Friday, September 30, 2011

2011 Cybils Middle Grade Fiction

I'm thrilled to be able to say that I will be a first round judge for the 2011 Cybils Middle Grade Fiction division! Being on the committee for middle grade science fiction and fantasy last year was not only tremendously fun but really interesting. There were so many great books and so many great bloggers! I'm really excited to be working with the following: hop on over and visit them. You might find a good new source for recommendations!

Round One:
Colby Sharp of Sharp Read

Jennifer Donovan of 5 Minutes for Books

Cheryl Vanati of Reading Rumpus

Grier Jewell of Fizzwhizzing Flushbunker

Michael Gettel-Gilmartin of Middle Grade Mafioso

Beth Gallego of Points West

Round Two:

Kerry Millar (also organizer!) of Shelf Elf

Melissa Fox of Book Nut

Jessalyn Pinsonault of Garish & Tweed

Karen Wang of Kidsmomo

Amanda Snow of A Patchwork of Books

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Guy Friday-- Werewolves vs. Vampires

Moore, Peter. Red Moon Rising.
Dante Gray (or Danny), is in a difficult position. His mother and step-father are vampires, but his father is a werewolf. While the genetic treatments on his sister have removed all of the werewolf characteristics from her, they weren't successful for him, and he becomes more and more wolflike every day. This is a problem because werewolves are second class citizens, and must register with law enforcement and be sent to compounds during the full moon. Danny doesn't really want to face this, especially since he is in a relationship with Juliet, who is human, but being bullied by a vampire and struggling with the pain that the upcoming changes bring to his body are making everything difficult. Luckily, his family is supportive and tries to come up with a way to keep him safe from the authorities and himself.
Strengths: This was a great book combining werewolf and vampire lore. It's a little likeVladimir Todd, with the description of SynHeme and eating habits, but kicks it up a notch with the werewolf information. This will be very popular in my library.
Weaknesses: Personal pet peeves here: the book uses the spelling "wulf", which grated on my nerves, and also used misspellings of famous actresses and products. David Bo. E.? iPoddMax? Wulfghang Packe? Students won't mind, but each usage made me cringe.

There are definitely two different types of vampire books-- the romance ones the girls like, and the action-packed, blood sucking ones for guys. The best guy vampire books are:

Anderson, M.T. Thirsty.

Brewer, Heather. The Chronicles of Vladimir Todd.

Emerson, Kevin. Oliver Nocturn series.

Henderson, Jason. The Alex Van Helsing series.

Hill, Will. Department 19.

Shan, Darren. Cirque du Freak series.

And some werewolf books:

Cole, Stephen. The Wereling series.

LaFevers, R. L. Werewolf Rising.

Toft, Di. Wolven.

Stewart and Riddell, Barnaby Grimes and the Curse of the Night Wolf.

Scary Books

Grabenstein, Chris. The Black Heart Crypt.
Sequel to The Crossroads, The Hanging Hill, and The Smoky Corridor. (which I know I read at some point!)
Zack is back, and this time he is trying to get help for seeing ghosts. Part of this help arrives in the unlikely guise of three quirky aunts, in whose trunk Zack and his friends find a heart shaped puzzle. They unwittingly set free centuries worth of Ickleby ghosts when they take the puzzle apart, and they must put up with a gruesome cast of evil doers in order to redo the spell and save their town for being brutalized by the Ickleby criminals. Zack's stepmother Judy is supportive as always, and Zack's mother continues to make creepy appearances, although this time she is more apologetic and interested in making amends.
Strengths: Good, creepy story with great ghosts and a strong supporting cast of ghost fighters. A bit icky at times, and similar to John Bellairs in its creepy factor.
Weaknesses: I almost wish that these titles were not in a series, so that students could pick up the volumes independently.

Oppel, Kenneth. This Dark Endeavor.
In the 1800s, Victor Frankenstein is struggling with his twin brother Konrad's mysterious illness. When the doctor is unable to stop the fever and other symptoms, Victor and his cousin Elizabeth consult Polidori, an alchemist who supposedly created an elixir of life. Consulting the Dark Library, the two try to recreate this in order to save Konrad. This involves a great deal of action and adventure, as well as some grusome personal sacrifice. In the end, the two are unsuccessful, but I imagine this merely opens the door to another book that comes closer to the story of Frankenstein.
Strengths: If The Monstrumologist is popular in your library, this will be a good addition. The cover is great, the action is good, and the ties to classic literature are effectively used.
Weaknesses: My students have trouble with the 1800s setting of The Monstrumologist, and the print in this is rather small. Horribly enough, this does matter! That, combined with Victor's internal struggles over good, evil and his relationship with his brother make this more of a high school book. Still, this is the best Oppel book that I have read.

Taylor, Greg. Killer Pizza: The Slice.
Sequel to Killer Pizza.
Still reeling from their first adventure,Toby, Annabel and Strobe are put in charge of a monster who wants to defect-- the lovely Calanthe, who takes quite a shine to Toby as she tries to fit in to normal high school life. Hidden Hills seems like a perfect place to hide her in the Monster Protection Program, but the group is soon disturbed by the reappearance of The Tall Man, and also the many-teeth rukh, as Calanthe's people try to reclaim her so she can be sacrificed.
Strengths: Monsters have been a big interest in my school, and the covers of both of these books are enormously appealing. Good amount of action.
Weaknesses: These could both be better written. I'm not a literature snob by any stretch of the imagination, there were little things with descriptions, pacing, etc. that bothered me a bit. Will students notice? Probably not.

