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Results 1 - 25 of 204
1. Bunjitsu Bunny's Best Move - a review

Bunjitsu Bunny's Best Move

by John Himmelman
(Henry Holt, 2015)

When Bunjitsu Bunny's Best Move came across my desk, my nose wrinkled and I thought, "Oh, this is going to be goofy."  But yet, I loved the cover art, and dove in anyway - taking it on my lunch break.  I'm so glad I did.

In fourteen, short, illustrated chapters, Isabel, John Himmelman's "bunjitsu" expert, learns important lessons of wisdom that are the perfect complement to her martial arts prowess.  In the second chapter, "Bunjitsu Bunny Fails," the usually perfect Isabel fails to master the "bunchucks."  She is profoundly disappointed,

     "You should not be unhappy," said Teacher.
     "But everyone passed the test except me," said Isabel.
     "Do you know what you did wrong?" asked Teacher.
     "Yes," said Isabel.
     "Can you do better?" asked Teacher.
     "Yes," said Isabel.
     "Lucky you," said Teacher. "They passed the test, but you learned the most."
Bunjitsu Bunny learns wisdom through action and observation.  Her lessons are similar to those imparted in John Muth's award-winning Zen Shorts picture books. However, the Bunjitsu Bunny books are simple chapter books for a suggested age range of 6-8 years.  The words are large, and the red, black and white illustrations are bold and full of expression.  The final chapter includes instructions for making an origami bunny face. Bunjitsu Bunny is a winner.

This is the second book in the series.  The first was Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny. (Images and excerpts here: [http://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250068064]) 

Bunjitsu Bunny is similar in reading level with one of my other favorites, Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books.  I reviewed Mercy Watson to the Rescue in 2012

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2. The Blackthorn Key - an audiobook review

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Read by Ray Panthacki
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2015
7.25 hrs
Grades 5-9

Christopher Rowe, is a lucky lad.  Plucked from the orphanage for his intellectual potential, Christopher is apprenticed to the kindly apothecary, Master Benedict Blackthorn. Despite his lowly upbringing, relayed by narrator Ray Panthacki's hint of a Cockney accent, Christopher receives training in Latin, astronomy, ciphers, potions, and other tools of the apothecary's trade. In the midst of a suspicious atmosphere following great political upheaval, a mysterious cult of murderers arises. Christopher will need all his skills and more to decode a series of clues to a dangerous plot that threatens to upset the balance of world power. Panthacki clearly defines each of The Blackthorn Key's large cast of characters, creating distinctive voices that reflect their standing in British society.  Christopher's best friend is Tom, an apprentice baker.  Like Harry Potter and Ron, they are a memorable pair, and their dialogue sounds honest and warm.   Whether in terror, danger, or mere horseplay, the listener feels the emotion in and between the characters.  The only thing that slows the pace of adventure in this gripping mystery is the occasional reading of lengthy ciphers. Print readers may well try their hand at decoding them, but for listeners, they're primarily a drag on the action. The setting is as rich as the plot in this mid-17th century adventure brought to life by veteran actor Ray Panthacki.


My review copy was provided by AudioFile MagazineMy review of The Blackthorn Key for AudioFile Magazine (along with an audio excerpt) appears here. [http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/107274/]

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3. The Green Bicycle - a review

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour
(Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015)

Eleven-year-old Wadjda lives with her parents in Saudi Arabia.  Lately, however, she's seen very little of her father. Rumor has it that he is seeking a second wife.  Because money is scarce and women are not permitted to drive, Wadjda's mother takes an hours-long cab ride each day to a remote village to teach school.  Covered in black from head to toe, she shares the ride (without air-conditioning) with other teachers - crammed in a dilapidated cab in the sweltering desert heat.  Wadjda, due to her young age and family's financial circumstances, has a special note that allows her to walk alone to school each day—but she longs to ride a bike like Abdullah.  She and Abdullah were once friends, but now that she is older, she is not permitted to fraternize with boys.

Wadjda, however, does not easily take "no" for an answer.  She rebels against the tedious rules of her girls-only school. Why shouldn't she be able to sell mix-tapes of Western musicians? She rebels against her mother and father. Why can't she play video games in her living room designated for men only. She rebels against the constraints of her culture. Why can't she talk to Abdullah if she wants to? And why can't a girl have a bicycle?  Despite the obstacles and consequences, Wadjda is determined to have her way.

     A lecture she'd heard in science class tickled her memory.  Again and again, her teacher had told them that dark colors absorb heat, while lighter colors reflect it back.  She ended the lesson my stating that this phenomenon was one of the miracles of the universe.  It proved there was one almighty God, Allah, and that he had created everything for a purpose.
     Beneath her hot black veil, Wadjda twisted her lips.  She wondered if people knew this scientific secret when the tribal code assigned black to women and white to men.  Maybe the real miracle of the universe was that she was able to walk home in Riyadh's sweltering afternoon sun without passing out!
     The boys were gone now.  Their bicycles moved like a flash around the corner.  Wadjda squinted into the dusty afternoon and continued slowly on her way.  As she walked, she pitched the stone Father had given her at various targetst— a can, a stick, a funny-colored brick on the side of a buildingt—thinking all the while about the different miracles of the universe.  It had taken so much to get her to this exact spot, at this exact moment.  So what was her purpose, now that she was here?
Wadjda is an endearing protagonist because, despite a setting that is foreign to the American reader, Wadjda is familiar to us.  She is just a girl like most girls—sometimes obedient, sometimes rebellious, sometimes remorseful, sometimes not.  To women and girls of the West, life as a female in Saudi Arabia seems oppressive, cruel, unfathomable. To a girl like Wadjda, it is just life—a life in which she must eke out moments of hope, happiness, and laughter.  Along with heartache, Haifaa Al Mansour has showed us those moments.

