Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Prineas' The Magic Thief

Conn is a pickpocket in the seedy Twilight area of a medieval-ish kingdome. He tries to steal the locus magicalicus of Nevery, a wizard who has been banished because of a mishap unvolving the palace and some pyrotechnics. When Conn does not die after touching Nevery's talisman, Nevery takes him on as an apprentice.

Not only does Conn exhibit unusual magical abilities, he is inquisitive and saucy, and it soon becomes clear that he will help Nevery find out why magic is leaking out of the kingdom. He befriends Rowan, the daughter of the duchess, learns to read, eats lots of biscuits, and ends up saving the day.

This is the first book of a projected series. At first I was reluctant to read it, but it did have a certain charm, even if it was somewhat derivative of any number of medieval-ish fantasy books. Yes, there is even a map in the front. Even though Ms. Prineas has far more to do with college academia than I would like, it is evident that she did test this book on her own children. Will buy.

Website: http://www.magicthief.com/

As much as Heck:Where the Bad Kids Go would probably be popular with my students because of the cover, it was far too cloying and repetitive for me to take, especially since there is a sequel in the works. It might be good for fans of Lemony Snicket, and if I have an overabundance of money at some point, I might get it, but for now I'll pass.
A student loaned me her library copy of Glass' The Year the Gypsies Came, which I thought showed a lot of trust (although I had to admonish her that this was a bad practice!), but it would have limited appeal in my library. Interesting setting; if you need anything set in South Africa, this would be the book. (From publisher's description: In Johannesburg, South Africa, in the late 1960s, twelve-year-old Emily, who longs for affection from her quarreling parents, finds comfort in the stories of a Zulu servant and in her friendship with a young houseguest who has an equally troubled family. )
Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You almost disappeared with my 9th grader, but when she read the review on the back she queried "Does 'existential' mean 'introspective navel gazing' ?" Well, yeah. More of a high school book. Middle schoolers are much more interested in action than thought. That's why my copy of Zindel's The Amazing Death-defying Diary of Eugene Digman is gathering dust. From the publisher's description: Eighteen-year-old James Sveck copes with the uncertainties of adolescence as he works in his mother's Manhattan art gallery, falls for a charming older gentleman, and tries to decide what he wants out of life.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Spies, Elvis, Cameras and Time Travel

Jennifer Lynn Barnes' The Squad: Perfect Cover was a good, light weekend read. Computer hacker/semi-Goth girl Toby gets recruited to become a varsity cheerleader and international spy. The spy part is fine, the cheerleader part takes some doing, especially the makeover, which includes sparkly pink tops that do not go with Toby's combat boots. For fans of Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, this will be a welcome book. I have the sequel to read tonight.
Any book about teenage spies and government complexes located under posh high schools is going to require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, but I think a whole lot of children's books do. Perfect Cover explains away as much as needed, and almost makes more sense than Carter's books. Certainly, there are lots of laugh out loud lines as Toby struggles with being a cheerleader. That is almost more of a focus than the spying. My only complaint was that there is more making over going on than training to be a spy, which would not make sense.

Pearsall's All Shook Up did not look good at first, but I did enjoy her two historical novels, Trouble Don't Last and Crooked River, so I picked it up. I was pleasantly surprised. Josh must spend the summer with his father in Chicago while his mother takes care of his grandmother. When he arrives, he finds that his father has lost his job at a shoe store and is working as an Elvis impersonator to make ends meet. Josh is accutely embarrassed and hopes that no one at school will find out about it. He is so embarrassed that when his father is booked to play at his school, he invents a competition on the same day, and his father choses to enter it for the prize money, which he needs but which, of course, does not exist. I don't think many of my students know who Elvis is, but there is a note at the end about him. This is a good funny book for boys, more about family, circumstances and (ta da!) personal identity. I'll buy this.

Click: One Novel, Ten Authors was an interesting exercise. All ten stories tell a different facet of the life of a photojournalist, spanning a number of years and countries. Some of the stories make very little sense, and the good stories left me wishing that the author who did that section had done more. The chapters I liked were, predictably, by author's I enjoyed. My son had the same reaction to the book as I did; some of it was good, some confusing. I had a student who is interested in photography who loved it.

