Friday, August 11, 2017

Wild Beauty

Image result for wild beauty Anna-Marie McLemoreWild Beauty
Anna-Marie McLemore
Feiwel & Friends, October, 2017 352 pages
Grades 9-Up
Fantasy

Estrella lives with her four female cousins, their mothers, and grandmothers on the La Pradera estate, where they have tended the lush gardens for generations. They are so amazing at gardening that folks claim them to be witches. The ladies admit to have a special touch with plants and trees, but only they know the real secret behind their powers: they are bound to the land by a magical force and whenever they love a man too much, the man disappears. All of the five cousins. who all are named after flowers with the exception of Estrella, have fallen in love with the young female owner of the estate, Bay. Bay's black-sheep male cousin is sent to the estate to take it over, forcing out Bay and jeopardizing the tranquility and future of the family. Meanwhile, Estrella accidentally pulls a figure out of the ground. It is a mysterious boy with no memory of his past beyond his name: Fel. The mothers and grandmothers know what to do with Fel and seem to understand that he is one the the men from the past who has disappeared. Fel and Estrella fall in love, yet Estrella is scared. Will she force Fel back into the ground by loving him, losing him forever? Will the girls find the missing Bay and banish the evil cousin? What is the truth behind the curse of the Nomeolvides women? All is revealed by book's end in a satisfying conclusion filled with magic and romance.

Critically acclaimed author, McLemore, offers a modern fairy tale that could be described as magical realism. The writing is beautiful and the mystical mood of the storytelling will draw readers right it and hold them through the conclusion. The curse/magic is believable in a folklore-ish type of way and will provide a perfect escape for whimsical readers. McLemore plays with blurred gender and race, allowing for the book to break through cultural expectations. The truth behind Fel and the curse is revealed in a satisfying manner and I felt a delicious sense of closure at the end of the story. Patient readers will best enjoy this book as it is quiet and lyrical and relies more on mood than plot. It took me a while to read this story, I think because of the dense writing, but even though I would put it down for a while while I read something lighter and faster, I always came back to it. I had a hard time keeping the cousins straight and finally gave up as it did not matter to the plot. The main characters are clearly defined and that is what matters most to the story. Dreamy teenage girls are the audience and they will find much to enjoy here. The real star of the story is the breath-taking cover, which is what encouraged me to pick the book up in the first place. The beautiful cover will draw in readers and the lyrical telling will sweep them into this magical and gorgeous world.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Invisible Emmie

Image result for invisible emmieInvisible Emmie
Terri Libenson
Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, 2017  185 pages
Grades 4-8
Graphic Novel

Two very different girls recount the same day at school with some interaction, yet very different points of view and experiences. Emmie is shy and awkward. School is torture and she struggles with asserting herself and feels invisible. The only way to cope is by drawing and submersing herself in her artwork to get through the day. In direct contrast is Katie, who is athletic, popular, and confident. We see the different takes on the same school day as related by the two different girls. Katie gets asked out by Emmie's crush. Emmie writes a love letter, partly in jest, to said crush, only to have it fall into enemy hands and lead to exposure and severe humiliation. Help surprisingly comes from Katie, who encourages Emmie to stand up to bullies and to speak-up for herself. Emmie gains the needed confidence, pushes Katie away, and finds the courage to actually talk to the crush herself and to make a new friend. A surprise ending shows the reader that we are all a little Emmie and a little Katie and that no one is completely perfect or hopeless. Emmie pulls through her humiliation with more confidence and strength and she has opened up and made a few new friends in the process.

The latest in the popular trend of semi-autobiographical novels geared primarily towards girls, first made popular by Raina Telegemeirer's Smile, Invisible Emmie is the same, yet different. As typical for this genre, the main character struggles with fitting in with her peers, lacks self-confidence, and is suffering through middle school. The difference lies in the contrasting characters and points of view. The ending is a twist that readers will love and it is executed really well. Libenson pens both characters differently. Emmie has more text with smaller doodle-like illustrations in muted colors. Katie is large splashy cartoons in vibrant colors. It is beautifully and thoughtfully designed and this also sets it apart from the average fair. The book reads quickly, yet has a bit more text than the standard graphic novel, working more as a transitional chapter book to move this audience into reading books with more girth. Readers will relate to Emmie's struggles and suffer right along with her when the love letter is confiscated. It is surprising that Katie proves to be so nice to Emmie, even though she has a crush on Katie's BF. This makes more sense as the twist ending is revealed, yet also shows that all popular kids are not necessarily evil. We all have many sides to our personalities and no one is completely black and white. Invisible Emmie is proving to be a hit with the target audience. In my library consortium thirty-nine libraries have added this title since its May release and only nine copies are currently not checked out to readers. A sure-fire win for older elementary and middle school girls.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Miles Morales

