Friday, December 28, 2018

Where the Watermelons Grow

Image result for where the watermelons growWhere the Watermelons Grow
Cindy Baldwin
HarperCollins, 2018 245 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Twelve-year-old Della lives on a rural farm with her parents and baby-sister and her best friend right next door. She has lived in the same tight-knit community her whole life and the farm has been in the family for generations, providing a peaceful and comfy existence. All of this changes one summer when drought threatens to force the farm into foreclosure and Mom begins to act strangely--again. Della's mom suffers from Schizophrenia and her medication seems to be no longer working. Della and Dad try to hide Mom's relapse, but it becomes a secret too big to conceal and life begins to spin out of control as Mom becomes increasingly irrational. Finally, Della turns to a kind beekeeper, whose honey is said to have magical properties. Could this be the answer to all of their problems? As Della seems to drown under the pressures of the drought and Mom's condition, help comes from unexpected places and the small family realizes that they aren't alone as the community bands together to offer support.

I read this book since it is coming up on many best-of-the-year lists. It is a beautifully and carefully written book that is worthy of the praise it is receiving. I did not buy it for my library because I thought that the rural setting and quiet nature of the story would not appeal to my population of young readers. After reading the book I think that it would be enjoyed by a large cross-section of readers: if they give it a chance. It will require some hand-selling and word-of-mouth publicity to find its audience. That said, fans of the current trend of problem novels such as WonderThe Thing about Jellyfish and Mockingbird, will enjoy this title, if they crack into it. The rural North Carolina setting is fully realized and the pain of both Della and her father is strikingly felt by the reader. A touch of magical realism is introduced in the honey: is it really magical? The true magic of the novel lies in the power of community and multiple generations working together to solve a problem and support a struggling family. Children who have a family member suffering from mental illness will find comfort within these pages and those without will learn a bit about the greater world. A little gem of a book that is worth the time invested.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Miranda and Maude

Image result for miranda maudeMiranda and Maude: The Princess and the Absolutely NOT a Princess
Emma Wunsch
Jessika Von Innerebner, Illustrator
Amulet, 2018 132 pages
Grades 2-5
Realistic Fiction/Friendship
Miranda and Maude series #1

Miranda has lived her whole sheltered life as an only-child princess in a castle, raised by two doting parents and educated privately by an aging governess. Maude is being raised by her hippie father and attends public school even though she could be home-schooled, as is her brilliant little brother. Miranda begins her first public school experience with great trepidation. She is not use to other children and discovers that she is grossly behind in many subjects. Meanwhile, her seatmate, Maude, brings smelly hard-boiled eggs to school and seems to be disruptive and dirty. Even though they are both loners and in need of a friend, the two become immediate enemies and a war ensues as hurt feelings escalate. After Miranda conveniently "forgets" to give Maude the invitation to her splashy birthday party, Maude organizes a protest, encouraging the whole class to ban the party to make-up for her own wounded feelings. Both girls feel miserable for their deceitful and mean-spirited actions by the day of the party. Will the new classmates overcome their differences and pave the road to friendship?

Teen author, Wunsch, tries her hand at chapter books in this new series opener. Readers will enjoy the unlikely friendship between the princess and the tomboy who eventually learn to appreciate their differences and to benefit from the talents of the other. Kids will possibly be encouraged to give their classmates a chance that they may have preconceived notions about thanks to the lessons learned from this story. Generously illustrated, there are some pages with only text, making this book a step-up from beginner chapter books, yet perfect for kids who aren't quite ready to dive in deep. The story goes a bit over-the-top, yet readers won't mind. They will enjoy the humor, hijinks, and brushes with royalty. The characters are drawn distinctly and are wonderfully eccentric, making for an entertaining read. Even though the cover is pink and features a princess, the story will be enjoyed by boys who give it a chance. Miranda and Maude continue to embrace their own special qualities, yet learn to appreciate the uniqueness in each other as well, all while compromising and taking turns. Good lessons for all! The next series installment, Banana Pants! is set for a February 2019 release.

Monday, December 17, 2018


Image result for wonderland o'connorWonderland
Barbara O'Connor
FSG, 2018 235 pages
Grades 4-6

Three narrators relate the story of an unlikely friendship and the dog who cements it, as the girls band together to help an older friend. Mavis moves-again-with her mother to a posh suburban-Alabama neighborhood, where mom will serve as the housekeeper and the two will reside above the employer’s garage. Rose is the quiet and lonely homeowner's daughter who is thrilled to have a new friend in the courageous and adventurous Mavis. Henry, out third narrator, is a stray greyhound who has run away from the nearby racetrack and is living rough in the woods. Rose's only friend before Mavis was Mr. Duffy, the elderly gatekeeper of the private community, who hasn't been himself since his dog passed away. Mavis and Rose decide that if they find Mr. Duffy a new dog he will be happy again and perform his job better, getting the uppity rich folks in the gated community off his back. The girls discover Henry and the problem appears to be solved. Only, how can they get the scared dog to trust them? And even if they are able to coax Henry to meet Mr. Duffy, will the situation be fixed? Further problems develop as Rose and Mavis' moms are not getting along and it looks as if Mavis might need to move on again. Will their friendship survive?

For girls entering fifth grade friendship is of the highest importance and so it is with Mavis and Rose, who both struggle to find and keep friends for difference reasons, both of which many children will relate. This sweet and gentle story is told with compassion and sensitivity by O'Connor, who has many thoughtful middle grade novels to her credit, including last year’s Wish. The suburban southern setting is fully realized and the contrasting characters of Mavis and Rose are carefully drawn. Mavis' mother is eccentric and interesting to read, as is Mr. Duffy, whose colorful sayings made me laugh more than once. The two mothers could not be more opposite, making the relationship that the girls share that much more special and precious. It is nice to see a story with inner-generational friendships and the bond that Rose and Mr. Duffy share is a life raft to the young girl, which is why she is so desperate to help him. Dog racing is portrayed as something that is no longer viable and O'Connor demonstrates the industry's efforts to place the dogs in proper homes. Fans of realistic fiction and "problem novels" will enjoy this book. It’s a perfect summer read, a natural for dog lovers, and a great choice for anyone who's ever been in need of a friend.

