Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Time Travel

I love time travel books, which is probably why I was so enthusiastic about Any Which Wall. Charlotte Sometimes and The Children of Green Knowe, along with Michael Lawrence’s Crack in the Line were all books I adored. There was even a television series, Voyagers! which even my children found amusing. I love to think that time travel is possible.

But. It’s a very exacting thing, writing about time travel. Not only does the author have to be diligent about the historical aspects, we have to be allowed to suspend disbelief in order to get to a different time, and everything has to work together so as not to be confusing. Any Which Wall did a good job of all of that. We were told up front to just believe it, and the characters came back to the present to regroup. Two other series I’ve read, Haddix’s Found and Sent, and Annette Laing’s The Snipesville Chronicles, struggled with some aspects of time travel.

Clearly, Sent was well researched. Chip and Jonah find out in Found that they are missing children from history, Edward V and his younger brother Richard , and they are sent back to “fix” time. Unfortunately, Alex and Katherine tag along, which causes problems with getting Edward and Richard to fill their rightful place in history. The time travel component, the Elucidator, required a lot of technical explanation and was a somewhat clunky vehicle, what with it breaking down and being hard to understand (I prefer the Omni in Voyagers! Even though they didn’t have the manual, it only gave them problems when it was convenient to the plot.) The presence of Tracers, other versions of the character existing in the same time, yet giving off a low wattage light, was confusing, and since the whole historical story was confusing, the whole book made my brain hurt. Adding to my confusion was the fact that it was so different from the first book. I’ll buy the sequel, and I’m sure this will be popular, but I found it heavy going.

Slightly better was Laing’s Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When (great title!) and A Different Day, A Different Destiny. The method of time travel seemed easier to grasp—the children are sent back by the Professor in order to fix problems. Good. There’s lots of action and adventure in both of these, and more careful editing would have removed some of the historical explication at the beginning and introduced it as part of the story. The goal here is clearer—the children are supposed to find a particular person, and they get to experience life during World War II, which makes them less likely to complain about the fact that their parents moved them somewhere they didn’t want to be. Where I ran into problems was when one boy was sent from 1940 back to 1915. Caroline Cooney’s Time Quartet runs into this same problem.

While I liked the sequel to this one, A Different Day, A Different Destiny, the problem of multiple historical periods crops up again. The children are sent to London and Scotland in 1851, and a plantation in the South. Just when I would get used to one reality, the scene would change. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn’t been trying so desperately to figure things out.

I will test both of these with students back at school. Then I get to ask them what they would wear to time travel, which is always a fun conversation.

Princes

Tyne O’Connell--Pulling Princes(2004), Stealing Princes(2005)

On the upside—both of these books had great covers, and were about a private girls’ school in the UK. The main character, Calypso, has a budding but rocky relationship with the prince. There was a lot of fencing in them, and you don't find that every day. Also, the books were a dollar each at a warehouse sale. They will circulate well with fans of Louise Rennison and Cathy Hopkins.

On the downside—they got to be a bit repetitive. If the housemother’s dog made wee on the girls beds again, I might have screamed. There was also a lot of smoking and drinking involved in the after hours dorm parties. Lots of complaining and fighting (which would make these good for fans of Harrison’s The Clique series), and too few encounters with the prince. Niki Burnham’s series (Royally Jacked) has a much better royal encounter.

If these do circulate well, I'll need to buy Dueling Princes (2006) and Dumping Princes (2007).

Instead of YA literature, I’ve been reading Maeve Binchy (Heart and Soul and Whitethorn Woods) and Andrea Trigiani (Rococo) which are all quite fun.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mr. Mop Man: The Novel

I had my reservations about Vid Saunders’ (The Hwacha of Darkness) latest novel, Mr. Mop Man. The first of a trilogy based on a series of comic books about an anthropomorphic mop who can summon soap and mops to fight evil? Set in the Yugoslovakian town of Popinsky? Even though the author is my son, if this had started with a map on the first page, I wouldn’t have picked it up.

This was a pleasant surprise. From the first sentence, “A word of advice: if you ever need a firefighter, don’t hire a mop,” I was hooked. Mr. Mop Man has lost his evil-fighting team of Black Orran and Rainbow Kymos, (whom we learn about in flashbacks) and was unable to save a train of innocent citizens from certain death due to his lack of strength. When evil comes knocking on the door of his apartment (to which he and his new team retreat frequently; I like to think of it as The Broom Closet), he has to fight it. Helping him are the Weather Man, a cloud of sparkly dust filled with invaluable skills and a snide remarks; Green Magic Guy, with his elemental magic and superior attitude; Transformer Guy, a robot of Ytzgapistani origin who has been programmed to be loyal to Mr. Mop Man due to the fact he read the comics during his imprinting stage; and Warp Guy, who moves slowly and didn’t have many redeeming characteristics.

