Thursday, May 31, 2012

Program + review: beTWEEN the lines

I decided that it made more sense for me to talk about the book club and the book we read in the same post - something incredibly logical that you think I would have figured out before now. Anyway, for our May meeting of beTWEEN the lines (my library book club for kids in grades 4-6 for any newbies who might be reading), we read Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. I have conflicting emotions about this book club. This was our last meeting before summer. I put the club on hiatus for the summer because, well, it seemed like the thing to do with all the other programs I'm running (at least weekly). But, thinking about it now, I realize that while I may not have as much time to read the books for book club, the kids have even more time. So perhaps halting the book club over the summer months was not the best idea. I guess I'll re-evaluate next year.

Anyway, onto the meeting itself. I actually had the most attendees I've had so far for the program - five girls showed up, all ready to chat. I provided water and apples, as I always do, plus M&Ms (they are important to the book, after all). We had introductions and then dove right into to talking about the book. Now, here is where my main problem with running this program lies. Consistently, I have enthusiastic talkers that show up. Often, they never stop talking, even when they've begun talking about things other than the book. My problem is that they lose focus easily and I don't really know how to rein them back in. On the one hand, I don't want it to be like school - quiz them on the book, what did you learn from it, etc. On the other, I do want to actually focus on the book - that's the whole point of the program and I know they actually have insightful things to say. But, I have a hard time trying to bring them back to the book once they get off-topic. Part of it is that they seem to be having fun and I don't want to discourage that by being mean librarian Miss Sarah. But I also realize that it's my job to be the adult and keep them on task. I guess I just need more practice trying to find the balance for myself. As usual, our discussion of the book ran for about 40 minutes. I then gave them each their own set of pentominoes and had them try to build rectangles with them (I practiced while I was on the desk earlier in the week - it is incredibly difficult!). Nobody was able to make a complete puzzle in the time we had, but they seemed to have fun trying. Then, because I want to entice them to come back and also to like me and also because I had a bunch of galleys my colleague had brought from TLA, they each got to take home one ARC of a book. They were, predictably, very excited about this. Additionally, they seemed disappointed that we wouldn't be meeting over the summer but I did promote my other programs, so hopefully they will come to some of those.

Here's my review of the book itself, which I'd been meaning to read for some time and chose because our summer reading theme is "Get a Clue!" (I thought a mystery would be apropos).

Chasing Vermeer
By Blue Balliett
Published 2004 by Scholastic

Hailed as a sort of Da Vinci Code for the middle-grade set, this book introduces an art mystery and two unusual heroes: Petra and Calder. When a famous Vermeer painting is stolen, both Petra and Calder begin to notice some coincidences that seem like more than just coincidences. Soon, they are off on their way to solving the mystery on their own.

I remember this book getting a lot of praise when it first came out and I've been recommending it to kids looking for good mysteries for a while now, even before I read it myself. Now that I've read it, I will certainly continue to recommend it because I found it a very engaging read with easy to relate to characters and a lot of fun puzzles for readers to solve as they read. This book flew by for me, even though I was trying to read it more slowly than I usually do so I could take notes for book club. I loved everything about this book - it's a complicated plot but at the same time, it's written in a very straightforward manner that lets readers keep pace with all the happenings. Like I said, the characters are very easy to relate to and very realistic - they are not friends when the book starts, and I actually really like this little difference from the norm. Their friendship develops very naturally and very slowly, which is not surprising for a friendship of two kids of the opposite sex in this age group. I liked that readers are invited to work the puzzles alongside Petra and Calder - and there was even a bonus puzzle in the illustrations. This is part of the reason why I like The Mysterious Benedict Society series, too. I very much enjoyed reading this book and I think it makes for a great book discussion or classroom novel - it touches on many issues, even beyond art. I will definitely be checking out Ms. Balliett's other novels in the future!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: Sent

Sent (The Missing, book 2)
By Margaret Peterson Haddix, read by Chris Sorenson
Published 2009 by Recorded Books

Warning: There will be spoilers for book one of the series in this review. If you'd like to read my review of the first book, go here.

Now that Jonah, Katherine, and Chip have solved at least part of the mystery behind the ominous letters and where Jonah and Chip actually come from, they find themselves on a whirlwind adventure to save Chip from his true identity - as Edward V, king of England in 1483. The time-travellers must find a way to save Chip and Alex (another of the Missing) without causing too many ripples in time. If they do this, they should be returned to their lives in the 21st-century.

Like the first book in the series, I listened to the audio of this one. I actually think these are great books for this medium - they are exciting and well-paced, so it never seems like I'm wasting my time listening when I'd be reading much faster (like The Hunger Games audiobook). As I mentioned in my review of the first book, what I was most interested in about this series was discovering who the missing children really were, and seeing how Jonah plans to save them so that they can all go back to living happily in the 21st-century. I'm a big fan of historical fiction and that's what this second book in the series reads like, more so than science fiction (not that I don't love that, too). With this title, Haddix transports us back to 15th-century England, where Chip is a young Edward V, king of England after the death of his father. As a young royal, his life is in grave danger from others who are hungry to ascend to the throne. I think Haddix does a decent job of creating a believable historical world - what I found most believable is that Jonah, Katherine, Chip and Alex didn't really know what to expect most of the time (because, honestly, how many kids pay attention to history class?). I was glad that they weren't complete idiots about the past, though - Alex's mom having taught him a number of things. I like that they all had to work together to find a solution that would both save the boys and not disturb the flow of time too much. Haddix also includes an author's note at the end, to help kids distinguish the fact from the fiction. I think this series is a great way to introduce kids to real-life historical mysteries - they can then go on to research the mysteries themselves as well as think of their own solutions. I don't know how many books are planned for the series (surely, she's not planning on doing one book for each of the missing children!), but I will gladly read and discover how Haddix solves some of history's most compelling mysteries.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Picture Book Saturday (17)

13 Nights of Halloween
By Guy Vasilovich
Published 2011 by HarperCollins
I love this one! This is essentially the “12 Days of Christmas” for Halloween but with an extra unlucky night thrown in. The gifts are suitably creepy and icky and the illustrations are a great balance between macabre and adorable. I think this would work really well in a Halloween/spooky storytime. Really enjoyed this!

Little Apple Goat
By Caroline Jayne Church
Published 2007 by Eerdman's Books for Young Readers
Go look at the goat on the cover of this book and tell me you don’t want to read it. Go on; I’ll wait. Did you do it? ISN’T THAT THE CUTEST GOAT YOU’VE EVER SEEN?? Okay, now that’s done…little goat loves eating the fruit from the orchard and she spits the seeds over the fence along her walk home. When a storm destroys the orchard, what will happen next? This could be used in a gardening or farming storytime. It explains the cycle of life quite nicely and the illustrations are so sweet. LOOK AT THE GOAT – I mean, come on!