Image result for miles moralesMiles Morales: a Spider-Man Novel
Jason Reynolds
Marvel/Disney, 2017  261 pages
Grades 6-Up
Super Hero/Adventure

The latest in Marvel's novelizations of popular and teen-friendly superheroes, seen earlier in the year with Shannon Hale's The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, penned by established authors in the field. Miles Morales is a reboot of Spider Man, first created by Marvel's Ultimate series as a spin-off alternative to the standard Marvel universe. A biracial teen living in Brooklyn, Miles takes the mantel of Spider Man over from Peter Parker and fights crime, while also struggling with normal teen problems. In this first in a projected series, Miles is not sure that he wants to continue on as Spider Man. His spider senses have been acting up and he is still morning the loss of his formally estranged uncle. Strange happenings result in Miles getting suspended from his prestigious Brooklyn boarding school and putting his scholarship in jeopardy. Miles' parents are not pleased with him, so it is a surprise when a cousin that Miles never knew existed reaches out and Miles' father agrees to take him to juvie to meet him. Meanwhile, a creepy history teacher is imparting racists lessons about slavery and Miles suspects that maybe he is part of a larger ring. His roommate is challenging him to have more fun, his crush is challenging him to write poetry and his parents are begging him to stay out of trouble. What is a young super hero to do? Fight some bad guys to try to clean up his neighborhood and get to the bottom of the ring of racists in order to secure his position in the school and keep it a healthy and safe learning environment. Oh, and to get the girl.

I love Jason Reynolds. This book is a departure for him and proves Marvel's commitment to finding quality writers to fictionalize their comic books. Much like with Hale's Squirrel Girl, their are no illustrations, which is a surprise for a book based on a visual format. The action is communicated with words alone, drawing in fans of the comic and possibly turning them into traditional readers. It is helpful when reading this book if you already have knowledge of the franchise. It feels almost like a sequel and I kept checking to make sure that this was actually the first in the series. This may be because Marvel is assuming that prior knowledge of the characters is known by the reader picking up this book. I was expecting non-stop action, but much of the book is centered around Miles' personal life and troubles and there is not as much fighting bad guys as I was anticipating. Reynolds writes the way teenagers talk and his language is hip and cool, making his characters believable and likable to teen readers. Miles is typically teen-angsty and struggles with the mantel of being Spider Man. The fact that he is half African-American/half Hispanic offers much needed diversity to the very white genre of super heroes and the field of books for young people as a whole. The character of Miles' roommate, Ganke, offers comic relief and a sub-plot involving his crush adds a bonus dimension to the story. I like how Reynolds infuses the power of poetry into the book and stresses the need for a good education. Miles is a good kid with a tough job, who loves his family, has crush on a girl and is trying to figure out his place in the universe. And he just happens to be a superhero on the side.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Swing It, Sunny

Image result for swing it sunnySwing It Sunny
Jennifer & Matthew Holm
Scholastic, September, 2017  218 pages
Grades 4-Up
Graphic Novel

Sunny, heroine of the smash-hit semi-autobiographical graphic novel Sunny Side Up, must begin middle school. Older brother, Dale, who we first meet in the previous title, is still struggling with substance abuse. His parents out of desperation send him away to military school in the hope of straightening him out. Sunny continues to feel sad, angry, and guilty about her brother's addictive behavior and is trying to process these feelings, all while attempting to adjust to the new school environment and life as a budding teenager. As 1976 changes to 1977 Sunny spends time with her best friend watching television, bonding with her baby brother, and confessing her feelings to her grandfather in Florida. A visit home from Dale is disappointing and only when an older new neighbor moves in and befriends Sunny does she start to feel hopeful. Through the neighbor Sunny learns how to twirl color guard flags and discovers that she is good at it. Through the passing of time, the acceptance and friendship of her new neighbor, and her success in learning a new skill, Sunny starts to heal and let go of the feelings of responsibility and constant sadness brought on by Dale. By the school year's end Sunny has grown in confidence and maturity and Dale seems a bit less angry and maybe willing to try to mend his broken relationship with his family.

