Monday, February 27, 2017

The Memory of Light

Image result for memory of light storkThe Memory of Light
Francisco X. Stork
Scholastic, 2016  325 pages
Grades 8-Up
Realistic Fiction

Our story opens with a suicide letter written by Vicky to her nanny from Mexico who raised her. After turning the page we see Vicky waking up in a hospital bed and learning that it was Nana who saved her and she is very lucky to be alive. Vicky does not feel lucky and reluctantly and carefully begins the arduous process of healing. Through the help of understanding and patient Dr. Desai and the three other teens in her therapy group on the mental ward of the hospital Vicky gives her condition a name: depression and learns to treat it. She starts to find healing and surprises herself as she stands up to her controlling and demanding father, insisting on staying longer. Dr. Desai takes the teens for a visit to her rural ranch where they can heal in a peaceful environment. The trip proves to be anything but peaceful as one of teens almost drowns, another one starts to experience full-blown delusions, and Vicky's roommate goes off her meds and runs away in a manic haze. Vicky must return home where she needs to face the oppressive and sterile restrictions of her household, re-enter the posh private school where everyone know what she tried to do, and find a permanent solution for her Nana, who Dad has forced out and sent back to Mexico. Vicky finds the inner-strength to slay her everyday dragons, all while helping out her new friends, slowing finding out who she really is and appreciating all that is good within herself.

Teen girl's will love this book. I read it at the insistence of my teenage daughter. It will appeal to readers of "sick-lit" who love Fault in our Stars and If I Stay, although no one ultimately dies. When I saw that the book starts off in the mental ward of a hospital I thought of A Funny Kinda Story, but there is no humor to off-set the reality of the situation. What we do have is an honest and sometimes painful account of a young lady struggling with depression and trying to find her confidence and self-worth. Many teenagers today are  battling with mental illness and the teen suicide rate is souring, so there is an important place for this book. Stork offers at the end a personal account of his own struggles and suggests places for teens to turn for help with mental illness. Stork is a beautiful writer. Vicky, the main character in the story, is a poet, so much of the language is thoughtful and lyrical. I personally got a little bored with the book. It went on a bit too long for me and was too "Talky-talky". There was one cool scene at the end when Vicky and a friend have to combat a drug dealer to save another friend, but that was ten interesting pages out of 325. That's a personal criticism: I'm a plot reader. I know so many kids that love sad tales and this is right up their alley. Thoughtful teens, especially girls, will be very moved by Vicky's account and fall right into it. The Memory of Light ends on a positive note with all of the main characters changed for the better and on the road to healing. The main take-away message after reading this novel is one of "Hope" and that is an important message that all struggling teens need to hear.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Fantastic Frame: Danger! Tiger Crossing

Related imageThe Fantastic Frame: Danger! Tiger Crossing
Lin Oliver
Samantha Kallis, Illustrator
Penguin, 2016  116 pages
Grades 2-5
The Fantastic Frame series #1

Tiger, a boy who enjoys tinkering with mechanical parts and creating inventions, meets Luna Lopez, the artsy girl on the other side of the family's new duplex. The two new friends realize that they both saw the same impossible sight: a talking orange pig wearing a fancy black hat. Tracking down the pig leads them to the house of their next door neighbor: an eccentric old woman, Viola Dots, who is an artist. One painting of a jungle, a copy of Rousseau's Surprised! has an interesting looking old frame. While Viola Dots tells the inconceivable, yet tragic, tale of her thirteen-year-old son disappearing into a painting through that frame fifty years ago, Tiger manages to fix the clock stuck to the front of it. At exactly 4:00 the clock strikes and magic happens. A huge hole appears in the canvas and sucks Luna and Tiger through to the land of Rousseau's jungle where a tiger awaits. The friends must escape the tiger and get help from an unexpected source: Viola Dots' son David, who has been bouncing around from painting to painting for fifty years, yet hasn't aged. After many close calls, David helps the two escape back through the painting before the magic hour has passed, but is unable to get through himself. Viola Dots is determined to get her son back and requests that Tiger and Luna return for another adventure through a less dangerous painting she plans to move into the magic frame, leading readers to the next series entry.

