Saturday, November 30, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Who's on First?
By Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, illustrated by John Martz
Published 2013 by Quirk Books
A confession: I've never seen the classic comedy sketch in its entirety. However, I've seen pieces of it and, of course, am familiar with it, so I was looking forward to checking out this picture book version of it. I think it works extremely well. The layout of the book makes it easy to follow along the sketch, perhaps even more easily than just hearing it. The illustrations are bright, bold, and eye-catching and the dialogue bubbles will really appeal to kids. There is a note at the end of the book that explains the origins of the skit. I think this will be a popular book with young readers.

Ping Pong Pig
By Caroline Jayne Church
Published 2008 by Holiday House
I picked this one up because of the adorable pig on the cover, who appears to be flying through the air. Once I started reading, I realized this was the same author as Little Apple Goat, a picture book I really enjoyed. I liked this one, too, though not quite as much as the story of the goat. In this book, Ping Pong Pig really wants to fly and he spends his time trying to achieve his dream in any way possible. I love the illustrations - they are so cute. Kids will find this book fun.

Because I'm Your Dad
By Ahmet Zappa, illustrated by Dan Santat
Published 2013 by Disney-Hyperion
I literally cannot resist a Dan Santat illustrated book. This one was especially impossible to resist because of the adorable monsters on the cover. I was a bit hesitant about the book with its celebrity author but I was pleasantly surprised by it. It doesn't stray far from the formula of parent-child relationship picture books: in this case, basically a laundry list of all the things the dad and child will do together or the dad will do for the child. It's very sweet and I can see it finding a place on my own children's bookshelves (someday, far in the future, of course). The illustrations are what really make this for me - Santat is an illustrator I always seek out.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: Smoke

Smoke (Burned, book two)
By Ellen Hopkins
Published 2013 by Margaret K. McElderry Books

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

The road that Pattyn started on, the one that led her away from her family and to love, has taken her even farther off course than she could have imagined. Now, she is in hiding, living a life she never wanted as she tries to deal with the tragedies that led her here. Meanwhile, her sister Jackie is left to deal with their family and the consequences that have impacted them. Will the sisters find their way to peace? Will they ever be able to see each other again?

Burned was the only Ellen Hopkins book I hadn't read when I went to my first ALA conference a few years back, so I purchased a copy and devoured it. I was disappointed when I discovered there would be a sequel, as I thought it stood well on its own (plus, I'm completely getting series burnout). Well, the sequel has arrived and, of course, I was going to read it, whether I wanted it to exist or not. I basically cannot resist an Ellen Hopkins book. So, what did I think?

Well, I still think Burned could have worked as a standalone. However, it's not hard to get sucked into a Hopkins novel. She just has a way of grabbing you and pulling you into the story. I'm not sure the story here was as strong as in the first. I really liked the exploration of religion in the first and that's pretty much abandoned in this sequel. There is some discussion of it with Jackie's story, which may be one of the reasons why I actually liked Jackie's story better than Pattyn's. Additionally, I felt the storyline with the daughter of the family Pattyn works for to be tacked on and not fully developed. I like the idea of Hopkins showing hope after grief, but it seemed pretty cheesy to me that Pattyn would find someone else so quickly.

Overall, I was underwhelmed with this book, but I'll continue to read Hopkins whenever she publishes a new one.

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review: Reality Boy

Reality Boy
By A.S. King
Published 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Gerald did not have the best childhood - but you probably know that. After all, pretty much everyone he's ever known watched some of his childhood antics on that TV show with the nanny. But Gerald isn't five anymore; he can't deal with his anger the same way he did then. So, how will Gerald deal?

I've been hearing about this book all year and there was no way I was going to miss it - I think King has been doing some of the most interesting writing in YA lit. When I spotted the e-galley, I downloaded it immediately and read it as soon as possible.

This was a hard book for me to read. I know I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I love reading stories about sibling relationships, particularly dysfunctional ones. I love them, but they are also difficult for me. I did not have a good relationship with my brother as I grew up; he was significantly older than me, and struggled a lot with various issues. I seek out stories about similar relationships because I like to see how true they feel to me. I like to know that I wasn't alone in this difficult relationship. This book hit particularly close to home for me. We were never the subject of a TV show, but as I got older, I wondered if we should be. In many ways, I felt like Gerald, though I don't think I ever made the same behavioral decisions he did. I was the younger child, and I was angry a lot of the time at my older sibling, a sibling who (I felt) tortured me, a sibling I didn't think loved me. My brother never tried to drown me, or even hit me for that matter, like Tasha does. But I recognized a lot of the dysfunction in their family. I imagine people who didn't grow up with this sort of sibling relationship will be horrified and perhaps even find this difficult to believe. And yes, even though I did experience some of this dysfunction myself, I still occasionally found myself thinking, "How can his mother behave this way?" And yet, I know how.

Another thing that I liked about this is how King reminds us that these people from reality television are actually people: their lives don't begin and end with the show. Similarly, reality television is NOT ACTUAL REALITY. It's a carefully edited (and often scripted) version of reality. It is easy for us, as consumers of the product, to forget these things. I think King does a great job of reminding us of them without shoving them down our throat.

I feel conflicted about the relationship with Hannah. On the one hand, it seems too quirky and charming. On the other, I love the level of tension it added to the story. I felt like I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Hannah to cross the line and Gerald to snap completely. I feel like I read every word of their interactions with my breath held.

I don't know how King does what she does - every one of her books is written so well and is so believable. I hope she continues to write for many years to come - I will always pick up her books.

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

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: This Wicked Game

This Wicked Game
By Michelle Zink
Published 2013 by Dial

Claire is the latest in line for the family business - and that business is voodoo. A direct descendant of legendary priestess Marie Laveau, Claire is a skeptic. But when a customer comes seeking an ingredient used only for the darkest magic, Claire uncovers a plot that shows all the first-born children of the most prominent voodoo families in grave danger.