I've heard that the movie is phenomenal.  Whether by book or by movie, I urge you to know Wadjda's story, The Green Bicycle. I think you will love this spirited young girl.

Below is the trailer for the movie Wadjda, on which The Green Bicycle is based.
What makes this even more inspiring is that this movie, made in Saudi Arabia was written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, in a country without movie theaters and where women are not even supposed to be outside without a male relative. You can read highlights of an interview with Haifaa Al Mansour here: [http://www.npr.org/2013/09/22/224437165/wadjda-director-haifaa-al-mansour-it-is-time-to-open-up]

My copy of The Green Bicycle was provided by the publisher at my request.

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4. Lincoln's Spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America's First Private Eye - an audiobook review

Lincoln's Spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America's First Private Eye by Samantha Seiple, Read by Danny Campbell
Scholastic Audiobooks
3.5 hours
Best for upper middle grades and/or high school

I recently reviewed Lincoln's Spymaster for AudioFile Magazine.  A link to my review of this biography of the nation's most famous private investigator is here: [http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/107600/]  Pinkerton's is a compelling story, well-told and read.

Antietam, Md. Allan Pinkerton ("E. J. Allen") of the Secret Service on horseback, Creator(s): Gardner, Alexander, 1821-1882, photographer, Source: Library of Congress 

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5. Divorce is the Worst - a review

Higginbotham, Anastasia. 2015. Divorce Is the Worst (Ordinary Terrible Things). New York:The Feminist Press at CUNY.

I didn't think I'd like this book, and I didn't; I loved it. It is honest; it is practical; it is a beautifully artistic rendering of a sorrowful event.  If you know a child in need of a divorce book, look no further; this is it.

Please, do watch the trailer.


Today is Nonfiction Monday.  See what else is new on the Nonfiction Monday Blog.

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6. Fab Four Friends - the blog tour

Today I'm happy to share in the celebration for the publication of Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles, written by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, and published by Macmillan.

Author Susanna Reich has written an inspiring book chronicling the early years of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Each is highlighted in turn with a focus on the events and people that shaped his future and his interest in music.

The final pages feature the band's early successes.  Readers will be impressed by the boys' dedication to their musicianship and their ability to overcome family tragedy, illness, and in John Lennon's case - a lack of musical training and a guitar that his mother taught him to tune like a banjo.

John attacked the guitar, strumming as fast he could.  He didn't give a fig about wrong notes.

Eventually Paul traded in his trumpet for a guitar.  From then on, his brother said, "he didn't have time to eat or think about anything else."

At school, George sat in the back and drew pictures of guitars. But when it came to practicing, no one was more serious.

Back home, Richy [Ringo] couldn't stop his hands from tapping.  Listening to all kinds of music—country and western, jazz, blues, skiffle—he'd rap on the back of a chair, bang on a box, or pound an old bass drum with a piece of firewood.

The text is small and in simple font on a plain background, leaving ample room for Adam Gustavson's stellar illustrations in "oil paint on prepared paper."  It is a difficult task to render likenesses of these four men who are known and revered the world over.  Gustavson has done a remarkable job in capturing their youth, signature expressions, and intensity of mood. In quiet acknowledgement of the post-war era that engendered the rise of rock and roll, the book opens with double-spread illustration of "a dark October night in 1940," the night when John Lennon was born in the midst of war with Germany. The final double-spread is the one that appears on the book's jacket.

More illustrations from Fab Four Friends are on the publisher's site.

Rounding out Fab Four Friends are an Author's Note, Glossary (I'm sad that phonograph needs to be in the glossary!), Notes, and Sources.

I asked only one interview question of author Susanna Reich. With so many songs to choose from and her obvious love of her topic, I knew it would be a tricky question:
Q: "What's your favorite Beatles tune?"

It sent her to her headphones for an hour of listening. Her final answer:
A: "Let it Be."
It's certainly hard to argue with that.

The publisher's site lists a suggested age range of 6-10.  I think older kids, particularly those with musical inclinations will be interested in this one as well.

 A book's case and jacket are often (usually) the same.  Library books are typically processed with protective coating on the jacket that secures it to the cover. So, if you're a librarian, or a library user, you may never see the books' case.  If possible, however, take a peek under the jacket of Fab Four Friends. The front cover features individual portrait style paintings of Paul, John, George, and Ringo.  They appear youthful and suited and are presented in square frames reminiscent of yearbook photos or 1970s era Beatles posters. They are joyful and boyish - four fab friends.

My copy of Fab Four Friends was provided by the publisher.  You can find yours on a library or bookstore shelf, beginning today, August 18, 2015.

