Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: Sugar

By Jewell Parker Rhodes
Published 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The only life Sugar has known is on River Road Plantation. She is not a slave (Mr. Lincoln freed all the slaves when Sugar was younger), but she has nowhere else to go. Sugar tries to find her own sense of freedom, including befriending the son of the plantation owner. When he tells Sugar a secret - that his father is bringing in Chinese to work the fields - she begins to worry. How will life change on River Road?

Add this to the list of e-galleys I requested in my efforts for more middle-grade. Rhodes' first novel for children, Ninth Ward, was very well-received. It definitely caught my eye, but I haven't yet found the time to read it. When I spotted her newest available to request, I did so. It sounded like it had a lot of potential - as you know by now, I'm a big fan of historical fiction, and I like that this focuses on the time period almost immediately after slavery is abolished. Rhodes tells a fascinating and new-to-me story, of plantation owners hiring Chinese workers to supplement their workforce as slaves left for the North.

It seems odd to me to say I really enjoyed this novel, as it's not a terribly happy one (though it does certainly have an uplifting message and happy ending). But I truly did enjoy this novel. It's compulsively readable - told in a free-form style with short chapters, the pages fly by. If you've ever lacked for a spunky heroine, look no more - Sugar has spunk to spare. At times, Sugar's stubbornness can seem a bit much, but it also seems very much a product of her childhood. I love all the nuance that Rhodes has created for her character - her uneasiness with her own name is incredibly interesting and her love of stories is a more universal trait. As I mentioned, the message of this book is uplifting, as Sugar knows in her heart that it is perfectly fine for her to befriend Billy (even though he's white) and Beau (even though he's Chinese). This was the novel's weakest point, however; I'm not sure how entirely realistic it is. Yes, I appreciate Sugar's spunk, but would she have really thrived like this during this time period? Additionally, everything works out for everyone in the end, which is perhaps unrealistic and a bit too convenient. However, I thought this was a very well-written historical fiction piece, featuring a wonderful heroine.

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: A Faraway Island

A Faraway Island
By Annika Thor, translated by Linda Schenck, read by Amy Rubinate
Published 2010 by Listening Library

Stephie and Nellie, sisters from Vienna, are sent to Sweden to live with other families. They don't have a choice: they are Jewish and the Nazis have come to Austria. This is the only way for them to stay safe. Their parents tell them they will only have to stay six months, but six months go by and the sisters are still in Sweden. Can Stephie and Nellie adjust to their new life? Will they ever be reunited with their parents?

This is the first book in a four book series, though it appears only two have been translated to English thus far. This book won the Batchelder Award, given to the most outstanding children's book originally published in a language other than English outside the United States. Book two, The Lily Pond, was named an Honor book for this same award. Being an avid follower of book news and awards, this series had obviously been on my radar. I spotted the audio available for download and figured I'd give it a go.

I'm a big historical fiction fan and I really enjoy the alternate perspective on World War II that this book brings. I knew that displaced children such as Stephie and Nellie existed, but I'd never really heard this story. I would love to pair this book with a non-fiction title on the same subject. Additionally, this book would be a fantastic addition to a classroom unit on WWII. This is a great example of historical fiction, partly because it immediately makes me think of these things. Outside of that, it's also just a well-written book. I like that it portrays Swedish life in the country realistically (or so I assume, having never been to the Swedish countryside, and certainly not in the 1930s). Everything feels believable about the new life the sisters find themselves living.

That being said, this is not a terribly exciting book. The main focus here is the adjustment the girls must undergo to fit into their new lives. Most of the action is centered around the simple, everyday hurdles that a lot of children face. I like that the sisters each have a different experience and different challenges to face. I like that this is a quieter book that doesn't ignore the war (its presence is still felt throughout the book). I am interested to see what the rest of the series covers, and I'll be trying to pick up book two when I get a chance.

I'd recommend this to historical fiction fans, especially those who enjoy the Little House series.

As a little note down here, this review marks my 500th blog post! I can't believe it. I've been blogging for a little over 2 years now, so that seems like a huge number. I still don't know how many people are out there actually reading this little blog, but I feel like I'm getting better as I go on. If you're reading and you feel like saying hi, please do - it will make me feel like these 500 entries have actually made a little difference. Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: Through the Skylight

Through the Skylight
By Ian Baucom, illustrated by Justin Gerard
Published 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Jared, Shireen, and Miranda have just moved to Venice with their parents. On an otherwise ordinary excursion, the siblings stumble into a shop and receive unbelievable gifts from the wise old shopkeeper. The next thing they know, the three siblings are swept into an adventure - and it's up to them to make sure everything works out.

This was another e-galley I requested in my quest for more tween books. And this was yet another one that I feel rather disappointed in. I haven't seem to have had much luck lately with new tween fantasy - maybe I am getting burnt out on it? I find that hard to believe, though, since I have enjoyed some of my recent fantasy reads. Anyway, back to this book. What I think this book does well is create broad appeal - whenever you have a mixed gender set of siblings, you're basically guaranteeing that this will appeal to boys and girls (though I do not believe that boys will only read about boys or vice versa). Additionally, this book is full of action and adventure, with some historical bits thrown in. Where the book falters for me is how confusing I found it all to be - yes, there is plenty of adventure to keep one entertained, but how it all fits together and who is doing what exactly was quite often incredibly confusing. I fully admit that this may be a product of my reading of the book - I wasn't enjoying it terribly much and had a number of other books I was looking forward to, so I tried to rush through this one as fast as I could. There are a lot of characters in on this adventure as well - in addition to the three siblings, there are three animal companions, and three more children from the past. I don't feel as if any of them are particularly well-developed and it becomes too much of a pain to try to keep track of them. The book jumps from perspective to perspective during the action - I think this only adds to the confusion and complexity of keeping track of the characters. As the book built up to the climactic battle scene, I actually found my interest lessening.

Overall, this was just not a good book for me. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Program: Poetry Month

As I'm sure you know, April is National Poetry Month. I wanted to celebrate with a tween program, so I planned something simple. Unfortunately, I had the lowest attendance number I've ever had for a program. I was surprised and not surprised at the same time - surprised because I remember wanting to be a writer as a kid (and well into my teens), so I assumed that a lot of kids felt this way, and not surprised because, let's be honest, "Poetry Month" does not sound as cool as "Mythological Worlds."

