Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade

Image result for secret sheriff sixth grade coverThe Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade
Jordan Sonnenblick
Scholastic, 2017 193 pages
Grades 5-7
Realistic Fiction

Maverick's first day of middle school is off to a rocky start. Still reeling from the previous night where he had to care for his addicted mother after she was hit by her drunken boyfriend, he didn't get much sleep and had to rush to school. Once there it becomes obvious that his shabby clothes, disheveled appearance, and short stature will continue to make him a target for Bowen, his arch enemy, and the bully’s soccer cronies. But Maverick has a secret weapon. Underneath his clothes he is wearing a sheriff star that his late father purchased for him before he died and Maverick pledges to be a hero and stand up to the unjust. Trying to confront the bullies to protect a new kid, who is also vertically challenged, lands Maverick in the principal's as well as the nurse’s office, all while annoying the guy he was trying to save. His mother is too incapacitated to pick him up at school, so Maverick calls Aunt Cat instead, the only stable influence in his life, who unfortunately does not get along with his mother. The school year drags on with Maverick continuing to try to fight social wrongs, only to have his plans backfire and remain friendless, misunderstood, and still short. The reemergence of Mom’s bad boyfriend also leaves Maverick feeling helpless and powerless. A public show-down with Bowen and a fire in his home brings Maverick's problems to a head and his whole world explodes. Aunt Cat is there to pick up the pieces and shed some light on who Mav's father really was and a friend comes from an unexpected place, leaving the reader with a sense of hope and satisfaction.


Many kids will relate to Maverick. His world is chaotic and he lacks the control, tools and power to bring order to it. Because he is helpless to save his mother, he tries to save his fellow students by becoming a secret sheriff, his own version of a superhero. Maverick can't save his mother, nor can he save his classmates, who do not appreciate his gestures and are working out issues of their own. Kids living with addicted and dysfunctional parents will identify with this story and perhaps see hope in their own lives. Kids with functional families will maybe be a bit more patient and understanding with their fellow students. Supportive adults in the form of the once-scary vice principal and Aunt Cat come to Maverick's rescue and allow him some help, support, and security. This book is not terribly long and reads quickly, making it a good choice for reluctant readers, particularly boys. Even though the subject matter is serious, Sonnenblick writes humorously and lightly, making what could be laborious story fun and entertaining. Written in the first person, readers are placed directly in the shoes of this secret sheriff and although it’s not always a happy place to be, it is one of growth and redemption. By the story's end Maverick finds out the truth behind his flawed hero, but by this time he is strong and more confident on the inside and no longer needs the badge.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Super Turbo Saves the Day

Image result for super turbo saves day coverSuper Turbo Saves the Day
Lee Kirby
George O'Connor, Illustrator
Simon & Schuster, 2016 119 pages
Grades 1-3
Animal/Fantasy/Humor/Adventure
Super Turbo series #1

Unbeknownst to Ms. Beasley's second grade class, the class pet, Turbo the hamster, has a secret life. After the humans leave for the night he keeps classroom C safe by transforming into Super Turbo. One night Super Turbo hears a mysterious noise. A covert escape mission leads him to the source of the noise: a Gecko named Leo who also has superhero powers. In fact Leo introduces Turbo to the other classroom pets in the school and they all have superhero powers. The pets, a guinea pig, rabbit, turtle, bird and fish, all have special abilities and loyalty to Sunnyview Elementary. On this particular night, when SUper Tubo meets the team for the first time, the gang is drawn to the school cafeteria, where they encounter a rat (or is it a mouse?) named Whiskerface, who lives within the walls of the school with his dastardly rodent crew. The Superpet Superhero League is on the case to make the school safe from these menaces. After one pet after another is defeated by the evil, yet tiny, rats it is left up to Super Turbo to save the day. The fun continues in Super Turbo versus the Flying Ninja Squirrels and three other titles. Two more series entries are scheduled for 2018.

This series is very similar in format, level and content to the Class Pet Squad series by Dan Yaccarino released earlier in 2016. That series never went beyond the first installment for some reason. The Super Turbo series is more about the whole team than Super Turbo in particular, but maybe it's named after him because the Yaccarino series got the team name first. This series in question is fun and exciting and is perfect for the target age group who are just dipping their toes into chapter books. A true fiction/comic hybrid, O'Connor, known for the more serious Olympians graphic novel series, offers a cartoon illustration on every page, sometimes in panels, that do not just demonstrate the action, but assist in propelling the plot forward. The reading level for this series is low, the print is large, there are not too many words are on a page, yet the book is not "babyish", making this section not only perfect for new readers, but for older children who may be low readers. There is an order to the series, yet they do not have to strictly be read that way in that each entry is a separate adventure and explains the team and their traits. Superheros and class pets (such as Humphrey) are currently popular and comics are also a draw, making this book a surefire winner, even for the most reluctant of readers.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Mary's Monster

Image result for mary's,monster coverMary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein
Lita Judge
Roaring Book Press, 2018 312 pages
Grades 9-Up
Biography/Narrative Poetry/Graphic

Judge traces the tremulous and rocky path that led Mary Shelley to pen one of the most influential horror stories in history. Born during a time and place of severe convention to an unconventional family, Mary was destined to have an unusual life. A famous writer in her own right, Mary's mother dies in childbirth, leaving her two children from two different relationships to her writer husband. He remarries to a difficult woman with children of her own. After a childhood filled with abandonment, disappointment, and hard work, Mary meets the married poet Percy Shelley and is instantly smitten. The two enter into a clandestine relationship, resulting in Mary running away from home with Shelley and taking her step-sister with her, away from the dysfunction and unhappiness. Life with Shelley is not as idyllic as the lovers had hoped with Shelley's financial problems and marital complications and the situation worsens as Mary discovers that she is pregnant. The loss of her child devastates her as she enters a period of depression and Shelley finds comfort and love in the arms of the stepsister. Eventually the young people encounter the poet Lord Byron and the group travels together socializing and creating. More devastating losses occur, yet through it all Mary finds her voice and learns to battle her inner demons by confronting the monster within and letting him out through the process of creating Frankenstein.

