Thursday, September 27, 2018

Time Jumpers: Stealing the Sword

Image result for branches time jumpers stealing swordTime Jumpers: Stealing the Sword
Wendy Mass
Oriol Vidal, Illustrator
Scholastic, 2018 90 pages
Grades 2-4
Branches/Time Jumpers series #1

Chase and Ava are siblings who are helping their parents sell artwork at a flea market. After the shift is over they wander around and discover a young woman selling suitcases. One particular suitcase seems to beckon to the kids. After initially being reluctant to sell, the young woman can tell that it was meant to be theirs and gives it to them for free. Meanwhile, the previous owner of the suitcase tracks it down and is livid when it is no longer at the booth. When Chase and Eva open the battered suitcase they find mysterious items. While holding what appears to be a dragon's head doorknob, the siblings are transported back in time to the castle of King Arthur, where they hear of a dastardly plan to eliminate the king. Chase and Ave become determined to save King Arthur and with the help of the famous magician Merlin they hatch a plan. Danger and adventure lurk as the kids attempt to save the day and return back to their own time.

The scholastic Branches line of books for emerging chapter readers introduces a new series sure to appeal to kids not quite ready for the Magic Tree House. What's not to love about this series? It is written by one of my favorite authors, contains time travel, and features King Arthur. Usually time travel series start with dinosaurs and, though it looked like the book was headed in that direction, it veered off to a more unconventional and, in my opinion, more entertaining place. As with other Branches books, this series is highly illustrated with a black and white picture on every page. The print is large, the vocabulary is controlled, and the design is approachable. The action never stops and Mass does not get bogged down with time travel specifics. The suitcase and remote control within simply make it work. There is a villain who will pop up in further installments as the kids travel to other times, based on the objects in the suitcase. Teachers will find curriculum connections and questions in the back will help with discussion and comprehension. The next series installment, which travels back to ancient Egypt, is set to be released in October with two more titles expected in 2019.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Image result for dry shustermanDRY
Neal & Jarrod Shusterman
Simon & Schuster, 2018 390 pages
Grades 7-Up

Multiple first-person points of views convey the story of a near-future drought in California that reaches desperate proportions as the state runs out of water completely. At first people don't panic. They are assured that FEMA and other states will send emergency teams to ship water to them, but as time goes by and little help is forthcoming, life starts getting crazy. Alyssa's parents go in search of water and never return, leaving her as the custodian for her little brother, Garrett. They team up with neighbor, Kelton, whose family has been preparing for such a scenario his whole life. Kelton's house is a fortress, until a tragedy breaks down the walls and allows for neighbors to loot all of the emergency provisions. The three young people take to the road, where they encounter Jacqui, a runaway with survival skills and a smart mouth, who joins their ranks. After fighting off "water zombies" and encountering all kinds of people, both good and bad, the team manages to track down Alyssa and Garrett's very sick uncle and “borrow” his truck. It is here that they pick up the final member of the team, Henry, whose intentions are less than honorable. The group chooses to trust him, which leads to complications. Kelton knows of a secret hideout with supplies that his father had put together in a state park. Can they make it in time? And what will they find once they get there?

Bestselling and award winning teen author, Neal Shusterman, teams up with his screen-writing son for a fast-paced novel of cinematic proportions that has already been optioned to be made into a motion picture. Almost dystopian/science fiction, Dry is set in the very near future and feels as if it could happen tomorrow. The novel clearly has an environmental agenda and carries it out in a very effective and entertaining way. There is no way that you will look at water the same way after reading this book and young people are sure to be more responsible with this vital resource. The action starts pretty much right away and life tanks quickly for these Californians. The first-person shifting points of view make the book easy for all young people to relate to the characters and feel as if they are living the crisis. It is hard to put the book down and, although it is nearly 400 pages, it reads very quickly. Both male and female readers will enjoy Dry and it really has something for everyone. There are violent bits and a part that eludes to a young person having to trade sexual favors for water, but nothing is overtly graphic. The book is clearly a stand-alone, so readers won't be forced to read two more books to reach the conclusion of the crisis. My only complaint is the epilogue at the end, which offers a neat conclusion and everything tried up with a bow. I wish that the book stopped before this last bit to leave the readers wondering about the fate of some of the characters. Teen readers appreciate a clean and happy conclusion, but I found it a bit forced and cheapened the story a bit. The target audience won't care. They will happily lap up this story, breathe a sigh of relief and pass the book onto their friends.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Touch of Gold

