Thursday, July 31, 2014

Second Star

18465577Sheinmel, Alyssa B. Second Star
May 13th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) 

Wendy Darling's family has been fractured ever since her twin brothers, John and Michael, disappeared with their surf boards. It's been months, and after the boards were found shattered, the parents decided that the brothers were dead and sank into their own pits of grief. Wendy doesn't believe that they are really gone, and decides that they must be surfing in some out of the way cove. After meeting a mysterious boy, Pete, she tells her parents that she is traveling with her friend Fiona, and looks for Pete on the beaches. She finds him at a collection of condemned houses on a cliff, an area called Kensington that was abandoned due to safety issues but now the home of a variety of runaways. Pete takes care of the group, but is in conflict with another guy across the way-- Jas is a drug dealer who hooks kids on something called Fairy Dust. Pete and Belle want nothing to do with Jas but eventually admit that John and Michael were involved with him, and may have been surfing dangerous waves under the influence of drugs. In order to talk to Jas, Wendy takes a tablet of fairy dust in order to gain admittance to the house, and has a very bad trip. She ends up at home, suffering from drug flashbacks, but runs away again and finally pieces together the truth about what happened to her brothers.
Strengths: Peter Pan with surfers! This was certainly a very unique retelling of the story, and it works on many levels. Capt. Hook as a drug dealer was a little odd, but the reimagining of Tinkerbell is clever, as is the California version of Neverland. The cover alone will insure that my romance readers check it out, and it doesn't have anything inappropriate for middle school readers. The drug use is portrayed as bad, and there's some kissing.
Weaknesses: Just about any YA book dealing with death involves so much hand wringing and whining, and I've not been in the mood to be patient with that. People die. Life goes on. Reading about dysfunctional ways of dealing with death in book after book is becoming wearing.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Shelter

For #WeNeedDiverseBooks Wednesday, I liked how this book had a strongly Puerto Rican family. This was an important facet to the characters, but not an element of the main plot. The boy on the cover looks a LOT like a student I had who was of Puerto Rican descent, which is the whole point of #WeNeedDiverseBooks-- all of my students should be able to see themselves reflected on the covers of books.

Sadly, the author passed away shortly after this book was accepted for publication.

18722321Aust, Patricia H. Shelter
May 9th 2014 by Luminis Books, Inc. 

Miguel, whose father insists on calling him Mike, lives in a precarious family situation. His father is very controlling, insisting that Mike and his sister Ellie complete household chores to his exacting specifications. Mike's mother, Mercedes, has born the brunt of the father's abuse, but when he socks her in the chin after an escalating argument that starts with Mike's job of mowing the yard, she has had enough. She packs up the children and heads to a women's shelter, starting the process of getting a restraining order and custody. Ellie is angry that she has to leave her boyfriend, Diego, behind, and Mike is upset about not being able to continue at his Tae Kwon Do dojo, but they are all relieved not to have to live with the constant threat of violence. However, Ellie's continued contact with Diego puts them all in jeopardy when the couple fights and Diego tells the father where the family is living. What will it take for Mike's family to be safe and be able to rebuild their lives?
Strengths: This was an unflinching portrayal of abuse, but I liked how the mother and children were able to remove themselves from the situation and stay strong enough not to go back. It was interesting to see Ellie portrayed as being in a similar relationship, but able to identify the abusive behavior and distance herself from Diego. The different processes, like getting a restraining order and filing for custody, were interesting. For some reason, seventh graders really want problem novels about halfway through the year, and this will be a great addition to my collection
Weaknesses: There is a lot of the narrative that occurs in text messages, complete with abbreviated text style. While I understand why this is done (people would not really be calling each other, and the characters were not near to each other), it was hard to read, and will date the book. In three years, we may all be communicating telepathically or something; books that reference MySpace or have long passages in e mail seem dated already.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Time Slip Tuesday-- The Time of the Fireflies



18889246Little, Kimberly Griffiths. The Time of the Fireflies
July 29th 2014 by Scholastic
E ARC from Netgalley.com

