Saturday, October 18, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

By Tim Warnes
Published 2014 by Tiger Tales
Mole likes to label things, but when he comes across something he's never seen before, how will be label it? This is a really cute book, particularly appealing to analytical-minded children who like to understand things in certain ways. This book is great for vocabulary and can easily lend itself to extension activities. The illustrations are bold and suit the text well. A lot of fun - I'd like to use this in a storytime and see how the kids react.

Big and Small
By Elizabeth Bennett, illustrated by Jane Chapman
Published 2014 by Tiger Tales
I picked this one up because of the illustrations by Jane Chapman - I love her soft, friendly style, so I'm always willing to check out a book she's illustrated. This is a very lovely story of a friendship between Big and Small (a bear and a mouse), showcasing how they help each other throughout their day. The text highlights big and small differences, making this a good book for showcasing print awareness. It's an adorable way to show that we all need help sometimes, even when we are big.

Poor Doreen: A Fishy Tale
By Sally Lloyd-Jones
Published 2014 by Schwartz & Wade
Wow, I read this book quite some time ago and forgot about it, but now I'm kicking myself because it's actually pretty great. Doreen is a little round fish who sets out to visit a distant relative. She gets a bit, shall we say, sidetracked and winds up on someone's hook. But that's not the end of Doreen's adventure. This book is definitely going to be a hit in storytime because the contrast between Doreen's point of view and the narrator's is quite significant. It provides for a lot of humor and kids will love being in on it as Doreen cluelessly makes her way to her destination. The illustrations excellently evoke the watery nature of the story. I'm glad I reminded myself of this book so I can use it with an audience soon!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: "The President Has Been Shot!"

"The President Has Been Shot!": The Assassination of John  F. Kennedy
By James L. Swanson
Published 2013 by Scholastic Press

It's a moment that our nation will never forget - John F. Kennedy, one of our most charismatic presidents, assassinated in Dallas. In this book, Swanson recounts the events leading up to that terrible moment - and the consequences felt nationwide.

This was the last of the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction titles I read before the awards were announced - actually, I think I might have finished it right after the announcement. Either way, I waited impatiently for a copy to come in at the library - I visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas a couple years ago, a very interesting experience.

The Kennedy assassination is a moment in history that I've heard about my whole life. My parents were both too young to remember it (though it did happen on my father's birthday). I've heard the conspiracies surrounding the assassination my whole life as well. It's a moment in history that continues to fascinate us. Reading Swanson's account makes it easy to see why.

Swanson has done an excellent job of crafting a compelling narrative of the days leading up to the assassination and the people involved. Readers learn about John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Lee Harvey Oswald. It's fascinating to read about all these individuals, knowing that their lives are about to intersect in one terrible way. While I understand some people's reluctance to learn about Lee Harvey Oswald (and other sensational killers), I found Swanson's account of his life completely engrossing. I had no idea what kind of life he'd lived and what drove him to this defining act.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is how "in the moment" Swanson makes readers feel. It was frustrating to read small instances where, if only a different choice had been made, the assassination might have been avoided. I appreciated that Swanson took the story into the assassination of Oswald as well - an action that should never have occurred. To me, it's quite clear that Swanson did an immense amount of research to present the story as he did, providing information and insights that were entirely new to me (so sure to be new to young readers). The photos that accompany the text are excellently chosen as well.

An awesome example of meaty non-fiction to hand to middle-grade/young adult readers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: Beware the Wild

Beware the Wild
By Natalie C. Parker
Expected publication October 21, 2014 by HarperTeen

Sterling and her brother had a pretty epic argument and he ran into the swamp. But she never expected him to disappear - and a girl claiming to be her sister to take his place. It isn't long before she realizes that no one remembers him - except, perhaps, slightly strange Heath. Can Sterling figure out what's happened and find a way to bring her brother back?

Well, I've said before I'm a sucker for a teen novel, particularly a fantasy, so that's probably how I ended up with this one in my reading queue. The summary had a slightly gothic sound to it, so I was definitely game to give it a shot.

Maybe I'm also a sucker for books set in the swampy south, but this definitely had atmosphere going for it. It was not at all difficult to picture Sticks, LA and the somewhat sinister swampland that surrounds it. Is it just that our culture has created a mythology around the South and its land that it has become the easiest atmosphere to evoke? Maybe, but either way, it works for Parker here. I loved the descriptions of the swamp and the crumbling Lillard House.

I liked that the main thrust of this story is a twist on a changeling tale - Sterling's brother goes into the swamp and Lenora May comes out. In this case, though, all memories of Phineas have been erased as well, replaced with memories of a life with Lenora May. Sterling is protected because of a charm she wears, but I liked Parker's descriptions of the two sets of memories existing next to each other in Sterling's mind. I liked the relationship that evolved with Heath, who also lost someone he cared about to the swamp and is the only one who can remember. I appreciated that they had a history as well, instead of just two strangers thrown together by circumstance who somehow find time to fall in love while also fixing what the magic has set awry.

