Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: Sex & Violence

Sex & Violence
By Carrie Mesrobian

Expected publication October 1, 2013 by Carolrhoda Lab

Evan has moved around a lot and with these moves, he's learned a few things. Most specifically, he's learned how to find the girl most likely to say yes. And then, somehow, Evan finds himself with the wrong girl at the wrong time. Now, everything Evan has learned seems wrong. Can he figure out how to heal?

I downloaded this galley because I started hearing some buzz on it, and I always like to keep up with the buzz (although it's basically impossible nowadays, considering how big the buzz machine seems to have gotten). I was intrigued by the book's blurb, though a bit put off by the title (it strikes me as a title intended mostly for titillation and shock value). I don't think the title is wrong for the book - as a matter of fact, it sums up the book quite nicely. I just don't love it.

Regardless of the title, I was eager to start the book. I had high hopes for it - a male POV, dealing with a traumatic event that seems to permanently link sex and violence in his mind. How will he deal with this? How will he recover? Will he ever be able to separate sex and violence again and have a healthy sexual perspective? The plot seemed ripe for exploration of these topics. And I think Mesrobian does a fine job of exploring the links between sex and violence in our society, particularly among young men.

Additionally, I thought Mesrobian did a great job of creating a believable male POV. It is rough sometimes, and shocking, but it feels true. While I wouldn't say I connected with Evan, I wanted to understand him. I wanted him to figure things out and recover from his trauma and figure out what is healthy. Much like the POV, the story and what Evan goes through is often rough and unapologetic and gritty. This book is no lighthearted or fluffy read. It's real - dealing with real issues and real consequences and tough topics. I applaud Mesrobian for refusing to shy away from such difficult topics.

What I like most about this book, I think, is the frankness. Many of Mesrobian's characters enjoy sex and are not ashamed about that or afraid to discuss it. I can't stress this enough: SEXUAL DESIRE AND ENJOYMENT IS NORMAL. The frankness with which Mesrobian tackles the topic is part of what makes this such a realistic read. I know when I was a teen, I spent a good portion of time thinking and talking about sex - who was doing it, who wasn't, who was thinking about it, etc. It's part of being a teenager and growing up.

While I liked a lot of what Mesrobian did here, I was a bit underwhelmed with the surface level writing. I felt the book dragged a bit at times and didn't find anything special with the prose. However, I think this would be a great book for discussion with a teen reading group - there are a lot of layers to unpack from this novel.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via NetGalley.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Crankee Doodle
By Tom Angleberger, illustrated by Cece Bell

Published 2013 by Clarion Books
This is a really fun book about Yankee Doodle and his eager pony. I don't know if it would work in a storytime setting - there is a lot happening on many of the pages - but it would be great one on one. This had tons of kid appeal because it's really funny and the illustrations are bright and bold. Additionally, I liked that this explains "macaroni" was another word for "fancy" back then, which I am surprised and disheartened to admit that I didn't already know. Is it the greatest book ever? Probably not, but it's fun and kids love fun.

The Pet Project: Cute and Cuddly Vicious Verses
By Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Zachariah OHora

Published 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I don't usually pick up poetry books these days (I know, shame on me) but I found this one hard to resist. A little girl who wants a pet embarks on a series of scientific investigations to discover which is the perfect pet for her. The rhymes are really clever and fun ("rabbity lies/...Vikings in disguise") and I was very charmed by this book.

Building Our House
By Jonathan Bean
Published 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
If I'm being entirely honest, I probably would not have picked up this book were it not for Betsy Bird's enthusiastic love of it. However, I'm glad she swayed me - this is a lovely book. It does seem a bit longer than your average picture book, but it is beautiful and kids who love construction will be endlessly fascinated. Actually, I imagine many kids fascinated with the concept of building your own house - how many of them have experienced that? The illustrations are so, so lovely - I want to just look at them all day. I think this book is the complete package and I think, for the right kid, this is a perfect book.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: Wake Up Missing

Wake Up Missing
By Kate Messner
Published 2013 by Walker Childrens

Cat was an ordinary girl - she liked watching birds and making sculptures of what she saw. But a fall from a tree stand led to a concussion and some aftereffects that don't seem to be going away. Luckily, her mother has discovered I-CAN, a state-of-the-art brain science center in the Florida Everglades. Cat is thrilled at the opportunity to get her life back to normal but she soon discovers a secret experiment at the center that puts her life in danger. Can Cat find a way to escape?

This was my first novel by Messner - I've had her other books on my radar (and I'll read them when I can find the time), but I received an ARC of this at ALA Annual back in July, so it seemed like as good a place to start as any.

I hate to admit it, but I was a bit underwhelmed with this book. I expected a fast-paced, sci-fi adventure story - and it is, but not until about halfway through. I found the beginning a bit slow - Cat arriving at the center and the beginnings of her treatment. She starts to suspect that something is not quite right pretty early on, but it felt like it took her awhile to take any action. I say it FELT that way, when, in all actuality, it probably only took a chapter or two, but I think I expected a relentless pace right out of the gate for this kind of story. The pacing does pick up the further you read in the story, but I found the end to be kind of abrupt.

Additionally, I found the book lacking in characterization. We learn the most about Cat, as the book is told from her POV, but I didn't feel terribly connected to her. In terms of secondary characters, we learn their names and how they each received their injuries, but that seems to be about it. It can be hard for me to root for characters that I don't feel I know very well, so I wish there had been more time spent with each character.

Similarly, I thought the concept of the book was really cool - a secret experiment to alter each kid's identity by giving them the DNA of a famous scientist - but the development of it was lacking. I can't speak to the science of this sort of thing, but the experiment sounded really interesting. I just wish more time had been spent on developing the concept - who is doing this? Why? I mean, those questions do get answered in the book, but not in a way that felt satisfactory to me.

That's not to say I didn't like the book - it's fun, and I think kids will enjoy it (adventure stories are very popular). Overall, I just felt like more could have been done with many aspects of the book to make it a stronger story.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: All the Truth That's In Me

All the Truth That's In Me
By Julie Berry
Expected publication September 26, 2013 by Viking Juvenile

Four years ago, two girls went missing from Roswell Station. Two years ago, only one of them returned. Judith is not the same girl she was before her disappearance - she never speaks anymore, instead silently confiding in her childhood friend, Lucas. When their town comes under attack, Judith must decide between remaining silent or setting her truth free.

I've seen Berry's books before and have wanted to read them but, of course, haven't found the time yet. I was intrigued by the blurb for her latest and was happy to receive an e-galley of it. This book, though, was not quite what I expected.

I guess what threw me off most about this book was the setting: it appears to be a historical novel, set in an indeterminate point in history. There is nothing in the blurb to suggest this and, it may be superficial, but that's certainly not the vibe I got from the cover. I was expecting a contemporary thriller, so the historical setting was a bit unsettling at first. As a matter of fact, I kept waiting for the setting to be revealed as false, a la M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, right up until the end of the book. I don't know if that means my surprise at the setting was particularly strong, or that it never really rang true for me. It might be a bit unfair to say the latter, but I wish I had known before I started reading.

