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This is my last post at Secrets & Sharing Soda. Beginning tomorrow, I will be posting exclusively at Story Time Secrets. If you haven't already, I hope you will update your subscription to continue receiving my posts in your reader or email.
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Enchanted Palace. by Rosie Banks. 2014 Scholastic. ISBN: 9780545535533
Secret Kingdom is a brand-new series of paperback chapter books from Scholastic, which was originally published in the UK. The series focuses on the adventures of three girls - Ellie, Jasmine, and Summer - who stumble upon a mysterious old box with the power to transport them to the magical kingdom ruled by King Merry. The kingdom is in trouble, as the king’s sister, Queen Malice, is intent on making everyone as miserable as she is by hiding six thunderbolts around the kingdom. With the help of a pixie named Trixi, the three girls must work together to track down the thunderbolts and destroy them before they can make any trouble. In the first book, Enchanted Palace,the girls visit the king’s palace, where they help to save his birthday party from being ruined by the first thunderbolt. In the second book, Unicorn Valley, they help a group of unicorns put on the Golden Games, which are nearly canceled due to the second thunderbolt.
My blogs have merged, and this is my last post at Secrets & Sharing Soda. Please click here to read the rest of this review at Story Time Secrets. For more information, click here. To subscribe to Story Time Secrets in a reader, click here. To subscribe to Story Time Secrets by email, enter your email address below and click Subscribe.
Gone Fishing. by Tamera Will Wissinger. 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN: 978047820118
Sam is really looking forward to fishing with his dad, just the two of them. When his sister, Lucy, decides she wants to join in, he’s sure the trip will be ruined with all her twirling, jumping, and playing. On the trip itself, though, Lucy and Sam surprise each other with their fishing abilities, and the bond they form as siblings. This book is told entirely in different forms of verse, in the voices of Lucy, Sam, and their dad.
My blogs have merged, and I will soon stop posting at Secrets & Sharing Soda. Please click here to read the rest of this review at Story Time Secrets. For more information, click here. To subscribe to Story Time Secrets in a reader, click here. To subscribe to Story Time Secrets by email, enter your email address below and click Subscribe.
Better Off Friends. by Elizabeth Eulberg 2014. Scholastic. ISBN: 9780545551458
When Levi and Macallan first meet in seventh grade, he has just moved from California to Wisconsin, and she has recently lost her mother to a fatal car accident. At first, they don’t really hit it off. Levi seems too much like a hippie, and Macallan has enough on her mind without trying to make friends. When they realize they both like the same obscure British television show, however, something immediately clicks, and soon they are inseparable best friends. As they leave middle school and enter high school, their friendship remains strong, but it also begins to develop into something more. By junior year, they each find themselves questioning whether they are truly better off friends.
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The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner. September 1, 2009. Walker Children's. 208 pages. ISBN: 9780802798428
Gianna is a procrastinator. She knows she has to collect 25 leaves for her science project to avoid being kicked off the cross-country team, but as the deadline approaches, she finds herself becoming more and more distracted and less and less prepared to complete the assignment. To make matters worse, her grandmother has started to become very forgetful, to the point that she gets lost in familiar places and forgets the names for household objects. Gianna’s mom doesn’t want to admit that anything is wrong, which makes Gianna even more anxious and even more distracted. There’s also a mean girl at school who seems determined to sabotage any progress Gianna makes. It’s a good thing Gianna has a great friend like Zig to help her get through the tough times - he might be her only hope for things to work out!
I enjoy Kate Messner’s Marty McGuire books, and her mystery-adventure books about the Jaguar Society, and I was curious to see what her early middle grade novels are like. Though I couldn’t get into Sugar and Ice, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. grabbed my attention from the very start. Gianna is a likeable girl whose flaws seem very real to me. It seems like I have read a lot of books about girls who are really bookish, responsible, and focused, but not as many about sports-minded athletes who struggle to finish homework assignments and whose lives are somewhat up in the air. I like that Gianna doesn’t have it all together, but that her heart is in the right place, and she never stops trying.
I also enjoyed the relationships Gianna has with the supporting characters. Gianna’s mom, grandma, and best friend, Zig, each came strongly to life, and I loved the gentle ways they supported Gianna even when she was driving them crazy with her disorganization. It was also very satisfying to see Gianna eventually forge her own path where she gets her assignment done in her way, with her own style, instead of in a traditional format that might work for more traditional thinkers.
The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is a great middle grade novel about a very real girl. Readers will easily empathize with Gianna as she struggles to conquer her homework assignment, and they will fully understand her frustrations and triumphs on the road to success. I would recommend this book to girls who have enjoyed Ann M. Martin’s Ten Rules for Living with My Sister and Tricia Rayburn’s Maggie Bean books. It’s a perfect choice for middle school girls, especially those who might not relate to more picture-perfect fictional heroines.
I borrowed The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. from my local public library.
The Pinballs. by Betsy Byars. 1977. Harper Collins. 144 pages. ISBN: 9780060209186
On the same day, three kids arrive at the same foster home: Thomas J. who has been raised by elderly twins after being abandoned by his birth mother, Harvey, whose own father ran over his legs with the family car, and Carlie, who has been removed from her home because of an abusive stepdad. Though they are supposedly just pinballs, existing together in one space without any particular regard for one another, these three kids form a bond that helps all three of them look hopefully toward the future.
I have known of this book for years because it was assigned reading in my own sixth grade language arts class, back in 1993, but the only thing that sounded at all familiar about it when I picked it up again was the name Thomas J. Otherwise, this may have been my first reading of the book. It was a much quicker and more engaging read than I remember. As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t tolerate sadness very well as a kid, and knowing that kids were treated badly by their parents would have automatically kept me from investing myself too much in the story. As an adult, though, with lots more books under my belt, I can really appreciate the value of this book, and its continued relevance more than 35 years after its publication.
