Sunday, August 31, 2014

Charlie Bumpers vs. The Squeaking Skull

Harley, Bill. Charlie Bumpers vs. The Squeaking Skull
1 September 2014, Peachtree Publishers
Copy provided by publisher through Armchair BEA contest!

Charlie is ready to go trick-or-treating with his friends... if only he can figure out a good costume, a way to NOT have to take his annoying four-year-old sister Squid, and how he can avoid watching the scary movie at his friend's sleepover that night. With the help of an eccentric art teacher, he manages to make his own bat costume out of two broken umbrellas, and his brother Matt tries to help him get used to scary things by telling him creepy stories at night. Meanwhile, Alex's mother decides that the movie is way too scary for the boys, but the somewhat evil Kyle claims to have a copy that he can bring. Other fun subplots include Tommy's insistence that he needs to glue hair to his face in order to be a convincing werewolf!
Strengths: The more I read of Charlie, the more I like him for a good series for younger readers. Figuring out what to be for Halloween and worrying about what friends will think if movies scare you are two very valid elementary school concerns. I don't know if I will buy this third book (Halloween is a completely different affair in middle school), but it is certainly a must have for elementary libraries.
Weaknesses: Credulity stretcher in this was an elementary school allowing costumes! Even when my own children were small, this was never allowed, unless the school theme was "Bats and Snakes" and they were allowed to dress like animals. Maybe this still happens; it certainly did when I was in elementary school!

Other titles in this series include Charlie Bumpers vs. The Teacher of the Year, and Charlie Bumpers vs. The Really Nice Gnome.

18509627 Cheaney, J.B. Somebody on this Bus is Going to be Famous
September 2nd 2014 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
E ARC from

The students on Mrs. B's bus all have a variety of concerns in their lives, and going through the months of the school year, we get to know more about them. Shelley is bound and determined to be a famous singer, but her mother's pregnancy means there is no extra money to send her to camp. Bender's mother is a high powered real estate agent, and he struggles to live up to his older brother's accomplishments. Kaitlyn is inspired by the Salvation Army kettles and takes up a collection on the bus for a family in need. There are several mysteries that surface during the year-- the empty bus stop, what happened at the high school graduation in 1985, and various secrets about the families of the riders that intertwine.
Strengths: Can't say I've read any books that take place primarily on the school bus, so this was a nice twist. Readers who enjoyed the different perspectives of Because of Mr. Terupt will like this tale which portrays many of the family difficulties that students face today.
Weaknesses: The happy cover of this belies the very, very depressing nature of the vast majority of the stories. I was fine with that until the end of the book, when there was even more tragedy-- it was too many different sad situations put together for my taste.

18170137 Christopher, Matt. (Peters, Stephanie True) Perfect Game (Little League #4)
March 4th 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Okay, I have to admit that sometimes, sports books don't stick with me. While I enjoyed the other books in the series, all I really got from this one was that the cousins lived on opposite coasts, somebody was now getting along better with the DiMaggio boy, the players had lucky superstitions, and they figured out what kind of pitch people would throw by watching tapes of games. And they played a lot of baseball. This series has done very well, especially with the bright new covers. Here's a summary from

Two weeks of intense competition remain to decide the final teams for the Little League® World Series. This year, the anticipation is high as it's possible that both of the previous final two teams will return, a very rare occurrence. And those are the teams Carter and Liam now play for! These two players, one from each team, are thinking the same thought: How can I play against my best friend?

This is the fourth book in a five-book series that follows Liam and Carter as they work their way to the Little League® World Series. The final book in the series will coincide with the Little League® 75th Anniversary in 2014.

Also found out that Dale Christopher is retired from teaching and now travels to schools to give talks about his dad's writing career, which is awesome. I do think that the books should not say that "Matt Christopher IS the bestselling author"... since Matt Christopher died in 1997, it's time to acknowledge publicly that other people write for the Matt Christopher franchise.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons-- The Pilkey Line

It's not your imagination-- there were six years between book #8 and book #9, but now they are coming at a fast and furious rate, with book 12 , Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-Lot, coming out in August of 2015. There will also be a Dreamworks movie coming out in January 13 2017, 20 years after the initial publication of the series!

Mr. Pilkey, of course, is fantastic, and really understands that he is writing for children and makes no pretenses of wanting to write something literary that language arts teachers will feel a need to foist upon students. He includes lots of things that make ME laugh, although flip-o-rama on an e reader just doesn't work. Captain Underpants is brilliant on so many levels, but one of the things I especially appreciate is the wide age range to which it appeals. Kindergarteners can enjoy it, but so can middle school students and even high school students, so I'm not sure why I use the phrase "The Pilkey Line" to refer to a demarcation between what elementary students and middle school students will read, since who doesn't like Captain Underpants?

That said, I am hoping that the series wraps up soon. I'd like to see Mr. Pilkey do something else that would appeal to middle grade readers, and the books make me nostalgic for the past, which is silly and not constructive.

20578969Pilkey, Dav. Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000 (Captain Underpants #11)
August 26th 2014 by Scholastic Press
E ARC from

I loved that early on in the book the events of previous books are recapped, and we are issued the reassurance that it's okay if we are confused-- everyone in the book is, too! However, I was able to get a pretty good grasp of this one. George and Harold come back from their previous adventures exhausted, and manage to sleep through tests, which results in Harold being retained in the fifth grade, Mr. Krupp's evil plan to separate him from George. The then use the robosquid time travel pants to go back and take the tests, but accidentally create two of themselves, which results in problems. When all four George and Harolds show up at school, teacher think they are dreaming, strip off their clothes in order to dance around the school, and get carted off, including Captain Underpants, leaving no one to fight off the Turbo Toilet 2000. Eventually, Cracker's eggs (which the boys put in the
 treehouse at the beginning of the story) hatch and release Hamsterdactyls, who manage to defeat it.
Strengths: So many funny things! Nana and Timmy's explanation of the big fight scene was my favorite-- they seem to be a recurring thing, although I don't really remember them in previous books! the Hamsterdactyls are adorable, and the teachers stripping off their clothes-- why is this so funny? Oh, right. I've become a 12 year old boy in my reading habits, which is why I will never be asked to serve on the Newbery committee. Oh, well!
Weaknesses: Seriously, who would ever want to ban these? Weird people who don't understand children, that's who!

20578975Bass, Patrick Henry. The Zero Degree Zombie Zone
August 26th 2014 by Scholastic Press
E ARC from

Bakari Katari Johnson would like to be elected hall monitor, but he is shy and classmate Tariq is always chosen. He gets up enough courage to decide to run, only to have Tariq's friend Keisha give him a hard time. Then, out of the blue, ice zombies appear in the school hallway and demand their ring back. Bakari has no idea what they're talking about... until he sees the ring on Keisha's finger. In order to obtain the ring, he trades a marble that he got from his grandfather, who has passed away. His friend Wardell, trying to be helpful, lets Tariq and Keisha know how important the marble is to Bakari, so they have more power over him. Still, Keisha (who found the ring in the hall that morning) seems to have more of a clue how to harness the ring's power. The four classmates manage to get enough hall passes to keep the ice zombies at bay, and eventually manage to dispatch them, using the power of the ring and Bakari's marble. 
Strengths: This seems to be designed to appeal to the Captain Underpants demographic, and has great pictures, goofy situations, and African American characters on the cover, which is fantastic. It probably has more appeal on the elementary side of the Pilkey line.
Weaknesses: This is very message heavy, with the bullying and election, and that's not really want readers of this type of book are looking for. I doubt that any schools have students be hall monitors any more because of liability issues and the fact that a lot of school have School Resource Officers. There wasn't a a great explanation of where the ice zombies came from, either. Still, I can see this being a big seller in elementary book fairs.

