Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Variety of Books

Pierce, Lincoln. Big Nate: In a Class By Himself
I hesitate to compare new books to really popular titles ever since Barbara Brooks Wallace complained that everyone compared her (vastly superior) books to Lemony Snicket, so I will say this: Big Nate is vastly superior to the Wimpy Kid books, but will satisfy readers who don't want to pick up anything else.
Nate is not overly fond of school, but when he gets a fortune cookie one morning that claims he will "surpass all others", he launches into his day with vigor. Unfortunately, with too much vigor for many of his teachers, who don't appreciate his doodles, outbursts, or his green bean eating record setting attempt. He manages to accumulate more detentions in a single day than any other student has ever managed-- thereby "surpassing all others". This book is just the right shade of realistic goofy for middle school boys, and the sorts of things that Nate does, and the opinions of the people in his life that he holds, will ring very true. I liked Nate. He was a good kid who meant well, and there are so many of those. I'm sure there will be sequels. Instead of buying too many copies of The Ugly Truth, I think I'll put the money into extra copies of these!
Stevens, Chris. Thirty Days Has September: Cool Ways to Remember Stuff
During the library lesson on reference books last week, I tried to come up with a mnemonic for print reference books, but all I could come up with EDATA (encyclopedia, dictionary, almanac, thesaurus, atlas), which wasn't quite right. This little paperback from Scholastic has a lot of hints for how to remember spelling, grammar, and items from different curricular areas. It wasn't a fabulous read, but if you are ordering from Scholastic for your classroom, it wouldn't be a bad idea to have one on hand for children to browse.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis.
This graphic biography is the story of the author's childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a tremendously fascinating look at a well-educated, middle class family caught in the tumult of changing values. While not middle school appropriate (both subject matter and interest level), it was a fascinating read. Marjan'es family protests the changes in the government until the personal toll becomes too much, and they send Marjane to Austria. There are sequels that I may have to pick up during the summer. Interestingly, my public library has this shelved in the graphic novel collection.
Instead of waiting to get the actual book in my hand from the public library, I read sample chapters of some titles I wasn't all that excited about. For example, John Cusick's Girl Parts didn't seem like it would be middle school appropriate (it wasn't), but I was intrigued nonetheless.
Milford's Boneshaker lost me with its 1913, Southern setting, but other people liked it:
Brody's The Karma Club was more of a high school book, and my older daughter would love it:
Hughes' A Crack in the Sky was a pretty decent futuristic/dystopian novel, but I just don't have students wanting very many of those. Can't even get the Susan Beth Pfeffer trilogy to circulate. I will keep it in mind if I have enough money, though.
My book buying is all predicated on what I have requests for. Since students are asking for medieval-ish/dystopian/ paranormal/fantasy-type books as much, I have a growing impatience with them and that's why nothing grabbed me about the following three. Other people really liked some of these titles, so check them out.
O'Brien's Birthmarked
Cypess' Mistwood
Bracken's Brightly Woven
Is it helpful for me to mention titles I DON'T intend to buy? Unless a book is wretchedly bad, I don't feel a need to write a disparaging review, but I pick up many books that don't suit my needs that may be just what someone else wants.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Grease Town

Towell, Ann. Grease Town.
Titus stows away with his older brother and travels to Oil Springs, Ontario in 1863, seeking adventure. He is tired of his life in the US with his aunt, and tired of having trouble with the other boys in school. The work in the oil fields is hard and unpleasant, but life is even more unpleasant for Moses, a free black boy who lives in a shantytown, whom Titus befriends. When bounty hunters come from the US to look for escaped slaves and precipitate a riot in order to drive the black population from town, Titus realizes how difficult life is for Moses, and decides to do the right thing and testify against the hunters.

This is a Canadian book, so offers a different view from books about slavery around the time of the Civil War in the US. It would have been helpful if the time frame had been mentioned before the very end of the book, and at first, I was laboring under the delusion that Titus was black, which didn't make much sense, but this is still an interesting read about a period of history often covered in the 8th grade curriculum.

A Sign That You Have Been Reading Too Many Vampire Books: As I was coming across the creek on my way to work, there was a mist rising in the moonlight, and I thought "Hmm. This would be an excellent place for vampires to hang out and attack me!" When Rick Yancey's The Curse of the Wendigo comes out on October 19, I may just have to walk to work with a poker instead of biking, although that probably would offer little resistance to the anthropophagi!

Classroom Uses For a Kindle: I've been playing with the school Kindle a bit, and one of the language arts teachers used it to read the sample chapter from Rick Riordan's upcoming The Lost Hero to a class studying The Lightning Thief. I'm investigating how to use it with struggling readers, since it has text-to-speech capabilities for some books, which is why the Kindle was bought with grant money. Does anyone have any hints for using a Kindle in the library?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Middle School vs. High School Again

Tashjian, Janet. My Life As A Book.
This is a clever book. It looks like a regular novel-- same size, same heft, same sort of cover-- but on the inside, the font is about 14 point, with an inch and a half of white space on the side. There are cartoons illustrating various vocabulary words in some of this space. Right away, students will pick this up. Nothing kills interest faster than miniscule font.

As for the story: Derek is looking forward to a summer of highjinks, until his parents sign him up for Learning Camp, where he will have to read three books AND not go to Martha's Vineyard with his best friend. There is a mystery involved, spurred by an old newspaper article that Derek finds, and this comes perilously close to being "meaningful", but is saved by Derek's energy and humor. I was also a little concerned that Bodi the dog would die; I was sure it would happen before the end of the book, but Bodi survives! This is a great choice for students stuck in certain series and reluctant to move on, and once they read this, perhaps they can be enticed with The Gospel According to Larry, which I adore, and which has the same level of middle school appropriate, realistic goofiness going on.