Additionally, the way this story is told took a bit of getting used to. It's separated into books, with each book being comprised of many very short chapters (sometimes only a paragraph or a few sentences). It is told as if it is literally being told, verbally, to Lucas, who Judith addresses as "you" throughout the story. Though it takes a bit of getting used to, in one way, this narrative choice makes the story feel more immediate and pressing and intimate - readers can feel like they are right alongside Judith, hearing the truth.

As for the story itself, it was a little simplistic. I expected the choice Judith would have to make to be a bit more dramatic, but it never really struck me as that difficult of a choice. Additionally, some of the action seems to have been tacked on in an attempt to build up more drama (the bit with the teacher felt out of place to me), but maybe it's just me.

Once I got past the surprise of the narrative and setting, this book moves at a pretty quick pace (those short chapters really help propel the story along). Ultimately, I think I'd say this is a decent read, but nothing terribly memorable or outstanding.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Release Day Review: Untold

Untold (Lynburn Legacy, book two)
By Sarah Rees Brennan
Expected publication September 24, 2013 by Random House Books for Young Readers

WARNING: There may be spoilers ahead. To read my review of the first book, go here.

Once upon a time, Sorry-in-the-Vale was a sleepy English town. Then, Kami Glass discovered a dark past, and a sorcerer who hoped to bring that past to the present. Now, Kami and her friends find themselves in a battle where the stakes are life or death.

I want to start this review by reminding you how much I loved Unspoken. I loved pretty much everything about it - the characters, the setting, the mystery, the humor; pretty much everything about the first book worked for me. I wish I could say the same about this book.

Considering how much I loved book one, book two was one of my most anticipated reads of this year, so I was thrilled to once again receive a digital galley from the publisher. It taunted me as I tried frantically to finish my other galleys; I wanted to read this one so bad. Maybe the anticipation and expectation were too much for this book to live up to.

On the one hand, some of what I loved about the first book is still there - the characters are still the ones I fell in love with in volume one. As a matter of fact, Kami spends a good portion of this book evolving into a different kind of character. So much of what she has believed about herself was challenged during the events of book one, meaning she is now becoming someone she might not have imagined before. Many of the characters are facing similar challenges - Angela and Holly, and Jared and Ash have all discovered new things about themselves and are learning what this means here in book two.

Additionally, the humor of book one is still here in book two - I just love the cleverness that pervades the conversations between the characters. It makes the book fun to read, even if terrible things are happening in it.

I think what this book suffers from is book two syndrome. It's the second book in what I assume is a trilogy and, as often happens, it lacks because of this. Characters and setting were already established in book one, so there is only additional information being given here. Book two is often meant to serve as a bridge between books one and three, the go-between sandwiched in the introduction and worldbuilding, and the ultimate climax. That's exactly the problem with this book - the plot is not terribly exciting, and it's clear that most of it happens just to keep the story moving along. Even the battle that does occur in this book is pretty lackluster - yes, there are casualties, but it's over much more quickly than one would expect for these characters.

Overall, this book is a bit of a let-down from the love I felt for book one, but I'll still be anticipating book three.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Also, a small note: WHY DID YOU CHANGE THAT BEAUTIFUL COVER FROM BOOK ONE? I hate these new covers - now they look just like every other teen book out there.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Jasper Jones

Jasper Jones
By Craig Silvey, read by Matt Cowlrick
Published 2012 by Listening Library

Charlie is surprised to find Jasper Jones knocking frantically at his window one night - one because Charlie is not the type of kid to have late night visitors and two because he doesn't really know Jasper that well. But Jasper is desperate for Charlie's help and, being the kind of kid he is, Charlie goes with him. He'll soon wish he hadn't.

I've been meaning to read this ever since it won a Printz Honor in 2012 - sometimes I feel like I'll never catch up on the award-winning books. I downloaded the audio version and finally decided to give it a go. I've got incredibly mixed feelings about it.

I'm not entirely sure what I expected before I started this book but I'm almost positive that no matter what I expected, Jasper Jones was not it. Maybe I expected a mystery - well, this book has that, but not in any way I would have expected. Yes, there is a mystery that Jasper Jones and, to a lesser degree Charlie, is trying to solve. And yet, somehow, this is not the main focus of the book. What this book instead appears to be about is growing up and discovering that nothing is as simple as it seems, that people's lives are infinitely more complicated than you can imagine, and that life is neither fair nor easy. This book is as much about a small town as it is about Charlie or Jasper or Laura or Eliza or Mad Jack Lionel. Perhaps the greatest strength of this novel lies in Silvey's writing, in his ability to make you feel like you're Charlie's age again and just discovering all the horrible truths about the world. I mean, this book is downright unsettling. This book makes me want to sit down with the kids who are at that precarious age and assure them that everything is not awful. This book reminded me of how terrible people can be, something I didn't really want to be reminded of. This book is written so vividly and achingly - it's heartbreaking, really.

I'll admit, I was not convinced by this book in its first few chapters. After all, where was the sleuthing? I expected a mystery, didn't I? Just when exactly were they going to get down to solving it? But this book creeps up on you. There's a reason that mystery is not always at the forefront, and that's to say something larger about growing up and life in general. It's pretty brilliantly done I think.

But the mystery itself - well, it wasn't quite what I expected, and I liked that. I liked that Charlie sort of became oddly fascinated with discovering how truly awful humans can be to one another by researching other famous crimes. I'm not afraid to say that I have a bit of a fascination with serial killers and the like, so I definitely related to that aspect of Charlie's personality. I also related to Charlie's inherent goodness and how much his new behavior freaks out his parents. I was a goody-two-shoes in high school and anything out of the norm raised flags for my parents. I completely understand this. The mystery - well, it's part of the heartbreak of this story and it's awful and sad and tragic and unfortunately, not all that hard to believe.

Overall, this sounds like a pretty positive review and I suppose it is. My one major caveat is that Charlie quite often does not read like a 13-year-old, particularly after he falls in love with Eliza. Maybe this won't bother other readers (it obviously did not bother the Printz committee), but it niggled at the back of my mind.

One bonus of listening to the audio version: lovely Australian accent.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Program: All By Myself

As I've mentioned before, I sometimes fill in with storytimes when needed. For the last week of storytimes this summer, my boss was on vacation and needed someone to take on All By Myself, the preschool storytime I had taken over (briefly) back in April. I told her I'd be willing to do it, knowing our storytime staff was pretty stretched and it being toward the end of summer, as my other programs were winding down. Here's what I did!

