Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures
By Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell
Published 2013 by Candlewick Press
Winner of the 2014 Newbery Medal

Like most super stories, it begins with an accident - a squirrel is sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and when he emerges, he is not the same squirrel he once was. Flora steps in the rescue the squirrel and their adventures begin.

I am not sure how I feel about Kate DiCamillo. I know many youth literature people (librarians, authors, enthusiasts, etc.) simply adore her and view her as one of the best people writing for youth today. I have more mixed feelings about her. I absolutely adore The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane - I mean, seriously, it's got to be one of my favorite books of all time. But I am much less enthusiastic about The Tale of Despereaux. I like Bink & Gollie well enough, and that's all I've read from DiCamillo. When I heard about her newest book, I thought it sounded like fun. I picked it up because I knew it would get awards buzz. What I didn't know when I read it back in November was that it would actually take home the big prize, the Newbery Medal.

Once again, I wish I had posted this review before the award announcements. Unfortunately, I'm not as gung-ho about this book as the Newbery committee was. I liked that it was silly - it's just the sort of thing that will appeal to kids, particularly with its combination of narrative and graphic storytelling. And I like Flora and Ulysses - great characters that were very endearing. William Spiver, as well, though both Flora and William seem a bit too precocious. One of my coworkers who read the book in early February said that Flora reminded her of me - I'm not sure if this is a compliment or not. And I really love that DiCamillo never writes down to her audience - this book is full of beautiful vocabulary words, words I would have loved to discover as a ten-year-old.

What I can't get over, however, is Flora's mother. She is just downright awful. I get that, a lot of the time, we are seeing her through Flora's eyes and perhaps Flora doesn't understand everything that has happened between her parents or in their lives. But to me, that doesn't justify how terrible Flora's mother seems as a person. I don't know; I just don't like it.

So, this was a mixed bag for me and not my favorite Newbery winner.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Program: Mad Science Monday

For October's installment of Mad Science Monday, I wanted to do a Halloween edition. However, I decided this and promoted it before I had really come up with good experiments. So, I wasn't entirely thrilled with what we ended up doing. However, the kids loved the experiments so, really, everything worked out. Here's what we did.

Screaming balloons - an experiment I found from Steve Spangler, this is probably the ones that the kids were the least enthusiastic about. It's a very simple experiment, but the title is misleading, which is why I think the kids didn't love this one as much. You simply drop a hex nut in an deflated balloon and then carefully inflate and tie off the balloon (carefully because you don't want to inhale the nut!). Then you hold the balloon by the bottom and move it in a circular motion. Once you get the nut spinning properly, it sounds like the balloon is screaming. Well, not really. It sounds more like a high-pitched buzzing noise. I had the kids explain to me what was happening and they were spot-on with the science, so that was a very nice part of the program.

Fake blood - this was probably what I was least enthusiastic about because we have made fake blood many, many times in many kinds of programs. However, do kids ever really get sick of making fake blood? It is pretty cool, after all. They all made a baggie full to take home.

Ghost bubbles - yet another Steve Spangler experiment, this was definitely the highlight of the program. It almost didn't happen, though, as the grocery store I intended to purchase dry ice from was out of stock, leading to me frantically finding another place to buy it from. I did manage to acquire the dry ice, so the experiment was a go. This is another really simple experiment, but it's a little less exciting because the kids didn't get to try it hands-on. As dry ice is dangerous, they watched me perform the experiment. It involves putting a chunk of dry ice in a bowl half full of warm water. The dry ice begins to evaporate. Then, you take a long piece of rag (I used the hem of an old t-shirt) soaked in dish soap and stretch it across the width of the bowl. Drag the rag slowly across the rim of the bowl. This will create a soap film. The soap film traps the smoke from the evaporating dry ice, stretching and creating a giant smoke filled bubble on top of the bowl. The kids had a great time with this, counting how long before the bubble burst and seeing if they could predict when it would pop. I also let them all take turns popping a bubble, which they enjoyed.

And that was Mad Science Halloween! Any suggestions for next year?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: The Spindlers

The Spindlers
By Lauren Oliver, read by Simon Vance
Published 2012 by HarperCollins

One morning, Liza wakes up and her brother is not her brother anymore. He's not the same brother he was the day before, anyway, and Liza realizes that she might be the only person who knows what's happened. The Spindlers have come and changed him and it's up to her to save him.

