Friday, November 30, 2007

Three Titles For Rare Readers.

L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables
My very favorite book in middle school. Set in 1890's Canada, this tale of an orphan who gets herself into all sorts of scrapes because of her adventuresome spirit, this is not a book everyone likes. Still, girls who like historical fiction, girls who are quiet, introspective, smart and a little different from their peers, and girls who are fans of Alcott will be served well by this book. I have two students reading this now (I handed it to one after she enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn!) -- I do a little happy dance whenever anyone checks this book out.

More accessible to a larger audience, Julie Andrews Edwards' (yes, the actress) book Mandy is a book that is absolutely wonderful, but no one can explain why.
Mandy ( and there are better covers available) is an orphan in an English orphange, finds a cottage in the woods that she cares for, and eventually finds a family to love. I have a student who checks this book out twice a year just to reread it. I was given a copy of this in 1974 for Christmas!

When girls check out Maud Hart Lovelace's Heaven to Betsy, I tell them if it compels them to make fudge, they have to bring me some. Set in the 1890's in Minnesota, I loved the depiction of family and school life at the time. Different from today's life, and yet oddly similar, I read these in high school, mainly in the orchestra pit when I was in musicals, and often did have to make fudge, because Betsy does so often. There is a series of these, and even a Lovelace fan club. Originally published in the 1950s, these can be hard to find.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Douglas Rees ROCKS!

This is my favorite vampire book for many reasons. Appeals to both boys and girls, is funny, doesn't take itself too seriously, and doesn't have blood and gore. Okay, this makes it less appealing to some students, but the two copies of this we have in the library are never on the shelves. The premise is so clever-- there's a vampire magnet school, and they recruit 'regular' teens because the state requires them to have a swim team!

One of my hobbies is writing authors thank you letters, and Mr. Rees very nicely replied to me recently with the exciting news that he is working on a sequel! My students want it right now! This is one book I have recommended to several of my adult friends, who have also enjoyed it.

Since I read Lightning Time this summer, it has been checked out frequently my my boys who can't get enough war fiction.

I love the French cover (and title) of Vampire High, too. To find out more about this fun author, check out:

1,000 reasons never to kiss a boy by Martha Freeman

Warning: not a middle school book. Unclad frolicking on page 119.

This was a surprise from this author, who usually writes for a much younger audience. I liked the book, I liked Jane, and she ultimately makes the right decisions, but I still am not going to hand this book to any students.

Remember the rule, authors. Objectionable material within first ten pages, please!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Narinder Dhami

Bindi Babes, Bollywood Babes and Bhangra Babes all circulate very well in my library. The continuing story of a family of girls living in London, it offers an enticing look into the Indian lifestyle that is new to my students. I was impressed by the tiny details-- differences in cooking, household decorating, and family interaction. Bollywood Babes was especially fun, bringing in an Indian actress from Bollywood films.

I had written to Ms. Dhami a while back, thanking her for writing, and she VERY graciously replied and sent me two books not available in the U.S.-- Dani's Diary and Sunita's Secret. I read the first last night and loved it. It goes back and forth between Dani's adjustment with her new step family, and her grandmother's journal that was kept when her grandmother first came to the UK. I think it's great that Dani has to translate the diary from Punjabi. The problems of fitting in to a new country and dealing with a step family are brilliantly portrayed, and again, the details of a slightly different way of life are fun to read.

Ms. Dhami has a wonderful web site. Check it out to see the much bright UK covers.

Sorrells' First Shot

You're a student in a tough military type academy. Your father is the head master and doesn't cut you any breaks. Does it get any worse? Yes. If you're David, your mother has been murdered, and you think that it's a pretty good bet that your father did it.

For a book that is almost 300 pages long, this read very quickly. Between the unpleasantness at school, David's longing to excel at the sport of shooting with the help of a new transfer student who happens to be a girl, and the mystery of his mother's death, this is the best page turner I've picked up since Morgenroth's Jude. This book thankfully eschews the salty language and offers a raw portrayal of a boy trying to get through very difficult circumstances.

Another excellent mystery from the author of Fake ID and Club Dread.

Susan Shaw's Safe

It's a rare book about rape that would be appropriate for most middle school libraries, and this would be the book. 13-year-old Tracy is attacked and almost killed on her way home, by the brother of a boy in her class. Told in a gripping but not graphic way, it's easy to understand the range of emotions that she goes through, and hard to watch her get through each day that follows. This is an important book that would be useful if there were a student who was raped and needed to read an example of one way of coping with the situation, or her friends needed insight into how she might feel. In general, this will be popular with the girls who like problem novels, because it is so very well done. This author's other books, The Boy From the Basement and Black-eyed Susie are also well-crafted and sensitively written.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Need some pink books?

