Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Image result for horizon westerfeldHorizon
Scott Westerfeld
Scholastic, 2016  241 pages
Grades 4-7
Science Fiction/Adventure
Horizon Series Book 1

Four science nerds traveling from Brooklyn to the Robot Soccer World Championships in Japan find themselves stranded in the Arctic when their plane crashes. Only it doesn't look like the arctic, it looks and feels like a jungle. And where are all the other passengers? The only people still present are a bossy older teenager, an intense Japanese-American boy with a powerful vintage Samurai sword, and two Japanese girls who speak no English, but are talented in drawing and music. The eight young people try to make sense of their environment, even though it seems inconceivable. They need to find food, water, and explore the local terrain. After some experimenting they figure out which berries are safe to eat and learn to hunt an unfamiliar local bird for meat. Further exploration leads them to a hand-held machine that produces zero gravity, which allows them to fly through the trees, covering more ground. Danger ensues as the new friends try to discover more about the strange environment and one of their band has a fatal accident. But where exactly are they? And what happened to the other passengers? And why are there two moons? These mysteries are not solved completely by book's end, but some clues are offered, leading us to the next installment in the series, set to be released in September by Jennifer Nielsen.

Scott Westerfeld, author of the popular Uglies series, takes a respite from YA and enters the world of children's series fiction. Much in the tradition began with the 39 Clues, volumes in the series are projected to be released every six months penned by different authors. Also as with the 39 clues, the series will have great kid-appeal, featuring a plot-intensive story with much action and adventure and starring both male and female characters, opening the series to both girls an boys. The length is perfect, the chapters short and the cover and layout are appealing. An extra feature to the series is a game offered for free through Scholastic. It can be accessed through the publisher's website or through an app. I tried the game and it was a cut above the usual games developed to accompany books. I think the game will be a draw and will encourage kids to read the books. Perfect for reluctant readers, every library should stock the series and its a good choice for parents and teachers to suggest to stubborn students. The characters are not particularly developed and the plot is not plausible, but that doesn't matter, its not that kind of a book. Its almost like reading a comic book, but without the images. Horizon is a series designed to turn kids into readers and then, hopefully, they will grow into books at the next level with a bit more substance.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Image result for wonderful wizard ozThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum
George M. Hill Company, 1900 261 pages
Grades 3-7

The much beloved and classic adventures of Dorothy and her little dog Toto as they get swept up in a Kansas tornado and land in the magical Land of Oz. On her quest to return home Dorothy meets new friends with needs of their own and the merry band of misfits journey through dangerous terrain in order to meet the Wizard, who will hopefully grant their requests. Once in the Emerald City, the friends meet the Wizard, who sends them on an impossible task: to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West. They do just that, only to return and find that the Wizard is a humbug. Even though he is able to provided Dorothy's friends with what they seek, a disastrous balloon launch leaves her still in Oz with little hope. Further journeying leads the group to the Dainty China Country, attacking trees, past dangerous hammer-head people, and finally into the land of the Quadlings and to the good witch Glinda, who educates Dorothy on the real magic of the slippers. Dorothy and Toto arrive back in Kansas, richer for the magical adventures they shared and the new friends they met in the Land of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz 
is thought to be the first true American fairy tale. Although magical stories were written for children prior to 1900, this is the first that is based on purely American sensibilities and not our European heritage. Every American child thinks they know the story and they probably do know the basics. But understanding of the classic movie is not the same as reading the book. In order to turn the book into a movie many parts of the plot had to be stripped away, including my favorite bit when they go into the land of the Dainty People. I am a big fan of the movie and especially love the songs that were added to make it more accessible to a movie going audience in the 1930's. Both are great, but different experiences. The language of the book is rich and vibrant and, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy with the original illustrations, it is a visual treat. Gregory Maguire based his novel Wicked, which then inspired the Broadway show, on the book not the movie. If you read Wicked having seen only the movie, much of the politics and peoples of Oz will be lost on you. This book is a true American classic. It was a best seller in the early part of the previous century and has stood the test of time. I enjoyed reading it as a child in the 1970's and enjoyed the re-read during the dark January days of winter.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Burn Baby Burn

Image result for burn baby burnBurn Baby Burn
Meg Medina
Candlewick, 2016 300 pages
Grades 9-Up
Historical Fiction