Fancy Nancy and the Mermaid Ballet
By Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser
Published 2012 by HarperCollins
I don’t usually really pay any special attention to the Fancy Nancy books – I’ve read the first few and I think they’re pretty much all the same general idea. For some reason, I felt compelled to flip through this one and I think it’s a great addition to the series. Fancy Nancy and Bree are very excited about their next dance show – a mermaid ballet! They both want to be mermaids very much, but when the parts are distributed, neither is cast. Can Nancy overcome this setback? And what happens when disaster strikes one of the mermaids? This is a fun picture book in a well-loved series that teaches an important lesson as well. As always, I love the vocabulary this book provides, as well as the illustrations. Don’t miss this one!

Bailey Goes Camping
By Kevin Henkes
Published 1997 by Greenwillow Books
Bailey just wants to be like his big brother and sister and go on a scout camping trip with them but everyone tells him he’s too young. Never fear, mom and dad are here to show Bailey what fun he can have, even without going camping. Very sweet story with Henkes’ classic illustrations – another author I’ll probably never get sick of.

First Peas to the Table: How Thomas Jefferson Inspired a School Garden
By Susan Grigsby, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell
Published 2012 by Albert Whitman & Company
This is a nicely written story about gardening for an older elementary audience. My favorite thing about this book is the historical aspect of the story – it’s woven in quite nicely with the main story and I think kids will even learn a few things from reading this book. I also really like the element of friendly competition throughout the story – it’s never mean or overdone and I don’t think it hurts for kids to learn how competition can be friendly. The illustrations, for me, are nothing special but overall this is a really cool picture book.

Time for a Hug
By Phillis Gershator and Mim Green, illustrated by David Walker
Published 2012 by Sterling Children’s Books
I feel like I must only read picture books that either look completely adorable or are non-fiction because it seems like those are the only two things I say about them here. This one falls clearly in the adorable category but this is also like a stealth concept book. We go through a typical day with our main character, finding out when it’s time for a hug. But, we’re also learning a bit about time while we do this. It’s pretty subtle, but I think this is a great book to introduce the concept of time to young children. Adorable illustrations and a sweet little book.

Maudie and Bear
By Jan Ormerod and Freya Blackwood
Published 2012 by Putnam Publishing Group
There seems to be a spate of recent picture books that are actually short story collections about a set of characters (like Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator!) and here is another one. We meet Maudie, who is not altogether likable but I think very realistic and Bear, who is kind and takes care of her. Through a series of five stories, we see them ride bikes, have a picnic, dance, and other fun activities. Surprisingly, the Goodreads reviews mostly seem to decry this book for teaching a bad lesson: that it’s okay to be rude and whiny and unappreciative. I did not get that message at all when I read through this book. Now, looking back on it, I can see how people could see it that way, but I really don’t think that’s the point of this story and I think it’s even more unlikely that this is the message children who read this are going to come away with. I think the illustrations here and beautiful and I think those reviewers are making a fuss over nothing.

Mooshka: A Quilt Story
By Julie Paschkis
Published 2012 by Peachtree Publishers
Mooshka is Karla’s very special quilt – it talks to her. Whenever she touches one of its squares, Mooshka will tell her stories about its life when that square belonged to another piece of fabric. Soon, baby sister Hannah moves into Karla’s room and Mooshka falls strangely silent when Karla needs it more than ever. This is a really interesting story. I think kids will like the idea of learning little pieces of history through fabric. I’m not sure there is a huge audience for quilting picture books but I think they will love this one. The illustrations are quite beautiful and ultimately, this is a really sweet story about family.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict
By Trenton Lee Stewart
Published 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Before the Mysterious Benedict Society, there was simply a young orphan named Nicholas Benedict. He's about to start a new journey at a new orphanage, Rothschild's End, and he doesn't expect it to go any better than the last. You see, Nicholas is quite an unusual child - he has an awfully long nose, he's terribly smart and precocious, and he has a condition of which not much is known - narcolepsy. But Child's End holds a secret that is irresistible to Nicholas - a story of a hidden treasure! Can Nicholas solve the mystery and find the treasure, perhaps putting an end to his days at the orphanage?

I was very excited when I heard about this book - I loved the Mysterious Benedict Society series and was excited for a new addition. I was also especially pleased to discover this would be a prequel (my reason for reviewing it here without having reviewed the other titles) - I hadn't enjoyed the third book in the series as much, so this offered a nice change of pace. And, to me, it's always fascinating to read about how a character you think you know became the person you've read about. I really enjoyed getting to know young Nicholas Benedict - nothing in his story really came as a surprise for me, having read the other books, but it was very satisfying to read about his development. I loved the mystery here and the promise it held for Nicholas - a chance to finally escape the torment and solitude he's been surrounded by his entire life. I thought Violet was a terrific character as well - different than we've seen before. The mystery here is a bit different as well - there are no codes or riddles for readers to try to solve alongside Nicholas, but I suppose a diligent reader could solve the mystery of the treasure as Nicholas uncovers more and more information. For me, these books, though intimidating in length, breeze by. I think these books reward their readers with a sense of accomplishment - yes, you've just finished this rather large book, but you've also read quite an excellent book that may have taught you some lessons along the way. I like Nicholas' approach to problem-solving and I think kids will find this appealing as well. The thirst for middle-grade mysteries seems to be ever-increasing and these books should be recommended heartily, this title being no exception.

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

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review: Deadweather and Sunrise

Deadweather and Sunrise (Chronicles of Egg, book 1)
By Geoff Rodkey
Expected publication May 29, 2012 by Putnam Juvenile

Egbert's life hasn't exactly been a bowl full of cherries - he is the youngest child, constantly abused by his siblings, Adonis and Venus, and ignored by his father. Not to mention the vile pirates that share his island home. But things are about to get even worse for young Egg (as he is soon to be called) - his family disappears in a mysterious ballooning accident and it becomes quite clear that the gentleman who's taken him in, the rich and powerful Mr. Pembroke, is trying to kill him.

