Saturday, August 31, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Flora and the Flamingo
By Molly Idle
Published 2013 by Chronicle Books
Early reviews of this book were excellent, so I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of our library copy. I read it as soon as it arrived in the children's department. This wordless picture book is so sweet and adorable. I'm in love with it. Actually, maybe this is weird, but I'm tempted to buy a copy for my boyfriend - flamingos are his favorite birds and this book depicts them so gracefully and beautifully. I'm not sure he'd appreciate it the way I'd want him to, though. Regardless, I am terrified of birds and I found this book enchanting. I love the simple and elegant ballet between Flora and the flamingo. I love the idea of sharing this book with a young dancer. I ADORE the illustrations - Idle's style is absolutely gorgeous and jealousy-inducing. Definitely check this out!

I Dare You Not to Yawn
By Helene Boudreau, illustrated by Serge Bloch
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press
Just looking at the cover of this book made me yawn, so I miserably failed the titular challenge. However, I love the idea of this book and I think it's a great read for a pajama or bedtime storytime. While I'm not as crazy about the illustration style, I think they work well enough with the story. I think this book has a ton of kid appeal and I enjoyed it. I love finding new picture books that interact with their readers - perfect for storytimes.

Twenty-Six Princesses: An Alphabet Story
By Dave Horowitz
Published 2008 by Putnam Juvenile
Honestly, I think I've read this one before but don't remember ever reviewing it, so why not? Princesses plus the alphabet? What's not to love? The addition of Dave Horowitz almost seems like a bonus. I enjoy his books because they are funny in all the right ways. To me, it seems like he strikes the right balance between amusing the kids and their parents. This is a good one for introducing some new vocabulary and, of course, for practicing letter shapes and sounds. Sure to be a favorite with princess lovers!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Review: Al Capone Does My Homework

Al Capone Does My Homework (Alcatraz, book three)
By Gennifer Choldenko
Published 2013 by Dial

Moose Flanagan's life has always been a bit left of normal, but it's only gotten more unusual since his family moved to Alcatraz. Now, Moose's dad has been promoted, leaving Moose to worry about the point system the cons have in place - and how many points hurting his dad might be worth. Unfortunately, that's only the beginning of Moose's worries, after a fire breaks out at his house and his autistic sister, Natalie, is blamed. With the help of his friends, Moose is determined to prove his sister's innocence and protect his dad.

After listening to books one and two earlier this year, I was happy to hear book three would be released at the end of the summer. I also was lucky enough to snag an ARC at TLA, so I didn't have to wait to read it. I was happy to return to Alcatraz and these characters - I really like the endearing and authentic way Choldenko has written the kids in this book and it made it very easy to jump right back in with them this time around. I think this might be my favorite of the three - I really liked the plot that Choldenko develops in this installment. Moose is almost a man and he seems to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, something that I think a surprising number of kids might relate to. Even though Moose is not truly responsible for ensuring his entire family's well-being, he feels like he is - and that's enough. I liked Moose enlisting the help of his friends to figure out how the fire happened, and it was pretty heartbreaking to read how much Moose blamed himself for it. I also liked the storyline with Piper here - she's been a character I love to dislike throughout the series, so I was especially interested in seeing what would happen with her here. I think Choldenko did a great job with her, and to me, it felt like everything was wrapped up rather nicely here. I expect this will be our last visit to Alcatraz, but I think these books are great for showing kids how interesting and fun historical fiction can be, and how universal being a kid is.

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review: The Fantastic Family Whipple

The Fantastic Family Whipple
By Matthew Ward
Expected publication August 29, 2013 by Razorbill

Arthur Whipple is perhaps the most extraordinary member of his family, which may be surprising, as his family has broken a number of world records. What makes Arthur extraordinary is that he hasn't broken ANY records - not a single one. He sticks out like a sore thumb. But when some mysterious and potentially life-threatening accidents befall his family, will Arthur discover that perhaps his talents lie elsewhere?

I remember spotting this one at TLA and thinking it sounded fun, so I was happy to discover the e-galley available on Edelweiss. I requested it, happy to add another title to my tween reading list.

I will give you this - the book is fun and pretty absurd. It's got an interesting premise, though when you boil it down, it's the same old "kid feels different from the rest of his family" story. World records, though, hold immense appeal for children and it's basically brilliant for Ward to try to capitalize upon this. World record books are consistently checked out at the library and it will be no problem to handsell this to any kid between the ages of seven and twelve.

The story is funny and the writing is clever - somewhat reminiscent of Roald Dahl (though, in my opinion, not quite of the same caliber). It will be fairly easy to get kids to pick up this book. Where I find it lacking, though, is in keeping kids engaged. I found the first 200 pages or so to be very slow-moving, and I'd be surprised to see kids persevere through the relative lack of action that bogs down the front half of this story. The action does pick up midway through the story, and it keeps a fairly consistent pace from that point on - but getting there will be the battle this book faces. Additionally, a lot of readers will be disappointed and frustrated with the end - I know I was. It seems as if Ward realized partway through writing that he wasn't going to be able to tell this whole story without making this book even more monstrously long than it already is, so he just decided to end it. It's a very abrupt and unsatisfactory ending, but it may entice readers to pick up the second book, as most of the action was just getting started. Personally, I'm on the fence about whether I'll search out the sequel.