Friday, December 14, 2018

H.I.V.E: Higher Institute of Villainous Education

Image result for hive waldenH.I.V.E: Higher Institute of Villainous Education
Mark Walden
Simon & Schuster, 2007 309 pages
Grades 5-8
H.I.V.E. series #1

Thirteen-year-old Otto wakes up confused in a plane next to an equally dazed boy named Wing. They are dropped inside a volcano on a seemingly deserted island which is revealed to house a super-secret boarding school designed to train super-villains. Otto and Wing become roommates and are sent to the Alpha track to learn to be the brains behind a covert and diabolical scheme. Otto makes other new friends, as well as some enemies, all of whom exhibit some sort of special skill or talent. The new gang of friends resents being kidnapped and sent to the school against their wills and decide to escape. The problem is: the Hive Mind, an all-knowing super computer designed to control everything on the island. How will the team escape the island without being caught? The reader eventually gets to know some of Otto's backstory in an orphanage, yet who is the mysterious benefactor that is sponsoring his attendance at the school for evil and what is his parentage?

This is a super awesome book that I have been recommending to young readers for the past ten years. Needing a "slam-dunk" for my boy-heavy 5/6th grade book club, I chose this title and gave it another read. It completely holds up and is still the same hit it was ten years ago. This is a great choice for book discussion, raising questions about ethics and point of view, and can be used on many levels. Kids love superheroes and are intrigued by villains, and enjoy seeing the sympathetic side of these new recruits. The premise is original and interesting, the plot never wavers, and surprises abound, making for a rollicking read. Many books are set in boarding schools for the simple reason that is allows for children to have adventure without parents getting in the way. This is the evil-spy version of Hogwarts and it is sure to attract the same readership, as well as other kids who may not be into magic or a complicated plot. Reluctant readers will find much to enjoy as they follow Otto and his friends through their escape plans. My only question is: why hasn't this book been made into a movie?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Love Sugar Magic

Image result for love sugar magicLove Sugar Magic: a Dash of Trouble
Anna Meriano
Walden Pond/HarperCollins, 2018 310 pages
Grades 4-7
Love Sugar Magic series #1

Leonora's family is busy at their bakery getting ready for the town's Dia de los Muertos festival and she is feeling left out. It seems like there is more to the bustle than merely preparations and Leo suspects that secrets are afoot of which she is not privy. A spy mission seems to be in order, so Leo ditches school to find out what she is missing. Imagine her surprise to discover that her mother and sisters are really brujas-or witches-and spells are being baked into the pastries. After cornering one of her older sisters Leo has the truth confirmed and further discovers that she too possesses magical abilities, though she will not be allowed to use them until she turns fifteen, which is way too long to wait. She wants to get going now! To get her feet wet, Leo bakes pig cookies that she brings to life and magically dances around the room. Now it’s time to really put her magic to work. Leo helps herself to magical materials from the bakery and weaves a love spell for her best friend’s crush-with disastrous results.

Debut author, Meriano, pens a fun book filled with sweet treats, sisters and magic in this new series start. It is refreshing to see a book featuring Latin-American characters, who are in touch with their culture, yet fully integrated into American society in a positive way. It is also nice to see a fully functional family, even if they are brujas, who support and love each other through thick and thin. The youngest of five sisters, readers will enjoy seeing the family dynamics of Leo’s loving, yet messy, bunch and feel as if they know the characters by book's end. Leo makes some poor choices throughout the story, yet sees the error of her ways and works it all out by the conclusion. Kids love magic and this is a perfect fit for readers not quite ready for Harry Potter. They will appreciate the magical realism and imagine gaining control of their own situations through magical means. Recipes from the story are offered at end of the book, bringing in another layer and pleasing novice bakers. The Cupcake Diaries meets Bewitched, this series will find a readership. I can already think of so many kids I want to recommend it to. The next series entry, A Sprinkle of Spirits, is set to be released in February, 2019.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Sanity & Tallulah

Image result for sanity tallulah coverSanity & Tallulah
Molly Brooks
Disney/Hyperion, 2018 229 pages
Grades 3-7
Graphic Novel/Science Fiction

Best Friends, Sanity and Tallulah, are super smart, have a great sense of adventure, and a penchant for trouble. The remote space station in which they call home gets turned on its ear when a science experiment gone wrong-a genetically enhanced kitten with three heads-escapes and causes power outages and chaos throughout the planet. Sanity is the scientist who does the high-level thinking and whose father is the head of the entire space station. Tallulah brings the personality and charisma to the team and, although her mother is the head engineer of the station, tends to wreak havoc whenever she starts meddling with experimentation. After the kitten gets loose and the space station is in danger of shutting down and killing them all, the girls try to locate the missing feline and correct the damage. Although complications ensue when it appears to be coming from more than one place. Could there be other evil forces at work? It is up to this power team to locate the root of the problem and save the day before it is too late.

Debut author, Molly Brooks, creates two lovable characters, embracing friendship, science, and girl-power. Sanity and Tallulah have different personalities, which helps them to work well as friends. It is a refreshing break from the currently popular heavy graphic memoirs and science fiction is a welcome change. Yes, the space station may be exploding, but in a super-hero sort of way, and at least none of the families are getting divorced and nobody is getting bullied or discriminated against. This book will serve as a fun and entertaining diversion for both science-loving and science-challenged kids. The main characters are girls, but boys will enjoy this books as well, as the adventures are universal. The illustrations are well drawn and easily scanned, shaded in grey/blue with pink accents. The action never stops, the humor never flags, and everything comes out okay by books end. Plus, there is a diverse cast of characters, an adorable kitten with three heads, and a really cool first name (Sanity) that I think I might legally change my name to. What's not to like about this book? The last page promises more adventures to come, which young readers are certain to snap up. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Night Diary

Image result for night diary coverThe Night Diary
Veera Hiranandani
Dial, 2018 258 pages
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction

Nisha lives in India in 1947 with her twin brother, father, and grandmother. In a series of letters written in her diary to her decreased mother we see history unfold as the country achieves independence and Pakistan succeeds as an independent Muslim state. Although Nisha's mother was Muslim, her father and grandmother are Hindu and, thus, enemies of the people. First, they are not allowed to go to school or to play with the friends they have always known, but then their very safety is in jeopardy. The family escapes, leaving behind their beloved cook and a treacherous journey begins, filled with possible starvation, thirst, and desperate refugees. To further complicate matters, Nisha is painfully shy and struggles with talking out-loud, her brother is clumsy and spills their water, and grandma is frail and may not make it to the boarder. Will the small family ever reach safety? Help comes from unexpected places, hope emerges where there once was none, and surprises abound. 