Story: Hilda Must be Dancing by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Suzanne Watts - I decided I wanted to have a dance themed storytime, figuring I could maximize active time and maybe skip the craft (which I didn't end up doing, but it was a thought). I think this book is pretty standard for any storytime about dancing, and the kids seemed to enjoy it. I like all the different kinds of dances that Hilda tries and the outfits she wears while trying them. This group was a bit out of control (this storytime swelled to insane numbers during the summer) so I don't think they got as much from the story as they could have.

Song: "The Twist" by Chubby Checker - yes, the original. This was actually my whole reasoning for having a dance-themed storytime: I wanted to see a bunch of preschoolers doing the Twist. I put the song on and showed them the basic move, and then threw in a few ways they could change it up. Yes, it was as adorable as I'd hoped it would be.

Book: Fritz Danced the Fandango by Alicia Potter, illustrated by Ethan Long - I probably should have known better and skipped a second book, as the kids were very short on attention span, but I couldn't resist this dancing goat story. They liked the yodeling the best, I think.

Song: "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer - I'm sorry, but a lot of music made specifically for kids is just not fun for an adult to dance to. So, I decided to introduce them to something from my generation. I put the music on and told them to dance any way they wanted to, but I also showed them some classic dance moves: the sprinkler, the running man, the cabbage patch - you know, the goodies. They loved seeing the different dance moves, but a lot of them didn't know what to do when I wasn't highlighting one. Still, we had fun!

Craft: Dancing hippos - I completely stole this idea from the fabulous Abby the Librarian. To expedite things a bit, I made kits with all the supplies beforehand, so I could just hand one to each child and then set them loose with the crayons. Once they were finished coloring, they had to come see me or my colleague for help with stringing their hippo on its dancing stick. A few parents came in at the end to help their children as well. The kids LOVED this craft (and my colleagues had fun with the leftovers). The link above will take you directly to Abby's post explaining the craft.

And that was my latest adventure in storytime! I had a ton of fun and I'm looking forward to a regular monthly storytime in the fall!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Ganesha's Sweet Tooth
By Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes
Published 2012 by Chronicle Books
I know next to nothing about Ganesha, but I'm always willing to learn more and with such a beautiful and eye-catching cover, I couldn't resist picking up this book when it arrived in our library. I really, really liked this. It's got a really cute and fun story that I think kids will enjoy (and it will also teach them something!), but the true strength lies in the illustrations. The colors are bold and vibrant and incredibly appealing and the style is whimsical and entertaining. This book is a beauty to look at with a story that lives up to the illustrations. Highly recommended.

Don't Read This Book!
By Jill Lewis, illustrated by Deborah Allwright
Published 2010 by Tiger Tales
I feel like I've seen a number of books similar to this one over the years. The characters in the story break the fourth wall and interact directly with the readers, in this case warning them not to read the book. Why? Well, the story has disappeared and the King needs to find it before it's ready for readers. It's a cute story, and I think it will appeal to fairy tale fans and kids who want a funny read. But it was just okay for me.

Monkey and Elephant Get Better
By Carole Lexa Schaefer, illustrated by Galia Bernstein
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press
I grabbed this one off our new book cart because I liked the teal elephant and purple monkey on the cover. It's a fairly simple story of friendship and differences. Elephant gets sick and Monkey knows all the things to make him feel better, but they are actually the things that will make Monkey feel better. It's cute enough, but not terribly memorable. It could work in a "getting sick" storytime.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: Magic Marks the Spot

Magic Marks the Spot (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, book one)
By Caroline Carlson
Published 2013 by HarperCollins

Hilary Westfield wants nothing more than to be a pirate. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Not only is her father Admiral of the Royal Navy, but he hates pirates and he thinks Hilary is nothing more than a silly little girl. When she is shipped off to Miss Pimm's Finishing School for Delicate Ladies, it isn't long before Hilary finds her way to the high seas. Adventure! Magical gargoyles! Treasure! Pirates! Villainy! All these things await Hilary.

As I've said before, I'm really trying to read more middle-grade books and when I spotted this egalley I literally could not resist. I mean, come on! It sounds awesome! It reminded me a little bit of one of my favorite recent series, The Chronicles of Egg, and I was definitely eager to give it a try. I am so glad I did!

I adored this book! Really, it seems to me that it would be pretty impossible to not love this book. It has all the things one could ask for. It's got great characters, a thrilling plot, underhanded villains, great storytelling, magic, humor, and a lot of heart. Let's break it down, shall we?

The characters: from page one, I admired Hilary. She wants to be a pirate and no rejection from the VNHLP or belittlement from her father is going to stop her. She is charming and smart and brave - all admirable qualities in a young girl. It was not difficult to want to see her succeed in her piratical ambitions. And it's not just Hilary who is wonderful - the gargoyle! Oh, how I adore the gargoyle! I want him for my very own! I also loved Miss Greyson and Jasper and Charlie and even more minor characters like Oliver and Admiral Westfield are executed well. I loved reading about these characters and am so, so thrilled that there will be more adventures for them!

The plot: if you are looking for thrilling adventure, you have found it here! PIRATES! Really, what more do you have to say to a kid to get them interested in a book? Even Hilary's ordinary adventures, such as her time at Miss Pimm's, are more thrilling and entertaining than they really have any right to be. This book is fast-paced and will keep readers turning pages, eager to know what adventure is waiting in the next chapter.

The villains: oooh, the villains! They are sneaky (well, some more so than others) and underhanded - the way good old-fashioned villains are supposed to be. I had a pretty good idea who the real bad guy would turn out to be and I wasn't wrong. Though the villains here are more cut and clear than I usually like, they work perfectly in this kind of story.

The storytelling: it's hard for me to determine what is my favorite thing about this book, but the way its told is certainly in the running. The story is told through typical narrative, as well as through letters, articles, and other ephemera and I loved that choice. Epistolary novels are another of my weaknesses (right up there with novels in verse) and I think the style works exceedingly well for this story. In fact, the book opens with a series of letters between Hilary and the VNHLP and it sets the tone and introduces the characters so perfectly that I wouldn't have wanted the book to start any other way. Additionally, the book is just well-written. The writing flows nicely and the tone remains constant and it all just works beautifully.

The magic: if you need more than pirates to sell a book to kids, throw in magic and then see if you still have any that aren't scrambling for the book. Kids (and, let's face it, many adults) love magic, because don't we all wish for special powers? Carlson does something really interesting with the magic in this book - she makes it about class and power (well, a lot of magic is about power anyway, but I think you get what I'm saying). It sounds like heady stuff for a middle-grade book but it's written in a way that will completely make sense to kids.

The humor: this book is fun! It is so much fun! It is so much fun that I had a hard time not chuckling to myself while reading. I wanted this book to go on forever simply because I was having so much fun reading it. There is humor - banter and wit and cleverness and silliness and it all meshes into a lovely fun story.

The heart: perhaps one of the greatest things about this book is how heartwarming it is. This is a book with a big message - you can be whatever you want, no matter what anyone tells you. It doesn't matter if you're a girl - you can be a pirate and no one should get in the way of that. And just because you're a pirate, you don't have to be a bad guy. And just because you're a governess doesn't mean you can't have adventures, too. Really, this book wants you to know that society does not dictate who you are and you should never think otherwise.