In summary, this book will be easy to sell but perhaps difficult to stick with. Fans of Roald Dahl or The Candy Shop War may be best suited for this read. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: The Dark Between

The Dark Between
By Sonia Gensler
Expected publication August 27, 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

For different reasons, Kate, Asher, and Elsie have all found each other at Summerfield College. Each has some connection to the new world of spiritualism that is all the rage in turn-of-the-century England. But their connections are varied and some are even dangerous. When dead bodies begin appearing near the college, the three team up to sort out the mystery. Is it a flesh-and-blood killer? Or do the answers lie somewhere in the dark between?

I guess here is even further proof that I am desperate for a creepy read. I requested this title because I like historical fiction, and I thought the intersection of historical fiction and paranormal would be fun. This book was not really anything like what I expected.

What I expected was a deeper exploration of spiritualism, particularly in regards to the place and time in which this book is set. The official blurb makes it sound as if the book will focus on how the mediums dupe their patrons as well as the group of scientists who believe in psychic powers and what their research might entail. It makes it sound as if the aforementioned trio will conduct their own experiments and investigations into the supernatural in an attempt to solve a recent murder. And it starts out this way. Soon, however, the book veers more heavily into the paranormal and romance stories and seems to leave the historical parts behind.

I liked the story best in the beginning - reading about Kate's employment with the medium and the schemes that she ran. When Kate loses her employment and seeks sanctuary at Summerfield, she meets Elsie, a young woman who suffers from seizures. It's not terribly long before we discover that Elsie seems to see spirits during her seizures - but only if she doesn't take a certain medicine. What the story becomes from this point on is an assertion that ghosts and psychic powers are real. Asher mainly exists to serve as the doubting Thomas of the story, never believing in the spiritual world until the proof is immediate before his eyes. Asher is also, of course, quite smitten with Elsie, so he serves that secondary purpose as well. I found Elsie and her romantic entanglements quite a bit ridiculous and wish that the story hadn't needed them to move forward. I don't feel particularly strongly about any of the other characters, though I did think Kate was rather charming. Most of the time, though, I just wished the story were something it wasn't, making this another disappointment for me.

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

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Program: Superheroes

To coincide with the release of the new Superman movie (and also just because who doesn't love superheroes?), the teen librarian and I planned a joint program to celebrate all things superheroic. Here's what we did!

Make your own mask: pretty much exactly what it sounds like. We ordered a variety color pack of masks from Oriental Trading and gave the kids markers, stickers, and foam to decorate as they pleased. They got pretty creative with this.

Superhero bookmarks: like so many recent crafts, this was inspired by Pinterest. We provided popsicle (or craft) sticks and Sharpies for the attendees to transform into superheroes. I made a Spider-Man as an example; my coworker made a Riddler.

Hero registration forms: another Pinterest find. This was simply a downloaded printable form that the kids could fill out. They decided what their superhero identity would be, as well as their special skills. We did alter the original a bit, as it included some special skills that we didn't think would be relevant to our attendees. I think this was probably the least popular station of the program, which I find a bit surprising.

Origin story station: this was a combination of yet another Pinterest find and my colleague's own imagination. We found another free printable of superheroes and their powers, intended to be printed and pasted on to craft sticks, which the kids could then pick out of a jar. To make it more interesting, we had our attendees pull one from the jar and then tell me their origin story, i.e. how they got the powers listed on their draw. If they completed this task, they received a superhero lollipop. Some of the kids had a more difficult time with this than others, of course, but I think everyone gave it a shot (and everyone got a lollipop). I had fun listening to them!

Superhero snack bar: all right, I promise not everything we do comes from Pinterest, but there are a lot of great ideas on there! This was actually inspired by someone's wedding - a cereal bar with superhero labels! We had Rings of Power, Mr. Freeze Frosty Flakes, Captain America Crunch, and more. Obviously, the kids love it when we feed them, so this was definitely a hit.

Trivia: after the first 45 minutes or so of craft time, we all focused and played trivia. I'm not sure the kids who attended the program were the exact right audience for the difficulty of our trivia. We did have a couple kids who knew nearly all the answers, but most kids could only get the easier questions correct. I think they all had fun learning some new information, though.

After we finished up the trivia, the program came to a close. It wasn't our best attended program and we had certainly prepared for a lot more people, but I think the kids who came had a good time. It might be better to focus on one superhero at a time, but maybe that would narrow the focus too much. Has anyone had a great success with superhero programs for upper elementary kids or teens? I'd love to hear ideas!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

A Pet for Petunia
By Paul Schmid
Published 2011 by HarperCollins
I've really beginning to love Schmid's illustration style. It is simple yet artful and very kid-friendly, I think. I think the stories he chooses to tell are also incredibly kid-friendly. In this story, Petunia wants a pet, like many children. Unlike many children, though, the pet Petunia wants happens to be a skunk. Whatever will her parents do? Any child who's ever wanted a pet will relate to this tale and spunky Petunia is a charming character. Definitely recommended!

Stripes of All Types
By Susan Stockdale
Published 2013 by Peachtree Publishers
I really love Stockdale's non-fiction titles. They are interesting and lovely to look at, as well as chock full of information that will amuse and fascinate kids. I even enjoyed the one she wrote that was all about birds! In this title, Stockdale presents us a variety of animals with stripes. She highlights the different reasons these animals have stripes and how they might use them. Each animal is named and more information about each is provided in the back of the book. Stockdale's non-fiction books are perfect to share in family or preschool storytimes and will add a great element to them.