I have always known that Frankenstein was written by a teenage girl, but never knew her story. And quite a story it is. Filled with love, desperation, despair, and betrayal, Mary Shelley had a very interesting life. She managed to create a classic still read many generations later, all while struggling against the constraints of her sex, class and rigid conventions of the time period. An accomplished creator of picture books, Judge turns her sights to much darker subject matter than her usual fare. Her illustrations are breathtakingly beautiful and reflect the macabre mood of the subject matter perfectly. Her poems are accomplished and well written, all while moving the stranger than fiction storyline along. Judge demonstrates the many obstacles faced by the young author and shows her persevering through heartbreak and loss to find an artistic voice and independence. Because of the maturity of the subject matter, it is not for younger teens, but older teens and adults will find the book haunting and fascinating and not be able to put it down. As I read this volume many times I picked up my phone to find out more information about the historical figures presented within its pages. This was not completely necessary for extensive back matter is offered with historic information, brief biographies of the central players, a bibliography, source notes, and even a list of book read by Mary Shelley that most certainly influenced her writing. Both inspirational in format and execution, as well as content, readers will find much to appreciate and savor.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Image result for clayton byrd goes underground coverClayton Byrd Goes Underground
Rita Williams-Garcia
HarperCollins, 2017 166 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Clayton Byrd is one cool cat. He hangs out in Washington Square Park with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, playing the blues with Cool Papa's band on his blues harp (harmonica). One night, as Cool Papa reads to Clayton as he falls asleep, he quietly passes away. Clayton is devastated. To make matters worse, his mother sells all of Cool Papa's belongings in a lawn sale and punishes Clayton for falling asleep in class by taking away his blues harp, his last connection to Cool Papa. Clayton retaliates by stealing back the blues harp, destroying something precious to Mama and running away to find Cool Papa's band in the park. On the subway Clayton meet a gang of performing panhandlers who, although their leader is not nice, makes him feel welcome and gives him a place playing in their show. The music is hip hop, but Clayton twists his blues to make the music work. The park reveals that the Cool Papa’s band has gone south for the winter, leaving Clayton bereft and back with the Show-Time boys. When the police finally nab the gang, and Clayton with them, he must finally confront his mother and both make peace with the death of Cool Papa and each other.

Judging from the cover and Williams-Garcia's other books I thought this was historical fiction. It is not. It is very much set in current New York City and involves a practice common to many New York City commuters: a gang of boys hopping on a subway car declaring that it's "Show Time" and performing crazy dance moves with the hopes of filling a hat with cash. This is a practice that I always found uncomfortable, yet after reading this book I found myself on the New York subway hoping for the Show-Time boys to jump on the train. Williams-Garcia pens another heartfelt character-driven novel that is sure to please her fans of the series starting with the Newbery honor One Crazy Summer. The fact that she is moving from historical fiction to realistic and that problem novels have made a popular resurgence thanks to Wonder, this book will have a broad audience if put into the right hands. The chapters are short, well named, and lead in with an interesting little picture, enticing readers. The author introduces many themes, such as overcoming grief, the reality that sometimes well meaning parents make poor choices and are struggling with their own problems, owning a bad decision, and living with narcolepsy. An author's note in the back of the book tells of her music studies and how she came to appreciate the blending and history of the Blues and Hip Hop, as well as sharing her own personal battle with narcolepsy. Life is not always easy, parents aren't perfect, and we sometimes lose those we love, yet Clayton Byrd has a few things going for him that will save him in the end: the gift of music and two loving parents. Unlike the Show-Time boys he falls in with, Clayton has a safety net that catches him when he messes up and together, the reader is assured, this family will work it out and find some healing and happiness.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Orphan Island

Image result for orphan island snyder book coverOrphan Island
Laurel Snyder
Walden Pond/HarperCollins, 2017 269 pages
Grades 5-8
Adventure/Fantasy

Jinny has lived as far back as she can remember on an island inhabited by nine children. Every year a new very small child appears in a boat and the oldest child must get in the boat and go back to no-one really knows where. The next child in line becomes the leader or "Elder" and is responsible for the newest member of the clan. When the boat comes to take away Jinny's best friend Deen she is beside herself. Only the new responsibility of taking care of young Ess seems to make the loss of her dear friend seem manageable. As the year progresses Ginny begins to have strange dream, feelings, and behaviors. She knows her time is near, yet is resistant, refusing to teach the next in line the lessons required for becoming the Elder. Besides, how will Ess survive without her? Finally a year passes and the boat returns and in it is a new small child. Will Jinny do what tradition demands and get in the boat only to return to she knows not where or will she carve a different path. What will happen if the system is questioned?

I did not initially buy this book because I had it confused with an old book called Baby Island, which was one of the few books owned by my pokey childhood library and I read that book about five times. It was a pretty good book, but I am over it. This is not a reboot of Baby Island, but a highly original and well conceived tale that will ignite a spark in the reader's imagination. Why are these kids alone on the island and who is sending them/taking them back? Jinny finds a letter written by a long-ago inhabitant that leaves some clues, but not the whole story, leading me to think that perhaps a sequel is in the works. When Jinny finally gets in the boat (apologies for the spoiler) the book ends and we never find out where she lands. I both love and hate this ending, which is reminiscent of The Giver. I almost hope that Snyder never gives us the answer so we can ponder the possibilities. Orphan Island is part adventure story/part coming of age/part dystopian. It really doesn't fit neatly in a box and is a truly unique offering. Readers of both genders will enjoy the story and the cover is ambiguous enough that boys will not immediately know that the main character is a girl and will possibly give it a try. Readers will identify with Jinny, who struggles with change, growing up, and loss of control, even if her living situation is not relatable. There is a part towards the end of the book where Jinny gets her period for the first time and doesn’t know what it is and is scared, making this book not a great choice for younger elementary students, who may be disturbed like Jinny. This selection is popping up on many possible Newbery lists and it most certainly is a contender as its clearly one of the best books I have read this year for young people.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Unlucky Lottery Winners of Classroom 13