Sleator, William and Ann Monticone. The Phantom Limb.
E-ARC courtesy of Netgalley.
Isaac is having a hard time. His father has been killed in a car crash, and since his mother has been hospitalized for having seizures, he has moved into a small house with his uncommunicative grandfather. He finds a mirror box in the house, and starts having visions of the boy who used it-- a pianist who had his arm amputated because of cancer. When his mother seems to be in danger of the same fate, Isaac enlists the help of his friends and the spirit communicating with him through the box to thwart the plans of the evil nurse, Candi and save his mother from a similar fate.
Strengths: Good creepy cover, interesting premise, and a fair amount of action.
Weaknesses: For this author, the writing was rather wooden, and the beginning especially dragged. Hell Phone and The Boy Who Couldn't Die are hugely popular in my library, but this didn't even seem like it was written by the same author.

Whew! I'm ready for all of the October requests for scary books, although I must say that this is not my favorite type of book to read!

Monday, September 26, 2011


Why do I even mention books that I didn't like? There was something appealing enough about the book description that I checked the book out, but something that wasn't quite right for my collection. It might be right for other collections, or at least sound appealing enough that someone else will pick it up.

Kehret, Peg. Escaping the Giant Wave. (2003)
From the publisher: "When an earthquake creates a tsunami while

What I Wanted: A survival story similar to Earthquake Terror, or something with a lot of suspense. thirteen-year-old Kyle is babysitting his sister during a family vacation at a Pacific Coast resort, he tries to save himself, his sister, and a boy who has bullied him for years. Includes an author's note which provides factual information on tsunamis."

Why I Was Disappointed: In light of the 2004 tsunami, and the recent ones in Japan, this seemed somehow dated. This title is no longer available in hard cover from Follett.

People Who Liked It More Than I Did: Integrity Books for Boys, KMS Book Blog,and Middle Grade Mafioso (which is the review that made me pick the book up.)

Wynne-Jones. Tim. The Uninvited

From the publisher "Mimi leaves New York University following an unsettling first year and goes to stay in a cottage in Canada owned by her father, artist Marc Soto, but she arrives to find the place already inhabited by Jay, a musician, who it turns out is her half-brother, and the two are just getting comfortable with their relationship when someone starts breaking into the house and taking their possessions."

What I Wanted: Creepy ghost/murder mystery.

Why I Was Disappointed: Confusing beginning, tiny type (this matters a LOT to my students!), and a more high school story line.

People Who Liked It More Than I Did: Quill and Quire, Guys Lit Wire, and Yup, I Read That.

Tracy, Kristen. The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter.

From Horn Book: "On the eve of middle school, Bessica, deemed a bad influence by her best friend's mother, finds herself alone. Normally supremely self-confident--even to a fault--Bessica confronts loneliness and bullies at school. Despite her flaws, it's hard not to cheer for this spirited heroine whose voice and antics are reminiscent of Anastasia Krupnik."

What I Wanted: Well, Anastasia. A good, solid middle grade girl book. I think I will buy this, especially since Bessica Lefter Bites Back comes out in March 2012.

Why I Was Disappointed: I personally found Bessica whiny, and the situation with her friend not being allowed to talk to her unrealistic. I was also unreasonably irked by the name "Bessica" and the idea of reinvention. (I may have to do a bit of that myself here in a couple of months.)

People Who Liked It More Than I Did: Jen Robinson, Frugal WAHMS, and Reading Chick.

Elish, Dan. The School for the Insanely Gifted.

From the Publisher: "Eleven-year-old musical genius Daphna Whispers embarks on a global journey to find her missing mother, only to uncover a shocking secret about the Blatt School for the Insanely Gifted where she is a student."

What I Wanted: This seemed similar to The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Why I Was Disappointed: This was a Pilkey Line issue. The humor, names, and situations were more goofy. I read this one right after Coben's Shelter, which was dark but appropriate, which is what the majority of my students want.

People Who Liked It More Than I Did: GK Reading, The YA Bookcase, and Fresh Ink.

Shelter and 13 Gifts

Coben, Harlan. Shelter.
Mickey Bolitar is having a hard time. His father has been killed in a car accident, his mother is a junkie in rehab, and he's living with his uncle Myron, former basketball star and lawyer. His girlfriend, Ashley, has disappeared, and he keeps running afoul of the popular kids. He has two friends; Ema, a Goth girl with a wicked sense of humor, and Spoon, a geeky kid whose father is the school janitor. When the local "Bat Lady" tells Mickey that his father is still alive, Mickey sets off to find out whether this is true, and also tries to find out what has happened to Ashley. The two things are connected through the organization his father tried to leave-- the Abeona Shelter, which tries to rescue children in bad situations. Is Mickey's father really dead? A sequel is sure to follow.
Strengths: I've not read any of Coben's adult books, but he has done a good job at writing for young adult. He doesn't talk down or try to adjust his style of writing, which I felt Grisham did with his Theodore Boone. There's still a gritty underworld and plenty of violence, but he was circumspect in his vocabulary and situations. Very nice. The only objectionable epithets hurled are "ass-tard" and "candy ass", which I haven't heard since 1982!
Weaknesses: So confused about the time line. As a Holocaust survivor, the "Bat Lady" would be almost 80, and the Waffen SS guard would be over 90. Can't comment much on said SS guard, but I was confused as to how such a person would appear in the role that he did in this book. Still, very good mystery!

Mass, Wendy. 13 Gifts.

This is sort of a sequel to Finally, but introduces a new character, Tara, who is sent to Willow Falls to live with her cousin. She has her money and iPod stolen on the train, and seeks the help of Angelina, who runs a magical antiques store, to earn money back. At first, she tries to sell Angelina one of her uncle's collectible comic books, but when Angelina realizes the comics are stolen, she makes Tara collect 13 objects from people in the town, and Tara enlists the help of some new friends, including a boy she comes to like. The objects all turn out to be props in a production of Fiddler on the Roof that was never performed, and Angelina instructs Tara to put together a production using the props and perform it on her 13th birthday. Again, her friends band together to help her, and Tara finds out a secret about her parents' youth in the same strange town.

Strengths: This was engaging enough, and Finally is hugely popular in my library. Great cover.

