Monday, August 11, 2014

tara recommends Loot by Jude Watson

"No thief likes a full moon.  Like mushrooms and owls, they do their best work in the dark."  The first lines of Loot by Jude Watson set up a fun heist adventure that will keep you on your toes as you follow the twists and turns through an engaging mystery.

March McQuin's father Alfie, an infamous jewel thief, taught his son all the tricks of his trade while adventuring the world, and they always had each other.  But, when his father slips off a building during a robbery gone bad and dies, March loses the only family he has ever known, and he is truly alone.

Alfie McQuin's dying words were to "find jewels," so March sets off to find his last big score.  He soon realizes, however, that "jewels" is not the fortune he is expecting, but is actually his secret twin sister, Jules and their reunion begins an adventure neither of them planned as they search for seven mysterious moonstones, originally stolen by their father many years ago.  They are pursued by a dangerous thief who will do anything to grab the gems first, and they also must stay a step ahead of an ex-detective with his own agenda.

Peppered with useful hints to be a successful conman -- "Never trust a guy who says, "Trust me."  Never give your real name to a cop.  Never let someone steal your getaway car." -- Alfie's advice is engaging and provides the background for March and Jules' dangerous adventure.

Jewel heists, betrayal, greed and loss mix together with a familiar story about family ties, friendship and love.  While the criminal knowledge and experience of these twelve year olds is a little unsettling, their independence and persistence make for an entertaining adventure.  There are certain scary elements (hooded men chasing the kids through dark streets, fight scenes and death) that skew the story to a slightly older audience.

Loot: How To Steal A Fortune
by Jude Watson
published by Scholastic Press
June 2014
recommended for ages 10 and up

Friday, July 18, 2014

Spotlight on Fiction 2014

Pigsticks and Harold and the Incredible Journey
by Alex Milway

“Pigsticks [is] the last in a noble line of pigs,” but he hasn’t done anything great yet.  After reading about his forepigs, Pigsticks decides to travel to the Ends of the Earth and (“unlike [his ancestor] Colonel Pigslet) . . . make it back alive!”  After a futile search for an assistant, Pigsticks serendipitously meets a small hamster named Harold who is strong, honest, and just what Pigsticks is looking for.

“The job’s yours . . . We shall leave tomorrow, before breakfast!”
“But I’m going to a tea party tomorrow . . . There will be cake.”
“We shall take a cake with us.”
“I don’t mean to be rude . . . but I could never leave before breakfast.”
“We shall take two cakes with us!” (21)

Reluctantly--and only after a promise of three cakes, one of them Battenburg--Harold agrees to the arrangement, and the unlikely pair set off on an adventure.

Pigsticks’ studied inattention, Harold’s penchant for cake, and the dialogue between the two create unpredictable humor and some absurd situations.

An interesting, elevated vocabulary makes this upper-level easy reader a great choice for independent readers who still want shorter stories with plenty of pictures.

*Received Netgalley ebook for review.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
by Karen Foxlee

 “Ophelia did not consider herself brave . . . but she was very curious.  She was exactly the kind of girl who couldn't walk past a golden keyhole without looking inside.” (9)  That keyhole happens to be in a snowy foreign city where her father has just taken a job at the museum. Her mother died three months ago, and since her father is distracted with work, and her sister is moody and distant, Ophelia explores the museum alone.  But the museum is a confusing place with signs pointing the wrong direction and guards that knit, sleep, and yell for no good reason, and of course, that golden keyhole.  Behind the keyhole she finds a 303-year-old boy who claims his name was taken by a “protectorate of wizards from the east, west, and middle . . .” (14) and that he is a prisoner of the Snow Queen.  He needs Ophelia’s help to find a magical sword and the One Other who will know how to wield it.  In short, he needs her to save the world.

Foxlee gives readers a wonderfully wicked villain.  The Snow Queen is “dazzlingly beautiful,” ice cold, deceptively kind, and she smells like hot chocolate. (13)  Eleven-year-old Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard is an equally delightful heroine.  She has a pale face, ragged braids, smudgy glasses, and asthma, and she simply refuses to believe in magic.  (Oh, and she likes sardines.) (76-77)

With lyrical writing, an adventure-filled plot, and the triumph of love over misery, this Snow Queen story is everything that a modern-day fairy tale should be.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Half a Chance
by Cynthia Lord

For 12-year-old Lucy Emery, moving to a lakeside cottage in New Hampshire means starting over in a new place again.  While her dad is out of town on another photography assignment, Lucy makes friends with Nate, the boy next door, and together, they spend the summer trying to find the perfect shots for a photo contest that Lucy is determined to win.  They hike a mountain, kayak on the lake, and watch the loons, but when one photograph reveals too much about Nate’s grandmother, it might mean the end of their friendship.

