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“Holy Unanticipated Occurrences!” is a favorite phrase in Flora and Ulysses and one I uttered after I read it. Perhaps I should have anticipated loving Flora and Ulysses as much as I did. After all, I have enjoyed every other book I have read by this prolific juvenile fiction author, Kate DiCamillo was recently named and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and the book won this year’s Newbery Award. But I had trouble getting excited about reading a book about a squirrel and a girl from a broken home. Was I ever wrong! This book is a delight.
The story begins with a vacuum, a brand new Ulysses Super-Suction Multi-Terrain 2000x vacuum that Mrs. Tickham is exploring in her backyard. When she flips the switch, a squirrel is in the vacuum’s path and is sucked inside. Mrs. Tickham screams until her neighbor and the book’s heroine, Flora Belle Buckman arrives on the scene and rescues the squirrel and changes her and the Tickham’s forever. You see, being vacuumed did something to the squirrel. It made him feel awake, special; it even gave him special powers. He could understand Flora, he had super strength, he could fly, and he could type…poetry! Flora names the squirrel after the vacuum that transformed him, Ulysses. She immediately equates her squirrel’s ability with that of her favorite comic book superhero, The Amazing Incandesto and uses the comic as a guide for maneuvering through life with a super squirrel. Told mostly in prose, the story is enhanced with comic-style vignettes that mostly give a visual depiction of Ulysses accomplishing amazing feats.
Perhaps the most amazing feat is that this book is about more than a superhero squirrel. It is about Flora dealing with her parent’s recent divorce, her parents dealing very badly with their recent divorce and their melancholy daughter, the Tickhams taking in their nephew William Spiver since he cannot deal with this mother’s new boyfriend, and a very wise neighbor dealing with the loss of her husband. All of this is packed into an extremely quick read that would be an appropriate read aloud for the whole family as long as everyone can see the pictures. The plot is exciting, the deeper issues are layered so that they are accessible to mature readers, but not disturbing to younger readers, and the character are easy to identify with. All in all, Flora and Ulysses is not a book to be missed.
Posted by: Kelly
Some books are special. They have a plot description that sounds like many another book (girl finds herself in a fantastical situation and discovers that she must save the world), but are written in such a otherwordly, atmospheric way that even the adjectives that one might use to describe them aren’t magical enough.
Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard finds herself in a foreign city. Her father is an international expert on swords, and has been called upon to organize a gala Christmas Eve exhibition at the city’s museum. Miss Kaminski, the museum director, is very beautiful, but cold and strange, and Ophelia feels uneasy. She spends her days exploring the museum — from Culture of the Cossacks to Mesopotamian Mysteries and everything (everything) in between. In one room, though, she finds a door. That door hides a boy — a marvelous boy — who says that he has been imprisoned by the Snow Queen, and that he’s waiting for the One Other who will be able to use his sword to defeat her. He needs Ophelia to free him — an act much more complicated than just finding the key to the door.
Foxlee’s book is spellbinding; the world she creates is so compelling that I could see every detail, and what is more, believe every detail. I could see the frozen city, feel the cold in my bones, and believe in the uncanny museum, where wolves might roam the dollhouse exhibit.
Any reader would be enchanted to discover this wonderful book, and many of them might find themselves exploring the museum map on the endpapers. For all the eeriness of the museum, I would like to visit and wander its Gallery of Time, among others. Who knows what I might discover?
Posted by: Sarah
Siena is not your typical 13-year-old. In fact, her differences are part of the reason that her family is moving from Brooklyn, New York, to a small coastal town in Maine. The other reason is that her three-year-old brother, Lucca, has not spoken in over a year. While Siena and Lucca’s parents are not sure what makes it so hard for Siena to make friends and Lucca to talk, they are hoping the new environment will help them both. Siena is eager to try to start over, but when the family arrives in Maine, the very thing that makes her odd kicks into overdrive. Sometimes, Siena can see the past. Generally, it only happens while she is dreaming, but increasingly she was getting glimpses of the past while awake in things like buildings that are no longer standing in New York or people in out of date clothing. The home the family purchased is right out of one of Siena’s dreams. She is familiar with the layout and can feel what has happened in this house before the family lived there. However, Siena decides this familiarity could be positive and decides to make a go of it in Maine even making some friends before school starts. Lucca loves the beach and the play group his mother found, but he still is not talking. When Siena finds a pen that belonged to one of the previous owners, the story of what happened in the house is reveled, complete with a young girl who also struggles with mutism and Siena begins to wonder if the family’s move really was the best thing for Lucca after all.