This book has one of the most eye-catching covers of all the ones I brought home from Midwinter - I mean, that image of the house on the cliff and the big pirate ship and the hot air balloon just screams that this is going to be a rollicking adventure story. And it certainly is. I was hooked from the very first page on this delightful story, filled with intrigue, high-seas adventure, pirates, betrayal, overcoming the odds, and just a little romance. Egg is such a delightful narrator - his background is not that different from typical fantasy heroes (a young boy, beaten down by his family, who seeks solace in books and knowledge), but there is just something so appealing about him. He really struggles with his feelings about his family and has his own share of self-doubt about his worthiness and abilities. This makes him much more than just another poor, saddled young boy who turns out to be extraordinary. Egg never really quite becomes extraordinary, but he uses the skills he has at his disposal to make things work in his favor. Egg is not the only wonderful character here. Girls will admire Millicent and boys will be attracted to her, too - her spunk and self-confidence are a nice contrast to Egg's mild-mannered nature. And the pirates! Love them! They are exciting and interesting and, well, let's be honest, they're pirates! But I think my favorite character is Guts. What an absolutely perfect companion for Egg! Guts is daring and hostile, guarded and violent, but there are hints that there is a much deeper story behind his attitude, a story probably filled with pain. I love the twists and turns of this story - can Egg really survive? Or would it be best to just run away and hope he's never found? Millicent's struggle with the truth of her father is very realistic. I think the world Rodkey has created is fascinating and I can't wait to learn more about it. I am absolutely thrilled with this book and can't wait to see what's in store for Egg, Millicent, Guts, and the pirates!

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Program: Family Storytime

At the end of March, I hosted a Family Storytime with a circus theme. Let me once again bemoan the small amount of suitable titles for this theme. I had a very difficult time finding anything I really liked. Here's what I ended up with:

Welcome, introductions and reminders: I don't think anyone even listens to this part, but I do it just in case.

Opening: Open Shut Them - for some reason, I forgot where I was going with this and ended it really awkwardly. That makes me sound really dumb because there's only like 10 words to the whole rhyme.

Book: Tree Ring Circus by Adam Rex -  this was one that I wasn't sure would really work for storytime but I included because I just love the author too much not to include his book that happened to fit the theme (sort of). It's not really about a circus, but there is a circus clown and some escaped circus animals, so whatever. Nobody really seemed that into it until the elephant showed up, but I probably could have predicted that.

Flannel: "Under the Big Top" - I've said it before, I'll say it again: I am not really a fan of flannels. They never seem that exciting to me, but I guess I'm not a child aged 0-5. This one was better than some of the others I've looked at - you put up a little "big top" at the top of the flannel board and then a stack of creatures you'd find at the circus underneath. The creatures are placed on top of each other so that the next one is hidden underneath the one before. It starts with an elephant, followed by a bear, then a lion, and finally a seal. Actually, there's supposed to be a clown after the seal but ours was missing, so I just ended it at the seal. Here are the words for the curious:

"Under the big top, what will I see?
Look there's an elephant smiling at me.
Behind the elephant, what will I see?
Look there's a bear dancing for me.
Behind the bear, what will I see?
Look a wild lion is roaring at me.
Behind the lion, what will I see?
A little seal doing tricks for me."

Book: The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen - yet another example of stubborn Sarah including a book that's probably too long for storytime simply because she loves it so. To me, this is an exciting, rhyming, funny story of a circus ship that crashes and the animals that seek refuge on a small island in Maine (which is apparently based partly on true events). I love Van Dusen's books - the illustrations are so bright and vibrant and detailed and the stories are interesting and funny and full of interesting words and rhymes. They seemed a little more engrossed with this book than the first - I paused a few times and asked them to identify the animals on the pages for me.

Song: "Silly Dance Contest" by Jim Gill - my idea was to have them make silly clown faces/poses when they were supposed to freeze. Some of them did this, but most of them just watched me do it and laughed uproariously at the silly librarian making faces in front of them.

Book: The Fabulous Flying Fandinis by Isabel Slyder - I picked this one at the last minute because I wasn't really too keen on doing Olivia Saves the Circus, but I don't know if this one was really any better. It's about a circus family moving in down the street from a shy boy who is a little afraid of trying new things. It shows some of the different things people do in the circus - ride standing atop horses, walk the tightrope, fly through the air on the trapeze, etc. I don't think anyone really cared about this.

Rhyme: "The Elephant Goes Like This" - I couldn't find a good circus-related song and I didn't really love any of the other flannels we had, so my supervisor suggested this little rhyme to me. I want to note that I make the most pathetic elephant noise in the history of storytimes, though.

The elephant goes Like this, like that (Swaying side to side)
He's terribly big, (Standing up, reach arms high)
And he's terribly fat. (Stretch arms out to the sides to show how fat elephant is)
He has no fingers, (Fisted hands, hiding fingers)
He has no toes, (Wiggle toes)
But goodness gracious, What a nose! (Use arms to make a trunk and trumpet noise)
Closing: "Wave Goodbye" by Rob Reid - as stated before, this is going to be my de facto closing rhyme because everyone loves it so much. They absolutely love waving their bellies!

And that was my Circus Family Storytime!

Review: The Whispering House

The Whispering House
By Rebecca Wade
Expected publication May 22, 2012 by HarperCollins Children's Books

Hannah is temporarily living in Cowleigh House while her family home undergoes repairs. But Hannah soon begins experiencing some troubling phenomena. Is it related to the house? And what about the mysterious death of a little girl there in the late 1800s?

I picked this up at Midwinter, probably because I'm always looking for scarier things for kids (horror has pretty much always been my favorite genre). This book was a pretty big disappointment, though. Not only is it not really scary, but it's poorly written and incredibly dumbed-down. I also didn't know that this was a sequel to an earlier book - it's not necessary to have read the first if you want to read this one, but you might find yourself annoyed at the numerous oblique references to some past happening in the lives of the two main characters. I suppose reading the first might give one more insight into the exact nature of the relationship between Hannah and Sam, which I found frustratingly unclear. There is nothing noteworthy about this book - the characters are flat and, quite often, annoying. The storyline is bland and plodding. The setting wasn't even described very well - I didn't realize until quite a few pages in that the story wasn't taking place in the U.S. Most problematic for me is how incredibly dumbed-down this book feels. The protagonist is 14, which would usually lead libraries to put this in a the young adult section. But the content screams this is for much younger readers. And, even if I assume that this is geared to middle-grade readers instead of teens (which I am inclined to do), the book is incredibly oversimplified and annoying. With much more compelling and richly developed mysteries and ghost stories graving the shelves, I have a hard time imagining the reader who would truly enjoy this novel. A miss for me.

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

Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: The Prince Who Fell From the Sky

The Prince Who Fell From the Sky
By John Claude Bemis
Expected publication May 22, 2012 by Random House

Casseomae has been an outsider of her clan for a long time now, living in relative peace in her own meadow. But her exile turns into a dangerous fight for her life when she rescues a Skinless One - a young child of a race that many believe destroyed the Earth.

