Saturday, April 29, 2017

Three Pennies

Image result for three pennies crowderThree Pennies
Melanie Crowder
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2017 181 pages
Grades 3-7
Realistic Fiction

Marin has spent the last seven of her eleven years in and out of different foster homes. The only possessions she still has from her birth mother are a pocket-sized version of the I Ching and a ceramic piggy bank. She is convinced that the mother she barely remembers, Summer Greene, is going to return for her any day now. While she's waiting she tries to be invisible and continuously consults the I Ching. Meanwhile, we see a glimpse of a professional woman in a nice apartment who longs for a child, a "by the books" social worker, who has more cases than she can manage, and an owl, prowling around the city of San Francisco looking for a home. The social worker, Gilda, places Marin in the home of the Lucy, a surgeon who desperately wants to share her home and heart with a child. Lucy has assembled a beautiful little room for Marin and makes every effort to bond, yet Marin is resistant. She still holds onto the hope that she will be reunited with her mom. After following clues leading to her mother's whereabouts, Marin finally tracks her down. The encounter reveals what the I Ching already inferred: Marin is holding onto someone that cannot be held onto. Lucy is frantic with worry when Marin disappears to find her mother. She calls Gilda for help and the two locate the disappointed little girl. When Marin is reunited with Lucy, she realizes that this is the mom of her heart. Unfortunately, Gilda must report that Marin ran away, which could compromise the adoption. Will Gilda risk her integrity to keep this small family together? And what of Marin's owl? After tracing her whereabouts throughout the story he becomes her "guardian owl" watching out for the little girl and, surprisingly, finding a home of his own.

Three Pennies is a sweet, quiet sort of story that will appeal to thoughtful and sensitive children. Kids will relate to Marin and sign with relief when she finds her forever home. All of the characters are likable in this story. There are more adult characters than are usually found in a book for children and we see Marin's tale from many different perspectives, including that of the feathered variety. The plot is straightforward,yet the telling is layered and rich, making for a beautiful book. Crowder chooses her words carefully and the book reads like an old fairy tale. San Francisco is my second favorite settling for books (New York being number one) and the city is a well developed character all on its own. You can practically feel the fog roll in as you read the story. I know very little about the I Ching and was fascinated about those bits and now want to give it a try. Even though this book features all female characters, it is not too "girlie" boys will like it too. The chapters are short and the book reads quickly. The multiple points of view, though contributing to the richness of the story, may confuse some children, making this book more appropriate to upper-level thinkers. I love how Lucy the surgeon makes sense of the world using medical analogies. Marin picks up this practice and says at the end that she and Lucy "are like two halves of a bone trying to connect after a bad break. Now that we've started growing together, we'll be stronger than before". That says it all.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Amina's Voice

Image result for aminas voiceAmina's Voice
Hena Khan
Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, 2017
197 pages
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction/Friendship

Amina is entering middle school in her home town of Milwaukee. She and her brother struggle with bridging their traditional Muslin home life with Pakistani parents and their very American school life and being submerged in American culture. Changes at home occur when Amina's religiously conservative uncle visits for three months from Pakistan, bringing with him expectations from the old country. Changes occur at school as Amina's best friend's family finally gains citizenship and Soojin plans to change her Korean name to Susan and brings a new girl, Emily, into their former group of two. Even though Emily seems nice, Amina can't help feeling jealous about her budding friendship with Soojim. After Amina spills one of Emily's secrets both Emily and Soojin are mad and seem to no longer want to be friends. Will Amina now have no school friends? Meanwhile, Amina's parents and uncle are prodding her to enter a recitation contest from the Koran. Amina is so shy and, even though she has musical talent, she cannot find the courage to sing in front of an audience. Will she be able to recite in front of a group? Of all Amina's problems become inconsequential when an act of hate shakes her entire religious community. Help comes from unexpected sources and Amina realizes what community really means and finds her inner courage to share the gifts that God has given her.

Amina's Voice is the premier title in Simon and Schuster's new "Salaam Reads" Imprint, aimed at introducing books for all age levels to young people of all faiths featuring Muslin characters. Amina's Voice is a middle grade novel centered around an American Muslim family, who is trying to find the balance between being true to the teachings of the Koran, while also celebrating what it means to be American. The uncle character further emphasizes this struggle and forces Amina's family to navigate through these delicate waters and create a new identity combining both cultures. Many young people will identify with Amina's embarrassment of her immigrant parents, who are different and feel the universal American conflict of merging cultures to make an over-all functional society. Beyond the cultural themes, this book presents a basic friendship triangle, which is the root of much middle school conflict. Girls, especially, will relate to Amina's feelings of jealously and fear of change as Soojin seems to grow away from her. A terrible hate incident towards the end brings the book to a climax and changes the whole tone of the story. The incident. though at first seems to isolate the Muslim community, unites all of Milwaukee regardless of religion and helps Amina to repair the damage to her friendships and find courage within herself. Instead of scaring Amina away, the violence helps her to find her voice, quite literally, and turns a terrible act of violence into a catalyst bringing community and cultures together. The merging of religion and friendship brought me back to reading Are You There God Its Me Margaret. Muslim girls will be so happy to see themselves in a book and girls everywhere will enjoy this read and maybe learn a little about their neighbors.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Higher, Steeper, Faster: The Daredevils Who Conquered the Skies