Okay, I'll just admit it: I picked this one up because voodoo. Well, and, Michelle Zink's earlier series had caught my eye; I just hadn't gotten around to it yet. I spotted this e-galley available and downloaded, finishing the book the day it was released actually.

Here's the thing: I wanted to like this book. And a part of me did. A part of me enjoyed the sheer ridiculousness of the whole thing. I'm not proud of this part of me, but I want to be honest. But the larger part of me? That part was going "WHAAAAAA....?"

If you've followed my blog for a while, you may have seen my review of Printz winner, In Darkness (if not, just go ahead and read that review; I promise it won't take long). The part I want to revisit here is something I touched on only briefly. I pondered how much of modern-day Haiti was still enmeshed in the culture of voodoo. The same pondering could be applied to modern day New Orleans, the setting of this book. For better or worse, voodoo is probably still one of the first things people think of when they think of New Orleans. And while I wondered about the parts of Haiti's culture that Lake did not touch upon in In Darkness, I can say for certain that there are many things about New Orleans that Zink completely left out and I don't think we can ignore that.

First of all, one thing I love most about reading books set in the South is the atmosphere - I've read many books that capture it quite nicely. This is not such a book. A few mentions of the terrible heat do not an atmosphere make. A few mentions of well-known landmarks do not an atmosphere make. How hard would it be to do some research and really imbue your work with the feeling one gets when in New Orleans? But, on a scale, this is merely a disappointment.

But if you're going to set your book in modern-day New Orleans, I don't think you can do so without talking about Katrina. Yes, it was many years ago now and much of the city has recovered. But, not all the city. There are still parts that look like the hurricane struck yesterday. How is it possible that these characters would have lived through Katrina and have literally nothing to say about it?

Well, I suppose that question could be answered with this bit of information: this book is chock-full of rich white folk. AND THAT IS IT. Really? I mean, REALLY? Oh, pardon me, some of the characters are exotic-looking and Claire's father is African-American (I had to look that up and must have missed that while reading because I literally spent the whole time thinking, "how is this blonde, blue-eyed white girl the direct descendant of Marie Laveau?"). I'm sorry, but "exotic" is a lazy ass way to cop out of describing characters of color. And do you really expect me to believe that all of the most powerful members of the voodoo guild (traditionally practiced by people of color) are white or "exotic"? It just doesn't work.

And then there is the whole issue of class: like I said, these are not just white folks - they are extremely rich white folks. And the book seems to suggest that voodoo is the source of their income. COME AGAIN? These people are not running voodoo tourist shops, but legitimate (well, legitimate in the weak depiction of voodoo in this novel's world) supply shops. How's that? Once again, you expect me to believe that there are enough people legitimately practicing voodoo AS A RELIGION to fund these people's mansions and luxury cars? DID I TAKE CRAZY PILLS?

That would get me into the whole issue of voodoo as a religion, which I don't imagine is anything like what is depicted here. I haven't done my homework but I doubt it's all donning white tunics and chanting while mixing some herbs together.

This is without even mentioning the sheer stupidity of these characters, the insane selfishness of Claire, and the ridiculousness of the plot. JUST, NO.

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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Program: Adventure Club

September brought with it the return of Adventure Club, our bimonthly program (alternating with American Girl Club) for 7-12 year-olds, and featuring a different exciting theme each month. For our first meeting of the new school year we went with Adventure Club: CSI Edition. Here's what we did!

Criminalist presentation: the coworker with which I share responsibility for this program had recently met the new criminalist for the city in which we work. As we chatted, the criminalist (I'll call her Ms. M) expressed an interest in coming to the library for programs focused on forensic science. My coworker was equally enthusiastic about this idea and, as we brainstormed themes for Adventure Club, we figured we'd take advantage of her generous offer. Arrangements were made and Ms. M joined us for our program. She prepared a 15-20-minute presentation in which she explained some of the aspects of her job. We live in a community without much crime, so a lot of what she spoke of she hadn't actually had a chance to practice, but that didn't seem to matter to the kids. Ms. M talked about what she does both at a crime scene and in her lab. She brought some of her equipment and showed it to the kids, explaining its purpose as she went. Finally, she demonstrated how she would dust for fingerprints. After her presentation was finished, the kids asked some questions and Ms. M gave great responses.

Fingerprinting: one of the easiest activities to tie into a CSI/forensics program is fingerprinting, so that's what we did. Ms. M fingerprinted each kid and then we provided them all with miniature magnifying glasses so they could study their prints. Ms. M had explained the different kinds of fingerprint patterns, so the kids were encouraged to figure out what kind of pattern they had. They loved this.

Observation skills test: during the program, we wanted to test the kids observation skills, but we wanted to do it sneakily (because we are like that). So, we enlisted a coworker to enter the room while the kids were studying their fingerprints and ask my coworker a question. She stayed for maybe 30 seconds and then left. After the kids had studied their prints and shared their findings with everyone, we asked them to describe the person who had come into the room. We explained that criminalists needed to have good observation skills at all times and this was how we were going to test theirs. The kids thought this was really cool, as we recorded their descriptions of our coworker and then had her re-enter the room. We compared their descriptions with her actual appearance. A very simple activity to highlight an important skill.

Sniff test: I found this experiment in a science book in our collection and thought it would be fun and easy for our program. My coworker and I gathered five different smells - rosemary, chocolate, coffee, curry, cinnamon - and made small sniff boxes (cardboard boxes we sealed with duct tape and then poked holes in the lids). I passed around one box at a time and instructed the kids to simply smell, no shaking or trying to peek (and no turning upside down!) and had them write down their guesses on detective notebooks we gave them. Unsurprisingly, curry was one of the difficult ones for them (I couldn't have told you what it was myself if I hadn't known). More surprisingly, coffee was another one they struggled with. Maybe their parents all drink tea. After everyone had smelled every box (plus an empty one we threw in there to throw them off) and Ms. M had tested her skills, too, I revealed the answers. They thought this was a really fun experiment.

