Monday, December 9, 2013

The Amulet of Samarkand

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

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

Intended audience: Grades 5-8
Genre: Fantasy

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

Read-alikes: Artemis Fowl series,  Alchemyst series

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Last Dragonslayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Far Far Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy by David Leviathan. Published 2005 by Alfred A. Knopf.

This is a sweet tale of budding high school romance but not with your usual cast of boy meets girl. As the title tells us, this is boy meets boy. How do you deal with a romance that is new? How do you learn to trust each other? How do you let go of a hurt past? These are all questions similar to anyone no matter what type of relationship you're in. This book, while realistic fiction, also seems to live in the author's version of the perfect world. I know I can't wait till a time when drag queens will also be respected football quarterbacks.

If you're looking for a tale of romance with friends helping out other friends, go not further than this title. Butterflies in the stomach, breakups, heartache, winning the love of the's all here.

Interest level: Grades 6-8
Genre: Romance, Realistic Fiction, LGBT

Question to the Readers: Have you ever been hurt in the past and not wanted to trust your friends or loved ones? How do you choose to trust again? Describe the feelings of having a crush.

Read-alikes: The Summer I Learned to Fly by Reinhardt, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Bad Unicorn

Bad Unicorn by Platte F. Clark. Published 2013 by Aladdin.

Unicorns are not all sparkles and kindness. They do not prance and they do not grant magical wishes. If this book is to be believed, unicorns are ferocious magical beings with an appetite for human flesh who wish destruction upon all the world. They enjoy a good frobbit meal here and there as well.

Max is your regular underdog at school with one friend who he enjoys playing fantasy-based games with, until he discovers that the book he's been reading from has magical powers and only he can control it. Max and his friends find themselves whisked away to the future where machines control the world and not a single human is left thanks to one bad unicorn.

Wow! How can all this fit into one novel? Time travel, magic, unicorns, machines, reality television, did I mention unicorns? But if you're looking for a clever twist on a magical tale, something with a little humor as well as action, give Bad Unicorn a try. The book has a natural ending but also sets itself up for a series.

Interest level: Grades 3-6
Genre: fantasy, humor

Question to the Readers: What choice would you have made if you were in Max's shoes: try to make it back to the past or face Robo-Princess? What do you think will happen in the next book? Did Robo-Princess deserve her fate? Why or why not?

Read-alikes: Cold Cereal and The True Meaning of Smek Day both by Adam Rex

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami. Published 2011 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

In this book, Dini finds out that her family will be moving to a secluded mountain town in India for the next two years. The only thing that can get her through the drama of leaving behind her best friend Maddie is the idea that she may meet her favorite Bollywood movie star, Dolly Singh. While Dini is not adjusting well to her Indian life, a trail of coincidental events line up like  Hindi movie plot points to make sure that all the strange events come together in a wonderful, magical way.

This book reminded me of a Bollywood movie. At some points it was over the top and melodramatic while at other moments it was calm while humorous. The present tense narration bothered me, but for others it could sound like reading one long poem. The illustrations have a sweetness that matches the text and for those wanting a glimpse into Indian life and movie stars will enjoy this read immensely.

Intended reading level: Grades 2-4
Genre: Friendship, Realistic Fiction
First in series.

Questions to the Readers: What would you do if you could meet your favorite movie star? How would you feel if you had to move half way around the world from your best friend? Have you ever traveled anywhere that was very different from how you lived at home? What was different or the same?

Read-alikes: The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ender's Game

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Tom Doherty Associates. Published 1977.

This was my first time reading this book and it just so happens that the movie is around the corner. I found myself imagining a movie the whole time I was reading it, so I'm happy I won't have to wait long. I got into a big discussion with some other teachers about the author's personal opinions and whether or not we should let that shape our opinion of the book. Apparently their is an uproar happening over the movie releasing based on Card's views about homosexuality. It saddened me to know this about him, while at the same time, I really enjoyed the story and there was absolutely no derogatory statements made in the book as far as I could tell. Should we judge a book by the author's personal viewpoints? Is a book ever inherently separated from the author that created it? By supporting the book, are we supporting the author? I'd like to believe that a book, especially a Sci-fi classic such as this one, can be separated from the author in that it lives alone as a piece of art, taking on and creating it's own life separate from their own. Almost like a child from a parent. That being said, I'm not happy supporting him either.

Well...the book has a similar structure to the Harry Potter type of hero journey, where a young child is thrust into a position of great importance to complete a mission that is too powerful for him. The child must go off to school to hone the skills he needs to complete the mission but the stress of what is required of him begins to become a burden he can't handle any longer. Being that this book is sci-fi and not fantasy, we are also dealing with the idea of The Other and how we would handle coming across other intelligent life forms in the universe and what our actions say about our own humanity. Very compelling stuff. I kind of wish Card would read his own writing.

Interest level: Grades 5-8
Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Space

Questions to Readers: Do you think the ending would have changed if Ender had known the plan of the adults? Do you think the adults made the right choice? How does Ender change over the course of the novel? Do you think this was a change for the better?

Read-alikes: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Ready Player One

Monday, September 9, 2013

Cold Cereal

Cold Cereal by Adam Rex. Balzer and Bray. Published 2012.

With the sequel of Cold Cereal having been released recently, I decided it was finally time to read the first one. I loved The True Meaning of Smek Day and have always appreciated Rex's illustrations- a balance between Saturday morning cartoon and realism, so I was looking forward to this title. The book did not disappoint. While I liked Smek Day better, the satire mixed with adventure and mystery in this book hit all the right spots a reader of this genre would enjoy.

