Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year in Review, Part Three

Librarian of Snark's Favorite YA Books of 2013

Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Game by Barry Lyga

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Reality Boy by A.S. King

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Honorable Mentions

Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston

The Fall of Five by Pittacus Lore

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

Unsouled by Neal Shusterman

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

I know I'm getting quite repetitive, but I remind you that this is but a small sample of the YA books I read this year. I managed 119 total (once again, overlapping a bit with middle-grade). For Printz contenders, I continue to wonder how the committee manages to keep up with all the reading (though I suppose I could manage if I stopped reading middle-grade and adult novels). I'd be terribly pleased to see Boxers & Saints, Fangirl, Two Boys Kissing, or Rose Under Fire among the winners circle. My prediction last year (The Fault in Our Stars) didn't even get a silver, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

My overall stats for the year:

- 422 books total (148 picture book, 100 middle-grade, and 120 YA, plus a smattering of adult books - probably more than last year): my total is over 100 books less than last year, which doesn't surprise me terribly much, particularly with the number of picture books going down by about 100.
- 91,723 pages read: this is only about 2,000 less pages than last year, so I don't feel like I did terribly much less reading.
- 42 5-star reads, 161 4-star reads, 144 3-star reads, 56 2-star reads, and 10 1-star reads (I don't think I had any did-not-finish books this year)

Looking back at my most anticipated reads of the year, I did manage to find time for all the series books I was looking forward to except two - and of those two, one had its publication date pushed to 2014. I didn't do so well with the standalones - I still have half of them on my to-read list.

That's my wrap-up of 2013. I expect once again that 2014 will be a busy year for me - I'm a second-round Cybils judge in the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category and I've accepted another YALSA committee appointment (once again, not one that will effect the content of my blog). I am going to put it in writing here - one of my goals for 2014 is to read the books I currently have in my house. What does that mean? Well, expect less of the brand new and shiny, though I'll still be getting some ARCs. I'd really like to read the ARCs I've acquired at past conferences and find new homes for them (not to mention, clear some of my shelf space). So I've made a promise to myself - no library books (unless they are for my boyfriend). Let's see how well I do!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Beneath a Meth Moon

Beneath a Meth Moon
By Jacqueline Woodson
Published 2012 by Nancy Paulsen Books

From the outside, it looks like Laurel has moved on. She's living in a new town, going to a new school, cheerleading, and she even has a new boyfriend. But inside, Laurel is still a mess. She is still grieving the loss of her life before - before Hurrican Katrina, before her mother and grandmother died. So, when Laurel's new boyfriend introduces her to meth - what Laurel calls "moon" - she easily falls under its spell.

I think one of my goals for next year is to keep up with reviewing - this is a book I read for the Hub Reading Challenge back in June and am just now reviewing. Obviously, I read faster than I review, but I need to get in the practice of writing my reviews soon after I finish reading the books. I sometimes struggle remembering details about books because I've waited too long after completing them to review. In any case, this is a book that I might not have read if not for the Reading Challenge - I don't read a lot of "problem" novels or books that deal with drugs and substance abuse. Maybe it's because that stuff hits a little too close to home for me (family history), but for whatever reason, I just don't gravitate toward these kinds of stories. I read this one for the challenge because it was readily available from my library and because it had gotten a lot of praise. I'm glad I chose this one.

This may be the first Jacqueline Woodson novel I've read and I can see I've been missing out - she is a gifted writer. This book is gritty and gut-wrenching, difficult and uplifting. I loved the way Woodson told the story - short chapters, which seem to mirror the frenetic and jumpy way an addict's mind works. The novel also moves around in time - Laurel's story is not told in a linear fashion, instead jumping from her life after Katrina to before and to during. This also struck me as mirroring the mind of an addict and I think makes the story feel more authentic.

I though Laurel's voice was really well-done; though I've never used drugs, I've seen how they've affected loved ones and I felt Laurel's actions and choices were dead-on. I also felt that the voice of Laurel's grief was realistic; having lost a member of my immediate family, I can understand her struggle to move forward with her life. Sometimes I still feel that struggle, and it's been more than five years since my loss. I can completely understand Laurel's seduction by meth - it's a bleakly realistic story that I think we've all heard many times.

Though this is a dark novel, it ends on an uplifting note. I'd say this is fairly typical for a YA novel dealing with substance abuse, but Woodson seems to imply that Laurel will continue to struggle for years and years to come - without that struggle seeming hopeless. This is truly a great read, recommended for all fans of contemporary realistic fiction.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales
By Nathan Hale
One Dead Spy
Published 2012 by Harry N. Abrams
Big Bad Ironclad!
Published 2012 by Harry N. Abrams
Donner Dinner Party
Published 2013 by Harry N. Abrams
Join Revolutionary War spy Nathan Hale on an irreverent romp through history in this series by present-day Nathan Hale (no joke, that's the author's real name). In One Dead Spy, learn the story of Hale himself (the historical one, not the current one) and his famous last words. Big Bad Ironclad! relates the story of the iron warships first built and used in the Civil War. Finally, Donner Dinner Party tackles that horrific and fascinating expedition westward of the Donner family and its tragic consequences.
I first heard about this series from Betsy Bird (of the famed Fuse #8 blog). She was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the series and I took her enthusiasm to heart. I pestered my fellow librarian to order them for our graphic novel collection and snatched them up as soon as they arrived in the building. I do not regret this decision.
I love this series. It is fun and educational, told in an exciting and attention-grabbing way. The graphic novel format is, I think, particularly well-suited to non-fiction. The visual format gets readers' attention in a way that straightforward text likely would not. What I really like about Hale's series is that he chooses to focus on one small story at a time. There are so many to choose from in history that I have hopes this series will continue for a long time in the future.
Admittedly, I read the books out of order - Big Bad Ironclad! arrived before the others, so I picked that one up first. It took me a little bit longer to figure out the frame story (the stories are told as Hale attempts to delay his hanging; when he utters his famous last words, he makes history, is sucked up by a history book, and spit back out with all the stories of history now in his brain), but Hale does a pretty decent job of catching up readers who pick them up out of order like me.
The frame story is a great way to tell these stories - it makes Hale a character, as well as the two men attending his execution. The hangman provides plenty of comic relief, which particularly comes in handy during Donner Dinner Party. I really, really think Hale has struck upon a genius idea for this series.
I love the art as well. I love that each book is told primarily with one major color (red, then blue, then green) - it makes the artwork even more visually appealing.
I don't have much else to say except I heartily recommend this series to all readers and I'm really looking forward to more entries in the future.
Oh, and as a plus, I just found out that One Dead Spy is a 2014-15 Bluebonnet title, so I can't wait for kids to discover this series!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Year in Review, Part Two

