Saturday, December 31, 2011

Liesl and Po

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver. Published 2011.

I really enjoyed this book. The writing was great and the illustrations complimented it without distracting or becoming a main focus. The writing was fresh and lovely and not extraneous and it moved the story along even when there wasn't huge plot points or cliffhangers. I've heard from some students that this is their all time favorite book and from others who just couldn't get into it, so it's a mixed bag when it comes to kid reviews.

Liesl is locked in an attic room after the mysterious death of her father, when two fuzzy shapes appear in her room and decide to help her escape and bring her father's ashes to her old home. The fuzzy shapes are neither boy nor girl nor dog nor cat but some how a blur of both, but they are certainly ghosts from the Other Side.
Meanwhile, Will is an orphan who works for an alchemists who has been working on the greatest magic in the world to give to the Lady Premiere. When Will accidentally confuses the boxes with Leisel's father's ashes and the magic, the two kids find themselves working together as runaways. Many of the characters collide and their fates intertwine, which could seem too easily wrapped up, but I liked it and thought it was more whimsical.

Interest level: Grade 3-6 Reading Level: Grade 6
Genre: Fantasy, friendship

Comparable Titles: Magic Thief

Book Connections: grief, alchemy, ghost stories

Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Published 2011.

This book was marketed as YA, but I'm curious what the author's intended audience was. The lastest trend in publishing is to market any book with teen protagonists as YA or for children when really that's not the audience that the book was intended for. I say this, not because the content was so horrendous that a teen couldn't read it, but more because I feel that the social commentary that is at the soul of the book is more appropriate for adults. I'm not sure if Teens have been removed enough from questions of identity to truly appreciate the satire.
I didn't dislike the book as I am an adult reading it. I got tired of the commercial breaks and the overhanded references that didn't really need footnotes because only a handful of the footnotes were funny, but I did like the writing and the story in the moments that were written in third person and actually had plot. I even loved this next section:

"I've been thinking about that book about boys who crash on the island," Mary Lou said to Adina one afternoon as they rested on their elbows taking bites from the same papaya.
"Lord of the Flies. What about it?" 
"You know how you said it wasn't a true measure of humanity because there were no girls and you wondered how it would be different if there had been girls?"
"Yeah."
Mary Lou wiped fruit juice from her mouth with the back of her hand. "Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one's watching them so they can be who they really are."... 
There was something about the island that made the girls forget who they had been. All those rules and shalt nots. They were no longer waiting for some arbitrary grade. They were no longer performing. Waiting. Hoping.
They were becoming.
They were.

The book definitely made me think about stuff and want to discuss issues it brought up and tell people about it and argue with it, which is a sign of a good book. But I also didn't dive into reading it and put it down more often then I wanted to pick it up so it was a mixed bag, but here is the synopsis:

A plane of beauty queens are on an airplane together on their way to the Teen Dream pageant when it crashes on an island that they think is deserted. They must learn to survive for themselves but soon find in the process that their identity as beauty queen is unraveling and their idea of womanhood is opening up. Soon they find a plot that threatens their life and their dreams on the island and when a ship of cute male pirates crash lands on their shores, their new standards are put to the test. Now take all that, and put it through a lens of satire.

Intended reading level: YA (and on the high school level)
Genre: Survival, Satire, Adventure

Comparable Titles: Lord of the Flies

Book Connections: Women's Rights and Identity, Sexual objectification, Beauty Pageants, Survival skills, Media Studies

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Wisdom's Kiss

Wisdom's Kiss by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Publised 2011.

I had picked this one up because the reviews made it sound like it was tongue-in-cheek and a little satirical. I was intrigued by the full title which actually runs: Wisdom's Kiss: A thrilling and romantic adventure incorporating magic, villainy, and a cat. I thought perhaps it would have overtures of Princess Bride like qualities to it. In actuality, that was all a bit true, but also not quite there either. The book is what the title says and in a way takes itself quite seriously, but by using many different forms and narrators to tell the story, it creates a sort of parody-like nature. There is an over the top play format, letters the queen writes to her granddaughter and an acrobat writes to his school sweetheart, memoirs, biographies, and encyclopedic entries. The language in this is also highly inflected so younger readers would have a bit of trouble with it. There's a glossary in the back to help. It was a great read and I really enjoyed it, but I think it would be a specific reader who could really get into it and enjoy it for what it is.

I won't be able to sum up the story beyond the fact that its a thrilling and romantic adventure with magic, villainy and a cat, because there is too much going on and you will just have to read it to find out for yourself.

Interest and reading level: YA
Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Adventure

Comparable titles: Princess Bride, Princess Ben, The Goose Girl, Ella Enchanted

Book Connections: Primary sources such as letters, memoirs, clippings, etc. that detail a historical event

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Flint Heart

The Flint Heart by Katherine Paterson and John Paterson. Published 2011.

This is a abridged, rewrite of Eden Phillpott's 1910 Fantasy by the same name. It keeps to a classic fairy tale form with the repetition of three, a land of fairies, strange magic and a human and animal interaction. There is dread and drama, but not excessively. The illustrations are fantastic and the story is magical and intriguing and a great bedtime read for children. The language can be a bit mature for students to handle on their own for the intended audience, which could make it a hard sell. The book is made to look like a large picture book with the glossy print and high color illustrations, but as mentioned, the language is harder than the picture book readers could handle.

A flint heart is created that gives ultimate power to whoever wears it, but it also turns them into a horrible version of themselves. For over 5,000 years it falls into different hands and only a boy, his sister, a dog and a hot water bottle can help the fairy kingdom to end the power of the flint heart.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 6?
Genre: Fairy tale, fantasy

Comparable titles: A Tale Dark and Grimm, Tale of Desperaux

Book Connections: The original tale, fairy tales in general

The Looking Glass Wars

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor. Published 2006.

Alice is not Alice. She is Alyss. And she didn't fall into Wonderland, she fell out of it. Or at least, that's what this telling presupposes. Wonderland is a place of Imagination where anything can happen. Including the sister of the queen, Redd, heading a coup and taking off all the Royals' heads. Alyss must disappear into our world only to find her way back to Wonderland 13 years later to regain the thrown and find her true self.

This was an interesting take on the Wonderland tale but I had some issues with it. It was packed with violence so don't think that it would be good for younger kids just cause of the Alice in Wonderland reference. There is a lot of social commentary with Redd and her take over and there is a strange twisting of the past and the real history of Alice Liddell. Sometimes, I just felt like the formation of the story was off. You keep waiting for the story you know but it never comes and then its like the story that is written is trying to twist itself into what you would expect from what you do know. I see that there are a lot of people trying to pull off Maguire's Wicked but his ploy worked because he wrote his version for adults and could get a lot grittier and deal with adult issues.

But if you want action, a fast-pace, fantastical elements and a war, this book will keep some readers reading. I had one students who wasn't a fan and one student love it so 50/50.

Interest and Reading level: YA (the language could be accessible for younger but there is a lot of violent content)
Genre: Action, Fantasy
First book in a series of three, another series spin-off for the Mad Hatter as well

Comparable titles: Wicked, Peter and the Starcatchers, Artemis Fowl

Book Connections: Alice in Wonderland, the history of the British crown during the Victorian era, Street Urchins

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Witch and Wizard

Witch and Wizard by James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet. Published 2009.

