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26. Old School Sunday: There's a Girl in my Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli (1991)

There's a Girl in my Hammerlock. by Jerry Spinelli. 1991. Simon & Schuster. 199 pages. ISBN: 9780671746841

When Maisie Potter doesn’t make the cheerleading squad, she decides to try something completely different, and tries out for the wrestling team. Though no one tries to stop her from trying out, Maisie is the first girl in her school’s history to join an all-male sport. When she makes the team, suddenly the other members are awkward around her, and boys from other school forfeit their matches rather than wrestle against a girl! It is only through the support of her parents and her fair-minded coach that Maisie makes it through the season and proves that great wrestlers can be boys or girls.

Co-ed sports are much more common these days than they were when I first read this book as a middle schooler. Back then, I can remember that many gym classes were still divided by gender, and that when the boys worked on a wrestling unit, the girls practiced either Tae Bo or self-defense. I was not at all a sporty kid, but I liked Jerry Spinelli, so I’m sure my decision to read the book had to do with his name on the cover more than anything else. Still, Maisie is such an irresistible character, it is no surprise to me that I grew so attached to her that I bought a paperback copy of this book and carried it around in my backpack for months. I also remember really liking that Maisie had a preschool little sister - and it drove me nuts that I never knew what P.K. stood for.

Though there is a fair amount of romance in this book, and a lot of catty gossip about a popular girl named Liz Lampley, both of which might appeal exclusively to girls, the sports material makes it equally appealing to male and female readers. Though much of the story focuses on how Maisie is treated because she is a girl, there is also a lot about team building, trying one’s best, and competing to win. Though some of the gender issues might seem odd to today’s kids, who might very well have female classmates who do wrestle, the politics of middle school, and the excitement of performing well at a sporting event, will ring true for kids now as they did for me in the early 1990s.

Old-School read-alikes for There’s Girl in My Hammerlock include There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom by Louis Sachar and Nothing But the Truth by Avi. Newer read-alikes about sporty girls include American Girl’s McKenna books, the Go for Gold Gymnast series, and the Dairy Queen books by Catherine Gilbert Murdock.

I  borrowed There's a Girl in My Hammerlock from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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27. Review: Calvin Coconut: Extra Famous by Graham Salisbury

Calvin Coconut: Extra Famous. by Graham Salisbury. April 1, 2013. Random House. 176 pages. ISBN: 9780375990472

At first, Calvin and his friends can barely believe it when their old friend Benny Obi tells them that his uncle is making a zombie movie and they can all have a chance to be in it. They soon find out this is true, however, and the next thing they know, everyone is in on the fun, even Stella, the teen girl who lives at Calvin’s house. Calvin and his buddies have the chance to wear creepy make-up, practice their zombie staggering, and even make some money in the process. Not only do the kids learn about filmmaking, they also have the chance to get to know Benny better, and to grow closer to each other and to their families.

If there is a series in my library that I suggest to kids more than any other, it’s definitely the Calvin Coconut series. In my opinion, they are the best written transitional chapter books out there, and Graham Salisbury is probably the most talented chapter book author. Time and again, his storytelling style and descriptive writing, impress me and surpass my expectations. The stories he tells about Calvin’s life in Kailua Beach are equal parts touching and funny, suspenseful and exciting, and I just never get tired of them.

In this book, what I appreciate so much is the way Salisbury incorporates the latest craze - zombie movies - into an age-appropriate and edifying story. Rather than trying to incorporate silly fantasy elements into his very realistic world, he finds a perfectly believable way for Calvin and his friends to get into the zombie fun, and then uses this opportunity to teach kids about film-making, family, and friendship, all in one shot. Calvin’s inherent goodness comes through loud and clear in this story, in his acceptance of Benny even though he doesn’t always tell the truth, in his respect for Stella’s acting chops, and in an unexpected gesture of kindness after he receives his pay for his work on the film.

Obviously, I won’t tell kids this is a book about how to be good, because really, the zombies are probably the only selling point I’ll need to send this book out of the library with an eager reader, but I do think Calvin is an excellent role model, and that kids will want to become better people after reading about his good deeds and fair treatment of those around him. I think kids will be similarly comforted by the presence of so many great adult role models in this book.

This is the ninth Calvin Coconut book so far. Learn more about the rest of the series on Graham Salisbury’s website, where you can also meet the full cast of characters in the series and find some great curriculum connections for the books.

I borrowed Calvin Coconut: Extra Famous from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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28. Review: Maybe Tonight? by Bridie Clark (ARC)

Maybe Tonight?. by Bridie Clark. August 6, 2013. Roaring Brook Press. 224 pages. ISBN: 9781596438163

Gossip Girl meets Choose Your Own Adventure in this new Snap Decision book published by Macmillan. Written in the second person, this book puts the reader into the shoes of a female freshman at a fancy private school, on the night of an annual outdoor party called Midwinter’s Night Dream. The story is told in a series of snapshots, and at the end of each snapshot, the reader is given two choices. Depending on which path the reader chooses, the main character winds up in different situations with her roomates, her best male friend who might become more, her best female friend’s boyfriend and even the tomboy in her group of friends who may or may not be attracted to other girls.

This book’s chatty tone and continually dramatic turns of events make it instantly appealing. The writing is fast-paced and engaging, and in just a few short pages, the reader feels a strong connection to the main character and already feels well-acquainted with each of the key players in her life. When I was a teen, I loved to contemplate my fate, wondering how this or that decision or encounter might impact my future, and lamenting lost opportunities. This book taps into that very teenage mindset and provides the reader with the chance to go back and change her mind if things don’t go the way she had hoped.

My issue with this book, though, is that nearly every decision made by the main character is a choice between a terrible fate and a worse one. In some instances, it is inevitable that either someone will try to date rape her, or she will lose all of her friends. Other choices involve either getting thrown out of school or being forced to live in exile when her best friend gets so angry she can’t forgive her. There are a few choices that lead to happy endings, but more often than not, there is no “right” answer and no chance for a positive outcome. For a story that is meant to take place over just one or two nights at a prestigious high school, it involves way too many “issues” from academic probation to drug addiction to date rape to outright expulsion from school. Teens already feel that so many situations are life and death. This book heightens that fear, and I think it promotes a wholly unrealistic sense of how important each of our decisions really is. Surely not every moment of our lives is so precariously perched on the edge of disaster.

Maybe Tonight? is a fast-paced, frivolous novel with a fun concept that might appeal to reluctant reader girls in grades 8 to 10. Readers who want more realistic and nuanced depictions of boarding school life might try E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks or Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (which is an adult novel, but has lots of teen appeal.)

I received a digital ARC of Maybe Tonight? from Macmillan via NetGalley. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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29. Review: Lulu in La La Land by Elisabeth Wolf (ARC)

Lulu in La La Land. by Elisabeth Wolf. August 6, 2013. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. 272 pages. ISBN: 9781402285042

Lulu is about to turn eleven, and all she wants for her birthday is to throw a party that her famous parents will actually want to attend. Though she lives in Hollywood in a fancy mansion, and her parents are routinely nominated for Academy Awards, Lulu manages to shelter herself from Hollywood culture to the point that she doesn’t even have a cell phone, so her sister, Alexis takes on the party planning. Unfortunately, despite Alexis’s efforts to plan the perfect spa-themed party and to invite only the most popular and perfect guests, it turns out that Lulu’s party is the very night that her parents have to attend the Oscars. Disappointed that her one birthday wish is in danger of not coming true, Lulu comes up with a back-up plan that is sure to bring her parents to her party, even if just for a few minutes.

This book is written almost entirely as a movie screenplay, with just a few interruptions here and there from Lulu when background information is required. It took me quite a while to settle into this format, especially because the text switches between dialogue, stage directions, third person descriptions and first person commentary. It’s not hard to keep track of which type of writing is which, but it feels stilted sometimes to read a script instead of watching it be performed.