Penguin's Hidden Talent
By Alex Latimer
Published 2012 by Peachtree Publishers
I'm pretty sure anyway you slice it, this is a Message book, but it's so darn cute that I forgive it. You see, Penguin's friends are all so very excited about the upcoming talent show. But Penguin is anxious. He doesn't know what his talent is and he doesn't want to be left out. In the end, of course, Penguin's talent is discovered and everyone is happy. This is very much "everyone is special in their own way," but the adorable animals make it difficult to not love this one. Also, the animals' special talents are just too amusing to ignore.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
By E. Lockhart
Published 2008 by Disney-Hyperion

Frankie Landau-Banks is not the kind of girl everyone thinks she is. She is not meek. She is not content with the status quo. She will not be quiet and she will ask questions, even if no one is listening to her. So, when she is excluded from her new boyfriend's secret society simply because she is a girl, she will not sit back and be okay with that.

I remember hearing about this book when it was released and wanting to read it, being pretty sure that it would be the kind of book I would like. Of course, it took the Hub Reading Challenge to spur me to actually picking up the book and reading it. I am glad I did.

This book. This book is awesome. This book should be handed to every teenage girl. This book should be required reading for gender studies courses. This book is something I desperately wish I had read when I was a teenage girl myself. I LOVED THIS BOOK AND ALSO EMILY LOCKHART/JENKINS/WHICHEVER IS YOUR REAL NAME - PLEASE BE MY BEST FRIEND. Ahem.

Now that that's over with, let me tell you why I liked this book. First and foremost, Frankie. Frankie is fantastic. I love her. She is the type of heroine that I think every teen girl needs to be introduced to. Yes, I imagine there will be readers who don't love her as much as I do. I can quite easily see that some people will view her as too precocious or pretentious, which actually makes me surprised that I liked her as much as I did. But here's the thing - if Frankie were a real girl I met in my real life, I probably wouldn't like her. I'd be far too intimidated by her. Reading about her, though, I imagine even teen me would have felt inspired and rejuvenated. I mean, if you ever wanted a feminist book for your teens, this here is your winner. I simply adore Frankie and her consistent questioning of societal norms. I was certainly a teen girl with my own questions about the way society was run, but I did not have the confidence to make my questions heard or to do something about it like Frankie does. Who knows what might have happened if I had read this book as a teen?

Why else did I love this book? It's so damn smart. John Green is not the only person who can write smart books for teenagers, guys. If you need proof, here you go. This book will make you laugh, maybe make you cry, and definitely make you think. In addition to being so awesome, Frankie brings to the forefront thoughts and ideas that even I, as an adult, would never have spent time on if I hadn't read this book. Reading this book made me miss being a student and writing crazy essays about off-the-wall topics. It made me miss the serendipity that education can be - research on one topic can lead you to discovering things you might never have encountered otherwise.

Overall, this book was just a great read. I want to recommend it to every teen girl I meet and I wish I could read it for the first time again. I will definitely be reading more by Lockhart.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: Asylum

By Madeline Roux
Expected publication August 20, 2013 by Harper Children's

Dan Crawford is thrilled to be attending the summer session at New Hampshire College Prep - not only will he get to spend the session learning, he'll be surrounded by teens just as driven as he is. What he doesn't expect is that NHCP is located at at a former sanatorium. Soon, people are winding up hurt and Dan is having strange, inexplicable experiences. Could the asylum be haunted?

In case you can't tell, I've been in the mood for something creepy. Who am I kidding - I'm always in the mood for something creepy. My last few attempts at creepy reads have mostly been let-downs and I'm sorry to say that this one is more of the same.

Admittedly, it's incredibly difficult to scare me. I've been watching creepy and gruesome horror movies since I was a preschooler and obviously grew up devouring every Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine book my library had. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate when I think something will be scary for other people or that I won't appreciate a creepy atmosphere.

I really wanted to like this book. Roux has written a couple adult novels that have caught my eye and a bookseller friend of mine read Asylum before me and praised it. I had high hopes, but the book just failed to live up to them.

On the whole, it seemed like this book was trying way too hard. Not only is it set in a former asylum, but when the asylum closed, one of the most dangerous patients was unaccounted for. Additionally, this book is taking a page from Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by including vintage photos (not all of which I saw in my e-galley) to further the atmosphere that it's trying so hard to create. Maybe it shouldn't surprise me, then, that I didn't enjoy this book, as I really didn't enjoy Miss Peregrine either.

In addition to trying too hard, I felt like this book was just poorly written. Everything feels rushed - characterizations and plot twists alike. It isn't long after Dan arrives that he rushes into a relationship with a girl and starts acting a bit crazy boyfriend with her. And it's not long after he arrives that the inexplicable things start happening. Neither the readers nor Dan actually know terribly much about the girl he starts dating, and it made the whole thing seem silly to me. It felt as if Roux simply decided that she needed a couple female characters to throw in so why not make Dan's partner in crime a girl? It really did not work for me.

I felt the supernatural/paranormal bits were just a poorly executed as the real life bits. There are hints throughout that Dan has a bit of a mysterious past and was even recently in the care of a therapist. I guess this is in there to make readers wonder if the supernatural bits are actually happening or if they're all in Dan's head. If that's the case, this is a not a very successful attempt at walking that line. For a book that is supposed to be a creepfest, I spent the majority of time reading feeling rather bored.

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

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
By Holly Black
Expected publication September 3, 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Tana wakes up in a nightmare. After a perfectly normal teenage party, she awakens to a slaughter. Everyone at the party has been killed, except for her and her ex-boyfriend. But she finds him bleeding and tied to a bed, infected with a virus that will turn him Cold. So, Tana's new reality involves finding her way to Coldtown - and hoping to survive.