Follow the blog tour for Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles.  Tomorrow, the tour will stop at UnleashingReaders.com .

Happy book birthday to Fab Four Friends!

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7. Diary of a Mad Brownie - an audiobook review

I can't republish certain reviews that have already appeared in print or elsewhere online, but I can point you to where you might find them.

The Enchanted Files: Diary of a Mad Brownie by Bruce Coville. (Listening Library, 2015)
Suggested for ages 8-12.  298 minutes.


Diary of a Mad Brownie is the first book in Bruce Coville's new series, The Enchanted Files.  I listened to the audio book, and I can tell you that it was the most fun I've had listening in a long time. And it's read by a full cast!

Read my review here: http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/102097/

My copy of the book was supplied by AudioFile Magazine.

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8. A Night Divided

As a child, I remember the Olympics mainly as an opportunity to root against the Eastern Bloc countries.  That may seem petty, but my family has/had relatives in the former Czechoslovakia, and that's what we did.  In our family, a loss by an Eastern Bloc country was a win for democracy - as if beating East Germany in pole vaulting could somehow make things better.  In reality, for the people of the Eastern Bloc, losing likely made their miserable lives worse - if they even knew about it at all.

There are many historical fiction books about wartime Germany.  A Night Divided deposits the reader in post-WWII Germany — in Berlin, on the wrong side of the wall.

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
(Scholastic, 2015)

In A Night Divided, 12-year-old Gerta, narrates the dangerously oppressive lifestyle into which she was unwilling thrust,

It was Sunday, August 13, 1961, a day I would remember for the rest of my life.  When a prison had been built around us as we slept.

Erected without warning, the fence (and later, the wall) that separated East Germany from West Germany sprang up overnight - a night when Gerta's father and brother had been visiting the West.  Gerta is trapped in the East with her resigned mother, and her rebellious older brother, Fritz.  Rebellion in East Germany is costly, and the price can be your life.

     "We will never be able to leave," Mama said. "The sooner you both accept that, the happier you will be."
     I nodded back at her. But I new I could never again be happy here. And I refused to accept my life inside a prison."
This is a deeply affecting novel that does not gloss over the reality of living under the constant watchful eyes of the police, the Grentztruppen or border police, and the brutal secret police, the Stasi.  In 1960s, East Germany, even a casual comment to a neighbor can be life-threatening.

Each chapter is introduced with a quote or German proverb that sets up the rationale for Gerta's continued, secretive resistance. "The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. — Albert Camus, French novelist"

Gerta Lowe is a character that the reader will cheer and remember.  A Night Divided is a chilling and riveting book, balanced by the hope of one family's love and courage.

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9. Completely Clementine - an audiobook review

Below is my review of Completely Clementine, as it appeared in the October 1, 2015, edition of School Library Journal.

PENNYPACKER, Sara. Completely Clementine. 2 CDs. 2 hrs. Recorded Books. 2015. $25.75. ISBN 9781490625225. digital download.

Gr 2–4—Clementine faces a host of rising fourth-grader issues as the school year ends. She’s feuding with her father over his refusal to become a vegetarian like the rest of the family, she can’t bring herself to say goodbye to her third-grade teacher, and the family’s new baby is due soon and they haven’t even chosen a name yet. Picking the baby’s name should be easy, but her other problems are more serious. She’s avoided her teacher and given her dad the silent treatment for so long that she begins to regret it—but it’s so hard to stop! Clementine and her friends sometimes exhibit the concerns of adults (school friends worry about future wedding plans), but Clementine’s steadfast good nature and silliness are endearing and relatable. Jessica Almasy narrates, bringing infectious enthusiasm to Clementine’s usually upbeat and slightly sassy personality. Other character voices are clearly defined, with Clementine’s parents sounding especially authentic. VERDICT Fans of the series and kids ready to move up from Junie B. Jones will enjoy. [“This last title in the popular and laugh-out-loud chapter book series is a must-have for library collections": SLJ 2/1/15 review of the Disney-Hyperion book.]

 Copyright © 2015 Library Journals, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.


The review was edited slightly and did not include the following:
Jessica Almasy narrates all of the Clementine books. A New Yorker herself, she sounds more Southern Californian than befits Clementine’s Boston environs, but she brings infectious enthusiasm to Clementine’s usually upbeat and slightly sassy personality. 

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10. Fuzzy Mud - a review

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar, winner of the Newbery Medal and National Book Award for Holes.  Narrated by Kathleen McInerny with a full cast and an author's note read by Sachar himself. (Listening Library, 2015)
4 hours
Target audience: Grades 5 and up

I reviewed Fuzzy Mud for AudioFile Magazine, and loved it. As I should have expected from Louis Sachar, there is much more to it than I first expected.  It's a sci-fi, adventure thriller,that focuses on the very broad concept of ecology as well as the more intimate problem of bullying. A link to my review for AudioFile Magazine is here. [http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/104469/]

I highly recommend it.

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11. New Jersey - The 50 States Fun Fact Blog Extravaganza!