I really wanted to like this one because I quite enjoyed Liesl & Po. Unfortunately, I just didn't love it. I listened to the audio of this back in the fall and honestly, I'm having a bit of difficulty recalling many of the details. And that's one of the reasons why I didn't love this book - it didn't grab me the way Liesl & Po did. I never felt emotionally connected to Liza and her quest to save her brother. On a surface level, I knew I should be invested in it, but I never really was. It seemed like Oliver was trying for a more sinister atmosphere in this book and I'm not sure it was really successful - I didn't feel particularly afraid or bothered by the Spindlers. There's no doubt in my mind that Oliver can write a beautiful and affecting book, but this just wasn't a particularly fine example of that. I hope that she writes more middle grade in the future but I hope it reads more like Liesl & Po than this title. A bit of a let-down.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: Cinder

Cinder (Lunar Chronicles, book one)
By Marissa Meyer, read by Rebecca Soler
Published 2012 by Macmillan Young Listeners

Cinder is, perhaps, New Beijing's most gifted mechanic. She is also a cyborg - hated by her stepmother and hiding her true identity from everyone else. But when a deadly plague comes to Cinder's household, her fate becomes closely linked with Prince Kai and she must set out on the path to discover the secrets of her past.

This book was a huge deal when it came out and pretty much everyone I knew read it almost immediately. In typical me fashion, I wanted to read it, but never found the time. So, I downloaded the audio version and finally listened to it.

I'm sorry I waited so long. This book had me right from the beginning. I love the premise, which is the premise of the whole series - science fiction takes on classic fairy tales, this one being Cinderella with a cyborg. But, it's much more than that. Meyer has created a believable and complex world that I am completely fascinated by and about which I'm dying to know more. I love the setting of New Beijing and I love the complicated history that's teased at between the Eastern Commonwealth and the Lunar Empire.

I also really liked the character of Linh Cinder. She is smart and questioning. She cares deeply about her stepsister and Iko, her family's robot. She has a past that she knows little about. She's a really interesting character. I liked the other characters as well, particularly Iko and Prince Kai. I thought the development of the relationship between Cinder and Kai was well done and didn't feel as ridiculous as other YA romances I've seen.

That being said, the surprise was not that difficult to figure out, but I liked the way Meyer revealed it. Additionally, she left some questions open, sure to be explored in book two, which I am eager to read. I think this is a really strong start to an imaginative teen science fiction series.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: UnSouled

UnSouled (Unwind, book three)
By Neal Shusterman
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

WARNING: There will likely be spoilers ahead. To read my reviews of the first two books, go here and here.

Connor and Lev are running, but they are also searching for someone - a woman who might have the answers they are looking for. Cam, the controversial "rewind," is growing dissatisfied with his existence. He longs to show Risa how much he cares for her. All four will continue on the unbelievable journey that started when they first met.

I was lucky to read Unwind shortly before UnWholly was released. But this meant that I had to wait like everyone else for UnSouled. No matter - I was just excited the brilliance of Unwind was going to be a series.

This book, hmmm, what do I say about this book? Well, I read it quickly, eager to see where Shusterman was going to take this dark story. But, as I read, I also didn't feel quite the same pull as I had in the first two. This book, more than book two, feels like the middle book in a trilogy (if there are four books in a series, is that common for book three?). While Shusterman continues to excel at darkly defining the terrible world these characters live in, much of the action in this book felt like a means to an end - that is, Shusterman was just moving the pieces around so that they'd all be where he needed them for the final book. The action didn't grab me as it had in the previous books. I think part of the reason I kept turning the pages so quickly was in fervent hope that I would rediscover the things I had loved about the first two books soon.

Once again, Shusterman carries on with the characters from previous volumes while also introducing new characters. For me, this is fine, but I can imagine other readers might get tired of trying to keep all the characters straight. In my opinion, as long as the author is doing something unique and interesting for each of these characters, I don't really care how many of them there are. I feel like Shusterman is still handling this well, so it doesn't bother me.

Mostly, this book just doesn't have quite the same drive as the previous books. I still have high hopes for the conclusion, though, so we'll see if Shusterman can successfully pull it all together in the end.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Program: Meet the Artist

As I mentioned a while ago, I started a new monthly program focusing on creating art inspired by famous artists. For October, we focused on Jackson Pollock.