Weaknesses: I am not a Mass fan. This was too quirky for my taste, and it's confusing that 11 Birthdays is so clearly fantasy, Finally isn't, and this book goes back to more magical fantasy. I didn't care that much for Tara, and somehow the premise seemed unlikely.

The Apothecary

Meloy, Maile. The Apothecary.
ARC received from publisher. Publication date October 4, 2011

In 1952, Janie's screenwriter parents are caught in the anti-Communist purges in Hollywood and leave for a job writing a television show in London. Jane isn't happy about this, but meets a nice boy at school, Benjamin. The only problem is that his father is an apothecary... and not just the sort of chap who sells bandages and ointments. When a local gardener is murdered, Janie finds out that Benjamin's father is working with a group of scientists who are opposed to all of the atomic bombing that has occurred, and this puts him in the sights of some Russian spies who are trying to steal his book of spells. The children avail themselves of many of these, running about London while invisible, sneaking on to ships, and generally having an adventure while trying to keep the book, Benjamin's father, and the world safe from bombing and Communism.
Strengths: The package from the publisher was very lovely, with a glass bottle of gold glitter and everything. Impressive. The first part of this story reminded me of Helene Hanff and, oddly, The Little Princess. The illustrations look like they lend a Hugo Cabret type ambience to the book, but are not complete in the ARC. The story is solid and well-developed.
Weaknesses: Somehow, the spies were an off note for me. I was enjoying Janie's settling in to London life and the alchemy, but the interpolation of Russian spies didn't work as well for me. There had to be someone who was stalking them, and given the time frame this made sense. I normally love spies, so don't know why. Candace's Book Blog felt this lacked "oomph". Maile Maloy usually writes for adults, so the change to children's literature might be the problem.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Guy Friday--Jefferson's Sons

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker. Jefferson's Sons.
Beverly has a secret that everyone knows-- he's Thomas Jefferson's son. His mother, Sally Hemmings, tells him to keep it from Jefferson's family and friends even though the slave community is well aware of Beverly and his brothers' and sister's origin. From the time he is young, Beverly knows that he will have to make a choice when he is older. He can remain a slave and stay with his family (all of whom are well-treated because of their connection), or he can move away and pass as a free white man, never seeing his family again. To complicate matters, one brother is too dark to pass and won't have this choice. Following the family's ups and downs for a period of years, describing Jefferson's interactions with them and his greater role in US history, this book gives a good picture of life during this time period from both sides of the slavery issue.
Strengths: Well researched and written, this is a good companion to Rinaldi's Wolf By the Ears, which imagines the story of Harriet Hemmings.
Weaknesses: This would have been a tighter middle grade read if it had focused on fewer years and given more details about Beverly's "transformation" to white. There are a lot of details, which slow the story down.

Guy Friday Note:
Had an interesting conversation with a former student. He was an avid reader and is now a high school junior. He has not checked out a single book in high school. When asked why, he replied "When I would come into the library, you would always offer me books that I knew would be good." Has he even gone to the library at high school and asked for a good book? "They don't force us to read. We don't have Sustained Silent Reading."

*Sigh* Moral of the story-- Not only do we need to provide a time for middle school students to read and compel them to do so, it is essential to suggest good books to them that align with their interests. I had a 6th grade girl yesterday who has read a little more than a book a week. When I commented that she must like to read, she replied "I only started to like reading this year." Why? "I could never find any good books before now." She likes pink, girly books, so usually makes her selections from a front facing row I always have up near the circulation desk.

Personalized selection. It's so important to know the students and what interests them, and to fling random books at reluctant readers until something sticks.

Answer to recent comment: I'm very sorry that one of the high school librarians felt slighted by this comment. That was not in any way my intention. My question to the student ( have you even BEEN to the library?), is where the high school process, to me, is not what it could be. Once the students actually get to the library, I have every confidence that the librarians are doing an amazing job at stocking and getting great books to students.

My issue is with high school language arts classes. Yes, students have a lot more to do in high school, so why make my son, a high school sophomore who has not managed to make it into the library for anything but classes, read The Help and East of Eden? What could interest him less? My daughter, who is a senior, is reading The Canterbury Tales. It seems to me that high school language arts teacher purposefully want to make students dislike reading. Yes, that is an offensive comment, but I have seen first hand how this sort of reading selection makes my own personal children hate reading.

So again, my apologies to high school librarians everywhere. I'm sure that when students come in to the libraries looking for books, you get them great ones. It's too bad that the high school classes and schedule do not get more students into your sphere of influence.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Naftali, Joel. The Rendering.
This is a hard review to write because of the I Was Never A Boy factor. I will buy this and vigorously recommend it, but found it personally hard to get through. Indeed, Charlotte's Library said that it was not for everyone, but it IS perfect for so many middle school boys.

How could you not like this description from the publisher? "Thirteen-year-old Doug uses his blog to describe the events that led him from an afternoon of playing video games to saving the world, after one of his aunt's ex-employees broke into her biotechnology center, killed her, and then stole equipment that would allow him to digitize anyone and create a biodroid army. "

Doug's aunt has actually been digitized by Dr. Roach, who is trying to highjack the technology that her lab has come up with. Doug's parents were killed, so he was living with his aunt and spent a lot of time hanging out at her place of work, playing video games. The book flashes back to how Dr. Roach managed to get his power, told from the point where Doug is in hiding. This does read like a video game, and I had trouble with the blog format (I have trouble with letter formats as well), but there is a lot of action, which is crucial to middle grade fiction, and lines like this: (page 246) "Imagine... a flesh eating orc. Now imagine that the android and orc have kids. A drooling, armored, rabid, gene-spliced cybernetic nightmare!"

Do I want The Hyperlink when it comes out on June 26th? Absolutely!