After devouring the Curse Workers trilogy, I'd consider myself a sort of Holly Black convert. When I heard she had a new novel coming out - and it was about vampires - I was definitely eager to give it a shot. I picked up a galley at ALA Annual in June and promptly devoured it as well.

I do mean that literally - I started reading this as soon as I got my hands on a copy and didn't read anything else until I finished it (woe to the library books I had checked out at the time). There was just something intensely compelling about this novel that made me unable to focus on anything else. I loved that Black created a whole new spin on vampires with this title (though, I should confess at this point that I never read the short story from which this book grew). I really enjoyed the worldbuilding she had going on - the notion of going Cold and having this excruciating period where you could maybe defeat the disease was incredibly fascinating to me. It also drives a huge portion of the plot - Tana's decision to go to the Coldtown even though she doesn't know if she's infected. I really liked this about her, taking responsibility and making tough decisions. It made her even more of a heroine I wanted to root for. I also loved the atmospheric descriptions of the Coldtown itself and the exploration of what those places have become in Tana's society.

I liked Tana. From the moment she wakes up in the middle of a horror movie until the last page, she is consistent and kick-butt. No part of this story is easy for her, but she perseveres and I really enjoyed that. I liked that her backstory is told in bits and pieces. I liked that even in her life before the party massacre she was not your typical girl. I loved her relationship with her ex-boyfriend and her little sister. I loved that she is smart and witty but she is also vulnerable and flawed. She is a really interesting character to follow.

Gavriel - I don't suppose I can write a review without mentioning him, right? I liked the surprise surrounding his character but I felt ambivalent about the other role he plays in the book. I'm not always the biggest fan of romance in my creepy stories and this was one that I could have done without. But, I thought Gavriel was a fun character and did enjoy reading about him.

What else? The ending - loved it. I see some other reviews mention that there will be a sequel. I'm not sure if I'm happy about that. I really liked this ending and don't think a sequel is necessary, but if there is one, I'll probably read it.

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

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Program: Upcycled Crafts

Well, if you think my previous programs were rife with Pinterest inspiration, this program was basically multiple pins in one afternoon. I had three different craft projects for the kids to try out.

Book hedgehogs: far and away the most popular of the projects. I'm sure if you're in the library world, you've seen these around the internet (most notably the Avengers versions). When I saw them, I knew I wanted to make them happen in the library. Additionally, we had just done a big weeding in the spring, so I was able to repurpose a number of discarded books for this craft project. As I expected, the kids complained about how long it took to fold all the pages to create their hedgehogs. However, I simply had to point to my example to remind them how amazing it would be when they were done. What I hadn't expected was that nearly every kid would want their hedgehog to have a cape and a crown like mine - this aping of the example is common when I do preschool programs, but usually the tweens are much more creative than me. I will admit that my hedgehog is pretty awesome, so I can see how they'd want to make theirs similar.

Comic book keychains/cell phone charms: something else I had in abundance were comic books, so I let the kids cut them up and make keychains and charms out of their contents. We used precut thin squares of cardboard as the base for the charms and then affixed the comic bits with contact paper. Getting the charms onto the keychains and cell phone decorators proved to be the trickiest part of this station.

Wind chimes: so, I found this beautiful wind chime on Pinterest, made of old keys and thought, "YES." The reality was not so easy. First, do you know how in demand old keys are right now? CURSE YOU, STEAMPUNK. I kept getting outbid on eBay lots of old keys and didn't really have a backup plan. I ended up supplementing the keys I did manage to get with washers and nuts, bought at Home Depot. Second, I guess I didn't think clearly enough about what the top of the wind chime would be. In my dream, we would have used mason jar lids (and we could have hot glued the two pieces together after we tied all our strings on) or old cookie cutters. In reality, we used old CDs. It worked out decently when I was trying it out to make an example, but I forgot how terrible the kids would be at tying knots. The majority of the wind chimes I saw were all off-balance and not the beauties I had imagined. I think it's safe to say that this craft was pretty much a fail. I still think it could be really cool; I'd just have to have better supplies next time.

Those were the upcycled crafts we tried this time around. Have you done any craft programs that repurpose old materials? Something that worked especially well? Let me know in the comments - I'm always looking for ideas!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Picture Book Saturday

Becoming Babe Ruth
By Matt Tavares
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press
I'm a sucker for baseball books and I think it's safe to say that I'll read anything put out by Matt Tavares. His books are beautiful. They tell interesting stories in relatively simple ways with lovely pictures and nearly every one of them has made me cry. I loved hearing more about Babe Ruth and I know this will be a popular book with young baseball fans.

Nelson Mandela
By Kadir Nelson
Published 2013 by Katherine Tegen Books
Kadir Nelson will never cease to amaze me. I mean, seriously, that man has all the talent. From the incredibly striking cover image of Mandela, one can immediately tell that this is going to be a special book. And it truly is. Nelson tells the story of Mandela's life, beginning with his childhood and even how he got his name. I think this book is an absolute gem and am definitely hoping to see a shiny Caldecott sticker on it come January.

and then it's spring
By Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead
Published 2012 by Roaring Brook Press
I somehow missed this title last year, so when I spotted it at work recently, I hastily grabbed it up and read it. I love, love, love this. It's simple and beautiful and SPRING. This book feels hopeful and exciting and just lovely. It made me smile nearly the whole time I was reading. It is so simple and yet so wonderful. I think this would be a perfect book to share in storytime. Love it!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: This Song Will Save Your Life

This Song Will Save Your Life
By Leila Sales
Expected publication September 17, 2013 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Elise is not good at making friends. In fact, her social life is basically non-existent. But she is precocious and persistent and she really wants to be popular. When her last big attempt at popularity fails, Elise is ready to give up. In the aftermath, Elise stumbles upon a party that will change her life - and maybe teach her some things about friends and popularity.