You know, even more props to Dav Pilkey. Captain Underpants has been culturally diverse since 1997!

Sherry, Kevin. The Yeti Files #1: Meet the Bigfeet
September 30th 2014 by Scholastic Press 
E ARC from

This came down on the elementary side. I was hoping for a notebook novel (since it's 128 pages), but it read more like the world's longest picture book. I also was not entirely convinced of the Yeti culture. 

Authentic Yeti culture. Sigh. Sometimes I wonder about my job! And me! 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Guy Friday- Blood in the Water

20578890London, C. Alexander. Blood in the Water (Tides of War #1)
August 26th 2014 by Scholastic Paperbacks 
E ARC from

Cory has tried to get into the Navy SEALS, but wasn't able to hack training. Instead, he is part of the Navy's Marine Mammals Program and has trained a dolphin named Kaj to hunt bombs and other items under water to make the seas safer for the Navy, if not for Kaj! Unfortunately, Cory is still struggling with an event in his life. While out surfing, he and his younger brother Aaron were attacked by sharks. Cory was okay, but Aaron spent three days in the hospital, and Cory feels responsible. He is scared of being in the open waters, scared that sharks will again be a danger, even though he knows that the statistical probability is low. Cory and Kaj are sent to the Sea of Japan and are assigned to retrieve a sensitive piece of equipment that has been lost in North Korean territory. Cory, nervous about everything and feeling that the Navy SEALS know about his failure and are laughing at him, is still determined to make sure that Kaj does the job he was trained to do so he can prove himself to the Navy, but he also wants to keep Kaj safe. Major Landon is sceptical about the "fish" doing a good job, but he is impressed by Cory and Kaj's skills. The mission runs unto trouble, though, when a North Korean trawler turns out to be more than it seems. Men are killed and military security is at stake, and only Cory and Kaj have the abilities needed to save the day. 
Strengths: Like the fabulous Dog Tags books, this shows a ton of research into little known military practices. I can't find the post related to Travis Jonker's assertion that all MG books should be 200 pages of less that claimed that there should be no more World War II middle grade books, but I still have so many readers who want war books, and this is just perfect! It's modern, has lots of suspenseful military action, cool dolphin tactics, and Cory is afraid. Not only is he afraid, but Landon tells him that's okay-- he'd be crazy if he weren't. But Cory is also brave and very loyal to Kaj. This was superb.
Weaknesses: PAPERBACK??? The life of a paperback in my library is about three circulations. Hardcover or prebind is the only way to go, and prebinds take a while. In some cases, they are never available. I would buy two hardcover copies of each of the Tides of War and Dog Tags series books if they were only available! There is not enough clear tape in the world to reinforce paperbacks to make them hold up to being toted around by the average 6th grader!

22323699London, C. Alexander. Honor Bound (Tides of War #1)
6 January 2015, Scholastic Paperbacks.

"A notorious Somalian pirate sails the Arabian Sea, leading a band of deadly thieves and mercenaries on an international crime spree. When they take American hostages aboard a cargo ship, they've finally gone too far -- and a special task force of Navy SEALs and Marines is called in to help. SEALs, Marines . . . and a talented sea lion named Sly.

As Sly's handler, young sailor Felix has two important jobs. Job one is to get Sly to plant a beacon so that the U.S. strike force can follow the pirates back to their haven. Job two is to keep the sea lion safe and out of combat. But when the mission goes wrong and the pirates get the upper hand, Felix and Sly end up right in the middle of the action . . . with dozens of innocent lives at stake."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

How to Fall

17934525Casey, Jane. How to Fall (Jess Tennant #1)
August 26th 2014 by St. Martin's Griffin 
ARC from Baker and Taylor

After a bitter divorce, Jess' mother decides to return to the town of her childhood for a vacation and to visit with her twin sister whom she has not seen in many years. Unfortunately, Jess' cousin, Freya, died the previous summer in a fall off a cliff that may or may not have been accidental.The big problem? Jess looks freakishly like her dead cousin, which makes her entrance into the teen society of the small town turned tourist haven a bit awkward. She meets Freya's friends Will and Darcy, who are a bit shocked at first but realize that, personality wise, Jess is nothing like Freya. Her cousins, Hugo and Petra, are also glad to finally meet their cousin, and have come to terms (as much as they can) with their sister's death. Even Freya's mother, Tilly, encourages Jess to look at Freya's room in order to get to know her cousin posthumously, and even arranges for Jess to have a summer job at the same charity shop where Freya worked. Through Darcy, Jess meets the fantastically mean Natasha, who is interested in Ryan. Jess stands up to Natasha, going so far as to flirt with Ryan just to make a point. Jess is bothered by the circumstances of Freya's death, and starts to investigate. The local policeman happens to be Will's father, who at one point dated Jess' mother, so that adds an extra layer of awkwardness. In the end, Jess does figure out what happened to Freya, and her mother decides to stay in Port Sentinel at least for the coming school year. I'm looking forward to the second book, Bet Your Life, and hope it is published in the US.
Strengths: This was a great British mystery; there are so many television programs like this, but so few mystery books that make their way across the pond. Definitely a great purchase for high school, but since so many students ask for murder mysteries, I think I'll get this for my middle school library as well.

I have to admit that this was a difficult book for me to pick up, since it started with Freya's death on the cliff. However, I was glad to see a realistic portrayal of a family continuing on after a tragedy. Yes, Tilly has some moments, and has kept Freya's room intact for almost a year, but there's no one unable to get out of bed, or sobbing ceaselessly. It's not a good situation, but the family makes the best of things and moves on. This was a huge relief to read; I can't tell you. When Jess and her mother decide to stay in town, Tilly even decides to have Jess move into Freya's room and make it her own.
Weaknesses: A bit more romance would have made this an easier sell to my more mature readers,  but maybe there will be more in the sequel.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

#WeNeedDiverseBooks Wednesday--Turtle of Oman

19321409Nye, Naomi Shihab. The Turtle of Oman.
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline
August 26th 2014 by Greenwillow Books 

Aref’s father is a scientist, and his mother is a professor of English. Since the two are going to study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the family will be moving there. Aref knows that it will be a big adventure, but the week between saying goodbye to his father at the airport and the day that he and his mother leave is a difficult one. He must say goodbye to neighbors, his best friend, his grandfather, and he must pack one suitcase to take with him. During his preparations, he visits different places in his neighborhood, including a neighbor who is 100 years old and will be 103 when he returns, and spends a couple of days with his grandfather fishing while his mother takes care of loose ends in Muscat. At the end of the week, Aref has finally packed and is ready to set off for the United States.
Strengths: Nye is a wonderful writer (I’m a huge fan of her poems), and she does a good job of capturing not only Aref’s emotions about moving but of describing his environment in Muscat in a way that underlines those emotions. This would be a good choice to read to a child who was moving—surely, most moves within a country are not nearly as difficult as moving into an entirely new culture.
Weaknesses: I would have like to see Aref make the trip to the US and experience life in Michigan. It was interesting to find out about life in Oman, but it also would have been intriguing to see what Aref thought of life in the US.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

MARY: The Summoning (Bloody Mary #1)