Susanna Sees Stars, by Mary Hogan, is one I will buy in its horrible Gibraltar binding, or perhaps a prebind version of the paperback, because it will circulate nonstop for ten years and then stay on the shelf, worn-out and dated. It is one of the many books out now dealing with run ins with celebrity that seem to be so appealing. It's like The Devil Wore Prada for the YA set. Add this to the list containing Douglas' True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet and Calonita's Secrets of My Hollywood Life.

Kadohata's Weedflower

Kira-Kira, by this author, was very depressing and set during an odd historical period, so it's hard to get students to read it. This book, however, is a very vivid portrait of a family removed from their flower farm and sent to an internment camp because of the national feeling against the Japanese during WWII. This is a fine addition to a limited but interesting body of fiction that includes:
Denenberg: The Journal of Ben Uchinda
Otsuka: When the Emperor Was Divine
Salisbury: Eyes of the Emperor
Garrigue: The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito
Uchida: Jar of Dreams

Durst's Into the Wild

This book gets five stars for the idea (fairy tale characters have escaped from their world of repetition to our world, only to be sucked back in), and fewer for execution. I loved the idea of Rapunzel's daughter trying to save her mother and all of her friends from "the Wild", but got very confused as to how this all happened.

I loved all of the allusions to the Grimm tales, and thought it was because my own ill-considered half-written novel used those tales, but apparently my opinion was shared. My students have been asking for books that includes spins on classic tales like The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde (2000) and McKinley's Spindle's End (2000) and Beauty (1978). Napoli's books, especially Zel, are popular, so it's fun to see Rapunzel appear in this one as well. There's a lot of action and adventure, and there is room for another book. 

I enjoyed this, but have to agree with this assessment: "Although the logic of the Wild doesn't bear close scrutiny, the concept behind the story is sufficiently clever that many readers will forgive its inconsistencies." (Booklist)

Milton Meltzer's Tough Times

This is a thin historical novel, but it should not be underestimated. It is the rawest and most personal account of living through the depression that I have ever read. When I was done, I thought "This is autobiographical!", and sure enough, Meltzer was born in 1915, making him `6 when this book was set. We should all write so well at 92!

The details of this book were breath taking. What was it like to have your father's business slowly become less and less viable, until you had to get a job instead of going to school? How hard was it to see a professional man you admire lose his job, and your friend also sink into hard times? When everything around you seemed so dire, how did you go on?

All of my students need to read this. Maybe they would complain less. At the very least, they would learn a lot abou the Great Depression, something which figured very largely in the lives of my grandparents, and which young people today know so little about.

Thanksgiving reading-- unfortunately won't purchase.

Pat Murphy's The Wild Girls is nostalgic and discusses what it's like to feel different while growing up, in the great '50s tradition of expressing this difference by wanting to be a writer. I'm getting old if so many people are writing books set in the '70s now! I loved it, but my daughter, who will read anything, just couldn't get into it, and I can't think of a single student I would give this to.

John Smelcer's The Trap was a wilderness survival story that lacked action, which is what most students want from this sort of fiction.

Loved Elizabeth Levy's Tackling Dad, about a girl who really wants to play football but whose football playing dad doesn't want her to. The problem-- I have three or four books about football playing girls and one football playing girl every five years. Can't get others to read them. Levy did a great job with this one-- love the picture of her in the pads!

Laura Resau's What the Moon Saw was an interesting account of a girl's visit with her grandparents in a very remote area of Mexico, but also had a lot of magic and fantasy elements that were sort of odd. Intriguing, but again, can't think of readers.

Kirkpatrick Hill's Do Not Pass Go, about a boy whose father is incarcerated on a minor drug charge, was also well done, and I am thinking about buying this after hearing a student talking about a relative who was in jail. I'm still not sure.

Francine Prose's Bullyville sounded great in the reviews but started off annoyingly (all of the slang names for the places) and never reeled me in. I had to get it through interlibrary loan, so it must not have intrigued others, either.

Not buying books is hard. So is weeding books that haven't circulated well. Sigh.

Books sent to me randomly by an author

Karen Kingsbury, who is "America's favorite inspirational author" (I never know these things) very kindly sent me two copies of her book A Thousand Tomorrows. In the cover letter, it is described as " a clean love story about a bull rider and a barrel racer, and it deals with cystic fibrosis". This didn't entice me to read the book, but it was better than the letter indicated.

I would describe this as a romance about two people who love each other and pursue their dreams despite the odds, in a Lurlene McDaniel sort of way. Ali rides horses even though her lungs can't handle it-- its the only time she feels really alive. Cody gives up riding briefly to donate part of a lung to her. There is just depressing event after depressing event, and you know it's not going to end well. Again, for girls who want to read something sad, what could be more perfect?

Ms. Kingsbury is donating books to libraries in honor of her brother, Dave Kingsbury, who died unexpectedly. This is very nice of her. I will definitely put this is the collection (I have a student who has just about finished all my McDaniel) but may send the second to another middle school library so that they can have one, too. Many thanks for this kind donation.