New Jersey knows that it's the butt of jokes throughout the nation, but we also know that we've got a great state with unique features that no other state can match.  From the mountains to the shore, from the cities to the Pines, we've got a wealth of natural beauty, history, and culture.  It's like a well-kept secret.  But now, The Fifty States: Explore the U.S.A. with 50 fact-filled maps, written by Gabrielle Balkin and illustrated by Sol Linero (Quarto, 2015) is bringing some of our secrets to light.

Take a peek at the New Jersey page, and then I'll share a few of my favorite NJ gems.

Three of my NJ favorites which are featured in The Fifty States: Explore the U.S.A. with 50 fact-filled maps:
 BRIGHT IDEA In West Orange you can visit inventor Thomas Edison’s lab and house.
Thomas Edison National Historical Park is a fascinating place to visit.  In my opinion it beats visiting Thomas Edison Center in Menlo Park, NJ and his winter estate in Fort Myers, Florida.  He didn't just invent the light bulb, he invented everything you need to use a light bulb - from the lamp to the power grid.  And of course, he invented much more than the light bulb.  Not a perfect man, by any means, but a perfectly brilliant inventor!
"Edison labs Main St Lakeside Av jeh" by Jim.henderson - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edison_labs_Main_St_Lakeside_Av_jeh.jpg#/media/File:Edison_labs_Main_St_Lakeside_Av_jeh.jpg

LUCY THE ELEPHANT In 1881 the U.S. Patent Office granted inventor James Lafferty the right to make animal-shaped buildings for 17 years. His first creation, Lucy, still stands in Margate, Atlantic City.
She's a whopping 6-stories high and 134 years old, and she sits right next to the beach.  And what a view from inside!  I'm not positive but I do remember that her interior paint color is "stomach," or something similarly intestinal.
By Harriet Duncan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
FEBRUARY 1913: Silk workers in Paterson begin a six-month-long strike for better working conditions.
Paterson, NJ, may not be your first thought when seeking tourist sites, but it's well worth a visit.  Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is one of the nation's newest National Parks. The falls (one of the largest in the nation) and park sit in the midst of an urban city of more than 145,000 people. The falls and the people of Paterson were powerhouses of the U.S. Industrial Revolution.
Photo by L Taylor (c)
If you want to know more great sites in NJ, you'll have to come see for yourself. (BTW, Come See For Yourself, was once our state slogan. I think they should have gone with the more popular, "New Jersey - You got a problem with that?")

Book images and quotes were provided by the publisher.  I have no publisher or bookseller affiliations and received no compensation.  I am participating for love of state.

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12. The Other Side of the Wall - a review

The Other Side of the Wall by Simon Schwartz

Translated from German by Laura Watkinson
Published by Graphic Universe, 2015
112 pages, best for grades 6 and up

Simon Schwartz was born in East Berlin in the 1980s.The Other Side of the Wall is his graphic memoir of growing up in the divided city, of his parent's three-year struggle to obtain an exit permit to leave East Berlin, and of his later forays between the two Berlins.

His parents met in college. His father came from a family of staunch Communist Party members.  His mother's family was secretly more liberal, though any deviation from expected Party behavior was cause for examination and surveillance by the Stasi, or secret German police.  It was dangerous to stray from party orthodoxy, particularly if you were a teacher, as Simon's father was. His parents became disillusioned with life in the restrictive East German city.

The Soviet Union had recently invaded Afghanistan. My dad worked on his speech, night after night.
     "God, how can you describe a war as just?  They want me to use fancy words to justify this invasion."
     "Just write something you can square with your own conscience -- at least in part."
     "I don't know if I can do that."

When his parents requested exit permits, their lives became fraught with poverty,ostracism, and physical danger.

The book's layout is as structured as Communist life - with few exceptions, four blocks per page - each bordered in black. The artwork is monochromatic, fitting for the stark reality of life behind the Wall. The story is told  in speech bubbles, text blocks that set the scene or relay back story, and the occasional footnote explaining terms that may not be familiar to readers (well-known  politicians or artists of the time, and uniquely German or Communist terms). Several panels are wordless - vague remembrances of the young Schwarz.

Back matter includes a glossary, a timeline of the Berlin Wall, and maps of Germany and Berlin 1961-1989.

I recently reviewed the historical fiction novel, A Night Divided, that describes life in East Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Berlin Wall's construction.The Other Side of the Wall is a perfect companion book - a nonfiction, graphic novel account of the Wall's waning days.  For younger readers not familiar with day-to-day life in the Cold War Era, this is a chilling introduction.

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13. The Last Song - a review

Wiseman, Eva. 2012. The Last Song. Plattsburgh, NY: Tundra.

Some locations and eras appear regularly in historical fiction  - the US during the Civil War, the Midwest during the Dust Bowl Era, the British Isles in the medieval period, Europe during the Holocaust, the list goes on ... but seldom does it include Spain during the Inquisition.

In this first-person, chronological account, teenager Doña Isabel learns her family's deepest secret - her parents are not devout Catholics as she was raised to be.  Secretly, they practice the Jewish faith - a practice punishable by death under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella, and their Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada.  Set in Toledo, Spain, 1491, Isabel is the daughter of the King's physician, a position that has always kept the family in wealth and privilege.  As the Inquisition grows more brutal, suspected heretics are forced to wear sambenitos (sackcloth), they are beaten, tortured, murdered, and burned alive at autos-da-fé.