Love this new series! Imagination, time travel, art, and adventure all rolled up into a neat transitional chapter-book package. The concept is unique and original. Sure to appeal to Magic Tree House fans, it feels a little easier, less intense, and adds a dimension of humor. Featuring both a male and female character, both boys and girls will enjoy the story and includes, represented by Mexican-American Luna, a nod to diversity. The chapters are short, the margins are wide and the print is big, welcoming readers new to chapter books. Cartoon-like illustrations are on an average of every two pages and are eye-catching and add to the story. The book's design is modern and clever with pictures sometimes layed-out in unconventional ways. When the children are in the real world the illustrations are in black and white and then go to full color when they are in the painting. As they pop in and out the colors are mixed, depending on which world body parts are through the frame. This Wizard of Oz technique is effective and will further appeal to the audience who will easily catch on. Tiger and Luna fall next into Saurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which is one of my favorite paintings, so I was anxious to check out this next adventure. Alas, it was checked out of my library, which in my humble opinion says it all about this series. Currently three titles are presently available and number four is set for a July 2017 release.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

When Dimple Met Rishi

Image result for when dimple met rishiWhen Dimple Met Rishi
Sandhya Menon
Simon and Schuster, 2017  378 pages
Grades 9-Up

Indian-American teen, Dimple, has recently graduated from high school and is attending the summer coding program of her dreams: Insomnia Con, before she leaves for Stanford. Imagine her surprise when on the first day a boy approaches her at Starbucks and declares himself to be her future husband. She reacts like any street-smart California girl would: she throws iced coffee in his face. Unbeknownst to Dimple, the boy, Rishi, is the person selected by her family to actually be her future husband. He is attending Insomnia Con with the sole purpose of becoming acquainted with his future life-partner. Dimple is rebelling from her parents' traditional Indian ways and is more interested in computer coding than husband-finding. When she and Rishi are paired off as partners in the coding competition, she is hesitant to work with him. Eventually, Rishi's personality wins her over and a friendship develops, which turns into something more. Alternating chapters tell Rishi's side of the story, showing his growing feeling for Dimple and his desire to be an artist instead of an engineer as expected. Further complications develop as Rishi's basketball-star brother arrives and Dimple's roommate becomes romantically involved with a preppy snob, who doesn't treat her well. Dimple and Rishi have to balance the competition with their budding romance and come to terms with both cultural and family obligations in order to find their places in the world. Do they win the competition? Will Rishi defy his parents and become an artist? Will the romance survive all of the external pressures and decisions? Read the book to find out!

New author, Menon, takes on an established genre, adding a new diverse dimension. In the style of Sarah Dessen or Stephanie Perkins, Memon offers a teen romance with a touch of comedy that young girls will love. This book especially felt like a Stephanie Perkins book, maybe because of the San Francisco setting, the boarding school vibe, hanging out in coffee shops, or the boy who draws comics, and it reads just as fast. What makes this book stand out is that it features Indian-American young people, complete with their cultural expectations and baggage. Even though a significant chunk of Americans have Indian roots, this population is under-represented in all forms of the media. It is a beautifully vibrant and rich piece of our tapestry and I am so glad to finally see modern Indian teenagers being represented in American books. The romance itself is pretty typical with the usual misunderstandings and uncertainties. Dimple is smarter than most heroines and will serve as a great role-model for teen girls. The roommate situation is a cautionary tale of what not to do, but the girl figures it out by the end and no permanent damage has been done. I would recommend this book for grades ninth and up and not seventh as indicated by the book cover in that Dimple and Rishi attend a party with teenage drinking and they have sex as the relationship progresses, although it is not graphic. As frothy as the high-end drink from Starbucks as depicted on the eye-catching cover, this is the perfect summer read for girls, which is when it is set to be released this upcoming May.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


Image result for scythe shustermanScythe
Neal Shusterman
Simon and Schuster, 2016  435 pages
Grades 7-Up
Arc of a Scythe series #1

Welcome to the future, where society has finally solved the world's problems of poverty, wars, crime, and death. The jails have become obsolete, people can live forever, and if you become too old you can simply cycle back to whatever age you feel like living. In order to control the population Scythes have been chosen and trained to select and kill people. Some Scythes appear to select randomly, while others appear more premeditated. Other variations include the degree of empathy and mercy shown in the gleaning. Two previously unacquainted teenagers are selected by the seasoned Scythe Faraday to serve as apprentices and learn the art of killing. At the quarterly Scythe concave it is determined that only one of these apprentices shall move ahead to the position of Scythe and upon reaching the position must glean the other. Further complications arise when Scythe Faraday disappears after apparently self-gleaning. Citra is sent to study under a very famous and merciful Scythe, while Rowan is sent to learn from a psycho-path who uses his position to quench his thirst for murder. Both apprentices are receiving very different training, preparing for their final test and eventual gleaning of the other. Will Rowan turn as blood-thirsty as his new master? Who will win the appointment to Scythe-hood? And what really happened to Scythe Faraday? These and other questions will answered within the pages of this original and exciting new book.

