Thursday, June 29, 2017

Once and For All

Image result for once and for all dessenOnce and For All
Sarah Dessen
Viking, 2017 358 pages
Grades 9-Up

Like her mother and godfather who have raised her, Louna is skeptical about true love. She experienced love the previous year, only to have tragedy strike and her heart broken forever. Now she works for the family business: wedding planning. A spontaneously flirty member of a wedding party must be reined in during the wedding planning process and Mom chooses to hire him to keep him busy and out of the way. Ambrose is truly a ladies' man and exactly the opposite of Louna when it comes to dating. They strike a bet: she has to date many people during the course of the summer, while he must try to maintain a relationship with only one person. Naturally, as the summer progresses, they develop feelings for each other, but can Louna overcome the hurt of her past to take a chance? Alternating chapters slowly reveal Louna's past relationship with a boy named Ethan, that, although long-distance, was pretty intense. A tragedy out of both of their control left Louna unable to give her heart. Meanwhile, love is also found for Mom, the godfather/business partner, and Louna's best friend. Will Louna's hardened heart be softened? Find out in this summer read perfect for the beach.

Reading a Sarah Dessen book feels like being wrapped in a soft blanket. We feel instantly as if we know the "everyone girl" main character and can instantly relate to her. You know the boy will be sweet and quirky and it will take a while for them to get together, but you know it will happen eventually. And they always have an interesting premise the characters are working around. In this case, wedding planning is perfect for a Sarah Dessen novel and I'm surprised she hasn't used it yet. Readers will enjoy the sneak-peak behind the scenes look at weddings. Readers will wonder at the beginning what happened to Louna's first love and Dessen slowly reveals the story of the relationship, ending in a school shooting, making the book socially relevant. This is not the work of great fiction, but will be enjoyed by female teen readers. It reads quickly and never lags. Ambrose adds humor to the story, lightening the intensity of Louna's grief. Secondary characters drive home the message that we are not meant to go through this life alone. Even though Louna is about to leave for college, the ending is happy for all of the characters and the reader walks away confident in second chances.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Prince of the Pond

Image result for prince pond napoliThe Prince of the Pond
Donna Jo Napoli
Judith Bryon Schachner, Illustrator
Dutton, 1992
Grades 3-6  151 pages

A prince finds himself stuck in a frog's body after an ill-fated encounter with an evil hag and must learn to cope with his new identity. A seasoned frog tells the story of meeting a strange new frog by the pond and teaches him to behave more frog-like. Together they learn new skills, battle enemies, and birth a whole brood of tadpoles. The strange new frog calls himself Pin and eventually he learns how to survive in his new life and even begins to enjoy it. He dubs his new companion Jade and together they form a bond unlike normal frog behavior. Pin insists on protecting his developing frog eggs from enemies and he and Jade both protect and care for their new offspring, especially a tadpole named Jimmy, who becomes their constant companion. Pin begins to enjoy frog life and exhibit real feelings for his frog family when the hag re-enters their life. Pin takes a dangerous chance in order to save Jimmy, putting his own self at risk. Jade thinks they have lost him, only to have him re-emerge also searching for them. A fresh encounter with a princess brings expected "fairy-tale esque" results to a character, but which one? And how will this transformation effect the family? Read the sequel to find out!

I first read this story early in my career when it was released in 1992 during the fractured fairy tale craze brought on by The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Fairy tales are back in vogue, so I thought I would try this title again for my summer battle-of-the-books. Respected folklorist, Napoli, takes on the Frog Prince, exploring what happens to the prince while living as a frog. In this case, the prince not only adjusts to his new life, but falls in love and creates a family. His friend and mate (and our narrator), Jade, teaches him frog-like ways, while he teaches his new amphibious family the ways of the human heart. Animal lovers will enjoy the pond-life adventures and readers will learn facts about frogs and their neighbors right along with Pin. For my money, I have always preferred the sequel Jimmy, the Pickpocket of the Palace because I enjoy stories about people over animals, but I know plenty of readers who prefer this original tale better. The writing is clever, imaginative, and solid, while staying within an age-appropriate vocabulary. The length, print-size, and design is perfect for emerging fiction readers. Excellent black and white illustrations generously grace the pages contributed by Judy Schachner before she hit the big-time with Skippyjon Jones. A still fresh take on a classic tale just right for animal lovers and developing readers.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


Image result for pashmina chananiPashmina
Nidhi Chanani
First Second, 2017  169 pages
Grades 5-Up
Graphic Novel

As Priyanka (or as she prefers to be called, Pri) enters adolescence everything seems to be changing. Her single-parent mother is getting on her every last nerve, her favorite uncle is expecting a baby and has less time for her, and she is suddenly questioning the whereabouts of her father and wants to learn more about her mother's mysterious past. Pri's only solace comes from drawing comics and her relationship a fellow artist at school and a supportive teacher. Prayers to her favorite goddess concerning her uncle's baby lead to unexpected results and guilt, relieved only when she finds a hidden pashmina in her mother's closet. When Pri wraps the beautiful scarf around herself she is suddenly transported to India where she is led around the gorgeous and colorful country by a friendly elephant and bird. But who is the mysterious shadow following their adventures? When Pri wins an art contest she chooses to use the prize money for a trip to India and Mom reluctantly agrees, sending Pri to stay with an aunt she never knew she had. Once in India, the country is different than the magical place of her pashmina fantasies. A journey with her aunt reveals the truth about her & Mom's past as well as the magic behind the intricate scarf.

New to the semi-autobiographical-comics-for-tweens genre made popular by Raina Telegemeier, Chanani adds some much needed diversity to the field with this adventure featuring an Indian-American. Pri struggles with belonging to both, yet fully to neither, cultures and the reader experiences what life is like bridging these two distinct lifestyles. Very little is written about the Indian-American experience for young people and coming from a community with a large Indian-American population, I am thrilled to see this population represented. I know so many girls to pass this book onto I don't know who to give it to first. The story is a bit reminiscent of American Born Chinese in that it deals with cultural identity within a magical format.  The magic in the book is rich and believable, adding dimension to a typical coming-of-age tale. Besides the fantasy element, the story has a mystery to solve concerning the history of the scarf, Mom’s secret past and the identity of the fantasy shadow-person. All mysteries are solved and Pri is in a better and more mature place than where she started. Chanani is a capable artist and her illustrations are well-drawn and easy to follow. The use of color helps to tell the story. Pri's real life is black and white, while her India fantasy life goes into full color. The story of a mysterious figure from the past is told in sepia tones with dashes of color for emphasis. A wonderful and much needed addition to the genre that will attract readers of all ethnicities.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Image result for restart kormanRestart
Gordon Korman
Scholastic, 2017 243 pages
Grades 4-8
Realistic Fiction

Chase wakes up at the hospital with strangers staring down at him. The strangers are his mother and his brother. He finds out that he fell off his roof, cracking his head, and losing all his memories. The new school year begins and Chase notices that his fellow students either treat him as if he were a hero or as if he was the devil. His two former best friends from the football team try to get him to remember his old ways, return to the team, and toughen up, yet Chase finds himself drawn to the nerds from video club. Much to the student body's surprise, he joins the video club and displays talent at making movies, as well as finding pleasure in the pastime. One student, Shoshanna, treats him with contempt, even going so far as to throw frozen yogurt over his head. Why does she hate him so much? And why are other people, including his four-year-old half-sister, afraid of him? As the novel progresses Chase slowly discovers what the reader has known all along; that he was a terrible person and bully, torturing Shoshanna's brother so badly that he now attends boarding school. Through volunteering at a nursing home Chase befriends a purple-heart decorated Korean War veteran. He works with Shoshanna to capture the veteran's story and enter (and win!) a video contest. They start to become friends, Shoshanna's brother returns to town, Chase is starting to feel comfortable with his new life, but the football friends are not happy. They want the old Chase back and will stoop down as low as necessary to restore him to his old, nasty self.

