Wednesday, February 28, 2018

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Image result for perfect mexican daughterI Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Erika L. Sanchez
Knopf, 2017 352 pages
Grades 9-12
Realistic Fiction

Rebellious Julia lives in the shadow of her perfect older sister, Olga, who, although grown up and working, still lives at home and attends church and family functions with the family regularly, when tragedy strikes. Olga is run over by a bus and instantly killed. She seemed to be texting someone and smiling at the time of the accident, but who? Julia becomes obsessed with finding out, only Olga's phone and computer are locked and her best friend isn't talking. Meanwhile, her parents, undocumented and financially disadvantaged, are struggling with the loss of Olga and insist on Julia enduring a torturous Quinceanera, even though she is past the age of fifteen, almost to make up for the one they could never give to Olga. Through Julia's grief, she escapes to a bookstore where she meets a boy from the suburbs and the two begin to secretly date. As the school year progresses, Julia slides into a deep depression and finally acts upon her feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. After a trip to Mexico to stay with family and heal, she begins to understand her mother a bit better and the motivations behind her actions. Julia returns more mature and understanding and begins to repair the broken relationship with her mother and the two learn to appreciate each other in a new way. The truth behind Olga is finally revealed. Should Julia tell her mother what she has discovered about her seemingly perfect daughter, or leave her to her memories?

Timely and poignant, readers get a glimpse into the life of a Mexican immigrant family and the struggles, both socially and economically, they must endure to find their place in America. Julia is a bold and feisty character, who tries to make sense of the confusing world around her and learns to feel comfortable in her own skin and not compromise who she is as a person. A lot happens in this book. The sister dies right off the bat and it becomes almost a mystery to uncover the truth behind Olga's personal secrets. Beyond this there are subplots involving Julia's romance, her best friend's poor dating choices and creepy step-father, another friend's family’s abuse as a result of being gay, and Julia's desire to go to college even though she has no money, support, or decent grades. The primary plotline of the story, the mystery behind Olga, is solved, although not in the way I guessed. Other plot threads are left dangling (what really is going on with the friend’s creepy step-father?) and the relationship with the rich boy from the suburbs is never fully resolved. Themes include dealing with loss, teen depression, cultural identity, homophobia, class and economic inequality, all wrapped into a coming of age story. It reminded me a bit of the movie Ladybird. Both stories are coming of age high school tales where the main character must relate to their mother and end up leaving to go to prestigious New York City colleges with full-rides. Neither character had good grades in high school or any money, making the Exodus a bit unrealistic, but Ladybird's good fortune is explained as a result of 9/11 and Julia is excepted in a pilot program for first generation Americans. Lucky girls! I did find it refreshing that the result of the Cinderella ending was a full-ride to a great college instead of getting the guy. Because of underage drinking and recreational drug use, as well as a sexual scene, this book is not appropriate for middle school. Readers will never get bored spending time in Julia's shoes. First generation Americans will be glad to see their experience depicted and the rest of us may have a better understanding of what life is like for our neighbors and classmates.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Flying Cars

Image result for flying cars andrew glass book coverFlying Cars: The True Story
Andrew Glass
Clarion Books, 2015 118 pages
Grades 4-7

Glass presents a well-researched and documented account of the history of the flying car. Not the stuff of science fiction, this unbelievable convenience has been conceived, assembled, and tested by many brave inventors since the turn of the last century. Glass begins with a brief history of the airplane and traces how the imaginations of many dreamers went further to design a plane that you could then convert to an automobile that could be driven to where you need to go. Many such inventions were tabled during WWII, only to resurface after the war in hopes that veteran pilots would want to return to the skies in a more domestic capacity. The idea never “took off" and no inventor or company found a way to make it economically feasible. Glass leads the reader into the present, where engineers are still working to develop flying cars, both in an industrial setting and privately. Extensive back matter includes an interesting author's note, glossary of terms, index, bibliography, websites for video footage, and source notes.