I think what makes this book stand the test of time more than anything else is its honesty about how the characters feel. As they settle into their new foster home, two of the characters cope by making lists about their lives. Harvey writes “Bad Things That Have Happened To Me” while Carlie starts one entitled “Big Events and How I Got Cheated Out of Them.” Carlie asks pointed questions of her foster mother, revealing her fears and confusion about why this woman wants her to live in her home. Harvey expresses real disappointment when he is promised Kentucky Fried Chicken and his foster father forgets to bring it home. Thomas J. worries about his inability to express love because the elderly twins who cared for him never really demonstrated their feelings. These anecdotes from the lives of the three foster kids are very real, and they help kids relate to the difficulties the characters face, even if they have never had the same experiences. There are some really dated pop culture expressions and references that might put off some contemporary readers, but beyond those are three well-developed characters with three-dimensional personalities and distinct identities.
This is the third book I have reviewed on this blog that depicts children in the foster care system. One for the Murphys describes an almost sugary-sweet situation in which a young girl slowly acclimates to her completely loving and perfect foster family. The Story of Tracy Beaker focuses on a more difficult little girl, who has been left at the children’s home for a long time, with little hope for a foster family to take her in. The Pinballs strikes a balance between these two more extreme scenarios and focuses on the friendships formed among the kids rather than their relationships to the adults who try to improve their lives. Though there are positive things to be said for all three books, I think The Pinballs is the one that is most likely to stick with me. For me, it’s the most real, and in some ways, the most hopeful, because it empowers the kids to take control of their own destiny and to focus on themselves instead of the adults who let them down.
I would recommend the The Pinballs to readers in grades 4 to 8 who prefer realistic fiction and character-driven stories, and who are ready to grapple with heavier issues.
I borrowed The Pinballs from my local public library.
Kelsey Green, Reading Queen. by Claudia Mills. June 4, 2013. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 128 pages. ISBN: 9780374374884
Kelsey Green is great at reading. Her best friends are good at math and running. In this first of three books exploring each of the girls' special talents, Kelsey's class learns that they will be entering a school-wide reading competition, with prizes for the best readers in each class as well as the best class of readers in the entire school. Kelsey desperately wants to beat her class's other star reader, Simon, but she always seem to be a book or two behind, even when she reads the skinniest books she can find on her reading level. To make matters worse, the fifth grade's star readers are carrying their class ever-closer to first place. The only thing Kelsey can do now is try to motivate the reluctant readers in her class to read more books, even if it means being a little bit bossy in the process.
Claudia Mills consistently writes wonderfully relevant school stories at both the chapter book level and the middle grade level. In this story for the early elementary audience, she demonstrates her keen understanding of how children compete with one another, and how acutely aware kids are of reading levels, both their own and those of their classmates. Most elementary school students I know are at least slightly obsessed with reading levels, so for me, this book has its finger firmly on the pulse of what is happening right now. Since kids like to see themselves in the books they read, especially when they are just learning, this feeling that the story is happening right now is really important. I also think Mills does a nice job of creating a flawed character. Kelsey might be the reading queen, but she has a lot to learn about compassion, patience, and good sportsmanship, including how not to be a sore loser.
Interestingly, it's not completely clear from the story itself whether Kelsey herself learns a lesson, but I think the reader definitely does. Through Kelsey's behavior as she tries to teach her classmate, Cody, to love reading, kids learn how to be understanding of the differences between themselves and their classmates, and how to use their strengths to help others, not to show them up in front of everyone in order to be the best.
This book and its companions have a place in every elementary school classroom, and they might be especially useful in those where heavy competition among students of differing abilities has become a problem. Read-alikes for this series include the Polk Street School Kids books and the Clementine series. I borrowed Kelsey Green, Reading Queen from my local public library.
Runt. by Nora Raleigh Baskin. July 23, 2013. Simon & Schuster. 208 pages. ISBN: 9781442458079
Elizabeth, Stewart, Matthew, Maggie, and Freida are all students at the same middle school, and each one has had a different experience with bullying. In this novel, author Nora Raleigh Baskin shifts between each of these characters’ points of view to convey the complicated nature of bullying and victimization, and to compare it to the aggressions displayed in the animal kingdom.
As I was reading, I reacted to this book on two different levels. First, I noticed how much I liked the writing. I like the way Baskin identifies each speaker by a unique style of writing rather than simply labeling each chapter with a character’s name. I like that there is a chapter devoted to a teacher’s own childhood experience with bullying. I also like that much of the book is very subtle, so that the reader has to draw his or her own conclusions about the author’s message. From a literary standpoint, this is a beautifully written, rich novel, with lots of strong images related to the subject of bullying.
My other reaction to this book, though, was from the standpoint of someone who works with kids and regularly recommends books to them. When I look at the book from that perspective, I find it harder to appreciate. While subtlety is artistic and interesting, I think many young readers would find that the story lacks direction. Since the characters are not named at the start of each chapter, they are harder to keep track of, and I could see kids giving up on the book simply because they couldn’t remember who was who, or what each character’s overall story arc was about. I also thought the connections between tween bullying and aggression among dogs felt forced and contrived. Particularly cheesy is the last bit of the book, which shares a dog’s thoughts on how we all treat each other. There is definitely a lot of value in this book, especially for kids who have been victimized by bullies, but for most readers, I think the almost experimental writing style would be off-putting, or at the very least would somewhat obscure the message Baskin tries to get across.
Runt is well-written, but strange, and I think I would be more likely to suggest a more accessbile title, such as The Misfits by James Howe or The Bully Book by Eric Gale to kids looking for bullying books. Fetching by Kiera Stewart and Boys Are Dogs by Leslie Margolis are two more great titles that address the parallels between dogs and middle schoolers in a more straightforward and humorous way.
I received a review copy of Runt from Simon & Schuster.
Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt. September 10, 2013. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 400 pages. ISBN: 9780307976819
Max’s parents are actors with a flair for the dramatic, and his father has often insisted that a twelve-year-old boy is more than capable of taking care of himself. Still when both his parents go missing under mysterious circumstances, Max isn’t quite prepared to be left on his own with just his grandmother as an ally. It doesn’t take long for Max to realize how difficult it is to keep enough money in his pockets and enough food on his table. While looking for work, he accidentally gains a reputation as a young man who is able to find lost things. Realizing that people will pay him to locate lost items and solve difficult problems, Max begins to advertise himself as a “solutioner” under the name of Mister Max. While solving problems for others, he also tries to figure out the best way to bring his parents back home.