Sunny Side Up is one of my favorite graphic novels. I can relate to both the 1970's setting and dealing with a brother who is an alcoholic. Sunny and I are the same age and have very parallel childhoods, so of course I love this book. I have asked kids at my library and in book discussion if they can relate to Sunny and am always greeted with a resounding "yes". Sunny's troubles are universal and, unfortunately, still relatable to today's youth. This sequel takes place directly where the first installment ends and traces Sunny's school year. It does not break new ground; the same themes hold true with no new earth-shattering developments. If anything, the 1970's setting is delved into deeper, focusing more on the music and television shows we all watched for hours at a time. Dale does not magically get "fixed", but we do see hope by book's end. Readers in similar situations will gain from watching Sunny come to terms with Dale's condition with the help of family members and learn to let go of some of the negative feelings she is holding onto and find positive feelings from within herself and a new confidence thanks to an acquired skill. Much like the first novel, the cartoons are well drawn, expressive, are in full-color and scan easily. Knowledge of the first book would making reading the second a richer experience, but enough background is given, allowing it to stand alone. A slam-dunk for fans of Sunny Side Up and for readers of the current trend of realistic graphic novels pioneered by Raina Telgemeier.

Monday, July 31, 2017

How to Hang a Witch

Image result for how to hang a witch coverHow to Hang a Witch
Adriana Mather
Knopf, 2016 368 pages
Grades 7-Up
Fantasy/Mystery

Samantha Mather is forced to relocate to Salem following her father's coma after she and her stepmother can no longer afford their New York City Apartment because of the hospital bills. The house in Salem has been left to the family after Samantha's long-lost grandmother passed and she begins to discover her deep roots within this historical community. The cute boy-next-door is welcoming and friendly, yet the reception at Salem High is much frostier. A group of creepy young people, known as the Descendants, are all linked to witches who were killed during the troubles three-hundred years previous. Do they dislike her because she is descended from Cotton Mather, famous judge during the proceedings? Samantha is use to strange things happening when she is near and is convinced that she is cursed. The strange occurrences increase once in Salem. First students get sick from treats Sam brings to class and then all the guests at a party are afflicted by a terrible rash--except for Samantha. Family members of the Descendants begin getting sick and dying and the clique is convinced that it is Sam's fault. Meanwhile a ghost appears in Sam's bedroom who lost a sister in the long-ago trials. At first he distrusts Sam and then the two become reluctant allies, and, eventually, friends with romantic inclinations. Bullying at school by the hands of the Descendants increases, as does the "accidents" to loved ones and the Descendants themselves. Who is responsible for all of the deaths? Is there a real witch in their midst? And how can Samantha finally break the curse once and for all?

Teen books about witches appear to be a new trend. I have seen a bunch of them out lately and have just finished an adult book about five generations of witches (A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan), which I greatly enjoyed. The Salem witchcraft trials have long been a topic of interest to teenagers and this book will plug into this popular topic, while adding a modern twist. Mather (herself a descendant of Cotton Mather) ties-in the injustice of the trials with modern day bullying. History repeats itself as Samantha feels persecuted and judged by the whole town. Sam and the descendants practice spells to try to break the curse and Sam finds that she wields real power. The supernatural element is believably told and gets even more interesting as Samantha becomes involved with a ghost that only she has the ability to see. Readers will try to guess the identity of the actual witch who has cursed the Descendants and the motivation behind it and this mystery is satisfyingly solved after a nail-biting climax involving the near-death of many key players. The prerequisite love triangle necessary to all post-Twilight book aimed at adolescent girls gets a new twist by pitting the boy-next-door against a ghost. A perfect choice for reluctant readers, hand this title to girls needing to read a fantasy who don't think they like fantasy. Enough history is included to prove that Mather did her homework, yet never weighs the book down. Readers may be inspired to learn more about this dark chapter of early America. Slightly shivery, always suspenseful, wistfully romantic and with a touch of mystery this book adds up to a lot of fun and a sure-fire hit with the target audience.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Hate U Give

