Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

Image result for vanderbeekers coverThe Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
Karina Yan Glaser
Houghton Mifflin, 2017 296 pages
Grades 4-8
Realistic Fiction

Different Points of view relate the story of the Vanderbeeker family, long time residents of a Harlem brownstone. A family of five children is not a usual sight in New York City and finding a living space to accommodate such a family is no easy task. The family has been happily ensconced in the 141st brownstone for all of the children's lives when out of the blue the grouchy landlord and upstairs neighbor, Mr. Beiderman, has evicted them. And it's Christmas. The days before this important holiday have the Vanderbeeker children scurrying to find gifts for each other, keep up with their family traditions, Stay out of Mom's way while she is trying to pack and prepare, and scheming to concoct a plan to convince The Beiderman (as they call him) to let them stay. Their plans include getting the neighborhood to sign a petition, bringing him delicious pastries, constructing cheerful decorations, and leaving a kitten on his doorstep. Every plan ends in disaster. With help from friends in the neighborhood the kids finally do some sleuthing and conduct some research on The Beiderman, unearthing secrets about his past which explain his crabby behavior. Can they break through to him before it's too late? Meanwhile, one of the oldest twins is experiencing first love, despite the interference of her sister. Various interpersonal interactions, unpredictable pets and misunderstandings makes for never a dull moment in this madcap house with this crazy and heartfelt family.

Glaser has envisioned a classic American family in the tradition of the Melendys and the Penderwicks with a modern twist. Despite the old-school highbrow New York City name, the Vanderbeekers are a multiracial clan living within a diverse neighborhood. The children are so creative, unique, and unjaded that they feel homeschooled, but they do attend public school. Something about the family reminds me of the clan from All of a Kind Family. Maybe it is the New York setting, possibly the family is mostly all-girl makeup, or it could just be the cozy feel of the story. The book is contemporary and modern, yet has an old-fashioned feel to it. This is really a character piece. The struggle to convince The Beiderman to let them stay is the plot that keeps the story together to introduce this family to children and to give them something to do. At first I had a hard time keeping the children straight, but Glaser draws everyone distinctly enough that I knew them all pretty quickly. Poor Mrs. Vanderbeeker! If getting ready for Christmas with five children isn't hard enough, she has to find a new place to live and pack up their whole lives. I felt for the poor woman, although she seemed pretty calm under the circumstances, although that could just be because we are hearing the story from a child’s perspective. Both boys and girls will enjoy this book. It would make an excellent family read-aloud. The story keeps moving along with enough tension and suspense to keep the readers turning pages, while infused with truly funny bits. I can see sequels in Glaser's future and readers will want to revisit their new friends for another cozy adventure.

Monday, October 16, 2017

All's Faire in Middle School

Image result for alls faire in middle school coverAll's Faire in Middle School
Victoria Jamieson
Dial/Penguin, 2017 248 pages
Grades 5-8
Graphic Novel

Imogene is very excited. The new season of the Florida Renaissance Faire in which her family works is about to start. Now that she is eleven Imogene is allowed to be a part of the cast. Her role will be that of a squire, working under her father, who plays the role of the evil knight. All of her old friends are back for the two month season, including her older crush who plays the role of the hero knight, only this year he has a princess girlfriend in tow. Further complications ensue as homeschooled Imogene begins public school for the first time. Middle School is a bewildering experience and she has a hard time adjusting to changing classes, tricky teachers, current fashion trends, and the dreaded cafeteria at lunchtime. Mika, the reigning queen-bee, befriends Imogene and welcomes her to the cool clique. Imogene is thrilled to have friends, but worries that her clothes aren't right. She is shocked to discover how much the clothes worn by the popular girls actually cost and after visiting Mika's house, realizes for the first time that her family is relatively poor. Meanwhile, at the faire Imogene discovers a way to connect with Faire goers and befriends an outcast from her school who is a regular attendee. Anita also enjoys swordplay and the two work together to entertain visiting children, yet pretend not to be friends at school. Despite Anita's warnings, Imogene continues to hang out with Mika's crowd until she stands up to Mika's meanness, only to have secrets betrayed, landing her suspended from school and a social outcast. Imogene must learn to be true to herself and finds out what it means to be a real knight and an all-around decent person.

I loved Jamieson's Newbery winning Roller Girl and love her sophomore effort All's Faire in Middle School even more. Maybe it's the Renn Faire setting (I am a big fan and attend every year) or maybe it is the way Jamieson completely nails the emotions of a struggling sixth grader, but I really connected with this book. Sixth grade is a very difficult year. I found it excruciatingly difficult as did both of my daughters. School gets suddenly harder with changing classes and increased homework and socially friends get complicated. Imogene has it that much harder in that she is beginning school for the first time and has no clue how the school social structure works. She tries desperately to fit in, losing herself in the process. After alienating many of her loved ones and becoming a person whom she dislikes, Imogene must embrace who she is and be true to herself, even if it means having no school friends. Nerds will relate to Imogene's interests and will find comfort in her strength and victorious outcome. Jamieson leaves readers with much food for thought, including being kind, standing up to bullies, being true to yourself, the importance of working hard in school, loyalty, the choice of living simply: doing what you love over selling out to have a better lifestyle, and the power of forgiveness. This coming of age tale sees Imogene embracing a bit of her inner-princess, even though she remains a bit of a tomboy squire and, most importantly, she realizes that she is not the center of the universe. Jamieson's drawings are clear and add humor and depth to the story. Chapter headings appear to be pages straight from ancient fairytales, placing the reader in the Renn Faire setting. Some of the coming of age themes are a bit mature for younger readers, so I would not recommend this book for younger than fifth grade, even though the comic nature of the book appears inviting to a young audience. An excellent addition to the realistic graphic genre for middle grades readers.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Laugh Out Loud

Image result for laugh out loud patterson coverLaugh Out Loud
James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
Jeff Ebbeler, Illustrator
Jimmy Books/Hachette, 2017 275 pages
Grades 3-6 Humor

