Monday, December 30, 2013

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Image from BarnesandNoble.com

Penguin Young Readers Group,1975
9780142410332

SUMMARY
9 year old Danny lives with his father in an old gypsy caravan behind his father’s filling station in the English countryside. His father not only teaches him how to be a first rate mechanic, he also makes Danny wonderful kites and other inventions. The two have such a lovely life together that even though Danny has lots of school friends, he never brings them home. But one day his father reveals a dark, but exciting, secret, changing Danny’s world forever. Danny can’t believe his beloved and “sparky” father could be involved in such secret dealings. But soon Danny and his father hatch a marvelous plan that will have the mean, horrible, and egotistical Mr. Victor Hazell in fits of hysterics.

The mixture of suspenseful and touching moments makes this realistic story, with just a hint of magic and “spark”, a memorable read. Set sometime after WWII, but long before cell phones and computers, this character-driven story is full of humorous descriptions. Imagination, innovation, and ingenuity are celebrated as Danny’s great idea is put into practice. In fact, it’s Danny’s brilliant idea that earns him the label of “champion of the world.” Dahl’s subtly funny narrative takes the reader on a thrilling adventure, a sort of 20th century Robin Hood story. As in many of Dahl's stories, it is the child protagonist who ultimately saves the day. Mr. Hazell holds an annual pheasant hunt to gain the favor of many rich and titled people, but Danny and his father come up with an ingenious method to remove as many pheasants as they can from Hazell’s Wood. Although the plotline features a great poaching scheme, the relationship between father and son is the real highlight of this story. Danny’s father clearly loves his son very much and there are many scenes of father and son enjoying each other’s company in such a simple, but lovely way. Dahl fans will notice that one of the bedtime stories told by Danny’s father is a snippet of The BFG. This is a great recommendation for a read aloud or for a father-son book club.
                                                                          
Read an excerpt of this fun read aloud or listen to a bit of the audiobook, narrated by Peter Serafinowicz.

CONNECTIONS
*Dahl mentions lots of different British foods in this book. Try cooking a few of the foods, such as Toads-In-a-Hole, bread sauce, baked beans on toast, and of course, roast pheasant!

*More books by Dahl:

*Readalikes:
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K. G. Campbell
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck          

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 8+ / Grade 3+

-Amy

Monday, December 23, 2013

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd


Image from BarnesandNoble.com
David Fickling Books, 2007
9780375849763

SUMMARY
Ted isn’t sure what to think or feel when his Aunt Gloria and cousin Salim come to visit. They haven’t come to visit for nearly 5 years and Ted is concerned because his father refers to his aunt as Hurricane Gloria. Ted’s pretty sure he doesn’t mean a hurricane of the weather sort, which would be far more interesting in his opinion. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Ted is passionate about meteorology. His brain is “wired differently” and it isn’t good at reading body language. However, it is good at thinking in a highly analytical and logical way, which is great for predicting the weather. It turns out it’s also good for solving mysteries. Which is a very, very good thing because on Monday morning at 11:32am Ted and his older sister Kat watch Salim get on the London Eye and then he disappears. How does someone disappear from a glass capsule? Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Is he lost? Ted comes up with several theories, but even if he and Kat figure out which one is correct will that lead them to Salim?

This realistic mystery has an intricate plot that is revealed intriguingly, bit by bit. The pieces are expertly sprinkled throughout the story and come together in an exciting and surprising conclusion. The narrative is written from Ted’s perspective, giving the reader a glimpse into the inner workings of his mind. Although he doesn’t go into detail, Ted accepts that having Asperger’s Syndrome makes him think in a different way. While Ted is trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Salim, he also pushes himself to communicate, listen, and observe the world around him in new ways. Ted is an endearing and earnest protagonist, who will charm readers with his witty comments on common phrases. Slang terms and place names set this clever book in modern day London. Although American readers will encounter cultural differences, the love-hate relationships of Ted’s family members are universal. This quick, but engaging, read is a great recommendation for mystery lovers.

CONNECTIONS
*Bring in pictures of the London Eye and other locations mentioned in the book. Check out the official London Eye website for more information.

*Bring in a map of the London Underground system and have kids follow the routes Kat, Ted, and Salim take in the book. You can do the same thing using a map of London for the rest of the book.

*Make a day by day timeline of events as you read the book and see if you can figure out the mystery before Ted pieces it together.

*Readalikes:
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett    
Shakespeare’s Secret by Ellen Broach

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder


Image from ZKSnyder.com
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1967
9781416990512

SUMMARY
When 11 year old April moves to the Bay Area of California to live with her grandmother she isn’t expecting to stay very long, much less make any friends. But then she meets Melanie, the girl who lives upstairs, and both girls know they have found an imaginative kindred spirit. The new friends and Melanie’s younger brother Marshall create elaborate games of make-believe all around the neighborhood. But the most intriguing game of all is the mysterious and slightly scary Egypt Game. When the friends find a secret entrance into the abandoned backyard of the enigmatic junkshop owner, they just can’t walk away. Soon they combine their love of all things ancient Egyptian and their boundless imaginations to create the best game of all. Soon the Egypt Gang grows to include more friends and everyone is having a great time, until strange things start happening in the neighborhood. Not only that, eerie messages are found in their hidden land of Egypt. Is there someone watching them? Has the game gotten out of hand?