Lulu herself is not my favorite middle grade protagonist. I appreciate that she represents a challenge to the media-saturated culture surrounding her, but her over-enthusiastic voice and obnoxious sayings like, “Geez peas!” made me laugh at her more than sympathize with her. She is obviously meant to be a good person who tries to do the right thing even when her parents are basically clueless, but I didn’t care much for her, and I found her family and environment just as off-putting. I struggled to make it through her many interactions with the Pop Girls and the devious planning required just to get her parents to attend her birthday party. I especially didn’t like that the book doesn’t really criticize her parents for being absent and neglectful - rather, the entire premise of the novel assumes that the burden is on Lulu to get her family to pay attention to her and love her. If the point of this book is that being oneself pays off, it fails to make that point. What I took away from the story is the understanding that Lulu is starved for affection and that her nanny is more of a parent than either her biological mother or her biological father.

This high-interest novel will certainly find readers among tween girls who are fascinated by celebrity and largesse, but I can’t imagine that girls who are truly like Lulu would have the patience or interest to sit through more than 200 pages of vapid girls discussing spa treatments. It was painful to subject myself to that much superficiality in one book, and the message of the story is so muddled, the effort didn’t even really pay off that heavily. For more authentic stories about tween girls that also involve acting and filming, try After Iris by Natasha Farrant, Reel Life Starring Us by Lisa Greenwald, and the Sisters Club series by Megan McDonald.

I received a digital ARC of Lulu in La La Land from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky via NetGalley. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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30. Old School Sunday: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (1994)

Walk Two Moons. by Sharon Creech. 1994. HarperCollins. 288 pages. ISBN: 9780060233341

If you had asked me in 1995 (when I was 12) what my favorite book was, the answer most likely would have been Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Though I think I only read it once, I remember just falling in love with it, and even now, it’s a book I identify as a favorite when kids ask me what books I loved as a kid. Surprisingly, despite my devotion to the book for nearly 20 years, when I sat down to think about it, I didn’t have very many memories of it at all. I remembered the main character’s name, Salamanca Tree Hiddle, and that she and her grandparents are on a road trip to find Salamanca’s mother, and that they call Sal their “chickabiddy,” but these are basically the only details my mind held onto. I’d forgotten that the road trip is only half the story, and that Salamanca actually narrates another story as she travels with her grandparents. The tale is that of her friend, Phoebe Winterbottom, Phoebe’s mother, and their involvement with an apparent lunatic.

Two things about this re-reading of a childhood favorite struck me right away:
  1. I didn’t enjoy the story itself as much.
  2. I appreciated the quality of the writing more.
There is a lot of metaphor at work in this book, which I understood much more easily as an experienced adult reader. While I remember liking the sentiment of not judging someone until “you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins,” I never realized the many ways Sal does just that throughout the book. Sal not only takes the same literal trip her mother took from Kentucky to Idaho, she also learns to feel empathy for Mrs. Cadaver, her father, her grandparents, Phoebe Winterbottom, and even Phoebe’s mother. I don’t think I could have articulated all of that as a seventh grader, even if I internalized it, and it impressed me how well Creech weaves together the various parts of this story. I especially liked the parallels between Sal’s mom leaving home and Phoebe’s mom leaving home.

The story itself also seems more predictable to me now, possibly because I read and analyze so many children’s books. I didn’t remember the details of the plot, but as each event unfolded, I could see where things were going. I also think I am just a more careful reader now than I ever was as a kid, because my child self was shocked to learn that Sal’s mother is dead, but my adult self picked it up early on, the first time Sal says her mother is “resting peacefully.” I can’t tell whether the author intends for the reader to know this information early in the story or not - but it was interesting how obvious it was to me now and how clueless I was back then.

Re-reading this book was kind of a personal let-down because the story didn’t inspire the same strong sense of excitement I remember from back in the 90s, but without regard for my nostalgia, I think the story still holds up very well. As Newbery winners go, it’s one of the more readable stories, and I think kids are still drawn to this book - and Creech’s writing in general - even as we approach the 20-year mark since Walk Two Moons was first published.I doubt this is a book I’ll feel any need to revisit again, but I’m glad to have a new perspective on what was once my favorite book in the world.

I purchased my copy of Walk Two Moons from a Scholastic book order in middle school, and I still have it. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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31. Review: Jasper John Dooley: Left Behind by Caroline Adderson

Jasper John Dooley: Left Behind. by Caroline Adderson. March 1, 2013. Kids Can Press. 130 pages. ISBN: 9781554535798
Jasper John Dooley is used to spending every Wednesday afternoon with his grandmother, Nan, but when she goes on a senior cruise for a week, he finds himself feeling totally abandoned. Though his parents try their best to keep him busy and upbeat, Jasper keeps thinking about what his grandmother must be doing in Alaska, and whether she is thinking of him. In this difficult week, Jasper also accidentally staples a paper to himself, meets a dreaded new babysitter, and brings home the class hamster, only to lose him somewhere in the house.

I liked the first Jasper John Dooley book very much, but this one was even better. This time around, I felt like I got a great sense of Jasper’s quirky personality and his unique outlook on life. Kids who are attached to their grandparents, or who have ever been forced to endure any kind of separation from a beloved family member will sympathize strongly with Jasper and will be as anxious as he is for Nan’s return. Kids will also love Jasper’s obsession with band-aids, as so many kids share that same fascination, and I imagine they will be equal parts amused and horrified at the moment when he accidentally staples himself.

Though Jasper John is obviously in early elementary school, I think kids as young as four can appreciate his outlook on life and enjoy reading about his experiences. The chapters in this book - and the book itself - are short enough to suit the attention spans of preschoolers who have begun listening to chapter books at bedtime, as well as the reading ability of newly independent readers. Jasper John Dooley’s personality will be especially welcomed by fans of Martin Bridge, Ellray Jakes, and Alvin Ho.

I borrowed Jasper John Dooley: Left Behind from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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32. Review: Fifteenth Summer by Michelle Dalton

Fifteenth Summer. by Michelle Dalton. May 7, 2013. Simon Pulse. 272 pages. ISBN: 9781442472679

Fifteen-year-old Chelsea always spends her summer at the lake with her parents, her two older sisters, and her grandmother, Granly. Now that Granly has passed away, everything seems different, and Chelsea herself feels older and more worldly. Contributing to this feeling are her new job waiting tables, and Josh, the boy at the new local bookshop who seems to like her, even when her red hair is a frizzy mess and she acts awkwardly every time he speaks to her. As her first summer without Granly wears on, Chelsea falls in love for the first time, and does her best not to let the inevitable end of summer bring her down.

While I liked Sixteenth Summer, Michelle Dalton’s first summer romance novel, Fifteenth Summer is definitely the better of the two books. This time, while the romance is still the main plot, the protagonist is much more well-rounded, with interests, a family, a job, and a more innocent outlook on her new budding relationship. I found it easy to connect with all of the characters, not just the romantic players and I could even visualize the businesses and homes surrounding the lake as though I were visiting them myself. Particularly memorable is Dog Ear, the perfectly named bookstore which Josh’s parents own. I wish it were real!

Unlike some YA romance novels that create unrealistic expectations or just inaccurately represent the innocence of first love, this book does a great job of portraying characters who are authentically fifteen years old, and it doesn’t cram more physical contact or sexual innuendo into the relationship than would naturally occur between real teens. There is a lot of kissing, but it is mostly very innocent, and I think girls with true love on the brain will see Chelsea’s romance with Josh as something they want for themselves and could possibly attain. Readers will also enjoy Chelsea’s interactions with her sisters, and the family’s “Gatsby night” tradition, where they eat ridiculously fancy food on the beach. The ending felt a little abrupt to me, especially after the slow pace of the rest of the novel, but otherwise, it’s a great read filled with beautiful description and lots of real emotion.

Fifteenth Summer will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen, Niki Burnham, and Deb Caletti. Though it could capture a high school audience, it seems more likely to find fans among middle school girls who are waiting to find their own summer loves.