This title has historical elements as Siena becomes involved in the lives of the family that lived in the house prior to her family, including a brother entrenched in the World War II battle fields. It also blends modern day realism and supernatural elements in a thoughtful and suspenseful manner. Children who enjoy descriptive text, supernatural stories and historical fiction will enjoy this title.
Posted by: Kelly
Toulouse, a new kid in school, is from Canada, and though Woodrow doesn’t like it that his classmates say that he is odd, weird, and little, he does have to admit that Toulouse pretty strange (he wears a three-piece suit and bowler hat to school! He sings like a bird!) and REALLY short (“kindergartener short”). But when Woodrow thinks about it, he realizes that he doesn’t mind at all. After all, Woodrow himself is pretty odd himself–he loves ‘duck’ tape, fly fishing, and is prone to stammering. Woodrow doesn’t see anything wrong with his own behavior, and he thinks that Toulouse is pretty cool. The question is: what will Woodrow do about Garrett and Hubcap, the two class bullies who have switched their attention from him to a new sitting duck, Toulouse? And what IS it about Toulouse?–there’s something about him that Woodrow just can’t figure out.
Jennings has written a deceptively slight book that tells a great story, with what I hate to call a ‘lesson’ about bullying, because that makes this book seem prescriptive. It’s not ‘a story about bullying’, so much as it is a story about what it means to be a friend, and who doesn’t like reading about friends? This book is a delightful read for anyone who enjoys school stories.
Posted by: Sarah
In case you missed my review of The Year of the Book, I’m back with a review of its sequel, The Year of the Baby. In the first book, Anna discovered the joys (and tribulations) of authentic friendships. In The Year of the Baby, Anna gains new responsibility when her Chinese-American family adopts a baby girl from China. Anna loves her little sister Kaylee, and knows her role as big sister is important. So she feels helpless when the doctor announces that Kaylee isn’t gaining enough weight.
Everyone in the family is worried about Kaylee, and it seems they’ve tried everything to get her to eat, with no results. But Kaylee does finally begin to improve when Anna and her best friends decide to use Kaylee in their science fair project – knowing that Kaylee loves the songs Anna sings to her, the girls use the scientific method to study whether Kaylee will eat more when she’s being sung to. As it turns out, she will! She especially likes the Chinese songs that Anna, Camille, and Laura learned in Chinese language school, and the girls suspect that maybe it’s because they are songs that Kaylee heard before she was adopted by Anna’s family. Once Kaylee begins to eat more, it seems like everything comes together – she says her first words, and even attempts to sing her first song!
Author Andrea Cheng is remarkably good at capturing friendships, family dynamics, and the inner life of a sensitive child finding her place in these realms. As in the first book, The Year of the Baby is dotted with sweet illustrations by Patrice Barton. There’s also a guide to pronouncing some of the Chinese words that come up in the book, and a recipe for making steamed red bean bao zi (stuffed buns). This book, like the last, truly warmed my heart. I would recommend it to readers in 3rd grade and up looking for realistic fiction. The third book, The Year of the Fortune Cookies, will be coming in Spring 2014!
Posted by: Parry
Have you ever felt like something was lurking in the darkness just waiting for a chance to slurp you up into its slimy cavernous mouth? Certainly it was just your imagination…right? Not if you ask Birdie McAdam. She’s a bogler’s apprentice and she knows all-too-well that bogles (monsters to you and me) definitely do exist, and they are devouring children all over London. Working with her mentor Alfred Bunce, Birdie uses her lilting voice to lure the heinous creatures out of their hiding places so that Alfred can destroy them with the help of the legendary Finn McCool’s sword. Birdie is proud to be a bogler’s girl, but a series of curious events is pointing Birdie’s life in a new direction, no matter how hard she tries to fight the change.
How to Catch a Bogle is a delightfully fast paced and fantastical story filled with interesting characters sure to capture the attention of even the most reluctant of readers. The characters, even the bogles, are well-developed and readers will likely find themselves drawn into this surreal version of London in the late 19th century. Jinks does a great job of bringing the ubiquitous imaginary monster-in-the-closet to life without being overly terrifying. Each of the bogles that Birdie and Alfred encounters is unique and grotesque both while alive and in its death. This book would make for a great classroom read aloud for grades 4 through 6. Or, if you have a struggling or reluctant reader in your midst, grab the superbly done audio version, pair it with the text and set him or her off to discover how much fun a book can be.
