Thursday, February 25, 2016

Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics

Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics
Chris Grabenstein
Random House, 2016  267 pgs.
Grades 3-7

Kyle and his friends from Mr. Lemoncello's Library must reunite in order to prove that they deserved the fame and fortune awarded to them in the previous book. This sophomore offering in the series has the eccentric and wealthy game-maker , Mr. Lemoncello, assembling teams from all over the country to compete in the Library Olympics. The eight teams gather in the small Ohio town of Mr. L's youth in his state-of-the-art library, complete with holographic ceilings and hover board ladders. Kyle's team is representing the hometown heroes and they are out to prove that they are worthy of their current title. Unfortunately, tightly wound Marjory Muldauer from an opposing team is aiming for the title and knows her stuff. One event follows the next as the young people participate in a series of contests from book trivia to pizza eating while reading. Further complications arise when former opponent, Charles Chiltington, his mother, and her snotty friends protest both the library and the contest. The whole competition seems to be over when books are discovered to be missing from the library and only one of the contestants could have removed them. Mr. Lemoncello becomes discouraged and cancels the last event. It is up to Kyle and all of the contestants to ban together, find the culprit, and reclaim the library and the right to read for all of the citizens of their town, even if it means putting the grand prize of a free college education on the line.

Chris Grabenstein has done it again! I thought that he couldn't top Mr. Lemoncello's Library for a great book with perfect library connections, lending itself to a fun-filled literary program. This book is even more suited to library fun, all while exposing kids to great books every step of the way. The mystery is solid with readers working to discover who took the library books and the ending brings surprises concerning a main character that I didn't see coming. The challenges and events are fun. Brain teasers and puzzles abound in the book, giving smart kids an extra layer to their reading. Kyle is not a perfect student or natural reader: he is a gamer. Kyle is also a team player and a likable friend. His skill set works perfectly with the other members of the team and together they succeed. Last summer I had an after-hours program at my library based on the first Lemoncello book. I do not like to do similar events two years in a row, but this book is forcing me to do just that. My summer reading theme (like most of the country) is sports and since it is an Olympic year, we are focusing on the Olympics. Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics will be a perfect tie-in to the summer and the events the children in the book participate in can be easily applied to a library program (minus the hover boards).  The author's website includes a ready-made game that librarian's can request and Grabenstein will e-mail. This book is a slam dunk for libraries and is a fun read for that anyone will enjoy.The end includes an extensive list of all of the book titles mentioned throughout the story for folks interested in digging deeper. Let the games begin!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Stella by Starlight

Stella by Starlight
Sharon M. Draper
Atheneum, 2015 320 pgs
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction

Stella is a fifth-grade African-American girl living in the depression-era segregated rural south. She attends school and struggles to learn, despite outdated text books and poor conditions. Every night Stella writes her thoughts and dreams outside under the stars and even though writing is difficult for her, she finds it therapeutic. One night Stella and her younger brother discover a terrible thing: a burning cross courtesy of the Ku Klux Klan. The whole community is shaken and fearful. Stella's father and two other men venture into town and register to vote in the face of the blatant discrimination and threats of violence doing so brings. Sure enough, the Klan retaliates and burns down the house of one of the registering men, leaving his family with thirteen children homeless. Much to the community's surprise, help with the fire and the aftermath comes from unexpected places: friends within the white community with the courage to stand up for what is right. Further tragedy strikes when Stella's mother is bitten by a snake while the black doctor is out of town. The white doctor (and Klan leader) refuses to offer treatment. Stella must do what she can to help her mother all while trying to process the amount of hate and prejudice the white doctors harbors. Through an encounter with the doctor's daughter we learn a little of his motivation and see that he is a bully who is also cruel to his own family. By book's end the community has banned together and has started to heal, refusing to believe that they are second class citizens and choosing to not let the Klan force them into a life of fear and cowardice.