This historical fiction mystery novel is a huge departure from Voigt’s beloved Tillerman cycle, but it works very well and proves the author’s immense talent. The entire concept of the story is something I haven’t really seen before, and I really enjoyed immersing myself in this new world and getting to know Max, both as himself, and in character as Mister Max. Each of the supporting characters, from the schoolgirl who wants to be Max’s assistant, to the university student Max hires to tutor him, to Max’s librarian grandmother, are interesting people with deep backstories and well-realized roles in the story. I found myself becoming as invested in their problems as in Max’s, and I eagerly read through each chapter, wanting to know how everything would turn out.
Since this is the first book in a trilogy, I was wary from the beginning, because I was sure the book would end on an unresolved note. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, with the way Voigt wraps up this first installment in a way that keeps the reader interested in the overall story, but that doesn’t make it completely painful to wait for the next book. This book will not ultimately stand on its own, but it does have its own conclusion, where all mysteries except the major one about Max’s parents, are resolved.
Voigt has always been a talented writer, and I have enjoyed the relationships among her characters in her realistic fiction novels. There are some similarities between Max and Dicey Tillerman, considering both kids are left to fend for themselves by missing parents, but Max’s story is more colorful and in some ways more fanciful than anything else Voigt has written. The Book of Lost Things is one of the best middle grade novels I have read this year, and I can’t wait to see where Max’s story will take us in the remaining volumes. Recommend this book to readers in grades 5 to 8 who like adventure, mystery, and history.
I was invited by Random House to read Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things on NetGalley.
The Story of Tracy Beaker. by Jacqueline Wilson. 1991; 2006. Yearling. 224 pages. ISBN: 9780440867579
Tracy Beaker lives in a children's home. She has had two failed attempts at making things work with a foster family, but because she is an older child and a bit unruly, she has had trouble making a long-term connection. When she begins writing her life story in a book given to her by the home, she discovers some writing talent, and even has the chance to meet a real-life author, but when it seems like she and the author might just hit it off, she finds that her behavior might keep her from truly enjoying this new friendship.
Tracy is the plucky kind of character kids love to read about, whether they have anything in common with her or not. She is smart-mouthed, funny, sarcastic, and authentic, and her difficult situation gives kids a lot of reasons to root for her right off the bat. She is not always a reliable narrator, but her lies and half-truths are always obvious to the reader, and I think the reader can easily understand that they arise from a desire to protect herself. Even her misbehavior – getting into fights, breaking others' belongings, having angry outbursts – is presented in a realistic way that presents things for what they are, without glorifying disobedience or immediately passing judgment on Tracy as a “bad” kid.
Though this book was originally published in the UK in 1991, it didn't make it to the United States until 2006. Though I suspect the publisher probably could have updated some things to bring the story up to date, there is no obvious evidence that this has been done in the US edition that I read. I recall no references to cell phones or other gadgets, and honestly, I'm not sure Tracy or her friends would realistically have those things even if this book were written today. Everything in the story felt very contemporary, and I think most middle grade readers would feel the same way.
Last year, when I reviewed One for the Murphys, I criticized it for its overly happy ending, which to me, felt forced and unrealistic. The Story of Tracy Beaker seems much more in tune with what a real-life foster care experience might be like, and I think anyone who reads One for the Murphys should read this book as well to ensure a more balanced look inside the lives of kids who are in the foster care system.
There are several other titles about Tracy Beaker, and though they don't seem to be available in the US, I'd definitely like to read them. They include: The Dare Game, Starring Tracy Beaker, Tracy Beaker's Thumping Heart, and Ask Tracy Beaker and Friends.
Princess Posey and the Tiny Treasure. by Stephanie Greene. February 21, 2013. Putnam Juvenile. 96 pages. ISBN: 9780399257117
There is a rule in Miss Lee’s classroom that students are not allowed to play with their treasures from home during class time. Toys are only permitted at recess, and the rest of the time, they need to stay in desks and backpacks. Posey knows this rule, and she wants to follow it, but when Grandpa buys her a tiny pink pig named Poinky, she just can’t keep him to herself. When Miss Lee sees Posey with Poinky, she takes him away and locks him up inside her desk, without even given Posey a warning like she is supposed to! It’s a good thing Posey’s tutu can help her turn into Princess Posey, so she will have the strength to ask for Poinky back.
Amazingly, this is already the fifth book about Princess Posey. Though the series has been around for a while now, the stories continue to feel fresh and true to life in the first grade. Stephanie Greene continually does a wonderful job of tackling those issues that, to first graders, feel like life and death situations. I can definitely remember having teachers in elementary school who would take things away from students when they became distractions, and reading Posey’s reaction when it happens to her took me right back to the feeling of powerlessness I had when a fellow classmate lost a prized possession to the teacher’s desk. I also remembered how scary it was to approach the teacher with a question, or with my side of the story when I hadn’t been treated fairly, and I was impressed that Posey handled the situation so well!
Learning to navigate the world on one’s own is part of life for every child who attends school outside of the home, and Stephanie Greene gives kids a great road map and a great role model to help them figure things out. This book reminds kids that there are consquences when rules are broken, but also that adults can be fair when mistakes are made and kids calmly explain their positions. I really loved this book, and I continue to believe that this is one of the best and most realistic early chapter book series out there.
Keep an eye out for yet another Princess Posey book, Princess Posey and the New First Grader, which came out on June 27th.
I borrowed from Princess Posey and the Tiny Treasure my local public library.
Star Wars: Jedi Academy. by Jeffrey Brown. August 27, 2013. Scholastic. 160 pages. ISBN: 9780545505178
Roan, a native of Tatooine has always expected to be accepted to the Pilot Academy, where he will learn to fly just like his grandfather, father, and older brother before him. When he is accepted to the Jedi Academy instead, he doesn’t understand why - and neither do his classmates, many of whom have been training as Jedi from birth. Nonetheless, Roan shows up at school for the most difficult year of his life, which will involve gym class taught by a Wookiee, cryptic advice from a short green guy called Yoda, and learning to use something called the force, without trying to learn how to use it.
While Tom Angleberger brings Star Wars characters and references into the middle school environment in his wildly popular Origami Yoda books, Jeffrey Brown does just the opposite - he brings middle school to the Star Wars universe. What a great idea! This book combines the two things male readers in grades 3 to 8 love more than anything else: the Star Wars franchise and stories told in drawings and diary entries. If I were a nine-year-old boy, I doubt I could imagine a more perfect book.