This story, equal parts mystery and friendship tale, celebrates the fun that can be had by giving yourself over to your imagination. Written and set in the 1960’s, the setting reflects a time when children had more freedom to explore their neighborhood without adult supervision. However, even though the story is firmly set in a time before cell phones and computers, young readers will easily relate to April and her friends. Readers will also fall in love with the multicultural cast of characters, including Chinese-American Elizabeth, Japanese-American Ken, and African-American Melanie and Marshall. The neighborhood is also extremely diverse, with families of all backgrounds and skin colors, but race doesn’t factor into the story. The casual and friendly tone of the text allows Snyder to use plot and character to move the story along at a nice clip. In the same manner, Snyder delves into April’s frustrating relationship with her single mother, an aspiring Hollywood actress. The addition of a neighborhood murderer and a spooky Halloween adventure add just enough scary suspense to hook readers.

Listen to a clip of the audiobook, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan, or read an excerpt of the book and find yourself intrigued by the Egypt Game.

CONNECTIONS
*The Egypt Gang does a lot of research on the ancient Egyptians and many real gods, goddesses, pharaohs, and queens are mentioned in the story. Bring in books on Egyptology and Egyptian mythology for kids to explore.

*Read more about the Egypt Gang in the sequel, The Gypsy Game.

*More books by Snyder:
            The Bronze Pen
            Cat Running
            The Changling
            The Headless Cupid
            The Treasures of Weatherby
            William S. and the Great Escape
            The Witches of Worm
  
*Readalikes:
            The Kane Chronicle series by Rick Riordan
            Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
            The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald


Image from SimonAndSchuster.com
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013
978144248558

SUMMARY
Cosmo is pretty sure this isn’t how his life is supposed to be. His mom has moved to Australia for a job and he hasn’t gotten over the death of his brother. He also refuses to believe that his massively brilliant Granddad is losing his memory, so he begins to take action using the advice from the Memory Cure website. But even though it helps sometimes, he can’t seem to get Granddad to remember that Cosmo’s brother Brian is dead. Things go from bad to worse when Granddad takes a fall and a social worker arrives to assess his ability to live at home. Cosmo is desperate to help and that’s when his grandfather gives him a small silver key. Although he’s completely skeptical, Cosmo keeps his promise to use the key to unlock the South Gate that leads to Blackbrick Abbey. And that’s when Cosmo realizes he’s traveled into his grandfather’s past. Not only that, he come face to face with his 16 year old Granddad! Maybe now he can fix everything in the past to make the future better. After all, Cosmo is a time traveler, no wait, he’s a massively brilliant Time Legend!

This story, part historical fiction and part science fiction, addresses the importance of memory, past, present, and future. The book begins in modern day Ireland, but soon readers are transported back to the early 1940’s. Cosmo’s grandfather was a stable boy at a once grand estate and he’s deeply in love with the gorgeous Maggie, a girl from a nearby village. Unfortunately, the lord of the manor also takes an interest in the 16 year old girl. Fitzgerald deftly addresses Maggie’s “condition” and the identity of the baby’s father as Cosmo and Kevin come to terms with this heartbreaking situation. Fitzgerald creates believable dialogue and motivations for the characters of the past, which contrasts with Cosmo’s 21st century sensibilities. Written in first person from Cosmo’s point of view, the story is equal parts action and reflection as Cosmo comes to terms with his grandfather’s failing memory. Ultimately, this is the story of his struggle to deal with his emotions about his grandfather’s memory, his mother’s absence, and his brother’s death. These are big issues, but Cosmo, sensitive and funny, keeps the book from becoming depressing. He admits he makes mistakes, but he’s always looking for a way to make things better and that proactive attitude keeps the story compelling and uplifting. In addition, the time travel element of the plot will keep readers wondering what happens to the characters (or if they will even exist in the future/present/whatever).

CONNECTIONS
*If you could time travel to spend a year with a relative, who would it be and why?

*Readalikes:
One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 10+ / Grade 5+

-Amy

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle


Image from TimFederle.com
Simon and Schuster, 2013
9781442446892

SUMMARY
13 year old Nate Foster is not a fan of Janksburg, PA. No one, except his best friend Libby, understands his love of all things theatre. His family ignores him and his classmates call him names as they shove him into lockers. So when Libby finds out about an upcoming audition for E.T.: The Musical, they both know it’s Nate’s big chance to get out of Janksburg. And that’s why Nate is on a Greyhound Bus to “New York Manhattan City”, armed with his audition materials, his mom’s ATM card, and a couple dozen donuts. If all goes well, he can make it to the city, do his audition, and be home before his parents even notice he’s missing. Of course, things don’t really go as planned, throwing Nate into a whirlwind weekend in the city filled with casting directors, the biggest Applebee’s in the world, a long lost aunt, and maybe, just maybe, the chance to be on Broadway.

Written in first person from Nate’s point of view, this is a hilarious and touching story. Nate has a great voice—innocent, observant, funny, and sensitive—making him an endearingly flawed, yet charming, protagonist. This is a character-driven story, filled with a supporting cast of unique individuals, most notably, Libby and Nate’s mother (a recovering alcoholic). The book humorously touches on Nate’s sexual orientation in an age-appropriate way. His classmates call him a “fag”, but as Nate puts it, “I’m thirteen, leave me alone. Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food–how would I know who I want to hook up with?” Nate also has the experience of meeting his aunt’s gay best friend and being astounded that two men can kiss in a club and no one punches them. The book is filled with musical theatre references, many of them rather obscure. However, if you give this to a theatre-loving kid they are most likely to be fascinated by these details, rather than put off. Federle is a professional actor and he uses his intimate knowledge of New York City and theatre to create a realistic depiction of the culture. The audition process is not idealized for young readers and Federle leaves the ending open as to whether or not Nate is cast in the show. A great story about being loved and appreciated for being the best version of yourself.

