Monday, October 30, 2017

The Bad Guys

Image result for bad guys blabey coverThe Bad Guys
Aaron Blabey
Scholastic, 2016 139 pages
Grades 2-5
Humor/Graphic Novel
Bad Guys series #1

Wolf is tired of his bad reputation and being labeled as a "bad guy". He decides to create a team of fellow "bad guys" to go on a PR mission to change the public's perception. The team consists of Mr. Wolf, himself, Snake, Piranha, and Shark. The gang dons black suits and sunglasses, get a super-cool getaway car, and cruise around the neighborhood looking to save the day. Their first mission to save a cat from a tree does not go as planned, but the gang will not be deterred. They plan a big job: freeing 200 dogs from the dog pound. This is not an easy caper. They must get over the fence, past the twenty guerrilla guards, and somehow unlock the cages. The team works together on a hair-brained scheme to accomplish the mission, that is not without hilarious hijinks and missteps. The dogs indeed are freed, yet remain somewhat ungrateful. The gang must try harder to prove their innocence to the public, leading the reader to...

Image result for bad guys mission unpluckable blabey cover
The Bad Guys in Mission Unpluckable
Aaron Blabey
Scholastic, 2017 139 pages
Grades 2-5
Humor/Graphic Novel
Bad Guys series #2

A new member has joined the team: Tarantula, who proves himself a computer whiz, yet scares Shark senseless. The new mission is to rescue 10,000 chickens from a nearby poultry farm. Yet again, the team concocts a hair-brained scheme involving hidden identities, complications, and danger. They must get past and outsmart a new team of gorilla guards leading to the near-demise of Piranha, who is hiding as a sardine in a guard's sandwich. Finally the cages are open, but the chickens are too scared of the "bad/good guys" to come out. The day is saved and the chickens are eventually freed, but at what price? The story ends with a deceivingly cute, yet evil, guinea pig who owns the poultry farm and seeks revenge, leading readers to the third installment: The Furball Strikes Back, released this past April.

This is a very clever new series sure to please readers. Originally published in Australia, Scholastic has released the series in the US with a new installment releasing stateside every few months. The fifth is set for December and the sixth will come out in March, 2018, catching American readers up with the Australian counterparts. Kids will not notice that these books came from a distant land. They are very relatable to American culture. The Bad Guys dress like Men in Black characters and use distinctive American street-slang. The adventures are hilarious and madcap, yet remain exciting and somewhat suspenseful. Reluctant readers, especially boys, will gobble-up these offerings. There are a few potty jokes, but not so many to cheapen the book. The comic illustrations are in black and white, are clearly and cleverly drawn, and add an extra layer to the plot. It is hard to know exactly where the book should be classified. It is completely told in a comic format with very little chunks of text, yet pages are not always split into panels and the book is broken into distinct chapters with headings. New readers not quite "feeling" text heavy books are the clear audience with the hope that they will move onto something more substantial. Wherever a librarian chooses to shelf it, this is a book that kids will certainly read and enjoy and it will not remain on the shelf for long.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Snow & Rose

Image result for snow rose martin coverSnow & Rose
Emily Winfield Martin
Random House/Penguin, 2017 206 pages
Grades 3-6

Martin puts her own spin on the classic Grimm fairytale Snow White and Rose Red. Snow and Rose are opposites in both temperament and appearance, although are close as two sisters can get. When their privileged father disappears and is presumed dead their circumstances are greatly reduced. After getting evicted from their servant-filled house, their mother moves them to a small cabin in the woods where the small family begins the laborious task of overcoming grief and adjusting to limited resources. Snow and Rose venture into the woods for entertainment and it is here that they meet a new friend named Ivo, who lives with his family in a little house underground. Other encounters are less pleasant, as they meet dangerous looking huntsmen and help on several occasions a mean little man who does not appreciate their assistance and actually gives them grief for their troubles. As the weather starts to turn cold they encounter a large bear who is being pursued by the raggedy group of huntsmen. The bear spends the winter in their small cottage, only to return to the wild and the impending dangers of the hunters in the spring. When Ivo goes missing, it is assumed that the bear killed him. The girls know this not to be true and do their best to protect their friend. By book's end the whereabouts of Ivo is revealed, as is the true identity of the bear and the motivation of the mean little man. Snow, Rose and their mother never do regain the riches of the past, but do find a satisfying "happily ever after", or at least a happy and content present.