I borrowed Fifteenth Summer from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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33. Reviews: Giving Up the Ghost and The Secrets Within by Phoebe Rivers

Giving Up the Ghost. by Phoebe Rivers. February 5, 2013. Simon Spotlight. 160 pages. ISBN: 9781442466180

The Secrets Within. by Phoebe Rivers. April 16, 2013. Simon Spotlight. 160 pages. ISBN: 9781442468504

The Saranormal series follows twelve-year-old Sara Collins on a journey of discovery as she begins to develop supernatural powers. Guided by her great-grandmother, Lady Azura, who possesses powers of her own, Sara slowly learns how to identify, harness, and control her various abilities. In book six, Giving up the Ghost, Sara begins to read minds while a negative force seems to descend upon her household. In book seven, The Secrets Within, Sara finds that she can read the memories associated with an object, which helps her to know things about the object’s significance to the people who have owned it.

I have only read two books in this series, but it’s not hard to tell from those that each story follows a certain formula. In every book, it seems, Sara discovers a new power, tries to figure it out on her own, uses the power to either help or hinder a personal relationship and ultimately calls on Lady Azura for help figuring things out. This repetition from book to book isn’t a problem, as I think it provides the comfort readers often appreciate about series books, but I did find myself wondering a few things.

If I’d read the earlier books, would I know why Sara is developing powers? In the books I read, it seems as though she takes the fact that she has these abilities somewhat for granted, and it bothered me that I didn’t know the greater context of her situation. If such a context isn’t provided at all in the series, I’m not sure what the motivation is to keep reading. Personally, I would like a bit more suspense surrounding the overall meaning of Sara’s powers. I know I would be freaked out if I were seeing dead people and hearing my best friend’s thoughts!

I also wondered a lot about Sara’s personality aside from her supernatural side. I feel like I know her powers better than I know her. It might be easier for the reader to step into her shoes if Sara seems like just an average middle schooler, but I think I would prefer a more well-rounded character with a more defined personality.

Saranormal is a solid series to recommend to girls who like magic and ghost stories, but who also enjoy reading about real girls in real-life situations, not in imaginary kingdoms. It is a nice read-alike for Scholastic’s Poison Apple books, and might even appeal more strongly to readers because it is a continuous series following one main character. Girls who have liked the Worst Witch series as younger chapter book readers will easily grow into this one as they approach middle school. Another title that also deals with similar issues as the specific books I reference in this review is Seeing Cinderella, wherein a pair of glasses give a middle schooler the ability to read her friends’ thoughts. 

I received review copies of Giving Up the Ghost and The Secrets Within from the publisher. 

For more about this series, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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34. Old School Sunday: The View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts (1975)

The View from the Cherry Tree. by Willo Davis Roberts. 1975. Aladdin. 192 pages. ISBN: 9780689717840

Rob's older sister, Darcy, is getting married, and everyone in the household is caught up in the preparations. Wanting to stay out of the way, Rob climbs into the cherry tree between his house and the house of the lady next door, Mrs. Calloway. While there, he overhears Mrs. Calloway talking with a man, and the next thing he knows, she's been pushed out the window and sent to her death! Rob is absolutely sure of what he has seen, but when he reports the dead body to his family, everyone believes he is inventing the murder story to make things more interesting. The police then declare the death accidental. But the killer knows that Rob speaks the truth about what he has witnessed, and now Rob's life is in danger, too!

I am pretty sure I read this book as a kid, because the title and author have both stuck with me for a long time, but reading it this summer felt a lot like reading it for the first time. I think some of the memories I might have associated with this story are actually of another book by Willo Davis Roberts, Babysitting is a Dangerous Job, because there was almost nothing at all familiar about this book, even though I kept expecting to recognize something. At some point, I will need to read the other one to see if it sparks anymore memories.

While I remember this as being a highly suspenseful book with a great twist at the end, it isn't really. For an adult reader who is familiar with the mystery genre, this story is actually fairly straightforward, and it isn't difficult to predict who the killer will turn out to be. Because the story is told in the third person, the reader never fully experiences Rob's fear as he is shot at and nearly poisoned. The situations that unfold once the killer starts trying to attack Rob are scary, but the reader is distanced from the main action because he watches it from the outside. I imagine the reason for this distance might be a desire to protect young readers from getting too upset by the story, but for me, it took away from the overall drama of the book.

Willo Davis Roberts was a household name for my sister and me during the brief window of time when we both read middle grade books, and I'm pleased to see that many of her books are still in print and still available in my local libraries. That said, without any particular sense of nostalgia associated with it, this book fell flat for me, and I was a bit disappointed that I didn't have the feeling of satisfaction at the end that I so clearly remember from childhood.

I borrowed The View from the Cherry Tree from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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35. Review: Just Grace and the Trouble with Cupcakes by Charise Mericle Harper

Just Grace and the Trouble with Cupcakes. by Charise Mericle Harper. May 28, 2013. Houghton Mifflin. 176 pages. ISBN: 9780547877440

Grace and her classmates have been waiting all year to find out when their teacher, Miss Lois, would announce her annual Spring fair. Once the fair is announced, the class will be allowed to vote on a theme and then design games related to the theme. Grace and Mimi both have great ideas, but they make a promise not to pit their ideas against one another when the class votes. If one of their ideas is obviously more popular, the other will just not mention hers. Unfortunately, when the moment finally arrives, Grace’s imagination comes up with the perfect idea - cupcakes! - and she forgets her promise to her best friend. Will the girls patch things up in time for the fair, or will they each have to enjoy the special day on their own?

It seems that middle grade readers just can’t get enough of cupcakes lately, so it’s no surprise that the Just Grace books have hopped on the cupcake bandwagon as well. While I don’t think this book explores much of anything new in Grace’s world, it won’t disappoint fans. It has everything readers have come to expect from this series - a fun classroom activity, unexpected niceness from usually annoying boys, a misunderstanding between Grace and her closest friend, and a few family moments, this time including a visit from Grace’s beloved Grandma. The clever comics that illustrate each page as are as charming as ever, and the cupcake games the kids came up with are the kind of things real kids could easily recreate and try with their own friends.

Another fun aspect of this particular story is Grace’s new penchant for creating new words. For example, she combines “yummy” and “delicious” to create yummilicious, and “sad” and “jealous” to make “sadlous” in situations where just one word’s meaning doesn’t quite describe her feelings. I can see kids who read this book getting hooked on the idea themselves. If a group in the same class read this book, it could even become a fun assignment for them to work on together!

Just Grace and the Trouble with Cupcakes is the tenth book about Grace. For information on the entire series, check out the Just Grace website, where you can also find downloads related to this book. Fans of the Cupcake Diaries and Cupcake Club series will be drawn to this book, as will all third and fourth grade girls who like to read about friendship, fun, family, and food.

I borrowed Just Grace and the Trouble with Cupcakes from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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36. Review: Smart Girls Get What They Want by Sarah Strohmeyer

Smart Girls Get What They Want. by Sarah Strohmeyer. 2012. Blazer + Bray. 348 pages. ISBN: 9780061953408

Gigi and her best friends Bea and Neerja, have always been very smart and very academic. Their idol is Neerja's sister, Parad, who has begun attending Princeton at the start of the girls' own sophomore year in high school. There is only one problem with Parad - no one from her high school class seems to know that she existed. Gigi and her friends definitely don't want the same fate to befall them, so they decide to change things up this year by simply doing things instead of overthinking them first. Gigi will run for student school board representative, Bea will return to skiing, and Neerja will try out for the school play. Though none of the girls' new paths are easy ones, through their new experiences, they find that being smart can definitely bring them more benefits than just good grades.