Read an excerpt of the book and find yourself rooting for Nate as he takes on New York City.

You can also watch this video of the author reading an excerpt of the book to get a flavor of the audiobook (also narrated by the author).

CONNECTIONS
*Watch the movie, E.T., before/during/after reading this book. It’s fun to discuss where you think they would put in songs and dances if the movie was actually made into a Broadway musical.

*Learn more about Federle and his theatre career in this interview with Thomas Schumacher.

*Readalikes:
Drama by Raina Telgemeier
My Life: The Musical by Maryrose Wood

*Read more about Nate’s adventures in the upcoming sequel (to be published in 2014), Five, Six, Seven, Nate!

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 12+ / Grade 6+

-Amy

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya by Jane Kelley


Image from MacMillanUSA.com
Feiwel and Friends, 2013
9781250023483

SUMMARY
At first, Zeno doesn’t care at all about the sick girl in the bed. After all, Zeno is a “booful briyant” African grey parrot and he has one thing on his mind: banana nut muffins. So when he sees one sitting on the girl’s window sill, he knows it’s meant for him. This chance meeting is the beginning of a long, hopeful, and confusing journey to friendship. Zeno’s owner, a doctor of philosophy, has recently died and now the parrot is trying to figure out how this confusing place called Brooklyn works. More importantly, what kind of trees do banana nut muffins grow on? While Zeno is completely free for the first time in his life, the girl Alya feels like a prisoner in her own house. Alya has leukemia and her body is still struggling to deal with the chemo treatments. Day after day she lies in her bed, exhausted and losing hope. Through many desperate adventures – good and bad, happy and sad – Zeno and Alya find that life is better with a true friend and home. And some banana nut muffins, of course.

This gentle and thoughtful story tackles larger ideas than your average animal story. The importance of hope and how hope can be a gift from one person (or bird) to another, as well as the meanings of friendship and home are explored. Zeno is named after the Greek philosopher of the same name, which allows Kelley to incorporate bits of his wisdom in a graceful manner. Zeno and Alya are unique individuals and it is wonderful to see them develop in this character-driven story. Both characters begin thinking mostly of themselves, but by the end of the book their awareness and caring has expanded to include others. Kelley examines many different kinds of friendship, as Zeno meets new birds and Alya struggles to find common words with her old friends. Although this is a quiet story, short chapters keep the pacing of the story quick.  Written in third person, the chapters alternate between Zeno and Alya’s stories in a chronological fashion. Although cancer and death are a part of a the story, the story never becomes depressing as Kelley balances humor and seriousness.

CONNECTIONS
*Do some bird watching and discuss the different ways birds communicate with one other (sounds, body language, etc.). You can do this just about anywhere (you’ll be surprised how many birds are around if you take the time to listen and look).

*What does home mean to you? Have kids write a paragraph, list, or poem about what home means to them. How it is different or the same as Zeno’s idea of home?

*Research the natural habitat of African grey parrots. How is it different or the same as Brooklyn? What would Zeno have eaten in his natural habitat?

*More books by Kelley:

*Readalikes:
Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 8+ / Grade 3+

-Amy

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey


Image from Grimjinx.com
HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2012
9780062049285

SUMMARY
A member of the most legendary thieving family in all the Five Provinces, 12 year old Jaxter Grimjinx is pretty sure he’s an embarrassment to the entire family. They’ve never said anything, but it would be hard to miss Jaxter’s accident prone clumsiness. Bangers!, he’s so horrible at picking locks that his little sister can pick a lock faster than he can! What he really loves to do is work with plants to create magical substances, but he knows this won’t really help him become a better thief. Or will it? To get the family out of jail, his parents create a fake tapestry, a tapestry that supposedly shows the fate of the town-state of Vengekeep. Jaxter’s mother, a master forger, weaves in all manner of disasters showing the Grimjinx family as the saviors. The Grimjinxes think it’s a great joke, until the catastrophic prophecies start coming true! Jaxter has a plan to save Vengekeep, but can he and his spunky best friend Callie gather everything they need before the worst of the prophecies comes true on the first Mooncrux?

Written from Jaxter’s point of view, this thrilling tale takes readers on a fantastic fantasy adventure. From giant men made of lava to floods, sinister allies to cons gone wrong, there’s plenty to keep the plot exciting and fast paced. The book is divided into three parts: The Con, The Quest, and The Prophecy. Farray has created a rich fantasy world populated by colorful characters that are endearing and relatable. It is also notable that males and females are equally strong within the community, as well as in the Grimjinx family. Made up words (“Bangers!” “Zoc!”) are incorporated in the vernacular, giving the story flavor, but never becoming overwhelming or gratuitous. The dialogue flows naturally and Farray’s humorous writing style fits the story well. A great recommendation for a fantasy lover looking for a new world to explore.

CONNECTIONS
*Learn about plants from around the world that have medical or other uses, as Jaxter learns about the plants from the Five Provinces.

*Learn about the parts of a lock and how the ridges on a key allow the tumblers to align and the lock to open.

