Friday, July 29, 2016

The Lincoln Project

The Lincoln Project
Dan Gutman
HarperCollins, 2016 224 pgs
Grades 3-6
Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Adventure
Flashback Four Series # 1

Four seemingly unconnected kids. two boys and two girls, are recruited to attend a meeting hosted by the mysterious Miss Z. Miss Z is rich, yet in poor health, and is an avid historical photo-collector. The photo she craves more than any other is one of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address, which does not exist. The speech was short and no photographer was able to capture the moment. Miss Z and her team of researchers have developed a time machine fashioned out of a smart-board. She plans to send the kids back to the 1800's with a camera and a cellphone that can communicate through time and capture this pivotal moment in U.S. history. After securing parent's permission the team is sent back into the past; though, unfortunately, a day early. They must find food and shelter for a full twenty-four hours before it is time for the historic moment. Many adventures ensue, including a near-disastrous encounter with Lincoln's son, Tad. Finally the moment of the speech has come and the four young people are in place, when capturing the picture proves to be trickier than first imagined. A misunderstanding leads the Flashback Four to further danger and a serious run-in with the law. Will they be able to complete their mission and return to the present day?

Popular children's author, Dan Gutman, presents another series for young people filled with action, adventure, and laughs. Readers will learn about the Civil War and its famous commander and chief, all while being highly entertained. The Gettysburg address is offered in its entirety, all though in snippets, exposing kids to this famous speech that we think we know, but really don't. The difference between the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation, which I must admit I have always been fuzzy on, is explained in context, allowing for kids to learn even though they may not realize it. Meanwhile, history becomes current as we experience it through the eyes of these four contemporary young people. This book is perfect for reluctant readers and reads quickly. The chapters end with exciting cliff-hangers, encouraging kids to flip pages. Throughout the story actual photographs and documents are included. Featuring Tad Lincoln as a character makes Abraham more of a person and less of an icon and Tad is an interesting character and welcome addition in his own right. Gutman includes an author's note at the end separating the fact from fiction in order to set the reader straight. The time-travel aspect is not that believable and the characters are not that developed, but readers won't care: its not that kind of a book. The story ends in a satisfactory, though not perfect, way, allowing for a convenient segue to the next installment. This new series presents history in a fun and digestible way for young people and they will happy sail through its pages.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Ghost

Ghost
Jason Reynolds
Atheneum, 2016  180 pgs
Grades 5-8
Track Series vol. 1

Castle Cranshaw has been running even since his father tried to shoot his mother and himself three years ago. He calls himself ghost because he feels like he is invisible to the greater world and that his life doesn't matter. One day Ghost observes a track practice featuring kids his own age. He jumps in, merely to prove that he can run as fast as a boy he considers to be a show-off. Ghost proves himself on the track and the coach attempts to recruit him for the team. After a ride to the housing project where Ghost lives with his struggling mother Coach manages to convince Ma to let Ghost join the team. In order to keep his place on the team Ghost must manage his temper and not get into any altercations with the class bully, a challenge that he has consistently failed in the past. Now he begins to control his temper and starts to see the value of his life. Ghost even starts to make connections and friendships with the other runners. The one taint on this golden opportunity is the lack of proper running shoes or workout gear. Ghost is running in beat-up high-tops that he cuts off the top to allow for ease of movement. He is determined to acquire better running shoes, but how? His desperation leads to a bad decision that fills him with remorse and anxiety. When the true comes out will this mean the end of Ghost's running career and place on the team?