Image result for touch gold sullivanA Touch of Gold
Annie Sullivan
Blink/Zondervan, 2018 308 pages
Grades 7-Up

A first person retelling of the legend of King Midas from the point of view of his daughter, whom he turned to gold. King Midas has not been the same since "the incident" and he has an unhealthy attachment to the bewitched gold, leaving the running of the kingdom to his brother. Narrator, Kora, is still cursed with the residue of the spell. Her skin has a gold tint and she can transport gold from one object (or human) to another. This makes folks fearful of Kora and she lives a very sheltered and lonely life, until a suitor visits the kingdom who is not put off by Kora's curse. Aris is not only not scared off when he meets her, but agrees to help Kora when the gold that her father needs to survive is stolen. He has connections to a ship and crew and the two take off to track down the gold and break the curse. Unbeknownst to Kora, her cousin Hettie has stowed away and the captain and crew are less than thrilled to have the cursed teen aboard, resulting in further complications. What follows is a series of adventures, deceptions, and acts of daring. Kora learns to trust herself and accept her powers as gifts instead of curses. The adventure leads the team to pirates, sirens, and brawlers. Through it all, Kora gets stronger as she perseveres on her quest to save her father, as well as herself.

I wanted to read this book both based on the cool cover and that it’s a retelling of King Midas. With all of the fairy tale and mythology re-tellings that have been published recently, this is the first that has crossed my path based on King Midas. I was further intrigued that it was in his daughter's point of view. It is interesting to think about what may have come later in the story, especially to that poor daughter that was turned to gold. Sullivan offers a delightful romp of a book that imagines the "what next", all while keeping readers turning pages. The action never stops in this story with one dangerous episode and betrayal after another. Kora grows as a character as she finds her inner (and outer) strength, learns who to trust, and discovers how to use her curse/gift to her best advantage. Set in the mythological past, A Touch of Gold will transport readers to a swashbuckling adventure filled with treasure and espionage. The major plot is for the most part resolved, yet Kora's curse is not fully broken, leading readers to a possible sequel. There is a touch of romance for both Kora and Hattie, yet it all remains innocent. A magical retelling with a strong and interesting female main character, a rich plot, and plenty of action.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Wicked Nix

Image result for wicked nix coverWicked Nix
Lena Coakley
Jaime Zollars, Illustrator
Amulet, October, 2018 110 pages
Grades 2-4

Wicked Nix the fairy is incensed. A people has moved into the little cabin by the tree where he sleeps in his forest home. Last summer the fairy queen forgot him by accident when the fairies left to go to their winter resting place. He is keeping the forest free from humans and now this people threatens his chances to get back on the queen's good side. He seeks advice from Mr. Green, the spirit king of the forest, and his human friend Rose. Nix plays all kinds of tricks on the people and, although he gets extremely frustrated, Nix can't get him to leave. Unfortunately, Nix's magic comes primarily from bluster and though he pulls out all of the tricks in his repertoire, none of them work. Finally Nix and the people sit down and have a heart-to-heart discussion, where Nix learns some unexpected truths about himself and the true nature of fairies. Is the people telling the truth? There is one way to find out. Nix and the people attempt to find the fairy meadow on Midsummer's Eve, though the fairies keep playing tricks on them. Nix must get to the bottom of the real facts behind the fairies intentions and his own lineage, but first he must find the queen. A show-down results in the truth at last and Nix discovering where his heart really lies as he must adapt to a new life.

Coakley offers a solid, straight-forward fantasy for emerging readers that is not bogged down by subplots. The first-person narration allows the reader to see inside the brain of Wicked Nix and experience first-hand the life of an out-of-favor fairy. Fairies are popular and that alone will help the story find an audience. The chapters are short and contain sweet illustrations, allowing for young readers to competently keep reading. Wicked Nix contains a wonderful element which sets it apart from other books aimed at this age group: an unreliable narrator. I love books with unreliable narrators and readers will too. It is so fun that moment when you discover that what you are being told may not be true. The first person narration allows the readers to discover, right along with the protagonist, that he may have the story wrong. The would-be fairy experiences much character growth throughout the brief book as he learns to trust, love, and to be brave. I can't wait to use this title in book discussion and to recommend it to young readers.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School

Image result for fabled fourth graders coverThe Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School
Candace Fleming
Schwartz and Wade, 2007 186 pages
Grades 3-6