I'm pretty sure I've expressed my ambivalence/slight dislike for talking animal books before, but if I haven't, I'll say it now - I'm not really crazy about them. In fact, most of the time, they annoy me. So, I'm not really sure what drove me to pick this one up at Midwinter. Maybe I figured I'd give it a chance. This book is being touted as a post-apocalyptic Jungle Book-esque tale for the tween set and it's not hard to see where this description comes from. However, this novel is not exactly that. Yes, it takes place in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world, where humanity has vanished and nature has reclaimed the land. Animals live in warring clans - bears fighting wolves, rats trying to survive, and everyone hating dogs (for being "Faithful" - that is, loyal to humans). And yes, it is a survival tale. Casseomae, our main character, is a bear who adopts a young boy that has crashed near her meadow (after falling from the sky, as the title describes). Along with a begrudging rat named Dumpster, she embarks on a journey to find a home that will be safe for her adopted "cub." Of course, it's no easy journey, having to contend along the way with wolves and stranger beasts that she has never before seen. But to me, perhaps because the main characters are animals or perhaps for some other reason, it doesn't really read like other post-apocalyptic tales. Maybe it's because it's written for a younger audience. I'm not really sure. But I didn't feel that gripping, part-of-the-action, survival instinct while reading that I normally do. That being said, this is definitely a well-done book and I think it will be met eagerly by its intended audience. I would recommend this to fans of the Warriors series or Gregor the Overlander. I think kids are definitely going to enjoy this. They will love discovering the intricacies of this world without humans, as well as seeing how the boy's behavior and language confounds the animals (in fact, they don't understand him, so readers never know what the boy is saying). This was a surprising read for me.

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

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: Madhattan Mystery

Madhattan Mystery
By John J. Bonk
Expected publication May 22, 2012 by Walker & Company

Lexi is not exactly thrilled about spending the summer in new York City with her younger brother and her Aunt Roz while her dad and his new wife go on their honeymoon. But things get even worse when Lexi thinks she overhears a plot to steal Cleopatra's jewels from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And then the jewels actually go missing. Can Lexi solve the crime?

I picked this up at Midwinter because I thought it sounded like a fun middle-grade mystery, which I think is a really popular genre for tween readers. However, this book didn't quite deliver. All during my reading of the book, I got the feeling that it wanted to be in the vein of Chasing Vermeer - after all, a lot of this mystery depends on coincidences and seeing events in a different light. But, ultimately, I don't think this book was as successful in achieving the charm that made Chasing Vermeer a fun read for me (review forthcoming). I didn't connect with the characters at all - I guess I didn't feel like they were individualized enough. I also found something a bit off about them. Often, it felt like they were all trying a little too hard which, I suppose, indicates that perhaps the author was trying too hard. They didn't seem very realistic, either - I don't really believe kids act like this. Additionally, the action felt very unevenly plotted. At times, the pace is frenetic and difficult to keep up with. At other times, it seems like nothing very important is happening and I found myself skimming pages (I almost never do this). And, while this is supposed to be a mystery about the disappearance of Cleopatra's jewels, that plot seems to disappear to the background among the many other plots that are happening through the book. There are some bits here and there that show promise - Lexi's relationship with her brother, which at first seems very straightforward but is actually quite complicated, provided a dynamic different than what most children's books show, and the subplot about the homeless in New York City was an interesting, albeit quite simplified, addition. In the end, though, I found this book a bit too all over the place. I'd be interested to see how kids feel about it, though.

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

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Picture Book Saturday (16)

Jane & Mizmow
By Matthew S. Armstrong
Published 2011 by HarperCollins
This is an adorable story about friendship and just how hard it can be to be friends with a monster. I think this book provides a great lesson even for kids who don't have monsters among their friends (although, if such a child exists is doubtful). The pictures are very sweet - they sort of remind me of Jane Chapman's style. This whole thing just made me go "awww..."

Listen to My Trumpet!
By Mo Willems
Published 2012 by Hyperion Books for Children
I don't think I will ever get sick of reading the Elephant and Piggie books. I'm pretty sure my future children will own every single one and I will read them aloud incessantly because I just LOVE THEM SO MUCH. Yes, I needed the all caps to describe my love for these books. These books make me want to speak exclusively in all caps. Anyway, this is another delightful entry in the series: Piggie buys a trumpet and wants to Gerald to listen to her play. Like Happy Pig Day! this one has another sweet and surprising ending. PLEASE MAKE THESE BOOKS FOREVER, MO WILLEMS.

Otto the Book Bear
By Katie Cleminson
Published 2012 by Hyperion Books for Children
This is a story for younger kids about book characters coming to life that I think will probably fascinate children. It's such a fun idea - that the characters in your books escape at night when you're not reading them and explore your world. I really like Otto's spirit and the illustrations for this are especially sweet.

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister
By Linda Ravine Lodding, illustrated by Suzanne Beaky
Published 2011 by Flashlight Press
This is a great picture book that should appeal to today's overscheduled child. Poor Ernestine has too much going on - she's scheduled for yoga and karate and art and music and water ballet and it never ends! Often, she sees some neighborhood kids jumping on a trampoline and wishes for just a little free time in her schedule. Eventually, Ernestine rebels against her schedule. This is the sad but true life for many children nowadays. I really like the goofy illustration style of this. This would be a great book for the parents of these overscheduled kids!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: The Year of the Beasts

The Year of the Beasts
By Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Nate Powell
Expected publication May 22, 2012 by Roaring Brook Press

For the first year, Tessa and her younger sister Lulu will be allowed to go to the carnival without an adult chaperone. Neither of them can imagine what a difference this will make in their lives from that point on.

There are probably a number of people who would see me publicly shamed for having never read Castellucci before this point. I know, I know. But, you guys, seriously. There are so many books. And just never enough time. Unfortunately, Castellucci is one of those authors who has been on my radar for a while but whom I haven't yet had the chance to read. I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book when I picked it up at Midwinter but the idea of it intrigued me - it sort of seemed like a Hugo Cabret for teens, with its alternating chapters of prose and comics. I didn't really get what was going on for the first part of this novel. In the beginning, the alternating chapters don't really seem to be connected, at least, not in any way that I could make sense of. I think the best word to describe this book is "deceptive." Now, I know that has a negative connotation and I don't mean to imply that I didn't enjoy this book or that I feel negatively about it. This book is deceptive in the true sense of the word. It's deceptive that the prose and comics don't seem to be connected. It's deceptive that this book is about two sisters testing their independence and discovering first kisses. It's just deceptive. But that's what makes this a really good book - it punches you in the gut when you're not expecting it. I find that books that have surprised me in some way are the books that stick with me (the best example I can think of off the top of my head is Happyface by Stephen Emond; here's my very short Goodreads review). Castellucci and Powell have really crafted a masterful book with this title. I will definitely be checking out her other books as soon as I can. This is one to watch - I think it has great appeal for teens.

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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review: Found

Found (The Missing, book 1)
By Margaret Peterson Haddix, read by Chris Sorenson
Published 2008 by Recorded Books

WARNING: There may be spoilers ahead!