Veteran author, Shusterman, is no stranger to writing clever concept books set in the future. His ideas always are interesting and fresh and make the reader see the world in a new way. Scythe deservedly won a Printz honor this year and is no exception to the author's usual style. You have to wonder that if humans figure out a way to live forever than what do you do about population control? The creation of Scythes is an interesting answer to this dilemma. Then, once it has been determined that Scyths will control the population, you might think, what would happen if a Scythe went bad? Having complete power and control over others has to be an overwhelming responsibility and it is easy to see how this power can be abused and how the job can get to people, especially after doing it for several hundred years. Shusterman has created a fully-realized society and a believable, yet fanciful, dytopian view of our future. The characters are multi-dimensional and the reader will relate to and root for both apprentices. This book will appeal to both girls and boys and is a perfect choice for book clubs. It ran a little long for me, but the plot was so interesting, I almost didn't mind. Excepts from the gleaning journals of some of the featured mastered Scythes are used to introduce chapters and round out the story in a different way, adding a further dimension. Even though most major plot threads are sewn up, one major plot point is left wide open, inviting the reader to look for the second book in the intended series, once it is published.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

Image result for sadako cranesSadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
Eleanor Coerr
Putnam, 1977  64 pages
Grades 2-5
Historical Fiction

Eleven-year-old Sadako is the best runner in her class. She dashes around, never doing anything slowly, driving her mother crazy with all of her energy. Sadako's dreams come true when she is placed on her school's relay team and they go on to win the citywide running competition in her hometown of Hiroshima, Japan. Unfortunately, before Sadako has a chance to try-out for the middle school team, she begins to experience dizzy spells. It is finally discovered that Sadako has been stricken by Leukemia, a disease commonly experienced by many victims of the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Even though Sadako was only a baby at the time of the bombing, ten years later the effects devastatingly manifested. Sadako is placed in the hospital where she begins folding paper cranes. It is a Japanese belief that if you fold one-thousand origami cranes you will get your wish. Sadako's wish was for healing. Unfortunately, Sadako never completes the cranes and passes away at only twelve years old. Her classmates finish folding the cranes for her and she is buried with the thousand cranes, becoming a symbol for remembrance and peace throughout Japan, and, eventually, the entire world.

I was very moved by the book Sachiko, which I recently read and after-which felt compelled to re-read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Although Sachiko is non-fiction and for an older audience, both books deal with the devastating effects of nuclear weapons on the civilians of Japan at the end of the second world war. Sadako introduces this horrific chapter in history to a young audience in a digestable and relate-able way. Sadako could be any child and she possesses a wonderful spirit and energy. Kids will empathize with Sadako's illness and feel great sadness at her death. Certainly the author by writing this story is sending out a plea for peace. This plea is as relevant today as it was when the book was set in the 1950's and when it was written in the 1970's. Being historical fiction, the author took some liberties in writing the story. According to this work of fiction, Sadako never finished folding the cranes and, therefore, dies. In reality, Sadako folded over 13,000 cranes. Her family has kept some of the cranes and have sent them over the years to places experiencing violence in an attempt to bring resolution and healing. One such crane can be found in the 911 Memorial in New York City. Thanks to a little girl who lost her life from the effects of war, the origami crane has become an international symbol of peace. This beautiful, easy to read, and short in length volume is long in content and import and will have a lasting effect on the young people who read it. More recent editions contain directions for folding paper cranes, which will inspire kids to get involved in spreading the message of peace on their own.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The 13-Story Treehouse

Image result for 13 story treehouseThe 13-Story Treehouse
Andy Griffiths
Terry Denton, Illustrator
Macmillan, 2011  239 pages
Grades 3-6
Humor/Fiction-Graphic Hybrid
The Treehouse Series

Andy and Terry live in an off-the-hook treehouse with no parents. Within the thirteen stories are housed a swimming pool, bowling alley, games room, theater, underground laboratory, lemonade fountain, and man-eating shark tank. They support their life style by writing and illustrating books. The problems is: the boys have a book due the following day and after a year of procrastination are experiencing writer's block. Further distractions include turning their friend's cat into a cat-nary by painting it yellow, making a giant banana with the use of an enlarging machine, and hatching a sea monkey, which turns out to be an evil sea creature disguised as a beautiful mermaid. After a monkey invasion leads to an unwanted visit from a giant gorilla, all seems lost. Luckily for the boys, one of their failed past endeavors resurfaces to save the day. But what of the promised manuscript? The young creators develop a new story based on the character super-finger, but end up deserting this ill-fated concept and embracing the simple secret of writing success: write what you know. The hijinx continues in The 26-Story Treehouse with three more titles to follow, including the latest, set to be released in April.