I don't think I really have to say it, but this was pretty much a perfect book for me. Please, read it and love it and share it with every middle-grade reader you know! I promise they will thank you.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: The Chaos of Stars

The Chaos of Stars
By Kiersten White
Published 2013 by HarperTeen

Isadora knows all families have their issues, but she's pretty sure that hers takes the cake. After all, it isn't easy being the mortal daughter of Egyptian gods. Desperate to forge her own destiny, she leaves Egypt behind and begins a life with her brother in San Diego. But when a very charming and handsome boy tests her conviction to never fall in love and her strange dreams foretell danger, is Isadora's dream to escape her family all for nothing?

I really enjoy fantasy novels and I really enjoy books inspired by mythology (or really, books inspired by any other stories, like fairy tales and folk tales as well) so it was a no-brainer for me to request the egalley of this title. Additionally, White's earlier novel Paranormalcy was on the Lone Star Reading List when I first moved to Texas so I'd heard of her work and wanted to check it out. Of course, as is typical of me, I read her newest work before finding the time to go back and read the stuff I'd actually heard of, but c'est la vie.

I really liked the structure of this story, though it was a bit jarring when it changed slightly partway through the novel. Each chapter starts out with a short story or bit of story about the various gods and goddesses that make up Isadora's family. In between the chapters are other short episodes, scenes from earlier in Isadora's life. These in-between episodes stop partway through the book and, as I said, I found that a bit jarring, as I was enjoying seeing these flashes of her childhood. I do, however, understand why they stop. I liked this structure because it provided a really interesting way to learn about Isadora and her family - the stories told at the beginning of each chapter are in Isadora's voice, so readers are really able to get a sense of how she feels about her messed-up family. I also really liked that this book brought the ancient gods into contemporary times. It's certainly not the first book to do so, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I liked seeing them through Isadora's eyes, which really allowed you to think about how messed up myths can be.

I think Isadora is a fun character and she will be easy for teens to relate to. Though most teens don't have to worry about being the mortal child of gods, at the root, family problems are family problems. We all have families and we all have to figure out how to live with them. I liked Isadora because she wants to try and she wants to be a part of her family but it just isn't easy. Additionally, she is pretty self-assured and smart and I felt like I would want to hang out with her. As much as I liked her, she does have her moments - moments where she is a bit too selfish, a bit too narrow-minded, a bit too melodramatic. Overall, though, I liked her.

The book reads pretty quickly as well. The chapters are not terribly long and the action keeps a good pace throughout. The writing is not really anything special, but it serves its purpose here and works well (I feel like that sounds harsh, but I just mean I'm not gushing about the beautiful prose and that's okay for this book). While I spotted one of the twists very early on (and kept shaking my head at Isadora for not noticing it, too), I didn't spot the other, even though I really should have. Overall, this book was a quick and fun read that I'd recommend to teens looking for more mythology-inspired tales.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Release Day Review: The Burning Sky

The Burning Sky (The Elemental Trilogy, book one)
By Sherry Thomas
Expected publication September 17, 2013 by Balzer + Bray

While life is no picnic for Iolanthe, she makes it work. Then, in an unbelievable turn of events, she is being told that she's the greatest elemental mage of her generation - and she must run for her life. She finds herself bound to the prince, a bit of a cad who attends school in the nonmage world - and he expects Iolanthe to remain by his side. Can she pass at an all-boys academy? And, more importantly, can she harness her power and take on the Bane?

I requested the egalley of this because it was hard to resist - high fantasy and cross-dressing, romance and a villain called the Bane. Let's face it, I'm a sucker for high fantasy. As with most genre novels, this book plays off some well-loved tropes: the girl who doesn't realize her power until she is shown by someone else, a prophecy, and a seemingly indestructible villain. I'm a firm believer that tropes are tropes for a reason - readers like them and they like seeing these same elements and what an author can do with them. For this book, I think Thomas does a pretty good job with the tropes. While Iolanthe knows she is a pretty powerful mage, she doesn't know the full extent of her power until Prince Titus fills her in. Similarly, she doesn't know about the prophecies that appear to dictate her destiny until she's already on the run with Titus. One of the things I loved most about Harry Potter is the prophecy and how clever J.K. Rowling was by showing how easily it could have applied to two different boys. There comes a point in this book where something similar occurs and it thrilled me to no end. I love the exploration of how a prophecy will affect your ability to live your life now - a discussion that Iolanthe and Titus have in this book. I liked the hint that maybe it wasn't supposed to be Iolanthe after all, though it seemed too late for this to make a difference. Where I think Thomas fell down a bit was in her depiction of the villain. I get that the Bane is supposed to be an awful bad guy that resurrects himself every time he is killed. However, in this book, Thomas has made the Inquisitor the much more fearsome villain. As this is only the first book in a trilogy, I imagine that Thomas will give the Bane significantly more page time as the series progresses, as I'm sure this won't be the pair's last encounter with him.

Cross-dressing is another one of my favorite tropes and I think it's done well here. I liked that it came about because of a misread prophecy (well, actually a mis-seen vision), but it helps fuel the banter between Iolanthe and Titus. While I liked Iolanthe, I found Titus to be the more compelling character and was eager to know more of his story. I really enjoyed the relationship between the two, though the romance seemed a foregone conclusion nearly from the beginning of the book. Though I found the ending a bit of a let-down, I imagine I'll be staying tuned for book two.

One final note: I love reading fantasy novels but I hate it when I can't figure out how to pronounce a name (just like when I first read "Hermione"). Anyone want to clue me in on how to pronounce "Iolanthe"?

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Once We Were

Once We Were (Hybrid Chronicles, book two)
By Kat Zhang
Expected publication September 17, 2013 by HarperCollins

WARNING: There will likely be spoilers for book one ahead. To read my review of that book, go here.

 Eva and Addie should be counting their blessings. Technically, only one of them is supposed to exist. Amazingly, they are both still alive, having escaped the hospital and the doctor determined to "cure" them once and for all. It isn't long, however, before Eva and Addie find themselves once again caught up in a mission against Dr. Jenson - and this time, the stakes are even more deadly.

I really enjoyed What's Left of Me when I read it this spring, and I was definitely interested in picking up the sequel. I was really excited to get an egalley of the book and read it just before the book's release. This volume continues in Eva's perspective, though that is a bit different now as she has learned how to regain control of the body she thought was lost to her forever. The romance - which I found pretty intriguing in the first book - takes a backseat here in book two, as this is very much an action-focused, plot-driven entry in the series. The romance is still there and is, in fact, explored in more depth, but it becomes a lesser storyline in light of the other events taking place. I liked the introduction of some new characters, though I didn't like the fact that Hally and Lissa, and even to an extent Ryan and Devon, were given significantly less page time in light of the appearance of these new characters. The main focus here is a plot to encourage a Hybrid rebellion, to stop a new institution from opening. As in book one, this book raised a lot of interesting questions. How do we decide what is right? How far is too far? Who can we really trust to hold our best interests at heart?