One of my examples:
How to grow up and rule the world
The quest begins
Captain Awesome to the rescue
racing the moon.
Extra credit:
Snow in summer
I focused on two different kinds of poetry that I've been wanting to try in programming: book spine poetry and blackout poetry. For the book spine poetry, I pulled a cart of books that I thought had interesting titles and let the kids construct their poems from these. To me, it seemed the easiest way to provide access to a number of books without making a nightmare mess that the pages or I would end up being responsible for reshelving. It seemed like the best solution in my mind, but I noticed that certain titles appeared in nearly every poem the kids constructed. Does this mean that it's just a really awesome or useful title? Or just that the kids had limited access to titles they might have liked better? How do other people handle book spine poetry and the inevitable cartloads of books?
Some of my examples of blackout poetry
(and my creepy shadow).
All made with pages from Poppy by Avi.
As for the blackout poetry, we've done a significant amount of weeding here lately, as well as seeing a lot of damaged books with broken spines/pages falling out. I kept the innards of these books with this project in mind. The kids could pick any page they wanted and simply blacked out (I had markers and crayons, and they didn't have to use black) all the words they didn't want to be part of their poetry. I had examples from the staff so they could get an idea of what it was supposed to look like, but they didn't really need any guidance.

Like I said, I had my lowest attendance yet for this program, which is unfortunate because I think both exercises are really cool. I am planning another creative writing program for the summer, knowing that it will probably be less popular than my other programs but also that I might need a break by that point. I think I'm going to re-use the book spine and blackout poetry for that program, as well as a few other ideas I've had. Do you do creative writing programs with your tweens? Are they well-attended? What exercises do you share?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: New Lands

New Lands (The Chronicles of Egg, book two)
By Geoff Rodkey
Published 2013 by Putnam Juvenile

WARNING: There will probably be spoilers for book one. To read my review of that title, go here.

After escaping from Deadweather Island (just barely), Egg and Guts make their way for the New Lands, hoping to solve the mystery of the map that Egg remembers but doesn't understand. But the path ahead will not be easy for the two boys, as they encounter Kira, a mysterious and possibly dangerous native girl, Millicent, Egg's true love who may be double-crossing him out of loyalty to her father, and, of course, the dastardly Roger Pembroke. These surprises and more await the young pair in this thrilling adventure story.

The first book in this series, Deadweather and Sunrise, was one of my favorite reads last year (and incidentally, one of my most read reviews as well). I was definitely anticipating the sequel eagerly. What adventures would Egg and Guts find next? Would they figure out the secrets of the map? Would Egg and Millicent be reunited? Could the evil Roger Pembroke truly be defeated? I have no idea how many installments in this series that Rodkey has planned but if they are all as excellent as these first two, then I hope the answer is many. New Lands (despite its not nearly as interesting title) is just as thrilling and exhilarating as the first. We get to know more about Egg and Guts and Millicent, as well as meet a new fascinating character in Kira, and even uncover secrets of some of the secondary characters (oh, that tease at the end about Roger Pembroke - curse you, Geoff Rodkey!). Some questions are answered (Egg's family! The secret of the map! BURN HEALY!!) and more mysteries are presented (ROGER PEMBROKE WHAT IS YOUR STORY??). The characters are just as wonderful - I love the continuing development of the relationship between Egg and Guts. Millicent is still struggling with the truth about her father, and I think it continues to be explored in a realistic manner. This entry in the series is also just as funny and heartfelt as the first. I laughed out loud a number of times, and I got teary a few times as well (BURN HEALY, I'M TELLING YOU GUYS!). This book ends on a phenomenal cliffhanger and I find myself once again faced with the nearly impossible task of waiting for the next book. Please, please, if you haven't already, read this series and recommend it to every kid you know. They will thank you, trust me.

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Bad Unicorn

Bad Unicorn
By Platte F. Clark
Published 2013 by Aladdin

Max Spencer does not realize that he is the only person who can read the Codex of Infinite Knowability until he somehow transports himself and three other people into a future where humans are extinct and a robo-princess unicorn rules the planet. Can Max figure out a way back to his present? Can he defeat Princess the Destroyer (the aforementioned robo-unicorn)?

Okay, come on - how could I resist requesting this title? I mean, it's about evil unicorns (AWESOME), magic, and some kids who get in way over their heads. It was practically begging me to request it and read it. So, I answered the siren call. Despite its totally awesome premise, I was mostly underwhelmed by this book. It is loooooooong - and it feels as long as it is. With such a great setup and description, I expected a lot from this book - non-stop action, humor, and perhaps some heartfelt moments as well. It has a little of all of those elements, but now as many as I'd hoped for. With such a long book, there are quite a few times where the action lags, and not much is happening. The beginning is also a rather slow start to a book that should be exciting. With a title like Bad Unicorn and a cover such as this, I expected to be busting a gut from laughter pretty much the whole time I read. There were a couple of instances where I chuckled to myself, but, as a whole, I felt like the book was trying too hard to be funny. Additionally, I never paid terribly close attention to all the explanations for the magic and time travel and whatnot, but I don't think they'd hold up to scrutiny. A lot of Max's ability seems to be entirely too convenient and what isn't never seems to be fully explained. I liked that Max had companions for his journey into the future - Sarah and Dirk provide a nice contrast to Max and give his quest a greater sense of urgency. However, on the whole, I had a difficult time remaining interested in the story and am not terribly thrilled to discover it is the first in a trilogy.

I will acknowledge that it is entirely possible that the target audience for this book (middle-grade readers) may not have the same issues with the book and may find the humor to be exactly what they're looking for. This was just not a book for me.

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

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: The Fire Chronicle

The Fire Chronicle (The Books of Beginning, book two)
By John Stephens, read by Jim Dale
Published 2012 by Listening Library

To read my review of book one, go here.