17661402Monahan, Hillary. MARY: The Summoning (Bloody Mary #1)
September 2nd 2014 by Disney-Hyperion
E ARC from

Jesse is determined to get her girl friends Kitty, Anna and Shauna together to try to summon the ghost of Mary Worth. She has done her research; gotten letters from her Aunt Dell, tried to talk to women who managed to summon her, and figured out what wards will keep the girls safe. Of course, as with any of the unquiet dead, Mary is not content to come and wave howdy to the girls; she tries to drag Shauna into the mirror with her and claws her shoulders very badly. The girls, especially Anna, are terrified and want to stop the nonsense, but Jesse persists. Shauna realizes that she can now see Mary in other mirrors, and when Mary comes after her at school, she contacts Cody, who was haunted by the ghost for years. Cody lives behind windows covered in pig blood and black paper to remain safe, and cautions Shauna that no one Shauna knows or cares about is safe. Perhaps there is a way to figure out why Mary still haunts people 150 years after her death? The girls investigate a church, but get discovered by the police and sent home. Soon, though, very bad things start to happen. Mary is loose in the world and severely injures one friend and kills another. Secrets are revealed about Jesse's motivations, but the mystery is not resolved, since there is a second book in the works.
Strengths: My 6th graders would be perfectly happy if I handed them Stephen King, but I would soon be out of a job. I realize that they want scary books, but they don't need human-on-human violence, bad language, or TOO much gore. This struck a good balance, and I thought the author's post about the topic was illuminating. This is gross-- Mary's ghost is oozing, bloody, muddy and maggot ridden. She slashes people with her fingernails, and there are horrible smells and bugs. There aren't any flying body parts, but  this is a bit scarier than Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes, because it's based more in reality. Buying horror for middle grade students is quite the process.
Weaknesses: There are some odd turns of phrase, and I didn't feel that this was as psychologically scary as it could have been, and I would have liked to know Jesse's motivation for summoning Mary much sooner. However, I can see Monahan being a great success as her writing matures.

Three Marys Tote Bag
The students are not going to have the same association with the name Mary Worth as I did!

Monday, August 25, 2014

MMGM-- Pet Fish on the Covers!

Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards Remember, the Cybils Awards committee are LOOKING FOR JUDGES! Click here to get information and apply. Remember also that the Middle Grade Fiction organizer is a lovely person to work with. (Ahem, that would be yours truly!) If you are a book blogger with a middle grade focus, a writer of middle grade, or a teacher, librarian or parent who spends a lot of time delving into this area and blogging about it, please consider applying.

19156898Holm, Jennifer. The Fourteenth Goldfish.
August 26th 2014 by Random House Books for Young Readers 
E ARC from

Ellie is having a hard time. Her divorced parents are both into acting, but she doesn't have any interest in it. Her best friend has taken up volleyball in a big way. She has found, much to her chagrin, that her goldfish did NOT outlive all the other goldfish that children in her class got in elementary school-- her mother just kept replacing them. When her mother shows up with a teenage boy in tow, and he claims to be her grandfather Melvin, Ellie is tossed into an unbelievable world where her grandfather has isolated the compound needed to reverse the human aging process... from a jellyfish. It's believable, since the young version of Melvin has many of her grandfather's quirks, and he is intent on breaking into the lab where he worked and getting the jellyfish and research back. With the help of Raj, who looks threatening but is actually quite helpful, the group set off to get the things out of the lab, and along the way, Melvin and Ellie come to terms with many facets of their lives.
Strengths: Okay, maybe I have gone over to the dark side because this was one of those books that language arts teachers love because it has Valuable Life Lessons, but this was FANTASTIC. It's short, has a lot of action, will appeal to all readers, has some cool science, throws us right into the situation with the grandfather so we don't even blink about suspending disbelief, and brings us my favorite thing to read about... a close grandparent, and one which the main character gets to hang out with when he is her own age. Awesome. I've liked Holm's other books like Boston Jane and The Creek, and this was just charming.
Weaknesses: The day is coming very quickly where we won't be able to tell grandparents from children. Melvin comes back and wears polyester pants, cardigans, and other "old man" clothes. However, my parents are even older than Melvin and regularly wear jeans. They'd probably come back hipper than my daughters!

18782850 Gephart, Donna. Death by Toilet Paper
August 5th 2014 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Benjamin's family is really struggling. His father died of cancer, and his mother is working as a waitress while trying to finish up her school work and tests to become an accountant. Their rent is due, and the landlord has been sympathetic, but if they don't pay soon, they will be evicted. To top it all off, Benjamin's grandfather, Zayde Jake, has moved in with the family and his senile dementia is becoming worse. His friend Toothpick, who likes to mess around with film makeup and produce his own horror movies, is supportive of Benjamin, as is Toothpick's father, and their neighbor Mrs. Schneckle helps out, too. Benjamin comes up with several plans to earn money, including selling candy bars at school, even though it against school rules to sell anything that isn't officially sanctioned. He also enters a lot of contests and manages to win a few things like a grill or a year's supply of oatmeal, but he and his mother need something a little bigger to tide them over.
Strengths: Extra points for the fun facts on toilets at the beginning of each chapter! While this was essentially a sad book, it really drew me in and kept me reading, in the same way that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn did. How bad will it get? What will Zayde Jake do next? Will the family really be evicted? There are lots of funny moments, too. In general, a great middle grade book, and the bits of Jewish culture are something that is a bit rare these days. (Although that's one subgroup I really see very little of in my library.) I especially liked that Benjamin and his mother were still struggling with the death of the father but were continuing on with their lives in a productive fashion. Realistic, but hopeful in a way that many books are not.
Weaknesses:  I would have given this five stars if it weren't for a stereotypical bullying scene. Yes, it was pivotal to the plot, but we've all been there and gotten the swirly. The ending is a bit deus ex machina as well, but the target demographic won't necessarily see these weaknesses.

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and What Are You Reading? day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday at Anastasia Suen's blog.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Family Ties

17797303Paulsen, Gary. Family Ties (Liar, Liar #5)
July 22nd 2014 by Wendy Lamb Books

Kevin is still trying his best to impress Tina, on whom he has such a crush that he thinks about marrying her when he grows up. What better way to show his commitment  to the future than helping his somewhat odd Uncle Will plan his wedding, or helping Tina's friend Katie with their family life project for which they choose to take care of a popcorn "baby" and document its care? In true Kevin fashion, he is bound and determined to do everything on his own, which is good, because his busy working parents seem to just shake their heads over the growing chaos in the house as they rush to escape to the sanity of their offices. Kevin also promises to have an entry to the school arts fair, but doesn't leave himself enough time to get everything done. Like the other books in this series, impossible and hysterical situations abound.
Strengths: These books are fantastic for reluctant readers, or for readers who just want a short, funny book to last them a day or two. Paulsen has a great turn for comedy, and the different dysfunctional family members alone are a marvel of character descriptions. Kevin makes himself the center of all events, which is a very middle grade view of the world. From the vibrant covers to the wacky endings, these books have all the successful elements of middle grade literature!
Weaknesses: It was slightly creepy how convinced Kevin was that he would marry Tina when they grew up. Do middle school boys really think this way? I'm even afraid to ask!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons, plus a PSA

Have to admit-- now that my 1960s honking huge television cabinet is gone, I'm ready to replace the tube television from 1993. With the HDTV box, antenna, VCR and DVD player hooked to it, it's nearly impossible to turn on. This means that the girls and I don't watch a lot of television, which is good. Most of what we watch is on the computer, through Amazon Prime. Maybe it's bad to support Amazon, but since they have a lot of BBC programs I couldn't get elsewhere, it makes my day. I'm looking into a 29" Smart TV so that we can watch some programs together and not have to huddle over a laptop. Maybe for Christmas!