Award winning author, Jason Reynolds, presents another well-crafted work of fiction set in a contemporary urban setting featuring a diverse cast of characters, yet this time for a slightly younger audience. Readers get a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a troubled African-American middle school boy. We see the motivation for Ghost's inner anger and how the struggles of economic hopelessness can beat down a family. He and his mother are still reeling from the actions of his jailed alcoholic and abusive father. Ma is trying to balance both work and nursing school, all while caring for Ghost, but she is barely holding on. Ghost finds help and understanding from some positive adults in his life; Coach, a neighborhood shop owner, and his principal. The adults are firm with Ghost, yet kind and empathetic, and lead him firmly in the proper direction. Reynolds raises the themes of the importance of sports in helping kids to pull out of bad situations and gain confidence, learning to trust, and various ethical dilemmas. Ghost learns a valuable lesson that other people also have problems and he learns to be a friend, thus finding friendship reciprocated back to him. The story is linear and reads quickly. It is perfect for reluctant readers and will work well in a classroom setting and for library discussion. The writing is tight and Ghost, who is written in the first person, is a fully realized character. This is the first in a projected series. It seems that future installments will feature other characters' stories who are introduced in this first book. Jason Reynolds is a writer to watch and this series is sure to be a hit.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Class Pet Squad: Journey to the Center of Town

Journey to the Center of Town
Dan Yaccarino
Feiwel and Friends, 2016 135 pgs.
Grades 2-4
Adventure/Humor
Class Pet Squad Series vol. 1

Meet the Class Pet Squad: a group of cuddly animals who hang out in classroom cages by day and have adventures by night. The gang is composed of its leader, a squirrel named Max, stealthy chameleon Rhonda,  Julius, a brainy turtle, wacky rabbit, Suzu who provides the comic relief and the three mice who can build whatever the Pet Squad needs to save the day. A crisis is at hand when student Ben McGillicutty brings a favorite toy to class for show and tell and then leaves it behind. He already confessed that he can't sleep without Sharkman, so it is up to Max and the gang to get the toy back to Ben's house before bedtime. The plan involves an ingenious and secret mode of transportation (think Trojan horse gone canine), assistance from a rough rival gang, a dangerous run-in with a group of cats followed by an altercation with a dog. Finally, the Pet Squad makes it to Ben's house, but its Suzu who wants to tackle the most delicate part of the mission: returning Sharkman to Ben's room. Can the squad trust Suzu to not blow it? More hilarious mayhem ensues with predictably successful results, concluding with the Pet Squad returning back to the school prepared to handle whatever disastrous situation that might next arrive.

Yaccarino, best know for his picture books, turns his talents to writing a chapter book perfect for readers graduation from easy readers, similar to DiCamillo's Mercy Watson series. Illustrations accompany every page and help to propel the story, giving the book a bit of a graphic novel vibe. The limited color palette of black, grey, and blue make the pictures seem a bit retro, but also work to keep the book from feeling to busy and hectic. The characters are lovable and wacky and the plot moves along quickly. Even though there is conflict, the story never crosses over to scary territory, making it a safe read for even the most sensitive children. The characters all feel distinct and a page in the front gives readers a "cheat sheet" to the team member's names and main characteristics. My favorite characters were the three mice, who are reminiscent of the Madagascar penguins. This is a quick read that all kids will enjoy. With both male and female characters and featuring animals, which eliminates the diversity factor, everyone is invited to the party. As the first in a projected series, children will have somewhere to go once they finish. Give to fans of Humphrey or anyone who likes to imagine what their class pet friends do at night.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Island of Dr. Libris

The Island of Dr. Libris
Chris Grabenstein
Random House, 2015 256 pgs.
Grades 3-7
Fantasy/Adventure

Billy is stranded for the summer in a technology-free cabin on a lake owned by his mom's colleague, the Dr. Libris of the title. He is entering the summer with a bad attitude, caused by a suspicion of the demise of his parent's marriage, and then things get worse when his iPhone dies. After a mysterious scavenger hunt for a hidden key to a locked bookshelf reveals access to shelves of classics, Billy digs in out of sheer boredom. A row out to the island in the center of the lake, a supposed bird sanctuary, offers an unexpected surprise. When Billy reads about Hercules, the legendary hero comes to life. This is shortly followed by Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers. His nerdy next-door neighbor, Walter, joins the fun and together the boys read up Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna, and Jack and the Beanstalk. Needless to say, not all of the characters get along and the boys have to do some quick thinking and problem solving to keep the peace. Even the local bully is dragged into the adventure to help the boys combat a video game character come to life. Meanwhile, the island is rigged as an experiment of Dr. Libris who intends to cash in on his invention of making fiction reality, yet he depends on an imagination as rich as Billy's. Once Billy learns the truth will he work with Dr. Libris and help him to get rich? When Billy's father visits the small family how can out hero use his new-found talents to help his parents remember that they love each other? Most of all, how can Billy keep the characters under control?

