Thursday, January 31, 2019

Max Einstein: The Genius Experiment

Image result for max einstein genius experimentMax Einstein: The Genius Experiment
James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein
Jimmy/Little Brown, 2018 318 pages
Grades 4-8
Max Einstein series #1

Brilliant and homeless, orphan Max Einstein has a passion for science and technology, much like her idol and namesake, Albert. Snatched while taking classes at NYU, Max is pressed into service by a group of individuals, headed by the mysterious "benefactor", looking to make the world a better and healthier place. Meanwhile, the nefarious Dr. Zimm and his evil organization, The Corp, try to also snatch Max, encouraging her to turn to the dark side and use her powers for evil. Once whisked away, Max is taken to Jerusalem where she is introduced to other brilliant kids who are set to compete with each other to determine which one is the best fit to solve the problems of the world. After a kidnapping attempt and many bogus tests, Max wins the competition. Before she accepts the position, Max demands that her new friends help her with whatever mission is assigned. The team is sent to rural Africa, where they are given the task of bringing electricity to a desolate village where the children work deep in the mines to keep their families fed. The mine owners do not want the village economically independent and wreak havoc on the team's efforts. Will Max and her buddies solve the village's problems with their scientific know-how and keep themselves safe?

Patterson and Grabenstein are truly a dream-team. Together, and separately, they have written fun and high-interest books that kids enjoy reading. This new series is certainly up to their usual standards and then some. Appealing to science-minded kids, the authors bring in a layer of technology and invention all while maintaining the adventure, plot twists, and humor that readers have come to expect from their work. Max is a female, encouraging girls to delve into the world of science and adventure, yet is presented androgynous enough to not turn away male readers. Smart kids will enjoy seeing technology and quick thinking save the day, while the uninitiated may delve further into this world, specifically the work of Einstein, Max's mentor. This story is a non-stop ride and the plot never flags. It does not delve too deeply into character development, but it’s not that kind of a book and, because the kids are from different countries, it is easy to tell them apart. By book's end the reader discovers the identity of Max's mysterious "Benefactor". Left dangling is the truth behind Max's parentage, of which the evil Dr. Zimm holds the answers, leading the reader to the second in the series, yet to be released. An enjoyable and adventurous read that all young readers should enjoy, whether or not they are science geeks.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies

Image result for girl who drew butterfliesThe Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Marian's Art Changed Science
Joyce Sidman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018 120 pages
Grades 3-7

Newbery honor poet, Sidman, traces the life and contributions of seventeen-century Dutch naturalist and artist, Maria Marian. Marian was quite revolutionary for her time. She studied nature and had the confidence to record and share findings previously undiscovered. Marian ran away to a strange religious commune with her children, divorced her husband, traveled across the sea to the wilds of America, only to return to Holland and publish her own scientific journal on insects. Being the first person to track metamorphosis and being a careful and brilliant artist, her findings have inspired naturalists over the years and completely revolutionized the field.

This is a real "wow" of a book. Sidman carefully and conversationally narrates the story of this groundbreaking female scientist, who readers will never have heard of. Throughout the account, artwork from both the period and Marian's own sketchbook and writings accompany the text, along with original poems by Sidman. Extensive front and back matter include a glossary, a luxe map, an extensive timeline, sources, a bibliography, suggestions for further reading, image credits, and an index. All of this is presented in a beautiful packages where even the end papers are carefully crafted colorful butterflies. Every word, layout, and image is intentional and the result is a highly readable and visual treat for young readers, regardless of whether or not they are budding naturalists. A high-quality piece of non-fiction and a wonderful addition to the science, history, and biography shelves.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Marley: A Dog Like No Other

Image result for marley a dog like no otherMarley: A Dog Like No Other
John Grogan
HarperCollins, 2009 196 pages
Grades 3-8

Newspaper columnist, Grogan, relates his family's life with a rambunctious dog in this scaled-down young person's version of the adult bestseller Marley and Me. The reader gets to experience firsthand what it is like to live with a naughty and neurotic Labrador Retriever. As we spend time with crazy Marley, the reader also experiences the backdrop of the family, as children are born and grow and the family must move cross-country. Eventually, the inevitable happens and Marley grows old and faces death. Much as with the adult version and the blockbuster movie, tears are shed and the reader walks away longing for a Marley of their own.

