Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Isadora Moon: Goes to School

Image result for isadora moon school coverIsadora Moon: Goes to School
Harriet Muncaster
Random House, 2016 117 pages
Grades 2-4
Fantasy/Graphic-Fiction Hybrid
Isadora Moon series vol. 1

Isadora Moon has an unconventional family. Her father is a vampire and her mother is a fairy. They keep different sleep schedules and have very different eating habits and interests. Isadora is a bit of both her parents and often feels disloyal to the other for preferring certain things. When the time comes to begin school, the family is not sure where to send their little darling. She first tries Fairy School, but her magic goes a bit wonky, she prefers black to pink, and she is not a natural at forest lore. After this disastrous day Isadora is convinced that she is more vampire and attends Vampire School. This also does not go as planned. She does not care for "red food", which is all they serve, struggles with proper grooming, and accidentally releases all of the class bats. Not fully vampire or fairy, where does Isadora fit in? How can she please both parents? Will she ever feel truly at home and be able to attend formal schooling? The answer comes as a surprise, but is a satisfying solution for all, and will lead the reader to further installments in the series as Isadora goes camping and to the ballet (released this month). Isadora has a Birthday is set for a July, 2018 release.

First published in Britain, this series has happily crossed the pond and is available to an American audience. Isadora is a likable character who kids will both identify with, despite her magical lineage, and want as a friend. She is impulsive and flawed, yet eager to please, tries her best, and has a contagiously spunky personality. Bi-racial and bi-cultural kids will especially relate to Isadora's life, as will anyone with an unconventional family. The message is that everyone has something that makes them unique and that is what makes the world an interesting place. I like how Muncaster chose to solve the problem of which parent to please and which school was best for Isadora, the solution which will lead the readers to further adventures. The whimsical illustrations are plentiful, well executed, and help to support the mood of the story and the plot, while also adding a humorous element to the tale. Colors used are black, white, and pink. The pink will appeal to some readers, but will perhaps scare boy readers off worse than a vampire father. Less clueless than Junie B. (and with better grammar), Isadora Moon will draw the same audience.
Chapter book readers will be attracted to the visual cover and format of the book, the vampire/fairy conceit, and the sparkly protagonist.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Best Books of 2017

Here are my official picks for the best books of 2017. Ever since a picture book won the Newbery I have given up making predictions for that particular award, but I do like to stay on top of what is new and these are some of my favorites for the year.

Picture Books:
Image result for antler ship

The Antlered Ship
Written by Dashka Slater
Illustrated by Terry & Eric Fan
Simply stunning illustrations make this title an immediate classic.

Image result for blue skies white stars cover

Blue Skies White Stars
Written by Sarvinder Naberhaus
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
When I opened this book I simply said, "Wow!". The pictures blew me away and made me proud to be an American. 

Image result for whens my birthday cover

When's My Birthday?
Written by Julie Fogliana
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
I dare you to try to read this book out loud and have it not stick in your head all day.

Middle Grade:

Image result for invisible emmie coverInvisible Emmie
Terri Libenson
A graphic novel with a twist, this book addresses the dichotomy living within many young readers.

Image result for orphan island coverOrphan Island
Laurel Snyder
Highly original and thought provoking. This title screams for a sequel.
Image result for refugee gratz cover

Image result for see you in the cosmos coverAdam Gratz
Timely and relevant this story, told by three narrators, weaves together separate journeys at different times that merge together in unexpected ways.

Image result for thorn hill coverSee You in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan
Jack Cheng
If I WAS to make a Newbery prediction, this would be it. Well written, fresh, with an unreliable narrator and interesting supporting characters, this was delicious to read.
Image result for tumble blue beasley cover

Thorn Hill
Pam Smy
Maybe my favorite book of the year. Wonderfully creepy and a great example of a very successful graphic/fiction hybrid, this book is British and, therefore not eligible for the Newbery.