Chris Grabenstein is a librarian's best friend. He writes adventurous books full of the stuff kid's dream about, all while promoting reading and exposing young people to great works of literature. I love his Mr. Lemoncello books and have used them extensively in library programming. This story also boasts amazing library potential. It is a perfect summer read and I will incorporate it into next summer's reading club. Readers will appreciate the literary references and pro-reading agenda, while non-readers will appreciate the fast-paced and fresh plot, full of imagination and cool situations. The fantasy is believable and takes place to regular kids in the present world, making the story feel like it could really happen. Billy has a summer most kids dream about: freedom, adventure and a new friend. He learns to survive without technology and even thrives in it's absence. The one dark spot on Billy's summer is the break up of his parents marriage. This dilemma Billy solves magically and unrealistically, but readers won't care. They will love that Billy can control a situation that many children face and have no power over. This book is reminiscent of Inkheart, though at a slightly lower level, or one of my favorite books that is much less known: Travel Far, Pay no Fare by Anne Lindbergh. Many reference are made to classic books, including this book itself which is loosely based on H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. All the books referenced are listed in an author's note in the back. The Island of Dr. Libris will inspire readers to ponder who they would read out of literature if given the chance.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Serafina and the Black Cloak

Serafina and the Black Cloak
Robert Beatty
Disney/Hyperion, 2015 293 pgs
Grades 5-8
Fantasy/Mystery

Serafina lives a secret life in the basement of the Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. Her father is the estate's mechanic and he hides Serafina in the engine room, where she sleeps by day and wanders the basement catching rats by night. One evening, while going about her rounds, Serafina encounters a terrible sight; a creepy man in a black cloak who is chasing a young girl, corners her, and then seems to consume her in his cloak. The next morning all of the guests at the estate are concerned about the girl's disappearance and are organizing searching parties. Accustomed to never being noticed, Serafina is surprised when the young nephew and ward of the Vanderbilt's, Braeden, not only sees her, but befriends her. The two new friends search for the missing girl together, encountering a near-deadly assault from the man in the cloak after which being forced to spend a long night in a carriage in the woods. More children begin disappearing and Serafina finally suspects the true identity of the culprit. The only problem is her suspect is someone who Braeden trusts and he doesn't want to believe her. Serafina concocts a plan to lure the perpetrator into the open, thus revealing his true nature. Unfortunately, her plan involves great personal danger, deceiving her father and Braeden, and a run-in with a wild mountain lion. Serafina must tap into her inner courage and use skills she formally thought of as liabilities in order to see that justice is done.

First time author, Robert Beatty, pens a creepy mystery in a traditional Gothic setting with fantastic touches. Serafina is an unlikely heroine. She is the lowliest resident of the enormous Biltmore Estate and exhibits physical features that render her different and unfit for public viewing. These physical features help her to succeed in thwarting evil and have a very cool reason for belonging to her, as explained by book's end. The main mystery of the story is finding out the identity of the person inside the black cloak and the fate of the disappearing children. A secondary mystery is that of Serafina's parentage. All mysteries are satisfactorily solved with no dangling threads and the book ends pleasantly. There are bits in the book that are truly scary, such as the few instances when we see children get taken by the mysterious cloaked man, and the overall tone of the story is dark. Even though no permanent damage is done and all of the children are brought back to life upon the demise of the villain, this is not a story for sensitive or younger kids. All of the victims miraculously surviving consumption by the black-cloaked man is highly unrealistic, as is the whole ordeal being explained away to the Vanderbilts and their friends, but considering the intended audience, these plot choices are preferable in order to alleviate nightmares. The story feels old-fashioned and will appeal to horror lovers as well as readers who appreciate their historical fiction with a little bit of "bite". Serafina's adventures continue in Serafina and the Twisted Staff, which was released earlier this week.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Framed!: A T.O.A.S.T Mystery

Framed!
James Ponti
Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2016 292 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Mystery
T.O.A.S.T vol. 1