Young Jimmy wants to start his own company to write and publish books for kids with the company run by kids. His dream is inspired by his house-bound neighbor's plea to “Please give me another book, Jimmy!". He begins writing stories of his own that he thinks will be of interest to kids and his whole school and neighborhood goes nuts for the stories. The book plots that Jimmy conceives will be familiar to fans of James Patterson, as they are the storylines from his already published materials for young people. Jimmy has big dreams for the book company. It will be called "Laugh Out Loud Books” and will move product from one level to another by Ferris Wheel and workers will move around by hoverboards. The only problem is that Jimmy needs capital. All of the adults in his life (with the exception of the librarian:) and the banks he visits all laugh at him, inspiring the name for the company. His accountant/lawyer parents are too busy constantly working to encourage or support his dreams. What is a budding entrepreneur to do? Jimmy refuses to be discouraged. He and his friends work together to get a few of his stories published with the help of a friendly photocopy guy and eventually finding a financial backer. Laugh Out Loud books gets re-branded Jimmy Books and a publishing legend is born!

James Patterson is committed to turning kids into readers. To this end he writes with talented collaborators to create visual kid-friendly books that may not be the stuff of great fiction, but are devoured by readers. Laugh Out Loud is a fictionalized behind-the-scenes look of the creation of James Patterson's new imprint, if he was a kid. The journey is completely fantastical and made-up, yet will teach kids to follow their dreams and not give up, even if all of the adults in their lives think their dreams are unattainable. The story gets a bit absurd at times and is not particularly realistic, but young readers will not mind. Jimmy's parents go from workaholics who barely notice him to rock-band/cartoon artists who quit their jobs and eventually help with the book company. Believable? Not a chance, but kids with parents who are too caught up in their own lives will find hope that the same could happen within their own families. The cartoon-like illustrations are plentiful and add humor and interest to the story. Various characters from Patterson's other books for young people are characters in this tale and at the end of the story he lists which books they are all from, possibly leading readers to yet another book. Young Jimmy is clearly a reader and lover of books. Throughout the story he makes reference to other book titles by other authors. I would have liked to see a bibliography of these titles at the end of the volume to encourage readers to read some stories by other authors. Instead readers are offered an except from Patterson's latest novel Pottymouth and Stoopid. This book is perhaps a bit self serving, but will definitely be enjoyed by readers and at the end of the day teaches them the importance of books and following their dreams.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Room One: a Mystery or Two

Image result for room one mystery or two clementsRoom One: a Mystery or Two
Andrew Clements
Scholastic, 2006 168 pages
Grades 3-6

Amateur detective, paperboy, and independent boy scout, Ted Hammond, is the sole student in sixth grade in his one-class school. Ted's small Nebraskan town is shrinking as families move away after losing their farms and local businesses are forced to close. The school and the whole town itself is in danger of fading away. As Ted pedals by yet another abandoned farmhouse while delivering his papers, he is shocked to see a face in the attic window. Further investigation after school reveals a girl around his age named April. April confesses that her father died in the middle east and her mother was being harassed by a former friend of her father’s and didn't feel safe. Mom, April and her little brother have run away and are now in hiding. Ted agrees to help the little family by bringing them food and other supplies. He finally brings his teacher in on his secret and she promises to help. When the police are seen at the abandoned farm and April's family is missing, Ted fears that his teacher betrayed him. He must use his detective skills to find the whereabouts of the family in order to connect them to the help they need. Ted does locate them and develops a plan to save the day and maybe the whole town. The plan does not go exactly as Ted has hoped, but it does serve as a catalyst for positive change.

Clements, the master of the school story, pens a mystery with social undertones. This is not a conventional mystery. Ted longs to be a detective and to find some real excitement in his sleepy town. His keen observational skills lead him to the family in crisis and he does use his detective abilities to locate them a second time. Ted learns the valuable lesson that real life is not as clean-cut as a case in one of his stories. It is complicated, messy, and unpredictable. Ted's best efforts may seem like a fail, but ultimately lead the town to a different solution. Clements highlights the plight of the mid-western farmer and the slow death of the American farming community. He educates the reader about the New Homestead Act, a proposed solution to resettling abandoned farmland, which has been talked about, but has yet to come to fruition. Other themes explored in this book are society's need to take care of veteran families, mental illness in custodial parents, combating loneliness, and finding a trusted adult when the problem is too big for a kid. Young readers will love the idea of a one-class school. It is also cool that Ted is the only student in his grade. He moves the desks to make a fort in the middle of the classroom where he can explore his many interests. Children will immediately identify with Ted and put themselves in his shoes as he tries to help April, struggles with his solitary existence, and faces many important decisions. This book reads quickly and will appeal to a wide audience. Small pencil illustrations, contributed by Chris Blair, do not particularly add to the story, but will satisfy readers who are more comfortable with some added visuals. The ending is not the one the readers will be expecting, but remains satisfying and positive.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Graveyard Shakes

Image result for graveyard shakes coverGraveyard Shakes
Laura Terry
Graphix/Scholastic, 2017
Grades 4-7
Graphic Novel

Sisters Victoria and Katia must begin life at a posh boarding school in order to avoid life on the farm being home schooled by mom. Older sister, Victoria, is desperate to fit in. She faces humiliation and embarrassment by her classmates, who make fun of her favorite hat and treat her shabbily. Victoria attempts to make friends by joining the soccer team and dragging Katia along to orchestra auditions. Wild-child younger sister, Katia, refuses to conform to the expected mold of the school. Her brilliant piano playing impresses the other kids, yet gets out of control and it becomes clear that she cannot be reined in to join the orchestra. Meanwhile, a little zombie boy, Modie, is being kept alive by his scientist father, who must feed him the soul of a human child every thirteen years. The thirteen years is up and Dad is sending out the local ghosts to help him locate a new victim. Modie knows that it is wrong, but he is powerless to stand up to his strong father. Modie's only friend is Little Ghost, who doesn't fit in with the wild prankster ghosts of the graveyard and the land below. Little ghost meets a new friend as Victoria is out searching for Katia in the graveyard on snowy winter night. Katia is in the church being wild with the evil ghosts, who bring her to Modie's father for the procedure. Victoria, Modie, and Little Ghost must work together to save Katia and stop this vicious cycle. Unfortunately, a sacrifice must be made, yet in the end the evil is defeated. Katia and Victoria at last find their place in the school environment. It is not the school life Victoria aimed for, yet they have friends and are at last happy.

