Saturday, June 29, 2013

Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot by Anna Branford, Illustrated by Elanna Allen

Image from
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

7 year old Violet Mackerel has formulated the Theory of Finding Small Things. She believes that brilliant and important ideas most often happen just when you happen to find something small, but special on the ground. Of course, you should pick up this little something – a ribbon, a button, a sequin – and then continue to think about whatever you were thinking when you spotted it. This is how Violet comes up with her brilliant plot to buy the blue china bird she sees at a stall at the Saturday Market where Violet’s mother sells her knitting. Violet knows the blue china bird is special, so she knows an ordinary plan isn’t right. Luckily, she has lots of “out-of-the-box” ideas, such as becoming an archeologist so she can discover a new dinosaur (she would name it Violetosaurs mackerelus). Naturally, her discovery will get her interviewed on TV where she will mention that her discovery was all due to a blue china bird and then everyone watching at home will send her blue china birds in the mail. Will Violet’s brilliant plot work? Will Violet dig up a dinosaur skeleton in the backyard? And, most importantly, will she be able to buy the blue china bird?

This book, first in a series, features a single parent family in a positive light. Violet and her older brother and sister are being raised by their single mother, after their father left the family a few years ago. Through Violet’s unique way of looking at the world and the nurturing spirit of her mother, readers are encouraged to think outside the box for solutions to their problems. However, through the failure of Violet’s archeological dig Branford shows readers that sometimes brilliant plots don’t always work out as planned and that’s ok. Short chapters and large font size make this a great book for independent readers who are too advanced for early readers, but not quite ready for longer chapter books. Allen’s whimsical illustrations rendered in greyscale provide interest and context throughout the book, another great aid for new readers.

Originally published in Australia, I have found sources that say the text has been modified for the US publication, however I don’t know exactly what was changed. Although I’m not sure why, the US version has been published with illustrations by Elanna Allen, while the New Zealand version had illustrations by Sarah Davis. I’m not sure why this change was made. Finally, the UK version was illustrated by Sam Wilson. For those interested in comparing, here is an excerpt of the Australian version of the book, the US version, and here is the cover for the UK edition.

*Read more about Violet and her family in the other books in the Violet Mackerel series. Currently, there are 6 books total in the series.

*Violet creates her tubular scarf with found objects and a misshapen leg warmer. Create collages with found objects or bring in old sweaters for kids to cut up and repurpose. Check your local thrift shop for materials or raid your closet.

*Bring in knitting needles and yarn and teach the kids to knit.

Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows
Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look
Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli, Illustrated by Matt Phelan

Age 6+ / Grade 1+


Friday, June 21, 2013

The Girl from Felony Bay by J. E. Thompson

Image from
Walden Pond Press (An Imprint of HarperCollins), 2013

Before that fateful day when she found her beloved father unconscious on the floor surrounded by stolen jewels, Abbey Force lived happily with her lawyer father on Reward Plantation. Life was good on Leadenwah Island, South Carolina. She went to Miss Walker’s School for Girls in Charleston and spent countless hours riding her pony and exploring her family’s land. Now, 9 months after that horrible day, Abbey’s father is still in a coma at the hospital and the plantation has been sold to repay the victim of the robbery that her father is being accused of committing. Summer vacation has just started and Abbey is living with her abusive Uncle Charlie and Ruth in their house close to Reward. Abbey has resigned herself to a summer of chores and avoiding her relatives, but all that changes when she meets the daughter of the new owner of the plantation. While Abbey is showing Bee around Reward the two girls unexpectedly stumble upon suspicious activities at hidden Felony Bay. Why are holes being dug on the beach at the bay? Does it have anything to do with the old stories about buried Civil War treasure? Why does Abbey have a hunch this new development has something to do with her father’s situation? Most importantly, how can Abbey clear her father's name and will he ever wake up from his coma? Unaware of looming danger, Abbey and Bee set out to answer these questions and more in this thrilling adventure.