*Check out this map of the Five Provinces and other fun stuff on the official Grimjinx website.

*Jaxter’s adventures continue in the recently published sequel (2013), The Shadowhand Covenant

*Readalikes:
            Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge
            Jinx by Sage Blackwood
            The Lightning Thief series by Rick Riordan

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson

Image from DeborahHopkinson.com

Random House, 2013
9780375848186

SUMMARY
August 28, 1854 seemed like a normal day in London to 13 year old Eel. As always he had to keep his secret well hidden, dodge the villainous Fisheye Bill, and work hard to earn his keep as a message boy at a pub. But a new problem makes itself known on that hot Monday. The first resident of Broad Street dies of the Blue Death, otherwise known as cholera, and so begins the epidemic that takes the lives of over 600 people. Orphaned Eel feels powerless to help his friends and neighbors, until he shares his worries with the esteemed Dr. Snow. The doctor has an unpopular theory that cholera is spread through contaminated water, rather than through the air. Using his powers of observation, reasoning, and intelligence Eel helps the doctor investigate the epidemic, find important clues, and uncover the truth. But can Eel and Dr. Snow come up with enough proof in time to save lives?

Based on real events, this well researched story makes for a compelling, as well as educational, read. Hopkinson’s non-fiction background is evident in her tone and style of writing. Her descriptions are precise, painting an accurate and detailed depiction of the time period. Readers will walk away with a great deal of knowledge of the events before, during, and after the epidemic. Extensive notes at the back of the book include more information on the real life people and events that inspired the story. This includes short biographies of historical figures used as characters in the book, as well as a timeline of the progress of the epidemic. Hopkinson also provides a list of recommended books and websites for young readers. The characters, many of them based on real people, are believable and relatable. This is especially true for Eel, who is a sensitive, observant, and responsible protagonist. The symptoms of cholera are accurately described, but never in a graphic manner. Additionally, even though many of Eel’s friends die, the story does not become depressing, nor does it dwell on the subject of death too deeply. This is a great fiction recommendation for kids who prefer non-fiction or for those interested in science and medicine.  

Listen to a bit of the audio book and find yourself intrigued by the Great Trouble.  

CONNECTIONS
*Make a map of your house, school, or neighborhood like Florrie and Eel do in the book. Count the number of steps as the unit of measurement.

*Check out the educator’s guide produced by Random House for activities and discussion questions. 

*More books (both fiction and non-fiction) by Hopkinson:
  
*Readalikes:
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks
The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 10+ / Grade 5+

-Amy

Monday, October 28, 2013

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, Illustrated by K.G. Campbell

Image from Candlewick.com
Candlewick Press, 2013
9780763660406

SUMMARY
Flora Belle Buckman, a self-described cynic, has a life that was far from extraordinary until the day she sees a squirrel get sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. Holy bagumba! But the vacuum, the Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X, does something to the small squirrel. He doesn’t just get sucked up, he manages to pull himself out and throw the vacuum! Flora, who has spent her entire life reading about superheroes in The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! knows that this is no ordinary squirrel. This squirrel has superpowers! Holy unanticipated occurences! And it’s true, Ulysses (named after that fateful machine), has super strength, the ability to fly, communicate with humans, and even type poetry! With the help of a cast of quirky, but loveable characters, the two friends rely on one another to get out of sticky situations, escape the clutches of the arch-nemesis, and ultimately find their places in the world.

This hybrid chapter book/graphic novel explores different types of friendship and love as the two main characters try to figure out where they belong. Each of the characters is remarkable and unique, making for humorous dialogue and situations. Flora herself is an introspective, sensitive child who doesn’t often get to express her thoughts and feelings to the adults in her life. Written in third person, the text and illustrations allow readers into the minds of both Flora and Ulysses. The text and illustrations are seamlessly interwoven; both are needed to tell the full story. Campbell’s pencil illustrations, presented in comic book-ish panels, help to push the plot forward with visual humor. They also provide context and make clever use of speech and thought bubbles. The plot is interwoven with symbolism and foreshadowing, that allows DiCamillo to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion through a series of coincidences (or are they?). Using a wide and varied vocabulary the story is divided into very short chapters, each one leaving the reader hanging and yearning for more.

Check out the cool and classy book trailer or read the first few pages of the book.

CONNECTIONS
*Talk about the elements of a superhero and an arch-nemisis. Have kids imagine what it would be like to have a pet with superpowers. Have them write and illustrate their description.

*Have kids write a list poem, as Ulysses does in the story.

*Read more about the back story of this book.

*More books by DiCamillo:

*Readalikes:
After Iris by Natasha Farrant
Boom by Mark Haddon

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 8+ / Grade 3+

-Amy

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes


Image from KevinHenkes.com
Greenwillow Books, 2013
9780062268129

SUMMARY
It’s time for Billy Miller to start 2nd grade. He’s excited to be in Room 2, but worried that he might not be smart enough to please his teacher Ms. Silver. He’s looking forward to sitting at the desk right next to his best friend Ned, but Ms. Silver assigns seats and the annoying know-it-all Emma Sparks gets his seat! And that’s just the first day! From creating dioramas to writing poetry, from learning about volcanoes to Chinese New Year, Billy’s year is full of new, wonderful, sad, strange, and beautiful experiences. What a crazy and wonderful year! Good thing Mama, Papa, and his little sister Sal are there to love and support him no matter what.