With a man-sized bunny, evil cereal corporations, magical power reserves and leprechauns, what genre is this book? It is a mystery, a fantasy, a funny story, an adventure and a story about families. It's also a series like many books for children are these days.

Scott and his family move to a new town completely owned and controlled by the Good Cereal company. He starts having what he thinks are strange hallucinations that he doesn't want to investigate until he's pulled into a mystery by two genius twins that he befriends. I don't want to reveal more, but if you like books with geniuses and a strange puzzle to unravel, give this one a try.

Interest level: Grades 3-6
Genre: Mystery, fantasy, humor, adventure

Questions to the Readers: What actions would you take if you started to see strange, magical creatures? Would you rather be yourself or have the ability to drink the smart juice? Where do you think the line of scientific experimentation should be drawn?

Read-alikes: The Mysterious Benedict Society, Genius Files, Chasing Vermeer and other Blue Balliett mysteries

Every Soul a Star

Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass. Little, Brown and Company. Published 2008.

This book was another California Young Reader nominee from a few years back. This is meant for the older elementary, early middle school level as it is told from alternating perspectives from middle school students. Two girls and one boy converge at a camp in the middle of nowhere for the Full Eclipse happening an a few weeks. Each is there for different reasons and almost all of them are completely upset about what has been foisted upon them by their parents. Their mutual annoyance ties them together initially but soon they have a larger goal when they are given the chance to take part in a world-wide scientific observation. The choices they make and the actions they take are bound to change them and along the way they may get the experience the awesome power of a full solar eclipse.

I appreciated being able to see the story from the multiple perspectives and watch as each character was able to grow and change. One character I expected more growth from but I think it is more realistic of her character and age that she didn't completely change over the course of the novel. I would love to have an epilogue or short novella of their time back at the camp a year after the story ended to see where their lives take them after they depart from the camp.

Interest level: Grades 5-8
Genre: Realistic fiction, Friendship

Questions to the Readers: Where would you rather live- a big city or the MoonShadow camp, why? What character do you most see yourself in? How did this character change over the course of the novel?

Read-alikes: Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins, The Center of Everything by Linda Urban

Ruby Lu, Brave and True

Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look. Atheneum. Published 2004.

This chapter book has the same humor and warmth as Look's Alvin Ho series but with a precocious female character. She loves to do magic, she's protective of her baby brother and she loves her family even when they force her to go to Saturday Chinese school. This book feels more like a series of events, or vignettes, tied together rather than one solid arch of a story line. Young readers will appreciate completing these smaller story lines within the larger whole. Plus Ruby's antics will keep them intrigued.

Interest level: Grades 1-3
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Humor

Questions to the Readers: Why did Ruby finally accept her brother as her assistant? How would you feel if a foreign cousin came to live with you and share your room?

Read-alikes: Alvin Ho series also by Lenore Look, Clementine series, Judy Moody series

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Giant-Slayer

The Giant-Slayer by Iain Lawrence. Yearling. Published 2009.

This book was nominated for the California Young Reader Medal last year. It did not win, but I thought it was a fantastic book. In this story, a young girl lives in the midst of the polio scare of the 1950s. She is warned to stay out of water and not to play with other children. But when her best friend catches polio after they both play in a creek, Laurie feels so bad that she breaks her father's rules and goes to visit Dickie in the iron lung wing of the polio ward. Laurie finds that the only gift she can bring the three children in iron lungs is the gift of story and begins to tell the tale of Jimmy the Giant Slayer. Sooner than later, the children begin to find that her story mirrors things in real life that she couldn't possibly know and when things turn to the worst, each child must take up part of the telling.

The writing in this novel is so descriptive. I felt like I was in the middle of the story whether it was in the hospital or in the fantasy world of Laurie's telling. Each character was varied and had their own motivations and worries. I highly recommend this read.

Intended reading level: Grades 5-8
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Question to the Readers: How would you feel if you ended up in bed sick for longer than a week? What would you do if you couldn't move any of your limbs? How would you have ended the story of Jimmy and Colosso?

Read-alikes: Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret (non-fiction)


Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf. Published 2012.

This book was much talked about last year and for good reason. It is not the usual coming-of-age novel where a student starts his first day of school at a new school dealing with bullies and pressing middle school matters. That stuff is there, but this character is very different than any characters before. August, or Auggie, has a rare genetic disorder that has made his face look like that of a B-Movie monster. He has been home schooled his whole life due to continued illness, but his parents have decided that it is time for him to go to a real school at the start of middle school. This time period would be hard enough for anyone, but it is especially hard for Auggie as he has to deal with the reactions of all the students around him while trying to decide who he is as a person as well.

The author uses multiple perspectives to tell this story. This opens up the book to see the reactions of everyone around Auggie and letting us understand how they really feel and how actions and thoughts can actually be two different things. This was a great story for learning about being in the shoes of other people and how to accept people for who they are and not how they look.

Intended reading level: Grades 4-8
Genre: Realistic Fiction, School fiction

Questions to the Readers: Have you ever felt like an outsider? If so, how did that make you feel? In what ways has Auggie always stayed true to himself? How has he changed over the course of the novel?

Read-alikes: The Misfits by James Howe, The Giant-Slayer by Iain Lawrence

The Tiger Rising

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo. Candlewick Press. Published 2001.

As with many of DiCamillo's books, this story is about children coping with major turmoil in their life and finding friendship and peace over the course of the novel. Because of this, there is the sweet melancholy that is present in her others books as well. And like the mouse, elephant and dog that have precedence elsewhere, this novel has a tiger taking main stage.
The premise is that a boy working with his father at a hotel in the South finds a tiger locked in a cage in the woods. After befriending the new girl in town, whether he wanted to or not, he shares the tiger that he's found and her reaction changes the course of their lives.