Flying cars? I picked this book up quite by accident, began leafing through it, and, before I knew it, I was hooked. The fact that the technology for flying cars has been around for more than one-hundred years is amazing to me. The splashy photographs that can be seen on nearly every page prove it. This book is sure to entice a wide cross section of readers. It contains history, engineering, and sociology, providing something for everyone. Beyond this, it is written in a conversationally narrative style, making it fun to read. Budding scientists will appreciate the concepts behind these flying mechanisms, yet Glass doesn't delve so much into the technology to bore a lay-person. With enough content for reports, Flying Cars will be enjoyed both for school purposes and recreationally. There is an obvious STEM connection, so teachers will find this title useful, while students will simply find it fun. The interesting photo on the cover will lure in readers (it worked for me) and the design of the interior, as well as the writing of the compelling subject matter, will keep them turning pages. A well-researched and crafted piece of non-fiction for kids and proves that learning can be interesting and enjoyable.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter

Image result for scarlett hart monster hunter coverScarlett Hart: Monster Hunter
Marcus Sedgwick
Thomas Taylor (Illustrator)
First Second, 2018 208 pages
Grades 4-8
Graphic Novel
Scarlett Hart series #1

Feisty Scarlett Hart is determined to follow in her parent's footsteps. They were confirmed Monster Hunters, who died in the line of duty. Now Scarlett works with her loyal butler, Napoleon, to carry on the family tradition and bring in much needed reward money. The problem is, she is under age and that is against the monster hunting code of conduct, which, if caught, could result in the loss of her family estate and jail time. The problem is, Scarlett enjoys the work, is good at it, and can't imagine doing anything else. She and Napoleon answer many calls, sometimes to great success and sometimes resulting in failure at the hands of her family's arch enemy Count Stankovik. The Count is out to get Scarlett and it seems personal. By book's end the cause of his vendetta is revealed. He is determined to stop Scarlett from monster hunting and almost gets his wish, until she defeats him in a crushing battle scene, only to have him escape by nothing short of a miracle, leading the reader to the next installment in the series.

Established teen writer, Sedgwick, has turned his hand to writing not only for a younger audience, but his first graphic novel. His books are always very intense and beautifully crafted. This is certainly a departure, both in the subject matter and the mood of the story. Almost steampunk, the setting is Victorian, yet with cars and not all of the classic steampunk elements. It feels a bit traditionally melodramatic with the mustache-clad villain straight from a silent movie. Scarlett is a fun character, strong and fearless, and although she does not have layers, since it is an adventurous graphic novel, the two dimensional nature of the format will allow us to forgive the lack of character development. This monster-filled world is pretty cool and kids will find it deliciously scary. The action never flags as Scarlett and her friends battle monster after monster of all shapes and sorts. Some scenes do get a bit violent and sensitive kids will find this book the stuff of nightmares. Video gamers, on the other hand, will eat this book up and find that they enjoy reading as much as pushing buttons. Scarlett is not a "girlie-girl" and both boys and girls will enjoy this book. She looks a bit androgynous on the cover, so boys will not be scared away. The illustrations are less "cartoony" than the usual fare for this age group, which, although fresh and different, may put off some young readers who are drawn to the familiar. A promising start to a new series by a respected author.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Serpent's Secret

Image result for serpent's secret coverThe Serpent's Secret
Sayantani Dasgupta
Scholastic, 2018 338 pages
Grades 3-7
Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series vol.1

Kiranmala's life is pretty ordinary. The daughter of immigrant parents from India, she helps them at their suburban New Jersey convenience store, hangs out with her best friend, and does her school work. That is, until her twelve birthday. Kiran arrives home from school to discover that her parents have disappeared and she is in grave danger from an evil rakkhosh (demon). Huh? Two handsome Indian princes with flying horses, straight from the Bangali folktales she grew up with, come to help her with the rakkhosh. After they defeat the evil presence the princes whisk Kiranmala to their mythological home on a quest to save her parents. Along the way many dangers lurk, new friends are made, and secrets are revealed. Kiran's parentage is not what she was raised to believe. She is actually of royal blood sent to New Jersey to hide from the rakkhosh and her evil biological father. Only her pedigree is not what is necessarily desired by Indian royalty. One of the princes is transformed by a rakkhosh to an immobile orb and as she and the other prince try to transform him back, all while tracking down her parents, a friendship grows with the potential for romance in the future. Riddles, puns, deceit, and adventure lead Kiranmala and her new friends deeper into India's mythological land. Kiran proves her bravery, intelligence, and strength as she battles foes and solves problems, finally fulfilling the quest and saving the day.

