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.