Books loaned to me by students

It's always great when students loan me books. It means they trust me with their books, and they believe that I will get them back quickly. I try.

Sarah loaned me Rachel Hawthorne's Caribbean Cruising, an Avon paperback which I enjoyed very much but won't buy for the library. A fluffy beach read about a girl who has graduated from high school on a cruise as part of her mother's honeymoon, it is about her "to-do list" for the cruise. The major thing was rather inappropriate, ala Meg Cabot in Ready or Not.

Elizabeth loaned me a V.C. Andrews' book-- Butterfly, the first in the Orphans series. Having been a big fan of the Flowers in the Attic series in high school (embarassing fact-- owned the whole series in paperback and could not begin to tell you why.), I was intrigued when she had a V.C. Andrews for YA book. Huh, I thought. Since FItA was not the most appropriate book for, well, anyone, I was compelled to pick it up. Butterfly is the somwhat improbable tale of an orphan girl adopted by a paralyzed ballerina and forced to dance. The abuse and unhappiness of earlier works is in evidence here-- they never end happily.

So why do I want to borrow the next one in the series? These would appeal very much to girls in that developmental stage where they love to read about people whose lives are worse than their own.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sure Fire by Jack Higgins with Justin Richards

Notice the wonderful fiery helicopters and the tag line under the title: "Grow Up Fast- Or Else!" That's exactly what Jade and Rich do when their mother dies and they end up with the father they didn't know they had-- a father who happens to be a spy involved in a dangerous bid to secure the formula for a superfuel. (Okay, it ends up being something more sinister, but I won't ruin it for you.) With shade of Alex Rider, the children hunt down bad guys and work on saving their father, and, by coincidence, the entire free world.

Fairly standard plot, but it is the type of story that children crave. Given the number of political/spy thrillers for adults, this should not be a surprise. Apparently this Higgins is "one of the world's most popular authors". I've never heard of him, although Justin Richards is the author of the wonderful The Death Collector. (And the new The Chaos Code, which sounds great.)

This is well-crafted and highly readable, and the children will adore it. Add it to the growing list of spy novels starting with Alex Rider; Jimmy Coates, Traitor and Payback, and the Robert Muchamore. Buy two and be glad for the inevitable sequel!

Two War Books

Sonya Hartnett's The Silver Donkey is set during World War I and follows the story of a blinded soldier trying to make his way home. He is found and helped by two sisters and a brother, who feed him and try to get him to where he is traveling. He amuses them by telling them stories involving donkeys, since his good luck charm is a donkey. A bit vague in the details, this is a lyrical book, and beautifully bound. It is gentle and sweet, and shows that bravery and loyalty are good qualities. Parents and critics will love it. Middle school students won't.

What they really want is what H.R. DeMallie delivers beautifully in Behind Enemy Lines: A Yound Pilot's Story. This covers his enlistment and training on how to fly a B-17 bomber (with a diagram! Map!), then the fateful air battle, in riveting detail, that caused him and his crew to parachute into occupied Holland. From there, DeMallie survived with the help of the people of Holland but was eventually captured and spent the remainder of the war as a POW.

Written using notes that the author kept in 1945, this is raw, immediate, and gives the authentic detail of a real WWII experience that my boys crave. The language is not elegant ("Gee, I was hungry.), but I was riveted by the fact that this was a real story, one that was no doubt repeated time and again. Sterling Point Books, the publisher, has several other volumes of memoirs out that I am looking quite seriously into buying. This will NEVER be on the shelf. Buy two.

On page 8 there is a wonderful quote: "Someone once said "Young men enlist in the service during war time primarily for adventure." I will try to remember that this is why they like to read books about war as well.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Novels in verse

Let it be duly noted that I wasn't liking anything I picked up this weekend, so I was apparently in a difficult mood. I gave up and watched The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, which was a good book AND movie.

The two books I did pick up both happened to be in verse. Such a hard sell, both to me and to students. The first was Trash, by Sharon Darrow. This was the description from Follett: "Graffiti artists Sissy Lexie and younger brother Boy try to maintain a sense of family while living in a series of foster homes and staying with their older sister, until a tragic accident forces Sissy to make decisions about her future."

The poetry was very free verse, and I had a hard time getting that. Students who like to read books about problems such as these are frequently struggling readers, and the use of imagery and poetic language makes this hard to read.

The other was Norma Fox Mazer's What I Believe. This incorporates the problems that her work normally does (father loses job and family must relocate), but is done is a very experimental style. Very good try on lots of poetic forms. Poetically, this is good, but it makes the story hard to read. I think this is the only book by this author that I will be lacking on the shelves.