Image result for unlucky lottery winners classroom 13The Unlucky Lottery Winners of Classroom 13
Honest Lee & Matthew J. Gilbert
Little Brown, 2017 119 pages
Grades 3-5
Humor
Classroom 13 series book 1

Ms. Linda is a very unlucky person who is late to school most days for one reason or another. On the particular day in question Ms. Linda must buy a lottery ticket in order to use the phone at a convenience store after her car breaks down. After relaying the tale to her students she agrees to split the winnings with them should the odds be in her favor. To everyone's surprise Ms. Linda goes from the unluckiest person in the world to the luckiest when she wins the lottery for 28 billion dollars. She honors her agreement with the class and splits the take evenly. The rest of the book is broken into chapters headed by different student names relating what they did with their billion dollars. In most cases the parents aren't involved as the students spend their billion dollars on crazy things such as being cheated into buying a cow (in a reversal Jack in the Beanstalk nod) to purchasing the Eiffel tower. Some use their money for environmental causes and scientific discoveries, but with the exception of two students, all of the money gets frittered away with nothing to show for it, including Ms. Linda's. The book ends with an acknowledgement that a lot of money had been lost through this lottery fiasco with no one's life particularly improving. Lee manages to slip in life-lessons that he claims the students in classroom 13 did not really learn, including the teacher, and asks the reader if they learned anything. A final page challenges readers to write their own story about what they would do with the money in a similar situation, making this a great choice for classroom use.

Fans of the Wayside School series will be the natural audience for this similar series with a twist. The twist is certainly the lottery win and allows the author a ready-made format for his plot as we explore the individual experiences of the students. Lessons are imparted about all kinds of things, yet the book never gets preachy. It stays hilarious throughout and contains some truly clever bits, yet also contains a fair amount of potty humor, which the target audience will appreciate. As unlikely as the overall scenario is and as far-fetched as each child's choice tends to be, readers will love this book and it will spark their imaginations. Lee/Gilbert even dares to break the fourth wall as he gets into a debate with a particularly argumentative students. The students themselves are a refreshingly diverse lot. Racial and religious diversity is represented, as well as including a student in a wheelchair and one who wears hearing aids. The author includes two Indian students, instead of going for just one to represent the culture. My favorite stories were the one about Emma who spends her money on cats (my daughter Emma would also spend her winnings on cats) and the boy who clones himself so he can be in various places at once (this is what I would do with my fortune), and another boy who after buying a television family gets disgusted, sells his TV, and gets a free library card. One story reveals what the character did with her money only in code, which adds another dimension to the storytelling and helps to promote thinking and another tale is told entirely in French. A second series entry concerning magic wishes was released in September and the third, which explores fame, is set for release next week.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Release

Image result for release nessRelease
Patrick Ness
HarperCollins, 2017 277 pages
Grades 9-12
Realistic/Fantasy


A pivotal day in the life of almost-senior Adam Thorn. Adam is having maybe his worst day ever. It begins with his ultra-religious college-student brother confessing to him that he is about to become a father and would Adam please come out to pastor father in order to deflect the condemnation? Next Adam goes to work where he is sexually harassed by his gross older boss, who issues an ultimatum if he wants to keep his job. Adam visits his best friend and confidant, only to discover that Angela will be leaving to spend their senior year overseas. A mid-afternoon hook-up with his boyfriend Linus makes Adam realize how much he misses his ex Enzo, who's going away party is scheduled for the evening. Helping his father set up for church leads to a frank discussion about Adam's sexuality and the harassment situation and ends in conflict, hurt and disappointment. Finally the party arrives. Encountering Enzo proves to be hurtful, yet healing and Adam is finally able to allow himself to be fully open to Linus and move forward with his life. Alternating chapters leap from realistic to fantasy as they tell the story of a spirit queen who has merged with a recently deceased teenage drug addict in Adam’s home town, who was murdered by her boyfriend. The two souls are followed by a faun and seek solace, closure, and revenge before going back to the earth.

Patrick Ness is one of my favorite authors. I appreciate A Monster Calls and especially love The Knife of Never Letting Go. This is another well-written book that stretches the reader's imagination. The rural Washington state setting is integral to the plot and Ness explores the problems of drug addiction in the area (as with the entire US) and its aftermath in the subplot of Katie and the Queen. Katie's tale is told in alternating chapters and is in a different font as to not confuse the reader. The plots are happening simultaneously in the same terrain and though there is some overlap, there is no major joining of the story-lines. Adam's tale of a pivotal coming-of-age day is a classic mainstay in literature. Ness shows everything in Adam's world falling apart, which allows Adam to "clean house" and live his life on his own terms. As usual, religion is seen as a negative and stifling influence in Adam's life. As a religious person who has been taught through church to "love one another" it hurts me to only see fellow Christians portrayed as bigoted gay-bashers, but this is Ness's story and he is free to tell it reflecting his own experiences. The reader is left with a sense of hope that Adam has found his voice and some much needed self-worth. We hope that he also finds his way out of this small town and into a bigger world where he has more choices and support.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Flunked

Image result for flunked jen calonitaFlunked
Jen Calonita
Sourcebooks, 2015 256 pages
Grades 4-7
Fairy Tale/Fantasy
Fairy Tale Reform School #1

Ever since the Cinderella's Fairy Godmother stole her father's design for glass slippers and the family's shoe-making business has been struggling, Gilly has been stealing from royals to help feed her family. Before long she is nabbed for a third offense and sent to Fairy Tale Reform School, which is run by Queen Cinderella's Stepmother. After the initial shock of being away from home and missing her family wears off, Gilly adjusts to her new environment. She finally has enough to eat, the classes are interesting, and she makes friends with her fairy roommate and a farmer boy and fellow thief named Jax. Harmony is disturbed at the school when, during a preliminary visit from royal princesses in preparation for the school's gala anniversary ball, an attack from one the teachers who appears to be bewitched is unleashed. Gilly must summon her courage to save Jax, while simultaneously saving the princesses and becoming the hero of the day. As a reward for her bravery Gilly is sprung from the school early and allowed to return to her humble family. But does she want to go? Who is behind the attack and will they repeat the dastardly attempt at the anniversary ball? Gilly's friends and enemies are not what they seem and she must make tough choices and use her wits and ingenuity to discover the truth and keep both the students and the visiting royals safe at the ball.