This is my selection for my younger book discussion group, consisting of animal lovers, this month. I'm not sure why I picked this book so soon after losing my dog this past September and I spent ten minutes in the library staff room crying my eyes out yesterday. Somehow, though, reading about Marley's life and death was cathartic. Grogan points out the crazy flaws in Marley, as well as the loving bits. Even though Marley turns his life upside down and then breaks his heart, the family's life becomes richer through the experience and the reader can tell that they wouldn't have changed a minute of the whole experience. This is a book for both animal lovers and the not-so-much. Grogan's writing is conversational and funny and the story is so much more than simply Marley's antics. The young reader's edition keeps the best and notable parts, as well as the flavor of the adult book, while leaving out the bits that are too mature (such as the wife's miscarriage). Kid's that like sad stories will appreciate the good cry at the end and those who don't will breathe a sigh of relief, as the family finds healing--and a new puppy. Color photos accompany the text, further connecting readers to this notorious pooch.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Size of the Truth

Image result for size of the truthThe Size of the Truth
Andrew Smith
Simon & Schuster, March, 2019 263 pages
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Alternating sections and first person narration relate two parts of Sam's life: the life-changing instance of when he was stuck in a well for three days at the age of four and his present as an eleven year old in eighth grade. The past sections in the well give the account of an older boy named James being responsible for the devastating tumble and Sam's friendship with an unreliable talking armadillo named Bartleby once inside. Now as the smallest boy in eighth grade Sam is in classes with his nemesis, James, and forced to join the science club, wear a kilt, and go on survival weekends by his over-bearing father. What Sam really wants to do is cook and enroll in a culinary arts high school. Encounters with James are scary and land him in detention. Being the smallest and youngest kid makes Sam the target of bullies and an instance where he is trapped in a locker brings back his old friend Bartleby as the claustrophobia kicks in. The action climaxes at the small Texas town's Blue Creek Days, as Sam has to decide whether or not to enter the cooking contest or to help a surprising new friend, when he discovers that the time in the well was not exactly as he remembers.

Andrew Smith is a Printz winning author and one of the most respected for teens. His book The Marbury Lens gave me nightmares and it’s a book that I still think about and the critically acclaimed Winger series features Sam as a teen. Middle grade has become "hot" and many teen authors are jumping into the fray, writing for a younger audience. I was very skeptical, especially since Smith is extremely edgy. He is an author that relies a lot on strong language. Because this is middle grade, the language had to be scaled down, but he uses "excuse me" quite liberally to indicate that there should be a swear word. At first I thought it unnecessary and distracting, but upon further reflection I think that cursing is a vehicle used by middle school boys (and girls) to feel more powerful and in control of a world that they do not feel in control of. Certainly Sam is in not in control of his life. His father has expectations that are based on his own ideals and not on Sam's. I found this so frustrating and breathed a sigh as relief as Sam confesses to his father who he really is. I love how Smith shows multiple sides of the fearful James, who also is under misguided parental expectations. At first readers will be unclear whether Bartleby is real, but when the armadillo shows up again in the locker there can be no doubt that he is a coping mechanism for Sam, who finally gets a handle on the devastating accident that has shaped his life. I did not believe the narration of Sam at four in the well for most of the novel because the voice does not sound like a four year old. As I read on and realized that it was Sam's unreliable memory, the penny dropped and I got it.  As in his older works, this younger story by Smith is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut with the characteristically absurd coincidences and clever plot twists. Smart kids will find much to savor with this story. Give it to fans of Holes. So far, this is my favorite book of 2019, although it’s also only my second book of 2019, so we'll see how I feel in December.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Astonishing Color of After