For aspiring writers thinking about writing a book in verse: please don't. Just don't. I know that college professors of children's literature think they are great, but run the text by an actual young adult first. Please.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Crossing the Panther's Path

One of my students was a somewhat reluctant reader for the last two years but came in the first week craving books on Native Americans. He's read them insatiably, even the 50 year old biographies. I have been looking for additional titles for him, and came across Elizabeth Adler's book. Just what I needed. For some reasons, many of the books are from the point of view of a girl, and are more about the settlers and the "evil" Indians. This is based on the true story of Billy Calder, who had an Irish father and a Mohawk mother, and who became an interpreter for Tecumseh and helped him try to win back land from the Americans.

This stars out with an arduous trek through the snow from Detroit to his parents' home, and keeps going with strategies, adventure, and battles. While it supported the Native Americans cause, neither the British were portrayed as evil, just with their own agendas. Billy learns a lot about the different tribes, and I think my student will really enjoy this.

Other titles that we've located this year that have been fairly successful were:
Carbone's Blood on the River
Cooney's The Ransom of Mercy Carter
Edmond's In The Hands of the Senecas
Keene's I Am Regina
McGraw's Moccasin Trail
O'Dell's Streams to the River, Rivers to the Sea
Pearsall's Crooked River
Richter's Light in the Forest
Speare's Sign of the Beaver

Combine this with two biographies, and that is a lot of reading! I am so proud of this student, who signed up for a public library card and has even gotten "in trouble" for reading during class. "The right book for the right child at the right time" is certainly working out in this case!

My Apologies to Wendy Mass

I am afraid that I may just not like anything this author has written. The books always sound intriguing, and I pick them up, but just don't get along with them. A Mango-Shaped Space was not something students would ask for, I didn't like the character in Leap Day, and Jeremy Fink just didn't hit the right notes. Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall sounded great: girl is hit with dodge ball and dies temporarily, reviews her life through the things she obtained at the mall, and learns to become a better person. Great Cover. Just great.

Objection Number 1: It's a "novel in verse". BIG nose wrinkles when I show these to middle schoolers, and with the very notable exception of Helen Frost, these books are not actually in anything that involves rhyme, meter, alliteration, etc. so to me are not verse. They are simply prose cut up into short lines. Now, I am especially picky about this, since I write traditional poetry.

Objection Number 2: Too heavy on the life lessons. Yes, students are trying to establish identity, but you can't hit them over the head with it. Verging on preachy.

I wanted to like it, but am somehow sad I didn't. Sigh.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Jennifer Lynn Barnes' second book, Tattoo, was one I had to pick up because the description was so tempting. Four friends at the mall get temporary tattoo that give them supernatural powers that they need to fight against evil that is set to take over the world-- starting at their prom.

Which they do. There is a lot of Celtic lore and whatnot dealing with how they get their powers and what evil is encroaching, but what I really liked about this book was the snappy, laugh out loud dialog. "I'm on the cheerleading squad. I know what REAL evil looks like." I'd quote more, but my daughter ran off with the book.

A fabulous choice for either girls who liked Twilight or who have to read fantasy against their will. Both will find this fun. The only down side is that it is available only in paperback or the dreaded Gibraltar Bound, a library binding that in reality falls apart the first time a student looks at it. Sigh.

Don't Read These Two on the Same Night

Andrew Clements, of course, does middle grade novels about teachers who don't quite get what wonderful social changes students are trying to effect. Having learned about Ghandi's protests, the 5th graders in No Talking decide that they will have a contest to see who can talk the least, and it gets them into trouble for no particularly good reasons. It's funny, with a sly humor that appeals to all ages, but more importantly, empowers children. This is the case in all of the Clements' books that, as my son puts it, "have a child holding something in front of his face on the cover." Reluctant or struggling readers in middle school turn to these for comfort, so I will buy this one.

If this isn't a glowing review, it's because I read it on the heels of James St. James' Freak Show, about one gay/transgendered boy who moves to Florida and attends a very conservative, preppy school. This is not a middle school book. Much, much language. I'm not even sure it's a high school book. It's meant to be funny, but touch the deeper issues of "Everyone is a freak in some way so we should be understanding of everyone."

I couldn't stomach it, because the main character, Billy, goes out of his way to make himself a target. Sure, in a perfect world we would all be able to show the world who we really are, but in reality, this is a bad, bad idea. So I had trouble feeling sympathy for Billy when he wanted to start the school year and "blend in" by wearing a ruffled pirate shirt. No. Not in high school. Do I, as an adult, wear polyester prom dresses from the '70s to work? Yes. But people do not really see me and do not care. Would I have done this in middle school? No. While amusing, I can't see this as a constructive book to give any student, especially one having trouble fitting in.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Andrew Clements' Things Not Seen

One morning, Bobby wakes up and can't see himself. He's not blind-- he's invisible. His parents don't seem to care, and when they are involved in a car accident and hospitalized, Bobby must get along on his own. He meets Alicia at the library, and she befriends him because she can't see anything at all and can't tell at first that he's invisible. I thought it would be horrible.