Posted by: Staci
Boy Scout Troop 77 is off for a camping week-end in the remote beach campground of Halape, Hawaii. The boys are various ages – ranging from 11 to 15 and the adult leaders are two of the fathers. Everyone is excited about the week-end which begins early in the morning with a long, hot, grueling hike from the trailhead down to the campsite.
As senior patrol leader for the troop, Dylan has some extra leadership responsibilities that are often complicated by snide comments and actions by Louis, who is the newest and angriest member. Dylan tries to stay as far away from Louis as possible. Halape is a beautiful and serene campsite. The swimming is good, the food is delicious and the stories and legends around the campfire are just scary enough. The first night goes well.
During the second night they experience a massive earthquake which is followed by a tsunami that destroys their campsite and threatens their lives. The fun camping week-end quickly turns into a survival week-end that has the boys not only demonstrating their bravery, but also has Dylan and Louis bonding in ways that will last a lifetime.
This book is based on actual events that took place in 1975. The author’s cousin was one of the boys in Troop 77. The adventure of camping in such a remote area and the ultimate survival make this an exciting and enjoyable book.
Posted by: Wendy
If you’re looking for a charming, fun, early chapter book for Halloween without the spook factor, you might consider conjuring up Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch. The story takes place at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, a boarding school where young witches learn to ride a broomstick, make potions, and craft spells. Mildred is a witch in her first term, and she is at the bottom of her class: the worst witch. But, as the reader learns, Mildred is kind and honorable and resourceful. And she also has a loyal best friend, Maud. So even though Mildred’s spells turn out all wrong, and even though her smug classmate Ethel seems out to get her, and the severe Miss Hardbroom has no patience for her mistakes, and everyone thinks Mildred singlehandedly ruined the school’s Hallowe’en performance, it all turns out alright in the end.
This is a sweet school story that just happens to take place at an academy for witches. It is a good choice for readers transitioning into chapter books, or for older readers just looking for a quick read. The Worst Witch is the first in a series of books that take place at Miss Cackle’s. And, if the premise sounds a bit familiar, please do note that The Worst Witch was published in 1974!
Posted by: Parry
I came to The Grand Plan to Fix Everything backwards. I happened to grab Uma Krishnaswami’s newer book, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, off the shelf, and, just planning to flip through it, ended up reading the entire thing. Then, of course, I immediately had to go back and read the first book in the series.
Dini and her friend Maddie love Dolly Singh movies–the dancing and the singing and the fabulous plots are just sooooo . . . ! They have big plans to spend the summer at Bollywood dance camp so that they can dance like Dolly, but Dini’s mother throws a big wrench into their plans: Dini’s family will be moving to India for two whole years, so Dini’s mother can work at a medical clinic in the tiny town of Swapnagiri. Dini will have to leave Maddie, dance camp, and her whole regular life in Maryland to go live in the middle of nowhere: Swapnagiri isn’t even anywhere near Bombay!
The only thing that can save Dini’s year is if she could meet Dolly Singh–but how can she find one movie star in a country the size of India? Well, it might be a little easier than she thinks. . . .
This book is completely adorable. Not only will the reader be captivated by Dini, but they’ll love all the people she meets, from Soli Dustup the movie producer, to Lal the humble postman, not to mention the monkeys and the goats! And I was completely surprised by one thing: I usually cannot stand books written in present tense. I find that it usually knocks me completely out of the story and seems very affected. In this case, I didn’t even notice until I was halfway through the second book that it was written in present tense. I had to flip back to the first one to see if it was written that way as well, and of course it was! The book is constructed so well that the present tense narration is an integral part of the feeling of the book. In combination with that present tense, the plot, zany as it is realistic, sweeps the reader along with propulsive motion.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fun, mad-cap, realistic fiction. Its length means that it is usually recommended for grades 4 and up, but I think it would also work well as a read-aloud for younger children (provided that the reader doesn’t mind the occasional Hindi word!
My only complaint? It doesn’t come with a soundtrack!
Posted by: Sarah
As we kick off the holiday season, it feels like a good time for stories about families. Ann M. Martin’s new Family Tree series fits that bill nicely. Ultimately, this will be a four book series spanning four generations of one family. Book one, Better to Wish, opens the series with the story of Abigail (Abby) Nichols in Depression Era Maine. Each subsequent book will follow the lives of the oldest daughter of the main character from the previous book.