Picture book creator, Emily Winfield Martin, is a self-professed lover of fairytales, especially Snow White and Rose Red, which this original story is based on. Many elements of the original story are included in this retelling of the tale, yet Martin twisted some of the details to create her own rendition. The enchanting and timeless setting places readers into a dense Bavarian fairy tale forest where cranky gnomes could realistically be hunkered down wielding their nasty magic on a whim. Snow and Rose are one-dimensional stock fairy tale characters who are pure, brave and loyal and only disobey their mother when it means helping a friend, but this is a fairy tale and character development isn't the point. The point is good overcoming evil, a lush magical forest filled with unexpected people and things, where anything can happen, and fearlessly overcoming obstacles to find the happily ever after. The true stars of this book are the beautiful full-colored illustrations, which not only help to transport the reader into the story, but add a rich layer to the narrative. Kids who love fantasy and fairy tales, of which there are many reworkings of in recent years, will be the obvious audience for this book. Snow and Rose may draw readers to the original tale, which has disappeared from the public eye and is less known than the stories which have been "Disney-fied". I have been a fan of the story ever since reading Printz honor Tender Morsels when it came out about a decade ago. I only read it because it won the prestigious reward and at the time I found it to be dense and long and I didn’t fully understand it, yet its strangeness has stuck with me over the years, creating an interest in the tale in which it was based. This much simpler version, Snow and Rose, would make a wonderful read-aloud, especially on a cold winter day sipping hot chocolate while snuggled by the fire.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Key to Extraordinary

Related imageThe Key to Extraordinary
Natalie Lloyd
Scholastic, 2016 227 pages
Grades 4-7
Magical Realism/Fantasy

Emma has always known that she was extraordinary, she just doesn't know why. All of the women in her family, who refer to themselves as the “Wildflowers” have a Destiny Dream that they then record  in "The Book of Days". All of the dreams involve something special and brave. Emma's grandmother, whom is currently her guardian, was a famous boxer and her deceased mother was blessed by an amazing musical ability. Emma can't wait to have her dream and one summer it finally happens, except she isn't sure exactly what it means. She does know that it has something to do with a treasure hidden in the old graveyard by her house from the Civil War days by the "conductor". The graveyard is haunted and Emma should know: she leads weekly tours through it, ending at the family bakery where tour goers can enjoy freshly baked muffins and Boneyard Brew (awesome hot chocolate with a secret ingredient that makes it special). An interesting young lady has just showed up in town. Is this a coincidence? And how does she know Emma's brother? Also new to town, a former classmate, Earl Chance, no longer speaks after surviving a tornado. Emma and her best friend, Cody Belle, team up with him to find the treasure. They desperately need it in order to save the family bakery and historic graveyard from a greedy  developer who wants the change the entire face of their small southern hometown. Emma and her friends gradually uncover the clues that lead to the treasure, only are they too late? Meanwhile, Emma learns many life lessons along the way, especially that which is the true treasure and the true interpretation of her Destiny Dream.

I loved this book so much, and not just because I have an extraordinary daughter also named Emma. I liked it even better than Lloyd's critically acclaimed and much read first novel A Snicker of Magic. Emma is such an interesting character. She is brave and flawed and, like so many of us in the world, trying to make sense of life and her place in it. The rural southern setting is also fully realized. Readers will love spending time in this enchanting, colorful town with all of it interesting inhabitants. The magical realism was believable and so cool. This is a world where flowers have magic, voices from the past can be resurrected, and hope is infused in every cup of hot cocoa.. Excerpts from past "Book of Days" ladies are infused in the narrative, adding an extra layer of history and nostalgia. Chapter headings are artfully designed to reflect the Book of Days and further add to the mood of the story. So many themes are touched upon in this story including the importance of family and community, respecting the past, overcoming adversity and fear, out of sadness comes hope, the power of music and dancing, finding your inner strength, and discovering what really matters in life and your true "treasure". There are so many great lines in this book it is hard to pick just one, but this quote from Emma's deceased mom is one of my favorites, "fear is like a flashlight that helps you find your courage". A diverting and lyrical read for lovers of magic and life.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