Generally known as a young adult author, Calonita pens a middle grade story right in line with the current trend of rebooted fairy tales. This highly readable book contains playful magical elements, humor, plot twists, and fast-paced action. It will apply to both fantasy and realistic readers in that although this is clearly a magical world, readers will identify with GIlly, who talks and behaves as a modern American girl might. The title is snappy and the cover is intriguing, which will draw in readers and the clever writing and speedy plot will keep them turning pages. Gilly is faced with some hard decisions as the story unfolds, but she becomes truly "reformed", putting her friends before herself and taking the more difficult, yet ethical, path. Surprises abound as characters’ true identities are revealed and the reader learns who the real "baddies" are. Both boys and girls will enjoy the story, but since the main character is obviously a girl, as seen from the cover, it may prove to be a hard sell to boys. The book reaches a satisfying conclusion, yet opens the door to further installments in the series. Two more entries follow this inaugural title with a fourth due for release in March 2018. Give to fairytale fans of Chris Colfer, the "Sisters Grimm", and "Whatever After".

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Jane Unlimited

Image result for jane unlimited book coverJane Unlimited
Kristen Cashore
Penguin, 2017 453 pages
Science Fiction/Fantasy/Mystery
Grades 9-Up

Jane, reeling from the death of her guardian aunt and at loose ends since dropping out of college, accepts an invitation from her former tutor, rich girl Kiran, to a spring gala at Kiran's Family's mansion on an island off the coast of Long Island. Here Jane encounters many interesting people from eccentric family members, mysterious servants, and suspicious guests, to the family dog, who immediately becomes a friend. After breakfast on Jane's first morning a bell chimes and she must make a decision: to follow the housekeeper, a mysterious little girl, Kiran, Kiran’s attractive brother Ravi, or Jasper the dog. At this point the book gets interesting, as it is broken into five parts, each one tracing what happens if Jane makes a different choice of whom to follow. Each part feels like a distinct book written in a distinctly different style and genre. The first choice lands Jane in a classic art heist mystery, which she must solve and save the day. The second choice leads to a spy ring in which Jane and Kiran find themselves getting involved. Choice three explores what happened to the missing stepmother, a tale involving the supernatural, creepy happenings and a tragic end for Janey. Following Ravi leads to an exploration of different parallel worlds where Jane travels to a different reality and meets another Janey. Finally, the fifth choice has Jasper the dog leading Jane through a painting to an alien world in which her greatest dream can be a reality. Five books wrapped into one with a common exposition show readers that our choices matter and one seemingly innocent decision can change the course of our reality.

This was a very unusual book, and I don't say that often. Cashore, author of the traditional fantasy “Graceling” series puts convention on its head by exploring the consequences of decision making and conjuring up five very unique and distinct scenarios. In an author's note Cashore admits to originally being inspired to pen a "chose your own adventure" type book, but it grew into something quite different and new to teen literature. The book starts out as a traditional Gothic-inspired mystery. References to Rebecca are obvious from the creepy housekeeper's name, Mrs Vanvers (Danvers), to the dog named Jasper. Jane's name is taken straight from Jane Eyre. Then Cashore throws a curveball by going from a traditional mystery to four alternative stories, each one more outrageous written with entirely unique moods and within different genres. I'm not sure which one I liked the best, they were all enjoyable and so different it is like comparing apples to oranges. The many characters are distinct and keep their personalities as they interact within different scenarios. Some constants remain in each tale, such as Jane's umbrella making, discovering something strange about the artwork, and certain characters repeating the same behaviors, tying the stories together into one cohesive whole. I knew nothing about this book going in, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise as different choices unfolded. Previous reviews are mixed. Readers who expect more along the lines of the Gracling series will be disappointed because this book is so different. Those with more of an open mind and a big imagination will be pleasantly surprised as I was. My favorite twist is that Cashore drop hints, such as the skies literally raining frogs, that show readers that the overall story takes place in a slightly alternative universe. A fun and inspired book that will fire up the imaginations of ambitious readers.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

American Street

Image result for american street ibi zoboiAmerican Street
Ibi Zoboi
Balzer + Bray, 2017 336 pages
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

Fabiola arrives with her mother from Haiti to America, only Mom is not allowed in the country. She continues alone to the home of her aunt and three cousins in a sketchy neighborhood in Detroit on the corner of Joy and American Streets. Fabiola is beside herself between missing her mother, the distant behavior of her aunt, and adjusting to life in America. High School is much rougher and confusing than she thought it would be. Luckily, she has her three street-smart cousins Chantal, Donna, and Princess, known collectively as the "Three B's", to protect her from the realities of inner-city Detroit. Fabiola is convinced that a homeless man who hangs out on the corner is really a Haitian deity and listens to his songs to find direction. Direction is needed as she is helpless to free her mother from the detention center where she is being kept, witnesses the constant abuse of Donna by her drug-dealing boyfriend, and falls in love for the first time. When approached by a police office to get information about Donna's bad boyfriend in exchange for the release of her mother, Fabiola is tempted. Is this the answer sent from the Gods? Life in America is far from the idolized dream that Fabiola visioned for herself and her mother. Can she make sense of this new land and find peace and happiness for her family?