Roan’s story is pretty typical of most school stories, in that it follows him through an academic year as he becomes accustomed to new friends and a new environment. To be honest, not very much about that aspect of the story is all that memorable. What keeps the story moving is the reader’s curiosity about how Roan’s story fits into the Star Wars canon. Though I am by no means a die-hard fan, I think Brown does a great job of telling a new story set in this universe without deviating too much from George Lucas’s vision. Readers who know a lot about Star Wars will be pleased to find that the references Brown makes to places and characters created by Lucas make sense in this new context, and that the Jedi Academy does not exist in a vacuum. Readers who don’t know much about Star Wars won’t be lost, though, because Roan is as new to the way of the Jedi as any Star Wars novice. He can’t even understand Yoda when he first meets him!
Finding this book an audience won’t be difficult. Recommend it to fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Smile, Drama, Dear Dumb Diary, and Clueless McGee. Libraries should plan to purchase multiple copies - I expect this book to be popular and for kids to “forget” to bring it back.
I received a digital ARC of Star Wars: Jedi Academy from Scholastic via NetGalley.
The Show Must Go On!. by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise. September 10, 2013. Algonquin Books. 160 pages. ISBN: 9781616202446
The Show Must Go On! is the first book in a new series from Kate and M. Sarah Klise entitled Three-Ring Rascals. The stars of the story are the animals and performers of Sir Sidney’s Circus. Sir Sidney treats his animals like gold, and even lets kids into his circus for free. Unfortunately, he is getting old and tired, and he needs a helper to assist him in managing the circus. Enter Barnabas Brambles, certified lion tamer, who promises to bring new energy and vision to the circus. What he fails to mention is that he is a money-hungry tyrant who plans to double the number of performances, hike up the prices, and even sell some of the animals. Sid hires him for a trial of just one week - and only luck will keep the circus intact until Friday!
I have had mixed reactions to books by the Klises in the past. I loved Regarding the Fountain, but couldn’t get into any of its sequels, and though I read the first 43 Old Cemetery Road book I was never interested enough to read the later volumes. I did enjoy Kate Klise’s Homesick, but when I brought home Grounded, it went back to the library unread. I’m happy to say, though, that this new series is a winner, and I am hooked!
Though I would consider this to be an early middle grade book, rather than an early chapter book, it is a nice transitional novel for kids who are still somewhat reliant on visual cues. Using speech bubbles and illustrations to break up the text, the story is told through a satisfying blend of words and pictures. Though this book is not told entirely in documents as some of the Klises’ books are, there are plenty of scraps of paper, letters, notes, and other pieces of paper scattered throughout that relate important information to the reader in a fun and clever way. My favorite subtle joke is the fact that Barnabas’s lion taming degree is signed by “Macon Upaname.” I also like the fact that the same piece of paper showing the performances the circus is supposed to have for the week keeps appearing, showing updates as things go wrong and the plans change. This is a great way to help kids recall what has happened in the story so far.
This warmhearted book is a great choice for second through fourth graders who are easing out of chapter books and into novels. The sense of humor is just right for seven and eight year olds, and the word play and dialogue engage their growing senses of humor and their ever-improving facility with language. Kids who have enjoyed the Silver Street Farm books and Charlotte’s Web will enjoy getting to know this fun cast of animals and will root for them all week long as they survive a series of funny and unlikely circumstances under the rule of Barnabas Brambles.
I received a digital ARC of The Show Must Go On! from Algonquin Books via NetGalley.
The Gift of the Girl Who Couldn't Hear. by Susan Shreve. 1991. HarperCollins. 80 pages. ISBN: 9780688116941
Lucy, who is deaf, and Eliza, who is a talented singer, have been best friends practically since birth. Now that they are in middle school, Lucy is the more confident of the two girls, while Eliza struggles to like herself. When it comes time to audition for the school musical, Eliza isn't sure she has the guts to try out – until Lucy, who can't sing a note, announces that she will try out as well.
This book takes the familiar middle grade theme of changing friendships between girls and brings it to a new level by introducing a deaf character. Though Lucy is a somewhat romanticized character, it is Eliza's observations of her and of middle school life in general that make the story so interesting. Though it is clear from the first chapter that this book is on the older side, with references to being born in 1977, and playing with Fisher-Price Little People, much of what happens is every bit as relevant now as it was in the late 1980's. Consider this great insight Eliza has about her friend's interactions with their classmates:
But the fact is, there are things that deaf children don't understand, especially about relationships and how people can be unkind. She doesn't understand, for example, that a girl like Louisa Peale with her sunshine smile can say terrible things about a person behind their back. Lucy understands hitting because she can see what is going on. But she doesn't understand the cruelty of girls because often it's practiced in secret.
Any girl who has ever attended middle school understands that difficult truth about the way girls can sometimes treat each other, and I like the way this book encourages readers to think about how that situation might change or not depending on a girl's ability to hear.
This book is also a great example of friendship rising above the adversity of middle school. Eliza and Lucy might be opposites, but they are always there for each other, in any way they can be, despite what others might say or do. I think girls appreciate seeing fictional friendships survive the turbulence of middle school because it gives them hope that their own friendships will make it as well.
For more books portraying kids with disabilities in a positive light, try the McKenna books from American Girl, in which McKenna's tutor uses a wheelchair, and the Aldo Zelnick series where Aldo has a classmate who is deaf and communicates using sign language.
I borrowed The Gift of the Girl Who Couldn't Hear from my local public library.
Danny's Doodles: The Jelly Bean Experiment. by David A. Adler. September 3, 2013. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. 112 pages. ISBN: 9781402287213
Danny, a fourth grader, has become the subject of his classmate, Calvin Waffle's jellybean experiment. One week, Calvin watches how Danny interacts with other people. The next week, Calvin has Danny start carrying around jellybeans to see how this will change these same interactions. Though the jelly beans cause some problems for Danny's mom when she does the laundry, and though Calvin is unquestionably a strange kid, by the time the experiment is over, the boys find that they have become friends.