When I was at TLA and wandering the exhibit hall, I stopped at this publisher's booth and asked them which titles I absolutely needed to read. This was one of the ones they were most enthusiastic about. Unfortunately, they were out of galleys, so I made a note and filed it away for the future. Then, I spotted my new colleague reading an ARC of it one day during her lunch break. She happily loaned it to me when she finished it and I started reading instantly.

This is the first book by Sales that I've read but it definitely won't be the last. I tore through this book - as in, my colleague lent it to me one morning and I had it back to her by the next morning. It is a definitely a quick read. But it is also oh-so-good that you won't want to stop until you finish it. This book grabbed me from page one and didn't let me go.

Let me start with Elise. Holy cats, I love her. LOVE HER. I've probably said this before, but she is one of THE MOST realistic teenage girls I've ever read. Maybe I feel it particularly strongly because it was so, so, so painfully easy for me to relate to her. I mean, I was this girl. And I think there are more of these girls out here than we know or acknowledge. I love that Elise's voice is so straightforward and true. I love that she thinks popularity is an equation she can solve, a code she can crack, a skill she can master with enough practice. She is so believable and heartbreaking and I LOVE HER.

Then there is her discovery of an underground dance party. Things take off from there as Elise finds both her people and the thing that she truly loves doing. I will admit that I don't personally understand the appeal of DJing, but I love its popularity right now. What I do completely understand is music and how life-or-death important that is as a teenage (at least to every teenager I've ever known). There is something so completely overwhelming about hearing that song at that moment and fully believing that it was meant for you.

And then there is Char. Oh, Char. You are the boy. The boy in every straight girl's life. I think you know the one I mean. The one that is so wrong and yet so right for you. The one that can tempt you to just about anything. The one that you know doesn't treat you right but he's just so THE BOY that you maybe overlook that fact longer than you should.

Don't misunderstand me - this is not a light, fluffy romance. This book deals with really tough stuff and raw emotions. And, I wonder if part of the reason I love it is because it felt so therapeutic to read and resonated so deeply with my own life. But, if that's true for me, I can only guess how many other readers this will be true for. I definitely recommend this for teen girls and anyone who needs a story about being different and making that work.

Thanks to my colleague for loaning her advance reader's copy!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: The Year of Billy Miller

The Year of Billy Miller
By Kevin Henkes
Expected publication September 17, 2013 by Greenwillow Books

Billy Miller is not looking forward to starting second grade. He has a big lump on his head and is worried what other kids will think of him. But, as Billy's year goes by, he learns what will be different - sometimes annoying classmates, accidentally upsetting a teacher - and what will be the same - often annoying little sister, helpful and loving parents.

I've loved Kevin Henkes since I myself was a child and have often gifted his books to the children in my life. I was absolutely thrilled when he branched out to middle-grade novels, even more thrilled when he started writing early readers (the Penny books are some of the best easy readers out there), and now, absolutely bonkers that he is venturing into early chapter books. I loved pretty much everything about this book. I loved the structure - Billy's year is broken up into four sections: Teacher, Father, Sister, Mother. Each section focuses on how Billy struggles to better understand and relate with that person in his life. Being an early chapter book, the story is very episodic, but I find that comforting for that age group and reading level.

While I love fantasy and out of this world stuff, I really appreciate good realistic stories that kids can relate to. Additionally, we get a lot of requests from parents for these kinds of stories for their kids who are just learning to read. A lot of what Billy Miller goes through in this book will be easy for its young readers to relate to. I think my favorite episode was Billy's overwhelming desire to stay up all night - and what a struggle that is when you are in second grade. I loved reading about what Billy is doing in school, and especially what he struggles with. I think this will really resonate with readers.

If there is one thing that Henkes as a writer (I won't even go into his artistic talents, though I'll note that this title features small illustrations of his throughout) excels at (as if there is only one thing), it's his characters. This has been abundantly clear from his beginning in picture books. What reader does not remember Chrysanthemum's turmoil over her name, or spunky (and slightly bossy) Lily, who wants to always be the star of the show. That strength has certainly carried over to his forays into longer works and Billy Miller is no exception. I loved Billy and his family. Oh my goodness, Sal - I want to adopt her. Actually, I want to be a member of this family - they are all so loving and beautifully realized.

Some folks have quibbled about who exactly is the audience for this book. It's over 200 pages long - much lengthier than your typical early chapter book. But it stars a second-grader, an age at which most kids begin to read chapter books. Personally, I don't see any reason why a dedicated new chapter book reader couldn't read this book. However, I think, ideally, this is a family story. So much of it is about family and I think it would be best enjoyed read together as a family. I definitely recommend this read.

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

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Two Boys Kissing

Two Boys Kissing
By David Levithan
Expected publication August 27, 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Harry and Craig used to be boyfriends, but that's not what's important right now. What's important is that they are going to kiss. They are going to kiss for over 32 hours, in an attempt to set a world record and say something to the world.

It's hard to actually give an accurate summary of this book because, while it is about Harry and Craig and their kiss, it is also about so much more. I think I've read nearly all of Levithan's books and, though I haven't loved them all equally, I appreciate what he does as a writer. When I heard about his newest novel, it was a no-brainer for me to request an e-galley. Levithan continually blows me away with his capabilities - not only did he publish an acclaimed novel last year, he collaborated on another title earlier this year, AND THAT'S NOT EVEN HIS DAY JOB. Levithan is also an editor at Scholastic, for some of the biggest names and series around. How does this man have time to do it all, and so successfully?