Image result for vanderbeekers coverThe Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
Karina Yan Glaser
Houghton Mifflin, 2017 296 pages
Grades 4-8
Realistic Fiction

Different Points of view relate the story of the Vanderbeeker family, long time residents of a Harlem brownstone. A family of five children is not a usual sight in New York City and finding a living space to accommodate such a family is no easy task. The family has been happily ensconced in the 141st brownstone for all of the children's lives when out of the blue the grouchy landlord and upstairs neighbor, Mr. Beiderman, has evicted them. And it's Christmas. The days before this important holiday have the Vanderbeeker children scurrying to find gifts for each other, keep up with their family traditions, Stay out of Mom's way while she is trying to pack and prepare, and scheming to concoct a plan to convince The Beiderman (as they call him) to let them stay. Their plans include getting the neighborhood to sign a petition, bringing him delicious pastries, constructing cheerful decorations, and leaving a kitten on his doorstep. Every plan ends in disaster. With help from friends in the neighborhood the kids finally do some sleuthing and conduct some research on The Beiderman, unearthing secrets about his past which explain his crabby behavior. Can they break through to him before it's too late? Meanwhile, one of the oldest twins is experiencing first love, despite the interference of her sister. Various interpersonal interactions, unpredictable pets and misunderstandings makes for never a dull moment in this madcap house with this crazy and heartfelt family.

Glaser has envisioned a classic American family in the tradition of the Melendys and the Penderwicks with a modern twist. Despite the old-school highbrow New York City name, the Vanderbeekers are a multiracial clan living within a diverse neighborhood. The children are so creative, unique, and unjaded that they feel homeschooled, but they do attend public school. Something about the family reminds me of the clan from All of a Kind Family. Maybe it is the New York setting, possibly the family is mostly all-girl makeup, or it could just be the cozy feel of the story. The book is contemporary and modern, yet has an old-fashioned feel to it. This is really a character piece. The struggle to convince The Beiderman to let them stay is the plot that keeps the story together to introduce this family to children and to give them something to do. At first I had a hard time keeping the children straight, but Glaser draws everyone distinctly enough that I knew them all pretty quickly. Poor Mrs. Vanderbeeker! If getting ready for Christmas with five children isn't hard enough, she has to find a new place to live and pack up their whole lives. I felt for the poor woman, although she seemed pretty calm under the circumstances, although that could just be because we are hearing the story from a child’s perspective. Both boys and girls will enjoy this book. It would make an excellent family read-aloud. The story keeps moving along with enough tension and suspense to keep the readers turning pages, while infused with truly funny bits. I can see sequels in Glaser's future and readers will want to revisit their new friends for another cozy adventure.

Monday, October 16, 2017

All's Faire in Middle School

Image result for alls faire in middle school coverAll's Faire in Middle School
Victoria Jamieson
Dial/Penguin, 2017 248 pages
Grades 5-8
Graphic Novel

Imogene is very excited. The new season of the Florida Renaissance Faire in which her family works is about to start. Now that she is eleven Imogene is allowed to be a part of the cast. Her role will be that of a squire, working under her father, who plays the role of the evil knight. All of her old friends are back for the two month season, including her older crush who plays the role of the hero knight, only this year he has a princess girlfriend in tow. Further complications ensue as homeschooled Imogene begins public school for the first time. Middle School is a bewildering experience and she has a hard time adjusting to changing classes, tricky teachers, current fashion trends, and the dreaded cafeteria at lunchtime. Mika, the reigning queen-bee, befriends Imogene and welcomes her to the cool clique. Imogene is thrilled to have friends, but worries that her clothes aren't right. She is shocked to discover how much the clothes worn by the popular girls actually cost and after visiting Mika's house, realizes for the first time that her family is relatively poor. Meanwhile, at the faire Imogene discovers a way to connect with Faire goers and befriends an outcast from her school who is a regular attendee. Anita also enjoys swordplay and the two work together to entertain visiting children, yet pretend not to be friends at school. Despite Anita's warnings, Imogene continues to hang out with Mika's crowd until she stands up to Mika's meanness, only to have secrets betrayed, landing her suspended from school and a social outcast. Imogene must learn to be true to herself and finds out what it means to be a real knight and an all-around decent person.