Once again, I created a short PowerPoint presentation about Pollock and his art. I decided to gloss over some of the more unsavory aspects of Pollock's life, though interested kids could certainly find these things out for themselves. I think abstract art is really interesting to kids because it raises a lot of questions in them. They seemed to like Pollock's work and style, though they had lots of questions about it.

After our presentation, we headed outside to do some action painting of our own. I spread out tarps and taped watercolor paper down in various spots, creating workspaces for each kid. I kept all the paint on a cart and had the kids choose just a couple colors at a time to work with. I monitored the distribution of paint, as I've found in the past that the kids don't really understand the concept of "a little goes a long way." The kids had a great time doing their splatter painting - we wore trash bags to protect our clothes and some of them took their shoes off to avoid accidental painting of them. The main issue we ran into was one of space - I should have spaced them further apart as there was a tiny bit of accidental splatter overlapping with some kids.

Overall, though, they had a great time and were thrilled with their end results. This was a very easy and fun program, one that could easily be adapted to an even younger age group.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Review: The Chicken Squad

The Chicken Squad: Their First Misadventure
By Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Expected publication April 8, 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

The Chicken Squad is a mystery-solving super-team and they are about to get a doozy. When Squirrel rushes into their headquarters, claiming something BIG and SCARY has landed in their yard, the Chicken Squad gets right down to business cracking the case.

I was incredibly excited when I spotted this e-galley on Edelweiss. I really loved the J.J. Tully mysteries that Cronin and Cornell put out a few years back and have been waiting for more to arrive. It seems that, instead of continuing with J.J. as the main character (though he makes an appearance), they've decided to put their eggs in the Chicken Squad basket (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist the terrible pun).

I'm predisposed to like this one less than the J.J. books because I'm afraid of birds. Now, I know that seems silly, but it's a real thing, though chickens are kind of an exception because they don't fly very well. However, I much preferred J.J. (who is a dog) as a main character than the Chicken Squad. I didn't find the chickens as endearing as J.J. and this book lacked the stronger narrative of the others. J.J. had a great narrative voice and I really missed that here. In general, I didn't find this as charming as the J.J. books, and I'm disappointed by that.

However, I really love what Cronin is trying to do here and chickens are popular with the storytime crowd, so these chickens might be good stepping stones for kids getting into chapter books. Mysteries are also great for beginning readers, and very popular, so I imagine this series will be a hit.

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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: Miss Emily

Miss Emily
By Burleigh Muten, illustrated by Matt Phelan
Expected publication March 25, 2014 by Candlewick Press

Miss Emily is always concocting something fun for her young friends and the newest adventure is no exception. The circus is coming to town and Miss Emily and her band of creative thinkers are going to be there to meet the train as it arrives.

Unfortunately, I don't have terribly much to say about this book. I won this book on LibraryThing. I had requested it because I'd seen it at ALA in Philadelphia but hadn't managed to snag a copy, so when I saw it listed on LibraryThing, I figured, "why not?" I won a copy and it arrived quickly (kudos to the publisher on that - some I've won in the past have taken months to arrive).

Emily Dickinson seems to be having a renaissance. I can think of more than a handful of children and teen books in the last two years that have been about her or featured her in some way. I can't say I'm a particular fan of Dickinson; though I read a lot of poetry in my teen years, I'm not sure hers ever really spoke to me. What makes me most unsure about this book is the intended audience. Candlewick lists it for ages 7-10; how likely is a seven-year-old to be familiar with Emily Dickinson? Granted, one does not need to know or love Dickinson to read this book; after all, it is simply a story of one adventure Miss Dickinson takes with her young neighbors and relatives. But some of the story will make more sense to a reader with a better sense of Dickinson and her life and her work.

That being said, I didn't really enjoy this. It's written in verse, which is to be expected I suppose, but the verse didn't really strike me as particularly well-done. Additionally, I found the story itself quite boring, though I can imagine it might have more appeal for a younger reader. All in all, I didn't find anything to be quite as fully developed as I might have liked.

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

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: The Shadow Prince

The Shadow Prince (Into the Dark, book one)
By Bree Despain
Published 2014 by Egmont

Haden has been sent on a quest to the human realm. He must find a girl named Daphne and convince her to return with him to the Underrealm. Daphne has dreams of being a famous singer, so when her long-absent but superstar father wants to whisk her away to a prestigious performing arts school, she can't resist. Little does she know that it will bring her right into Haden's proximity. But Haden is about to discover that his quest is even more difficult than he imagined - Daphne is putting up a fight.