When we are first introduced to young Abby she is only eight years old and her family is struggling to make ends meet. Better to Wish follows the Nichols family as Abby’s family and her father’s business grow over the course of 14 years. Abby’s father (Pop) is not an easy man to live with. He is hot-tempered, overbearing, and intolerant. In contrast, however, Abby’s mother is extremely sensitive and caring, but she also struggles with bouts of depression. Over the years Abby experiences the highs and lows of growing up including the simple wonder of going to the carnival as a child, building and losing friendships, the arrival of new siblings, courtship, and the struggle for independence.
While the story alone is quite engaging, listening to the audio is a truly wonderful experience. Narrator Annalie Gernert does a fabulous job delineating characters. Not only does she clearly differentiate the voices of each character, but she also manages to create slight variations in the intonations of the younger characters to indicate that they are growing up. Gernert’s well-paced narration is rich with emotion and brings the story to life.
Better to Wish is both heartwarming and heartbreaking and would make for a wonderful book discussion for a parent and child book club for children in grades four and up, or just for families to share together. If you are taking a road trip this holiday season, consider bringing the audio of this book along to keep your family company on your way to Grandma’s house.
Posted by: Staci
Are you looking for a rollicking adventure? If you are, the of COURSE you’re looking for a book about pirates. And wouldn’t it be better if the book were full of fun characters, subtle humor, and almost Lewis Caroll-esque absurdism? If you agree with me, this is the book you want.
Hilary has only ever wanted one thing: to be a pirate. But when she sends in her application to The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, not only do they reject her because she’s a girl, but they recommend her for Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies! The horror! Hilary won’t stand for that, and, with her trusty gargoyle at her side, she sets off to make her name working for a “freelance” pirate, who is looking for a treasure that he, rather frustratingly, won’t describe.
But what’s this? Hilary’s governess is after her? And what’s that? Her father, the Admiral of the royal navy, is hunting her down? And worst of all, even Miss Pimm is acting bizarre? Hilary has her work cut out for her in this delightful, semi-epistolary novel, where letters between ship and shore are faithfully delivered, gargoyles want hats, and magic can be located in table spoons.
Even better than the satisfying conclusion is the revelation that this is just the first book in a series. Avast, me hearties! Is that a second book on the horizon?
Posted by: Sarah
Fourth grade has brought changes for Anna Wang. Her best friend Laura has made new friends, leaving Anna behind. And Anna must attend Chinese school, where she doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t understand anything the teacher is saying. It’s a good thing Anna has books. Anna loves to read, and finds friendship in the characters in books. Friends like Meg, from A Wrinkle in Time; or Sam, from My Side of the Mountain. So when Laura experiences family troubles and reaches out to Anna in need of a friend, it’s tempting for Anna to retreat into her beloved book worlds. But Anna ultimately realizes that, while friendships can be complicated, they really do make life better.
The Year of the Book is a tender story. The book depicts both a loving family and a supportive community of neighbors. Kids will relate to the social challenges that Anna encounters, which are portrayed realistically and with a light touch. Kids will also enjoy all the book references – I was tempted to revisit some old favorites, and also to read some new ones! (But before I start in on the Anna Wang reading list, I’m going to read the sequel to this book, called The Year of the Baby.) Readers will also learn some Chinese words and characters along with Anna. Like peng you (pronounced like pung you), which means “friend.”
Posted by: Parry
A few hundred years ago, “everybody” knew that winter was the best time for reading scary stories. We think of Halloween as perfect for a ghost story, but back then they thought that CHRISTMAS was the best time for it! We’ve passed Christmas, and the days are getting a LITTLE longer, but I still think it’s dark and gloomy enough–and certainly COLD enough–for a good scare.
Constable and Toop is the name over the door of an undertaker’s shop in 19th century London, but the undertakers are not the point of this story. The undertaker’s son, Sam, is: he can see and talk to ghosts, and because of this, he has become aware of a big problem. Certain ghosts in London have been disappearing, leaving their old haunting places infected with a terrible Black Rot. Mr. Lapsewood, a timid clerk from the Ghost Bureau, has begun investigating the problem (though he doesn’t know it), asking the help of a young ghost named Tanner, who, in search of someone with Sam’s abilities, finds himself working with Sam’s uncle Jack, who is not someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley. And we haven’t even mentioned Clara Tiltman, who has begun to notice the strange behavior of her drapes, or the terrifying actions of an exorcist priest.