Kate, Michael and Emma have discovered only part of what makes them different than ordinary children, but they still have much more to learn. They continue to search for their missing parents and await assistance from Dr. Pym. When something completely unexpected happens to Kate, Michael is left to take charge and watch over Emma, as the siblings carry on their fight against evil forces and their quest for the truth.

As I said in my first review, I will listen to anything Jim Dale narrates and that is the main reason I downloaded this audio instead of picking up a copy of the book (as a side note, I saw John Stephens at TLA this year and apparently by listening to Jim Dale read his story, I had decided he (Stephens) must be British - I was disappointed to discover he is not). Even with my unabashed love of Jim Dale, not every book would work in his voice. The Books of Beginning are a perfect fit, though. They are reminiscent of Harry Potter in the way that a lot of fantasy, including that for young people, is strikingly similar. This series is not a cheap imitation but a rich and imaginative new fantasy that fans of Harry Potter would certainly enjoy.

Perhaps what I loved most about the first book was the relationship between the siblings, as well as their personalities. That is still true of the second book. I adore these characters. I particularly like that Michael is the focus of this book. It would appear that each sibling is going to be the star of a different title, as it seems that each child has a strong connection with a particular Book of Beginning. I'm not sure I can pick a favorite of the three siblings, but it might be Emma, so I'm definitely looking forward to the third book. I also love the secondary characters - every character that Stephens has created practically leaps from the page and comes to life, particularly with Dale's strong voicing.

As I mentioned in my review of book one, Stephens is also gifted at the skill of pacing. The story never drags, and book two is just as exciting and action-packed as book one. Often, the middle book in a trilogy (I am assuming this is a trilogy) can be a bit of a dead weight - a good portion of a book two is usually spent providing information that will be necessary for book three and book two might not have a whole lot of self-contained plot. I don't think that's the case with this book two, though. Storylines are begun and completed within this book, as well as continuing the stories from book one and introducing new elements in preparation for book three.

Overall, I thought this was an excellent continuation of a fantastic new series. I'm looking forward to book three, and to recommending this to readers.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Program: American Girl Club

Our final session of American Girl Club for the 2012-13 year was held in April. We chose Addy, as a number of girls had mentioned that she was their favorite in earlier sessions. Here is what we did!

Opening presentation: we always have a PowerPoint presentation at the beginning of our American Girl Club meetings. We introduce the doll and her story, and then talk about the time period in which her story takes place. Our presentation for Addy was probably our shortest one yet. As I'm sure many elementary teachers know, tackling the Civil War with kids is a tough job and my colleague and I felt unsuited to the job. So, we asked the girls what they knew about it (and some of them knew a little bit) and then we gave them pretty much the absolute basics. We talked briefly about the Underground Railroad and how many slaves fought for their freedom. Then we explained the rest of the activities we were going to do.

Mancala: our first activity was a tiny bit chaotic (these programs always seem to be): we taught the girls to play mancala, a traditional African game, believed by some to be the oldest game in the world. The problem with mancala is that there is almost no wrong way to play it, so it can be a bit difficult to explain the rules. We had fashioned mancala boards out of old egg cartons and given the girls sets of pony beads to use as stones. I explained the rules as best I could (it is hard to hold the attention of 30 girls at once) and then walked around the room helping any pairs who needed extra explanation or clarification. I'm not sure any of them played a complete game but, when we had a bit of extra time at the end of the program, a few pairs went back to playing, so I think they had fun with it.

Shell necklaces: after everyone had tried their best at mancala, we all made our own shell necklaces, similar to the one Addy wears. Each girl got a piece of necklace rope and one cowrie shell, with unlimited access to more pony beads to make their necklaces unique. A lot of girls used the pony beads to create rainbow patterns on either side of their shell - they were really beautiful necklaces in the end. As they finished up making their necklaces, they returned to the center of the room and awaited their snack.

Benne candy: I like to make snacks for American Girl Club - actually, I like any excuse to make snacks. Providing food is always a good way to boost program numbers (there, I said it), but I also like the opportunity to give the girls some kind of snack that they've probably not encountered before and that each doll could have eaten herself. Benne candy is supremely simple to make: toasted sesame seeds, sugar, lemon and vanilla extracts, and that's basically it. You melt the sugar into a caramel and then toss everything else in, pour it onto a lined sheet and let it harden. It is surprisingly delicious for how easy it is to make. The girls really loved this one.

As I mentioned, we finished up a bit early, so some girls teamed up to play more mancala, while others just sat and enjoyed their candy. While we had some time to spare, we asked what dolls the girls wanted to see next year. Responses were overwhelming for Caroline and Saige, so we'll be taking that into account as we plan next year's programs. We won't be meeting over the summer, and the girls were pretty sad about that, but we encouraged them to come to other upcoming programs. Overall, this year of American Girl Club (and Adventure Club) has been exceedingly successful, and I look forward to continuing it next year!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

A Year With Friends
By John Seven, illustrated by Jana Christy
Published 2013 by Harry N. Abrams
This simple but beautiful picture book takes readers through every month of the year, highlighting what we can do with our friends at these different times. The text is very simple and the pictures are gentle and lovely. This would be a great book for sharing one-on-one, as not everything in the illustrations is highlighted in the text. It's a great starting point for a dialogue about friendships and the things we do with our friends.

Penny and Her Marble
By Kevin Henkes
Published 2013 by Greenwillow Books
Oh, Kevin Henkes - you are one of the most brilliant children's book creators alive today. Seriously, pretty much everything this man does is fantastic. The Penny books, Henkes' foray into easy reader titles, are no exception. This is the third of those titles and it is every bit as lovely and wonderful as the first two. I can't even pick one thing to love most about these - the beautiful (as always) illustrations, or the cleverly simple tackling of complex topics. Readers will find themselves fraught with anxiety right along with Penny in this edition, but, do not be alarmed - it all works out in the end.