The premise of this book seemed a bit shaky to me at first, but once I got into the story, I realized that the title and description from the book jacket really didn't do it justice. This is not the story of three smart girls who get angry at being ignored by the general population and vow to get revenge. It's also not the story of three smart girls who suddenly give up being smart in order to fit in with everyone else. Rather, this is the story of three smart girls who begin to see themselves as more than nerdy bookworms and begin to explore the other facets of their well-rounded personalities. Gigi learns that she is not necessarily smarter than everyone else, and that others of her classmates also have hidden smarts. Neerja discovers that the boy of her dreams might not be the one she suspected, and that her acting skills might be better developed than she could imagine. And Bea is finally able to stand up to her parents and re-discover the sport she loves that they have forbidden her to participate in for years. These smart girls don't just get what they want; they become who they truly are by letting go and looking around at what they can offer their school community besides the answers to tests.

The writing style in this book is similar to most other contemporary realistic fiction novels for teen girls. It specifically reminded me of The Darlings Are Forever by Melissa Kantor, in which three ninth graders attend separate schools for the first time, and Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill, in which an honors student learns to see the positive qualities in the obnoxious boy who is her assigned partner on a school trip to Europe. Readers in grades 7-10 who are themselves honors students will relate to many of the girls' experiences with teachers, boys, and homework, and if they haven't yet found their non-academic niches, they might be inspired to do so by this book.

I borrowed Smart Girls Get What They Want from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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37. Review: Toppling by Sally Murphy

Toppling. by Sally Murphy. 2012. Candlewick. 128 pages. ISBN: 9780763659219

John is in fifth grade, and he loves dominoes. He doesn't play games with them; instead, he likes to line them up in complicated patterns, then knock them over to watch how they topple. His hobby becomes a metaphor for a precarious situation in his best friend, Dom's life, when John and his classmates learn that Dom has cancer and may die.

This book is very nicely done. It looks at a serious situation from the masculine point of view, and portrays all the complex emotions associated with childhood cancer without becoming maudlin. Though John worries about his friend's future, he remains hopeful and positive in a way that I think shows the resilience of real kids. He and "the guys" show real compassion for Dom, and the ending, though uncertain, sounds a real chord of hope and happiness. 

Kids are naturally curious about serious situations, and I think this book will appeal to that curiosity. Though the main focus is how John reacts to Dom's diagnosis, there are also plenty of great details about classrooms and childhood interactions that make the entire world of the story very vivid. I was reminded, at certain points, of the Calvin Coconut series, where Calvin's classmates and classroom also come to life in unique ways. I think kids will also appreciate the open-ended ending to the story, which allows them to decide for themselves whether Dom will beat his illness.

I enjoyed Toppling much more than Murphy's previous book, Pearl Verses the World. While Pearl's story left me feeling very sad, this book infused a sad situation with enough good humor to make me want to keep reading. This book was originally published in Australia in 2010 by Walker Books with a slightly different cover illustration. Readers who enjoy Toppling might also like Julie Sternberg's Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie and Like Bug Juice on a Burger and Eileen Spinelli's The Dancing Pancake and Summerhouse Time. Though these books are not about cancer, they focus on kids dealing with difficult emotions and finding ways to cope. 

I borrowed Toppling from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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38. Review: Where the Steps Were by Andrea Cheng

Where the Steps Were. by Andrea Cheng. 2008. Wordsong. 143 pages. ISBN: 9781932425888

In this novel in verse by Andrea Cheng, third graders at an underperforming elementary school move through their final year in the school before the building is torn down. The kids have a variety of family situations and personal problems, but they all love their teacher, who is a stable and loving presence in their lives.  

Though the book refers frequently to the fact that the school will be torn down, this story is more of a portrait of an inner city school than a story about saying goodbye to a beloved school. The characters, though interesting, are not very three-dimensional. Rather, each one is defined according to the situation he or she lives in, making them all seem like stereotypical representations of the author's impressions of this type of school. The emotions do ring true. I felt terrible for the kids in the scene where they are thrown out of a theater on a field trip for spitting, when none of them actually spit. The things the kids worry about - their parents' health, their own futures, their weight, etc. - are also realistic, but the characters who have these worries do not have distinct personalities.

Where the Steps Were is definitely timely, but I question whether the intended audience is really children. To me, it felt like the story was trying to convince adults that keeping schools like this open is important because of kids' attachments to their teachers and because kids like these have a lot of disappointments in their lives already. I think that is a perfectly fine message to send, but I wished the story was more focused on the development of individual characters than on this almost clinical analysis of what is lost when a school closes. I think teachers might be able to use this book as a read-aloud to prompt discussions about school community and fairness, but overall, it doesn't strike me as especially kid-friendly.

Andrea Cheng is a talented writer, and I see hints in this book of the style that made me fall in love with last year's The Year of the Book, which is written in prose, but with very lyrical and poetic language. This book is not my favorite of hers, but for kids who attend a school in danger of closing, this might be the story that will help them cope with their feelings of confusion and loss.

I borrowed Where the Steps Were from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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39. Old School Sunday: Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright (1957)

Gone-Away Lake. by Elizabeth Enright. 1957. Harcourt. 272 pages. ISBN:  9780152022723

 Portia is excited to spend the summer with her cousin, Julian, but she never expects that they will discover an abandoned lakeside community, or that they will make friends with a pair of elderly siblings who still inhabit two of the rundown houses. At Gone-Away Lake, as their friends Aunt Minnehaha and Uncle Pindar call it, Portia and Julian discover life as it was 50 years ago, while having their own summer of modern-day adventures they will never forget.

In this book, as in The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright celebrates childhood independence. Whereas the Melendy kids explore New York City unsupervised, with just their allowance to pay their way, Portia and Julian are given free rein in the country, where they can enjoy the secret of a forgotten village, and make new friends without sharing them with their parents or with Portia's little brother, Foster. Especially interesting about this story are the connections Portia and Julian feel to Minnehaha and Pindar as children. They never tire of hearing about their friends' fights, friendships, and adventures, and they engage with those stories so fully that they are inspired to create a club of their own in the hopes of recapturing some of that fun and excitement.

Some things about this book bothered me. I couldn't quite buy into the notion that an entire group of fairly wealthy families would abandon not just their homes, but all the contents of those homes, and never return for them. I thought this might be explained at some point, but it never was, and I was distracted by the feeling that there should have been some big reveal of the "truth" about Gone-Away. I also couldn't help but feel that Minnehaha and Pindar  were living like Miss Havisham - waiting for the return of a day that would never be again. Perhaps this was intentional, as I think Portia and Julian breathe some fresh air into the lives of the two older people. Still, I wanted the characters in the story to feel disturbed as I did, and instead they were almost too accepting of the whole strange scenario.

That said, this is a well-written book full of interesting situations, well-described characters and settings, and everything a child wants in a summer story. I am not surprised that it was a Newbery Honor book in 1958, and I think, of the Newberys I've read, it's one of the older ones that still holds up well enough for contemporary audiences. It is similar in some ways to Miracles on Maple Hill - both books are even illustrated by the same artists, Joe and Beth Krush - and I think it also compares well to the Swallows and Amazons books, A Lemon and a Star, and The Railway Children. There is also a sequel, Return to Gone-Away, published in 1961.

I borrowed Gone-Away Lake from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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40. Easy Reader Radar: Seasons: A Book of Poems by Charlotte Zolotow

Seasons: A Book of Poems. by Charlotte Zolotow. 2002. Harper Collins. 64 pages. ISBN: 9780060266996

In this easy-to-read poetry collection, prolific children's author Charlotte Zolotow shares her impressions of the four seasons. The book is divided into four parts. Winter Bits talks of snow, wind, and warm clothes.  Spring Things focuses on birds, plants, and breezes. In Summer Thoughts, Zolotow describes butterflies, flowers, and bugs. Finally, in The Feel of Fall, the year winds down with Halloween, falling leaves, and golden fields.

I was surprised when I read the jacket of this book and found out that this collection, written just 11 years ago, was Zolotow's first book for beginning readers! She has done so many wonderful picture books that I guess I just figured she must also have written a few titles for kids who are learning how to read. Also amazing is the fact that she is still living, at age 97, and that this book was published in the year that she turned 87.