Intended reading level: Grades 3-5
Genre: Realistic Fiction

Question to the Readers: If you found a tiger in your backyard, what would you do about it? Do you think Rob made the right choice? Why or why not?

Read-alikes: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Being Henry David

Being Henry David by Cal Armistead. Albert Whitman and Co. NetGalley.

For survival stories/mysteries with a little bit of romance and amnesia, this book fits the bill. But how many bills request all those things. I felt this book had a bit of multiple personality disorder, wanting to cover all it's bases and I wonder if this would put some readers off who are expecting one genre and then getting another. That being said, the pace moves relatively quickly (more so in the beginning than the middle to end) and it has a male lead character and an amnesia mystery story line that will keep mystery seekers interested.

Because the story opens on a boy who doesn't know who he is or where he is, be takes on the identity of the first thing that comes to him, the author of the book that a homeless man has taken off him and begun to eat. He become Henry David and decides to travel to Walden Pond as he finds this to be the only clue of finding his true identity. Without money or identity, Hank takes up with two homeless kids and gets himself into trouble. This is how the book opens and it feels very fast-paced, action survival story. But Hank quickly escapes this scene and ends up at Walden Pond where he must still struggle to survive but is helped by a number of people and goaded to stay by his crush on a girl that he runs into. This is where the story drags a bit for me. With the intense survival opening, I wonder if most readers will still around for the quieter paced average high school plot line in the middle. The amnesia story line picks up at the end and it gets to be a bit melodramatic but at least the mystery is solved. While the connection to Henry David Thoreau frames the story, it also doesn't seem to have much of a connection to the larger themes of loss, guilt and grief.

Interest level: YA (grade 6+)

Question to the readers: Faced with Henry David's situation, what would you have done in the beginning of the book? Why do you think Henry David came down with amnesia?

Read-alikes: Hatchet, North

Tib and Tumtum: Welcome to the Tribe

Tib and Tumtum: Welcome to the Tribe by Grimaldi and Bannister. NetGalley. Graphic Universe.

This graphic novel for early elementary students was a gem. The cartoon drawings with the over-sized heads and simplistic features works well for this age level and the makes the reader feel open to the tale of a prehistoric boy and the dinosaur that he finds. Because of the nature of the story I was reminded of Calvin and Hobbes. We have a young boy with a ferocious beast as his best friend yet the beast does him, nor anyone else, any harm. The book itself, while it tells a tale in compilation, seems to be a series of separate comics with a punch line at the end of each page. While Calvin and Hobbes is meant for older readers, often addressing content that is designed for mature readers, Tib and Tumtum is meant for the kids it is geared for. The humor is spot on and I believe kids will eat it up with its dinosaur theme and the feelings of isolation and being bullied the main character Tib deals with.

The story is that a young caveboy is often ostracized for the large birthmark on his face. The other children taunt him and don't accept him into their group. Tib comes across a dinosaur who he discovers won't hurt him, yet no one believes he's found a dinosaur as they are believed to be extinct already. Telling tall tales runs in the family so everyone believes Tib is making it up. Because of this, the dinosaur is seen as Tib's imaginary friend. The rest of the story is Tib trying to convince those around him that there is a dinosaur and the consequences in having a dino friend as part of the tribe.

Interest level- Grades 1-3
First in series.

Question to the readers: What animal would you want to discover and keep as your personal friend? Do you think that kids will accept Tib into their group once they discover Tumtum?

Read-alikes: Calvin and Hobbes, Zita the Spacegirl

Friday, May 24, 2013


Wish by Beth Bracken and Kay Fraser. Published by Capstone Young Readers. NetGalley.

I don't know how I feel about this title. The writing fit the age group and I can foresee this being a good transition novel for the girls who are growing out of Fairy Realm but aren't quite old enough for Twilight. This is exactly the publishers and authors intention in this title as well. But this is an odd sweet spot. The older readers won't want to feel like they're reading a book for young kids and the young kids won't read it if it seem too dark or makes them feel uncomfortable. On that end, I think its a better read for the younger kids. It's the pictures that throw me off more than anything. While they are ethereal and dark in the right ways for a book about evil faeries, I feel there are too many of them and they are almost too realistic or dark at parts for the younger readers. What I would love to do is test this title out with some of my third and fourth graders? For the writing itself, I thought it overused flashback or retrospection and didn't stay in the action long enough or expand moments where it could have. Again, I think this was because of the strive to hit a certain reading level. On the other hand, it was very poetic and carried a sadness to it that lent itself well to the themes and the strange magical world.

In this story, two girls are best friends but over a confrontation with a boy, Soli accidentally wishes Lucy away to the faerieground where she is held prisoner by Queen Calandra. Only Soli can enter this world to try to bring Lucy back and discover mysteries about both girls' lives while she's at it.

Questions to Readers: Has a friend ever done anything to you that made you just want to wish them away? What lines should friends never cross?

Read-alikes: the Emily Windsnap books.

Furry and Flo: The Big Hairy Secret

Furry and Flo: The Big Hairy Secret by Thomas Kingsley Troupe. Published by Capstone Young Readers. NetGalley. 

For the Beginning Chapter Book set, I really enjoyed this title. There was the use of underwear humor but at a minimum, the illustrations were cheeky and complimented the text, the action (once it started) kept pace and heightened when needed. There was plenty of mild foreshadowing that mildly hinted at things to come but not so heavy handed that all the secrets were given away early on. I enjoyed the anxious Furry and look forward to him and Flo forming a solid friendship in subsequent titles. There were a few questions I had as an adult reader about character details that I don't think will bother student readers so I was able to let them go. 