Image result for wish tree beasley cover

Tumble & Blue
Cassie Beasley
Written in layers with a fully realized setting, quirky characters, and a touch of folkloric magic, this was my kind of book.

Wish Tree
Katherine Applegate
A tree narrates the tale of a changing neighborhood and the community's reaction to an emerging immigrant community.

Teen Books:

Image result for american street coverAmerican Street
Ibi Zoboi
Image result for hate u give coverEdgy, surprising, and timely, this book had me nervous for the main character all the way through and helped me to see the world a little differently.

The Hate U Give
Angie Thomas
Image result for landscape invisible hand coverThe teen book of the year, this first time author contributes a great story with themes straight from  the news.

Landscape with Invisible Hand
M.T. Anderson
Image result for long way down coverBeautifully written and thought provoking, Anderson carefully pens a cautionary tale as his hero recreates his near-futuristic world with a paintbrush.

Image result for undefeated sheinkin coverLong Way Down
Jason Reynolds
Poignant and innovative, Reynolds puts his considerable talent to current urban issues. Also my favorite cover of the year.

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team
Steve Sheinkin
My favorite non-fiction book of the year. This book demonstrates the hideous practice of reconditioning Native Americans in the turn of the century, traces the early days of football, and offers a biography of celebrated American Jim Thorpe, all within the context of a highly readable story.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Explorer

Image result for explorer rundell coversThe Explorer
Katherine Rundell
Simon & Schuster, 2017 323 pages
Grades 4-8

After the pilot dies and their small plane crashes four children are stranded in the Amazon jungle. British narrator Fred appears to be the oldest and begins to take on a leadership role. Blond Con is miserable and is a bit resistant to any survival plan. Lila and her little brother Max live in Brazil, though certainly not the jungle, and aren't really sure what to do, besides, Max is quite little. Fred has always been interested in explorers of the past and wants to make a mark on the world to impress his father. This is his chance to prove himself. The Amazon proves to be tough going as the children have no food, shelter, or the knowledge or supplies to protect themselves from the local wildlife. Eventually, the team learns how to build a fire, find bugs and berries to eat, and somehow keep alive. After discovering and following a mysterious map to a lost city the children meet a wild man simply referred to as "The Explorer". He teaches the young people basic survival skills and, eventually, we learn his backstory and reasons for his hermit lifestyle. When Max is struck with a critical illness, the team must head back to civilization to save him, but how will they get there? All of the children must find their inner strength and face their fears in order to work as a team in order to save their youngest member.

British Rundell set off to write a classic adventure story, of which she loved as a child. This story is very similar to Hatchet with a few notable exceptions: location, there are four kids instead of one, they meet a curmudgeon who helps them, and it’s much longer. In fact, it is a bit too long and will require patient readers to make it to the end. The characters are distinctly drawn and easy to tell apart. They are not overly developed, but this is typical in adventure stories. I couldn’t decide if Max was endearing or annoying, but he does serve to add interest to the tale and readers will appreciate knowing more than he does. The book picks up once the kids meet The Explorer. He is a very interesting character and readers will want to know what led him to the hidden city and a solitary life of exile. Rundell reveals the past of this intriguing man and softens his heart to, not only grow to care about the stranded children, but help them to safety. All of the characters experience growth and maturity through their adventures and come out the best for having experienced them. The book has a decidedly British slant and some terms and customs may be unfamiliar to readers. My favorite part is when the children befriend a baby sloth and the animal becomes Lila's constant companion. Although animal rights people will balk at a wild animal domesticated, who wouldn't long for a sloth pet? There is a gross-out factor of the children having to eat bugs and other unconventional foods that will attract the target audience. Kids who yearn to be explorers and discover wild areas will enjoy this survival story. Others may give up before they meet the character behind the title.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time

Image result for wrinkle in time book coverA Wrinkle in Time
Madeline L'Engle
FSG, 1962 198 pages
Grades 5-8
Science Fiction