Readers looking for a thrilling adventure set in the real world will find this a satisfying read. Thompson’s story is a cross between a friendship story and a mystery, with just the right amount of lawyer-speak for young readers. The plot is intriguing, with just enough red herrings to keep readers on their toes, but not so many that the plot is muddy. A spunky protagonist, Abbey is very loyal and caring. She sticks up for her friends and family and she uses her intelligence and quick thinking to escape many a dangerous situation. The physical and verbal abuse demonstrated by Deputy Simmons, Uncle Charlie, and Ruth is portrayed in a straight forward and realistic manner, however these characters are the “bad guys” and Thompson makes sure they get what they deserve. Thompson addresses race relations in a legal, as well as moral sense through Abbey’s friendship with Bee, as well as Mrs. Middleton the elderly descent of a former slave of the Force family. Additionally, the meaning of doing the right thing in a moral versus a legal sense is a common thread throughout the story. A helpful map of the plantation is included at the beginning of the book.

Read the first few chapters of the book and find yourself transported to Leadenwah Island.

*Use this book for a book club discussion. Try some of the questions in the discussion guide provided by HarperCollins.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
Theodore Boone series by John Grisham
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Age 9+ / Grade 4+


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Image from
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012

10 year old August Pullman is starting middle school. Most kids feel a bit nervous when they start at a new school, but Auggie thinks he’s probably more nervous than most 5th graders at Beecher Prep because this is the first time he’s ever been to school. Born with a facial deformity, Auggie has spent the majority of his young life in the hospital undergoing numerous surgeries, so he was homeschooled. His parents think it's time for him to try regular school, but Auggie isn't so sure. He knows that on the inside he's a pretty normal, ordinary kid. He likes grilled cheese sandwiches, playing with his dog, and knows just about everything there is to know about Star Wars. Initially, most of his classmates have a hard time seeing past his appearance to the brave, smart, funny, and kind boy he is inside. But over the course of the school year, a year filled with science projects and mean words, nature camps and acts of kindness, Auggie and his classmates grow to appreciate one another.

Set in New York, Palacio’s story is firmly grounded in the 21st century with frequent references to pop culture and technology. Auggie, supported by loving and understanding parents, is a hilarious and touching protagonist. The book is divided into eight parts. Each one is written in first person from a different perspective including Auggie, his classmates Jack Will and Summer his sister, Via, Via’s boyfriend Justin, and her best friend Miranda. Each narrative overlaps with the previous section and then carries the story further. The multiple viewpoints allow Palacio to reveal more about the motivations and actions of the characters than if the story was told from a single perspective. The importance of kindness in words and actions is a major theme in this story. Each section of the book is prefaced with a quote from a song, poem, or novel and many of these snippets reinforce this message. The chapters are short and the dialogue and narrative are conversational and believable.

Read an excerpt of the book to get a taste of Auggie’s insightful and funny voice.

I listened to the audiobook version and highly recommend it. It is wonderfully narrated by Diana Steele, Nick Podehl, and Kate Rudd. I especially love that you can hear the smile in Auggie’s voice.

You can also check out the short, but intriguing book trailer.

*Use this book as the jumping off point for a discussion on bullying. Many characters are bullied in this story and in many cases the reader gets to hear about incidents from several perspectives. Alternatively, you could use this book as a catalyst for a conversation about kindness and the impact our words and actions make on others. More discussion questions are available on Palacio’s website.

*Auggie’s teacher, Mr. Brown, has a precept for each month (see the appendix in the book for a complete chronological list). Have kids write about their favorite precept from the book or create one of their own and write it on a postcard. Check your local thrift store or used book store for cheap and fun postcards.

*Check out the detailed and illuminating FAQ and Annotation sections on Palacio’s website.