Larissa family is struggling with their Bayou Bridge antiques store. Her mother is having a difficult pregnancy, the store is not making enough, and the family needs to deal with a decrepit house at the edge of town that they have inherited. When Larissa gets a call on one of the antique phones in the shop, she hears a familiar voice telling her to trust the fireflies and save her family. Sure enough, when she goes out to the house, a swarm of fireflies magically take her across a decrepit bridge, and she finds herself back in 1912, watching her ancestors. She begins to realize that a family doll has been involved in all of the family tragedies, and when her mother goes missing with the doll, she tries to change things before more tragedies occur.
Strengths: This had a very nice of sense of place, even though I am not usually fond of stories set in the south. The derelict mansion, the generations of women, and even the evil doll are intriguing. Larissa’s own accident, and her growing relationship with the girl she thinks caused it, adds another level to the story. This is a bit creepier than this author’s When the Butterflies Came, and I think will go over well with readers who like things like Alender’s Bad Girls Don’t Die or even the addictive Phoebe Rivers Sara Normal series.
Weaknesses: For some reason, I was really upset about the role of the mother, especially when she runs off with only five weeks to go in a problematic pregnancy. This made the book much scarier, especially for younger readers.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

MMGM--One Man Guy

If you're a middle grade aficionado, you know how difficult it is to get middle grade appropriate LGBTQA books. So many of the LGBTQA books that I come across have excessive drinking or drug use as well as a level of sexuality I would find inappropriate for middle school students no matter what the orientation of the participants was. I didn't buy Better Nate than Ever because there is ZERO interest in Broadway plays at my school, but I'm always looking for books that involve skateboarding, even tangentially, so I was glad on a number of levels to find this book.

18465591Barakiva, Michael. One Man Guy
May 27th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR

Alek's parents are making him go to summer school because he will have to go into a regular track of coursework without the extra effort, and this is not acceptable to his high achieving Armenian family.  He'd much rather spend his summer hanging out with his best friend Becky, even though they did share an awkward kiss. When he meets Ethan in summer school, he is drawn to his devil-may-care attitude. The two hang out together, ditching school and having a day out on the cheap in New York City. Alek takes offense when Ethan uses the term 'faggot' and tells him that he can't be friends with someone who degrades others with that terminology; Ethan replies that he can use the term because he himself is gay. After telling Alek about his first relationship and spending a lot of time together, the two decide they like each other. They continue their trips into the city, which gets Alek in trouble with his parents after they spend a week out of town because he cut class in order to do that. Complicating family matters is also his brother, who finds out that his girlfriend is half Turkish, motivating him to break up with her because so many family members were lost in the Armenian genocide. Eventually, the parents come around not only to their sons' romantic interests, but also to Alek's reduced academic aspirations.
Strengths: I really liked all of the details of Armenian culture, from the recipes to the historical references. The New York City setting is more interesting to an outsider than many I have read. Alek's relationship with Ethan is middle grade appropriate. I liked how they really were friends before they became romantically involved. And it involves skateboarding! Buying a copy.
Weaknesses: Showed this to a straight male friend and said "Would you have read this as a middle school student? What's it about? Pretend you're 12." His answer was basically "no". It looked like it was about gay characters, which didn't interest him, and if his friends had seen him reading it, they would have made fun of him. And that would be why this is the sort of book that is often stolen more than it is checked out. Since I have made a big push for #WeNeedDiverseBooks lately, I am hoping that I can recommend this to students on the basis of it being an interesting book about adventures in New York City from the point of view of a boy who is Armenian and also gay. I recommend books about ethnically diverse characters to all of my students. Why not share books about characters who might differ from (or be the same as) them in other ways without specifying which I think might be the case?


It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and What Are You Reading? day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday at Anastasia Suen's blog. 