Willner-Pardo, Gina. The Hard Kind of Promise.
Marjorie and Sarah have been friends for years, but when they hit 7th grade, Sarah starts to notice that Marjorie's quirks are not only causing others to make fun of Marjorie-- her "weirdness" is rubbing off, and Sarah hears herself refered to as a "loser". The two girls start to develop interests and friends of their own, and grow further apart. Even though they clearly miss each other, they come to realize the inevitability of not being best friends forever. This rings true on so many levels, and middle school girls will certainly relate to it. Since I was Marjorie in middle school, I told my own girls that it was a good bet they would lose at least one good friend in middle school, which is why I enjoyed this line "Maybe it's [losing a friend] just supposed to happen. Like getting taller," Marjorie said. "Only no one told us."

This lost a little steam for me when Sarah takes off for a protracted choir trip, and I find it hard to believe that there is anywhere in the US where middle schools still have Cotillion style dance lessons, but it is still a strong book.

Benway, Robin. The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May and June.File this one under the inexplicable difference between middle school and high school books. It sounded really good-- "Sisters April, May, and June, dealing with their parents' divorce and a move to a new town, recover special powers they had in childhood to help them through a difficult year, but when April, who can see the future, has a vision of disaster, the girls must somehow save the day."-- but I just couldn't get into it. The print is tiny, and the tone was more introspective. When I read the reviews more closely today, the book is billed as grades 9-12, and "Mature elements include teen drinking, drug use, impaired driving and casual sex." Just as well it had that teen vibe going for it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Last 39 Clues!

Haddix, Margaret Peterson. Into The Gauntlet.
Amy and Dan are getting tired. They've seen death and destruction caused by their family's hunt for the 39 clues, and experienced the hatred that the competition has caused among their relatives over the past month (and nine books). After an altercation at the reconstructed Globe theater in London, during which their cousin Jonah Wizard causes a riot, they head out to Shakespeare's birth place and retrieve the clue that takes them to the Cahill stronghold on an island. Not to ruin the suspense for everyone, but since I have a hard time following clue-oriented mysteries, I hadn't quite gotten that each clue was an ingredient for a Cahill serum that endowed the recipients with unknown powers. It seems like even though the clues have been found, there may be some books still in the works. I like the whole idea of a series written by different authors, and the action and adventure were great-- I personally have trouble following that many clues, and the cards and interactive features on the web didn't do much for me.

Griffin, Adele. Picture the Dead.
The Civil War has been devastating to Jenny, who has lost one brother and a fiance, and had another brother gravely injured. She tries to contact her dead brother to solve the mystery of what happened to her fiance. While this book is quite beautiful, and the idea of a "spirit photographer" is interesting, I just couldn't get into this one. I guess I was hoping for more of a murder mystery, since I have had so many students ask for them this year, but I've not had any luck recommending historical murders, and this book is definitely more historical than anything else.
Does anyone have any suggestions for murder mysteries like Ferguson's The Christopher Killer? Students this year are not wanting to read more benign mysteries, which is a little disturbing to me and seems to indicate that they've been allowed to watch CSI type shows.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Further Adventures With Technology

Borrowed the Kindle from school for the weekend and found a Killer App-- I can get the first chapter of books for free! At the time I thought about this, I had both Adam Rex's Fat Vampire and Jeri Smith-Ready's Shade in my hands, but downloaded the free sample anyway. Both books dropped the F-Bomb in the first chapter, and Fat Vampire had some other discussions that made it more of a high school book, even though I love the cover. Yes, it is the author's perogative to be coarse and vulgar; it is also my perogative to use the tax payer's money to buy other books more suited to my students' needs.

The point is-- I can now read first chapters without waiting for the library copies! Whoo hoo!!!

The Kindle also has a word scramble game. This is a bad distraction to have!

I am also still listening to This World We Live In on my MP3 player, which is taking forever, and I missed the last part of the first section. There is no good way to rewind an MP3, so I'll have to look at the book to find out what I missed. Hearing the book lends a much more hysterical note to it than reading it has. The only good part about listening to a book is that it is possible to absorb the story with one's eyes closed!

May venture to Barnes and Noble tomorrow and investigate the Nook. As Jim at Teacher Ninja points out, it's just fun to say!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Green by Laura Peyton Roberts

Roberts, Laura Peyton. Green.
Does anyone remember rule number one of writing fiction for middle grades? Start the book with an explosion! Ms. Roberts kindly complies, and continues with a funny, fresh fantasy involving gold, leprechauns and intrigue.

Lily is struggling with fitting into school, dealing with the death of her grandmother, and not having a great 13th birthday, but things become exciting very quickly when a birthday package explodes and three leprechauns show up to whisk her away to their world, where she finds out that she is in line to be Keeper of their gold in the wake of her grandmother's passing. In order to be made Keeper, she must pass three trials to prove her abilities and loyalties. All goes well until she is supposed to steal gold from the Scarlet clan, and she is double-crossed by both their Keeper and a member of her own clan. Armed with advice from her grandmother ("It never hurts to take a sweater." --Words I certainly live by!), can she overcome the obstacles? And will there be a sequel in which she somehow connects with her grandmother?

This was SUCH an enjoyable book! The humor was absolutely delicious, the action and adventure palpable, and the characters fun. The Lily's struggles with missing her grandmother were handled lightly enough to not overshadow the fun, but added an extra layer of depth that I appreciated. The other brilliant thing was that, especially given the cover, it is entirely possible that boys could be persuaded to read this one, too. Why are their not more leprechauns in middle grade fiction? I'll definitely have to look for other titles by this author.

Oh. It's Friday, isn't it? Should have thought of that while picking out my reading material last night. Guy Fridays will return next week. The schedule this year has been crazy, and I apologize for not having more reviews to post.

Did get a little distracted last night with The Ohio E Book Project. I managed to download This World We Live In and listened to it on my MP3 player while doing laundry, dishes, etc. Downloaded Blubber and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit for Picky Reader, and with Cat, it is actually possible to burn the recording to CD. This could be very useful for some of my struggling readers.