And that was our program! I'd definitely consider it a success.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

A Long Way Away
By Frank Viva
Published 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
I liked Viva's A Trip to the Bottom of the World and this new title was getting a lot of buzz, so I was eager to check it out for myself. I don't like this one. I like the idea of a book that can be read in either direction and have a different story, but I don't actually like this one. I find it a little too weird for me. I don't like the art as much either. A miss for me.

By Mary Sullivan
Published 2013 by HMH Books for Young Readers
I love this book! Poor little dog just wants to find someone to play ball with. The story is so cute and realistic - this reminds me so much of the dog my parents had, just desperate for someone to play with. The illustrations are adorable and fun. I think kids will definitely like this one - they can probably even relate to it themselves! Very fun story.

In the Tree House
By Andrew Larsen, illustrated by Dusan Petricic
Published 2013 by Kids Can Press
I liked this story, as I usually enjoy stories about siblings. In this book, two brothers have grown apart since they built their tree house, but when the lights go out, they find themselves together again. It's very sweet and once again, like Blackout, demonstrates the power of simplicity and family and slowing down in this technology-obsessed world. Very sweet story for siblings.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: Man Made Boy

Man Made Boy
By Jon Skovron
Published 2013 by Viking Penguin

The only life Boy has ever known is The Show - after all, it would be difficult for the son of Frankenstein's Monster and the Bride to live among humans. Besides, he lives a pretty intense life on the Internet; Boy has amazing hacking skills. But when Boy's hacking goes awry, he'll have to set out for the world of humans - and maybe find a place he really belongs.

A tweet from Libba Bray about the greatness of this book was all it took for me to scrawl the title on my to-read list. Even better, it popped up as an e-galley on Edelweiss, so I snagged it while I could. I like stories that build from other stories - and this one has that in spades, including Frankenstein's Monster, Jekyll and Hyde, the Siren, and many more infamous "monsters."

The book is separated into parts, each focusing on a different part of Boy's journey (man, I wish he had a real name by the end of the book). Unfortunately, not all the parts are equal - I found part 2 dragged quite a bit for me. In contrast, I absolutely flew through parts 3, 4, and 5 - the characters and conflict have been established and the action really picks up. Part 2 seemed like an unnecessary bridge between parts 3 and 4 and I think it lasted longer than necessary. Overall, though, I liked the separation of the book into these parts, as they easily signaled that the focus would shift slightly.

I also really like Boy - he's a new creation (if you will) by Skovron, and I think he does a great job placing him in the context of our world. What would it be like for Frankenstein's Monster in modern times? While Boy is not exactly the same as his father, he shares many similarities. I think the whole notion of creation vs. creator is explored really well throughout the book - it's something Boy has to struggle with and doesn't fully understand until the final pages. I also liked Claire and Sophie - I thought Skovron offered an interesting take on Jekyll and Hyde with the girls. I liked how they were similar but also had differences.

I thought the idea of VI was well-done, though I'm very fuzzy on the science of it (would such a thing be possible? and the whole explanation of Boy's defeat of her basically went over my head). All in all, I thought this was a fun and well-done read, with lots of appeal.

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review: The Kingdom of Little Wounds

The Kingdom of Little Wounds
By Susann Cokal
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press

When disaster strikes the royal family of Skyggehavn, two servants of the royal house - Ava, a seamstress, and Midi, a nursemaid - find themselves caught in the turmoil. Soon, everything will change for them, as they become a part of history.

I started getting excited about this book a long time ago - I think I first spotted it on The Book Smugglers' weekly radar post. The cover is gorgeous and evocative and the premise sounded really interesting. The book started getting a ton of buzz as well, and I am usually a big fan of most of what Candlewick publishes, so I got even more excited for this. I requested an e-galley when it came to my attention and binged on the novel one recent week, eager to finish before they discussed it over on Someday My Printz Will Come.

I'm really conflicted about this book. On the one hand, it's a beautifully written book, a sweeping story that sucks you in and doesn't let go until the last page. On the other, it's graphic (sometimes, in my opinion, gratuitously so) and difficult and doesn't fit my notion of a young adult book. Let's see if I can unpack this a bit.

Starting with the positive, yes, this book is beautifully written. The prose is lush and gripping. I love that this is set in Renaissance Scandinavia - what a fascinating time and location for an epic story. I think readers will be drawn to it because of that setting - how often have you seen that, in a book for young adults or a book in general? Not terribly often, I'd say. Similarly, I really liked the alternating viewpoints - I felt like it gave readers a chance to see the action from many sides and get a more complete picture. It kept the story moving along as well, to move frequently between different points of view.

That being said, there were things about this that were just not so good for me. By the end of the first chapter, I had already decided in my mind that this was in no way a young adult book, simply because this book starts out gruesome and continues in that vein the whole way through. It's hard for me to articulate what exactly it is about this that pushes it so clearly out of YA for me. If you know me, you'd know that I'm a firm believer in the notion of self-censoring - that is, I believe kids and teens are fully capable of deciding for themselves which topics and issues they are ready to read about at any given time. And, indeed, many of the issues present in this book can be found in other teen books to which I would have no objection - miscarriage, rape, sexually transmitted diseases, sex as a weapon of power, and so on. Perhaps it is in the confluence of all these issues in one book that makes this a hard sell for me. Perhaps it is just that they are all depicted so unapologetically graphically. Perhaps it is because I felt that some of it was completely unnecessary in moving the plot along. This ties closely with the age of the characters - yes, Ava and Midi are teenagers (two of the main characters). But they are teenagers at a time when such a concept did not exist. Nearly every other character they interact with is an adult or a young child and the third main character, the queen, is clearly an adult. This makes it even more difficult to view this book as a YA novel. I read a lot of historical fiction and this book has me wondering why I've never felt this an issue before. Surely, I've read other books with teen-aged characters in times when that would have made them adults in society's eyes. But it has never been an issue as it feels like with this book.