Sharon Draper is an amazing author. Her book Out of My Mind is one of my all-time favorite books of all time and, although Stella is very different in both theme and time period, it is also awesome. Draper acknowledges in a dedication page that this story is based on the experiences of her father and grandmother. Knowing that the story is rooted in truth makes it that much more powerful. Stella is an average girl with less than average opportunities and she rises above her circumstances again and again and makes a difference. She reports about the Klan, marches into the voter registration office with her father to register, saves a lost child, fights a fire, and stands up to the leader of the Klan in order to help her mother; all while having no voice as a African-American female child in the 1930's south. Draper does not shield away from violence, particularly when a friend of Stella's get beaten by a couple of yahoos, but no major characters die and it remains age appropriate. This is a serious book, yet stays true to the child-like narration and offers humorous moments. Today's kids will benefit from exposure to life in the 1930's rural south when a piece of candy was a treat, riding in a car was rare, and children did not wear shoes even to school. Themes of the evils of prejudice and segregation are obvious, but Draper also offers messages about the importance of family and community and the power of writing. Solid historical fiction on an often over-looked, yet very important, topic for young people.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Neptune Project

The Neptune Project
Polly Holyoke
Hyperion Books, 2013  341 pgs
Grades 5-8
Science Fiction

Earth is in trouble. Because of the devastating effects of war, destruction of the environment, and military control resources are scarce and what is left is being poorly managed. Humans are living under a police state with no personal freedoms and dwindling food supplies. Teenager Nere has always been strange. She is more comfortable in the water than out and would rather spend time with her dolphin friends than humans. Moreover, she has amazing telepathic skills and can see brilliantly underwater. When the government decides to destroy her fishing village, Nere's mother confesses that she has been genetically enhanced to survive underwater. Nere and two other young people from her village undergo a painful transformation and begin their lives as undersea renegades with the help of their dolphin friends of whom they communicate with telepathically for protection. Neve and her friends meet other young people who have also undergone the transformation and the new group establishes an uneasy alliance in order to safely travel to the rendezvous point where Nere's scientist father is waiting for them. Danger, surprises, and innocent romance lurk as Nere and the other hybrid teens journey through the sea with the dolphin pod in order to reach a safe haven and begin life as they now know it.

Holyoke offers a fresh twist on the dystopian genre currently sweeping books for young people. Humanity is pushed underwater in an effort to survive. It is a great premise and makes for an exciting and original story. Holyoke offers a lot of action and adventure. She is not afraid to kill off characters and other characters, thought to be dead, pop back up as surprise plot twists. Nere is brave and capable, although she grows into her abilities as the book progresses, emerging from shy misfit into a strong leader. She enters into a love triangle with the group's medic and also the handsome misfit who harbors a secret (which is revealed by book's end). The romance stays light and is not the main motivation of the story. Environmental themes abound and Holyoke's love of ocean life becomes clear as the pages unfold. I learned things about dolphins that I never knew and grew to appreciate these playful and intelligent creatures. Even though the main character is a girl, there are plenty of male characters and The Neptune Project will also be enjoyed by boys. A sequel was released last year called The Neptune Challenge which continues the story of Nere and her friends and gives readers a place to go when this volume is finished.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Ten Days a Madwoman

Ten Days a Madwoman
Deborah Noyes
Viking, 2016 124 pgs
Grades 4-8

Noyes traces the exciting life and career of real-life Victorian heroine, Nellie Bly. Bly's professional career is highlighted following her exploits as a newspaper reporter in a man's world performing escalatingly daring stunts from traveling around the pre-airplane world in seventy-two days to spending a night in a haunted house. The adventure referred to from the cover describes Bly's break-through undercover assignment: ten days locked in a mental institution for women. This expose changed the healthcare system for the mentally ill in New York City and raised awareness in the public. In between different stints as a news reporter, Noyes traces Bly's marriage to a rich man many years her senior, her disastrous attempt at running his business empire after his demise and her struggles with her family. As Noyes travels through the adult life of Nellie, she offers accounts of her childhood interspersed on darker pages as to not confuse the timeline. Extensive source notes of both text and photos, as well as a bibliography and index round out the volume.

Noyes presents a very readable account of the life of one of the most interesting and notorious women of her time: Nellie Bly. Bly carves her place in a man's world, breaking into the boy's club of journalism and revolutionizing the industry. We see the motivation behind her ambition: the need to support her family and fear of being dependent on men who cannot fulfill their end of the marriage bargain, as was the case with her mother. Noyes paints a vibrant picture of Bly, but does not romanticize the dashing figure, expelling many of the myths surrounding her, including the true story behind how she acquired her famous monkey. Much of the book is spent on Bly's two most famous escapades: the days spent in the mental institution and the trip around the world, but all of Bly's life is covered. Generous photos and illustrations are included throughout the pages of text and the book itself is thoughtfully and attractively designed. The flash-backs to Bly's childhood add interest and dimension to the story and are laid out carefully enough to not be confusing. Noyes did her research carefully and is careful not to fictionalize her account, only adding information that is documented. Every year children are assigned biography assignments where they need to present the life of the figure they read about while dressed as that person. We always struggle with finding enough women to satisfy female readers, not because publishers are unwilling to publish books about women, but because there just aren't that many women who were allowed to do interesting things in the past. Bly, who was ambitious and fearless enough to break barriers, is an exception and serves as an inspiration to young women today. This book is a welcome addition to the biography shelf and will be an easy sell during the biography assignments.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Pilfer Academy