Meg Murry struggles. Although naturally scientific and mathematical, she resists learning subjects she is not interested in, frustrating her teachers, and finds it impossible to fit in with her peers. Added to this is her strange family. Scientist Dad has been missing for many years, causing a source of gossip in her small town, scientist Mom spends time in her lab working on experiments, and her little brother is, well, strange. It is through Charles Wallace, a gifted little boy that for a long time was considered "simple", that Meg becomes acquainted with the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. They certainly seem magical. Are they witches? A chance encounter in the woods introduces Meg to cool-guy, Calvin, who proves to be scientifically minded like herself and an instant friend/potential love interest. The Mrs. W's confess to the children that they know where Dad is and it’s up to them to save him. He was working with a team that discovered a way to time travel, only the procedure is still wonky and he is stranded on a distant planet that the celestial ladies cannot travel to. Instead they aid Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin to travel to this strange planet and they must discover on their own how best to navigate its strange customs, learn who to trust, and find Dad. Meg must find her inner courage, rely on her faults, and think on her feet in order to resist the evil that lurks on this distant planet and rescue Dad.

A classic for a reason, A Wrinkle in Time is still awesome. One of my favorite books as a child, I re-read the story for the first time in forty years to prepare for my book discussion group. The kids are excited for the upcoming movie and wanted to read the book. I'm so glad to have had the excuse to re-read this story and was relieved to see that it has stood the test of time. Some language is dated, but aspects of the story are surprisingly modern. There is a decidedly feminist slant to the story. Meg is the character who saves the day, not the boys, her mother is a working scientist who holds the family together, and the time travel emissaries are all female. Even the alien creature who assists Meg when she nearly dies is referred to as "Aunt Beast". That said, the story will also appeal to boys and has plenty of useful male characters as well. The plot is quickly moving and offers surprises along the way. The time travel aspect (which is really more space travel using time concepts to increase speed) is well handled and feels believable. There will be a demand for this book with the release of the film and it’s a good time for parents to slip this title to children. Make sure to find a copy with an up to date cover and they will have no idea that they are reading a classic. They may even go onto reading the rest of the books in the series, which I remember devouring as a child. Of further relevance are the obvious STEM connections, making it also a great choice for classroom use.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Cucumber Quest

Image result for cucumber quest doughnut coverCucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom
Gigi D.G.
First Second, 2017 187 pages
Grades 2-6
Graphic Novel
Cucumber Quest series #1

On the eve of leaving for wizarding school, budding magician and brainy bunny-boy, Cucumber, receives a troubling note from his father at the capital. The queen has taken over the once peaceful Doughnut Kingdom and is bent on world domination. Father is in jail, so Cucumber must travel to the castle to try to stop her. He proves to be a reluctant hero, more interested in studies than swords, but answers the call regardless. Luckily, his little, yet fierce, sister Almond, has had knight training and stows away to help him out. Halting the plans of the evil queen requires obtaining the legendary Dream Sword from the Oracle, which leads Cucumber and Almond on a quest through the dreaded Gumdrop Forest. Here they meet interesting characters, such as two bakery ladies who are opposite in temperament, a fearful knight, Grizzlygum the ferocious bear, the Oracle herself, and a canny little witch named Peridot, who gets the best of them. The seekers must now journey to the Ripple Kingdom, only the sea is inhabited by a giant boat eating squid and it is impossible to cross. An up and coming inventor named Cosmo offers them his new boat, which he claims can take them safely across and the friends jump at the chance. Will they make it safely to the other side? And is that the giant squid turning the sky to black? Check out volume two where the adventures continue.