Image result for hate u give book coverThe Hate U Give
Angie Thomas
HarperCollins, 2017 444 pages
Grades 8-Up
Realistic Fiction

Debut author Angie Thomas pens an important and timely novel reflecting current news headlines and the Black Lives Matter movement. The title refers to a song by Tupac, which delivers the message that how society treats its citizens as youths will directly affect how they turn out as adults: hate breeding hate. Starr is a sixteen-year-old girl who resides in a poor urban neighborhood where her family has always lived and goes to school in the suburbs in a mostly white private school where she has met a white boyfriend. She is a different Starr depending on where she is. After a neighborhood party Starr accepts a ride home from her childhood friend Khalil. They are pulled over by a white police officer on a deserted street for no apparent reason and after being harassed a series of events leads to the shooting of Khalil. Starr is the only witness and must decide whether or not to come forward with the truth. She is afraid of the police if she relates the prejudice and harsh treatment of one of their own and she is afraid of the neighborhood gang who promises to mess up her family if she tells the truth about Khalil's gang affiliations, or lack thereof. Starr must decide who her friends are from both sides of her life and learn to stand up and fight appropriately for what is right. Meanwhile, Starr's family must decide whether or not to continue living in the neighborhood, especially after the mass destruction caused by the result of the trial verdict.

A story ripped straight from the headlines, Thomas fleshes out the Black Lives Matter movement in a relatable way to all teens, regardless of race. The reader feels, right along with Starr, what it is like to straddle both lives and to experience the violent death of a friend. Much more happens within the story than what time allows in my brief summary. This is not only a book reflecting our current social climate, but it is a family story and one of a community close-knit, yet in trouble. Thomas shows both sides of the issue and offers a character of a good cop by including Starr's beloved uncle, who is a man of integrity. While delivering a balanced account of the issues, Thomas makes sure the reader understands that prejudice is never okay. There are no easy answers and street life is respected, yet not glorified. Starr exhibits much character growth within the novel and finds her identity, courage, and voice as the story unfolds. This would be an important book for all young people to read and will be enjoyed by both genders. Although the topics raised and high quality of the writing would make it perfect for book discussion and classroom use, the length may deter such use. Because of the strong language and a little bit of sex, this book would be a better fit with slightly older teens, yet the message is important for all. Emotional, timely, and moving, this current best seller deserves its place on the list.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Wishtree

Image result for wishtree applegateWishtree
Katherine Applegate
Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, Sept. 2017 
209 pages
Grades 3-6
Fantasy

Meet our narrator, Red, a very old and established oak tree inhabited by owls, opossums, raccoons, his best friend a crow, and a neighboring skunk family. Red is a "wishtree' and every May 1st folks come from all over to hang wishes on her branches. The tradition was started many years ago by an Irish immigrant named Maeve, who longed for a baby. She hung the wish on Red's sturdy branches and a little baby was left for her in a hole in the tree by a fellow immigrant from Italy. Now Maeve's great-granddaughter, Francesca, want to cut the tree down. Francesca is tired of cleaning up after the tree, disposing of its wishes, and paying a plumber for fixing the pipes destroyed by Red's roots. Moreover, a vandal has recently carved a word intended for a neighboring Muslim, family: "leave". Francesca doesn't want trouble and thinks it might be easier to cut Red down. Samar, a young member of the immigrant Muslim family, has already made her wish: for a friend. Red and his crow buddy, Bongo, meddle in Samar's and fellow neighbor Stephen's lives helping them to forge a friendship. In order to cement the friendship Red must break nature's code and demonstrate to the two young people that she can actually talk, sharing her and Maeve's story. Wishday arrives and with it the tree removal company. All seems lost for both Samar and Red until help arrives from unexpected places, proving that friendship and community are what matters most and may just be worth a regular visit from the plummer.