Librarian of Snark's Favorite Middle-Grade Books of 2013

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Skottie Young

Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson

New Lands by Geoff Rodkey

House of Hades by Rick Riordan

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

Odette's Secrets by Maryann Macdonald

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell

Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

Honorable Mentions

Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George

Marco Impossible by Hannah Moskowitz

Salt by Helen Frost

As you can probably tell, I am enormously behind on my reviews. Does anyone have a good solution for this? I almost never sit down and write a review for a book immediately after finishing it and, quite frankly, I don't find reviewing as satisfying as starting a new book, so I have to make time for it. This means that there are still books I read this summer that I haven't yet read. Batches of mini-reviews? I know I've done that before, but I often feel like I'm not giving good books their due when I lump them all together. I know I used to update the blog every day, which would certainly help, but I found that to be overwhelming in terms of keeping up the pace and I'm not sure I want to go back again. Any suggestions?

Having strayed from the topic at hand, once again, this is a small sample of the middle-grade books I read this year. To see more, explore my "middle-grade" or "tween" tags. I also didn't include books published before this year so at least one of my absolute favorites (Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!) is missing from this list. Stats-wise, I read approximately 99 middle-grade books (allowing for some overlap with young adult titles). As far as Newbery predictions, I feel, once again, woefully under-read, particularly with regards to the frontrunners (Doll Bones, The Real Boy (both books I have sitting in my TBR piles at home, actually), One Came Home, etc.). From what I have read, I'd be pleased to see The Year of Billy Miller win something, or the much-contested Hokey Pokey (which I didn't include above, but hit the link for my review). What are you predicting? Anything I absolutely must try to read before the awards announcements?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Review: The Humming Room

The Humming Room
By Ellen Potter
Published 2012 by Feiwel & Friends
Roo is good at hiding - she's had to be with the kind of life she's lived. But now, Roo is supposed to live a different kind of life. She's been taken in by her mysterious uncle, who lives in a former sanitarium. It's supposed to be a second chance for her, but Roo can't ignore the strange noises she hears and the secrets that seem to surround the place. She'll get to the bottom of it.
This book received some buzz in the kid's lit award circles last year and it's a current Bluebonnet nominee here in Texas, so it's been on my radar for a while. As I frantically finished my summer reading log, I snatched this one off the shelf and pretty much devoured it over the course of a couple of sittings. I really enjoyed this one.
It's been an extremely long time since I read The Secret Garden - probably twenty years or so - so the notion that this is inspired by that story is mostly lost on me. However, even with the gap in my knowledge, it wasn't difficult to parse which aspects of this book came from Frances Hodgson Burnett's. The setting, for one, which is one of my favorite aspects of this novel. I think Potter does a stellar job setting just the right mood for her story with this slightly creepy and secretive setting. I love how things are described in this novel - everything is very much tinged with Roo's perspective and the unease she feels at her new situation. Mixed with the unease, though, is some excitement and determination - she wants to know more about this strange place and her strange uncle, and these feelings permeate all the descriptions of Roo's setting in the book.
I also really enjoyed Roo herself. She's a complex character, one I think will be good for kids to see. She's had a hard life and it has changed her, but she is still a kid and things could still get better for her. I like her stubbornness and how she works to hone the skills she believes in for herself. I love her intrepid spirit - once she's set her course, nothing can deter her.
The slow reveal of all the secrets of Cough Rock Island also worked really well for me, perhaps even better because I don't recall the details of The Secret Garden. I liked how Roo uncovered the truth and used it to help heal the island's residents.
Overall, I found this a really engaging and well-written read that I'll be happy to recommend to young readers.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Year in Review, Part One

It's that time again! What librarian doesn't love a list? Here are my picks for 2013! Links go to my reviews where possible.

Librarian of Snark's Favorite Picture Books of 2013

(in no particular order)

Mo's Mustache by Ben Clanton

That is Not a Good Idea! by Mo Willems

Wilfred by Ryan Higgins

Building Our House by Jonathan Bean

Ganesha's Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes

The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle

Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Joy Ang

Chu's Day by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Adam Rex

Honorable Mentions

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matthew Myers

Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Dan Santat

Because I'm Your Dad by Ahmet Zappa, illustrated by Dan Santat

Who's on First? by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, illustrated by John Martz

Zoe's Room by Bethanie Deeney Murguia

As I've mentioned, my Goodreads account (where I keep track of all the books I read) is a bit behind my actual reading, but according to the stats over there, I read about 144 picture books this year, about 100 less than last year. Clearly, this list of favorites is just a small sample; check out my Picture Book Saturday posts for more reviews.