13 year old Jonah has always known he was adopted, but it's never really mattered that much to him. Then, he and his new friend Chip (who just found out that he's adopted, too) begin receiving mysterious letters. The first one says, "You are one of the missing." The next one says, "Beware! They're coming back to get you!" Now Jonah, Chip, and Jonah's sister Katherine are rushing to discover what it means and solve the mystery of the letters - before whoever sent them shows up.

You know, I'm almost ashamed to admit this, but I think this is only the second book by Haddix that I've ever read. I have a lot of her books on my "to-read" list but I just haven't found the time to read them yet. I downloaded this one for my iPod and listened to it while driving (I'm amazed at the number of books I manage to read while commuting for work). The premise of this one greatly intrigued me. I admit that I knew a little more about the plot than I wrote up there - the book relies on time travel to explain much of what's going on with Jonah and Chip - but I was very interested to see how it all worked out. If you know me in real life, you may or may not have discovered my aversion to most things having to deal with time travel (really, it makes my head hurt trying to understand it). However, Haddix makes the science part secondary to the story, which is endlessly interesting - Jonah and Chip, along with 34 other children, have been taken from their real lives throughout history, where they were in grave danger. There is a plotline revolving around competing sides to the argument - should the children have been taken in the first place? How did their disappearances change the course of history? Should the children - now living in the 21st-century - be forced to return to these other lives? It's all very interesting and well-done and I think kids would find the arguments very appealing. What I am most interested in, though, is finding out who exactly the children are. It isn't until the very end of this first book that we discover Chip's true identity. I think Haddix has found a very clever premise and run with it, making for an exciting and very unique series. I can't wait to read more!

The audio version (how I read the book) is well-done. Once again, the reader does a great job of using inflection to distinguish between characters. I did find his voice for Katherine kind of irritating, but overall, he does an excellent job.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: Gilt

By Katherine Longshore
Expected publication May 15, 2012 by Viking Juvenile

All their lives, best friends Kitty Tylney and Cat Howard have played at being noblewomen in the court of King Henry VIII. But when they finally find their way to the court, they will realize that it's a much more complicated game than they could have imagined and, if they don't play right, they could lose their heads...

I've been fascinated with Tudor history for a while now and I sincerely love historical fiction. So, clearly, I was thrilled to snag a copy of this at Midwinter. I must admit that, if the story is captivating enough for me, I'm not really a stickler for historical accuracy. Also, I certainly don't consider myself an expert in history, so I find it difficult sometimes to judge the accuracy of any particular novel. That being said, this story did captivate me, though I can't quite put my finger on why. Some reviews I've seen have been particularly harsh on the characters - citing Cat as a horrible person whom they don't want to read about and Kitty as a doormat who simpers and never stands up for herself. But no one seems to be questioning whether these are accurate portrayals of the women. I've only read one other novel about Catherine Howard (incidentally, it was also a young adult book) and she is portrayed radically differently in that one. Well, that's not really accurate. Yes, throughout much of this novel, Cat is terrible to the people she cares about, seemingly only concerned with becoming Queen and having everything she desires (no matter the cost). But, she is a Howard, bred to be power-hungry and thrust into the king's line of sight by her scheming relatives. Let's not forget that she is only a teenager when she arrives at court and begins her romance with the king - how many people would know how to deal with this situation (Kate Middleton perhaps excepted?)? The other novel I've read about Catherine, The King's Rose by Alisa Libby, portrays her in a much more sympathetic light. It makes me curious which is the more accurate portrayal. Additionally, I didn't have much problem with Kitty's character when taken in context - she is a teen girl, essentially cast off by her family and living off the generosity of the dowager duchess. I am not surprised that she believes herself to have very little autonomy over her own life. Yes, I agree that these are not the best characters I've read (and I couldn't help but be annoyed by the trying-too-hard names of Kitty and Cat) but, like I said, the story still captivated me. And I knew how it would end! I wanted to see how Longshore would develop the story - and she provides an author's note at the end to help readers sort fact from fiction. I think this book will appeal to readers of Anna Godbersen's gossipy historical series (The Luxe, Bright Young Things) - it has the same scandalous feel. I do feel a bit put-off by the cover, though, and it may put teens off as well (her nose? really?).

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

Review: Storybound

Storybound (Storybound, book 1)
By Marissa Burt
Published 2012 by HarperCollins Children's

Poor Una Fairchild has always felt ignored. Her life is about to change, though. One day, while reading a strange book she's found in the library, Una experiences something she's never felt before and the next thing she knows, she's part of the story. That's right, Una has landed in Story, where kids go to school to learn how to be Ladies, Heroes, Sidekicks, and Villains. But how did Una get there? And why is she there? With her new friends Peter and Sam, Una will begin to unlock the secrets of Story, discovering that everything is not as it appears and she may be in much greater danger than she could have imagined...

I first heard about this book from another blog that I follow (Book Smugglers) and it sounded like something pretty much right up my alley. I never really noticed it before but most of what I read in children's literature, especially middle-grade, is fantasy. The plot for this one sounded like something I'd definitely enjoy, so I was thrilled to grab an ARC at Midwinter in January. After finishing, I must admit that the book wasn't entirely what I expected. Though there is a lot going on and a very intriguing premise and plot, it wasn't quite as action-packed as I expected it to be. However, this didn't hinder my enjoyment of the book. I loved finding out Story's backstory (haha) - learning about the Tale Keepers and Muses and being Written In. I think Burt has created a beautifully imagined world that will draw readers in completely. Kids will love wondering what character they would be - a Lady? A Villain? Characters are another thing that Burt has done very well - I was completely on Una's side from the very beginning. But she has also created some more complex characters that readers must learn to love - Snow, Professor Thornhill, Endeavour Truepenny. All these characters are fantastic and interesting. As with most fantasy novels, Burt is also exploring a lot of themes that kids this age are exploring - what it means to be a family, how to be a good friend, learning about good and evil. This book was not exactly what I expected but it definitely drew me in and kept me hooked. I look forward to reading the next title soon!

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

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Picture Book Saturday (15)

Puppy is Lost
By Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Noah Woods
Published 2011 by Blue Apple Books
This is a cute story about a lost puppy. It's very simple, so it would work for even the youngest audiences and it's great for print awareness. It would work well in a dog storytime. The illustrations are bright and bold and there is a happy ending, of course. I might keep this for the toddlers and those just beginning to read.

Scapegoat: The Story of a Goat Named Oat and a Chewed-Up Coat
By Dean Hale, illustrated by Michael Slack
Published 2011 by Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
This is a funny story of a boy who blames his family's goats for every bad thing he does. It introduces a concept that is very difficult to explain to children, though I'm not sure it fully explains it - at least it provides a start. This book is also good for phonological awareness with all its rhyming. There is a cute twist at the end that I think kids will really enjoy. Interesting book.