In this first title, Florence who prefers Flo, moves to yet another dingy apartment with her mother. Flo is not happy about yet another move and doesn't expect them to stay long but after discovering a boy in his underwear across the hall from her and a case of missing popsicles, Flo soon finds that there is more to this apartment complex than meets the eye. 

Intended reading level: Grades 1-3
First in series

Questions for Readers: If you were Flo, would you try to convince your mother to stay or leave the new apartment? What are your thoughts on Furry's predicament? 

Read-alikes: Notebook of Doom, Looniverse

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

To review or not review?

Having recently begun reading electronic galleys, I wonder if it is better to review something or not if you dislike it. There were two books I started, one of which I couldn't get past the first two chapters and another that I made it more than half way but thought why waste my time reading more. I feel obliged to review them as that is part of the bargain, yet I don't see the point of promoting a book I did not like reading. I suppose it is as worthwhile for people to know what is not worth purchasing as it is to know what is worth reading and adding to a library selection. On the other side, I feel beholden to the publishers who made this galley available to me for free and would hate to lose that connection based on a number of bad reviews.

Since I can't seem to decide, yet the galleys insist I share information after reading. Here is my summary of the two titles I will not be purchasing.

Outcast by Adrienne Kress: YA

Having been raised in a highly religious family, it was hard for me to buy the premise of the book. If angels appeared and started taking people away, everyone in a religious community would be thrilled and believe it to be the Rapture. They would welcome the angels and treat the people who were taken as saints and wonder what else they should be doing to be more like them. Perhaps the author addresses this later in the book, but I couldn't get passed the telling instead of showing that the author employed to try to get me to believe a premise that would never feel real to me even in paranormal fantasy.

Time Tripping Faradays by John Seven: Middle Grade

I was able to forgive some inconsistencies and suspend my disbelief slightly as I knew this was a fantasy/sci-fi book for younger children. My problem came half way through the book when I knew I had more questions noted than answers. Here are just a few of those questions - Why is the shoe business actually important to the story line? How do they speak the languages of the different time periods? How are they able to get in such close confidence with these major leaders? Why are the kids specifically given the chance to time travel? Is this schooling for them, if so why can't other kids do it? I was at page 73 and still wondering what the inciting incident was. I understood that the alchemy storyline was suppose to mean something, but I wasn't sure why I was suppose to care. Nothing seemed to have any real weight, even if you considered they might alter reality in the future, I still didn't care.

So there you first two negative reviews. I wish I could have read them all the way through to give a better overall impression but there is too little time to waste on reading a bad book when there are so many good ones out there.

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. Published 2006b by Speak.

I've already sung my praises for John Green and I'm sticking to it, but at a certain point with so much expectation, not everything can live up to such a high standard. That is a horrible way to start this review, as this book had nothing wrong with it and kept to the Green oeuvre, yet had I read it first or second I may have enjoyed it more than I did reading it third. The characters are quirky and realistic. They are flawed yet grow in just the right way over the course of the novel--not so much to be absurd. There is humor and footnotes of interesting information. All this and more, yet something didn't speak to me the way Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns did. Maybe it was the way the main character is slightly detached from reality, living in his own prodigy brain or maybe I just needed a break from this sort of teen, finding yourself novel, but it took me longer than usual to get through this one.

For plot summary: Colin Singleton is dumped by his 19th Katherine when his best friend Hassan convinces him that a road trip is the only thing that will cure him. They don't make it far when they decide to pull over and see Arch Duke Ferdinand's suppose burial place outside Gutshot, Tennessee. After meeting Lindsay, who doesn't match up with first impressions, they are asked to stay and work for her mother for $500 a week. The boys stay and Colin uses his extra time to come up with a theorem to predict future relationships based on the beginning and end of each relationship with a Katherine. If he succeeds, he will prove that he was not just a prodigy, but in fact, a genius.

Intended reading level: YA (HS)

Questions to the readers: Would you rather be the dumper or the dumpee? Why or why not? What does it mean to truly be yourself? Do you ever feel your in a situation where you are not acting like your genuine self? How do you know the difference?

Read-alikes: See other John Green titles. Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

10 Plants that Shook the World

10 Plants that Shook the World by Gillian Richardson. Published Feb. 2013 by Annick Press.

I just signed up for NetGalley and I wanted to get my hands on a book fast. This title was instantly available and I'm glad it was. Between vignettes, factoids, and history about the main foods that shaped human civilization as we know it, I was happy I was given a chance to read this book before I purchase it, which I will be doing.
The structure of the book is an opening page that introduces the main facts, such as Birth, Likes and Dislikes, of each plant. Following this is a vignette of a person's life that may have been affected by the plant in some way in some time period. There is then a history of how the plant effected the world interspersed with facts throughout. I liked the structure in a general way but I thought the vignettes were a bit superfluous. I would have been happy with an extended history or a briefing of how the plant effects us more in the current time period. I also think the sidebar of facts is always exciting, but the history gets into some pretty desolate stuff and having to break to hear about the dates of cotton inventions seems to trivialize it a bit.  I think a better use of the space for text would be a reflection on how students could combat things linked to the atrocities that happened in the future. Of course, that's asking a lot of the writer.
Those are my big two complaints about the book. Otherwise, I thought it was a great way for kids to learn how something as seemingly simple as pepper, and other plant items, can have such a huge effect on the world. It would be a really great lesson to compare to oil, the stock exchange or clothing manufacturers of today. I also left with some gained knowledge. I didn't know there was no recorded history of how to make paper out of papyrus or that a fair number of cacao laborers have never actually tasted chocolate.