Once again, Zhang is successful with pacing - short chapters and plenty of dialogue keep the story moving at a nice clip. It helps build the tension that Eva and Addie are feeling as well, as they struggle to decide if their course of action is truly the one they should be choosing. I mentioned in my review of book one that I wasn't sure how I felt about this being a series and I have to admit that this book was not as exciting or engaging as the first. Additionally, I'm left at the end of book two once again feeling that it was a self-contained adventure and I don't see an overwhelming need for another book. That being said, I know there will be a book three and I'll surely read it, just to see what Zhang's master plan is.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Program: Candy Science

Another type of program that we get a lot of requests for is any kind of science program. I decided I wanted to incorporate one during my weekly summer programs. I have been really wanting to make ice cream in a bag for a program, plus I had pinned some science experiments using candy on Pinterest, so I figured I'd make an edible science theme. This was my first program to hit its listed capacity for the summer, and we ran out of supplies quickly. Here's what we did!

Ice cream in a bag: I have fond memories of making ice cream in coffee cans during Girl Scouts as a kid, so when I was introduced to this simpler (and single serve!) method in grad school, I knew I'd be using it in a program someday. To make things run a bit more quickly, I had pre-measured the sugar into the small plastic bags and the rock salt into the large plastic bags. When the kids came to the first table, they grabbed a bag of sugar. Then I measured the vanilla for them and a teen volunteer measured their milk (they could choose from regular, chocolate, or soy). They moved on to table two where another staff member insured their bags were closed tightly and gave them a large bag of rock salt. Finally, another teen volunteer added ice to their large bag. All that was left was the shaking! Unsurprisingly, we had some kids who got lazy with their shaking and didn't get a great ice cream consistency, but the majority of those kids just drank the mixture anyway. The kids absolutely loved doing this - many of them wanted to make seconds. Unfortunately, the ice was the first thing we ran out of - but thankfully, not before everyone had one serving.

Floating S's: this is one of the experiments I pinned. I set up a table with cups and a pitcher of water, plus a bag of Skittles. One of my volunteers staffed this table, explaining the experiment to the kids and making sure they didn't grab handfuls of Skittles. The experiment is really simple: put some water in a small cup and drop a couple Skittles in, S side up. The dye will dissolve off the Skittle and the S will float to the water's surface. In a setting with fewer kids, you could try different temperatures of water to see if that makes the process move faster. I think the kids were surprised to see that all of the ink didn't dissolve.

Acid test: another experiment I found online, this one tests the acid content of sour candies. One again, you need small cups with some water in them. Add a little baking soda to the cup and drop a piece of sour candy in it. The higher the acid content of the candy, the more bubbles you will see. I had a few different kinds of candies for the kids to try and compare, including one that wasn't sour at all. They definitely enjoyed watching the bubbles.

Balloon inflation: to demonstrate the gas released when you mix Pop Rocks and soda, we tried this experiment. Each kid got a small latex balloon and carefully dumped a package of Pop Rocks into it. Keeping the bulb of the balloon to the side, the kids carefully stretched the balloon's opening over the neck of a freshly opened 12 oz. Dr. Pepper. Then the kids moved the balloon bulbs upright, dumping the Pop Rocks into the soda. In a few seconds, the balloon would begin to inflate. I was really surprised by how many kids wanted to keep their sodas (with balloons still inflated on top) to show their parents.

Those were the experiments we tried this time around - the Mentos and cola experiment had been done pretty recently here in another science program, so I didn't want to repeat it yet. The program was pretty fast and furious - we hit capacity, everyone did all the experiments, and then we were done 45 minutes later. The kids definitely loved the program, with the homemade ice cream being their favorite part. I'll be running a monthly science program during the school year, so I can't wait to see what other experiments they'll enjoy. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them in the comments!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

The Boy Who Cried Bigfoot!
By Scott Magoon
Published 2013 by Paula Wiseman Books
I really liked this twist on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." First, it's about a Bigfoot - hello, awesome! Second, it's told from the Bigfoot's point of view. Third, it's really funny. Last, the illustrations are quite nice. I think the change in perspective in this version of the tale help distance it a bit from sounding too message-y. This is a fun read that kids will definitely enjoy.

Oh No, Little Dragon!
By Jim Averbeck
Published 2012 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Little Dragon has lost his spark and must figure out how to get it back. He tries everything he can think of but nothing seems to work. Can his mama help him with his spark? This book is adorable and I think would work well for a toddler storytime. Little Dragon acts very much like a toddler, as a matter of fact, and I think the combination of humorous and heartwarming is very appealing. The illustrations are bright and bold, which would also work well for toddlers. A fun addition to dragon stories.

Panda and Polar Bear
By Matthew Baek
Published 2009 by Dial
This book is adorable. The illustrations and the story are so sweet that I'm willing to forgive how darn confusing this book might be for kids. One day, a polar bear cub finds himself in a bamboo forest covered in mud. A panda cub discovers him and mistakes him for another panda. Basically, they become best friends, despite their differences, and have lots of fun together under polar bear decides it's time to go home. And that is when we discover how this story is even possible (which, if you're an adult, you may have figured out already). So, even though it's potentially a very misleading story for the majority of the time, it's so cute that I recommend it anyway.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Review: The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle, book two)
By Maggie Stiefvater
Expected publication September 17, 2013 by Scholastic

WARNING: There will likely be spoilers for book one ahead. If you'd like to read my review of that title, go here.

Things are changing rapidly for the Raven Boys - Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah - and for Blue, the girl who has stumbled into their inner circle. The quest for Glendower seems more important than ever, but how will the boys and Blue deal when they discover that others are just as desperate for the King as they are?

The Raven Boys was one of my favorite reads last year - I devoured it - and I was eager to get my hands on a copy of this one. I was lucky enough to snag an ARC at ALA and I got to it as soon as I could.

Stiefvater wastes no time throwing us back into the world of the Raven Boys and their lovely female companion (okay, that description really minimizes Blue's role and I mean lovely in a sense beyond just appearance, but I can't think of a better way to add her to the group of boys besides just writing her name every time) and I was happy to be there again. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, I think Stiefvater's strength is in her characters and the fascinating worlds she creates for them. In this second book, the focus seems to shift to Ronan - I didn't count actual page lengths or anything, but it feels like we spend the most time with his story in this book and we learn more about his past here than about any of the other boys. While Ronan is not my favorite character by any stretch of the imagination, he is just as fascinating as any of the others. I was definitely willing to spend more time with him and learn his story - and I hope that Stiefvater continues to slightly shift focus in each of the subsequent books so we focus on a different character each time.

