin, 2015
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Trent begins his sixth grade year in his small town on the wrong foot. The year before he accidentally hit a boy with a hockey puck during a pick-up game killing him. It was a freak accident and the boy had heart problems, but Trent feels hopelessly guilty and responsible and as if the whole town hates him. To make matters worse his father and new stepmother just had a baby and he feels neglected and rejected by his Dad and resists spending time with him. Trent's two brothers try to lighten up the mood at Trent's house by pulling pranks on each other, but Trent still can't pull out of the cloud that is his life. Something is even blocking him from playing sports, at which he has always excelled and enjoyed. Enter Fallon Little, a loner who boasts a mysterious and disfiguring scar on her face. The two begin to watch movies at Fallon's house after school and slowly a friendship develops and trust builds. A crone of a teacher begins the year as another thorn in Trent's side, emerging as a patient support as the autumn progresses. Trent discovers that his mother is entering into a romantic relationship with her boss, which at first unsettles Trent, but eventually it provides another stable adult in Trent's life. The worse happens when Trent loses his temper resulting in the the loss of his friendship with Fallon. Trent must decide to fight for what is important and slowly begins to heal and forgive himself for the tragedy the year before.

I love Lisa Graff as an author. Every one of her books is so different from the next and she does not stay safely in the same genre or style. The two things that her books share is that they are impeccably written and they explore the connections between people. Last year's Absolutely Almost was one of my favorite books of 2014. Now Lost in the Sun is one of my favorite books of 2015. Trent grows from a place of hopelessness to that of healing. The beginning of the book was so sad that I didn't know if I could make through the book. The adults in Trent's life were frustrating and of no help. Finally, mostly through his relationship with Fallon, Trent begins to heal. The patient people in Trent's life, his teachers and former best friend, who at first seemed to be doing nothing to help him, were simply waiting until he was ready to receive the help. He was like a scared animal for the first half of the book. Finally Fallon breaks through to him and he slowly starts to let people in. Surprisingly, the real healing comes through the dead boy's sister, who is also suffering and the knowledge that more people than just himself were affected by the accident. This is a quiet and thoughtful book, but has enough characters and plot that it never gets boring. It is a great choice for book discussion and summer reading lists. Many issues such as bullying, blended families, judging others, and forgiveness can be explored. The book ended almost too neatly, but not quite. One plot thread is purposely left open, not to lead us to a sequel, but to give the reader something to chew on upon completion. A solid edition from a stellar writer that is sure to win awards.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Tapper Twins Go to War (With Each Other)

The Tapper Twins Go to War (With Each Other)
Geoff Rodkey
Little Brown, 2015  219 pgs
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction/Humor

Fasten your seat belts for some great boys verses girls shenanigans; twin style and updated for the twenty-first century. Written in the form of a book, complete with first person interviews, text messages, and e-mails, Claudia tells her account of the war with her brother Reese chiming in with his side and editing her writing. It all starts with Reese accusing Claudia of breaking wind in front of a significant group of their sixth grade class at their New York City private school. Claudia retaliates by planting a dead fish in Reese's backpack, stinking up the room wherever it lies. The practical jokes continue to go back and forth evolving in seriousness and ranging from bad haircuts to exposed crushes, finally escalating to the worst blow of all: destruction of Reese's video game world (similar to Minecraft). By the end of the story, Claudia has been suspended and both twins realize the errors of their ways.

Screenwriter Rodkey offers a delicious new series that kids will devour. Roadkey (himself a father of three) writes about the kind of things kids want to read about and manages to capture their voice and thinking patterns spot-on. Kids love a practical joke war and this particular one will incite both giggles and groans, while kids relate to the embarrassing things the twins use as ammunition. This is not your parent's practical joke war, Rodkey has updated for his audience using current video games, social networking, texting, etc as his weapons. This currency will appeal to young people, but will date the book quickly limiting its longevity. Because of the genders of the twins, both boys and girls will enjoy the book equally, making it a great choice for book discussion. The reader is not just entertained; ethical issues are raised in the course of the novel, such as cyber bullying, lying, invasion of privacy and, at the core, the fact that hurting your sibling doesn't feel as good as you think it will, in fact it makes you feel worse. The length is perfect and "Claudia" intersperses her narration with photos and maps, making the book digestible to reluctant readers. The hijinks continue in The Tapper Twins Tear Up New York (due to be released at the end of this month), followed by the timely The Tapper Twins Run for President (due in April 2016).