Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Next Great Paulie Fink

Image result for next great paulie fink coverThe Next Great Paulie Fink
Ali Benjamin
Little, Brown, 2019 374 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Caitlyn offers a first person narration of her experiences moving from the suburbs to rural Vermont. She joins a small class of seventh graders called the "Originals", as they are the first class who started kindergarten in the Mitchell School, a converted mansion, and have moved up a level every year. This year introduces a group of goats who are given the challenge of chomping away at a soccer field to get it ready for the school's big competition again a rival rich school. As Caitlyn experiences discomfort at entering an environment where everyone knows each other and culture shock, further troubles develop when the other students are disappointed with her presence and the absence of former class clown, Paulie Fink. Everyone seems to mourn his absence and Caitlyn sets out to find out more about this local legend by conducting a series of interviews with her classmates. Inspired by a reality shown, Caitlyn creates a contest to determine who will be the next Paulie Fink. Students are eliminated as she issues challenges. Finally, the day of the big soccer game arrives-and with it a huge surprise. Will Caitlyn get to meet the mysterious Paulie Fink at last? And is he all that he is cracked up to be? Where and why did he go in the first place? As the students grapple with these questions a threat ensues in the possible closing of their non-traditional school. Will they all have to transfer to a big school miles away?

Benjamin follows up her award-winning novel The Thing about Jellyfish with another heartfelt tale, although a bit lighter in content and infused with humor. Caitlyn experiences all the struggles of a new kid, forcing herself to come to terms with her own bullying behavior aimed at a girl at her former school. Now the tables have turned and she feels vulnerable and exposed. To make matters worse, her presence is a disappointment in the absence of larger-than-life legend Paulie Fink. As Caitlyn sets out to discover more about this unusual character, she gradually gets to know her classmates better, through interviewing them and then by hosting the reality competition. Throughout the book Benjamin touches on issues such as the changing face of rural America, the importance of kindness and acceptance, reality television as it reflects our society, and economic disparages in our society. Through it all, gentle humor moves the plot along through the antics of both Paulie and the goats. Eventually, Caitlyn (and the reader) gets to meet Paulie and he gets his own say at the end of the story, clearing up many unknown questions. The book is a bit long, yet reads quickly and is often written in transcript form as Caitlyn interviews her classmates. Readers will find much to identify with here and the gentle mystery behind the whereabouts of Paulie will keep them guessing and turning pages. Not quite the punch of Benjamin's first novel, yet still time well spent.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Each Tiny Spark

Image result for each tiny spark coverEach Tiny Spark
Pablo Cartaya
Kokila/Penguin, August, 2019 326 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Life is changing for Emilia. Her mother must travel for business, leaving her in the care of her controlling Abuela and tour-returning Marine father. Emilia contends with ADHD and counts on her mother to help her organize her studies and negotiate with teachers, as well as process her social life. School is bad enough without Mom, but she is also having friendship troubles. Her best school friend, Clarissa, is more interested in "hanging out" with the right people than doing things that Emilia enjoys. She would rather spend time with family friend and amateur filmmaker, Gus, only Clarissa doesn't approve of him.  Dad has been distant and strange since returning home and is no help. Abuela is more concerned with turning Emilia into a "proper young lady". Emilia would rather build and create things than go to dances and she finally begins to connect with Papi as they work together fixing up an old car that he purchased many years ago. Further conflict arrives as the neighboring school district, which is bursting, is threatening to send kids to Emilia’s more upscale neighborhood. Some citizens are not happy to share the space with "those people" and a local controversy develops, one in which Clarissa and Emilia are on opposite sides. Emilia must learn to stand up for what is right, despite the noise in her head and the absence of Mom, and embrace the person that she is, even if she doesn't fit into a traditional mold.