Previously a web-comic, Gigi D.G. has finally released her popular series to critical acclaim. Set in a sweet edible kingdom donned by cutsie rabbit people, this comic feels like Candy Crush come to life. The artwork also feels video game influenced and the colors reflect the pastel feel of a candy kingdom. This will naturally appeal to the target audience, who will lap the frothy story right up and beg for more. Beyond the saccharine appearance, there is contend included in the story. The quest is involved, the adventure never flags, and the author includes clever humor with truly laugh out loud funny moments. The characters are quirky and original and propel the series a cut-above the usual fare. Cucumber being a boy (although he is a bit androgynous and at first I thought he was a girl) will welcome male readers to the series. Almond proves that little sisters can be fearless knights, even though she is discouraged from questing and even the Dream Oracle says, “Little Sisters Aren't Legendary Heroes".  She saves the day on many occasions and she and Cucumber make a great team. Extensive back matter is included at the end of the volume, sure to impress fans and, perhaps, motivate them to create comics of their own. This is a very unique and fresh offering, something different from superheroes and biographical graphic novels that brings fun and quality to the genre. The second in the series is set to be released next month and the third in May.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Be Prepared

Image result for be prepared brosgol coverBe Prepared
Vera Brosgol
First Second, 2018 258 pages
Grades 4-7
Graphic Novel

Vera struggles to fit in with her classmates. Her single parent family has less money, lives in an apartment and is very Russian. While attending services at her Russian Orthodox church, Vera learns about a Russian summer camp for kids and she begs to go, hoping that this will be her chance to finally make friends with whom she has things in common. Finally, Mom agrees and drops Vera and her little brother off, only camp isn't what Vera expected. She is placed in a tent with two older girls who are already friends and leave her out, there is no running water only a pump and a lake for bathing, and potty business must be done in an outhouse. Harder still are all of the outdoor activities that do not come easily to Vera and, though she can speak Russian, reading and writing it proves to be a chore. Her brother seems to be enjoying himself and ignores her, making Vera feel even more alone. As the summer progresses Vera makes many blunders trying to fit in and for a while things get even worse. After a camp out even further in the woods and a chance encounter with a moose Vera finds some confidence and inner-courage. She begins to relax a bit and draw on her strengths. An unexpected turn of events leads her to a friend and, later, she has the opportunity to save the day. Camp turns out ending much better than it started, though she's not so sure about next year. A surprise ending tells the readers that Vera's challenges aren't over yet, but at least now she has some tools to figure them out.

Award winning cartoonist and Caldecott honorist, Brosgol has penned a semi-autobiographical novel based on her two summers spent at a Russian summer camp in her youth. Realistic graphic novels are a very hot genre right now and Be Prepared will have a willing readership and instant fan-base.The story is heartfelt and readers will identify with Vera and her dorky inability to fit in. She tries too hard, which predictably backfires, and then figures it out, which will hopefully educate the reader in not making the same mistakes. The underdogs of the book succeed, which will be satisfying to the target audience. The mean girls suffer for a while, than work it out in the eleventh hour, showing them to be human and undeserving of any permanent punishment. The cartoons are expertly drawn, scan well, and help to convey the plot. They are printed in black, white, and army green, adding to the feel of the woods. I work in a Russian community and am always looking for books that reflect the experiences of young Russian Americans. My community is primarily Jewish, while Vera is Christian and the camp is Russian Orthodox. Still, I think my patrons will relate to a lot of Vera's experiences and be happy to see a character of their own ethnicity by an author/cartoonist with a similar cultural upbringing. Enjoyable, relatable, and emotional, older elementary school girls will eat this title up.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Pablo and Birdy

Image result for pablo birdy coverPablo and Birdy
Alison McGhee
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2017 288 pages
Grades 4-7
Animal/Realistic Fiction

The last time the "winds of change" hit the small sea community of Isla, baby Pablo was washed ashore in a plastic blow-up swimming pool accompanied only by his parrot friend, who he named Birdy once he became old enough to talk. Pablo was taken in by shopkeeper Emmanuel and along with other diverse merchants has been nurtured and loved for the past ten years. Now as his tenth birthday, or "finding day" approaches, the winds of change are returning.  The community is in a flutter. Will this weather event bring back the legendary Seafaring Parrot, who can understand and repeat every sound ever heard and, since being once spotted in the small community, has become its unofficial mascot and tourist draw? As the winds of change gradually shift the energy of the community, curiosity seekers strive to locate the mysterious bird. Meanwhile, a stray dog wanders into town looking for food and causes a bit of mayhem. The two stories come together as Birdy must reveal her true identity to help Pablo. Will the world find out who Birdy really is and make him a trapped exhibition, especially since she is unable to fly? Pablo must make sacrifices in order to help his friend, all while coming to terms with his identity and discovering a new companion in the process.