Nora is looking forward to ending her high school career, getting a full-time job, and moving into her own apartment. Life in 1977 Queens is gritty and dangerous. The Son of Sam serial killer has begun his killing spree, murdering teenage girls matching Nora's physical description. She and her best friend Kathleen are determined to find fun in their final days of high school, despite the grim cloud over the city. Nora's brother Hector, who has always been mentally unbalanced, is spinning out of control. At only sixteen years old he rarely goes to school, constantly carries around a Zippo lighter which he uses to start fires, and has started taking drugs. Even worse, he has become physical with Nora and her mother whenever he doesn't like what they say. Nora feels helpless by Hector's behavior and unsupported by her mother, who makes excuses for Hector's abuse. A cute new boyfriend, encouragement to go to college from caring teachers, a kind boss, and a feminist powerhouse of a neighbor keep Nora pointed in the right direction, even though embarrassment and ignorance prevent her from remedying her home situation. Finally, a major blackout hits New York City and with it comes looting, arson, and anarchy. Will New York ever feel safe again? What was the extent of Hector's involvement? Will Nora ever find her way out of her hopeless situation? Help comes from an unexpected source and Nora eventually takes control of her life and finds the courage to stand up for what is right, even if it means alienating the ones she loves in the process.

Its so weird that events that I have lived through have become historical fiction. Even though I was only nine years old in 1977 and lived upstate, I remember that desperate atmosphere of New York City during this time and all of the adults talking about it. Its hard to reconcile the dirty and dangerous New York of the late 1970s to the glitzy tourist destination with a Starbucks on every corner that it is today. Medina grew up in Nora's neighborhood and experienced the "Summer of Sam" first hand. She does not lean solely on her recollections and explains in an author's note the extensive research that she put in to make the novel as historically accurate as possible. The setting is almost a character all its own and the story could not exist in a different time and place. What is universal is the theme of living under the cloud of domestic abuse. It is unusual to see the abuse coming from a younger sibling, but this is a reality in life and its important to see this horrible scenario depicted in young adult literature. There is a bit of mystery to the story as the reader becomes suspicious that perhaps Hector is the Son of Sam. Nora's family is Cuban and although Spanish words are sprinkled throughout the text, particularly when the mother is speaking, meaning is conveyed through context clues. Racism, sexism, and the plight of the immigrant are all themes explored in this novel, as are the importance of friendship, hard work, and living with integrity. Nora finally makes the right decision concerning her brother, losing her relationship with her mother, but making the best choice for her own success and healing. Even though this novel is set in the past, today's teens will find relevance in the story and will be swept up into its pages.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Children of Eden

Image result for children edenChildren of Eden
Joey Graceffa
Atria, 2016  288 pages
Grades 7-12
Science Fiction

Rowan is an illegal second child who has spent her entire life in hiding. Twin brother, Ash, returns each day from school and shares with Rowan information about the real world. Even though she was never allowed the eye shield that all residents of Eden are given upon birth which allows them to be scanned, thus proving their legitimacy, Rowan can't take it any more and scales the wall of her prison/home and explores the city. Eden was constructed years ago because of the effects of nuclear destruction. All animals and plant life have been destroyed and the earth is uninhabitable outside of the city. As Rowan explores, she encounters a policeman who miraculously does not turn her in and next she meets Ash's best friend Wren, with whom she immediately makes a connection. After a further elicit encounter with Wren the following night, Rowan becomes aware that her secret is out. She escapes with her mother, only to have tragedy strike in the worse possible way. Rowan is now on her own and extremely vulnerable. She escapes the authorities through a hole in the wall of the city. The other side brings an unexpected haven, as well as a surprising new group of comrades. Still, the danger is not over as Rowan discovers that her beloved and physically weak brother has been jailed. Rowan must leave the safety of the underground in order to rescue Ash and help the citizens of Eden see the truth behind what they have been led to believe is their history.