Principal Struggles has a dilemma. She can't find a teacher willing to take on the highly "spirited" fourth grade class at Aesop Elementary. To the rescue arrives Mr. Jupiter, a former student at the school and now a well-rounded world traveler with many interesting talents under his belt. At first the students think this school year will be business as usual, but Mr. Jupiter with his unusual teaching style, never-ending patience, and eccentric ways soon shows them that the year will be anything but. All of the fourth grade students, as well as the school librarian, immediately fall under his spell and Mr. Jupiter guides his pupils through the year, teaching them important life-lessons as well as reading and math. Each short chapter is a separate vignette offering a modern and relatable retelling of a fable of Aesop with the traditional moral at the end. After an incredible year it is time for Mr. Jupiter to say goodbye to the class as he leaves for his next adventure, but is he truly ready to go?

A real "Mary Poppins" of teachers, prolific author of young people, Fleming, creates a character sure to be the envy of young readers, as well as educators. Mr. Jupiter is the star of the show, yet Fleming also manages to create other characters within the class to create an interesting mix of personalities. Sometimes the students are a bit one-dimensional, but that is to be expected in a humorous book for this age level. Filled with puns and humor, this is a perfect choice to hand to fans of Wayside School, yet it is actually a bit more clever than silly. Readers will love to be in on the joke as they discover the puns hidden within names and chapter headings. Throughout the hilarity Fleming manages to offer some messages about kindness, fairness, honesty, test taking, and the coolness of the Dewey Decimal system. The tie-ins with the classic fables make the book a great choice for school settings and may lead kids to delve into the originals. My only complaint is that the librarian is a stereotypical "shusher", but that could be my own personal sensitivities. This is a highly entertaining book that will be a surefire hit with all readers, who might actually learn some ethical lessons between the chuckles.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone

Image result for children blood bone coverChildren of Blood and Bone
Tomi Adeyemi
Holt, 2018 527 pages
Grades 7-Up
Legacy of Orisha series #1

Multiple points of view trace the journey of Zelie, a young diviner of magical blood in a land where magic is forbidden and no longer exists. She is set apart by her white hair, labeling her as a diviner and the target of government animosity and discrimination. Zelie travels on a quest to gather certain magical relics to perform a very specific ceremony in order to bring magic back. She is accompanied by her brother Tzain and Amari, the sole daughter of King Saran, who is the enemy of all things magical and forbids its existence in his kingdom upon the penalty of death. King Saran sends his son, Prince Inan, with a battalion of soldiers to bring back Amari, confiscate the relics, and destroy Zelie and her brother. Only, Inan carries with him a secret: he is also of the magical blood and a white streak appears in his hair threatening to divulge this forbidden truth. Things get more complicated as Inan meets Zelie in the "dream place" and the two strike up an unlikely relationship. Eventually, magic begins to awaken and Zelie, Inan, and others start to discover and unleash their powers. Will the diviners and their friends survive persecution from the King and bring magic back to the land? On what side of the conflict does Inan really stand? And does young Zelie have what it takes to lead her people to freedom and safety?

Debute author, Adeyemi, draws from her West African roots as she builds a new world filled with mythology, magic, and adventure, creating the hot teen read of 2018. Personally, I found this book to be loooong. It took me all summer to read it. I started listening to the audiobook on CD in my car in June--until I had to return it to the library. Next I went on the waiting list and finally started listening again, this time streaming through my library's app. Still didn't finish and the book disappeared after two weeks. I finally finished reading it the old fashioned way and now it is September. For its length, I can honestly say that the story is never boring and the action never stops. Young readers with more time on their hands will plow through it much quicker than I did and not be able to put it down. The cover is eye catching, making it an easy sell, and it will appeal to both boys and girls. The characters experience much growth throughout the book and all must face fears and moral battles. They are written distinctly and even though the names are unfamiliar and the secondary characters are numerous, it is easy to keep everyone apart. A map at the beginning of the book and a list of the different magical powers helps to alleviate confusion. There is romance within the pages for all four of the major characters, yet this is not the central focus of the novel. An author's note at the end explains Adeyemi's intention to draw parallels to today's society and the discrimination facing African Americans-just in case the audience misses it. Sure to be included in the teen literature cannon, this book has legs and will continue to find a readership for young people who love a big, juicy story in a fresh, new world.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Dollar Kids