Image result for higher steeper fasterHigher, Steeper, Faster: The Daredevils Who Conquered the Skies
Lawrence Goldstone
Little Brown, 2017 243 pages
Grades 4-Up
Non-Fiction

Veteran author of non-fiction for adults, Goldstone, has adapted his critically acclaimed account of the early days of flying, Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies, for young readers. The book opens at the height of stunt flying at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition where a record-breaking crowd has gathered to see daredevil Lincoln Beachey fly. Goldstone next turns back to the history of flight from ancient times to the Wright Brothers. France was also involved in the race to get a plane in the air and an account of these brave fliers is offered along with their American counterparts. As airplanes become more advanced, one inventor will develope a new and improved model from an existing one, more flight records are shattered, and more pilots are enticed to enter the skies. The turn-of-the century public is extremely interested in this new phenomenon and huge crowd are attracted to flight shows, encouraging sponsors to put up large amounts of prize money for breaking records, drawing even more pilots to the game. Unfortunately, the early aircraft are not safe and many brave men and women die, yet this does not deter an ever-increasing band of hopefuls. As the country approaches World War I and many famous daredevils have crashed and burned, the golden age of flight exhibitions draws to a close, leaving behind a legacy that changes the face of war and travel.

Lawrence Goldstone is a historian, researcher, writer, and advocate of literacy for children, therefor it is no surprise that he has turned his talents to writing for young people. Higher, Steeper, Faster is written on a level that young people will understand, yet retains the rich fabric of the story of early flight and the tragic tales of its key players. Meticulously researched, this volume will be used for reports, yet can also be enjoyed recreationally. Readers interested in history and science will be the natural audience. The story has a stem connection, as it delves briefly into the engineering and design of the early planes, allowing for this to be a wonderful addition to a school curriculum. Original photos, postcards, and posters are liberally distributed among the pages. Extensive back-matter includes a time line, glossary of terms, notes, bibliography, and index. Goldstone includes sources for original oral accounts form some of the key players proving that his book is as authentic as possible. Sidebars allow for bonus information, further fleshing out the account. An excellent piece of non-fiction that reads like fiction, sure to attract readers. After reading this book you will never take air flight for granted again!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Kid from Planet Z: Crash!

Image result for kid from planet z krulikThe Kid from Planet Z: Crash!
Nancy Krulik
Louis Thomas, Illustrator
Grosset & Dunlap/Penguin, May, 2017  90 pgs
Grades 2-4
Science Fiction/Humor
The Kid from Planet Z series #1

Our story begins when Zeke Zander's family's spaceship crashes into Earth. The ship has sustained extensive damage so Zeke, his parents, and their highly intelligent talking cat, Zeus, must try to blend into the planet's society. The first step is moving into an abandoned house where Zeke encounters his first terrifying spider. The next day Zeke is sent, against his wishes, to Earth school. He lowers his antennae, places a hat on his head to better blend, and bravely starts his first day. Despite not understanding Earthen culture and various comedic misunderstandings concerning the origins of "hot dogs" and the proper use of straws, Zeke survives day one. He returns to his family, hoping that repairs to the ship are moving along. Imagine his surprise when he is informed by Zeus that the ship was hauled off by the junk man. The family needs money to buy back the ship, but where to get it? The answer lies in an unexpected place discovered by Zeke in a chance encounter in the park with his new school friends. It is up to Zeus to sacrifice his ego and dignity to save the day and secure the ship. The second series entry Don't Sneeze! will be released simultaneously.