Joey Graceffa is a YouTuber who previously has written only a memoir. This is his first attempt at fiction and it is proving to be very popular with teen readers. Among the Hidden meets Divergent in this dystopian novel with a twist. The elements of the now-classic teen dystopian adventure appear to be present: a bleak society ravaged by the effects of environmental carelessness with teens out to survive and expose the corruption of the elders, all while a love triangle is working itself out. The twist comes within the love triangle, which features Rowan struggling with her feelings between a girl and a boy, reflecting the current blending of traditional romance and gender in today's young people. Rowan is a likable, brave, and interesting character for whom readers will root. I like that the "Beth March" of the story is the twin brother Ash, adding a further gender-bend to tradition. Readers will understand Mom's motivations for forcing Rowan into hiding and will be properly horrified at what happens to her. The true villain behind Rowan's exposure will be a surprise, as will other plot twists. Eden is an interesting society and although it feels like other civilizations within this genre, it is fully realized and unique. The story barrels along and the action never flags, right up to the very end, where the reader is led to new surprises and a probable sequel. Children of Eden will appeal to readers of both genders and the cover is enticing. A highly readable and action-filled story within a crowded genre with much teen appeal by an unexpected author.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

All Fall Down

Image result for all fall down carterAll Fall Down
Ally Carter
Scholastic, 2015  320 pages
Grades 7-12
Embassy Row Series #1

Grace is sent to the fictional city of Adria to live with her diplomat Grandfather. Her father is away on a military mission, her brother is a cadet at West Point and her mother is dead. Grace witnessed the death of her mother at her Adrian antiques shop three years previous and hasn't been the same since. The murderer is a man with a predominate scar on his cheek and over the past three years Grace has experienced many supposed sightings of the killer. At a party Grace sees a man with a scar and knows for certain that he is her mother's murderer. Her suspicions are confirmed when she overhears him threatening to kill someone else. Grandfather and his assistant are convinced that Grace is mentally unbalanced and work to have her believe that Mom's death was an accident. She makes friends with a neighboring boy, a fellow diplomat offspring, and together with the teen daughter of the head of American security and a young gymnast from Germany form a team of super-sleuths to catch the killer before he strikes again. Meanwhile, the son of the Russian ambassador and Grace's brother's best friend is protectively keeping an eye on her. Could this relationship lead to romance? Underground tunnels, mean girls, international relations, and danger all work together to create an action-filled story filled with surprises, leading readers to the next installment in the series See How They Run.

Ally Carter is the master of teen espionage. Her first two series featuring teen spies have garnered many fans and this latest series will be no different. I feel that the Embassy Row series may have more depth than her previous offerings in that it has more substance, featuring an unreliable narrator dealing with grief. As we progress through the story, the reader is unclear whether or not to trust Grace's sanity and memories. It turns out that the past is not exactly as Grace remembers, but she forgets certain elements of the terrible incident of her mother's death for good reason. The truth behind the death and the scarred man's identity and motivation are revealed by book's end, yet leads the reader into a bigger mystery to be continued in the second installment of the series. Romance is hinted at, but remains innocent, making the book a good choice for the immature reader. Even though the main character is female, the story would welcome male readers. Grace is a likable character and readers will cheer for her as she learns to navigate the tricky world  of friendships and the landmines of her past, even as we question her validity. Secondary characters are not particularly developed, but are interesting, add to the fabric of the story, and, although numerous, distinctive enough to tell apart. The international setting adds an interesting dimension to the story and reflects the always present juggling-act of world political relations. A fun and exciting book, a cut above the usual offerings in this genre.

Monday, January 23, 2017


Image result for mayday harringtonMayday
Karen Harrington
Little, Brown, 2016  340 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Our book begins with seventh-grader Wayne sharing cheeseburgers with his favorite uncle, who is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. Wayne is a fact-junkie. He loves to learn interesting facts about EVERYTHING and shares them constantly to fill any white space or awkwardness in his life. Wayne and his small family are devastated when news comes of his uncle's death a short time later. On the way home from Arlington Cemetery Wayne and his mother are in a terrible airplane crash.The flag memorializing his uncle is lost in the crash, as is Wayne's voice. Grandpa, a retired military curmudgeon, moves in to help out. Without a voice Wayne struggles to continue his already strained relationship with his father, a romance with a girl he feels is too pretty for him, and hard to please Grandpa. Through speech therapy Wayne makes a new friend named Denny, who has such a hardcore stutter that he must communicate by singing. Eventually Wayne finds his voice, as well as a relationship and understanding with his grandfather and the ability to stand up to his bullying father. Things begin to look up, as even Mom has found a new love. Then Wayne is given another piece of bad news, just when his life is starting to get back to normal. Can he cope with yet another loss? And will he ever be able to locate his uncle's missing flag?