Hiranandani draws from her father's experiences during India's transition from British rule, creating a book for young readers about a little know corner of world history. This is historical fiction at its best. I learned so much about historic events from a personal perspective, was exposed to various parts of Indian culture, and enjoyed an entertaining and exciting story in the process. Nisha's story will inspire children, yet since she often feels lonely and shy, they will relate to her and maybe feel encouraged to tap into their own resources. A map on the end papers shows the countries in question and offers the reader a visual of the journey the small family undertakes. A glossary in the back defines some of the Indian terms and customs seen within the book and an author's note puts the narrative into historical perspective. This is truly a middle grade novel. Because of some of the violence between the focused groups, the story could be scary for younger elementary readers. That said, there is nothing particularly inappropriate or romantic, making it fine for older elementary. My library has this book shelved in the teen section, but it could comfortably be placed in the Children's Room and about half of my library system's libraries have done just that. Kids love diary-style books and this one, if put in the hands of the target audience, will entertain as well as educate.

Monday, December 3, 2018


Image result for blended draper coverBlended
Sharon Draper
Atheneum, 2018 320 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

First-person narration relates the story of eleven-year-old Isabella, who feels very split down the middle. Her divorced parents share custody of her, forcing her to sit through uncomfortable exchanges with them and alternate weeks between homes. Luckily, both of her step-parents are kind and loving, but still she fantasizes about her parents reuniting. Also, being biracial makes her feel torn and she is unsure which race to identify with and often feels judged and exposed based on her skin color. Support comes from her two best friends and awesome teenage stepbrother, who always has her back. Escape comes from the piano in which she is gifted and is able to lose herself in the playing. A racial incident at school brings her uncomfortable feelings to a head and forces her to confront what she is experiencing in her own life. Finally, a terrible tragedy occurs on the way to her piano recital which brings some of these issues even closer to home and into the public eye. The silver lining is that her torn family discovers what is truly important and stops squabbling and starts loving.

Sharon Draper is one of my favorite authors. Out of My Mind makes me cry every time I read it. She knows how to get to the heart of the matter and express issues in an approachable and believable way to young people. This new title seems torn from the headlines, supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement and shining a light on racial profiling and general racism as perceived by the American public. The Hate You Give light, this is an age appropriate title that would work well as a conversation starter at home or in the classroom. It is also an enjoyable read with a likable main character who readers will identify with. The adults are flawed, yet loving, and their worst offenses stem from loving Isabella too much. The teenage stepbrother is a little too perfect, but that is an indication of who he is as reflected in Isabella's eyes. Biracial kids will appreciate the representation, kids from sometimes hostile blended families will also relate, and the rest of the readers will grow from the experience of spending time in Isabella's shoes. I love how the power of music is a source of solace and a binding element between households. Hopefully, young readers will be encouraged to find their own passion that can be a real life-saver. The pink cover may put off male readers, but the story will grab them if they give it a chance. A timely book that will appeal to the target audience.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Amal Unbound

Image result for amal unbound coverAmal Unbound
Aisha Saeed
Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2018 226 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Twelve-year-old Amal must leave school to take care of her family after her mother disappointingly gives birth to yet another girl and suffers post-partum depression. Amal loves school and learning and hopes to go to university one day, but for now she is tending small children and doing laundry. Life gets even worse when she will not give up a selected fruit at the market to a rude man, who turns out to be the evil landlord to whom most of the village owes money. After the offense the landlord demands payment from money owed from Amal's father and, when Dad cannot pay, agrees to take Amal as a servant in his home as repayment. She is sent to the evil landlord's home and assigned as a personal servant to his elderly mother, displacing another girl and creating an enemy. The shunned servant sabotages Amal's efforts and gets her in trouble, leading to a slap from the master of the house that sends her reeling. Will Amal's family ever raise the money to release her from servitude? Will she ever adjust to life as a servant and give up her hope of an education? Will Pakistan forever be plagued by evil landowners with the uneducated masses at their mercy? Amal eventually taps into her inner strength and confidence, as she learns to make some tough decisions, even at the risk of her own safety.

Inspired by the real-life story of Malala Yousafzai, Saeed has created a character who must fight for her right for an education and suffers injustices simply because she is poor and female. Young readers may not be familiar with Malala's story and an author's note at the end will expose them to it, perhaps inspiring them to learn more. This story is beautifully told and will tear at the heartstrings of its readers. American children will find it difficult to comprehend the hardship and injustice that Amal must endure and this book will not only educate them about other parts of the world, but, perhaps, help them to be kinder to their neighbors who have fled from oppression to find freedom in America. Amal makes some hard, mature choices, even at her own risk, in order to bring her powerful nemesis to justice. The change befits many people, including Amal, yet not for people who economically depend on the landlord, showing Amal that life is not always as black and white as we think. Readers will be shocked that Amal's father allows her to go off with the evil man to pay his debt, creating a great conflict and interesting story that will encourage readers to continue to turn pages to see how this young girl figures a way out of her problems. An often overlooked corner of the world in children's literature, this is a powerful book that can potentially change lives.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Knights vs. Dinosaurs

Image result for knights vs dinosaurs coverKnights vs. Dinosaurs
Matt Phelan
Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2018 148 pages
Grades 2-6

Our story begins with brave Sir Erec, who boasts at a party at Camelot that he has slayed forty dragons, which is hardly the case since he has never actually seen a dragon. Merlin witnesses the boast and sets out to teach the dashing knight a lesson. Summoned by King Arthur for a quest, Sir Erec agrees to battle a huge lizard of which Merlin is aware. The next day, accompanied by three fellow Knights of the Round Table and one all-suffering squire, the noble group heads into a cave where the ferocious lizard is said to dwell. The gang is completely surprised upon exiting the cave to discover that the woodsie forests of Britain have transformed to a lush jungle. Further investigation reveals that they are in a foreign land with unusual lizard-like creatures, who prove to be treacherous. The knights split up, having separate dangerous adventures, finally reuniting to take on the worst creature of all: a giant t-rex. Will our heroes escape the fate of becoming dino lunch? Will they ever get back to Britain? And if so, what do Merlin and Arthur have planned next?