At first glance this story seems deceivingly simple. Digging beyond the sweet friendship plot lies current controversial and timely themes of immigration, what makes a family, and the corruption of the media. Animal lovers will be a natural audience for this tale. It will especially appeal to bird lovers, of whom there are plenty, and are undeserved in the animal genre. The story feels as if there is an undercurrent of magic and indeed slightly fantastical events transpire, yet not so unbelievable that I would label the book a fantasy. Full-page pencil illustrations, contributed by Ana Juan, are well executed and relevant to the text and will attract readers. McGhee offers readers a diverse cast of characters who function more as a family than simply a community. Pablo is in great hands. Although he does discover a little about his parentage, the details are never forthcoming and in the end it does not matter, because he has a whole town loving and caring for him. McGhee points out some of the many different reasons that people chose to immigrate, reinforcing that we a nation of immigrants and we all came from somewhere else originally. The tropical mood and setting of the story are fully realized and the reader can sense the restlessness brought on by the winds of change. A quiet and cozy story with enduring characters that has much to say.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Ethan I Was Before

Image result for the ethan i was before coverThe Ethan I Was Before
Ali Standish
HarperCollins, 2017 342 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction/Mystery

Ethan and his family move from Boston to coastal Georgia to escape a tragedy.  His best friend, Kacey, fell from a tree the previous winter and died and Ethan feels responsible. He has not been able to get his life back on track and keeps running away. This move is his parent's last ditch attempt to try to find him some peace, except it has disturbed his older brother's life, resulting in a loss of relationship. They move in with an estranged Grandpa, who though prickly and private, Ethan starts to bond with. This is especially true after Grandpa Ike starts teaching him to drive, even though he is only twelve. An unlikely friendship develops between Ethan and an unusual classmate named Coralee, who has many outrageous tales to tell. Are they all true or does Coralee make stuff up? And what is her history? Ethan and his new friend explore a deserted house only to encounter a mysterious figure and find a treasure. Could the figure be a ghost? Everyone has secrets in this story, which are all revealed as the tale slowly unfolds. The tale culminates with a deadly hurricane, which ties all of the loose plot threads together in a satisfying conclusion.

Debut novelist, Standish, has penned one of my favorite books of the year. It is heartfelt, yet not overly sentimental, and has a great plot. Primarily a book about grieving, healing, and secrets, the author adds a dash of mystery to keep the reader turning pages. We all want to know what the history behind Coralee is, as well as the identity of the mysterious lady. Is she a ghost? Beyond the layers of realistic fiction/healing and creepy suspense, lies an environmental message demonstrated by a plot line concerning a family of Red Wolves. The author adds more factual information about Red Wolves in the back of the volume to encourage kids to learn more and to get involved. My only criticism is that this book felt a little long, yet it reads quickly with short, labeled chapters. I had a hard time putting it down once I started and I was really curious to find out the truth behind what all of the characters seemed to be hiding. Everyone in this book is hiding something, including our narrator, which will help readers to maybe look beyond the appearance of the unpleasant person in their class, not knowing what they carry with them. All of the characters reveal their secrets and find peace by book's end. Much like the destruction left after the hurricane, they all have finally faced their problems and will now start to rebuild their lives.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Image result for fantastic mr fox coverFantastic Mr. Fox
Roald Dahl
Knopf, 1970  81 pages
Grades 2-5