Gordan Korman does it again: penning a fun, interesting, plot-intensive tale that kids, including reluctant readers, will gobble-up. Told in multiple points of view, we see all the sides of the story, which work together to paint a picture of who Chase was and the confusing of the person he is now. Amnesia is a tried and true plot device that always yields interesting results. Kids will be fascinated by the concept and let their imaginations wander thinking about what would happen if they were in the same shoes as Chase. The story is kid-friendly and fun, yet Korman weaves many ethical issues into the story such as bullying, the unfairly bias treatment of student athletes, the power of second chances, forgiveness, honesty, choosing your real friends, and doing the right thing. There are a lot of characters in this book, but Korman is so experienced at writing in this genre, it is very easy to tell them apart. The multiple points of view could get muddy, but he writes all of the characters with separate voices and character names as chapter headings further help tell the reader navigate the narration. This book would be an easy sell to boys, but girls will like it too. It will find a natural home in classrooms and will make a terrific read-aloud for teachers, especially at the beginning of the school year. Restart will also make a great choice for book discussion and I think I will try to use it as my lead book this September, as long as enough copies are on the shelf. Currently there are forty-seven copies of this book owned by libraries in my library system and only fifteen copies are available, proving the kid appeal of both this title and Gordon Korman.

Friday, June 16, 2017

See You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan

Image result for see you cosmos carlSee You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan
Jack Cheng
Dial, 2017  314 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Alex, who is eleven in regular years and thirteen in maturity, leaves his mother with enough food to get through the weekend, grabs his dog and his rocket, and boards a train to New Mexico for a rocket festival. We hear all about his adventures as he records them into his "golden iPod", a nod to Carl Sagan's famous Golden Record, which he plans to launch into space on his rocket. Along the way Alex meets many interesting people, including a non-speaking Buddhist and his entrepreneurial best friend. The rocket festival is all Alex hoped it would be and he meets many new like-minded connections. His launch proves to be disappointing, but Alex overcomes the set-backs and chooses to learn from them. An unexpected e-mail leads him to Las Vegas to track down a father who he believed to be dead. The reunion with his long-lost father never materializes, but he does meet a previously unknown half sister, who accompanies him first to LA to try to locate his adult brother and then home to Colorado. Back in Colorado things are not quite right. Mom is nowhere to be seen and the house is in a shambles. A freak accident lands Alex in the hospital and the truth is finally revealed about the severity of his mother's mental health. Social services must get involved and Alex's older brother returns home to join their new sister to try to untangle the mess that is Alex's life. There are no easy answers and not everything turns out "happily ever after", but all characters find themselves where they should be and are at peace with their situations, especially our hero.

First time author, Jack Cheng offers a great book with many layers. The storytelling device used, narration into the microphone of an iPod, lends credibility to the story and makes the reader think they are experiencing it right along with Alex. Sometimes the story is told through Alex's narration, while other times it is in a script form as the various character interact while the iPod is still recording. This book reminded me a bit of The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas in that we see how Alex is processing the adult world around him. The reader knows more of what is really going on than Alex does and Cheng manages to capture the voice and thinking process of an eleven year old perfectly. As I read the story I actually thought that Alex may be an unreliable narrator and that things were actually worse than they were, which kept me turning pages. I also found myself reading quickly because I was truly worried about this character and needed to know that he was safe. Alex never worries about himself and innocently explores life, trusts strangers, and bumbles on. Thank goodness it all works out for him and he makes amazing contacts that not only help him out financially, but allow for him to achieve his dreams. This story will pretty much appeal to all readers, but will especially be enjoyed by space-minded kids who will relate to Alex's obsession. I learned things I didn't know before and had some good laughs over Alex's many space jokes. Readers will enjoy this armchair adventure with a new friend, learn to maybe not take their lives or families for granted, and pick up some interesting space facts along the way.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The School for Good and Evil

Image result for school for good and evilThe School for Good and Evil
Soman Chainani
Harper, 2013  488 pages
Grades 5-8
School for Good and Evil Trilogy #1

Every four years two young people are spirited away in the middle of the night from the town of Gavaldon and taken to a special school to be trained as either a princess or a witch. Sophie has waited her whole life to begin her training as a princess and has made every arrangement to ensure an easy kidnapping by the storyteller. Meanwhile, her economically deprived best friend, Agatha, is determined to save her from danger. They both get taken away, but Sophie finds herself placed in the school for evil to be trained as a witch, while homely Agatha finds herself in the school for good for princess training. The girls are convinced there has been a mistake and set off to try to find the storyteller and have the error rectified. All princesses are expected to "capture" a prince to escort them to the big ball at the end of term or they will fail. Sophie sets her sights on Tedros, King Arthur's son, and will stop at nothing to win his heart, even if it means alienating all of the students on both sides of the moat. Sophie begins as a terrible student, but Agatha learns both the lessons for good and for evil and helps her friends out, even going so far as to aid her in the quest for Tedros. The story builds to a climax at the famous Circus of Talents, after which the princes are to prom-pose to their perspective dates for the ball. The circus does not go as planned when Sophie stages a massive demonstration for revenge. Will Sophie destroy the whole school and everyone in it? Will she ever be recognized as the princess she truly thinks she is? Who will Tedros ask to the ball? What is the real identity of the storyteller? And, most of all, can two two people from opposite sides of the moat work together and be friends?