Intended reading level: Grades 3-5

Questions to Readers: If you knew that the every day items you ate were destroying the planet or leading to slavery, would you change your purchasing decisions or what you ate? Why or why not? How can we ensure trade frenzies highlighted in this book don't happen in the future? What was the most interesting fact that you learned?

Read-alikes: Big Wig: A Little History of Hair

Monday, May 6, 2013

Princess Knight: Part 2

Princess Knight: Part 2 by Osamu Tezuka. Published 2011 by Vertical, Inc. Published originally in
Japan in 1953.

I was interested in finishing this short manga series by the Godfather of Manga because of it's gender bending. I wanted to see if he was ahead of his time with more than just art and manga, but unfortunately the ideals seem to still hold two hearts. While on some points its forward thinking--women get the right to vote and be equals as decreed by Prince Plastic once he is given a male heart, but on the other hand--Sapphire is not fully a person until she accepts her female-ness, allowing her to wed Prince Charming. There's a disgraceful scene where she almost marries a female character and both the other female knight and pastor freak out when they find out she is a woman and say that this cannot be done. In moments like this, it's worthwhile to remind yourself that this title was originally written in Japan in the 1950s.

The first volume was so ambiguous about whether or not it was detrimental for Sapphire to have both a male and female heart that I was really hoping there would be some sort of finale that concluded with her keeping both and the characters accepting this as normal. But I suppose that would be my 21st century re-write for this title.

As for the story as Tezuka intended it, there is still a lot of cliffhanging action, slapstick comedy, Disney-influenced character and plot points and a "happy" ending. Worth finishing off the series as its only two volumes.

Intended reading level: Grades 3-5
Second in series

Questions to Readers: 
Would you change anything about the ending? Who Sapphire ends up with? What heart she has? If so, what would you change and why? If not, why do you think Tezuka chose this ending?

Tezuka's Buddha series, Donald Duck comics or other Disney titles

Sunday, May 5, 2013


Scarlet by Marissa Meyers. Published 2013 by Feiwel and Friends.

Another fun sci-fi fairy tale twist, this time with focus on Little Red Riding Hood. But don't worry, Lihn Cinder hasn't been left out. The second book in the Lunar Chronicles opens with the story of Scarlet Benoit in France and the disappearance of her grandmother. Trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance without the help of inept police, Scarlet pairs up with a wayward member of the Wolves,  what she believes to be a vicious gang of boys and men. Meanwhile, Cinder has escaped prison and commandeered a spaceship to try to track down the true story of her past and her relationship to the evil Queen Levana.

In Meyer's second book, she flips between story lines and tells each part through a different character's perspective. We see the world through Emperor Kai's thoughts as well as Cinder and Scarlet, with some other new characters too. This switch between characters and perspectives didn't bother me. Instead, it allowed me to see what was going on through this global story and how all the pieces fit together. I felt their was a lot more action in this book than the first. For some readers this is a bonus for others this might take away from the intrigue of the story line. All in all there was a solid ending with still enough suspense and cliffhangers to constitute the next two books in the series.

Intended Reading level: YA but younger grades okay
Second in series

Questions to Readers: Would you have told the captors your secret or done what Grandma Benoit did? Why or why not? If you found out that you were secretly a queen to another planet, how would you handle the news? Did Kai make the right decision, why or why not? Would you have done anything differently, and if so, what?

Read-alikes: Sisters Red and/or Sweetly by Jackson Pearce, Alex Flynn's books: Cloaked, Beastly, Bewitched, etc., Secrets of WondLa


Requiem by Lauren Oliver. Published 2013 by Harper Collins.

I was so excited to finally finish up this trilogy from Lauren Oliver. Her writing is head and shoulders above a lot of other YA authors in my opinion. There's a lyrical richness to it and the character's emotions pull you through even the most absurd situations. The premise of the whole trilogy is that love, or amor deliriosa, is a disease and must be eradicated through brain surgery when you turn 18. The trilogy follows a Romeo and Juliet style relationship in this world where love shouldn't happen with twists, turns and intrigue along the way. The last book picks up in the Wilds with Lena faced with confronting her first love triangle. I don't want to go into too much detail in case their are readers who haven't picked up the first two books yet.

This book switches point of view in every other chapter between Lena and Hana. I appreciated this choice because I was able to go back into the world we saw in the first novel. This is a device that Oliver employed throughout each book but has changed in some small way. In the first book we were given passages from the Book of Shhh and in the second the switches were between past and present from Lena's point of view. In any trilogy, the story shifts in the second book and pulls us away from what we loved about the first, losing some readers, but the third comes back in full force and brings us full circle to where we started.

Intended Reading Level: YA-Grade 7+ (I have sixth graders that have read it, but I think it would be better appreciated by older readers)
Third book in series

Question to Readers:
Do you think the surgery was effective on Hana? Do you think she may have a relapse like Lena's mother did? What do you think will become of Portland? What do you think will happen to the rest of the republic after the end of the book? Who would you have chosen if you were Lena?

Matched Series by Ally Condy, All These Things I've Done, The Giver series

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. Published 2010 by Groundwood books.