Okay, the following may be a bit spoilery, so consider yourself warned and stop reading if you don't want to know. For a good long while, I wondered if this was going to end up being another supernatural book that wasn't really about the supernatural - it was instead a manifestation of some illness or disorder. See, Sterling has developed a bit of an eating disorder because of the stress of her brother's plans for the future. So I spent a good chunk of the book wondering if this was all going to somehow end up being a product of Sterling's starving mind. I'm not sure if I would have liked the book more or less had this been the case, but it would have been an interesting dynamic if Parker had chosen that route. Regardless, I thought Sterling's eating disorder played an interesting role in the story and I liked that it clearly wasn't about any desire to be skinny - it was about the lack of control she felt in the rest of her life.

More potential spoilery stuff so keep looking away if you'd like! I was a little sad when it became clear early on that the real villain was exceptionally obvious. I would have liked it a bit better if it hadn't been clear that the person Sterling initially suspected was just another victim of the real baddie.

In the end, I liked this book well enough, despite its lack of surprises. It was atmospheric with interesting enough characters to keep me reading and see how it all would work out. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: Salt & Storm

Salt & Storm
By Kendall Kulper
Published 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The only thing Avery wants is to claim her rightful place, her destiny - the Roe witch. Unfortunately, her mother is doing everything in her power to stop it. But when Avery has a dream about her own murder, she becomes desperate to awaken her powers. Desperate enough to agree to help Tane, a tattooed stranger with power of his own. Will he be Avery's salvation or her downfall?

Witches - I know, they're a little old school, but I like a good witch story. I was drawn to the premise of this one - a girl being denied her birthright - as well as the simple yet eye-catching cover (I know, very superficial of me, but sometimes it's true!). Sadly, this book didn't quite live up to my hopes for it.

While I did sympathize with Avery and her anger at her mother for denying her, it was also pretty clear to me that the whole situation was much more complicated than Avery was able to see. This made it difficult for me to be completely on Avery's side against her mother - I believed that her mother knew things she didn't about the magic and really was trying to protect her daughter (though, obviously not in the healthiest way). Additionally, I found most of the plot pretty predictable and unexciting. For a story about witches, it seemed a little less than thrilling. I also found the romance pretty problematic - well, Tane's whole character actually was problematic for me. I suppose I should have expected that this story would mostly devolve into a romance, but I didn't, and I found that a pretty disappointing turn of events.

Overall, I thought the book was relatively well-written. Kulper does a nice job with the setting and, when she bothers, I was interested in hearing the history of the Roe women. Unfortunately, she focused more on the romance, losing my interest in the story.

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

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Program: Pranks Galore!

My coworker and I struck upon the brilliant idea of holding a program, right before April Fool's Day, where kids could make relatively harmless pranks they could use on friends and family. I thought we'd have a bigger crowd than we ended up with, but the kids who came definitely had fun. Here's what we did!

Fake poop: because, how can you not? We actually had made this for a Grossology program last year and everyone was freaked out by how real it looked, so I seized the opportunity to make it again. It's a really simple recipe with oatmeal, cocoa, fake sugar, and water, but it comes out looking entirely too realistic for most people's tastes. In fact, I heard some parents grumbling about their kid's concoctions as they left.

Fart machines: because, once again, how can you not? I spotted this little craft on Pinterest some time ago and knew I had to find an excuse to make it in a program. Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work 100% of the time - it's a little finicky and definitely takes some practice for full effect. The kids were a little disappointed initially, but after I demonstrated proof that they, too, could make fart noises with a simple wire, rubber band, and washer contraption, they were pretty thrilled. In fact, I think we could have just let them practice with their machines for the majority of the program and they would have been pretty happy.

Spilled milk: we included this prank mainly because it was so easy to do - spread glue on wax paper and let it dry. The kids were not terribly excited about this one, perhaps because it was too easy. Maybe if we had tinted it red and billed it as a blood spill?

Cup of dirt: and to end things on a happy note, we gave the kids cups of dirt to snack on. We showed them how to make Jell-O worms (which my colleague had some trouble with, so attempt at your own risk) and then gave them some pre-made ones to add to their dirt cups. They didn't really care how messy the worms were; they love any opportunity to snack.

And that was our program! What other kid-friendly pranks should we have included?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: Sparkers

By Eleanor Glewwe
Published 2014 by Viking Juvenile

Marah's hope for the future lies in her talent as a violinist. But when a devastating illness begins spreading in her city, there may be no hope for anyone. With the help of an unlikely ally, Marah will try her best to discover the secrets behind the illness and hopefully put a stop to it.

