Monday, March 12, 2012


Cinder by Marissa Meyer. Published 2012.

Now this fairy tale twist I genuinely liked. I think I appreciated it because it put the tale of Cinderella in a whole new world, with a different telling and it kept close enough to the idea of the original story, but not so steadfastly that it stretched the plot to fit to the tale. What made it more fun than other twisted tellings is that its set in the distant future in a dystopian society where cyborgs and robots exist and the moon has been colonized and a whole new evolution of "humans" live on the moon. Mix this together with regular humans, a disease that is highly contagious and kills off anyone who gets it within a matter of weeks, and a cyborg who is being courted by the royal emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth and you have a tale that could stand alone without the fairy tale comparisons. Like Lionboy, this book doesn't have a clear cut ending as it's part of, what I believe is, a five part series, but unlike the other book, I was satisfied with the end and look forward to reading the rest of the series.
Here's the plot premise, some spoilers:
Cinder is a teen cyborg, half human/half robot, who works at a robot repair shop to earn money for her evil stepmother and her two stepsisters. When the step sis she actually likes catches the fatal letmosis (spelling???), Cinder is hauled in for testing by her stepmother. Thinking this is the end of her life, she battles against the testing only to find out that she is immune to the disease and could be the answer for its cure, or at least, that's what the doctor leads her to believe. She is determined to escape New Bejing even if that means missing attending the ball with the Prince.

Side note: While its still technically a photo of a female on the cover, I love the take on the glass slipper and seeing the cyborg part through her leg...fantastic cover. Plus super fun font.

Interest level: YA Reading level: YA
Genre: sci-fi, fairy tale, dystopian
First in series.

Comparable titles: Sisters Red, The Storyteller, Beastly

Book Connections: Contagious disease, futuristic societies, evolution, moon colonization, Cinderella


Lionboy by Zizou Corder. Published 2004.

I have so many mixed feelings about this book. Sometimes the writing was amazing and the plot moved along and I really wanted to know what was going to happen next. Problem was, those moments only happened for me when the boy was on the Circus boat. The author's description of the circus was so mesmerizing and fantastic and I wish she (or they because a mother wrote it with her daughter and they created an alias as their author name) had only written a book about a boy on a circus boat. But unfortunately they didn't.
What bothered me was that it was really hard for me to suspend my disbelief. It was suppose to be set in the near future where only the extremely rich have cars, all the kids have asthma, supposedly from pollution, and one boy can talk to cats because his DNA was crossed with a leopard. Um...okay. Also, I get that asthma is a serious illness, but it didn't have that same sense of dread as a made up illness like letmosis in Cinder. I found myself saying, "So what?" every time they talked about asthma. Why couldn't it have just been a story about a boy trying to help some lions escape back to Africa? It wouldn't have even needed to be set in the future or anything. Paint me a better picture of the world. Make it seem more dire then our current one if that matters to the plot. Argh, I'm going to stop after this last rant. It is suppose to be a trilogy, so the book doesn't have a satisfactory ending either. I loved some of the description, but the plot bored me so much that I don't even think I'll read the rest just to find out what happens.
I was not happy with it, but some students really enjoy this and the setting details for the circus can be really beautiful. The action also has high tension at moments, so it might not have been my cup of tea but give it a shot if the plot sounds intriguing to you.

Interest level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 6
Genre: sci-fi
First in series of three.

Comparable titles: Wonder Circus, Warriors series

Book Connections: circus, lions, asthma health, waterways of France, geography

I did mark the following passages because I thought they were great writing examples:

Character description- "He must have been six and a half feet tall, broad-shouldered in white breeches and a green velvet tailcoat, and his fine blond hair, almost as pale as ice, hung down his back in a thick ponytail. His eyes were piercing blue, his skin pale and dry, and he looked as if he stayed up far too late and had done so all his life. In one pale hand he had a glass of what looked like brandy, and before him on the desk was a pile of papers and a large metal box absolutely full of money: masses of it." pg. 53

Setting- "It was round, as high as three stories; with seats in circles around the edges and galleries of seating rising up around the sides. The roof was like a tent, crimson and white and gold, swooping up to a high point in the middle, from which hung a glorious chandelier, rippling and tinkling with dangling glass prisms and crystals. The seats in the first galleries were crimson velvet, with gold curved legs; others were long benches of wood. In one or two special boxes among the galleries, Charlie could see what looked like thrones, surrounded by crimson velvet curtains held back by golden cherubs. And in the middle was the circus ring, clean and open and promising, forty-two feet wide, sprinkled all over with clean fresh sawdust. There was a faint and particular circus smell: of animal, sawdust, greasepaint, and the faint leftover aroma of audience--beer and perfume and fish and chips." Pg. 85

The Neddiad

The Neddiad: How Neddie took the train, went to Hollywood, and saved civilization by Daniel Pinkwater. Published 2007.