Pretty much everything I've ever read by David Adler has been part of his Cam Jansen series, so this was quite a change of pace. The story is engaging from the very first line: I am the subject of Calvin Waffle's experiment. Calvin Waffle is a great name, and of course anyone who reads that sentence immediately wants to know what the experiment is and why Danny has been chosen at its subject. Still, it took me a while to settle in to the story and figure out what exactly I'm meant to focus on. The series name, Danny's Doodles, threw me off, because there is no real mention of Danny's art, even though it decorates many of the pages of the story, and the title of this book threw me off a little bit, too, because it makes it seem like the entire book focuses on the experiment. What I eventually figured out is that this book is basically a school story about Danny and Calvin becoming friends, and a sports story about Calvin's contributions to the baseball team. Once I got that straightened out, it was an enjoyable read.
Though this book is not a mystery per se, fans of Adler's mysteries might still find themselves hunting for clues and trying to figure out the truth about Calvin's father, who Danny believes is a spy. There is also quite a bit of suspense surrounding Calvin's science experiment until he finally reveals its purpose. Though Calvin isn't very much like Horrible Harry, I did find myself thinking that the books are similar. Just as Harry's “normal” best friend, Doug, narrates all of the stories about Harry's bad behavior, Danny narrates this story about quirky Calvin, in a way that brings Calvin to life just as strongly as Danny, and teaches us things about Calvin we might not learn in his own first-person point of view.
This is a great chapter book choice for boys, due to its male main characters, sports references, and possible spy dad character, but the science aspect and the overall school story atmosphere could easily draw in girls as well. Like Cam Jansen, I expect the Danny series will be read universally by male and female chapter book fans. Other series to display alongside Danny's Doodles are Justin Case, Zeke Meeks, Daphne's Diary of Daily Disasters, and Emma Jean Lazarus.
I received a digital ARC of Danny's Doodles: The Jelly Bean Experiment from Sourcebooks via NetGalley.
This Song Will Save Your Life. by Leila Sales. September 17, 2013. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages. ISBN: 9780374351380
Elise Dembrowski has never fit in. She has always been precocious, enthusiastic, and nerdy, and no matter how hard she tries, she just can't learn to be cool. When her attempt at changing things on the first day of tenth grade fails miserably, she nearly gives up, trying to kill herself with a razor blade. Now, months later, she knows she wants to live, but that doesn't mean she knows how to be happy. Unable to sleep, she often walks all night along, looking for a sense of direction. It is on one of these late-night strolls that she stumbles upon Start, an underground club. Suddenly, not only does Elise have unexpected new friends, she also has a new passion – DJing - that just might be the key to finding her place in the world.
Many, many books have taken on the issues of bullying and cliques. These are perennially trendy topics, and they are more and more in demand every year. What makes this particular book different is that it's not about bullying as much as it is about loneliness. Elise isn't picked on day in and day out. Elise is ignored. Elise doesn't endure name-calling and physical violence. She is just painfully, hopelessly lonely and desperate for a place to belong. Anyone who has ever been bullied or ostracized knows the pain of that feeling, but few authors have captured it on paper half as well as Leila Sales has done in this book. It is difficult to read the early parts of this story because Elise is so unhappy. It is awful to imagine how low she must feel in order to wish she were dead. But as upsetting as it is to read about Elise's attempted suicide, we need to experience her lowest low in order to appreciate it when she later finds things and people that make her happy.
Despite its dark beginnings, this is truly not a dark YA novel, and I hope it doesn't get classified as such. This is a hopeful story about looking for a place to belong and finding it, about hanging on through the difficult times to make it to the good times. In high school, it can feel like the end of the world when one's interests are not appreciated or even represented in one's day to day life. This book reminds readers that everyone has a place, however unlikely it might seem, and that if we keep looking, we will find it. This concept can seem unbelievable to girls in Elise's situation, but this book makes it believable. If it can happen for Elise, it can happen for anyone.
This Song Will Save Your Life is an important story for teenage girls to read and discuss. Not only will it help them keep perspective on their own lives, but it will give them a renewed sense of empathy for the girls in their own classes who keep to themselves and don't seem to have any friends. Recommend this boo kto fans of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Ten Miles from Normal by Frances O'Roark Dowell and Keeping the Moon and Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen. For more books about girls and music, many of which are lighter reading, check out this list.
I received a digital ARC of This Song Will Save Your Life from Macmillan via NetGalley.
The Boy on the Porch. by Sharon Creech. September 3, 2013. HarperCollins. 160 pages. ISBN: 9780061892356
The Boy on the Porch is the latest children’s book from Sharon Creech, author of Walk Two Moons and many other middle grade novels. John and Marta have no children of their own, but they are charmed by a strange boy who appears one day on their front porch. Though he is roughly six years old, the boy doesn’t speak, and the only information the couple has about him comes from a note saying that his name is Jacob and that his parents will be back for him when they can. John and Marta know they cannot keep someone else’s child, but they fall in love with him anyway, treating him as their own, and providing a loving and supportive home for him. Though Jacob might not be able to stay with them forever, John and Marta will be forever changed by the time they spend as his parents.
This book is quite different from most middle grade novels, in that the main characters are really the adults, not the child. Marta and John are the ones who must answer tricky questions about Jacob’s role in their lives, and they are the ones who are ultimately changed by their experiences with him. Jacob is part of the story, too, but the reader never really gets to understand his thoughts or even find out why he never speaks.
The writing in this book is quite lovely. I appreciate the slow unfolding of the story, as little bits and pieces of the characters’ lives are revealed. The story really resonated with me, as an adult, and I’ve seen some really positive reviews on Goodreads that indicate I am not alone. Still, I have to wonder whether this book will appeal to kids. The mystery surrounding the boy’s appearance on the porch certainly builds up enough suspense to draw kids in, but since most of the questions about Jacob are never answered, I’m not sure this is a good thing. I could see a teacher assigning this book, as it would provide a lot of interesting opportunities for class discussion and for practice analyzing texts, but I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing the average middle grade reader would choose to read for pleasure.
The Boy on the Porch is a great tribute to foster parents, and a touching example of how one person - even a child who never speaks - can make a difference in the lives of others. Fans of Sharon Creech will recognize her focus on families and finding one’s place that permeates all of her other books, but they might be surprised by how different this book is compared to things like Walk Two Moons and Love That Dog. Keep this book in mind for adult readers who might be on a lower reading level, and for those rare kids who will read anything they can get their hands on, even if it’s not readily appealing.
