Thursday, June 29, 2017

Once and For All

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Prince of the Pond

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


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

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


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

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

See You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The School for Good and Evil

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts

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

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

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Just Dance

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Beyond the Bright Sea

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

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

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

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Cosmic Commandos

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

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

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