I loved, loved, loved this book. I was drawn in by the strange name and long title and I was intrigued by all the fantastic blurbs on the back and the strange plot description, but from the first page I was hooked. I love whimsical books with fun narrators and a plot doesn't always have to make sense for me. I've been reading this to my fourth graders and they seem to really enjoy it. One student had read it previously and gets so excited about what's coming up next that he often has to stop himself from blurting out. While it's a fun book, it is a long read aloud and has some slow moments that are much quicker when read alone. Its suppose to be a take on the Iliad, but if anything its just a fun romp with a fun boy and his strange family. And really I can't describe the book any better than the back of the book describes it so I won't even try:

Neddie Wentworthstein is the guy with the turtle. Sandor Eucalyptus is the guy with the jellybean. Sholmos Bunyip wants the turtle...and he'll stop at nothing to get it. This is the story of how Neddie, three good friends, a shaman, a ghost, and a little maneuver known as the French substitution determine the fate of the world.

 I look forward to reading the Yggysey next.

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

Comparable titles: The humor and writing sytle somewhat reminds me of Lenore Look's work, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and other Scary Things

Book Connections: Old Hollywood, La Brea Tarpits, Grand Canyon, Route 66, turtles

Sisters Red

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. Published 2010.

Now this is the most action packed of the new fairy tales that I've read as well as the most suggestive. I would definitely reserve this for my older teens and keep it in the Twilight and Shiver categories. The writing is very cinematic and I could see the action scenes as if they were playing out in front of me. This was more powerful in the opening and seemed to wear thin by the end, but the action kept pace the whole time.
Basically, werewolves exist but they are known as Fenris. When the sisters, Rose and Scarlett are young, a wolf attacks them and kills their only guardian, their grandmother. After losing her eye in battle with her first Fenris and making her first kill, Scarlett makes it her life mission to protect all other vulnerable girls and hunt down each and every last werewolf. With the help of her sister and her best friend, Silas, she is determined to wipe them out. Only Rose and Silas aren't sure they want to spend their lives hunting down the wolves.
As I said, the book was action packed and it had a great twist on Little Red Riding Hood, but there were only so many smart ways to have them go to battle again and the plot became tedious. It was told in alternating voices of the sisters and that was meant to create a study on identity and life purpose, but it got a little old and sappy toward the middle.

Interest level: YA Reading level: YA
Genre: fairy tale, fantasy, romance

Comparable titles: Beastly, Twilight, Shiver

Book Connections: Little Red Riding Hood, werewolves

Briar Rose

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. Published 1992.

Jane Yolen just came out with a new fairy tale twist on the Snow White series, which led me to this book she wrote about 20 years ago. I love the Sleeping Beauty story and the idea of twisting it to be a Holocaust tale really intrigued me. I'm not sure if what was selling in '92 was different than what is written for today's young adults, but I was not as happy with it as I had hoped I would be.
I really liked the aspect of mystery with the lead character tracing down her recently passed Grandmother's life story and I liked the tie in of the Sleeping Beauty tale and how it was a metaphor for the grandmother's life, but I kept expecting us to jump back in the past and see the comparisons and have a Holocaust story from start to finish and as that kept not happening and kept focusing on the granddaughter and her hunt for the truth, I became more and more disappointed.
When we do finally get the tale at the end, I was completely absorbed and I just wished there was a way to have extended that and only told that story as if it were the Sleeping Beauty tale.
Also the protagonist was in her late twenties and it felt like a very grown up adult story that doesn't seem like it would connect with teen readers.

Interest Level: YA Reading level: Grade 5
Genre: Historical Fiction

Comparable Titles: Milkweed, Number the Stars

Book Connections: Holocaust, Sleeping Beauty, Poland


Beastly by Alex Flinn. Published 2007. 2011 California Young Reader Medal nominee.