Even though it feels like we spend the most time with Ronan in this story, that doesn't mean that we don't continue to explore the other characters' lives. I am feeling deeply attached to them all - to the point where my heart is breaking for them because I know that whatever Stiefvater has in store is not going to be pleasant for them all.

Just as Stiefvater builds on the characterizations, she also deepens the mythology of the story and the world they are living in. I continue to find the basic plot of this series fascinating and I'm still amazed at the ease with which Stiefvater blends magic and real life. Additionally, I think Stiefvater has outdone herself with her writing this time around - I found her prose especially enchanting in this book. I find so much to love about this series that I have a hard time putting it all into words. I love the women of Blue's family. I love that we get a few new characters and that they don't take away from the ones I already know and love. I love that I am just as eagerly anticipating the next book as I was this one. I love that it feels like anything could happen in this series and Stiefvater would make me believe it. I just plain old love this series so far.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review: The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things (Mister Max, book one)
By Cynthia Voigt, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno
Expected publication September 10, 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Max's father is a bit of a braggart - he is an actor, after all - and he is always ready for adventure. So, when a thrilling opportunity presents itself, he seizes it - and (perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not) Max is left behind. Faced with proving his independence, Max takes some of the skills he has learned from his father and puts them to use - as Mister Max, a mysterious figure.

This was another galley I requested as part of my quest for more middle-grade. Additionally, having listened to Young Fredle, I was interested in trying another Voigt story. Unfortunately, I feel mostly ambivalent about this one as well.

I had a really difficult time getting into this one and it's basically out of sheer stubbornness that I finished it. I didn't particularly care for the characters or the story, but I felt committed, so I persevered. Much like Young Fredle, Max's story is very episodic, something that I think appeals to a particular kind of reader - the kind of which I am not. Some of Max's adventures are broken up into acts like a play - I assume this is meant to be a clever little feature of the story, as Max's parents own a theatrical company and are both leading actors. However, to me, it seemed as if the acts were there to break up really long episodes into smaller parts. Additionally, the act I of a story is not always immediately followed by its act II, making this sometimes a bit difficult to follow. I sometimes found myself just getting invested in the first act of a story only for it to end and be introduced to the first act of a different story. A bit frustrating for me as a reader.

Also similarly to Fredle, I found Max an easy character for which to cheer. That doesn't mean that I really cared all that much about him, though - if I had just flipped to the end and discovered that everything would be mostly okay for him, that probably would have been just as satisfying for me as trudging through the whole book.

What bothered me the most about this book and is the reason for the majority of my negative feeling around it is the incredible degree of suspension of disbelief required to read this book. The whole time I wondered where the authorities were, how it was possible that no one noticed Max's parents were gone and Max wasn't in school, and why his grandmother was okay with this whole scheme and not more alarmed at events in general. Reflecting on the book now, I imagine it is supposed to be set in a historical time period, which may explain why no one notices that Max isn't in school, but there were still too many unbelievable bits for me.

Overall, I find myself echoing my sentiments regarding Young Fredle - a good book for the right kind of reader; unfortunately, that reader was not me.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Release Day Review: The Waking Dark

The Waking Dark
By Robin Wasserman
Expected publication September 10, 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

One seemingly normal day in small-town Kansas, five different people - all average by community standards - turn into killing machines. By day's end, 12 people are dead and the town is shocked and confused. Little do they know, the madness and horror is only beginning...

As I've mentioned frequently in a number of reviews from the past month, I'm always looking for a creepy YA read (or a creepy middle-grade or adult read, for that matter). Recent reads have been disappointing. I downloaded this galley because it was being billed as a "Stephen King for young adults" novel. Shamefully, I've not read a ton of Stephen King stories, but I'm pretty familiar with his style. I think the comparison is pretty apt, but my feelings about the book are a bit more mixed.

I suppose this is another case of expectation versus reality. With the premise of this book, I expected a horrifying and gruesome read. And I imagine to many readers, this will be true. Maybe it's just too difficult to scare me or gross me out - as I've said before, I've been a horror fan my whole life, so I've read and seen a lot of gory, gruesome, and allegedly terrifying things. Wasserman doesn't shy away from depicting shocking scenes - the opening chapter, which details the killing day, is an intense way to start a story. Similarly, as the story continues, readers are treated to more scenes of violence and terror and Wasserman is never shy about them. I think, as a reader who is not easily scared or grossed out, I find the willingness to write truly awful stuff very appealing.

Additionally, I really liked that Wasserman chose to tell the story from multiple character points of view. It keeps things moving along at a nice clip and provides nice narrative changes throughout the story, jumping from one character's story to the next. And it is mainly these two factors combined that leave me feeling that the Stephen King comparison is a good one. Many of King's stories focus on small-town horror and introduce readers to a number of characters throughout the story, until the story becomes more about the town as a whole than the characters as individuals.

Wasserman is also just a skilled writer. Much of the horror she writes is written beautifully, and her descriptive prose is exciting and engaging to read. She pulls off the multiple POVs well and she keeps the plot moving nicely, though the book clocks in at nearly 500 pages. Wasserman also does a fantastic job maintaining an atmosphere of terror and unease - I'm pretty sure if I were living in this book, I'd go insane from trying to keep myself alive and well.

All this being said, though, I'm not 100% enthusiastic about this book. It's a combination of factors for me, some that have nothing to do with this particular book at all. With this book specifically, as much as I enjoyed the multiple perspectives, it made it a bit harder for me to empathize with the characters individually. Additionally, some of Wasserman's explanations for the killing day and what followed were just a little bit too silly for me. What doesn't have anything to do with this particular book is how continually disappointed I am when a book doesn't scare me and how tired I seem to be getting of this type of book. I'm finding it increasingly draining to read stories that showcase humanity at its worst - and it didn't help that I was reading another story of the same type concurrently as this book.

Overall, I think Wasserman's skill is clearly showcased here, in a story that will most definitely appeal to teen horror fans.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
By emily m. danforth
Published 2012 by Balzer + Bray

Cameron Post is heartbroken and relieved. Heartbroken because her parents have both just died in a car crash. Relieved because they will never know she kissed a girl just hours earlier. In the aftermath, Cameron's conservative aunt moves in and she knows she will have to do her best to not kiss any more girls. Then Coley Taylor moves to town. And Cameron is doomed.

I received an ARC of this a long time ago, but I missed reading it before the release date and it got pushed down my to-read list. When it appeared on The Hub's Reading Challenge list, I knew I'd finally get around to it, seeing as it was one of the only titles on the list for which I already owned a copy.

I hate to admit it, but this book was a struggle for me. I really, really wanted to love this book - I don't think there will ever be enough YA lit for gay teens, so I'm always thrilled when there's a new title I can suggest. But I didn't love this book as much as I had hoped and I'm so disappointed about that.

