Tuesday, December 16, 2014

November Round-Up

Image from TaraDairman.com
All Four Stars by Tara Dairman
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2014

11-year-old Gladys Gatsby's secret love of gourmet cooking is put to a stop by her greasy-fast-food-loving parents after a mishap with a blow torch and some creme brulee. Gladys harbors the hope that one day she'll be a famous newspaper food critic. A hope that might actually come true when she receives an email offer from the New York Standard newspaper. But how can Gladys get to the restaurant to taste and review the food without her parents knowing? Maybe, just maybe, with the help of her best friends Parminder and Sandy, Gladys can pull it off. 

Written in third person from Gladys' point of view, this story of friendship and food features mouth-watering descriptions of foods from cultures around the world. The characters are quirky, yet lovable, and even the mean girl ends up having a good side, in the slightly rosy world of this realistic fiction title. 

Read more about Gladys' gourmet adventures in the soon to be published sequel (May, 2015), The Stars of Summer. 

Bliss by Katherine Littlewood
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff

Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 8+/Grade 3+

Image from Macmillan.com
The League of Seven by Alan Gratz, Illustrated by Brett Helquist

"Thirty days hath September. Seven heroes we remember." Archie's parents are researchers for the super secret Septemberist Society. Unlike most people who live in the United Nations of America, Archie has always known about the society and it's legendary heroes. Whenever their is the threat of the Mangleborn monsters breaking loose of there Septemberist society prisons, a group of heroes. They are called the League of Seven. These heroes have included Theseus, King Arthur, Heracles, Hippolyta, Maat, and Anansi. When everyone in the Septemberist Society is possessed by the Mangleborn, it's up to Archie, his family's faithful tik-tok Mr. Rivets, and  his new friends Native American Hachi and Scottish-American Fergus to defeat the monsters. Could this ragtag band of friends be the new League of Seven?

The first in a series, this alternate steampunk history is a thrilling adventure with daring escapes, airship chases, and action-packed fight scenes. There's a great map that reimagines the US as the United Nations of America, which shows greater Native American influence on culture, politics, and power. (It would be fascinating to have a discussion comparing this map with the ones in The Glass Sentence). This title is also notable in its inclusion of a Native American main character. 

More by Gratz:
Samurai Shortstop

The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove
The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson
The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey

Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 10+/Grade 5+

Image from Scholastic.com
The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic Press, 2014

13-year-old Benji lives in Buxton, originally a settlement of runaway slaves. He's a master prankster with a heart of gold. He desperately wants to become a newspaperman and all of his chapters end with made up headlines, usually proclaiming his greatness. On the other side of the woods is the Irish-Canadian settlement of Chatham. This is the home of Red, who is passionate about science and looks to the logical scientific method to figure out his world. In alternating chapters the two boys tell their stories that eventually converge in the woods. The woods, known by those in Buxton as the Piney Woods and as South Woods to everyone in Chatham, is said to be inhabited by a mysterious mad man. But Benji and Red are beginning to think the stories have some truth in them. 

Set in 1904 in Ontario, Canada this taut, tightly woven, spellbinding historical fiction story pulls the reader in from page one. The story and text are so carefully and deliberately constructed that not one word is extraneous. The text, both dialogue and narrative, is humorous and touching in just the right amounts. The character development is strongly built as the boys finds out more about the people in their communities. This is the second book in a trilogy that started with Elijah of Buxton, however it works well as a stand alone title. (The third book is untitled and does not currently have a publication date.) In fact, the connection to the first book is not revealed until very late in the story. 

More middle grade fiction by Curtis:
Bud, Not Buddy
Mighty Miss Malone
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 10+/Grade 5+


Monday, November 10, 2014

October Round-Up

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Cartwheelingin Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
Wilhelmina Silver has always lived in glorious, sun-drenched Zimbabwe. Her father is the foreman for a large farm, so Will lives in wonderful and wild freedom. But when her father dies Will is forced to leave her beloved Africa. In England, Will feels completely out of her element at boarding school. So when she sees an opportunity to run away, she jumps at it. But fending for herself in England is much different than in the African bush. Eventually, Will learns that although life in an English boarding school is completely different than in Zimbabwe, she must do her best to accept and embrace her new life.