The skunks still stalk me. I wore my skunk pin in honor of this book, as well as Pamela Service's Stinker From Space (1996)! (And see the difference in cover art? The Rendering may have a weak title, but an awesome cover!)
(Avon pin image from

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman

Winters, Ben. The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman.
For her special project in Mr. Melville's class, Bethesda needs to unravel a mystery that is present in something in her everyday life. She decides to investigate Ms. Finkleman, the mousy music teacher about whom no one seems to know anything except for the fact that she has a tattoo. Based on this information, she has a conversation with her father about music and old bands and comes to the conclusion that the music teacher was once Miss Mystery and led a punk rock band. Ms. Finkleman is not happy to have this information known about her, but when the principal makes a bet that their middle school can beat another at a choral competition, the group dumps their production of Greensleeves in favor of an ambitious rock endeavor. This is not the only challenge hanging over the students' heads-- they need to pass their exams as well. Can the group win, or will the principal have to dress up as a hot dog? Who exactly is Ms. Finkleman?
Strengths: A solid, amusing school story, this will go down well with students who like Beverly Cleary's Ramona books or Andrew Clements.
Weaknesses: Are covers getting worse? This looks vaguely like Edison's Gold, with the creepy, dated illustration. Why not the back of Ms. Finkleman's mousy self, but showing her tattoo, perhaps holding a Miss Mystery album cover behind her back? This reminds me slightly of Because of Mr. Terupt, with the emphasis on the teacher, and that has been a really hard sell. This might go down better with elementary age students who want to read about middle school.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Publish Barry Hutchison in the U.S.

No, I don't know why my students want to read horror books. But they DO, and the Barry Hutchison Invisible Fiends series is just what they want. To sign a petition to get Mr. Hutchison published in the U.S., go to

They have 25 signatures and would like 1,000.

To learn more about these books, go to
Barry Hutchison's Web Site.

Also, the winner of the Gabrielle Zevin All These Things I've Done giveaway is

Megan Earley!

Divergent, etc.

Roth, Veronica. Divergent.
Beatrice has been raised in a future dystopian society where personality influenced factions are more important than one's relations. When, on her 16th birthday, she must choose to remain in Abnegation (which requires a life of self-sacrifice with which she has never felt comfortable) or follow her heart to the very different life of the Dauntless, she chooses to become Dauntless. Further complicating matters is that her personality test indicated that she was really Divergent, which is very dangerous since such people don't fit one particular mold, and she is told to keep this secret. Once in the Dauntless compound, she embarks on an initiation course which includes weapons, fighting, and evil cohorts who think that she should fail. Despite the difficulties, Tris (as she now calls herself) triumphs, using her Abnegation ways to her advantage, and drawing on her inner strength to change her views on the world. Helping her is Four, a trainer with whom she develops a romantic bond and with whom she has more in common than she could imagine. When things go wrong in the larger world and the Dauntless are manipulated to attack the Abnegation, Tris and Four manage to survive when many of both groups are destroyed. The next book, Insurgent, due in May, promises even more Hunger Game style violence and adventure.
Strengths: Wow. At 487 pages, this kept me reading past my bedtime. I was enthralled with Tris' search for identity and the lengths to which she was willing to go to change who she was. In a way, the larger conflict that results in Tris' parents being killed got in the way. I would rather have seen the world as envisioned by Roth be a fairly happy place, and read more about how Tris worked within that world. But what fun would that have been? I also really like the romance between Tris and Four, especially this exchange (pg. 337): "Fine. So you're not pretty. So?" He kisses my cheek. "I like how you look. You're deadly smart. You're brave." That's way better than all the vampire stuff out there.
Weaknesses: Violence. Lots of violence. A boy getting a knife in his eye while he sleeps. People jumping to their death. People being shot. At close range. Sex is also mentioned, and this is the hard part. There is nothing more than kissing and hugging going on, but Tris and Four talk about someday perhaps having sex. Four appears in Tris' "fear landscape", and she is afraid of intimacy with him. While I don't have a problem with this, some 6th graders will freak out over this, so I will have to see if the other middle schools buy this before purchasing it for my school. That said, I am encouraging both my own daughters read this because it was really good.

Watson, Geoff. Edison's Gold.

Tom Edison, a descendant of the inventor, is happy with his friends and his New York life, even though he is frequently in trouble when his own inventions go bad. This life is imperiled when his father gets a job offer in Kansas. When trying to clean up his workshop, Tom and his friends come across a clue that may help him find Edison's formula for creating gold and indicate that his great great grandfather and other famous men of the time were involved in a secret alchemical society. To complicate the search, a descendent of Nicola Tesla, Curtis Keller, is bound to avenge the wrongs done to Tesla.

Strengths: Lots of action and adventure, nice historical tie-ins, and a main character that students should like. Always need more mysteries, and I think this will be popular.

Weaknesses: Bad cover, and a vague feeling of being a twist on National Treasure, complete with aroom full of gold that the children decide to abandon for the greater good.

Abbott, Tony. Lunch-Box Dream.

Bobby and his family are driving their grandmother from Cleveland to Florida after the death of their grandfather in 1959. They are supposed to see Civil War battlefields along the way. The trip is not an easy one, and when the car is damaged, the family has to ride back on the bus. This story is interspersed with the story of Jacob, a young black boy who is sent to stay with relatives. When Jacob goes missing, his family also tries to get on the bus but runs into an overcrowding situation, and the fact that they are black does not override their need to get to find Jacob. Bobby, who is not used to seeing "chocolate people" is moved by their plight.

Strengths: This has a Watson's Go To Birmingham feel to it, and collections where books about Civil Rights are in high demand will want to consider this title.

Weaknesses: The alternating viewpoints made this somewhat confusing, and the overwrought emotions of everyone involved make this a difficult read. I agree with Publishers Weekly that this is beautifully crafted but "challenging for the target audience".