Image result for dollar kids jacobson coverDollar Kids
Jennifer Jacobson
Candlewick, 2018 403 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

The town of Flintlock hasn't been the same since the local factory closed down, putting most of the townspeople out of work and destroying the local economy. Budding cartoonist, Lowen Grover, hasn't been the same since his friend died and he feels responsible. The Grover family is selected to purchase a foreclosed home in Flintlock for one dollar with the stipulation that they provide necessary repairs. The new families are met with suspicion and the transition is not easy. Slowly, the family begins to find their place in the community as Mom opens a small Cornish "pastie" restaurant, the house starts to come together and the kids discover new hobbies and begin to make friends. Lowen has not been able to let go of his guilt over Abe's death or create comics, but gradually he develops a comic starring Abe in the afterlife and slowly begins to work towards peacefulness and healing. The new families experience many ups and downs adjusting to the new surroundings and some members of the community are more accepting than others. A common cause finally brings the whole community close together as they achieve cohesiveness and learn what it means to be a neighbor.

Jacobson offers an interesting book for young people containing a lot of food for thought. The main message is the power of community and that we are stronger when we are working together, which is a great message that many Americans need to hear. Other timely topics include gun control, the impact on small towns upon the exit of the main source of employment, welcoming newcomers, and the importance of restoring homes and small town renewal. Modern solutions are offered, such as crowd-sourcing, yet good old fashioned "neighborliness" becomes the best solution of all. "Sad" books are hot right now with young people and readers will flock to Lowen's story as he mourns the loss of his friend. There are other sad moments in the book as well, demonstrating that life sometimes is messy, yet the ending is hopeful and positive, leaving readers with the knowledge that these characters and this community will be okay. Lowen finds his healing and passion through art, specifically drawing comics and other readers enthusiastically pursue other interests such as sports, music, cooking, and fashion design. Snippets from Lowen’s comic (contributed by Ryan Andrews) featuring his deceased friend are interwoven within the text adding an extra layer to the package. Hopefully readers will be encouraged to find their own passions and fall into their magic. A timely tale showcasing the importance of community and featuring a likable cast and a quiet, yet enjoyable story line.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Fourth Stall

Image result for the fourth stall coverThe Fourth Stall
Chris Rylander
HarperCollins, 2011 314 pages
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction

Sixth-grade Mac and his best friend Vince run an important business out of an abandoned bathroom in their elementary school. They solve problems for their classmates for either a fee or a favor. The partners have their fingers in every pot of the school and are able to make pretty much anything happen. Even the school bullies will work for them for a price. One day a complicated situation arises that puts Mac and Vince to the test. A younger boy is being hassled by a high school legendary bully named Staples, who is running a gambling operation. Turns out, much of the elementary school population is in debt to Staples and needs Mac and Vince's help. The problem is, Staples is elusive and hard to nail down and has teen thugs working for and protecting him. Trying to bring down Staples is taking away from business as usual and costing the partners much needed funds that have been put aside to purchase tickets when the Cubbies finally make it to the World Series. Finally, the pressure takes its toll on the friendship and threatens to destroy the whole business altogether. Will the boys resolve their differences and ban together to take Staples down? And who is the rat who is spying on them and reporting to the enemy?

Rylander's debut novel is an easy sell to older elementary school boys. In fact the three books in the series have become so popular in my library I was forced to buy an extra copy of this first installment. Yes, the morals displayed in this book may not be the best.  The heroes essentially run a mafia ring out of the school bathroom and most of the student body is gambling, getting their hands on things their adults disapprove of, and cheating. At their core Mac and Vince aren't that bad and have a lot of heart. They help kids for free whom they deem worthy, are loyal friends, and at least pay bullies for services rendered. Readers will enjoy watching our protagonists beat the system and gain control over an environment generally orchestrated by adults. Mac's first person account is entertaining and reminiscent of a 1940's noir potboiler. There is an element of mystery to the story as readers attempt to discern the identity of the snitch, which will help keep pages turning. The mystery is satisfactorily solved by book's end, the enemy/bully's intentions are displayed in a confession scene worthy of a Scooby Doo episode, and a heroic showdown proves Mac and Vince are as fearless as they are mercenary. Although a bit long in length for reluctant readers and with no illustrations to lure them in, the zippy plot, gentle humor and unique characters make this a sure-fire hit for fans of Gordon Korman or Stuart Gibbs