Regardless of how impressed I am with his time management skills, I also appreciate his books for what they do. Levithan writes lovely GLBT-focused novels that show gay teens they are okay. The cover of this is history-making, I believe, with its full-on image of, well, two boys kissing. I have conflicted feelings about the cover (I mean, yay! Two boys kissing, proudly on the cover! but also, worries that some teens who need to read this book will be unable or unsafe to be seen with it), but we're not really here to talk about the cover.

How do I feel about the book? I really liked it. Though I had issues with Levithan's last solo effort and the way it was told, I really enjoyed the narrative style he employs here. As I mentioned before, this is not just the story of Harry and Craig's kiss. This is the story of Harry and Craig - and Ryan and Avery and Cooper and Tariq and Neil and Peter. It is also the story of all the gay men who lost their lives to AIDS. These men form a chorus that narrates the stories of the others. For me, it was a powerful choice that I think worked beautifully to highlight the emotional and sociopolitical story being told here. I think it is important that we be reminded of that generation of men and the awful things they had to endure - not just the disease itself, but the social climate and the ignorance of political leaders and much more.

And I love that Levithan has chosen to tell a bigger story than that of just Harry and Craig and their kiss. I loved hearing the stories of the other gay teens - each experience different and unique and authentic. Each of these stories will ring true for different readers and this is part of the reason why I think this book is a fantastic and important read for all gay teens.

But another reason why I think this book is so good is because of Levithan's skills as a writer. This book is beautifully written - simple and haunting at times, joyful and lush at others. Levithan is an author who I feel chooses each word so carefully and precisely in order to extract the most emotion and meaning out of every sentence. It is overwhelming and wonderful to behold.

Ultimately, I think this is a truly outstanding novel, particularly important for gay teens. Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Program: When Zombies Attack

I am a big fan of zombies - I will watch any zombie movie, read any zombie book, etc. Last summer, I helped my coworker with a teen zombie-themed program. This year, as we were starting to plan summer, we discussed holding a joint zombie program, for tweens and teens. On the calendar it went! Here's what we did!

Zombie makeup: this was the main event of the program, the piece that we really wanted to incorporate. Thankfully, our teen librarian knows someone highly skilled in theater makeup. We hired her for our program. She gave me a full-on zombie makeover before the program and I walked around the library doing a bit of promotion for the program. The makeovers during the program were not quite as extensive as mine, but the kids absolutely loved them. More than half of our attendees were transformed. On a different note, I kept my zombie makeup on and stopped by Target after work to pick up a few things. Not one person said anything to me. Interesting social experiment.

Zombie apocalypse team construction: this was inspired by a meme making the rounds on the internet, and usually featuring the main players of various fandoms (I'm thinking of Superwholock here). My colleague made a simple template with blank squares and different roles that might be necessary during the zombie apocalypse (weapons expert, brawler, medic, etc.). Then we provided small photos of various characters and celebrities that the kids could use to construct their own zombie apocalypse teams. The kids absolutely loved this, and I loved hearing them debate each other on the merits of who deserves a spot on their team. For the record, my team consisted of Ron Weasley (team leader), Bruce Willis (brawler), Rupert Giles (weapons expert), Albus Dumbledore (brains), Eric Northman (medic - healing properties of vampire blood and all), Buffy Summers (speed fighter), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (mascot).

Zombify a doll: this is something I have really been wanting to do and am so glad we finally did it. It was a bit expensive, but I think it was really worth. We bought a large quantity of doll heads (that sounds extremely odd, but they were the busts mainly used to practice hairstyling on) and gave the kids paint. They then morphed the dolls into creepy zombies. This was another extremely popular station - even the boys who were at first hesitant about being seen near a doll ended up making over a head. Some were incredibly creepy. This would be an inexpensive Halloween craft if you could get donations of unwanted dolls.

Zombie target practice: this was a station we didn't have to worry much about. We taped up a zombie silhouette and gave the kids Nerf guns to practice their zombie killing skills. Obviously, a very popular station. We put a teen in charge of this station, mainly to make sure the kids didn't aim the guns at each other and only shot at the zombie target.

Zombie marshmallows: another Pinterest find! We gave the kids marshmallows and icing pens and had them zombify their treats before they ate them. We ran out of marshmallows about halfway through the program, so this was obviously another popular activity.

Learn to "Thriller": all right, this is the total nerd in me coming out. I really, really, really wanted to learn the dance from the "Thriller" music video, so I basically used this program as an excuse to do so. I am definitely not an expert at it (yet!), but I thought it could be a fun extra bit of the program. Only a handful of kids were willing to get up and try to dance in front of everyone, but they all thought it was pretty cool once we got started.

And that was our zombie program! Have you done a program like this with your kids?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Review: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
By April Genevieve Tucholke
Expected publication August 15, 2013 by Dial

Violet's family used to be a big deal - now they live in a forgotten mansion on the outskirts of town. Well, Violet and her twin live there - her parents are off in Europe, storming the art world and leaving their children to fend for themselves. Even though she's lonely since the death of her beloved grandmother, Violet is pretty much okay without her parents around. Not much happens in her town. That is, until a mysterious stranger rents her guesthouse - and talk of the Devil spreads like wildfire.