Part of Penguin's new multicultural imprint, Kokila, Each Tiny Spark is acclaimed middle-grade author, Cartaya's latest offering. As seen in The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, Cartaya explores themes of community, getting involved in local government and the importance of speaking your mind, even if you are a kid with no voting power. Also at the forefront is the Latino experience within American culture, in this case a Cuban-American family, who has carved out a life in Georgia, building a business and planting roots within a traditional Anglo community. The greater community is resistant to the Latino population, originally encouraged to come and help get Atlanta ready for the Olympic Games in 1996. Now original community members are reluctant to share their space and schools with the immigrant population. Cartaya also highlights the daily struggles facing kids dealing with ADHD and the tricky navigation of life with constant noise in your head. Emilia sees the world both through the lenses of ADHD and as a non-traditional girl--preferring technology to typical feminine pursuits. The cover features Emilia holding a blowtorch and looking all fierce. Though this is certainly not the main focus of the novel, it will attract STEM readers and both boys and girls. Emilia's challenges and interests are specific, yet her story will be universally enjoyed with natural curriculum connections.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe

Image result for poe blythe coverThe Last Voyage of Poe Blythe
Ally Condie
Dutton, 2019 336 pages
Grades 7-12
Dystopian Adventure

Although still a teenager, Poe has experienced quite a life. On a gold hunting expedition, her ship is overcome by raiders who kill the boy she loves and force her and her shipmates to return to the Outpost empty handed to a ruthless leader. Poe now seeks revenge and has created armor for a second ship that is indestructible and will not allow for enemies to board. Poe is made captain and gain the Admiral’s trust through her engineering talents. Although young, Poe is determined and hardened, wanting only to succeed in the mission and stick it to the raiders. The unexpected happens as the raiders find a way onto the ship and Poe must escape. Will her crew stay loyal to her? Are the raiders truly evil? How can she save her ship and still succeed in her mission--assuming she even survives? These questions are answered as Poe navigates through the murky waters of shifting loyalties and deceptions, and learns the truth about herself, her former love, and the society in which she belongs.

Condie, author of the widely popular Matched trilogy, offers another dystopian story in a world a little less developed. An environmental cautionary tale, Condie warns us what the future of the world looks like if we trash it. People are scrabbling for survival and banning together into tribes. As an engineer of sorts, Poe makes herself useful and as a designer of weapons and armor she rises to power. This story moves quickly, has many surprises and plot twists. The atmosphere is dark and the society feels a bit "Mad Max" without the cool motorcycles. Poe is a very broken and serious character with anger issues and I found it hard to relate to her or like her. There was not much in the way of romance, which will disappoint Matched fans. This was an exciting story of deception and intrigue with twists that will appeal to readers who appreciate a non-stop plot. A cliff-hanging ending indicates a sequel with a possible romance for Poe in the future.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Rocket to the Moon

Image result for rocket to the moon don brown coverRocket to the Moon
Don Brown
Amulet, 2019 132 pages
Grades 3-Up
Graphic Non-Fiction

Join early twentieth century daredevil, Rodman Law, as he narrates the American space program, focusing primarily on the Apollo missions and the historic first moonwalk. Law first describes the invention of rockets and how the American, Russians, and Germans came at the space travel question in different ways. Moving onto the Cold War, the space race is described in both a historical and culture context. Lastly, the focus is on the Apollo missions and we see each mission described in detail with both their successes and blunders. Basic rocket engineering and the science behind space travel are touched upon with illustrations offering a visual. Finally, the Apollo missions end with America unwilling to sink any more money into space travel, yet space research continues, as seen in the accompanying timeline. Additional research aids in the back of the volume include extensive notes, a bibliography, historical information about our narrator, and an index.

Just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Armstrong's historic moonwalk, Brown throws his hat into a crowded ring of space exploration books with a well-researched graphic novel. Much as he has done in his previous non-fiction graphic novels and picture books (Aaron and Alexander: the Most Famous Duel in America, The Great American Dust Bowl), Brown has taken a topic from American history and presents it to young people in an enjoyable and  approachable format. Rocket to the Moon is chuck-full of historical and scientific facts, yet reads like fiction and will be easily devoured by all who crack into it. Using his customary pallet of muted earth tones, Brown utilizes some colorful accents for dramatic effect, such as the American flag on the moon or the flames shooting out of a rocket. Honest and unbiased, this is a fair portrayal of the space race and the bravery and sacrifices made by all countries and individuals involved. I was alive for Armstrong's historic walk, yet was only three and don't remember it. Reading this graphic novel educated me about this important chapter in American history and helped me to understand a bit of the technology behind the logistics of space travel. A great vehicle used in the best possible way to present a fascinating topic from our past with relevance to the present.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Space Case

Image result for space case gibbsSpace Case
Stuart Gibbs
Simon & Schuster, 2014 337 pages
Grades 4-7
Mystery/Science Fiction
Moon Base Alpha series #1