New author/cartoonist Terry offers a fresh contribution to the current trendy genre of middle school problem graphic novels. Graveyard Shakes has a spooky twist that will potentially draw in a new audience. At its core, this story is a coming of age problem novel where the older sister learns to love herself and finds confidence and the young sister becomes a bit more mature and appreciative of her older sister. The spooky layer adds dimension to the story and makes the book more than just another coming of age graphic novel. It is deliciously eerie and will elicit shivers in the target audience. Little Ghost is more Casper than creepy, making it that much more heartfelt when he meets a tragic demise at the end. Moodie is a bit more unsettling and desolate, yet somehow heartwarming, and readers will feel sorry for him, hoping for a painless demise. The plethora of wandering ghosts are interesting and original. Terry obviously had fun creating them. They are not too scary, along the lines of the Disney Haunted Mansion ride, yet will freak out readers who scare easily. Kids who don't like scary stories will stay away from this book anyway once they see the cover. Kids who like a little scare in their stories will find much to enjoy in this original and shivery tale.The well-executed illustrations are all in full color and the panels scan easily. Terry relies more on the pictures telling the story and the text is light and used only to propel the plot. Reluctant readers will gobble up this title and it may attract new readers to the genre.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Riding Freedom

Image result for riding freedomRiding Freedom
Pam Munoz Ryan
Brian Selznick, Illustrator
Scholastic, 1998 138 pages
Grades 3-6
Historical Fiction

Charlotte Parkhurst is an orphan living in New England in the mid-eighteen-hundreds. Even though she loves horses and has a natural way with them, because she is a girl she must work as a servant in the kitchen with a horribly mean cook. After being forbidden to help out in the stables in her spare time and ride her beloved horses, followed by her best friend being adopted, Charlotte decides to run away. But how? It is not safe or practical for girls to try to strike out on their own. Charlottes changes her name to Charlie, dons boy’s clothes, borrows money from the ex-slave stable-hand who is her friend and sets off to seek her fame and fortune. Naturally, Charlie lands at a stable, where she proves to be an excellent hand, working herself up the ranks to stagecoach driver. The owner of the stables suspects Charlie's true identity, but chooses to kindly allow her to remain in his employ and keeps her secret. An opportunity in California sees Charlie relocating and getting closer to her dream of owning her own stable, only to lose her eye after being kicked by a horse. Her stage coach driving days seem over, yet Charlie does not give up. She learns to drive the coach with one eye, increasing her reputation and finally reaching her lifelong dream. Her old orphan friend and previous boss come to stay at her new stables and Charlie at last seems happy and at peace. Another dream is realized as Charlie becomes the first woman to vote in the United States in 1868. Although voting as a man, Charlie proves that women can make intelligent decisions in politics, paving the road for future generations.

There are very few historical fiction choices for younger chapter readers that do not involve time travel. Riding Freedom is one of my favorites. It is an excellent choice for historical fiction projects, strikes a blow at discrimination based on gender and race, and is an all-around great story. Ryan jams non-stop action into the 138 pages, tracing the life of this little-known American woman. Charlie demonstrates courage, tenacity, and sheer pluckiness in the face of adversity. Nothing seems to keep this character down as she slowly and determinedly realizes her dreams. The colloquial language helps to place the reader in the time of the story and the setting is fully realized. Full-page pencil illustrations, drawn by the wonderfully talented Brian Selznick, can be found in every chapter and help to flesh out the tale and keep readers turning pages. Great for both classroom use and recreation, the book will be enjoyed by a broad audience and works on many levels. The print is large, the chapters are short, and the margins are wide, inviting new chapter book readers. The vocabulary is richer than most books for this audience, bringing the reading level to a deceptively higher level than this selection appears at first glance. The American frontier was not a land of opportunity for everyone. Parkhurst manages to break the constraints of her time and become an American success story and inspiration to future generations.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Children of Exile

Image result for children exile haddixChildren of Exile
Margaret Peterson Haddix
Simon & Schuster, 2016 304 pages
Grades 4-8
Science Fiction

Twelve year-old Rosi has been raised all her life, along with her younger brother Bobo, in an Utopian community called Fredtown by Fred-parents. Life is fair, safe, and dependable. Rosi's life is shattered when she and the other children in the community are informed that they must go back home to their "real" parents, only they don't remember home since they were taken away as babies because it was considered unsafe. The Freds won't tell the children anything about their past or heritage and they reluctantly put them on a plane with cold strangers to journey back to a place the children don't remember. Home is desolate, unfamiliar, and harsh. A mother pulls Rosi and Bobo from the plane and takes them to a ramshackled house where they meet their father, a blind and bitter man who does not seem happy to have them back. The parents seem content enough with Bobo, but treat Rosi coldly. As she walks through the war-torn streets she realizes that the townspeople whom she passes look at her with suspicion. Does it have anything to do with her green eyes? And why are there no other children or teenagers besides the ones returning from Fredtown? A friend from the past has theories about what happened to their parents, the reason that they were sent away, and why everyone is acting so strangely, but then he disappears and Rosi suspects foul play. While trying to get help to rescue her friend, Rosi finds herself in more danger and trouble than she hardly thought possible. Eventually, the secret behind the removal of the children is revealed and the identity of the Freds is discovered. Rosi must now draw on her inner courage to save both Bobo and herself from a life of cruelty and imprisonment.