First time author, Zoboi, offers a timely novel inspired by her own Haitian immigration experience. Beautifully written and character driven, Zoboi tells Fabiola's story lyrically and richly, allowing the reader to experience firsthand what life must be like for her and seeing the immigration experience through her eyes. Filled with confusion and uncertainty about this new land and her place within it, Fabioloa eventually finds the courage and confidence to do what she feels that she has to in order to free her mother and protect those she loves. Some themes in the book are similar to The Hate U Give, specifically the Black Lives Matter movement and the harsh reality of urban life, yet American Street is a bit grittier and is told through the point of view of an immigrant, giving the book an extra layer. A well-deserving National Book Award finalist, this story has a lot to say, while still retaining its readability and appeal to young people. The plot is great and will keep readers turning pages. By the conclusion of the story, things really heat up. The ending was surprising and satisfying, offering a bit of a twist. Not everything ends happily and there are deaths of key players, but the book does end hopefully with all of the remaining characters embarking on a fresh beginning. Adding a touch of magical realism, Haitian style, American Street is a rich and meaty novel and one of the best I have read this year.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Sideways Stories from Wayside School

Image result for sideways stories from wayside schoolSideways Stories from Wayside School
Louis Sachar
Follett, 1978 139 pages
Grades 3-6
Humor
Wayside School series #1

Absurdity abounds at Wayside School, which was accidentally built up instead of out. After Mrs. Gorf, the meanest teacher in the school, turns herself into an apple that is eaten by the playground monitor, the class on the thirtieth floor needs a new teacher. Enter Mrs. Jewls, who is terribly nice, yet sometimes gets it hilariously wrong. Each chapter is headed by a different student in the class and a ridiculous tale about them is told. Silly situations involving dashing up and down the thirty stories for one reason or another, misunderstandings concerning student's names, friendships and intentions, wacky troubles and solutions with spelling and reading, showing up to an empty school on Saturday, and, my favorite, a stinky new kid who turns out to be a dead rat. The sainest soul among the inhabitants of Wayside School is Louis, the playground monitor, who is based on Sachar himself, who drew from his own experiences as a "yard teacher" while in college.

Before there was Holes, Sachar made a name for himself writing humorous school stories for kids that continue to be classics. Followed by two sequels, the Wayside School books remain one of the most popular series for younger chapter book readers who enjoy a good laugh. The best part about this series is that they really are written purely for the enjoyment of children, who will be pleased to get the jokes. There are some cheap laughs, but also some truly clever bits that even make this grizzled old librarian laugh out loud. I recently re-read this book for the first time in many years to get ready for my lower elementary book group. It has stood the test of time and continues to be absurdly funny. I have already received feedback from the kids, who have not particularly liked my first few "serious" selections. They claimed to have read this book quickly and loved it. Over the top? Maybe, but the Sideways School series continues to turn children into readers. Despite the crazy situations, Sachar manages to slip in some thematic content and character building. My favorite line from the story is delivered by always smiling D.J.who when asked why he was so happy replied, "You need a reason to be sad. You don't need a reason to be happy." We need more happiness in the world and Wayside School is a positive step in this direction.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Landscape with Invisible Hand

Image result for landscape invisible handLandscape with Invisible Hand
M. T. Anderson
Candlewick, 2017 149 pages
Grades 8-Up
Science Fiction

Set in the near future, Aliens, called the Vuvv, have taken over the earth. American teenager and budding artist, Adam, must try to help his family survive. His father left the family, his mother is jobless, and there are very little prospects in this bleak new society, where humans are second -class citizens. When the family takes in another family to help pay the mortgage, Adam begins a relationship with the teenage daughter. In order to raise some much needed funds, the new lovers decided to record their romance in order to sell the footage to the Vuvv, who are obsessed with human relationships. Because they first discovered Earth in the 1950's, the Vuvv particularly enjoy that time period, so Adam and Chloe play-up the relationship, adding as many corny bits as possible. Eventually the strain of taping, seeing each other constantly, and Adam's seemingly incurable Vuvv-caused digestive condition zaps the romance out of the relationship and Chloe finds love elsewhere. The Vuvv drop the show and Adam's family no longer has an income. Adam enters an art contest to try to acquire some cash. Will he win? How will the family survive? Will Adam's illness be life threatening? All of these questions are answered by book's end in a satisfying, yet unpredictable, conclusion.

This short novel is designed as a series of vignettes, each chapter serving as a painting of Adam's. The chapter headings are painting titles and Adam describes his life within the context of the painting he is working on and that of which the chapter is named. Anderson's science fiction novel Feed continues to haunt me, even after reading it fifteen years ago, especially since it was foreshadowing to the society in which we now live; with teenagers constantly hooked into electronic images and advertising. This new offering also is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of our society as shown through eyes of a boy living in a future mess. The writing is tight and beautiful. Every word counts and the volume reads like poetry, yet there remains a plot and an interesting concept. Bright and creative teenagers will love this book, though I fear it is not for everyone. The cover makes sense, since it is meant to be one of Adam's paintings, but may not draw in readers. Anderson's ending feels a bit rushed. The book builds up to a very cool climax, where the author shoots the read's an interesting and unexpected twist, which proves to be disappointing to the main character. The last chapter shows the family's situation all "fixed" despite everything previously going wrong pages ago. This feels a bit unrealistic, but is age appropriate for the target audience, who prefer a happy ending.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Witch Boy

Image result for witch boy ostertagThe Witch Boy
Molly Ostertag
Graphix/Scholastic, 2017 213 pages
Grades 4-8
Graphic Novel

In an alternate universe, that exists in a hidden wood connected to our society, lies a world of magic. The men of this world are the shapeshifters, who transform into animals in order to protect the village. The women are witches, who use magic also for protection, as well as healing and other various purposes. Ashter is a boy whose body refuses to shift into another creature. Instead, he feels a pull towards witchcraft and secretly hides during the girl's lessons to learn their magic. When Ashter's family discovers what he is up to, they are very upset. The powers that be feel that boys dabbling in witchcraft only leads to trouble. He must concentrate only on shapeshifting, except, try as he might, he's just not feeling it. Ashter wanders out of his village and into a contemporary town where he meets a non-traditional girl who is benched from basketball with a broken leg. The two become friends, as they accepts each other for their unique personalities and abilities, and he becomes determined to use witchcraft to heal her. Meanwhile, a mysterious beast is stealing the boys from the village. Who is this beast and why is he luring the boys away? Both the shape shifters and the witches are powerless to stop him. When the beast tries to coax Ashter to the dark side, he discovers the secret to possibly stopping this evil. Is he brave enough to stand up to tradition and use his witchcraft in order to save the village?