The biggest objection that both girls had was that with an LCD tv, it would be mounted up too high and they couldn't lie on their stomachs and watch television. Not that they do it anyway. So we compromised, and have a table for the television that isn't too high!

17801394Telgemeier, Raina. Sisters.
August 26th 2014 by Scholastic 
E ARC from

In this companion to the autobiographical Smile, Raina's family is spending a week driving to a family reunion in Colorado. As anyone who has ever had to live through a long car trip with family knows, Raina, Amara and Will don't always get along the way that their mother would like, (Their father is flying out, thereby missing the trip. Smart man.) As events occur on the road trip, there are flashbacks illustrating how the siblings' relationship has progressed over time. Once the family gets out to Colorado, there are more dynamics at play, including ones that may affect the future of Raina's family.
Strengths: This book could be about the life cycle of an earthworm, but since it is illustrated by Telgemeier, readers will pick it up. I don't completely understand the appeal, since I'm sure these books would not be very popular as straight prose, as they are mildly but not overly depressing. I've gone through at least three copies of Smile, although Drama doesn't check out quite as much. This will circulate.
Weaknesses: It would be nice to have a more solid idea about the year that this occurred-- there are some historical references that would be clearer.

18339702 Candlewick Press. Super Supper Showdown (Fizzy's Lunch Lab)
May 13th 2014 by Candlewick Entertainment
Copy from YABC and reviewed there.

In this hybrid story/cookbook, we find the characters from the PBS show involved in a competition. Fizzy is sure that Avril and Henry would prefer to have a fresh, tasty and wholesome meal, whereas Fast Food Freddy is sure that they would prefer something deep fried (and possibly on a stick). The two cooks come up with a menu, complete with recipes for the healthy food, and cook the meals, taking time to explain things like "eating the rainbow", which  means getting a variety of colors from fruits and vegetables, NOT eating multicolored jelly beans. There's good information about the role of different kinds of food in a healthy diet, fun facts, amusing pictures, and other information about foods and choices that make up a healthy diet.

This is based on a PBS web series by the same name, which also has games, recipes, and other internet content. While this had no appeal at all to me personally, I could see having my children watch it if they were younger. Of course, since they only got one half hour of screen time daily, they'd have to watch an episode one day and do the games the next.

The whole time I was reading this, I was humming the following to myself. If you remember Time for Timer, you will find that you know more of the lyrics to this than you care to!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Guy Friday-- My Friend The Enemy

20578925Smith, Dan. My Friend The Enemy
August 26th 2014 by Chicken House
E ARC from
Also reviewed at YABC.

When a German plane crashes in a field near Peter's house in the English countryside, he and the other children in the area are enthralled. When the adults have cleared off, Peter and Kim, an evacuee, search the plane and find a "souvenir" handgun as well as the body of one of the pilots. Other children have seen a parachute go down, so Peter and Kim search for another German soldier, and find one. He begs them not to shoot him, and the children decide that if they turn him over, the Home Guard might well kill the man, who is injured. They put him up in a pheasant coop that Peter's father (who was a gamekeeper for Mr. Bennet's estate and is currently a pilot) built and attempt to bring him food and mend his injuries. The war has caused everything to be rationed, so this is not an easy thing to do. Kim becomes a great friend to Peter; even though she is a girl, she dresses like a boy and is fearless. The two spend a lot of time with Erik, the flyer, and come to understand that he is just like Peter's father and Kim's brother, who are fighting even though they don't particularly want to. The people in Peter's village continue to look for the downed flyer, and a local bully makes Peter's life even more difficult, although Mr. Bennett has taken a shine to Peter's mother and brings the struggling family much needed supplies. The children know that they can't keep Erik a secret forever, and a tragic accident leads to his discovery.
Strengths: While there have been plenty of books about children taking care of enemy soldiers, this one seemed fresh and very interesting. The details of life for the British during the war is told in vivid detail in a way that will be applicable to young readers, and the slow realization that the Germans are just the same as the English is well done. Even the minor sub plot of Mr. Bennet's interest in the mother was a nice touch. The cover is fantastic, so I will definitely buy a copy for y insatiable WWII readers.
Weaknesses:  While Kim was a fantastic character, she seemed a bit anachronistic, and I kept wondering where she managed to get the boy's clothing she wore and who allowed her to cut her hair.

21561025 McKay, Sharon E. The End of the Line
August 19th 2014 by Annick Press

Five year old Beatrix is riding on a train in Holland where brothers Lars and Hans are working. When the Nazis board the train and take her mother away, she is left behind, and Lars claims that she is his niece.  There's nothing to do then but to take her home and figure out how to care for the girl, unless the brothers want to turn her over to the Nazis. They ask their elderly neighbor Mrs. Vos what to do, and she gives them advice and helps them out. She also visits every house in the neighborhood to announce the arrival of the men's "niece", also mentioning information or infractions that the neighbors might not want the Nazis to know about, to ensure that they won't inform about the girl! The war continues, and the makeshift family pools their resources to survive in the best way that they can.
Strengths: This was a very sweet, short book that will be excellent for some of our students who need a book about the Holocaust for our eighth grade unit on that historical time period, but who are of a more delicate sensibility. I liked McKay's more young adult books, but this is a great one to have as well.
Weaknesses: There could have been a little more information about the war and occupation, although this is a difficult balance in a book for younger readers.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Million Ways Home

A Million Ways HomeWinget, Dianna Dorisi. A Million Ways Home
 August 26th 2014 by Scholastic Press
E ARC from

Poppy lives with her Grandma Beth, since her botanist parents were killed abroad when she was a baby. When her grandmother has a stroke, Poppy ends up in a children's home, where she is not happy. When she tries to go and visit her grandmother on her own, she ends up in the wrong place and witnesses a convenience store robbery that ends in a fatal shooting. Unfortunately, she has given her name to the shooter, who escapes, and ends up in police custody for her own safety.  A young detective, Trey Brannigan, takes Poppy to live with his mother, who took in foster children until the death of Trey's father. At Marti's house, she is able to feel cared for and have interests other than her grandmother, especially the troublemaking Lizzie, who is doing community service with her mother at an animal shelter. There, Poppy meets a dog, Gunner, who is slated to be euthanized because he is thought to have bitten several people. Poppy works with him, and gets one of Trey's coworkers to train him for the police narcotics unit. In the meantime, Poppy is afraid that if she identifies the shooter, she will have to go back to the home, so she withholds information. When her situation worsens, she has to decide what the best thing to do will be, for herself and everyone involved.
Strengths: This was really a page turner, and I enjoyed it. My students love problem novels, and this certainly qualified for that, but there was also a bit of a mystery as well. Great cover, nice details about working with dogs, as well as information about foster care and nursing homes.
Weaknesses: A lot going on here. I could have done without the drama involving Poppy's parents, and it was especially sad, if realistic, that the shooting at the convenience store was fatal. Definitely would have left out the brief story of Trey's neighbor who was killed. Yes, these details provide motivation for the characters, but it also makes the book a bit confusing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Call for Cybils Judges!

Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards

If you've missed the call for Cybils Judges and would like to be considered, head over to the site now and sign up. I am the head of Middle Grade Fiction, so if you read a lot of this type of book and would like to read a lot more, head over and fill out the application.

An excellent post on the intricacies of being a panelist was put up by the lovely Charlotte over at Charlotte's Library. There were around 150 books that the first round panelists needed to read last year; second round judges get 6-8. While some copies are sent to judges, we need to find most of them on our own.

Like anything worth doing, it's a lot of work, but it's a great opportunity to meet other like minded individuals who love books, get a fantastic overview of the books that were published in the last year, and to think critically about what books are well written AND appeal to young readers!

Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting

18507795Dionne, Erin. Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting
July 10th 2014 by Dial

In this sequel to Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking, we find Ollie whisked off to a scout camp to lie low in the aftermath of finding the stolen art with Moxie. Ollie is a little apprehensive to join an existing troop of boys he doesn't know, but likes the idea of geocaching and participating in a game of attrition where boys are tagged "out". There is the added thrill of mysteries on the small islands outside of Boston, and these become even more intense when the park ranger's daughter, Grey, shows up. What is the ranger really doing? And how much trouble will Ollie and his new friends get in while they break camp rules to investigate?
Strengths: Lots of adventure in the woods, complete with highjinks that are against the rules. A touch of historical information. I've been reading a lot about Graff's Absolutely Almost and how it is new and innovative that Albie is a "regular" kid-- Ollie certainly was regular in this book.
Weaknesses: I loved Moxie, and missed her character tremendously. This book didn't have the same element of danger, the mysteries seemed scattered, and something just didn't click for me.

This does, however, get HUGE points for #WeNeedDiverseBooks Wednesday-- Ollie is half Vietnamese (and has bad asthma), the scoutmaster is Fuentes, the parent volunteer is Gupta, and this boys include a Spezzano, Vargas, Pryzyblowicz, Ramirez and an Imprezzi. Troop leader Washington has dreadlocks. The ethnic makeup of Boston must be much different than the ethnic makeup of central Ohio-- we have a growing Somali, Hispanic and Ghanan population, but still have a vast majority of students with names like Williams, Taylor and Brown!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The League of Seven

18490612Gratz, Alan. The League of Seven
August 19th 2014 by Starscape 
E ARC from

In an alternate 1870s where First Nations people compose a large portion of the country, Archie's parents are librarians for the Septembrists, a group dedicated to making sure that the Mangleborn (giant beetle like evil doers who have been controlled for centuries but are roused by use of electricity). The Mangleborn attack Archie's parents and steal them away, and Archie ends up in the company of one of Edison's assistants who has realized that the inventor is evil and wants to release the menace. With the help of Mr. Rivets (his parents' robot helper), Fergus and Hachi, he assembles a team of seven adventurers who follow the formula for all good Septembrist groups (tinker, etc.) through the ages. Can they manage to control the Mangleborn threat and find out secrets of Archie's past?
Strengths: I really enjoy Gratz's work: The Brooklyn Nine,and  Prisoner 3087 were awesome. I appreciate that he thought about all the things that he would have thought were cool in books when he was ten and included those sorts of things in a good introduction to Steam Punk. There are plenty of gross moments in this, plus cool clockwork robots.
Weaknesses: Steam Punk is a hard sell in my library, and I don't like it myself, so this was sort of hard to read for me. My only REAL complaint about this was the short description of "p-mail" or pneumatic mail that was delivered "via a series of tubes called the Inter-Net" (page 101). This reminded me of Once Upon a Marigold, where "p-mail" is "pigeon mail". Just... no. But I will buy a copy of this for my fantasy readers who might like to explore this genre.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

MMGM- The Map Trap

13260468Clements, Andrew. The Map Trap.
July 22nd 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers 

Alton has had a life-long fascination with maps of all kind. He loves to look at them, hang them in his room, and draw them. He draws maps not only of real places, but of things like his teacher Miss Wheeling's mind, the heights of kids in his class, and charts of the cafeteria food correlated with the number of bathroom trips students make! After Alton tries to impress "cool kid" Quint by showing him the map of Miss Wheeling, the whole folder goes missing. Thinking that Quint has probably taken it, Alton rides his bike to Quint's house, and the two start to investigate. Fearing that people will hate him for all of his funny but unflattering comments after someone sends him a ransom note of sorts concerning the maps, Alton apologizes to a teacher whose use of "um" he has charted-- and she finds the chart amusing. Buoyed by this, Alton proceeds to apologize to everyone, so he doesn't have to worry about the maps resurfacing. In the process, he makes friends with Quint and gets along better with his classmates.
Strengths: Fun tale of making friends and facing the consequences of our actions. There are always a number of younger readers, especially boys, who love maps. Clements is a tiny bit young for middle school, but a great choice for struggling readers at this level.
Weaknesses: Quint's vocal tics were odd enough without Alton pointing them out multiple times, and the illustrations have an odd, 1980s quality to them.

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and What Are You Reading? day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers.

Yearly Status Update/Rant:
We have been back at school for a week now. I love the start of the year! So much energy and enthusiasm, especially since I've convinced my principal to let me rename the library the Portal to Other Dimensions and to call myself the Portal Keeper Master. I felt that after Common Core, testing, building renovations, staff turnover, and an otherwise stressful year, students and teachers needed something fun and stress relieving. What better way than to sell reading as a release from all of those concerns? I'll share more about the "Portal" as the year progresses.

One reason that I need some stress relief is that at the beginning of June, both of my parents (who are 80) went from being in reasonably good health and living alone in a four bedroom house, to being in poor physical and mental health and living in a senior community, with my mother, who has had Parkinson's for a number of years, in assisted living. The downsizing and transfer took some considerable time.

Most years, this would not bother me, but this year, it's hard. Reading books like The Map Trap can be difficult, since I once had a student who not only adored Andrew Clements' books but who also was very fond of maps, competing in the Geography Bee and translating this love into global traveling. Like so many other students, he is no longer at my school or in my life, but the books that he checked out still are on the shelves and I come across them daily.

Long time readers may be reassured that I and my family are fine, as we are embracing this philosophy every single day: “Go back?" he thought. "No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!" So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go! 

I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii, 79 A.D.

20578944Tarshis, Lauren. I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii, 79 A.D.
August 26th 2014 by Scholastic Inc. 
E ARC from

Marcus used to be the slave of Linus Selius, a scientist, and his father, Tata, helped the man out with his studies. When the scientist died, Tata was sold, and Marcus' life at Festus' house in Pompeii became very difficult. Pompeii is seeing a lot of natural disturbances, and when there is a tremor in the market place that knocks an old lady down, Marcus helps her up. She warns him that dire times are coming and advises that he should "follow the hand of Mercury". When Marcus sees gladiators coming into town and recognizes his father among them, he is determined to rescue his father from certain death. The disturbances, as well as the appearance of a horse the two are able to ride, make this escape possible, but Tata feels compelled to go back to the town and let everyone know that disaster is looming and that everyone should flee. The guards don't take the slaves seriously and their freedom is again in peril. Can the two survive not only the volcano but also the evil Festus?
Strengths: I'm a huge fan of this series. The books are fast paced, exciting, and impart a great deal of historical information to reluctant readers. Pompeii is covered in our seventh grade social studies curriculum.
Weaknesses: Disclaimer: I taught Latin. There were some details in this book that struck me as not quite right. At one point, guests come to Festus' house driving a chariot. Chariots were used only in the military, as far as I know. Horses were not really ridden, as they were very hard to obtain and expensive to keep, which makes me think that Marcus' chances of finding an abandoned horse who was amenable to being ridden would have been slim. Tata was an educated slave from Germania, and it seems unlikely that he would have been sold as a gladiator, even if Festus had a grudge concerning him. Of course the guards wouldn't have listened to the slaves. I doubted the pair's ability to escape after ash started falling.