Pilfer Academy
Lauren Magaziner
Penguin, 2016  267 pgs.
Grades 4-6

George, a trouble making child from a large family, is kidnapped and whisked away to a secret school: Pilfer Academy, a place where potential thieves are trained. He is placed with a competitive and difficult roommate, but begins to make friends with fellow misfit and the most recent student besides himself, Tabitha. At first Pilfer seems like a school that is right up George's alley and he begins to excel. After a while the cracks begin to show. The strange teachers tend to repeat their lessons and only thieving skills are taught, advancement is at the whim of the administration and can take years, and worst of all, students who get in trouble find themselves on the "Whirlyblerg"; a crazy carnival ride that shakes the rider up beyond reason. Midterms approach and the students are expected to pull-off actual heists. George thinks this will be no problem until he is expected to steal a teddy bear from a sleeping toddler. George begins to realize that maybe this school isn't for him and starts to question the system. Tabitha also reaches the same conclusions and the two plan to escape, but there is no way out of Pilfer Academy and the telephones are carefully hidden. The two disgruntled students must find a way to break into the illusive teachers lounge, locate the phone, and expose Pilfer Academy for the thieving sham that it is. Help comes from unexpected places and mayhem ensues as the teachers and students alike must run for their lives as George and Tabitha's plan unfurls.

Magaziner is a relatively new author to children's books.This sophomore offering contains action and adventure with a hint of mystery and humor. It reminded me of The Mysterious Benedict Society and Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, both in its content and writing style. The professors are bumbling and absurd, which will amuse readers and the students are all clueless and strange. George and Tabitha appear to be the only sain people in a sea of crazy, which will help readers to identify with them and to experience the action through their eyes. The book goes a little over the top, but kids won't care. Academies for spies, wizards, child-astronauts, superheroes, and villains abound, but this is the first I have seen for thieves. Boarding schools make great children's books because the parents are out of the way and the kids are allowed to act independently, discovering things on their own and solving their own problems. Magaziner does not glorify thievery and actually has the protagonists question this practice and put a stop to it. Not the stuff of great fiction, but different, fresh, and written with young reader's in mind, Pilfer Academy is sure to find an audience and circulate well in the library. This book leaves room for sequels or can remain as a stand-alone. I guess all will depend on the popularity of this first title. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Under Their Skin

Under Their Skin
Margaret Peterson Haddix
Simon & Schuster, 2015  311 pgs
Grades 4-7
Science Fiction/Adventure

Nick and Eryn are typical twelve-year-old twins, who live in a small town with divorced, yet amicable, parents. Their lives are shaken up when Mom decides to remarry. Expecting Michael's two children to also move in, they are surprised to discover that their new step siblings (also twelve-year-old twins) will only be staying at the house when Nick and Eryn are at their father's; neither set of twins ever meeting. This peaks the curiosity of Nick and Eryn and they concoct a secret plan to meet Jackson and Ava, the secret step sibs. The reason for the separation is creepier than Nick and Eryn imagined: Jackson and Ava are actually robot children. They dash home to confront their mother and try to get answers. Instead they discover another nasty surprise: Mom is also a robot. In fact, everyone over the age of twelve is a robot. The world experienced some sort of dystopian end, eliminating humans. Robots were designed to take over and raise frozen embryos left behind to continue the human race. Jackson and Ava should have been destroyed once the human children turned twelve, but their parents are illegally keeping them functioning. Once Nick and Eryn discover the truth, the whole extended family escapes in a van to find a place to hide. Nick and Eryn still have questions: What actually destroyed the human race and what can they do to prevent it from happening again? A secret bunker leads the twins to these answers, but a creepy epilogue dangles a new plot twist, leading the reader to the yet-to-be-released sequel in this two-part series.