Katherine Applegate, winner of the Newbery medal for The One and Only Ivan has penned another beautiful story, perhaps worthy of a second Newbery. This is the first book I ever remember reading with a tree as a narrator. I was skeptical at first, but it works. All of the animal friends have distinct personalities and make their own contributions to save Red's life and that of their home. The writing is thoughtful and lyrical and the book reads rather quickly. Applegate manages to include within this short volume many ethical themes such as anti-Muslim discrimination, America as an immigrant nation, the importance of friendship and community, loyalty, making the right choice even if its the harder choice, and tolerance. Animal lovers will especially devour this title, but really any young reader would find something to enjoy and on which to ponder within its pages. Red is an eternal optimist and will serve as an inspiration to readers. Applegate is able to inspire emotion within the pages of this tightly woven tale and at the climax, when the neighborhood bans together, I felt a bit choked-up. Perfect for classroom use and as a read-aloud, this story has a timeless quality that will insure its permanent place on library shelves. Beautiful pencil illustrations by Charles Santoso are meant to be included in the actual finished product. The preview copy I was able to read only included a few, but they were lovely. A timely book that explores the present discriminatory climate of our society, all while keep the message at an entertaining and child appropriate level. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

There's Someone Inside Your house

Image result for there's someone inside your houseThere's Someone Inside Your House
Stephanie Perkins
Dutton/Penguin, 2017 289 pages
Grades 9-12
Horror/Mystery

Makani has recently relocated from Hawaii to live with her Grandmother in rural Nebraska in order to escape a mysterious past scandal that still haunts her. The star of the upcoming drama club production of Sweeney Todd, no connection to Makani, gets brutally murdered in her own house, causing speculation and near hysteria in the small town. Suspicion falls on outcast, Oliver, who Makani had a secret fling with over the summer. Through the crisis the two teenagers reconnect and slowly start a relationship. Meanwhile, other teenagers are getting systematically murdered. Makani, Oliver, and her two best friends try to determine who the murderer might be, all while trying to stay safe. Makani has been noticing cupboards being left open in her kitchen and certain objects moving to different locations than where she left them. Is her grandmother getting dementia or is there someone in her house? Who is committing the murders and what is the connection between the victims? What is the secret behind Makani's tragic past and why is Oliver a loner? Most of all, which teenagers will survive this slaughter?  All of these questions are answered by the book's end and at least one major character will not survive the killing spree.

I love Stephanie Perkins. I gobbled up all three of her previous interconnected books for teenagers starting with Anna and the French Kiss. Since Perkins only has written romance, I was surprised to hear that she wrote a horror story and certainly skeptical. I should not have worried. Perkins knows how to write to ensure the reader can't put the book down. I don't know how she does it, but her books are so engaging that you can't stop reading them. Once I started this book, I had to keep reading, neglecting other things I had to do, including making my family dinner. My fifteen-year-old daughter picked the book out of my beach bag on the way home from the shore and had a similar experience. In fact we both fought over who's turn it was to read it. She doesn't like horror (at all), yet loved this book. The story is truly creepy and gory, yet still contains Perkins signature romantic plotline and quirky, yet relatable, characters. The mystery of the murderer's identity is solved about half way through the story, but then the mystery becomes who will be the next victim and what is the connect between the murdered teens. Makani and Oliver always happen to be conveniently at the wrong place at the wrong time, but the reader will be so absorbed in the story that the unrealistic coincidences won't matter. The books ends a bit abruptly for my taste, but will allow the reader the freedom to imagine what will come next for the remaining characters. This story would make a great teen movie and I will be very surprise if someone doesn't snatch-up the movie rights. Another winner from a proven reader-pleaser.

Monday, July 10, 2017

This Would Make a Good Story Someday

Image result for this would make a good story somedayThis Would Make a Good Story One Day
Dana Alison Levy
Delacourt, 2017  315 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction/Humor

Twelve-year-old Sarah has decided to reinvent herself, along with her two best friends, over the summer, until one of her two moms pulls a sneak attack. Mom has won a writing contest and the whole family will be taking a train ride across America stopping at many major cities and sites. So, Sara packs her journal, list for improvement, and tween angst and boards an Amtrack train, along with her moms, her two sisters, and her older sister's hippy boyfriend. Another family has also won the contest and is traveling along with them, complete with a son Sara's age. Written primarily in the format of Sara's journal entries, writer mom's insights, notes from the boy to Sarah, excepts from the older sister's diary, and postcards from the pesky older sister also help to tell the story. The two families travel around the country having adventures, some hilarious, most embarrassing and Sara, though still working through some tween angst, finds a sense of who she is and what direction she is heading towards. A sad event towards the end of the journey brings both families close together and shows them all what is most important in this life. Will Mom turn the adventure into a book humiliating the whole family? Will the boy, Travis, finally wear Sara down by his infectious personality and good cheer? Will the older sister drop out of school to become a full-time environmental activist? Will Sara's blue ear ever return to normal? These and other questions will all be answered within the 315 pages of this original novel.

