Friday, October 31, 2014

Guy Friday- Urban Outlaws

20613767Black, Peter Jay. Urban Outlaws.
October 7th 2014 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens

Jack, Obi, Charlie, Slink and Wren are all homeless orphans (for various reasons) who live in a high tech lair in London. They use their computer skills to transfer money from the accounts of wealthy evil doers to worthy charities. They are interested in a mythic computer called Proteus, but when they try to investigate, they bring themselves to the attention of not only the police, but also one of their former targets, Del Sarto. With the help of several adults who admire their work, they are able to escape many close calls and are no doubt onto their next adventure in another book (Yep, Urban Outlaws: Blackout , published June 2nd 2015 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens), since this one ends with London's power grid being infected by a virus.

Strengths: The map of the secret lair made me feel 12-- who wouldn't want a secret lair with no parents? Even the cover shows a lot of action, and there's a lot of hacking and running and evil adults. There's even a more serious story, with trying to find Wren's father, and all of the children dealing with their various losses. A definite purchase for fans of Horowitz's Alex Rider series, but with the added bonus of computers.
Weaknesses: I just couldn't get into this one, because I couldn't get past FIVE homeless children with all of the high tech equipment. I guess that's just proof that I really am NOT 12.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Searching for Silverheels

20311385Mobley, Jeannie. Searching for Silverheels
September 2nd 2014 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
Nominated for the Cybils by Audrey Vernick

Pearl is a big help to her mother in running the family diner in the early 1900s Colorado town of Como. Her father is off working, and things are changing. Her best friend Imogene is obsessed with finding romance, and Pearl has her own crushes, but she also has to deal with local eccentric, Josie, an older woman who passes out leaflets championing women's suffrage. When attractive tourist Frank comes to town, Pearl tells the local legend of Silverheels, a dance hall girl who supposedly nursed miners during a smallpox epidemic in the 1860s, but Josie ruins the story by insisting that Silverheels was opportunistic, and if she was so loved, why does no one remember her real name? Pearl and Frank start to investigate the mystery, and Josie chimes in with her own version. World War I is just beginning, so the town starts to see young soldiers passing through, and German families are given a hard time. Will Pearl be able to uncover the real story about Silverheels? And what was Josie's part in it?
Strengths: WWI home front stories are rare, and I'm surprised we aren't seeing more with the 100th anniversary upon us. This nicely blends local history with several national issues of the time, bringing in details such as the treatment of Germans, war bonds, and women's issues. Because I've read a lot of Lenora Mattingly Weber, the Colorado history was fun. The Beany books mention a lot of it.
Weaknesses: Could have used some editing. At 280 pages, it's a bit long, and historical novels are such a hard sell to my students. There could have been a lot of the variations of Silverheels story that were trimmed. I think the cover is great, but don't know how students will view it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Dirt Diary

17586491Staniszweski, Anna. The Dirt Diary
January 7th 2014 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Nominated for the Cybils by anonymonkey.

Rachel's mother has taken a lot of jobs cleaning the houses of Rachel's classmates in the wake of Rachel's father's departure to Florida to "follow his bliss". The family had struggled previously, but now Rachel and her mother are in danger of losing their house. When Rachel ends up helping to clean the "mean queen" Briana's room, as well as Brianna's best friend, Caitlin. Brianna's boyfriend, Steve, asks Rachel to spy on her for him, and Rachel feels awkward about it, because she thinks that Evan, Brianna's brother, is really nice. Things get complicated when her mother starts flirting with the assistant principal at her school, and she has a typical falling out with her best friend, Marisol. Rachel also makes an uneasy friendship with the quiet Andrew, who is working on a zombie toy movie. There's a big dance coming up, but Rachel's main concern is getting enough money to go to Florida to visit her father. When another student finds all these details in Rachel's "Dirt Diary" notebook, can Rachel survive the humiliation? A sequel, The Prank List, came out in July 2014, and The Gossip File comes out in January 2015.
Strengths: I would have adored this in middle school-- it reads sort of like Betty Miles' Just the Beginning (1976), which I may still own! Very true to life with the different alignment of friends and crushes. Even the storyline about the father leaving will resonate with many middle school students.
Weaknesses: There was a lot going on in this book, but I will buy a copy if I can find a prebind. Paperbacks just don't hold up in my library.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks note: Rachel is half Korean, but that is only briefly mentioned. Do love the pictures of her on the covers! She looks a lot like one of my students!