Though the description makes the plot sound overly complex, let me reassure you: any reader will be caught up in this compelling story, both by the gripping action of the chase to save London’s ghosts, and by Sam’s almost philosophical, contemplative inner thoughts. And because there ARE so many (well-integrated) characters, any reader can be sure to find one to root for and relate to.
It cannot be denied that the book is frightening–and even sometimes gruesome–so it is probably best read by those of 10 years and up. Those who do read it, though, will be amply rewarded with a wonderful story, perfect for a cold, dark day.
Posted by: Sarah
Comparisons to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events are unavoidable with The Templeton Twins titles, a new series by Ellis Weiner, but there are not many children who will complain about the similarities. Like Snicket’s books, these titles feature an intrusive narrator who adds levity, humor and the occasional educational lesson for the readers. As well as providing important background information and hilarious definitions of vocabulary words featured in the books, the narrator poses nonsensical “Questions for Review” at the end of each chapter that are one of best reasons to read these books.
In addition to the intrusive narrator, the Templeton Twins also contend with a delightfully evil villain like the Baudelaire children do in the Series of Unfortunate Events. The Templeton Twins face Dean D. Dean, a scorned former student of their father’s and master of disguise, who attempts to steal credit for their father’s many fabulous inventions. In book 2, Professor Templeton is working at the Thespian Academy of the Performing Arts and Science (TAPAS) to develop new spotlight technology. The invention is nearly complete when Dean D. Dean swoops in to take credit by wooing the school’s Dean and former stage actress, Gwendolyn Splendide. It is up to the twins (and their ridiculous dog) to prove the spotlight is 100 percent their father’s invention.
The story is enhanced by illustrations that are similar in style to an architect’s blue prints, cryptic puzzles, and many hilarious footnotes by the narrator. While not an entirely new concept, this book will have many fans among elementary-school aged readers and it deserves every one of those fans.
Posted by: Kelly
Peter and Thea live in two separate worlds, and neither has any idea of the ways that they are connected. Peter is a resident of New York City, where he lives in an apartment building and can easily satisfy his love of Chinese food. Thea lives in a home almost entirely made of sealed ice, in a city under the icy surface of Greenland, where her people have created a viable life for themselves underground after they were persecuted generations ago.
When Peter’s father, a scientist who studies global warming, takes the family to Greenland on an expedition, Peter’s mother becomes increasingly withdrawn, and the mysterious headaches Peter has been experiencing worsen. Meanwhile, Thea’s desire to experience the larger world brings her very close to danger but also brings forth long hidden truths, which reveal her connection to Peter and his family. Their two lives come together in a story which involves science, mystery, family drama, and adventure.
Readers of fantasy will enjoy the vividly drawn underground world Thea lives in, and science enthusiasts will be fascinated by the way Rebecca Stead weaves global warming, molecular biology, and genetics into her story. Recommended for grades 5 and up.
Posted by: Parry
Living on an island off of Maine is idyllic to eleven-year-old Tess. She likes to ride her bike, read, swim, and to build things. She especially loves going lobstering with her Dad and attending the one room school where her Mom is the only teacher. She likes knowing all the year-round islanders, as well as the summer-only islanders. When the State of Maine threatens to close down the school due to a low student enrollment, Tess worries about how life would change for her and her family if they would have to move to the mainland.
After much talk of how to save the school, the solution is to simply increase the number of school children on the island. To achieve this goal, families are asked to consider taking in a foster child and Tess’s close knit family decides they have room in their hearts and home for another child. They look forward to the arrival of thirteen-year-old Aaron and Tess and her sister are excited about the prospect of a brother.
The smallness of living on an island can be somewhat overwhelming to an outsider, especially one who has been bounced around from foster family to foster family. Aaron is not charmed by island life and clearly resents the fact that he is unable to live with his mother. His only comfort comes from playing his trumpet and the piano. In time, he also comes to enjoy going out on the lobster boat with Tess and her Dad.
Tess, who is a very superstitious girl, worries that if Aaron doesn’t stay on the island, then she also will not be able to stay due to her school closing. “Touch blue and your wish will come true” is one of her sayings about luck. She tries hard to show Aaron the simple joy of her everyday life and she tries to help him cope with his past disappointments. She hopes that her belief in good omens will hold true and Aaron will find a way to fit in both her family and the island community.
This often touching story shows how children can find ways to help one another when faced with adversity. I found it a most enjoyable read and would heartily recommend it.