Soon the team is looking for evil to fight, but evil is searching them out! Adventure after adventure follows, and they battle the evil Ytzgapistani Ultranski, the Dust Bunny, the sparkly vampire Veventry (who knows secrets about Mr. Mop Man’s past) and the very evil Hilotiki, a Polynesian spirit who performs his evil by inhabiting statues and wants to wipe out the world by first taking out Mr. Mop Man, thereby rendering Yugoslovakia (the source from which all good in the world comes) vulnerable.

The battles are frequent and filled with heart-pounding adventure. Each chapter ends on a note that made me want to continue reading. The thing that I liked best was the fact that Mr. Mop Man didn’t take himself seriously, and there were laugh-out-loud funny lines everywhere. My favorite chapter was "Break In At the Robot Store". Mutant electric eels have taken over, and in order to short circuit a talking door, Mr. Mop Man’s sea monkeys perform a charade that give the team a clue as to what to do. The cranioctopus, who scares its victims to death by making them imagine their worst fears was also fun, as was Mr. Mop Man’s signature move to fight the most fearsome opponents, the Big Ben Mop.

While most of the prose flowed smoothly and was well-paced, there were a fair number of inelegant phrases, and there could have been more cohesion in the plot. The flashbacks, while interesting, interrupted the flow of the story.

There were also lots of typos, which is why I am the only one who gets to read this—Vid wrote this on a 1958 Smith-Corona typewriter. And people ask me what my children do with their time, since they usually only get a half hour total of screen time per day. Write novels, apparently!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Taking a holiday

Started Haddix's Sent today, but was not into it. Made the mistake of going to the library, where they had Maeve Binchy's Heart and Soul waiting for me, so there are two days gone. I think the reality is that there isn't going to be much YA lit read in my house for about a week, at least by me. I also have a biography of Edward VII that looks good, since I've been watching the BBC Lillie.

Have a happy Winter Solstice, and go read something FUN!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Monday Reading

Pearl, Nancy. Book Crush. I didn’t find this particularly helpful, but people who aren’t well versed in YA literature might. This is divided into somewhat odd sections, and the narrative descriptions of books for children to young adults are vaguely amusing. I can see this being useful to someone who loved to read as a child, hasn’t read much lately, and suddenly needs to buy books for children. While most of the choices were good, there were some that seemed incomprehensible to me (Carry On, Mr. Bowditch? That’s one I probably should weed.). A good starting place for beginners.

Day, Karen. No Cream Puffs. Little did I know when I was growing up that baseball was such a hot bed of feminism. Had I known, I would have been way more into my Little League team. Set in 1980, this story follows Madison, age 12, who is a far better ball player than her brother and wants to play on the boys’ team. While the team coach, her mother, and her volleyball coach are all very supportive, some of the boys aren’t, and the national media attention makes her nervous. This was a fun read, especially the parts where Madison has a crush on a fellow player, but it didn’t ring quite true. However, girls who are 12 now are not going to know that there wouldn’t have been anyone named Madison in 1980, or boys wearing long shorts of any kind, or probably girls wearing mood rings, which strikes me as very 1975.

Waters, Daniel. Kiss of Life. This sequel to Generation Dead, which I enjoyed, seemed almost as ponderous as the zombies. Adam, who was killed because of Phoebe and has come back as “differently biotic” is trying to learn to talk and walk again. Phoebe, who feels guilty, really still likes Tommy, who is running the mysocalledundeath blog, but feels compelled to spend time with Adam and aid in his recuperation. She is part of the Undead Studies group, and helps with the local research center. There is also a group that is staging pranks and attributing them to the undead, in order to make zombies look bad. I just couldn’t quite follow where this one was going. There’s sure to be a sequel, and this has been popular, but it just didn’t have the appeal for me that the first volume did.

Prineas, Sarah. The Magic Thief: Lost. Like the first book, this was surprisingly enjoyable and well-written, but the overall plot isn’t doing much for me (I’m apparently having a cranky book day!) I liked Conn and Rowan, and their adventures are told in a breezy, adventure-filled way. Like Angie Sage’s Magyk series, this has the quasi-historical setting, evil encroaching on the kingdom, and poor orphan boy who has to vanquish it. The fun part was Conn trying to figure out how to get the magic to talk to him and blow things up; the quest and the evil wizard kings—well, that’s been done. Doesn’t matter to the students, though, who have really enjoyed the first book and will be glad to finally have the second.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Liar, Into the Wild

There has been such buzz about Justine Larbelestier's Liar that I was very excited when my daughter brought it home from her library. Surprised, however, when she adamently proclaimed it "AWFUL". Here's the problem-- I can't really tell you much about the book without ruining the suspense. Michah lies about everything. The first day in a new school, she claimed to be a boy until her peers found her out. She lies within the framework of the book, as well, which makes things somewhat difficult to follow. We do know that a boy at her school, who is involved with her romantically even if he does not acknowledge her at school, has been brutally murdered, and Micah's lies cause difficult in finding out who killed him. This is not a middle school book due to the language and sexual situations, and without giving too much away, I wish I had know that this was really a werewolf book and not so much a mystery. Intriguing.