Haddix's Found was okay. The fans of her Among the Hidden series will be thrilled that there is a new series out, and won't be disappointed by the story of adopted children who suddenly get notes telling them that something is wrong. There's not a lot that I can say without ruining the plot of this one. Time travel, evil government conspiracies and bad guys chasing are protagonists around are the main draws of this one. I'm not a huge fan of Haddix, although the students love it. There is something simplistic and repetitive about her books that I don't like but students do. That's what's important, after all, and many reluctant readers have become avid readers because of her books.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Susan Beth Pfeffer's The Dead and The Gone

Alex Morales is working in a pizza parlor and worrying about getting into a good college. Then a meteor knocks the sun out of alignment, and his worries turn more to keeping his two sisters safe and alive in a New York city devastated by flooding, extreme temperatures and deadly flu.

Excuse me, but I have to run to the store to buy 300 jars of peanut butter now. It worked for the people in The City of Ember to stock pile food, but given the cataclysmic world that Alex is facing, perhaps I should go the route of On The Beach, except that I don't know where one would buy cyanide tablets.

This is the sequel to Life As We Knew It, and I wasn't sure at first that I liked it, because it told the story of a completely different character. Then it sucked me in. Surviving in a city would be very different from surviving in the country. There would be advantages and disadvantages, and Pfeffer lays them all out in a riveting and gut wrenching book. Unflinchingly, she describes how Alex and his sister strip possessions off the dead bodies on the street so they can trade watches and clothing for food. I could only read a little of this at a time, since we recently had power outages due to wind storms and it hit a little close to home. Middle school students who like survival stories will be enthralled by this.

One of the best parts of this book is the portrayal of the teachers in the schools that Alex and his sister Julie attend. They help the remaining students survive by creating a community to help them. And this cover is great. I can't find a picture of the original paperback of Life, but it wasn't nearly as riveting.

The now justly famous Ms. Pfeffer has a blog at

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Petrucha's The Rule of Won

Caleb's a slacker and proud of it-- that is, until his girlfriend decides he is a liability in her attempt to gain class presidency. In order to "improve" him, Vicky insists he go to a meeting to discuss a new self-help book, The Rule of Won. Based on the premise that positive thinking can make everything one might want come true, the book has spawned "craves" where people help each other think positively. Led by Ethan, a polished but disturbed boy, Caleb's school's crave tries to better the school-- wishing for funding to repair the gym, and hoping that the sad basketball team (named the "basket Cases"!) wins a game. These two things are accomplished by chanting, posting thoughts on a web site, and just perhaps by some questionable intervention.

At first, Caleb thinks that this is all good, until he realizes that his new friend Erica is counting on positive thinking instead of studying to pass her algebra exam. His girlfriend starts to see Ethan, and Caleb begins to suspect that neither Ethan or The Power of Won are entirely benign.

This was an immensely fun and ultimately thought provoking book. This would be so much better for class discussion than The Pigman or Of Mice and Men (both of which are foisted upon 8th graders in my school.) It hits a lot of great discussion themes- mob psychology, community involvement, responsibility, and (ta da!) personal identity, every student's main concern. Not only that, but it was packed with sentences that I felt compelled to read aloud to my daughter. My favorite, from an interchange between Caleb and his grandfather:

"The TV isn't on. You sick?" (says the grandfather.)
"No, I'm reading. You're just like Mom. What is it with you guys. I read sometimes."
"Right. And sometimes I like to put on ballet tights and do a few plies."

Note that I have the book at school only because my daughter was sleeping when I left. She picked it up every time I laid it down last night. I thought I would have to arm wrestle her for it.

My complaints are small. I did not like the prologue. The first chapter pulled me in (what reluctant reader wouldn't keep reading after "As a proud, self-avowed slacker..."), but students who read the prologue might be confused. It's in the third person, and concerns characters who aren't mentioned until later in the book. I will suggest that students skip the prologue. The other complaint is that there were two acronyms in the first pages that escaped me, although students, with their fondness for text messaging might get. I figured out GP was grandpa, but had to goolgle IMHO. (In my humble opinion?)