Mustache Baby
By Bridget Heos, illustrated by Joy Ang
Expected publication May 14, 2013 by Clarion Books
I saw this one at the publisher's booth at the recent TLA (Texas Library Association) Conference. My supervisor had been talking about it for the past month or so, so when I spotted it on display, I couldn't resist picking it up and reading through. This book is so adorable! Baby Billy is born with a mustache, but his parents aren't terribly concerned. Until the ends begin to curl up in a typically villainous fashion. Will his mustache lead him to a life of crime? This is just so much fun, and will definitely be a hit with parents as well as children, particularly in our current mustache-loving climate.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: The Ability

The Ability
By M.M. Vaughan
Published 2013 by Margaret K. McElderry Books

Christopher Lane has not had an easy life - he is unpopular, his teachers consider him a criminal liar, and his mother can barely take care of herself, let alone him. Things change, however, when Chris is accepted to the prestigious Myers Holt Academy. Chris has no idea just how much he is about to discover.

I am trying really hard to read more middle grade - it's my area of collection, so I want to have a greater knowledge of what's available for readers. I admit, I often get distracted by all the pretty shiny YA books (if you read this blog, surely you know that), but I am trying, I promise! I requested an e-galley of this title as part of this effort. It looked like it had potential as a good science fiction sort of book for tween readers. Unfortunately, this book fell flat.

Readers are aware from the beginning who is the bad guy and who is the good guy, so the suspense suggested by the cover and blurb is definitely lacking. Additionally, it takes a long time for the two sides to meet, and the climax is short and quite shocking. I don't really have a problem with dark things in books for kids - I've been reading and viewing horror stories my whole life and there is a reason Goosebumps is so persistently popular. However, the violence that occurs at the end of this book is jarring and, for me, it doesn't really work with the story. It does, however, set up a sequel, so it's obviously serving some purpose here.

In addition to the lack of suspense, I found the characters to be drab and interchangeable. We spend over 300 pages with Chris and I still have a hard time caring about him or feeling like I know much about him. Nothing in this book feels particularly well-done or original. I found it supremely lackluster and disappointing.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Review: Yellowcake

By Margo Lanagan
Published 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

A haunting and dreamlike collection of short stories from one of young adult literature's most unique talents.

How does one write a summary for a short story collection? I apparently don't have a proper answer for that, if my summary above is any indication. Lanagan has been on my radar for quite some time now - she's published several well-received short story collections and a couple of novels that have gotten excellent reviews, one earning a Printz Honor. As is typical for me, I had not yet found the time to actually read any of these respected works. When her newest short story collection (that is, the newest to be published here in the U.S.) popped up on Edelweiss, I requested a copy. No time like the present, right?

I am not sure what exactly I was expecting before I started reading but I'm sure it wasn't what I got. I consider myself a smart lady but I think Lanagan is too smart for me. The first story in this collection, "The Point of Roses," went completely over my head - not a great introduction to Lanagan for me. However, I persevered and I'm glad I did. I enjoyed a number of the stories in this collection and, as a whole, I'm overwhelmed at her mastery of the craft. Short stories are not nearly as popular as they once were and I admire her devotion to them. I'm also astoundingly impressed at how vivid and evocative her stories are - if everyone wrote short stories of this caliber, they might be as popular as they should be. Lanagan has a true gift with language and her ability to create an entire credible world in each short story is just staggering. My favorites were:

"The Golden Shroud" - a retelling of Rapunzel, with a bewitching new ending. I love fairy tale retellings, and this one is inspired and charming.

"A Fine Magic" - my notes on this are simply "enchanting." An old wizard exacts revenge when his affections are rebuffed. Magical and sly.

"A Honest Day's Work" - so strange and imaginative, this tale is completely captivating and maybe my most favorite of the bunch.

"Into the Clouds on High" - a boy's mother is continually called to a place beyond the sky. Heartbreaking but beautiful.

"Ferryman" - another sort of retelling, this time of the Greek myth of the ferryman on the river Styx. Another heartbreaking and brilliant tale.

"Living Curiosities" - a bit more difficult to get into, but I'm so fascinated by "sideshow freaks" that I love reading about them.

This will certainly not be my last encounter with Lanagan - I look forward to reading the rest of her work.

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

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Navigating Early

Navigating Early
By Clare Vanderpool
Published 2013 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Jack finds himself transplanted to a boy's boarding school in Maine after the death of his mother. There, he meets Early Auden, a strange boy who begins to tell him the story of pi. Not just the story of the number, though - the story that the number tells. It's tied in to Early's own story and will lead Jack and Early on an unexpected quest through the Maine woods, one that puts them in great peril, but may heal them as well.

Books for middle-grade readers don't generally get a ton of buzz - usually, you only hear about a book if it's a big name author or series (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rick Riordan, etc.). The only other time a book gets significant buzz is if it's being talked about as a potential award-winner. Navigating Early is this second kind of book - Vanderpool won a Newbery Medal for her debut novel, Moon Over Manifest. Naturally, her follow-up is going to get a lot of attention. I enjoyed Vanderpool's debut more than I expected to and definitely wanted to see what she'd come up with next. Additionally, as I may have mentioned before, I'm originally from the great state of Maine, so any book that uses our beautiful state as a setting catches my attention. I eagerly requested an e-galley of the title and was thrilled to be approved. So, did my early feelings of excitement pan out?

I'm not entirely sure. This was a really strange read for me. Vanderpool truly has a gift for storytelling - I love the easy way she writes. She brings characters vividly to life, seemingly without much effort. She has a knack for evoking a time and place so that it feels the most natural thing to just slip right into the story. I think Vanderpool does a wonderful job depicting my home state - I felt so homesick while reading her beautiful descriptions of the natural wonders of Maine. I fell completely in love with Jack and Early and all the characters they meet along their journey. As a matter of fact, everything about this book's plot, characters, and setting just felt so right. My only qualm is with the story of Pi - I had a hard time with that part of the story. It's weird - when Early first started telling the story of Pi, I literally didn't get it. I thought he was crazy. The more the book went on, the more it became clear that Early was not crazy, just different, and the story of Pi was, at least in part, his way of coping with the hardships of his life. And, as the book continued to progress, I thought Vanderpool did a fantastic job of making the connections between Pi's journey and Jack and Early's journey - I loved seeing the parallels and differences between the two. Ultimately, though, the story of Pi feels like the weakest aspect of the novel for me and I'm left feeling just a bit dissatisfied with it.