At the end of the day on Friday, no one had checked out Erin Hunter's Into the Wild, the first book in the Warriors series, so I brought it home. This involves talking animals, but has been so hugely possible that I have bought all the books. Have to say that I do not understand this book. Many reluctant readers like these, but it was basically feral cats running around killing mice and having fights. I also found the characters really, really confusing because there would be six characters discussed per page, and they all had very similar names. (Smokepaw, Dustpaw, Dewpaw, Tigerclaw, etc.)In this first installment, Rusty, a house cat (or kittypet, which is a good phrase), is tired of his soft life and runs away and meets members of the ThunderClan. Bluestar is the leader, and she is concerned about the lack of warriors, so takes Rusty on as a trainee, chaning his name to Firepaw. Firepaw takes pity on an older, injured cat (Yellowfang?) who is a healer from another clan, but when the clan wars start up again and the cat is accused of killing kits, ThunderClan is leery of her. The war is complicated, because it involves the leader of the ShadowClan being evil. At the end, things work out and Firepaw is glad he ran away. I'll be reading the rest of these this summer, which will be about as much fun as my death march through Brian Jacques. Again, students love these. I just don't see why.

For the next two weeks, remember that I am posting from home, where the internet is powered by hamsters. I don't even see an option for adding a cover shot. Or italicizing titles. Blah.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Claim to Fame by Haddix

Margaret Peterson Haddix does so many good books, and they are on a variety of topics. I'm not surprised that she was asked to finish the Thirty Nine Clues mystery series. Claim to Fame is about Lindsay, who was a child star until she started hearing voices. She can only hear what other people are saying about her, but it distracted her to the extent that she quit acting and moved to her deceased mother's hometown with her father, a reclusive college professor. When her father dies, she is kidnapped by well-meaning boys who think her father is abusing her, and is helped by Roz, a girl her own age, and Mrs. Mullins, her guardian and a woman who also hears voices.

Even reading the dust jacket took a little of the suspense of this out of this for me-- suffice it to say that there is a larger mystery behind Lindsay's voices, but I don't want to say any more. I'll definitely be buying this, even though the end was a bit precipitous and wrapped up a little too neatly.

This title by Betty Ren Wright is out of print. Another decent, low level ghost story, The Ghost Comes Calling finds Chad in a cabin near a lake that is haunted by the ghost of a man who was involved in a tour bus accident with many town children on board. None of them were hurt, but the town turned against the man. When Chad and his father restore the man's abandoned truck and turn it into a piece of play equipment for the town, the ghost is put to rest. Nothing says "safe play place" like an abandoned truck!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dresses and Ghosts

I really enjoyed David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress. It had a very nice, breezy English flavor, reminiscent of Dahl in its conversational tone. The Quentin Blake illustrations add to this quite a bit. However, I don't know to whom I would give this book. Dennis is a boy who likes to play soccer but isn't very happy at home because his mother left and his father is hands-off. When he sees a Vogue magazine, he is drawn to the fashions, and he meets a girl on whom he has a crush, and the two start reading magazines together. Then she wants to dress Dennis up in an orange sequined dress and bring him to school masquerading as a French girl. Soon Dennis' cover is blown, and he is not permitted to play in the soccer tournament until local convenience store owner tells Dennis that the principal comes into the store on Saturdays in a dress. Everything ends well, and even the store owner gets to wear a dress in the end. I'm just not sure what the message was. Cross-dressing is okay? It really didn't read like a problem novel.


Betty Ren Wright has a big following at my school. Unfortunately, the cover I have for Christina's Ghost is the less-than-attractive 1985 version. Still, this has circulated well. Christina has to spend the summer with her crabby uncle in a haunted Victorian house and tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the young boy who lived there so the ghosts are at peace. The reading level on this is fairly low, and I'm almost tempted to get a new copy.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Crocodile Tears!!!!!

Finally got a copy of the new Anthony Horowitz book! Eeeeeeee!

Alex doesn't want to be a spy. It's painful, it worries his guardian Jack, it keeps him out of school and doesn't allow him much time to be with Sabina. But, drat it all, the evil guys just seem to attract him, so he is swept into yet another adventure.

While on vacation in Scotland with Sabina's family, he meets Reverend Desmond McCain and beats him at poker. Bad move. Is it a coincidence that the car he is riding in ends up in a loch? After a narrow escape, he goes back to school, only to have MI6 approach him to do just a "little job" on a school field trip to a genetically modified food lab and a nosy reporter manages to bring Alex's brief but illustrious career to McCain's attention.