All the girls are furiously demanding this book in the library right now, so I picked it up and gave it a read before bringing it in to the library. Basically, imagine Harry Potter had a sister, his parents were alive, but they lived in a world where Voldemort rules therefore no Hogwarts. On top of that, give it the sense of energy and fast pace from the Hunger Games and you have Witch and Wizard. I didn't think this book was as good as either of those two series but I was able to read all 300 pages of it in two hours so it definitely kept me hooked. There were some terms that the main characters don't even know and I kept expecting the other characters to finally tell them what they mean but it never happened. The book was also told in the perspective of the brother and sister, switching at random. This device doesn't bother me, but the fact that their voices and personalities were so similar, I didn't really see the point. We're told the brother is well-mannered and the sister mis-behaves, but I don't see it in their actions or in the way either of them tell the story. They both seem like the sister and I had to check to see whose section it was based on from the name on the top of the chapter just to tell the difference. But anyhoo, here's the story:

Whit and Wist are taken from their home in the middle of the night by guards of the New Order, or N.O. They are told that they will be put on trial for being a witch and wizard, but they have no idea what they're talking about until Wist suddenly burst into flames that hurt everyone but herself. In prison, they find that their emotions cause them to do other things like turn a boy they hate into a weasel, glow, float, stop things mid-air and sink into other dementions. Led on an escape mission by Whit's ethereal girlfriend, they enter other dimensions and learn that there is more to this world than they thought and more to who they are.

I will say this for the book. It definitely wasn't marketed just for girls or boys, which is nice and I think this is the reason for the two narratives from both a female and male character. So smart on their part. Even though the cover looks like it's for older readers, it would be fine for fourth graders or third even. At least for this first book.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 5
Genre: Fantasy, Action
First in series.

Comparable Titles: Akata Witch, Hunger Games, Gregor the Overlander

Book Connections: Wiccan principles, Totalitarian regimes, theories about the afterlife

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Cricket in Times Square

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden. Published 1960. Newbery Honor Medal.

Reading this book was like experiencing deja vu. I knew I had read it when I was little but I couldn't remember anything more than what the cover suggests. As I read it this time, glimpses of memory would come back to me as if in a foggy dream, but nothing specific or jogging that made me go, "Yes, I remember this scene." I can understand how it has lasted this long. The book is easy to read, has good details, the friendship between the animals is genuine and there are enough bits of excitement spread throughout to carry you along. Sai Fong and friend are stereotyped, but not negatively, just dated.

Synopsis: A cricket ends up in a subway station in Times Square and is soon collected as a pet for the newstand owner's son, Mario. The cricket, Chester, befriends Tucker the Mouse and Harry the Cat in the train station. They discover that the cricket's beautiful musical ability can be translated to a human audience so that they can earn money for the poor Bellini family whose newstand isn't doing so well. At the heart of the book, its a tale of friendship and coming together.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 5
Genre: Friendship, Fiction
First in series.

Comparable Titles: Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little

Book Connections: Orchestra and Opera, Crickets, Subways, Times Square, Making a newstand or business-math

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Wednesday Wars

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt. Published 2007. Newbery Honor Book.

This one had another slow start for me but once I got into it I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. At first it was reminding me of Leon and the Spitting Image with the protagonist mistrusting and not liking the teacher, but while that one stayed very superficial, this book got into territory with a lot more emotional depth. The use of the Shakespeare plays shape the story in a way that students may not understand at first, but is really smart and a great frame for the story of Holling Hoodhood wihout having to be hit over the head with it. I was disappointed some times in how perfectly things worked out for Holling in certain situations, but by the end, some of this trope had mellowed out and the emotional stuff took precedence. I wished some of this was present in the beginning, but it all came together in the end.

The book takes place during the Vietnam war. Holling is from a Presbyterian family in a town divided by Catholics and Jews. He finds he is alone with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, every Wednesday when the rest of his class leaves for their religious studies. She decides to have him read Shakespeare plays to occupy his time and soon Holling takes on a sort of mentorship with his teacher that removes him from the confines of his strict, conservative father's plans for his life and allows him to blossom and find a friend in his teacher.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 5 (though I might argue for a little older with all the Shakespearean quotes)

Genre: Historical Fiction, Coming-of-age

Comparable Titles: Maniac Magee, One Crazy Summer

Book Connections: The Civil Rights Movement, Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign, Shakespeare, Vietnam War, cream puffs, Track, Melbourne Olympics, New York Yankees, architecture


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien. Published 1971. Newbery Medal winner.

I may have read this when I was little, but I couldn't remember so I thought I would take a stab at it again. I find that I'm not into the animal books that much, so it took me a while to get into it, but around page 100 when Nicodemus starts to tell the story of the rats of NIMH I was hooked. While the beginning is full of details and great anthropomorphism of the animal characters, there is something about the tale of the rats that is so much more exciting.

After Mrs. Frisby's son gets pneumonia and can't be moved, she finds that winter is ending and they must move to their summer home before they are plowed under by the farmer. With the help of a crow and an owl, Mrs. Frisby is told to see the rats who will help her with her problem as long as she tells them her belated husband was Jonathon Frisby. She soon finds out the rats are more than you would expect and they tell her the tale of how they came to be hiding under the rosebush and how her husband was involved. Being much smarter than the average rats, they devise a plan to move her home so that she will not have to move her son and they won't be killed if they stay.

Once the rats are part of the picture there is a lot more action and it starts to feel almost like a spy book with them creeping about the laboratory and trying to find ways to escape and live. A Classic for a reason.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 5
Genre: They say Fantasy, but I would think its more Action/Sci-Fi. The animals aren't really talking to humans and there are no magical elements.
First in series.

Comparable titles: Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, Wind in the Willows

Book Connections: Lab Animals, The Seasons, medicinal herbs, building your own society, the habits of rats and mice

Monday, November 28, 2011

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. Published 1990.

I had not read any of Avi's work before at least to my knowledge, so I was happy to finally read one of his selections. I'm always intrigued by prolific writers who seem to cover a different variety of topics and styles.

What I found interesting about this book is what could have just been a swashbuckling, sea adventure story turned more into a tale about class, race and gender, but without necessarily having to knock you over the head with this information. It had a great opening paragraph, but it was a bit slow for me to get into at first. Once I understood the time period and the characters more, I was able to enjoy the adventure. I especially liked the ending because I understood more about her class and expectations from her family and it surprised me what path she chose in the end. I wish there could have been more of a glimpse of this in the beginning, but I suppose it worked better to leave the comparisons between the captain and her father for the end.

So plot: Charlotte Doyle is set to sail to America to meet up with her parents and siblings in Rhode Island. When she embarks on the ship, she finds that the other families that were to be her guardians have not made it for different reasons and the shipmates keep warning her not to take the voyage. With no other choice, Charlotte continues on board and finds that there is a mutinous plot on hand to overthrow the captain. Unfortunately for Charlotte, she's not sure who to trust. Captain Jaggery who matches her in manners and civil standing or Zachariah who claims to be her one true friend on the ship. When new information comes to light, Charlotte takes a stand and soon finds that she is not the well-mannered Miss Doyle she once thought she was.

Interest level: Grade 5-8 Reading level: Grade 5
Genre: Adventure, Historical Fiction

Comparable Titles: Dagger Quick, Treasure Island, Elijah of Buxton (not about sailing, but the voice and adventure seemed similar)

Book Connections: Learning about ships of the past, Laws of the Sea, Hurricanes, Court Trails, Gender Roles

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Goats

The Goats by Brock Cole. Published 1987.