So I'm torn. This is a good story, and some of the details of Ancient Rome are good. Am I being too picky? Tarshis clearly did research, so am I misremembering details?

By the way, an excellent online resource for Roman life and culture, Mary Johnston's The Private Life of the Romans, is available at

Saturday, August 16, 2014

XYZs of Being Wicked

18812590Chapman, Lara. The XYZs of Being Wicked
July 22nd 2014 by Aladdin 

Hallie is the first girl in her family in about five generations, and since she is from a family of witches, she is sent rather suddenly to the Dowling Academy School of Witchcraft. She is a bit surprised, but glad that she can start over, far away from former BFF and current nemesis Kendall. She's also eager to see what magic she will be able to do. When she arrives, things go well until her roommate turns out to be Kendall, who still won't speak to her. Luckily, she soon meets Ivy, whose roommate is the equally obnoxious Zena, the daughter of the headmistress. Ivy and Hallie start to ban together, and start to enjoy their classes, especially the ones dealing with discovering their magical gifts. Hallie's discovery is impeded a bit by an amulet she was looking at in the library, picked up when the custodian was around, and hasn't been able to get back to the display case! It belonged to one of the founders of the school, and it seems to have imbued Hallie with some of its power. The school is only about good magic, not black magic, so Hallie is surprised and worried when she hears Zena and Kendall trying to cast a spell to make other girls ugly, especially when the spell seems to have the opposite effect and make them prettier. Hallie has to figure out her gifts, her lineage, and how to fit in at the school and deal with a roommate who won't even talk to her.

I know that I was enthralled by the idea of magic when I was in middle school-- I wish I knew the name of the "spell" book that I checked out repeatedly from the public library! This was good magical realism, and the girl drama is certainly part of the middle school experience, even at schools that don't deal in magic. This has a great cover, too, and a sequel coming out in April 2015.
Weaknesses: I found it hard to believe that Kendall would have dumped Hallie as a friend because Hallie started to wear glasses and cook kids don't-- this wasn't even true when I was in middle school. I was also confused by the titles of both books, since the academy clearly frowns on black magic. I didn't find anything objectionable in the books, but if your school had fits over Harry Potter, there would certainly be concerns about portraying witches as real.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor

20702011Scieszka, Jon. Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor
August 19th 2014 by Amulet Books
ARC from Baker and Taylor

Frank is hoping to win the Midville science competition by creating a robot with a thought process driven by a neural network rather than linear programming.He manages to succeed, although the robot Klink is slightly more intelligent than the robot Klank, whose memory is from a digital watch and who has significant parts from a  Hug Me Monkey doll and a keyboard. Since the robots created themselves, he doesn't feel it's right to enter them into the competition, even though he hopes to use the prize money to help out his grandpa Al, who runs a fix it shop out of a converted factory. The robots help Frank and his friend Watson create an antimatter motor for a Fly Bike, but the robots and motor are stolen by the evil and conniving T. Edison and his evil sidekick, Mr. Chimp, who hope to win the competition and put Al out of business. When the science prize is given to T. Edison without any competition, he fends off any complaints by awarding money to each competitor. This doesn't assuage Frank, though, and thanks to his robots, he is able to save the day enough to come back for book two.
Strengths: It is a rare book that includes BOTH Asimov's Rules for Robots and a plot synopsis of Pilkey's Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants. That in itself should win this book some kind of award. Combine that with copious illustrations, robots, a chimpaneze who knows sign language and a flying bike-- you've got middle grade gold. Bonus: If you are a Lit God like Scieszka, you can have both Jeff Kinney and Tom Angleberger blurb your book!
Weaknesses: Scieszka's Knucklehead set the bar incredibly high for me. It is the funniest thing I have ever read in my life, and I keep expecting everything else by Scieszka to make me laugh so hard that I get lightheaded. This didn't, so I was vaguely disappointed. Had it been by anyone else, I would have thought it was brilliant, but I just want more of Knucklehead's realistic, slightly older humor!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Book of Bad Things

20578972Poblocki, Dan. The Book of Bad Things.
August 26th 2014 by Scholastic Press 
E ARC from

Cassidy loves spending the summer in a community away from the city, in a stable family, with a friend, Joey, to play with. She's back again, but this time, it's a last minute arrangement, and her host family forgets to pick her up. She does run into the nice Hal, who helps, but she knows that things are not going to be the way they were. Last summer, Joey's dog died after choking on a piece of blanket that he pulled out of the basement of Ursula Chambers' house, and Joey blames Cassidy and hasn't been the same since. Ursula has since passed away, and her house is found to be crowded with all manner of objects. Several people have taken things from the house... to their peril. When several people die, and their corpses go missing, Cassidy begins to suspect that something very evil is going on. With the help of neighbor Ping, she and Joey start to investigate and find out that Ursula's house was moved when the subdivision was built, and is now located in a nexus that seems to be drawing things into it. When they go into the house, they find that not only is it crowded with objects, but the community members who died make a surprising appearance. Things go from bad to worse when they think Hal has died, and the group research how to stop the evil from encroaching on their town. Framed by entries from Cassidy's notebook where she describes "bad things" in order to not be afraid of them, this story eventually makes this notebook (and the reason for it) and integral part of the story, and the solution to the problem.
Strengths: I definitely agree that Poblocki is a "modern master of the macabre". We could have ten authors writing stories like his, and there still wouldn't be enough to suit my readers. This is another great story, probably my second favorite, right behind The Ghost of Greylock. There's the supernatural, some zombies, emotional trauma, and lots and lots of scary twists. A must purchase for libraries everywhere!
Weaknesses: Cassidy's notebook entries are in a hand written font that was difficult for my old eyes to read in the E ARC, and weren't strictly necessary to the plot. I can see why they were included, though.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Saving Kabul Corner--#WeNeedDiverseBooks Wednesday

18048966Senzai, N.H. Saving Kabul Corner
February 4th 2014 by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 

This companion/sequel to Shooting Kabul is set in San Francisco. Ariana's family has an Afghan grocery, and they are doing well enough to purchase a house in Mission Hills, but when a new grocery store opens up, the family's future is in jeopardy. Not only does Pamir Market cut into Kabul Corner's income, but there is bad blood going back to an incident involving a goat that occurred when Ariana's grandmother was young.When both stores are vandalized, Ariana and her classmate Wali (who is the son of the owner of Pamir) start to suspect foul play from an outside source and begin to investigate. Also appearing are Ariana's cousin Laila, who is recently arrived from Afghanistan and whose father is still there, and Mariam, a character in Shooting Kabul.
Strengths: Lots of good details about life in this particular place-- the description of Wong Plaza was so detailed that I felt like I had been there! The different businesses shown, the owner's plight to keep the plaza occupied and away from developers; all very interesting. I also liked that this included recent immigrants and well as children who were born in the US. This would be a great one to pair with Pig Park.
Weaknesses: The children investigating was the weak part for me, but middle grade readers will enjoy it. It can be read as a stand alone, since the main character of Shooting Kabul, Fadi, appears only briefly.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Get Lost, Odysseus.