Nancy Krulik is a master at writing the transitional chapter book series. She has previously penned Katie Kazoo, Switcheroo, George Brown, Class Clown, and The Magic Bone, all of which have been popular at my library. With this series Krulik turns to the world of science fiction, adding her usual dose of humor and comedic situations to which children will relate. The plot is straightforward and linear, allowing for easy comprehension. The vocabulary is relatively simple, the font is large, the margins are wide, and the chapters are short, making the format perfect for the age group. The prerequisite illustrations are on almost every page and often cover a full page. They are comic-like in nature and are colored in various shades of blue, which matches the boarder on every page, adding interest. Zeke and his family appear to be darker skinned, making the book inclusive. It is interesting that the illustrator chose to depict Zeke and his family without noses, making it easy to always identify Zeke in a crowd and reminding the reader that they are aliens. It is never easy to start at a new school, especially if you are moving from a different culture, and readers will identify with Zeke, even if they are from planet Earth. I love that the most intelligent character is the cat Zeus. My favorite quote from the book comes from Zeus when he says, "Cats are in charge no matter what planet they are on". So true!

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Great Treehouse War

Image result for great treehouse warThe Great Treehouse War
Lisa Graff
Philomel/Penguin, 2017  284 pages
Grades 3-6
Realistic Fiction/Humor

Winnie's world is rocked when her parents not only decide to get a divorce, but chose not to play nice. She must split her time evenly between her parents houses, spending Wednesday, the odd day, alone in a tree house right in the middle of the two properties. It turns out that the treehouse is the former site of an embassy and is technically not part of the Unites States or under its jurisdiction. When Winnie get fed-up with the constant pushing and pulling of her parents, she permanently moves into the treehouse, where they cannot legally make her come down. Her classroom companions follow suit and join her, each with their own demands. Some demands are trite, such as unlimited screen time, and the kids seem more interested in the adventure of the treehouse than the demands. Winnie holds tightly to her cause and even after the others give in, she stays firm in her convictions. The media gets hold of the protest and a circus develops with parents trying all kinds of crazy tactics to retrieve their children. Messages are sent via rope and pail and a zip-line allows for transportation in and out of the treehouse when necessary. An injury necessitates the exit of the first kids to leave and the remaining children start to get on each other's nerves. Winnie, sensing that her friends have had enough, devises a plan that allows them to go back home without admitting defeat. This leaves Winnie alone, until one of her friends comes up with a secret plan to help her. Book's end sees Winnie reunited with her parents and, although the ending isn't perfectly "happily ever after", the relationship is more mutual and they are attempting to take her feelings into consideration over their own power struggles.

Lisa Graff has previously written fantastic realism or somewhat intensely powerful realistic fiction for middle grades. She has now channeled her lighter side, turning to a lighter realistic fiction infused with humor and employing an unconventional format to find a new audience. This is a seemingly frothy story that disguises some underlining issues, such as parents not putting their children's needs before their own and kids feeling powerless in their lives and relationships. Winnie has a helpful uncle, who proves to be a stable grown-up and helps her out, so all of the adults in the book, thankfully, aren't incompetent. The cast of children characters is vast and diverse. They can get confusing, but Graff helpfully offers an illustrated key at the beginning of the book and they all have distinct, if not a bit overblown, characteristics. The story is an end-of-year project, primarily written by Winnie, in order to pass fifth grade, since they missed so much school while living in the treehouse, and wish to continue on to middle school. The other students write comments on post-its spread throughout the book. Other narrative devices include e-mails, transcripts, drawings, texts, charts, and maps. The unconventional format will draw-in readers. Because of all of the bonus material, the book reads quickly and will hold reader's interest. Just the concept of living in a treehouse alone will attract kids. I know I always wanted to live in a treehouse (still do, as long as it has heat). Graff's writing is usually lyrical, precise, and thoughtful. This is not that kind of a book, so don't be expecting that. Nevertheless, it is competently constructed and will satisfy most readers, especially those of a reluctant nature.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Wonderstruck

Image result for wonderstruckWonderstruck
Brian Selznick
Scholastic, 2011 629 pages
Grades 4-Up
Graphic Hybrid/Historical Fiction

Two alternating stories trace the journeys of two different young people in the same place at different times, who's stories merge by book's end. The book begins and ends with pictures of wolves, an element which powerfully joins the tales and is significant to the over-all story. The first account is told in text form. It narrates the plight of Ben, who lives with his aunt and uncle in a small lake town in Minnesota. Ben's single mother recently died, leaving Ben bereft and devastated. While exploring her things he comes across a mysterious locket containing the picture and name of a man. A vintage book highlighting wonders of the the Museum of Natural History in New York City inscribed with the man's name and a book mark with his address leaves Ben to believe the mysterious fellow might be his father. A strike of lightning immediately following this discovery leaves him deaf and he bravely escapes from the hospital and travels to the gritty New York City of 1977 to find his father, eventually landing at the Natural History Museum and meeting a friend. His new friend Jamie's father works at the museum and has access to the secret back rooms. He helps Ben hide-out in the museum and follow the clues which lead him to the truth behind his heritage. Meanwhile, an alternate story, told exclusively in illustrations, traces the journey of Rose in the 1920's. Rose is deaf and living in Hoboken with a cold and distant father. Her mother, a silent movie actress, is not interested in raising or nurturing her. With no where else to go she lands at the workplace of her older brother, an employee at the Museum of Natural History, Walter, who takes her in and involves her in his work. Both stories come together and the emotional ending is conveyed through both illustrations and text working cohesively.