Cover image for Gossip file / (Dirt Diary Book 3)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


At Kidlitcon, we talked about whether we write "negative" reviews or not. I used to do a "not what I wanted Wednesday" feature where I discussed what lead me to pick books up and why I was somewhat disappointed in them. The following titles are ones that some people must like-- the first three were nominated for the Cybils awards-- but which didn't quite fill a need in my library collection. I do try to be constructive in my criticism of each book, but overall they were just more depressing than my students want. My students certainly do want sad books, but they want very particular sad books about certain issues, and these just didn't fit the bill.

20518999Gantos, Jack. The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza (Joey Pigza #5) 
September 2nd 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Nominated for the Cybils by Cath in the Hat

In this fifth and final book, Joey's father is still on the lam and his mother is suffering from post partum depression. He goes back to his school, where the teachers and staff welcome him warmly, but his mother calls him and demands that he come home to take care of Carter Junior while she goes to the hospital for treatment, since she is concerned that she will hurt the baby. Joey accepts the challenge and cleans the house, which is filthy and roach ridden, and tries his best to take care of the baby, with the help of the pet chihuahuas and the occasional visit from pizza delivery man Mr. Fong. He also is visited by his former girlfriend, Olivia, who has run away from her school and wants to help take care of Carter Junior as well, even though she has several bad experiences with him because of her blindness. Joey unearths his medication from his mother's closet, which helps a bit, and finds money for food. His father reappears and tries to steal the baby, but Joey tells his father that before he comes home, he needs to clean up his act. Eventually, the family is able to organize itself a bit, but the future seems anything but certain for the Pigzas.
Strengths: Our 6th grade reads the first book in this series as a class novel, so there is always some interest in Joey's continued adventures, which are darkly funny and address a student with behavioral as well as possible mental health problems, a diversity issues rarely seen in children's literature.
Weaknesses: This was a very dark book, and Joey receives very little of the help he needs. I am Not Joey Pigza was sad as well, but much more slapstick-- the descriptions of roaches, of the baby's diaper rash, of Olivia's depression and so much else are just heartbreaking in a very realistic way. I almost feel like I should sit beside any student reading this in case they need to process what's going on in the book. This also makes me worry a bit about how Mr. Gantos is doing. Is he depressed? I bought this book without reading it, but now I rather wish I had taken a look before ordering it.

18615427Rundell, Katherine. Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms
August 26th 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Nominated for the Cybils by Angiegirl

Wilhelmina lives an idyllic life in Zimbabwe where her widowed father who is the manager of a farm lets her run wild around the countryside with her friend Simon. She enjoys being outside and doesn't want to be civilized. (The original title of this was Girl Savage.) After the death of her father, the owner of the farm marries a woman bent on getting rid of Will, so she is sent to a boarding school in England. Since she has little schooling and no sense of personal cleanliness, and is quirky as well, the other girls give her a hard time. Will runs off and spends some time in the zoo before living in a garage of a boy she has met. After a short time, the boy's grandmother finds Will and tells her that sometimes it is braver to do what must be done, and Will returns to the school and tries to fit in a little more.
Strengths: The descriptions of life in Zimbabwe are very interesting, and it is a place about which not much is written. Will's desire to be true to herself is somewhat admirable, if unwise under the circumstances, and the grandmother's advice is one to take to heart.
Weaknesses: Will was an unlikable character to me, although others may find her more admirable. I thought that her father did her a great disservice in not teaching her how to adapt and cope with life among other people. It was sad and alarming that Will was so neglected, and the end of the book didn't make me think that her situation would ever improve, which was very sad.

20662575Ellis, Deborah. The Cat at the Wall
September 9th 2014 by Groundwood Books

I adore Ellis' The Breadwinner and other books, and think they are fantastic for being "windows" into the lives of disadvantaged children in other countries. Ellis can write a sad story, but make it hopeful. I was hoping for something similar in this one, and the story of the cat in a Palestinian house would have been interesting and informative. When this took a turn into fantasy, it made the story much less effective and much more confusing for me.
From the Publisher:
"A cat sneaks into a small Palestinian house on the West Bank that has been commandeered by two Israeli soldiers. The house seems empty, until the cat realizes that a little boy is hiding beneath the floorboards. Should she help him? After all, she’s just a cat. Or is she? She was once a regular North American girl, but that was before she died and came back to life as a cat. When the little boy is discovered, the soldiers don’t know what to do with him. It is not long before his teacher and classmates come looking for him, and the house is suddenly surrounded by Palestinian villagers throwing rocks, and the sound of Israeli tanks approaching. As the soldiers begin to panic and disaster seems certain, the cat knows that it is up to her to diffuse the situation. But what can a cat do? What can any one creature do?"