The third person narrative from sharp-witted Will’s perspective is full of vivid, lyrical descriptions. Will’s unique way of observing the world is verbalized in a mixture of Shona and English. A glossary of terms is included at the end of the book. The time period is modern, yet vague. Will’s life in Africa seems timeless (or perhaps out of time?), but when she is forced to move to England the modern world comes rushing in around her. The character development is especially strong and the characters – flawed and fascinating – are compelling.

Also by Rundell: 


Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 10+/Grade 5+

Image from RandomHouse.com
LeroyNinker Saddles Up by Kate DiCamillo
Leroy wants more than anything to be a cowboy, like the ones he sees in the movies. He has everything a real cowboy should have – a hat, a lasso, boots. Everything that is, except a horse! So Leroy takes life by the reins and that’s how he finds Maybelline. She might be old, ten time as big as little Leroy, and only movable via sweet words, but Leroy thinks she’s the most beautiful horse in the world. Through thick and thin, spaghetti dinners and thunderstorms, Leroy learns what it means to be a true friend. Yippie-i-oh!

Bumbling, kind-hearted Leroy is a wonderful protagonist in the first title in a new series called Tales from Deckawoo Drive. Fans of the Mercy Watson series may recognize some familiar characters that appear briefly. Dicamillo’s knack for humorous repetition makes this a great story for new chapter book readers. The single plot line is clear and compelling. Van Dusen’s black and white illustrations are playfully cartoonish. They provide context, break up the page for new readers, and are just so darn charming. This book is a wonderful choice for a quick family read-aloud. I listened to the audiobook and found myself cheering, “awwwing”, and laughing out loud.

Also by DiCamillo:

Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 6+/Grade 1+

Image from MaryRoseWood.Typepad.com
The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 1) by Mary Rose Wood
15-year-old Penelope Lumley, recently graduated from the Swanburne School for Poor, Bright Females, is thrilled to be the new governess for the “Incorrigibles” – Alexander, Beowolf, and Cassiopeia. Luckily, Penelope has a healthy dollop of pluck and optimism because she has her work cut out for her. The siblings were raised in the woods by wolves and it takes considerable determination to teach the children to speak English and break their wolfish habits (howling, barking, chasing squirrels). On top of all, that strange things are happening around Ashton place. Penelope begins to suspect something is amiss.

Although it is set in England during the 1800’s, the narrator uses many modern day reference to explain terms to readers. The plot has a slow start, but once the Incorrigibles arrive the story is captivating. The third person narrative from Penelope’s point of view is full of witty word puns, dryly funny explanations, and wise sayings from the legendary (at least to Penelope) Agatha Swanburne. The ending leaves the story on a cliffhanger that only continuing the story will appease. The audiobook is deftly narrated by Katherine Kellgren, who juggles voices with amazing agility.

Continue the series: 

Read alikes

Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 9+/Grade 4+


Thursday, October 9, 2014

September Round-Up

Image from PenguinGroup.com
The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove
Viking, 2014

Enter Sophia’s world. A world where the mysterious Great Disruption has thrown the time and geography of the world into a jumble of Ages or time periods. Sophia lives in 1891 in Boston, a major city in the Age known as New Occident. But when her Uncle Shadrack, the famous cartologer (a mix between a mapmaker and an archeologist) is kidnapped, Sophia’s orderly life comes to an end. With just a strange glass map and instructions from her uncle to find Veressa, Sophia and her new and unpredictable friend Theo set off to save Shadrack. Unfortunately, they are unaware of the dangers barreling towards them as they travel south to the Triple Eras. Can Sophia figure out the mysterious glass map and put together all the clues in time to save her uncle?