I am seriously considering purchasing a Nook but still need to investigate the PDF capabilities of the device. I would never pay actual money for Ebooks, but if I could use it for E ARCS, free classics, and PDF versions that I can check out of the library, it might be worth it. The one thing I have noticed about both print and audio Ebooks is that browsing for random titles is rather a nightmare.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Eternal Ones

Miller, Kirsten. The Eternal Ones.
You've probably seen this in a display of Twilight read-alikes, but this is a huge disservice to the book! This book reminded me of one of the few adults books I've bought, Ferney by James Long, and while it is more of a high school book, I enjoyed it immensely.

Haven has suffered from seizures for years, and as a child had very vivid memories of a past life lived in New York City with a man named Ethan. This has caused her many problems in her small Southern town, and her grandmother thinks she may be possessed by demonic forces. Haven wants to make it through her narrow-minded high school with her gay best friend Beau (with whom she custom designs prom dresses) and head off to New York, but after suffering a seizure after seeing wealthy celebrity Iain, she acts on this earlier than planned. It turns out that she and Iain both have memories of past lives, when they were together, but Haven starts to wonder if Iain is behind both her death in a past life and deaths that are occurring in the present day. Working with the Ouroboros Society, she is connected with others who also have been reincarnated, and finds that there are forces of evil at work.

Again, this was a great book, but Haven's relationship with Iain, even if they were married in a past life, makes this more appropriate to grades 9-12. The beginning is also more philosophically introspective, and middle school students may want something with a little more action.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Girl Books

Wilkins, Ebony Joy. Sell-out.
NaTasha is happy with her life in the Connecticut suburbs, even though occasionally she feels that she doesn't fit in with her friends, who are all white. When her grandmother feels that NaTasha is denying her black roots, she has her move to Harlem for the summer to work in a center for at-risks girls. NaTasha has trouble with some of the girls who feel she is stuck-up and trying to act "white", but everyone comes to understand that everyone has a story and needs understanding and compassion. Given the lack of stories for suburban girls of color, I will definitely get this one. There is a very brief scene where NaTasha repels the amorous advances of a boy she knows, but nothing graphic is revealed, and the fact that she stands up for herself and says "no" is a good message, even for middle school girls. I will be looking forward to more books by this author.

Martin, Ann M. The Baby-Sitters Club: The Summer Before
When these books were first published, I was living in Greece, so I have NO memory of these at all. I do know that there is an entire generation of girls that was greatly enamored of these, and they may well have daughters old enough now to read them. Four girls living in the suburbs and facing different problems work together to put together a baby-sitting consortium. This is fine realistic fiction, but it seemed dated to me for several reasons-- one of the girls writes a letter to her divorced father, one is thrilled at getting a watch for her 12th birthday, there is a family with 8 children, and the whole idea of letting 11-year-olds babysit has rather gone out of favor.

Tomlinson, Heather. Toads and Diamonds.
This classic fairy tale is retold and set in India, where two sisters are given different magical gifts by a goddess masquerading as an old woman. This is a great retelling, and the descriptions of life in India made this very enjoyable. I just cannot move books set in India, even though I personally love them. If you have readers who enjoy McKinley's fairy tale retellings or Donna Jo Napoli, or have units who study fairy tales or India in depth, this would be a fantastic addition-- I just don't think it would circulate here.

Leszczynski, Diana. Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose.
From the publisher: "Fern Verdant's mother, a famous botanist, disappears just before Fern's thirteenth birthday, and when Fern discovers that she has inherited the ability to communicate with plants, she realizes that this is the only way she will be able to find and save her mother."

Again, the fine line between 4th and 5th grade and middle school comes into play-- even my 6th grade girls want more of a paranormal romance when it comes to fantasy. The cover errs on the side of too cartoony, and again, I don't see it circulating here. It would be very nice for an elementary school.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Weekend Reading

Jocelyn, Marthe. A Home for Foundlings.
After reading this author's Folly, I had to read this nonfiction companion! It is an extremely well-researched account of Thomas Coram and his foundling home in London. Accompanied by vintage illustrations and news clippings, it follows the home from its inception in the 1700s to its closing in 1953. The author's grandfather had been a resident, so the whole account has a touching personal note to it. Interviews with residents and quotes from books written in the 1800s by residents add to the whole picture. While this would be a tough sell in middle school, it is essential for any library where students are studying Dickens and a great read for nonfiction junkies like me!

Cummings, Priscilla. Blindsided.
Even though I've never been much for problem novels, I loved Beverly Butler's Light a Single Candle and A Gift of Gold, which chronicled the author's struggle with blindness. Blindsided reminded me very much of these books. Natalie, who was born without irises, has glaucoma, which is slowly robbing her of her sight. Her parents decide to send her to a school for the blind to learn coping skills "in case" she loses her sight, something which she is unwilling to accept. She doesn't want to learn Braille, or to use a cane, thinking that she will retain her sight, but she eventually comes to terms with her situations. A well-researched book, this is worth purchasing even though the end is slightly preachy-- a friend at the school dies after the girls are attacked, and it turns out she had an aneurysm caused by playing the fainting game to get high. Even though that's a timely warning, it did throw off the rhythm of the book for me.

Black, Holly and Castellucci, Cecil. Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd.
Having been a geek of the Latin-Club-Orchestra-Speech-Team variety, I had to pick up this hefty volume of short stories (interspersed by some great Hope Larson comics) by a variety of YA authors. It's clear that many YA authors either were geeks or are very good at imagining their lives, because the stories rang true, especially the first story by Black and Castellucci involving a cheerleader who wants to become well-versed in all things geek so she can converse with her boyfriend. Sadly, I don't think that this will be popular at the middle school level.

Pearce, Jackson. Sisters Red.
Rosie and Scarlett live in the woods where they struggle to make ends meet. After the death of their grandmother at the hands of the Fenris (werewolves), their mission is to hunt and kill as many of them as they can, luring them with their red capes. They are helped by Silas, a neighbor for whom both the girls care deeply. While this was a fun tale of werewolves (which have not had as many books as vampires), it was definitely more of a high school book due to the violent attacks and descriptions of one of the girls taking a life drawing class, as well as general introspection. Great cover, though.

