Monday, July 31, 2017

How to Hang a Witch

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Hate U Give

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

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

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

Friday, July 14, 2017


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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

There's Someone Inside Your house

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

This Would Make a Good Story Someday

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

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

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

Sunday, July 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Homework Machine

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Long Way Down

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

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

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

Giants of Science: Leonardo da Vinci

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

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

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

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Stella Batts: Broken Birthday

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

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

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