This series has been very popular in my library and with a new companion trilogy about to be released I thought it was high-time I read the first. I think the sheer length of the volume kept me from reading it, but despite its heft, it reads rather quickly. This is in part due to the non-stop action and quickly moving plot and also to the humor sprinkled throughout the story making it both an exciting and enjoyable read. The length also allows for a great many characters of whom I had some difficulty keeping straight, but it never kept me from understanding the story-line and I basic knew who everyone was by the end. Rebooted fairy tales have become popular in recent years and this story uses some of the familiar devices and characters and twists them around in an entertaining way. Chainani gently pokes fun at the traditional fairy tale conventions, while also respecting the genre. He makes the point that all of us have both good and evil within us and what allows good to overcome evil is the ability for people to work together. He also demonstrates how people get uglier or more beautiful the more we get to know them and beauty stems from kindness and confidence. Critics have complained that the book is sexist since the princess's main intention is to capture a prince. The princesses in this story are no weaklings. They fight alongside the princes and Agatha proves herself to be both the cleverest and the bravest among all of the students. In the end Sophie and Agatha chose their friendship over the prince, setting convention on its ear. Perfect for fans of Harry Potter, it will appeal a bit more to girls, but boys will enjoy it as well if they give it a chance.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts

Image result for unexpected life oliver pittsThe Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts
Algonquin, 2017  313 pages
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction/Adventure

Our hero, Oliver Cromwell Pitts, awakens to a terrible storm which has flooded his house in 1724 coastal England. His thoughts immediately turn to his beloved sister before he remembers that she has moved to London. Next he worries about the well-being of his distant and drunken father, who has never recovered from the death of his beloved wife who died giving birth to Oliver. Oliver goes in search of Father, only to find that he has quickly left town for London and his many enemies are gunning for his arrest. A water-soaked note offers some clues, but details are missing. A ship damaged from the storm has already been looted, yet Oliver still boards her, finding some money to keep him in food. He takes the coins, knowing that its wrong, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Meanwhile, Oliver finds himself thrown into a local orphanage at the mercy of a cruel manager. After a daring escape he flees town, only to find himself trapped and robbed by a highwayman. This encounter leads him to a crime syndicate, which recruits him to act as a decoy to lure unsuspecting victims. Once in London Oliver meets the head of the operation, who puts him immediately to work. A chance encounter reunites Oliver with those he loves the best and when he finds himself on trial for the many crimes he was forced to commit at least he is among friends. The ending finds Oliver onto a new adventure and in turn to a sequel.

Avi is truly a master at spinning a yarn. This new edition to his collection of over seventy books for young people proves that he is still at the top of his game. At his best when writing historical fiction, Avi fully delves into the culture and language of eighteenth-century England. This is a time period rarely explored in children's fiction. The next volume will focus on the life of an indentured servant in the early days of our own country, which is also a fresh topic young readers know little about. Avi has clearly done his research, yet the history is artfully camouflaged within a fast-moving plot, mystery, and surprise twists. We aren't sure when reading this story if the father is a good or evil character. Avi offers no easy answers to this question by book's end, yet shows motivation for Father's shortcomings and gives him an opportunity to somewhat redeem himself. Oliver is a brave and courageous character who lives by his wits and spunk, yet he is not perfect, makes some bad choices, but proves to have a good heart underneath it all. The beloved sister is also realistically flawed, showing that the world is not as black and white as literature for children tends to lead us to believe. The chapters are short with interesting headings and the action never flags, making this an excellent choice for reluctant readers, especially boys, although they may initially have a hard time getting use to the period language. A well-written book by a well-respected veteran in the children's book world. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Just Dance

Image result for just dance maclachlanJust Dance
Patricia MacLachlan
Simon and Schuster, Sept., 2017  116 pages
Grades 3-6
Realistic Fiction

Sylvie lives on a small Nebraskan farm with her younger brother, opera-singing mother, and cowboy father. Her parents met years ago when Mom was on tour and Dad asked her to dance. Now, years later, Sylvie wonders if her mother is happy with that choice and questions whether singing for cows and kids is enough for her. An aspiring poet, Sylvie gets a summer job riding along with the local Sheriff, who happens to be her beloved fourth-grade teacher's husband, recording for the local newspaper all that she sees. She reports the town's doings in the form of poetry, which becomes popular among the local residents. While traveling around in Bud's sheriff car, Sylvie discovers things about her small town and its residents that she never knew before. She makes new friends, unravels the secrets behind crows, and learns some truths about her own family. When mother's former singing partner comes for a visit, Sylvie must face her fears and insecurities concerning her, only to realize that singing for those you love can be just as rewarding as singing for thousands. All's well that ends well and even the dilemma of Sylvie having to get use to a new teacher is resolved for her in a happy, fairy-tale ending.

Beloved children's author, MacLachlan, turns back to the setting and major theme of her Newbery winning title Sarah Plain and Tall. Though set in a contemporary time period, MacLachlan revisits the rural American prairie and celebrates its richness and the folks that cultivate it. Also revisited is the theme common to the plight of many children who worry if they "are enough" for the adults whom they love. Sylvie worries that her mother will not be content in their shared simple life with just the small family of four and barnyard animals for company. She learns by book's end that they are are primary importance to her mother and singing to them gives her more pleasure than touring the great concert halls of the world. The book also celebrates the value of inner-generational friendship and the glories of small-town living. The world MacLachlan envisions is a bit idealistic, where the simple town-folk all appreciate poetry and opera and live in harmony, but for children living isolated in the suburbs this glimpse of the what small-town America could be is like heaven. MacLachlan's writing is, as always, precise, mindful, and lyrical. Every word is meant to be included in the text and the story reads like one long poem. This book would make a wonderful read-aloud and, since it celebrates the power of poetry, has very clear classroom connections. Our story ends with a simple poem sharing the message with the reader that it is not necessary to over-complicate life, "Life is Simple. Just Dance."

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Beyond the Bright Sea

Image result for beyond the bright seaBeyond the Bright Sea
Lauren Wolk
Dutton, 2017  289 pages
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction/Mystery

Crow has spent her twelve years living on a remote island off the coast of Cape Cod with her guardian, Osh, in the 1920's. Osh found Crow as a baby when she washed up on shore in a basket set adrift, presumably from the former leper colony island across the way. Osh and their neighbor Miss Maggie have been raising Crow, educating her, and loving her. This life has always been enough for Crow, until she sees a fire on the nearby island that raises her curiosity about her past. She convinces Osh and Miss Maggie to accompany her to the island where they see her birthplace and its new inhabitant, a mean and miserable man posing as a naturalist. The man is not who he pretends to be and is actually after pirate treasure rumored to be buried beneath the former leper colony. Further investigation leads Crow to a medical professional from the former colony who gives her more pieces to the puzzle that is her past. An excursion to town yields even more answers, including the existence of a brother who had a very different upbringing, and affirms Crow's desire to retreat to her island with her little accidental family. The mystery to Crow's past slowly unravels as the danger from the evil treasure hunter becomes more evident. A major nor'easter blows in and brings with it the exciting climax, where Crow must face grave danger and find her inner courage to hold onto what is hers. Most mysteries are solved, some aren't, but all ends with contentment and peace.