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nonfiction Monday

Blumenthal, Karen. Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition.
Starting with the Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, this overview of the history of alcohol consumption in the U.S. continues with a brief chapter about Morris Sheppard, who was instrumental in putting through the 18th ammendment, and then takes a brief skip back through why alcohol was so widely used in the earliest years of our country, why it became a problem, and why people thought it necessary for the country to be dry. It then discusses how the 18th ammendment affected people on both sides; I thought the interview with a man whose father ran a speakeasy was especially interesting in light of the preponderance of information we usually get from the side of federal agents. Much information on Al Capone is included, and a brief afterward about the long lasting effects of the "noble experiment" end the book.
Strengths: Karen Blumnethal always does a very thorough job; adored her Let Me Play and actually understood the stock market crash of 1929 for a brief moment while reading her Six Days in October. I purchased this because of the role that my town had in the Anti-Saloon League, and expect it to be popular when we do our nonfiction unit.
Weaknesses: This is not as easy to browse as some books, and dense at points. Reading a chapter a day would make it more palatable for students, since the information is very good.

Marrin, Albert. Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy.
Since I have several fiction books on the Triangle Fire, this is a good book to have. This book gives a nice explanation of why immigration changed in the U.S., and why there were so many Italian and Russian Jewish immigrants with little education who ended up in New York City and worked in the garment industry. It also describes conditions in the factories and the homes; the diagram of the "dumbbell" tenement buildings was extremely helpful to me in understanding all the books I read that talked about the rooms in which people lived. The devastating fire is covered fully, with quotes from eyewitnesses, and the labor reforms that were started because of the tragedy are explained as well.
Strengths: This is well laid out, with plenty of pictures, newspaper articles, etc., and the text is not quite as dense, which is helpful. I had not heard of Marrin, but will definitely look at some of his titles, including the Black Gold which comes out in January.
Weaknesses: This is picky, but I wish the orientation of the book had been taller and not as wide! I was very pleased with such a good book on a topic which fascinates me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Guy Friday-- Quirky, Scary, Tired Guys

Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt.
Jack is always in trouble in his small and dying town of Norvelt in 1962. After his last incident (involving Japanese weapons his father brought home from WWII), Jack is grounded except for helping Miss Volker write obituaries for the town paper because her arthritic hands give her problems. Jack also suffers from frequent gory nosebleeds and in general runs into an enourmous cast of quirky characters. The major plot involves the constant death of townspeople and Miss Norvelt's possible involvement.
Strengths: Very good start with some really funny lines, which continue to be sprinkled throughout. I liked the descriptions of Jack's obsession with the Japanese items and cars.
Weaknesses: This got to be a bit long and hard to follow, and I do NOT do quirky well. Jack's nosebleeds got wearisome, as did the descriptions of the old people. Like Gary Schmidt's books set in the 1960s, this struck me as something that would be difficult to get students to read but something that would win every award in the book.

People who liked this much more than I did, and gave more details in their reviews include: Book Smugglers, Fuse 8 Production, Ms. Martin Teaches Media, Nashville Book Worm and Pink Me.

Did you know that if you don't get adequate rest, information you learn during the day doesn't stay in your brain? That's the only excuse I can give for the rest of my reading last night.

Chris Priestly's books should be added to your mental list of Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories series, San Souci's Short and Shivery and Dare to Be Scared series, and Scholastic's Midnight Library. They are nice collections of scary stories that the students will pick up eagerly because of the creepy covers, but don't ask me to describe them. I have a lot of trouble reviewing short stories collections under the best of circumstances. Take a look if you need more scary stories. And who doesn't?

Shan, Darren. Ocean of Blood: The Saga of Larten Crepsley.
Just yesterday, a boy came in and asked if I had read all of the Darren Shan Cirque Du Freak books, then proceeded to ask in which of the books somebody did something. No clue. I don't remember characters' names, or how the book ends, and usually end up with a sentence fragment to describe the book as I fling it at a student. "Evil pixies!" "Brain sucking aliens!": that sort of thing. Not that I would need to describe this one to Shan fans, but I would have to go with "Crepsley as a teenager". It was great; even though he's gory and gross, Shan is also clever and an agile writer. My brain, however, lost it's agility about 9:00 p.m. Wednesday after the high school Curriculum Night.

If you want to know more, hop over to the great book review site Book Zone for Boys and read what the lovely gentleman over there says, apparently after he has gotten a wee bit more sleep than I have!

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Holm, Jennifer L. and Holm, Matthew. Squish: Super Amoeba
Squish is an amoeba. His school principal is a cross-eyed planaria. His friend Pod is another amoeba who is not particularly nice to him, and his friend Peggy is a ridiculously clueless and perky paramecium. When the three get in trouble at school and end up in detention, Peggy makes the bully Lynwood angry, and he intends to eat her. Squish, who follows the comic adventures of Super Amoeba, knows that he should protect Peggy and stand up for what is right, but it's very hard to do.
Strengths: This would have been great for my own children when they were just starting to read. If I Can Read Books had a graphic novel division, this would be one of the entries.
Weaknesses: I adore Holm, but this and Babymouse seem too young for middle schooler. I liked Boston Jane and The Creek so much that I would selfishly prefer that Holm go back to writing middle grade fiction.

Callaghan, Cindy. Just Add Magic.
Kelly loves to cook. While cleaning out an attic, she and her friends find an old encyclopedia with odd recipes pasted in the pages. The recipes all call for odd spices and have notes indicating that ingesting the products can have magical results. Kelly gathers several of her friends, and they try their hand at getting back at people via the magic, even though they have been warned that there will be consequences. Once they start to see this, they try to balance things out by doing good deeds, and eventually Kelly realizes that using the magic to win the chili competition with her mother would be wrong. Did one of the recipes make her crush like her? And how did the magic recipes end up in her hands anway?
Strengths: This combines cooking, which is a very hot topic right now, with magic. I've had a lot of girls asking for books with magic this year, and for some reason, they don't necessarily want a fantasy book. This will be perfect.
Weaknesses: I was somewhat annoyed by the repetition of some phrases (recipedia) and by Kelly herself, as well as with the somewhat didactic ending. I am going to chalk this one up to the fact that I didn't get home until after 9 pm, and it's been a long week. I do think my readers will like this one, and the Mix books are always popular.