The logical thing for McCain to do? Kidnap Alex and bring him to Africa, where a diabolical plan is in place, and only Alex can stop it! I hate to give too much away, because a lot of my joy in this book was clever twists and the characters that popped up to either save or destroy Alex. Horowitz has honed his adventure and suspense writing to a very fine point, and his research into different areas of the world is impeccable.

My only complaint? I wish Alex wanted to be a spy. I'm not buying his reluctance. After eight missions, wouldn't he have come to terms? I'd like to see him embrace his skills and use them to find out about his past. We get tantalizing clues, but I would like more of the back story. And more about Sabina. Couldn't she join him on a mission? Basically, I still want MORE ALEX RIDER!

If you don't have this series and you run a school library, just buy three copies of the entire series. It won't be enough, but it will get you started. Not even kidding. I have TEN copies of Stormbreaker and... have two in right now. But it's early in the week. They'll be gone today!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cupcake Party!

I hope Chelsey at The Page Flipper tells more about the great cupcake party she had, because I have forgotten most of the bloggers' names!(Except The Book Cellar.) I do know that in the bottom right corner we have Rhonda Stapleton, Linda Gerber (standing) and me (in the green coat). J.T. Dutton, author of Freaked also came, so I'll have to find a copy of her book to read.

My daughter came with us, and won a copy of Rhonda's new book, Stupid Cupid, so I got to read it! It was almost as much fun as Rhonda herself. (But she was SUCH a hoot-- I don't think there is a way to put that kind of energy on paper!) Felicity needs a job, and gets hired on by Cupid's Hollow to match up couples her own age. The catch-- cupids are real, and by using a magic PDA, she connects couples by email. She bends the rules a little, matching one of her friends up with three guys, and matching her parents up as well. The real trick to being a cupid is to match people with similar interests, because after about two weeks, the magic infatuation ends. Felicity is not allowed to fix herself up with anyone, but she's doing a pretty good job attracting Derek, a boy on whom she has a huge crush.

Only two complaints about this book-- I have to wait until March for the second one, and it's really not a middle grade novel because of some drinking and some disturbing effects of Felicity using her Cupid powers on her parents. I'll certainly read them all, though, and watch Ms. Stapleton's career with interest.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Weeding

In preparation for the library renovation in summer 2010, parent volunteers and I have been weeding. I have to tell myself repeatedly that with 13,000 books, there are bound to be some I haven't seen, but really, every single, solitary day I seem to come across some dusty tome that hasn't been checked out since 1978. It makes me want to sit on the floor in the stacks and weep. Gems this week included:

Alcoholism. 1975. Our secretary nailed the date on this one due to the rainbow effect title. I'm thinking treatments have changed.








Conservation of Energy. 1978. At least it's after the last energy crisis.









Drug Testing. 1987. Oh, look! Yuppies on cocaine and cups for them to pee into!










Bake Bread! 1976. The black and white pictures make the bread look soooo appetizing. Can we say "bread machine"?









And really-- what were they thinking? The Wonders of the World of the Albatross? 1974. There was a whole series, including The Wonders of Woodchucks and The Wonders of Field Mice. Nearby was Chipmunks on the Doorstep. When did the albatross last leave the shelf? 1979.

Now I Know Better: Kids Tell Kids About Safety is only 13 years old, but has never left the shelf. I don't know why. The back cover has this quote: "I learned not to put my eyes near any sharp objects and I would advise you to do the same." Doesn't everyone need to read this?

And 1991's Food includes this sentence: "Most people are getting used to the idea of microwaved food because it is so quick and easy." Hmmm. I got used to that idea in 1974 when my mother got a microwave. Oooh. The book pongs, too.

Rule #1 of weeding: Anything that pongs (SMELLS!! Good British word!), goes.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Maggie Stiefvater Contest

Head over to Karin's Book Nook to check out the contest to win a copy of the sequel to Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver! Impossible for me to say what I wanted to happen, but I didn't even know the sequel was in the offing. Very exciting. Thanks, Karin!

Speculative Fiction

Kate has a ton of work to finish during her senior year. She is on every committee, is involved in all sorts of activities, has a steady boyfriend, and wants to go to Yale. It all adds up to a lot of stress, which isn't helped when she starts a SimulLife file on her computer and wakes up the next morning to a virtual clone of herself! Rina is tired of being stuck in the computer game, and wants to go shopping and get out of the house. Since Kate really needs to be in two places at once a lot of the time, she slowly warms to the idea of Rina taking over certain chores for her. This complicates matters when Rina starts making out with a boy from Kate's past and trying to impersonate Kate at college interviews. In the end, Kate learns a lot about herself from the reflection she sees in Rina, and decides to cut the stress and lead her life in a less stressful way. Cherry Cheva's DupliKate was great fun, but I don't know if middle school students will identify with the problems of a high school senior.