Picture book illustrator and graphic novelist, Phelan, turns his talents to penning a heavily illustrated work of fiction combining two of the most interesting things to kids: knights and dinosaurs to create a winning combination. A perfect choice for a reluctant reader, the font is large and colorful and humorous black and white cartoon-like illustrations abound, sometimes appearing as comic panels. The action never flags and the knights are not afraid to get down and dirty in battling their giant foes. Some unexpected gender twists invite female readers to the party, proving that women can be as fearless and sword-wielding as men. The knights are at times delightfully bumbling, sure to incite giggles in readers, yet are all drawn distinctly. There are truly funny moments, truly tense moments, yet never any boring moments. A sure-fire hit for that hard to please reader and a guaranteed page-turner. The ending leaves off with a hint of another adventure to come, so hopefully this is the start of a series with a new installment to follow in the future.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Journey of Little Charlie

Image result for journey of little charlie coverThe Journey of Little Charlie
Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic, 2018 234 pages
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction

Little Charlie does not have an easy life as the son of a share cropper in 1858 rural South Carolina. Having never been to school, he doesn't know how to read and write and being big for his age, he puts in a full day's work on his family's farm. After his father suffers a terrible accident and dies, life even gets worse. How can Ma and he manage the family farm with just the two of them? And now the over-seer from a neighboring plantation is claiming that Pa owes him $50. To pay back the debt Charlie agrees to accompany the infamously cruel Cap'n Buck to Detroit to retrieve stolen property. Once in the big northern city, Charlie is surprised to learn that the stolen property is actually human. Escaped slaves from Cap'n Buck's plantation have been tracked down and he intends to return them to where he feels is their rightful place. With Charlie's help the man and his wife are captured, but then it is discovered that they have a son Charlie's age attending a boarding school over the border in Canada. The two slave catchers cross the border to collect a bigger cash prize; only the adventure does not go as smoothly as expected. 

Based on actual events, Newbery winning author, Curtis, delivers another well researched and tightly written historical fiction for young people. Told in the first person, Little Charlie's poor southern colloquially written voice takes time to get used to, yet once the reader gets into it, the narration flows. We see all of the events from young Charlie's eyes as he starts his journey as a naive farm boy and slowly becomes exposed to worldly matters and cruelties. Slavery is a practice that he has never questioned, yet after meeting northern folks and the young boy he is meant to kidnap, he sees the situation from a different perspective and begins to question all that he thinks he knows. By the book's end Charlie has a major ethical decision to make and readers will hold their breath hoping he chooses the right path. Curtis introduces some heavy topics and does not sugar-coat the horrors of slavery, yet somehow manages to infuse his characteristic humor within the pages, especially through Charlie's interpretation of events. Teachers will find it useful in the classroom and kids that give it a try will find that it is worth the effort. Already a National Book Award finalist, this selection will certainly land on the Newbery committee's radar.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Mia Mayhem

Image result for mia mayhem superhero coverMia Mayhem is a Superhero
Kara West
Leeza Hernandez, Illustrator
Simon & Schuster, 2018 121 pages
Grades 2-4
Mia Mayhem series #1

Lovable Mia gets the surprise of her life when she receives a letter accepting her to a program for superhero training. But, that can't be right? Though well intended, Mia causes chaos and trouble wherever she goes and she possesses no special skills. Confirmation from her parents reveals that it is a true invitation that they knew was coming someday. Further revelations include Mom's ability to fly and Dad's ability to talk to animals. Luckily, Mia is allowed to confide her secret to her best friend, the all-suffering Eddie, so she does not have to bear the burden of knowledge alone. The next day after school Mia's parents accompany her to the superhero academy where they meet an arrogant student, who reluctantly shows Mia around. After trying out several superhero skills with no success Mia is frustrated. Luckily, the director of the school assures Mia that she will with time learn how to be a superhero and her greatness will eventually emerge. The fun continues in Mia Learns to Fly, released simultaneously.

This new series is perfect for emerging chapter book readers with a love of comics and superheroes. What kid doesn't dream of finding out they have superpowers? Mia proves that dreams do come true, even for the disaster-prone. Yes, Mia causes chaos and destruction wherever she goes, but she is plucky and resilient and doesn't let failure keep her down for long. Kids will enjoy Mia's antics and mistakes, making them feel better about their own shortcomings, much like reading Junie B. Jones. The difference between the two series is that Mia is less fresh and uses better grammar than her mistake-ridden counterpart, making this series a better choice for new readers. Not a "girlie-girl", boys will enjoy reading this series and relate to its main character, regardless of it being a female protagonist. The eye-catching cover resembles a comic book and will work to attract the target audience. Releasing the second book in the series will immediately give readers a place to go after completion and two more installments are in the works for 2019. It will also be released in both hardcover and paperback, making both libraries and home shoppers happy. A promising and fun series that is sure to have legs.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

First Rule of Punk

Image result for first rule of punk coverThe First Rule of Punk
Celia C. Perez
Viking, 2017 336 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Malu is uprooted from her home and beloved father to move with her mother across the country to Chicago. Malu is an avid punk rock fan, thanks to her record store owner father, and enjoys making zines, a pastime from the 90's also picked up from Dad. As a biracial girl, she has never related to her Mexican side, much to the dismay of Mom, whom she refers to as "Super-Mexican”. At first hating school, Malu makes some unexpected friends, as well as a few enemies. Together with her new band of misfits the crew decides to start jamming together by forming a punk band and then perform at the school's yearly talent show. After working hard on learning a few key songs, The Cocos are ready to audition, only the vice principal does not think that punk rock is the image that the school wishes to project. The Cocos must come up with "plan B" without letting the disappointment and pressure tear them apart. Malu learns some truths about herself, all while finally exploring her Mexican side and turning it, well, punk rock.