I loved Jamieson's Newbery winning Roller Girl and love her sophomore effort All's Faire in Middle School even more. Maybe it's the Renn Faire setting (I am a big fan and attend every year) or maybe it is the way Jamieson completely nails the emotions of a struggling sixth grader, but I really connected with this book. Sixth grade is a very difficult year. I found it excruciatingly difficult as did both of my daughters. School gets suddenly harder with changing classes and increased homework and socially friends get complicated. Imogene has it that much harder in that she is beginning school for the first time and has no clue how the school social structure works. She tries desperately to fit in, losing herself in the process. After alienating many of her loved ones and becoming a person whom she dislikes, Imogene must embrace who she is and be true to herself, even if it means having no school friends. Nerds will relate to Imogene's interests and will find comfort in her strength and victorious outcome. Jamieson leaves readers with much food for thought, including being kind, standing up to bullies, being true to yourself, the importance of working hard in school, loyalty, the choice of living simply: doing what you love over selling out to have a better lifestyle, and the power of forgiveness. This coming of age tale sees Imogene embracing a bit of her inner-princess, even though she remains a bit of a tomboy squire and, most importantly, she realizes that she is not the center of the universe. Jamieson's drawings are clear and add humor and depth to the story. Chapter headings appear to be pages straight from ancient fairytales, placing the reader in the Renn Faire setting. Some of the coming of age themes are a bit mature for younger readers, so I would not recommend this book for younger than fifth grade, even though the comic nature of the book appears inviting to a young audience. An excellent addition to the realistic graphic genre for middle grades readers.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Laugh Out Loud

Image result for laugh out loud patterson coverLaugh Out Loud
James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
Jeff Ebbeler, Illustrator
Jimmy Books/Hachette, 2017 275 pages
Grades 3-6 Humor

Young Jimmy wants to start his own company to write and publish books for kids with the company run by kids. His dream is inspired by his house-bound neighbor's plea to “Please give me another book, Jimmy!". He begins writing stories of his own that he thinks will be of interest to kids and his whole school and neighborhood goes nuts for the stories. The book plots that Jimmy conceives will be familiar to fans of James Patterson, as they are the storylines from his already published materials for young people. Jimmy has big dreams for the book company. It will be called "Laugh Out Loud Books” and will move product from one level to another by Ferris Wheel and workers will move around by hoverboards. The only problem is that Jimmy needs capital. All of the adults in his life (with the exception of the librarian:) and the banks he visits all laugh at him, inspiring the name for the company. His accountant/lawyer parents are too busy constantly working to encourage or support his dreams. What is a budding entrepreneur to do? Jimmy refuses to be discouraged. He and his friends work together to get a few of his stories published with the help of a friendly photocopy guy and eventually finding a financial backer. Laugh Out Loud books gets re-branded Jimmy Books and a publishing legend is born!

James Patterson is committed to turning kids into readers. To this end he writes with talented collaborators to create visual kid-friendly books that may not be the stuff of great fiction, but are devoured by readers. Laugh Out Loud is a fictionalized behind-the-scenes look of the creation of James Patterson's new imprint, if he was a kid. The journey is completely fantastical and made-up, yet will teach kids to follow their dreams and not give up, even if all of the adults in their lives think their dreams are unattainable. The story gets a bit absurd at times and is not particularly realistic, but young readers will not mind. Jimmy's parents go from workaholics who barely notice him to rock-band/cartoon artists who quit their jobs and eventually help with the book company. Believable? Not a chance, but kids with parents who are too caught up in their own lives will find hope that the same could happen within their own families. The cartoon-like illustrations are plentiful and add humor and interest to the story. Various characters from Patterson's other books for young people are characters in this tale and at the end of the story he lists which books they are all from, possibly leading readers to yet another book. Young Jimmy is clearly a reader and lover of books. Throughout the story he makes reference to other book titles by other authors. I would have liked to see a bibliography of these titles at the end of the volume to encourage readers to read some stories by other authors. Instead readers are offered an except from Patterson's latest novel Pottymouth and Stoopid. This book is perhaps a bit self serving, but will definitely be enjoyed by readers and at the end of the day teaches them the importance of books and following their dreams.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Room One: a Mystery or Two

