Wednesday, August 28, 2019


Image result for slay morrisSlay
Brittney Morris
Simon & Schuster, September, 2019 321 pages
Grades 8-Up
Science Fiction

Kiera is a high school senior at a prestigious prep school where she feels too black for her white friends, yet outside of school feels also feels like she doesn’t exactly fit. In order to find a place where she feels totally herself, Kiera develops SLAY, an on-line role-playing game based on African-rooted culture. Only black people are allowed to play, making a safe community where the players do not feel judged and can be themselves. SLAY flies under the world-wide radar until a teen in Kansas City gets murdered over a SLAY related incident. Now the whole world knows about SLAY and is calling it dangerous and racist, since it leaves out folks of other races. People are clamoring to discover who the creator is and Kiera fears for her life. Time spent outside the gaming world is also complicated, as her boyfriend is pressuring her to make a college decision and is verbally against the game and its creator. Kiera, herself, feels torn as guilt about the death of the teen makes her question the world of which she has created. Support comes from unexpected places as Kiera learns the true identities of some of the players and fights to save the game and to keep it safe for the community she has cultivated, who depend on this safe place. A new player enters the SLAY world and is challenging its very existence. Kiera must duel the new enemy in order to save the game. Will she lose it all? And who is this mysterious enemy?

This new title by debut author Brittney Morris is a much anticipated fall release. Inspired by Black Panther, the author wanted to create the same kind of community she felt while seeing the movie. In creating SLAY, this is achieved. SLAY is a role-playing card game, much like Dungeons and Dragons, yet seeped in black culture. Morris questions the right for any race, white or black, to exclude other races, yet displays the need for members of the black community to have safe spaces where they can feel totally themselves. Teens love video games and books that are partly told in a virtual world will find a hungry audience. I love that our hero is a smart girl who codes-who also has a fearless, spunky, and super cool sister. I totally would want to hang out with these girls and they serve as a strong inspiration to female readers, who will also be applauding when Kiera sees the light about her boyfriend and learns that she will survive without him. The book reads quickly and is an excellent choice for reluctant readers. It has an enticing cover that will help sell the book to the target audience. Kiera's guilt about the murdered boy disappears a bit too quickly, and other plot points seem a bit contrived, but teen readers won't care. They will devour this book and wish that they could log into a world similar to SLAY and get their aggressions out in the arena.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Dream Within a Dream

Image result for dream within dream maclachlan coverDream Within a Dream
Patricia MacLachlan
Simon & Schuster, 2019 119 pages
Grades 5-7
Realistic Fiction

Eleven year old Louisiana (Louisa) and her little brother Theo are sent for the summer to their grandparent's house on Deer Island off the New England mainland. Grandpa Jake's eyes are failing as he struggles to keep up with the small farm, work on his beloved classic car, and spend time with the love of his life; Grandma Boots. Boots is busy reinventing herself, as she prepares to pick up some of the slack created by her husband's declining health. The predicable summer changes for Louisa when she meets the neighbor boy, George, and sparks fly. It is love at first sight as the two new friends get to know each other through conversations, dancing, and interviewing local island folk for a special project. Theo and his new pals also get involved in the project and Theo decides and that he does not want to return to "normal" mainland life, but wants to remain on the island. Louisa agrees, so when their naturalist parents return from a birding exhibition, the kids plead their case to stay. Will they be allowed to remain on the island with their grandparents, new friends, and the sense of home?

Newbery winner, Patricia MacLachlan is consistently an amazing writer of children's literature. Her books are beautifully lyrical with intentional language, making every word count. This atmospheric story does not fail to disappoint in this regard. It is tightly written and feels like a magical fairy tale--yet the magic is real. My artist cousin lived on a small island off the coast of Maine. This island was a magical place: a simple life filled with eccentric and kind people, far away from the rat-race that is our consumer driven popular-culture worshiping society. I considered joining her on the island-for a hot minute. The lack of employment opportunities kept me in the New Jersey suburbs. This book is so reminiscent of that place that it truly brought me back. Deer Island captures the peace I remember, as well as the fabulous characters. One of Maclachlan's islanders is Ashley Bryan, who really does live on an island off of Maine, which was a playful touch. My trouble with this book is that I am not sure of the intended audience. The reading level, length, and font size make the story appear to be for third and fourth graders, yet the subject matter of first love makes it more appropriate for an older audience. I had trouble with an eleven year old falling in love with the complete support of all the adults, who lead Louisa to believe that finding your soulmate at eleven is completely natural. A bit quiet for young readers, I don't think that they will relate to the plot or appreciate the beautiful language. Also, between the family, friends, island people, dogs, and various livestock, there are a lot of names to keep straight and I, myself, struggled with this, so I can only imagine how a young reader will do with it. A beautiful book that is sure to end up on many "best of" lists, yet may be lost on the audience for which is was created.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Queen of the Sea