Wolk stays close to home as she explores life on the Elizabeth Islands, off the coast of Cape Cod during the 1920's in this sophomore novel for young people following last year's Newbery Honor winning Wolf Hollow. The setting is vividly painted and serves almost as a separate character, as readers experience remote island life nearly one-hundred years ago. Although atmospheric, Wolk offers readers a quickly moving plot with mysteries to be unraveled along the way and suspenseful moments in abundance to keep pages turning. Although Wolk solves the most important mysteries, including the identity of Crow's biological family and the existence of the pirate treasure, not all mysteries are solved, much as in real life. I was waiting for a fairy tale reunion with the long lost brother, but this, realistically, never happens. We also never find out the back story of the mysterious Osh. Reader's are given clues to Osh's sketchy past, but no details follow. This is also true to real life. Children don't need to know their adult's backstories, they just need them to be reliable and loving, which Osh certainly is. Themes in this novel include family is what we make it and not necessarily biological, people are more valuable than jewels and loved ones are the true treasure, and you have to do the right thing, even if its scary and hard. Beyond a great story, readers learn about 1920's Massachusetts island life and the treatment of diseased people during this time. Children may also find it interesting as to how to conduct research without the internet. Beyond this, Wolk writes beautifully, intentionally and lyrically. Between the quality of the writing and the layers of the plot, so far this is the best book for young people I have read this year and is my early Newbery prediction.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Cosmic Commandos

Image result for cosmic commandosCosmic Commandos
Christopher Eliopoulos
Dial, July, 2017 185 pages
Grades 3-6

Jeremy struggles with not being as perfect as his twin brother Justin, who is liked by all and has great grades. Jeremy is not a student and his impulses come between himself and success. The only thing he is is better at than his twin is video games. One fateful day Jeremy pulls a magic decoder ring out of a cereal box. When he gets to school the ring helps him to shrink the school bully down to size. Then things start to get really weird as his favorite video game villains come to life and Jeremy must defeat them. Luckily, when he uses the ring a space suit with super powers magically encompasses him. Unluckily, each challenge gets trickier, much like in his video game, and the fate of the earth, or at least his town, is in his hands. When it looks like the task is too much for Jeremy, Justin finally gets his brother to listen to him and use the insider hints he has read about in a video game guide. Finally, when all seems lost, Jeremy gives in and accepts his twin as an equal evil-fighting partner. When the brothers work together, their twin powers are no match for the mastermind behind the whole evil operation and they save the town, and their own skins, from certain destruction. Yes, the twins saved the day, but they gain more than safety and pride in their success, they re-establish their bond as brothers and friends.

Veteran cartoonist and illustrator, Eliopoulos tries his hand at creating a graphic novel for kids with wonderful results. Appealing primarily to boys, he knows what they will enjoy reading, possibly because the twins in the story are inspired by his real-life sons. The story focuses on a video game coming to life, which readers will flock to, and features a powerless boy who is given the skills to fight crazy enemies. Who wouldn't want to find a magic ring at the bottom of the cereal box instead of the usual junk? Readers will find their imaginations souring as Jeremy's fantasy world collides with his boring and unsatisfying life. Beyond this action-filled premise, Eliopoulos offers some important lessons buried within, such as the importance of brothers, overcoming jealousy, the power of books, and we are always stronger when we work together. The cartoon-like illustrations are expertly drawn, presented in full color, scan easily, and will appeal to young readers. Hand this book to reluctant readers and they will devour it, never knowing that there is some substance behind the action-filled plot. The cover is inviting and will help lure in the target audience. A great introduction to kids not quite ready for more advanced super-hero comics or those new to the genre. After reading this book kids everywhere will start digging to the bottom of their own cereal boxes hoping for their own ticket to an awesome adventure.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Borrowers

Image result for borrowersThe Borrowers
Mary Norton
HBJ, 1953  200 pages
Grades 3-6

A story within a story, within a story. Kate is stuck sewing with her elderly relation Mrs. May. To pass the time Mrs. May tells the story of her deceased brother's experience meeting "Borowers" when he was a nine-year old boy (we never know his real name) sent to recover from an illness to an old estate in the English countryside. Borrowers are little people who live in the secret places of houses and take what they need to live from the larger humans occupying the premises. The boy meets the borrower daughter named Arrietty and she explains what life is like for herself and her parents Pod and Homily, as well as borrower history with the many families who lived in the house in its heyday, who have since emigrated. Against Arrietty's parent's better judgement, she and the boy become friends. He eventually wins Pod and Homily over when he borrows for them many coveted items, including real furniture from a tucked-away dollhouse. It is when the boy is making a delivery through an open floorboard that the worst happens: the crabby housekeeper catches him at it, spots the little family and goes into a tizzy, calling in the local authorities, an exterminator, and bringing in a cat. There is nothing left than for the family to emigrate, searching for family members who have left before them. Mrs. May's story ends with her own investigation a year later at the estate, which both legitimizes her brother's fantastic tale and plants a seed of doubt at the same time.

I have read this book perhaps more than any other children's book in my life. It was one of my childhood favorites. The thought of little people living in a cozy little space appealed to me and sent my imagination soaring. It is now one of my favorite book club books and I use it on a regular rotation. Being in my humble opinion a children's literature classic that has stood the test of time, The Borrowers is a well written and richly told classic story featuring a well-conceived originally magical creature in the tradition of elves and brownies. As opposed to other such classics, it is a comfortable reading level and is not overwhelmingly long. There are even some pen and ink illustrations to break up the text, of which I poured over the details as a child. It is also a great book for comparing to the movie. The original version came out twenty years ago staring John Goodman and not sticking to the original story at all, which makes for interesting discussion. More recently Ghibli studios released The Secret Life of Arrietti, which follows more closely the story penned by Norton and is beautifully constructed. I love the secret little world where it feels conceivable that these little creatures exist. I love that the main character never gets a name. I love that the ending is left a bit open ended, allowing for the reader to draw their own conclusions about the existence of borrowers, always inciting an interesting discussion in book groups. Most of all I love knowing what happens to the nail clippers and safety pins that I can never find. Mystery solved. Thank you Mary Norton!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen

Image result for Jasmine ToguchiJasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen
Debbi Michiko Florence
FSG, July, 2017 107 pages
Grades 2-5
Realistic Fiction
Jasmine Toguchi series #1

Jasmine Toguchi is excited for the New Year's holiday. Her grandmother, Obaachan, is visiting from Japan and all the members of her extended family will gather at her California home to make the traditional mochi, a special rice treat. Mochi is always made by the men pounding the rice in the backyard, which is rolled into balls by the women in the kitchen. Jasmine is too young to help and is delegated to babysitting her little cousins. To make matters worse, it is her big know-it-all sister's first year helping in the kitchen and her obnoxious boy cousin's second year pounding. To solve the problem of feeling left out Jasmine retreats to her "thinking spot" within the limbs of an elderly neighbor's tree. Here she develops a dandy of an idea. Jasmine decides that instead of trying to copy her sister in the kitchen, she will go her own way and ask to pound the rice. But is she strong enough to lift the hammer? After many failed attempts to build up strength and get her hands on the mochi hammer the day before New Years arrives. Jasmine finally confesses to her father her desire to pound. Will he go for the idea? And will the other relatives, especially traditional Obaachan, back her up? If she gets her way, will she even be able to lift that heavy hammer? All is revealed by book's end and, after a brief misunderstanding, peace and love is restored, the sisters have reconciled, and a happy new year is had by all.