This book shares much in common with Zolotow's quiet, thoughtful picture book texts. Many of the poems consist of just one sentence, but those single sentences are filled with truth and beauty. Though her poems are very much about real things, mostly in nature, she has a lot of fun with language, making up words like "windrushing," "funnytime" and "beez." Her poems rarely rhyme, but each one has a distinct rhythm that shows how thoughtful she is about the placement of each word. She is also a very economical writer, using the most appropriate word for each sentiment, and no extras.

Zolotow has a lovely way of getting inside the mindset of a child. She articulates thoughts that children have in a way that makes them easy to understand, even if her child readers could not have put them into words themselves. In a poem called "Grown-ups" she poses questions: "Do mothers ever feel lonely? / Do fathers ever feel sad?" In "Birthdays", which is on the very next page, she takes note that mothers enjoy flowers more than the birthday cake preferred by kids. These wonderings and observations resonate very strongly with children who are just figuring out how the world works.

Though her poetry, Zolotow also compels kids to think differently about their worlds. In a poem called "Me" the speaker points out that if she were someone else, "there would be other things / to hear and see / for I'd be someone else / not me." This short sentence seems obvious to adults, but for children this might be a startling thought, and the beginning of empathy for people in circumstances unlike their own. In "My Cat" the speaker wonders about what her cat might think about. "Some Days"  talks about how things might have been different in a child's day if he or she had not "done something mean."

Though these poems claim to be about the seasons, they are about many things: emotions, family, friendship, solitude, nature, home, and happiness. Zolotow captures each of these things on just the right level for an early reader and provides lots of food for thought, something lacking in many readers for beginners. I recommend this book very highly, especially for teaching poetry in kindergarten and first grade classrooms and library programs.

I borrowed Seasons from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

0 Comments on Easy Reader Radar: Seasons: A Book of Poems by Charlotte Zolotow as of 4/12/2013 9:16:00 AM
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41. Review: Seeing Emily by Joyce Lee Wong

Seeing Emily. by Joyce Lee Wong. 2007. Abrams. 288 pages. ISBN: 9780810992580

Emily is a Chinese-American  teenager who is an artist, a good student, and a hard worker in her parents' Chinese restaurant. Though her immigrant parents don't approve of her dating, wearing lipstick, or defying their rules, when Emily meets Nick, she begins trying on different identities and getting a feel for life as Nick's girlfriend. She likes how it feels when he kisses her, until she realizes Nick only sees her ethnicity, not who she truly is. 

The book jacket makes it sound like this is a story about a prim and proper young woman who throws caution to the wind and becomes a rebel in order to impress her boyfriend. The story inside the cover is quite different. This is not a wild romance, or a tale of teenage rebellion. Rather, it is a story about identity, and about coming of age as one's true self. At the start of the book, Emily is struggling to create an "interior self-portrait" for her art class. She is meant to draw an interior space that represents who she is, but everything she draws comes out darker than she expects. As the story progresses, Emily explores that darker side of her personality, not as a meaningless demonstration of her independence in the face of strict parents,  but as a personal journey of discovery. Emily ends up exactly where she belongs, in the end, but not until she has satisfied her curiosity about those sides of her personality she has not yet uncovered.  

I appreciate the subtlely of Wong's style. She addresses many issues in the three sections that comprise Emily's story, but she doesn't draw clear conclusions for the reader. Nick's behavior toward Emily - and his father's reception of her - are certainly examples of pretty egregious racism, but the author lets the reader figure that out based on context clues. She lets us understand, from Nick's words and Emily's reaction to them, that she is uncomfortable in the relationship, and that his behavior is unacceptable, but she doesn't give a lecture to the reader. This kind of open-endedness makes this a great book for discussion about cultural identity, and about the subtleties of human relationships that sometimes make it hard for girls to realize when they're in a bad one. Some readers might be turned off by the uncertainty of not being told what to think about various events. Myself, I had some trouble with the ending, which, while happy, does not tie things up that neatly or satisfyingly. Still, I can't imagine a different ending working better. Wong remains true to her style all the way through her book, and what emerges is a portrait of one girl doing her best to grow up into the person she is meant to be. 

Seeing Emily will appeal to female young adult readers from all backgrounds, especially those who feel at odds with their parents' ideals, and those who have been in relationships with boys who don't really see their true selves. It would also make a great addition to high school poetry lessons. There is a lot of beautiful figurative language throughout the book that would provide interesting opportunities for analysis, while also allowing students to enjoy a relevant and interesting story.

I borrowed Seeing Emily from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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42. Review: Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli

Where I Live. by Eileen Spinelli. 2007. Dial. 112 pages. ISBN: 9780803731226

Diana loves where she lives. A family of birds has a nest over the back door, and her best friend, Rose, lives close enough that they can wave to each other from their windows. When Diana's dad loses his job, and the family decides to move in with Diana's grandpa, Diana just can't imagine what it will be like to live somewhere else. It is only after she says goodbye to her old house and old friends that she realizes that change brings happy things along with the sad.

This short chapter book in verse covers very familiar ground. There are countless children's books about moving, and many of them repeat the same events and emotions over and over again. This story is different, though, because it's not just about the moving process. About half of the book actually occurs before the move, so the reader gets a sense of Diana's life in her old house. Because the reader is invested in her old life, he or she is able to sympathize that much more with Diana when she learns she is moving. This means that Diana's feelings about where she lives - not the move - become the central focus of the story. The book becomes less of a "moving" book and more of a presentation of how our lives are affected by where we live.

The unique language of Spinelli's verse is another notable feature of this book. I picked out several lines and phrases that struck me as particularly evocative and interesting. One such phrase was "purpy flopple," which is the nickname Rose has given to the floppy purple hat she allows Diana to keep as a going away present. This is such a small, silly phrase, yet it's one of the most memorable in the book. I also thought Spinelli did a lovely job writing the moment at which Diana and her family drive away from their old house and Diana watches as Rose gets further and further away.

I watch her from the back window
until she is a tiny speck -
the hardest goodbye of all.

There is also a wonderful description of Diana's little sister, Twink, that sums up her personality perfectly.

Twink's tub water
turn blue...
like a lake
after midnight.
Twink is always
making stuff like this happen.

I love these specific moments of insight into the characters. I also enjoyed the friendship between Diana and Rose, where they share each other's diaries and manage to get along despite their major differences of opinion about subjects like astronomy. I also like that, when Diana does make a friend at her new house who likes things that Rose does not like, she does not feel guilty or assume that she is replacing her best friend. This is yet another plot point that separates this book from others on the same subject.

Where I Live
is similar to Julie Sternberg's Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, and its tone also reminds me of Lulu and the Duck in the Park and Lulu and the Dog from the Sea. Though it is written in verse, I think it will appeal mainly to girls in grades 2 to 4, especially those with little sisters and fun best friends of their own.

I borrowed Where I Live from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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43. Old School Sunday: A Lemon and a Star by E.C. Spykman (1955)

A Lemon and a Star. by E.C. Spykman. 1955. Harcourt Brace. 214 pages. ISBN: : 9780152447137

A few weeks ago, after reading Miracles on Maple Hill, I realized that while I enjoy children's novels from the 1950s, I have read very few. This inspired a visit to my local library with the specific goal of choosing some Old School Sunday reading material published in the 50s. A Lemon and a Star was a particularly exciting discovery both because I had never heard of it before, and because it ended up being such a great story.

A Lemon and a Star is about the four Cares children - Theodore (Ted), Hubert, Jane, and Edith (Edie), who live with their widower father and his household staff in Summerton, Massachusetts in the early 1900s. Because they have no mother, and because they are each mischievous little people, the Cares kids run rampant around the countryside, getting into fights, falling into the reservoir, capturing foxes, wallowing in mud and even occasionally sneaking into the city by train. Much of their time is spent bribing each other into keeping information from their dad, and in trying to keep Edie happy so she doesn't spoil all their plans before they even get off the ground. They have their own codes of loyalty and friendship, and their own ideas about how the world works, and they employ these rules as they look after themselves and each other.