Oscar also has stress, although he shouldn't. He lives in the planned community of Candor, Florida, which he father set up after Oscar's brother was killed in a pool accident. Through constant music and subliminal messages, children's behavior is controlled. They respect their parents, do their homework, and don't misbehave at all. Oscar has managed to keep his own thoughts, and when new families move in to the exclusive, expensive development, he helps the teens escape for a hefty price. When the vivacious and defiant Nia moves to town, Oscar sees her as another client, until he starts to fall for her. He also decides that it's time for him to leave, so sets the wheels in motion to finally defy his father. While I'm not big on futuristic dystopian fiction, Pam Bachorz's Candor was very well done. It had interesting characters, good subplots, and was a quick-paced read. Will definitely be buying this one for the fans of Shusterman's Unwind.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Various high school titles

Warning: I left all of these books at home and may forget details.

Even though my daughter thinks that vampire ninjas are wrong, Mike Lake's Blood Ninja was pretty good. In the Tokugawa period in Japan, Taro and his friend Hiro are taken in by ninjas after Taro's father is killed. It turns out that ninjas are all vampires, and when an injury turns Taro into one as well, the boys have no choice but to help out with a warlord feud. This was certainly bloody, had lots of action, but it's lenghth (369 pages) and dense description of Japanese history would probably give my readers some trouble. Very good, and the research is clear.

Another excellent book was Brian Katcher's Almost Perfect. Logan feels lonely and depressed after his breakup with his girlfriend, until he meets Sage, a new student who was homeschooled. He loves everything about her, but her parents are strict and don't let her out of the house much. Soon, Sage reveals the reason... she's really a boy and has struggled her whole life with the problems that this causes. Her father is desolated, she can't function as a boy in society, but is scared of the violence she might encounter if the truth is known. I can't think of any other books on transgendered individuals, and this was certainly well done. Sage and Logan's emotions are beautifully drawn and hopefully will help people understand the issues and motivations of transgendered people. It is a bit much for middle school, however, but I did enjoy reading it.

I loved Sarah Beth Durst's Into the Wild and Out of the Wild, but I didn't want to read Ice. I apparently have a fear of talking polar bears, which is why I wasn't wild about The Golden Compass. Still, this retelling of "East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon" pulled me in, and I had to finish it. Cassie lives with her father at a polar bear observation station. Her grandmother had told her stories about her mother's death-- her mother was really the daughter of the North Wind, and when she fell in love with a human and would not marry the polar bear king, she was sent far away to live in a troll castle. When the polar bear king comes to claim Cassie for his bride, she goes with him in order to save her mother, and then starts to like him. However, she breaks her promise not to look at him in his human form, and he, too, is sent to the troll castle. Even though Cassie is pregnant, she travels, with much difficulty, to find him. Interesting, well-written, and a great retelling of a classic story, the pregnancy pushes this over the line into high school for me.

The Young Readers Edition of The Omnivore's Dilemma was also too much; not because of the topic, which includes descriptions of factory farming, but because it was too long (298 pages) and there was too much detail. Schlosser's Chew On This delivers the same information about the prevalence of sugar, fat and chemicals in our food in a slightly shorter, punchier package. Still, this would be a good resource for health classes, speech classes that might debate the topic, and students who has a passion for animals rights. Just difficult to pick up for casual reading.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Diary of a Witness by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Ernie is overweight and has long been the target of his classmates' taunting. He's learned that if you ignore the idiots and keep a low profile, it's not as bad. His friend Will hasn't learned this. Beset by bad acne and sticking-out ears, Will is angry and talks back to the bullies, which makes them abuse him more. When Ernie and Will are involved in a boating accident that kills Will's younger brother, things become worse. Will tries to kill himself, but is saved by Ernie's quick thinking. When the school bullies continue to give Will a hard time, he snaps. Again, Ernie's decision to act instead of being a bystander makes a horrible situation somewhat better.

I liked this in part because of the depiction of adults in the boys' lives. Some were supportive in helpful ways (an uncle who tries to help the boys) and destructive ways (Ernie's mother, who habitually overfeeds him). There were teachers who didn't help, and some who tried. Will's parents have their own problems. I don't know if students will care about this, but it was intriguing to me. Since the 8th graders are doing a unit on problem novels, this caught my attention because it would be a good choice for the boys. Bullying is always a sensitive issue.

Belinda Hollyer's selection of poems, She's All That: Poems About Girls, met all of my criteria for a book of poems. At 100 poems, there is plenty to choose from, but not to much. Several of the poems are catchy and over 40 words long, suitable for memorizing. The cover is colorful and fresh, and the poems are on a variety of topics and in a lot of different forms and voices. I dislike dialect intensely, so didn't care for the handful of poems written in that way, but in general I think this will be very useful when the poetry unit rolls around.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Death by... Linda Gerber!