20485934McMullan, Kate. Get Lost, Odysseus.
1 August 2014, Stone Arch Books
E ARC from

In this tenth book in the Mythomania series, Hades wants to set the record straight about the role of his brother Poseidon in the travails of Odysseus. Of course, Hades tried to get Poseidon to ease up, and spends a lot of time following Odysseus around because he’s such a good guy, but this is a sacrifice because the Underworld is a busy place AND he’s worried that something is wrong with Cerberus.

This book follows The Odyssey fairly faithfully, explaining a lot of things that students would not get from, say, Lattimore’s translation, and injects a good dose of humor into it by framing it with Hades’ point of view. There are some historical… liberties that bothered me (anything ancient Greek that mentions togas, and Hades method of travel, which is ZIPPPING—traveling to an area’s zip code, which they wouldn’t have had in Greece), but will not even come across students’ radar. This series has been hugely popular with my students, and the books are a good way to introduce myths to students in a fun way so they will actually read and remember them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

MMGM- Always, Abigail

18509629Cavanaugh, Nancy J. Always, Abigail.
August 5th 2014 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
ARC from Baker and Taylor

Abigail is excited to begin middle school, especially since she and her friends Alli and Cami have been shopping all summer and are ready to make the pom pom squad and rule the school. However, Abigail gets stuck in Miss Hendrick's homeroom, while her friends have the cute new male teacher, and she is made an alternate on the pom pom squad. Her life is totally OVER, especially when Miss Hendricks assigns letter writing partners, and Abigail gets stuck with Flabby Gabby. Abigail is torn. She really wants to be a pom pom girl, but even Alli and Cami are being weird and mean about being on the squad, and Gabby is being really nice and helpful. The two are asked to read to kindergartners, and Abigail really enjoys it until her former friends start making fun of her. Keeping lists of things in a journal, Abigail tries to reconcile wanting to be part of the popular crowd with how mean the popular crowd is. Alli and Cami have been her friends for a long time, but she is increasingly uncomfortable with their behavior, especially when it comes to their treatment of Gabby.
Strengths: At first, I really, really wanted to slap Abigail, especially after her description of Miss Hawk and her everlasting obsession with the pom pom squad, but... it's a pitch perfect middle school voice, and she does learn a hard, hard lesson that so many middle school girls learn. Friends change. Popular people can be mean. Things that seem like a good idea at the time are not. Mistakes are made at very loud volumes, in front of everyone. Cavanaugh really knows her demographic, writes effectively and convincingly, and even the format (lists) works.
Weaknesses: The story line has been done before, and Gabby is a bit stereotypical for an unpopular girl (bad family circumstances, geeky, outspoken), but every few years we need an updated version of this story with a cover that's in style. No one is going to read Mary Downing Hahn's 1983 Daphne's Book anymore, so this is a good way to cover this topic.

I'll give my ARC to an incoming 6th grade girl who LOVES to read realistic fiction, and she'll be thrilled.

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and What Are You Reading? day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday at Anastasia Suen's blog.

Today is the first day back at school, and I don't feel as prepared as I like to be. The library is clean and organized, I have schedules of classes and books displayed, but I  don't FEEL as prepared as I should be. There's a back log of books to process, my new orders aren't in, and I only read 140 books this summer. Too much real life, going on, I'm afraid. It lead to having to DRIVE places nearly every day instead of just reading on the porch with Sylvie and occasionally biking to the library, which is the ideal way to spend the summer, especially when the weather was as lovely as it was this summer.

Also smarting a bit at not being included in this new list of children's bloggers at Fuse 8/School Library Journal, but it's a good reality check that if I am blogging for the fame and renown, I'm blogging for the wrong reasons! I blog so that I know my books and can get the right book to the right student at the right time. Everything else is gravy. And gravy is bad for us, anyway!

Glad to be back, though, and hope to become more organized as year progresses! Maybe next summer I will get up and running on podcast reviews.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

All Four Stars

18289482Dairman, Tara. All Four Stars
July 10th 2014 by Putnam Juvenile 

Gladys lives in a suburb outside of New York City with her busy parents who hate to cook and think that half baked pizza is good enough for dinner. Gladys, after tutelage from an aunt, takes great delight in good food and hopes one day to be a food critic. She enters a writing contest with an essay to this effect, and this essay ends up on the desk of an editor who is looking to replace a food writer. Gladys receives an assignment-- report on an upscale dessert restaurant, Classy Cakes, and turn in the article to see if the paper likes her writing. Since Gladys is in quite a bit of trouble due to an unfortunate creme brulee accident, her chances of getting in to the city to eat at the restaurant are slim, although she tries going to work with her father, and even worming into the good graces of a classmates who is inviting only one classmate into the city to see a play. All of this secretive activity is bound to catch up with Gladys, but the important this is this: will her parents ever understand her passion for cooking and allow her to explore it?
Strengths: The beginning of this was just brilliant. ALL middle grade novels should start with things exploding or catching on fire! The story then ticked along with fun characters, slightly improbably but totally realistic situations, and a solid plot line. Books about cooking always do very well in my library, so I'm looking forward to having this to hand to students.
Weaknesses: Almost exceeded my quirky limits on names. There were a bunch of snooty girls named after luxury cars, and the town where Gladys lived was Dumpsford, with the attendant East Dumpsford, etc. Students won't mind. Even though I'm not a fan of encouraging students to "follow their bliss" if it's not going to get them remunerative jobs (remember, I was a Latin teacher, and unemployment scarred me deeply), I enjoyed this.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Ponies of Chincoteague

18689600Hapka, Catherine. Maddie's Dream (Ponies of Chincoteague)
July 8th 2014 by Aladdin 

Maddie is part of an on line message board consisting of four tweens who all are interested in Chincoteague ponies. Maddie is the only girl who does not own her pony, but she rides Cloudy at Ms. Emerson's stable. When the family who sold Cloudy to the stables, the Richardsons, are interested in buying Cloudy back, Maddie is concerned not only that she won't be able to ride her beloved pony, but also about Cloudy's welfare, since the Richardson's did not train Cloudy well. Maddie tries several different ways to convince the Richardsons that Cloudy is not a good horse, but this only angers Ms. Emerson. In the end, Maddie is able to continue to visit Cloudy as well as keep up with her other love, soccer.
Strengths: There have been a lot of girls interested in horses in the last few years, and this book is the perfect length. The fact that it is part of a series makes it even better. Definitely purchasing. Hapka clearly knows horse stuff, and perhaps these will encourage readers to pick up Marguerite Henry's books.
Weaknesses: I thought I had started with the second book in the series; the first part of the book doesn't explain the message board that well, but the other books cover different girls who are involved in this. Not great literature, but will be popular with the readers of Angela Darling or the new Carolyn Keene Nancy Drew books.