The only problem with this book is that it is one that sort of defies a convincing description. I really enjoyed it-- the details are spot on, the explanations don't stretch credulity too far, and the reaction of the parents is one with which many students will identify-- no, no, I'm sure it's a big problem for you, but really, it's best if we keep it a secret. We're working on it. These things just take time. Verging on the hilarious when it's something as serious as invisibility, but parents do that all the time with things that are important to children but seemingly inconsequential to the parents.

Bobby is 15, which makes it more believable that he's wandering about Boston by himself, but nothing in this book is inappropriate for younger students who are fans of Clements' other works. I put it on the table for my 4th grade reluctant reader, and it was gone this morning. It will appeal most to middle school students who are starting to find their parents annoying!

Also read Cecil Castelucci's The Plain Janes. If you desperately need graphic novels in your collection, this one has nothing objectionable, but I don't know that the plot really has anything to recommend it. Girl, traumatized by bombing in big city, moves to small town and wants to join a group of unpopular students even though the popular students court her. She then embarks on a plan to install art all over town. I'm trying to think who would ask for it. It might be more successful in high school, with students who are serious about art.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Nothing that thrilled me.

As much as I loved Roderick Townley's The Great Good Thing, The Red Thread just didn't appeal to me, even though time travel was involved.

Finally got ahold of J.D. Guilford's The Edification of Sonya Crane, about a white girl who goes to a predominately black school and passes as biracial in order to fit in. There were some other themes that made it inappropriate for middle school-- mother is addicted to drugs and there are some scenes with her supplier that really curled my hair. Too much sex. Also a lot of gratuitous language. Sigh.

Urban's A Crooked Kind of Perfect was an interesting read, but too young for my library. Girl with agoraphobic dad and high powered mom takes up the organ and works toward competing. A nice book, fun to read, but just not what I need.

Am liking Clement's Things Not Seen more than I thought I would.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Fall Into Reading 2007

The only thing I looked at last night was Nick Hornby's Slam, which would be very good for high school but not middle school. It sounded so good, though, that I had to read until it became apparent that, oddly enough, a book about a 15 year old who gets his girlfriend pregnant is going to have things inappropriate for the average 6th grader. Well done, though.

Since I read anyway, I love to find challenges like the one at:

This blog has a lot of parenting issues and is slanted toward Christian mothers, but had some good reviews. I've been trying to keep up with blogs, and it is difficult to find ones that are only dedicated to middle school books.

Still, a challenge is a challenge! I'm up for it!

(I, too, looked at The First Part Last, and seem to recall it had some gratuitous language. I prefer Hanging on to Max or even No More Saturday Nights.)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Gloria Skurzynski

What Happened in Hamelin (1979) was on of this well-known author's first books, and it's only been off the shelves six times, twice to the same teacher, so I was apprehensive about keeping it. I'm not an archive, unfortunately.

I don't have Donna Jo Napoli's Breath (I love this author, but there were a couple really questionable scenes), which deals with the same topic, but these would be good books to read together. I loved the twist on the Pied Piper tale that Skurzynski puts on this. The piper doesn't have any magic skills, just good marketing ones. He positions himself to rid the town of rats, which is done by giving them heavily salted pork, denying them all access to water, and then positioning the town's children at the docks with sticks to beat them to death. Gory, but realistic. Told from the point of view of a mistreated baker's assistant who becomes the unwilling accomplice of the piper, this was a dark but fascinating look at medieval life and a realistic explanation of a fable with which students need to be familiar.

Congratulation to this author, also, for keeping up a nice web site. I'm on to Virtual War and the National Parks Mysteries next!

Also read: Jacqueline Woodson's Feathers is not one I will buy. Too young, among other things.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

This is a brilliant book because most people involved in children's literature of any kind worship and adore picture books.

I HATE picture books. Not enough words.

Especially since this book is bound to win every award known to man, I spent quite a lot of time sharing it with students and, shamefully, making fun of it. This is because, at 500 plus pages, it should not start with 40 pages of pictures, and it does. I tried it on about ten hard core fantasy fans who were not at all interested in it.

Then I read this story of an orphaned boy who lives in a French train station and takes care of the clocks, stealing his food and parts for the automaton that his father left behind. It is charming. I love old movies, so having Georges Melies, an early movie maker, as a character was appealing to me, and the whole mystery surrounding the automaton and Georges was captivating.

It was a slight story, and definitely historical fiction. I really don't know who the audience for this would be, other than college professors who sit on awards committees. As I said, the fantasy readers were not thrilled. Reluctant readers are going to look at the length and run screaming. Not many historical fiction fans. Published by Scholastic, this will fall apart in two circulations.