I love me some horror, so I couldn't resist requesting an e-galley of this title. Then, a couple of my bookselling buddies gave pretty positive reviews of this one. Color me excited for it. I made it one of my recent reads and I have to say - I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid.

I really did not care for this one (which makes two recent galley reads in a row that I didn't enjoy). I was expecting scare-your-pants-off stuff. Now, admittedly, it is incredibly difficult to scare me. Typical horror stuff doesn't really get my heart racing or my adrenaline pumping. So, maybe a different reader than I will be terrified by this book. And I will give it creepy. The supernatural stuff going on here is just plain disturbing and unsettling. But that doesn't mean I had any trouble sleeping at night after reading this one.

Mostly, I found this book a combination of forgettable and annoying. Forgettable because it doesn't really do anything new and exciting for me. I feel like I've read this story before, maybe with some different details, but nothing terribly unique. Annoying because of Violet and her terrible decisions. I guess maybe I should cut her some slack because it turns out she was pretty much right all along about River (which I didn't expect, so I guess there's that), but I don't want to. Because she didn't know she would be right about River - and that means she made some AWFUL decisions along the way. This was one of those "I would throw this book across the room, I'm so mad about this character" situations (if I were the type of person to throw a book - talk about horror!).

I also expected a bigger twist at the end - honestly, I was expecting Violet to discover a heretofore untapped psychic power - so the actual twist was kind of a let-down. Really, I can't think of anything about this book that I enjoyed - and I just found out it will have a sequel. SIGH.

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong

The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong
By L. Tam Holland
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

It starts with a history assignment. Vee is supposed to make a family tree for his history class. The problem: Vee knows nothing about his family. Well, he knows his dad is Chinese and came to America alone. He knows his mom is from Texas and was married before. But he doesn't have any aunts or uncles or cousins and he's never met his grandparents. So, how will Vee do the assignment?

I requested an e-galley of this, looking forward to reading a contemporary multicultural family story. Every once in a while, I need a break from all the fantasy and dark dystopia that I normally read. I was definitely looking forward to this when I started it. Unfortunately, I've ended up disappointed.

I really wanted to like this book. I liked that it featured a biracial main character and his desire to know more about where he comes from. I vividly remember doing a family tree assignment as a kid and, over the years, I've pursued a casual interest in genealogy. I'm a big believer in actively knowing where you come from and what that means to you as an individual. So, I completely understood Vee's overwhelming desire to discover the truth about his extended family.

However - I didn't really like Vee. And that made it very difficult for me to like this novel. I think Vee's voice and character are relatively authentic; I just didn't like him. I felt about him a bit like I feel about Greg Heffley - he's not really the nicest person you've ever encountered. While I think a lot of what Vee does will be easy for teens to understand and relate to (his frustrations with the basketball team, his goading of teachers he thinks he's smarter than), these are the things that made me not like him.

Because of my dislike of Vee, I found a lot of the plot absurd and annoying. Though I can understand Vee's desire to learn more about his background, I felt he was being pretty selfish and unsympathetic in his quest. Sometimes, there are things in our past that are hard to talk about - Vee doesn't seem to have any awareness of this, to the point where he is uncomfortably pushing the issue with his parents.

Additionally, I felt that most of the other characters, particularly the girls, existed solely for Vee to use and manipulate as he saw fit. I really disliked the insensitivity Vee displayed in his varied relationships with girls and women.

Overall, this book and this character gave me a lot of negative feelings, making it impossible for me to enjoy this one.

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

Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: Counting by 7s

Counting by 7s
By Holly Goldberg Sloan
Expected publication August 29, 2013 by Dial

Willow has never been a typical girl. She's a genius, and she's obsessed with nature and medical conditions. She's grown a giant garden behind her house and it's her favorite place in the world. Willow is about to become even more atypical when tragedy strikes. Can Willow find a way to cope in the awful new reality?

This book was giddily shoved into my hands at TLA by an enthusiastic booth representative who said if my focus was on middle-grade lit, I had to read this book. Little did I know, this book was actually incredibly sought after (and again at ALA) and has already been receiving high praise. Having finished it myself, I'd say it's well-deserved.

Sloan's 2011 novel, I'll Be There, also received a lot of praise and I'd been meaning to pick it up (I think it has a really beautiful cover, also) and never got to it. I'm thrilled to have had her latest be my introduction to her work. This is a beautiful book. This may be one of the best written books I've read recently. Willow's voice is unbelievable - I mean that in a good way. It feels authentic and heartbreakingly real and just beautiful to read. And Willow is not the only lovely character - all of Sloan's characters feel incredibly true to life, even if we are not meant to actually like them (the counselor - I'm unsure how we're really supposed to feel about him). I loved reading about them all, especially as they are brought to life with Sloan's enormous skill.

Additionally, I love that Sloan gives us such a diverse bunch of lovely characters - Willow is a girl of color (even she is unsure of her true ethnicity) and she spends a great deal of time with a Vietnamese family. It would have been nice to have this diversity reflected on the cover, especially in light of all the recent discussions about this very topic. I do like this cover, though.

I loved the exploration of family in this novel. In fact, if I have to sum up this book in one word, it would be that: family. Willow is adopted but, during the course of the novel, she loses her adoptive parents as well. She must now adjust her definitions of family and find a new place for herself.

This is another long book, particularly for a contemporary realistic middle-grade novel. But, if you love it even half as much as I did, you will tear through the pages. I did not want to put this down. This is just an enchanting and compulsively readable novel that I think will greatly appeal to readers looking for realistic fiction. I do think the ending is predictable and a little pat, but it works in this situation and for the intended audience I think. I definitely recommend this one.