Haddix is the undisputed queen of the middle grade concept book. Her books have great ideas that hook kids and keep them frantically turning pages. The idea behind Running out of Time, where the prairie girl is really part of a living history exhibit, remains one of my favorite stories in all of kid's lit. The Shadow Children series continues to be one of the most requested series in my library. I had high hopes for Children of Exile and it did not disappoint. There were so many layers of mystery, starting with why the children were taken away in the first place and continuing with the story behind the biological parents and the identity of the Freds and their role in the drama. We see the adventure through Rosi's eyes, as she is first exposed to prejudice, violence and cruelty. Rosi eventualy unravels the secrets behind both societies. Sometimes the reader will guess the outcome and sometimes it comes as a complete surprise. The plot rolls along at a breakneck speed with one plot twist following another. My favorite comes at the end when the identity of the Freds is revealed. Beyond the great story, Haddix offers themes of non-violence, anti-war and weapons, and overcoming physical prejudices, as well as exploring what makes a family and finding inner courage to do the right thing. Sometimes the story gets a little contrived and clunky, but it is written for children to enjoy and does not require finesse. Reluctant readers and science fiction nerds will all love this book and it will be enjoyed by both boys and girls. The cover is interesting and the action starts right away. A sequel Children of Refuge was released last month, giving readers a place to go once they finally reach the conclusion.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Brave Red, Smart Frog

Image result for brave red smart frogBrave Red, Smart Frog
Emily Jenkins
Rohan Daniel Eason. Illustrator
Candlewick, 2017 94 pages
Grades 3-6
Fairy Tales

Jenkins presents new versions of seven classic fairy tales. The stories include Snow White, The Frog Prince, Three Wishes, Toads and Pearls, Red Riding Hood, The Three Great Noodles, and Hansel and Gretel. All are set in the fairy tale past and stick closely to that with which we are familiar. Whimsical full-color illustrations, contributed by Rohan Daniel Eason, introduce each tale in this beautifully designed collection. An author's note at the end explains that Jenkins is a student and lover of traditional fairy tales. She has striven to not paraphrase a particular folklorist from the past, but take all the versions of the traditional tales and make them her own, asking questions to flesh-out parts of the stories that she has always wondered about. In doing so, she is contributing a collection that reflects its oral roots and intention.

I am a great fan of fairy tales and, like Jenkins, have delved into many such collections throughout my lifetime. I enjoyed this new volume very much. It presents stories that may seem overexposed to adults, such as myself, yet will be fresh to young readers, who no longer have ready access to traditional non-Disneyfied fairy tales. The book is thin with wide margins, an inviting layout and an enticing cover. The end papers and color palette will draw readers in, exposing a new generation to these timeless tales. I love Jenkins’ selection of stories, some more common than others. Toads and Pearls, which I know of as Toads and Diamonds, is one of my favorites. The Three Great Noodles, which I am familiar with as The Three Sillies and is a little different than the versions I know, is still true to the spirit of the more common versions and will familiarize children to the old fashioned term "noodle". The violence of the original stories is present, yet not grotesquely overdone and the original intent of the story is respected. Some aspects of certain stories carry-over to further tales linking the individual stories together. Even though the volume is thin, Jenkins does not cheap-out on vocabulary and introduces young readers to new terms, unfamiliar magical creatures, and some challenging vocabulary. An obvious read aloud and a great gift-giving selection, this book will be welcomed for both home and classroom use. Here's to hoping that Jenkins pulls together a second volume!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Image result for awkward chmakovaAwkward
Svetlana Chmakova
Yen/Hachette, 2015 211 pages
Grades 3-8
Graphic Novel

Peppi struggles with fitting into middle school society. She feels like such a nerd. Her saving grace is art club, only they are in danger of losing club status because of the horrible science club. Meanwhile, an embarrassing fall in the school hallway has Peppi making an uncomfortable decision, resulting in insulting fellow nerd Jamie, who was trying to help her. Jamie is part of the dreaded science club. As the year progresses Peppi feels guilty about the way she handled the Jamie situation. To make matters worse, she must be tutored by a student because of a tanking science grade. The tutor is, you guessed it, Jamie. Eventually, Peppi and Jamie become friends and she finds the courage to apologize, finding grace in forgiveness and future redemption when a similar situation develops. Can a female art nerd and male science nerd find friendship within the rigid constraints of middle school culture?

Image result for brave chmakova
Sveltana Chmakova
Yen/Hachette, 2017 241 pages
Grades 3-8
Graphic Novel

Fellow Art Club member and friend of Peppi, Jensen, is use to being the target of jokes. Overweight and fearful, he struggles with keeping up with middle school culture, personal confidence, and fitting in with a group. Jensen often retreats into his fantasy world, where he dreams of being an astronaut/superhero, protecting the world from celestial dangers. After constantly being overlooked by the art club, Jensen falls in with the school paper crew. They are doing independent research on bullying and want to interview Jensen. But wait; he doesn't think he is a victim of bullying. It isn't bullying if the teasing is done by your friends, right? Jensen finally comes to the realization that his friends are not very nice to him and eventually finds the courage to speak up for himself. By book's end Jensen's grades are better, has more confidence, and realizes that everyone in middle school struggles with fitting in. He even develops the maturity to solve a conflict between his new newspaper friends and reaches out to one of the bullys, who formally made his life miserable.