Florian Bates is a child genius. He has developed a system for solving mysteries called TOAST, which involves ignoring the big picture and concentrating on all the little details to get to the truth. Both of his parents have careers in the art world, which has led them to a move to Washington DC where they will work for the National Gallery. Florian immediately befriends neighbor Margaret, who is also about to enter seventh grade in the same school Florian will be attending. She has similar interests and intelligence and he teaches her the methods behind TOAST. While practicing these techniques they learn valuable information that comes in handy when three important impressionist pieces disappear in a late-night art heist. Florian reports to the crime scene with his security expert father and shares the information gleaned by himself and Margaret, using TOAST to gather more facts, which are used to locate the paintings before they leave the building. The FBI agent on the case is impressed with Florian's abilities and solicits him to assist in tracking down the culprit who is unknown. Florian and Margaret work on the case as they slide in and out of dangerous situations. Meanwhile, Margaret is trying to track down her birth parents and enlists Florian to help her. Florian finds the answer to Margaret's parentage, but  when the identity is both surprising and potentially dangerous should he tell her? Red herrings abound and threats lurk around every corner as Florian works diligently to solve the case. Finally, solve it he does, but the end of the story brings the hint of a new case, which will be revealed in the next volume in the series.

Ponti offers a traditional mystery for middle readers that is both solvable and fun to read. Enough clues and suspects are presented to keep kids guessing, yet not so many that the book becomes confusing. Florian is a modern day Encyclopedia Brown. He is smarter than the adults around him and willing to lend his expertise to track down the clues. Readers will vicariously live through Florian as he is recruited by the FBI and sent to the top-secret headquarters for training. Beyond possessing super intelligence, Florian is brave, well adjusted, and friendly. The addition of Margaret lends gender balance to the story, as well as racial diversity, yet I question how realistic a friendship between a girl and a boy in seventh grade is. Florian enters seventh grade as a super-smart new student with a female best friend and gets immediately elected to student council. He is better adjusted and evolved than any of the boys of a similar age that I know. But then again, maybe I'm over thinking it. This is a mystery after all and character development is not the first priority. A tightly woven plot with clues and non-stop action is what is required and this Ponti delivers. Readers also learn a bit about art and may be encouraged to visit the National Gallery or Google the paintings mentioned in the book. Best of all, its great fun and will expose middle grade readers to the joys of reading mysteries.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Maybe a Fox

Maybe a Fox
Kathi Appelt & Alison Mcghee
Simon & Schuster, 2016  256 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Fantasy

Sylvie & Jules/Jules & Sylvie. Even though these year-apart sisters are different in many ways, Jules is careful and loves rocks and Sylvie is impulsive and loves running, they are as close as two sisters can be. Often alone in their rural home while Dad works, they mourn their deceased mother, creating perfect snow families during the long Vermont winter to commemorate her memory. Now that the girls are getting older Sylvie is beginning to get on her younger sister's nerves and when Sylvie suggests racing down to the forbidden slip to make a wish, Jules declines the adventure. Sylvie never returns, leaving severe grief and guilt in her wake. Meanwhile, just as Sylvie's soul leaves her body, a female fox is born in a nearby den. This fox is special and immediately imprintis onto Jules, often following her from a distance and watching her from the bushes. Sam, Jule's best friend helps her get through the initial stages of mourning and stands by her side when she returns to school. His brother Elk recently returned from Afghanistan, where his best friend was killed, and is still suffering from the aftereffects of war and loss. Elk provides comfort to Jules and together, through rock collecting and a discovery of a secret grotto, they slowly start to heal. The action reaches a climax at the end of the story when a mythological giant cat called a Catamount sets forth a series of events revealing the true identity of the fox and bringing Jules back to the land of the living and moving forward with her life.