The Treehouse series is Australia's response to the popularity of America's Captain Underpants. Silly situations. cartoon-like illustrations, potty humor, and irreverence of adult norms are the recipe for success in this very popular series. Heavily illustrated with comic drawings and featuring an absurd and cartoon-ish plot, this book will appeal to fans of graphic novels, other hybrids such as Wimpy Kid and Big Nate, and reluctant readers. Any third or fourth grade boy who picks this book up will finish it. Is it a great work of fiction? Ah, no, but it has the power to turn non-readers into readers and to show children that reading can be an enjoyable activity. I loved designing imaginary dream houses for myself when I was a child. This treehouse with all of its amenities is any child's dream and the absence of adults makes it complete and utter child-anarchy. The story will set a child's imagination on fire and may ecourage kids to begin designing treehouses of their own. The humor is less clever than Captain Underpants, but spot-on for the intended age group. The book relies heavily on absurdity and the cartoon-like illustrations. Adults reading this story may feel as if they are getting whiplash from both the rollicking plot and the barrage of images, but guess what? We aren't the audience. This is currently one of the most asked for series in my library, which is what compelled me to finally read it. Charlotte's Web it isn't, but The 13-Story Treehouse has tremendous kid-appeal that will turn young gamers into readers.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Saint Death

Image result for saint death sedgwickSaint Death
Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, April, 2017  225 pages
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

Our hero, Arturo, is living in poverty in a shack in a dilapidated town on the Mexican/US boarder. His long-lost best friend, who is like a brother to him, Faustino, shows up after a year-long absence. Faustino is in trouble. He has been working for a drug lord/gang leader and has used money entrusted to him to smuggle his girlfriend and baby across the boarder. Now Faustino must pay back the $1,000 or face death. He begs Arturo to use his skills at playing calavera, a card game based on the colorful skulls displayed during Mexico's Day of the Dead. Arturo reluctantly agrees and finds himself playing cards in a game way over his head. The results of the game do not turn out the way he and Faustino have hoped and now he is in debt to the same drug lord for even more more money. Arturo has a mere twenty-four hours to come up with an unheard of $5,000. He first asks his friends, local bar owners. They do not have the money to lend him, but direct him to the home of a former teacher, where is is greeted by a surprise. Other plot twists are revealed, including why he is willing to sacrifice everything to ensure Faustino's girl friend and baby cross the boarder. Arturo hopes that the fates and good luck from Santa Muerte (the Saint Death of the title) will get himself and his friend out of this jam. Will the lady of death come through for him or will he meet the same hopeless fate of many of his countrymen?

Printz winner, Marcus Sedgwick, clearly is no slouch when it comes to writing. He has won one Printz medal, two honors, and many awards in his native United Kingdom. I was skeptical of a British man living in the French Alps writing a book about Mexican boarder conditions, but Sedgwick manages to capture the desperation and grittiness of the local as if he is experiencing this life first-hand. The reader gets a glimpse of the poverty and hopelessness of conditions south of the boarder. Arturo has no options and must throw his very life and the life of his best friend into the hands of the saint of death while gambling on a card game. Sedgwick clearly has an agenda in writing this book bringing up themes of American immigration, global economy and labor practices, and the desperate living conditions in Mexico with all of the poverty, power of the drug lords, and lack of opportunity. Arturo's town is on the boarder and a big wall is a looming presence. The existence of this wall alone makes the book poignant and uncannily timely and will guarantee an audience. The narrative at times is so carefully written it feels like poetry and I had to read some of the passages over again either because they were beautiful--or because I didn't at first understand them. The beginning is a bit tough to get into and because of this, and because of the writerly nature of the book, it will only appeal to sophisticated readers. Saint Death is topical and beautifully written. It is sure to win awards, but will not be enjoyed or understood by the average teen.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Real Friends

Real Friends
Image result for real friends haleShannon Hale
LeUyen Pham, Illustrator
First Second, 2017 212 pages
Grades 3-7
Graphic Novel