Newcomer Ostertag offers a fresh and original story sure to appeal to both boys and girls, as well as both graphic novel readers and those new to the genre. I have had this book in my possession since June and have not read it because, judging from the cover art, I thought it looked like a caveman story. After reading many positive reviews I finally picked it up and was so glad I did. Far from prehistoric, Witch Boy is seeped in magic and can be placed firmly within the genre of magical realism. More instinctive than Harry Potter's magic, the fantastic elements will make reader’s imaginations soar and are written to feel believable. The main theme of the story is breaking gender barriers and being true to yourself, even if that goes against society's norms. The contrast between Ashter's strict gender division and his new friend's contemporary world, where girls can dress like boys, play basketball and have two fathers, is obvious. Ashter finds courage through this new world to bring acceptance to his present, even if it means disappointing those he loves. This full color volume is well drawn, scans easily, and reads quickly. It will be enjoyed by everyone who picks it up and is a much welcomed addition to round-out a graphic novel collection. I am looking forward to Ostertag's next contribution, whether it's a new adventure for Ashter or a completely different story.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Refugee

Image result for refugee gratzRefugee
Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2017 341 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction/Adventure/Historical Fiction

Three compelling narrators tell separate accounts during different time periods of having to flee for their lives, being forced into becoming a refugee. The first narrator is Josef, who is a Jew escaping Nazi Germany. Josef's Dad was arrested during Kristallnacht and sent to Dachau. Now released, the family boards a ship full of Jews heading to the only country who agrees to accept them: Cuba. Father is mentally damaged from his time in the concentration camp and recently Bar Mitzvahed, Josef must become the man of the family. Once arriving in Cuba, the passengers are not allowed to depart and are forced to had back to Europe and certain death. In a separate account Isabel must sell her beloved trumpet in order to buy much needed gasoline for a cobbled-together boat in which both her family and a neighbors plan to escape Castro's Cuba in the early 1990's. Isabel's mother is very pregnant and the boat is not only far from seaworthy, but overcrowded. The two families must battle shark-infested waters in a rapidly sinking boat with no navigational equipment in order to reach Miami and freedom. Present day Mahmoud's family flees from their bombed out apartment in the capital city of Syria. They must find passage through unwelcoming countries in order to gain entrance to Germany, where they are hoping for asylum. The roads are filled with Syrian refugees, who are also seeking safety and refuge. Mahmoud's journey is riddled with danger, corruption, and disappointment. Will our three families reach safety? All is revealed by book's end.

Veteran author for young people, Gratz, pens novels for middle grade readers with more substance than the average fair. Refugee is no exception. Gritty, realistic, and timely, it demonstrates a global problem that although not new, is still with us and alerts young people to the true condition of those seeking asylum in the United States and other safe nations. Gratz offers historical facts, further explained in an author's note at the end of the book, and places them in a highly-readable fictionalized story. Each chapter is clearly labeled with the narrator's name and date to alleviate confusion and ends with a cliffhanger, encouraging readers to keep turning pages. Although members of each family eventually find safety, each story contains losses and deaths, including one of the main characters. There is hope, but not a complete happy ending, which makes the book both realistic and age appropriate. Each story is tied together in a small, yet interesting way. adding a cohesive element to the volume. Beyond an author's note at the end, separating the fact from fiction, Gratz also includes detailed maps of our hero's journeys and sources of where young people can go if they want to get involved with helping refugees. Timely, historic, and entertaining, this book is socially important and an exciting read.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team

Image result for Undefeated : astonishing rise of Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians football teamUndefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team
Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Book Press, 2017 280 pages
Grades 6-Up
Nonfiction/Biography

Award-winning author of several works of nonfiction for young people, Sheinkin presents a highly readable account of the life of Jim Thorpe, as well as an overview of the Indian boarding schools from a century ago and the early history of football. Thorpe is not the only star of this biography, as Sheinkin also highlights the life of his ground-breaking coach, Pop Warner. The reader experiences the world of the early previous century, when every Native American was nicknamed "chief", racism ran rampant, and football was an untamed, helmet-optional sport. Thorpe escaped from a world of limited opportunities and discrimination to attend an Indian "reconditioning" boarding school of questionable motives and practices. The school had one thing going for it: an excellent coach who was set to make his name in this new sport called football at a school where he was offered free autonomy to coach as experimentally as he pleased. Thorpe proved himself to be an amazing multi-versatile athlete, finally rising to a big Olympic decathlon win, where he was considered to be the top athlete in the entire world. Unfortunately, Thorpe's life took a turn for the worse, yet he managed to always keep his winning smile and can-do spirit and remained involved with athletics his entire life.