Image result for astonishing color after coverThe Astonishing Color of After
Emily X.R. Pan
Little Brown, 2018 472 pages
Grades 8-Up
Magical Realism

Two alternating narratives tell the story of Leigh, a biracial artistic teen in a cross-section of her life. The before chapters trace her first two years of high school, where she is in love with her best friend, Axel, and we see the back and forth confusion of their relationship. The two friends eventually kiss on the last day of tenth grade and Leigh returns home to discover that her mother has committed suicide. Now we enter the world of after, where a red bird has entered Leigh's life. She feels compelled by the bird to journey to Taiwan to meet her mother's estranged parents and the bird follows. Once in Taiwan, Leigh received incenses that, once burned, whisk her away to different times in her family's history, where she witnesses her grandparent's backstories, gets to know an aunt whom she never knew existed, and watches her parents fall in love. A family friend serves as translator and tour guide, but who is this person really? Family secrets are slowly revealed and the healing begins for both Leigh and her father as she comes to terms with her mother's death, her place in it, and her relationship with Axel.

I have mixed feelings about this debut novel. On one hand I found it to be overly long and a very quiet and slow read, where not much happens-at least quickly. On the other hand, it is beautifully written and has a lot to say about parent-pleasing and pressures, the devastation of suicide, and the power of forgiveness. The mother turning into the red bird was a great touch and added a mystical element to what could have been even more of a slog. I almost quit many times, but I started to care about Leigh’s outcome and had to see what happens and if I was right about the true identity of the family friend (I was!) and if the bird was going to transform back to the mom, somehow bringing her back from the dead. I was glad I didn't give up. All of the plot lines became sewn up in a satisfying, if unrealistically too happy, way with some cool twists thrown in. By book's end the reader will second guess if there really was a bird at all or if it was all a figment of Leigh's delusions and grief, then something happens at the end to prove that there really was magical afoot. I appreciate that Leigh is super-artistic to the point of defining the world in shades of colors (I don't think she has synesthesia, she is just extremely sensitive to color). I also like that the author offers the reader more information about suicide at the end of the volume. This is the second leading cause of death in American teenagers and is a real epidemic in our youth. Pan shows the devastation and guilt felt by those left behind and never glamorizes the act. This story is beautifully told with big payoffs for patient teen readers who like their books sad--yet with ultimately a happy ending.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Dactyl Hill Squad

Image result for dactyl hill squadDactyl Hill Squad
Daniel Jose Older
Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2018
260 pages
Grades 5-7

Orphan, Magdalys, and the rest of her friends from the Colored Orphan Asylum attend a performance of a black Shakespearean company during an alternative history of Civil War New York City: with DINOSAURS. During the performance, the draft riots break out and all becomes chaos. During the mayhem an evil police officer kidnaps some of the black orphans, planning to ship them down south and sell them into slavery. Magdalys and a few fellow orphans escape, along with the leads in the play, who have more fighting skills than anyone would guess. The small band escapes by dinosaur to Brooklyn after a brief stop at the orphanage to recover their files. They team up with fellow renegades, named The Vigilance Committee, who wish to recover the missing orphans and defeat the bad guys. Meanwhile, Magdalys realizes that she has a natural gift with dinosaurs and can communicate with them telepathically. Does she have what it takes to make a contribution in saving her friends? And who is this person whose name she finds in her files that could be the key to her past?

Dinosaurs are always cool and a real draw for kids, giving this middle grade book by a famous teen author a natural hook into readers. It is pretty easy to separate the fact from the fiction and Older sets the record straight in an extensive afterward in case there are any questions, so readers will walk away learning a thing or two about the Civil War era in New York. The action never flags and there are battle scenes aplenty, satisfying the video-game generation. I appreciate that the cast is diverse and we see the story from a perspective not often seen in history: a young orphan female of color. What I didn't love about the book is that there are so many characters I got confused keeping everyone straight and since they aren't particularly developed the job was even harder. Warning to parents: there is a lot of violence within the story and there are graphic deaths, making the book historically reflective of the time period, but also maybe too much for today’s sensitive readers. Another complaint is that the author infuses modern slang within the dialogue, such as "my bad", which I felt jarring, but may be just the ticket for modern reluctant readers. This may not be the best written book of 2018, but it is one of the most original and will be sure to find an audience, who will walk away having learned something, while being entertained in the process.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