Newbery Honor winner, Shannon Hale, writes a semi-autobiographical graphic novel much in the tradition of Smile. Hale traces her humble beginnings as a shy, clingy, middle child, who finally makes a friend in kindergarten. Adrienne stays her best friend, except for a dark period of a brief move during second grade. In third grade the most popular girl in the class, Jen, decides to befriend Adrienne, thus bringing Shannon into "the group". After much fancy footwork Shannon manages to work her way to the upper tier of the pecking order. Unfortunately, Jen's best friend does not like Shannon and tells lies about her that end in humiliation and misunderstandings. After spending many recesses hiding in the bushes crying, Shannon finally has enough. By fifth grade Adrienne has left the school again. Rather than subjecting herself to more confusing and demeaning encounters, Shannon makes friends with two sixth grade girls. The new girls are friendly to all and have lots of fun, are very cool, and do not exhibit tricky behavior. Finally, Shannon is happy socially at school, but then Jen goes ahead and makes a surprising move. Meanwhile, Shannon is also tortured at home by a mean older sister. By book's end we see the motivation behind the sister's horrible behavior and learn to accept and forgive her, much as Shannon does.

Hale is the latest author to join the popular trend of realistic comic memoirs started by Telegemeier's Smile and continuing with El Deafo, Sunnyside Up, Roller Girl and more. These books are wildly popular and Hale's, slated to be released in May, will be no exception. As with the others in this genre, the book is aimed at girls, but its my experience at the library that boys will like it too. Navigating the world of elementary friendship can be tricky for most kids. Hale nails the emotions and confusion perfectly. She remembers her younger self as geeky and creative with no confidence or social know-how. When finally ceasing to try so hard to fit in, finding friends who appreciate her for who she is, and learning to care a little less, Shannon becomes a leader and someone that others seek to hang out with. Real Friends has a great message for young girls struggling with similar troubles and will let them know that they are not alone. Full color illustrations by veteran LeUyen Pham are a perfect fit for the story. They convey emotion and action to the story and add layers and nuances to the plot. This is not a dramatic tale of loosing teeth, going deaf, or living with an addicted sibling, but instead deals with problems near and dear to the hearts of many young people: navigating the troubled waters of friendship. Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts in growing up, but by book's end Shannon has weathered the worse of the storm and is a stronger and more compassionate person for it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Dear Mr. Henshaw

Image result for dear mr henshawDear Mr. Henshaw
Beverly Cleary
HarperCollins, 1983 134 pages
Grades 3-5
Realistic Fiction

Leigh Botts begins as a school assignment writing letters to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw. With each passing year the letters continue and we learn more and more about Leigh's life. Mr. Henshaw encourages Leigh to read other books, besides the favorite he keeps re-reading, and to try other authors. After a particularly exhaustive letter for a later assignment, Mr. Henshaw turns the tables and asks Leigh to answer a series of questions. Leigh does answer, even though he is not a natural writer, and it takes him several letters to do so. At Mr. Henshaw's encouragement Leigh begins to keep a journal and, much to his surprise, begins to enjoy writing and through this process finds a sense of peace and control in a life where he feels as if he has very little. Leigh's parents are divorced and his father, a long distance trucker, rarely comes to see him. Leigh misses his dad and his former dog, of whom Dad has custody. Moreover, Leigh and his mom have moved to a western coastal town and Leigh has no friends. To make matters worse someone is stealing the best bits from his bag lunch every day. Who can the culprit be? Leigh plans to set a trap to find the thief, resulting in landing something more important than justice.

I hadn't read Cleary's 1984 Newbery winner since I first became a librarian in the early 1990's and had forgotten how wonderful it is. I chose this title for my 3rd and 4th grade book discussion group mainly because an author is visiting the group and I wanted a book about writing. Cleary, who always seems to nail what kids are really like, is at her best with this work. Leigh is a likable and sympathetic character who is trying to come to terms with great upheaval in his life over which he has no control; a situation many of today's young people can relate to. Cleary wrote this book in response to all of the absurd author letters she would get from children as part of class assignments. Leigh starts out fulfilling such an assignment, but when Mr. Henshaw turns the tables on him, Leigh discovers a love of writing. My favorite part of the book is when a visiting author calls him a fellow author and he realizes that he is and is so proud that she recognizes it in him. Reading and writing can be life-savers and Cleary demonstrates this power. Even Leigh re-reading the same books by the same author is typical for children when they need comfort in their lives. A great choice for younger readers, it is a break from the typical formulaic series generally available for this age level and contains much substance within its pages. I love that we never actual hear from Mr. Henshaw, only Leigh's response to what transpires off the page. A great book that, although older, still has much to say to today's youth.