Levy, of the Family Fletcher fame, takes her signature humor and applies it to a cross-country family rail adventure. Many kids are train enthusiasts and I, myself, have always harbored a secret desire to travel cross country by train, so I think the overall concept is a winner. Combine that with a funny family story and a non-traditional format with interesting characters and you have a kid-pleasing selection. Readers will learn interesting fun-facts about many cities and locals as we travel with the two families across the US. This book is not solely a fun travel log, it does have a plot and exhibits much character growth from many of the characters, but primarily Sara. Levy nails the voice of the twelve-year-old heroine and we truly experience this crazy adventure through her eyes. Themes such as finding your true self, the value of an education, the importance of social activism and making the world better, respecting each other and appreciating differences are all demonstrated within the pages. Much like a meandering cross country train ride, the book goes on a bit too long, but the humor and hijinxs keep it from getting boring. Because we are reading Sara's story and she is a bit angst-y, this book will appeal more to girls than boys. Any story that features a life-sized cutout of Elvis is okay in my book, making This Would Make a Good Story Someday a recommended read. Take this title with you on your next summer family vacation for a light and entertaining read.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Image result for girl circumnavigated fairylandThe Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Catherynne M. Valente
Feiwel & Friends/Macmillian, 2011 247 pages
Grades 3-6
Fantasy
Fairyland series #1

An original fairy tale charts the adventures of September, a Nebraskan girl longing for adventure. A Green Wind blows in one day promising just that, but she must leave immediately. Of course September agrees and the two ride away to Fairy Land atop of a flying leopard. After learning the cryptic rules of Fairy Land September is allowed to enter. Once inside she has dazzling experiences and meets many new friends, including a trio of witches (one of whom may be a Wairwulf), a book loving Wyvern ( a cross between a dragon and a library), a blue boy named Saturday, a magic lantern, and a host of other incredible creatures. On a mission from the witches to capture a magical object from the current ruler, the Marquess, September is lured by this evil ruler to embrace a new quest that will benefit the selfish monarch. Adventure ensues and September and her new friends face challenges, separation, and strife (including independently circumnavigating Fairy Land as the title implies) before the thrilling conclusion where September must rely on both her wits and her brawn to escape from danger unharmed with her companions. Mysteries are solved by book's end, including the identity of the evil Marquess and the whereabouts of the missing beloved ruler, Good Queen Mallow. The Green Wind returns September to her mid-western home, only to discover that very little time has passed. Her adventures continue in four additional volumes.

Valente draws from other modern children's classic influences such as Frank L. Baum, Norton Juster and C.S. Lewis to create an original, yet familiar feeling, fairy tale. A fellow-midwesterner, September experiences a Dorthy Gale-esque adventure as she picks up new friends, confronts evil rules, and follows a quest to save herself and her new companions. Valente does not cheap out on her language and writes beautifully and lyrically, often creating new creatures and terms. Much like The Phantom Tollbooth, the book sometimes was a bit "talky" for me, making it more of a choice for patient readers or as a read-aloud. The chapter titles have intriguing wordy headings, much like the book's title and attractive pencil illustrations, contributed by Ana Juan, add further interest. Even though the title clearly states that the main character is a girl, she is fierce and interesting and readers of both genders will enjoy this story. Reading this book feels both comforting and old-fashioned, yet with new concepts and original ideas. Smart kids with big imaginations are clearly the audience and will find much to sink their teeth into with this title.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Homework Machine

Image result for homework machineThe Homework Machine
Dan Gutman
Simon & Schuster, 2006 146 pages
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction

Alternating points of view account the adventures of four fifth graders from Arizona's Grand Canyon country who develop a real homework machine. Sam, also known as Snik, befriends smart-kid and seatmate Brenton after Brenton reveals that he invented a homework machine. Two other seatmates, Judy and Kelsey are brought in on the secret and the four young people meet at Brenton's house to see the amazing machine in action. Brenton feeds his homework into a scanner, the computer reads the assignment and completes it using sources from the internet and then prints it out in his own writing. The handwriting of the other kids is added to the program and an unofficial after school club is born. Soon the kids fall into a routine of meeting at Brenton's house and completing their homework with the help of the computer they name Belch and before long they become reliant on it, as they form new friendships with each other. Meanwhile, Snik learns how to play chess from Brenton and bonds with his soldier father through the game. Snik's Dad gets sent to war in the middle east with tragically sad results. A mysterious stranger is stalking the "D Squad", as they become know as, and other students and teachers become suspicious. Finally, the jig is up and the crew knows they must delete the program, except Belch seems to have a mind of its own. How will they get out of this predicament?