*Bring in some of the books, songs, plays, and movies referenced in the book. These titles include:
The Hobbit by J. R. Tolkien
Light and Day by the Polyphonic Spree
Our Town by Thorton Wilder
The Sound of Music by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg

Age 9+ / Grade 4+


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

Image from
Bloomsbury, 2011

11 year old Princess Celie, youngest daughter of King Glower the seventy-ninth of Sleyne, knows that the castle she lives in is magical. Castle Glower is not your ordinary royal palace. It can add rooms, change their location, or make them disappear. When the castle doesn’t like someone, it will lock that person outside or make their rooms small, cramped, and uncomfortable. Celie has always felt protected while inside the castle, but after her parents are supposedly killed in an ambush in the mountains she realizes she must work with the castle to save Sleyne from being taken over by the dastardly Prince Khelsh of Vhervhine. With the help of her practical sister Princess Lilah, her older brother the Crown Prince Rolf, and Pogue the blacksmith’s son from the village, Celie uses her wits and her extensive knowledge of the geography of the castle to save the day.

In this charming story of good versus evil the characters rely on family and friends to see them through terrible times. The characters are endearing, even if they don’t have many faults or internal conflicts, and the three siblings work well together recognizing one another’s strengths. The fantasy-land setting allows George to make Celie a strong, outspoken princess without having to worry about historical or societal conventions. Celie is a brave and smart young girl who uses her intellect, not her looks or charms, to save her family and her beloved castle. The plot has some pleasantly surprising twists, although there aren’t many subplots. Great for a family read aloud or book club discussion.

* Celie has spent her childhood learning the many corridors of the castles and drawing a detailed atlas. Have kids create a map of their ideal castle.

*Read more about Celie and her family in the sequel, Wednesdays in the Tower.  

*More books by Jessica Day George:
The Dragon Slippers trilogy

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles series by Patricia C. Wrede
Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris
The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye
The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Age 8+ / Grade 3+


Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Image from

Harcourt Children’s Books, 2012

Jennifer Strange, 15 year old foundling from the Sisters of the Lobster Orphanage and indentured servant/acting manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management, never thought much about the last surviving dragon Maltcassion. She was always too busy handling the endearing, but finicky staff of Kazam wizards. And she thought even less about the dragonslayer until that fateful day when she learns she is in fact the last dragonslayer. The most powerful wizard in history, the Mighty Shandar, even declared it so 400 years ago when he created the Dragonpact to protect humans from the destructive dragons. At the same time, the Ununited Kingdom is thrown into chaos as wizards everywhere begin to pick up a precognition that Maltcassion will die on Sunday at noon. Aided by her assistant foundling Tiger Prawns and her loyal (and very intimidating) Quarkbeast, Jennifer finds herself in the middle of a complex web of magic, deceit, war, and politics, with occasional transient moose. Will she have to slay the dragon? What will happen to the unspoiled nature of the Dragonlands when the last dragon dies?

Fforde’s book is full of unique characters and off-beat, witty humor. Jennifer is a reluctant heroine, who would rather deal with practical matters than the vagueness of a prophecy. The plot is tightly woven and no small detail goes to waste. Everything ties together as the prophecy comes true, but with unexpected twists and turns along the way. The book is set in a sort of parallel universe of the United Kingdom where magic is part of the fabric of life and dragons are not just the stuff of legends. In a clever, humorous way big issues, including war, greed, and environmentalism, are addressed. In lesser hands these themes could slow down the story or make it preachy, but Fforde has deftly created a hilarious, yet thought-provoking tale.

Read an excerpt of the book to get an idea of Fforde’s clever sense of humor or listen to a bit of the audiobook narrated by Elizabeth Jasicki.

*The books are published first in the UK and then sometime later here in the US. The second book in the Chronicles of Kazam, Song of the Quarkbeast, is soon to be published in the US (I’ve heard September 2013). The final book in the trilogy, The Return of Shandar, does not currently have a US publication date.

*Check out the Special Features section of Fforde’s website for more information on the characters, setting, and other fun tidbits about the series.

*View the imaginative book trailer. Have kids do their own reporting of the events in this or another book.

*Use this book for a book club discussion. Talk about the similarities between the Dragonlands and our National Parks. Do you think the dragons have been misrepresented? If you created the Dragonpact, what would you have done differently? 

Boom! By Mark Haddon
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
The Neddiad: How Neddie took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, Illustrated by Calef Brown
Wee Free Men by Terry Prachett

Age 11+ / Grade 5+