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

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Program: beTWEEN the lines

Our second summer meeting of beTWEEN the lines happened the first week of July. Our genre for the month was fantasy - one that I figured the kids would be happy to read (our fantasy books are probably the among the most circulated). It has been interesting to see the attendance in the summer months - only two of my regular school year attendees have continued to come in the summer months and the new kids who came in June were not the same new kids who came in July. So, while I now feel like I know my two regulars quite well, I don't feel like I'm establishing the relationships I'd hoped.

Regardless, we soldier on. Our meeting ran just the same way as it did in June, except the kids were much, much better at giving spoiler-free plot summaries this time around. The books read were:

Fairest of All (Whatever After, book one) by Sarah Mlynowski (my review and another Bluebonnet book for the 2013-14 school year)
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (my review)
The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus, book three) by Rick Riordan (my review)
Goosebumps by R.L. Stine (a few different titles were discussed)
Into the Wild (Warriors, book one) by Erin Hunter
The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, book five) by Rick Riordan
Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

As in our first meeting of the summer, I had everyone introduce themselves before giving summaries. Then I asked each kid a few questions about their book. I also opened it up for questions from the other kids, but nobody offered any. Some interesting things happened this time around. The kids wanted to keep discussing Rick Riordan. That's great - I'm glad they are all big fans of his books, as I am, too. But it was alienating for the couple of kids in the room who hadn't read his books yet. I guess I should have anticipated this, as Riordan is a big name in middle grade fantasy these days, but I kept having to redirect the kids' attention to the other books we read for the month. The latest installment of "how will the kids make me feel old today?" surrounded Goosebumps and I actually brought this one on myself. I think every kid in attendance had read at least one Goosebumps book and they were casually discussing how many of them there are. I told them that those books had been around for a long time because I'd read them when I was a kid. I think you know what happened next.

Something happened that made me a bit sad and showed me that we are not doing enough to promote ourselves in library-land. When I told the kids what our next genre would be, I showed them a booklist I'd made and mentioned the display I'd set up. I also told them if they needed any ideas, they could come see me and I could suggest some books for them. They all looked agog - in fact, some of them even said, "you can do that?" YES! That is one of the things I love most about my job! I practically begged them to come hunt me down in the library anytime they needed a book recommendation, so hopefully some of them will take me up on that offer.

As for me, I read Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George. You can find my review here. As I write this post (which won't go live until later), I'm worrying about our final meeting of the summer. I promised my regular kids that we'd revisit the way book club was run in August and now I'm wondering what is the best way to move forward. I do miss some of the discussions we had when we all read the same book, and I wonder if the genre format is as effective as I wanted it to be. However, I still have my same qualms about the costs and efforts of returning to our previous model. Does anyone have any advice? Some suggestions I've gotten have included having the kids bring discussion questions to each meeting (taking the burden off me a bit, but I worry this will feel too much like school), alternating genre and reading the same book every other month, and returning to the one book format but buying fewer copies of each book. I worry that if I don't provide copies of the books, attendance will drop off and I don't want to make the kids buy their own copies. I'd love to hear some thoughts in the comments!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Review: Starglass

By Phoebe North
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Terra has lived her life aboard the Asherah, a spaceship that left Earth many generations ago and is moving ever closer to Zehava, the planet its people have pinned their hopes on. But things are about to change for Terra. She receives her work assignment and witnesses something secret and horrific. Before long, she finds herself in the middle of a rebellious group who have big plans for her.

Something else I've mentioned before is that I'm not crazy about things that take place in space. As a result, I don't read a lot of typical science fiction. However, I've read a few books in recent years that I really enjoyed that just happened to take place in space (Amy Kathleen Ryan's Glow is perhaps the best example for me), so I've slowly been reading more and more space books in the hopes of finding more gems. Unfortunately, for me, Starglass is not one of them.

It sounded like it had a lot of the same elements that I enjoyed in Glow - a teen protagonist living aboard a spaceship that is essentially its own world (I'm talking crops and livestock and the whole shebang). The people on the ship are the newest generation, descended from the ship's first inhabitants. And not everyone is pleased with the current regime. Additionally, they are about to arrive at their destination, making emotions run at an all-time high. These are all the things I loved about Ryan's book and pretty much they are all equally present here in North's book. North's version just does not work as well for me.

What I like about North's book: the worldbuilding, particularly the Jewishness of the ship and its inhabitants. Religion doesn't usually feature in the books I read, and especially not in the speculative fiction I read. I found it a pleasant surprise here. It works well for this ship and these characters and this story, and adds an extra dimension that I found really interesting.

Unfortunately, this is about the only thing about North's book that I particularly enjoyed. This is a long book - over 400 pages - and it sure felt that long. This is going to sound harsh, but I really feel like this book was a waste of my time. Not a whole lot happens. It's fine to not have a plot-driven story - I like character studies as much as the next guy. But this book just doesn't work. There is something pervasively irritating about Terra - she is not the kind of character I want to read 400 pages about. Additionally, the big talk about rebellion and Terra getting mixed up in it? It feels mostly like baloney. Sure, there is a group of citizens anxious for rebellion. And yes, Terra does get involved with them. But it's not nearly as exciting as all that. Mostly, this is 400 pages of Terra feeling anxious about everything in her life and being very indecisive. The book ends with the ship's arrival on Zehava, which, of course, turns out far differently than anticipated. It's pretty clear that there is going to be a sequel but, after spending 400+ lackluster pages here, I don't think I'll be reading it.

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