This sweet and funny story is divided into four parts, each one focusing on a special person in Billy’s life (Teacher, Father, Sister, Mother). Written in third person, short chronological chapters explore the small moments that make up a 2nd graders life. Young readers will easily identify with Billy’s daily dilemmas at school and at home. Billy is a likeable protagonist who sometimes acts and speaks without thinking things through. But he also has the ability to reflect on the impact of his actions and words and then to do his best to do the right thing. The members of Billy’s family are unique and fully developed from his artist father to his college professor mother. Like Billy, they have good and bad days, and Henkes expertly weaves this into the story. A variety of vocabulary words are introduced throughout (habitat, mesmerized, enveloped). Henkes is careful to define these words through context, but without patronizing the reader. A great recommendation for a reader transitioning to chapter books or a family read aloud.

Read the a bit of the book and find yourself intrigued by what the year has to hold for Billy Miller.

CONNECTIONS
*Have kids write a poem about a family member, as Billy does in the book. If possible, provide an opportunity for kids to read their poems in front of an audience.

*Create habitat dioramas, like Billy and Ned, or more abstract pieces of art, like Papa. A great way to get rid of all those shoe boxes you’ve been saving!

*Check out the author study and activity guide provided on the author’s website.

*More chapter books by Henkes:

*Readalikes:
Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary
The Year ofthe Dog by Grace Lin


RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 6+ / Grade 1+

-Amy

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie S. Tolan


Image from Books4YourKids.com
HarperCollins, 2002
0066236029

SUMMARY
E.D. Applewhite can’t believe it. Not only does she have to deal with being the untalented member of the endlessly talented, dedicated, and artistic Applewhite family, she also has to deal with a known juvenile delinquent! Along with E.D. and her siblings, he’ll be a student of the Creative Academy, the homeschool the Applewhite’s have created to allow their children complete artistic freedom. 13 year old Jake Semple doesn’t want to be there either, but he has no other choice. He’s been kicked out school after school and his family just wants to be rid of him. But soon, no matter how hard E.D. and Jake resist, Jake is absorbed into the Applewhite way of life and living. Over the course of just a few months, the two reluctant schoolmates find themselves raising butterflies, herding rampant goats, learning to meditate, and putting their hearts and souls into an untraditionally wonderful production of The Sound of Music. Jake and E.D. might manage to survive the Applewhites, but they’ll never be the same!

Named a Newbery Honor book, this fast paced story is written in third person. The narrative alternates between Jake and E.D.’s perspectives, allowing the reader to understand the motivations of the two protagonists. The Applewhite family and their extended family are eccentric characters that brim with artistic passion and temperament. Although they are larger than life in many ways, Tolan is able to ground the story in reality. Tackling life with passion is a major theme. Jake begins his stay with the Applewhites with absolutely no interest in anything in life. By the end of the book, he not only sees the passion of those around him, but resolves to live his life with the same vigor. Jake’s gradual transformation, the result of introspection, is reflected in his outward appearance and behaviors. A great recommendation for intelligent and creative readers who have read a lot and are looking for lesser known, but equally stellar, books.

As someone who was homeschooled K-12, I’m always looking for realistic depictions of homeschoolers in children’s literature. The benefits of artistic freedom, independence, and creativity that often come with homeschooling are demonstrated, however Tolan’s tone never becomes didactic or holier-than-thou. It's refreshing to find a story that doesn't involve a homeschooler learning about regular schooling.

On a side note, I’m a former stage manager. So it thrilled me to bits to find E.D, a literary character who shares my love for organization and order and puts those talents to use as a stage manager!

Read the first chapter and get pulled in by the wonderfully eccentric Applewhite family.

CONNECTIONS
*The musical The Sound of Music, is a major plot point in the book. Take a break about halfway through reading the book to watch the movie. Bonus points if you can take your kids to see a live performance. This would be a great book to read if your local high school or community theatre is putting on the show.

*Check out the discussion guide provided by Scholastic.

*Read more about Jake and the Applewhites in the sequel:

*More middle grade books by Tolan:

*Readalikes:
After Iris by Natasha Farrant
Casson Family Series by Hilary McKay
Savvy by Ingrid Law

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 10+ / Grade 5+

-Amy

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, Illustrated by Lauren Tobia


Image from Walker.co.uk
Kane Miller, 2010
9781935279730

SUMMARY
“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.” Anna lives with there in a big house with her African father, Canadian mother, twin baby brothers (Double and Trouble), paternal grandparents, and countless uncles, aunties, and cousins. Her wishes, dreams, curiosities, worries, and triumphs are told in a series of short stories. Whether it’s dreaming of snow, a visit from Auntie Comfort, or a vacation at the beach, you can count on Anna Hisbiscus to make the most of the situation!

This short book features a rambunctious and inquisitive protagonist. Anna doesn’t just observe, she makes mistakes, tries new things, and learns lessons about the world outside her familly’s compound. Each chapter is an episodic story full of cultural markers that evoke “Amazing Africa”, including foods, cultural customs, and clothing. The text and images illustrate how Anna’s culture is a mix of old and new, traditional and modern. Her family wears traditional clothing to church on Sundays. Everyone’s clothing is cut from “the one same cloth” to show they are “one same family.” On the other hand, Anna’s mother shows her how to send a text message to her Auntie Comfort in America. Tobia’s greyscale illustrations are playful and lively, using many different angles to bring Anna’s bustling world to life. Atinuke is an international storyteller who grew up in Nigeria. So it is no surprise that this book is a great read aloud. A good recommendation for a parent looking for a read aloud for the whole family. It’s also a great book for readers transitioning into chapter books. Although the stories are in chronological order, they could easily stand alone.