Monday, October 27, 2014

MMGM- Nonfiction of all sorts

Oh, the struggle that is middle grade nonfiction! I love literary nonfiction like the great Blizzard of Glass, but my readers blanch when they see the length. They would prefer the 36 page canned nonfiction, and those are decent enough with information, but just no fun to read. Books like Poop Happened find a good balance. Here's a wealth of nonfiction for this week!

20578587Dumont, Briana. Famous Phonies: Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History
October 28th 2014 by Sky Pony Press
E ARC provided by the author

This well-researched and kid-friendly book covers a variety of important historical figures who were important, but whose legends have outstripped their realities. Included in this group are (copied from the description): The Yellow Emperor * Gilgamesh * Homer * Pythagoras * Confucius * Mary Magdalene * Hiawatha * Prester John * William Shakespeare * George Washington * The Turk * Major William Martin. For the personalities I knew about, the chapters covered most of the salient characteristics of the legends, and did a good job of covering the reasons why the legends have come under attack at various points in history. I knew about much of the research surrounding Homer, Shakespeare and George Washington, but was glad to see lesser known people covered as well. The only problem with this was that the tone, which was deliciously flippant and made the book much easier to read, occasionally confused me, since I didn't have the background knowledge. This is a good book to keep on hand to use for units on the ways that history can be interpreted, would be useful if students are dealing with any of the individuals, and will be popular with history buffs who don't take history TOO seriously. There are some completely humorless Homerian scholars who would not be amused. (If said Homerian scholars are even still alive, since they were a bit mothbally when I studied Homer thirty years ago at the University of Cincinnati!)

20727516Dipiazza, Francesca. Remaking the John: The Invention and Reinvention of the Toilet
November 1st 2014 by Twenty-First Century Books
E ARC from

I will have to buy this book because it is a wonderfully complete history of sanitation that will be used for a variety of projects. Even though this comes in at a mere 88 pages, it covers the history of toilets from earliest findings to revolutionary new techniques in waste management. I was especially interested in the chapter on the creation of modern bathrooms in the 1920s, since my mother had an outhouse at the farmhouse where she grew up! The downside to this book is that it is really dryly written. If there were more levity of presentation, I could easily triple the number of readers. Twenty-first Century Books seem to be a more academic press, and while it is great that they publish books on topics that interest students, they might give a little more thought to tone. This author's Friend Me is (again) a great resource on the history of social networking, but a bit long and serious for my students.

20690923Stabler, David. Kid Presidents
October 28th 2014 by Quirk Books
ARC from Baker and Taylor

This book is filled with short, illustrated anecdotes about the presidents when they were children. Instead of going chronologically, it divides the stories up by type. A wide variety of presidents are represented, and at the back of the book there is a list of "fun facts" about each president. This would be a good gift for a president obsessed child (and I have a couple at school), or a good reference to have for augmenting history lessons. I prefer photographs to cartoons, and it would have been nice if a couple were included, since most children have only seen pictures of the presidents when they were in office. Still, young readers will enjoy the cartoons. This is sort of The Presidents ala Wimpy Kid. Not quite as in-depth as The Childhood of Famous Americans books, but fun to browse.

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. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What is NOT MG to me.

I had a parent ask me why I didn't have the book The Fault in Our Stars, and ask who made this type of decision. While things may change after the librarians in my district come up with a policy, so far it has always been the choice of the librarian at each school. My basic rule of thumb is this: since a huge majority of the books checked out in my library are ones that I HAND TO STUDENTS, if I am uncomfortable with something in the book, I don't buy it. And yes, I try to read everything before I buy it.

I have no patience for bad language, see below. While student are tremendously interested in books about drug usage, it seems wise to have only books that show how very bad drug usage is. Anything else seems antithetical to our school and community message. It's okay for there to be vague mentions of sex, but nothing graphic or instructional, and again, I have to be comfortable with the situations surrounding it, so I don't want main characters who think this activity is a good one at a young age. As for violence, I'm okay with violence by or against creatures that don't exist in real life, but not okay with human on human violence that is repeated throughout the book and treated lightly.