The author's note is terribly interesting as well - in parts even more interesting than the rest of the book. But when the author sums up her own novel as "a fairy tale about syphilis," that just leaves me baffled about publishing this for a YA audience.

As I said, I'm really conflicted about this one, and really would like to hear thoughts from others, particularly teens.

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: Bake Sale

Bake Sale
By Sara Varon
Published 2011 by First Second

Cupcake has a pretty sweet life - pun intended. He loves his job in the bakery and he loves spending time with his best friend, Eggplant. Things have been just a little bit off lately, though, and Cupcake is determined to figure out the solution.

I read this towards the end of summer, as I was desperately trying to finish my summer reading log. I picked it up because it's one of the current Bluebonnet books, plus it would be a quick read. Plus, I love graphic novels. I really, really did not love this one, however.

I think this is the first book by Varon that I've read and I just did not like it. My coworker was very surprised; she had just finished reading it and thought it was fun and sweet. I, on the other hand, found the whole thing too strange and creepy to enjoy. Even the premise of a cupcake that runs a bakery making cupcakes was just too weird for me. Honestly, it seemed a bit macabre.

Additionally, I'm not sure I get the point of this story. Yes, I understand that it's meant to say something a bit profound about friendship and not taking things for granted and whatnot, but it all came out a little weird and jumbly for me.

Ultimately, compared to the other Bluebonnet books I've read so far this year, this one falls far short of being award-worthy, in my opinion. Just did not work for me.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Program: beTWEEN the lines/Write for Your Life

Today I want to talk about two different programs that I've been running this fall, but which have had similar results. The first is beTWEEN the lines, the book club I've been running for about 18 months now. It's geared toward kids 9-12 and we've used two different formats over its run. For the first year, we all read the same book and then had a discussion based around questions I generated. The kids liked this, but it was time-consuming and costly (purchasing copies of the books for the kids to use). As summer 2013 approached, I decided to take a different tack. I would choose a genre and then kids could read any book they wanted within that genre. Our meetings would consist of each person introducing their book and then a few simple questions and any other discussion that might arise. I told my regular attendees that we would revisit how book club functioned after summer, as they didn't love the new format and I was not sold on the notion of returning to the original format.

September arrived and the first meeting of book club. I had designated it as "reader's choice," hoping that everyone would just talk about some of their favorite books from the summer. I had only one attendee, a newly-minted 9-year-old. None of my regular attendees from the previous school year (I was up to six consistently) showed up and, if you've ever held a program with only one attendee, you know how awkward that can be. I had her tell me about any book she wanted and I shared my own. We had about 15 minutes of conversation and then I told her she was free to go. I chalked up the lack of attendance to the hectic nature of resuming school and getting back on a schedule.

I'd like to say that things were different in my October meeting, but I'd be lying. Since only one person had shown up to the September meeting, I kept the genre format for October and this time we read graphic novels (and yes, I know, it's a format not a genre). Once again, I had the one attendee. Once again, I encouraged her to tell me about her book and I told her about mine. She seemed really interested in what I'd read (one of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, review to come later) and read the first few pages but didn't end up taking it home. We had about 10 minutes of conversation this time around before I let her go. Thinking that perhaps the genre format really was keeping participants away, I announced the November read as Amelia Lost! by Candace Fleming. This will be my last attempt at book club. If I don't have a good turnout in November, it will be over.

Write for Your Life is a new program, begun in September as a response to patron requests. Quite frequently, we get asked for creative writing programs for kids, so I put one on the calendar in summer. I had pretty good attendance and, of the attendees, some seemed very enthusiastic, so I decided to schedule something monthly in the fall.

Two girls showed up for my September meeting. We did a short icebreaker and I went over the basic rules. I gave them some simple writing advice (I'm not a teacher, by any means, so this was gleaned from teacher and author resources), and then we did two simple writing exercises. I stressed that this was intended to be fun and that we would try different writing experiments at each meeting. Mainly, it was to be a time and place for them to write freely and get feedback if they wished. I also encouraged them to bring writing they did outside the program and I would provide some input.

The October meeting had three attendees, with one girl returning from September and two new faces. I am almost positive that one attendee was there at the behest of his parents and that they were under the false impression that I would be teaching writing skills, so I don't really expect him to return, though I think he had a good time. Once again, I started the meeting with introductions and basic rules and advice. Then, because it was October and because the girls in September had requested it, we wrote our own scary stories. I gave them prompts to choose from and also printed a few spooky photos they could use as inspiration. We spent the majority of our time writing our stories and then I became the designated reader and read everyone's aloud. That pretty much filled our time, so I thanked them all and they headed home.

I didn't expect a huge crowd for this writing program, but considering the number of requests we get for such a thing, I expected more than a couple. Though this program does not involve a ton of time and effort, it seems silly to keep it on the calendar with such low attendance, so November will also be the make or break month for writing club.

I will be sad to see either of these programs end, as they are among the most frequently requested programs at our library. Does anyone have success stories for either kind of program? Advice about what I could do differently?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Toys in Space
By Mini Grey
Published 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
I've seen Mini Grey's books around before and have been drawn to the illustrations - they just look like so much fun. So, when I spotted this newest title on our new book cart, I immediately picked it up and read it. It's a bit of a confusing story, and a little too long for a storytime crowd, but I can see this being a popular bedtime read. The toys get left outside and end up on a space adventure. It's entertaining, and I loved how everything came together at the end. Definitely a cute story. 

