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?"
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