On the whole, I think this is a fantastic book, proving that Vanderpool is not just a one-book wonder. I think kids who delve into this book will certainly be rewarded and I recommend it. It was just a little short of perfect for me.

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

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Program: All By Myself

As I may have mentioned a time or two previously, my primary position currently is Empress of All Things Tween. However, we've had quite a tumultuous few months here at the workplace - the staff in our department is almost completely different than it was just a few months ago. What this means, of course, is that many of us have had to adjust responsibilities and fill in to continue to make our department run smoothly. This also means taking on programs outside our normal realm to accommodate everyone's schedules and time commitments. The long story short: for the month of April, I found myself with a storytime.

This is, of course, not a problem, as I love doing storytimes and sincerely miss having them on a regular basis. In fact, I was thrilled to cover the last few sessions of this storytime. What storytime, you ask? It's called All By Myself, and it's our weekly storytime for four and five year olds to attend. WITHOUT their parents.

Have you ever done a preschool storytime where the parents wait outside and it's just you and a room full of kids? Let me tell you - this is the BEST storytime I have ever done. I absolutely loved this! I averaged 15-20 kids in the three weeks I covered this storytime and it was GLORIOUS. Preschoolers are probably my favorite storytime crowd because they will tell you ANYTHING - from the mouths of babes and all that loveliness. But having them without their parents? Even more wonderful. They are less shy, more willing to participate and talk to you, and did I mention so darn cute?

In addition to being the most fun, this was also probably the easiest storytime I've ever done. It's a half-hour long and, because they are preschoolers and interacting more, you can't really cram as much stuff into that half hour as you can with babies and toddlers. So, I'm going to tell you about all three of the storytimes I did in April.

Week 1: Theme - art
Art is one of my favorite storytime themes and I chose it this time around because I wanted to resurrect a favorite activity of mine. The kids came in and sat down and we opened with Jim Gill's "Your Face Will Surely Show It." This became my opening for the storytime, as I found the kids really liked making faces (I mean, DUH!). Then, we read I Ain't Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont. Love this book! It's funny and it rhymes - what more could you ask for? I'll admit, the kids were not very good about predicting which body part came next, but they still thought this book was hilarious. To get our wiggles out, we did "Jump Up, Turn Around" by Jim Gill. Unfortunately, the CD skipped in our player, which was very distracting for the kids. We soldiered through and finished the song, but I never used it again. Our second book was the non-fiction Art Is by Bob Raczka (whose name I surely butchered when I announced it). They had a harder time with this one, which I expected, but they loved the page that features a painting of the numbers 0-9 layered on top of each other. After our second book, it was time to make art! I provided crayons and blank sheets of paper and they were free to color and draw anything they wanted, but I suggested they try shoe sole rubbings! They loved this! Most shoes have designs on the soles, so simply rubbing the crayon over the sole provides you with instant art. Many kids wanted to use my shoes (I had a flower on the bottom) and a number of them gifted me with their creations at the end of storytime.

Week 2: Theme - cats
So, I had just gotten a brand new kitten (who is a NIGHTMARE) the weekend before storytime and therefore decided to tell the kids. They love hearing little bits about your life and finding what you may have in common. When they walked in, I had a cat puppet that they could all pet and say hello to before storytime. We practiced making our faces show our emotions again with Jim Gill and then our first book was Mr. Pusskins by Sam Lloyd. Many of them commented that Mr. Pusskins had a grumpy face, an extension of our opening song. Since our movement song from the first week was a bust, I went with another Jim Gill classic, "The Tempo Marches On." Once we had marched as fast as we could, we did a simple flannel game. It's a short poem talking about looking for a lion at the zoo and, as you read each line, you add more flannel pieces to the board until you've made a lion face! I changed it a little by having the kids guess what animal I was making - they got it pretty quickly, but they really liked this. After, we read our second story, Cat Secrets by Jef Czekaj. Do you know this book? This book is magic! It's a highly interactive book, as three cats are about to read the cat secrets out loud. But first, they have to make sure that there are only cats in the room. So readers must meow, purr (not so good at that), and stretch like kittens. Then - and here comes the magic! - they have to really prove their catness by taking a cat nap! MAGIC, I TELL YOU! Every single kid in my storytime laid themselves down, closed their eyes, pretended to sleep, and STAYED THAT WAY. I actually had to wake the kids up so they could see the last page of the book (a mouse sneaks in to read the secrets while the cats are napping)! They loved this one and it was a perfect closer to our storytime. This week, we did coloring sheets for a craft - just a picture of a kitten and crayons. I will say that many kids colored their kittens orange (my new kitten is orange) and they came up with some excellent names.

Week 3: Theme - nature
Sadly, this was my last week of covering this storytime - storytime responsibilities are changing for the summer session and, with so much other programming I'm working on, I don't really have time for storytimes. I'm hoping to do some daycare storytimes in the fall, but we'll see how it goes. Anyway, since spring is upon us and it was almost Earth Day, I decided to do a nature theme. We started by practicing our faces again, then read A Leaf Can Be... by Laura Purdie Salas. This is one of my favorite non-fiction books for kids. The illustrations are beautiful and there is a wealth of information on each page. Parts of this went over the kids' heads, but they liked talking about the different animals on each page. I also explained to them how wonderful trees are for us, taking the bad things out of the air and putting out oxygen for us to breathe. They were fascinated. We decided to march again this week, though this time we went in a circle around the room. We got a little out of control towards the end, almost running, so I had to encourage everyone to march in place for the last bit. Our second story this week was My Garden by Kevin Henkes. They were enamored by this one, telling me all about their own gardens and how wonderful it would be to grow umbrellas. Finally, it was time for our craft - bird feeders! This was more involved than I'd done before, but they loved it! I let parents and caretakers come in to help, and a coworker also stepped in to manage the masses. Each kid got an empty toilet paper tube and a Popsicle stick. They used the Popsicle stick to smear shortening over their tubes and then rolled them in a plate of birdseed. When they were finished, they brought them to me and I ran a piece of yarn through the tube and tied it. They were all terribly excited to take them home and feed the birds, and we made a giant mess. But it was fun!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

The Shape of My Heart
By Mark Sperring, illustrated by Alys Paterson
Published 2012 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
This is a cute little book that takes a new approach to shapes. Yes, it's got your standard circles, squares, and triangles - but it also has the sun, eyes, and hands. It's a sweet little story for a love or Valentine's Day storytime and I really like the illustrations. This would be a great book for dialogic reading, as there is a lot of exploration that can be done in the pictures. Very cute.