The alternate history Grove has created in this fantasy is rich and complex. She presents the reader not only with sensory descriptions, but also with information about how the Great Disruption has affected the relationships of people, communities, and countries. Issues of immigration, class structure, and prejudice are all touched on in thoughtful ways. The chapters alternate between Sophia and Shadrack’s perspectives, both written in third person. This allows the reader to know more and to push the story forward with ever bigger cliffhangers. Although the seemingly sudden change of heart that topples the story to its climatic ending is a bit unbelievable, overall the story is satisfying and engrossing. This lengthy book (nearly 500 pages) is an excellent recommendation for avid readers looking to be immersed in a fascinating parallel world. Although there is some torture and gruesome description, kids who have read the last few Harry Potter books should be just fine. This is the first book in a trilogy.


Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 10+/Grade 5+

Image from AmiPolonsky.com
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
Hyperion, 2014
(Reviewed based on an advance reader’s copy)

12 year old Grayson has a lot of secrets. He secretly draws princesses in his notebooks during class. He secretly pretends his extra long t-shirts are dresses. And, most of all, he secretly wishes he had been born a girl. Over time Grayson has learned that it’s better for him to hide his real self, to be gray, to blend in with his surroundings. But all that changes in 6th grade when Grayson decides to audition for the lead role, a female role, in the school play. As he steps into the role of Persephone, Grayson also steps out of his shell and into the world.

Set in Northern Illinois, this story is written from Grayson’s perspective. The sensitive and often poetic narration reflects Grayson’s growth as he becomes more confident and self-aware. Like Grayson, the story is quiet and unassuming, but short chapters and compelling characters keep the pace from dragging. The story centers around Grayson questioning his gender in an age appropriate way. He doesn’t worry about sex, boyfriends or girlfriends, and he never even has a crush on a classmate. All of his energy is spent figuring out his identity and, as the story goes on, on finding a group of friends who support and encourage him. Although Grayson becomes more confident, that doesn’t protect him from the reactions of others. Some of the people in his life are supportive, while others are protective, scared, or shocked. As expected, Grayson is the target of bullying at school. Mr. Finnegan is an inspirational, but human teacher and role model for Grayson. Although there are a few school situations that seem a little unrealistic, this is an excellent book for tweens who are too old for Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, but not quite mature enough for Will Grayson, Will Grayson. 


Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 10+/Grade 5+

Image from HilaryMcKay.co.uk
Lulu and the Duck inthe Park by Hilary McKay, Illustrations by Priscilla Lamont
Albert Whitman & Company, 2014

Lulu is most famous for her love of animals. She’s always rescuing them and bringing them home. Which is why Lulu knows without even thinking that she absolutely must save the duck egg that she sees rolling down the hill in the park. Two rambunctious dogs have destroyed all the ducks’ nests and eggs, but not this single blue egg. So as Class 3 leaves the park, Lulu slips the warm egg in her pocket. She tells her best friend and cousin Mellie, but can she keep the egg a secret for the rest of class that day? She just might be able to do it, but then something happens. The egg begins to shake and move. It’s hatching!

First in a series, this humorous early chapter book stars a wonderful, caring protagonist. Lulu’s love of life and animals will capture the readers’ attention, even as they sound out new words. McKay’s ability to write humorous, yet believable dialogue is once again on display, making this an engaging and entertaining read aloud. Lamont’s cartoonish black and white illustrations provide context, as well as break up the page for new readers. Although it’s never mentioned in the text, the illustrations show Lulu and Mellie as young black girls. However, the story focuses on Lulu’s relationships with Mellie and her teacher, Mrs. Holiday, rather than on any multicultural elements.

Read more about Lulu and her friends in Class 3:
Lulu series

More by Hilary McKay:

Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 6+/Grade 1+


Thursday, September 4, 2014

August Round-Up

Image from ChronicleBooks.com
The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg
Chronicle Books, 2014
(Reviewed based on an advance reader’s copy)

Candice Phee’s homework assignment is to write her autobiography with one paragraph for each letter of the alphabet. But Candice knows that 26 paragraphs aren’t enough to explain everything going on in her life. How can she write everything there is to say about her family, her best (and only) friend Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, her pet goldfish Earth-Pig Fish? And what about her plans for fixing her unhappy family? It’s a good thing Candice is a die-hard optimist who knows how to logically think through a problem, even if everyone around her is baffled. Also, she decides that she’ll probably need one chapter per letter.