Posted by: Wendy
Lorelei’s life use to be pretty good, until her mom died. Now her father is remarried to the wicked Molly, her brother has grown cold and distant, and her best friend seems to have abandoned her just when she needs her the most. If that isn’t enough, now Lorelei has to start at a strange new school called Splendid Academy that seemed to appear out of nowhere mere days before the old school suspiciously burned down.
Initially, Lorelei thinks Splendid Academy might actually be a good place for her. The principal is extremely welcoming and seems to have a soft spot for Lorelei, the students have a great deal of freedom, the playground is amazing, and the food is to die for. However, Lorelei can’t help but wonder if the school might not be as splendid as it seems. Is it just her imagination, or do all the candy bowls keep replenishing themselves? Why are there candy bowls on the students’ desks, for that matter? Why do the teachers seem so concerned with how much the students are eating? And is that a giant copper kettle hidden in the teachers’ lounge? Only Lorelei and her new friend Andrew seem to think Splendid Academy might be too good to be true and by the time they figure out what really is going on, they may not have a chance to save the other students or themselves.
In The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, author Nikki Loftin puts a contemporary spin on the story of Hansel and Gretel by having the witch run a charter school in suburban America. Loftin does a great job of bringing the classic fairytale elements into the modern world. Similarly to fairytales of old, the story is tense enough to inspire some nail biting, but not so dark as to terrify young readers. The characters are engaging and relatable and the action develops quickly making this a great choice for a read-aloud for 4th through 6th grade. Like children drawn to a candy cottage, it is easy for readers to be pulled into this modern fairytale.
Posted by: Staci
Cut off from the rest of the world by an enormous mountain, secured by a massive gated wall exists the city of Deliverance. The residents of Deliverance are special. They look like everyone on the other side of the mountain, but they all possess a form of telekinesis called psi. The people of Deliverance use their psi for everything including cooking, cleaning, getting dressed, driving, etc. Ocassionally, however, children’s psi powers do not develop and are labeled Freaklings. Of course, it is impossible for Freaklings to exist among the psi wielders; therefore, those children are sent to the nonpsi village outside the walls of Deliverance where they are taught to survive in a world where they must do everything for themselves.
Taemon was not born a Freakling, but he is different from other psi wielders. He has the ability to “mind wander” or see inside objects using his mind – a very dangerous power in the hands of the wrong person. Taemon’s brother, Yens, is extremely gifted at using psi and hungers for fame and power. As Yens starts to realize just how powerful Taemon really is, he begins to feel threatened and attacks Taemon in hopes of scaring him into explaining the root of his power. As a result, Taemon actually loses his ability to control objects with psi and must hide his handicap or be exiled from the city. Ultimately, Taemon must make a decision that will impact everyone in Deliverance and even beyond, but can he trust himself to make the right decision?
Posted by: Staci
Finally, after a long winter of dissatisfying-to-outright-bad novels, a DELIGHTFUL new fantasy has appeared!
Tom is used to living his ordinary (but happy) life with his parents, running their deli and hanging out with his friend Charlie. One day, though he awakens to a shocking discovery: his father is a fairy. A real, live, MAGICAL fairy. Which means that, he, Tom is a demisprite: demisprites are illegal, and the fairy authorities are trying to find Tom and his family to arrest and even execute them!
Tom’s father goes on the run, Tom’s mother is hidden somewhere (hilariously) magical, and Tom himself is spirited away by his surprisingly non-fairy-like godmother, Lorna Mustard, the owner of a scrapyard in Scotland. In the course of just a few days, Tom is introduced to his other (even more non-fairy-like) godmothers, his unexpected cousin Pindar, a number of revolutionary genies, and the hottest new fairy rock star (singer of the smash hit: Old Fairies Suck).
That might be enough to overwhelm an ordinary person, but Tom’s not ordinary (and neither are his friends) and he plans to rescue his family if it’s the last thing he does–even if it means that he has to completely change fairy society.
This book is a delightful romp full of truly original moments and laugh-out-loud characters, and it’s impossible to read it without a huge smile on one’s face. I enjoyed Kate Saunders’ last book, Beswitched, but I LOVED this one, and I hope all of you will, too.
Posted by: Sarah
Sam and Morgan are best friends. Strike that – Sam and Morgan used to be best friends. Now Morgan has declared that he will be kicking Sam’s butt in exactly 33 minutes. How did these life-long friends come to this place? That’s exactly what Sam is trying to figure out in Todd Hasak-Lowy’s 33 Minutes. Told mostly through flashbacks from Sam’s point of view, Hasak-Lowy uses sharp wit to take a bit of the edge off the very real heartache that comes with growing up and growing apart, without sugar-coating the reality of this all-too-familiar situation.