Read a chapter of the book to get an idea of Atinuke’s storytelling style (click on “sneak preview”).

CONNECTIONS
*Check out the author’s blog to learn more about her travels and her storytelling.

*More books with stories about Anna Hibiscus and her family:

*Readalikes:
Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look 
Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 6+ / Grade 1+

-Amy

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Adam Rex


Image from MacBarnett.com
Simon and Schuster, 2009
9781416978152

SUMMARY
You might think that Steve Brixton is just an ordinary kid who would rather read all 59 books in the Bailey Brothers mystery series instead of write an 8 page research paper on early American needlework. But that’s where you’d be wrong. Steve is actually a detective or at least he will be after he figures out the whereabouts of a valuable piece of American history. In the meantime, he has to dodge Rick the less-than-bright policeman who is dating his mother, a squad of secret government agents (aka librarians), and the mysterious Mr. E. Will Steve and his best friend Dana be able to solve this tricky case and finish their research papers by Monday morning? With the help of The Bailey Brothers’ Detective Handbook they just might be able to save the day (no guarantees on the papers though)!

The first in the Brixton Brothers series this action-packed story is a tongue-in-cheek spin on classic Hardy Boys stories. In short chapters, Barnett creates a world in which the ridiculous is taken seriously making for some truly outlandish and funny situations. Written in third person, the plot has plenty of twists and completes with a satisfying ending in which Steve reveals the most unlikely suspect to be the villain. Rex’s pen and ink illustrations, done in classic mystery series style, add context and humor to the story. Gloriously dated bits of the fictional detective handbook are included along with illustrations demonstrating how to identify a bad guy or tie a rope from bed sheets. This quick read is great for reluctant or below level readers.

Read an excerpt of the book. Can you solve the mystery before Steve does?

CONNECTIONS
*Follow these directions to make a secret book box like Steve does in the book.

*Check out the official Brixton Brothers website for more fun stuff.

*Pair this book with a Hardy Boys mystery. Compare and contrast Steve and Dana to Frank and Joe. How are the characters and plots similar or different?

*Read about the further adventures of Steve and Dana in the other Brixton Brothers books:

*Readalikes:
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
Boom by Mark Haddon
The Sammy Keyes series by Wendelin Van Draanen
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 8+ / Grade 3+

-Amy

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan


Image from Us.PenguinGroup.com
Dial, 2013
9780803738553

SUMMARY
Willow lives an orderly life with her adoptive parents until their unexpected death forces her out of her well-worn routine of gardening, researching, and counting by sevens. As she grieves for her parents, Willow finds herself nurtured by an unlikely group of people – the Vietnamese-American Nguyen family, her lazy school counselor, and a local taxi driver. Intensely curious and analytical, Willow excels at academics. But no matter how her vast vocabulary she is still emotionally an 11 year old and not equipped to handle her grief alone. As the story progresses Willow’s world expands from just her parents and plants to a community of diverse people who support one another.

Sloan has crafted a unique story with a memorable heroine and a multicultural cast of characters. Willow matter-of-factly calls herself a “person of color,” but she never elaborates on this beyond stating that her skin is dark and her hair is a mess of curls. Cultural customs, such as lucky colors and foods, are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative. Socio-economic status is addressed as Willow’s comfortable former life is contrasted with her new “temporary” life with the Nguyen family, first in a converted garage and later in a small apartment. There are frequent references to locations that firmly ground the story in contemporary Bakersfield, California. The chapters alternate between Willow’s first person narrative and third person observations that flesh out the supporting characters and propel the plot forward. Willow’s voice is pragmatic, yet there is a poetic sensibility that enriches the story.  The short chapters keep this introspective book moving at a rolling pace that allows for thought, but never drags. This is an intriguing combination that will captivate readers.

CONNECTIONS
*Use this for a book club and discuss the use of labels. Talk about the labels that Dell creates for his students. What other labels have you encountered at school, at home, with friends?

*Check out Nova Ren Suma‘s interview with Sloan on the blog, Distraction no. 99.

*Readalikes:
The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
           
RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 10+ / Grade 5+

-Amy

Friday, September 13, 2013

What We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World by Henry Clark


Image from HachetteBookGroup.com
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
9780316206662

SUMMARY
At first the dark green sofa sitting in front of the mysterious Underhill place just seemed like junk waiting to be picked up. At least that’s what 12 year old River and his friends Freak and Fiona think. But after pulling out some strange tidbits from the sofa cushions, including a rare zucchini crayon that seems to be worth thousands of dollars, the trio begins to realize there’s more to this sofa than meets the eye. For one thing, it’s part of an 8 piece set. For another, it’s actually a sophisticated computer that can think and tesser, all powered by dust bunnies. Finally, it’s owned by the eccentric and non-human Alf who is determined to save the Earth from an evil villain from another world, known as Indorsia. River and his friends are trying to save Earth too, but should they trust the enigmatic Alf? Should they trust the sofa? And what does the zucchini crayon have to do with it all?

