Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Dreamer

The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan. Illustrated by Peter Sis. Published 2010 by Scholastic.

Again, I'm behind the times with this read but it's been on my list for a while. I've always been attracted to the starry silhouette gracing the cover over the field of silvery blues and greens. Over the years of hearing about this book, I was surprised I didn't know the identity of Neftali until the end. This was a nice surprise for me and for that reason I will not reveal whom this book is really about. I think it gives the title more poignancy knowing that it was based on a true story though.

In this magical realism read, a young, weak boy with a stutter spends his time day dreaming and collecting treasures from the world against his father's wishes. He is constantly in fear of the bulking presence of his father and the choices he makes that are contradictory to his father's wishes. Through the calming presences and love of his grandmother and siblings, Neftali finally makes choices that are best for him though it takes growth over the whole novel for him to be able to do this. Interspersed with poetry and pointillist illustrations, this is a gem of a little biographical novel.

Intended reading level: Grades 4-8
Genre: Magical realism, historical fiction

Questions to the Reader: How did Neftali come to the decision to change his name? Why do you believe the sheep was so important to him? Why did Neftali have his sister give Blanca the stone?

Read-alikes: Summer of the Mariposas, My Name is Not Easy

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Game for Swallows

A Game for Swallows: To die, to leave, to return by Zeina Abirached. Published 2012 by Graphic Universe.

This book has been compared to Persepolis and it is very similar having to do with war in the Middle East and in black and white graphic novel form. Where Persepolis takes place over years as one girl grows up amidst war in Iran, this novel takes place over the course of a night with subsequent flashbacks for different characters. This book explores the war in Lebanon in the 80s and how one apartment complex takes refuge in the foyer of one family's apartment sharing in their fears, hopes and anxieties.
The drawings are very rounded and seemingly simple creating a cartoon like feel but the claustrophobic crowding of the panels creates the feel of the apartment as more and more people come in for comfort and refuge. The speak bubble literally create the tension in the air as they wait to hear from the children's parents who have been missing for hours.
I think this book is a great history lesson and companion to other books on the subject of war in the Middle East or war in general.

Intended reading level: Grades 7+
Genre: Non-fiction, Graphic Novel, Memoir, War

Questions to the Reader: Would you want to stay in your family home and city or would you want to leave under similar circumstances? Why or why not? Why do you think all the neighbors gathered into the one home?

Read-alikes: Persepolis 1 and 2, Maus I and II


Freakling by Lana Krumwiede. Published 2012 by Candlewick Press.

Apparently my to-read stack is two years behind publishing dates. I don't know how other librarians have time to read everything as it comes in and before it hits the shelves; I wish I could be one of them but I guess I will always lag behind.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It is another dystopian/sci-fi title where an alternate version of the earth in some unknown future date (or  past however you want to look at it) has a colony of people living on another side of a mountain that separates them from the Republik. This is not the most important part. The important part is that the reason they are separated is that they are people who all have the ability to wield psi--to be able to use their minds to do everyday tasks such as feed themselves, put on their clothes, drive psi vehicles, etc. Some people have more power and control of their psi and some don't have any at all. If you do not have psi you are sent to a town outside the city where you have to actually work as regular humans do, using zippers and forks and everything else hand related.

While this ploy seems highly improbable and absurd, the tale itself is action packed and interesting. The story focuses more on what power means and how one wields their powers in either a benign or malicious fashion. It also speaks to whether or not the powers we have should be used at all.

Intended reading level: Grades 4-7
Genre: Sci-fi/Dystopian

Question to the readers: What would you have chosen if you were Taemon? Do you think Taemon made the right choice? Why or why not? Would you want to be the True Son? What would you do if you had psi?

Read-alikes: The Giver by Lois Lowry, Matched by Ally Condie

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Year of Billy Miller

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. Published 2013 by Greenwillow Books.

This beginning chapter book was a real treat. Told in four parts framed by each member of Billy's family, Henke gives us a glimpse into Billy Miller's life through Billy's eyes that is neither contrived nor saccharine. We believe Billy's school worries and feel his frustration with his younger sister. We see how he navigates real issues within his family such as his father's artistic drive and wanting to feel like more of a grown boy. The language is simple, the illustrations are sparse yet complimentary and the length works well for this age group and reading level.