I looked around to keep awake.  The church's walls were festooned with the sambenitos of the heretics who had been burned alive at the stake during different autos-de-fé. 

"So many sambenitos," I whispered to Mama.  "They should take them off the wall."

She rolled her eyes. "They are supposed to be reminders to the families of the condemned heretics.  They are warnings to them not to follow in the footsteps of their relatives," she whispered.  "They are a warning to us all."

 Her words filled me with fear.

Her parents decide that to keep Isabel safe from the Inquisition, they will promise her in marriage to the son of the King and Queen's most trusted advisor. Luis is loathsome, however, and instead of Luis, Isabel falls in love with Yonah, a young Jewish silversmith, Soon the lives of the entire family are in danger.

If Isabel abandons her lifelong faith a little too easily and if Eva Wiseman paints Isabel's future a little too brightly, this is a small price to pay for a book suits an older, middle-grade audience and draws attention to a terrible period of religious persecution that is not often covered for this age group, grades 6 and up.

Ironically (in light of today's current political, social and religious climate), Isabel and her family leave Spain counting Moorish refugees as their friends.  Together they head to Morocco in search of freedom and a better life. How much has changed; and yet, how much remains the same.  We learn so little.

My copy of The Last Song was provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers. I'm sorry that I did not get to it sooner.

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14. Feathers: Not Just for Flying

As I've mentioned before, I had the great honor and opportunity to serve again as a second round judge on the Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction book award panel for the Cybils Awards.  If you're not familiar with the Cybils awards, they are the Children and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards.

Our judging panel chose the following as the 2014 Cybils Award winner for best Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction book:

Congratulations to Melissa Stewart,  Sarah S. Brannen, and Charlesbridge

The judging panel's description:
Using child-friendly similes, Feathers shows that there is both beauty and purpose in nature and that, although we do not fly, we have many things in common with birds, such as the need to be safe, attractive, industrious, communicative, and well-fed. The simple, large text is suitable for reading to very young children, while the inset boxes contain more details for school-aged kids. The scrapbook-style watercolor illustrations show each feather at life size, and provide a nice jumping-off point for individual projects. Science, art, and prose work together to make this the perfect book to share with budding young artists, painters, naturalists, and scientists, and it will be appreciated by parents, teachers, and kids.

Melissa Stewart's website offers teaching resources and activities to go along with Feathers.

Be sure to check out all of the Cybils award winning books (and apps!) at [http://www.cybils.com/2015/02/the-2014-cybils-awards.html ]

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15. Echo: A Novel - a review

If this is how the year is starting out, it's going to be a banner year for middle-grade books.  First, Gordon Korman's Masterminds (more on that fantastic new thriller another day) and now Echo: A Novel.

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. 2015. Echo: A Novel. New York: Scholastic.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of Echo from Scholastic and was intrigued that it was wrapped in musical notation paper and had a smartly-boxed Hohner Blues Band harmonica tied to it.

I was happy to see an apparently music-related book, and what somewhat surprised to find that Echo begins with a fairytale, "The Thirteenth Harmonica of Otto Messenger," a fairytale replete with abandoned princesses, a magical forest, a mean-spirited witch, and a prophecy,

"Your fate is not yet sealed.  Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed."

Though brief, I became enthralled with the tale and was surprised and taken aback when I reached Part One and found myself not in the fairytale forest, but in

Trossingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 1933, home to the world's oldest harmonica manufacturer.  I couldn't wait to find out what became of the abandoned princesses, but soon found myself wrapped up in the story of young Friedrich Schmidt, a German Jew during Hitler's ascendance to power.  This kind-hearted, young boy of a musical family was surely destined to be gathered up in the anti-Semitic wave sweeping through Germany. I became engrossed in Friedrich's story, anxiously hoping that things would work out for him and his family, and was again surprised when I reached Part Two and found myself in

Philadelphia, 1935, home of the then-famous Albert Hoxie and the Philadelphia Harmonica Band, and of the Bishop's Home for Friendless and Destitute Children, where I found myself in the company of piano-playing orphans, Mike and Frankie Flannery.  Their story was no less heart-wrenching than Friedrich's, and I found myself desperately rooting for the young boys when I suddenly arrived

in a migrant worker's community in Southern California, 1942, where young Ivy Maria Lopez was about to play her harmonica on the Colgate Family Hour radio show, but her excitement was short-lived.  I fell in with this hard-working, American family and hoped, along with Ivy, for her brother's safe return from the war.

Of course, there's more, but this is where I will leave off.

Pam Muñoz Ryan has written a positively masterful story that will take the reader from the realm of magic through the historical travails of the infirm, the oppressed, and the poor in the midst of the 20th century.  Through it all, music gathers the stories together in a symphony of hope and possibility.  In music, and in Echo, there is a magic that will fill your soul.

It may only be February, but I predict that praise for Echo will continue throughout the year.

On a library shelf near you - February 24, 2015.

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16. The Sittin' Up - a review

I would never think of "North Carolina fiction" as a genre in children's literature, but I seem to have read quite a bit of it lately. I picked up Three Times Lucky  because my daughter is attending college in North Carolina.  I loved it!!  Later, I had the good fortune of reviewing The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing (also by Sheila Turnage) for AudioFile Magazine.  I can't say enough how quirky and wonderful and timeless these books are!