Lucy’s thoughtful observations provide insight into the characters and the human experience.  For instance, Lucy’s thought that kids “care a lot about other people, but most times . . . don’t have the power to change things for them” rings true. (71)  And her reaction to meeting new people (“Practice only makes familiar . . . Never easy.”) made me stop and think what many introverts might think: “Yep! That’s exactly right!” (6)  The sometimes difficult subjects of aging and dementia are treated in a candid, yet sensitive way.

This is a perceptive story about new beginnings, saying goodbye, and all the moments captured in between.

by Deborah Wiles

Segregation is a way of life in Greenwood, Mississippi, so 12-year-old Sunny Fairchild doesn't think much about why only white people go to the movies at the Leflore, or why no black children swim at the city pool, or why the only black woman at church is not a congregant, but a nursery assistant.  Besides, Sunny has worries of her own: her mother left when Sunny was a baby and her father’s new wife and children are “stuffed” into her home (80).  But this summer--the summer of 1964--agitators from the North are invading Mississippi, bringing big changes to the South, and as Sunny learns to look beyond her own concerns, she finds herself changing, as well.

Wiles uses Freedom Summer--the summer when 1,000 volunteers descended upon Mississippi and worked in a coordinated effort to empower black residents by registering them to vote--as the setting for her story. 

Revolution is the second book in The Sixties Trilogy, and as in the first book, period photographs, music lyrics, speech excerpts, and brief biographical sections are inserted between pages of story.  The factual--LBJ, Muhammad Ali, the Beatles, escalation of the war in Vietnam, and the murder of three Freedom Summer volunteers--intersects with Sunny’s fictional story, enhancing both and creating a memorable read.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.  RevolutionFreedom Summer by Susan Goldman Rubin and the young adult book, The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell are all excellent for exploring this pivotal period in our nation’s struggle with civil rights.

Spotlight on Nonfiction 2014

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life
by Lois Ehlert

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life is like a mini-presentation Lois Ehlert printed and bound between two 8 ¼ inch-square covers.  With just a sentence or two per page (and an occasional third), Ehlert tells of her childhood, the inspiration for her art and stories, and her process for creating books.

Photographs of her parents, tools, supplies, and workspace, along with her artwork (both in progress and from her books) fill the pages, while notes label the pictures and provide additional detail.  She even shares a few art project ideas that readers can try.  The book’s scrapbook style is perfectly suited to the colorful collage art.

Fans of Lois Ehlert will love learning about her work, and budding artists may be inspired to create collages of their own.

He Has Shot the President!: April 14, 1865: The Day John Wilkes Booth Killed President Lincoln

by Don Brown

He Has Shot the President! is the most recent title in Don Brown’s Actual Times series--a series that

belongs in every library.  These excellent nonfiction books for younger children chronicle significant moments in America’s history such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the start of the Revolutionary War, and the discovery that triggered the California gold rush.

He Has Shot the President recounts the events of April 14, 1865--the day John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln, detailing not just the assassination, but also, the larger story of the conspiracy to cripple the Union’s leadership and the ensuing manhunt.

Brown’s use of sharp angles and diagonal lines creates emotion and movement in the watercolor illustrations.  With impeccable pacing and a tightly spun narrative, this book is enough to make a history fan out of anyone.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights 
by Steve Sheinkin

On July 17, 1944, just after 10 p.m., two explosions destroyed the 1200 ft pier at Port Chicago Naval

Magazine in California.  10 million pounds of ammunition packed into a naval ship created an immense bomb, destroying a second docked ship, disintegrating the locomotive and box cars on the pier, and killing 320 men.  202 of those men were black. (65-68)

Although the Navy began accepting black volunteers to train as sailors in 1942, they were strictly segregated, and at Port Chicago, the dangerous job of loading ammunition went only to black sailors.  The men were not adequately trained to handle explosives, and white officers sacrificed safety for speed as they raced their divisions to load the most cargo. (47)

When the 328 surviving men from Port Chicago were ordered to return to loading ammunition at Mare Island Naval Shipyard a few weeks after the explosion, over 200 refused.  After threats of court-martial, 50 men still refused to load ammunition under the same officers with unchanged conditions.  These were charged with mutiny, resulting in the largest mass trial in U.S. Naval history.