Image result for room one mystery or two clementsRoom One: a Mystery or Two
Andrew Clements
Scholastic, 2006 168 pages
Grades 3-6

Amateur detective, paperboy, and independent boy scout, Ted Hammond, is the sole student in sixth grade in his one-class school. Ted's small Nebraskan town is shrinking as families move away after losing their farms and local businesses are forced to close. The school and the whole town itself is in danger of fading away. As Ted pedals by yet another abandoned farmhouse while delivering his papers, he is shocked to see a face in the attic window. Further investigation after school reveals a girl around his age named April. April confesses that her father died in the middle east and her mother was being harassed by a former friend of her father’s and didn't feel safe. Mom, April and her little brother have run away and are now in hiding. Ted agrees to help the little family by bringing them food and other supplies. He finally brings his teacher in on his secret and she promises to help. When the police are seen at the abandoned farm and April's family is missing, Ted fears that his teacher betrayed him. He must use his detective skills to find the whereabouts of the family in order to connect them to the help they need. Ted does locate them and develops a plan to save the day and maybe the whole town. The plan does not go exactly as Ted has hoped, but it does serve as a catalyst for positive change.

Clements, the master of the school story, pens a mystery with social undertones. This is not a conventional mystery. Ted longs to be a detective and to find some real excitement in his sleepy town. His keen observational skills lead him to the family in crisis and he does use his detective abilities to locate them a second time. Ted learns the valuable lesson that real life is not as clean-cut as a case in one of his stories. It is complicated, messy, and unpredictable. Ted's best efforts may seem like a fail, but ultimately lead the town to a different solution. Clements highlights the plight of the mid-western farmer and the slow death of the American farming community. He educates the reader about the New Homestead Act, a proposed solution to resettling abandoned farmland, which has been talked about, but has yet to come to fruition. Other themes explored in this book are society's need to take care of veteran families, mental illness in custodial parents, combating loneliness, and finding a trusted adult when the problem is too big for a kid. Young readers will love the idea of a one-class school. It is also cool that Ted is the only student in his grade. He moves the desks to make a fort in the middle of the classroom where he can explore his many interests. Children will immediately identify with Ted and put themselves in his shoes as he tries to help April, struggles with his solitary existence, and faces many important decisions. This book reads quickly and will appeal to a wide audience. Small pencil illustrations, contributed by Chris Blair, do not particularly add to the story, but will satisfy readers who are more comfortable with some added visuals. The ending is not the one the readers will be expecting, but remains satisfying and positive.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Graveyard Shakes

Image result for graveyard shakes coverGraveyard Shakes
Laura Terry
Graphix/Scholastic, 2017
Grades 4-7
Graphic Novel

Sisters Victoria and Katia must begin life at a posh boarding school in order to avoid life on the farm being home schooled by mom. Older sister, Victoria, is desperate to fit in. She faces humiliation and embarrassment by her classmates, who make fun of her favorite hat and treat her shabbily. Victoria attempts to make friends by joining the soccer team and dragging Katia along to orchestra auditions. Wild-child younger sister, Katia, refuses to conform to the expected mold of the school. Her brilliant piano playing impresses the other kids, yet gets out of control and it becomes clear that she cannot be reined in to join the orchestra. Meanwhile, a little zombie boy, Modie, is being kept alive by his scientist father, who must feed him the soul of a human child every thirteen years. The thirteen years is up and Dad is sending out the local ghosts to help him locate a new victim. Modie knows that it is wrong, but he is powerless to stand up to his strong father. Modie's only friend is Little Ghost, who doesn't fit in with the wild prankster ghosts of the graveyard and the land below. Little ghost meets a new friend as Victoria is out searching for Katia in the graveyard on snowy winter night. Katia is in the church being wild with the evil ghosts, who bring her to Modie's father for the procedure. Victoria, Modie, and Little Ghost must work together to save Katia and stop this vicious cycle. Unfortunately, a sacrifice must be made, yet in the end the evil is defeated. Katia and Victoria at last find their place in the school environment. It is not the school life Victoria aimed for, yet they have friends and are at last happy.