Perez offers a debut novel with a lot of heart and, certainly, plenty of spunk. Malu's passion and enthusiasm for her favorite kind of music and living life in general is infectious. Scrappy and tenacious, she marches to the beat of her own drummer and isn't afraid to present her true self to the world, which is very unusual for middle school. At 336 pages the book seems long, but much of it is the incorporated zines that Malu creates, reflecting the subject matter of the chapter previous. The zines are interesting and creative and work to keep pages turning quickly, all while, perhaps, inspiring other young people to develop their own zines. Being punk is being true to yourself and fearless and Malu and her buddies demonstrate that they have the grit to be truly punk, all while incorporating Malu's Mexican heritage, which she eventually learns to appreciate. All turns out satisfactorily in the end, if not unrealistically perfect, and the reader knows that the characters will be alright. Great for classroom use, book discussion and pleasure reading. It makes me want to haul my tired bones up to the attic to drag out my old Sex Pistols and Clash records, um I mean vinyl. Highly recommended and inspiring.

Monday, November 19, 2018


Image result for barkusBarkus
Patricia MacLachlan
Marc Boutavant, Illustrator
Chronicle, 2017 45 pages
Grades 2-3

Five chapters trace the adventures of lovable dog, Barkus, and Nicky, his cheerful owner. Nicky's favorite uncle bows in one day with a present: A big dog with good manners, brains and disposition. The two new friends go to school together, where Barkus helps the children learn to read, celebrate a special birthday, acquire a new friend, and enjoy a sleepover in a tent in the backyard. The second in the series, Barkus: Dog Dreams, was released this summer and continues the fun with this dynamic duo and their friends and family.

Newly independent readers will flock to Barkus, a new series by Newbery winning author MacLachlan. It is hard to say whether this is an easy reading series or early chapter book. With a guided reading level of "L" it could really go either way. I put it in fiction for newly independent readers who insist on reading chapter books, but may not be ready for The Magic Tree House. Perfect for fans of Mercy Watson, this series features full color pictures on every page, large text, and a controlled vocabulary.  Each chapter is a separate adventure with a simple storyline. Barkus is truly a dream dog and is a little too perfect to be real, but that just adds to his charm and readers will fall in puppy love. Nicky is rather androgynous, welcoming both boy and girl readers. These books are so short and packaged so appealingly that they will be an easy sell to even the most stubborn of emerging readers. Sure to be a fan favorite!

Friday, November 16, 2018

Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish

Image result for marcus vega doesn't speak spanish coverMarcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish
Pablo Cartaya
Viking, 2018 272 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Marcus is the tallest boy in his middle school. He has a little side business to help out the finances in his single parent home; charging younger kids to protect them from bullies and fining kids who litter. When the school’s meanest bully calls Marcus' younger special needs brother the "R" word, he loses his cool and punches the guy, which leads to big trouble. To get the small family back on track Mom takes Marcus and his brother, Charlie, to Puerto Rico for a change of scenery and a much needed vacation, as well as to connect with family on Marcus' dad's side. The family welcomes the northern Vegas warmly and it is wonderful for all of them to belong to a large, loving extended family. Only, where is Marcus' dad? Marcus thought that they would connect with him and he would become a soulmate and help with the family's problems, but Dad isn't responding to e-mails and is nowhere to be found. Eventually the traveling crew tracks Dad down, only the reunion is not as Marcus expects and he discovers who the real heroes in his life are and his proper place in the world among them.

The sophomore effort of Cartaya following The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora is just as solid as the first. As with Arturo Zamora, this new offering features an extended Latino family and delivers a message of the importance of living within this supportive and nurturing unit. Also, as seen in the first book, Cartaya includes humor, a dastardly villain that readers will love to hate, and enduring quirky characters. I love that this story features Latino culture (even if Marcus is new to it), a character with Down’s syndrome, a single parent family, and a relatable male protagonist to lure boys into reading. Marcus may be big and scary looking, but the reader sees that he's a puppy dog inside; kind to his family and younger kids, helpful in school, and fearful of flying. The father proves realistically disappointing, yet Marcus learns to appreciate some of the other positive adult influences in his life, both within the newly acquainted family and the Mom who has always been there. This book reads quickly and would be a great choice for a reluctant reader, especially one who feels like an outsider much like Marcus. Kids will benefit from tracing Marcus' progression and, perhaps, learn not to jump to conclusions about that kid in the next desk who seems scary because he looks different.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Front Desk

Image result for front desk cover yangFront Desk
Kelly Yang
Scholastic, 2018 286 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Mia, along with her mother and father, has recently emigrated from China in 1993. Struggling with finding a job and not being treated fairly or able to earn a living wage, Mom & Dad accept a position as managers at a Mannheim, California motel. While her parents clean rooms, Mia must work the front desk, providing services well beyond her years. Once the school year begins, Mia enters the local public school, where she is placed in a class with a boy who is the son of the evil motel owner and a girl named Lupe, also a struggling immigrant, who becomes Mia's first friend in the US. Mr. Yao, the owner, does everything in his power to cheat Mia's parents and make more money for himself. When a car goes missing and Mr. Yao blames one of the permanent residents, a black man, based purely on skin color, he proves himself to be racist as well. Mia's family are not the only folks from China being treated poorly. Other immigrants with similar situations, some even worse, arrive at the hotel's doorstep and Mia's family does what they can to help, putting their livelihood on the line. Mia discovers a writing contest in which she can win a free inn in Vermont. This could be her family's ticket to freedom and escape from evil employers and loan sharks. Does she have a chance?