Sheinkin is one the best writers of children’s historical nonfiction today.  His narratives are engaging, powerful, and eminently readable.  This story of 50 men primarily follows Joe Small (the man accused by prosecutors of leading the mutiny), keeping it focused and personal.  Brief examples of segregation and racial discrimination endured by servicemen elsewhere give a broader context to the story.  And contemporaneous reports and transcripts, recollections of participants, and photos bring this compelling moment in history to life.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia
by Candace Fleming

In 1903, 1.5 per cent of the Russian population owned 90 percent of the country’s wealth. (4)  While peasants and factory workers struggled just to get enough food to eat, this small minority enjoyed unparalleled privilege, fabulous wealth, and “an unshakable belief in their own superiority.” (4)  Foremost among these were the Romanovs: Tsar Nicholas who was ill-prepared to lead when he became Russia’s “Little Father” at age 26; Alexandra, his German-born wife, who was aloof and superstitious; the four Grand Duchesses who disappointed the Russian people by being born girls; and the heir, Alexei, who held a deeply-guarded family secret. (24, 31, 45, 55, 58)

Extensive research and first-hand accounts make this story of Russia’s last Imperial Family strikingly personal.  Fleming looks at people and events that were inextricably linked to the Romanovs (Lenin, Rasputin, peasants, factory workers, and World War I), but adroitly contains the details so they never threaten to eclipse her primary subject.  This bigger picture helps readers understand the social and political forces that led to unrest, revolution, and ultimately, the Romanovs’ demise.

This is Candace Fleming at her best.

*Review copy received from publisher.

Spotlight on Picture Books 2014

Little Santa
by Jon Agee

I know . . . it’s 93 degrees outside, but just for a minute, imagine snow--lots and lots of snow.  Because in Jon Agee’s book, Little Santa, that is what there is--snow, cold, and hard work.  In fact, life is so tough at the North Pole, that the Clauses (well, the parents and six of the children, at least) are miserable.  Santa, the youngest of the bunch, loves the North Pole, and his red suit and cheerful face stand out in comical contrast to his family’s glumness.  Just when the Clauses decide to leave the “miles and miles” of snow and move to Florida, they get trapped by a “terrible blizzard,” and young Santa has to go for help.

This is not the story from the TV specials, instead it’s the story of how Santa flies on a reindeer, meets some helpful elves, and ends up staying at the North Pole--all told with Jon Agee’s characteristic dry humor and cartoon illustrations.

Perfect for Christmastime . . . and pretty terrific even in July.

by Lori Nichols

Before she was born, Maple’s parents planted a tree for her, and as Maple and her tree grow, she spends
time singing, swaying, and pretending with her tree.  Some days the “leaves . . . dance for her.”  Then one day, a sapling appears near Maple’s tree, and she learns that she will soon be a big sister.

A restrained text in this sweet book about sisters lets readers discover for themselves just what is happening in the story, creating a couple of great “Aha” moments.

Details in the pencil and digital-color illustrations, including Maple’s toys and a nest made by the birds in spring, encourage multiple readings.  The painterly feel of the maple tree, created with gorgeous shades of green and yellow, will have you seeking out the shade of a welcoming tree.

Look for the next book about these sisters, Maple & Willow Together, due to release in November.

Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure
by Anna Walker

Peggy (the chicken) lives in a “small house on a quiet street” where she enjoys a nice, simple routine, until “one blustery day” when a “gust of wind” scoops her up and carries her far from home.  Undaunted our plucky heroine “pick[s] herself up, ruffle[s] her feathers, and [goes] for a walk.”

Here the splendid, double-page, ink and photo collage illustrations tell the story best and heighten the humor.  Peggy wanders amidst an umbrella-carrying, faceless crowd, rides the escalators, tries on shoes, and watches a movie (with popcorn, of course).  Just try not to giggle when she comes face to face with the chicken-shaped gravy boat.  After exploring the city, Peggy makes it safely home, but her daily routine will never be quite the same.

Anna Walker is an Australian author and artist whose concern for her own bantam hens blowing over the fence sparked the idea that grew into Peggy’s adventure.  It’s funny, beautiful, and utterly charming.

Rules of Summer
by Shaun Tan

“Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.”

That’s the first rule of summer.

“Never be late for a parade.”
“Never give your keys to a stranger.”
“Never forget the password.”

While it seems to be all about the rules, it is more about the relationship between brothers.  This is one of those books that you really have to read for yourself, but I’ll give you half-a-dozen adjectives:  captivating, enigmatic, emotive, thought-provoking, powerful, and inimitably Shaun Tan.

One reading is not enough.

Have You Seen My Dragon?
by Steve Light

In Have You Seen My Dragon by Steve Light, a small boy searches the city for his dragon.  “Maybe he got hungry and stopped for a hot dog./ Or perhaps he went downtown on the bus.”  Detailed illustrations capture the frenetic energy of a city.  And the dragon looks perfectly at home in the busy double-page spreads where he can be found swimming in the harbor, riding atop a subway car, and visiting the playground.  As readers join in the search for the dragon, they will find something new to count with every page turn.  Splashes of color on the otherwise black and white pages highlight 2 hot dogs, 3 buses, 4 sailboats, and so on, up to 20 Chinese lanterns.