Holm, Jennifer L. Turtle in Paradise.
While my students love Boston Jane and Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf, and even Babymouse on occasion, this title seemed too young. 11-year-old Turtle is sent to live with relatives in Key West Florida in the 1930s and experiences the "conch" life there. This might be good to go with a unit on the Great Depression, but it's an odd historical period that we don't cover in the middle school.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Wood, Maryrose. The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, book 1)
Miss Penelope Lumley, late of the Swanburne Academy for Poor but Bright Females, sets out for Ashton Place in hopes of obtaining employment as a governess at the fine house. The young Lady Constance hires her quickly, and Penelope soon finds out why-- her charges are feral children whom Lord Ashton found on the estate while hunting. Considering them a novelty that might impress his friends, he orders that they be raised in the house and taught to be polite members of society... in time for the Christmas ball a month away. Despite their prediliction for chasing squirrels and howling when uphappy, Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia learn quickly and endear themselves to Penelope, if not the Ashton family. How will they comport themselves at the ball? Will Penelope be able to keep her job? All will be revealed, and more will come in planned sequels.

I have such a soft spot for anything set in England, and harbor a secret desire to be a governess, so I enjoyed this much more than I expected. The illustrations by Jon Klassen are charming, and the formal but amusing tone of this book reminds me of things I read as a child. Will students like it? I think that Lemony Snicket fans could be enticed, and if Lowry's The Willoughbys has been popular in your library, this is a sure bet.

Stevermer, Caroline. Magic Below Stairs.
Frederick Lincoln is a ward of the evil Mr. Makepeace, head of the orphanage. Luckily, Frederick is a fairly skilled boy and is assigned to help the cook, Vardle, in the kitchen. Soon, he is brought to the attention of a wizard who is seeking a footman, and since the livery fits Frederick, he is taken to the grand estate, where he rises through the ranks due to his various skills (sharpening knives, tying cravats, etc.) He is helped many times by the hobgoblin Billy Bly, until the magician, Lord Schofield, removes Billy, fearing that he will cause mischief. When the household goes to another residence to await the birth of Lady Schofield's baby, Billy comes back and identifies a curse on the house, which he and Frederick try to eradicate. The Schofields are grateful for the help, and I assume that there may be a sequel brewing for this title as well.

Fans of Sage's Magyk series, as well as those of Prineas' Lost, will like this title, which gives a pre-Victorian twist to this tale of magic and intrigue.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Fast and the Furriest

Behrens, Andy. The Fast and the Furriest.
Kevin's life is difficult because he prefes fantasy football to the real thing. The problem? His dad played for the Bears and is a local celebrity who expects Kevin to excel at sports. Kevin's "part beagle, part potato chip" dog, Cromwell is also lethargic and unmotivated-- until he sees a dog agility contest on television and starts begging to go on walks. Kevin's friend Zach thinks this idea is great and could ultimately lead to product endorsements and a lot of money, so he helps Kevin enroll Cromwell in a local agility training school. For the sake of appearances, Kevin tries (and fails miserably) at a football camp, and is far more successful in taking Cromwell for this training.

Why this is a great middle school novel-- even though Kevin is 12, he exhibits independence from his parents. He and his friend are involved in an unlikely but almost probably scheme. The characters are realistic, well written and highly amusing (the father's Bear decorated minivan embarasses Kevin; the owner of the agility school e mails Cromwell directly, etc.). There is action, a little adventure, and a lot of slapstick comedy with Cromwell bounding about. There is also a search for personal identity that is done very lightly-- Kevin breaks away from the influence of his father to find things that he enjoys, and ends up improving himself, which would of course be irrelevant if this weren't such a funny book. Boys will like it for the football and the humor, and I've had an odd number of students wanting books about dogs this year.

Andy Behrens is also the author of Beauty and the Bully, which is a great teen book, as well as the much older teen book, All the Way. Perhaps I shouldn't mention this. It looks like Mr. Behrens is starting afresh as a middle grade author and is denying his other works. As long as he writes some more funny books with sports for boys, I'm not complaining!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Birmingham Sunday

Brimner, Larry Dan. Birmingham Sunday.
37 years ago, a racially motivated bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama took the lives of four young women, and the resultant violence took the lives of two young men. Birmingham Sunday is an excellent recounting of the events of that day, and of the events that led up to this event.

This well-illustrated volume, which uses period photographs, covers a wide range of civil rights history, and would be an excellent resource for teachers to use along with Curtis' novel The Watsons Go To Birmingham, or with any unit on civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. It is a large format book, but the information is very well covered, and the short descriptions of various events and players (the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King, the Klu Klux Klan) would be well suited to sharing with classes. For students researching this time, this would also be excellent, because the main events are covered, and a bibliography points to other books that could be consulted. I learned a lot of different facts-- for example, the NAACP helped Autherine Lucy when she enrolled in the University of Alabama but was suspended and eventually expelled because she was black. Ms. Lucy was studying to be a librarian.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Spaceheadz, Middle School Fiction, and a Rant

Scieszka, Jon. Spaceheadz.
There is a fine line between fourth grade goofy books and sixth grade goofy books, and I was sad to see that the new Scieszka title to which I was so looking forward falls heavily on the fourth grade side. The first clue should have been the cartoony cover and the second should have been the description from the publisher: "Michael moves to a new school and learns that some of his friends are really aliens who have come to Earth in order to convince millions of kids to be Space Heads." The third was the three pages of text in hamster speak. ("Ee eee, ee eeek wee week.")

Scieszka's Knucklehead was brilliantly funny and middle schoolers love it. The difference between the two books? Knucklehead is real. Far fetched at times, but real. I think this is why even 8th graders love the Wimpy Kid books; Greg's travails are overblown, but still fall in the realm of the possible. Students can feel that their lives are not that terrible because what happens to Greg is so much worse than what happens to them, and they can laugh at the embarrassing and horrifying moments, much as they laugh at the cat puke episode in Knucklehead.