Image result for queen of the sea meconis coverQueen of the Sea
Dylan Meconis
Walker/Candlewick, 2019 394 pages
Grades 3-Up
Graphic Novel

Orphan Margaret has lived her entire life on a small island off the coast of Albion with an order of nuns, a sleepy priest, a handful of servants, and a crew of various domestic animals. Life is predictable and safe on the island, if not a little dull, until the bi-yearly ship arrives with an elegant lady and a little boy named William. William and Margaret become fast friends and run around the island together exploring and having adventures. After the lady dies William, now a young man, is sent off the island to a prison where he will join his brothers. It is then that Margaret discovers that her island home is actually a prison and that all of the nuns were sent to for various infractions against the crown. Margaret, herself, is not allowed to leave the island, though the nature of her confinement is unclear. One day the bi-yearly ship arrives early and with it comes a haughty grand lady who is clearly a prisoner and a bossy nun who is clearly the lady's captor. The lady turns out to be the unseated Queen Eleanor, who is now banished to the island by her sister, the new Queen Catherine.  More secrets are to be revealed as Margaret and Eleanor become reluctant friends and politics and espionage disturb the former tranquility of the secluded island prison.

Debut graphic novelist, Dylan Meconis, has created quite a masterpiece in this very involved and elaborate book. Slightly over-sized and longer than most graphic novels, it must have taken a very long time to create. The comic illustrations are expertly crafted and the panels read well. Style and coloring changes as stories from the past are relayed, clueing the reader into the time change. The muted colors and mat pages make the volume feel like an ancient tome, helping the reader to fall into the setting. The story has historic context, as related in an author's note, relating loosely the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her sister Mary. The plot is rollicking, offering adventure and surprises. Family secret are revealed and identities and loyalties are questioned. At times the story feels like a fairy tale, yet contains no magic, just secrets from the past and an ancient time period. Margaret is a brave, curious and fearless character that readers will both identify with and root for. Other characters show multiple sides to their personalities and experience growth as the novel progresses. The author leaves the story at a bit of a cliff hanger, making way for a possible sequel. Sure to find an audience, recommend this book to graphic novel experts and fantasy lovers.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Planet Earth is Blue

Image result for planet earth is blue coverPlanet Earth is Blue
Nicole Panteleakos
Penguin, 2019 240 pages
Grades 4-8
Historical Fiction

Debut author, Panteleakos takes us inside the mind of a twelve-year-old non-verbal Autistic girl. Nova is bright and has a lot to say, only the world sees her as "retarded" and extremely limited. Making matters worse, Nova is an orphan and the only person to champion her, older sister Bridget, is missing. It is 1986 and Autism research is in its infancy. Social workers, foster parents, and teachers do not know how to effectively communicate with Nova or properly understand her condition. Both Nova and Bridget have always been interested in space travel and Nova spends hours listening to Bowie's Space Oddity, waiting for Bridget to return. Bridget promised to be there for the launching of the Challenger, launching with the first teacher in space, so Nova knows she will see her sister soon. Meanwhile, a new foster home brings a family who sees potential in Nova and starts to unlock the secrets buried inside of her. She finally begins to feel safe and loved. If only Bridget was here. Finally, the day of the Challenger's launch arrives with historically disastrous results, triggering the memory of truth behind Bridget's whereabouts. Will Nova be able to pick up the pieces and continue forward?