My favorite element of this story is that it features an Indian-American protagonist (a group grossly underrepresented in American children's literature) and draws on the rich cannon of Indian folklore. My second favorite element is that it starts in my neck of the woods in New Jersey, an area that seems to harbor the majority of America's population, yet is also underrepresented and often portrayed negatively in popular culture. It was fun to read references to real places such as Rockaway Mall and Route 46. I think this book, written by a debut author, has my favorite first line of the year: "The day my parents got swallowed by a rakkhosh and whisked away to another galactic dimension was a pretty crap-tastic day." How could you not keep reading? This line says it all about Dasgupta's writing style, which combines adventure, believable fantasy, and humor, all told in a conversational storytelling style. Kiranmala is a flawed, yet fearless heroine, who grows and matures as pages turn. Readers will enjoy spending time with her and her new friends. Readers will also enjoy the verbal sparring, love/hate relationship with the prince and will pick up the next volume to see where this relationship leads. Since Indian folklore is untapped in America, the gods, villains and setting were fresh and new to me, yet firmly grounded in tradition. In an author's note in the back Dasgupta offers explanations behind some of the Bangali folkloric elements used within the book and offers sources for further reading. Maybe after spending time with Kiran children will be encouraged to delve into the stories of their own cultures. A welcome new series that is sure to find readers, particularly fans of Rick Riordan.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Where is the White House?

Image result for where white house stineWhere is the White House?
Megan Stine
Grosset & Dunlap, 2015 108 pages
Grades 2-5
Who Was series

Part of the illustrious "Who Was/Where Is/What Was" series, this entry traces the history of America's most famous address, originally commissioned by George Washington himself. Starting with Washington DC's humble beginnings, Stine talks briefly about the process of selecting a location and design. The history of America reflects the history of the house, as wars wreak havoc on both the country and the structure and first families put their own mark and improvements on the large home. An oral tour is given with purposes of many of the rooms explained and the workings of the house examined. More than simply a historic primer, Stine delves into explanations of government, such as what the president's cabinet is and the Secret Service. Naturally, the book teems with interesting antidotes and personal stories and the lives of the children and pets that inhabited this important house are highlighted. Read for information or entertainment, this book will be enjoyed by a wide audience.

Why did I put time into reading another selection of this oft requested series? My third and fourth grade book group is reading a free choice "Who Was" book for this month's selection (the delivery service for my library system is currently not functioning, forcing me to get creative this month). I went to my new non-fiction section and grabbed this title because I thought it looked interesting. Imagine my surprise when I opened the cover and noticed that I actually added it to the collection in March of 2015--and it still has "new" status. This is because whenever I go through the new nonfiction to remove books that no longer should be there (four months old) this book is always checked out, demonstrating the popularity of this series. Kids gobble these books up and I can see why. They are a lot of fun and are written conversationally. They also are chock-full of interesting facts with the most child-friendly bits on a topic highlighted. This series entry was not a disappointment. I learned facts about the White House I did not know before and am interested in learning even more and trying to go visit. The cartoon-like illustrations are what draw in readers and they are plentiful. The cover of the book advertises a fold-out map, which had long disappeared. I didn't miss it and there was a diagram in the book that gave me a decent visual. Back matter includes a bibliography and a timeline of both the White House and the world. The White House timeline ends with 1962. I’m pretty sure interesting things must have happened after that, but maybe the publisher ran out of room. A compelling read from a consistent series.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Pug Power!

It seems that every time I turn around a new books is being released about a pug dog. Now don't get me wrong, these little guys are cute in an ugly way, but it feels like they are they are getting more than their turn in the spotlight. Even Disney has jumped on the bandwagon with the release of Puppy Dog Pals, featuring an adorable pair of pug brothers. Beyond the non-fiction and picture book market, early chapter books have also been jumping on the pug bandwagon. Is this a trend? If so, don't tell my miniature schnauzer who is sure to get jealous! Many existing series are featuring a pug installment. Here are two new series centered solely around this lovable canine.
Image result for pug pals twos a crowd cover

Pug Pals: Two's a Crowd
Flora Ahn
Scholastic Press, 2018 121 pages
Grades 1-3
Animal Story/Graphic Hybrid
Pug Pals series #1

Life is pretty good for Sunny. She has her routine, toys, and person to herself. Life is rocked when a new puppy enters the small family and Sunny is told that Rosy is her new sister. Rosy is too rambunctious and ruins everything, including losing Sunny's favorite toy Mr. Bunny. Sunny finally can take it no longer and decides that Rosy has to go. It is then that she discovers that Rosy left on her own accord: to find Mr. Bunny. Now Sunny feels fiercely loyal to her little sister and must muster up all of the courage that she has to venture through the neighborhood to find her missing sib.