I just read a post about this book still being a classic and full of suspense and surprises on another website, so I thought I would give it a try. Based on the super cheesy 80s cover that my copy has, I was surprised by this book, but not necessarily sure it it was a good surprise.

As a practical joke, a boy and a girl are left stranded on an island completely naked. Instead of waiting for their humiliation in the morning, they decide to swim to shore and disappear. This leads to their becoming closer through their trauma and causing worry both for the camp and the girl's mother. It's a survival tale of two kids on their own trying not to get discovered by the police or anyone else.

For the most part, that description matches with that on the book cover except for the survival bit. I was expecting more of them to haunt around the camp ground and watch as everyone worried over them. I thought it would be a more guilt-based book with them torturing these that tortured them with worry over their possible death by drowning. Instead it was an odd survival tale with extreme hints at sexualization and coming-of-age in strange ways. Also its a bit dated with the segregated camp for Black kids and how they hide out there with a little bit of fear and awe. I was surprised that the girl's period played such a large role in the story and that they kept hinting at the two kids being put together to possibly have sex. From the narration and the description of the kids, I expected them to be much younger and the sex stuff kinda threw me for a loop.

It was an intriguing read and I did wonder what was going to happen to them and I was satisfied with the ending, but it was also a very odd tale of survival.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 4 (from content I would say Grade 6 or higher)
Genre: Coming-of-age, Survival, Realistic fiction

Comparable titles: Hatchet, Are you there God, It's me Margaret?

Book Connections: bullying, the reality of practical jokes, how to survive on your own, what to do in emergencies

Monday, November 21, 2011

Teashop Girls

Teashop Girls by Laura Schaefer. Published 2008.

I am obsessed with Afternoon Tea. It's my favorite thing in the world and my goal is to one day own a Vegan Teashop as having given up dairy it's dramatically effected my ability to enjoy scones and clotted cream. With the old tea advertisements, recipes and specific tea preparations, this book had me absorbed at first. Unfortunately, as the story ran on, I was less and less a fan of the characters or plot but read on for my love of tea.

Annie Green wants to work at her grandmother's tea shop that her and her friends grew up enjoying. She gets her wish but soon finds out that her grandmother is being evicted and business has extremely slowed down since the death of her grandfather a few years back. With the help of her friends and using her love of list making, Annie will attempt to save the Steeping Leaf for future Teashop Girls.

As I mentioned, the plot sizzled out for me. The writer tried to get all the tween girl things in their. Romantic interest, trouble with friends, school work and extracurriculars of life becoming more demanding, but it was all too much. Annie seems way older than her 13 years suggest, especially when they take on adult responsibilities of saving the teashop. I didn't really believe it was a young girl telling the story, but rather an adult author pretending what life would be like had she done these things when she was 13. Also, as much as I love tea and love that the book encouraged correct steeping and care instructions, the mention of tea in the book almost got didactic, and how can you get didactic about tea. Anyway, for girls who really love friendship and innocent romance books, this one may be up their alley, but it wasn't my favorite.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 5
Genre: Friendship, realistic fiction
First in series.

Comparable titles: Sweet Treats and Secret Crushes

Book Connections: Tea of course!

Gregor the Overlander

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins. Published 2003.

With the release of the official Hunger Games trailer and the excitement that is bubbling over that, I had wanted to reread Hunger Games, but I thought it would be better to tackle something I hadn't read yet, so I picked up her first novel, Gregor the Overlander. With the same suspense and sense of action as the Hunger Games book, this title did not disappoint.

This book is much more fantastical and doesn't have any of the dystopian elements, but with the entrance into the strange Underland and the creation of the caste system of creatures and the quest that ensues, readers would be happy to give this one a try after reading all of Collin's other books.

Gregor and his baby sister Boots, fall into a grate in their laundry room and thanks to a rare air current, they follow through an Alice like Wonderland hole and make it safely to the ground, only to be captured by giant talking cockroaches, or crawlers. They are taken to Regalia, the city of the Humans in the Underland and presented with a quest as had been predicted hundreds of years ago. Gregor agrees to the quest only to save his father who had disappeared more than two year before and has been discovered to be a prisoner of the dread rats, also giant and talking. With the help of giant bats and spiders, the quest sets off into the Underland.

Very Alice and Wonderland but much darker with hints of a Fellowship of the Ring style quest.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 6
Genre: Fantasy
First in a series.

Comparable titles: Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Rings trilogy

Book Connections: Animals that live in the deep dark, air currents, Creating your own imagined city

Book Trailer:

Milkweed

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. Published 2003.

I really enjoy Spinelli's work so I was not disappointed by this book at all. It was a very interesting read and a very interesting perspective on the Holocaust.

This is a story told by a young boy who has no idea who he is or where he comes from. He is a gypsy and we can assume he is about 6 years old at the beginning of the story to account for his view of the world, his lack of knowledge about his life and his narration style. Because of this we see the Holocaust through a child's innocent perspective which makes it in some ways less scary but also even more so because we worry for the narrator about the trouble he will get into because he doesn't take anything seriously and doesn't understand the implications of his actions or of the actions of those around him.

His friend Uri takes him under his wing and gives him the name Misha Pilsudski as the boy believes his name to be "Stopthief." Misha believes the stories Uri tells about him and makes his life into whatever name is given him. As he grows he becomes part of the Milgrom family and lives with them in the Jewish ghetto, turning from a gypsy street rat to a Jewish son. As he weaves in and out of Warsaw stealing food, he witnesses different things and begins to grow and see the world for what it is, but only too late.

Younger students would have no trouble reading the language of the book, but the content would be hard to grasp. Definitely more fit for grades 7 and 8.

Interest level: YA
Genre: Historical Fiction

Comparable titles: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Noah Barleywater Runs Away, Number the Stars, One and Then

Book Connections: Holocaust history, Hannukah, Warsaw, World War II, Merry-go-rounds, Milkweed, baking bread, pickled herring and pickled eggs

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling. Published 2007.

Well...the Harry Potter series has ended both in print and in film, so what next? Why, Tales of Beetle the Bard of course. I was Hermione Granger for Halloween this year and I wanted a copy of this book to carry around as a prop but did not get it in time and instead created my own version. What I like about this book, isn't just the tales themselves, which are surprisingly good folk and fairy tales from a wizard perspective, but that they are framed with notes from Dumbledore and Rowling. I think this book would be a great addition to a classroom or library to be used to teach kids about informational text. It uses an introduction and footnotes and Dumbledore writes about the tales like a Professor would be writing a thesis about fairy tales. It would hold the kids interest because of the Harry Potter reference but would also teach them how to read footnotes and how to analyze a tale for historical and societal implications.

Basically, the book is a collection five tales from the wizarding world of Harry Potter including the Tale of the Three Brothers that was included in the last of the Potter books. After each tale is commentary by Dumbledore and within is commentary are footnotes by himself and Rowling (obviously all of it is Rowling but play along). The commentary dissects what each tale meant in the wizarding lore and how the tales may have changed over the years as they were supposedly written in the 15th century.

Very creative and intelligent addition to the Potter world. I can imagine reading these fairy tales along side our own Grimms and Anderson.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 6
Genre: Fantasy, Folktales

Comparable titles: Harry Potter series, Harry Potter schoolbook set, Brothers Grimm

Book Connections: informational text, fairytale/folktale unit

Ramona and Beezus

Ramona and Beezus. Produced by Fox 2000. Released 2010.