This has been truly a space travel summer. From the Summer Reading Club theme to the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landing, everywhere I look is space travel, which is something both the kids and my library and myself love. The market is responding to this trend with the release of many such themed books throughout this year. Planet Earth is Blue traces the Challenger Disaster as seen through the eyes of a severely Autistic girl who loves outer space. Although Nova cannot communicate to the outside world, we are privy to her thoughts and letters to her missing sister offer a first person narration of the events in the proceeding chapter. Since the 1980's setting is integral to the story, this book is clearly historical fiction. A little mystery is included concerning the whereabouts of Bridget. Hints are given throughout the story, though the truth still comes as a blow to the reader. Heartfelt and sad, yet still hopeful, have tissues ready as the story reaches its climax. Fans of Out of My Mind and Wonder will find much to enjoy in this story and it will fill the bill for the steady stream of requests for problem novels that I receive from young readers. An author's note at the end gives historic background of this famous space disaster and also offers information about Autism and the narrator's own journey with Asperger’s. A great book with many layers, this title has Newbery potential.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Line Tender

Image result for line tender allen coverThe Line Tender
Kate Allen
Dutton/Penguin, 2019 371 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Lucy is spending a lazy summer with her best friend and neighbor Fred in their 1980's hometown off the coast of Cape Cod. Lucy's deceased mother was a marine biologist/shark specialist, so when family-friend and fisherman, Sookie, discovers a great white in the vicinity, Lucy and Fred are interested. The shark disappears overnight, but its existence ignites the duo's interest in Mom's work and encourages them to delve into research for the field guide that they are working on for extra credit. Police officer Dad is still mourning the loss of his wife and spends most of his time distracted by work and diving, leaving Lucy and Fred to their own devices. The summer chugs along, only something is different. Now that they are thirteen, the relationship between Lucy and Fred seems to be shifting in a confusing way. Fred is changing and the comfortable feelings between the two are suddenly slightly charged with energy. Before Lucy has a chance to sort through these new emotions, tragedy strikes in a devastating and unexpected way. Now she and Dad must rebuild their lives all over again and try to make sense of the loss of both Mom and the new tragedy. Will they find a line tender to keep them from drowning?

Debut author, Kate Allen, has written my new favorite novel of the year, which made me cry in two different places. It is very sad in parts, which will appeal to the current trend of readers wanting "problem novels", yet ultimately ends on a hopeful note. Lucy finds healing in community and all of the characters experience growth and become stronger through the bonds with each other. There are some truly beautiful and magical moments in this story and the writing is spot-on. Even though it’s well written, it is also very readable and will be enjoyed by its target audience. The adults in the book are key characters, right along with the child protagonists, and are both flawed and reliable and loving. Beautifully rendered pencil illustrations of sharks, by Xingye Jin introduce each chapter and represent Lucy's contribution to the field guide. I learned about sharks, diving, and what it must be like to grow up on Cape Cod, making my life richer for the time spent within the pages of this book. Set in the 1980's, the time period is not instrumental to the story, allowing me not to classify it as historical fiction, yet this time period keeps computers and cell phones out of the equation, leaving the children space to explore, roam and have interpersonal communications with their neighbors and community. Feeling like two books in one, from before and after the tragedy, The Line Tender shares many parallels to the critically acclaimed The Thing about Jellyfish. Young readers will "dive" right into this beautiful novel, have a good cry, and find healing right along with Lucy.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Red Zone

Image result for red zone vecchini coverThe Red Zone: an Earthquake Story
Silva Vecchini & Sualzo
Amulet/Abrams, September, 2019 133 pages
Grades 5-Up
Graphic Novel

Matteo's life changes when an earthquake hits his small Italian village. He grabs his younger sister and the two spend a fearful night huddled under a table. Once the dust settles, they head, along with Matteo's mom, grandmother, and stepdad, to an emergency shelter. Matteo's father shows up with a camper, into which the family moves, avoiding the tent city that the other village residents must endure. Life slowly starts to resume to a new normal. School continues in a tent and the children begin to play again and kick the soccer ball around. Matteo and his friends explore the forbidden "Red Zone", the area where the earthquake hit, discovering the once lovely buildings turned into a pile of rubble. Some residents cope with the loss better than others and after someone intentionally destroys the younger kids’ art work, Matteo is determined to discover the culprit. Once discovered, it is not who Matteo suspects and he helps the transgressor find healing for a devastating loss. A kind teacher thinks of a way to mend the broken artwork, serving as a metaphor for the townsfolk to mend their broken lives and put things back together, though not exactly the same, but richer and more interesting.