Arbitrary? Of course. Everything is. In the case of The Fault in Ours Stars, there was language and sex, but the main reason I didn't buy it was that it didn't feel like a middle school book-- not much happened.It was kind of... boring and whiny.

The bottom line is that I have to feel comfortable handing the book to an eleven year old who is not my own personal child. If I am not comfortable with that, it doesn't make sense to me to have the book in my library.

20517379Magoon, Kekla. How It Went Down.
October 21st 2014 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

Very disappointed in this. I know it is meant to be "gritty" and "realistic", but far too many f- words. I love this author and feel she does important work, but if my students can get suspended for using bad language, I shouldn't be handing them books that include it. I feel very strongly about this and therefore refuse to use my limited school budget, which is provided by the taxpayers, to buy books that make a conscious choice to include this kind of language.

13597723Barnes, Jennifer Lynn. The Naturals (Click to read Goodreads description)
Published November 5th 2013 by Disney-Hyperion

Since the sequel, Killer Instinct, comes out November 4th, I thought I should read the first one. My students love murder mysteries, and I like Barnes' other work, but this had rather disturbing scenes of torturing women before killing them, and talking about how enjoyable the process was for the killer. A little too much for MG, I think, although it was quite well written and had a great twist. 

Hold Tight, Don't Let GoWagner, Laura Rose. Hold Tight, Don't Let Go
January 6th 2015 by Amulet Books 
E ARC from

This was a very interesting account of the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake in 2010, from the point of view of a teenage girl who was living with an aunt (who got room and board for being the housekeeper of a wealthy woman) and cousin. When the aunt dies, she goes to live in a camp with an uncle. There were so many good details, but because of the age of the main character, the issue of sex in the context of prostitution came up several times, and specific acts were mentioned. I would love to see a MG appropriate book on this topic, but I'll leave this one for the high school to investigate.

18852053Selzer, Adam. Play Me Backwards.
August 26th 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Public Library Copy

I really wanted this one to be middle grade appropriate because I adore Selzer,

Selzer is always brilliant, but this is SO not middle grade that I won't even recommend that one of my 8th graders check it out of the public library. Liberal use of f-bombs, which is disturbing enough, but I had to stop reading when Leon started recounting his, um, life experiences.

Funny as all get out, clever, and sure to appeal to 16 year old boys everywhere, but I can't even recommend it without blushing to one of our teachers who is a big fan of this author. Too much information. Drat.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Timmy Failure: We Meet Again

20758102Pastis, Stephan. We Meet Again (Timmy Failure #3) 
October 28th 2014 by Candlewick Press 
ARC from YABC and reviewed there.

Timmy has been let back into his old school, although Principal Scrimshaw informs him that he is on probation and that any infractions will lead to permanent expulsion. Timmy's glad to be back with his best friend Rollo, but not pleased to see that his arch nemesis, Corinna Corinna, is not only still at the school but also will be his partner for a huge nature project that will make up a huge portion of his grade. Timmy has been approached by another student, Angel, who claims to have the "Miracle Report", a nature report from years ago that received an A+++++ that was found but now is missing. Timmy also has to deal with his mother dating his baseball coach, even though he feels that baseball is an unnecessarily violent game, and with Total, his imaginary polar bear and partner in his detective firm. When the school camps out in the wilderness to gather specimens for the nature project, Timmy's investigation comes to a head AND he must save himself from the dreaded scrum bolo chihuahua by the most horrendous and dreaded of means.
Strengths: The very first day of school, a student came in and asked me when this book would come out. He was thrilled to get the ARC. Few of my students read the comics in the newspaper, so are unfamiliar with Pastis' Pearls Before Swine, but they do love notebook novels, and they do love this series. I was glad to see the inclusion of a massive school project instead of a school election, dance, or something about bullying. I still remember that in the fourth grade (and this has been over 40 years ago!) we had a huge project about animals. I only got an A++ on mine because my pictures weren't very good! I've even camped with middle school students, so that was realistic as well, and does not appear in too many books. The reason my students love the books, however, is more because of the goofy stuff-- riding around on a Roomba vacuum, Flo the Librarian with his motorcycle gang attire, and even Total.
Weaknesses: The polar bear still bugs me. Is he real? No? Sometimes it seems that he is.
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