Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya by Jane Kelley

Image from
Feiwel and Friends, 2013

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.

*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:

Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

Age 8+ / Grade 3+


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey

Image from
HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2012

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.

*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

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

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

Random House, 2013

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.  

*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:
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

Age 10+ / Grade 5+