This book is a real roller coaster of a ride. I fell in love with Wayne and was riveted by his story and spirit. I know awkward, fact kids like Wayne and felt that Harrington nailed the character beautifully. Actually, I liked all of the characters and felt that they were all fully developed and experienced growth throughout the book. The plot moved along nicely, adding twists and turns along the way. Mom's new love comes as an interesting surprise. We see the sad twist coming, much as Wayne does, but he chooses to ignore for as long as he can, and once it is truly revealed it still comes as a punch to the gut. Wayne becomes obsessed with locating the missing flag and he and his grandfather work together to locate it. By book's end the flag is never found, but the reader will not feel cheated. By the time you get to the end of the book, so much has happened and Wayne has grown up so much, that the importance of locating the flag has lessened. Harrington shows her respect for the military within the pages of this story and has, in fact, dedicated to the book to her veteran father and grandfather, as well as soldiers everywhere. Many themes are explored including excepting people who are different, what it means to be a man, the true definition of bravery, the importance of behaving respectfuly and with integrity, and what it means to be a good friend. This book has a lot to say, yet does not feel agenda driven. Readers will enjoy the time they spend with Wayne and Denny. A word of warning: don't read this book on a plane or give this story to readers already exhibiting a fear of flying. They will never get on an airplane again.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

Image result for girl who drank the moonThe Girl Who Drank the Moon
Kelly Barnhill
Algonquin, 2016 386 pages
Grades 5-7

Luna lives in a small cabin in the wilderness with her grandmother, a swamp monster, and a miniature dragon surrounded by hidden magic and secrets. Luna doesn't know it, but she is really a child from the Protectorate, a closed community who sacrifices a baby yearly to an evil witch for protection. The witch is not aware that she is evil or that the babies are intended as payment to her. Every year Witch Xan saves the baby, nurtures it with moon light and love, and brings it to nearby villages to be adopted. Luna is the sole baby that she keeps. Because of an extra dose of moonlight, Luna develops uncontrollable magical powers. Xan puts a spell on Luna's magic, until she is old enough to handle it. Unfortunately, once Luna's magic emerges, Xan is away and it is up to the swamp monster to help her process her powers, which leads to an adventure. Meanwhile, we see life at the Protectorate; the mother Luna was snatched from, a young man who is destined to become part of the evil government but wants something different, the corrupt old man who holds tightly onto authority no matter what the cost, the abbey of nuns with power in the community and hidden secrets. All of the plot threads come together by book's end, connections are made, and secrets are revealed.

Barnhill, author of the Witch's Boy, as well as other books, has created an classic fantasy with layers. Folks are not who they seem at first glance. Xan is portrayed as the evil witch, but is a very loving character who's life purpose is to help people. The tiny dragon thinks he's "Simply Enormous" living in a land of giants, yet is tiny with stunted growth. The young man being trained for government work secretly longs to be a carpenter and posses a heart too pure for the evil work to which he is destined. The true villain behind the baby snatching is not revealed until book's end, along with the motivation behind this travesty. Magic, gentle humor, mystery, and adventure are all featured in abundance as the story progresses. The book begins with a story being told by mother to child in the first person about the witch in a different font. This story-within-a-story continues throughout the book and is also at the conclusion. My main complaint is my usual one: I felt that the book was a little long. I started to get restless in the middle. The last chapters, where everything comes together and secrets are revealed, was a great payoff, so I really don't mind the time invested, but impatient readers may not make it so far. Also, there were a lot of characters and different settings, which may be a little confusing to some young readers. I would give this book to smart, seasoned readers who enjoy fantasy. For those willing to put in the time, its a great ride!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Inquisitor's Tale

Image result for inquisitors taleThe Inquisitor's Tale
Adam Gidwitz
Dutton, 2016 337 pgs
Grades 5-8

Multiple narrators, hanging-out at a tavern, tell the tale of three children and a dog who possess magical and, perhaps, Godly powers in medieval France. Jeanne is a peasant girl who goes into trances where she predicts the future. Her dog, Gwenforte, died protecting Jeanne as a baby, only to return from the dead to protect her from prosecution as a heretic. William, a boy of mixed race and social stature, is currently studying to be a monk. He possesses superhuman strength and is of a size not to be surpassed by most common folk. Finally, Jacob is granted the power of healing. His whole village is burnt to the ground, including his parents, only because they are Jewish. The three children find each other, become friends, and travel together seeking sanctuary. Along the way they meet King Louis of France, thought to be a loving King, yet passionately against the Jewish religion and disrespectful to peasants. Louis and his powerful mother demand that all existing hand-copied volumes of the Talmud be destroyed. The children, along with a determined Monk who was thought to be an enemy, but turns out to be an ally, are committed to saving the sacred texts. But how? The action changes from tales at the inn told to an inquisitor to the same inquisitor joining the children and becoming part of actual story. What follows is a magical and thrilling climax gathering all of the scattered plot threads and characters, demonstrating that the good can overcome evil and that the long arm of God can produce miracles.