Based on the author's own childhood experiences, Front Desk offers a grim glimpse into the lives of Chinese immigrants twenty-five years ago that still is relevant today. Yang illustrates the plight and shabby treatment of these folks and how, back in China, life improved for those left behind, while the immigrants suffered in America. I have heard mixed reviews from fellow librarians about this book. Some loved it and keep raving about it, while others feel that it offers a negative portray of the "American Dream". I, personally, find that this book, though not a Newbery contender, has a lot of merit, both in the entertaining plot and the issues raised about immigration, discrimination, kindness, greed, and the importance of community. Mia creates a little family with the permanent residents of the motel and they all ban together to help each other out of troubles. An author's note at the end describes Yang's real life experiences and even contains a few snapshots from back in the day. The story might be set in 1993, but in light of the US' immigration debate, it continues to be relevant. Mia learns that she is a writer, even if she struggles with the English. Her perseverance in following her dream and tenacity in fighting against injustice will serve as a great role model and inspiration for readers.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Poet X

Image result for the poet x coverThe Poet X
Elizabeth Acevedo
HarperTeen, 2018 368 pages
Grades 9-Up
Narrative Poetry

Xiomara feels as if her body has betrayed her. Ever since she has grown curves, she feels as if she is constantly protecting herself from unwanted advances and attention in her Harlem neighborhood and school. Her religious mother behaves as if it is all her fault and thinks that if Xio prays enough, the attention will go away. Xio does not find comfort in God though; she finds it in writing poetry in her journal. When a teacher invites her to join the poetry club at school, Xio is torn. She would like to, but it conflicts with confirmation class and besides, sharing her poetry is like exposing her soul, which is very scary. Tired of constantly fighting and feeling as if her twin brother and new love interest, Aman, do little to help her defend against sexual taunts, Xio gets angrier, finally agreeing to share her poetry out loud and join the club. She attends her first poetry slam and discovers release and freedom in the experience. Through the power of words and finding likeminded friends, Xio is finally feeling comfortable in her place in the world: until one forgetful action brings it all crashing down around her feet. How can Xio connect with her very different and suborn mother and express herself when everything that matters is taken away?

The Poet X is, so far, my favorite teen book of the year. It is a National Book Award Finalist, and for good reason. The novel in verse is carefully written and every word, as well as its placement on the page, counts. Xio's voice rings clear and true. Readers will not only feel as if they know her, but will come to care about her. Although these experiences were far from my teenage life, I still felt very personally connected to the story. Xio's struggles with unwanted sexual attention, while also exploring feelings about her new boyfriend and the resulting confusion is something with which many young women experience. We also see Xio's twin brother's struggle with his sexuality as he finds his first boyfriend and must hide the relationship from his religious and traditional Latin family. There are moments in the book when my breath caught and I felt all of the conflicts right along with Xio, especially one very big plot twist towards the end. The book reads quickly and is a page turner. Readers of all abilities will enjoy this story and find much to cherish and fans of Speak will be a readymade audience. Although she struggles with an intolerant mother, I appreciate that Xio finds positive role models and help from both her teacher and her priest. The church tends to be portrayed negatively in teen literature and, although it is not a source of solace for Xio, the priest is understanding and turns out to be a helpful influence in healing the relationship with Mom. The real message of this book is the power of words and how they can be a life saver, which is a message that I can certainly stand behind and have experienced firsthand.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Season of Styx Malone

Image result for season styx malone coverThe Season of Styx Malone
Kekla Magoon
Random House, 2018 295 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Caleb is tired of being "ordinary". He and his older brother, Bobby Gene, are trapped in their small town by a fearful father, who feels that the outside world is a dangerous place. One summer the ordinary changes. It starts off with Caleb and Booby Gene trading their baby sister for a bag of fireworks, which lands them in a heap of trouble, yet also introduces them to a new older boy, Styx Malone. Styx is a foster child residing on the other side of the woods. He teams up with the brothers and leads them in an escalator scheme to trade the fireworks for something slightly better, continuing to make better trades until they get what they desire. In this case, they decide to go for a minibike. The trades lead them to many unexpected and dangerous situations, including hopping a boxcar and stealing an engine. The theft gets Caleb and Bobby Gene into even more trouble and forbidden from seeing Styx. Can their parents keep them from their new friend and idol? Slowly the boys work towards their goal, but the payoff does not turn out to be the ticket to freedom about which they dream.

Magee offers a new novel featuring an African-American cast and a father who is fearful of what the outside world will do to his sons. Reminiscent of The Great Brain or the Soup books, this story starts out as a folksie humorous story narrated by a small-town boy who idolizes his clever older friend. Then, much as in the way of The Watson's Go to Birmingham, the story gets serious and we see what drives Styx and the results of his less-than-ideal upbringing, as his impulsiveness leads to recklessness. Magoon weaves a serious family story with subtle racial undertones and infuses it with humor. The beginning of the story when the boys trade their baby sister for fireworks will draw readers in and, once Styx is introduced, their attention will be held. The tale eventually packs an emotional punch that will hit unsuspecting readers, who think that they signed on for a much lighter book. For this reason I would recommend this story to reluctant readers and it would be a great read aloud for teachers and parents to share. The father eventually begins to overcome his fears and all of the characters grow and emotionally move forward and learn to understand each other better. A happy ending for all will satisfy readers, as they breathe a sign of relief that Styx will be well taken care of. Craftily written with a lot to say, this book is a winner with appeal to a wide audience.

Monday, November 5, 2018

A Room Away from the Wolves

Image result for room away from the wolves coverA Room Away from the Wolves
Nova Ren Suma
Algonquin, 2018 315 pages
Grades 9-Up

Bina runs away from an abusive situation at home to New York City, where she seeks out Catherine House, a place in which her mother has wonderful memories of many years before. For many years it was Bina and Mom against the world. They left Bina's abusive father only for Mom to fall into an equally bad household with a strict man and his mean daughters, who tortured Bina. Once at Catherine House Bina meets the mysterious Monet, who stirs up new feelings and helps her to come to terms with her father and her past. As time moves on, Bina realizes that something is not right about the boarding house. The girls must be home by nightfall and get physically ill if they aren't. Also, there is something weird about the photos on the wall, the gardens surrounding the house, and the closet in Bina's room. Slowly Bina realizes that residents of the house are unable to move out. What power does Catherine House have and what is the backstory of the inhabitants? 