This will be popular in elementary schools, and comes with value added web sites, ala The 39 Clues. I will keep waiting and hope that Mr. Scieszka turns his considerable talents to a funny, realistic book for grades 6-8.

THE RANT: Read over the summer that middle school students frequently obsess about their clothing because it is one of the few things in their world that they can control. This holds true for adults, too, which is why, although it is not really relevant to this blog, I feel compelled to say "Tim Gunn must go down." I don't know where this man came from, but he shows up in the women's magazines that my friend Wendy so thoughtfully provides for me, and in the latest Redbook, the man is quoted as saying "Most women wear clothes that are too big-- that's the comfort trap. Women don't want to feel constrained, but I say, if you want to dress to feel as though you never got out of bed, then don't."

Mr. Gunn is shown wearing a suit and tie. No cleavage, no low rise pants, no thigh high, high heeled boots. Hmmm.

I desperately want to assemble an army of sensibly shod women to cram Mr. Gunn into a pencil skirt (they do not look good on everyone), clingy lycra sleeveless top, a statement belt, and heels, then make him spend 8 hours running around, hefting audio visual equipment and piles of books, coaching cross country, and running a bake sale until 9 pm at Curriculum Night. He can also be made to cook dinner and do some laundry in the get up if the women are feeling especially vindictive about low rise jeans.

"No woman needs to look dowdy or matronly-- ever," Mr. Gunn opines. Fine. But maybe some of us want to because we are busy making the world a smoothly running place.

Anyone with me? Cardigan sweaters and turtlenecks will be optional but not required.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Prince of Mist

Zafon, Carlos Ruiz. The Prince of Mist.
Max's father, a watchmaker, is concerned for the safety of his family before the onset of World War II, so moves them to a small coastal town. The house they have bought is the scene of a tragedy-- a much loved young boy drowned while his family was living there. Max makes friends with a Roland, whose parents also have perished and who is being raised by the keeper of the local lighthouse. Years previously, the keeper was the only survivor of a shipwreck that still lies off the coast. Creepy things start happening-- Max's sister hears voices and throws herself down the stairs, a stray cat that adopts the family eats huge spiders, and an overgrown garden near the house is filled with statues of circus performers.... that seem to move.
Max soon meets Cain, aka the prince of mist, who grants wishes-- but at a price. Mysteries and tragedies swirl around this creepy character. Is it too late for Max to save his family and friends from Cain's sinister influence? Can he even save himself?

This was definitely creepy, and a bit scary, but it definitely had a mystery too it, and the historical setting works well. The translation creaks at many points; either that, or Zafon is given to writing in cliches. Still, it's a good lenghth, and I do need more mysteries.
Moral of story: even if a book looks like yet another ponderous fantasy, give it a close enough look to determine whether or not it really is.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Double Eagle

Collard, Sneed B. Double Eagle.
Mike has to spend the summer of 1973 with his father who is working at a marine biology lab on the coast of Florida. It's very different from his routine life in California, but he quickly settles in and makes friends with Kyle, whose father is also working at the remote location. Both boys have an interest in collecting coins, and are intrigued by the recent explorations of a nearby sunken ship. When they are poking around the old fort in the area, Mike turns up a gold double eagle coin, which would be worth a lot of money if it authentic. The boys research the matter (at a library and coin shop-- remember, this is 1973!) and are motivated to find out exactly what is on the sunken ship when an elderly resident gives them a journal that dates back to when the ship went down. A hurricane is on its way, however, and the boys must do some fast sleuthing before the storm hits.

I didn't think I would like this book at first, given the historical topics as well as the 1973 setting, but it was a breezy delight. Mike and Kyle's friendship rang true, their exploits kept the lot moving along, and the bits of intrigue that crop up left me wanting to know more. I also liked that Mike, who is 14, appreciated one of the young woman student's bikini wearing-- but also disapproved of two other young men who appreciated the same woman in an inappropriate way. After having read Only the Good Spy Young and Cammie's descriptions of Zach's attributes, it was great to read a similar experience from a boy's perspective, and one that was tastefully done. The 1973 setting was described well enough to place the story in that time, but not with too much detail to bog things down. Mysteries are certainly something my students have been craving, so I'll be adding this one.

And trying to read all of The Prince of Mist, since commenters mentioned it was super scary. (But I'll try to read it quickly, Wendy!)

Park, Linda Sue. Storm Warning (The 39 Clues, Book 9)
These books make me wish that I could follow clue oriented mysteries! I'm sure that students who have this ability have been checking out the web site and gathering more information. I am just happy to read the stories and marvel at how seamlessly the different authors work together.

Amy and Dan head off to the Bahamas with Nellie to find more clues, but start to get suspicious of their au pair. It turns out that she is telling all of their whereabouts to McIntyre in order to keep them safe. Amy and Dan aren't sure what to do-- they don't trust her as much, but need her help. After retrieving a clue in the Bahamas, they head off to Jamaica, where they meet a librarian who was educated by the beneficence of their grandmother. Lester also has a box that is essential to finding out more clues. The Kabras make a brief appearance, and more light is shed on the different branches of the family. One of my students has the 10th (and last) book, so maybe I'll be able to borrow it to see how everything ends! These are good action adventure books even for people like me who don't take the time to figure out the clues.

Picked up Darren Shan's Procession of the Dead, which was published in Europe in 1999-- it is in the adult collection of my public library and really is not meant for middle grades. I also took a look at Tara Kelly's Harmonic Feedback, about Drea, a girl who is interested in music and is trying to deal with her Asperger's Syndrome, but it also included details that made this more suitable to high school reading.

Only the Good Spy Young

Carter, Ally. Only the Good Spy Young. (Gallagher Girls #4)
I buy very few books for myself. The exceptions are anything by Rick Riordan or Adam Selzer, the Harry Potter books for my children, and this latest from Ally Carter. I was grocery shopping on Saturday on my way to spend several hours standing in a field and realized, to my horror, that I had brought nothing to read. I don't feel at all bad having spent my own money for this one-- it will be checked out the moment it's processed!