I spotted this e-galley a few months ago and thought the premise sounded interesting. I'm almost always up for a book that explores mythology in a new way or retells a classic story. I've never read a book by Despain before, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I admit, I went in a little apprehensively. A friend of mine had read Despain's earlier book, The Dark Divine, and found it basically atrocious, so I approached this book with a bit of caution. And, admittedly, it is, at times, quite a silly book. The relationship between Daphne and Haden feels very unsurprising; this is the sort of conflict I've seen a million times before. Additionally, it seems like Despain is trying a bit too hard at times with the names - Haden, Ellis Fields, Olympus High, Apollo Canyon, etc. Also, she seems to try too hard to make readers root for both characters. Haden and Daphne alternate narrating chapters and Despain has created a traumatic childhood backstory for Haden that I think is supposed to instill a great feeling of empathy in readers. It seemed a little much for me, though. Finally, not much about this book is terribly surprising - the story plays out pretty much as one would expect, though this is only the first in a series, so there is still a lot of time left in Haden's quest.

All that being said, I'd say I still enjoyed the book. It's lengthy - over 500 pages - but it read much faster than that. The alternating viewpoints do help to keep the story moving and the action helps as well. Like I said, I like books that base their story in mythology, so, despite the name overkill, I enjoyed finding out which myths Despain would touch upon and how she would alter them for her purposes. All in all, I'd say it's pretty likely that I'll pick up book two and I imagine this book will find a good audience.

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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Program: American Girl Club

This is our second school year running American Girl Club at the public library, which we alternate monthly with Adventure Club. We started American Girl Club in October with Saige, 2013's Girl of the Year. At the last meeting before summer, we had asked our participants which girls they wanted us to do the following year and we took that into account as we planned out our girls. Saige was the overwhelming number one choice for our attendees, so we went with it.

After reading the Saige stories, my colleague and I decided to focus on a very fun aspect that we knew would appeal to lots of girls: clicker training with dogs. This meant very little work on our part, as we contacted a local dog training organization and they prepared a presentation for the girls. It ended up taking the whole hour we had scheduled because they girls loved watching the dogs perform tricks and had lots of questions for their trainers. We did have materials on hand to make friendship bracelets for a craft but, as I said, we ran out of time. As usual, I served the girls a traditional snack that represents the doll we focused on. In this case, I made biscochitos, the state cookie of New Mexico. They were very popular.

Overall, this was a very successful American Girl club meeting. The girls stayed interested in the dogs and their training for the entire hour, asking relevant questions and loving the tricks performed by the dogs. Many got their pictures taken with the dogs at the end of the hour and the trainers helped girls who wanted to perform some tricks with the dogs. The only issue we ran into here was that we had not advertised we would have dogs at the program and one mother complained (her daughter did not stay for the program). We did not advertise it because we were not sure until about a week before the program that we would for sure have the dogs and trainers there. Additionally, we thought it would be a fun surprise. I am sad that we had one unhappy patron, but we had many happy ones as well.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library
By Chris Grabenstein
Published 2013 by Random House Books for Young Readers

Kyle is a gamer - and not just video games (though they're his favorites). When he learns that his favorite game creator, Luigi Lemoncello, has built the new public library and is letting 12 lucky kids be the first to enter it, he has to be one of them. And he is. What will Kyle discover in the game-filled new library?

I feel like I am one of the only people on the planet who has read and loved Grabenstein's earlier mystery series for kids (it begins with The Crossroads). I loved them because they were actually scary and mysterious but also fun and full of heart. So, when his new book started getting tons of rave reviews, it was a no-brainer for me to pick it up. I wasn't disappointed.

This is a super-fun, fast-paced adventure mystery that I can definitely see kids getting into. Grabenstein has really created a puzzle for book lovers and I can think of a number of my young patrons who fit that description. What really makes this book a stand-out for me is exactly that. This is an ode to children's books, of all shapes and sizes, and I loved that. I think it's all too easy for adults to forget how much these books mattered to them as kids and to write off what their children read as too silly or juvenile. My fiercest desire is that adults embrace children's literature for what it is: literature, sometimes life-changing, sometimes heart-breaking. Grabenstein is clearly an adult who's done so.

In addition, I think with the varied cast of characters, kids will be able to find someone they relate to and can root for among them. While none of them are true standouts, I don't really think they are the heart of the book. For me, the heart of the book is the love of learning it teaches. This book actually does teach kids quite a bit - a lot about the library and how it works, how to find things, the importance of careful research, and more. What's most exciting is that it does it through very fun puzzles and games, which, if you've been in the presence of a child, you know is the key to getting them to learn things.