Cheetah Can't Lose
By Bob Shea
Published 2013 by Balzer + Bray

I adore Bob Shea and his books - this is no exception. I love it! Cheetah is kind of a jerk but he's also pretty good at what he does. Two kittens just want to engage in some friendly competition but Cheetah sucks all the fun right out of it. Can they figure out a way to outsmart Cheetah? This is a super fun story and incredibly appealing. Kids are going to love it - it will make you laugh out loud. Wonderful!

Oh Nuts!
By Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Dan Krall
Published 20212 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
This is a funny little story of three squirrels who live at a zoo and are mighty sick of being ignored because of all the other fancy-schmancy zoo animals. Kids will definitely think it's funny and the illustrations are really vibrant and eye-catching. However, the book is a bit too long for its intended audience, I think.

Chu's Day
By Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Adam Rex
Published 2013 by HarperCollins
I almost hesitate to write about this book. You see, Adam Rex is, perhaps, my ultimate favorite illustrator (and he's up there as an author). And Neil Gaiman - I mean, IT'S NEIL GAIMAN. I anticipated this book from the moment I heard about it (which was quite some time ago). I desperately want to own a copy of this signed by both these men. If that ever happened, I think my life would be complete. Because this is not just the case of two of my favorite book creators coming together - it's a darn good book, too. I love the simplicity and hilarity of this story and I can see this being a huge hit in storytime. It is adorable and so much fun. I, of course, love Rex's illustrations (Chu has aviator goggles, for pete's sake!!). I just adore this book so, so much. If you ever want to make me die of happiness, track me down a signed copy of this.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: Fallen

Fallen (Fallen, book one)
By Lauren Kate, read by Justine Eyre
Published 2009 by Listening Library

A tragedy has led Luce Price to the mysterious Sword & Cross boarding school and it may just be the first of many. With the strangely familiar Daniel Grigori lurking about, Luce may yet discover some things about herself that are hard to believe.

Ugh, that is a terrible summary but I don't have it in me to write a better one. I listened to this book quite some time ago - and that's how unremarkable it was. I can't even be bothered to try and write a better summary. To be fair, I didn't expect amazing things from this - I pretty much knew what I was getting myself into when I downloaded the audio version. But it was so overwhelmingly mediocre that I can barely remember it. First, this is petty but I have to get it out there - can I just say how completely distracting it was to listen to a book with a main character named Luce? Say that out loud - "loose" is what you'll hear. I mean, really? How am I supposed to take this book seriously at all? In addition to her terrible name, Luce is a terrible heroine - she is boring and needy and constantly in distress. The romance is creepy and flat and disturbing. I am so over creepy romance in YA! I keep hoping for a more interesting reincarnation story in YA but I've yet to find it - it's all doomed love and sadness and the world in peril. Can anyone recommend me something better? This is maybe one of the worst reviews I've written, but honestly, this book doesn't deserve much better. Glad I can check this series off my list - I won't be reading the rest.

That being said, I can definitely see the audience for this book. Hand this to fans of Twilight and other paranormal romances - they'll probably gobble it up.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Bird in a Box

Bird in a Box
By Andrea Davis Pinkney, read by Bahni Turpin, S'Von Ringo, and J.B. Adkins
Published 2011 by Listening Library

It's the Depression and the mighty Joe Louis might be on his way to becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. For three kids in upstate New York, these two things may have different meetings. But Hibernia, Otis, and Willie are on a path to meet each other and find some hope along the way.

This book caught my eye when it was first released. As I've said repeatedly, I'm a sucker for historical fiction and I'm always trying to add more multicultural books to my reading list. This sounded like something I'd enjoy. So when I discovered the audio version languishing on our library's shelves, I took it for my commute. Such a fantastic choice. The book is narrated by three young people: Hibernia Lee Tyson, Otis, and Willie. All three are young and black and searching for a path to their own dreams in the middle of the Depression. Their stories play out over the background of Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, and his quest for the heavyweight title. I thought Pinkney juxtaposed the stories all very well - I was equally engaged with each narrative and I liked the consistency of Louis's boxing matches across the stories. I'm sure reading the print version is just as good, but this book worked beautifully on audio - three different readers, all incredibly perfect for their characters. The musicality of the language really shined in the audio production - it just added a greater depth to the story. I like that this book deals with some tough subjects without being weighed down by melancholy - these kids are going through some times, but they all seem to understand the importance of keeping your chin up and persevering. The struggle to achieve one's dreams is poignantly depicted here and I really enjoyed listening to this one. Definitely recommended.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Dodger

By Terry Pratchett
Published 2012 by HarperCollins

Dodger is a street urchin, just doing what he must to survive in the streets of London. But Dodger's priorities change the night he is witness to an attack on a beautiful young woman. Dodger begins to understand the connections between people and discovers that he will do anything to prevent that young lady from seeing any further harm.

I tried desperately to read this one before the Youth Media Awards were announced - it was getting a lot of buzz and popping up in a number of discussions as a potential contender. Alas, my time ran out and Dodger was, in fact, named a Printz Honor book. I read it as quickly after the announcement as I could. I'm not sure if I consider myself a Pratchett fan - is that a weird thing to say? In high school, my best friend adored the Discworld novels and really wanted me to read them. So, I made myself a lofty goal of reading all of them - complete fail. I have read a handful of them and I've recommended them to many people over the years. I still have the intention of reading them all someday, but with time so short and books so numerous, I can't say for sure if it will ever truly happen. Nation, Pratchett's previous Printz Honor title, has also been on my radar since its publication. So, I was excited to read Dodger and see how it found me.