Welcome to the first active moon base in the year 2041. Dashiell lives with his scientist parents and little sister on the base as one of the first families. Dash finds life stuck inside the moon base very boring and not much fun. All gets shaken up when Dash overhears a conversation during a middle of the night bathroom excursion, where Dr. Holtz, a famous scientist and fellow “Moonie”, reveals that he has made a startling and important discovery of which he will share with the world in the morning. Only, as the morning arrives, Dr. Holtz is found dead outside the moon base, due to an improper space suit. Dash suspects foul play, but neither his parents nor the base commander agree with him. A new space ship of "Moonies" arrive including Kira, a girl Dash's age who becomes interested in the fate of Dr. Holtz. Dash and Kira begin to look into the incident. Many residents seem suspicious. Which of the folks trapped up in the moon with our two investigators is the culprit? Meanwhile, Zan, a scientist freshly arriving from Earth on Kira's ship, approaches Dash with her own suspicious and wants them to work together. What is her true identity? Both mysteries are solved by book's end, with a dangling plot thread inviting readers to the next installment in the series titled Spaced Out.

I love a good mystery and Gibbs is one of today's maters for young people. What I appreciate about his mysteries is that he adds a second layer. Whether it’s environmental (Funjungle) or spy thriller (Spy School) or, in this case, set on a future moon base, readers walk away with a little something extra to the plot. Although set in the near future on a different planet, Space Case offers a straight forward mystery. Red herrings are presented and clues are discovered, allowing for kids to try to figure out the culprit on their own. Even though there are several characters in order to allow for a decent pool of suspects, I was able to keep them all straight in my head. As typical in mysteries, this is not a story of great imagery and character development. Instead it is a fun read with an interesting and fast plot set in a really cool place. All readers will enjoy this story and it is a perfect choice to recommend for mystery reports and pleasure reading. The end pages are a map of the moon base, which will immediately suck readers in (it worked for me) and then a cast of characters that will help folks keep everyone squared away in their memories. Each new chapter is introduced by a tie-in from the Moon Manual, adding yet another layer to this well-crafted tale. Best of all, readers will have more adventures to crack into once they finish this first series entry and may even move onto some of Gibbs' other equally interesting series.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Friendship War

Image result for friendship war clements coverThe Friendship War
Andrew Clements
Random House, 2019 173 pages
Grades 3-6
Realistic Fiction/School Story

You've heard of Baseball Fever, Tulip Fever, and Chocolate Fever. Now introducing--Button Fever! While visiting her Grandfather in Massachusetts, Grace discovers cases of old buttons in an abandoned factory. Grandpa sends them to her home across the country, where she incorporates some of them into a project about the Industrial Revolution in America. Kids become interested in the buttons and the next day bring in some of their own. Grace and her classmates begin to trade buttons and before long, the fad has swept the school and the younger grades also get caught up in the madness. Grace's best friend, Ellie, always has to be the best at everything. Ellie sets out to prove that she has the best buttons and begins to create button jewelry to step up her product. A battle ensues and the friendship is over. Grace begins to hang-out with classmate Hank, who is a button expert, and the two step-up their collections. Grace is enjoying her friendship with Hank, only she begins to miss Ellie. Can they find their way back to friendship? Does she want to be friends with Ellie in the first place? Most of all how can she get the kids in her school to think about something besides buttons?

The king of the school story, Andrew Clements, does it again while tapping into another childhood phenomenon: fads. I'm no stranger to fads. As a children's librarian and mother I've seen everything from pods to silly bands to fidget spinners. One of the fads of my childhood, slime, has officially resurfaced in a new generation who now creates and sells it, stepping it up from the green only variety of my childhood that came packaged in a garbage can. I have never personally experienced a button fad, but it makes perfect sense. Most households have buttons, so they don't cost anything to collect. That said, Clements points out that some buttons are worth money. In an author's note he traces his inspiration to his own boys, giving the novel a personal connection. Kids will enjoy this story and possibly start a button collection of their own. Other themes include how to be a friend, standing up for yourself in a positive way, and finding ways to heal after a death. Another layer includes a lesson in basic economics, featuring supply and demand, and social-psychology, as Grace pays close attention to crowd behavior with the creation of the fad and her attempts to thwart it. Not everything goes as Grace expects, but she emerges from the rubble holding onto that which is most important.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Pie in the Sky

Image result for pie sky lai coverLai, Remy
Pie in the Sky
Holt, 2019 384 pages
Grades 3-7
Realistic/Graphic Hybrid