By Mies Van Hout
Published 2013 by Lemniscaat USA
I love, love, loved Happy by Van Hout - the simplicity was great but I thought it was an excellent example of a concept book done very right. This new book is almost as fantastic. In this book, Van Hout explores friendship and all the things that can mean. Once again, I love that she doesn't shy away from negative emotions and interactions in these books - kids should learn these things, too. I don't love the illustrations quite as much in this one, but this is another fantastic concept book from Van Hout.

The King of Space
By Jonny Duddle
Published 2013 by Templar
This was a somewhat amusing book about a little boy who wants to be the king of space - a feat he actually manages to accomplish. However, when he gets into a bit of trouble, he won't be able to hide the truth from his parents anymore. It's kind of a cute book, with illustrations that look like they come straight from Pixar or Dreamworks studio - which will definitely be appealing to kids. The story is a bit long, though, and not as funny as one might hope. An okay read.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Review: Waiting for the Magic

Waiting for the Magic
By Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Amy June Bates
Published 2011 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
When William's father leaves one night and doesn't come back, he's not sure how he feels. When his mother takes him and his sister to the shelter and ends up adopting four dogs and a cat, he's even more confused. And when his sister insists that the animals are speaking to her, well, William is pretty sure the whole world's gone crazy.
I picked this one up as a quick read over the summer as I was trying to set a good example and finish my summer reading log (we hung staff summer reading logs next to our desk this year so kids could see what we were reading). That's not the only reason I grabbed this one, though; it's also a current Bluebonnet book (the state book award here in Texas). Plus, I don't think I've read a Patricia MacLachlan book since Sarah, Plain and Tall and that felt frankly criminal.
This is really quite an extraordinary book. Surface level and writing-wise, it's a very simple book, something that could easily be read and enjoyed by kids just venturing into chapter books (and, indeed, that seems to be where the majority of MacLachlan's books fall). Younger kids will be excited and enthralled by the simple magic that MacLachlan has imbued her story with - what young child doesn't wish they could talk to animals?
This is a book with a deeper emotional level, however; William and Elinor (and their mother) are dealing with his father's leaving and it gives them all a muddle of emotions to sort through. This is a book dealing with a tough subject in a clear and concise way, speaking to kids on a level they can easily understand. While this, like many books on tough subjects for younger readers, ends on a happy note, it's lovely to see more and more books for kids that address the particular difficulties they may be facing in a realistic and honest way (although the magic in here makes this a little beyond the realm of realistic). The characters shine and I enjoyed the simple illustrations as well.
I definitely recommend this to readers looking for a quietly magical story and I'll be revisiting MacLachlan's work as soon as possible.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: Pandemonium

Pandemonium (Delirium, book two)
By Lauren Oliver, read by Sarah Drew
Published 2012 by HarperCollins
WARNING: There will likely be spoilers ahead. To read my review of book one, go here.
Things for Lena are radically different than they were just a few short months ago. Now, she tries to push away her thoughts of Alex and Hana, struggling to adjust to the life she's forced to live now. Things are about to change for Lena again.
Despite what I find to be a rather ridiculous premise, I rather enjoyed the first book in this series. When I finally had some free space on my iPod, I went ahead and downloaded the second book. Here's where I'll put my notes on the format: I still can't get used to Sarah Drew as a narrator, and I'm pretty sure I should stop listening to books that she reads. She just sounds too much like Mandy Moore and it's so distracting for me. Additionally, I really wish I had read this one instead of listened: the constant temporal switching in the narrative was really difficult to follow in audio form unless I was paying very close attention.
That being said, I think this is a pretty successful second book in a trilogy. Often, the second book suffers, as the author is sometimes just filling space while building to the epic finale that will be book three. Oliver apparently knows what she's doing, as that's not the case in this book. Despite my problems following along with it, I think the flashbacks work really well here to keep readers engaged in the story. I think without them, the book would have easily fallen into the dreaded second book slump, so kudos to Oliver.
But, I have to take a bit of my praise of her away for returning to that old trope: the love triangle. If there were as many love triangles in real life as there are in novels, I don't think anyone would ever settle down and find their match. In general, love triangles fall in my "I just don't care enough" wheelhouse, and this one isn't really any exception. I suppose what might make it more interesting is thinking of it in the context of the world that Oliver has created but, really, we all know I don't have time for that.
Overall, this is a strong sequel to an interesting series starter. I'll be reading book three to see how it all wraps up.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: The Creature Department

The Creature Department
By Robert Paul Weston
Published 2013 by Razorbill

Elliot Von Doppler has always wondered what exactly it is his uncle does in his job at the mysterious DENKi-3000 company. He is thrilled when his uncle finally invites him, along with another student from his class, Leslie, to visit the factory. What Elliot and Leslie discover is beyond their wildest imaginings - and the magic they discover is in terrible danger. Can Elliot and Leslie help Uncle Archie save the company?

I requested this e-galley because I'd enjoyed one of Weston's books before (Zorgamazoo, though it was a bit odd) and because I'm still trying to read more middle-grade. Like the first Weston book I read, I found this one rather odd.

I'll admit, I was initially disappointed that this book was not written in verse (as Zorgamazoo was), simply because I love reading novels in verse. Once I got over this disappointment, I tried to engage myself with the book at hand. Unfortunately, I had a difficult time with that. I really wanted to like this book - I'm always looking for more fantastic middle grade to recommend to readers at my library (and, yes, I'm aware that I haven't read even close to everything that's been published in the last few years). The premise of this one was interesting but a bit tired. Of course, the kids are the only ones who can rescue the company from the imminent takeover by an evil conglomerate.