Obviously, I don't read as many or as deeply as the Caldecott committee, but my favorites are all there in my top ten. I'd love to see Adam Rex win for Chu's Day and I wouldn't be surprised if Jon Klassen won again this year with The Dark.

What are your favorite picture books this year? Any gems I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: Shadowed Summer

Shadowed Summer
By Saundra Mitchell
Published 2009 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Iris is pretty sure this summer will be like all the others in her sleepy Louisiana town - she'll amuse herself by telling spooky stories with her best friend. But Iris is wrong. A real spooky story is about to drop itself in her lap - and it wants her to solve it.
A backlist title I picked up on a complete whim, this was a pretty forgettable read for me. I'm pretty sure this is Mitchell's first novel and it felt a bit underdeveloped for me. Maybe I read too many spooky, otherworldly mystery type books but much of this book felt pretty run of the mill. Where I think Mitchell succeeded most in this book was in setting - she imbues this Louisiana town with the suffering heat and humidity, and the claustrophobia and closeness it makes you feel. Having been to Louisiana in summer, I was instantly brought back to those days by Mitchell's evocative descriptions.
Similarly, I think Mitchell does a good job with her main character. It's not hard to root for Iris, or to see some part of yourself reflected in her. She's at a sticky point in her life, wanting things to change but also wanting them to stay the same. She wants to believe all the things her parents have told her, even though she's discovering that they might not all be true. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it more deeply, this book reminded me a bit of Jasper Jones, in that it captures a very specific time in one's life.
Where the book falls down for me is the actual plot and the spookiness. I've said before - it's terribly difficult to actually scare me, so I really didn't find this book at all creepy. In addition, it was not very hard to figure out what the big mystery was either.
Overall, though, a solid read for someone looking for some backlist chills.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Program: Mad Science Monday

Another monthly program that I began offering this fall is Mad Science Monday. We had started doing a couple in the spring and I ran my extremely popular Candy Science program in the summer. Plus, we always get asked for science programs at the library, so I threw myself into it.

I wanted to start with something relatively simple and something I expected to be popular: paper airplane science. I love making paper airplanes myself (a friend and I built a paper airplane army my freshman year of college) and I knew kids loved building them, too. I took my inspiration for the science aspect from Amy's post on the ALSC blog. I started with a short presentation on the forces that make airplanes fly, giving kids the opportunity to tell me what they knew about airplanes and forces whenever possible.

After the presentation, we had about 20 minutes of building time. I had three different airplane models for them to try: the Hoop Glider, the Arrow, and the Moth. I set up a small testing area on one side of the program room, though this quickly became hard to manage. I told the kids they could make one of each or several of the same with slight modifications. A couple kids made the Hoop Glider and fell in love with it, refusing to try any of the others. It was fun to see which models the kids liked best.

After our building time, we headed outside for testing. I told the kids that everyone would get to try their favorite and then, if we had time, they could try a second plane. I kept track of each kid's name, what model they were flying, and how far it flew. They loved trying out their own planes; however, they got a little antsy after their turns and we had to play the quiet game. Our winner was an Arrow, which I think flew 27 feet. I gave her a small flying toy as a prize, but everyone had fun and kept their planes. Some of the books I'd set out checked out as well.

And that was paper airplane science! Everyone had a great time and the program was a breeze!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Count the Monkeys
By Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Published 2013 by Disney-Hyperion
Barnett is definitely an author to watch. He writes both picture books and chapter books and seems to do well with both (although I haven't found time yet to read one of his chapter books, they're popular in my library). When I spotted his new picture book, I picked it up immediately. This is a storytime dream book - incredibly fun and interactive. It will definitely keep your audience's attention. The illustrations are perfect for the story, making this an even more awesome book. I definitely recommend this one and will be adding it to my storytime repertoire.

The Matchbox Diary
By Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press
This is a quiet but lovely book for which some Caldecott buzz has been building. To be sure, the illustrations are absolutely gorgeous - detailed and longing to be explored in depth. The story is of a little girl who asks her great-grandfather to tell her the story of an old cigar box filled with matchboxes. This would be a great book for a kindergarten/early elementary storytime or program - extension activities are really easy and I seem to remember starting my interest in family history in early elementary school. Very lovely.

Otter and Odder: A Love Story
By James Howe, illustrated by Chris Raschka
Published 2012 by Candlewick Press
Odd is exactly the word I would use to describe this story of an otter who falls in love with a fish. I think it is supposed to be whimsical and heartening and probably have a big lesson in it, but mostly I found it strange. Additionally (and I still hate to admit this), I do not enjoy Raschka's illustration style. It makes me feel unsophisticated or something whenever I say that, but I just think it looks messy and irritating. This was not a book for me.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: Creature of the Night

Creature of the Night
By Kate Thompson
Published 2009 by Roaring Brook Press

Bobby's mom moves their family to the countryside, hoping that a change of scenery will lead to a change of lifestyle. Bobby desperately wants to be back in Dublin with his mates and he soon begins to suspect something sinister about their quaint cottage. Things only get worse when he hears the sordid history of the house...