So apparently, I am a Selena Gomez fan because it seems to be the only tween movies I've watched over the course of the semester. But as I've said in an earlier post, she's likable. I thought this movie choice was appropriate as it was based on the books by Beverly Cleary, books which I actually haven't read and probably should.

This movie follows the Quimby family as they deal with the dad losing his job and trying to find what he wants to do with his life while not wanting to move the family. Ramona, of course, tries to help but tends to get in the way and cause more problems then she actually helps with. Its cute and creative and the subplot with the aunt and her high school boyfriend is fun for the adults to follow along with. We see the world through the eyes of Ramona which is a fun way to see the world especially when it makes the town look like a dollhouse.

Rated G.

Eleven

Eleven by Lauren Myracle. Published 2004.

After hearing about the award drama surrounding Myracle and learning about the newest in this series release, I decided I should read one of her books. Having grown up with all males and being a girl who tended to have only one good female friend, I found this book to be really interesting because I realized I never read chick lit when I was younger nor do I tend to gravitate towards it now. It was a good learning experience for me because while I couldn't relate to everything, some things will always be the same in female friendships no matter how many girls you are friends with over the years. Maybe I should have been reading these all along because I would have understood female relationships better.

The book starts on Winnie's eleventh birthday (which coinky-dink, is the second book I've read this semester where the main character shares a birthday with me. Yay March 11th!). From the get-go we see that Winnie is struggling with the dynamics of her friendships. Her best friend Amanda seems to be maturing faster than she is and because of this they are moving apart. It only becomes worse when a new girl moves to town and takes all of Amanda's attention away. Winnie must conform and feel distant or find a new friend in Dinah Devine.

The book showcases strong characters, keen observations about growing up and friendship and a strong story arch that moves from one birthday to the next.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 4
Genre: friendship, coming-of-age
First in series (with a prequel)

Comparable titles: Sweet Treats and Secret Crushes

Book Connections: Birthday celebrations, snow days, Calendars, Chinese jump rope


Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole: An Echo Falls Mystery by Peter Abrahams. Published 2005.

I will start with this. Do not allude to Alice in Wonderland if nothing slightly whimsical is going to happen. I get that going down the rabbit hole is a metaphor, but with a cover that has a mad hatter, cat, tea cup and queen of hearts card on it and that title, you're kinda hoping someone actually steps into Wonderland at some point. But, alas, they don't. This is purely a mystery that happens to have the play Alice in Wonderland highlighted throughout. The mystery, of course, is what the rabbit hole metaphor is used for, which makes sense, but sets you up for some disappointment.

Now that being said, it was not a bad mystery. I loved the little details about life that the author threw in and I had a sense of foreboding throughout the book. I was disappointed with the fact that the reader finds out who did the killings before the main character, but it was to increase tension in the final scene so it still worked.

In this story, Ingrid happens upon Crazy Katie the day before she is murdered. She feels guilty because she lied about her whereabouts, but she feels even more frightened when she realizes that she left her tell tale pair of soccer shoes at the scene of the crime. Worried that she will become a suspect, she goes to retrieve the shoes but soon falls into the rabbit hole and finds that she is determined to solve the crime, if for anything, to assuage her own guilt over her tampering with the crime scene. How will it all turn out? That I can't share or it would spoil the mystery.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 6
Genre: mystery

Comparable titles: Nancy Drew mysteries and others of its ilk

Book Connections: Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, mapping your town

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Westing Game

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Published 1978.

An interesting tale of mystery and murder. I was told once that this makes an excellent read aloud for students. The beginning is a little hard to get into with all the switching between characters and not really being sure of what is going on yet, but once the game has begun, you can't help but be pulled into it. Sometimes the jump between perspectives can still be confusing but it works out in the end.

Specially selected families were picked to move into Sunset Towers shortly before the presumed death of the wealthy Mr. Westing. In his will, a game is instructed for these families to inherit his holdings and as long as they play and discover his murderer, they will each be awarded 10,000 dollars. They are handed a stack of clues and paired up and the game begins. At some point, each is under suspicion, not just for the murder but for bombings and theft as well. Over the course of the novel, the mystery is not only solved but people's lives are changed.

Fun book. Good mystery. Interesting characters. Good red herrings but nothing too predictable. Full of fireworks and intrigue.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 5
Genre: mystery

Comparable titles: Well...I can't help but think of the game Clue.

Book connections: Playing along--giving students similar clues in pairs as the book moves along. Chess.

Walk Two Moons

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Published 1994.

Another one on the classic list for good reason! Really loved it and balled my eyes out with this one as well. While I knew what happened with Sal's mother couldn't have been good, it kept me guessing up to the end about her fate which I really liked. Loved the different forms of storytelling, how we were following one story about Phoebe while being framed within the Grandparent road trip which itself was wrapped with the story of Salamanca and her parents. Another refreshing narrator who created really memorable characters who were fully realized and fun to follow along with.

Salamanca, or Sal, or Chickabiddy, has moved away from her beloved farm with her father after her mother takes off across country to Idaho. While on a road trip with her grandparents to trace her mother's trip, she tells the story of her friend Phoebe, or Peeby, who has also had her mother run off on her though for different reasons. By telling Phoebe's story, Sal is able to mourn and grown beyond her own tale. She also has the time to cherish her grandparents as they travel together across the country. There's much more to the story than this, but I don't want to ruin the mystery of it all.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 6
Genre: realistic fiction

Comparable titles: Love, Aubrey, Freak the Mighty...also reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver and Animal Dreams

Book Connections: Road trips, Writing Journals, Old Faithful, Water Mocassins, Blackberries

Book Trailer:

Page by Paige

Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge. Published 2011.

This is a graphic novel that has been getting a lot of buzz lately. I think it deserves it. The metaphors in the  artwork are great and the detail in them is amazing. The story is one that adolescents easily identify with, with concerns of identity, moving, friendships, first love and your purpose in life.

Paige Turner moves to Brooklyn with her parents in the middle of her high school years. She meets a new group of friends that has her pushing her artistic boundaries, but she is constantly questioning herself and wondering if she is good enough. Not only does she discover that she is good enough, but her artistic endeavors actually out-pace that of her friends causing some disturbance in the group. Along the way, she discovers who she is and what she loves and even falls in love with one of the members of her group.

Definitely to be suggested to kids who are struggling with their own identity and purpose, but I would reserve it for older readers as there is talk about relationships in a more candid mature manner.

Interest level: YA Reading level: YA
Genre: Graphic Novel, friendship, realistic fiction

Comparable titles: Friends with Boys, Anya's Ghost, Persepolis, Smile

Book Connections: Art journals, Drawing Telephone, Agents of Whimsy art assignments

Friday, November 11, 2011

Freak the Mighty

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. Published 1993.

This one is in the classics list and for good measure. Max is well over 6 feet tall and has the bulk to match but not the brains. His father is in prison for killing his mother and his grandparents, along with everyone else in town, can't help but notice how much he looks like his old man and wonder if he has anything else in common with Killer Kane. Max is pretty lonely and miserable until Kevin moves next door. A boy from his preschool class who hasn't grown any bigger since due to a rare genetic deformity that has his insides growing at a regular rate but his outsides don't match. Together, they pair up to become Freak the Mighty when Max plunks Kevin on his shoulders and finds Kevin lending him some of his well-developed smarts.

Quest after Quest, Max and Kevin, otherwise Freak the Mighty, become closer and closer friends and with the parole of Max's father, their courage and friendship is put to the test, but their true test in life is how they deal with Kevin's disorder.