I have been recommending this title and using it for book discussion for years. It is as universally perfect a children's book as you can get. Gutman offers a great concept, a racially diverse cast of characters made up of both boys and girls, an intriguing setting, a rapidly moving plot, and a little mystery all wrapped up in a perfect package composed of the perfect length for a children's book: 150 pages. There is something for everyone here and all readers seem to enjoy this story, including those of the reluctant variety. Gutman does a great job with the alternating points of view and gives each narrator a distinct voice. The name of who is speaking leads into their narration, further eliminating confusion. Gutman also manages to throw in some ethical questions. perfect for book discussion, such as the pros and cons of homework, the value of hands-on projects, what makes a good teacher, respecting the military while being against war, the awesome-ness of chess, the ethics of cheating, the importance of honesty and the true meaning of friendship and popularity. With so much going on you would think that this book would be frantic and disjointed, but this is not the case. The linear plot reaches a satisfying conclusion with all threads being wrapped up, including the identity of the stalker. All the characters leave the story older and wiser for the experience. Readers who enjoy this story can follow it up by cracking into the sequel The Return of the Homework Machine. A Homework Machine is every kid's fantasy and that alone makes this book a slam dunk with the intended audience.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Long Way Down

Image result for long way down reynoldsLong Way Down
Jason Reynolds
Simon & Schuster, October, 2017 304 pages
Grades 8-Up
Narrative Poetry

Told in a series of narrative poems, fifteen-year-old Will experiences the shooting of his beloved older brother. After a terrible night of guilt and grief he finds himself on an elevator with a gun tucked into his waistband and his heart seeking revenge. At every level a new soul steps into the elevator and interacts with Will, only they aren't real people. Everyone who steps into the elevator is a ghost who is the victim of gun violence and is an important influence in Will's life. The rules of the community dictate that men are not allowed to feel grief by crying and that revenge is a necessary step in honoring the dead. As one figure after another arrives and tells their tale Will's past is revealed, as is his place in the cycle that is urban violence with its own set of codes, gang life, and heartache. Will he step off the elevator in the lobby and seek out the kid whom he is pretty sure killed his brother or will he break the cycle and stop the madness?

Jason Reynolds is rapidly replacing Neil Gaiman as my favorite author and not ONLY because he's as good looking as Neil Gaiman, although that helps, but because, like Gaiman, Reynolds is an eclectic writer who is comfortable writing for different age levels and in different genres. He collaborates with other authors and has put out a staggering amount of work in the past couple of years, all of it quality. Reynolds's latest, Long Way Down is for an older teen audience and is urban, gritty, and unapologetic in promoting non-gun violence and anti-gang themes. Much in the vein of Kwame Alexander, Reynolds presents contemporary issues in a narrative poetry style in order to reach young men, perhaps on their own terms, making them think. The poems are beautiful, yet read easily, and will be readily consumed by the target audience. The book is beautifully designed with an intriguing cover that will make readers look twice. I thought the concept of a single elevator ride would prove boring, yet this book was anything but. With each new level a new layer of Will's story is revealed, finally breaking down his walls and forcing him to question the code of life which holds him hostage. It reads quickly, yet packs an emotional wallop and has a lot to say without being preachy. Reynolds always nails characters and this book is no exception. Readers will experience what life is like for Will and walk for a short elevator ride in his Jordans. A moving piece of work by a talented artist.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Giants of Science: Leonardo da Vinci

Image result for giants of science leonardo da vinciGiants of Science: Leonardo da Vinci
Kathleen Krull
Penguin, 2005  124 pages
Grades 5-8
Giants of Science series #1