New author/cartoonist Terry offers a fresh contribution to the current trendy genre of middle school problem graphic novels. Graveyard Shakes has a spooky twist that will potentially draw in a new audience. At its core, this story is a coming of age problem novel where the older sister learns to love herself and finds confidence and the young sister becomes a bit more mature and appreciative of her older sister. The spooky layer adds dimension to the story and makes the book more than just another coming of age graphic novel. It is deliciously eerie and will elicit shivers in the target audience. Little Ghost is more Casper than creepy, making it that much more heartfelt when he meets a tragic demise at the end. Moodie is a bit more unsettling and desolate, yet somehow heartwarming, and readers will feel sorry for him, hoping for a painless demise. The plethora of wandering ghosts are interesting and original. Terry obviously had fun creating them. They are not too scary, along the lines of the Disney Haunted Mansion ride, yet will freak out readers who scare easily. Kids who don't like scary stories will stay away from this book anyway once they see the cover. Kids who like a little scare in their stories will find much to enjoy in this original and shivery tale.The well-executed illustrations are all in full color and the panels scan easily. Terry relies more on the pictures telling the story and the text is light and used only to propel the plot. Reluctant readers will gobble up this title and it may attract new readers to the genre.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Riding Freedom

Image result for riding freedomRiding Freedom
Pam Munoz Ryan
Brian Selznick, Illustrator
Scholastic, 1998 138 pages
Grades 3-6
Historical Fiction

Charlotte Parkhurst is an orphan living in New England in the mid-eighteen-hundreds. Even though she loves horses and has a natural way with them, because she is a girl she must work as a servant in the kitchen with a horribly mean cook. After being forbidden to help out in the stables in her spare time and ride her beloved horses, followed by her best friend being adopted, Charlotte decides to run away. But how? It is not safe or practical for girls to try to strike out on their own. Charlottes changes her name to Charlie, dons boy’s clothes, borrows money from the ex-slave stable-hand who is her friend and sets off to seek her fame and fortune. Naturally, Charlie lands at a stable, where she proves to be an excellent hand, working herself up the ranks to stagecoach driver. The owner of the stables suspects Charlie's true identity, but chooses to kindly allow her to remain in his employ and keeps her secret. An opportunity in California sees Charlie relocating and getting closer to her dream of owning her own stable, only to lose her eye after being kicked by a horse. Her stage coach driving days seem over, yet Charlie does not give up. She learns to drive the coach with one eye, increasing her reputation and finally reaching her lifelong dream. Her old orphan friend and previous boss come to stay at her new stables and Charlie at last seems happy and at peace. Another dream is realized as Charlie becomes the first woman to vote in the United States in 1868. Although voting as a man, Charlie proves that women can make intelligent decisions in politics, paving the road for future generations.

There are very few historical fiction choices for younger chapter readers that do not involve time travel. Riding Freedom is one of my favorites. It is an excellent choice for historical fiction projects, strikes a blow at discrimination based on gender and race, and is an all-around great story. Ryan jams non-stop action into the 138 pages, tracing the life of this little-known American woman. Charlie demonstrates courage, tenacity, and sheer pluckiness in the face of adversity. Nothing seems to keep this character down as she slowly and determinedly realizes her dreams. The colloquial language helps to place the reader in the time of the story and the setting is fully realized. Full-page pencil illustrations, drawn by the wonderfully talented Brian Selznick, can be found in every chapter and help to flesh out the tale and keep readers turning pages. Great for both classroom use and recreation, the book will be enjoyed by a broad audience and works on many levels. The print is large, the chapters are short, and the margins are wide, inviting new chapter book readers. The vocabulary is richer than most books for this audience, bringing the reading level to a deceptively higher level than this selection appears at first glance. The American frontier was not a land of opportunity for everyone. Parkhurst manages to break the constraints of her time and become an American success story and inspiration to future generations.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Children of Exile