Jingwen moves with his younger brother and mother from an unspecified Asian country to Australia to start a new life after the death of his father. A simple baker, Dad always dreamed of moving to Australia and opening a bakery featuring all of the fancy cakes he would love to bake: “Pie in the Sky” cakes. Now Dad is dead, Mom works long hours, and the new country is confusing and unfriendly. Jingwen must take care of his annoying little brother, Yanghao, while Mom works, as a nosy old neighbor lady constantly butts into their business. Jingwen almost makes a friend, but pulls away when he sees the boy laughing with someone who formally made fun of his struggles with English. Yanghao is adjusting much better. He is making friends and reading full books in English. Jingwen just wants to go home to see his grandparents and old friends. In order to feel connected to his old life he begins to secretly bake the "Pie in the Sky" cakes that his dad taught him. There is no money for ingredients and Mom has forbidden him to use the stove, but there must be a way. If only Yanghao can keep his secret…

Debut author/illustrator Lai offers a fresh take on the immigration experience for children. Readers see through Jingwen's eyes the frustrations and fears of moving to a foreign place where the language sounds like gibberish. Through the cartoon illustrations and speech bubbles we see the nonsense out of people's mouths slowly become words as Jingwen’s English improves. The novel is a true graphic hybrid. Though mostly consisting of text, the illustrations are drawn in traditional cartoon panels and contribute to the plot. Words and illustrations work seamlessly together creating a visual experience, helping readers to immerse themselves in the story. Kids will relate to Jingwen's reluctance to let go of his own life and support his decision to connect to his father through baking the cakes, even if rules are broken. Yanghao is the quintessential annoying little brother, reminiscent of Fudge. He drives Jingwen crazy, yet is also his most precious connection. When Yanghao goes missing on Jingwen's watch, we all hold our breaths until the little rascal is found. Celebrating the power of community, the importance of family, and the healing and bonding nature of food, this deceptively light story packs a punch.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

All the Greys on Greene Street

Image result for all greys green street coverAll the Greys on Greene Street
Laura Tucker
Viking, June, 2019 307 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction/Historical Fiction

Olympia, Ollie, gives her first person account of a childhood spent in a former industrial neighborhood of Manhattan in the 1980's, better known as Soho, now a thriving artistic community. Ollie's Dad has moved to France with a new woman, leaving her behind in their loft apartment with a mother who cannot and will not get out of bed. She spends time with Dad's former business partner/art restorer, Apollo, who reveals that Dad has taken an important piece of art with him to France without the owner's permission and cannot return to the US. A mystery develops concerning the piece of art and Dad's relationship to it. Meanwhile, Mom's condition worsens and Ollie must decide whether or not to seek help from a trusted adult. She finds solace in her art and relationships with neighborhood friends. Finally, Mom's condition is discovered and Ollie is taken to an island off the coast of New York, while Apollo gets Mom the help she so greatly needs. Upon return from New York, everything explodes in a dramatic way. Ollie comes to terms with her mother's depression, as she discovers her father's true involvement in the transported piece of art.

Former ghost writer, Tucker, finally makes her own middle grade debut in a book reflective of her own childhood in New York City in the 1980's. It is only gently historical fiction, as many of the issues addressed will be understood by children today. The time period is reflected by the absence of technology and the grittiness of the city during this time, particularly in the So-Ho neighborhood, which is now much changed and swanky. Although it was hard to read Ollie's story as an adult as she lives independently, covering for her mentally ill mother, readers who also have a parent suffering from depression will find much to relate to and will be inspired by the help, once it is received. An author's note in the back of the volume directs readers to services and offers some help for those who can relate. At first the book reminded me of Under the Egg, which is one of my favorite books, because of the New York setting and art related mystery, yet the mystery in this book is slight and does not have the historical richness of the first story. Artistic readers will appreciate that Ollie finds healing through drawing, especially as she begins to explore the use of watercolors in her work. Pencil illustrations by Kelly Murphy offer some visual of Ollie's work and provide a glimpse into what is in her sketchpad. It took me a while to get through this book and it felt a little slow at times. The atmosphere of the novel is dark, reflective of the setting, yet comes alive as Ollie explores the brightness of the island. Problem-novel lovers will appreciate this story, as will budding artists. The first person narration will also draw readers in and make them feel as if they are living in 1980's So-Ho, as seen through the eyes of a child in a very adult world.