18689733Blue Ribbon Summer is book two, and there are at least two more planned for later this fall.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Guy Friday- If You're Reading This

20578942Reedy, Trent. If You're Reading This
August 26th 2014 by Arthur A. Levine Books 
E ARC from

Mike has a lot on his plate. He does well academically, but he also has to work a lot to help out his mother, Ever since his father was killed in Afghanistan, life has been difficult. His mother is too afraid to even let him play football, and the atmosphere in their run down house is tense. When Mike receives a letter which his father wrote before he died, and which promises more letters to come, he is glad to get to know his father better, but also stressed by all of the old wounds the letters reopens. He takes the challenges his father makes-- going out for football, asking out Isma, and going to a party. This puts Mike more and more at odds with his mother, and he even finds difficulties with members of the football team over Isma, whose parents came from Afghanistan. Ultimately, Mike needs to decide who he wants to be, whether or not he decides to follow his parents' advice.
Strengths: The best part of this is the framing of personal growth within the arenas of football and romance. This makes it a book that works for both older middle school students as well as high school. Mike's struggle with dealing with his father's death is done very realistically; I thought it was a particularly good touch to have the younger sister claim that she didn't really even remember her father. The hardships that Mike had-- riding his bike, not having a computer, having to work and worry about leaks in the roof of the house-- were not overdone and added a lot of depth to his character. The details about the war in Afghanistan were good as well, especially the local feeling about Isma and her family.
Weaknesses: This got a bit preachy on several topics, but this tends not to bother students as much as it bothers me. Definitely purchasing.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Madame Tussaud/Becky Thatcher

21444896Duble, Kathleen Benner. Madame Tussaud's Apprentice: An Untold Story of Love in the French Revolution 
Published August 1st 2014 by Merit Press 

Celie has been orphaned after her father was killed by the Comte and her mother and brother starved. She is a very good artist, but is surviving on the streets of Paris thanks to Algernon, on whom she has a rather major crush. He is very much against the aristocracy and wants to work toward their downfall, since they caused the death of his love, Julia. When Celie is caught stealing, she is saved by Madame Tussaud, who wants Celie to help her work by creating drawings of backgrounds, which Celie can make very detailed thanks to her eidetic memory. Celie is glad to have food and shelter, and manages to get Algernon a place in the household as well. Madame works frequently with Marie Antoinette and her entourage on various projects, and takes her workers out to Versailles, where Celie learns that not all aristocrats are evil. Elizabeth in particular is very kind to everyone in the household, especially a young boy whose father dies from an illness. When the revolution starts heating up, Algernon is determined that Celie fight with him and forgo her life and work with Madame's wax works. Celie must decide whether she should embrace her new career of be true to her vow of exacting revenge for her family's deaths.
Strengths: Have to admit that I really got into this one. The pacing was very good, alternating between exciting scenes and more sedate but interesting ones, and the information about the French Revolution was presented in a way that made it interesting. I was very leery of this, since the accelerated language arts students at my school were not fond of Les Miserables when it was assigned, but this was really fascinating! I should have expected as much, since this author's Phantoms in the Snow is very popular!
Weaknesses: The romance seemed weak to me, which wouldn't have been a problem if it weren't right in the title. The cover isn't the best, but I'm not sure what I would put on the cover of this.

18273285Lawson, Jessica. The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher. 
July 1st 2014 by Simon&Schuster Books for Young Readers

Becky and her family have moved to St. Petersburg, Missouri, to start over following the death of her brother Jon from an undetermined wasting disease.  Her father, a judge, is very concerned with the Pritchard brothers, criminals who are terrorizing their area, but also worries that Becky is getting into all sorts of trouble. And she is. Having made a pact with her brother, she is determined to have all of the adventures that Jon can't have, and wears his clothes in order to feel close to him. She starts her new school, where she makes immediate friends with Amy Lawrence and immediate enemies with Tom Sawyer, whom she thinks is a tattle tale. Local boys have a bet to see who can steal something from the local witch, Widow Douglas, and Becky is ready to jump into the fray. There is a very cruel and frustrated teacher in her school, Mr. Dobbins, who was deemed incompetent to be the town dentist, and isn't proving to be very good at teaching either. A young riverboat captain, Sam Clemens, is hanging around town waiting for his boat to be repaired, and he gives Becky some advice on breaking into the Widow Douglas' house. She and Amy concoct a plan, but things get serious when the widow is accused of grave robbing based on circumstantial evidence. After meeting the widow, the girls are even more determined to clear her name, and Becky also hopes that her mother can overcome her grief and start to care about her daughter and her activities.
Strengths: This was a very well-crafted book, with fun lines like a house that looks like "a museum of badly crocheted doilies" (pg. 24). This is a fun spin on Twain's work, bringing new life to old characters and changing things up a bit. The mystery of the Pritchard brothers is a good one, and the inclusion of Twain as a character rounds things out nicely.
Weaknesses: While this is an excellent choice for most libraries, I have two very strong personal objections to it. The first is that we had a teacher several years ago who required an advanced class to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I have never seen students have such a miserable time with a book. My younger daughter was among them, and she had such a hatred for the book that his might be a hard sell in middle school even though it's a fun romp.

The second is the way that Jon's death is dealt with by the characters. I understand that Ms. Lawson's brother-in-law, Jon, died before she started to write this book, and certainly the death of a parent and spouse is the most devastating to deal with, but I wanted to shake Becky's mother. It is not acceptable for a parent to spend so much time grieving over a dead child that a surviving child is ignored. Becky, too, spent entirely too much time pining for her brother, and this does not seem to be historically accurate. In 1860, death of young people for various reasons would have been much more commonplace. Also, it got kind of weird when Becky was completely okay with the death of a kitten, so much so that she intended to use the body for one of her exploits and even told Amy to just pick any maggots that formed off of the body.

People die. The survivors need to come to terms with it and move on. Becky clearly was crying for help, and the fact that her mother was ignoring her is not a constructive coping mechanism middle grade students need to see in literature.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Islands at the End of the World

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement has gotten a lot of attention, but lately I've been seeing tweets saying that book lists for children should just automatically include diverse titles but not necessarily put them on separate lists. True, to a certain extent. The book below, for example, should be included on Dystopian lists. However, I think it's still important to put together lists of books with African American or Hispanic characters, lists of books with characters with health or medical issues, etc. because I do have students ask specifically for books like that. Just as I have lists of survival stories or spy thrillers, I will continue to put together lists by ethnic subgroups; thanks to #WeNeedDiverseBooks, hopefully these lists will get longer.

Today, we have a dystopian book that also includes Hawaiian culture and a character with epilepsy.

18811324Aslan, Austin. The Islands at the End of the World
August 5th 2014 by Wendy Lamb Books
ARC from Baker and Taylor

Leilani has lived on the Big Island of Hawaii, near Hilo, for three years. Her father is not native to the island, but her mother is, and her grandfather is very interested in Hawaiian culture. Leilani loves to surf, but her epilepsy has been problematic. Her father takes her to Honolulu to a clinic where she will undergo a medical trial to see if a new medication will help control her seizures better. While she and her father are there, a power outage takes out everything-- electricty, phone, and even some machinery. The trial is canceled, which makes Lei nervous because she has been off of her regular medication. The outage seems to be caused by green clouds of light in the sky, but no one can figure out what they are. After several days without any progress, Lei's father gets antsy and wants to try to get home. The two set out on a dangerous trip that involves run ins with the military, a commune, and a lot of adventure. Lei starts to realize what is causing the problem, and also realizes that her medical condition gives her unique insight into it that may help her solve the issue.
Strengths: This has some really good twists in it, and I hate to give those away. There is a lot of interesting information about Hawaiian life, the climate of the islands, and even some mythology that is fresh and innovative. Leilani's epilepsy is woven into the story in an interesting way. This is the first book in a series, which makes me happy because I have one reader who only likes Dystopian novels written in first person.
Weaknesses:The explanation of the origin and purpose of the green clouds seemed a bit weird and far-fetched to me, but then I'm not a huge fantasy fan. The big draw for this book will be the action and survival portion of it.