Overall, a very fun read. I hope Mr. Grabenstein writes more mysteries like this!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review: The Great Trouble

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel
By Deborah Hopkinson
Published 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Eel is a mudlark, spending his days searching the river for bits he can sell or money that's gotten lost. But Eel's luck is about to change - cholera, or "the blue death," has come to his neighborhood. Now it's up to Eel and Dr. Snow to solve the mystery of cholera before everyone Eel cares about becomes sick.

I like a good historical fiction so I picked this one up. Having read an adult non-fiction account of the cholera epidemic in London (The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson), I was already familiar with the subject and how the outbreak was handled. Perhaps this ruined the suspense of the book for me, as I already knew that Dr. Snow's theory was the correct one. It might have been a more exciting read if I hadn't come to the book with that knowledge.

Eel himself is an interesting character, though it feels like Hopkinson tried to do a bit too much with him. I like the idea of a down-on-his-luck orphan being enlisted by a doctor to help prove his theory, but I think the story would have worked just as well if Eel had been an ordinary kid. I felt like I didn't really care terribly much about Eel's story - his escape from his rotten stepfather and his attempts to keep his younger brother safe. Instead, I was only interested in how he was able to help Dr. Snow. I think the idea of showing kids that they can make scientific discoveries as well is the more exciting part of the story.

However, my main issue with this book is one of appeal. I feel already that there is a lot of historical fiction being published for kids but I'm not sure how many kids are actually interested in reading it. With this book particularly, I struggle to imagine the kind of reader who would pick this book up on their own. Maybe I just don't personally know the right kind of reader for this book - after all, it does have a pretty cool mystery and it's about a really gross illness, so maybe it does have kid appeal.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Review: The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now
By Tim Tharp
Published 2008 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Life is a party for Sutter Keely. Why would he ever want anything different? But one day, after partying too hard, he wakes up on Aimee's lawn. It's clear Aimee needs Sutter's help, but will he take on more than he can handle?

I'm one of those people who really likes to read the book before she sees the movie, though I will also still read a book after I've seen the movie version of it. That desire is what prompted me to pick up this book in the fall. I've also heard a lot of good things about it, so I wanted to check it out for myself.

I had a really hard time with this book. On the one hand, it's not difficult for me to see why it gets a lot of praise and has a lot of teen appeal. On the other hand, I did not enjoy it at all.

Sutter reminded me of Tim Riggins from the Friday Night Lights TV series, my least favorite character on the show. I have a really hard time with characters like these two - cocky, good-looking guys who drink too much but rarely get in trouble for it and who have no ambition to do something more with their life. Maybe it's just too far outside my personal realm of understanding, maybe I just find it too difficult to believe that guys like this legitimately exist. I mean, of course, logically, I know they do, but maybe I don't WANT to believe they do. But I really struggle to care about characters that I perceive as having no personal growth from the start of something to the end - and that's how I felt about Sutter.

However, on the other hand, I can easily see the argument that Sutter DOES actually help Aimee - would she have ever found the courage to stand up to her mom and go after the life she wants if she hadn't met Sutter? I doubt it. At the same time, though, how much hurt did Sutter inflict on her by acting the way he did? I don't think Aimee is set up for a lifetime of healthy relationships from this point on.

As much as I personally did not like the ending, it felt very realistic for the characters and the story. And, for me, the most heartbreaking scene comes between Sutter and his boss, when his boss asks him to promise to never drink at work or show up drunk again. Sutter can't make that promise and I really felt awful about that.

Like I said, I'm basically of two minds when it comes to this book, but on a personal level, definitely not one of my favorites.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Program: Pumpkin Decorating

This was one of the simplest and most successful programs I had this fall. Last year, I had done a similar program with less than stellar results, likely because I didn't promote the pumpkin decorating aspect. I chose not to last year because I was worried I wouldn't have enough pumpkins for attendees. This year, I decided to buy 15 pumpkins and hope it was enough, even with promotion of pumpkins being available.

I had no pumpkins left over! I decorated one as an example - this year, I chose to make Babymouse. I wanted to encourage the kids to decorate their pumpkin as a favorite book character, which is why I chose the lovely graphic novel star. Some of the kids embraced this idea, but most just decorated their pumpkin as they wanted to.