Like Swallows and Amazons and The Boxcar Children, this book is appealing because it shows kids on their own doing things for themselves. The Cares children are not as responsible as John and Susan Walker, or as Henry and Jessie Alden, but that just adds to the fun of the reading experience. Most kids - whether they grow up in the early 1900s, the mid 1950s, or the early 2010s - will never have the freedom given to the Cares kids, and it's a lot of fun to live vicariously through them as their adventures unfold. I also think kids like to be shocked by the bad behavior of other kids, even if it the behaviors are not something they would do themselves. My husband and I read this book within a few days of each other, and as we discussed it, we just kept laughing and saying, "They're so bad!" Our enjoyment of their behavior reminded me a lot of reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Nobody wants to act like the Herdmans, but everyone wants to know what they'll do next. The same is true for Ted, Hubert, Jane, and Edie.

For a book about so much mischief, the writing is very beautiful. Images of the red house where the family lives, the reservoirs full of sparkling water, and Ted's black eye after a fight are just a few of the moments in this book that bring it fully to life and make it so easy to imagine really being in Summerton watching these kids playing. The personalities of the four kids come across very well. Ted is portrayed as the frustrated oldest child who is stubborn and annoyed by his younger siblings. Edie is the spoiled baby of the family who can be bought but not controlled. Hubert and Jane fall somewhere in the middle, trying to do the right thing and keep their father happy, but also endlessly fascinated by thir older brother and filled with concern for him when he is in danger. Every child reader can find a character to sympathize with in every scene.

Like many books for kids published in the 1950s, A Lemon and a Star is a great celebration of the adventures kids can have in their own backyards. It makes a nice read-alike for The Moffats, The Railway Children, and Swallows and Amazons, as well as for books by Carolyn Haywood and Beverly Cleary. Though I think they will be somewhat hard to find, I hope to track down and read the other three books in this series: The Wild Angel, Terrible, Horrible Edie and Edie on the Warpath, all of which sound wonderful.

I borrowed A Lemon and a Star from my local public library.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

0 Comments on Old School Sunday: A Lemon and a Star by E.C. Spykman (1955) as of 4/7/2013 8:32:00 AM
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44. Review: Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley (ARC)

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. by Lucy Knisley. April 2, 2013. Macmillan. 192 pages. ISBN: 9781596436237

Lucy Knisley's mother is a chef, so naturally, Lucy grew up around food - first in New York City, then in the more rural Hudson Valley. The result of Lucy's childhood is not just a great recipe collection, but also a collection of wonderful food-related memories that shape Lucy into her adult self. In this memoir, Lucy recalls the times she and her mother stood in the kitchen and ate cherry tomatoes right from the bowl. She reflects on the disagreements she and her parents have had over junk food,  and waxes poetic about a croissant she has never been able to replicate. Each chapter is topped off with a detailed recipe, explained in words and pictures with a touch of humorous commentary.

I initially chose to read this book because I wanted to get back into reading graphic novels, and the cover art caught my eye on NetGalley. I had no idea that the author had actually lived in Rhinebeck, NY, not far from Poughkeepsie, where I attended college and only an hour or so from where I actually grew up. Though I did not recognize the specific places Lucy had visited, I still enjoyed feeling that personal connection to the book, which is part of what motivated me to read it.

While I enjoyed the concept of this book, I didn't connect with the episodes from Lucy's life as well as I would have liked to. I am not a cook, nor am I a particularly adventurous eater, so the details of all the food didn't necessarily excite me, and I was disappointed that I couldn't connect with Lucy and the other "characters" of her stories through another avenue. I got some glimpses into Lucy's family life - such as the fact that her father misses her mother's cooking and still occasionally eats meals with her - and into her longest friendship, with the friend who moved to Japan and helped her explore Japanese food - but I wanted to feel more invested in her life, and that never quite happened.

On the other hand, the artwork is everything the cover promises. I enjoyed the detailed lines in each panel, and though I skimmed much of the text of the recipes, I loved the way she included a visual component for each ingredient and each step in the cooking process. I'm not sure these would be the most practical recipes to follow in the kitchen, but I thought including them as part of the story was a unique and effective approach.

Relish is most likely to appeal to readers who love food as Lucy does. Teens who aspire to be chefs or bakers will find a kindred spirit in Lucy, and all readers will be inspired to reflect on the ways food has shaped their identities. Most of the content in the book is appropriate for middle grade readers, but I think the tone is more YA, and at least one chapter includes content mature enough that parents might not want their nine-year-olds to read it just yet. Recommend this book to teens who loved Raina Telgemier's Smile, and also consider it as a read-alike for Ayun Halliday's Peanut and The Crepe Makers' Bond by Julie Crabtree.

I received a digital ARC of Relish: My Life in the Kitchen from Macmillan via NetGalley.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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45. March 2013 Carnival of Children's Literature

Welcome to the March 2013 Carnival of Childrens' Literature! There are so many great posts on so many wonderful and diverse topics this month. I hope you will click on every link and share them with your kid-lit loving friends. Look for next month's carnival at City Muse Country Muse.

Early Literacy
  • At Monkey Poop, Amitha reviews The Market Bowl, a picture book set in modern day Cameroon in which a little girl must face the consequences when she puts too high a price on a sloppily prepared soup that she made.
  • Catherine, who blogs at The Cath in the Hat, shares her review of Building Our House, a "delightfully detailed" picture book in which a young girl narrates the building of her brand-new house from start to finish.
  • Nancy from The Busy Mom Bookshelf shares her review of Only One You, a 2006 picture book written and illustrated by Linda Kranz and published by Rising Moon. Nancy says, "This is a book that can be read over and over and should be read over and over as a gentle reminder to your kids and to yourself about how to make one's self and the world a better place."
  • Jennifer from Jean Little Library introduces her brand new blog, In Short, I'm Busy, which is a collection of story time resources. In this post, she shares a recent session of Preschool Interactive, featuring a shark-themed storytime, complete with commentary, early literacy connections, book suggestions, and more.

  • Aishwarya at Practically Marzipan presents a reading of "the problem of Susan" in C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, in the context of Alan Garner's fantasy novels, particularly the Brisingamen trilogy.
  • Wendy Mass has a new book coming out in June! Get a sneak peek of Pi in the Sky from Brenda's review at Proseandkahn, where she calls it her favorite book of 2013. 
  • At Original Content, Gail's response to David Levithan's science fiction novel, Every Day, attempts to answer the question:  When Can Changing Points Of View Work Really Well?
  • At Talee's World, author Jacquitta A. McManus blogs as eight-year-old Talee, the main character from her novel, Talee and the Fallen Object. In this post Talee shares photos from her sleepover with her best friend, Cora. 
  • Curious about how to incorporate Common Core Standards into a lesson about Goldilocks? At SpeakWell, ReadWell, Jeanette describes how she used Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs to help her second grade students learn how to retell stories and compare multiple versions of the same story. 
  • After Jeanette has inspired you to connect Golidlocks to the common core, visit Kate at Book Aunt for a long list of Goldilocks retellings, written by everyone from James Marshall to Jan Brett.
  • Here at Secrets & Sharing Soda, I have decided to share my Old School Sunday post about the creepiest children's book I know - 1990 Newbery Honoree Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle. 
  • Lisa, who blogs at Shelf-employed, shares an enticing book talk about Nan Marino's latest middle grade novel, Hiding Out at the Pancake Palace, which will be published on April 16.
  • Can you lose and still be a champ? Read-Aloud Dad uses Two Cars, a vintage picture book originally published in 1955, as the basis for an interesting philosophical post about competition, individualism and following the rules.
  • Reshama at Stacking Books reviews a beautifully illustrated picture book by Demi entitled The Empty Pot. Set in China, the book tells the story of a young boy who struggles to grow the flowers he must show to the emperor.
  • Wendy from An Education in Books reminds us that "not all interesting girls are sassy and loud." In her review of Eileen Spinelli's When No One is Watching she celebrates the strengths of shy kids and asks us to share our experiences with shy characters. 
  • Are you a reader of children's books and in need of some reading suggestions? At Jen Robinson's Book Page, Jen has pulled together a great list of resources for finding books of all genres. Her links take us everywhere from the Cybils website to weekly round-ups and memes around the kidlitosphere. 
  • Erica also has some great recommendations - for math lovers! At What Do We Do All Day?, she has compiled a list of math chapter books and story collections, which includes The Lemonade War, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Candy Corn Contest. 
  • Still need something more to read? Maybe you share reading interests with one of the characters from TV's Glee! Pat at Read, Write, Repeat has been suggesting books for everyone on the show. This post explains why mean cheerleader Kitty Wilde should read Poison by Bridget Zinn.
  • Are you a fiction writer? You might find inspiration in obituaries, according to Esther Hershenhorn's recent post at Teaching Authors. She provides insight into how reading obituaries has helped her writing, then challenges writers to create obituaries for some of their characters in order to deepen character development.