I received a digital ARC of The Boy on the Porch from HarperCollins via Edelweiss.
Just As Long As We're Together. by Judy Blume. 1986. Laurel Leaf. 304 pages. ISBN: 9780440210948
I don’t remember many first lines of books that I’ve read, but somehow I’ve never been able to forget “Stephanie is into hunks,” which is the first sentence of Judy Blume’s 1986 middle grade novel Just As Long As We’re Together. I’ve also never been able to forget that the “hunk” who hangs above Stephanie’s bed is a young Richard Gere, whom Stephanie has named Benjamin Moore after the paint brand. Throw in a supposed talking dog, an exercise video involving “gluts” and a ninth grader nicknamed Jeremy Dragon, and that is basically the complete picture of what I remember about this book from childhood.
Just As Long As We’re Together is the story of Stephanie Hirsch, a seventh grader, who has two best friends. Rachel has been her best friend pretty much all her life, and Alison is new in town. As their seventh grade year unfolds, Stephanie and her friends endure the usual growing pains, including questions over whether someone can have more than one best friend. Stephanie herself faces issues surrounding her weight, her period, her parents’ troubled marriage, her brother’s nightmares about nuclear war, and of course, boys.
I was a little nervous that this book wouldn’t hold up for me as an adult, but it turns out I had nothing to worry about. From that silly first line, I was hooked on Stephanie’s voice all over again, and I found myself eagerly zipping through each chapter. I was surprised by how little plot there really is, but not at all surprised that a character-driven story about friendship would be the one I would choose as a favorite. I like that the story drifts from episode to episode, slowly exploring every facet of Stephanie’s life. I like that things unfold organically, and that there doesn’t seem to be any real rush to finish the story or make an important point. Judy Blume has a talent for making the everyday seem interesting and for giving girls positive fictional role models for navigating early adolescence. I could relate completely to Stephanie, and to most of her experiences, and the fun of reading the book was really just getting to spend time with a character I really liked. It was like checking back in with an old friend after twenty years and finding she hasn’t changed a bit.
Just As Long As We’re Together is one of the tamer Blume novels, and I think it’s appropriate for girls as young as eight or nine. There is also a sequel, Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, and both books have been combined into one volume entitled BFF, which has a much more updated cover than my old paperback edition. Despite some of the outdated references, I think the issues explored in this book are still relevant to today’s tween audience, and Blume can be trusted to handle them honestly and authentically.
This post marks the end of my summer re-reading project. Beginning next Sunday, I'll be back to posting about Old School books I haven't necessarily read before.
Lulu and the Cat in the Bag. by Hilary McKay. September 1, 2013. Albert Whitman & Company. 112 pages. ISBN: 9780807548042
Lulu might love her animals, but her grandmother, Nan, who is staying with Lulu and her cousin Mellie while their parents take a trip, does not feel the same way. When the girls find a bag on the front porch in which someone has left a marigold-colored cat, Nan is adamant that the cat must not come in the house. But Lulu can never abandon an animal in need, and she is sure that with a little time and persistence, she can convince Nan to love – and maybe even keep – the adorable stray.
The true testament to the quality of these books is that I, who am not an animal lover, keep coming back to them and loving them from beginning to end. I enjoyed watching Lulu's antics with her found duck egg in her classroom at school. I loved her relationship with the dog she found on the beach during vacation. And I am just as pleased by this story about the cat she finds at home, and how she comes to care for it.
It's not just the subject matter that makes this series a success – it is McKay's way of getting inside the mind of her main character and her talent for describing her characters' thoughts and interactions. I love her description of Nan as “”little and snappy and quick and kind” and the way she depicts the cat: “A glow-in-the-dark orange cat with eyes like lime-green sweets. Paws like beanbags. A tail like a fat feather duster.” These simple, yet beautiful, sentences stick with readers and paint clear pictures in their minds. McKay has mastered the important art of writing sentences beginning readers can decode without sacrificing the beauty of the language.
Lulu and the Cat in the Bag is another wonderful installment to the Lulu series that is sure to charm established fans and drum up some new ones. Recommend it to cat lovers, and to any little girl who wants to make a brand-new fictional friend.
I received a digital ARC of Lulu and the Cat in the Bag from Albert Whitman & Company via NetGalley.
Fairy Tale Comics. edited by Chris Duffy. September 24, 2013. First Second. 128 pages. ISBN: 9781596438231
Fairy Tale Comics is a new collection of fairy tales and folk tales as interpreted by various comic artists. There are seventeen stories in all, including familiar Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault tales, a story about Br’er Rabbit, and a few lesser known stories such as The Boy Who Drew Cats and The Small-Tooth Dog. The artists include familiar names like Brett Helquist (A Series of Unfortunate Events), Charise Mericle Harper (Fashion Kitty), Raina Telgemier (Smile) and Craig Thompson (Blankets).
I really liked Nursery Rhyme Comics, but I think this collection is even better. For one thing, the audience for graphic novels at my library tends to consist of kids who are more likely to read a fairy tale than a nursery rhyme, because of their age and fear of being seen as babies. I also think fairy tales tend to be forgotten in their little section of the non-fiction area, where kids never think to look, and this book dusts some of them off and polishes them up in a way that will make kids eager to read them whether they know the original stories or not.
For me, the highlights of Fairy Tale Comics include:
The full-page panel in the "Twelve Dancing Princesses" story that shows the view of the dance floor from the ceiling. I like the way the color fills the page and the words are incorporated across the middle of the floor, while various things happen around them, including the adventurer stealing the golden chalice.
The changing face of the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Her face goes from kindly old lady to psychotic blood-thirsty killer in one panel in a way that will frighten and delight readers.
The otherwordly, almost futuristic artwork in Snow White, which gives the story a contemporary feel without substantially changing what actually happens.
The entire story of "The Boy Who Drew Cats". The boy is adorable, and there is something comical about his insistence that all he wants to do is draw cats.
Raina Telgemier’s portrayal of Rapunzel as a girl who wants to explore, rather than as a damsel in need of rescuing.
Graham Annable’s telling of the entire story of Goldilocks without using a single word.