The Bridge from Me to You



18520398Schroeder, Lisa. The Bridge from Me to You
July 29th 2014 by Point
E ARC from Netgalley.com

Lauren has moved to a small town in Oregon to live with an aunt and uncle who run a bookstore and have three small children. Her mother was not particularly effective, and there has been a bad incident in the past involving Lauren’s half-brother that continues to upset her greatly. Colby is a local football hero who likes to hang out with his best buddy Benny and lives with his father and grandparents. When the two meet, they feel an instant attraction but aren’t quite sure how to connect. They dance around the issue for a while, finally try to date, and then Benny is badly injured in an accident. Colby is grief stricken, and it puts him off his game, so his father becomes demanding. Lauren is in therapy, and dealing with the incident with her brother, but enjoying being in a loving family. Eventually, the two decide to hang out as friends, and do things like have a bake sale to raise money for Benny, but that’s unsatisfactory. The two decide that they will go out, and Lauren’s mom decides to move far away from the west coast, and asks Lauren to go with her. Through it all, Colby and Lauren just want their lives to settle down long enough so that they can be together. Will it ever happen?
Strengths: I do enjoy Schroeder’s middle grade novels, and while this is more YA, it is appropriate for younger readers. The “dark secret” from Lauren’s life isn’t that bad, and the relationship is chaste. I needed a lot more romances this past year, so will definitely buy a copy, especially since this has a sad, Fault in Our Stars kind of feel to it.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Shipwreck Island

18525730Bodeen, S.A. Shipwreck Island.
July 29th 2014 by Feiwel & Friends
E ARC from Netgalley.com

Sarah is so irritated with her father: how dare he get remarried to a woman he has met online, and move her and her two sons, Marco and Nacho, into their California home. Having all of them go on the "honeymoon" together doesn't help, especially when adding three people to the package results in the group having to stay in a disgusting hotel  and sharing a bed with her new stepmom. If only Sarah knew... the "luxury yacht" that they've booked is a worn out old boat, and when a storm hits, the family ends up stranded on a rather unnerving island. There's an abandoned house, but no sign of other people, and lots of disturbing things occur while the group is trying to rally forces to survive until they are rescued.
Strengths: Good details on survival on an island, decent description of the difficulties of blending a family.
Weaknesses: I adore Bodeen's taut, psychological thrillers, and this had the air of being an old manuscript that got dusted off when her other books were successful. Sarah had an inordinately high slappage factor, and the clawed kangaroos and four winged birds on the island need a lot more explanation. Since this is supposed to be a four book series, there's plenty of time for that, as well as for the family to learn to get along.
Deaths: Sarah's mother, six years ago; the boat captain, in the storm.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Guy Friday-- Snap Decision

17070782Whitaker, Nathan. Snap Decision (Game Face)
July 1st 2014 by Zonderkidz 

Good friends Chase and Tripp both go to Archie F. Carr School, a small school in Florida, where 7th graders are allowed to play on the Varsity football team if they are good enough. When a number of seniors participate in a Senior Skip Day after being told not to, they get their chance. There's a lot going on in their lives-- Chase and his sister Hannah are being raised by a busy single mother, and Tripp's dad is a recruiter for a local university football team. There are various crushes and a friendship with an upperclassman, JB, whose family is very religious. When Tripp sustains a bad head injury during a game, Chase knows he needs to make sure Tripp gets proper medical treatment, even though it makes Tripp angry with him.
Strengths: Since there are never enough football books and this has a great cover, I'll definitely purchase this one. Enough football plays as well as references to teams that this will be popular.
Weaknesses: This did not draw me in as football books usually do, and there is a note from the author at the back explaining that this is his first foray into middle grade fiction. This is certainly a good start, but there were some parts that could have been better.