The Italian authors/illustrator of this new graphic novel were inspired by the real earthquake that hit central Italy in 2016, destroying several villages. Certainly Italian children will find help and hope in this volume, but other young people suffering devastating losses will find comfort in Matteo's story as well. The text is sparse and most of the story is told through the beautiful full-color illustrations. The devastation of a natural disaster is seen through the eyes of a young person and the authors stay true to this point of view. The resiliency of the survivors is inspiring and many readers will be encouraged by the courage displayed by the characters and the sense of community displayed. The only thing that confused me about the book is the actual age of Matteo and his friends. My guess was that they were in middle school, maybe seventh grade, yet Matteo has a girlfriend with whom he kisses, putting them older. I think that the romance element could have been left out, although this was originally written for an Italian audience and maybe kids start dating younger within this culture. At any rate, it does not get inappropriate for a younger audience and American children will find much to delve into, broadening their view of the world and translating the experience to find healing for their own losses.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Born to Fly

Image result for steve sheinkin born fly coverBorn to Fly: the First Woman's Air Race Across America
Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook, Sept. 2019 288 pages
Grades 5-Up

Award winning author of non-fiction for young people, Sheinkin offers an account of a little known chapter of American history: the first all-female air race across the country at the end of the jazz age in 1929. Sheinkin begins by tracing an early common denominator of many of the participants: they jumped off of roofs as children in attempts to fly. Individual paths to achieve this dream are traced, leading our heroines to the famous, yet mostly forgotten, air derby that causes mass controversy and diversion in this long ago time before television and video games. Certainly the most well-known female pilot of the time, Amelia Earhart is featured, but equal time is given to the other brave souls who put their lives at risk to push boundaries and make history. The derby itself is described day-by-day, complete with daily statistics and accounts of sabotage and intriguing. Despite opposition from many fronts, especially after a death occurs, the race draws to a close with a winner and the start of a new era in aviation, as the Great Depression rolls into the country and the world prepares for war.

Sheinkin has won the most important awards in the field of children's literature for a reason. His well-researched, documented, and highly readable narrative non-fiction is the best in the genre. Born to Fly reads like fiction, yet is an actual chapter from our country's past. Besides providing a historic account of the history of aviation and women within the field, Sheinkin highlights the cultural of the times, including sexist and racist sentiments and the battles that these women had to fight in order to achieve their dreams. Both boys and girls who read this book will be inspired to fight to do what they love and even kids not interested in flying will enjoy this thrilling account. Original illustrations, contributed by Bijou Karman, are generously sprinkled throughout the text, as are actual photos of the events and people described. Extensive notes, sources, and an index round out the volume. Sheinkin offers a follow-up to the pilots, so readers will know what happened to these fearless women after the derby and also answers the question that was on my mind: "why do we now only know about Amelia Earhart?" With obvious curriculum connections this title will be useful for both pleasure reading and school work, making it a book with legs that is sure to be purchased by many libraries and win further accolades for the author.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Rest of the Story

Image result for rest of the story dessen coverThe Rest of the Story
Sarah Dessen
Balzer & Bray, 2019 448 pages
Grades 8-Up
Contemporary Romance

Emma's life changes when her Dad remarries and leaves for his honeymoon. The place where she is set to stay falls through and she finds herself at the beach town home of her late mother with relatives she can barely remember. Mom dies from drug addiction and the memories are still painful. Getting to know all of the new relatives, who call her by her middle name "Saylor" just as Mom did, brings memories back to the surface that she thought she buried. Everyone in the beach town sums up their lives in five sentences, forming fast connects that tend to last only for the summer. Roo seems different, as he understands Emma's past. He is the son of Mom's best friend--who also died young in an alcohol related accident. Saylor and Roo form a bond that cements their friendship: can it lead to romance? Meanwhile, Saylor's cousin falls for a rich boy at the ritzy side of the beach town who has a friend interested in Saylor. The two girls cross the tracks and check out life behind the scenes at the posh-side. Dad and stepmom return from Greece only to want to take Saylor away, just as she is connecting with this part of the family that she never knew she needed. How can she convince Dad to let her stay?

The Rest of the Story in Five sentences:
1. Classic Sarah Dessen, sure to appeal to her fans.
2. Perfect summer read that, although appears long, reads really quickly and is impossible to put down.
3. Serious underling themes such as underage drinking and addiction--and the effects of this on children of the addicts.
4. Main theme is the importance of family and the security of them loving you and being loyal no matter what.
5. In typical Jane Austin fashion the ingĂ©nue spends a good portion of the book in an intricate dance with the male protagonist, only to finally fall in love at book's end, sealed with a passionate kiss. Predictable, yet highly entertaining and satisfying.
Wait-that's six sentences!