There will be multiple copies at the public library. May not buy this one.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Singer and cover art

Deal with a Ghost was a surprisingly good mystery for older girls who like problem novel. High schooler Delia is living with her grandmother because her mother has moved away to be with a boy friend, and the temptation to take other girls' boyfriends away from them is very strong. However, new friends, involvement in the glee club, and a ghost who has a message for Delia's strict, unloving grandmother distracts her just enough that it only seems like a good idea once, and then only for a short time.

This book has circulated steadily for the last ten years, and I can see why. This will be one I hand out frequently. But come on. What was the deal with cover art in the '80s and '90s? Compare the covers of the new books I have listed. Great improvements in cover art. Students really do judge books by the cover. Which copy of Scared Stiff would you pick up?

Nobody's Princess by Esther Friesner

Helen of Troy didn't always have the face "that launched 1,000 ships". An akward and tomboyish child, she longed to follow her brother's adventures and balked at the restrictions placed on girls. Not that these held her back in this book-- she learns to fight and ride horses, meets Atalanta and hunts the Calydonian boar, and after consulting with the Pythis at Delphi, sails off to look for the Golden Fleece. The story is to be continued in Nobody's Prize, due out in the spring.

Told in the first person, which made the story seem very immediate, this was a fast read because of all of the action. The girls will pick it up because of the tie with Helen, and the boys will like all of the fighting. I was most enthralled with the portrayal of Helen not as the namby-pamby, beautiful plaything of the gods, but of the real, live Spartan girl with her own agenda. I will be very interested to see how Friesner deals with the rest of the story.
I also read, at the insistence of a language arts teacher, Mildred Taylor's classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Certainly, this is a good book that illustrates the prejudice and intolerance that blacks had to suffer in the 1930's. Was it so fabulous that teachers should still be assigning it 30 years after publication? Maybe not. Cassie Logan seemed rather clueless-- did her family really keep her that sheltered that she didn't understand that she would suffer consequences for her refusal to bow down to the cultural mores that kept blacks in "their place"? Combine this with dialect, slow descriptions, and drawn out problems that took forever to be concluded, and this read like a book that (as one of my parent volunteers put it) your language arts teacher would assign to you. Perhaps selections of this would be better for discussion than the whole book, since the reality is that 30 years after publication we still have 150 copies of these for class use, and don't have money to buy something new on the topic.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Boy Who Couldn't Die by William Sleator

I have been recommending this out for several years on the strength of the spooky cover and the fact that it is about zombies, but this is much more philosophical than that. After Ken's best friend is killed in a plane crash, he decides to make sure this doesn't happen to him, and has his soul locked away by a woman who charges him $50 for this task. She keeps control of his soul. Obviously, not a good idea, and during a vacation to test his immortality by swimming with sharks, he meets a girl who tells him that he has probably been made into a zombie and the woman who controls his soul will force him to do a lot of evil. Getting his soul back is quite the adventure, and this is bloody enough for the students who love Darren Shan. I don't know that they will learn that it's not a good idea to sell your soul; even though Ken is regretful, I know enough about teenagers to think that he would do it all over again. This is a great title to have in most collections where the students crave horror!

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller

We know that Annie Sullivan had a difficult time teaching the deaf and blind Helen Keller to communicate, but how difficult was it, exactly? This excellent book fills us in on Annie's challenging and sad life before coming to the Keller's, which helps to explain her diligence and devotion. While Helen's actions are wild, this book shows that she was very intelligent, and just needed the opportunity to share that with others. The details of this process is something that the children will fins fascinating. This is a very complete book of Helen's early years; hopefully dedicated readers will go on to read Helen's autobiography or find out more about Annie Sullivan. Pictures, online sources, books and a chronology round out this very engaging biographical novel.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Weekend Reading

Think I've finished the "R" authors, so it's on to "S"!

Pamela F. Service's The Reluctant God alternates between the stories of Lorna, the daughter of an Egytologist, and Ameni, the son of a pharoah, who is chosen by the gods to preserve the tomb of his relatives. Through a quirk of time, the two meet up when Lorna uncovers the tomb, and when part of the artifacts Ameni is meant to guard are stolen, the two track them down and discover what is truly important to life. I liked this more than I thought I would, and students with an interest in ancient times and mysteries will like this as well, although it is a highly descriptive and philosophical work which will not appeal to those who want a quick read.

Service's Phantom Victory also deals with some issues of time-- years ago, the Victory hotel burned to the ground. Brian and Terri both had relatives connected with the hotel, and the two of them use a diary to uncover clues to a lost treasure that could help the hotel be rebuilt. This was a solid mystery that should be popular with my students now that I know that it is on the shelf! It is cursed, however, with bad '90's cover art.

Not as bad as Storm at the Edge of Time, however. (Also by Service.) Another time travel time, set in the Orkney Islands, it's a muddled tale that was hard to follow. Considering that it has only been checked out three times in 14 years, it may be a goner. My daughter wrinkled her nose when she saw it, and didn't unwrinkle it once she started reading.