Great book. Narration and pacing kept me moving along, but the characters really drew me in and the end was emotional and had me blubbering, but for all the right reasons. Great character story. Loved it.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 5
Genre: realistic fiction, friendship

Comparable titles: Walk Two Moons, Maniac Magee, Stargirl

Book Connections: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Bionics, Personal Dictionaries, Computers, Study of Genetic Disorders

Book Trailer:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Leon and the Spitting Image

Leon and the Spitting Image by Allen Kurzwell. Published 2003.

This book caught my eye because we had two copies of it and one was destroyed so I had assumed it may have been read a lot at one point. I thought it would be about a witch from the cover design, but that wasn't necessarily the case.

In this book, Leon lives in a quirky hotel with his mother who is the manager. They live in Manhattan and he takes a taxi to school every day collecting countries that the taxi drivers are from. At the start of Fourth Grade, Leon and his friends meet Mrs. Hagmeyer, a strange teacher with a penchant for wearing all black, a cape with glass eyes that change every day and a sour look on her face. She teaches them all about the virtues of Medieval living including how to stitch and sew Animiles that seem to disappear from the classroom. When Leon's spitting image doll of Mrs. Hagmeyer gets covered in gooey teacher spit, he suddenly finds that he has the power to control his teacher's actions. You can only image the antics that will ensue.

This was an interesting book to me. The characters were well-rounded and quirky and the plot pacing wasn't boring or slow, but the actual inciting incident didn't really get started until more than half way through the book when Leon actually makes the doll. With the misleading nature of the cover, having some voodoo like magical element seemed to fit with a theme I was expecting but because it happened so late in the story I was beginning to let go of any magical elements for this story. From an adult perspective, I didn't see what was so horrible about the teacher's teaching style beyond her looks and her sour face. I could see that either this was leading to an end that explained why she did what she did, which was predictable to me, or an ending that chalked her up to being horrible, which would have been disappointing to me. Because it had the predicted ending, I was satisfied and would hope that students would find her antics more unbearable as they would be looking from their perspective and not the teacher's. Overall an okay read but I wouldn't rave about it.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 5
Genre: Fantasy, Friendship

Comparable Titles: Reminded me of Harriet the Spy for some reason. Probably the setting and the school yard going-ons.

Book Connections: Medieval Times, sewing, 7 Deadly Sins, Dodgeball, Jump Rope, voodoo

Big Nate Strikes Again

Big Nate Strikes Again by Lincoln Peirce. Published 2010.

Nate reminded me of a mixture of Greg from Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. I think it was the style of drawing in the comic strip like sections of the book that really had the comparison for Calvin but he also has that "I'm the Best and Am Going to Take on the World" characteristic about him.

In this book, Nate has decided its finally his year to win the Spoffy Award for Fleeceball as he is finally the Team Captain, if only Gina weren't perpetually in his way. His most loathed classmate is also picked as his partner for the research project in class. Little do Gina and Nate know that both of their hidden skills will help each other fulfill their goals in the end. But it doesn't mean they will have to start liking each other.

Very cute and creative book. No big plot problems and the cartoons are actually creative and funny. Another good win for reluctant readers who like their comics.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 3
Genre: Diary-style, Humor
Second in series.

Comparable titles: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Calvin and Hobbes

Book Connections: Fleeceball, Benjamin Franklin, Comic creation


The Popularity Papers

The Popularity Papers: Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang by Amy Ignatow. Published 2010.

This book should be added to the list of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate fan favorites. It's interesting because it takes the journal/drawing genre to a new level because the whole thing is one photo-copied layout of the author's actual work. It gives it the feel that real children actually created the thing. For one thing, this makes it feel slightly less real or as if a student actually created it, which takes away its credibility from an actual book stand point, but on the other hand it also makes it feel much more genuine. The one issue I had with this frame was that to differentiate the two girls creating it, the author uses cursive writing for Lydia's character and I think this will hinder some readers from being able to access the book if they can't read cursive yet. For the case of advanced reading 2nd graders who often go towards the diary style books because of their use of pictures, it makes it so they can't read it.

Now for the story...Lydia and Julie are best friends and have decided to observe and note all the of popular girl's doings so that they may become popular themselves. There are a number of mishaps on their journey, but what really gives the book its literary credibility is where their friendship fails in their striving to become popular. It cleverly addresses real issues with Middle School girls and shows that popularity isn't the number one goal when you have real friendship.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 4
Genre: Friendship, Coming-of-age, Diary style
First in series

Comparable Titles: Big Nate, Dork Diaries, Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Book Connections: Musicals, Knitting, Observation Journals, Poster Making/Drawing, Norway

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Published 2006. Michael L. Printz Award winner.

This is a popular book in our school and the author will be at the public library this weekend, so I thought I should check it out. I really enjoyed it, which didn't surprise me as I'm a fan of graphic novels, but I wasn't expecting the way the author formed it so it went up a few notches in my assessment.

The story is told in three different formats, or as I thought of them, episodes, that interweave as if I were flipping through channels with my remote. First, there is the story of Jin Wang, a Chinese-American living in the suburbs of San Francisco and coming to terms with his identity in a mostly white neighborhood. Next, the story of the Monkey King who is dishonored at a party of the gods and through meditative kung-fu training tries to transform himself into The Great Sage Equal of Heaven, who must take the long way to learn his lesson and his identity. And then there is the "sitcom" story of Chin-kee, a Chinese cousin who comes to stay with a white family, played out in overt stereotypes and leading to the continued embarrassment of Cousin Danny. It seems these tales have nothing, potentially, to do with one another, but they are all connected by the search for acceptance, identity and the power to transform and what comes with that power, good or bad.

I was surprised by how all the stories connected in the end and they all became powerful, layered metaphors for one another. Awesome read.

Interest level: YA Reading level: Grade 5 (this is marketed as YA, but the content wasn't anything that Grades 5-8 couldn't handle)
Genre: Graphic novel, Coming-of-age

Comparable titles: Smile, Page by Paige

Book Connections: Chinatown in San Francisco, a study on stereotypes, Transformers, Kung-fu, Chinese mythology/deities






Monday, October 31, 2011

The Tail of Emily Windsnap

The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler. Published 2003.

Now that vampires, werewolves and zombies are losing their thrill, the new fad is the dark side of mermaids. This book, and the rest in the series, could benefit from this renewed attention, but it came before the new dark shift and is instead a relatively, light-hearted take on the mermaid world.

Emily Windsnap has never been swimming due to her mother's dire fear of water. While entering Middle School, she finally gets her wish to take a swim class and soon discovers that she is part mermaid when her legs freeze up and turn into a tail. She is afraid to be found out for the "freak" she is, but is happy to discover her long lost home of the sea. She soon makes a mermaid friend, Shona, who helps her discover the truth of her family and help her mom to remember where her father went and why.

A good choice for reluctant female readers who want something a step up from Beginning Chapter books, but may not be ready for heavier fare. A similar fantasy world is presented to that of the Harry Potter classics, but not as wonderfully stylized or epic.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 4
Genre: fantasy, friendship
First in series.

Comparable titles: Harry Potter, Philippa Fisher series

Book connections: Mermaids, Beach Towns, Houseboats, Mythology of Neptune

Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy by Louse Fitzhugh. Published 1964.