As I've mentioned a time or two before, I'm a big fan of historical fiction. I particularly enjoy historical fiction that manages to incorporate real historical figures in ways that are believable and interesting. So I was intrigued by Dodger before I even began. However, I have to admit that this book proved a bit slow-going for me. Dodger himself is an interesting character for sure, and I enjoyed following him along his transformation from simple street rat to man of society (and the stumbles and challenges he faces along the way). I liked the inclusion of Charles Dickens and other historical figures, though whether their inclusion was believable or not, I can't really say in this case (I know almost nothing about this time period/place in the world).

My problems with this book are these: though Dodger is characterized well, Serendipity, his paramour, does not receive the same treatment. By the end of the novel, we know about as much of her as we did when we started, and this is disappointing. Additionally, it's pretty clear what kind of book this is - the end seems a foregone conclusion, and it takes a bit too long to get there. Things begin to feel a bit long-winded and repetitive over the course of the book. Finally, I enjoy lovely prose as much as the next guy but, in this case, it just seemed like Sir Terry was being overly descriptive unnecessarily. The prose here does not hold the same beauty for me as other lush descriptive works have. But maybe that's all just me.

I'm glad to have read this one, and I do admire Pratchett as an author. I can't say I hated this and I can't say I loved it - very much on the fence about this. I would love to know what teens thought of this one.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Program + review: beTWEEN the lines

Our April book club was a bit of a mixed bag. The kids had really not wanted to pick this book - as a matter of fact, it was one of their choices for 3 months before they ended up choosing it, and they only chose this one because they REALLY did not want to read the other option.* Additionally, at the end of our discussion, I handed out May's book selection and then explained to them that book club would be undergoing a change - at least for the summer, but possibly for the foreseeable future. Last year, I put beTWEEN the lines on hold for the summer. After summer finished, I wondered why - don't kids have more time to read in summer? Wouldn't it be an opportunity for new kids to come check it out? So, heading into planning for summer 2013, I decided I would keep beTWEEN the lines going throughout the summer (added bonus: 2 less programs to plan). However, with the possibility of more kids, I realized that it would be difficult to keep the book club going the way it had: purchasing a set of copies of each title that the kids can borrow to read before the discussion. It's simply too costly. Additionally, I've realized that I spend a great deal of time preparing discussion questions for each meeting, but the discussion centered on the book does not end up proportionate to the amount of time I've spent working on it. So, starting this summer (and possibly continuing year-round), beTWEEN the lines will be moving to a genre format. Each month, we'll have a selected genre. Kids who want to attend can read any book in this genre and then come to the meeting and we'll all discuss what books we read. I will help kids pick out titles if they're having trouble; I also plan on having a display with the next month's genre and a suggested booklist. I was excited about this change of pace - less work for me and more freedom for the kids (no one would be reading a book they really didn't want to). My regular attendees did not share my enthusiasm, however; they said they liked our club the way we had it and insisted that we take a vote at the end of summer to see what everyone prefers. I am hoping this genre focus will get more kids interested. We have one more meeting in May before the experiment begins!

After all that, our book for April was...
Bud, Not Buddy
By Christopher Paul Curtis
Published 1999 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Ten-year-old Bud is on his own and in need of a change. The Home is too crowded and the foster families never seem to work out, so Bud is determined to find his father and live with him. Only one problem - his mother never told him who his father is. With a few of his mother's possessions that Bud believes are clues to his father's identity, he sets out to find his family.

Yes, I know: another case of bad librarian - I'd never read any Christopher Paul Curtis books until this one. Shun me if you will - I'm a busy lady. I was glad when the kids picked this one, though I mentioned that they really didn't want to. They had zero interest in this book - it was the first historical fiction title we had attempted and that may have had something to do with it. Another surprising moment for me: they were uncomfortable with the scene between Deza and Bud (if you've not read the book, Deza is a girl Bud meets one night, and they share a kiss). The kids in my book club are all at least 10, so I was surprised that they were still in the "kissing is gross" phase, but I guess that's a good thing.

My personal opinion of the book: I really wanted to enjoy it, but I didn't. I love historical fiction, and I love reading about how different historical events effect different kinds of people. Additionally, this is an award-winning book, so I feel like I'm supposed to like it. Is it well-written? Sure - there's an ease with which Curtis tells Bud's story that makes the reading go by relatively quickly. However, I just didn't find myself all that interested in Bud's story. Does that make this a bad book? No, it's just not the right book for me.

*The other option the kids absolutely did not want to read? Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Picture Book Saturday: Non-fiction

A Leaf Can Be...
By Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija
Published 2012 by Millbrook Press
I have been in love with this book since it first came out - it's shameful that I haven't blogged my love of it until now. This is a gorgeously illustrated, beautifully written celebration of leaves - small but lovely bits of nature that are often overlooked. I love the language in this book - it's excellent for phonological awareness and helping to build vocabulary. Additionally, this book is simply a joy to look at - I have been eagerly awaiting my chance to share this title in a storytime. This book also features some pretty good back matter, with explanations of the phrases used, a glossary of scientific terms and a bibliography.

The Bravest Woman in America
By Marissa Moss, illustrated by Andrea U'Ren
Published 2011 by Tricycle Press
I think I've mentioned a time or two that I really enjoy picture book biographies, especially those that focus on people I'm not familiar with. I often think that picture book biographers have more freedom to choose their subjects - I'm not sure there would be enough information or interest for full-length adult biographies on some of the people I've seen covered in picture books. Kids (and me, apparently) love finding the lesser-known stories. This is no exception. Moss tells the story of Ida Lewis, a woman who became the keeper of a lighthouse in Rhode Island and the first woman awarded the American Cross of Honor. Fascinating woman and fascinating story, unfortunately this book falls a little short for me. There is not enough back matter and no bibliography, which I find troubling and unusual. Additionally, on a personal note, I'm not crazy about the illustrations. Still, an interesting story about a great woman.