Originally published in Australia in 2013 under the title, My Life as an Alphabet, this realistic fiction story is written in first person from Candice’s point of view. Each chapter is titled with the next letter of the alphabet, from “A is for Assignment” to “Z is for Zero Hour.” Candice is a quirky and fascinating narrator and her highly logical and literal way of viewing the world is amusing and endearing. Everyone, including Candice, admits that she has a unique way of navigating life, but Candice denies being on the Autism Disorder Spectrum. But it doesn’t really matter how Candice’s mind works because her proactive and kindhearted plans produce hilarious and life-changing results. Set in modern day Australia, this quick and easy read has a cast of characters that are realistically flawed with humor around every corner.


Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 10+/Grade 5+

Image from SimonandSchuster.com
A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014

It’s 1956 and 11 year old Jack Fair is mourning the sudden loss of his beloved single mother who tragically drove her car off a cliff into the Pacific Ocean. Now Jack must live with his only relative the repulsive Aunt Edith in her suite at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Aunt Edith cruelly orders Jack around until the night she mysteriously disappears leaving only a ransom note written in chocolates on the bedspread. Alone and afraid, Jack has no idea what to do. Luckily, the famous filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is an expert on criminals and he’s staying in the suite next door. Using Hitchcock’s film savvy and Jack’s artistic talent, the unlikely pair uncover clues and chase the kidnappers through the city’s many iconic landmarks, from Chinatown to the Golden Gate Bridge.

This action-packed mystery is written in third person from Jack’s perspective. He’s a reluctant hero, but he becomes more confident and resourceful as the story unfolds. Along with Jack the story features a cast of distinctive and broadly drawn characters, including San Francisco itself, that keep the story moving along. Although the book is lengthy, it is an absorbing read due to several chase scenes and humorous dialogue. Elements of the plot are predictable, however there are enough twists to keep readers on their toes. Each chapter, named after a Hitchcock film, begins with a 6 panel storyboard that highlights a sequence to be found in that chapter. In the context of the story Hitchcock explains storyboards and their use for films. The appendix includes information on all the chapter title films, including year released, plot summary, trivia, and where to look for Hitchcock’s famous cameo. Notes on Hitchcock’s personal and professional life are also included in the back matter. Knowledge of Hitchcock films is not necessary to enjoy this book. However, many readers will be inspired to watch his films making this a great title for a parent-child book club. You could also have adults read David F. Dodge’s To Catch a Thief, while kids read this title.


Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 10+/Grade 5+

Image from RandomHouse.com
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy
Delacorte Press, 2014

What happens when you put four brothers, two dads, one dog, one cat, and an imaginary cheetah in one house? You get a year of misadventures big and small, funny and touching, silly and serious. Join soccer star 6th grader Sam, 4th graders energetic Jax and intensely intelligent Eli, and loveable kindergartner Frog as they learn about friendship, try new things, make mistakes, and, most importantly laugh and love everyone in their crazy family.

This wonderful realistic fiction book focuses on the daily life of one loving, if chaotic, family. It’s refreshing to find a book about a family with two dads that isn’t about the LGTBQ issue, but rather about the characters. The boys are used to having explain that they are adopted and that they have two dads, but they aren’t embarrassed or ashamed.  Additionally, the family celebrates the cultural/religious background of each boy, but never in a didactic manner. With short, episodic chapters this book is great family read aloud. Each chapter is written in third person from a single brother’s perspective. Chapters begin with a short message (email, text message, handwritten reminders) from one family member to another. In this way all of boys contribute to the story, just as they contribute to their family.


Recommended Age/Grade Level: Age 8+/Grade 3+