Welcome newcomer, Jasmine Toguchi, whose irrepressible charm and chutzpah will delight the female chapter book set, landing her shelf space besides Junie B, Judy Moody, Clementine, Ivy and Bean, and others. Jasmine offers an added multi-cultural and diverse dimension, exposing readers to Japanese-American culture. Although the fact that Jasmine is Japanese-American is not the point of the story, her ethnicity adds an extra layer to the narrative, setting her apart from other heroines in a crowded genre. Readers will relate to Jasmine's problems of being over shadowed by an older sister, trying hard, but not quite accomplishing a task, and wanting to do something you are not old enough to do. Jasmine problem solves and I love that her thinking place to do so is in the branches of a tree. I also love that her friend is an elderly neighbor. Throughout the book Florence celebrates relations between generations. Also celebrated is the importance of family and traditions, although acknowledging that sometimes these traditions can be "tweaked" to fit a situation. Jasmine's family is kind and supportive and even the older sister and evil cousin show that they care about our feisty heroine. The reading level of this series is on target for the intended audience. The margins are wide, the chapters are short, and the print is big. Attractive illustrations, contributed by Elizabet Vukovic, will entertain the reader, allow for the book to be more approachable, and help to advance the plot. Back matter includes an author's note about mochi, a recipe for this traditional dish, and a chapter insert of the next book in the series, Jasmine Toguchi: Super Sleuth, released simultaneously.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Pip Bartlett's Guide to Magical Creatures

Image result for pip bartlett's guidePip Bartlett's Guide to Magical Creatures
Jackson Pearce and Maggie Steifvater
Scholastic, 2015  184 pages
Grades 3-7
Pip Bartlett series book 1

Meet Pip Bartlett, who has an amazing ability: she can speak to magical creatures. Only no one believes her and so far it has only landed her into trouble. When Pip starts a unicorn riot, which demolishes her school's career day, her parents decide to take drastic measures. Pip is sent to spend the summer with her aunt, a magical creature's veterinarian, and Broadway-bound cousin. It is here that Pip encounters her aunt's nemesis, Mrs. Dreadbatch, who is against all magical creatures and is trying to shut down Aunt Emma's facility. Friendship comes in the form of neighbor boy Tomas, who despite his allergy to practically everything, becomes Pip's partner in crime. Pip happily updates her volume of Jeffrey Higgleston’s Guide to Magical Creatures with new information as she conducts her research, until a new  creature threatens to wreck havoc on Aunt Emma's small town. Little harmless-appearing fuzzles start showing up around town in barns and underwear drawers. The problem with fuzzles is that they catch on fire when scared, which can quickly spread. Mrs. Dreadbatch is on the warpath to exterminate the fuzzles and the Higgleston Guide is no help. It is up to Pip to determine what has brought the fuzzles to town and why they won't leave in order to save them from extermination. She must depend on her new friends and family, her ability to communicate with magical animals, and determination and grit to save the little creatures from harm and defeat the intolerable Mrs. Dreadbatch.

Designed to look like a real guide to magical creatures, this eye-catching book will appeal to readers. A collaboration of two seasoned authors for young people, Pearce and Steifvater, know how to draw-in their target audience. Filled with madcap situations, humor, and fabulous beasts, this series opener will keep readers delightfully turning pages. The setting is contemporary suburban United States, yet with a slight twist: magical creatures do exist. Putting this premise in a completely relate-able situation will help kids to identify with Pip and completely give themselves over to the fantasy. The authors have utilized some creatures already part of the folklore cannon, such as unicorns, and have developed some of their own, such as fuzzles. Mrs. Dreadbatch is a perfect foil of the Scooby-Doo variety that all kids will love to hate. Readers will cheer as Pip out-smarts her and saves the day, as well as the clinic. The chapters have snappy headings, the print is a good size, and interesting design elements will draw in reluctant readers. The illustrations all appear to be labeled drawings from the actual guide and are relevant to both the format and the plot and add further interest. The book is cleverly written and is laugh-out-loud funny in certain parts. All readers will enjoy this book, from die-hard fantasy fans to children new to the genre. The series will appeal to readers of the How to Train Your Dragon series. As someone who likes to believe that unicorns are real and maybe exist on some isolated island somewhere, I loved this book and think that children will too.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora

Image result for epic fail arturo
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora
Pablo Cartaya
Viking, 2017 239 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Meet Miami native, Arturo Zamora. He helps his extended family run the family business: a neighborhood restaurant featuring the delicious Cuban food that his beloved Abuela became locally famous for cooking. Now Abuela is old, Arturo's mother has taken over chef duties and Arturo is delegated to a job washing dishes for the summer. Even though his two best friends are away during the school break, his life brightens when family-friend Carmen moves to their neighborhood with her father after the loss of her mother. Arturo and Carmen make an instant connection and he finds himself experiencing his first crush and getting all tongue-tied around his former playmate. Carmen loves poetry and Abuela shares her late husband's writings and love of poetry with Arturo as inspiration to connect to Carmen. Meanwhile, an oily developer takes the neighborhood by storm. He wants to build a giant high-rise building with many amenities, gentrifying the neighborhood, and pushing the family restaurant out. The neighbors seem thrilled with the projected project and Arturo's family is faced with fighting a battle for their livelihood, as well as for the preservation of the soul of the neighborhood. Then tragedy strikes as Abuela's health begins to deteriorate. Arturo has to discover life’s true priorities and to fight for them, finding inner courage and personal strength along the way.

I enjoyed this book a lot, penned by a relatively new author, Pablo Cartaya. The Miami setting is unusual in juvenile books and is fully realized and integral to the story. At its core this is a book featuring a boy who must find his inner courage to help his family and do the right thing in a classic battle of good verses evil. The developer is clearly the villain and is presented almost as a caricature, yet kids will feel comforted in the clear-cut lines of who the good guys are. Other themes besides the pitfalls of urban development and the importance of family include loyalty, standing up for what is right, overcoming grief, and the magic of finding one's soulmate. The "Epic Fail", as hinted at in the title, refers to Arturo's confession of love to Carmen, of which she initially seems to reject. He gets the girl in the end, which results in some innocent kissing. This is a story that is aimed mostly at boys, but girls will enjoy it as well. Because of all of the character building within the novel, it would be a great fit in the classroom. The Epic Fail also offers readers a glimpse into Cuban-American culture, which adds an extra dimension to the story. Spanish word and phrases are sprinkled throughout and, although exact translations are not given, the meaning is clear through the context of the sentence. Beyond all of this, Arturo is a very likable guy and readers will enjoy spending 239 pages with him. Zamora offers interesting back-matter, including Cuban recipes and further information about Carmen and Abuelo's favorite poet, Jose Marti. The last page opens a door to a possible sequel, hinting that perhaps the evil developer may run for city council. My favorite line from this book comes from a letter written by the deceased Abuelo, "Remember: sometimes life's answers are hidden in poetry." So true!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Empress of a Thousand Skies