Raucous Royals
By Carlyn Beccia
Published 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Okay, I'm stretching a little bit with this one since it's not really a picture book, but it is non-fiction, so I reserve the right to shove it in amongst these other titles. I gravitated to this book because I'm always interested in bits of trivia and I liked that this book focused on a number of royal historic figures, attempting to iron out the truth about them. This book is presented in an engaging format - each section offers a rumor about a royal figure and then evidence that supports and contradicts that rumor. The illustrations and tone of the book are humorous, which is definitely kid-friendly. Additionally, each section is only a couple of pages, making this a very quick read. Kids can jump around from rumor to rumor, depending on what interests them. Back matter is great, with resource notes, a bibliography and information on how kids can research rumors and find the truth on their own.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: Eleanor and Park

Eleanor and Park
By Rainbow Rowell
Published 2013 by St. Martin's Press

Eleanor and Park are both misfits. Eleanor has flaming red hair and a unique sense of fashion. Park is half-Korean in a mostly white school. When Eleanor appears on the bus one day, they begrudgingly share a seat. But seat-sharing will lead to deeper connections until both are left wondering how they existed before they met.

Sigh. I might have to call this my biggest disappointment of the year so far. I mean, it's still relatively early in the year for that assessment, but this book just did not live up to the hype for me. Let me address the hype first, actually - I've been hearing about this book since the end of last year. It's been reviewed (and adored) on pretty much every book blog I regularly read. It's already been suggested as a potential Printz contender. This hype is not a bad thing - it builds my excitement to read the book and figure out what it is that everyone loves about it (I'll admit, I didn't actually read any of the reviews before I finished the book; I skimmed to see what the general feeling was). This hype and my own excitement leads to big expectations, expectations that this book just didn't live up to for me.

Okay, I want to love this book. It takes place in 1986 and it's about two misfits who find each other and fall in love. It sounds a bit like Say Anything in book form (though I suppose, Diane Court is not truly a misfit). It is about first love and how wonderful and awkward and hilarious and heartbreaking it can be. It's about remembering what it feels like to wonder what life was like before you knew this person, how you ever survived in that world. I wanted so badly to love this book like I love other books about the incredible pain that is young love - I just didn't.

Why don't I love this book? Well, it's not easy to say. I found the 1986 setting odd - what made Rowell choose that year for this book? Eleanor and Park bond over music and comic books, but they could just as easily have bonded over those same things in present time. Is it simply to eliminate the ever-present and invasive world of social media? Is it because we assume that much of the reality that Eleanor is living would not be so easily ignored in the present day (whether or not that is true is another discussion)? When a book has a historical setting, I assume it's deliberate, and I generally assume that something in the cultural climate is going to have a direct impact on the book's plot or characters. That's not the case here, leaving me just perplexed about the temporal setting.

I've seen some people mention that Eleanor is unlikable and that's why they don't like the book. I'm not sure I agree with this assessment (also, likability is just a tricky road to walk). She's complicated - her home life sucks, and school is not that much better. She doesn't really have a whole lot of good going for her, and then she meets Park. Can you blame her for her incredulity about his interest or her skepticism about it working out for them? She is a real person, likable or not. My problem with Eleanor is that I don't see her as distinct enough from Park. Their story is told in alternating vignettes but, for me, there is no narrative distinction. The voice of Eleanor sounds almost exactly like the voice of Park, to the point where I mostly just ignored the headings that told me which one was allegedly narrating (I should mention this is third-person narrative). I don't feel like they are developed clearly enough.

The ending - I will take the blame on this one. I have a love/hate relationship with ambiguous endings; sometimes I adore them, and sometimes they make me scream. This was one that I did not adore. I feel like this ending is purposely ambiguous as a way to make readers feel the book is even more romantic than it is; in all honesty, most people who imagine an end for these characters beyond what's written are going to imagine one specific ending, and it's probably the same ending we imagine for Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court. A lot of people talked about feeling emotionally manipulated by The Fault in Our Stars last year; I feel a bit that way about this book.

I do want to say that this book is heartbreakingly beautiful on pretty much a sentence by sentence level; Rowell constructs prose that is so gorgeous I want to just revel in it. That alone is enough for me to not write this book off completely. I am clearly in the minority on this title. Please, read other reviews and then read the book for yourself. I'd love to hear if anyone else shares my thoughts about this book. I'll be interested to see if it does come up in potential Printz discussions and see what faults others may see in it.

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

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath (Shades of London, book two)
By Maureen Johnson
Published 2013 by Putnam Juvenile

WARNING: There will be spoilers for book one ahead. To read my review of that title, go here.

Rory has survived her encounter with a Jack the Ripper copycat spirit, but she isn't quite the same. For starters, she now appears to have the ability to obliterate ghosts with a single touch. As Rory adjusts to her new life, a new series of murders has her breaking out her detective skills once again.

So, I only recently read book one, despite having it in my possession since before it was released, but I really enjoyed it. I was determined to read the second book in a more timely fashion, so I requested an e-galley when I saw it available and started reading as soon as I got the chance. I'll put it out there at the beginning: I didn't love this one as much as the first. Maybe it is suffering from second-book-itis, but it just didn't grip me the way the first one did. However, I still really enjoyed it, and THE ENDING. I completely love the ending. Here is what didn't work as well for me in this second book.

I feel like a little bit of Rory's spunk and verve is gone. Now, this is almost completely understandable as she almost died at the end of book one, which is bound to put a damper on pretty much anyone's high spirits. Rory also makes a few decisions that seemed too far out of character to be believable for me. Additionally, most of the other fantastic characters that Johnson created in book one are pushed to the side and neglected here in book two. This is extremely disappointing because, as I said in my review of book one, Johnson does characters extremely well.

Also, I gotta be honest - not a whole lot is happening throughout the majority of this book. This volume is a lot more introspective than the first - Rory figuring out what her life is going to be like now, and worrying that she'll never be satisfied with this new reality. Yes, there are some murders that Rory thinks she can solve, but the action is relatively quiet until the last few chapters.

I can see many readers finding fault with the last few chapters, especially the ending, but I personally loved it. It made me feel the feels, as they say, and I completely didn't expect that. The last little bit of this book definitely sets up some craziness for book three, so despite my relative disappointment in this volume, I'm eagerly awaiting book three.

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