This was our Pact

Image result for this was our pact ryan andrewsThis was our Pact
Ryan Andrews
First Second, June, 2019 338 pages
Grades 3-7
Graphic Novel

Every year at the small northern town's autumn equinox festival, lanterns are released into the river. Legend has it that they reach far into the stars, but can that be true? Ben and his four pals have decided that this is the year that they get to the bottom of the mystery. They make a pact: no one turns for home & no one looks back. After release the boys jump on their bikes and follow the road along the river, where the lanterns bob along. An unwelcome guest follows a close distance behind. It is Nathaniel, a family friend of Ben's, who is a big nerd and not invited. One by one the boys drop out of the adventure with various excuses, leaving Ben with only Nathaniel for company. The two boys soldier on, encountering many magical and mysterious creatures and adventures along the way, both thrilling and frightening. Finally, the mystery of the lanterns is solved, yet the boys feel compelled to still fulfill the pact and not turn for home.

This is truly the Renaissance of graphic novels and Andrews has offered a new and stunning contribution. Refreshingly not biographical, this book feels as if it is going in that direction and then veers off to the magical. The story line is fresh, adventurous, and surprising. The stunning illustrations have a manga feel and are a cut above the norm. They perfectly reflect the crisp autumn nighttime atmosphere: a little bit creepy and a lot of bit magical, where anything can happen. Both Ben and Nathaniel change and grow as characters through their adventure, discovering inner strength and an overlooked comradery. At the core, this is a friendship story and will inspire readers to maybe give the nerd in their lives a second look. Quality books of interest to boys that don't rely on potty humor are sorely lacking and this title fills the bill quite nicely, though it will also be enjoyed by girls. A beautiful and magical book by a new talent that, unfortunately, won't be out until the long winter is over.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Cruel Prince

Image result for cruel princeThe Cruel Prince
Holly Black
Little Brown, 2018 384 pages
Grades 8-Up
The Folk of the Air series #1

When Jude is seven, she and her twin sister witness their parent’s murder by Mom's ex: a fairy general and father of Jude's strange step sister. The girls are whisked off to Fairy and raised by the General and his new wife, along with a fairy baby brother. Jude always feels at a disadvantage in Fairy, although it becomes her home, and vulnerable against the glamour that her classmates can use to manipulate and potentially hurt her. The worst of all is Carden, the high king's son, who is bent upon making her life a misery. Jude feels that she is finally gaining some even footing in this magical land as she begins to date a fairy royal and perfect her sword wielding skills. When the heir to the high king offers her immunity to fairy glamour if she agrees to spy for him, it is a tempting offer. Does she have the courage and aptitude to go against her powerful father to protect her own interests? Secrets are revealed, alliances made and broken, and blood (much) is shed in this nail-biter of a novel.

Forget your preconceived notions of gentle, happy fairy folk buzzing around bringing cheer to all. These fairies are tough, selfish, and, as the title states, cruel. Still, it is the only home that Jude knows, so she brings forth good old human ingenuity to beat them at their own game. This story starts out a little frustrating. I wasn't sure why Jude didn't just give up on her misery of a life and move back to the human world, where, even if it no longer felt like home, at least she wasn't being constantly tortured. Then, the tables turned and Jude started to gain some control. And then things got even cooler. Surprises abound in the book and there are some big payoffs, including a coronation ceremony of Game of Thrones proportions. There is some romance in the story, yet nothing gets too steamy, and this is not the main focus of the book. I had a hard time putting the book down and I am sure that young readers will feel the same way. This is not Holly Black's first rodeo. She knows how to create a great story that readers won't want to end. A cliffhanging ending will bring teens to the next installment, which coincidentally came out four days ago. I tend to not read sequels, but this series has me hooked, so I will probably dive into The Wicked King if my library's copy comes back any time soon.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Favorite Books of 2018