This was a superb graphic novel. Having won the Best Illustrated Children's Book Award by the New York Times, its already proven its caliber. The artwork is so filled with fluid and delicate dark lines that it reminds me of calligraphy. The backgrounds are extremely detailed and the way panels will be placed above them in a smaller space makes it feel like poetry in images. There are a lot of close-ups and variety of angles used by the illustrator. These  aspect to aspect and moment to moment shots slow the action down and let us feel what the characters are feeling.
The story is about a girl, Kim, known by Skim to the girls at her school, and her friendships and budding love affair. Like all good teen stories, it is a novel about identity and finding our true selves and our true friendships as well as what love means and how it can so easily tear our heart apart.

While the below image might ruin part of the story, I just have to share it because I think it is so beautiful. It reminds me of two flowers blooming inside a patch of thorns, a briar rose, if you will:

Interest level: YA - because of smoking, drinking and adult concepts I would say Grades 8-12

Questions to Readers:
What choices did Ms. Archer make, bad or good? Would you have done anything differently? What changed between Lisa and Kim? Why do you think Lisa was so angry all the time? What different things do you think Katie was feeling over the course of the novel? Why was Kim able to sympathize? 

Read-alikes: Page by Paige, Friends with Boys

When We Wake

When We Wake by Karen Healey. ARC. Published March 2013 by Little, Brown and Company.

For all those into the dystopian, sci-fi future books, this is another one for your reading list. The book is framed by the main character, Tegan, telling her story. We don't know who she's telling this story to or how she is telling it, but the premise is that we, the readers, are the recipient of this message some time in the future. We also know that this is Tegan's second lifetime. She has already died once and been brought back to life by a secret military cyrogenics project. Being that Tegan is still in a 16 year old body with a 16 year old mind, we still follow her in her normal teen pursuits even thought its more than a hundred years into the future passed the time of her death. But it's not just the teen pursuits we follow along after. With political intrigue and human rights issues surrounding her resurrection, Tegan and her friends find a mystery they must uncover and bring to the light of day.

I liked the framing of the story and the connection it created between the main character and the reader. I felt that I was implicit in this plot somehow and wanted to know why she was in hiding and where she was broadcasting, or 'casting, from. I had questions about the reality of the science that brought her back to life without any brain damage, but I suspended my disbelief to go along with the action and drama of the story. Also, I liked the cover even though it was another with a pretty girl face on the front, but this one applies. While there is a romantic storyline, its stays relatively PG, so I don't mind sharing this one with middle schoolers. I think there will be a lot of great discussions to be had about human rights issues around the world as well as the climate change issue.

Intended reading level: YA -Grades 5-8 okay
First in series

Questions for the Readers:
Does the mean always justify the end? Do you believe sacrificing a few to save millions is worth it? Would you want to be frozen after your death to be revived in a different century? What were some of the hardships Tegan faced when she woke up? Can you think of more that the book didn't address? What issues surrounding climate change were in the book? How did the different factions handle their thoughts or opinions about these issues? What do you think the Australian government should do to address these issues?

Read-alikes: Delirium series by Lauren Oliver. Matched series by Ally Condy. I haven't read them yet, but this book almost seemed like it could be a prequel to the Across the Universe series only they're written by separate authors. I would encourage reading them in tandem.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Genie Wishes

Genie Wishes by Elisabeth Dahl. ARC. Published April 2013  by Amulet Books.

I really enjoyed this book. It was perfectly realistic in all the right ways. It didn't try to be over the top to get laughs or deal with issues that were too heavy. It captured what it was like to be at the edge of adolescence exactly.

The story takes place at the end of the summer right before school starts with the impetus of a new girl, Blair, who starts to put a wedge between the main character, Genie, and her best friend, Sarah. The drama between the three builds slowly over the course of the book but in a way that is natural and true to how it would unfold in real life. The gem of this book, for me at least, was how realistic the school situations were and how the school was run. Its the first school-based book I've read in a long time that actually had students doing things that I believe students actually do these days and without the emphasis being on a horrible teacher or a mean principal. The story is shaped by  Genie becoming the class blogger and writing posts about the fifth graders dreams, wishes and hopes over the course of the year. There would be such a great tie-in with student blogging using this book as a catalyst.

Intended reading level: Grades 3-5

Questions for the Readers:
Have you ever grown distant with a good friend? How did this make you feel? What changed between you and your friend? Do you think students in fifth grade should wear make-up? Why or why not? Convince the readers to your argument persuasively.

Lauren Myracle's birthday series (Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen), Alice series by Naylor

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Published 2012 by
Simon and Schuster. American Book Award winner. Pura Belpre Winner. Stonewall Award winner. Printz Honor Book.

This book is precious. Just really precious. I don't know why that's the right word for it, but it is. It is such a sweet, specific love story, but it's also about finding ourselves, discovering our identities and learning how to love and be loved. And to top it all off, its about two young Latino boys who all this is happening to.

The book takes place in 1987 in Texas so we have the context of teens in gangs, rampant homophobia and cultural stereotypes that circle the characters and the story line. Because the characters feel so timely and exist within their own bubble, I sometimes forgot that this book took place in the past.

I don't want to give away much more than that, but as you can see, it's been on almost every single award list, so give it a try.

Intended reading level: YA (High school level, mature 8th grade)

Questions to the Readers:
Have you ever felt you were in love with someone? How did you feel when you were in love? Was it reciprocated? Have you ever felt love for someone but was too afraid to tell them? Where did that fear come from?

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
Compare this book to Openly Straight

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dorko the Magnificent

Dorko the Magnificent by Andrea Beaty. ARC. Published April 2013 by Amulet.