Children with younger sibling will completely relate to Sunny's predicament. Animal lovers will enjoy Sunny's stodgy ways, Rosy's exuberant personality, and the melting of the big sister's heart. I thought Sunny was a boy until page 113, when the pronoun "her" is finally used, indicating gender. This will allow boys to comfortably read the story and helps it to remain gender neutral. Heavily illustrated, the black and white drawings by the cartoonist-author steal the show. Ahn manages to convey emotion and humor in her drawings that enhance the text and are sure to entertain the reader and keep pages turning. A series opener that is sure to find an audience.
Image result for cowboy pug james cover

Cowboy Pug: The Dog Who Rode for Glory
Laura James
Eglantine Ceulemans, Illustrator
Bloomsbury, 2017 115 pages
Grades 1-3
Humor/Graphic Hybrid
The Adventures of Pug series #2

After spending the first installment of the series on the high seas, Lady Miranda and Pug are off on a cowboy adventure. When Lady Miranda's stick horse breaks, she requires a ride in a sedan chair carried by her two footmen to the stables for a new horse, this time a live one. Once at the stables Miranda and Cowboy Pug meet the owner's son, a budding, yet fumbling, magician. Our two adventurers find themselves accidentally whisked away to the country fair with a horse, which they arrange to buy from the Magician's dad. One crazy mishap and misunderstanding follows another until the day ends peacefully with jam tarts and a promise to abandon the cowboy life and to try something new, which will lead to Pug's next adventure Safari Pug, set for an August, 2018 release.

Not quite as strong as the first selection, this British import has some funny moments and madcap scenarios. Some parts of the plot don't make sense, but readers probably won't get caught up with the logistics. They will simply enjoy the silly premise. The cartoon-like illustration are very strong and enhance the text. Black and white with added yellow and reds, they are appropriate to the story and give the tale another dimension. I'm not sure if cowboys are still that popular with American children or that they will understand the "royalness" of the protagonist, but it is still great fun. Lady Miranda is the British Eloise with no parents in sight and only servants for company. Although this is the second of the series, readers do not need to be familiar with the first title in order to enjoy this zany tale. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Genuine Fraud

Image result for genuine fraud coverGenuine Fraud
E. Lockhart
Delacorte, 2018 262 pages
Grades 9-Up

The story opens with chapter eighteen where our seemingly British protagonist, Jule, meets a mysterious woman in a posh Mexican resort. Quickly things get crazy as it is revealed that Jule is not simple a rich tourist and the new acquaintance is for some unknown reason tracking her. After a breakneck chase scene the story backs up a beat and we see the events that have directly led Jule to this place. Each chapter decreases in number and goes a little farther back in Jule's story. We meet rich -girl Imogene Sokoloff, who has run away from her problems to spend a summer in Martha's Vineyard with her boyfriend, where she is reacquainted with Jule, an old friend from high school. Jule, a super-hero in her own mind and fanatic physical trainer, becomes obsessed with Imogene's life, ingratiating herself as a resident house-guest, and learns the ways of the wealthy. Jule is not the person that she says she is, yet Imogene has secrets of her own, weaving an intricate web of lies and intrigues. The story ends with chapter nineteen and the reader finally knows the backstory and the entire plot has been revealed and at last makes sense. Deception, romance, and murder all come into play as Lockhart delivers yet another banger of a story sure to satisfy her many fans and draw in new ones.

I have been a fan of E. Lockhart since The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks. She manages to pen creative stories with strong characters and interesting plot twists with an underling message of Girl-Power. I wasn't sure about Genuine Fraud, especially at the beginning, and it took me a bit of time to get into it. Once the first chase scene broke out I was hooked and couldn’t put this book down. Lockhart led me on an awesome ride right to the very end. The devise of each chapter going backwards was unusual and fun. The plot was great with twist, turns, and surprises along the way. The reader slowly gets to know both of the main characters as the story unfolds, revealing motivation and fleshing out their many layers. Beyond the great plot and characterizations, many themes are included in the novel giving it substance, including the importance of functional family, class status, honesty, friendship and women finding their own strength and power. Parallels have been made to The Talented Mr. Ripley. I found it also similar to Six Degrees of Separation. The characters are around nineteen and twenty, a bit older than traditionally found in teen novels, making this book more "New Adult" than YA. Both teens and adults will enjoy it, as will both boys and girls. My only question is:” When will the movie be released?”