Set in Pennsylvania, this comical science fiction story is written in first person from River’s point of view. The characters are a bit over the top, but this seems to fit the melodramatic, exaggerated tone of the story. The one exception is Freak’s alcoholic and abusive father, which seems to be Clark’s only brush with a truly serious topic. The tale is propelled by humorous dialogue and, in the words of River’s English teacher, “hyperdiculous” situations. Several plot twists and subtle foreshadowing make for a satisfying conclusion. Cartoonish zucchini-colored maps on the endpapers are a nice touch. Readers who are looking for an adventure story with a touch of wacky will find this an entertaining read.

Read an excerpt of the book to get an idea of the hyperdiculous and frabjous world Clark has created.

CONNECTIONS
*Several uniquely shaped hot air balloons are a major plot point. Ask kids to use their imagination to design their own hot air balloon.

*Only a few colors in the special limited edition box of crayons are named in the story. What other vegetables colors would you include in the box? If you could create a themed box of crayons, what would you name the colors?

*Readalikes:
Boom by Mark Haddon
Cold Cereal by Adam Rex
Pi in the Sky by Wendy Mass

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Starring Jules (As Herself) by Beth Ain, Illustrated by Anne Keenan Higgins


Image from Scholastic.com
Scholastic, 2013
9780545443524

SUMMARY
Almost-Eight-Years-Old Jules Bloom doesn’t expect anything special to happen on the day she sings her very own, made-up-for-fun Fizzy Ice Cream Cone song at the dinner table at the local diner. Well, maybe she expects her artist mother, chef father, and not-so-good-at-standing-still little brother Henry to clap and cheer. But she certainly doesn’t expect a casting director, the effortlessly cool Colby Kingston, to invite her to audition for a mouthwash commercial! The audition is on Friday, but in the meantime Jules is busy making lists and learning about friendship. At first Jules is worried about whether or not she’ll get the commercial, but then she gets the script and develops an even bigger worry: The commercial is for orange mouthwash! Orange! Jules can’t believe her bad luck! After a horrible incident in a taxi cab involving throwing up large amounts of orange sherbet, she can’t even handle the smell of oranges. Will Jules get the part if she throws up during her audition? Will the new girl, Elinor from London, become Jules’ new best friend? And will Jules and her ex-best friend, Charlotte “Stinkytown” Pinkerton, continue to fight? One thing’s for sure, this week won’t be boring!

Set in New York City this story centers around a vibrant, realistic, and unique protagonist. I especially love her colorful style and her goal-oriented lists. Surrounding Jules is a loving, quirky family. Supportive and encouraging, Jules’ parents always have time to answer her questions and work through issues. The plot complications have to do with overcoming personal obstacles, be it the taste of oranges or the changing of friendships. Friendship is a major theme in this book, as Jules learns to make new friends, appreciate old friends, and accept that sometimes people change and that’s okay. Short chapters, written in first person from Jules’ perspective, keep the pace quick as the story effortlessly unfolds. The text is a balance of narration and realistic, yet humorous, dialogue that will keep readers engaged. Higgins cartoon-ish black and white spot illustrations provide visual interest and just enough context to keep transitional readers moving forward.

Get to know Jules a little better by reading an excerpt from the book.

CONNECTIONS
*Check out the discussion guide (written in list form, naturally) published by Scholastic.

*In the book, Elinor introduces Jules to astrology. Have kids figure out their signs and the signs of their friends for fun. You could also bring in books on constellations so kids can see the constellation for their sign.

*Follow Jules adventures as she tackles her part in a movie in the sequel. Scheduled to be published later this month (Sept 2013):
            Starring Jules (In Drama-Rama)

*Readalikes:
            The Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker
            The Ruby Lu series by Lenore Look
            The Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 7+ / Grade 2+

-Amy

Friday, August 30, 2013

Jinx by Sage Blackwood


Image from HarperCollinsChildrens.com
Harper, 2013
978006339901

SUMMARY
The Urwald is the only place Jinx has ever known. Dark and mysterious, the tall trees of the Urwald are home to menacing werewolves, werebears and trolls, devious witches, and sinister wizards. Even as a young boy, Jinx knows about the Truce of the Path: You are protected as long as you remain on the path. But one day his cruel stepfather takes Jinx off the path, intending to leave him to fend for himself. Just as Jinx is about to give up hope he’s saved by Simon, a cranky, yellow-eyed wizard. At first Jinx is intimidated by the cantankerous wizard, but as the years pass he learns more than just magic from Simon. Although he is kept safe and well-fed, Jinx longs to explore the world beyond the Urwald and so he sets out on a quest. Accompanied by the charming thief Reven and brutally honest Elfwyn, Jinx’s life-changing journey takes him from the safety of Simon’s castle to ominous Bonesocket, home to the evil, bloodthirsty Bonemaster. Who is good and who is evil? Who is honest and who is deceitful? As Jinx’s story unravels he finds the truth isn’t exactly what he imagined.

This gripping fantasy is written in third person from Jinx’s point of view. Blackwood expertly builds a rich world, allowing the Urwald to unfold through dialogue and narration. This keeps the focus on propelling the story ever forward, rather than pausing to step outside a character to describe elements. The characters are well-rounded and multi-dimensional. Each character has flaws and strengths, which adds a touch of realism to this magical story. The plot has as many twists and turns as a path through the Urwald. Subtle foreshadowing leads to several surprising revelations. Although the ending resolves the major conflict, it also unearths information that complicates other aspects of Jinx’s life and sets the three children off on another journey. The ending is an obvious set up for a series of books, leaving the reader wondering what will happen next.  