Petrucha has vast experience as a writer, and I am glad to see that he is turning to an area that is hard to find-- humorous books for boys with enough message and literary device that they can also use them for the inevitable Lotus Diagram project. I am hoping to see a lot more by this writer.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Graphic Novels-- The Rant

Jeff Smith has been publishing his series about Bone since 2005, which puts him ahead of the crowd. Bone: Out From Boneville was amusing enough, and didn't look like a medieval-ish fantasy As Performed By The Cast of Speed Racer. This is my main complaint about the majority of these titles.

In short, Phone Bone, Fone Bone (which was needlessly confusing) and their cousin leave Boneville for vague reasons, get lost, get separated, and and spend the winter apart. Fone finds a girl named Thorn, and stays with her and her grandmother, who races cows. Rat like creatures threaten the community, and seem to be targeting Phone for unknown reasons, but the cousins are all protected by a dragon. The cousins eventually find each other and all seems well, but clearly there is still a problem and lots more adventures to come.

This was fine, fairly clever, and distinctive. I was vastly confused because this looked rather like Walt Kelly's Pogo at first, complete with a character with a cigar and hat talking in weird dialect. Pogo was apparently an inspiration for Bone, but no more than that.

The Rant-- Got a catalog from Perma-Bound proclaiming "Graphic Novels!" Problem is that these are mainly reworking of young adult novels ala Speed Racer. These are okay-- I don't mind handing them to reluctant readers who might then try the novel. What I object to is the way everything is now a graphic novel, and the artwork is pretty bad. Moby Dick: The Graphic Novel? Bleargh.

I think my complaint centers around the lack of creativity. Bone has some originality. Certainly Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret was innovative. Actual translations of Japanese manga seem very much the same to me, and some of the interesting graphic novel have mature content. I loved Manga Claus: The Blade of Kringle. Pictures supported the story. A little goofy, but fine. Captain Underpants uses illustrations well. Did enjoy The Plain Janes, but felt the audience for it was limited. (Boys like these a lot more than girls.)

I am having trouble locating original, creative graphic novels. I would not mind buying these. I just refuse to purchase huge amounts of things like R.L. Stine's Creepy Creatures just because they are graphic novels.

Skateboarding Books-- The Rant

There are some reluctant readers who only want to read books about skate boarding. This is difficult when the only books I have been able to locate (after much searching) on the topic are the following:

Christopher. Skateboard Tough
Gutman. Getting Air
Maddox. Board Rebel, Skate Park Challenge
Mantell. (Christopher) Skateboard Renegade
Peters. One Smooth Move. (Low)
Withers. Skater Stuntboys
Zucker. Skateboard Power. (Low)

We can include Michael Harmon's Skate for older readers. There is some language, and the story is more about abuse and running away.

Most of these are simplistic books, and try to push some social agenda that doesn't make the readers happy. Getting Air and Skater Stuntboys (which I need to read) are probably the best.

The rant-- why does Spinelli taunt me with a cover like this when the book is only tangentially about skate boarding? The main character is more concerned with the fact that protons decay, and the plot involves family relationships more than anything else. It's not even as humorous as the boys want. Sigh. This is fine, but not what I was expecting and I was disappointed.

Someone PLEASE write a book about boys who hang out at a skate park and get in only small amounts of trouble. Describe some of the jumps, maybe a local skate store that they hang around. A mystery, perhaps, which the skaters solve even though they are vastly misunderstood by the community because they tend to wear John Deere shirts when they don't know anything about the tractors. This would be popular.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bradbury's Shift and Backlog

Jennifer Bradbury's Shift was a good mystery that will appeal to older boys. Chris and Win decide to go on a cross country bike ride after graduation. Things go well at first, but then the two quarrel and split up. Chris comes homes and heads off to college, but Win never shows up, and his parents put high level detectives on the case. Chris tries to find out what has happened to Win, and uncovers a lot of information about's Win's life that he didn't know. Great cover. My only complaint-- don't stick a full page of acknowledgements at the beginning of a book. I feel oddly compelled to read them!