I picked this up very much on a whim recently, having never heard of it before but always willing to give a creepy little story a shot. This was a strange read for me. I felt like it really wanted to be an atmospheric supernatural read, but also a gritty contemporary novel about dealing with a complicated family life and making good choices. I'm not sure that the two parts really blended well together the whole way through. As much as this book wanted to be a creepy story featuring murmurings of fairies and other supernatural beings, I think it was actually more successful as a contemporary story of a boy dissatisfied with his life and learning what choices will make it better. It's not difficult to sympathize with Bobby - his life, as described, doesn't seem to be a picnic. It's clear that he is not making the right choices in his attempts to deal with his situation, but this makes him very easy to relate to. His anger at being moved to a new home is easy to understand and his uneasiness with the new situation also reads very truly. The book does do a decent job of setting a creepy tone, relating the strange tale of Bobby's rental house and the unusual happenings that have occurred over the years. Unfortunately, it always felt to me as if the story was trying too hard to be terrifying and never really succeeding. Then again, not much scares me, so maybe it's just me. Ultimately, I think the two stories would have worked better as separate novels. A quick read, but a bit of a let-down.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: The Sweet Life of Stella Madison

The Sweet Life of Stella Madison
By Lara M. Zeises
Published 2009 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Stella Madison should be a foodie but she's not. She'd much rather eat Doritos than pommes frites and she likes it just fine that way. After all, it's not easy being the daughter of a world-famous chef and restaurant owner. But when Stella lands a job at the local paper as a restaurant critic, she's either going to have to fake it or learn the foodie world - fast.

I picked this up on a whim, in the mood for a breezy and lighthearted young adult read. I admit, I'd never heard of it before I spotted it on our shelves, but I'm pretty much willing to try anything. After finishing, I'm not surprised I've never heard of this - it's a generally unremarkable book. Now, this doesn't make it a bad book, just a forgettable one. I consider myself a foodie, so I really liked that focus here. I enjoyed that Stella chose not to be one - a pretty typical and small rebellion against her parents. But I also liked that Stella journeyed to a level of appreciation of "good food." I like that she felt conflicted about her journalism job - she's definitely not passionate about food, and know she got the job because of her famous parents, but it is a foot in the door to the career she wants to have (though she'd rather be writing about music). I really loved that Stella wasn't afraid or ashamed of her own sexuality, though I did not love the romance part of this book. There is a lot happening in this book and, at times, it feels a bit too crammed with plots, but Zeises keeps the plots moving so the reader never gets bored or distracted. This was a very quick and light read. I enjoyed it while reading but, like I said, it's pretty forgettable overall. I'd recommend this to foodies and teens who like contemporary realistic fiction, especially with romance.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Moonbird

Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95
By Phillip M. Hoose
Published 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Have you ever heard of the rufa red knot? Chances are, probably not. But you should. This incredible species of bird flies from the bottom of the globe to the top and back again - every year. And if that isn't incredible enough, one of these birds, B95, has been tagged and tracked and he's made the journey at least 19 times - roughly the distance to the moon and back. This is his story.

No, you are not hallucinating: I did, in fact, read a book - an entire 100+ page book - about a bird. Willingly, even. I think this just proves that if a book is well done and the subject interesting, even the most reluctant of readers can become engaged by it.

This book first came to my attention shortly before it was published last year. Early reviews were excellent and it wasn't long before it was getting awards buzz. Hoose has won awards before, so this really should have come as no surprise to anyone paying attention. But, as I've mentioned before and even though I'm woefully behind in my reading, last year was an excellent year for youth non-fiction. Did this book really have what it takes to stand up against all the competition?

This book is incredibly successful as an exemplar of non-fiction. The story is incredibly compelling. No part of it drags or leaves you wondering why you picked it up in the first place. Hoose captures his audience from page one and keeps them intrigued the whole way through. Additionally, the photos are well-placed and relevant to the surrounding text, another means of keeping the audience engaged. The source notes and bibliography are excellent, and I enjoyed the brief profiles between some of the chapters. My main complaint with the layout of the book is in regards to the text boxes. They did not seem very skillfully placed - often times, they would appear on pages where there was no natural break in the main text to pause and read the information in the text box. I always find it frustrating when reading the broken out text boxes doesn't happen naturally and this was no exception. However, all the information contained within these boxes is worthwhile, so find the method that works best for you to read them.

Hoose is clearly a skilled writer, managing to make the story of B95 and his brethren absolutely enthralling, but also casting a wider net by including the stories of the scientists (and citizen scientists) who devote their lives to the study of this extraordinary creature. I don't think it's going too far to say that many readers will feel inspired to take action and follow their own interests after finishing this book. It's inspiring without feeling preachy - something that can be difficult to pull off. One of the best examples of non-fiction for youth in recent history - I definitely recommend this one.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Program: Meet the Artist

This fall, I decided to introduce a new monthly program, one I'd been thinking about for some time. It's called Meet the Artist. Each month, I pick a new artist for us to study and then we create our own works of art in their style. What's perhaps most amusing to me about this program is that I consider myself a terrible artist. I cannot even draw a decent stick figure (I'm seriously not joking). However, I really liked the idea of this program, and thought it would be fine to try different artistic styles each month. Maybe I'd even change my opinion of myself as an artist!

We kicked off in September with Alexander Calder. Confession: I chose Calder because I was butting up against the deadline for publishing our program information and I thought he'd be a pretty easy artist around which to create a project. Also, Calder is fun (and I just read The Calder Game over the summer, so he might have been on my mind anyway). Here's what we did!

I started with a brief PowerPoint presentation to introduce our artist. Well, first, I asked the kids in attendance if any of them had heard of Calder and was pleased to see that many had. Then, I started my presentation. I limited it to two slides with biographical information about him and then a number of slides with examples of his artwork. The kids were astounded to learn that Calder actually invented mobiles! They had a lot of excellent questions about how mobiles were art and how Calder got them to move. It was a really great start to the program.