Robbie Darko opens the book by talking directly to his audience as if he's a showman on stage. He warns us that there will be no explosions or car chases like in the movies but if we happen to make his book into a movie, feel free to add them where we see fit. Robbie explains to the reader that he is a magician, whether or not his fellow students appreciate him for it. Beaty does a good job of showing us Robbie's blunders without him seeing them as blunders as he tells us about them. The story truly takes off when Grandma Melvyn is introduced and becomes part of the family. She becomes Robbie's mentor in all things illusion whether he wants her to be or not. The story also has a believable and timely subplot dealing with money woes and parent's struggling to keep the family afloat during the economic downturn.

Overall, a good read for grades 4 and 5 with two cheeky main characters and a whole lot of Trixies.

Intended reading level: Grades 3-5

Questions for the Readers:
Why do you think Grandma Melvyn calls everyone Trixie? How would you feel if Robbie was your magician brother and took your stuff to use for magic tricks? How does the ending make you feel?

The One and Only Ivan, Secrets of the Cicada Summer

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Like Bug Juice on a Burger

Like Bug Juice on a Burger by Julie Sternber. ARC. Published April 2013 by Amulet.

I have to say this was not my favorite book. I don't understand when text is placed in verse when it's not actually poetry. Just let it read like regular prose please. The plot is that Eleanor is going to sleep away camp for the first time. At first she is excited but once she realizes she won't be in the familiarity of her own home with her parents, she begins to dread the experience. The rest of the book is her detailing what she doesn't like about camp but realizing that she will survive it. The book was short, probably because of the verse style writing. Once I felt like the character was reaching her growth potential and where the book was really going to take off, it ended. I don't feel like I really got to know any of the other characters and her learning process seemed to come on rather quickly. I understand it was meant to be a shorter read for younger students, but I wasn't a fan. That being said, I think this was just a personal preference and other readers might like it as the writing itself was done well. Could be good summer reading potential.

Intended reading level: Grades 1-3
Second book in a series.

Questions to the Readers: 
Have you ever been to summer camp before? If so, what was your experience like? If not, would you want to go? Why? Do you think Eleanor could have done anything different to enjoy her time there more? What was your favorite name for the goat?

Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, Liberty Porter, Ruby Lu

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Scott Pilgrim: Volume One and Two

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World by Bryan Lee O'Malley. Published 2004 and 2005, Oni Press.

I have to admit, I saw the movie first, and ever since then I've wanted to read the comics. The movie sticks closely to the humor and the style and even the story line. The comics add more as each volume is only about one fight or so. Manga-influenced, video game influenced, punk influenced, all those things rolled together.

The story is that Scott Pilgrim meets Ramona Flowers and finds that if he wants to continue to date her he has to battle the League of her Evil Ex-Boyfriends. But Scott's no angel either and his ex-girlfriends keep making appearances as well. Scott doesn't have a job, he lives in a one room apartment where he shares a bed with his gay roommate, he's in a band with one of his ex-girlfriends and the band's biggest fan is the high schooler he used to date. Throw in magical elements like travelling through sub-highways in people's brains and doors appearing out of nowhere and the fact that you can battle to the death for a small collection of coins and you get the Scott Pilgrim novels. Fun!

Intended reading level: YA (HS, some sexual situations)
First and second volumes in series of six.

Questions for readers: Do you think it's fair that Scott has to battle Ramona's exes? What would you do if you were Knives Chau? What do you think the phrase, "all's fair in love and war" means? Do you think this is an apt expression for these comics?

Read-alikes: shonen manga titles

Starring Jules: As Herself

Starring Jules: As Herself by Beth Ain. ARC. Published March 2013. Scholastic.

This beginning chapter book is for the readers who love quirky, fun characters. Jules lives in New York City with her artist mom and chef dad and little brother, Big Henry. The book opens with her being discovered at a diner by a casting agent when she writes and sings her own jingle. She is told she has pizzazz, her new favorite word. And that's just what Jules has. She's full of pep and humor but she also has real kid worries, like losing her best friend and wanting to find a new one, or being scared she'll throw up at her audition. The family feels very real and the relationships between the kids is fun and full of real changes and evolutions that happen as children age.

Intended reading level: Grades 1-3
First in series.

Questions for Readers:
Why do you think Jules doesn't want to be friends with Charlotte anymore? Do you think they will fix their friendship in the future? How would you have reacted if you were Elinor visiting Jules' house? Would you want to audition for a commercial? How do you think you would feel in front of the casting agents?

Read-alikes: Clementine, Judy Moody

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Notebook of Doom: Rise of the Balloon Goons

The Notebook of Doom: Rise of the Balloon Goons written and illustrated by Troy Cummings. ARC.
Release date July 2013.

I will definitely get this book for my kids. Who doesn't love a story about strange monsters especially when those monsters are Dancing Balloons? That makes me chuckle alone. It helps that the rest of the book is pretty funny too. For instance, one of the monsters in the Notebook of Doom is a Forkupine, which is a "small, metal rodent with a coat of tiny, sharp forks," with a warning that says, "Never pet a forkupine! Instead lure it near a plate of spaghetti." A fun fact is included that reads, "The forkupine is a distant cousin to the sporkupine, a creature which is less dangerous but also --let's face it-- less practical. "

Alexander is new to town and discovers a Notebook of Doom documenting different monsters when he accidentally goes to the school campus that is getting torn down. He starts spotting Dancing Balloons all over town while simultaneously discovering that the air is being let out of anything inflatable. Since his birthday is on Leap Year, his dad has decided to throw a birthday party for him. The guests are not what he expected...

Intended reading level: Grades 1-3
First in new series with 4 proposed titles.

Questions to the readers:
What monster would you add to the Notebook of Doom if you could make one up? What would its habitat be? What would it look like? What warnings would you give about it?