Little Mouse's Big Secret
By Eric Battut
Published 2011 by Sterling
This is absolutely adorable. Mouse is trying to keep his growing apple tree a secret from all his animal friends. There is lots of white space and very few words in this story, making this a very appealing book for younger readers. However, my complaint about this book is that it would be terrible for storytime - the illustrations are so tiny that kids could never see them in a storytime setting. Maybe an enterprising youth services person could make this into a flannel or something - the story is so cute that I hate for it to get overlooked because the pictures are so small.

The Monster Returns
By Peter McCarty
Published 2012 by Henry Holt and Co.
This is the sequel to the fun and inventive book, Jeremy Draws a Monster. Jeremy's monster is bored now, so he comes back and starts bugging Jeremy to entertain him. Jeremy gets sick of spending so much time with his monster, so he comes up with a pretty clever solution. This is a fun story with wonderful illustrations - especially the monsters.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Storytime Training with Jim Gill

At the beginning of April, I was fortunate enough to attend a storytime training program with Jim Gill, a well-known children's musician and child development specialist. The training was put on by the Dallas Public Library and was attended by librarians from all around the metroplex. My system sent seven Youth Services employees to the training.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Of course, I've used Jim Gill's music during my storytimes before, so I was familiar with that much. But I didn't realize that he is also a child development specialist. The training lasted about two and a half hours, the better part of my afternoon. We spent a lot of that time singing and dancing, exploring Mr. Gill's music and learning new ways to incorporate it into our storytimes. Mr. Gill talked a lot about his time working with special needs children and how important the sort of music he performs was to encouraging their development. I won't say that I learned a whole lot that I didn't already know - I'm already a big believer in using music throughout storytimes. I can see how this workshop/training would be beneficial to people who don't really use music in their storytimes. I also think a more specialized workshop, on developing and executing inclusive storytimes (for children with special needs, ASD, etc.) would have been really helpful. Regardless of whether I learned a lot, I did have lots of fun. It was a great way to spend my afternoon - singing and dancing with a roomful of like-minded librarians. If you're not familiar with Mr. Gill's music and you plan on being a children's librarian (or are one already), please get to know his work. It's delightful, fun, and sure to entertain your young patrons.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: Three Times Lucky

Three Times Lucky
By Sheila Turnage
Expected publication May 10, 2012 by Dial

Moses LoBeau (or Mo, as she is better known) was rescued from the worst storm in Tupelo Landing by the Colonel. This means that Mo has never known her "upstream mother" and has instead been raised by the Colonel and Miss Lana in the back of their cafe. But real trouble is about to come to the small town when Mr. Jesse winds up murdered. Detective Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, are on the case.

I picked this book up on a whim at Midwinter, because I was charmed by the cover and the notion of a small Southern town mystery for kids. This book reminded me a lot of Deborah Wiles' titles Love, Ruby Lavender and Each Little Bird that Sings - full of quirky characters, in a very small-town, Old South setting. Often times, with all these books, I found myself wondering if people really still behaved this way in the South. I think they probably do. Turnage has created a spunky heroine out of Moses - she is determined to fight for what she believes in and will not be stopped by anyone, no matter who they might be. Tupelo Landing is a town full of characters, which makes this novel a wild and hard-to-believe ride. However, there is some real tough stuff happening as well - Mo has never known her birth mother and longs to find her, thinking it will help her define herself. Her best friend's father is the town drunk who regularly beats his family while on a bender. And Mo's adopted father lost his memory in an accident the same day he rescued her from the flood waters. It sounds like it could be dark, heavy stuff but Turnage deals with it in a light tone. I don't mean to say she diminishes the terrible things Dale's father does - by the end of the book, things have turned around for the Johnson family, though not for Mr. Johnson. What is at the heart of this book, though, is the mystery surrounding Mr. Jesse's death. It seems to me that mysteries are a growing genre for middle-grade readers and I'm not entirely sure this book will find its place with that crowd. A few elements of the mystery were a little too obvious, though perhaps they wouldn't be for young readers. Additionally, the setting and the over-the-top action may put off more serious mystery readers, though for me, that made the book more enjoyable. Overall, I'm a bit on the fence about this one. I adore the setting and characters and the general wackiness but the mystery itself fell a little flat for me.

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

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Program: beTWEEN the lines

At the beginning of April, I hosted the second installment of my new tween only book club. For the April meeting, we read The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau. I had five kids signed up for the club; only two showed up. However, one had come to the first meeting as well, so she is definitely invested in this group. She is a very enthusiastic participant as well. My other attendee was a boy, which I was thrilled about. However, he was, perhaps, a little overzealous - or perhaps just over-caffeinated. Once again, the kids were very eager to talk about the book and had a lot of opinions about how terrible the mayor was and how they would feel if they were in Lina or Doon's place. But, there were a number of times when my male attendee went off on a tangent and ignored my attempts to rein him in. As of the end of the April meeting, he was planning to attend again in May, so I will have to work on some behavior management strategies between now and then. We shared some snacks again and participated in Career Day - we drew for potential careers in Ember. Nobody was happy with what they chose, so we talked about how hard it must be to be randomly assigned a job you have no interest in. I closed our discussion with wondering what items we might put in a time capsule for people 200 years in the future to find - which led them to talk about what they thought 200 years in the future might look like (hint: you will be able to start fires with your mind and without ever burning yourself). They both loved the book and were disappointed to see that the sequel was already checked out. After the summer, I need to try to figure out a way to get more kids attending - I think a bigger group would be even more fun.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Picture Book Saturday (14)

Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea
By Tony Johnston, illustrated by Stacy Innerst
Published 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
This is a wonderful new example of a tall tale - based on some facts but greatly embellished. This is a fun and interesting story about Levi Strauss and how he invented that brand we all know and love - Levi's jeans. There are some good vocabulary words in this one but it's a little long, so would work better for an older crowd. There is an author's note to help sort out the fact from fiction and I think this would work great in a classroom setting. Very unique illustration style.

Fall Mixed Up
By Rob Raczka, illustrated by Chad Cameron
Published 2011 by Lerner Publishing Group
This is another new picture book that basically seems written for storytimes. Kids can have fun pointing out all the things that are wrong with each picture and explaining how they should be fixed. You could also talk about which fall activities are their favorites. The illustrations are fun and depict the colors of fall really nicely but I don't like the randomly inserted actual photographs throughout - they just don't work with the style in my opinion.

Acoustic Rooster and his Barnyard Band
By Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Tim Bowers
Published 2011 by Sleeping Bear Press
This is fun with a nice rhythm that could work really well in a storytime about music. This rooster just wants to jam but can't find a band around that seems suited to his style. I'm glad that it includes back matter - a glossary, the names of musicians who inspired the characters, and a jazz timeline. I like the illustrations - they really pop and, this will sound weird, they somehow seem musical. An interesting new picture book.