After we finished the slides, we got to the heart of the program: creating our own mobiles. I had pre-cut lengths of wire for the kids to use to create their mobiles. I provided them with foam to cut into shapes they wanted, and even used a resource from The Calder Game with some examples of the shapes most often used by Calder. Additionally, I had made a mobile of my own before the program; I wanted them to see in person how it would work (in fact, it's still hanging up in our program room at the library, mostly because it was a pain to get up there). They were all very complimentary of my mobile and got really excited about making their own. For the remainder of the program, I walked around and helped as needed, mostly with shaping and bending the wire and attaching their mobile pieces to their wires. All of the kids were very focused on their designs and I think everyone was really happy with their finished project. This program was a success and it'll be interesting to see how it continues to progress.

That being said, there were a few things I would do differently. While I had pre-cut the wires for each child to use, I didn't pre-shape loops in them (the loops were where we hung our objects from). If I did this again, I would definitely do that ahead of time, as the kids had a really hard time with this aspect of the program. I also probably could have used an extra set of hands in there to help guide them along. Overall, though, I think it went well.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

The Great Lollipop Caper
By Dan Krall
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
This is a very strange choice for a picture book - the story of a caper (the edible kind) who longs to be loved by children as much as lollipops. I don't think many kids know what a caper is (I didn't find out until grad school), so the puns might go over their head. However, the story is a pretty simple one at its heart, so I don't think they'll miss it. It's a fun read and the illustrations suit the story nicely. I don't think I'll bust it out at storytime any time soon, but I liked it well enough.

Little Owl's Orange Scarf
By Tatyana Feeney
Published 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Little Owl does not love his new orange scarf - it's long and itchy. So, he tries everything he can think of to lose the scarf, but Mommy always manages to find it. One day, he goes to the zoo with his class and when he comes back he excitedly tells his mom all about the trip, finally realizing that the orange scarf has disappeared. Now, Mommy and Little Owl decide to make a new scarf together. I think the illustrations of this are cute, though I'm not sure I really like the story. Little Owl's attempts to lose his scarf seem a tiny bit malicious and I feel like we should be teaching kids to appreciate the gifts they are given or to handle an unwanted gift more tactfully. Not so crazy about this one.

If You Want to See a Whale
By Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead
Published 2013 by Roaring Book Press
I like the simplicity and quietness of this second story from Fogliano and Stead. The illustrations perfectly suit Fogliano's simple yet lyrical text and are just plain lovely to look at. There is more to discover in both the illustrations and the text for the careful reader. This is a great book about patience (much like their first collaboration, And Then It's Spring), something many of us need to work at more carefully. It's also a great book for fostering curiosity about the natural world (once again, much like their first book). This book would make a lovely addition to any child's bookshelf.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: The Vengekeep Prophecies

The Vengekeep Prophecies (Vengekeep Prophecies, book one)
By Brian Farrey, illustrated by Brett Helquist
Published 2012 by HarperCollins

Jaxter comes from a long line of thieves and that suits him just fine. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to have inherited any thieving talents. Instead, Jaxter's strength lies in his meticulous research of magic and using it to help his family out of sticky situations. This time, however, the Grimjinx family might be in over their head. When the prophecies on a tapestry they forged begin coming true, it's up to Jax to find a way to save Vengekeep.

This book caught my eye when it was released because it sounded great and it's illustrated by Brett Helquist (I just love his style; what can I say?). It got great reviews and just sounded like a fun read. I finally picked it up over the summer and I'm pleased to say that it was everything I hoped for.

What kid (what person, really) doesn't love reading about a misfit? I feel like that's a cornerstone of many great fantasy novels - the kid who doesn't quite fit. Jaxter is that kid. He loves his family and they love him, but there's no denying that he's different from them. He doesn't share their talents for thievery and deception but does that stop him from trying? Of course not. And, of course, when things get really troublesome for the Grimjinx family, it's up to Jaxter to find a solution. It feels like one of the oldest stories in the book and yet Farrey keeps it entertaining and unique. I love that Jaxter is a scholar and that his family finds his talents valuable, despite how different they are from the Grimjinx tradition.

I also love that Jaxter is given a traveling companion for his journey and she's a great character in her own right. Callie is smart and clever and stubborn. She's determined and I think she makes a great friend for Jax. The dynamic between the two is really fun and sweet. As a whole, actually, I think Farrey has created a great cast of characters. They are almost all completely unreliable but they have a lot of heart and I really enjoyed spending time with them.

Farrey also does a great job with the pacing. The book is almost 400 pages long, but those pages fly by in a mix of action, adventure, and humor. The snappy dialogue and the hijinks of Jax and his family keep you turning the pages as quickly as you can to see what will happen next. I really like that Farrey has taken another fantasy trope - the prophecy - and done something new and interesting with it here. It makes for a really fun read.

Overall, this is an absolute gem of a middle-grade read. I highly recommend this to fantasy fans, and those looking for something that will make them laugh. I imagine this would be a great read-aloud as well, with all its adventure and fun vocabulary.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: Ketchup Clouds

Ketchup Clouds
By Annabel Pitcher
Published 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Zoe is writing letters to a very unusual pen pal - a death row inmate in Texas. But, you see, Zoe thinks she has more in common with Mr. Stuart Harris than you might believe. After all, she killed someone.

I requested the e-galley of this because I had loved My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, Pitcher's YA novel that came out (in the U.S., anyway) last year. As such, I had pretty high expectations for this one.

I'm not sure it quite lived up to my expectations, though I still found it a very compelling read. I'm a big fan of epistolary novels and I think the format works really well here. The letters - and the spacing of Zoe's story among them - are part of what propels the book along. While at times I found myself a bit frustrated at the slow reveal of information surrounding what exactly Zoe did, I don't think it's a bad thing that I felt this way. In fact, I imagine many readers feeling this way and this feeling is exactly what will push them to keep reading. Did Zoe really kill someone? Is she really on the same level as Mr. Harris? Only finishing the novel will give you these answers.