Sometimes, things just don't appeal or don't fit my needs. Recently had a stack like that. I feel bad, because most of these had very positive reviews.
Salamandra Drake. Dragonsdale. Decent enough drgon fantasy, but the cover is way too young, not to mention prone to damage.
Victoria Foyt. The Virtual Life of Lexie Diamond. A girl and her computer. Didn't grab me.
Mary Jane Beaufrand. Primavera. My 9th grader enjoyed it, but it sat next to my chair for a long time. If I don't want to pick up a historical novel, it's not a good bet with my patrons.
Simon Holt. The Devouring. Looks like a vampire novel, but is about two children who read a book about evil creatures who suck out your soul. Apparently, when they do this, you feel a need to savage hamsters. Aside from that, it was uneven, with too much ordinary stuff about a busy father and children whose mother has left. Makes the horror all the clearer but I can see students bringing this back disappointed.
Clare Dunkle. The Sky Inside. Maybe I'm reading too much future dystopia, but I couldn't get into this tale of a suburb under a dome, and the Wonder Babies who are repossessed because they are causing trouble. If I need science fiction, I may buy it, but it didn't click.
Catherine Ryan Hyde. The Day I Killed James. Really drove me nuts. It goes back and forth in time, and all I wanted to know was what happened to James. After so much bouncing around, I no longer cared.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Personal Identity

Doesn't everyone assume that everyone is watching all the time, and cares deeply what our hair looks like? In fact, everyone is so busy worrying about what their own hair looks like that they pay little attention to others. But I know that only because I'm old. The Market, by J.M. Steele, feeds this insecurity by creating a web site that rates every girl in Kate's high school and comments about her social worth. When Kate finds out that she is 71 out of 140, she tries to improve her social standing. There are pitfalls along the way, but everything works out in the end. Some might consider this trite, but I liked it, and my 9th grader is enjoying it. The message that Kate was able to become more popular by changing her appearance and actions, but that it wasn't worth it in the end resonated with me somehow.

Kate Brian's Fake Boyfriend was a little fluffier, but I like anything by this author (who also writes as Kieran Scott). LOVE the cover. When Isabelle is finally dumped by the boyfriend who has been bad news all along, her friends try desperately to keep her from going back to him-- the create a "fake" myspace account and get Isabelle interested in "Brandon". They have to find a real boy to play the part, and then things become complicated. I liked that the friends knew the boyfriend was not healthy for their friend, and it was pure fun to see how all of the romances worked out. Pleasant way to spend the afternoon.
Meacham's A Fairy's Guide to Understanding Humans seemed a bit young, and much sillier than the other book-- A Midsemester's Night's Dream, which I keep on hand with Banks' The Fairy Rebel for girls who don't like fantasy but have to read it. Even the cover on the Guide looks younger. Probably will pass.
Catherine Creedon's Blue Wolf (2003) was okay, but probably not enough werewolves for the werewolf fans. The first half of the book deals mainly with a boy and his "aunt" living in the wilderness. It seems out of print, and I can't find the sequels mentioned on the jacket, so I imagine this just did not do as well as hoped.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sleator's Test

Ann lives in a futuristic societry where the traffic and pollution are incredibly awful, and everyone's future is completely dependent on how they score on the XCAS test. Her father, who apparently did not do well, works with poor people who cannot afford health care. The man who owns the building in which he works also produces the XCAS test. Lep, a Thai classmate of Ann's lives and works in the same building and is being given answers to the test, since his English skills are limited. When another employee of the building starts following Ann around and threatening her, she investigates and discovers some evil motives behind the test.

This was disappointing, mainly because I wanted something more. The cover was reminiscent of Guy Montag's firemen's emblem, with the salamanders, and I wanted a brilliantly written and insightful book on what adhering to strict testing and losing focus on actual learning and critical thinking can do to a society. I usually love Sleator's work, but he is not Ray Bradbury. His prose tends to be dryer, less descriptive, and in this book, his depictions of characters are very flat. The daughter of the test monger is slick and superficial; Lep is long suffering and noble; Ann is rather confused and ineffectual. The plot has holes in it, too many coincidences, and the society is not fully developed. I like the idea of students everywhere rising up and refusing to take the test, and alerting everyone to do this by text message was a good idea, but revolution like that can not be done the day before, and would need to be on a national, not local, scale to be effective. I will probably buy this, but won't recommend it for discussion groups.