The Not-So-Scary Snorklum
By Paul Bright, illustrated by Jane Chapman
Published 2011 by Good Books
I mostly picked this one up because of Chapman's illustrations - they are so adorable and have so much personality. This is a pretty cute story about the scary snorklum and all the animals he encounters one night. The animals manage to trick him into being not-so-scary. This would be great for kids who are afraid of monsters under the bed or similar - might teach them some tricks for confronting the scary things.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Review: Jake and Lily

Jake and Lily
By Jerry Spinelli
Expected publication May 8, 2012 by Balzer + Bray

Jake and Lily are twins - and not just that, but they're the special kind. They can sense what the other is thinking and where the other one is and every year on their birthday, they sleepwalk together to the train station (they were born on a train). Lily thinks they're a matched pair, best friends forever. But in their eleventh year, things begin to change.

I spotted this at Midwinter and was very eager to get my hands on it. Spinelli is one of my favorite authors - there is just something about his books that I find magical and exciting. The publisher actually didn't have any extra copies to give out but on the last day, when they tear down all the booths and usually let you take display copies, I was thrilled to see that I could walk away with this one. I couldn't believe it hadn't been snatched up already but lucky me! Anyway, this book had me hooked from the beginning - it's written in simple, straightforward prose, with alternating chapters from each of the twins. It's a great way to tell this story - which is essentially about growing up and becoming your own person - because readers are able to see the issues from both twins' perspectives as well as seeing how each goes about the self-identification process. Though most kids might not relate to the characters (they are super-special twins, after all), I think they will enjoy reading about them for the fact that they are facing the same problems and issues that middle-grade readers are going through - figuring out how to define one's self. This was a very quick read, as most of Spinelli's titles are for me. As an adult, it was pretty easy for me to figure out the major plot points before they occurred, but that didn't make reading them any less enjoyable. There is just something sweet and engaging about Spinelli's books. While I don't think this is as good as Stargirl or Maniac Magee, this is still a very welcome addition to Spinelli's canon. I hope this book is discovered by middle-grade readers searching for their own identities.

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

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Review: The Search for Wondla

The Search for Wondla
By Tony DiTerlizzi, read by Teri Hatcher
Published 2010 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Eva Nine has lived all her life in the Sanctuary with Muthr - the robot that raised her. But one night, her world is turned upside down and she is catapulted into the world above. Soon Eva Nine is on a quest to find other humans - though no one is sure there are any others. She meets a variety of creatures along the way, though not all friendly. Will Eva Nine find what she's looking for?

I'm sort of on the fence about this one. I remember when it was first released and how cool it looked. I listened to the audio version so I missed out on all the pictures, which does make me a little sad (I often found myself wondering what each creature actually looked like) because I love DiTerlizzi's illustration style. I wasn't really sure what to expect with the book - it has some fairy tale/classic fantasy elements, but it's also pretty heavy on the science fiction. I guess, ultimately, it doesn't matter how we classify the book - it shouldn't change our enjoyment of it. Anyway, back to the real topic at hand. I adored Eva Nine and her companions - Rovinder and Otto (apologies if their names are not spelled properly, I did listen to the book instead of read). Each one was full of such personality. I liked DiTerlizzi's descriptions of the world he's created, though at times it made the story drag a little. I liked finding out little bits of the puzzle along with Eva; it made the story more present. I actually really enjoyed the ending (she goes to a library, guys, come on!) and of course, the cliffhanger that actually really made me want to read the next book in the series (often, I only read the next book because I feel like I should). There were times when I got bored with what was happening and when things seemed a little redundant - how many times does a character need to be captured only to escape again? Overall, though, I think this is a book with high appeal, especially for children who are looking for an epic fantasy/sci-fi book to tackle.

I'd also like to note that I had some extreme hesitations when I realized the book was narrated by Teri Hatcher. I have nothing against her, just sometimes it can be jarring to listen to a book narrated by an actor. I mean, there are people who do nothing but read audiobooks for a reason. Having finished the book, I'm immensely regretful that I had any doubts about her. Hatcher does an absolutely brilliant job with this audiobook, narrating things that I'm not even sure how they must have looked on paper. This greatly enhanced my experience of listening to this book. I would definitely listen to the second title if she narrates it as well.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: The Hunt

The Hunt (The Hunt, book 1)
By Andrew Fukuda
Expected publication May 8, 2012 by St. Martin's Griffin

His world is a carefully constructed set of rules: don't laugh. Don't sweat. Don't draw attention to yourself. Never forget who you are. But how can he forget - the sunlight doesn't hurt him and he doesn't crave heper blood - when every moment of his life highlights the differences between him and other people? His world is about to be forever changed.

That's perhaps the vaguest plot description I could come up with for you. You're welcome. Now, where do I begin this review? I picked this up at Midwinter because it sounded like a unique addition to the paranormal/vampire/craziness that is happening all over YA right now. And, after reading, I still believe this. Our main character here is a young man who is human, living in a society of vampires. And it is not like they live in blessed peace with each other - no, our young narrator has fooled them all into believing he is one of them. Now, here is where the novel loses me, as a critical reader - there is too much that is completely unbelievable or unexplained. Seriously, in 17 years this kid has never accidentally sneezed or gotten a paper cut? And what about human women - um, they obviously still bleed once a month (there are some mentions of children being born throughout the book), so do they just disappear for those days? According to our narrator, it wouldn't matter if they hid themselves - the smell of their blood would be too irresistible. So how does it work?? That's a bit too ridiculous, even in a world where I have suspended my disbelief. Additionally, no background is given on this world - where did all the humans go? Where did the vampires come from? There are some hints that it's an evolutionary thing - that is, the human race evolved into vampires but a few humans managed to survive undiscovered (well, mostly). This stretches the credibility even more. And another thing, if our boy is supposed to be so smart, how does he not realize that he's been in the presence of another human for a very long time? It wasn't that hard for me to figure out and I think I've mentioned before that I'm not really that great at solving these sorts of mysteries.

But as a reader looking to be entertained? I don't really give a rat's behind about all this unbelievable and incredible stuff going on - for me, this book was exciting and held my interest. While narrator boy (he doesn't really have a name until 2/3 of the way through the novel, ahem Goodreads spoiler) doesn't have much of a personality, it seems like a necessity. I mean, no one else has a name and he's just trying to blend in to get by, so why would he? Similarly, no one else expresses their emotions (beyond wrist-scratching - wha....? - but I digress), so why would he? This book is fast-paced and action-packed and I couldn't wait to turn each page and find out what happened next. While I don't think it's the greatest book I've read this year, I definitely enjoyed it and think it will certainly appeal to the vampire-crazed populace we have among our YA masses.