I liked Zoe well enough, though it's quite clear all along that she is hiding things. Though I'm not sure how common love triangles are in real life (and yes, I've said before that I'm quite sick of them in teen novels), I think the one that occurs here is believable and it's easy to see that many readers will be sympathetic to Zoe's feelings. None of the secondary characters stand out terribly much; however, I felt like there were a lot of things that could have been explored with Zoe's family. I'm glad that some of them were discussed towards the end of the novel, but I think there is even more that we could have learned about the family.

The story itself is interesting and, as I said, the slow reveal will keep you hanging on until the end. I don't believe this is as strong as Pitcher's previous book, but it was interesting, and readers looking for a contemporary mystery will be happy to stumble upon this one.

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

Monday, December 9, 2013

Review: Quintana of Charyn

Quintana of Charyn (Lumatere Chronicles, book three)
By Melina Marchetta
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press

WARNING: There may be spoilers ahead. For my review of book one, go here; for book two, here.

Continuing the quest begun in Froi of the Exiles, Froi searches Charyn, desperate to find the girl he has sworn to protect. Meanwhile, Quintana will come face to face with Isaboe - and it may not end well for one of them. Will Froi find his true happiness? Will Quintana find safety? Will Finn and Isaboe find the peace for Lumatere they have sought for so long?

As I mentioned in my recent review of Froi, it's very difficult to review the last two books of this series separately. I read them back-to-back, with no break in between and it really seems to me like they read as one gigantic book split into two large books for convenience sake. Reading these two books almost makes Finnikin of the Rock feel like a companion novel instead of the book that started it all.

While it's true that Finnikin lays a lot of groundwork in establishing the characters and setting, the plots of Froi and Quintana are so intertwined and continuous that they feel like a duology instead of books two and three of a trilogy. Really, it doesn't matter, because all of these books are absolutely gorgeous and mesmerizing reads, but it is something I'm not sure I've seen before.

Regardless, everything I've said in my previous reviews of this series held true for book three as well. I was completely sucked in from page one, and even more emotionally involved having just finished book two. This series is such a stellar example of quality writing - the characters are engaging and easy to fall in love with, the world that's been created is fascinating and feels real, and the story never drags and holds the reader's interest over the entire series.

I think of myself as a lover of fantasy fiction and yes, the Lumatere Chronicles are a fantastic example of high fantasy that I think would appeal to any fantasy lover. But, I think the reason I really love this series is because of the characters. They feel so real and human - I feel all their feelings right alongside them. All of them struggle in their relationships with each other. All of them ask universal questions - what am I doing here? How do I know what's right? I think I would probably keep reading about these characters forever if Marchetta decided she wanted to keep writing about them.

While the main focus of both books two and three lies with Froi and Quintana, this book really pleases me as a conclusion because it brings every story line to an extremely satisfying conclusion. I felt like every character I had met and loved throughout the series got their due by the end of this novel. I get the warm fuzzies just thinking about this book, even months later.

Overall, this is an absolutely perfect conclusion to an enchanting series that needs to be read by any and all lovers of quality fiction. Highly, highly recommended.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Program: Daycare Storytime

With the fall came the start of a new storytime session. In an attempt to spread storytime duties around more evenly in our department, I picked up a monthly daycare storytime. Yes, it's just once a month, but it means one less that our regular weekly storytime presenters have to worry about. Additionally, it keeps me practicing my storytime skills, so it seems like a win all around.

For my first daycare storytime session, I chose the ocean as our theme. Here's what we did!

Opening: "We Clap and Say Hello" - I must have been more nervous than I thought for storytime because just as I was starting, I completely forgot the melody for this. I made one up and the kids went along with it, so no harm done. Also, to tie into our theme today, I made us all wiggle our arms like octopi to say hello at the end.

Book: I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean! By Kevin Sherry

Rhyme: Baby Shark - basically the whole reason I chose this theme first was because I wanted to do this rhyme. I remember this fondly from my Girl Scout camp days, but the kids didn't seem to be as into it as I expected. I showed them all the sharks we'd meet first and then went through the rhyme. Maybe I should have done it twice: once for practice and then again to get really into it.

Book: I'm a Shark by Bob Shea

Song: "The Goldfish" by Laurie Berkner - once again, the kids were not as into this as I'd hoped. I picked this song specifically because it describes the actions; I've had trouble in the past with trying to get kids to do free movement or dancing. But they just didn't seem very interested in getting up and moving.

Book: Gilbert Goldfish Wants a Pet by Kelly DiPucchio - I actually hadn't planned on using this but when I saw their lack of enthusiasm for dancing and asked if they wanted another story, they said yes. Plus, they were not a very interactive group overall, so my storytime was running a little short.

Craft: Starfish! - I had each kid decorate a starfish to take home (die-cut star shapes with the pointy tips rounded off). My favorite part of the program actually came at the very end. When the kids started finishing up their starfish decorating, I had them come sit with me in the middle of the room and they all just told me stories about their day. It was very entertaining.

And that was my ocean-themed daycare storytime! Any tips on engaging less-than-excited groups?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

By Emily Gravett
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Gravett is one of those authors who I adore - I am always thrilled when I discover she's released a new book. Her books are fantastic because they are usually interactive and often provide ample opportunity for dialogic reading. This new book is no exception. This tells of a little dragon who loves hearing his favorite story every night at bedtime - and he often wants to hear it again. And again. And again. Soon, Mama Dragon gets tired and the bedtime story takes an unexpected turn. I love the illustrations - there is much to discover in them. Just a fun book that will definitely appeal to kids.