Mary Hogan's Pretty Face was quite fun, until page 192. Hayley, who is overweight and nagged by her mother constantly, gets an opportunity to spend the summer in Italy. While there, she comes to terms with her weight and loses her virginity in a graphic but completely boring scene. What? If that had been left out, I would have gotten this book, as its blend of food issues and travel to Italy would have been welcomed by my readers. Now I know why my public library passed on this one.

Cast and Cast's Chosen turned out to be the third in a series. Since it is about vampyres (yick on the spelling), I may have to hunt down the first, but since it is by St. Martin's press (noted romance novel publisher) I may just forget. What I scanned of the third one didn't have anything unusally appealing.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dessen's Lock and Key

This is a wonderfully complex novel, and it will never be on the shelf once I get a copy. Ruby has lived with her ineffectual and angry mother for years, and when her mother finally leaves, Ruby is relieved to be alone, and tries to take care of herself. She's behind on the rent, and the dryer quits, and while she is fine with that, it summons the landlords, who turn her over to juvenile services. Enter her sister Cora, who is ten years older and married to the owner of a sucessful social networking computer site, and who takes her in.

It's a tough adjustment. Even though the years of skipping out on rent, working after school, and trying to keep up at her tough inner-city school weren't easy, they were familiar, and the easy life Cora provides is confusing. Enrolled at a fancy prep school, Ruby finds it difficult to get to know her posh classmates, with the exception of her neighbor, Nate, who has more in common with her than she realizes.

There are problems here. Ruby still makes some bad decisions concerning behavior (some drinking and marijuana use), but these are dealt with effectively by her sister. So much goes on in this novel that I felt the same kind of controlled panic that Ruby felt. How WILL she make it through the nine months until she turns 18 and can leave?

In the end, she doesn't leave in the way she suspects, but there is nothing pat about the ending. There are still problems to work through, more than we suspected at the beginning, but Ruby has people who love and support her, and eventually, things will be okay.

This is a long novel (about 450 pages), but it kept me riveted. A definite purchase for me, because my 8th grade girls crave this sort of thing. Brava, Ms. Dessen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Various reads on windy days

Central Ohio had big wind storms and lots of power outages, so we had two days off school, and I got lots of reading done!

My daughter has to read Orwell's Animal Farm (1954) for 9th grade English, and it wasn't bad. In fact, I think I've read it twice before, and it has weathered fairly well and is quite accessible. Students today would not know that it is a cautionary tale against communism, but will still find this tale of animals who take over a farm so that their work will be easier and they will not be oppressed by humans amusing. Class discussions will help them understand all of the human nature/society components.

Joyce Sweeney's Players (2000) was a great basketball tale. Transfer student wants to play on established high school team, no matter what the cost. He is an essentially evil boy, and causes dissention on the team by blackmailing and manipulating team members. Enough play by plays to keep the sports fanatics happy, and a little mystery to keep things fresh.

Temple's The Ramsay Scallop (1994) was an interesting historical novel. Elenor is leery of her betrothed, who has come back from the Crusades. Her priest knows this, and suggests that the two of them make a pilgrimage to Spain on behalf of the village, and not get married until their return. This had a good mix of adventure, ordinary life at the time, and intriguing characters. I will try to get some of Caroline Meyers fans of her princess novels to read this one. My die-hard Medieval fans will also like this.

Jan Terlouw's Winter in Wartime (1975) is not an appealing looking book, and has not gotten a lot of circulation, but it should. This is a nicely done tale (based on the author's own boyhood experiences) about a boy in occupied Holland during WWII. A friend hides an English pilot in the woods but is then jailed, so Michiel has to take care of him. An unflinching tale about the various horrors of war, this book was named the Best Dutch Juvenile book in 1973. If you have a copy, dust it off, because it's worth keeping.