This book works on multiple levels: a spot-the-dragon book; a counting book; a wow-check-out-everything-that-is-going-on-in-this-city book.  And besides, who wouldn't love to pick up a book with a green foil dragon on the dust jacket?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

kids recommend The Miniature World of Marvin and James by Elise Broach

The Miniature World of Marvin and James begins a new companion series by Elise Broach, The Masterpiece Adventures.  In this beginning reader story, Marvin the beetle says goodbye to his best friend James, who is going on a weeklong vacation to the beach.  While he is gone, Marvin's plays with his annoying, but fun cousin, Elaine, and she leads him on an unusual adventure that distracts Marvin from missing his friend.  The amusing dialogue and engaging illustrations are sure to entertain young readers as they experience a big world through miniature eyes.

For this story, we thought we would let the kids do the talking.  These are some reviews from their perspective.

L. (age 7) wrote:

My favorite character is Elaine because she likes to go on adventures.  She keeps Marvin company while James is out of town at the beach.  I think it's fun when Elaine and Marvin go into the pencil sharpener.  They almost couldn't get out, but luckily Marvin came up with a plan and they were able to escape.

I also think it is funny that Marvin has his very own miniature art studio under the sink.  He even drew a picture of the beach for James!

K. (age 7) wrote:

Elaine is great character because she wants to go on a fun adventure!  She's excited and happy.  She's playful and does somersaults, dives, and even a belly flop.  She is just so cheerful!

I like the part of the story when Elaine and Marvin go into the pencil sharpener because there are soft wood shavings that they jump in a lot.  They dive in them over and over again.

The Miniature World of Marvin and James
by Elise Broach
illustrated by Kelly Murphy
published by Henry Holt and Co.
February 2014
recommended for ages 5-9

Thursday, June 12, 2014

danyelle recommends Rainy Day Book of Things to Make and Do

We are 11 days into our summer vacation, and while my kids enjoy being outside, they have already had plenty of inside hours to fill.  I found Rainy Day Book of Things to Make and Do while browsing through kids' craft books in March, and I knew it would be perfect for summer days (rainy or not).

The book is organized into 8 sections ("Fun and Games," "Top Toys," "Rad Room," "Great Gifts," "Dazzling Decorations," "Cool Cards and Papercrafts," "Funky Fashions," and "Awesome Accessories") and includes a variety of projects (twig letters, pebble pets, paper plate animals, and pop-up cards)  Step-by-step instructions are clearly written, easy to follow, and include plenty of pictures.  Whether you are gluing, stitching, or painting, most of the projects require easy-to-find supplies, many of which we already had on hand.  Templates are included, making it easy for those of us who need to trace.  Although the title says the projects are "for kids aged 3-10," younger children will need significant help from adults.  The projects were just right for my seven- to ten-year-old children to complete with little assistance.

Here are a few of our projects.
Checker boards for our road trip in June.
Bandanna-covered journals that we are going to use for our summer poem books.
Stain glass butterflies decorate our back door.

We have more projects that we want to try this summer (notice the flags stuck in our book).  I just hope summer lasts a long time.

The Rainy Day Book of Things To Make and Do: More than 50 Creative Crafting Projects for Kids Aged 3-10
by Catherine Woram and Claire Youngs
published by Ryland Peters & Small
August 2012
recommended for ages 6 and up

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

diane recommends Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau

Although Diane wanted to review Independent Study last year, she never got around to it. Since the final book in the trilogy The Testing comes out on June 17, she is coming back with a guest post to talk about the trilogy.

Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau is the third (and final) book in The Testing Series. Malencia Vale (more commonly known as Cia) and her boyfriend, Thomas, along with many other friends, have been studying at the University. As friends have disappeared, Cia has discovered the terrible things her government does to the people who fail to meet standards at this challenging school. As she gets her schedule (more packed with challenging classes than anyone else’s) and struggles to keep reacting in a “normal” way with this work load, she finds time to start a rebellion, and figure out what is really going on. With a little risk, a little rebellion, some romance, and a lot of stubbornness, Cia manages to finish what she put her mind to without dying.

With a happy, but unexpected, and puzzling end, it perfectly sums up the two books preceding it with seamless perfection. Although not foreseen, the end is perfectly clear, yet keeps the reader wondering what Malencia will do next, and what she should do next.

This book is not like any other dystopian novel written: the usual predictability, the typical romance, and the horror of the fight. This book moves along quickly—so quickly that the reader barely has time to keep up, but then slows down in the perfect places to make the drama, the violence, and the romantic imperfections seem real.

This fast paced book is sure to please any reader wanting an action-packed romance. Right from the first page, the reader is thrown into this dangerous, but pleasing, setting. So, with perfect timing, and a lot of realistic mistakes, Graduation Day is the most realistic (and best) conclusion to a dystopian trilogy I have read.

Copy received from publisher for review.

Graduation Day
by Joelle Charbonneau
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
June 2014