Bloggy Stuff

I'm so bad at memes. For one thing, even though Richard Dawkins took the term from the Greek, I'm still not entirely convinced of the word's definition or proper use, and this bothers me!

Do like to post on Nonfiction Monday and Middle Grade Monday, as well as Timeslip Tuesday when I can, but then my week falls apart. My own "Not What I Wanted Wednesday" will never quite take off as much as something like "Teaser Tuesday"! Guy Friday works most of the time.

You'd think I could handle yearly posts and celebrations. Book Blogger Appreciation Week sounds like a great idea, but again, I'm a bit overwhelmed. There are so many book bloggers, and so few devoted to middle grade. Some of my very favorite blogs are Charlotte's Library (where there is a nice post on the Kidlitosphere), From the Mixed-Up Files (where they do a nice monthly round up), Guys Lit Wire (great books for middle grade and up), and Jen Robinson's Book Page (for good overview of everything). I appreciate them every day!

One thing that does help me keep up with various blogs is following. Through my Google account, I can see the post titles of a lot of different blogs, and can click through if there is an interesting review. I haven't actually participated in the "Follow My Book Blog Friday", because I only want to follow blogs that pertain to middle grade books, and I haven't found many of them lately. I must also admit that I am not really interested in much besides reviews. I'd probably skip reading this post! Even if you don't blog, following is an easy way to look through what's out there without having to remember which blogs you should consult. That said, if others want to follow my blog, it's always good for my self esteem.

Finally, remember, the Gabrielle Zevin giveaway entries must be received by the end of the day on Saturday, 17 September so I can have the copy sent to the winner. There are not many entries, so you might as well e mail me and give it a try!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Z. Raptor!

Cole, Steve. Z. Raptor.
Adam is walking across New York City to meet his father for pizza when he is followed by creepy guys and kidnapped! They take him to meet his father and claim to be fighting against Genetech, the company creating mutant dinosaur fighting machine, but then tranquilize Adam and his father and whisk them away to a remote island. There, dinosaurs attack their boats, and Adam ends up stranded. He meets a small group of survivors who are being helped by Loner, a velociraptor who is fighting both the people who turned him into a sentient and vocal but violent mutant. The battle heats up, and it turns out that Genetech is even more evil than Adam already suspects. The ending of this book makes me strongly suspect that Z. Apocalypse will be the final book in this series.

Strengths: Another great British author for guys, Steve Cole also wrote Thieves Like Us and the sequel, the Wereling trilogy, and the Astrosaurs series, which made me sad because it was one of the very few books nominated for the Cybils award that I was not able to read because I could not locate a copy anywhere! Mr. Cole gets the Paul Zindel Gore Award for this tale of island survival.
Weaknesses: My copy of Z. Rex looks like it was chewed on by a Z. Doberman, so I may need to recover it so it is as equally shiny as the sequel.

A note: This book does not have an Accelerated Reader test. Most of the books I review are very new, and RenLearn does not create tests for most books right away. My school, which piloted this program back for our district in 1996 or so, has 3,841 tests. I'm not a huge fan of AR, but it's not inherently evil, and I am able to get students who consult me books that they like and that they are able to finish so that they can meet their AR requirements. It's been a struggle this year, with elementary students being used to online AR.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Timeslip Tuesday-- Always a Witch

Timeslip Tuesday was started by Charlotte at Charlotte's Library.

MacCullough, Carolyn. Always a Witch.

Sequel to Once a Witch. On the eve of her sister's wedding, Tamsin realizes that she is once again going to have to travel into the past to save the Greene family from the evil clutches of the Knight family. Having discovered that her Talent is to be able to absorb the Talents of other people, as well as to suffer few ill effects of time traveling, she makes the perilous journey to New York in 1887, this time using the Domani so she can go without Gabriel. Once there, she fortuitously gets a job as a lady's maid to Jessica Knight, thus entrenching herself in their household, where she finds that the family is draining the blood of maids in order to strengthen their powers. When she finds the Greene family, they don't believe that she is there to help them but see her instead as a harbinger of doom. With limited time, Tamsin must put matters to right in 1887 before her entire family disappears from the present day, and she also learns why her grandmother raised her to get by thinking she didn't have any talents.

Strengths: This is billed as the conclusion, and I have to admire any author today who is able to tell an entire story within the confines of two books. I am becoming weary of series. This is a fresh, magical, paranormal-ly romance that doesn't make me want to roast marshmallows over a roaring fire comprised of mulitple copies of Twilight. Very nice.

Weaknesses: Don't understand the cover. Tamsin's outfit is very clearly described as having a high neck and long sleeves; nowhere in the book would she be strutting around in a strapless gown. The topic of appropriate time travel garb is a topic of conversation in my library from time to time-- I recently acquired the perfect black wool time travel skirt at the thrift store. To be picky, the bridezilla scenes at the beginning of the book didn't work for me, but they might for girls who wear t shirts that say "Only a vampire can love you forever." Sigh.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Middle Grade Nonfiction Monday

Macy, Sue. Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)

When bicycles first became popular in the 1800s, women were derided for riding them, made to ride side saddle (!), and usually forced to ride in dangerous long skirts to avoid public censure. Still, having a mode of transportation they could use that did not rely on anyone else was important in expanding opportunities for women.

Strengths: This is a beautifully laid out book, replete with photographs, period illustrations, and plentiful sidebars about various historical characters. Any book that teaches ME something is fantastic! I also like Sue Macy's Winning Ways, but this is formatted in a much more attractive way.