Another North Carolina book caught my eye last year (I love the cover art!) but I just got around to reading it.

The Sittin' Up by Sheila P. Moses (Putnam, 2014).

The premise for The Sittin' Up is an interesting one.  The year is 1940, and former slave, Mr. Bro. Wiley has died.  Stanbury "Bean" Jones is 12 years old, finally old enough to attend his first "sittin' up," an area tradition with similarities to an "Irish wake" or Judaism's "sitting shiva."  There is not a lot of action in The Sittin' Up - something I've seen it knocked for in other reviews.  I, however, loved the opportunity to take my time and get to know the rich personalities of the Low Meadows community, where they treat death with sorrow, remembrance, practicality, and humor.

Mr. Bro. Wiley lived with Bean and his parents, Stanbury and Magnolia Jones, and was revered by the everyone in the closely-knit African American community. Bean's father, a stutterer, is generally accepted as a leader of the community and is a foreman on the tobacco farm where many of the Low Country men work for the white, wealthy, Mr. Thomas. Bean's mother is Magnolia, a kind, commonsense woman with a baby on the way.

Other characters include Miss Florenza (the bootlegging sinner who dares wear red to a sittin' up) and Miss Lottie Pearl (Pole's busybody mother and Magnolia's best friend),

"Yes, Lord. Please help us," Miss Florenza said.  Miss Lottie Pearl rolled her eyes at Miss Florenza.  Poor Miss Florenza can't even talk to Jesus without Miss Lottie Pearl putting her two cents in.  

Bean's best friend is Pole (they go together like a bean to a pole), and there's the preacher (who is more concerned with fancy clothes, cars, and women, than his parishioners),

"I thought we were in a Depression," Pole whispered to me.
"We are." I whispered back.
"Look like to me Reverend Hornbuckle should have been thinking about how the folk at Sandy Branch Baptist Church are gonna eat come winter instead of buying a new car," Pole said.  Wasn't sure if the preacher heard my sassy friend, but she didn't seem to care.  She got a whole of Miss Lottie Pearl in her as sho' as Mr. Bro. Wiley was dead in the house.
There's also Uncle Goat the liar,
Ma swears Uncle Goat is the biggest liar in Northampton County.  Papa said that ain't so.  He said Uncle Goat is the biggest liar in the state of North Carolina. That's how he got the nickname Goat.  Ma says he eats the truth up faster than a goat eats grass.

Even Mule Bennett has a personality,
"I will never forget Mr. Bro. Wiley," I thought as we headed to town.  Mule Bennett must have felt the same way.  He was slowing down and barely lifted his head.  Papa kept saying, "Get-get, get up, mule, get up." But Mule Bennett took his own sweet time.
Mr. Bro. Wiley,the reader gets to know through the remembrances of the living.

Yes, this is a story about segregation and how a great catastrophe serves as a catalyst for change, but that is the backdrop for a story that is mostly about people - wonderfully flawed people - people who sometimes do the wrong thing, but choose the right one when it matters - people who know the value of dignity and community - people who find sorrow and joy and humor in the small occurrences of daily life  - people - just plain people - just like us.

I may have nothing in common with North Carolina sharecroppers of 1940, but these people "spoke" to me, nonetheless.  If you enjoy historical fiction with a character-driven plot, you'll love The Sittin' Up.

Next on my list of North Carolina fiction: Stella by Starlight. More on that one later.

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17. Thoughts for a Thursday

I'm blogging at the ALSC blog today with a post on "Putting it all together" - books, technology, creative space, diversity, and kids.  Please hop over and check it out. 

In other news, if you haven't checked out the new lineup yet, SYNC will  be returning on May 7th.  As they do every summer, they will offer free downloads of classic books paired with current books with a similar theme.  Each week features a different pairing. Week #1 begins with Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, paired with Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

And finally, here's a link to an audio book review that I wrote for AudioFile Magazine.  I don't think I ever posted it here. The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story by R.J. Palacio, read by Mike Chamberlain.  Brilliance Audio, 2014. 

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18. Audiobook reviews

I recently reviewed two audiobooks with a peculiar connection.  Masterminds is a thriller set in the seemingly perfect town of Serenity, New Mexico.  The Way to Stay in Destiny is a character-driven novel set in the woefully imperfect town of Destiny, Florida.  Neither town is quite what it seems.  Click the links to read the complete reviews.

Masterminds by Gordon Korman.  Read by a cast of five(2015) 

A contemporary science thriller set in New Mexico - a real page-turner!  This is the first in a planned series.  I'm not sure how he can top this one!

Historical fiction set in 1970s Florida by the author of Glory Be. Another paean to the power of music.  (Try Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan, too!)

I'm confident that either of these is great in print as well.