I am doing a Dark Side of Fairy Tales class for my middle schoolers so I've been scooping up all the hot re-dos and twists on the classic fairy tales. I will say that what I'm finding so far is that people like to remake the Disney version of the fairy tales rather than the original source material. I think since that's the more innocent version in our heads, its easier to play with and make darker even though the original was dark itself.
Now for this one, it wasn't the darkest of the ones I've read. Its actually very mellow as far as grimness goes and not too much sexual tension or bad language used. It incorporates 21st century writing style with chat room transcripts that separate the different sections and it places it squarely in a Manhattan modern day setting. As you can guess from the title, it's a rift on Beauty and the Beast. I think the funnest part of this twist is the fact that its told entirely from the male, or Beast's, perspective which is actually what makes it fresh.
As for characterization, we do see his transformation and we're given enough teen angst to understand that he is a person just like the rest of us. For the plot, I understand that certain things needed to be stretched to allow this fairy tale premise to happen, but I wonder why his dad was a tv anchor and not just a movie star cause I really didn't believe that a tv anchor would have as much money as we are to believe he has (meaning, it seemed endless). I also thought Lindy's drug addict dad was a little over the top, but I get why it was thrown in there because the rest of the stuff wasn't going to happen if there wasn't that extreme.

Interest level: YA Reading level: YA
Genre: fairy tale, fantasy, teen romance

Comparable Titles: Twilight, Sisters Red

Book Connections: Beauty and the Beast, Roses, Mirrors, witches, a discussion on beauty and the privileges and disadvantages, what real beauty means?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Over Sea, Under Stone

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper. Published 1965.

Even though this was published over fifty years ago, this title keeps popping up on my radar. I was finally inspired to read it when I found that she had just won the Margaret A. Edwards award for a lifetime achievement of writing for children.
I enjoyed the book, but I was frustrated because I somehow misrepresented it to myself as a fantasy similar to Narnia where it starts in the real world and then journeys into another more fantastical one. Perhaps this is what the Dark is Rising series turns into but having not read the rest yet, I can only speak for this book. From what I've researched after reading it, it seems the other books diverge to different characters and delve more into the Arthurian Legend but then weave back again to the characters from the first one.
Now, while this series is much loved, that bothers me. I hate getting invested in characters to have them change in a series much like the third book in the City of Ember series did. That being said, I would have liked to actually have gone back to the Arthurian times and I kept waiting for that to happen so when it didn't I was disappointed.

Okay, putting all that aside, the book was not bad. There is a quest. There is mystery. There are bad guys. There's a puzzle to be solved. There are kids as main characters and action that leads to a dramatic conclusion. Its got all that you need. It moves slowly at some points the way older classics can compared to our quick paced adventure books of today, but nothing that wouldn't have an avid reader immersed.

Interest Level: Grades 5-8 Reading level: Grade 6
Genre: Fantasy
First in Series of five.

Comparable Titles: Chronicles of Narnia, Mysterious Benedict Society, Fablehaven

Book Connections: Legend of King Arthur, Cornwall, Carnival Days

Monster Calls

Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Published 2011.

This is another one of the books from this year that has been on everyone's must read list. I joined the band wagon.

The premise of the book is that a young boy is being haunted by a nightmare each night and when the book opens, a monster is calling him from outside his window. We know there is something wrong with his mother but it isn't named. It doesn't take long to figure out that she is dying and the boy is trying to deal with it in his own way. The monster tells him that the boy called him and not the other way around and he will only leave after he has told three tales and the boy has told the monster the truth of his nightmares. As the novel progresses, the boy's mother grows worse and so does the boy's actions and the ways he tries to cope with her sickness. And at that, I will leave off.

This is a great book to deal with the subject of sickness, death and grief. It is full of anger and denial and truth without sappiness or lessons. The illustrations are creepy to the perfect degree and the short chapters have you pushing along no matter how hard the subject matter becomes. The listing says its YA, which I would agree on the level that the content is of a mature understanding, but there isn't anything younger students in the 5-8th grade bracket couldn't read in this book.

Interest level and reading level: YA
Genre: Hard to categorize--Fairy Tale Fantasy because of the use of the monster and the tales, but also realistic in its portrayal of loss and grief.