Weaknesses: None, really. Just want to say that the worst bicycle mishap I've had involved track pants!

Colman , Penny. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship that Changed the World.

Two of the most influential women in the women's suffrage movement were very different women but also great friends. Stanton was married and had a number of children; Anthony was a career woman: a teacher who started out being more concerned with temperance and abolition than women's issues. This exhaustive biography covers their individuals lives and involvements as well as their friendship, which lasted over 50 years.

Strengths: My grandmother was 27 years old before she was able to vote, so I have a strong interest in making middle school girls aware of the opportunities that they have now that many women did not. Plentiful photographs add to this important book.

Weaknesses: Slightly longer than many middle school students would want to read. Colman's other books tend to be more like the title above-- more illustrations and less text. At 236 pages, mainly text, this will take a dedicated middle school reader. Excellent, however, for high school research.

Deacon, Carol. Fabulous Party Cakes and Cupcakes.

*Sigh* This is another very pretty cupcake book, like What's New Cupcake. It will get checked out frequently, but is not very useful. The current fascination with fondant kerflummexes me entirely. It's not any good to eat, it's hard to work with, and the cakes rarely turn out as well as the ones in the books. For a book that students will actually use, I would purchase Betty Crocker's Decorating Cakes and Cupcakes instead.

Weekend Reading

Whew. New book shipment + no cross country meet = massive reading!

Peirce, Lincoln. Big Nate on a Roll.
Nate is back for his third novel (there are collections of the comic strip out as well), and he is once again in trouble. His skateboard has met a dreadful fate, but the Timber Scouts fundraiser gives him a chance to win a new one. All he has to do is sell more tacky wall decorations than the annoyingly perfect Artur, and the board is his. Knowing Nate, however, nothing goes smoothly. There is a lot of romantic entanglement,
Strengths: The students adore Nate, and he is so earnest and well-meaning that it is hard to object to his antics. Funny stuff. I always order two copies of these, and will definitely get Big Nate Goes for Broke when it comes out.
Weaknesses: The ending was a little too pat for me.

Pfeffer, Susan Beth. Blood Wounds.
Willa has a great life with her mother, stepfather and two stepsisters, even though her stepsisters' mother showers them with a lot of monetary advantages. This changes abruptly when Willa's biological father, whom she has never met, murders his wife and two daughters, and goes on the run with his remaining daughter... towards Willa's house. Luckily, the family is alerted in time and is not there when the father shows up and is killed by the police. Willa feels strongly that she should go to the funeral of the sisters she never met, and a family friend takes her to stay with an old friend of her mother's. Willa learns a lot about her past. Once she returns home, she finds everything in chaos; her stepsisters want to move out, her mother is continually upset, and the family finances are in shambles.
Strengths: The students are forever asking for murder mysteries, and will probably like this because of the suspense involved in the father's rampage. It is also a good problem novel that I can see Picky Reader liking. Pfeffer has been on a roll, too!
Weaknesses: I didn't like the gruesomeness of the murder, and the cover

Margolis, Leslie. Everybody Bugs Out.
Annabelle and her friends are back to continue their 6th grade year. The Valentine's dance is coming up, and all of Annabelle's friends are determined to go with dates and dress up. Annabelle would like to go with her friend, Oliver, but then she finds out that her friend Claire wants to go with him. The science fair also has everyone "bugging out"-- science fairs can be really traumatic in middle school, and some students cope with the pressure by enlisting improper help. Annabelle has to figure out if she can find a way to go to the dance with Oliver without annoying Claire, who doesn't like Oliver as much as she likes the idea of going to the dance with him.
Strengths: Spot on 6th grade behavior. Every year, we have tiny girls in shiny dresses at the first dance, when the older girls are in jeans and t shirts. This series is perfect for middle school girls. The constant obsession with the opposite sex is also very, very true...
Weaknesses: ... and painful to read! Oh, I was going to scan a picture of me on my way to an 8th grade dance in 1978, pale green "silk" disco shirt and all. Would not relive that for the world!

Larson, Kirby. The Friendship Doll.
In 1927, the children of Japan sent beautiful dolls over to the American children in exchange for dolls that were sent to them. These dolls were displayed in museums over a period of years. This book follows one of the dolls, Miss Kanagawa, through her exploits in the US. Starting with he New York City debut, where she is introduced by the neice of Roosevelt, to the World's Fair in Chicago, to a private collector, and finally to a small museum. Along the way, she "speaks" to the various little girls who visit her, and makes them become better people by making the right choices. End notes include information on the whereabouts of the dolls today.
Strengths: Having loved Rumer Goden's The Story of Holly and Ivy, I was struck by how similar this was. The idea of dolls "speaking" to girls is not new, but has been long absent.
Weaknesses: Is this theme long absent because girls are not as fond of dolls? I had to buy this one anyway; the cover is fabulous and the story a strong one.

Greenwald, Lisa. Reel Life Starring Us.
Dina was popular at her old school, which was small and encouraged quirkiness, but is having trouble fitting into her new school. Chelsea is the queen bee here, and she is reluctant to get along with Dina, even when the two end up working on a project for the school's 50th anniversary. The two decide to make a film, and hunt down a famous former student to help with it. Along the way, Chelsea finds that Dina is not so bad, and Dina finds that Chelsea's life is not as easy as it looks.
Strengths: Another great realistic fiction book from the author of My Life in Pink and Green and Sweet Treats and Secret Crushes. I thought that the alternating chapters would make it hard to follow, but this is one of the few times that I thought it added to the book.
Weaknesses: Didn't buy that people would fill others' backpacks with potato chips, but it must happen somewhere. What a mess!