Image result for empress thousand skiesEmpress of a Thousand Skies
Rhoda Belleza
Razorbill, 2017 320 pages
Grades 7-Up
Science Fiction

Two stories are told simultaneously, only to converge at the end, leading readers to the next installment in this projected series. The crowned-princess and heir apparent Rhee's story begins with an assassination attempt on her life by her mentor and the father of her companion/love interest. With the help of a radical monk/assassin and potential third angle in her love triangle Rhee escapes, changes her appearance, and goes undercover, seeking revenge on the man thought to have murdered her family only to seize power. Meanwhile, Aly, a refugee from a planet considered to be an enemy, is framed for the princess's murder (of which she escaped) and must run for his life. While stowing away on a spaceship he meets a fellow renegade/love interest, also in hiding. The two fugitives flee to find Cara's scientist mother, from whom they seek help, only the powers that be are on their tails. The two stories are told in alternating chapters with characters overlapping and secrets slowly being revealed. The enemy is not who the reader is shown at first and twists and turns in the fast moving plot are abundant. This futuristic society warns of our dependence on technology as computers are surgically planted in people's heads storing their memories, which becomes a vulnerable weapon to be used against enemies of the state. Who is the real enemy? What is Cara's true identity? What becomes of Rhee's childhood companion/love interest after she flees her home? These questions are all answered by book's end and will draw readers directly to the second installment, Blood of a Thousand Stars, yet to be released.

New author, Belleza, has penned a series perfect for readers of The Lunar Chronicles and The Diabolic. The futurist science fiction setting will appeal to readers, but could be flushed-out a bit more. I think because the characters are dashing around from one planet to another, the planets all kind of blend together. The plot itself gave me a bit of whiplash, but will keep teens reading and the mysteries embedded in the plot will keep them guessing. I saw many of the plot twists coming a mile away, but the target audience won't care. They will find comfort in the predictability and satisfaction at figuring it out. Various love interests balance the action and further draw-in teen readers. Offering both a male and female protagonist will invite readers of both sexes and the cover is ambiguous enough to not scare away boys. Sometimes I struggled with keeping all the characters apart, but got there eventually. Belleza does a good job at creating her characters, so even though they are numerous, they are all developed enough to be distinct. Themes introduced in this novel include racial discrimination, immigration, privacy, and the threat of dependence on technology. Empress of a Thousand Skies offers food-for-thought within a plot that leads readers through outer space at a break-neck speed.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ben's Revolution

Image result for Ben's Revolution: Benjamin Russell and the Battle of Bunker HillBen's Revolution
Nathaniel Philbrick
Wendell Minor, Illustrator
Penguin, 2017  64 pages
Grades 2-4
Historical Fiction

A fictionalized vignette from his Bestselling Book Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, a Revolution, Philbrick turns his talents to young people. The Ben of the title is famed journalist and politician Ben Russell, who as a boy left school at the start of the Revolutionary War to follow the troops. He found himself cut off from his family in Boston and stayed serving the soldiers as a clerk. Ben witnessed first hand many important moments in the first year of the Continental Army, including the Battle of Bunker Hill. Four months later his father manages to escape the city to rescue him. Since the war was no place for a boy, Father places Ben in an apprenticeship with patriot newspaperman Isiah Thomas, where he learns the business and gets started on his way to his future career. An author's note at the end tells us more about this great man and separates the fact from the fiction. An artist's note directly after explains to the reader the research process involved in creating the beautiful artwork and the overall process of the artist.

Adult author and researcher, Philbrick, takes the child-friend and interesting bits from his best-selling adult book and adapts it for young readers. Even though he lived long ago, kids will identify with Russell, who is a typical rambunctious, curious, and adventurous kid. My favorite part of the account is when a group of boys complain to a British officer that by spreading ashes over the road in front of his house he made the hilly street non-conducive to sledding.  Because kids will relate to Ben, they will be able to live the life of a Revolutionary War clerk during this important time period in American history. Ben is a great role-model for young people in that he was a true patriot, was not afraid to stand up for what he believed to be right, was very bold, and performed a grown-up job even though he was a boy. Philbrick also explains that there are two sides to a war and portrays the enemy as real people, who were formally friends and now find themselves on the opposite side of the issues. A perfect choice for early chapter-book readers, the print is big, the plot is linear, the margins are wide, and the layout is appealing. Minor's colorful illustrations are plentiful and can be seen on every two-page spread, sometimes taking up the whole page with no words included. A boy's eye view of the Revolutionary War and a tribute to a great American.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Quicksand Pond

Image result for quicksand pondQuicksand Pond
Janet Taylor Lisle
Atheneum/Simon and Schuster, 2017
240 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Jessie, along with her father, older sister, and younger brother, escape the summer heat of urban Pittsburgh and move into a ramshackle cottage on Quicksand Pond on Rhode Island's coast, a local where Dad spent a summer as a young man. Her older sister is on a quest to be popular and chooses to spend her days on the beach. Younger brother spends his time at a new friend's pool. Jessie prefers the quiet pond on which the house sits. It is here that she uncovers an ancient raft and meets a new friend. Terri is a local girl with a shady family. The two girls instantly bond and set to work restoring the raft. They spend their days floating around the quiet pond and exploring the natural wildlife. Meanwhile, an old woman is watching them through her window with binoculars. She remembers her days on the pond on that raft and welcomes the girls to the tools in her garage to fix it up. Jessie's family is nervous about her relationship with Terri. Is it true what they say about her family? Her grandfather spent most of his adult life in prison after allegedly murdering the old lady's family and her father is a nasty drunk. When valuable items are stolen from the old lady's garage and it is set on fire, all fingers point to Terri. Jessie finds herself in the crossfire. Did Terri do it? Should Jessie cast a light on Terri to make her look more suspicious and to keep herself out of trouble? And who really did murder the old lady's family? Things aren't always what they seem at first glance and Jessie must find the courage to follow her conscious.