The other day, I read that Harriet the Spy broke ground on the way children's literature was written. There had never been a character quite like Harriet before who spoke the way she spoke (basically...not so nicely) and who didn't really grow or change by the end of the novel. This gave me a new perspective when I read the book this time around. I remember my mom giving me this book to read when I was younger and it was one of my favorites because I, too, kept a notebook full of secrets. I remembered her tomato sandwiches and how her friends discovered her notebook, but nothing else. What I found interesting from an adult perspective was, in fact, the way she did not learn a lesson by the end but rather embraced her gossipy nature. Very interesting.

Harriet lives in Manhattan and spends her time spying on her neighbors, her friends and enemies and anyone else who crosses her path. After her long-time nurse leaves to get married and after her friends discover her observations, she heads on a downward spiral of tantrums and depression. But Harriet stays the same and finds she cannot stop herself from her prodigious note taking. Eventually, her friends will come around.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 4
Genre: realistic fiction, humor

Comparable titles: The Great Gilly Hopkins, Judy Moody, Because of Winn Dixie

Book Connections: a play made of food characters, Observation Journals, School Newspaper, tomato sandwiches with cake and milk in the afternoon

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Love, Aubrey

Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur. Published 2009.

One of my students had been telling me that this was her favorite book and she recently donated a copy to the library, so I thought it was as good a time as any to read it.

This one surprised me in that its good to be reminded that sometimes younger students enjoy sad books where bad things happen because it lets them live out a sort of fantasy that allows them to explore deeper emotions and wonder about things without the threat of those things really needing to happen.

In this story, eleven year old Aubrey Priestly is found by her grandmother living alone after her mother abandons her. We soon find out that her mother has ran away because she can't deal with her feelings of having been the driver in a car accident that killed her husband and her younger daughter. Aubrey moves to Vermont with her grandmother and must not only deal with her grief and emotions over the loss of her family but also the questions that surround how her mother could abandon her on top of all that. Step by step, Aubrey makes her way back to the world of the living with the help of her grandmother and her new friend, the next-door-neighbor Bridget, and Bridget's family.

The story is told with letters written by Aubrey, first person narrative and flashbacks to times with her family. It is very melancholy and emotional, but there is hope for Aubrey and her family, making it a tale about growing up, but under very specific circumstances.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 4
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Drama

Comparable titles: Songs for a Teenage Nomad

Book connections: Loss of a family member, counseling, letter writing, Betta fish

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mr. Popper's Penguins

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater. Published 1938. Newbery Honor.

I was intrigued by this book because it is a classic and a Newbery Honor book, yet I hadn't heard about it until I saw a poster for the Jim Carrey movie. I thought it was cute and a good read for all those kids out there interested in penguins. It's like the novel version of 365 Penguins by Jean-Luc Fromenthal.

Mr. Popper has always wanted to travel, but never has. He's especially interested in Antartica and the explorations of Admiral Drake. Because of his fan mail, Admiral Drake sends Mr. Popper his very own penguin from the South Pole. After finding his penguin depressed, they get a lady penguin and soon they have 10 baby penguins to care for as well. Finding that they are easy to train, the Popper family soon hits the road with their traveling act, Popper's Performing Penguins. It is a sensation but traveling with penguins also has its drawbacks such as ruining other performers' acts and ending up in jail. With a visit from Admiral Drake, Mr. Popper's dream is fulfilled and the penguins won't stay in the entertainment business forever.

This book is obviously dated with things like the radio being the main form of entertainment in the home, the traveling act is a vaudeville-esque production and the language will be hard for younger readers because certain phrases or terms aren't used anymore. But it's also a light-hearted fun book and at the heart of it are the penguins getting in to trouble which any kid can understand.

Interest level: Grade 3-6 Reading level: Grade 5

Comparable title: 365 Penguins, 21 Balloons

Book Connections: study of penguins from around the world, how they eat and live, what's true or not true about their behavior from the book, Antartica, Explorers, Early performers in America

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Published 1964.

I launched a One School, One Book campaign at my school this last month and I chose this title for the kick-off campaign, knowing it was a classic and appropriate for most age groups. I wanted to re-read it since I hadn't read it since I was little.

Of course, Dahl never disappoints. What actually shocked me in re-reading it was how close the second movie adaptation was to the original. I think the first movie becomes so ingrained in our brains that we don't think to question it. In fact, I kept expecting Charlie to do something wrong because in the first movie he drinks the floating soda. It actually made me much happier that he doesn't because the fact that Charlie does something wrong, muddles the whole story line that an obedient, good child gets the factory. In fact, my favorite line from the Johnny Depp version is actually straight out of the book. I was so happy to discover this.

Anyway, this is the story of Charlie Bucket who gets a golden ticket to be one of five children to go inside Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. After a slew of horrible mishaps, the four other miserable children are slowly removed from the factory by no one's fault but their own. Full of humor and candy and strange magical constructions, fifty years later, this book is a classic for a reason.

Interest level: Grade 3-6 Reading level: Grade 5 (I can't say I trust these ratings as I think this is easier to read, language-wise, than Dagger Quick but it has 5.9 while that had 4.2...interesting.)

Comparable titles: The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull, The Candymakers by Wendy Mass

Book connections: squirrels, gum, chocolate, factories, writing songs

Dagger Quick

Dagger Quick by Brian Eames. Published 2011.

I had read a few favorable reviews of this book and the cover definitely drew me in, but I have to say, I was not impressed. This was the book equivalent to a blockbuster movie staring Vin Diesel, in that, the action never stopped and the ante kept being raised, but nothing really happened...if that makes sense. That is my positive assessment of the book. With some kids enjoying thrills over character development, I think students could like this selection, but I didn't.

Christopher Wheale, otherwise known as Kitto, ends up on board a pirate ship captained by his uncle in hunt of spices, treasure and the return of his younger brother and his stepmom. Kitto refuses to let his club foot stop him from rescuing his family or living the life of a pirate, but the privateer ship captained by a Black-Hearted Morris is in pursuit to catch up with Captain Quick and find the bounty first.

Sounds like good pirate fun, but it wasn't. I never felt invested in the characters. The point of view switches between characters but there is no clear shift until after the fact making it a confusing read. The action keeps rising but it doesn't feel warranted, just to rise for the sake of it. Because I never felt attached to the characters and the point of view changes, I felt like I never really understood what was going on or why they had to do whatever it is they had to do next. In the end, I just scanned the last few chapters...which leads us to the end.

Apparently, they're trying to get a series going, but if not, worst ending ever. One character is left on the pirate ship with no clue to his fate, we never really know whats up with the spices/treasures, we know they're on the right island but don't know how they're getting off it. I mean, obviously, there is going to be a follow up, but this just made me mad, cause I read as long as I did thinking there would be some resolution. Instead, they jumped the shark, literally.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 4 (I also don't agree with this as the language is rather old school to sound like a real pirate book--Grade 6 would be a better assessment)

Comparable titles: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Larklight

Book connections: Pirate lore and history, Geography lessons, information about Congenital TEV (club foot)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Name of this Book is Secret

The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch. Published 2007.

This is another book that the narrator breaks the divide between what's happening on the page and with the reader. I think this convention is fun for the kids because they really feel involved in the story as well as appreciating the extra added level of humor that comes out of it. Because this is a mystery, the narrator also makes the reader feel complicit in the secret and this adds a level of excitement. I wanted to read this because a lot of the kids in my library are really enjoying it right now.

Cass and Max-Ernest become friends on the schoolyard and bond over the mystery of the Symphony of Smells and the missing magician. Soon their investigating leads them deeper into a clan of evil alchemists that kidnap a fellow student and have plans to eat his brains to keep their horde of death defiers young and beautiful. Cass and Max-Ernest must face their fears and push their bonds of friendship to escape and save their friend.