Cammie is enjoying a break in London when Joe Solomon shows up. Before Bex's parents and all of the security detail get to him, he tells Cammie to "follow the pigeons", then jumps into the Thames. Cammie is told that Mr. Solomon, her former CoveOps teacher and the best friend of her late father, is really a member of the evil Circle of Cavan. She doesn't quite believe this, and when Mr. Townsend, an English operative, comes to Gallagher Academy to teach and keep tabs on Cammie, she sets out to prove that Mr. Solomon is not evil. This involves breaking into levels of the academy that have been sealed off, and eventually breaking into Blackthorne, with the help of Zach, who shows up often enough to distract Cammie.

These are all delightful books, and Carter's spy knowledge makes it seem like if I took some classes, I, too could become an international spy. *Sigh*. There has got to be another book coming out, and it will probably involve Zach and Cammie running off on their own. I can't wait!

Schreiber, Ellen. Love Bites (Vampire Kisses #7)
Feel compelled to state that the first Vampire Kisses book came out in 2003 and that Twilight came out in 2005.

These have never been my favorite books. Raven's quest to become a vampire at the hands of her boyfriend Alexander makes me want to slap her. She is agressively Goth, and thinks it is original, and the amount of descriptions of her clothing makes me want to cry. Dullsville sounds like a very nice place to live, even though she constantly disparages it. Still, the series is wildly popular with girls and boys, and I don't mind reading the books because Schreiber's writing is so blissfully easy to read. Her stories move along beautifully. I just wish she would return to things like Comedy Girl.

In this installment, Alexander's best friend, Sebastian, shows up, and falls in love with Raven's best friend. Alexander's art career takes off and reporters come to the house to interview him. It doesn't really matter what these books are about-- the loyal readers want them, as well as the Blodd Relatives graphic novels. That I don't understand; they've already read the story. Doesn't keep them from checking out the graphic novels multiple times. Fortunately for the young fans, but unfortunately for me, Scrhieber's new series looks like werewolves are involved. (Once in a Full Moon, out December 28, and Cryptic Cravings.)

Since school has begun, most of the student requests have been for horror/murder mysteries, mythology, sprts and adventure books. I think, therefore, that I will pass on Zafon's The Prince of Mist (fantasy, translated from Spanish), Gephart's As if Being 12 and 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president (realistic fiction for girls, but whiny), and Kelley's Nature Girl (quirky/dysfunctional girl book). Nothing wrong with them; just don't fit what I need right now.

Friday, September 10, 2010

More Vampire High!

Rees, Douglas. Vampire High: Sophomore Year.
Finally! With all of the craziness this summer, I did not get a copy of Vampire High: Sophomore Year right when it came out, which was horrible. I had students asking for it the first day of school.

If you haven't read the first book in the series, you should pick that up, since it sets up the story of Cody Elliot attending the Vlad Dracul Magnet School and learning about the existence of jenti is his new hometown. Not vampires, mind you-- that's a rude word to them, even though they do drink blood. They just are much more refined and don't attack people. Cody becomes a gadge (nonvampire) success at the school and even starts dating Ileana, a jenti princess.

Sophomore year starts a little differently for Cody, because his cousin Turk, who is at odds with her parents (and the world in general) shows up to live with Cody's family. Turk is an artist who locates a building in the forbidden town of Crossfield, which is abandoned because it was the site of jenti persecution. With the help of Cody's former nemesis, Gregor, the building is renovated and turned into an art center, but its success is impeded by the controversy surrounding its location. Secrets arise concerning the enmity between the Mercians (the family of Cody's best friend Justin) and the Burgundians (Ileana's family) which lead to a near war between the two factions.

This is definitely my favorite vampire series. It's witty, engaging, and Rees' plot development is fast-paced and well-developed, which makes it popular with the students. I have six copies of the first title and they are never on the shelf! Goth wannabes will adore the addition of Turk, and Cody's admirers will be glad to see him back. I'm just sorry that I waited as long as I did to read this. My daughter wants a copy of this for Christmas, and I should have bought it the minute it was released!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

A Long Way Gone

Beah, Ismael. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier(2007)
A student recommended that I read this book, which is shelved in the adult collection of my public library but is the personal account of a man who fought as a soldier in Sierra Leone when he was 13. There is a lot of violence depicted, but not in a sensational way. The tone is very detached and matter-of-fact, but it still may unnerve some people.

Still, this is an important memoir. After his village was attacked and mainly destroyed by rebels, Beah and a group of friends did their best to survive. They try to find their families, to no avail, and are eventually conscripted into the government army, where they are given the task of killing as many rebels as they can is extremely cold blooded fashion. This is made easier for them by the fact that the rebels are responsible for the death of many people they know, and by all of the drugs that the government provides for them. Eventually, UNICEF steps in and takes the boys to a school where they are weaned off the durgs and rehabilitated. Ishmael is given the opportunity to talk to the UN in New York, and is eventually brought to the US to go to high school, and then Oberlin College. Beah now is a crusader on behalf of children involved in wars.

We have had several students whose parents were from Sierra Leone, and have a vast number of Somali students. As with the books mentioned yesterday, these books are important for students who want to understand the plight of children in other parts of the world.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Ellis' No Safe Place

Ellis, Deborah. No Safe Place.
This author of The Breadwinner has no parallel when it comes to stories of children struggling in other countries. We bought some class sets of The Breadwinner to use as a class novel because it is such a powerful story about Afghanistan, and the children always want to read the two sequels on their own.

In No Safe Place, we follow three children who are trying to make their way from Calais to Great Britain by means of a smuggler. Abdul is a Kurd from Bagdad whose parents have both been killed; Cheslav is an orphan from Russia who has run away from a military school; Rosalia is a Roma who is sent to Germany by her uncle to "work", but she escapes when she realizes she will be forced into prostitution. When things go wrong on the channel crossing, their smuggler dies and Jonah, the smuggler's abused nephew joins their group.