Newbery honor winner, Lisle, pens a novel for young people set in a real place; Quicksand Pond, to be found in Lisle's home state of Rhode Island. Lisle's love for the local and respect for it's animal's and fauna comes through in the story, as does her appreciation for its quiet pleasures, such as enjoying the pond from a raft. Readers will envy Jessie's summer spent with a new friend exploring pond life on a raft with complete freedom, while Dad works on writing a book. The setting and mood are predominate in this reading experience, but Lisle also offers an interesting plot. We see the story through Jessie's eyes as well as those of Henrietta Cutting, the old lady in the window. Henrietta and Terri's pasts are connected and a mystery emerges: whether or not Terri's grandfather is responsible for Henrietta's family's death. While watching the girl's on the raft, Henrietta remembers the truth behind that fateful night, sees that justice is done, and finds some peace. Sensitive readers will enjoy this story that shows that life isn't always black and white. Lisle brings attention to inequality between social classes and the justice system. Other themes include the importance of honesty, loyalty, finding time to enjoy family over constant working, and of course the appreciation of nature and simple pleasures. Jessie must find the courage to stand up for what she believes is right and to remain loyal to her friend, even though the rest of the town is against Terri. Great lessons for kids are hidden among an interesting plot and a fully realized and beautifully peaceful settling. A great summer read for thoughtful kids.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Escapades of Clint McCool

Image result for escapades of clint mccoolThe Escapades of Clint McCool: Octo-Man and the Headless Monster
Jane Kelley
Jessika von Innerebner
Grosset & Dunlap/Penguin, 2017 91 pages
Grades 2-4
Clint McCool series volume 1

What's Clint McCool (real name Walter) great at doing? Developing interesting schemes (that generally get himself and his friends in trouble) and saving the day. What's he not so great at doing? Being patient, sitting still, following rules and controlling his impulses. After a long day at school, where his secret super-power enhanced hat was confiscated by his teacher, who reported his bad behavior to his mother, Clint's day seemed a bit grim. Luckily, his two best friends were coming over after school. On the way home they see a movie being filmed staring a giant octopus/man/monster. Clint gets involved, accidentally knocks the arm off of the monster, breaks the monster's jar of brains and gets kicked off the movie set. Once home he concocts a plot to create brains out of cauliflower and turns himself headless with the help of his friend's shirt. Its back to the movie set where Clint manages to wreck more havoc and finally gets his wish to act in the movie. The part he must portray is awful and humiliating, but the show must go on and the day must be saved. By the book's end Clint realizes one more thing he is good at: being a friend.

Another new early chapter book series launched by Grosset & Dunlap (see The Kid from Planet Z). Clint will have emerging readers turning pages and rolling in the aisles as they gain confidence reading chapter books. The plot is simplistic, light, and totally unrealistic, and young readers will love it. Appealing especially to boys, Kelley writes what kids will enjoy reading. Who wouldn't want a hat with buttons that make you invisible or help you come up with a good idea? The hat is not real, but Clint thinks it is and readers will wonder as they see him pushing its buttons with contagious enthusiasm. Clint's all-suffering mother appears to be a single parent and Clint seems to have brown skin on the cover, adding both diversity and a non-traditional family. As with The Kids from Planet Z the real star of the book is the design and illustrations. There are numerous well-drawn cartoon-like illustrations on every page spread, some full-page. One color is used, a retro-blue, adding interest and contrast. A decorative blue and white stripped boarder further boosts the book's appeal. Clint will definitely hook readers and the silly and adventurous plot will ensure they make it to book's end. A sequel, Sol-Ray Man and the Freaky Flood, has been simultaneously released, so readers will have a place to turn next.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe

Image result for cody springstubbCody and the Mysteries of the Universe
Tricia Springstubb
Eliza Wheeler, Illustrator
Candlewick, 2016
Grades 2-4
Realistic Fiction
Cody Series #2

Cody is sooooo excited. Her best friend Spencer is moving in with his grandmother down the street with his parents while they start a new business. It is nearly impossible to wait and patience is not Cody's best virtue. At last Spencer arrives and they can start the fun. Cody knows the best place to begin: to discover the identity of the mysterious new neighbor on the other side of Grandma's duplex. The new school year begins and Cody pledges to take Spencer under her wing. Much to her surprise, he fits in nicely, getting along great with a feared teacher, joining the orchestra with his violin and making friends with Cody's best pal pearl. The identity of the new neighbor is discovered. He is a big, scary, and gruff man with the fitting last name of "Meens" and works as an exterminator, killing off Cody's favorite things in the world: insects. To make matters worse, his evil daughters live with him during the school week and are determined to make Cody and Spencer's lives a living nightmare. The home-front is also a struggle. Dad is often away driving a truck, Mom works long hours, and older brother is love-sick. What's a girl to do? Cody shows resilience and pluck as she wades through the treacherous waters of growing up and makes peace with the miscellaneous conflicts in her life, including the neighboring bullies. By book's end Cody has not solved all of the mysteries of the universe, but she has certainly found her place within it.

I picked this book up while looking for something light to read on my lunch hour. It wasn't until I was finished with the entire book and reading the author's biography on the back cover that I realized it was the second in a series. This goes to show that this series installment stands on its own and the series itself does not need to be read in order. I enjoyed Cody's story very much. She is a wonderful character, much in the vein of Clementine and Ramona. She wants to be good with all of her heart, yet struggles with impulse control and patience. What Cody lacks, she makes up for with exuberance, enthusiasm, and her loving nature. I appreciate how Cody describes her teenage brother's mood swings as when his love-life is going well he has so much love inside of him that he passes it on, much like passing a baton in a relay race. It also works both ways when you don't have love, you take it out on others, dropping the baton. Cody manages to find a solution with the bullies next door, but not until a crazy chase involving yellow jackets and shoe throwing ensues. She even learns to accept the differences between herself and Spencer and the two friends share a touching moment at the end. The scary neighbor isn't as bad as Cody feared and the story ends with a big neighborhood celebration. This story is perfect for the chapter book crowd and can be enjoyed by both boys and girls. Cody's name is ambiguous and its not obvious whether or not she is a boy or a girl from the cover, so boys should not be put off diving into this story. The illustrations are plentiful and expertly drawn, adding to the enjoyment of the story. A fun and gentle time well spent with an enduring character.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Felix Yz

Image result for felix yzFelix Yz
Lisa Bunker
Viking, June, 2017 286 pages
Grades 5-8
Science Fiction

When Felix was three years old he was at work with his father, a scientist, when an experiment went wrong, blasting nuclear energy. Dad dies in the blast and Feliz is fused with an alien being from the fourth dimension. Fast forward ten years. Felix is now thirteen and has been sharing his body with this enmity named Zyx. Zyx turns Felix into a slightly spazzy individual, who is not fully in control of his actions and speech. Moreover, Zyx proves to be great at chess, calling attention to Felix and bringing him into the public eye. Although Zyx loves chess, Felix discovers his own passion, for writing, and enters a contest, tuning into his own best abilities. Meanwhile, Felix is struggling with a bully, his first crush, and an impending operation meant to separate him from Zyx before irreversible damage is done. The good news is that Feliz's family, though non-traditional and quirky, are very loving and supportive. He lives with his mother, transgender grandparent, and musical prodigy sister. When the date is steadily approaching and Feliz overhears a conversation that he may not survive the ordeal, he decides to runaway by hopping a train. He ends up in nearby Portland, Maine where he meets some nice young people who convince him to return home after exposing him to jazz, which he discovers both he and Zyx love. Once home he is met by his crush, Hector, and has a first kiss. Finally the moment of the operation arrives with the results to follow and their aftermath.