Read the first chapter of the book and find yourself intrigued by the dangerous and magical Urwald.

CONNECTIONS
*Jinx has the ability to see other people’s emotions in colorful clouds of fog. If you could see emotions, what would they look like? Describe the color, shape, size, smell, etc.

*In the story Jinx finds out there is a “Terror” that is threatening the trees of the Urwald. Use this as a nonfiction connection by discussing or reading books about threatened forests and other natural areas.

*Check out the short discussion guide from HarperCollins.

*Readalikes:
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles series by Patricia C. Wrede
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
The Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage
The World of Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy

Sunday, August 25, 2013

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

Image from AmyTimberlake.com
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
9780375989346

SUMMARY
1871 was a pivotal year for 13 year old Georgie Burkhardt. In Georgie’s mind it all began with the great numbers of passenger pigeons that swarmed and then nested just a few miles from her home in Placid, Wisconsin. Everyone in Placid benefited from the pigeons, but after they left things were not quite the same. Georgie’s beloved older sister Agatha went missing. A body was found. And determined Georgie goes on a quest to uncover the truth with the handsome, charming, but confusing Billy McCabe. Spunky and smart, Georgie maybe the best 13 year old sharpshooter in Placid, but what happens to her when she encounters cougars, counterfeiters, caves, and murderers?

This humorous and bittersweet coming of age story is written from Georgie’s perspective as she reflects on the events of 1871. Timberlake spins an intricate tale that unfolds at just the right pace, keeping the reader intrigued as they wonder, is Agatha dead or alive? Georgie is a hard-edged, stubborn protagonist who learns the hard way that what she wants and what is best for the people she loves are not always the same thing. Through Georgie’s humorous and touching voice issues of life and death (giving and taking, changing and choosing) are addressed. The final chapter reads like an epilogue, which allows Timberlake to tie up all the loose ends giving the story a satisfying, realistic ending. However, the characters and settings, so vivid and real, will stay with the reader long after closing the book. The detailed author’s notes at the back of the book provide more information on passenger pigeons, the firestorms of 1871, and other historical and geographical references in the story. Selected sources (meant for adult readers) are also included.

Read an excerpt of the book and find yourself yearning to discover the truth with Georgie.

CONNECTIONS
*Check out the discussion guide on Timberlake's website for discussion questions, more information on the historical setting, and printable activities.

*Although Timberlake only touches on the impact humans had on the extinction of the passenger pigeon, use this book to start a discussion on environmental and conservation issues.
*Other chapter books by Timberlake:

*Readalikes:
Belle Prater’s Boy by Ruth White
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
Three Times Lucky by Shelia Turnage

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 10+ / Grade 5+

-Amy

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Image from ClareVanderpool.com
Random House Children’s Books, 2013
9780385742092

SUMMARY
1945 has been a tough year for 13 year old Jack Baker. His father, the Captain, returned from World War II, but things weren’t the same because Jack’s mother is dead. Instead of staying in Kansas with his mother’s family, the Captain sends Jack to an all-boys boarding school in Maine. At Morton Hill Academy Jack feels like a fish out of water, or rather, a fish in water for the first time. He tries to make friends, but after a series of humiliating boating events Jack spends less time with the regular boys and more time with the strange and enigmatic Early Auden. Jack isn’t sure what to think of Early, a loner who sees colors, shapes, textures, and stories in the never-ending numbers of pi, but soon the two are working together to rebuild a shabby boat.  When Jack’s father has to cancel their fall break vacation, Jack and Early set off on a life-changing adventure into the Appalachian Mountains. As they travel, searching for the Great Appalachian Bear and Early’s missing brother, Early tells the epic saga of the navigator Pi that he sees in the numbers of pi. At first Jack scoffs at the story, but soon he begins to see coincidences between their journey and Pi’s. Pirates, volcanoes, ancient ones, caves, skeletons, and the Great Bear herself. Is it really coincidence? Or is it like Jack’s mother used to say, “There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload”?

Mixing historical fiction with a dash of magical realism this story of an unlikely friendship addresses issues of grief, loss, and guilt. Although it moves at a quiet pace, the adventure and survival elements will keep readers intrigued. Several plot twists make this unpredictable story satisfying and unique. The stories about Pi are woven into the larger narrative, which is written from Jack’s point of view. At times these stories provide a counterpoint to the boys’ journey, while at others the stories act as a revealing mirror. In the author’s note at the back of the book Vanderpool writes that today Early would probably be diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism and labeled a savant because of his amazing mathematic talents. Her inspiration for this character was taken from a real person, Daniel Tammet, who was autistic and saw numbers as shapes, colors, and textures. Vanderpool also provides insight into the factual information about pi she incorporated into the story, as well as what she created to better serve the story.

Read the first few pages of this book to get an idea of Jack’s sensitive and thoughtful voice.

CONNECTIONS
*Early listens to certain music depending on the day and the weather. If you’re reading/discussing this book over several days play music according to Early’s schedule:
Monday – Louis Armstrong
Tuesday – Quiet
Wednesday – Frank Sinatra
Thursday – Quiet
Friday – Glenn Miller
Saturday – Quiet
Sunday – Mozart
Rain – Billie Holiday

*Other books by Vanderpool:

*Readalikes:
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 11+ / Grade 6+

-Amy