This is a beautifully told story by two powerful authors of children's literature. Its is not a traditional high fantasy, but more of a mythical/folklore type story, including magical local history, the discovery of a secret and possibly supernatural grotto, a legendary beast, and humans souls entering animals to provide comfort and protection to loved ones. The quality of the writing is the real star here and every word matters and was chosen with care. Appelt, who won a Newbery Honor for her book The Underneath may have another Newbery on her hands for this carefully crafted title. A quiet story, it will appeal to thoughtful and sensitive children. Many books have been published in the past few years featuring children dealing with death. This book is sad, but there is an audience for that. Stories need conflict in order to move the plot forward and a terrible problem in order to propel the main character towards growth. Death provides that catalyst in books for young people and although its sad, it makes for a powerful story. Although the main character is a girl, both boys and girls will enjoy this book and relate to it and the character of Sam adds some gender balance. The magic is subtle, the emotions are real and the characters are vividly drawn. My only complaint is that I am tired of books featuring wolves and foxes. I must have read at least ten of them in the past few years. Trend or coincidence? Not sure, but, even though foxes and wolves are cool, I am ready to move on to other types of animals. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Unexpected Everything

The Unexpected Everything
Morgan Matson
Simon & Schuster, 2016 519 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Romance

Andie's perfectly orchestrated life gets turned upside down when her politician father is accused of wrong-doings and steps down from his post while an investigation ensues. As part of the fallout Andie loses her planned prestigious summer program, meant to start her on the road to premed in college and future fame and fortune. Andie's closely guarded and controlled life has been blown-up and she has no back-up plan. After spending some quality time at the diner with her four best friends an advertisement for a summer job catch's her eye. At the interview she discovers that the job is dog walking, something in which she has no experience. After the interview and some on the job training, Andie is hired. Her first regular customer is a giant dog named Bertie, who lives with a mysterious cute guy. Mysterious cute guy turns out to be Clark, nerdy and awkward and not Andie's usual type. Maybe this is why Andie is attracted to him and agrees to a date, which requires more in depth conversation than Andie is comfortable with. After a disastrous encounter with a box of chocolates Bertie is in mortal danger. With no one else to turn to Clark asks Andie to help him with the ailing dog, where barriers break down and Andie and Clark make a real connection. Meanwhile, Andie's friends are having drama of their own, leading to a complete shake-down of life as she knows it. Getting comfortable with dogs, re-establishing a relationship with her suddenly available father, coping with the loss of her deceased mother, finding an identity not defined by her friends, and falling in love are the challenges Andie is forced to encounter even though she didn't purposely chose any of them. Can Andie let go of being in control of her emotions and future or is it time to open her heart and see where life takes her?

Morgan Matson offers another quintessential teen summer book featuring some of the minor characters from her popular Since You've Been Gone (2014) perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen. This is one of those books that I find it hard to relate to any of the characters (seemingly beautiful, popular, and privileged teens with way too much freedom and money), yet highly enjoy for the escapism that it offers and teen girls will as well. It is a lot of fun and serves as a perfectly frothy and satisfying beach read. This is primarily Andie's story and her romance with Clark is the focal point of the novel, yet Andie's friends have their share of plot inducing drama. Clark is a bit more relatable than the girls and readers will appreciate his nerd side, yet he harbors a very cool career related secret that also pushes him into the realm of teen royalty. Not too many adults are present with the exception of Andie's father, who exhibits much character growth throughout the story and becomes a real rock star by book's end. The Unexpected Everything runs a bit long for this type of book, but the plot moves along quickly and contains so many threads that readers won't want it to end. The cover is inviting and will draw readers in who may be put off by the length. Besides offering a fun summer romance, Matson also leaves readers with something to chew on while they are reading such as putting family before career, the reality behinds politics, being flexible with life goals, taking chances, and learning to trust. Part of the book is presented in text messages between the friends, including a lot of emojis, which will certainly appeal to teen readers. This book came out in May. Twenty-nine libraries in my county purchased it. It is currently available in only five. These statistics say it all: this is a book that teens are interested in reading and will commit to once they start.


