Friday, August 30, 2013

Jinx by Sage Blackwood

Image from
Harper, 2013

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.

*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.

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

Age 9+ / Grade 4+


Sunday, August 25, 2013

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

Image from
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

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.

*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:

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

Age 10+ / Grade 5+


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Image from
Random House Children’s Books, 2013

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.

*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:

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

Age 11+ / Grade 6+


Sunday, August 11, 2013

After Iris by Natasha Farrant

Image from
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2013

For her twelfth birthday Bluebell Gadsby receives a video camera. So she decides to document her life in a “combination of conventional diary entries and transcripts of short films.” She’d like to film everything, but sometimes her camera isn’t handy and sometimes her friends and family make her turn off the camera. Blue lives in an old house in London with her dramatic older sister Flora, her younger brother and sister (whom she lovingly calls the Babes), and their au pair Zoran. Her parents are supposed to live there, too, but they’re too busy working in other cities and countries to spend much time at home. This is a challenging year for Blue as she continues to grieve for her sister Iris who died three years ago, falls in love with the mysterious and charming boy next door, gets revenge on her school nemesis, and makes new crazy, but wonderful friends. Life maybe chaotic, unpredictable, and dramatic for Blue and the Gadsby family, but it is far from forgettable!

In her first middle grade book, Farrant captures the many facets of the Gadsby family in a touching, yet humorous way. Written chronologically in short chapters, Blue’s tongue-in-cheek humor, as well as her grief for her sister, comes to life. Filled with a cast of eccentric, yet lovable characters Blue’s story isn’t just about a family dealing with the loss of a loved one, it’s also about a young girl’s growth as she learns to deal with her emotions and stand up for herself. Blue is a sensitive middle child who feels overlooked because her parents think of her as the sensible one. As she writes, who wants to be known as the “sensible one?” With references to cell phones, Skype, pop culture, and Facebook this story is firmly set in the present.

Read the first chapter and feel yourself pulled in by the strange and wonderful Gadbsy (Note: on my computer the first few pages of the PDF are jibberish, but the text of the book is readable).

Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech
Each Little Bird that Sings by Deborah Wiles
Saffy’s Angel (as well as the other Casson Family books) by Hilary McKay
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead       

*As a follow up writing activity have kids film a short scene with a camera and then transcribe it as Blue does in the book. If you don’t have access to a camera, have kids pick a scene from their favorite movie or YouTube video to transcribe. This is a great way to encourage descriptive writing.

*Blue’s au pair Zoran fled from Bosnia as a child. Bring in a map so kids can see the distance between Bosnia and England. This is a good time to introduce kids to Bosnian culture.

*Zoran is also an accomplished pianist and plays many pieces in the book. Play a few for readers. Here’s a partial list of pieces:
  • The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night, Hey Jude, All You Need is Love
  • Irving Berlin – Puttin’ on the Ritz
  • Chopin – Mazurka and Nocturne
  • Jack Johnson - Banana Pancakes
  • Mozart - Moonlight Sonata

Age 10+ / Grade 5+


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Love, Amalia by Alma Flor Ada & Gabriel M. Zubizarreta

Image from
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012

Amalia can’t believe it. Her best friend Martha is moving away from their neighborhood in Chicago all the way to “some weird place in California.” There are so many emotions surrounding this sudden change that Amalia doesn’t want to think or talk about Martha at all. She doesn’t think things can get worse, but then her beloved Abuelita dies and Amalia finds herself overwhelmed with even more emotions. Amalia has so many wonderful memories of spending Friday afternoons with her grandmother. They would listen to soft music while Abuelita shared family recipes and tell stories of Amalia’s relatives, her mami, tios, tias, and Abuelito. Who will tell these stories now? How will Amalia learn the all the recipes unshared? How will Amalia get along without her two best friends?

This short book begins with a quote in English and Spanish from a poem by Pedro Salinas. This sets the stage for a quiet, reflective story about sensitive young Amalia. The story is written in third person, with Amalia’s thoughts and feelings at the center. In short chapters Amalia reflects on significant moments she shared with Abuelita and Martha and through these reflections she is able to deal with her grief at losing two close friends. Cultural and family pride is a major theme throughout this intergenerational story, from the delicious foods Amalia and her grandmother make to the values Abuelita passes onto her family. Easily defined by context, Spanish words are deftly incorporated into the narrative and dialogue. Back matter includes two recipes that Abuelita gives to Amalia, as well as a list of open ended questions and an invitation for readers to write to the authors with their answers. These questions would be great for a book club discussion. A good recommendation for readers who are dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Read an excerpt of the book to get an idea of the gentle writing style. This book is also available in Spanish (I believe Ada and Zubizaretta did their own translation). 

*Have kids bring in a card or letter from someone special and either tell or write a story about that person. Alternatively, have kids write a letter to someone special.

*Check out Ada’s website for more discussion questions, as well as research and writing activities, in Spanish and English.

Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Muñoz Ryan
The Skirt by Gary Soto

*More chapter books by Ada:

*More chapter books by Ada and Zubizarreta:

Age 8+ / Grade 3+