Poor Mr. Fox! Tired of constantly having their poultry pinched, buffoonish farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean ban together to catch the culprit. They are armed with shovels, diggers, and shotguns to ferret the fox out of his hole and eliminate him. How is this misunderstood mammal to feed his family? Luckily Mr. Fox is as crafty as his reputation boasts. He puts his family to work digging a deeper tunnel, eventually branching out to discover the store houses of the clueless farmers who are camped outside his hole. Mr. Fox discovers other underground friends who are also being starved out by the angry farmers. They join Mr. Fox in his digging and rejoice as they hit the "mother-lode". The animals gather together for a feast and fellowship, deciding that they never again need to leave the security and comfort of the underground. Mrs. Fox has always declare Mr. Fox fantastic...and now the other animals agree as he has become the celebrated hero among the forest friends.

At least once a year I try to re-read at least one Roald Dahl book. For my money, which is admittingly limited, he is the most brilliant writer for young people in the English language. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is short on pages, but long on cleverness. The length of the book is deceiving. Even though it is short and illustrated, the vocabulary is rich and demanding of the reader. The comic-like drawings, contributed by the talented Quentin Blake, help to advance the plot and add to the humor of the situation. His depiction of the farmers alone is worth cracking into this volume. Beyond the hilarity, Dahl adds an environmental message about respecting the land and wildlife, adding an extra layer to the tale. A classic story of the underdog outwitting the greedy landowners, readers will be rooting for Mr. Fox all the way and applaud his creative outsmarting of "The Man".  Quick on his feet, never ruffled, and consistently cheerful Mr. Fox is, indeed, fantastic. Young readers will be smarter and funnier for their time spent with this Roald Dahl classic.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


Image result for slider book cover hautmanSlider
Pete Hautman
Candlewick, 2017 275 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

David, a middle child stuck between an over-achieving older sister and a severely autistic younger brother often feels lost within his own family. Often serving as a caregiver for brother Mal, he feels underappreciated and invisible. To make matters worse his best friends, Cyn and HeyMan, have started spending more time alone together. Could they be dating? The one thing Davis is good at is eating. He is a bottomless pit and follows the competitive eating circuit. An on-line auction on an eBay-type site gets out of control and David finds himself the owner of a half-eaten hotdog from a competitor eater for the cost of $2,000, which has been charged to his mother's credit card. David enters panic mode and tries to brainstorm ways to raise the money before the bill arrives. Once the bill comes, David secretly kicks it behind a shelf. Luckily, hope arrives in a local competitive eating contest sponsored by his favorite pizzeria. The prize money is enough to pay off the bill with money left over. David enters the contest and begins training. He qualifies for the finals, but can he compete against adult professional eaters? Will he make it to contest before his parents discover the truth behind his rash purchase? Support comes from unexpected places and David proves that he is more than just the meat in the family slider.

Veteran author, Pete Hautman's 1996 teen novel Mr. Was continues to be one of my favorite books. Admittingly, I'm a sucker for time travel, but Mr. Was combines it with historical and gritty realistic fiction in such a page turning way that makes your brain hurt when you finish reading it. I have read many books by this author hoping for another Mr. Was, including the sequels to my favorite, yet none of his other books measure up for me. That said, Slider is an original, fun, heartwarming story that will appeal to the target audience, but is a very different book than what I was expecting from this author. Competitive eating is definitely becoming a popular "thing". My family tunes into the Coney Island hotdog competition every July 4th without fail. Young people, especially boys, are fascinated with competitive eating. After all, eating is something in which teenage boys are naturally gifted and they are all bottomless pits. It makes sense that a teenage boy should become a competitive eater and it is a topic I have previously not encountered in books for young people. Slider is funny and interesting. There is enough plot to keep readers turning pages, yet never gets bogged down. Mal, the autistic brother, gives the book an extra layer and will draw in fans of Wonder. The romance between the two friends remains innocent, as does David's budding romance at the end of the story. Mal never gets completely "fixed", but we see a significant break-through that the reader will love. Is competitive eating the healthiest pastime for young people? Uh, no. Is Slider a really fun book that tweens will loves? Yes!