This has been publicly documented as one of my official favorite books (see blog post 12/4/14). I have re-read it it for maybe the sixth time for my fifth and sixth grades book group and it never fails to completely "wonder-strike" me. It is a beautifully told book with a great plot, surprise ending, interesting historical bits, stunning illustrations, and lyrical writing that shows how best a middle grade novel can contain multiple formats that not only work well together but become a literary devise unto themselves. I still feel that Selznick was robbed of a Newbery for this title and feel strongly that it is his best work. Whenever I recommend this book to children they immediately balk at the shear size of the volume and that is, indeed, a detractor, but the book reads very quickly. Kids who aren't scared away by the length always love it. The stories are layered and rich and the telling is sophisticated. Selznick offers extensive notes at the end of the volume, proving that he conducted massive amounts of research. A bibliography will lead readers to learn more about one of the many interesting topics explored in this novel, including Deaf culture, the transition from silent to talking cinema, the Natural History Museum, the 1964 World's Fair and the Queen's Museum, and wolves. Wonderstruck does for the Museum of Natural History what The Mixed Up Files does for the Met and Selznick acknowledges the inspiration and challenges the reader to find little similarities he places within his book. Children will fantasize about having their own adventure living in such a wonderful place and may be, at the very least, encouraged to visit and check out the diorama of the wolves of Gunflint Lake Minnesota in person. From the silver end-papers to the title page at the end of the book with a dedication to Maurice Sendak readers will be transported to a magical place and breath a contented sigh for a book well done and satisfying.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sci-Fi Junior High

Image result for sci fi junior highSci-Fi Junior High
John Martin & Scott Seegert
Jimmy Patterson Books/Little, Brown, 2017 302 pages
Grade 3-8
Sci-Fi/Humor/Graphic Hybrid

If starting junior high isn't bad enough, Kelvin Klosmo has to begin his first day not only at a new school, but one on the other side of the galaxy with an assortment of interesting species, all from many different planets. Kelvin's parents are important scientists who have been assigned to a far-flung space station to work on a super secret robot. Because his parents are geniuses, Kelvin's new classmates assume that he must be the smartest kid in the universe, a rumor which her, himself, started. Unfortunately, Kelvin is anything but, and starting at this new school is extra stressful because he is trying to hide his normalcy in the brains department. The same ship transporting Kelvin's family also transports the newest rookie janitor--a displaced evil scientist out to get revenge. Using robot technology, developed by Kelvin's parents, the evil scientist transfers his brain into his little sister's stuffed rabbit and, eventually, into the brain cavity of the developing robot. Meanwhile, Kelvin and his new pals break into his parent's lab with the help of the new family pet, who has the ability to duplicate anything it eats, to study the robot for a school project, ending up on a death-mission with the evil scientist/robot. Can Kelvin help his friends get out of this jam? Will he have to confess his mental inadequacies? Will this be the end for the gang, as they are lost in space with a limited amount of oxygen? And how can they get away from the evil scientist/robot? Help comes from unexpected places with the day being saved and a hint at a sequel.

James Patterson knows what kids like. All of his books for young people are enormously popular. He believes in working with other inspiring writers and launching their careers. Now he has established his own imprint through Little Brown, overseeing the release of titles sure to be enjoyed by even the most reluctant reader. Boys, especially, will tear through this initial selection. Is it the stuff of a future Newbery? Uh, no. But it will fly off the library shelves and be eagerly consumed by the target audience. A true graphic hybrid, cartoon-like illustrations grace practically every page and not only enhance the narrative, but help to move the story along. Sometimes the humor goes a bit low-brow, but it never gets too off-color. The action moves along at a brisk pace and the book reads quickly. The quirky characters are fun and interesting. There are a lot of new friends to meet at one time, but the creators thoughtfully place the speaking character's face before the text, indicating who is speaking, even if you can't remember their name. The parents are kind, supportive and quirky. They are very down-to-earth and will resemble other parents, except they are brilliant scientist on a space station. Kids will also relate to Kelvin and his dilemmas, even though the setting is in deep space. Perfect for kids graduating from Captain Underpants or Wimpy Kid/Big Nate fans looking for a new genre, yet not ready to jump into serious text. The plot is more than a bit implausible, but readers won't care and will clamor for the next installment.