Sheinkin paints a sympathetic picture of Thorpe and shows his shortcomings to be a result of atrocious discrimination against Native Americans at the time and misuse and corruption at the hands of the famous coach, Pop Warner. Certainly it was no easy task to be Native American one-hundred years ago. Readers will be exposed to the practice of reconditioning Native Americans and see what life was like for them after the Indian wars. The Carlisle football team brought much needed pride and hope to an entire generation of native peoples and Jim Thorpe was not only an Indian hero, but an American hero. Readers will also learn about the early days of football, which in itself would make a great book. The book is written so well that even non-football fans, such as myself, will be riveted. An easy sell to reluctant readers, especially boys, this book certainly deserves a place in most libraries and is a perfect choice for the dreaded biography book reports. Sheinkin did meticulous research and extensive source notes, works cited, and index is offered at the end of the volume. Fascinating photos from the time period put the account in historical perspective. Of particular interest are the before and after photos of the Carlisle students. An enjoyable and educational account of Thorpe and early football that almost reads like fiction and will be enjoyed by both fans of the sport and the casual reader.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Ada Lace on the Case/Sees Red

Image result for ada lace on the caseAda Lace on the Case
Emily Calandrelli with Tamson Weston
Renee Kurilla, Illustrator
Simon & Schuster, 2017 123 pages
Grades 3-5
Realistic Fiction/Mystery


Ada has recently moved to a suburban San Francisco apartment in a cul-de-sac. Making new friends would be hard enough, but she is stuck all summer in her room, thanks to a broken leg. Luckily, Ada has her scientific journal to keep her busy and, eventually, the visits from a lively new neighbor, Nina, who encourages Ada to keep tabs on the neighborhood with binoculars Rear Window style. While observing the neighborhood, Ada and Nina make enemies of an obnoxious neighbor-boy and discover the disappearance of a different neighbor's beloved dog, Marguerite. What happened to the little Yorkie? His owner seems bereft without him. Is foul play involved? If so, which neighbor is responsible? Ada and Nina use science, observation, and instinct to track down the missing pooch. The answer is much less ominous than the girl were led to believe and new friendships are formed as a result of the investigation.

Image result for ada lace on the caseAda Lace Sees Red
Emily Calandrelli with Tamson Weston
Renee Kurilla, Illustrator
Simon & Schuster, 2017 126 pages
Grades 3-5
Realistic Fiction

The new school year has begun and Ada and Nina have a new art teacher: Ada's Dad! Having your father as your art teacher is not as much fun as it sounds, especially if art is your worst subject. Science and math make so much sense to Ada, but colors escape her. With the help of creative and artistic Nina Ada learns why art is so difficult for her and finds away to compensate for her lack of abilities. But what will her artist parents say when they discover the truth about their non-artistic daughter? Will they send her away? Meanwhile, Ada's attention and energy is going into a robot designing competition for kids where her nemesis-neighbor is also competing. Ada works really hard to design the best robot, but does it have what it takes to bring home the medal?

Scientist Calandrelli is passionate about encouraging girls to delve into science and is all about STEM. To this end she has developed this new series with a strong and scientifically smart young female protagonist to expose kids to STEM concepts as well as keep them entertained. In On the Case Ada uses technology, science, and careful observation to track down the clues to locate the missing pooch. Sees Red is more STEAM than STEM and demonstrates how different kids can see the world completely differently and can still be friends, even through their brains may process in completely opposite ways. In fact it's their differences that bring Ada and Nina together. They compliment each other and work together to create a robot that is both functional and fashionable, winning the big competition. Perfect for kids graduating from early chapter books, this series provides a linear plot with interesting characters, real-life situations, and gentle humor. The print is large, chapters are short, and the cartoon-like illustrations are plentiful, inviting in reluctant readers. Even though the two main characters are girls, boys will enjoy this series as well. It has great potential for classroom use, but will be picked up simply for pleasure reading. The series is agenda-driven, but kids won't notice or care. Science-minded young people will find a friend in Ada and non-scientific kids will enjoy the story and be comforted that maybe they are better at something, such as art, than the "smart kids". Back matter includes scientific information about the principles covered in the story, that were actually interesting, even to a non-science geek such as myself. The third installment in the series, Take me to Your Leader, deals with ham radios and outer space and is set to be released in May, 2018.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Elizabeth and Zenobia

Image result for elizabeth zenobiaElizabeth and Zenobia
Jessica Miller
Amulet/Abrams, 2017 198 pages
Grades 4-6
Horror

Elizabeth, a young girl whose mother has recently deserted the family with an opera singer, travels with her distant father to his childhood home in the dreary British countryside of the early previous century. Aptly named, Witheringe House, is decidedly creepy and desolate, but Elizabeth is not alone. She has her imaginary companion, Zenobia, to keep her company. Zenobia is Elizabeth's "evil twin". She at times behaves badly and likes dark things. Presently, Zenobia is interested in summoning spirits of which there seem to be a lot of in their new home. The only other inhabitant of the house is the housekeeper Mrs. Purswell, whose strange and cold personality seem to match the dwelling in which she serves. After many days of exploring on her own with Zenobia, Elizabeth encounters a gardener, who appears to be conducting some less than savory experiments with his plants. After discovering that the gardener does not really exist, Father becomes even more concerned with Elizabeth's sanity and hires a governess. Miss Clemency. Miss Clemency brings with her a breath of fresh air and some much needed sunshine to Elizabeth's life, making Zenobia jealous and resulting in some evil pranks that prove dangerous. Meanwhile, Elizabeth discovers that Father had a sister whom he was very close to who died when she was a little girl. After uncovering this previously unknown relation, Elizabeth starts reading stories about a mysterious Plant Kingdom that begin to appear on the nursery wallpaper. Could her deceased aunt be trapped in the Plant Kingdom?

This was a great story to read the week before Halloween. It is deliciously creepy and atmospheric. The striking cover that looks like old-fashioned dolls, which I personally find creepy, will draw in readers looking for chills. Full page illustrations, contributed by Yelena Bryksenkova, do not necessarily add to the plot, but help to place the story within its Gothic setting. Zenobia serves as Elizabeth's evil subconscious and acts out the impulses that she cannot express herself. It is not always clear that Zenobia is imaginary, except for the fact that only Elizabeth can see her, and readers might wonder if she is actually a spirit presence herself. At the end of the story Zenobia is still firmly entrenched in Elizabeth's life, not offering closure on that score. We do get closure on the fate of the deceased aunt, who gets a happy ending. This may seem a little unrealistic to the reader, yet this is a work of fantasy. Or is it? It is never really clear if the spooky mysterious happenings are really going on or just a figment of a lonely little girl's imagination. Father also gets a happy ending and it looks like Elizabeth's life will be a bit more cheerful. She finally receives the reassurance that Father loves her and her family increases three fold, yet Zenobia remains. Possibly the author is considering more adventures for the two friends. At any rate, kids who appreciate sinister happenings and bumps in the night will love this book and be glad that the interesting character of Zenobia remains and is possibly real. Too scary for sensitive readers, this title is just right for middle grade readers who want a shivery tale in the Gothic tradition.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