Each of the stories in this book remains true to the original, but also adds something new that makes it fresh and fun to read all over again. Kids and adults alike will easily find something to enjoy, and graphic novel enthusiasts might even discover a new favorite artist or two. Though some parents and teachers are of the mistaken belief that fairy tales are best suited for preschoolers, this is really a collection for older kids who are ready for the good, the bad, and the ugly in some of these violent stories, and who are familiar with books in graphic format.
I received a digital ARC of Fairy Tale Comics from First Second via NetGalley.
Trash Can Days. by Teddy Steinkellner. August 20, 2013. Disney-Hyperion. 352 pages. ISBN: 9781423166320
Jake Schwartz, Danny Uribe, Hannah Schwartz, and Dorothy Wu are students at San Paulo Junior High. In Trash Can Days, the lives of these four characters intersect during a school year filled with changes. While Jake prepares for his bar mitzvah, his sister Hannah desperately seeks popularity and acceptance from her peers and from boys. Danny falls in with a gang, while Dorothy imagines battles and romantic entanglements in the fantasy stories she writes. As these characters interact over the course of the school year, feelings are hurt, friendships are broken, secrets are revealed and a life is saved.
This chatty middle school soap opera definitely has very strong tween appeal. Like a season of Degrassi Junior High, it takes on every middle school issue imaginable from sex, to gang violence, to changing friendships and conflicts with teachers and parents. In addition to first-person narrations from each of the four main characters, the story also includes IM conversations, text messages, and Facebook statuses of supporting characters that flesh things out and keep the lengthy story moving along fairly quickly. Nearly every event in the story is told with a sense of urgency and drama that is typical of kids in early adolescence, and the stakes only increase for each character as the book progresses. This heightened sense of suspense and excitement keeps the pages turning, and propels the reader toward the dangerous and surprising conclusion. This is a book kids will want to read, and that they might pass onto their friends as well.
With all these things going for it, though, I still found this book disappointing. What especially bothered me was the story’s apparent worldview. Lots of books about middle school portray it as an ugly, superficial place filled with unknown dangers and unfair situations, but I think most of those books find some way to deconstruct, or at least criticize, those ideas in order to find a glimmer of positivity. Trash Can Days, on the other hand, seems to buy into the idea that middle school absolutely must be a miserable experience, and that kids must be prepared to face violence and hatred in order to grow up. There are lots of adults in the story, but very few who have any impact on the lives of the kids. They don’t know what’s going on with their kids, and they rarely step in to provide advice or discipline. The characters in this story almost exist in a vacuum where everything that happens is their sole responsibility. If I were about to start middle school and I read this book, I’d be a basket case, worrying about all that was about to fall on my shoulders. I suppose one could argue that much of the book is not meant to be taken seriously, like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, but the serious gang situations toward the end of the book make it impossible to walk away from this book without being emotionally affected - and even upset - in some way.
As a librarian, I would suggest this book to kids who have enjoyed Lauren Myracle, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher, and Lauren Barnholdt. As a soon-to-be-parent, though, this is a book I might actually disallow in my household, if my child were a tween right now. I don’t like its one-sided, shallow portrayal of middle school life, and I think there are many better-written books about surviving the middle school years, including Robin Mellom’s Classroom series, The Dear Dumb Diary books by Jim Benton, the Origami Yoda books by Tom Angleberger, and James Patterson's Middle School series.
The Toilet Paper Tigers. by Gordon Korman. 1993. Scholastic. 195 pages. ISBN: 9780590462303
I'm not exactly sure when I first discovered Gordon Korman, but sometime between 5th grade and the end of 8th grade I read nearly all of his books. I originally thought I would re-read Losing Joe's Place this summer, but then I came across Toilet Paper Tigers at my library, and I remembered instantly that it was one of my favorites. I didn't remember much about it, except that it was about a baseball team named for a toilet paper company, but I knew that I associated it with the strong sense of satisfaction my favorite books always gave me as a kid. I figured I’d try it again as an adult and see if I could remember what made it so magical way back when.
Indeed, the Toilet Paper Tigers are a baseball team, and their coach is a kind but clueless scientist named Professor Pendergast. Because Coach Pendergast doesn't know a baseball from a football, he allows his granddaughter, Kristy, to run the team. While Kristy is sweet as pie to her grandfather, she is not as nice to the boys on the team. Rather, to improve their game play, she takes on each member of the team, one position at a time, and solves whatever problem is standing between that player and baseball victory, whether it's a need to lose weight, too many jobs, or a lack of interest in baseball.
There is a purity to Gordon Korman’s writing that I have always appreciated. His stories are funny, wholesome, and entertaining without necessarily trying to save the world, draw attention to issues, or even to teach us anything in particular. This book, told in a series of episodes, is completely entertaining without a hint of tween drama anywhere in sight. There are no complicated romantic triangles, or nasty spats among cliques. There is some blackmail (Kristy takes a picture of the team in their underwear in an effort to scare them into doing her bidding), and some jealousy (Corey is so angry when he doesn’t get to pitch), but the tone is always light and fun, and the ending is not just satisfying, but surprisingly happy. This is not an angsty middle school book; it’s just good clean kid-friendly fun.
Though the The Toilet Paper Tigers is now 20 years old, it holds up quite well for contemporary audiences. Kristy’s use of slang is a bit strange, but I think it is intended to be, so it doesn’t matter that some of her words are now dated. There is one scene where a cell phone would have been hugely helpful, but considering how absent-minded the professor is, even that can be explained away without complaining that the book is old-fashioned. I enjoy dramatic middle school stories, but there was something refreshing and calming about this piece of escapist sports fiction that made me nostalgic for my own late elementary years - a feat that can be difficult to accomplish, given my own angsty memories.
Recommend The Toilet Paper Tigers to readers who have liked About the B’nai Bagels by E.L. Konigsburg and any books by Fred Bowen or Rich Wallace.
I borrowed The Toilet Paper Tigers from my local public library.
Starring Jules: in Drama Rama. by Beth Ain. September 1, 2013. Publisher: Scholastic. 176 pages. ISBN: 9780545443548
Jules Bloom, a newly discovered seven-year-old actress is thrilled when she lands the part of a spunky little sister in a sit-com pilot. Getting the part is only half the battle, however, because before she can be on TV, Jules has to survive a read-through with the cast, and the tough choice between filming the show and participating in her class moving up ceremony. At school, Jules must also face the possibility that Charlotte, her former best friend, might be moving away, and that Elinor, her new best friend, might still be homesick for England.