I guess my main problem with the whole thing is that it all just seemed a little much. The kids having to save everyone, the introduction of the actual creatures, the fact that the company looking to take over DENKi-3000 is actually being run by the creatures natural enemies - it all just seemed a little too forced and a little too silly to me. Additionally, this book suffered a bit from pacing. At times, it seemed repetitive and it felt overly long to me. I'm not sure how many readers will have the patience to keep going with this book at the less than exciting pace it takes.

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

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Program: beTWEEN the lines

For our last meeting of the summer, I chose the genre of realistic fiction. I had two of my regular attendees show up along with a few other enthusiastic kids. We followed the same format as we had with the other summer meetings. Each kid told us about what book they'd read and I'd ask them a few questions about it (did they like it, would they recommend it, etc.). With this meeting in particular, the kids actually seemed interested in the books read by their peers and the last few minutes of the meeting were spent with them sharing book recommendations among themselves. Here's a list of what they read:

The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow
The Hardy Boys #5: The Rocky Road by Franklin W. Dixon (which, yes, is actually a mystery, but I explained that some books might fit more than one genre)
Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen
Almost Home and Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

I read Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan (review here). We spent a little time at the end of the meeting talking about what other genres we might explore in future meetings and that was it!

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I had tried a different format for the summer sessions of book club. Instead of everyone reading the same book and then using discussion questions I generated, we all read books of our choosing from a specific genre (which I chose). The kids were not enthusiastic about this idea when I mentioned it in the spring and I told them we'd revisit it after summer was over. So, how did it go? I had pretty consistent turnout with the new format and I enjoyed watching them try to booktalk and recommend things to each other. Initially, I had planned to revisit the structure of book club in the August meeting, but when I saw only two of my regular attendees, I decided to postpone until September. Have you had success with a book club for upper elementary kids?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Yoo-Hoo, Ladybug!
By Mem Fox, illustrated by Laura Ljungkvist
Published 2013 by Beach Lane Books
This is sure to be a popular book with kids. It's your typical seek-and-find - Ladybug loves to hide and kids will love to search for her in various scenes. It's definitely for a younger age than the I Spy books - the pages are not as detailed as the ones found in the popular series. It's perfect for the younger set, though - it's fun and bright and kids will love looking for the ladybug.

Mary Wrightly, So Politely
By Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Maria Monescillo
Published 2013 by HMH Books for Young Readers
Mary is the most polite girl you'll ever meet - she might even be too polite. She is soft-spoken and shy but with perfect manners. Until, that is, someone gets between her and the toy she has picked out for her baby brother. Will Mary finally speak up? I like the illustrations here and I like the message that it's not impolite to speak up when you think you're being wronged. However, the rest of the book is a little muddled for me - Mary apologizes for some things which are clearly not her fault and I don't think that's a good message at all. Mixed bag for me.

Isabella Star of the Story
By Jennifer Fosberry, illustrated by Mike Litwin
Published 2013 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
This is the third story starring Isabella. In this installment, a trip to the library sets Isabella on a grand adventure through a number of beloved stories. There's nothing terribly complicated about this story - each spread features Isabella starring as the main character in a new story, including The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. The illustrations evoke each story nicely and there are short notes to introduce unfamiliar stories to readers at the end of the book. I imagine this will be a favorite for book lovers. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Review: The Running Dream

The Running Dream
By Wendelin Van Draanen

Published 2011 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Jessica is a runner - it's just a fact. Who she is. Or who she was. Because Jessica has lost her leg in a car accident. And now she's not sure she can ever be the same person. It will take a lot of support and a new friend for Jessica to figure out that she can still be a runner.

I mentioned a while back that I was participating in The Hub's Reading Challenge. As is typical of me, I haven't finished reviewing the books I read for the challenge yet. This is one of those titles. I chose this one from the list because it had also been a Lone Star book when I first moved to Texas. Additionally, I don't read a lot of books about disability and, of those that I do read, even fewer about physical disability. Since this was a multiple award winner, I figured it'd be a good choice for expanding my horizons.

What an understatement that is. I loved this book. It is beautiful in its simplicity and straightforwardness. I loved that Van Draanen didn't feel the need to complicate Jessica's story with a lot of unnecessary filler. I love that she really focuses on Jessica's journey - her apathy and depression after the accident, her grueling recovery, and her optimism gaining a second wind. I, like many readers of young adult literature, read a lot of depressing and sad books through my love of YA lit. It was so refreshing and joyful to read this book, then - I think I smiled more than I have during reading in a long time. Because despite the tragedy that befalls Jessica, her bright and hopeful personality keep the book afloat. Even when she is struggling in the immediate aftermath of her amputation, it feels hopeful. And I really like that Van Draanen carried this hope through to the end. In particular, I'm thinking how this ending starkly contrasts with the ending of Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper - an ending that, for me, nearly ruined the overall effect of the book. I like that things turn out wonderfully for Jessica. I love how present and supportive her parents are. I love that even the things I found uncomfortable (Jessica's teammates starting a campaign for her without asking her opinion first) felt very true to life. Yes, that is probably exactly what a high school track team would do. There is just so much about this book that I find appealing - I devoured it, not wanting to put it down at the end of each lunch hour. I really enjoyed this book and wish there were more like it - I'd forgotten how lovely it can be to be uplifted by what you read. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review: Across a Star-Swept Sea

Across a Star-Swept Sea (For Darkness Shows the Stars, book two)
By Diana Peterfreund
Published 2013 by Balzer + Bray

Out of a terrible uprising in which the ruling class is winding up brain-damaged, the Wild Poppy surfaces. The Wild Poppy is their hope for rescue. No one imagines that the famous spy is actually the secret identity of Persis Blake, an aristocrat known for her love of fashion more than an interest in politics. But with the arrival of a famous scientist from the warring island, all of Persis' hard work is in danger.

