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 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 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 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