There need to be MANY more sports books for middle grade readers than fantasy books, so I would not want to dissuade any sports writers from attempting books for this age? I know that there are a few aspiring authors who read this blog, I offer the following (hopefully) constructive criticisms:

1. Many readers of sports books are struggling readers. Not all, but many. This book had a lot of characters, and they weren't well differentiated, which may confuse some readers.
2. The plot doesn't emerge until later in the book. I kept waiting to see what the hook would be, and it appears to have been Tripp's concussion. This needs to happen earlier on.
3. Real people and places are mixed in with the fictional ones. Maybe readers won't care, but there was a band and singer mentioned frequently enough that I had to do an internet search to find out if they were real. Coaches, teams, players (Mo Isom? Apparently a real person.), scientists-- too many things that seemed real enough rather than fictional that it bothered me. But then there was one team-- the Cleveland Rockers-- that seemed made up, since it was football rather than the women's basketball team of a few years back. Perhaps this is a problem of moving from nonfiction to fiction, but it slowed the story down. I also had to look up whether 7th graders are actually allowed to play high school varsity ball, because that seemed wrong to me. Apparently, it can be in smaller divisions with k-12 schools.
3. Don't include math problems in a book. Even if it's about cheating on a math test. It made me stop and wonder what was going on. I put down the book. Not a reaction we want from readers.
4. Religion is okay if it makes sense. I'm not a huge fan of religious diatribe, but in the case of JB and his family, it makes sense. When Chase quotes Job, that seemed out of character.
5. The first paragraph of every chapter is in bold print. Why? I found myself reading these paragraphs more carefully, but they didn't seem to be more explanatory or different from the rest of the chapters.

I do like the notes on concussions at the end; that's good information to include in a book.

Middle grade sports fiction is probably the toughest type of book to write. You have to appeal to the struggling readers and make the story clear cut and action packed, but you have to factor in the higher readers and give them enough to make the story interesting.  This is certainly a good try, but I hope that the next book (this seems like it will be a series, given the "Game Face" series title above the title) is put together a bit differently.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Creepy Reads (Lubar and Snicket)

18490550Lubar, David. The Gloomy Ghost
July 8th 2014 by Starscape (first published February 1998)
Copy received from publicist

Rory is going to be in big trouble for breaking the family television-- or he would, if he hadn't hidden outside in the yard and eaten a poisonous berry. Given that he goes toWashington Irving Elementary School and his friends have been turned into monsters in previous books, it's not a surprise that Rory turns into a ghost. At first, being a ghost is kind of cool, especially when he finds a ghost puppy, but when he visits Winston House and talks to other ghosts there, he finds out that he has two hours to alert his family and help them find his body and get help, or he will be a ghost permanently. When he helps a victim of Madame Zonga's bad fortune telling by manifesting himself so that living people can see him, the ghost of Josiah Winston is very interested in having Rory help him as a poltergeist, but when Rory almost has a run in with a Teridakian who is sucking up ghosts, he knows that it is more important to keep living.
Strengths: These Monsterific Tales are really meant for younger readers (Rory is a kindergartener), but they are also a good choice for reluctant middle school readers who want a book that they can finish quickly. For them, this is pleasantly creepy in a funny way; for younger readers, I would imagine that these would be a little scarier, since they might be afraid that they would turn in to ghosts. For whatever reason, children like to be scared, and I love that Mr. Lubar remembers this from his own childhood and writes his fun tales accordingly.
Weaknesses: This could have been a little bit scarier. Not often I say that!


18295854Snicket, Lemony. File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents (All The Wrong Questions #2.5)
April 1st 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 
E ARC from Netgalley.com

The characters from Stain'd-By-The-Sea appear in a collection of short mysteries that are investigated by Lemony Snicket, ala Encyclopedia Brown. Granted, the mysteries are a bit odder than those in Sobol's Idaville. Stories cover a range of weird things, like pictures that fall off a wall, items that go missing, all in the typical Snicket-esque, non sequitur sort of way. Most of the characters from the All the Wrong Questions series are presented, but the thing that stood out the most to me (since my inability to recall short stories is compounded by my inability to understand Lemony Snicket-- I get sidetracked by thinking "What did VFD stand for? And why did I read all 13 books about the Baudelaires and still not find that out?") was the answers to the mysteries at the back of the book. When I was in early elementary school, my mother and I would read Encyclopedia Brown books together and try to figure out the mysteries before turning to the back-- I didn't do so well trying to figure out these, but I could see them being used to good advantage in a language arts classroom where they were studying mysteries.
 
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