Read-alikes: Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies, Zombiekins, Pencil of Doom

Looniverse: Stranger Things

Looniverse: Stranger Things by David Lubar and illustrated by Matt Loveridge. ARC. Release date May 2013.

This is a beginning chapter book about a boy named Ed who finds a strange coin that somehow creates strange occurrences around him. If he doesn't want the universe to lose all its strangeness he has to find the Stranger that the coin belongs too. There are silly antics like a little brother being used as a floating tube in a pool by drinking excess amounts of soda. The print is large and easy to read and the pictures are just kooky enough to compliment the text well.

I liked the premise even though I was a little confused as to how the coin depleted strangeness when things got stranger around it. Seems like things should have become boring and mundane around the coin until all strangeness was gone but perhaps that would have been too difficult of a concept.

My students who like The Weird School books might really enjoy this series.

Intended reading level: Grades 1-3
First in series of four proposed titles.

Questions to readers:
What do you think would happen if all the strangeness left the planet? Is being strange good or bad, why? Would you want to have Ed's coin? What would you do with it if you did have it?

Weird School series, Pencil of Doom

Princess Knight

Princess Knight: Part One by Osamu Tezuka. Originally published 1953. Translated to English 1977.
Vertical, Inc. 2011

For my graphic novels for youth class, I had to choose a Manga to read this week. I went with Tezuka's Princess Knight because I was intrigued by the dueling gender relationships and the playing with stereotypes especially for a book published over 50 years ago in Japan. I had also heard that Tezuka is the father of Manga from Scott McCloud's work.

The premise of this book is that a mischievous angel named Tink places a boy heart in an unborn baby before God gives the baby a girl heart and sends he/she on his/her way. As punishment, Tink must go to earth and take the boy heart back before he can ever return to heaven. Unfortunately the baby becomes the Prince/Princess of the kingdom and it takes Tink 15 years before he can even speak to her. The story follows the adventures of Prince Sapphire as he/she deals with trying to hide his identity of a girl to be considered the heir and prince to the kingdom.

The book mainly played on gender stereotypes and had a lot of slapstick humor reminiscent of Bugs Bunny and other cartoons from that era. With the heavy religious overtones, I was worried that with the dated writing of this text that the book would try to make the character choose one gender or the other. While I've only read part one, I'm happy that Tezuka allowed him/her to remain ambiguous and has him/her gain identity from both hearts. She is neither fully princess or fully prince.

With action, adventure, knights, witches, pirates, kingdoms and assassins, this book would appeal to both girl and boy readers who love comics. The humor is kid friendly and as it was intended for a young female audience (shojo) it is not too violent or sexual.

Here's a bonus YouTube video from the opening of the Princess Knight anime:

Intended reading level: Grades 3-5

Questions for the readers:
Do you think Prince Sapphire should keep both hearts? How does each heart help her in her adventures? What do you think of the choice Tink made towards the end that changed his fate? Do you think Sapphire will choose Captain Blood or Franz Charming? What fairy tales does Tezuka use to tell his story?

Read-alikes: Astro Boy, Bone series

Openly Straight

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg. ARC. Publish date June 2013. Arthur A. Levine Books.

I grabbed this book at the ALA Mid-Winter conference through a flurry of other librarians all asking the same questions around the baby blue cover. We were all thinking the same thing. This can't actually be offensive, it must be a positive look at homosexuality, but what's with that title? The representative went through her spiel and reassured all of us to give it a try and see what it was about.

Rafe is openly gay in his Boulder community, but finds that he is fed up with being "the gay kid." To get away from labels, in an attempt to just be himself without anything else attached, he moves to Boston to go to an all-boys prep school. He knows that he doesn't want to lie about his sexuality, but he doesn't want to come out either. His family and friends back in Colorado are appalled once they know what he's done and he finds he must navigate who he is from both sides of his Boston identity and his Bolder identity. Things get complicated when he begins to make closer connections with boys at school.

In the beginning of the book, I was wary and kept noticing how many labels Rafe attached to others for someone who is so against labels. I was hoping this was a tactic on the part of the author and we'll just say he knew what he was doing. As an adult reader, I sometimes find this challenging to determine what the author wants you to know compared to what the character may not know yet. Overall, I think Konigsberg did a good job of letting Rafe explore identity crisis issues in his own way, even if that way may seem absurdly backwards at first. There is definitely growth and exploration of thought for the main character.

For issues exploring homosexuality, identity and first love, this is a great read.

Intended reading level: YA (HS level because of alcohol, some drug use and sexual situations-though they are very mild and only implied, not detailed)

Questions for the reader:
What do you think? Did Rafe come to understand his true identity? Was the experiment worth it or should he have stayed home?

Read-alikes: Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Songs of a Teenage Nomad

Posting Again

I started this review blog as a requirement for a graduate level course in my library science program. Therefore, the audience was geared towards other librarians and teachers. I wanted to include book connections that teachers could use to entice excitement for the book or include in a display. I tried to find read-alikes for book suggestions or to find a connection to the new book to get a reader interested. I personally like reading short blog posts as I don't have much time in my day to read multiple reviews, so the posts are on the concise side with a short summary and my impression. I try to include strengths and weaknesses as well as what I think the kid's will think of the book within the short review. 
Now that I'll be transitioning the blog to use within my school community, the reviews will be geared more to my student audience and whether or not I think they will like or gain anything from the books reviewed. There is no rhyme or reason to the books that will be reviewed. Some may be new, some old that I've never read before. Some may be for younger students and some may be for high school level. For the time being, the form and signature contributions may change or evolve depending on what I think is best to include about a book to reach the intended audience.