I am a big fan of Suma’s The Walls around Us. Suma is not your run-of-the-mill teen writer. She pens weird and atmospheric pieces that both confuse and expand your brain. This new title is also "off the beaten path", yet may have strayed too far off for my liking. Suma's writing is consistently beautiful and intentional and certainly worth experiencing. A Room away from the Wolves goes back and forth through time in a liquid fashion and offers a creepy mystery. The plot mostly consists of Bina trying to figure things out and one day bleeds into the next. The stream of conscious narration and meandering story was not enough to hold my attention and I had a hard time getting through this book, yet I was interested enough in the creepiness and well-crafted writing to keep going. I was glad that I persevered for the ending was a big payoff. There is a surprise twist that I didn't see coming for a long time and then finally understood, making the time spent slugging through worthwhile. Only ambitious (and really smart) teens will get there. I think a lot went over this reader's head and it would be worth a second read, if I were a patient person, which I am not. I love any book set in New York City, yet wasn't feeling the magic of the city. The real setting was the creepy Catherine House, which could have been placed anywhere, complete with its woeful inhabitants. The truth behind Bina is revealed in a satisfactory manner and a happy (ish) ending is realized. This book offers a true payout for those willing to invest the time, but the average teen would probably not be up to the task.

Saturday, November 3, 2018


Image result for greenhorn olswager coverGreenhorn
Anna Olswanger
NewSouth Books, 2012 48 pages
Grades 5-Up
Historical Fiction

A big announcement is made at Aaron's 1940's boarding-school yeshiva: new students, who have been orphaned in the holocaust, will be relocated to the school. One of the newcomers, a boy named Daniel, is squeezed into Aaron's already tight room. Daniel is quiet and downcast, clutching a small metal box for dear life. The other boys tease Daniel for his quietness and obsession with the box. Aaron, also a target of taunts because of a stutter, befriends Daniel and lends a kind word and a hand of friendship. Time goes on, Daniel begins to learn English and pick-up American ways, but still he will not let go of the mysterious box or share what it holds with any of his classmates. Finally, the contents of the box are revealed and to everyone's horror they bring to light the terrible tragedy the young boy recently survived and the devastating loss that he can never recover.

I have rediscovered this little gem of a book and feel that it is worth a second look. Based on the true experiences of Rabbi Rafael Grossman, who passed away this past spring, an author's note at the back of the book relates the story's authenticity, making the horrors of the holocaust that much more potent and personal. I had the opportunity of meeting the Rabbi and hearing him speak and I can attest to the fact that the world has lost a beautiful, intelligent, and insightful man. More illustrated short story than novel, Greenhorn is deceivingly mature. At first glance it looks like a transitional chapter book, but the content is more appropriate for middle grade/teen. New-comers to America and the English language will find much to relate to within this book and it is a perfect high/low choice for both English language learners and strugglers. The full-color illustrations and generous white space will attract the casual reader and the mystery of the contents of the box will keep them reading. The reveal of the contents will both shock and educate readers and will help to leave a permanent imprint that will linger for long after the cover is closed. Teachers will find this title useful for sharing with a class and it can fit into history, bullying, and religious curriculum.  At its base, this is a book about kindness, friendship, and welcoming that is just as pertinent a message today as it was in the 1940's. A glossary of Jewish terms is included in the back of the volume to educate the unfamiliar. Once readers process the shock of the contents of the mysterious box and the horrors of Daniel's experiences, they may be inspired by Aaron to be a friend to the newcomer in their own class.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Three Dark Crowns

Image result for three dark crowns coverThree Dark Crowns
Kendare Blake
HarperCollins, 2016 398 pages
Grades 8-Up
Three Dark Crowns series #1

In a distant land at an unspecified time a special set of Triplet girls is born to each generation. Each young queen is raised separately and learns to cultivate a magical power. Once they are grown, they participate in a ceremony demonstrating their strength--and then are expected to kill the other two. Whichever young queen is left standing is the queen of the whole land. Three Dark Crowns tells three separate stories of each such queen preparing for the launching ceremony. Katharine is a poisoner, bred to ingest copious amounts of poison with no repercussions, only she struggles with this task and is constantly ill. Arsinoe is a naturalist, meant to tame wild animals and help plants to grow, only her gift has not kicked in and she must depend on unreliable black magic. Only Mirabella is truly gifted. She is an elemental, able to control the basic elements of the earth, including the weather. As the girls prepare for the big day complications ensue, including matters of the heart and shifting loyalties. All three stories come together at the end as the sisters are reunited and must compete. The showdown does not happen as expected and chaos ensues, making the path to the throne anything but clear.

This is the first book in a popular series of the same name, the third having been released last month with more on the way. A welcome break from dystopia, I enjoyed immersing myself in a believable well-visioned fantasy world with interesting characters and a brisk plot line. The plot never slows down for a moment and twists abound, holding my interest and challenging me to predict how it will all work out. The story is fresh and offers a new take on a classic genre. All three queens are drawn distinctly, sympathetically and fully realized. It is hard for the reader to choose who to root for. Minor characters are also interesting and have lives of their own. The girls are tough characters and manage to fight back from the ruling families who are determined to control them as puppets for their own means. Love interests abound and situations get messy and cross camps, making for turning pages. Themes include living your life honestly and freely, communing with nature, the power of friendship, and questions of loyalty. Readers who enjoy fantasy and fairy-tales infused with action and romance will enjoy this entertaining series, which reads fast, despite the long-ish length. The story ends with an expected cliffhanger, leading readers to the next installment.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

Image result for assassination brangwainThe Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
M.T. Anderson
Eugene Yelchin, Illustrator
Candlewick, 2018 523 pages
Grades 4-7

Told by two brilliant children's authors in alternating text and illustration. Anderson narrates with text the point of view of Goblin historian Werfel the Archivist, who is saddled with the unpleasant task of entertaining a cranky elf. The goblins and the elves have been at war for centuries and, finally, an olive branch has been extended in the form of visiting historian, Brangwain Spurge, who has been shot by slingshot into goblin territory to deliver a present to the goblin king. Spurge is picky and ornery and is unreceptive to goblin manners and culture. Yelchin shows readers the prissy elf's point of view in illustrations and we see a very different interpretation of events. Meanwhile, letters from Spurge's supervisor and childhood tormentor are included, conveying an insider's perspective to the motivations of the proceedings as reported to the elfin king.  One misunderstanding leads to another until Werfel finds himself in a heap of trouble and the target of animosity from fellow dwarfs. Spurge, for his part, becomes disillusioned with the mission and finds his loyalty wavering. Who is the true cause of the war and who is the real enemy?