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19. Graceful - a review

When I reviewed The Last Present by Wendy Mass, I wrote the following:
The Last Present is the final book in the Willow Falls (or "birthday") series, realistic fiction with just the right amount of magic, courtesy of Angelina, the mysterious old woman with the duck-shaped birthmark. Angelina is seemingly the architect of all that occurs in Willow Falls, the town where nothing happens by coincidence and everything happens for a reason. Readers of the series will delight in revisiting their favorite characters - Leo, Amanda, Tara, Rory, David and all rest, as their stories intertwine and the story of Angelina is finally revealed. ... I'm sad to see it come to an end. It's been great fun!
Apparently, I wasn't the only one who was sorry to see the Willow Falls series come to an end. In the forward to Graceful (Scholastic, 2015), Wendy Mass writes that her readers let her know "IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS" that they were not ready for the series to end.  Graceful (due out tomorrow) is a gift to her readers.

I think fans of the series will be happy with Graceful, in which Grace fills in (somewhat unwittingly) for the mysterious Angelina as the architect of all that occurs in Willow Falls.  This is a series about friendship and family and the cosmic connectedness of all things. It can best be described as magical realism, and it is a series that should be read sequentially.  Mass does her best to catch the reader up with previous occurrences, but the series is so intricately plotted that it is difficult to skip a book or read them out of order.

Willow Falls has been a great place to visit, but I think Ms. Mass is ready to move on now.  All of our questions have been answered and all loose ends are tied.  It's been fun!  Enjoy!

The Willow Falls series by Wendy Mass

My Advance Reader Copy was supplied by the publisher.

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20. Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled all of France - a review

You've heard the term mesmerized before, and you've likely heard of a blind study in medical research (in which study participants are unaware of whether they have been given a treatment or a placebo).  But do you know what these two terms have in common?  Benjamin Franklin!

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled all of France
Written by Mara Rockliff. Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. Candlewick, 2015

When Benjamin Franklin arrived in France seeking support for the American cause, Paris was all abuzz about recent advances in science, but one man in particular was drawing much attention - Dr. Franz Mesmer.  Like the invisible gas that was recently proven to buoy giant passenger-carrying balloons when burned, Dr. Mesmer claimed that he, too, had discovered a powerful new invisible force.

Dr. Mesmer said this forced streamed from the stars and flowed into his wand.  When he stared into his patients' eyes and waved the wand, things happened. 

Women swooned.

Men sobbed.

Children fell down in fits.
Mesmer and his practitioners claimed to cure illnesses in this manner, but was is true?  Or was it quackery?  King Louis XVI wanted to know, and Benjamin Franklin was sent to find out.

Mesmerized is one of those wonderful books that combines history with science and humor.  Using the scientific method, Benjamin Franklin was able to deduce that Dr. Mesmer had indeed discovered something, but not the something he had claimed!

Delightfully humorous and informative illustrations, a section on the scientific method (Oh La La ... La Science!). and a list of source books and articles make Mesmerized a triple-play - science, humor, and history.  Go ahead, be mesmerized!

*This post also appears on the STEM Friday blog today

STEM Friday

It’s STEM Friday! (STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)
See all of today's STEM-related posts at STEM Friday.

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21. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition

The story of William Kamkwamba is so inspiring that three books have been written to tell it. I listened to the audio book version of the 305-page, young reader's edition. 

My review of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition
written for AudioFile Magazine, is linked here. 

I cannot recommend this one enough.  I hope you have time to read at least one version of this inspiring true story of a teenager who created electricity for his impoverished, starving village in Malawi with nothing more than garbage, an elementary education, an old borrowed Physics book (in a language that he did not speak or read!), and a will to make things better!
  1. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (William Morrow, 2009)
  2. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Picture Book Edition by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (Dial, 2012)
  3. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (Penguin, 2015)

Here are William Kamkwamba's two TED Talks.  They're short and well worth a listen.


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22. Cody and the Fountain of Happiness - a review

I don't review many early chapter books, but I requested this one from LibraryThing Early Reviewers. because it's published by Candlewick Press (always a plus), and Eliza Wheeler's cover illustration sealed the deal.

Cody and the Fountain of Happiness by Tricia Springstubb.  Candlewick Press, 2015.  Illustrations by Eliza Wheeler.

Here's why I like Cody and the Fountain of Happiness:
  • Cody's an average kid - Mom works in a shoe store, Dad's a truck driver, she argues with her older brother Wyatt, though it's clear that they love each other.
  • Cody is positive and decisive.
  • Her new found friend, Spencer, is an African-American boy with a super hip grandma. (The percentage of African American characters in early chapter books is rather slim, so this is a plus.)
  • Cody's mom and dad are positive role models.
  • Eliza Wheeler's illustrations are simple, soft, and expressive.
  • Spoiler alert! Mom gets a promotion at the shoe store. 

Here's an excerpt.  Cody is waking her brother on their first day of summer vacation and refuses to be daunted by his grumpy mood.

     "Want to go to the dog park and pick what dog we'd get if only we were allowed to get a dog?"
     Wyatt put his hands over his eyes.
     "No?" said Cody.  "How about we look for rocks and have a rock stand and use the money to buy a skateboard?"
     Wyatt slowly got to his feet.  He was very tall and skinny.  If he were a building, he'd be a skyscraper, but a droopy one.
     "Silencio," he said.  He toppled back into bed and pulled the covers over his head.  "You are causing me pain.  A big fat pain in my cerebral cortex."
     "Do you want some tea?"
     "No, Brain Pain. I want you to disappear.  Preferably forever."
     "I can't," said Cody.  "I promised Mom to take care of you.  I never break a promise."