Comparable Titles: Between Shades of Gray, Jasper Jones, Noah Barleywater Runs Away

Book Connections: folktales, grief/death, Yew Trees, Old World Medicine

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Wildwood by Colin Meloy. Published 2011.

This book has been receiving rave reviews and it is not un-warranted (love my double negatives). What's interesting about this book is that it could be under the banner of "celebrity" writer as it was written by a member of the Decemberists, but I don't think this faults the book, rather than add an interesting layer to the author's background (apparently Colin Meloy plays with the themes and legend in this book in his rock operas often). But anyhoo...its a thick tomb of rich vocabulary, descriptions that place you in the moment and scene, and a creative fantasy world that seems disconnected and connected to our world at the same time. This could be because the setting is in the Impassable Wilderness of Portland, Oregon, a mythical country that mere humans are unable to pass into because of the magical protections surrounding it.

In this world, there are talking animals, evil rulers, bureaucratic red tape, blood sucking ivy and more. As many reviews prior have pointed out, this book is like a new Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz. It feels instantly classic and timeless yet of this moment and not dated. For the summary, Prue loses her baby brother when a murder of crows picks him from the basin of his Red Flyer and takes him into the Impassable Wilderness. She must go in after him but she is followed by Curtis, a boy from her school, who insists on being partners even though he is unaware this means that he will be swept away into a coyote army and eventually made part of a group of bandits. Prue must bring the North and South Woods together to defeat the evil Dowager Governess of Wildwood if she has any hope of getting her brother back before he is sacrificed to the ivy.

My problem with this book was also one of the things that made it great. It doesn't water down its language so that younger kids will have an easier time reading it, which is what makes it rich and wonderful, but also what will make it a hard sell to readers who aren't already strong and voracious consumers of their fantasy fiction. At 540 pages, its may be difficult to inspire a child to continue when even as an adult, I had some difficulty with some words. I mean, who knew that "gorp" was just trail mix. But hopefully, with its wealth of description that added to the action rather than slog it down, they will be pulled into Wildwood.

Also, something should be said for the illustrations. Their quaintness was somehow reminiscent of Quentin Blake to me, not in style, but in that they are very specific to their illustrator and they instill warm feelings in you when you look at them. Now, that being said, as I mentioned before, the descriptions in the writing at times was so specific and wonderful that I almost wish there were no illustrations or that they weren't so innocent looking because sometimes the action was grisly and bloody and menacing and that is where the pictures failed.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: listed as Grade 5, but I would say more like 7
Genre: Fantasy

Comparable Titles: Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz

Book Connections: Portland, Oregon, Building Imaginary Cities and Map Making, Green Connections (talking to trees and plants)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and other Scary Things

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and other Scary Things by Lenore Look. Published 2008.

This cover always attracted me and the intrigue from the long title added to my excitement about this read. I had heard good reviews but I had never gotten around to reading it. Well, I'm happy to report that on all accounts it did not fail. The illustrations are adorable and match the character and family so well. The story is cute and fun and full of the trials of family and school life in all the ways you want it to be.

Alvin Ho is allergic to school, or so he thinks, and has never spoken in class. He can talk at home and on the bus, but not at school. This stops him from having very many friends but with his PDK and lessons from his dad and brother, he will try his best to meet people and survive anything that is thrown at him. Over the course of the book, we get to know Alvin and his family more, but we also watch as he makes a big mistake with his dad's favorite toy, and see how his father handles it in a mature way that is both believable and refreshing. We also watch as Alvin comes out of his shell, if only just a little bit, enough to make it so that this series continues on in many more books.

I've been reading it to my second graders and we're all enjoying it. It gets lots of laughs and Alvin's mishaps keep them riveted.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading Level: Grade 3
Genre: Humor, realistic fiction
First in series

Comparable Titles: Big Nate, Joey Pigza Swallowed a Key

Book Connections: Making survival kits, allergies/hypochondria, discussion of ethical dilemas, playing piano

Friday, January 13, 2012

Anya's Ghost

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol. Published 2011.

For whatever reason, I didn't have this book marked as YA in my library and its been circulating madly. I finally took an hour to read it and I can see why its been so popular. There's people making out, talking about boobs in shirts, smoking cigarettes, murder. Not what I first expected when I kept hearing about this book. Now that being said, I think the material is okay for the older grades from 5th to Middle. There's no sex or language too extreme (though there is some name calling and slight bad word use). Overall, its a book about finding yourself as many young adult books are and also standing up for yourself and fighting for what's right too.