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review: Reckless

by Cornelia Funke, translated by Oliver Latsch, read by Elliot Hill
Published 2010 by Listening Library

Jacob Reckless has been travelling to the land through the portal for a long time - he's become sort of famous over there, finding lost treasures. But when his brother Will follows him through, disaster strikes. Will becomes infected and begins to transform into a Goyl - a terrible creature with skin made of stone. Now, Jacob will do anything to save his brother. But it certainly won't be easy.

Okay, I'm starting to think that maybe I just shouldn't read anymore of Funke's books. I read Dragon Rider and thought it was okay. I got halfway through Inkheart and stopped because I hated it so much. And now, I've finished listening to Reckless and I feel incredibly ambivalent about it. The thing that makes me crazy about this situation is that there's a reason why I keep trying to read her books. Every book that Funke has put out has an interesting premise, something that really makes me want to read it. And yet, I've never been satisfied with how the stories work out. In this instance, I found I just didn't care about the story or the characters. The premise sounded cool, and there was the promise of fairy tale lore woven into the story (which was kinda neat when it happened) but then I started listening and Funke just lost me. I couldn't bring myself to be interested in the story. In fact, I'm not entirely sure how it all happened - where is Jacob's father? How did Will get infected? Who exactly is Fox? What happened when Jacob spent two years with that fairy lady? Why are Will and Clara so unaffectionate if they are in love? Doesn't anyone in the real world wonder where they've gone? Additionally, I expected a lot more fairy tale re-imagining throughout the story - or maybe it happened and I just didn't notice because I was so disillusioned with the story. I will say that the reader was pleasant to listen to and did an excellent job of creating different characters with his voice. Unfortunately, this just didn't really work for me and is making me wonder if I should bother to read the ARC I have of her next book.

Review: Bitterblue

Bitterblue (Graceling Realm, book 3)
By Kristin Cashore
Expected publication May 1, 2012 by Dial

WARNING: May contain spoilers for the first two books.

Eight years have passed since King Leck's reign ended. Young Bitterblue is now Queen of Monsea and believes her administration should be marked by forward thinking. But all is not as it seems in Bitterblue's queendom - more danger awaits her than she could imagine...

Okay, so I'm breaking my own rule by reviewing this book. When I started the blog, I decided I wouldn't review any books in series unless I had reviewed the other books in the series on the blog - basically, if I was going to talk about a series, I had to start with book 1. But, I can't not review this book - it is one of the most highly anticipated young adult books this year, certainly one of my most highly anticipated books of 2012.

I have to start by saying this: I didn't realize until I was looking over other reviews that many Graceling fans were angry when it was announced that Bitterblue would be the main focus of this new book in the series. I must admit, I have a hard time understanding this. By far, Bitterblue was my favorite character in Graceling - she completely charmed me and had, I think, an incredibly fascinating story to tell. So I, personally, was overjoyed to discover that this title would be pretty much all about her (of course, I knew that the other characters would certainly make appearances). Perhaps this makes me more positively biased towards this book. So, take from that what you will.

To the book itself, I must start by saying at one point I hugged the book to my body and declared to my boyfriend, "I love my book!" I'm sorry - it's foolish behavior, but I couldn't help myself. I greatly enjoyed Graceling, especially having listened to the Full Cast Audio version but was disappointed by Fire. This did not diminish my desire to read Bitterblue. I actually stood in line at Midwinter for a timed giveaway of the ARC (which, believe me, many people did not understand my doing this). I valiantly fought my overwhelming desire to begin reading it immediately (with its May 1 release date, there were other books coming out sooner that I wanted to try to get to before their release dates), but I often looked longingly to the shelves of my bookcase where I could see its lovely blue spine. So, my anticipation for reading was incredibly high.

I did experience a bit of letdown while reading Graceling because it had been hyped so much before I read it - I find this is often the case if I don't read a book that has everyone talking concurrently with the hype. Often, I have even caused my own disappointment by hoping desperately that this book will be awesome (for whichever reason - author I enjoy, particularly interesting premise, etc.) and eagerly awaiting its arrival. In this case, however, I experienced no such let down or disappointment - this book was exactly what I wanted it to be.

Though I was initially put off by the idea that this book takes place eight years after the end of Graceling (Bitterblue's formative years - and we're missing them?!?!), I quickly came to embrace the complexity this added to the plot. Bitterblue has already been Queen for eight years by the time this book begins and yet the vast fields of her ignorance about her queendom have barely begun to be explored. Monsea is still struggling intensely to free itself from the 35-year reign of terror that was King Leck, Bitterblue's father - how does one recover from what has essentially been a rape of one's own mind? This issue is so torturous to think about and so central to the action of this novel - every person in Monsea has a right to feel this way, including their Queen and all her royal advisers.

The main action throughout the novel is Bitterblue's struggle to become a gracious, benevolent, and effective ruler. However, from early on, it becomes clear that Bitterblue barely knows the first thing about the tortures Leck inflicted upon his citizens - and it begins to appear that her own royal staff will do most anything to keep her in the dark. Bitterblue begins to sneak out of the castle, hoping to explore her land and its people on a more personal level. When she meets Teddy and Saf, however, it seems this may only lead to more secrets and danger, not to mention perhaps a broken heart.

At this point, I'm beginning to question if this review even makes any sense, but I soldier on regardless. I loved getting to know this older version of Bitterblue - the hurt and desperation she still feels and the ignorance she has only begun to discover. I also enjoyed the multiple layers of intrigue that Cashore has imbued this novel with - not only is Bitterblue unsure of trusting her closest and most esteemed advisers, she wonders if she can trust her subjects, and it's not long before she begins to question herself. I liked the new characters introduced here - Teddy and Saf, Fox and Hava, Death! - as well as the chance to learn a great deal more about characters I'd forgotten - Helda and Giddon. I'll be the first to admit - there are a lot of puzzles within this story and, at times, it can feel a bit convoluted and overwhelming, but, ultimately, they all tie together so beautifully that I can't imagine the story without a single one of them. The passages written from Leck's point of view are some of the most eloquently disturbing pieces I've ever read. I found myself falling in love with every piece of this story and wanting it never to end.

My main quibble with the novel - the romance. Quite honestly, I found the subject of Bitterblue's romantic feelings particularly unbelievable - in fact, I found scenes between Bitterblue and a different character to be exceptionally more romantic than the scenes she shared with the object of her desire. Additionally, the romance played such an insignificant role in the story (and I imagine some would argue with me, but I can't make my case without giving too much away) that it seemed superfluous to include it at all.

I cannot begin to express how thrilled I was with this book - it is everything I imagined it would be and I am so pleased with Cashore and the world she's crafted in this series, and especially in this third novel. I cannot recommend this highly enough!

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