Its that time of year again when folks are putting out lists of their favorite books of the year. I have given up trying to predict the Newbery/Caldecott/Printz awards and do not pretend to have read enough of the new books that came out last year, but I did read my fair share. This is a list of some of my over-all favorites:
Image result for adrian simcox does not have a horse

Picture Books:

Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse - Marcy Campbell/Corinna Luyken, Illustrator
Beautiful illustrations and a heartfelt story teach children about kindness without hitting them over the head.

Image result for dreamers yuyi morales

Dreamers - Yuyi Morales
Beautiful and timely story of a new American and her son and the impact that libraries and picture books had on their assimilation. I loved it even more after hearing the author/illustrator speak, bringing the audience to tears.

Image result for house that once wasA House that Once Was - Julie Fogliano/Lane Smith, Illustrator
As a lover of old houses and history, this book was a slam dunk for me and Lane's Smith's gorgeous pictures demonstrate how far away he's evolved from The Stinky Cheese Man.

Image result for ocean meets skyOcean Meets Sky - Terry and Eric Fan
Everything the Fan brothers do knocks my socks off and this latest is no exception. Simply stunning!
Image result for we dont eat our classmates

We Don't Eat Our Classmates - Ryan T. Higgins
And finally--a good laugh with an underlining social message. this is my new first choice to bring on school visits, sure to become a back-to-school favorite for teachers.

Middle Grade:

Image result for assassination of brangwain spurgeThe Assassination of Brangwain Spurge - M.T. Anderson/Eugene Yelchin, Illustrator
This book was so deliciously weird that it may just be one of my new favorite books of all times. I never wanted it to end! Yelchin's medieval-like illustrations match the kooky, yet formal, text perfectly. Certainly the most original book I read this year.

Image result for louisiana's way home
Louisiana's Way Home - Kate DiCamillo
It feels almost cliche to pick Kate DiCamillo, but she truly is the best writer for middle grade currently on the planet. She has never put out a clunker and this one, although a rare sequel, stands alone as one of her best yet. You'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll beg for a third in the series.
Image result for parker inheritance 

The Parker Inheritance - Varian Johnson
A mystery, historical fiction, and a realistic problem novel all rolled into one. My favorite thing about this book is how the author calls boys out for being afraid to read "girl books". Why can't we just have everyone books? Hear Hear!
Image result for truth as told by mason

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle - Leslie Connor
Mason is my new favorite character in children's literature so fully drawn that you will feel as if you know him. A great mystery that also pulls at your heartstrings.


Image result for faithful spyThe Faithful Spy - John Hendrix
A non-fiction graphic novel featuring an unlikely German spy against Hitler and the overall German resistance carefully researched and artfully drawn.

Hey, Kiddo! - Jarrett Krosoczka
Image result for hey kiddoThe author/illustrator pens an autobiographical account of growing up with a drug addicted mother, while being raised by eccentric, yet loving, grandparents. We see how art truly can save lives.
Image result for poet x

The Poet X - Elizabeth Acevedo
We experience the life of a Harlem teen as she writes poetry in her journal, all while struggling to find her voice and place in the world. A well deserved National Book Award win!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

One for the Murphys

Image result for one for the murphysOne for the Murphys
Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Penguin, 2012 224 pages
Grades 4-6
Realistic Fiction

Twelve-year-old Carley wakes up in the hospital and is taken to a foster home. She lands there after a terrible incident involving her mother holding her down in order for her stepfather to beat her. Mom is also in the hospital, in even worse shape, but Carley doesn't remember the full encounter, only that Mom betrayed her. Now she is living with the Murphy family, consisting of a firefighting dad, stay-at-home mom and three young boys. At first Carley is resistant to the draw of the functional family and acts aloof and bratty, but eventually she gets lured by the security and comfort and her frosty exterior begins to thaw. After a bumpy start at her new school Carley even begins to make a friend. Should she confess to her friend that she's a foster kid? Life at the Murphy’s turns into a dream come true for Carley and she discovers what she has been missing her whole life. Just as she begins to trust this new life, the social worker arrives and drops a bomb: Mom is healed and wants her back. Will she be able to say goodbye and return to her old lonely life where she must fight for attention, love, and material possessions?