Told much in the style of a tale shared by a medieval minstrel, Gidwitz shows the reader that the middle ages were anything but boring. Following the format of The Canterbury Tales different narrators from different walks of life contribute the part of the children's accounts that they witnessed. Most of the story is told orally, placing the reader squarely in the time and place. Gidwitz keeps the narration distinct and manages to accurately, clearly, and effectively maintain all of the different voices. Although there are supernatural elements in this book and some fantastic beasts, such as dragons, it is not the stuff of high fantasy. All of the magic therein are happenings that would have been believable to folks during this time period and are recorded in legend and song. Illustrations, contributed by Hatem Aly, are beautiful and reflect the manuscripts of the time. Although possessing a medieval mood, they are also cartoon-ish in style, encouraging young readers to jump into this book and keep turning pages. I have often had readers over the years ask me for books about knights that aren't fantasy. This would be a perfect choice for such a reader. The story contains action, some gore and gross bits, and relatable characters. Beyond this, there is much substance, history, and a well-written text. Gidwitz clearly did his research and offers an author's note at the back of the book describing his path to authorship of such an unusual book for children and clarifying what is fact and what is fiction within the text. The factual parts will surprise the reader and made me almost want to read it again. It’s very strange that two of my favorite books this year are set in medieval France and deal with religious topics and heresy (The Passion of Dolssa by Berry), especially since before this year I have NEVER seen a children's or teen book on the subject. At any rate, this is a well-crafted book for a special and thoughtful reader.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Image result for lion witch wardrobeThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
C.S. Lewis
HarperCollins, 1950  189 pgs
Grades 3-7
Chronicles of Narnia Series, book 2

Four siblings are evacuated during WWII from their London home to the countryside in order to be out of harm's way during the bombings. They are placed in a rambling old house owned by an eccentric elderly bachelor, who gives them the run of the place and leads them to believe that anything is possible. While playing hide and seek the youngest, Lucy, hides in a wardrobe and, while digging through the hanging coats, finds herself in a land of snow. She naturally enters the land in order to explore and meets a kind faun who becomes her friend. Mr. Tumnus takes Lucy home for tea and tells her about this magical land called Narnia, where it is always winter, but never Christmas, all thanks to its ruler: the evil White Witch. Once back with her family, no one believes poor Lucy, who becomes despondent that she is not taken seriously. The next time Lucy enters the wardrobe, brother Edmund is right behind her. Once in Narnia Edmund meets the White Witch and is seduced by her confection of Turkish Delight. He agrees to return with his siblings and hand them over to the witch. When Edmund arrives back home he denies the existence of Narnia only to annoy his younger sister. Finally, Lucy is redeemed when all four siblings land in Narnia. Mr. Tumnus is missing and after an encounter with a beaver couple the children decide to journey with their new friends to a distant location where the legendary Aslan is said to have returned in order to overthrow the witch. But where is Edmund? He has escaped to find his witch and taste more Turkish Delight. What follows is a tale of redemption and forgiveness with good overcoming evil, complete with magical creatures, thrilling battle scenes, and a satisfying conclusion.

January is always classic month with my book discussion groups and this title is my choice for the third/fourth grade crew. I spent many wonderful hours in Narnia growing up and have since read the book probably five times as an adult for work purposes. It continues to delight and transport me in a delicious and enchanting manner. An original fairy tale in the classic style, Lewis writes this story in such beautiful and rich language that it begs to be read aloud. Magical creatures abound, both good and evil, and talking animals with distinct personalities run a-muck. The magic is believable and wondrous and even the children are given magical vehicles that they use in different circumstances to save the day. Edmund is the quintessential younger brother, who falls into negative behavior in order to make himself important. He finally sees the error of his ways and gains forgiveness. The other children are a bit one-dimensional, but the reader will root for them and wish to emulate them. This book, although over half a century old, will still be enjoyed by young readers. It is dated in its portrayal of women (the girls are discouraged from fighting), the language, and the complete independence of the children as they play wild and explore their environment without adults supervising. Father Christmas is a character in the book who grants the children magical elements, which may put off non-Christian readers. Also, it should be said that scholars believe that Lewis wrote the book as an allegory for Christian principals and the the death, and resurrection of Jesus. Honestly, as a child I never saw that. I learned about the symbolism once I was in college. Readers of all faiths will enjoy the story and the Christian symbolism is not obvious unless you are looking for it. A wonderful story that has stood the test of time that will transport the reader to a magical land where they will make fabulous new friends.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Sun is Also a Star