First, this book is a behemoth - nearly 500 pages. Now, I enjoy a good doorstopper as much as the next guy (I've read 3 of the Game of Thrones books so far this year), but there is a huge difference between a 500 page epic fantasy novel and a 500 page realistic GLBT character study. This book moved excruciatingly slowly for me because, as I said, it's mostly a character study of Cameron - how she struggles with her sexual identity, how she deals with the loss of her parents, how she comes to terms with life with her aunt, etc. And, as a character study, it's a pretty strong one - I really felt like I got to know Cameron over the course of the book, and she felt very real to me. But, that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to get through nearly 500 pages without a lot of action.

Additionally, I felt like a lot what I expected the book to be about didn't come until very late in the page count. I vaguely remember this book being described to me as a story of a teen sent to a de-gaying camp in the early 1990s. Well, yes, that happens, but not until late in the story, not until after you make your way through beautiful but lengthy descriptions of the scenery (both of the Montana landscape and Cameron's mind). I suppose my main problem with this book is that is was not the book I expected it to be.

That being said, this is still a fantastic book and a welcome addition to the canon of GLBT lit for teens. It's beautifully written and Cameron has an authentic voice that is sure to resonate with gay and questioning teens. So, though it wasn't the book for me, it is definitely the book for other readers.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Program: Young Authors

I wanted to try something a bit different for a summer program this year. Normally, they are all super high energy, or craft-focused. I had already made one big change by continuing to run my book club during the summer, so I didn't think it would really hurt anything to try something else. We get a lot of questions about writing groups or programs for kids, so I decided I'd give it a go.

It went about as I expected - a few kids were there simply because their parents saw a program for their age group at that time or because they'd gotten used to coming at the same time every week for a program. But, there were also some kids who seemed genuinely excited about trying out some different creative writing exercises. In fact, I think one or two would have stayed all afternoon if I'd let them. Here are the different things the kids could try out.

Comics: this is where the majority of the boys who showed up spent their time. I just put out pencils and blank copier paper and let them make their own comics.

Blackout poetry: I did this at my Poetry Month program, but I had a low turnout for that so I figured it would be okay to repeat. I provided the kids with pages that had fallen out of a variety of library books and markers, as well as some examples for them to look at.

Six word memoirs: I've been wanting to do this in a program since I first heard about, though I'm not sure this was the best forum. I just had the different prompts set up at tables around the room, so I'm not sure the super-awesomeness of this activity was fully understood by the kids. I did give them some examples (including a few "memoirs" written by people like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter) and my teen volunteer really liked the idea.

Pictures worth a thousand words: I have been wanting to use The Mysteries of Harris Burdick in a writing program since I discovered it in grad school, though, once again, I'm not sure this was the best forum. I photocopied some of the pages and had them on a table, along with some vintage photographs, and encouraged the kids to try writing a story based on a picture. I wrote my own story during the program, in an attempt to model the idea.

Journals: I wanted to encourage the kids to keep writing at home, so I had a final station where they could make and decorate their own journals to take home. A lot of the boys at the program had fun mocking our sticker collection at this station.

That was it! I also provided snacks for them during the program. It certainly wasn't my best attended program this summer, but I had a decent turnout and a few kids that actually seemed interested in the subject. Since we get a lot of questions about writing programs for kids, I'm going to try a monthly program in the school year and see how it goes. I'd love any ideas!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

The Dark
By Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Published 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
This was one of the most hotly-anticipated picture book releases for 2013: written by the beloved (and elusive) Lemony Snicket and illustrated by the most recent Caldecott winner. Simply put, I adored this book. It is about Laszlo. Laszlo is afraid of the dark. But the dark is not afraid of Laszlo. The story tells how Laszlo overcomes his fear of the dark. Klassen has got to be one of the best illustrators working in picture books today. His style is simple but lovely to see. Though I was not really afraid of the dark as a kid (excepting the space underneath my bed where I believed a foot-eating giant lobster lived), I can see this book resonating with a lot of young readers. I really enjoyed this one and wouldn't be surprised to see Klassen recognized again for his illustrations.

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors
By Hena Khan, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Published 2012 by Chronicle Books
I love, love, loved this book. It is stunningly beautiful and wonderfully written. I love how it joins the concepts of introducing colors and Islamic culture and it does so seamlessly. The text is simple yet very evocative and the illustrations beautifully complement every page. This is an absolutely fantastic book for introducing young children to other cultures in a simple and engaging way. This book is just so beautiful that it keeps catching my eye from the shelves - I hope this is true of other readers as well. Highly recommended.

Are the Dinosaurs Dead, Dad?
By Julie Middleton, illustrated by Russell Ayto
Published 2013 by Peachtree Publishers
Dave's dad takes him to the dinosaur museum where Dave is surprised to see the dinosaur displays come to life. Frantically trying to get his father's attention, Dave is ignored - that is, until they reach the Tyrannosaurus display. This book will definitely be a hit with the preschool crowd - it's fun and funny and about dinosaurs, all things they love in books. They also seem to love clueless parents, so there's another point for this book. While I didn't find it as entertaining as I imagine kids will, I still enjoyed it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Review: Young Fredle

Young Fredle
By Cynthia Voigt, read by Wendy Carter
Published 2011 by Listening Library

Fredle is an ordinary mouse, living a pretty ordinary life until one day he finds himself outside. And his world will never be the same again. Will Fredle survive the outside? Can he find a way back to his family?

I downloaded this audiobook a looooong time ago - so long ago that it would probably be shameful for me to admit exactly when. I chose this one because it won an Odyssey Award Honor, given for outstanding audiobook production for young people. I use that award as a starting point for choosing new audiobooks to listen to occasionally. So I downloaded this one. But then, I avoided listening to it. As I've mentioned, talking animal fantasies are really not my thing. Additionally, I had recently listened to another audiobook about talking mice (Secrets at Sea), so I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to dive right back into that world so soon. Finally, I decided to listen to all the books on my iPod before downloading any new ones. Thus, Young Fredle and I would finally spend time together.

That's a lot of buildup to a review that probably isn't going to be terribly spectacular. Unlike my beloved Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, this book didn't do much to dissuade me of my animosity toward talking animal books. What I will give this book is the beauty of its writing - perhaps even more shamefully, I believe this is the first book by Voigt I've read. The writing in this book is excellent - the concept of "went" and the language of the mice; it all just reads beautifully. I even found Fredle a very endearing character. I rooted for him the whole way through and loved discovering things right along with him.

But this book and I were not meant to be soulmates. In my opinion, this book has great appeal to a certain type of reader and, in general, I am just not that type of reader. This is a pretty gentle, episodic read, good for kids who really like animal stories. Additionally, this book seems made to be read aloud - I enjoyed the audio presentation, and I can easily imagine families gathered round together reading a chapter every night. With some notable exceptions (Toys Go Out and companions), I'm not really a gentle story type of reader. I can definitely see this book's appeal; it's just not the one for me.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Review: Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!
By Polly Horvath, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Published 2012 by Schwartz & Wade

Madeline's family is a bit unusual - her parents act more like children and she is used to taking care of them. So, when they go missing, it's only natural that she takes it upon herself to search for them. Perhaps unwittingly, she enlists the help of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, brand-new, fedora-wearing detectives. And thus begins the adventure of a lifetime.