A Funny Little Bird
By Jennifer Yerkes
Published 2013 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
An invisible bird wants to find new friends, so he begins to collect small adornments to make himself more noticeable. But he may get more attention than he bargained for. I want to like this book, but I'm not really there. This book feels like the author had a really creative and unusual idea for the illustrations but not a strong idea for the story. The illustrations are indeed quite fabulous - the use of white space is immensely interesting and can lead to great discussions with kids. I feel like the story doesn't really live up to the illustrations, however, so, as a whole, the book is a bit of miss for me.

Giant Dance Party
By Betsy Bird, illustrated by Brandon Dorman
Published 2013 by Greenwillow Books
I'm a pretty regular reader of Betsy Bird's blog (I assume you are, too), and I was excited to discover she was writing her own picture book. I got even more excited when she revealed the title and the cover because, come on, who could resist a giant dance party?? I was thrilled when the book finally arrived at my library and read it immediately. This book is sweet and charming and the illustrations suit the text just perfectly. I found it a tad long for anything younger than a preschool storytime, but I want to share it with kids anyway because it's just so fun. The extension ideas are endless and I'm a big fan of incorporating more dancing into storytimes. Just so much fun, I really liked this one.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Review: Froi of the Exiles

Froi of the Exiles (Lumatere Chronicles, book two)
By Melina Marchetta
Published 2012 by Candlewick

WARNING: There may be spoilers ahead. For my review of book one, go here.

Three years have passed since the curse ended and Froi believes he has found his home. But when he's sent to the kingdom of Charyn on a secret mission, he will learn things he never expected and find answers he can no longer deny.

Finnikin of the Rock was one of my absolute favorite reads of last year, so when I spotted both of the sequels on the shelf at the library at the same time, I snatched up the opportunity to actually finish a series I had started. The benefit of waiting until this summer to do so is that the third book was just released in the spring, so I could read the sequel without having to wait for book three. I'm not sure how easy it will be to review the two books separately, especially because, in this case, they really felt like one giant book that the author split into two. I really wonder if that's what happened here, particularly because of the timeline of the three books (books two and three take place three years after the events of book one, but book three takes place immediately after the events of book two).

Regardless, I'll do my best here to focus strictly on book two. I'm sure I'm not the only person who was sad to discover that Froi, not Finnikin, would be the main focus of this book. I admit, I fell a teeny bit in love with Finn when I read book one. Given Froi's extremely troubled history, I didn't expect the same thing to happen in this book. And it didn't, not exactly anyway. While I never fell in love with Froi, I really grew to be on his side. Through the course of this book (and the next, as well) Froi really grows as a character. It becomes incredibly easy to see why Finn and Isaboe love him, and why he is one of the most respected in this kingdom. Once again, Marchetta has proved her skills at crafting unforgettable characters.

Froi's mission into Charyn is the main plot of this book and it leads to the unraveling of his personal history. Of course, Froi's personal history is tied very closely with the history of Lumatere, so the story is much larger than it initially appears. Marchetta does an excellent job keeping readers engaged, even given that this book is nearly 600 pages long. She expertly moves back and forth among characters and narrative threads, keeping them clear and easy to follow.

As much as I loved Finnikin of the Rock, I think Froi of the Exiles is an even stronger book. It has everything I loved about book one, and then some. If I thought I had all the feels while reading book one, I was completely unprepared for book two. This book - these characters, this world - gets you right in the gut. It grabs you and doesn't let go. And, it all gears you up for the absolutely stunning final chapter - review to come soon.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review: These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars (Starbound, book one)
By Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Expected publication December 10, 2013 by Disney Hyperion

The Icarus, a luxury spaceliner, is cruising along just fine when suddenly disasters strikes. The ship is pulled out of orbit and crashes. Lilac LaRoux, daughter of the richest man in the universe, finds herself in an escape pod with Tarver Merendsen, a war hero. When they crash on an unusual planet, seemingly the only survivors of the Icarus disaster, they must learn to survive. But something is very strange about this planet - will it let them survive?

I picked up a galley of this at TLA I think and finally picked it up at the beginning of November. I actually didn't expect to finish it before the release day, so I was pleasantly surprised when I did.

I may have mentioned a time or two previously that I'm not a huge fan of books that take place in space, which this one quite clearly does. With that knowledge, I wasn't really expecting much from this book. Unexpectedly, I found myself enjoying it more than I expected. My main stumbling block with this book was that, no matter how far into it I got, I couldn't stop thinking of it as "Titanic in space."

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. And, really, the book is not just Titanic in space. Yes, the ship is described as a luxury liner and Lilac is a member of the upper-class who gets thrown in with a rough-and-tumble soldier (and, of course, the sparks fly). Additionally, the "indestructible" Icarus meets with disaster and the crash reads a lot like a description of the Titanic sinking. But, Lilac and Tarver actually land somewhere, and the story becomes more about their survival on a land that is completely different than anything they've known. However, I got that phrase into my head right from the start and couldn't shake it while reading.

On its own, it's a pretty typical star-crossed lovers, survival tale. I liked the characters (in spite of their absurd names - seriously, this is why I could never write a science fiction novel) well enough, but I found the "star-crossed" aspect of their story a bit ridiculous. Yes, Lilac does have reason to hesitate at her feelings for Tarver, but mostly, it just seemed silly that they both felt they could never be together because of who they were. The survival aspect was well-done, and I think it was pulled off quite nicely with the alternating chapter viewpoints. I enjoyed the strange new aspects of the planet on which Lilac and Tarver find themselves, though I'm not sure the science of it would hold up.