Give Cody a try.  Though you may wonder about her peculiar fondness for ants, I think you'll like her, her family, and her friends!

My Advance Reader Copy is 151 illustrated pages.

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23. The Great War ... - an audiobook review

The Great War: Stories Inspired by Items from the First World War by by David Almond, John Boyne, Tracy Chevalier, Ursula Dubosarsky, Timothee de Fombelle, Adele Geras, et al. | Read by Nico Evers-Swindell, JD Jackson, Gerard Doyle, Richard Halverson, Sarah Coomes, Nick Podehl
(2015, Brilliance Audio) is a powerful collection of short stories that view World Ward I and its repercussions from many different points of view.  

The link to my short review for AudioFile Magazine is below.  An audio sample is available at the link as well. Publisher recommended for grades 5 and up.

 I'm still working on a follow-up post to my trip to the American Library Association Annual Conference in San Francisco. It was a great experience.

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24. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler - an audiobook review

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose. Narrated by Phillip Hoose and Michael Braun.  (2015, Recorded Books)

This is the heretofore little-known story of schoolboys who challenged the Nazi army even as their country's leaders collaborated with the Germans. Alternating first-person accounts of young saboteur, Knud Pedersen, with carefully researched narrative, Phillip Hoose tells the compelling story of these daring young boys who were willing to risk their lives to free Denmark from German occupation. Without their parents' knowledge, the boys raided, stole, and destroyed German property with nothing more than bicycles for transportation! Their heroic actions sparked the Danish resistance.

Michael Braun narrates the chapters containing Knud Pedersen's first-hand recollections of the events. While his delivery is weighty, it lacks personality. It is through the actions of Knud that the listener learns to like and admire him, rather than through his speech. Because the book is targeted at a young audience (ages 12-18) and Knud himself was only a teen at the time, a younger narrator may have been more appropriate. Author Phillip Hoose does an excellent job with the alternating chapters. He reads precisely and takes great care in the pronunciation of Danish names and places.

This is a well-researched, captivating story that proves the ability of individuals to effect change against overwhelming odds.

4 CDs

Review copy supplied by LibraryThing.

Today is Nonfiction Monday

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25. The Lightning Queen - a review

When I was a small child, I read and sang folksongs like other children read books. One of my favorite songs to sing was "The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies, O."  I was enthralled with my idea of gypsy culture. The images in my family's book of folksongs were of music and dancing and cards and horses.  It all looked so wonderful. And so it was that I was thrilled to receive the story of The Lightning Queen from Scholastic.  It was as enchanting as I'd hoped it might be.  Middle grade readers will enjoy this finely crafted story of two outsider cultures - Mexico's indigenous people and the Roma, or gypsies.  Look for it on shelves in October.

The Lightning Queen  by Laura Resau. (2015, Scholastic)

Advance Reader Copy supplied by the publisher.  Final version subject to changes.

Mateo travels with his mother every summer to visit his relatives on the Hill of Dust in Oaxaca, Mexico.  This year, his grandfather Teo says that he needs young Mateo's help;  he begins to tell Mateo a fascinating story of his youth,

     As he speaks, his words somehow beam light onto an imagined screen, flooding the room with people and places from long, long ago.  "Mijo, you are about to embark on a journey of marvels.  Of impossible fortunes.  Of a lost duck, three-legged skunk, and a blind goa - all bravely loyal.  Of a girl who gathered power from storms and sang back the dead.  Of an enchanted friendship that lifted souls above brutality.
     He pauses, tilts his head, "Perhaps there will even be an itermission or two.  But as of yet, there is no end.  That, mijo, will be up to you."  He winks, clears his throat, and begins.
     "There once was a girl called the Queen of Lightning ..."
The story then retreats to the Oaxaca of the mid-1900s, a time when Mexico's indigenous Mixteco people crossed paths with the mysterious Roma in the hills outside Oaxaca.

Grandfather put his hand on my shoulder and said, "They are like us, outsiders in Mexico.  Both our people have little voice in the government.  City folk consider us backward.  We live on the fringes, the wilds of our country.  So it is with the Rom." 


I looked at Esma and her grandparents, who were admiring the sawdust mosaic of the flowered caravan.  And I wondered if the key to her people surviving had been separating themselves from outsiders -  gadjés. Maybe that's what bonded them together as they danced around their bonfires, night after night for hundreds of years.

     As was foretold by the fortune teller and against impossible odds, young Teo becomes "friends for life" with Esma, the young Romani singer.  It is as if they are bound to each other by magic and music and the power of lightning - their destinies tied inexplicably to one another.

Teo reminisces to his grandson Mateo,

She could work magic.  One moment, I'd felt hurt and angry.  The next honored that she'd confided in me.  And now, inspired, as though anything were possible, if I believed it enough.
     She climbed onto the rock, raised her arms. "If you believe you're weak, you'll be weak.  You're cursing yourself.  Yet if you believe you're strong, you'll be strong.  Give yourself a fortune and make it come true."
There is definitely magic between Teo and Esma, the indio boy and the Roma girl, and there is magic in the pages of The Lightning Queen.

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