I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again - I'm not overly fond of talking animal fantasy stories. So I was a bit wary of this book. It received heaps of praise and good reviews, and there was even some talk of Newbery potential, but I put off reading it. I just didn't imagine it would be my cup of tea. However, I like to read all sorts of books and over the Memorial Day weekend, I was looking for some quick reads. I spotted this on our shelves and took it home. I am so, so thrilled that I did.

You see, my friends, I ADORED this book. I mean, completely, truly, adored it. Trust me, no one is as surprised about this as I. This was my first experience with Horvath and it will definitely not be my last. For me, there is nothing about this book that doesn't work. It is beautifully written, hitting all the right notes in tone and language, proving that Horvath is a writer with whom I need to spend a great deal more time. The characters are also fantastic - I love the role reversal of Madeline and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny are, yes, incredibly charming, and I even adore the villains. The plot is fun and complicated and twisty, keeping readers engaged and turning the pages as fast as possible. I love the oddball sense of humor that this book is imbued with - it almost seems like, despite the talking animals, this was a book written with me in mind. I love that I can truly believe this book will work just as well for adults as it will for children - I don't even necessarily consider myself evidence of this (I am perhaps not your typical adult), I can just see the different layers that would make this work for readers of all ages. I love the mystery here - it's complicated yet simple at the same time, introducing readers to the ideas of mysteries and detectives and giving them gentle prods along the way. I love that there is the notion that this is only our first encounter with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - I definitely want to have more adventures with these two.

Highly, highly recommended, and I will be devouring Horvath's other novels as soon as I can find the time.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: The Boy on the Porch

The Boy on the Porch
By Sharon Creech
Expected publication September 3, 2013 by Harpercollins

One day, John and Marta discover a boy asleep on their porch - not a baby, a boy. But the boy doesn't speak and the only clue they have about him is a note: "Plees taik kair of Jacob. He is a god good boy. Wil be bak wen we can." Unsure of what to do, John and Marta do the only thing that feels right - they take care of Jacob. Their lives will never be quite the same.

I've only read a few of Sharon Creech's books, but I've enjoyed those that I have and I'm always meaning to read more. When I spotted her newest available as an e-galley, I knew I wanted to read it, so I requested and read as soon as I could.

This is an extremely quick read - it's just over 150 pages long, with many chapters that are only a few pages or a couple paragraphs long. It probably took me about an hour to read the whole thing. But that doesn't mean it's nothing special. While I'm not sure I'd say I like this as much as her previous books, I quite enjoyed it.

For me, I found this book rather unusual for a children's book, particularly one geared toward middle-grade readers. The main characters of this book are really John and Marta, two adults. Yes, Jacob features rather prominently, but, as he never speaks his own words, what we know of him comes through the lens of John and Marta. This doesn't mean that I think this book is unappealing for kids - in fact, it might even be the opposite. Most kids want to be older - everything will be better when they are older. Perhaps they will be even more likely to read a book with adults as main characters, hoping to gain some insight into what being older will be like. Though I'm not sure they'd find that in this book and this theory could be completely off the wall, it's interesting to consider.

Though it is a slim book, its power is in leaving readers wanting more. By the end of the story, I'm not sure any of a reader's questions will have been properly answered, but I don't think any readers will feel disappointed in this. This book, like many of Creech's, is about family - what it means, how it works, what you would do for them. I think it will leave readers appreciating their own families even more. It's a hopeful and peacefully lovely book, but there is just a little something missing for me, a little bit of the Creech magic that I didn't find.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Miniature Program Recaps

Sometimes I don't have terribly much to say about the programs I've run - either because I expect many librarians have already run a very similar program or because the program is pretty much self-explanatory. So, I've decided to lump a few of these programs all together here, just so I can continue to mention what I've been up to but not feel like I have to add a lot of filler to make a proper blog entry (what does that even mean? I leave that to you to decide). Without further ado!

Shrinky dink jewelry making: this is one of those program that I expect many libraries have already done. It is easy and simple and, amazingly, tons of fun! We provided the shrinky dink paper - each kid got one half-sheet at first (to make sure we had enough) and then a second when they had used their first. The number of items they ended up with depended on how wisely they had utilized their paper; I was able to make a pair of earrings, two keychains, and two magnets from my half-sheet. We also provided a number of print-outs they could trace - popular characters and general stencils as well. My colleague and I manned the toaster ovens and assisted with the jewelry assembly. This was a very popular program, one I don't think we'll ever get sick of running.

Soda tab bracelets: another craft I imagine most librarians have utilized in their day. Once again, we provided all the materials: soda tabs and plastic thread. We started a number of bracelets ahead of time, as getting the pattern started is often the most difficult part and we anticipated a large crowd. Thanks to this, we were able to get most kids off and working on their own relatively quickly. My colleague and I were there to help when kids got stuck or confused in the pattern and also to help tie a lot of finishing knots. I think every kid got to make two bracelets. Another very popular, very easy program.

Duct tape designs: if you can believe it, this was my first time crafting with duct tape; I never really got into it when I was younger. Because of my relative inexperience, the things I can create are limited, but not so limited as to not be exciting for the kids. At this program, our options were roses, wallets, and bows. I had severely underestimated how popular this program would be: I reached capacity within the first ten minutes, with a line of kids waiting outside the door for space to become available. Thankfully, I had a number of teen volunteers to help (though none of them had prior duct tape crafting experience, I gave them a tutorial before the kids arrived and they quickly learned on the job), as well as my more experienced colleague. A great majority of our time was devoted to tearing the duct tape for the kids, a skill that they seem to lack until at least high school age. We will definitely be doing this program again, probably with some different creation options.

Henna: one of the last summer programs we held and another one that has surely been done by many librarians before. Ours caused a bit of a last-minute panic, however. One of our colleagues is Indian and has assisted at these programs before, buying the henna supplies during her visits to India and taking on the majority of actual application of designs. That was once again our plan this summer, and the reason this program was one of the last - she would be in India for the majority of the summer, returning only shortly before the program was scheduled. However, a couple of weeks before the program, we discovered that she would not be returning to work until after our program - leaving us with no supplies and no one to actually apply the henna to our attendees. We enlisted the help of some teen volunteers to find out where we could acquire the supplies and bullied politely asked some of our more artistic friends to help with the application. We had a large turnout and I think everyone was satisfied with their designs. We provided some snacks and coloring sheets to keep kids entertained while they waited for their turn and for their henna to dry, though most of them just chatted among themselves. We ended up with a lot of henna leftover (as we had no idea how much to buy), so I imagine we might have this program again in the near future.

And those were some of my easy and popular summer programs! What simple but surprisingly popular programs do you run?