I simply adored For Darkness Shows the Stars - from the worldbuilding to the characters, I found it a very well-crafted novel. So, Peterfreund's new book was, indeed, one of my most anticipated of the year. I was so thrilled to snag an ARC at TLA - I think I actually gaped at the booth rep for a minute after she handed me the book. I started the book prior to its release date but, of course, got caught up in other things and didn't finish it before then.

For a great portion of the novel, I wondered how the two books would be connected. Yes, it was obvious they were set in the same general world, though this story takes place in a different land than the first. There were no character overlaps (they did appear later, however, for better or worse) and I kind of wondered if it mattered that the books didn't really seem to have terribly much in common. Like the first book, this is a sci-fi retelling of a classic novel; in this case, that novel is The Scarlet Pimpernel. While I can't remember definitely if I've read Persuasion or not, I know for sure that I've never read The Scarlet Pimpernel. Once again, I wondered if this would affect my experience with this book. I'll admit, about a third of the way through, I went to Wikipedia and read the entry on The Scarlet Pimpernel - I needed to know if the things I'd assumed were true.

From what I can tell, this book is exactly what it purports to be - a science fiction retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Quite obviously, the Wild Poppy is the new Scarlet Pimpernel, and most of the other threads of the plot seem unchanged. It's possible that reading this has sparked in me a small interest in reading the classic story, but we'll see if that ever comes to pass.

As I loved the worldbuilding in the first book, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this book was set within that same world. I guess I hadn't realized that when I first heard about this book, but it was quite nice. Though this book doesn't take place in the same land as the first, the history is generally the same and I enjoyed coming to this completely new story and new characters with my knowledge of the world already in place. I feel like this gave me more opportunity to focus on the story and characters.

I liked the characters well enough here, though I'm not sure I loved them as completely as I did in For Darkness Shows the Stars. I'm a big fan of the secret identity trope, so obviously Persis was my favorite. I loved how smart she was, and cunning, and unafraid of doing the right thing. I loved how personal this mission was for her, but also how global. I think Peterfreund does characters, particularly young women, very well. I didn't love Justen quite as much, but I did enjoy his backstory. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't like him - I suppose I found him a bit too stubborn and frustrating. Which leads me to my next point...

The story was, at times, incredibly frustrating. This was an instance where I felt like a lot of bad feelings could have been avoided if only the characters were better at talking to each other. Yes, I really that Persis is a spy and is quite necessarily leery of who she trusts. But, at least in my opinion, it seemed quite obvious that Justen was on her side, so her refusal to confide in him and the mess that ensued because of this was a bit irritating. I also fully realize that my issues with the story likely stem from the original story - as I said, it seems that Peterfreund didn't stray too far from the plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel in her version, so it seems likely I'd be just as frustrated reading the original as I was here.

All in all, however, I did very much enjoy this book and would be pleased to see more stories set in this world. Definitely recommended to fans of the first and to those looking for a good science fiction read.

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

Monday, November 4, 2013

Review: Never Fall Down

Never Fall Down
By Patricia McCormick
Published 2012 by Balzer + Bray

Arn was just a kid when the soldiers marched into his Cambodian village and changed his life forever. He is taken to the countryside, separated from his family, and forced to work in a labor camp. A quick decision and a small lie will help Arn's chances of survival but no matter what, he'll never be the same.

I don't really read a lot of books about war. It sounds weird to say it, but it just doesn't really interest me. However, this book received a ton of acclaim and the fact that it was inspired by a true story interested me. I decided it would be one of the books I'd read for The Hub Reading Challenge. I'm glad I did.

It also seems odd to say this about such a depressing story, but this book enchanted me. From the first sentence, I was completely sucked into Arn's story, wanting and needing to know what would happen next, how would Arn survive, how would it all end. The simple and straightforward way it was told helped to create this spell, pulling me so completely into the narrative. I read this book in just a few hours, devouring it as quickly as I could.

Arn's voice is believable and heartbreaking. I admit, I was a bit hesitant to read this kind of narrative - the real Arn's voice through Patricia McCormick. I wondered if it would really work, or if I would be able to spot any intrusion of McCormick's own voice in the story. The story really does seem to be told as Arn himself would tell it - at least in my limited understanding of Arn the real person. Though he does speak English now, he is not a native speaker, and that is reflected in the narrative here. I think that is part of what makes this book such a compelling read. Clipped, direct speech. Short sentences. A fair amount of dialogue. All things that keep the action and story moving along at a relatively fast pace. I did not spot any instances of McCormick's own voice intruding on the story. That doesn't mean that they may not exist, just that I didn't find them in my own reading of the book.

I also freely admit my extremely limited knowledge of Cambodian history and the Killing Fields. Perhaps this helped make the story more interesting for me. Even if I've forgotten a lot of my history classes, I still remember the big stuff, the stuff that a lot of books about WWI or WWII will touch upon. Not knowing much about this tragedy made everything about the story new for me.

And this is a tragedy. Arn's story broke me, though there is hope among the awfulness. I definitely cried while reading this book and I think it's an important story for teens to see. I highly recommend this.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Program: Spa Day

Spa Day was my last big program of the summer and it was a huge hit. I had been thinking about doing this program for a while now and finally decided to just go ahead and put it on the calendar. It was definitely a successful program, filling the room and running out of supplies, and I'll do it again some time in the future. Here's what we did!