I really loved the first Starring Jules book, and I have to admit that this second one doesn't have quite the same magic. The story is certainly well-written, and Jules is the perfect combination of regular kid and budding diva, but there was just something about that first book that I didn't experience as strongly this time around. This often happens to me with series, though. The second book, no matter how wonderfully written, is rarely as good as the first.
That said, I like the dilemmas Ain introduces into Jules's life this time around. I like the way she presents the reality of becoming a child actress, showing that sometimes Jules will have to sacrifice events in her regular life to allow room for her acting. I like the complicated feelings Jules has about Charlotte, and the fact that she sometimes has “Charlotte-aches” before going to school to face her. Even more than that, I love Jules's mom, who is so level-headed, patient, and just good at understanding her daughter's unique needs and personality. It's so rare to find a mom in a children's book who is both believable and likable, but Mrs. Bloom is definitely one of those, and I enjoyed her in the same way I enjoy reading about Clementine's parents.
Many little girls dream of becoming actresses, and this book gives them an opportunity to do so vicariously, but without overly glamorizing the life of a TV star. Jules is a regular kid to whom most kids can easily relate, and she just happens to be an actress, which makes her story appealing to all kids, whether they want to act or not. For other chapter books exploring the same themes, check out Calvin Coconut: Extra Famous by Graham Salisbury, Mallory and Mary Ann Take New York by Laurie Friedman, Libby of High Hopes by Elise Primavera, and the Friends for Keeps series by Julie Bowe.
I received a digital ARC of Starring Jules: In Drama Rama from Scholastic via NetGalley.
Who Done It? edited by Jon Scieszka. February 12, 2013. Soho Teen. 373 pages. ISBN: 9781616951528
More than 80 young adult authors have been assembled at a party given by notorious editor Herman Q. Mildew, at which each one of them is asked to provide an alibi for Mildew’s murder. Organized by Jon Scieszka, this unique collaboration is a fundraiser for 826nyc, a non-profit literacy organization founded by Dave Eggers. Included in the collection are beloved YA authors such as David Levithan, John Green, Todd Strasser, Lemony Snicket, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle, and Libba Bray, as well as many other authors whose names might not yet be familiar to all readers.
I checked this book out of the library primarily because I thought it would be an easy way to get exposed to the writing style of lots of YA authors at once, without necessarily having to track down a full-length novel by each one of them. Unfortunately, a lot of the alibis written for this collection wound up being very similar, and only a handful of authors truly stood out from their peers. I suspect that Scieszka provided each author with certain details of the supposed murder, because many of those recurred in each alibi, and many of them were used in the exact same way. It was interesting to see how authors would support or contradict each other’s testimony, but by the halfway point in the book, I was running out of steam because I felt like I was reading the same thing over and over again.
Ultimately, I think this book is mainly an inside joke for the authors themselves, and for young writers involved with 826nyc. There are certainly some references that savvy YA readers will pick up on, such as John Green’s mention of his “puff”, and some authors that I’d never really heard of whose names I will now remember, but overall, I felt like this book was not really for general audiences. It seemed to focus mostly on a specific circle of YA authors, all of whom know each other, rather than on a teen audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if most kids who pick up this book don’t finish it, or don’t really get it. For the rare reader who really likes this project, there is also The Exquisite Corpse, a similar 2010 project also spearheaded by Jon Scieszka.
I borrowed Who Done It? from my local public library.
The Golden Day. by Ursula Dubosarsky. 2013 (2011). Candlewick. 160 pages. ISBN: 9780763663995
At a girls’ school in Sydney, Australia one beautiful afternoon in the late 1960s, a group of girls go with their teacher, Miss Renshaw, to the gardens, supposedly to write poems. While there, Miss Renshaw invites them to talk with the gardener, a conscientious objector named Morgan, who is himself a poet. Morgan leads the girls and Miss Renshaw into a nearby cave, supposedly to explore aboriginal paintings. The girls come out of the cave, but Miss Renshaw never reappears. Forever linked by their teacher’s disappearance, the eleven girls in Miss Renshaw’s class struggle to make sense of her fate, even years later when they finish their time at school.
There is no real way to capture the haunting beauty of this book in a simple synopsis. While the plot is significant, what makes this book remarkable is the beauty of the language and the author’s eerie, otherworldly tone. I was with the girls in every moment of the story. I could envision every moment, from their innocent gathering under the tree with Morgan, to the loss of one of the girls’ hats on the hike to the cave. Later, when they return to school, I felt as though I could hear the footsteps of teachers and administrators climbing the stairs to Miss Renshaw’s classroom. I could see their concerned faces, and feel the guilt the girls felt as they were torn between keeping a secret and helping to possibly save their teacher. The book took over all of my senses, and I felt like I was swimming in it, enjoying wave upon wave of its gorgeous prose and psychologically compelling storyline.
Adult readers might find that Miss Renshaw is similar in some ways to Miss Jean Brodie from the Muriel Spark novella and the film based on it. Indeed, I imagined Maggie Smith in the role of Miss Renshaw almost the entire time I was reading, and though the content of this story is not as mature, Miss Renshaw and Miss Brodie are both equally unsettling figures. I actually think The Golden Day is such a sophisticated novel that adults can enjoy it just as much as kids. Though the characters are roughly the equivalent of fourth graders for most of the story, I think the best audience for the book is actually slightly older. Middle school readers, especially, will be drawn to the creepy mood of the story, and the moral implications of Miss Renshaw’s behavior. I think this would be an interesting book to read aloud, or to discuss in book clubs. When I finished the book myself, I instantly wanted to know other readers’ opinions on it, and I suspect young readers will feel the same way - especially given the story’s unexpected and ambiguous conclusion.
The Golden Day is one of the best books I’ve read in 2013, and it’s likely to stick with me for a long time to come. Though it’s not eligible to win the Newbery because the author is not a U.S. resident, it is just as distinguished as any book that has won Newbery recognition, and I recommend it very highly to readers from grade 5 to adulthood.
I received a digital ARC of The Golden Day from Candlewick via NetGalley.