  • If you're looking for an excellent non-fiction book for upper elementary students, Andi from A Wrung Sponge recommends Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, American's First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone, newly published by Candlewick. Andi says, "Stone's fascinating book tells the story supported with archival photos, original period advertizements and political cartoons, as well as the artwork of award-winning artist Ashley Bryan."
  • Jeanne at True Tales & A Cherry On Top celebrates Women's History Month with a post about Heart on Fire - Susan B. Anthony Votes for President. 
  • Julie from Instantly Interruptible reviews Steve Sheinkin's award winning nonfiction title, Bomb: The Race to Build--And Steal--The World's Most Dangerous Weapon. In her review, she explores some of her frustrations with the author's treatment of the Japanese and with his portrayal of the moral and ethical implications of the bomb.
  • Lisa shares a post from Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month, in which author Michelle Markel shares how her picture book biography, Brave Girl, came to be published.
  • Liz at Kid Lit About Politics gets emotional in her post about YALSA Nonfiction Award Finalist We’ve Got A Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson.
  • At The Fourth Musketeer, Margo hosts a guest post from author Annette LeBlanc Cate, who writes about her 2013 book, Look Up! Birdwatching in Your Own Backyard. Cate tells us, "Birding is sort of a natural thing for kids....they like to know the names of things, and they pay attention to stuff most grownups don't have the time of day for... like bugs on the steps, and butterflies, and flowers pushing up through the pavement.... and birds, too."
  • Students struggling with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet might benefit from two apps reviewed by Mary Ann at Great Kid Books. Video previews and screenshots included! 
  • Our Learning Collection shares a post about The 7 Habits of Happy Kids, by Sean Covey, which uses animal stories to teach the lessons first introduced in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in a kid-friendly way.
  • At Wrapped in Foil, Roberta reviews Kadir Nelson's "visually stunning and moving biography" of Nelson Mandela.
  • How much do you know about John Newbery, for whom the Newbery Medal is named? Sarah from Sarah Albee Books has done her research, and she shares her findings in this fascinating blog post about the first children's publisher to actually enjoy kids.

  • It's a poetry celebration with Ladybug magazine at Kerry's blog, Picture Books & Pirouettes! Kerry shares two poems from February's issue of Ladybug: "Kangaroo Dance" by Shannon Caster and "Marshmallow Soup", written by Kerry herself!

  • At Booktalking, Anastasia Suen spotlights Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke. 
  • LH Johnson of Did you ever stop to think & forget to start again? shares an in-depth review of a picture book that makes her "proper happy": Martha and the Bunny Brothers by Clara Vulliamy. She also provides some insight on how she reads picture books without children.

  • Tina of Tales from the Rushmore Kid shares some writing advice in the form of a publicity tip of the day from Molly Sardella, a publicist at Penguin Young Readers.

Book Projects
  • Zoe at Playing By the Book hosted an International Edible Book Festival. Now she shares the 61 entries she received from 5 different continents!

The Carnival of Children's Literature is organized monthly by Anastasia Suen. View the archives of past carnivals on her blog.

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46. How To Follow My Blog Without Google Reader

Google Reader has entered the three-month sunset period that will end with its retirement on July 1, 2013. As we all scramble to find our next feed reader - or a new, non-RSS alternative - I want to share with my readers all the methods you can use to subscribe to my posts.

  • Email
    Click here or on the "subscribe via email" link in the sidebar to get each of my posts delivered directly to your inbox. With my current blogging schedule, this would be about 4 emails a week, on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
  • Twitter
    Except for a brief lapse for most of this month, due to a technical error I had not realized I made, all my blog posts here and at Story Time Secrets are automatically tweeted, with links, to my Twitter account, @sharingsoda. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll never miss a post! 
  • Facebook
    I update the Facebook page for this blog every time I make a new post. If you like my blog on Facebook, these posts should turn up in your news feed. 
  • Pinterest
    I pin reviews from this blog to my Pinterest board, entitled Books Reviewed (2013). This does not update in  real time, but I try to pin new posts at least once a week. 
  • Goodreads
    I link to all my reviews on my Goodreads account. Again, these updates are done manually and not in real time, but if you are my friend on Goodreads, you will see these links in your recent activity when you log in. 
  • Feedly
    This is by no means the only way to follow RSS feeds, but for now, it's the one I've chosen. Though some blogs I follow look garbled and strangely formatted in Feedly, mine actually looks pretty good, and if you're undecided about where to move your feeds, I'd recommend checking it out. In any case, regardless of which feed reader you use, the link to my feed is: http://feeds.feedburner.com/sharingsoda
For more alternatives to Google Reader, check out this post. Thanks for reading and following this blog! If you missed it, click here to read yesterday's Carnival of Children's Literature. Check back on Sunday for a new Old School post. 

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47. Old School Sunday: Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry (1978)

Anastasia Krupnik. by Lois Lowry. 1978. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 128 pages. ISBN: 9780395286296

Anastasia Krupnik keeps an ever-changing list of things she likes and hates. Sometimes she hates her grandmother for losing her memory and not knowing who she is. Other times, she loves the opportunity to sit down and get to know her better. Sometimes she loves Washburn Cummings, an older boy in her neighborhood, and other times, he makes her so unhappy she adds him to the hate list. Her teacher, her parents, and even her soon-to-be-born baby brother all jump back and forth between the lists as Anastasia navigates life as a ten-year-old.

I remember the Anastasia books from childhood, but I couldn't swear that I've ever read one. As a kid, I tended to be turned  off by older books, and I think this series has always had an unfortunate set of covers that make the stories seem even older than they actually are. Reading it now, as an adult, this book was a surprise. I was surprised by the fresh writing and the main character's strong voice, and I was surprised by how quickly  the story moves, and how easy it was to get lost in it. There isn't much of a plot, really, but what makes the book stand out are all the great details Lowry uses to paint the Krupniks as real people. I loved learning about Anastasia's father, Myron, through the dedication pages in each of the poetry books he has written. I loved Anastasia's brief flirtation with the idea of becoming Catholic, and her impression of what that would mean. Anastasia's family life reminds me of many other families from middle grade series, including the Clementine,  Ramona Quimby, and Alice McKinley books. Somehow I've never thought of the Anastasia books as being in the same class with these "classics" - but I should have guessed that Lowry would write just as well in the realistic fiction genre  as she does in science fiction. 

Anastasia Krupnik will appeal to fans of the books I just mentioned, as well as to readers who like Johanna Hurwitz, Ann M. Martin, and Megan McDonald. It's tricky for me to promote books to kids when their covers look so old and strange, but it's worth giving them a great book talk - or even reading one aloud to a group in order to get kids excited about reading them once again. Very little stands between Anastasia and 21st century girls, and I'm not even sure anyone could tell just from the text that this book is older than I am! If you missed these in childhood, as I did, give them a try now - you won't be disappointed.

I borrowed Anastasia Krupnik from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.  