Kool-Aid Lip Gloss: this was maybe the simplest of all the products we made, though they were all very simple. The first step here was to find a partner who wanted the same flavor as you. The reason for this was because it was easier to break down the petroleum jelly and Kool-Aid into sizes that would end up making two containers worth of gloss. We didn't run into any problems with kids not finding someone who wanted the same flavor and we ended up with some leftover. After that, it's incredibly simple. My teens and I had already measured out quantities of petroleum jelly into small cups. The partners then simply added their chosen flavor of Kool-Aid and stirred with all their might. The recipes I'd seen called for heating the petroleum jelly to make it more liquid and, thus, easier to stir, but some experimenting before the program showed that this wasn't really necessary. I bought small paint pots at the craft store for kids to take their creation home in. They loved this. The link doesn't seem to be working for the blog I found this one on.

Honey Foaming Bath Soap: this was one of the messier crafts of the program, though the kids didn't get as messy as my teen volunteers and I. Once again, we used small squeeze bottles bought from the craft store for kids to carry their soap home; in addition, the soap was made directly in the bottles, as it comes together with just a little vigorous shaking. I don't have exact measurements because it really depends on how large a container you're using, but we had the kids fill their bottles a quarter full of honey. On top of this, they added liquid hand soap until their bottles were half full. Then, they filled their bottles the rest of the way with light olive oil. They screwed on their caps (tightly) and with a shake, the mixture came together. We made sure to let them know to give it a good shake before using it. Here's the recipe I used.

Stained Glass Votive Holders: I had the least amount of supplies for this because candle holders are not cheap and I really didn't know how many kids I'd have. This was a really simple craft. I had two small plastic buckets with Mod Podge in them and foam brushes. The kids painted their clear glass votive holders with a layer of Mod Podge, affixed their chosen colors and quantities of small tissue paper flowers (precut with a scrapbook punch before the program), and then added a final layer of Mod Podge. As with all things that require glue or paint, they didn't seem to understand the "a little bit goes a long way" concept, so a lot of their votives were not dry by the end of the program. They seemed pleased with the results regardless.

Brown Sugar Body Scrub: okay, maybe this was the messiest of all the crafts because the brown sugar got everywhere! Once again, we used the simplest recipe possible. Equal parts white sugar and brown sugar in a small glass jar. Add enough olive oil to cover the sugar and stir it all together with a craft stick. Part of the reason the brown sugar got everywhere is that the kids believed their could shake their jars instead of stirring and many of them did not fully close the lids before attempting this. Here's the recipe.

That was it! All of the recipes for what we made were things I found on Pinterest. Most important for me for this program was finding extremely simple recipes that didn't require a lot of steps and also nothing that required any heat (we don't have access to a heating element in our program room, besides an old microwave on its last legs). That means fun things like bath fizzies and homemade soap were out, but we'll see if I can incorporate them into a similar program at some point in the future. As I mentioned, we ended up running out of supplies - I think I had bought enough containers for 45-50 kids at each craft (except the votive holders) and all of them ran out. Still, every kid had a chance to go home with something and they all had a great time.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Nugget & Fang
By Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Michael Slack
Published 2013 by HMH Books for Young Readers
Nugget and Fang are best friends - yes, even though one is a shark and the other is a minnow. Everything is great for the friends - until Nugget starts minnow school. Nugget begins to question his friendship with Fang. But when the school is in danger, who will rescue them? This is a fun story about how appearances can be deceiving and you can't believe everything you hear. I think kids will really appreciate the humor in this one.

That Is Not a Good Idea!
By Mo Willems
Published 2013 by Balzer + Bray
Another winner from Willems - this one featuring a dastardly-looking fox and a sweet old goose. This is a great one for storytime, as the refrain is begging to be shouted by a large group of children. Funny and clever with a surprise ending - it seems like there is no stopping Willems. He knows exactly how to appeal to kids and I'm happy to keep reading his books as long as he keeps making them.

Phoebe & Digger
By Tricia Springstubb, illustrated by Jeff Newman
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press
This was a fun book. Phoebe plays with her digger when her mother is busy with the new baby. But what happens when a big girl takes Phoebe's digger away from her? I like that Phoebe acts realistically - her reactions are basically what I would expect from a typical preschooler. I thought the solution was realistic as well. I like the illustrations - an interesting style.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Review: Winger

By Andrew Smith
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster

Ryan Dean West is one of the biggest misfits at his school - a sex-obsessed 14-year-old junior who's in love with his best friend and living in the dorm for troublemakers. Oh, and he plays rugby, too (that's pretty important). Can Ryan man up and make a move on Annie? And what does this year's rugby season have in store for him?

This book was getting rave reviews before and immediately after its release. I had requested an e-galley and was happy to be approved. Unfortunately, I only managed to read about half of the book before my copy expired, so I had to wait for my library to get a copy before I could finish it. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book.

On the one hand, this book has an incredibly realistic voice. Ryan Dean sounds exactly like a 14-year-old boy. Yes, he's obsessed with sex. He's also obsessed with rugby. He struggles with doing the right thing and doing the popular thing. He has a bit of a short temper. He lacks a lot of self-confidence. He just feels so authentic. And the rest of the characters feel pretty authentic, too. This book is smart and funny and there is a reason why pretty much every review of this book mentions a certain other YA author by name.

And, on that same hand, the twist that comes near the end was completely unexpected and surprising and heart wrenching and basically destroyed me. It works so, so well here because it's just like life - it sucker-punches you right out of the blue and changes your entire life. It destroyed me all the more because it felt so realistic.

But, on the other hand, the twist is jarring - here, you've been reading this book for over 400 pages and you think you're reading one kind of book but it turns out it's not really that book at all. I can imagine this being an uncomfortable change for some readers.

Additionally, though I enjoy that Ryan's voice is so realistic, I felt that sometimes he was trying a bit too hard to be funny or shocking. It got tiresome for me in a book this long. And, on that note, I don't think the book needed to be this long. A lot of what happened before the big twist began to feel pretty repetitive.

So, the book is good and emotional, but I still had some issues. I'd be interested to see if it's being discussed in award circles and whether there are other criticisms of it.

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