Also got as far as the forward on The Silmarillion.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Petrucha's Teen, Inc.

Wow! Buying two copies! Teen, Inc. was fantastic. Funny, but with a mystery and a social message about environmental responsibility and corporate politics and greed.

Jaiden's parents were killed by an explosion caused by a faulty NECorp product. To limit their losses and look good to the public, NECorp gets custody and raises Jaiden by committee. He lives in an office, has focus groups decide what he should do, and is the subject of endless memoes and meetings whenever he messes up.

' "Remember what happened when you were failing math last year?"

How could I forget? (They)...decided I should be sent on a retreat with accounting. You haven't lived until you've had forced bonding with twenty high-level accountants." ' (page 13)

Jaiden tries hard to keep his upbringing a secret and live a normal life, but when he is encouraged to start dating and becomes involved in a school project with a classmate whose father is anti-corporation, things quickly dissolve into chaos. He finds out that NECorp is not being truthful about its mercury waste problems, and when trying to put this right, Jaiden is hunted down by executives and threatened with a foster home in Idaho.

This book is a marvelous mix of things, and laugh aloud funny. Stefan Petrucha's Time Tripper series is great for my fantasy loving fans, but this book is accessible to all. Petrucha's other titles seem to be predominately graphic novels or franchised series, but I think that teen boy comedy is really his forte. I will definitely be picking up a copy of the forthcoming The Rule of Won.
For more on this author, check out his web site at:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Last three Stine

Rather enjoyed Wrong Number, even if it was outdated-- with caller identifiction, does anyone make prank calls anymore? There aren't even any phone booths from which to make them. Still, a decent mystery about students who make prank calls until one call is answered by a woman who is being murdered. When they try to find the woman, they get in all sorts of trouble. The boy is blamed for the murder, and his sister and her friend do some dangerous detective work to try to free him. Wrong Numer 2 was not quite as good-- the bad guy is baaaaack. Phone Calls is another Stine that isn't horror (How I Broke Up With Ernie being the other one). It was supposed to be funny, but since it was all in dialogue, it was too annoying for me to enjoy.

That's it for the Stine, I do believe. And no, Frequent Blog Readers, I do not intend to read all of the nonfiction books after I am finished with the fiction!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Getting near the end.

Have about two more Stine books to go, must start my death march through the Silmarillion, and have several Sutcliffe books to read, but I'm heading on to the end of the alphabet. After six years of reading my way through the library collection, I'm nearing the end. It's a little sad, because there won't be any more surprises.

Not all of the surprises are good. For instance, why is there a copy of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales on the shelf? In picture book format? No one has ever checked it out, and I can understand why. It's an odd book, very poetic (makes sense) but much too stream of consciousness for the lower level readers, who might be tempted by it. I think it will move on to a better home.

Theodore Taylor's Maria: A Christmas Story was rather nice. A Latina girl who is friends with the daughters of neighboring wealthy landowners feels bad because her family never puts together a float for the Christmas parade because of the expense. She enters the family in the competition, and although reluctant at first, they come through with a more spiritual and authentic float. This is a very short book, and one which my reluctant readers will appreciate. Taylor has been gone for almost two years, but his web site is still maintained at:

I feel as if I should reread The Cay, but have very vivid memories of reading it in the fourth grade. It was only a few years old then!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

William Shirer- The Sinking of the Bismarck

Sterling Point Press has some wonderful reissues of war related memoirs, including one of this 1962 account war correspondent turned historian Shirer (1904-1993). Told in an avulncular style, it brings immediacy to an event now long in the past. Complete with maps and photos, WWII buffs will find this very engaging. 

Also read about half of Stephen Alter's Ghost Letters, which sounded very cool ("Gil discovers a bottle that carries messages into the past, finds a genie is a letter, and three letters that were never delivered but would have changed the course of history." From book summary.) but didn't really engage me. Switching back and forth between Gil in the present and a scribe's apprentice in the late 1800's, too much of the book was taken up with lushly worded descriptions of making ink. This reminded me of fantasy books by the likes of Edward Eager, but my audience wants a little more action.