I knew that this was the first in a trilogy (it's declared all over the ARC), but I've just discovered that the books won't feature the same characters; they simply take place in the same universe. I like this approach - it's worked pretty well for Diana Peterfreund and her For Darkness Shows the Stars series, so I'll be interested to see if it works here as well.

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

Monday, December 2, 2013

Review: To Be Perfectly Honest

To Be Perfectly Honest
By Sonya Sones
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Colette likes to lie. Loves it, actually. So, when she meets a hot new guy, it's just natural for her to lie to him. After all, if he finds out who her mother is, he'll probably forget all about her. And Colette doesn't want that to happen; she's in the mood for something even more fun than lying. But when Colette discovers a secret about Connor, everything changes.

I'm a sucker for a novel in verse, so I requested this one when I spotted it on Edelweiss. However, I often have a hard time with unreliable narrators; quite often, they just bother me. So, I was pretty well prepared to feel ambivalent about this one.

Instead, I'm just unimpressed. I realize that with unreliable narrators, you're not necessarily supposed to like them. So, it's not particularly surprising that I don't like Colette. But, she really just grates me. Additionally, I find her reasons for lying to be pretty ridiculous. Okay, so I don't know what it's like to be the daughter of a celebrity, but I don't think lying about everything is the best coping mechanism. Admittedly, her mother does not necessarily seem to be 100% there all the time, but she also doesn't seem like a terrible mother.

Additionally, I thought the relationship with Connor developed ridiculously fast. I mean, they lock eyes and she's instantly in love? She doesn't even know his name until after she's decided that she wants to date him. It just felt creepy and weird to me. And, I don't want to spoil anything, but it only got more creepy and weird as the book went on.

I feel like the entire point of this story was a Message. It all just felt phony and obnoxious to me. And the little bit at the end, where we're reminded that Colette is an unreliable narrator? I just rolled my eyes at it.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss. I'm sure it will have its fans.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Program: Heroes of Olympus

After the raging discussion during one of my summer book club meetings about the books of Rick Riordan, I knew I would have to once again mark the arrival of his latest book with some sort of program. I threw a party last year (hit the link to see what we did), and, though I didn't really expect to have repeat attendees, I wanted to be sure to offer some new activities. Here's what we did this year!

Pin the snakes on Medusa: completely stolen from a Percy Jackson birthday party I discovered somewhere on the Internet, I really loved this idea. I had my lovely colleague (who is a far better artist than I could ever hope to be) draw me an appropriately disturbing giant head of Medusa. Notably, Medusa was missing her favorite hair. I printed out a bunch of pictures of snakes and cut them out, affixing double sided tape on the back. During the program, the kids had to stand with their backs to Medusa and use a hand-held mirror to try to pin the snakes on her gloriously bald head. After all, you can't look Medusa in the eye! I think a lot of the kids were surprised by how much more difficult this was than expected, but many kids did it multiple times to perfect their pinning skills. Every kid who visited this station got a goody bag, full of blue candy and a Percy Jackson trading card.

Slay the Minotaur (Ares station): I wanted to sort of have each station represent a different god, so I chose Ares for this station because he's usually portrayed as one of the most violent. This was, by far, the most popular station of the program. I bought a new bow and arrow set from Walmart and busted it out for the first time at this program. I taped a picture of the Minotaur to a wall, taped a line on the floor for kids to stand behind, and let them try to slay the Minotaur. It was very exciting when an attendee finally successfully hit the Minotaur and kids stayed at this station for a long time.

Make a trident (Poseidon station): I didn't want to go the shield route again, as we'd just done it last year and it was actually kind of expensive (we bought cardboard cake rounds for the shields), but I still wanted them to have something really cool to take home. Plus, I knew I wanted Poseidon represented at the program (he is Percy's dad, after all), so voila! We made the tridents out of aluminum foil (I bought a lot). This station involved a lot of trial and error and some kids were disappointed that they couldn't get theirs to look as good as mine. If I did this again, I'd either have bases started or create some sort of frame that they could wrap their foil around (I thought about doing this out of craft sticks, but I didn't really think it was necessary).

Puzzles and trivia (Athena station): I've said it before - I love puzzles and trivia and so do a lot of kids. This was a really simple station. I had a trivia sheet I'd made up and a few puzzles from various event kits at the table with some pencils and let kids try things as they wished. Since I never had a very large crowd of kids at any one time during the program, they didn't get competitive with each other about the trivia as I've seen them do before. Additionally, no one asked for the answers, which I had on a separate sheet off to the side. Maybe I should have left the answer sheet on the table (clearly marked, of course).

Camp bracelets (Minerva station): I always want the kids to have cool stuff to take home and I didn't want it to just be a weapon this time, so this seemed like a simple yet relevant craft to include. I had blank wooden beads for the kids to decorate, along with some sheets with ideas for them (Greek alphabet, symbols of the gods - that sort of thing). I also provided regular pony beads and leather cords. I made a sample for the kids to get an idea - I chose Athena as my patron goddess, so I drew her symbols on two of my beads and then the Greek letter sigma (for the first letter of my name) on the other. The kids liked this and many wanted to make bracelets for family members. And yes, I realize that Minerva and Athena are the same goddess from different mythologies, but she is the goddess of both wisdom and crafts, so I thought it was appropriate. Plus, the two personalities are at war in the Heroes of Olympus series, so it seemed like a good idea.

And that's what I did. I had about half the number of attendees as last year and I couldn't really tell you why, other than that this fall seems really hit or miss with program attendance. Any brilliant ideas I overlooked?