The story alternates chapters between the children's trip to Great Britain and their arrival there and the background stories of each of the three. Like Michael's City Boy, Sheth's Boys Without Names, Bernard's Angel Boy, and D'Adamo's Iqbal, this is an important story that will enlighten students to the well-researched plight of immigrant children whose tales are enfolding TODAY, not fifty years ago. Sensitive readers might take offense at how Abdul carries his money (in a body cavity) and at the delicately phrased descriptions of Rosalie's abuse, but as always, Ellis tells such things in a way that makes them clear but not graphic.

Royalties from The Breadwinner have raised over a million dollars for Street Kids International and Women for Women in Afghanistan. Ellis' books will hopefully inspire students to care about children their own age who might not be as well off.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Adam Selzer Visits Blendon!!!!!!!

Note to authors everywhere: Are you feeling a little blah? Unloved? Finding it hard to get stuff written?

Visit a school. Adam Selzer did.

Just drop in, unannounced, to visit a librarian who has exchanged a few e mails with you. You will make her day, as well as the day of various teachers and students who are reading your books. Mr. Cattrell, here pictured, was at a loss for words as he tried to explain to Mr. Selzer that he was the subject of a propaganda poster for The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History web site.

Hopefully, the school will provide a brief rock star moment for you, so you can return home with the cockles of your heart warmed, and get back to work writing your next fabulous book for young adult readers.

Thank you, Adam AND Ronni, for dropping by. It was great to see you.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Super Human

Carroll, Michael. Super Human
Carroll's The Quantum Prophecy Series is hugely popular in my library, so I was looking forward to this book, which comes before the other series.

Adults are being stricken with a horrible flu. Super humans Roz and Max are captured and held hostage in a nuclear reactor, and Abby and Thunder, along with the human Lance (a con boy who is accidentally brought along by Paragon) attempt to free them. Soon they find that there is more trouble than they imagined-- a group called the Helotry, lead by a vicious killer named Slaughter, is trying to open a time portal and bring a super human named Krodin from ancient Assyria. The chapters devoted to Krodin show what a ruthless barbarian he is, but the Helotry somehow think he will form a new world order that will in some way benefit them.

It turns out that the plague was started by the Helotry as a way to weaken the population and make it easier for Krodin to take over. It's up to the group of kids to find a way to cure the plague as well as bring the Helotry under control. While the power of the kids is just about equal to the villians they are fighting, they lack guidance and experience. While I figured that they would eventually prevail, Carroll does an excellent job at keeping the reader on the edge and keeping the balance of power seesawing dangerously back and forth.

The action scenes are really the reason for picking this book up. This is an excellent title for the readers who claim that "nothing ever happens" in books. In the very first chapter, Krodin takes out most of the Egyptian army single handedly, then we go on a fast paced chase with Lance trying to escape mall cops and eventually being picked up by paragon; then we have Roz and Max invovled in a helicopter chase. For a man who claims he doesn't actually blow things up, Mr. Carroll writes a mean action scene. If I were his neighbor, I would probably cringe a little every time he fired up the lawn mower. This is a must have book for middle school libraries!

Carman, Patrick. Trackers.
Told in interview format, this story follows the exploits of Adam, who is the mastermind behind a group of Trackers who use their knowledge of gadgets to try to protect people from hackers. While a bit far fetched, Carman makes this seem possible by giving Adam a technologically oriented family, although the "virtual" dollars he uses to buy all of his equipment were still a stretch for me. Adam and his friends get dragged into a bigger mystery than they can really handle, but the point of this book seems to be more to have readers access the web sites than to care too deeply about the plot. I am rather ambivalent about having books with Internet links in the library-- something like The 39 Clues can be enjoyed without the web links, but Trackers puts the information and a password at the beginning of every chapter.

I read something from Scholastic about multiplatform literature, and while they made some good points (and certainly the tech savvy characters in Trackers are a good excuse to bring in a web site), I can't help thinking that the main reason to have a multiplatform "experience" boils down to selling more stuff to kids. It will be interesting to see how this one circulates, since a copy was donated to our library.
Stopped by the public library and picked up a stack of things from the teen section. I would have been in sad shape as a teen in my public library. While the children's section is often too young, the teen section often has books that would not have interested the middle school me. The stack I brought home had that problem.
Healey's Guardian of the Dead veered into Maori mythology that just wasn't that appealing; McBride's The Tension of Opposites dealt with the return of a kidnapped friend, but was too... pyschological for what my students usually ask for; and I will recommend Harrison's Once Dead, Twice Shy and the sequel Early to Death, Early to Rise to several of my students, but I just can't spend more money on paranormal romances.
Very excited to see what the delivery from the public library will have in it tomorrow!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Three Black Swans

Cooney, Caroline B. Three Black Swans.

Missy's high school science class is discussing hoaxes, and she decides to bring her cousin, Claire, in to school and go on the school video announcements with the information that Claire is really her long lost twin sister. Missy thinks that people will believe it for a little while, but is surprised that everyone really does think that she and Claire look exactly alike. The video goes on You Tube and is viewed by a number of people, including the girls' parents, who become upset. The girls were both adopted, and there were irregularities in the procees that have long haunted the parents.

When a third girl, Genevieve, sees the video and realizes that the girls both look exactly like her, things get even stranger. After much hand-wringing on everyone's part, Missy and Claire decide to go meet Genevieve, who is not adopted. Here's the spoiler, so stop reading if you don't want to know-- Genevieve's mother did not want to have a baby, and when she found out she was pregnant with triplets, she hard heartedly gave two of them away. Her only concern now is that her boss will find out, think less of her, and she will lose her job. The other parents are more supportive, welcome Genevieve, and the girls find a way to stay in contact and remain sisters.