Also very contemplative and philosophical was Stephen M. Kelly's Symbala's River, which was loaned to me by one of my students. Symbala has never been far from her village, but when her caretaker dies and she must decide what job she will do, she decides to investigate the source of the river that leads to the sea near her home. There is a little action and adventure, but a lot of Symbala's journey is one of faith.

Just kind of icky was Baldini and Biederman's Unraveling. Suffice it to say that any book that starts with, erm, girls' biological issues and moves on to issues of sex is not one that is needed in my library at this juncture.

Monday, September 08, 2008

More Vampire High News

Okay, as much as I hate change, I've got to admit that the apprehensive look on Cody's face is pretty good on the new cover (far left). The spooky house is good, too, as is the blood red font. Since the book is humorous but not silly, the non-cartoon cover is a little better than the original, which I do still like.
Thank you very much to Douglas Rees for sending me a copy. The secretary and principal at my school had to fight over who got to read it first. Mr. Rees is hard at work on the sequel to this book, and we can't wait.
(According to Mr. Rees' web site http://otterlimits.org/doug/books.html, Vampire Pride will be finished by the end of the year! Publication will be a bit longer, I'm sure.)
3/16/2009-- Mr. Reese said recently that there have been a few snags, so no publication date yet, I'm afraid!

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

Best thing I've read all summer, but I don't want to spoil it for others, since there are som eunexpected plot twists. Jenna wakes up after being in a coma for a year, following a horrible accident that kills her two best friends. She has trouble with memory, still can't quite move her body the way she could, and her grandmother and parents are acting weird. Her mother doesn't want her to leave the house, and her grandmother doesn't seem to like her. At first I thought this was another amnesia novel, but it quickly becomes clear that this is more in line with Unwind than Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac. Set in the near future, this brings up issues of identity, bioethics, and many issues that would make great class discussions. At first, both the cover and the title didn't seem to fit, but all becomes clear by the end. My son and daughter both read this one and liked it. Definitely buying a copy.

Robert Parker's The Boxer and the Spy was okay. A boy is found dead along the shore, and the presumption is that he jumped off a bridge in a steroid induced rage. Terry finds this implausible, and starts to investigate a number of suspicious activities around town. This gets him into trouble with the principal, the BMOC football player, and makes his training in boxing come in handy. The writing is spare, to the point where any discussions of sex are about as interesting and titillating as discussions of cornflakes. The sex isn't what stopping me from buying this-- the rest of the book just isn't compelling enough to merit justifying it.

Mary Stolz's The Noonday Friends (1965) was a flashback to the days when the poor bought hamburger 35 cents at a time, and had two shirts and a skirt to their name. Franny's father is an out-of-work artist who can't keep a job; her mother works (unheard of!) to help put food on the table. Franny watches her younger brother and tries to improve her family's lives. The New York City setting is also something reminiscent of books that I read in middle school. I think the book holds up well, and I can recommend this to 6th graders who want problem novels.

Golden's Poison Ink looked intriguing, but didn't quite draw me in. There are other books about evil tattooing that are done more cleverly, and this felt like I came in in the middle of a series and didn't know essential background. I'll check. Perhaps I did.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Yikes! and Eh.

Middle school librarians-- if you have R.L. Stine's The Sitter on the shelf, go pull it. Now. How did I not see the "Contains mature material" warning? It does. Liberal use of foul language and fairly graphic sex. I may have thought this was a compilation of several of the Babysitter books. It's going. Bad.

Rachel Chance, by Jean Thesman (1990) is from the Cynthia Voigt, late '80s school of angst. The book summary reads "When Rachel's illegitimate baby brother is kidnapped by a travelling band of revivalists in 1940, she sets out with her grandfather, a hired hand, and an eccentric neighbor in a desperate attempt to steal him back." Oddly, this has not appealed to my students. Throw in the reverend Billy Bong, a developmentally delayed cousin who constantly sings Camptown Races and a lot of home-spun epithets like "Judas Priest" and "Sneeze and go blind!" and the appeal to students is low. Not a bad read, but a tough sell.