I enjoyed this book. It reminded me of a darker Hereville and a more teen obsessed Persepolis. Anya is Russian American and she desperately wants to fit in and date the cute boy in school. After she befriends a ghost, Emily, she finds that that Emily will help her cheat on tests, find out where Sean is and get invited to parties. She wants to help Emily find her "murderer" but soon she finds that what she thought she wanted isn't all its chalked up to be and who she thought she knew Emily was, isn't quite the truth.

Interest level and reading level: YA
Genre: Fantasy, Graphic Novel

Comparable Titles: Persepolis, Page by Paige

Book Connections: Russian-American culture, library research (this would be a great chapter to show students how to use micro-film or how research was done before Google), ghost stories

The Adventures of Captain Underpants

The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. Published 1997.

First, I'm amazed how long these books have been around in the same way I found out that Magic Tree House has been around since I was little. To me it seems like they've only been on the scene the last five years, but maybe that's because I've only started paying attention to children's books in the last five years. I've obviously known about these books and glanced through them but I hadn't read one from front to back yet so I decided to spend 10 minutes on the first one.

I can see why kids love them. While it is potty humor, its not necessarily disgusting. The illustrations are fun and the little animation bit towards the end is interactive and intriguing. I can see all the kids making their own flip book animations after reading this. The plot's obviously not extensive but the kids are fun and I love the idea of the mean principal being hypnotized into the crime fighting Captain Underpants. It makes it that much funnier when he's streaking across the campus. While, I've known some teachers and parents who are against their kids reading these books, I say, if they're excited about reading then let them read this one. It will only get them reading more books in the future.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 3 (titlewave says 4.8, sometimes I don't understand where they get these numbers from...but then again, looking at the book there are words like "miserable, behavior, hypnotize" that I suppose could be difficult for some students. Personally, I find as young as first grade is an appropriate reading level for these titles.)
Genre: Humor

Comparable Titles: The Adventures of Super Baby, Babymouse, Super Amoeba

Book Connections: making your own comic books, creating super heroes, making flip books

Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians

Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Published 2009.

This is one of those beginning reader books to be put in the same category with Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Its formulaic and uses strange kid humor but the concept is fun and there are more pictures than words, so its a good transitional book for a struggling reader. There's a whole series of these that don't necessarily have to go in order and their bright yellow on black and white makes them pop on a shelf.

In this one, the Lunch Lady must battle the evil league of librarians as they plan to dominate the world through their magical book monsters. Being a librarian, I was a little sad that they didn't help the Lunch Lady in her spy endeavors, but I understand that the concept of these books is the Lunch Lady taking on the ills of the school world, so I'll go along with it. That's pretty much the book in a nutshell.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 2
Genre: Humor, graphic novel

Comparable titles: Captain Underpants, Big Nate

Book Connections: Roles and Jobs in a school, Book Monster Attacks

Hereville: How Mirka got her Sword

Hereville: How Mirka got her Sword by Barry Deutsch. Published 2011.

This was an interesting, quick graphic novel. It wasn't exactly what I was expecting but it didn't disappoint me either. If anything, I thought it was too short and that it could have been one chapter in a collection of three that inter-weaved more. It reminded me of American Born Chinese in that it was highly focused on a specific culture but also extended itself into a fairy tale like telling. This is why I think I wanted more because American Born Chinese was able to push itself to a near perfect level with the interweaving of the stories that I think Hereville could have really benefited from.

In this story, a young girl in an Orthodox Jewish community has benefited from the lessons of argumentation that she's learned from her Stepmother. After she stumbles on a witch's house and has a confrontation with a talking pig, she must defeat a troll for her sword of destiny. As you can see, not much happens. The story seems to be more about the culture and watching how the family interacts and deals with their problems. The more I think about it, the more I am bothered by how abruptly it ends but it was a fun read and I feel like I learned something about Orthodox Jewish communities.

Interest level: Grades 3-6 Reading level: Grade 4
Genre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy

Comparable Titles: American Born Chinese, Page by Paige, Anya's Ghost

Book Connections: Judaism, Shabbos, knitting