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48. Review: Like Bug Juice on a Burger by Julie Sternberg (ARC)

Like Bug Juice on a Burger. by Julie Sternberg. April 2, 2013. Amulet Books. 176 pages. ISBN: 9781419701900

This short novel in verse is the sequel to Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie. Eleanor, now fully adjusted to life with a new babysitter, has been given an unexpected treat by her grandmother - the opportunity to go to sleep-away camp at Camp Wallamwahpuck, where her mother went as a little girl. Eleanor has heard from her friend Katie that camp is all about eating candy, riding horses, and jumping on a floating trampoline, so it comes as a bit of a shock when her camp experience is somewhat different. The food is gross, and candy is forbidden. There is a floating trampoline, but Eleanor has to wear a life jacket if she wants to go anywhere near it. Even nighttime sounds upset Eleanor. All she wants is to go home! But through her friendship with a girl named Joplin, and her connection to a goat she has secretly named Cornelius, Eleanor learns that though she might not love camp, maybe she can still make the best of it.

Like the first book about Eleanor, this story focuses on the complicated emotions kids sometimes experience in new situations. Though it might sound like Eleanor is a pessimist, the story is not a depressing meditation on the woes of going to camp. Rather, it is an exploration of healthy ways to handle unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations. Especially noteworthy is the way the adults in Eleanor's life take her feelings seriously, but also give her little boosts of encouragement to help her get through the difficulties she faces at camp. Kids are comforted when they know they have supportive adults to turn to, and this book is a great reminder that kids are never alone with their feelings of frustration or confusion, and that there is usually something to be gained from every new experience, no matter how unpleasant it seems.

Julie Sternberg does a nice job of getting inside the nine-year-old mind. The passages describing Eleanor's humiliation about being in the lowest swimming category of anyone in her cabin reminded me of similar experiences from my own summer as a nine-year-old camper who could not swim. Sternberg understands how little things can seem big to a child, and her story manages to validate the feelings of kids in those situations, and to provide advice on how best to survive them.

Though it is a sequel, Like Bug Juice on a Burger will stands on its own. Nervous new campers who sympathize with Eleanor might also enjoy Justin Case: Shells, Smells, and the Horrible Flip-Flops of Doom by Rachel Vail and Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters by Lenore Look. Eleanor is also sure to become a new friend to readers who love Clementine. Like Bug Juice on a Burger is a great follow-up to Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, and I hope we'll see Eleanor conquer more of her fears in future stories!

I received a digital ARC of Like Bug Juice on a Burger from Amulet Books via NetGalley. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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49. Review: Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Make Lemonade. by Virginia Euwer Wolff. 1993. Henry Holt and Co. 200 pages. ISBN: 9780805080704

This distinctive novel in verse tells of two young women - LaVaughn and Jolly- whose lives intersect when fourteen-year-old LaVaughn answers seventeen-year-old Jolly's ad for a babysitter. LaVaughn needs to make as much money as she can so she will be able to get out of this neighborhood and go to college. Jolly needs a babysitter because though she is not yet eighteen, she has two little ones at home. What starts out as a mutually beneficial employment situation evolves slowly into much more, as LaVaughn helps Jolly to see herself in a new way and to seek the help she needs to make a life for herself and her children.

There is no other book in all of YA literature like this one. Each of the characters is fully three-dimensional. Jolly, in particular, comes to life as a person, rather than just a statistic, and the reader is able to really empathize with her and understand her worries and suspicions about welfare and going back to school. Though LaVaughn is an outside observer for much of what happens to Jolly, she, too, is remarkable, because she goes above and beyond a babysitter's call of duty. Even though her mother - herself a presence looming large on the edges of the story - suggests time and again that LaVaughn would be better off away from Jolly, LaVaughn feels such sympathy for her she can't let go until she knows she  will be okay.

Books like this often have the misfortune of being "issue" books. It's easy for an author to become preachy and start using his or her books to caution kids against the dangers of pre-marital sex and teen pregnancy. Though this book certainly didn't make me want Jolly's life, it also didn't read like a cautionary tale. This book isn't just about the path down which our mistakes can send us. It's also about the unlikely people who can make differences in each other's lives, through the most unusual of circumstances.

This book is amazingly well written. Not only is the language beautiful, but I think the poetry makes it easier to get lost in the world of the story. Poetry gets at the heart of LaVaughn's feelings for Jolly, and also captures the rhythm and flow of how  each of the characters sounds to LaVaughn. There is also a beautiful metaphor of a lemon tree that is mentioned many times throughout the story.  LaVaughn tries to help Jeremy plant a lemon tree, but no matter what they do, it just can't bloom until, finally, his mother gets her life together.

The story also doesn't draw any easy conclusions, making it a great one to discuss in high school English classes or in book discussion groups. Does LaVaughn take advantage of Jolly when she takes the babysitting job? Is it wrong for Jolly   to place such heavy burdens on  LaVaughn? Would the average teen have the strength and courage to help someone like Jolly? The author provides no answers, but the readers' love for the characters prompts them to consider the morality of the entire story, and to consider what the truth is for them.

Make Lemonade is one of the best young adult books I have ever read, and I recommend it very highly. I loved it so much, I am almost afraid to read the sequels - True Believer and This Full House - because I'm afraid they might not measure up. Still, I care so much about these characters now, I think I will have to take the risk just to find out what happens to them going forward. Make Lemonade contains mature content and will be best appreciated by readers who are prepared to grapple with difficult questions and who can maturely respond to discussions of sexual violence, poverty, and teen parenthood.

I borrowed Make Lemonade from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

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50. Easy Reader Radar: Something Sleeping in the Hall by Karla Kuskin

Something Sleeping in the Hall. by Karla Kuskin. 1985. HarperCollins. 64 pages. ISBN:  9780060236342

Though the title at first suggests something sinister, Something Sleeping in the Hall is a collection of poems about a child's desire to have a pet. Short, easy-to-read poems celebrate birds, cats, pigs, dogs, dragons, elephants, and every other kind of animal imaginable. Some poems are sweet, others funny, but they all relate to that universal wish kids have for a pet to love and care for.

The poems in this collection are untitled, and visual cues are used instead to mark where one poem ends  and the next begins. I missed the cues at first, because  I tend to look more closely at text than images, but kids who are just learning to read are more likely to do the opposite, so they would probably be tuned into those cues much more closely than I was. I'm not sure it wouldn't have been more effective to just name the poems, but the tiny illustrations marking when the poem is about a bird, when it is about a pig, when it is about multiple animals, etc. are a distinctive feature of  this book that I think kids will like.

Kids will  also like some of the dark humor in a few of  the poems. For example, there is a hog in one poem who eats both a dog and a frog. The end of that poem says, "And then he lay down / bang - / and died." Other poems joke about a cat eating mice and a bear who walks down the street greeting and eating every creature he meets.  Early elementary schoolers love to be grossed out, and they love to be surprised, and these poems really deliver those two key components.

This collection is a great introduction to poetry for the youngest readers. It shows that poems can be playful, and that they can talk about everyday things in interesting ways. Some of the poems in this collection are only one or two sentences long, such as "It makes me squirm / to watch a worm." Even older kids who are intimidated by poetry might find relief in the fact that such a short and simple sentiment is actually a complete poem. I also like the way some of  the poems toy with the conventions of early reader books, such as the one on pages 14 and 15 that talks about a "blue bird on a branch," a "wild bird on a wig," and a "third bird in a bunch." The illustrations for that poem are almost like a rebus and they help kids decode the words while also letting them laugh over the silliness of the text.

Though Something Sleeping in the Hall is almost as old as I am, it still holds up for today's beginning  reader audience. The book is out of print, but my library system still has a copy and I suspect many others will as well. I plan to use at least two of the poems at my beginning  reader story time - either as rebuses or flannel boards. Share this book with animal lovers who are learning to read and watch them enjoy their first experiences with poetry.

I borrowed Something Sleeping in the Hall from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

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