Ian Serraillier's Escape from Warsaw is a Holocaust tale, and one that has lots of adventure in it. Three Polish children are separated from their parents, who have been taken in different directions by the Nazis. The father meets a young boy, and tells him to look for the children. He eventually meets up with them, and the four make the long and difficult journey to Switzerland. Again, this was hidden in the "S" section, but will now circulate well because it is quite good.

Doris Buchanan Smith's Karate Dancer must have something going for it, because one student checked it out about 9 different times over three years. Troy lives for karate and cartooning, even though his parents don't support his karate. He meets up with Liesl, a dancer, and has such a crush on her that he is willing to take up ballet in order to be with her. There are some bullies from another karate studio, a test for his black belt, and a rather odd scene where a ship hits a bridge in town and many people are killed. That was handled too quickly, and was just jarring. I liked this for Troy's emotions involving all that is going on around him, but there was enough action and description of the karate to interest students with experience in that area. On my pile to booktalk to SSR classes this week as well.

Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars is another introspective tale of a boy growing up during the Vietnam Conflict. When half the class goes to Catechism class on Wednesday afternoons, and the other half goes to temple, Holling Hoodhood, the lone Presbyterian, is stuck with Mrs. Baker. He is sure that she hates him, and Wednesday afternoons are filled with classroom chores until she decides to read Shakespeare with him. Misbehaving students, escaped rats, problems relevant to the Vietnam era (a refugee student, wives of soldiers, a sister who wants to be a "flower child"), and a local Shakespeare production all provide fodder for life lessons as well as comic situations.

I liked this, but mainly because it predates my school experience by just ten years, and it is very nostalgic. Definitely a bildungsroman, with all those life lessons. The humor seems forced (we hear about the yellow tights for the Shakespeare production a lot), and I don't know how students will like this one. I am going to think about it before I buy it.

The guilty pleasure of the weekend was Katie Maxwell's Got Fangs. A weird but intriguing story of a girl working in a Goth Faire in Hungary with her mother, this would never be on the shelf because the girl's boyfriend is a vampire. And it's a mystery. Francesca's voice was fresh and amusing. I am looking into a bound version, since this is in paperback and the pages of the public library's version were already coming loose.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Yellow Flag by Robert Lipsyte

Kyle would rather play jazz with his friends than race cars, but when his brother is injured in an accident, he has to help out his family and race to maintain the corporate sponsorship they have just received. He's a good racer, which makes it harder for him to walk away and dedicate himself to his music. There's lots of riveting descriptions of racing, but the core story is that of Kyle deciding what is best for both him and his family. There is some very mild language and situations with girls, but still appropriate for middle school.

I would buy this book if only for the following paragraph, which appears on page 5 but really should have started the book. This is good writing. Stuff like THIS should win the Newbery. Children might actually read it.

"Fridays in spring crept on forever at Goshen High. All day Kyle felt like he had one foot mashing the gas, the other standing on the brake. His motor was running hot while his wheels spun in the groove. He felt numb... and sleepy and jittery. He sleepwalked from English to history to geometry. He heard himself answer a question in environmental science, but it might as well have been someone else. Teachers droned on, trying not to let their eyes flick toward the windows, where the thickening yellow light banged against the glass, calling them outside. Kyle's eyes were stuck on the glass."
A must buy. This will never be on the shelf. Hopefully, children who read this will move on to pick up The Contender and other titles by this author.

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine

This debut novel brings the Cultural Revolution to young adult students in a compelling and engaging story based on the author's own experiences. Ling's parents both work at the hospital, so the family is considered bourgeois and subject to scrutiny and abuse by the Communist Party. Even though Ling is only 9 when the book starts, the details of how the government affects her daily life are well-explained and gripping. There are notes at the end explaining more about the Cultural Revolution, and more about the author's life as well.

Not knowing much about this part of history, I found this fascinating. Students who like to read about the Holocaust will be interested in this book because of how the governement was treating the citizens. This is a highly readable book that could generate a lot of good conversations in a classroom setting. I will definitely be getting a copy.

Paint the Wind by Pam Munoz Ryan

Maya has been raised by a controlling grandmother who would not talk about Maya's mother. When the grandmother dies, Maya is scared to be sent to her mother's relatives in the Wyoming wilderness. In time, she starts to love the horses there and she learns to deal with her difficult cousin, her great aunt, and the challenges of making her own decisions.