Sam is incredibly bright, but not so popular. Morgan has become quite popular in junior high, but he’s never been the best student. As Morgan’s new friends begin taking up more of his time, Sam can’t help but feel left out and a bit jealous. Over the course of a few months, tensions build between the two best friends, and when everything comes to a head Sam is certain it must be Morgan’s fault. A little reflection over the course of the ever dwindling 33 minutes, however, sheds some light on the reality of Sam and Morgan’s situation, and Sam realizes that maybe he is not completely blameless himself.
In Sam Todd Hasak-Lowy has created a very real and very witty character. Sam’s clever observations will have readers laughing out loud but the humor does not take away from the painful reality of Sam’s situation. It is exactly this mixture of humor and reality that make this book an excellent choice for a book discussion group (particularly for boys) or for a 5th or 6th grade classroom read-aloud.
Posted by: Staci
Lillian lives a contented life with Aunt, deep in the forest, on a farm with chickens, cats, a cow, and the Apple Tree Man, and where Lillian has always hoped to see fairies. Her life is unexceptional–though full of delight–until a day when she is bitten by a snake in the forest. Almost dead, she is saved by the forest cats, who change her into a kitten! Lillian has always wanted to see magic, but she would rather not be a cat, especially since there’s no way for her to tell Aunt what has happened. Lillian embarks on an unbelieveable adventure, involving talking foxes, a possum witch, Lillian’s old friends the Creek boys and their frightening Aunt Nancy, spiders, bear people, and even the Father of Cats.
The story is a compelling one, but the reason the book reaches towards exceptionality is in the marriage of the text and the magical illustrations (by Charles Vess). A hundred years ago, even novels for adults could be heavily illustrated, but over the years, we’ve begun to think of pictures in books as first, ‘just for kids’, and later ‘just for babies’. This book appears to be part of a vanguard of heavily-illustrated novels proving that we can have a thought-provoking, in-depth, novel-length story with illustrations on nearly every page. Unlike those in the works of the more famous Brian Selznik, the illustrations here do not move the story along on their own, but they illuminate it perfectly, bringing characters further to life, and adding a tingle of the unearthly to all the magical elements. Highly recommended for those who like real-world-rooted fantasy, folk-tales, and animal stories.
Posted by: Sarah
If you were eleven years old, would you pass up a trip to India with your parents to visit your relatives and instead choose to stay with an uncle on a small island off the coast of Washington State? The girl in this book, Poppy Ray, does exactly that. Her uncle is a veterinarian and Poppy thinks that she wants to be a vet when she grows up. She even has her own veterinarian medical kit which she takes with her. Unfortunately, when she actually gets there, she finds out that it is a lot tougher than she thought it would be. Her uncle is great and she loves the animals but she finds out that the sight of blood makes her sick and she has some trouble with the owners of the pets.
There are heartwarming moments and heartbreaking moments and some wonderful characters in this book. How do you think Poppy will do with the trials and tribulations of a busy veterinarian’s office? I guess you will have to read it for yourself to find out!
Posted by: Fran W.
Once a year the people of Quill gather together for the purge where it is announced whether each 13 year old is Wanted, Necessary, or Unwanted. The Wanteds are groomed to become the future leaders of Quill. The Necessaries are trained in a trade like food preparation or elder care. The Unwanteds are disposed of, and the people of Quill are instructed never to think of them again. On the day of the purge during Alex’s 13th year of life, no one is surprised when his name is not among those deemed Unwanted. Alex has had numerous infractions over the course of his short life; he has known his fate since he was ten. It is a surprise, however, to hear that his identical twin brother Aaron has been chosen as a Wanted. As Aaron prepares for his new life at Wanted University where he will study to become one of the powerful members of the society of Quill, Alex is transported with the other Unwanteds to be disposed of in the lake of boiling oil, or so he believes. In reality, the Unwanteds are taken to the land of Artimѐ where they will be taught to harness their creative gifts and turn them into magic in preparation for a future battle with the army of Quill.
Alex, suddenly thrown into a world where self expression is encouraged and emotions are no longer forbidden as they are in Quill, finds himself missing his brother Aaron terribly. While Aaron, who is on the fast track to a very powerful career at the right hand of the High Priest of Quill, has all but put Alex completely out of his mind. However, both Alex and Aaron struggle with dreams of each other. Alex works diligently to find a way to bring Aaron to Artimѐ, while Aaron fights to stop his forbidden dreams altogether. Will the bond between the twins prove to be stronger than Aaron’s thirst for power? Or are the brothers really not so different from one another? It will take a battle unlike any that Quill has ever seen to uncover the answers to these and other questions.