Written as a first person diary, we see what it would be like to live as a thirteen year old and, if that's not a struggle enough, while fused to a fourth-dimensional being. As the novel progresses, so does the physical pain Felix endures and the fear of either dying from staying fused with Zyx or dying from the procedure. This is the main story-line. Other plot lines include the blurred lines of gender identity and sexuality. Zyx is neither male nor female, Grandy alternates genders each day and refuses to be defined by labeling pronouns, Feliz's first crush is on a boy, and Mom start out the novel with a boyfriend and ends with a girl friend. The LGBTQ characters are just that: characters. Their sexuality and gender identity, or lack their of, is not the main focus of the plot. It serves as an added layer to the story, making it an inclusive addition to the middle-grade novel shelves. The science part is cool and reader's will experience what it would be like to share a body with an alien. The less intense plot lines, the bully and the first crush, will remind readers that Felix is an ordinary kid like them, creating validity and leading the reader to believe that the science fiction bits of the account could really happen.. Because of the diary format, readers will be drawn into Felix's story and empathize with his fears and sorrows. Felix doesn't always make the best choices, running away and such, but he is human and we get it. Luckily, his family loves him no matter what and that is what pulls him through. After twenty-four years in this business I often feel that there is "nothing new under the sun" and then a book like Felix Yz comes along to prove me wrong.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Lotterys Plus One

Image result for lotterys plus oneThe Lotterys Plus One
Emma Donoghue
Scholastic, 2017 303 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction/Family

"Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and a man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow...and grow some more." So begins this first children's novel from Donoghue (The Room). We experience life within this non-traditional and loving family through the eyes of nine-year-old Sumac (all of the children are named after trees), who ,at number five of seven in birth order, is the practical one of the kids. All of this changes when she and one of the dads, PopCorn, go to Yukon to retrieve a previously unknown grandfather because he is showing signs of dementia. In proper Lottery fashion the family gives him a kookie nickname and "grumps" is ensconced in Sumac's room and she is regulated to the attic. Grumps hates it in the Lottery's household. It is too noisy, too "hippy", and the food is weird and organic. Moreover, he doesn't understand why the children are home schooled, disapproves of the romantic pairings of the parents, and has out-moded and seemingly prejudice views on race and other cultures. Sumac concocts a plan to send Grumps to a nursing home, where she thinks both he and the rest of the family will be happier. An accident finally seems to convince her parents that maybe Sumac is right, but she has not told the whole truth about the incident. Will she do the right thing or keep her mouth shut in order to extricate the miserable new grandpa?

This book is a breath of fresh air and a wonderful celebration of diversity and non-traditional families. Readers will be so entranced by the madcap fun and healthy and stimulating lifestyle enjoyed by the Lotterys that they will wish they could move into Camelottery as well, even if it mean bunking down with Grumps. The children are all a mix of different racial identities and although some are biological and some are adopted, they are all loved and treated equally. This book reminds me of a Canadian version of Surviving the Applewhites, which is another story of a creative, homeschooled family as told by the practical middle child. Although both share a humorous style, The Lotteries adds the element of breaking down racial and sexual stereotypes. I read this book by listening to the audio, which was great because this book makes an entertaining read-aloud. The problem with the audio was that I kept getting the members of this large family confused in the beginning. The actual book solves this problem by offering a picture of the family helpfully labeling its members. The book is also enhanced with illustrations by Caroline Hadilaksono, which greatly adds to the exuberance of this eccentric bunch. Its fun to see a crazy situation through a straight-man and Grumps proves the perfect foil. He adds conflict to this gentle story and allows for the characters to grow around the adjustment to his presence. Children of non-traditional families, homeschoolers, and bi-racial kids will all find something to identify with here. Traditional children will be exposed to a different way of doing things, which can help them to better understand their neighbors. All children will relate to the struggle of adjusting to change, which can be very scary and unsettling. Moreover, this story is simply a lot of fun!

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Image result for thornhill smyThornhill
Pam Smy
Roaring Book Press, August, 2017 531 pages
Grades 5-8
Graphic Novel Hybrid/Horror

Alternating stories tell the tales of two girls in different times, yet the same place, finally merging at the end. Mary's story from 1982 is told in a diary format, while present day Ella's is told through images. Mary's diary traces her misery, loneliness and fear living in an orphanage, alone on the top floor, while being tortured by a bully. Through her isolation Mary has discovered a love of puppets and dolls, which she lovingly creates and who become her only friends. Because of the dysfunction of her past, Mary suffers from select mutism and is unable to tell anyone the extent of the abuse. Mary is a drawn and seemingly unlikable child, who has an affinity for Mary from the Secret Garden and also finds a hidden garden behind the orphanage, which becomes her solace. When the orphanage decides to close, all of the girls are relocated. The last to go are Mary and her tormentor. Drastic measures must be taken before its too late. Meanwhile, present-day Ella and her father, having recently lost her mother, move into a new house next door to the creepy and abandoned old orphanage. Feeling lonely in a new house and missing her mother, Ella feels inexplicably drawn to the dilapidated mansion and on a scouting missions discovers Mary's secret garden and one of her dolls. Mary repairs the doll and returns it to the garden. Why is there a light in the attic room in a building where no one has lived in thirty-five years? And who is the mysterious and wispy figure floating around the garden? An investigation draws Ella to the truth and the discovery of a new friend.

Wow! What a creepy and cool book! Told in the style associated with Brian Selznik, telling two stories using different formats, Smy creates a much different mood, more Graveyard Book than Wonderstruck. A true ghost story, Smy doesn't pull-punches or offer a Disney-esque ending. The abuse and neglect suffered by Mary is hard-core and will draw empathy out of the reader, as will the grief and loneliness experienced by Ella. I kept expecting things to turn out okay by the end; that maybe Mary is a long-lost aunt of Ella's who comes to save the day. Things don't end pretty, but they do end satisfying. I loved the ending and kept turning pages rapidly to get there. Definitely not for sensitive kids, fans of the creepy and macabre will love it. I would have loved it as a kid and found it delicious now as an adult. As with Selznik's work, don't let the 500+ pages throw you. The book reads quickly within a few hours. I also love the dolls and puppets, both as substitute friends and as a further creepy element. The Secret Garden references may act as an incentive to encourage kids to read the original and further highlight the difference between the happy endings of traditional children's stories verses stark reality. Both boys and girls will enjoy this story and the cover is invitingly atmospheric to draw readers in, yet doesn't feature the girl characters to scare off boys. The black and white illustrations are expertly drawn, add to the mood of the story, and blend seamlessly with the other plot. Black pages separate the two narratives as the book continues. A well crafted gen of a book just waiting for the brave kind of reader who appreciates getting their spine tingled. Unfortunately, Thornhill will not be officially published until August, but keep it on your radar. It's worth the wait.