We are Okay

Image result for we are okay nina lacourWe Are Okay
Nina LaCour
Dutton/Penguin, 2017  234 pages
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

College freshman, Marin, will be the only student left on campus at her east coast college during winter break. She will be spending Christmas in the dorms, alone with only a groundskeeper driving by to check on her. Marin is visibly nervous about an impending visit from her friend Mabel and after a busy day of preparations Mabel arrives. Mabel is Marin's previous best friend from her coastal northern California home. Slowly, through a series of flashback we see the history of this friendship, which turned to romance the previous summer.  We also slowly discover that Marin's sole relative, a beloved grandfather, died at the end of the summer, leaving her bereft and shattered. After the death of Gramps Marin escaped California and the life she knew there to begin again on the opposite coast. Now Mabel's visit is stirring up memories and emotions that Marin thought she buried. Mabel is in a new relationship with a boy, which forces Marin to acknowledge her feelings and return Mabel to friendship/sister status. Mabel's family wants Marin to return to California for the holidays and join their family. She is sorely tempted, but isn't ready to open her heart again. Confusion about the secrets that Gramps was hiding and bereaving the mother she never knew, Marin is not sure if she is ready to enter into a new family situation. Meanwhile, her artistic heart sours as she enters a pottery shop and makes a connection with the owner. Will she find her way to inner-peace through creating pottery? Mabel leaves and Marin is again alone, but is this what she really wants?

I have been hearing a lot about this book and it's been on my radar to read. I incorrectly thought it was a science fiction book. I think I got this impression from the cover, where the girl looks like she is standing on the moon. It is very far from science fiction. Instead, this is a heartfelt realistic/coming of age tale that will appeal to fans of John Green. Not much happens in this story. Readers will keep turning pages in order to discover what has left Marin so broken and then to find out if she finds some healing and allows herself to love again. Since the past is unraveled slowly, LaCour holds the reader's interest and the story feels almost like a mystery. The contrast between the sunny California party summer and snowy New York desolate winter is striking and mirrors Marin's emotions. Not much on plot, instead We Are Okay is a character driven novel. The reader really gets to know Marin and walk in her shoes during this critical time in her life. Mable is also fully realized, as is Gramps, a character that you wish you knew in real life. Based on the amazing reviews it received, fifty-six libraries in my county purchased this book, yet only eight are currently checked out, which is a very low number for a relatively new book in my overpopulated library consortium. This goes to show that although the book is excellently written, it will appeal to a limited readership comprised of mostly thoughtful and patient readers who will appreciate a quietly beautiful coming of age tale.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Bad Guys

Image result for bad guys blabey coverThe Bad Guys
Aaron Blabey
Scholastic, 2016 139 pages
Grades 2-5
Humor/Graphic Novel
Bad Guys series #1

Wolf is tired of his bad reputation and being labeled as a "bad guy". He decides to create a team of fellow "bad guys" to go on a PR mission to change the public's perception. The team consists of Mr. Wolf, himself, Snake, Piranha, and Shark. The gang dons black suits and sunglasses, get a super-cool getaway car, and cruise around the neighborhood looking to save the day. Their first mission to save a cat from a tree does not go as planned, but the gang will not be deterred. They plan a big job: freeing 200 dogs from the dog pound. This is not an easy caper. They must get over the fence, past the twenty guerrilla guards, and somehow unlock the cages. The team works together on a hair-brained scheme to accomplish the mission, that is not without hilarious hijinks and missteps. The dogs indeed are freed, yet remain somewhat ungrateful. The gang must try harder to prove their innocence to the public, leading the reader to...

Image result for bad guys mission unpluckable blabey cover
The Bad Guys in Mission Unpluckable
Aaron Blabey
Scholastic, 2017 139 pages
Grades 2-5
Humor/Graphic Novel
Bad Guys series #2

A new member has joined the team: Tarantula, who proves himself a computer whiz, yet scares Shark senseless. The new mission is to rescue 10,000 chickens from a nearby poultry farm. Yet again, the team concocts a hair-brained scheme involving hidden identities, complications, and danger. They must get past and outsmart a new team of gorilla guards leading to the near-demise of Piranha, who is hiding as a sardine in a guard's sandwich. Finally the cages are open, but the chickens are too scared of the "bad/good guys" to come out. The day is saved and the chickens are eventually freed, but at what price? The story ends with a deceivingly cute, yet evil, guinea pig who owns the poultry farm and seeks revenge, leading readers to the third installment: The Furball Strikes Back, released this past April.

This is a very clever new series sure to please readers. Originally published in Australia, Scholastic has released the series in the US with a new installment releasing stateside every few months. The fifth is set for December and the sixth will come out in March, 2018, catching American readers up with the Australian counterparts. Kids will not notice that these books came from a distant land. They are very relatable to American culture. The Bad Guys dress like Men in Black characters and use distinctive American street-slang. The adventures are hilarious and madcap, yet remain exciting and somewhat suspenseful. Reluctant readers, especially boys, will gobble-up these offerings. There are a few potty jokes, but not so many to cheapen the book. The comic illustrations are in black and white, are clearly and cleverly drawn, and add an extra layer to the plot. It is hard to know exactly where the book should be classified. It is completely told in a comic format with very little chunks of text, yet pages are not always split into panels and the book is broken into distinct chapters with headings. New readers not quite "feeling" text heavy books are the clear audience with the hope that they will move onto something more substantial. Wherever a librarian chooses to shelf it, this is a book that kids will certainly read and enjoy and it will not remain on the shelf for long.