Image result for children exile haddixChildren of Exile
Margaret Peterson Haddix
Simon & Schuster, 2016 304 pages
Grades 4-8
Science Fiction

Twelve year-old Rosi has been raised all her life, along with her younger brother Bobo, in an Utopian community called Fredtown by Fred-parents. Life is fair, safe, and dependable. Rosi's life is shattered when she and the other children in the community are informed that they must go back home to their "real" parents, only they don't remember home since they were taken away as babies because it was considered unsafe. The Freds won't tell the children anything about their past or heritage and they reluctantly put them on a plane with cold strangers to journey back to a place the children don't remember. Home is desolate, unfamiliar, and harsh. A mother pulls Rosi and Bobo from the plane and takes them to a ramshackled house where they meet their father, a blind and bitter man who does not seem happy to have them back. The parents seem content enough with Bobo, but treat Rosi coldly. As she walks through the war-torn streets she realizes that the townspeople whom she passes look at her with suspicion. Does it have anything to do with her green eyes? And why are there no other children or teenagers besides the ones returning from Fredtown? A friend from the past has theories about what happened to their parents, the reason that they were sent away, and why everyone is acting so strangely, but then he disappears and Rosi suspects foul play. While trying to get help to rescue her friend, Rosi finds herself in more danger and trouble than she hardly thought possible. Eventually, the secret behind the removal of the children is revealed and the identity of the Freds is discovered. Rosi must now draw on her inner courage to save both Bobo and herself from a life of cruelty and imprisonment.

Haddix is the undisputed queen of the middle grade concept book. Her books have great ideas that hook kids and keep them frantically turning pages. The idea behind Running out of Time, where the prairie girl is really part of a living history exhibit, remains one of my favorite stories in all of kid's lit. The Shadow Children series continues to be one of the most requested series in my library. I had high hopes for Children of Exile and it did not disappoint. There were so many layers of mystery, starting with why the children were taken away in the first place and continuing with the story behind the biological parents and the identity of the Freds and their role in the drama. We see the adventure through Rosi's eyes, as she is first exposed to prejudice, violence and cruelty. Rosi eventualy unravels the secrets behind both societies. Sometimes the reader will guess the outcome and sometimes it comes as a complete surprise. The plot rolls along at a breakneck speed with one plot twist following another. My favorite comes at the end when the identity of the Freds is revealed. Beyond the great story, Haddix offers themes of non-violence, anti-war and weapons, and overcoming physical prejudices, as well as exploring what makes a family and finding inner courage to do the right thing. Sometimes the story gets a little contrived and clunky, but it is written for children to enjoy and does not require finesse. Reluctant readers and science fiction nerds will all love this book and it will be enjoyed by both boys and girls. The cover is interesting and the action starts right away. A sequel Children of Refuge was released last month, giving readers a place to go once they finally reach the conclusion.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Brave Red, Smart Frog

Image result for brave red smart frogBrave Red, Smart Frog
Emily Jenkins
Rohan Daniel Eason. Illustrator
Candlewick, 2017 94 pages
Grades 3-6
Fairy Tales

Jenkins presents new versions of seven classic fairy tales. The stories include Snow White, The Frog Prince, Three Wishes, Toads and Pearls, Red Riding Hood, The Three Great Noodles, and Hansel and Gretel. All are set in the fairy tale past and stick closely to that with which we are familiar. Whimsical full-color illustrations, contributed by Rohan Daniel Eason, introduce each tale in this beautifully designed collection. An author's note at the end explains that Jenkins is a student and lover of traditional fairy tales. She has striven to not paraphrase a particular folklorist from the past, but take all the versions of the traditional tales and make them her own, asking questions to flesh-out parts of the stories that she has always wondered about. In doing so, she is contributing a collection that reflects its oral roots and intention.