First in a series of narrative biographies tracing the lives of important scientists, Krull introduces modern readers to the life of Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci. Focusing more on da Vinci as a scientist than as an artist, as per the series title, Krull explores the scientific process and interests of da Vinci, all within a historical and cultural framework. Little is known about this intellectual great, so Krull fills in the holes as best she can, using phrases such as "maybe he...", never fictionalizing his life, yet flushing out details as appropriate to similar accounts of the time period. We learn about the many interests and pursuits of da Vinci including human anatomy, earth science, natural science, flight and philosophy. Throughout his lifetime da Vinci recorded his scientific findings, along with careful drawings, into a series of notebooks. In the years upon his death the notebooks became scattered throughout the western world. A section at the end of the book gives an account of the surviving sections of written findings and a challenge for readers to keep their eyes open to discover more. The volume is rounded out with a bibliography and an index for researchers. An author's note acknowledges da Vinci's contributions as an artist and invites readers to learn more about that facet of this important historical figure.

I always say "everything I know about the world is from reading children's books" and yet again that statement proves true. A true Renaissance man in every aspect of the term, da Vinci did it all: from studying everything from math to nature, dissecting human cadavers to learn more about human anatomy, and painting amazing works of art such as the famous Mona Lisa. Krull does not over-glorify him, instead painting a picture of a real man, warts and all, communicating to the readers his inability to complete projects or keep his various pursuits organized. Although non-fiction, this book is narrative in nature and reads like a story. It is a perfect choice for graduates of the popular "Who Was" series. Clearly meant for older elementary children, some mature aspects of da Vinci's life are touched upon including his illegitimate parentage and arrest as an adult for being a homosexual. Perfect for kids who like to read non-fiction recreationally, the addition of the index and bibliography make it useful for reports as well. Readers will learn about life in the Italian Renaissance, the early scientific process, and a little about the various inventions and scientific theories of this great man. Who knew that da Vinci was working on air travel four-hundred years before the Wright brothers? Readers may be inspired to learn more or, perhaps, try their own hand at inventing something or developing their own scientific notebooks.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Stella Batts: Broken Birthday

Image result for stella batts broken birthdayStella Batts: Broken Birthday
Courtney Sheinmel
Jennifer A. Bell, Illustrator
Sleeping Bear Press, 2017 155 pages
Grades 2-4
Realistic Fiction
Stella Batts series #10

In her tenth adventure Stella is very excited. She is saying goodbye to age eight and about to turn nine. Even better, She and her family plan to celebrate the big day across the country with her best friend who moved away. On her "birthday observed" day (when Mom brings cupcakes to school) tragedy strikes. While showing Mom a project high up on the wall, Stella takes a tumble, gravely injuring her leg. A trip to the hospital reveals that the leg is not only broken, but will require surgery. Stella is scared, but kind hospital personnel and a new friend help to make her feel more comfortable with the procedure. All goes well with the surgery, but now Stella is trapped at the hospital for her big day and can't move her leg or get out of bed. Stella's new friend and roommate, Camille, helps her to survive a lonely night in the hospital, full of card games and secrets. The birthday finally arrives and with it many surprises, including balloons, sugar-free cake that diabetic Camille can eat, and a visit from Stella's old best friend who moved away and her new best friend who moved to town from the UK. A birthday present of a friendship bracelet kit is immediately put to good use as Stella realizes that all of her friends are good friends and they can all be best friends together.

Fans of Junie B will naturally turn to Stella Batts, who has a similar energy and take on the world, yet is less fresh, more kind, and uses better grammar. Also, the reading level is a bit easier, making this an excellent choice for kids, especially girls, who are transitioning to chapter books. Readers will identify with Stella's excitement about her birthday and disappointment when it all falls flat. Also relate-able is Stella's friendship dilemmas, balancing more than one best friend and learning how to be friends with everyone and not hurt another friend's feelings. My niece Madeline recommended this book to me. She related to the story on an emotional level and plowed through it rather quickly. Even though I never read another book in the series I jumped in at number ten and had no trouble figuring out who was who and what was going on. Pencil illustrations enhance the text and add a layer of interest for the reader. The chapters are a proper length for this reading level, often ending in a little cliff hanger to get the reader turning pages, the font is large and the vocabulary is right on target. The best part of this series is that Stella's family owns a candy store, which is every child's fantasy. A likable heroine who will be enjoyed by and related to by young readers.

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
Romance

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
Fantasy

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

Pashmina

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

Restart

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
Fantasy
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
Avi
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.