This story wraps up nicely, but also leaves it open for the series that continues on. The mystery isn't too predictable and there is enough suspense and humor to compel readers through the plot. The author seems to imbue the story with some societal commentary that might not stand out to students, but I thought was a bit heavy handed as an adult. For instance there is reference to the Skelton Sisters (Hilton Sisters) and the plot of the Midnight Sun is very celebrity-youth obsession focused. While I thought this was a bit to agenda pushing, I liked the inclusion of synesthesia to the plot and think this is an interesting subject for the book to center around.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Intended reading level: Grade 5
Genre: mystery
First in series of five (currently)

Comparable titles: The Mysterious Benedict Society, Chasing Vermeer

Book Connections: a lesson on senses with art connection, symphonies, magicians, Egyptology

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Noah Barleywater Runs Away

Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne. Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Published 2010.

After centering my Review Reflection on this book, I had to read it for myself. The title page notes the book as a "fairytale" written by John Boyne which instantly gives it an impression that it should be from long ago and not be taken at its word as a tale of truth. As many of the reviews noted, this story is whimsical, but also melancholy and has a lesson to impart.

Noah runs away from home but we don't know why and where from. Right away he ends up in towns where there are fantastical elements but he does not act as if they are so strange or bizarre as one would in, say, the Harry Potter world. This lends itself to the fairytale impression you get from the book. Eventually, Noah comes to an old toy shop where he meets the old toy maker and they share the tales of their lives to each other. You begin to get an impression that Noah is in a dream and this dream has been hand crafted to help him get through the denial and grief of his mother's illness. In this way, I read the whole book as if Noah created this world for himself and I could only imagine the wonderful tales that his mother must have read him at bed time that would have shaped and informed his idea of this toymaker world.

Since the reviews I read gave away more of the end, I will leave my review of the book there but I will agree with the assessment that its really a book for adults not because of subject matter but because of the style of the telling. I think if there are students with specific tastes you could pass this one off but it would be fewer than with older audiences. I know a parent who has read it aloud to a second grade class and her six year old son and she said both really enjoy it, so could make a great read aloud for younger readers.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Intended reading level: Grade 6
Genre: Fantasy (fairy tale)

Comparable titles: Where the Wild Things Are (the movie version, if that counts), Alice in Wonderland, Pinnochio

Book connections: wooden toys, carving, Pinnochio

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. Published 2011.

This book has been getting rave reviews and with retellings of Fairy Tales the hottest thing right now, I had to see if the hype was true. While not disappointing, I was having a hard time trying to figure out how to pitch this one to my kids.

In Breadcrumbs Hazel is best friends with her next door neighbor Jack. After Jack gets a sliver of a bewitched mirror in his eyes, his heart turns to ice and he disappears with a mysterious Ice Queen who appears out of the forest. While his male friends have been vying for his attention all year, it is only Hazel who will venture into the forest to save him from the evil queen and discover for herself the desire to return home and not be willed away by her own dark wishes.

Now while this all sounds thrilling and mysterious, all of that takes place in the second half of the book and the second half doesn't even start until a hundred pages in. The first half is setting up how Hazel is isolated in her new school and feels very separate from everyone else. It sets up the problems in her and Jack's lives and makes quite a few comparisons to other novels. In fact, at one moment, I couldn't help being reminded of When You Reach Me only to have the author mention that Hazel was reading that book and couldn't help also being reminded of her situation within it. This made it feel a little cheap to me, especially when the second half was a re-telling (or borrowing) of the Snow Queen or Narnia story. If you boiled down all the excess, you really just had a re-hashing of other people's books.

Now this sentiment might make it sound like I didn't like the book. I did. I especially enjoyed the second half mainly because there was tension and scariness and a quicker pace, but the first half seems to be too introspective. This makes it hard to sell to the kids. Do they want to read a book about a girl having trouble fitting in or a book about a fairy tale world? There isn't really too much fairy tale in the beginning to get most kids to get to the second half for the pay off. This makes me sad.

Also...I didn't like the illustrations or the color choice for the cover. I think the cover is fantastic looking but again with the Disney princess pink and blues that will prevent boys from picking it up. The illustrations look like computer rendered drawings in the style of Disney cartoons which makes them look too sweet to me. I would have loved some dark and mysterious pen and ink style drawings to give in an eery feel instead.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Intended reading level: Grade 5
Genre: fantasy (fairy/folk tale), coming-of-age

Comparable titles: Noah Barleywater Runs Away, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, When You Reach Me

Book Connections: Snow Queen tales, wolves, winter, new kids experiences

Wizards of Waverly Place

Wizards of Waverly Place. Produced by Disney. Released 2009.

I was curious. I had to know what this show was about and not being able to sit through High School Musical and after watching Selena Gomez in the Princess movie, I decided to jump in with this one. I can say that I see the appeal with Selena in that Shia LaBeouf kind of way. She has comedic timing, she's pretty but not so pretty that she isn't likable. She's a good actress. So that part had me in.

As for the movie...not so bad, I mean for Disney tweens at least. There's the super sugary bumble gum humor and the strange casting for parents that make them seem never like real parents, but the story line worked for what it is. I liked that Alex isn't the perfect tween and that her character is the one getting in trouble rather than doing everything right. Not having seen the TV show I wasn't expecting that. I thought the way she was acting to her parents was spot on for kids in their teens and it served the storyline in the end but in a way that you could believe. I also liked the added story about her brother wanting to be more like her and her wanting to be more like her brother. Again, not having seen the show, I don't know if that was a fulfillment of something that had been there for a long time and I don't know how long the wizard battle premise had been set up, but I thought it was a nice way to show sibling rivalry as well.

Overall very cute family film.

Rated G.

Supposedly there is a sequel in the making.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Princess Protection Program

Princess Protection Program produced by Disney. Released 2009.

I babysat this weekend and the girls insisted that they watch this movie. While cheesy and so quintessentially Disney, I have to admit that if I were younger this is exactly the sort of movie I would have loved. I am not one of those I don't want to be a Princess girls, in fact, whisk me away and give me the all star Princess Diaries makeover. When I was young, I loved the movie Pretty Woman so much, which was so wrong, but I had no idea what a hooker was or what any of the bad stuff really meant, but had I had alternatives to watch like this one or Princess Diaries it probably would have been a more appropriate choice of movie for me to watch.

Basically, Selena Gomez's character, Carter, has a dad who is a General in the Princess Protection Program. When a small island is threatened, Princess Rosa, played by Demi Lovato, is taken away in the Program and sent to live with the General and his daughter in Louisiana. She has no idea how to act like a normal girl and its sort of the makeover, rags-to-riches story in reverse. Of course, there is the making fun of her for not understanding cultural norms and the cute boys asking them to prom and the moments where they hate each other and then become friends like any good Disney movie would incorporate, but what I really liked was the positive message they reinforced. The Princess kept telling Carter that you had to be a Princess on the inside first and then it would show on the outside. Rather than choosing the good looking guy with no soul in the end, she opts out because he is not nice on the inside. I thought this was a great role model like story for young girls compared the the movies I may have been watching when I was younger.

Rated G

Powerless

Powerless by Matthew Cody. Published 2009.

In the town of Noble's Green, children are Super heroes or Supers for short, but on their 13th birthday they mystically lose all their powers and have no memories of ever having any. When Daniel moves to town, his "ordinary" self will be the only one to come to the Super's rescue.