I requested the e-galley of this because I'm a sucker for fantasy. I thought it sounded new and interesting, and I'm still trying to read more middle-grade (but the YA is just so tempting!).

Though I didn't think of it in these terms while reading, Glewwe has written what is essentially an allegory of fairly typical class struggles. Marah belongs to the non-magical class, and her world is defined by this. Her opportunities are limited and she can't help but be aware of how difficult her life might be if she can't seize her chances when they appear. The new illness that begins to spread is, of course, a game-changer. It strikes indiscriminately, for once sadly putting Marah in the same boat as those who can do magic. Through a serendipitous turn of events, Marah comes in contact with a forward-thinking magician boy and, together, they seek to uncover the source of the illness and its cure.

I think Glewwe does a good job accurately depicting oppression in a way that is both easy to understand and not mind-numbingly depressing. Marah is an easy heroine to root for, though sometimes I felt like her talent with the violin was only discussed when a break from the action was needed. The story is quite predictable and relies pretty heavily on coincidence - the circumstances by which Marah and Azariah begin their partnership seem pretty unlikely to me. The secrets behind the dark eyes illness are completely unsurprising, though the story is still engaging enough to want to see exactly how it plays out. Additionally, if I were a teacher, I can see using this book and then discussing instances of real-life racial genocide. Pretty heavy topics for a middle-grade novel, but important.

A few quibbles I had: I spent a good portion of time trying to figure out Glewwe's influences on  her magic system and language. I don't know why I just assumed that she had been influenced by a particular set of beliefs, but I distracted myself trying to figure out what it was. Additionally, Marah is a bit older than I usually like my middle-grade protagonists.

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Series Review: Lockwood & Co.

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co., book one)
By Jonathan Stroud
Published 2013 by Disney-Hyperion

Psychic Investigation Agencies have been protecting people from dangerous ghosts for many years now. Lucy, a talented young agent, hopes for an illustrious career at one of these agencies. Instead, she finds herself working for Lockwood & Co. - which turns out to be just two boys. Soon, they find themselves taking on one of the most difficult cases in recent history. Will they prove that Lockwood & Co. is just as legitimate an agency as any other?

I am so woefully behind in my reviewing and it is bothering me. I might start posting review roundups and, once life slows down, reviews every day. We'll see. Anyway, this book was one of our Cybils finalists this year (and, ultimately, our winner!). I knew of Stroud, of course, having worked in a bookstore when the Bartimaeus trilogy was very popular, but I'd never read the series myself. This new book, however, sounded more up my alley, plus I'd heard good things about it, so I was pleased to see it our shortlist.

I think I've mentioned before that my personal favorite of our Cybils finalists was The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. However, when it became relatively clear that this was a favorite of most of my fellow judges, I had no problem getting behind this one. Why? Well, easy - it has something for every reader. Though I despise the idea of "girl" or "boy" books, this one will easily appeal to readers across genders and across age ranges as well. The writing is engaging and entertaining and easy to fall into - though this book is nearly 400 pages, I sped through it rather quickly. The characters are phenomenal - I loved them all. Lucy is full of verve - she's someone I'd want to be friends with. Lockwood is quite charming, but it's also clear that he's got some depths that have yet to be explored. And George - oh, I just wanted to give him a hug.

This book has humor and scares in spades - something I love, especially for kids. It has the right amount of creep factor and enough levity to not scare your pants off. I think this book is basically a perfect example of what I think of as middle-grade - that 10-14 year old age range. So, while in my heart The True Blue Scouts can't be knocked from their pedestal, it's easy to see this book as a winner when it succeeds in so many ways. Just brilliant!

And the recently published sequel:
The Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co., book two)
Published 2014 by Disney-Hyperion

After the smashing success of the solve of the Screaming Staircase, Lucy, Lockwood, and George are eager for their next big solve. When what should be a relatively simple case has a complicated effect on George, they find themselves in a spot of trouble. And it only gets worse when the skull in the ghost jar begins whispering to Lucy.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed book one, so I was thrilled to see the e-galley of book two available. I downloaded and read it furiously in one weekend. I definitely recommend it as highly as the first, and I'm just as excited to see what will come next for the agents of Lockwood & Co. The characters are just as delightful as ever. I've seen some complaints that this book focuses on George, who appears to be most people's least favorite character. I did not have this problem - I adore George just as much as Lucy and Lockwood and I like that Stroud seems willing to give each character their own chance to shine.

Once again, this book has a near-perfect blend of spooks and laughs. It's creepy but also highly amusing and I think kids will definitely appreciate that mix. I'm a little apprehensive that a romance might develop in later books - I'm not sure if I'd want to see that happen or not. I suppose it will all depend on how Stroud handles it. This book ended on a huge cliffhanger - perhaps one of the few times when I've actually said aloud, "No, you can't end the book like that!" Kids will be clamoring for the next book - I know I am!

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