The Unwanteds is a fast-paced, exciting, and whimsically dystopian journey filled with a variety of delightful characters both human and mythical. Narrator Simon Jones does a wonderful job bringing each of these characters to life in the delightful audiobook edition. Simba, the giant winged cheetah statue, is particularly well done with his deep gravelly tenor effectively conveying the beast’s size and power. Jones’ timing is excellent and fits the pace of the story well. Young fans of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games will enjoy the magic and adventure that this story has to offer. This would make for great listening on a summer road trip for a family with children in grades 4 through 8.
Posted by: Staci
People who know me might be surprised to learn that I like to have my mind changed, especially when it comes to books. I have to admit though, that when it came to Okay for Now, changing my mind was a pretty tall order.
Generally, if a book does not strike a chord with me right away—within the first 100 pages—I’ll put it down for a while or look for it in a recorded format. I had done just that, put Okay for Now away for a year, maybe longer, when I agreed to help a friend do some Rebecca Caudill Young readers Book Award booktalks at a local school in the fall. Okay for Now was on my half of the list to talk about. I was not enthused at the prospects of picking it up again. However, another friend suggested that I give it one more try, maybe on audio this time. I’m glad I agreed.
I learned a lot from the main character, Doug Swietek, especially not to make judgments without facts to back them up. Doug, a “skinny, thug–in-training,” has a lot of problems making assumptions is one of his smaller ones. When thinking about Doug’s world, the phrase “controlled chaos” comes to mind—with the “controlled” part being very tenuous.
The Swieteks are a dysfunctional family. Doug, teetering on the edge of “hoodlumdom,” is seething with rage about being moved from his familiar friends and neighborhood on Long Island to a small, upstate New York town where his father has a new job. They live on the brink of financial ruin in a rented house the Doug refers to as “the dump.” His father is a loud-mouthed bully, his mother tries—unsuccessfully–to keep everyone happy, his older brothers, one of whom chose to fight in Vietnam rather than go to jail, are following in their father’s footsteps and making Doug’s life a misery. He’s a bright boy who has trouble with authority which leads to trouble in school.
Little does Doug realize that a girl named Lil, an Arctic Tern and a librarian, among others, are about to turn his world upside down. Art and beauty just might save Doug’s life.
Okay for Now is not an easy book to read—but, it is worthwhile. One lesson I learned along the way is that you don’t necessarily need to admire someone to learn from them. Like everyone else in his life, I just needed to give Doug a chance to prove himself. It took a bit of patience. Each of us can be stubborn. But, in the end, both Doug and I are more than Okay for Now.
Posted by: Eileen
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It took me a while to get around to this book, even though I liked the sound of the plot description. Part of the blurb on the back cover compared it to another children’s fantasy series (semi-well known; nothing huge) that I wasn’t crazy about. I didn’t DISlike that other series, but I merely found it ‘fine’. I almost put Jinx back on the library shelf several times, but each time the plot description made me keep it — I’m so glad I did.
As a small boy, Jinx was almost abandoned in the dense, dangerous Urwald by his stepfather, but a wizard named Simon happened upon the situation and adopted him as an assistant. For the next several years, Jinx lives in Simon’s house, first just cleaning up after him, and eventually learning small magics. Jinx thinks that Simon is keeping magical secrets from him, but Jinx is keeping secrets from Simon, too–he has a greater connection to the trees of Urwald than anyone knows. Eventually, Jinx has to strike out on his own into the depths of the forest, to get back something he’s lost, to figure out just what kind of magic he wants to do, and to discover what kind of wizard Simon really is.
This book was a delight: in spite of the fantasy setting, the world is perfectly grounded. The characters feel real, and their relationships and interactions are believable. The domestic setting–Simon’s house, with its kitchen, magic rooms and myriad cats–is a place that a reader would want to see and explore, and the Urwald–peopled by trolls and butter-churn-riding witches–is vividly described.
I’ll go ahead and make some comparisons of my own. Any reader who enjoys Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, or the Patricia C. Wrede Enchanted Forest Chronicles will feel right at home, and will immensely enjoy their journey with Jinx. I can only hope that there will be sequels.
Posted by: Sarah