Interest level: Grades 1-3
Genre: School fiction, realistic fiction

Question to the Readers: When Billy thinks that Ms. Silver has caught him making fun of her chopsticks, he feels retched and makes amends by presenting her with gifts? What was a time that you felt really bad about something you said or did? What did you do to make up for it?

Read-alikes: Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt (slightly older audience)

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Amulet of Samarkand

Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. Published 2003 by Miramax

While I was traveling over the summer I met a young man from Brazil that shared with me that the Bartimaeus Trilogy had been one of his all-time favorite books as a child. The covers had always attracted my attention in our stacks so I assumed it was about time for me to explore this title. What's interesting about this series is that you are not quite sure who to sympathize with at first.
To begin with, the story opens from the perspective of a demon, or djinni, who tells you himself that he is not to be trusted and will exact revenge on whomever awakes him to his/her call. You begin to think that the small, sweaty boy who is summoning him is the protagonist but he begins to show signs of excessive pride and vengeance, he's not at all a likeable character....but neither is anyone else. You soon realize that these are our protagonists by the sheer fact that everyone else is much, much worse.
Now this is not to say that I didn't enjoy the story.
The language is rich and descriptive. The world is built well and the properties of how magic works in this world intrigue me. There is a lot of fast-paced action and high stakes for the characters. The characters have growth and there is humor in the way Bartimaeus relates the story. It's just that our narrator is a bit untrustworthy and we really have to work to decide how we feel about these characters and their actions. Which is not a problem! Why shouldn't we have to work a little as a reader? Why not keep us on our reading toes? Overall, I was pleased with this tale and look forward to reading the others in the series.

Intended audience: Grades 5-8
Genre: Fantasy

Question to the Readers: Do you think that summoning a demon is worth the effort? Why or why not?

Read-alikes: Artemis Fowl series,  Alchemyst series

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Last Dragonslayer

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde. Published by Harcourt 2012.

Have you grown up on Harry Potter and wondered what happened to witches and wizards once they enter the working world? Perhaps you're ready for another wizard apprentice book but you want something a bit more cheeky full of strange monsters that eat tuna cans whole for breakfast. Maybe you've always wondered what happened to dragons and what you would do if you came across the last dragon in the world and you were placed in the position to slay it based on a prophecy. If all this is true, then you should be reading The Last Dragonslayer. Perhaps it's been prophesied that this is the exact book you are meant to read and you are meant to start it today.

This book follows Jennifer Strange as she runs one of the failing wizard businesses left in a world of dwindling magic. Her current tasks would be hard enough but she soon finds out that she is the last dragonslayer and she is meant to kill Maltcassion, the last dragon, on Sunday at noon. While the position brings fame and money, she is wrought with worry over whether her prophesy is meant to be followed or if she should trust her instincts and leave a dragon in this world.

Interest level: Grades 5-8
Genre: fantasy, humor
First in a series

Question to Readers: How would you feel if you were placed in Jennifer's shoes? Who would you or wouldn't you have helped? Why? What form do you think Big Magic will take in the world once it's released.

Read-alike: The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, Harry Potter, Bartimaeus Trilogy

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Far Far Away

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal. Published 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Fairy tales give us warnings, they tuck us into bed at night and reassure us that good prevails. Fairy tales are also old, dark and spooky. Fairy tales have a power all their own. What happens when the real world twists and turns like the creepy corners of a dark tale. This novel by Tom McNeal explores this concept. The ghost of Jacob Grimm narrates the tale of his friendship with a boy who can hear the voice of ghosts in a small American town. The rich language of Jacob Grimm moves the reader through the tale, but it's the mystery of the missing children and the strange bakery that delivers Prince Cakes after a green smoke emits from its chimney that keeps us wondering what will happen in this tale.

A mystery, romance, dark fairy tale and more. The beautiful narration and the fully imagined characters make a novel that is complete and satisfying from start to finish.

Interest level: Grades 6-8
Genre: Mystery, Horror

Questions to Readers: Would you want to have the same talent as Jeremy? Why or why not? What would you have done if you were on the TV show and in Jeremy's shoes?

Read-alikes: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, Wildwood by Colin Meloy