Image result for the sun is also a starThe Sun is Also a Star
Nicola Yoon
Delacorte, 2016  384 pages
Grades 8-Up

Alternating narrators tell the stories of Natasha and Daniel as they experience a crazy and clandestine day in New York City and fall in love. Natasha's Jamaican-American family is about to be deported because of a bad decision made by her father. The rest of the family has resigned themselves to their fate, but Natasha is not giving up easily. She is on her way to the immigration office to fight for the right to stay in the only home that makes sense to her. Meanwhile, Korean-American Daniel is being forced by his immigrant parents to attend Yale and become a doctor. He is dressed up and ready to go to his interview for the prestigious school and begin the path to success, even though in his heart he wants to be a poet. Both teenagers are on the cusp of the next step in their lives and they meet quite unexpectedly. Their chance encounter leads to coffee and conversation. Daniel is instantly smitten with Natasha and is determined to make her fall in love with him. Natasha knows she is about to get deported. Besides, she is scientific and doesn't believe in love. The young people journey together to the office of an immigration lawyer, stop off for an embarrassing encounter at Daniel's family's black hair-care business, and then onto a Korean restaurant for lunch and karaoke. Predictably, the two fall in love and Natasha eventually confides in Daniel her dilemma. The roller-coaster of a day goes up and down. It looks as if all is lost, when surprisingly Natasha gets good news, followed by a series of events destroying their happiness. Coincidences abound as our heroes run around New York, getting to know each other, falling in love, and establishing a connection for life. The book ends at the conclusion of the day with the results that will make most teen readers tear-up, but do not despair. Yoon includes an epilogue at the end telling us the fate of our heroes and leaving us with a happily-ever-after.

Yoon follows up her best-selling Everything Everything with a novel closer to home. She is a Jamaican immigrant and her husband is Korean-American and although she claims that the novel is not autobiographical, she does admit that it contains the spirit of their relationship. What I loved about this book: I loved the New York City setting, the tight narration and distinct voices of the characters, the reflection of challenges currently facing new Americans, the accurate depiction of teenagers with immigrant parents who have to carry adult responsibilities. I loved that the book ended with the day drawing to a close and the teenagers saying goodbye instead of some unrealistic miracle falling from the sky and saving the day. What I didn't like about this book: I don't like books that take place all in one day; for some reason they make me twitchy like I'm watching Groundhog Day. I found myself rolling my eyes as the teenagers were falling in love, but, admittingly, this could be my age and cynicism showing. I hated the epilogue and felt that it cheapened the ending. That said, teens will love it and that is the target audience. I found the book a quick and fun read. I like how Yoon supplied the back stories on minor characters and we were treated to excepts of their takes on the day. The book was clearly well written and teens, especially girls, will eat it up. Do I think it was worthy to be a National Book Award finalist? Not really. It was starred in practically every professional journal I use, so maybe I'm missing something. Or maybe I'm just getting old. At any rate, this book is entertaining, well written, readable and, best of all, teens will love it. Beyond this, it features a diverse cast of characters and offers timely messages about the present state of American immigration.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story

Image result for sachiko stelsonSachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story
Caren Stelson
Carolrhoda, 2016  144 pgs
Grades 4-7