When authors speak to groups the most common question they are asked is, "where do you get your ideas?" I usually roll my eyes when I hear that question asked yet again at author events. That said, if I ever had the pleasure to meet Margaret Peterson Haddix I would ask her just that. I love her books. They are what I call "concept books": amazing concepts that no one else has thought of and are easy sells to kids. Running Out of Time is a book I use with book discussion groups on a regular rotation because it has such a cool plot and leaves the reader with much to chew on. The Shadow Children series as well as the Missing series are huge hits at my library. Under Their Skin is sure to also be a hit with young readers. This book is not only a great idea that is timely and will intrigue tweens, but reads fast and will be a natural choice for reluctant readers. The action never stops, nor do the plot twists, making the book impossible to put down. Nick and Eryn take turns narrating the story, alternating chapter seamlessly. Although they are twins and can communicate in twin-speak, their personalities are distinct and they each bring a fresh perspective to the plot. Haddix raises themes such as the threat of technology taking over human society, the importance of divorced parents cooperating for the good of the children, and the right to question the establishment. Nick and Eryn feel frustration that the adults in their lives are not being fully honest with them and they take matters into their own hands,claiming power over their own lives. Its a great idea that will encourage young readers to look at the older people in their lives with a discerning eye, questions "could they be...?"

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Noelle Stevenson
HarperCollins, 2015
Grades 7-Up
Graphic Novel

Enter the world of knights and the battle of good verse evil, although with a technological twist. Nimona is a quirky, energetic shape-changing teenager. She offers her services to resident villain, Lord Blackheart, and he reluctantly takes her on. Meanwhile, Blackheart's arch-nemesis and former classmate/friend Sir Goldenloin continues to try to thwart his old enemy's power. The kingdom is actually controlled by the evil director of "The Institution" and she is out for world domination and the destruction of Lord Blackheart's new secret weapon. Nimona seems indestructible, as even her cells reproduce upon being damaged. Blackheart discovers a substance that paralyzes Nimona, much like kryptonite, but he must keep keep it out of the Director's notice. Nimona is a high-spirited loose cannon and it is up to Lord Blackheart to control her. He manages to do just that, all while starting to develop nurturing feelings towards her, as he discovers more of her backstory. Throughout the fairy tale-esque kingdom, modern technologies abound, such as high-tech communication and weaponry, making this an original and modern new offering in a traditional and familiar setting.

A National Book Award Finalist, Nimona is just one of the many new and exciting graphic editions featuring female protagonists currently on the market for young people. Nimona is a powerful shape-shifter, going from gentle cat to fire-breathing dragon in a blink of an eye. She also is less than honest and has impulse control issues. Although clearly feminine, Nimona is tough, gutsy, and sassy. Even though Nimona wears a dress and sports a very cool and edgy hairstyle, she has a realistic body shape and is not made too glamorous or sexy. The technological advances make the fairy tale settling seem modern, unique, and interesting, yet still familiar. We see the good side of the master villain, Blackheart, who is actually the hero and we see the human side of Goldenloin and are offered a glimpse into their history with a hint that there is, perhaps, romance at the core of their love/hate relationship. The true villain is the Director, who is manipulating both men and out to destroy Nimona. Stevenson is a seasoned cartoonist and her drawings are distinctive and help to propel the story. A muted pallet is applied to the action that happens in the past to make it distinct from the present. The panels scan well and chapters allow for natural breaks in the action. A fresh look at an established format that is sure to attract readers of all ages and both sexes.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Katherine Applegate
Feiwel & Friends, 2015  256 pgs.
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction

Ten-year-old Jackson, his parents, sister, and dog have seen hard times. After Dad was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and Mom was laid off, the family lost their house and spent a summer living in the van. This is when Crenshaw first entered Jackson's life. Crenshaw is a large imaginary friend/cat, who can talk and helps Jackson when life gets rough. Crenshaw disappears as the family moves into an apartment and life seems to improve. Slowly, times get rough again. Fast forward to the present: Jackson's family is in jeopardy of again living in the van. Jackson is now older, has a best friend, and can pay better attention to adult problems. Crenshaw shows back up, taking a bubble bath, bigger than he was before, but still willing to help Jackson out. Jackson feels frustrated that he has no control over the situation, responsible for his little sister who depends on him, and dread of having to move back to the car. Talking to his best friend Marisol helps, as does Crenshaw's companionship, which pushes him to the right decisions, even when they aren't the easy ones. A plan to run away finally brings Jackson's fears to his parent's realization after which they begin to alleviate them. The books ends with a temporary solution for the family and a feeling of hope.