Appealing to fans of Raina Telgemeier, Chmakova's realistic graphic novels are wildly popular. Both titles are currently checked out of my library and because of the flood of recent requests, I think I may have to order more copies. Chmakova delves into the social pressures of middle school life and the complexities that has many young people mystified. Awkward deals with finding the courage to embrace your inner-nerd and allowing yourself to be friends with whomever you like, even if it means being teased. Brave deals with bullying and feeling alone in a crowd. Both middle school struggles are common, yet kids that experience them feel as if they are the only ones who ever has those feelings. Chmakova shows the reader that they are not alone and others are going through similar struggles. The leading cause of death in teenagers is currently suicide. This tragic phenomenon is one that is overtaking schools across the country. Our society must work together to combat teen isolation and stories like these can help. Because of the graphic style, the books read quickly and the diverse cast will welcome all genders and races. The comics scan well, are in full color and are not cluttered. Back matter explains the artist's process, which will appeal to budding cartoonists. The messages for both books are a bit on the obvious side, but are appealing to young readers who can relate to these messages and may be grateful that they do not have to read between the lines. The time for subtlety is over. Kids have to learn to be nice to each other and, hopefully, Chmakova's novels will aid in this goal.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Summer on Earth

Image result for summer on earth book coverSummer on Earth
Peter Thompson
Persnickety Press, 2017 294 pages
Grades 4-7
Science Fiction

Grady sees a shooting star from his bedroom mirror and makes a wish. Things have been tough on his mid-western farm ever since his dad died tragically in a car accident. Now his mother, little sister, and himself are trying to keep the farm afloat, even while the bank manager is pressuring them for back payments. The bank manager, an old friend of Grady's father, has made an offer on the family farm and is eager to buy the land in order to develop it. Meanwhile, the shooting start was not a star at all, but a crashing space ship containing one lone alien named Ralwil Turth. Ralwil crashes on Grady's farm and realizes he must hunker down for a while to make necessary repairs on his ship. He uses his dwindling functional technology to transpose himself to human form and introduces himself as Will to Grady's family, where he begins work as a farmhand. Will is strange, but the family assumes that he is either from distant lands or maybe a bit slow minded. As time passes and Will repairs broken equipment on the farm, lends much needed muscle, and plays games with the children, he becomes part of the family. As the summer drags on, Will realizes that he is becoming attached to this group of humans and wants to help the mother with her troubles, which all seem to be rooted in the green paper called money, which the mother claims "doesn't grow on trees". What if it did? Will uses his remaining alien technology to create a tree that actually grows money. Problem solved, right? Hardly! Now human nature rears its ugly head as a nosy sheriff's deputy looking for promotion discovers the tree and tells the entire town about its whereabouts, leading to destruction and heartache. Will Ralwil ever reach his home planet and what will happen to Grady's farm?

What kid hasn't imagined meeting an alien? Grady's dream comes true in this original tale for middle grade readers. The story is told in four distinct points of view: Grady, Ralwil, the ambitious deputy, and the greedy bank manager. All four voices are written distinctly and the narrator's name is offered at the top of the chapter in order to alleviate confusion for the reader. Thompson's best writing is seen in creating the voice of Ralwil, where readers can experience common practices, such as eating smores and walking through the grocery store, with alien eyes. The story itself moves quickly and has an original plot. I love that the concept of "money growing on trees" is taken literally and turned upside down. Kids may be looking at the trees in their own backyard a little more closely. Thompson calls attention to various themes such as welcoming the newcomer, accepting differences, living in community, helping out neighbors, and the allure and power of money and how it makes good people crazy. The book reads quickly and the print seems to be a little larger than usual, making this a great choice for reluctant readers. Older children with lower reading levels will enjoy this book and find it interesting, yet the content remains appropriate for younger children with higher reading levels. The book is set in the summer of 1978, which I felt was unnecessary. The time period felt universal, although the place was fully realized and an intricate part of the story. Summer on Earth would make a wonderful movie. With the scope of characters, both young and adult, the infusion of humor, and important themes buried beneath an interesting plot, it is reminiscent of Hoot and will appeal to a broad audience.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Secret Rescuers: The Storm Dragon

Image result for secret rescuers storm dragonThe Secret Rescuers: The Storm Dragon
Paula Harrison
Sophy Williams, Illustrator
Aladdin, Simon & Schuster, 2017  119 pages
Grades 2-4

Orphan Sophy works as a servant girl in the castle of the recently widowed Queen. Since the death of the King, life has been a bit more intense at the castle. Sir Fitzroy has the ear of the Queen and is determined to rid the kingdom of magical creatures of whom he considers dangerous. While Sophie is hard at work, a Golden Songbird leads her to a chest of beautiful crystals. Sophy puts them in her pocket, only to rediscover them when a baby dragon crash-lands into a tree while she is picking apples. The magic crystals allow her to communicate with the baby dragon and they can now understand each other perfectly. His name is Cloudy and he is a storm dragon, capable of creating wind and, eventually, controlling the weather. Cloudy wandered off and became separated from his dragon family. During this adventure he injured his wing and can no longer fly. He needs Dragonweed, a plant that grows beyond the castle walls, a repair it. Sophy must somehow sneak Cloudy out of the castle and find the mysterious Dragonweed without detection from soldiers or the Queen and Sir Fitzroy. How can a lowly servant girl save the day?

Originally published in the United Kingdom, this new series will appeal to young fairytale lovers not quite ready for The Land of Stories or lovers of the Fairy Magic series. With a bit more substance than Fairy Magic and drawing in animals enthusiasts, this new series has much to recommend it. Girls, especially, will enjoy Sophy's adventures and wish to discover their own magic creatures. The pencil illustrations are sweet and will draw readers into the pages. Targeted at the beginning chapter book set, the vocabulary is a bit deceiving, so although the packaging is on target for the age group, some of the words may be a bit tricky for newly independent readers. The story is magical, adventurous, and fun. It encourages readers to open their imaginations and observe their worlds more closely for hidden magic. Sophy learns that even though she is an orphaned servant girl, she is special. She was chosen to find the magical stones because of her kindness to animals and her yet untapped courage. I love the message that little people can do big things and Sophy demonstrates fearlessness, empathy, and character. The second and third in the series are already released in the United States with number four scheduled to come in November.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Player King

Image result for player king avi coverThe Player King
Atheneum/Simon & Shuster, Oct. 2017 
199 pages
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction

Orphan Lambert Simnel enjoys nothing more than escaping from his life of drudgery in a low-brow inn deep in the heart of medieval London to get some fresh air. One day, while sent out on an errand, he stops to observe some actors, enjoys the performance, and finds himself utilizing the same skills as he gets whisked away by a mysterious friar. The friar purchases him from the innkeeper, washes him for the first time ever, and begins to train him to be a gentleman. It turns out that Lambert resembles the Earl of Warwick, next in line to succeed the rightful King of England. The real Earl of Warwick is locked up in the tower of London, where King Henry placed him after overthrowing the crown. Now, King Henry's enemies want to regain their lost power and training Lambert to pose as the heir to the throne will help them achieve their ambitious goals. Lambert is a fast learner and before long he finds himself journeying to Ireland, where he is coronated, gathers an army, and proceeds to march into England. His noble friends have assured him that more soldiers will join the troops once they arrive, except no soldiers come. Instead, Lambert gets a sinking feeling that the "jig is up" and it won't be as easy to overthrow King Henry as he was led to believe. A fierce battle scene ends the novel with Lambert's fate hanging in the balance. What will King Henry do to the Player King once he gets his hands on him?

Avi is one of the most prolific writers for young people in our time. He especially excels at writing well-researched and exciting historical fiction for children. Avi returns to the medieval world of his Newbery winning Crispen and the Cross of Lead, although this time focusing on real world events. As written in the Author's Note at the end of the story, Lambert Simnel was a real person and this story is based on actual events. This alone should draw in readers and the exciting plot should keep them hooked. Every short chapter ends with a cliff-hanger to keep readers turning pages. The book is rather short, the print is a decent size, and the margins are big, as to not intimidate readers. The first person voice is written a bit "authentically", which may put off some kids, but will help others get into the time period. There are not enough books set in the middle ages, so I am grateful for the subject matter. I am also grateful that the book is geared towards boys and is exciting enough to make it an easy sell to this tricky audience. I loved learning about this little-known chapter of British history and did a google search to find out a bit more. Lambert is a great character and kids will relate to his reluctance to leave home, no matter how dysfunctional it is, and then experience his desire for power, only to find himself humbled again. Who wouldn't want to be the sovereign of England in the days of absolute power? A fun tale of history, adventure, mistaken identity, and greed gone wrong.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Because of Mr. Terupt

Image result for because mr terupt book coverBecause of Mr. Terupt
Rob Buyea
Delacorte, 2010 288 pages
Grades 3-7
Realistic Fiction

Seven fifth-grade students recount the school year from the class of rookie teacher, Mr. Terupt. Each narrator speaks in the first person and gives their interpretation of events reflecting their own personalities. The students range from the class clown, the class brain, queen bee, a new girl recently moved from California, a boy mourning the loss of a brother, a girl overcoming her mother's past, and a slightly chubby farm girl with no confidence. We see through the eyes and voices of the students the unconventional methods of this new teacher and how he leads the kids to independent learning. New experiences include out-of-the-box educational opportunities and visits to the special needs classroom, where they make friends. Barriers are breaking down and new friendships are forming when tragedy strikes. The children earn a reward and they chose to have an adventure outside in the Vermont snow. A snowball fight ensues, which quickly gets out of hand, and the class clown accidentally beans Mr. Terupt on the head. The teacher goes down and is taken to the hospital, where he remains in a coma. The children feel terrible and responsible for the horrible incident and for some it dregs up hurts from the past. The class gathers in the waiting room for the surgery that could save Mr. Terupt. Will he recover? Will the children find grace and peace with their involvement in the accident and learn to forgive themselves? Where do they go from here?

When this book was released seven years ago I did not purchase it for my library. Based on the reviews I didn't think it was spectacular enough or would be popular enough to garner purchase. After many, many requests from young patrons I finally gave in and purchased the book, along with the two sequels that followed. Kids love this book and it is always checked out of my library, finally encouraging me to read it. What is the appeal? The short narrations allow for a fast read. The school setting is one that all kids can relate to and the characters are easily identifiable in every classroom. The problems faced by the children in this story are real problems faced by everyday kids. Mr. Terupt is every kid's dream teacher: a teacher who makes learning fun and really GETS them. The disaster that ensues will make every young reader gasp and identify with the guilt that follows. Buyea spent most of his adult life in the classroom. He knows his way around the minds of children. The characters are all distinctly written and readers will not have any trouble telling them apart. Both boys and girls will enjoy this story and it is perfect for classroom use and book discussion. Many themes are introduced and the book can be useful on many levels to a wide audience. I personally found that the story was a bit obvious and lacked finesse, but it is at its core a book for children and the readership will find comfort in the predictability. Buyea's latest school story, which will be released in October, The Perfect Score, leaves the gang from Mr. Terupt's class and takes on the educational controversy of standardized testing.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Saving Marty

Image result for saving marty griffin book coverSaving Marty
Paul Griffin
Dial/Penguin, 2017 195 pages
Grades 5-8
Animal Story/Realistic Fiction

Lorenzo is a farm kid, who is big for his age and loves animals and playing the guitar with his best friend Paloma. The guitar formerly belonged to his father, who is a deceased army hero, and Renzo is trying to learn more about him, even though he died before Renzo was born. When Mom sells off the new piglets, one accidentally gets left behind. He is adopted by the family dog, who also recently gave birth, and imprints on Renzo. The boy names him Marty after his late father and the two become inseparable. Marty thinks he's a dog and likes to cuddle and jump on his owner, which is cute when he is a piglet, but soon Marty grows to over three-hundred pounds and things spiral out of control. Mom says that they must sell Marty and Renzo starts scheming to keep his friend. Meanwhile, local thugs are out to get Marty after he beat their dog at a race and are making Renzo uncomfortable. He and Paloma join an open-mic event and Pal is offered a scholarship at a music camp. It is her dream, so leaves to pursue it and Renzo feels bereft. He digs into the mystery of learning more about his father, especially how exactly he died. As the saying goes "be careful what you wish for" and Renzo learns some painful truths about his hero. At first devastated, Renzo finally realizes that his father was a real person, warts and all, and instead of trying to be Dad, decides to become himself. Renzo discovers what may be a permanent solution for Marty, although it involves danger, all while realizing the wonderful person that he is meant to be.