The problem with being a conscientious librarian is that sometimes I can't read books for months after we get them. Crocodile Tears came back late Friday afternoon, but darn if TWO boys stopped by after school wanting it. The same thing has happened with the two sequels to Linda Gerber's Death by Bikini-- they are always out and someone wants them when they come back.

Aphra is still reeling from all of the intrigue and danger at the island resort her father runs, but since she has been given the location of her mother, whom she hasn't see in four years, she decides to lie to her father and fly to Seattle to find her. Her mother is not pleased. There is a lot to her mother's story that Aphra still doesn't know-- her involvement with the CIA, her reasons for leaving the family, and the danger she is in all the time. Also, Seth Mulo shows up demanding the ring that he gave Aphra, which has gone missing. When her mother's partner is killed by a poison latte, Aphra and her mother go on the run. Whom do they trust? Ryan seems charming, but is he what he appears? It's hard to tell, and they end up in a plane crash in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, highjacking canoes and braving the river, and generally trying to figure out what the best way to survive is.

In Death by Denim, Aphra and her mother have been trying to lie low in a small French town, but again, this is not possible for long. When their contact in Paris shows up drowned with denim binding his arms and legs, they begin a dangerous journey to Italy, where Aphra needs to contact Seth. Once again, despite her mother's training (think before you act!), she trusts the wrong people, makes some poor choices, and ends up in dangerous situations. At the end of this, things look like they should calm down, but will they? I hope not, because I would really like to see Aphra involved in her own missions.

I loved that the characters were not all black and white, and since even Aphra doesn't know whom to trust, the plot is not predictable. Aphra herself is drawn in such a realistic way-- I can see my daughter, who is nearly the same age, acting in exactly the ways that Aphra does. The plots in these twist and turn but never become hard to follow. These are really more spy adventure books than mysteries; in fact, they do remind me a little of the Dorothy Gilman Mrs. Pollifax books. The sense of place is fantastic-- Gerber's travels have been put to great use in these books and also in her Students Across the Seven Seas installments (Finland and Japan). One of the reasons I enjoyed both of these so much was that I've been a little tired of teen literature, and they read more like nice, clean, adult stories. Again, why are these available only in paperback? A grave injustice.

Another injustice is that only three of Cathy Cassidy's books are available in the U.S. The paperbacks are available from Baker and Taylor, which is a good source of British publications at a reasonable price. Gingersnaps was a good story of friendships and how the change during the teen years, and how important the perception of others is to teen self-esteem. Ginger has changed from a chubby, ridiculed, friendless girl into a slimmer teen with a good friend, Shannon, but she is still insecure. Shannon and Ginger befriend Emily, whose best friend has moved away, and all three work on a school newspaper. Ginger also has a crush on Sam Taylor, who lives on a houseboat, dresses strangely, and plays his saxophone in the school hallways. She worries that Shannon will not want to be her friend because of the boy, and they go through some rocky times, especially when Shannon develops a huge crush on a teacher. The other Cassidy titles in the states (Dizzy, Indigo Blue, and Scarlet) are about girls in even more dysfunctional situations, but this one hit the spot... so many friendships change in middle school, and it's so painful. I would really like to read Angel Cake, about a Polish girl who moves to Scotland. This is the problem with the internet-- I know it's out there and can't get a copy!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Thursday Reading

In John Wilson's The Flags of War, Walt, from Canada, and Nate, from South Carolina, are cousins but have never met. Nate knows he must fight in the Civil War, but his friendship with Sunday, a slave, makes him question what is right. When Sunday runs away, he makes the acquaintance of Walt, but when an oversee from Nate's farm comes to capture Sunday, he also takes Walt back and sells him into the Confederate army. There is a lotof action and adventure, like all of Wilson's books, but I found this one slightly harder going for some reason. Maybe flipping between Walt and Nate was hard to follow for me. There is a sequel to this; Battle Scars. Both are popular with my students.

Pierdomenico Baccalario's The Door of Time was hard to follow, and I chalked that up to the translation from the Italian, but Ring of Fire (also translated by Leah Janescko) was pretty good. Four children from different countries meet in a hotel in room and are thrown together due to overbooking. Or are they? Each of them was born on February 29th, and strange things start happening to them. Light bulbs explode, it snows in Rome, and a strange man thrusts a briefcase at them. This briefcase has a set of objects that lead the children around Rome in search of the Ring of Fire, which will help avert a world-ending tragedy that only the children can solve. That part made me stop and think-- are we really constantly under threat from unseen mystic evil forces and being saved by 13-year-olds on a regular basis? If you read young adult literature enough, you'd definitely enroll your children in some good martial arts classes. That aside, this was full of action and adventure, and the pictures and maps of Rome were really fun. My principal graciously donated this one; it is the first book in a projected four book series.