Monday, July 4, 2016

Crash

Image result for crash spinelliCrash
Jerry Spinelli
Alfred A. Knopf, 1996 162 pgs
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction/Sports


John "Crash" Coogan has always been a bruiser, hence the nickname. When new kid, Penn Webb, moves into the neighborhood he immediately annoys Crash. He parents are too old, his family is too happy, they don't eat meat or believe in guns or war, Penn wears goofy buttons, dresses weird and doesn't have a TV or toys or care about stuff other kids think are important. Crash manages to avoid Penn for years until sixth grade when Mike moves to the neighborhood and the boys instantly bond. They are both on the football team, like the same things, and believe in that torturing Penn will elevate their own social stature. This gets worse when Penn joins the cheer leading squad and becomes even dorkier in Crash and Mike's eyes. Meanwhile, Crash's beloved grandfather Scooter moves in, giving the family much needed adult guidance and nurturing. Penn and Jane (Crash's crush) campaign to stop construction on a new shopping mall and Crash's sister joins the fight. She make matters worse by becoming vegetarian and attempting to turn their backyard into a wildlife sanctuary. Despite Crash's athletic prowess, Jane refuses his romantic advances, choosing instead to spend time with Penn. Is the whole world going crazy? Crash's football season ends with victory, yet because of his actions something terrible happens to a family member that makes him question his "crash-able" ways. The book ends on a hopeful and satisfactory note of redemption and character growth.

Penned by Newbery winner Jerry Spinelli, Crash is one of my favorite books. I am notorious for hating endings of books and can count on my fingers how many I truly am happy with. This book features my favorite last line. I have probably used this book at least four times in book discussion, so it may be my sixth time reading it and that line never fails to choke me up. I chose to use this book for this summer's Battle of the Books at my library because I am featuring all sports titles to go along with our theme "On Your Mark, Get Set, Read!" I thought it would also be a good choice because it will appeal to kids who love Wonder, which continues to be a hot title in my library. It is a book that works on many different levels. On the surface it looks like a sports story and you can sell to sports readers. More importantly it a book about bullying from the bully's perspective and the importance of staying true to yourself, even if its socially hard. Other themes include urbanization and the environment, the evils of materialism, the importance of the family dinner, and questioning what our American culture constitutes as "successful" in terms of life choices. Spinelli shows us what truly matters at the end of the day and most of the characters in this story get the message. Twenty years later I still love this book. It is not dated and continues to be relevant. As a note to parents, there are a few insults in the book that made me a little uncomfortable for younger readers and there is one swear-word. That said, it is much tamer than most movies targeted at this age group and the issues raised and the character growth demonstrated 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

What are the Summer Olympics?

What are the Summer Olympics?
Gail Herman
Grosset & Dunlap, 2016 108 pgs
Grades 3-6
Non-fiction
What was...? series

A new installment in this popular series just in time for the 2016 Olympics. The series' traditional format is used to trace the history of the Olympics from ancient times to modern. While mostly focusing on the modern games, readers learn about this famous global happening, and events are put withing historical and social context, exposing children to a brief over-view of world history for the past one-hundred plus years.Integration of the games, including the introduction of women and people of color, demonstrates the changing world, as the twentieth century progresses and barriers break down. Cartoon illustrations can be found on every page and a sixteen page photo insert in the middle of the book shows readers actual images of some of the key players. A bibliography and timeline at the end give researchers further information, as does a list of movies to watch featuring Olympic stars.

It is an Olympic year and, partly to get away from the presidential election, I am throwing myself into it. The Olympics are a great way to celebrate global unity, especially in scary and unsettled times, and the heartwarming stories of the athletes captivate even non-enthusiasts of sports. This brief overview of the games, mostly focusing on the modern re-boot beginning in 1896, puts the Olympics within a historic and social framework of the times. Some standout athletes are featured and a few exceptional stories are shared. So many important world events happened around the back-drop of the Olympics and they all seem that much more extreme when presented in such a succinct format. My favorite part of the book is when Jesse Owens and other African-American athletes stuck it to Hitler in the 1936 games. The most shocking story was of the terrorist attacks on the Israeli athletes in 1972. Although I was alive a the time (although only six) I do not remember this tragedy happening. The book does not shy away from discrimination, AIDS or performance enhancing drug use even though it is intended for a young audience, but I feel that it was done in an age appropriate way. My teenage daughter picked up the book and was reading out-loud some of the more fascinating bits while it was sitting on the kitchen table, proving that it has multi-generational appeal. A great introduction to the famous games.