Much as in last years When Friendship Followed me Home, Paul Griffin knows how to deliver a heartwarming animal story that is so much more. Yes, it's a story about a pig who thinks he is a dog and the boy must save him, but it's also a story about growing up, friendship, finding your true passion, having courage to do the right thing, standing up to bullies, and the plight of the disappearing farmer. That feels like a lot going on in 195 pages, but the story is never rushed or jumbled. Lorenzo tells his tale in the first person and Griffin manages to hold this character beautifully. Readers will feel Renzo’s pain and sympathize with his dilemma, even if they don't particularly care for pigs. All of the main characters are fully drawn with the exception of the bullies, yet Renzo never really gets to know them and he is telling the story, so it is forgiven that are stock characters. The rural Pennsylvania setting, outside of Pittsburgh, is also fully realized. Having just visited that area within the past month I can attest to the very rustic country in this area of Pennsylvania. Griffin does not shy away from violence and hard truths, making this a book more appropriate for older elementary children. Animal lovers are the obvious choice, but any reader who enjoys realistic fiction, especially problem novels which are currently hot, will enjoy this new book, released just this month.

Friday, September 15, 2017


Image result for mockingbird erskine book coverMockingbird
Kathryn Erskine
Philomel/Penguin, 2010 235 page
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Fifth-grader Caitlin's life is very confusing. Her older brother Devon has always explained the world to her. Now that Devon is gone, killed at a tragic school shooting in their small rural town, Caitlin feels alone. Her father is distant and doesn't like to talk about Devon and her mother died many years before. Caitlin has Asperger's Syndrome and is gifted with an amazing art talent, which she utilizes to help process the world, yet can only draw in black and white, much as her mind works. Unfortunately, social situations bewilder her and cause discomfort. The whole town is mourning those killed in the shooting and want to offer Caitlin and her dad support, but she would rather just have Devon back. An understanding counselor helps Caitlin begin to process Devon's death and reach out socially. She is searching for "closure' but isn't sure exactly what it is and how to obtain it. An unexpected friendship is developed with a first grade boy, who lost his teacher mother in the shooting. The two children, though apart in age, have much in common and learn together how to process events and Caitlin for the first time in her life learns how to be a friend. Devon was in the process of building a hope chest for his Eagle Scout project before he died. Now the chest is covered by a sheet and pushed into a corner of the living room where it makes Caitlin sad every time she sees it. She comes up with a great idea: maybe if she and Dad finish the chest they will find "closure". Now if she can only convince Dad to help her.

I have put off reading this book for years. It just seemed too sad. Finally, after I kept seeing it pop-up on lists one of my book club members convinced me to read it. I was so glad that I did! Erskine completely captures the voice and thought process of a child with Asperger's. The character of Caitlin is carefully and respectfully drawn. Readers will get to see inside the mind of a child who is wired a bit differently and possibly treat fellow classmates who don't fit into the typical boxes with understanding and empathy. Caitlin has feelings, though she does not know how to accurately express them, and prefers clear-cut rules and definitions. Through the help of her kind councilor, a thoughtful art teacher, and her new first grade friend, she allows her world to expand, even though this is scary, and colors begin to seep into her life. Dad will not go to therapy, though he desperately needs it, and Caitlin assists his healing through the hope chest project. An author's note at the end explains that Erskine was very affected by the Virginia Tech shootings and that event served as an inspiration to Mockingbird. It is very interesting that she chose to see an unfathomable event, such as a school shooting, through the eyes of a young person that struggles with decoding. It certainly adds a layer to the story. As the title suggests, To Kill a Mockingbird also is an inspiration to the book and parallels are drawn to that classic novel. Fans of Wonder and Out of My Mind will be an easy audience for this book and this genre of stories with unconventional characters working through problems is hot right now with young people. To be enjoyed by both boys and girls, this is a beautifully written and timely tale that will resonate and make a meaningful impression on the reader.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Tumble & Blue

Image result for tumble & blue beasley book coverTumble & Blue
Cassie Beasley
Dial/Penguin 390 pages
Grades 3-6

Three points of view narrate this folksie tale filled with legend, magic, family, and unexpected friendships. Two hundred years ago under a red sickle moon two fugitives encounter a magical alligator named Munch. Munch is able to change the fate of one person every red sickle moon, which is a very rare occurrence. Since both seekers met him at the same time, they split the blessing, making it go haywire. For two hundred years the descendants of Almira LaFayette and Walcott Montgomery have had quirky gifts with mixed blessings. Fast forward to the present: the red sickle moon is expected to return and the Montgomery family is gathering en masse to the small Georgia town where the family homestead lies and is close to the swamp where Munch resides. The only person holding the key to finding Munch is elderly monarch Ma Myrtle and she is enjoying the royal treatment bestowed on her by desperate family members. Blue has been dumped at the family homestead by his race car driving father, who has the gift of never losing. Blue has the contrasting fate of always losing and he is anxious to have his curse reversed. He meets a new friend, who has also recently relocated to the small town, named Tumble. Tumble longs to be a hero and save the day. Unfortunately, her family connection to the LaFayettes leaves her cursed to always be in need saving. The two new friends work together to figure out a plan to reverse Munch's curse on their families. Only how will they gain Ma Myrtles favor and beat out the competing family members? And what will they say to the bewitched alligator once they find him? Are they resourceful and brave enough to see the plan through to a satisfying conclusion? Read Tumble & Blue to find out!