What do you do when you can't trust the adults in your life to keep you safe and secure? This is a problem facing many young people in America today. Jackson's family is suffering as a result of illness and budget cuts to school music programs, but even more families are struggling as a result of addiction, abuse, and the cycle of poverty. Jackson's family seems normal on the outside, but they are fighting to survive day to day. The family must sell off their possessions and work a series of part-time just to get by. Jackson, who is aware of the family's troubles, but is not brought into the conversation in any way or able to fix them, feels completely powerless. Enter Crenshaw, who offers friendship, companionship, a sounding board, and Jackson's conscience. Applegate honestly portrays the hopelessness of Jackson's situation and the realities of homelessness for families. The presence of Crenshaw lightens-up what could become a very difficult book for kids to process. Just as Crenshaw helps Jackson to cope with his life, he helps the reader to enjoy a book about a very difficult situation. I loved this book. My heart broke for Jackson. I understood the problems of his parents, but found them very frustrating myself. I wanted them to be honest earlier with Jackson, because not knowing is often scarier for kids than the truth. Dad's stubbornness about getting help was exasperating, as was Mom's reluctance to override him. And why did they still have a dog? The dog was a puppy the first time they became homeless. It would seem to me that relocating the puppy would be natural first step before life in a van. Although not overly happy, the book ends with an unrealistically lucky break for the family. Young readers need a hopeful ending for peace and closure, even if it is not necessarily true to life. Kids living in safe environments will do well to read this story in order to increase their empathy for others. Those many young people living in bad situations will find hope in these pages and possible discover their own Crensaw to help them get through the tough times that feel out of their control. Through the recent popularity of the movie Inside Out, as well as last year's Caldecott winner The Adventures of Beekle, imaginary friends are hot again, and Crenshaw is as likable as they come.

Monday, February 1, 2016

We All Looked Up

We All Looked Up
Tommy Wallach
Simon and Schuster, 2015  384 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Science Fiction

Today's trend towards end-of-the-world fiction for teens meets the Breakfast Club in this first novel by new talent Wallach. Four teens from different high school social levels take turns narrating what could prove to be the end of the earth. A meteor is set on a path for Earth. It has a 66.6% chance of wiping out life as we know it. Basketball star, Peter, is already questioning his purpose and contribution to society. After the meteor threatens he dumps his long-term shallow girlfriend and explores the other avenues that his heart is leading him towards. Andy, skateboard slacker, questions his loyalty to self-destructive and mean-spirited best friend and learns to make his own choices instead of blindly following. Over achiever, Anita, finally rebels from the demanding expectations of her father to explore her true passion: music, even if it means giving up everything. Eliza, an artsy girl with a bad reputation, records with her camera the effects the threatening destruction are having on Seattle, the teen's hometown. The photos are posted onto her blog, which becomes the voice for young people during this crisis. The four young people are thrown together and form a "karass" a tern labeled by Kurt Vonnegut indicating a group of people who are cosmically linked. The karass works together to keep each other safe and to accomplish what they need to in order to set their houses in order before the potential end of the world.

New author, Wallach, throws his hat in the ring of the current glut of dystopian fiction for teens. We All Looked Up is less sci-fi and more believable than most of the latest offerings. Teenagers, who are naturally attracted to doomsday, will love the premise of this story. There are an equal amount of male and female characters, making it a great choice for both genders and it would work well for book discussion groups. The action keeps moving and, although the plot twists aren't entirely surprising, they are plentiful  and satisfying. Wallach manages to keep his four narrators very distinct and there is never confusion about who's eyes we are looking through. I did experience some confusion between the names of two of the characters. Anita and Eliza, which sound similar in my head and I kept getting them mixed-up. The couples we want to end up together do and the ones we don't break up. Adults are either dysfunctional, incapable or critically ill, leaving it up to the young people to clean up the mess the earth is left in. The grandstanding speech at the end had me rolling my eyes a bit, but teens will eat it up. I was not happy with the ambiguity at the end, but was expecting it. The ending will offer more fodder for discussion, but I would have been happier with commitment by the author. A fun book with a lot to bite into that's sure to be a hit with young people getting them all to yell a resounding: "YOLO"!