I wanted to like this more, since there is always a demand for horse books. However, the horse references are scattered and take a back seat to the damily drama that unfolds. There are some exciting scenes at the very end when Maya is caught and injured in an earthquake while looking for a wild horse her mother loved, but this did not make up for the fact that I did not like Maya. She was unpleasant at the beginning, and while she improved a bit, I still didn't like this. This would be good for larger collections. This author's Esperanza Rising was much more to my liking. Reading this did give me the idea to recommend Seredy's The Good Master to one of my horse fans!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Award winning books

Took a BERS seminar yesterday on 101 Best Books for Young Adults. Very interesting, even if I didn't agree with all of the choices. The woman who ran the seminar, Bonnie Kunzel, is very well-read and has an impressive professional record:

The most interesting thing she said, however, was that nowhere in the parameters for determinging awards like the Newbery is it stated that a book must appeal to actual children to win an award. Considering that librarians and teachers use these awards to select books for students, this is somewhat of a problem.

There was also a large discussion of manga, which we were told we should have because children want them and will read them. I am not averse to manga but haven't found a lot that I found worthwhile.

Is there a happy medium between what children want (manga) and what the awards tell us to buy (Higher Power of Lucky, Criss Cross, neither of which should ever be handed to anyone, much less a reluctant reader)? How about something like Jordan Sonnenblick's Notes from the Midnight Driver? Covering serious issues and well-written but also (*GASP*) vastly appealing to students.

In answer to the comments from A.C.: There are not many manga at our school because they are expensive and don't wear well. There are a few, as well as some graphic history and biography books. Diary of a Wimpy Kid does have a lot of pictures, but a text story as well.

Shane, by Jack Schaefer

Not a fan of westerns, never seen the movie with Alan Ladd, and had my doubts as to whether this 1949 title should be kept.

It should.

I haven't decided on a reader for it yet, because the first half of the book is a lyrical character study of a drifter who arrives at a farm in Wyoming in 1889. While the family is happy, trouble is brewing. The father hires Shane to help with the work, and ends up getting more help than he bargains from the enigmatic stranger whose every move whispers "danger".

Once we find out that the evil rancher Fletcher is trying to take over all the small farms in the area using Wild West tactics (Won't seel your land? Fine. We'll just shoot and kill you.), we see how useful Shane is. Told from the point of view of the young son, this is more a look into what it takes to "be a man" and stand up for what is right than it is a shoot-em-up western, although the action picks up halfway through the book and there are a lot of bar room brawls and gun battles.

I have to see the movie now, and someone must read this. It is a difficult book, though-- the father and Shane are both trying to do what is best for the family, even though it might be hard for them personally. I found Shane's sacrifice a touching change from the modern depiction of family interactions. As much a product of the 1950s as the 1890s, Shane's character is a vanished piece of Americana worth preserving.

Really shouldn't mention Pamela Service's Stinker from Space in the same breath as Shane. I didn't even realize I had this book, but it will now be newly popular. A very thin book, it has an Accelerated Reading level of 6.8, making it hugely appealing to many students like my son who just want to get their AR book out of the way so they can read whatever they like.

A space alien crashes to earth and sends his spirit to the only somewhat dexterous creature around-- a skunk. Karen is oddly drawn to the animal, feeds him cookies and takes him home. Of course, complications ensue, and Tsynq Yr must be returned to his home despite all the comic obstacles.

Deltora Quest

My weekends have been Fantasy Death Marches recently. In order to finish all of the "R" authors, I had to get through Philip Reeve and Emily Rodda.

If you have students who have never read fantasy but need to or would like to start, this would be a decent introduction. There are many standard fantasy elements-- quasi-medieval setting, magic, a quest, good versus evil, riddles, etc. The first series is 8 books long; I don't have the other books in my library. For a complete listing of titles in order, please consult:
The Shadow Lord has made the king of Deltora all but useless; removing the jewels from the Belt of Deltora is the final act that unseats the royal family and brings despair to the entire kingdom. In order to fight the evil, Lief, Barda, and Jasmine go to each of the kingdoms to locate the jewels, then need to locate the heir to the throne. There are some nice twists and turns, and the books are short (about 130 pages each), but there are a lot of cliches, and not much new. We did have some fun when the group met evil doers that spoke English, but backwards: I went around chanting "fresh meat soon!" and unnerving the children.
I asked several of my students about their experience with the book, and many had picked them up in the 3rd or 4th grade, and that seems about right for these books.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Middle School is hard enough. Combine it with a small brother, totally unreasonable parents who ground you from video games, a best friend you don't like, and people who are mean to you at school and what do you have? Just about everybody's life.
This will be a tremendously appealing read to a lot of 6th grade boys. The diary format, the goofy illustrations, and the sneaky, unpleasant tone that Greg has will make them laugh. They will identify with Greg's attempts at being popular, avoiding bullies, and making it through the wilderness that is middle school. Certainly much of the book made me laugh as well. I will buy it.
Did I like it? No. I read a good review at Your Neighborhood Librarian ( that pretty much sums up how I felt, and I think that being an adult female does make it hard for me to like this book. Still, it will be good for students who have already read Captain Underpants a billion times. Perhaps that is the thing-- for me, it lacks some cleverness. Knowing that students would pick it up avidly, I wanted to like it more.