I loved Cassie Beasley's Circus Mirandus. This sophomore effort is equally good, yet different. Both books share a magical element, yet Tumble & Blue proves to be a bit more approachable and down-to-earth. It is reminiscent of another favorite of mine Savvy by Ingrid Law in that kids are learning to wield supernatural gifts in a believable contemporary way. The rural southern setting and folkloric quality to the story add to the overall atmosphere and invite the reader to fall into this world where a talking Alligator can change our fate, if we are only brave and bright enough to find him. The alternating points of view are done well and are easy to distinguish. Munch's side of the story is framed by a black swamp design in order to set it apart and the narration helps suspend  belief that this really is an ageless magical alligator. Offering both a male and female protagonist make this book a great choice for both boys and girls and it would be a terrific read-aloud in both the home and the classroom. Beasley includes many interesting minor characters. They are all distinct and I felt as if I knew them personally, which helped me keep everyone straight in my head. Many themes are explored within the pages of this novel including what makes a real hero, finding your inner-courage, forgiveness, changing your destiny, and family is what you chose it to be. Some of the adults in the novel are flawed, yet others really come through for our two friends. In the end, they have both grown and learned to accept certain parts of their lives that they were fighting against and have become stronger for it. Because of the beautiful writing, character development, fully realized setting, and original plot, I think this is a real Newbery contender and will be enjoyed by readers for years to come.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


Image result for solo kwame alexanderSolo
Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess
Blink, 2017 457 pages
Grades 7-Up
Narrative Poetry

Alexander and Hess co-write a volume of narrative poetry which functions as both an entertaining story and a self-described love letter to music. Blade Morrison is the son of famous rock musician and notorious addict, Rutherford Morrison. His mother passed away from a freak accident years ago and now he is living a Hollywood lifestyle, constantly dodging paparazzi, partying and buying things. What matters the most to him is his girlfriend, Chapel, and playing and writing music. His style is softer than his rocker father and sister and he shuns their excessive and decadent lifestyle. After his father makes a horrible scene at his high school graduation and he dramatically loses his girlfriend Blade gets into a terrible fight with his sister, afterwhich it is revealed that he is adopted. After some sleuthing he discovers his birth mother’s whereabouts: in a small village in Ghana. Blade impulsively decides to hunt her her down and present himself, only Ghana is about as far away from Hollywood as you can get. Eventually Blade reaches the remote village, only to discover that his birth mother is even further afield. As he waits for her he befriends a beautiful young woman/teacher appropriately named Joy and a young orphan named Sia, who latches onto him. Blade's world has been turned upside down, yet more surprises await as he continues on his journey to discover who is is and what truly matters.

I had the opportunity to hear Kwame Alexander discuss his new book in person this year and his infectious passion and personal connection to the subject matter made me excited to read it.  I was not disappointed. At first I found the 457 pages daunting, but as with other novels made up of narrative poems, it reads very quickly. The plot of the book is fast and interesting. Even though this is a story of growth and change, it does not dwell on introspective narration. Instead, the plot moves along quickly, often conveyed in text messages, conversations, and song lyrics. Alexander and Hess frame the poems within the context of favorite songs, whose titles and artists are identified, encouraging the reader to check them out. Music was a driving force in my journey, as it obviously must also have been in the the authors and continues to be in the lives of many young people, who will relate to this connection. I actually read this story by listening to the audio, which was narrated by Alexander himself. Generally I prefer professional narrators and find authors better at constructing the words, not delivering them. In this case, Alexander reads his poetry in the way it was intended and I loved hearing his voice. As an added bonus, Blade's lyrics were put to music, adding a richer dimension to the audio book. I love that the authors deliver the message that we are so materialistically blessed in America, yet often morally bankrupt. Planning my own trip to Haiti in January, I felt a further connection to Blade's journey and am excited to experience a new culture and plan to approach it with a renewed sense of humbleness, curiosity, and respect.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Save Me a Seat

Image result for save me a seat weeksSave Me a Seat
Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Scholastic, 2016 216 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Two alternating points of view relate the first week of school in Mrs. Beam's fifth grade class at Albert Einstein Elementary in suburban New Jersey. Ravi has recently emigrated from India and although he attended English school in his home country, he finds the customs much different and that people have a hard time understanding him. The only other Indian boy in class is named Dillon, who is not only more American than Indian, but not very nice. Ravi tries to befriend Dillon, only to become the brunt of his bullying. Meanwhile Joe is also having a rough start to the year. His two only friends have moved away over the summer and he feels alone, especially since he has a sensory condition that makes traditional learning difficult. Joe is also a target for Dillon, who makes him feel big and stupid. To make matters worse, Joe's mom has accepted a job as a lunch monitor and insists on talking to him as he suffers through his solitary lunch in the cafeteria. Joe finds solace in food and each new school day is named by the food on the menu that day in the cafeteria. A misunderstanding, made worse by Dillon, pits Ravi and Joe as enemies. Finally, as Ravi witnesses Dillon trying to sabotage Joe's project, he lends a hand, cementing the two outcasts in a much needed friendship.

Two authors cooperatively pen the points of view of two boys who come from very different backgrounds, yet have much in common. Sarah Weeks, a veteran children's author with over fifty books to her name, and newcomer Gita Varadarajan work beautifully together, offering two very different stories that complement each other and work together seamlessly. Working in a similar town in New Jersey with many new Americans I know that many of my readers will relate to Ravi's story. It has helped me to better serve these children by hearing Ravi's struggles, especially at the frustration of constantly having his name mispronounced, a mistake of which I am often guilty. Joe, although not new to American society, struggles to fit-in because of his disability. Many children will also relate to Joe's situation. Children who cannot personally relate to either boy's challenges should still read the book in order to better understand their classmates and to develop some compassion and empathy. The bully character, Dillon, is perhaps a bit over the top and is not fully developed as a character, but this is not his story so this is excused. Both Ravi and Joe experience personal growth through this first week of school and although they are both ready to quit, they come out by the end of the week stronger and better. Food is a strong theme in the story. It is what gives Joe comfort and also sets Ravi apart from his classmates, yet also helps him to connect to the teacher. The end of the book offers a glossary of terms used by both Ravi and Joe as well, as a recipe from both of their mothers as seen prepared within the pages of the story. A great choice to read for the  new school year.