Normally, I love Cooney. While If the Witness Lied was iffy, They Never Came Back was quite good. This one... have to say I didn't like it. The tone was overly melodramatic, complete with short, choppy sentences, an overabundance of exclamation marks, and too much information about how all of the parents felt. If I didn't care, students might skip over these parts. At some points, I thought there might be some intriguing explanation about the girls, like cloning or genetic manipulation, so when it was just a mother who didn't want two extra babies, the story lost steam for me. Cooney's writing is usually smooth and facile; if you had handed this book to me without an author attached, I would have assumed it was a new writer's first novel.

Looked for reviews that were more positive, but this hasn't gotten a lot of blog attention. I'd love to hear from people who liked this more than I did.

Friday, September 03, 2010

A return to books and only books

My apologies. The goal of this blog is to deliver short reviews of as many middle grade books as possible and to shy away from personal issues, and even literacy, publishing and other issues. Lately, I have failed, and for that, I am sorry.

Now the library renovation is done, the school's two new administrators are in place, the schedule difficulties are ironed out, my home computer is back after a month in the shop, and I have books coming from the public library! I will be back to all books, all the time. I promise.

I'm ignoring my union; if they don't care if I read and blog, great. They might as well ask me to stop breathing.

Thanks to all of my readers who have stuck by me. I know that I never mind finding out more about the bloggers I read-- I hope that Jen Robinson and Baby Bookworm are thriving, that the guys who used to work with Boys Read, Boys Rule have found jobs, that Teacher Ninja continues to be awesome at his new job, and that the adoption of Bluestocking's baby boy goes well. The Kidlitosphere is a tremendous resource for new titles, but also a comfortable place for me to "hang out" with other librarians.

And look what is waiting for me, maybe TODAY, from the public library!!!!!!

Procession of the dead / Darren Shan.
Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose / Diana Leszczynski.
As if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president! / Donna Gephart.
The hard kind of promise / by Gina Willner-Pardo.
Love bites / Ellen Schreiber.
The Prince of Mist / Carlos Ruiz Zafón ; translated by Lucia Graves.
Through thick and thin / Alison Pace.
Blade : out of the shadows / Tim Bowler.
No safe place / Deborah Ellis.
Harmonic feedback / Tara Kelly.
Shade / Jeri Smith-Ready.
Vampire High : sophomore year / Douglas Rees.
The shadow hunt / Katherine Langrish.

And sometimes, while I am looking for middle grade books, other things show up on the screen that I just have to read:
Home : a memoir of my early years / Julie Andrews.
This time together : laughter and reflection / by Carol Burnett.
Sweater quest : my year of knitting dangerously / Adrienne Martini.

Hey, Julie Andrews Edwards is a young adult author, right?

September is about new years and new beginnings. It'll be great.

And Both Were Young

L'Engle, Madeleine. And Both Were Young.
Pictures in the library yesterday made it impossible for me to see many students-- t hey literally could not get in! I read book reviews all day and reserved almost 50 items from my local library. I was very surprised to see that Farrar Straus and Giroux issued a new edition in 2010. The book was originally published in 1949, and L'Engle updated the story in 1983, which is the copy I was able to pull from my library shelves.

Flip's (Phillipa) father is a famous artist who travels the globe; her mother passed away in an auto accident a year ago. At the insistence of a female friend (who also jaunts around Europe regularly), Flip is sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. Always quiet and withdrawn, and now suffering from the separation from her family, Flip finds it hard to fit in with the girls, but meets Paul, who is staying with his father not far from the school, and the two have a tentative romance. Flip takes up skiing, finds a flair for drawing, and slowly comes to terms with the current state of her life.

This has to be pushed as historical fiction-- Paul has been adopted because he was found abandoned after "the war", and his parents have been killed in the concentration camps. One girl lost her front teeth in the Blitz. This is based on L'Engle's own experiences during this period of time. The note about the update mentions that the 1949 version was much tamer in regards to mentions of death and sex, but 1983 standards are still miles away from what is acceptable today, and students will not blink over the few chaste kisses or the mention that the father's girlfriends "lust" after the father, which seemed a strange interpolation.

I doubt I would buy a new copy of this, but I'll certainly hold on to my old copy, even though it doesn't see a lot of circulation.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Song for a Teenage Nomad

Culbertson, Kim. Songs for a Teenage Nomad.

Advanced Readers' Copy provided by Sourcebooks.

Calle has a difficult life. Her pretty but flighty mother keeps moving them from town to town, usually to follow a new boyfriend or husband. Calle has become adept at changing schools, but longs for stability as well as for her father, who left when she was a baby. To cope, she filters her experiences through a variety of music, which is described at the beginning of each chapter. When she ends up in Andreas Bay, she makes friends and begins to enjoy the community, but staying there is put into jeopardy when she finds that her father has located her, and his story differs from her mother's.

This novel deftly explores the search for identity that all teens experience, and adds the challenge of finding out who you are when there are obstacles in the way. Calle is sympathetically written, and her success in finding a peer group is realistically portrayed. The writing is descriptive and lyrical. This is more of a high school book, not because of any content, but because of the reflective tone and pace of the story. Readers who like problem novels or bildungsroman will find this an enjoyable addition to this genre.

The only thing that didn't resonate with me was the music. It was an odd pastiche of old and new songs, and most teenagers might not be familiar with many of them. On the plus side, it might encourage them to research the artists mentioned.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Limited blogging

The union to which I am required to belong is currently working without a contract. Because there are apparently difficulties in negotiations, the union is asking that we "work to the rule". For me, this means coming in two and a half hours later than usual, at 7:30, and leaving promptly at 3:10. We are also not supposed to work at home outside of these hours.

This is difficult for me. When I asked the union reps if they thought I could still read and blog, they said that I could.

At first I was relieved, but then it occurred to me that the union does not, therefore, consider the three or more hours I read young adult literature at home work. I do not grade, I don't have lesson plans, but this does not mean I go home at the end of the day with nothing to do.

There are a few ARCs that I need to review in a timely manner, but the additional wrinkle is that my home computer is still in the shop. I do not read or blog during contract time (this is a bit of my 30 minute lunch I was not able to take earlier) even though it is necessary to my job.

Please hope that this issue will resolve itself quickly.