Author/Illustrator Sean Ashby had an interesting post on how, when writing for young adults, it's hard to make a character who stands out, since all children do basically the same things. I thought a lot about this, and it's impact on teen fiction. Short of throwing characters into fantasy worlds, how can authors make their characters different. Sonnenblick does a good job creating quirky but believable characters who are different despite the commonality of their experiences. Something to mull.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Finding Zola, Lawn Boy

Still working through the dreaded Permabound order, but had two nice surprises. The first was Marianne Mitchell's Finding Zola, which was a well-paced and understandable mystery. It took me several days to read it, because I was busy, and I was able to keep the story straight, which is something the students find difficult in mysteries. There were many additional features which made the book fun-- a southwest setting with Hispanic characters and some Spanish phrases, a community of older folks, and the best treatment of a wheelchair bound character that I've seen in a long time.

Crystal has lost her father in a car accident that has left her paralyzed and wheelchair bound. Her grandmother has recently passed away, and Crystal and her mother go to the grandmother's retirement community home to clean out her house. When the mother is called away, she enlists a neighbor to help Crystal-- but the neighbor, who may struggle with some dementia, never shows up. Crystal and her cousin see other suspicious activity in the neighborhood and set out to find Zola. Crystal's difficulties are clearly shown, but her independence and spirit are evident. She works through her grief in positive ways.

The only slightly discordant note is some supernatural activity-- there is a chill blue light in her room and she feels her father is speaking to her-- but this is not taken too seriously and is not overdone. A great addition for middle school mystery fans. To find out more about this author:

Gary Paulsen's Lawn Boy was not bad, which was a relief after plowing through The Island, The Cookcamp, and other titles last year. Instead of the usual ruminating, Paulsen delivers a funny, almost silly book about a boy who inherits a lawn mower, starts a small business, and ends up, through a series of mishaps, getting a lot of money for his work. It was a quick read, and almost a fantasy for 12-year-old boys who are forced to mow lawns. Much better than the other lawn mowing book I can think of-- One Fat Summer.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Two perfectly nice books

America Street: A Multicultural Anthology of Stories, edited by Anne Mazer, is the sort of book I can see adopted by language arts programs everywhere. It reads like a unit of a text book, which is not a bad thing, it's just not what most of the students want. The stories are all heavy on lessons and deeper meanings of life, and would be great for class discussions. The only real stand out here is the Lensey Namioka "The All-American Slurp", which was engaging and amusing.
Also hitting a bit hard on the lessons and deeper meaning is Jacqueline Woodson's award winner, Feathers. A new boy joins Frannie's class. The class is mostly black; he's white; his parents are black. How does he fit in? Why is his hair so long, other than it is 1971? Why does he let the students call him Jesus? The most intriguing part of this book is the portrayal of Frannie's brother, who is deaf and communicates in sign language. The scene where two girls are interested in him until they find out he is deaf is very effective.
With the rush of children checking out books, I am constantly trying to find more sports books, more funny books, and more spy books with lots of action. We just aren't training the children properly. They should be asking for slow-paced, introspective novels about the deeper meaning of life.
Or should we be training authors to deliver their messages in a way that might entice children to actually want to read their books?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Random titles, again

Lois Gladys Leppard's Mandie series is at least 20 years old. I'd heard of them, but hadn't a chance to read one until the Perma-Bound order someone else made arrived at Blendon. It's a harmless enough historical mystery, (Mandie and the Hidden Treasure was the one I have; book 9) but I don't know that I would have bought it. There is a character named Uncle Ned, and he merits lines like 'The old Indian smiled again. "Must hurry before doctor son get hungry." ' and "Mother of Papoose not like dirt.'

There are also several African American characters who are drawn from the "sho 'nuf" school of dialect: 'You younguns gir in here! Food's on de table, and you keepin' it waitin!'" There is an African American who is a doctor, but given the time period of the book, it seems somehow anachronistic.

Vivian Vande Velde's Smart Dog was a little better-- experimental dog escapes from scientific lab, befriends young girl and doesn't want to go back because he will be dissected; complications ensue. From 1998, this is unlike this author's other works, which tend to be eerie and supernatural, but a fine funny read.