This is a mystery more than an action superhero plot and its a story about friendship and even loss. I liked that about this book. It was about so much more than having super human powers and fighting crime, in fact, there was very little crime fighting at all, and much more emphasis on the friends in the gang and their fear of growing older and losing their exceptional powers. The mystery was not predictable and the struggle at the end between The Shroud and Daniel made you wonder in the long run what choice Daniel would make overall. Plus, the sub plot is that Daniel's grandmother is sick which is why his family moved to Noble's Green so the tale of how kids deal with grief is thread through it as well.  I feel as though it's left open for a second in the series, but I think this book is complete as a whole and I almost worry that it would lose some of what made it exceptional, drained if you will, of its powers, if it were to continue down a line of super hero stories.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Intended reading level: Grade 5
Genre: action, mystery, friendship

Comparable titles: The Sherlock Holmes books as they are mentioned throughout, Watchmen (for an older audience)

Book connections: Sherlock Holmes, green rock to look like a meteorite, camping survival kit

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Real Steel

Real Steel produced by Dreamworks. Rated PG-13 for some violence. Released 2011.

I went to a free showing of this thinking that it was suppose to be a cheesy sci-fi movie for adults, but it turns out its actually a movie for kids and I thought how sad for their marketing campaign if they didn't get it to the right audience. For kids, it was a pretty decent movie.

It's a story of redemption for a man both in his boxing career and for the love of his son that he's never taken care of before. It's set in the future, but a believable future, where things are shiny and glossy, just an amped up version of what we already have. But in this future, humans don't box anymore because spectators wanted total destruction, so now robots do the fighting. After destroying all his fighting bots, the father, Charlie, goes with his son to a junkyard where an old sparing bot's arm saves the boys life when he falls off a cliff. He decides to rescue this bot and bring it into the ring without his father's approval. It turns out that this little bot (whose hinted at having some level of Artificial Intelligence but its never confirmed) packs quite a punch. The two guys hit the road winning fight after fight and challenge the reigning champion for a full on battle.

While this movie has a PG-13 rating for some violence, I thought it would have been PG because there is no blood or human killing and no sex and no cuss words. It seemed pretty wholesome as far as movies go these days. Obviously, the robots do fight to the death so if you don't want to promote violence of any kind then I guess this wouldn't be the movie for you. I just hope it gets to the write audience.

Book connections: Based on a 1956 short story called "Steel" written by Richard Matheson. The Twilight Zone also based an episode "Steel" off the same story.

Zorgamazoo

Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston. Published 2008. California Young Medal Winner 2010.

Katrina Katrell lives with an evil guardian who wants to give her a lobotomy because she thinks she sees mythical creatures. Only, she's not crazy, she has seen strange creatures lurking in the dark. When the doctor comes to perform the surgery, Katrina runs away and while in a moment of danger, is rescued by the exact same strange creature she thought she had seen. This is when the adventures of Katrina and Morty the Zorga collide. They travel together to solve the mystery of the disappearing Zorgas of Zorgamazoo and find family and courage along the way.

This book was told entirely in rhyming verse in the style of Dr. Seuss. It made it a quick read because the upbeat tempo of the poem kept you moving along as well as the cliffhangers in the action and the light-hearted humor of the strange Seuss-like world. Creating visual images with the written text also adds a whimsical element to the story along with the pen and ink cartoon drawings that accompany it. Its a fun adventurous story about boredom and whimsy that any age group would love. Good to read aloud to younger kids but a fun, easy read for older (maybe struggling) students.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Intended reading level: Grade 5
Genre: poetry, adventure, fantasy

Comparable titles: other fiction books told in verse, Dr. Seuss

Book connections: mythical creatures, baseball (Zorgally Ball), the moon

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Larklight

Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space by Philip Reeve. Illustrated by David Wyatt. Published 2006.

This book was so much fun. It was Charles Dickens meets Star Wars. I really enjoyed it and I can't wait to read the next one in the series. Plus the illustrations were great too. This was my first real venture into the Steampunk Genre which I had been hearing so much about and I have to say I was really pleased and shocked also that it has been around for the last five years, but I do think it takes about that long for something to really catch on and start proliferating the market. It had what you expect in Steampunk--re-imagined history, advanced iron works, Victorian time period, automatons, and I also read that a Steampunk usual is brass goggles, which this had as well only worn by a small evil spider steering a life size automaton.

Arthur and Myrtle Mumby live in the furthest reaches of space in their home called the Larklight. There mother has been missing since they were little and their father is obsessed with the floating animal life of space. There life is turned topsy turvy (which is easy to do when the gravity generators are turned off) when evil, larger than life spiders attack their home and take their father. They escape to the moon where they are rescued by a ban of misfit pirates. Aboard the pirate ship Sophronia they travel through the galaxy attempting to keep a mysterious key away from the spiders and potentially find the whereabouts of their parents.

Full of action, humor, romance, piracy, space travel and British manners, this book has a little of everything for everyone. Sadly, my only problem with it is also what makes it great. The language is highly advanced as its stylized after the novels of the 1800s. I felt like I was reading an updated version of H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon and even the author alludes to the role of Dickens in shaping the Copperfield-esque story. I want to give this book to so many of my readers for all different reasons but I'm afraid they will be bogged down by the language and put it aside. Here's hoping that won't happen.

Interest level: Grade 5-8 Intended reading level: Grade 7
Genre: Steampunk/Fantasy, Adventure

Comparable Titles: The Search for WondLa, David Copperfield, The First Men in the Moon

Book Connections: British Colonization history, Newton and the study of Gravity, pirates, space travel, aliens, spiders

Monday, September 26, 2011

Archvillain

Archvillain by Barry Lyga. Published 2010.

I feel like I am the villain of this review, but this is the first book I've read that I can definitely say I did not like. I ended up skimming the last few chapters and skipping to the end even because I didn't want to waste any more of my time reading it. Usually, I can find something redemptive for why the kids would like it even if I don't (which could still be the case) but I can't even find that silver lining right now. I'm sad that I purchased this for my library even.

It's basically Megamind as a book only the main character doesn't really become a good guy in the end. We're set up with the premise that Kyle is popular and his popularity is based on the fact that he plays pranks on people to show them how foolish they are. Then he gets super powers when an alien appears. This alien is basically Superman as a kid. We are told that he just wants the world to see their foolishness, that they are "worshipping" an alien, but of course his "pranks" to show them this make him out to be the bad guy. The narrator is supposed to have that anti-protagonist style of Diary of a Wimpy kid, but I just can't help but really not like him. There is no humor or life lesson to be learned from his villainy. I thought the end would have him come around to being a good guy, but I guess he only saved some people by picking up a statue, but refused to join Mighty Mike in his do-gooding. I get that the book tells us that his things are backfiring and he's stopping the bumbling Mike from making stupid mistakes that make him look like he's evil but he's not, but I shouldn't have to be perpetually told these things. The book should just show it and all I really see is a kid that thinks he's so smart but yet hasn't done one smart thing. They've even set it up for a sequel so that he can be more of an archvillain. I'm all for the bad guy having a good side and vice versa and showing that there are multiple layers to each character, but this didn't work for me. It didn't have the kapow of Artemis Fowl or the different perspectives to bring us out of the villain's mind to make it work like Fowl did. Sad face.

Intended reading level: Grades 3-6 Interest level: Grade 5
Genre: humor, action

Comparable title: Artemis Fowl, Sidekicks