I loved, loved, loved this book. It has rich layers and depth beyond the first glance, so much so that I think I need to re-read it. I dismissed this book at first thinking that the cover looked too dated, but because of the two creators involved, who I have great respect for, and the many starred reviews, AND the national book award nomination, I finally picked it up--and then couldn't put it down. It starts off weird-and then gets weirder. An allegory of war and misunderstanding other cultures, disguised as a fairy tale, Anderson and Yelchin have created a modern tale with the heart of something ancient that reflects present society. Within the story there is action, twists, and humor and surprises, along with a heartfelt ending. This title reminded me of the work of Brian Selznick, yet darker, and with a different effect. The creators use the different formats to express the different points of view; demonstrating that two people can see the same situation in completely different ways. At first the two stories interpret the same situation completely differently, yet as the story progresses and the two historians learn to trust each other and become friends, the narrators are telling the same story, just in different formats. The words and illustrations have the feel of a medieval manuscript. The black and white illustrations resemble ancient woodblock drawings and feel pulled from a centuries old tome. Kids will not be naturally attracted to this book. It will require some hand selling, but those who dive in will find it worth the effort. My favorite book of the year so far! 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Charlie Hernandez & the League of Shadows

Image result for charlie hernandez and the league shadowsCharlie Hernandez & the League of Shadows
Ryan Calejo
Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2018 312 pages
Grades 4-7

Something strange is happening to Charlie Hernandez. He starts sprouting horns and feathers and then, if that is not enough, a claw emerges from where his hand should be. It’s not like he can ask his parents for help. They disappeared in a house fire (no remains were found) and now Charlie resides with a kind, yet doddering foster mother. He does not feel comfortable confiding in his best friend. Instead, he finds himself thrown together with popular girl, Violet, an inspiring investigative reporter with nerves of steel, and the two new partners become determined to get to the bottom of this miraculous situation. The trail leads them to a spooky graveyard at night with a secret bunker and creatures straight out of Charlie's abuela's stories. Are these mythical characters from Spanish folklore come to life? It seems that Charlie has a secret power and it is up to him to save the world from unknown spiritual forces. Is he up to the challenge? The cause of the mysterious transformation happening to Charlie, as well as the secret behind Charlie's parent's disappearance, among other mysteries will be revealed as this exciting story unfolds.

The Lightning Thief gone Latino, Calejo dishes up a delicious tale of mythological adventure in this first in a new series. Released this week, a month after the Latin American installment in the new Rick Riordan Presents series, Charlie Hernandez should never-the-less find an audience. Following the same format as Riordan, Calejo plugs in a south Florida setting and Latin American Gods unfamiliar to much of the American audience. I enjoyed this fresh crop of mythical heroes and villains and how the author presented them in a modern way. Spanish words and terms are sprinkled throughout, yet the meanings are deductible from the text. A glossary in the back lists the mythical creatures with descriptions, which was helpful because I kept forgetting who was who. Kids with fresher minds than me may well remember the distinctively eccentric characters from first meeting and not need the glossary. The action never stops and chapters lead from one to the next, making the book tough to put down. All of the plot arcs are resolved, yet Calejo introduces a new conflict right at the end to invite the reader to the next installment in the series, yet to be released. Mythology from places beyond Europe and North America is finally getting its moment in the spotlight and its time is way overdue. Welcome to Charlie Hernandez and all of his mythological friends!

Friday, October 26, 2018

Amulet: The Stonekeeper

Image result for amuletAmulet: The Stonekeeper
Kazu Kibuishi
Scholastic, 2008
Grades 3-Up
Graphic Novel
Amulet series volume 1

This popular series starts out with a bang as young Emily's father is killed in a car accident while she and Mom are also in the car, yet survive. Forward fast to early teen years as Mom, Emily and younger brother Navin move into an ancestral family home with the hope of a new start. The house is creepy and dirty with mysterious noises. Emily discovers an ancient amulet in the dusty library that must have belonged to her grandfather. The amulet seems to grow with power. Meanwhile, Mom gets kidnapped by a mysterious creature and Emily and Navin fall into a distant land while trying to save her. This new land has strange beasts and hidden dangers. A helpful rabbit named Miskit leads them to their long-lost grandfather, who is on his deathbed. It is now up to Emily to carry the mantle by accepting the amulet's power and trying to save the kingdom. She accepts, if only to try to save Mom. A rescue attempt ensues and the gang must battle other unusual creatures, including an evil elf, in order to bring Mom to safety.

The release of the eighth Amulet installment, Supernova, has set my library on its ear. It seems that all of the kids in Fair Lawn are rediscovering this series and are clamoring for the latest book. I would love to read Supernova, yet the waiting list is too long. In the meantime I thought I would give the original volume a second look since it’s been ten years since I read it. Certainly, it holds up and I remembered why the series is so awesome. Perfect for fantasy fans with a manga vibe, Amulet is a great suggestion for smart kids looking for a graphic novel with a bit of bite. The mysterious world is fully realized, the characters are interesting and strangely believable, and the action never stops. There is an element of mystery to the series that will keep the reader rolling from volume to volume to see how it is resolved and the characters become more developed as the series continues. I heard an interview with the author who said that you don't have to read at least the first few Amulet books in order, but I do think that they build and I would recommend doing just that. When we first created our graphic novel section I placed the books under the series title, thinking that the author is unknown and that kids would have a hard time locating them. This has changed and Kazu Kibuishi is force to be reckoned with as one of the best in the industry for both his Amulet series and other work. I would highly recommend this series to all serious graphic readers.