I am a great fan of fairy tales and, like Jenkins, have delved into many such collections throughout my lifetime. I enjoyed this new volume very much. It presents stories that may seem overexposed to adults, such as myself, yet will be fresh to young readers, who no longer have ready access to traditional non-Disneyfied fairy tales. The book is thin with wide margins, an inviting layout and an enticing cover. The end papers and color palette will draw readers in, exposing a new generation to these timeless tales. I love Jenkins’ selection of stories, some more common than others. Toads and Pearls, which I know of as Toads and Diamonds, is one of my favorites. The Three Great Noodles, which I am familiar with as The Three Sillies and is a little different than the versions I know, is still true to the spirit of the more common versions and will familiarize children to the old fashioned term "noodle". The violence of the original stories is present, yet not grotesquely overdone and the original intent of the story is respected. Some aspects of certain stories carry-over to further tales linking the individual stories together. Even though the volume is thin, Jenkins does not cheap-out on vocabulary and introduces young readers to new terms, unfamiliar magical creatures, and some challenging vocabulary. An obvious read aloud and a great gift-giving selection, this book will be welcomed for both home and classroom use. Here's to hoping that Jenkins pulls together a second volume!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Image result for awkward chmakovaAwkward
Svetlana Chmakova
Yen/Hachette, 2015 211 pages
Grades 3-8
Graphic Novel

Peppi struggles with fitting into middle school society. She feels like such a nerd. Her saving grace is art club, only they are in danger of losing club status because of the horrible science club. Meanwhile, an embarrassing fall in the school hallway has Peppi making an uncomfortable decision, resulting in insulting fellow nerd Jamie, who was trying to help her. Jamie is part of the dreaded science club. As the year progresses Peppi feels guilty about the way she handled the Jamie situation. To make matters worse, she must be tutored by a student because of a tanking science grade. The tutor is, you guessed it, Jamie. Eventually, Peppi and Jamie become friends and she finds the courage to apologize, finding grace in forgiveness and future redemption when a similar situation develops. Can a female art nerd and male science nerd find friendship within the rigid constraints of middle school culture?

Image result for brave chmakova
Sveltana Chmakova
Yen/Hachette, 2017 241 pages
Grades 3-8
Graphic Novel

Fellow Art Club member and friend of Peppi, Jensen, is use to being the target of jokes. Overweight and fearful, he struggles with keeping up with middle school culture, personal confidence, and fitting in with a group. Jensen often retreats into his fantasy world, where he dreams of being an astronaut/superhero, protecting the world from celestial dangers. After constantly being overlooked by the art club, Jensen falls in with the school paper crew. They are doing independent research on bullying and want to interview Jensen. But wait; he doesn't think he is a victim of bullying. It isn't bullying if the teasing is done by your friends, right? Jensen finally comes to the realization that his friends are not very nice to him and eventually finds the courage to speak up for himself. By book's end Jensen's grades are better, has more confidence, and realizes that everyone in middle school struggles with fitting in. He even develops the maturity to solve a conflict between his new newspaper friends and reaches out to one of the bullys, who formally made his life miserable.

Appealing to fans of Raina Telgemeier, Chmakova's realistic graphic novels are wildly popular. Both titles are currently checked out of my library and because of the flood of recent requests, I think I may have to order more copies. Chmakova delves into the social pressures of middle school life and the complexities that has many young people mystified. Awkward deals with finding the courage to embrace your inner-nerd and allowing yourself to be friends with whomever you like, even if it means being teased. Brave deals with bullying and feeling alone in a crowd. Both middle school struggles are common, yet kids that experience them feel as if they are the only ones who ever has those feelings. Chmakova shows the reader that they are not alone and others are going through similar struggles. The leading cause of death in teenagers is currently suicide. This tragic phenomenon is one that is overtaking schools across the country. Our society must work together to combat teen isolation and stories like these can help. Because of the graphic style, the books read quickly and the diverse cast will welcome all genders and races. The comics scan well, are in full color and are not cluttered. Back matter explains the artist's process, which will appeal to budding cartoonists. The messages for both books are a bit on the obvious side, but are appealing to young readers who can relate to these messages and may be grateful that they do not have to read between the lines. The time for subtlety is over. Kids have to learn to be nice to each other and, hopefully, Chmakova's novels will aid in this goal.