Readers' input needed: I would like to do a grade 5-8 literature update for my school system's waiver day. Along the lines of "100 books I've read, but you probably haven't". I was planning a power point of the covers (all published April 2009-April 2010) with a brief genre heading, an excel spreadsheet with author, title, genre, description and room for comment in the order of the power point (but would e mail people copies they could sort), and then when I gave the power point, would briefly mention what students might like to read it, and what was great about it. Came up with 75 books just from my reading log.

Would something like this be helpful to teachers and librarians? What's a better title?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade

In Arthur Slade's The Hunchback Assignments, Modo, a "monster child" has been raised to function in Victorian society and as a spy by an enigmatic man, Socrates, who suddenly drops the boy off on the streets of London to survive on his own. Modo manages to surivive, using his shape-shifting skills to disguise his deformities, and takes detective assignments by mail to earn his keep. When he runs into Octavia Milkweed after being kidnapped and almost killed, he finds out that Socrates has an entire organization of spies that is working to counteract a dastardly plot to overthrow the government by harnessing the power of children-- unfortunately, by hideously disfiguring them into "wolf children". Octavia and Modo work together to save Prince Albert, who is one of these children, and keep London from being destroyed. This took me a while to get into, but I had to finish it before I left for work this morning. Slightly reminiscent of Monstrumologist and Montmorency, once the students get hooked on the Steampunk movement (Is this more of a college thing? My students have never heard of it.), they'll adore this book, and it feels open to a sequel.

My apologies to Leonard Marcus (whose Funny Business, I reviewed yesterday rather lukewarmly). I spent most of my evening reading his Golden Legacy:How Golden Books Won Children's Heart, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way. Fascinating. Quoted huge sections out loud to children. This is a very complete discussion of anything anyone could want to know about Little Golden Books: directors of the company, artists, impact, stories, covers, and on and on. Even though I dislike picture books, I LOVE Little Golden Books. This is coffee table sized, marvelously well illustrated. Sigh. Can I find an excuse to purchase it for my library, or will I just have to buy my own?

The disappointment of the evening was Julia Keller's Back Home. I wanted to like this book, because a lot of my boys have devoured Myers' Sunrise Over Fallujah and even McCormick's Purple Heart, which still makes me a bit uneasy (language). My biggest reservation (that I have voiced frequently) is that in general, girls do not want to read books about war. Boys want to read about the actual fighting, not about what happens at home. Purple Heart discusses an injury, but in a different setting. This is a problem novel, and just not what my students are wanting. There are a lot of people who really liked this one, however.
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Have to admit that last night my daughter and I sat around with Adam Selzer's I Put a Spell on You and tried to sing the songs in the back. Good stuff. Maybe I just can't remember, but I really need the tune to "I'm High on Self-Esteem" so I can break into an operatic rendering of it next week when my principal observes me. I'd launch into "It's Cool to Stay in School", but the "Now I'm a homeless junkie and I'm dumber than a mule" line-- well, not the impression I'm hoping to create.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Andrew North Blows Up the World by Adam Selzer

While Andrew North is geared more toward readers younger than fifth grade, I had to buy a copy because Adam Selzer is so funny. Third-grader Andrew firmly believes that his father and older brother are spies, and when he is older, he will learn their ways. To warm up, he sneaks into his brother's room and steals his scientific calculator. Fooling around with it at school, he not only causes it to have a number fit (thereby thinking that perhaps it will blow up the world), but gets it taken away and locked in the evil janitor's closet for the weekend. Hoping to break it out during a school concert, Andrew goes through a series of hysterical machinations toward that end, and is ultimately somewhat successful. For older readers, Andrew's extreme naivete takes a bit of suspension of disbelief, but the writing has such wonderful characters and turns-of-phrase that even middle schoolers will laugh out loud. As always, Selzer does terrific adults-- funny, but not taking over the story. Selzer's other books (How to Get Suspended and Influence People, Pirates of the Retail Wasteland, I Put a Spell on You) are more geared to older students, but Andrew North is more tightly written-- never a dull moment or misstep. A must have for elementary libraries, and great for middle school as well.

Argh! I loved, loved, loved Julie Halpern's Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, but if you asked me what line can be crossed that makes a book NOT middle school appropriate, I would have to say that a girl getting gonorrhea from, ah-- yeah, gonorrhea would be one of the lines. Jessie's two best friends want attention so badly that they morph into goth chicks over the summer. Jessie's brother and his band are also goth-like, and when one friend puts the move on the boy that Jessie has liked for years, Jessie feels a need to move on. She enjoys talking to "loser" Dottie in study hall, finds out that they have a lot in common, and ends up joining Dottie's Dungeons and Dragons group, even though she worries that this will make her a nerd. I loved Jessie's wild print skirts, the dissection of different types of people in high school, realistic consequences for sexual activity, and especially the brother's cheerleader girlfriend whose mother teacher women's studies. Too funny. Still. Clearly high school. Drat.