Karim, Sheba. Skunk Girl.
Nina is the only Asian girl in her high school in the 1990's, and she struggles with fitting in, although she has several good friends. When Asher moves to her school and the two develop a mutual attraction, she has to decide if she wants to go against the wishes of her family and date him. Adding to her struggles are her older sister, who is academically advanced, and her difficulties working through her ethnic differences. (The title comes from the fact that Nina has "extra" body hair, especially a swath on her back, and this embarrasses her.)
Strengths: An interesting take on another culture.
Weaknesses: This one was more of a high school book due to the philosophical nature of many of the problems. I also think the cover and title are not indicative of the contents.

Garretson, Dee. Wolf Storm.
Stefan, Jeremy and Raine are child actors working in the Carpathian Mountains on a post-apocalyptic sci fi film that includes wolves. When one of the wolves in injured and the crew rush it off to the distant vet, the children are left alone to survive an avalanche that partially destroys the hotel where they are staying. The lone adult, Cecil, is an elderly actor who is not much help, but the three use their wits to survive the bitter cold, the feral wolves in the area, and strong.
StrengthsFabulous survival fiction, great cover, and action-packed, wolf laden adventure in the snow. This will be hugely popular, just like Wildfire Run.Weaknesses: I was a little worried for the miniature pug, but nothing happened to it. Whew!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Guy Friday-- Things I Don't Understand

There are many guy things I just don't get. Like football, golf, and hunting. Reading books for boys is sometimes more a test of will. Last night, I really wanted to read The Friendship Doll or 13 Gifts, but I took one for the (opposing?) team, and read the following:

Greenwald, Tommy. Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading.
Charlie Joe is proud of the fact that he's never read a book all the way through. He knows how to convince teachers that he has, and has an arrangement with one of his friends to trade book information for ice cream sandwiches. He's got the system down: e.g. if parents say "read three chapters", they can be one or two page chapters. When projects loom and his plans fall apart due to the vagaries of middle school alliances and relationships, Charlie Joe may be forced to do some actual reading.
Strengths: Charlie Joe never starts to LOVE to read. Hooray! Mr. Greenwald clearly road tested this book on actual boys, so this clever book rings true. The realignments in romances, and the descriptions of the girls Charlie Joe likes are really brilliant, and I adored this tip on page 123: " If you have to read, read about girls. It helps you understand them better." Validation from an actual boy for Boys Read Pink Month. I'll see if Mr. Greenwald will sponsor us! This was a great book, although a bit long for truly reluctant readers. Will it trick them? Hmmm.
Weaknesses: I didn't buy the student testimonies at Charlie Joe's Position Paper. Or the Position Paper format. I also had problems with the speech at the dance. This is one of my pet peeves, like hall monitors, selling things at school. It's nowhere in my experience and I find it hard to believe it exists anywhere.

Kloepfer, John. The Zombie Chasers.
Students often fail to listen to announcements, but put "zombie apocalypse" on, and 25 boys will come asking for the book! I was very leery of this book for middle schoolers, because the illustrations make it look as if it falls on the elementary side of the Pilkey Line, but it doesn't. My boys want scary zombie books like Z or The Enemy, and have to be convinced to stick with The Vampire's Photograph, but this will work. Zack, Rice and Madison are having a nice birthday celebration when things start to go wrong. Zack's sister Zoe becomes a zombie, and pretty soon most of their town is lurching along, looking for brains to eat. Most of the action concerns escaping the zombies, whether by jumping down a clothes chute into dirty underwear or trying to drive a car. The three try a couple of antidote to try to stop the infection, but they are back in Undead Ahead and the soon-to-be-released Sludgement Day.

Strengths: There's plenty of gross-out humor and zombie descriptions, but I don't agree with the reviews that think this is funny.
Weaknesses: Twinkles. Really? Turn a cute little dog into a zombie? I was rubbing Sylvie's tummy and she did not approve!

Bragg, Georgia. How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous.
In great and gruesome detail, we learn Why We Love Antibiotics. King Tut died of malaria and an infected leg, Queen Elizabeth I had bursting pustules in her throat, and Henry the 8th's corpse apparently burst inside the coffin and leaked out. Ewwwww. While the gross-out moments on this are plentiful, the historical information is really quite good.
Strengths: The bibliography shows how much research went into this. What a great book for history teachers to have to read aloud to the class! This was much better than Dreadful Fates.
Weaknesses: Don't try to read before dinner!

Angleberger, Tom. Darth Paper Strikes Back.
Dwight is in trouble again for origami related mischief. This time, the school thinks he is unbalanced enough that they want to send him to the Correctional and Remedial Educational Facility. Tommy and Kellen use their investigative skills to put together a plan to convince the principal that Dwight is not the threat that he seems.
Strengths: Mr. Angleberger really understands middle school-- the way that allegiances change, the difficulties of romance combined with what your friends will think, the quirky things that middle school students think is a good idea at the time. Combine this with an origami Darth Vader-- hot stuff. Cannot keep either this book or The Origami Yoda on the shelf! This has already been sent over from the public library at least once since my copy just came in yesterday.
Weaknesses: Paper over board cover. Argh! Can we say Lemony Snicket? With the wear and tear these get, they should be in a Gibraltar Bound from the 1960s! (Not the current Random House incarnation, which is just slightly better paper over boards.

Knight, M.J. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Ultimate Guide.
Complete with trading cards, this guide is heavily illustrated by Antonio Caparo and offers an overview of the characters as well as the events of the Percy Jackson books. With a total of about 30 Percy Jackson copies, I had to buy this in the same way that I had to buy The Beatrice Letters (2006-- fell apart yesterday). The biggest problem with the format is the flap on the cover (look closely), which will make it hard to shelve and probably fall off within three years.

I will just go look at my copy of The Black Pearl that was here when the building opened in 1969 and reassure myself that I do spend the public's money wisely. This will get read a LOT, so it's okay.

Whew. If you aren't tired of guy books yet, head over to The Story Snoops for some more Gauntlet Flinging. They have some awesome lists of books for all types of readers.