Stelson recounts the experiences of a "hibakusha", a survivor of the atomic bomb blast on Nagasaki. Sachiko was six years old when the bomb was dropped on her hometown during the final days of the war. She was playing with friends, who were all killed in the explosion. Sachiko's baby brother died instantly from the explosion. Another brother died very soon after from extensive burns. A third brother passed away shortly after from radiation poisoning. A beloved uncle soon followed. Sachiko's remaining family tried to pick up the pieces from the destruction and start again only to have the remaining sister die from Leukemia. Sachiko's father died before his time of cancer related to the blast and Sachiko herself battled thyroid cancer in her early twenties, a common condition for the hibakusha. Throughout all of the tragedy Sachiko studied hard, did well in school, an established a profession for herself as an accountant. She studied the works of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., finding inspiration in their lives, encouraging her to dedicate her own to peace even though she didn't have the confidence or heart to share her experiences. Courage was inspired by Helen Keller, who Sachiko saw in person during a visit by the famous American to raise disability awareness in Japan. Drawing from these sources of inspiration, Sachiko finally finds her voice and becomes a tireless public advocate for peace, sharing her story, and, eventually, coming to terms with the tragedy that inflicted destruction on both her country and her family.

I had the opportunity to visit Japan a few years ago and fell in love with the country, the culture and the people. I was drawn to a bunch of old men singing songs who had gathered a crowd and I moved in closer to enjoy the music. My friend, who was living in Tokyo at the time, pulled me away telling me that they were singing old war songs and as an American I wouldn't be welcome. This was the first time I ever really considered WWII from Japan's point of view. Stelson provides a rare glimpse of the Japanese home front through the eyes of the child, including the tragedy that was the bombing of Nagasaki and its aftermath. The story is powerful, the writing solid, and the photos captivating. Even though the subject matter is grim, Stelson stays age appropriate for later elementary school-aged children, although sensitive kids will be disturbed by the story. Even though the bomb was dropped by the United States, our country is not painted as the soul villain. The real villain is war and both the subject of this biography and the author plead for peace. In fact, Sachio has dedicated the last twenty years of her life to sharing her story and advocating for peace and the disarmament of nuclear weapons. The book is carefully researched with extensive notes, index, and photo-credits. A glossary of Japanese terms is included at the end of the book along with an author's note, tracing her journey to bring Sachiko's story to the printed page. A powerful account that deserves to be told and one that will forever change the heart of the reader.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Still Life with Tornado

Image result for still life with tornadoStill Life with Tornado
A.S. King
Dutton, 2016  304 pages
Grades 9-Up

At sixteen years old Sarah is having a major life crisis. Her art teacher has told her that nothing is original and the comment sends her into a tailspin. She has decided that since nothing is new or original than why bother? Sarah stops going to school, choosing instead to wander around the streets of her hometown of Philadelphia, trailing a homeless artist and wandering through an abandoned school building. Slowly her story is revealed, both the present problem of a bullying incident and inappropriate teacher's behavior and an ill-fated trip to Mexico with her family six years prior. Other chapters give her mother's point of view as we see the dynamic in the household with an abusive father at the reigns. Sarah has blocked out most of her father's past behavior and the real reason that her beloved brother has left the family. She is visited by a incarnation of herself at ten, followed by herself at twenty-three and then forty. The three Sarahs help her to process her past, come to terms with her present, and reach out to her estranged brother. Eventually Mom also sees the Sarahs and finds the courage to make a move out of her abusive relationship. By book's end Sarah is back to her single self, has accepted the hurts from the past and has forged a plan to move ahead, realizing that there are some things in this life that are original, mainly ourselves.

A.S. King is one of the best talents at work today writing for teenagers. She is almost too good in that I often don't understand her books completely. This book is brilliantly written, but a little too out-there for my poor brain and probably for that of the average teenager. More readable than last year's I Crawl Through It, this book is still a bit less tangible than her earlier works. Her first book The Dust of 100 Dogs was so entertaining in a weird way that I still think about this book years after reading it. Still Life with Tornado is a bit over the top for teens, who end to be pretty literal and may not be able to wrap their brains around an existential crisis. At first I thought that Sarah was insane and the other Sarahs were existing in her mind only, but once Mom and eventually the brother sees the Sarahs the story required a real leap of faith. I like that King does not immediately reveal that Sarah is from an abusive household or tell the secret behind the real reason she is no longer attending school. The story is told slowly, peeling Sarah back layer by layer until we finally get to her core and the reality that she is fighting to keep buried. Mom's point of view is important in order for the reader to see why a seemingly intelligent person stays in an abusive relationship. The brother character is a bit too perfect and it is maybe too convenient that he is employed counseling troubled teens, but Sarah really needs a functional adult in her life, so it is with relief that he shows up and saves the day. A great choice for smart readers, yet a bit of a head-scratcher for the average bear.