Miranda's life is a little confusing. Her mother is trying to practice for a game show with the help of her boyfriend, her friend Sal is being bullied by a boy, and Miranda keeps getting weird notes that seem to know about things before they happen. Since she is reading L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, she tries to figure everything out before future tragedies occur. With good characters, fast pacing, and an intriguing premise, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me has "award winner" written all over it. This is normally a bad thing, but I wouldn't feel as bad if this book won an award. I wanted to like this more than I did-- it involved time travel, the late 70s, and L'Engle, but since there was something anachronistic and slightly confusing about the writing style, and I'm unsure how students will react to this. Can see it being used for Battle of the Books-- it would certainly engender some good discussions.

Really confused by Leonard Marcus' Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. (Brought to my attention by Jen Robinson.)Excellent book, great interviews with authors that I liked a lot, and a great grasp of the fact that kids like funny books. Confusion stems from two things: Marcus is billed as "one of the most respected writers about children's literature", and I have NEVER heard of him. Also, while I really like the authors he discusses, many of them either aren't what I would consider humorous writers, or aren't writers that children read any more. (Anne Fine? Dick King-Smith? Even Judy Blume is hard to push, which is not a surprise considering that Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, was written in 1970, before many of the children's parents were born!) This makes it more a book for teachers and librarians, who are familiar with these authors, instead of a book that children would like. Humor without Gordon Korman, Jordan Sonnenblick, or the aforementioned Adam Selzer? Anne Fine instead of Louise Rennison? Norton Juster (author of my most favorite book EVER) instead of Dan Gutman? Liked the book-- just don't get the motivation.

Finally (and yesterday was an intense night of reading!) I picked up Robert Westall's (1929-1993) The Machine Gunners. My copy is a first American edition, from 1975, and is in dire need of some glue! It appears to be out of print, but still circulates very well in my library. There is good reason-- Westall would have been the age of the characters during the time the book is set. Chas and his town are feeling the effect of the Blitz; nights are spent in shelters, neighbors die, buildings are bombed. When Chas and his friends find a crashed plane with a machine gun on the back, they decide that their town needs this in case of invasion, remove the machine gun, and build their own headquarters. When a they capture a German pilot, their preparations are put to good use, although with not the best ending. Rich in details of every day life, rife with munitions and soldiers, this might be too much for the casual reader of World War II fiction, but I can see why my hard-core readers like this one. First person accounts still resonate-- Tunis' Silence over Dunkerque just went out yesterday, and the student was enjoying it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Almost to the end of the alphabet

While weeding, I was making sure I really had read all the books up to Westerfeld's Pretties (over break!), and came across Trueman's Stuck in Neutral (2000), which tends to get lost about once a year, so I hadn't read it. Gripping story-- I can see why 8th grade assigns it. Shawn has cerebral palsy and can't communicate with the world, although he is very smart and realistic about his limitations. Problems arise when his father, a prize winning author, thinks that Shawn would be better off dead. Shawn disagrees. I think I need to read the sequels for this as well, and am looking forward to them.

Read a review for Aprilynn Pike's Wings somewhere and was intrigued, so when a student asked me if I could return the book to the public library, I asked if I could read it quickly first. A solid fantasy for girls, with a little romance thrown in. Laurel knows that she was left on her adoptive parents' doorstep as a small child; she knows that she is smaller than most kids her age and has weird troubles with food. This does not prepare her for wings growing out of her back or finding out that she is a fairy. When trolls try to take over land that her parents own that the fairies need, she and two boys, one human and one fairy, have to work to stop this from happening. There feels like a sequel in the offing.

Valerie Frankel's Thin is the New Happy, a memoir for adults, was recommended to me by a friend, and I read it hoping to see how Frankel managed to not pass on her weight obsession to her daughters. This didn't cover that quite as much as I had hoped, but it was interesting to see that apparently, putting ten year olds on diets was quite the thing to do in the 70s (and I have the Avon perfume pins to show that I lost ten pounds at that age). Frankel's weight obsession is more interesting than normal (celebrities, famous magazines, and a lot of drugs are involved), but I hope that she has found peace and isn't as weight obsessed anymore.

It is funny what books appeal to me because of the covers. Reed's Beautiful and Peck's Sprout both came from the library yesterday; both are more for high school, especially Beautiful, which covers so much sex and drug use in a dispassionate way that it is truly disturbing. Was useful to show my son what I meant by "girls with too much eyeliner", however.




 
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