I read this book shortly after it came out seven years ago. Why the re-read? My kids at the library continue to ask for it and want to talk about it with me. Frankly, I forgot the details and felt that it could use a second look. With the current hot trend of "problem fiction" for middle grade readers this title is hotter than ever at my library. Kids will find Carley's life deliciously tragic and empathize with her longing for normalcy and security. The book reads quickly and will hold the interest of the reader, even the most reluctant. When Carley's mother re-enters the picture, readers will be properly horrified and hold their breath. The ending is not perfect, yet Carley has grown in strength and confidence under Mrs. Murphy's care and is ready to proceed to her next step. Mrs. Murphy is a bit too perfect and larger than life, which we can forgive because its Carley's story and that is how she perceives her. There are some over the top schmaltzy bits that made me roll my eyes, but young readers will eat them up with a spoon. Carley's journey is a great example of character growth with serve as an inspiration to young readers. There is an awesome teacher in the book and many tricky social school situations, making the story a great choice for classroom use. This title continues to be popular, along with the author's other title, Fish in a Tree, and is a slam dunk for readers looking for realistic problem stories that go a little sad.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle

Image result for truth as told to mason coverThe Truth as Told by Mason Buttle
Leslie Connor
HarperCollins, 2018 326 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

First person narration relates the story of Mason Buttle, who has lost his best friend, Benny, in a freak accident two years prior and is still processing the incident. It doesn't help that Benny's dads no longer talk to him, his mother is dead and he lives with extended family who have fallen on hard financial times, a police investigator keeps paying him unwanted visits, a strange teenage girl has taken over his room, he has an unusual condition that makes him sweat profusely, he is the biggest kid in his grade, and suffers from a sever leaning disability. To make matters even worse, Mason is the victim of a nasty bully, who is also a neighbor who tortures him daily. Relief comes in the form of the school counselor, who provides a much needed sanctuary, a listening ear, and a way for Mason to get his story heard, as well as a neighboring dog, and a new friend. Calvin is new to town and the opposite of Mason in every way. The two boys find a hideout/club house in the old root cellar and create a place to both escape the bullies and be themselves. Mason slowly realizes that the town thinks he might be responsible for Benny's accident and this makes him feel even worse. Eventually through a terrible tragedy the truth is revealed and Mason and his family begin to pick up the pieces of their lives and start healing.

Connor may have created one of my favorite characters in children's literature in Mason. He is not only richly drawn, but is someone you would like to get to know: extensive sweating and all. The way Mason must suffer was for me hard to read at times, but it makes the end that much more glorious once he receives redemption. We experience the chain of events entirely through Mason's eyes and unique perspective. Another layer to the book is that Mason has the condition called synesthesia, where he see emotion in the form of color, which allows for the narration to be that much richer. Readers will realize who is responsible for Benny's death way before Mason gets there, which will help young readers to feel smart and root the hero on as he slowly figures it out. Educators will find inspiration in the school counselor, who is both wise and loving and leads Mason in the right direction, all while balancing other students and giving everyone much needed respect and care. Even though Mason does not seem at first glance to have much going for him, his great attributes emerge as the novel goes on and by book's end readers will see him for the wonderful, kind, and talented individual that he is. Mason and his family find themselves on the road to healing by the end of the story and the true culprit behind the accident is revealed, as well as other positive surprises. Still, lingering problems still exist, demonstrating to readers that happy endings aren't always perfect. A beautifully crafted story and well deserving of the National Book Award nomination for which it received.