Last year, I played a spooky audio book for the kids to listen to as they decorated. This year, I decided to show a favorite Halloween movie. And here is where I failed. I did not rewatch my chosen movie before screening it to the kids. Why would I? After all, it airs every year on ABC Family, so surely it would be appropriate for my tween audience. Well, maybe, but there were definitely some parts that made me uncomfortable as I watched it with the kids. The movie in question? Hocus Pocus. You see, I forgot all the talk about being a virgin and how Max is interested in Allison's bazooms. I think most of the stuff that raised my eyebrows went over the kids' heads.

Aside from that, the kids really liked having a movie to watch while they decorated and many were sad that their parents made them leave before the end (despite showing a movie, I only scheduled the program for an hour, mostly because I hadn't been sure that I would show a movie). I provided the pumpkins and all the supplies they could want to decorate with, and they all left happily with their pumpkins. I will definitely plan on doing this program again next year.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

I'm the Scariest Thing in the Jungle!
By David G. Derrick, Jr.
Published 2013 by Immedium
What I like best about this book is that the tiger and the crocodile, who are fighting for title of scariest thing in the jungle, act like children. However, I think this fact will be more amusing to parents who read this book than kids. I do think kids will like the back and forth and the simplicity of the story and, maybe, they will enjoy the one-ups-manship.  The illustrations are quite nice as well.

By Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Dan Santat
Published 2013 by Chronicle Books
I've said it many times before - I'll pick up anything that's got Santat's name on it. I just love his artistic style. I find it really appealing. I think this is a really fun book as well, one that will greatly appeal to elementary age picture book readers. As fun as I think this book is, I don't think it's a good one for storytime. I think it requires more patience and attention than we usually find in the storytime setting. However, for the right reader, I think this is a perfect book. I really enjoyed it.

Battle Bunny
By Mac Barnett and Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Matthew Myers
Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Here is another pretty awesome book for elementary age readers. How many times have you received a lame gift and wished you could transform it into something awesome? That's the idea here - a lame book that a boy is gifted for his birthday because a raging tale of battle and carnage. This book is oozing kid appeal and I think would be a great one to share and turn into a program - perhaps taking discarded books and transforming them in a similar way. The only worrisome bit is that some kids might get overeager and apply this "rewriting" technique to all their books!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review: House of Hades

House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus, book four)
By Rick Riordan
Published 2013 by Hyperion Books

WARNING: This likely will contain spoilers for the first three books in the series. To read my reviews of those titles, click here and follow the links through.

 Percy and Annabeth must traverse an extremely perilous path alone. The other five demigods - Jason, Piper, Leo, Hazel, and Frank - must do their part on earth to help prevent Gaea from rising. Will they succeed?

So I was a little underwhelmed by book three. Maybe the passage of time has been kinder this time around, because I feel like book four is back to form. While there is, of course, still a lot of "meanwhile, back at the ranch" storytelling going on, I found it didn't bother me this time around. Maybe it was because I actually felt like the characters were in legitimate peril this time around. Although, who am I kidding? It's pretty unlikely that Riordan will legitimately off one of the characters in this series, though I'd be quite impressed if he did. Additionally, I feel impressed with Riordan just because of the consistency of his work. He is putting out a new book every year and they are basically all on equal footing in terms of quality. And this one is nearly 600 pages. To be consistent like this and still be good is very impressive.

Once again, I think Riordan does a decent job with alternating POVs, though this book seems to have more than previous books and therefore some characters don't get as much "screen time" as others. Also, it felt like the scenes in Tartarus with Percy and Annabeth (which, let's be honest, are what most people are wanting to read about) were spaced quite far apart, making it feel a bit like the story was dragging in places. I think character development is still on pace with the previous books; it's great that we are still learning new things about the characters even this far into the series as well as watching them grow and change. In particular, I'm not sure I should let this review go by without mentioning the major character development regarding Nico in this book. On the one hand, I feel like it explains many things that have been happening throughout the series. Similarly, I'm pleased that a mainstream and very popular author decided to include a gay character and not make a huge issue out of it. On the other hand, it almost feels a bit tacked on, to me, and I'm not sure it feels genuine. But, that's just my opinion.

As for the action and plot, it's on point as usual. I'll keep saying it: Riordan is the master of the cliffhanger and this is no exception. I'm already anxious imagining the rending of clothes when this series ends this fall with Blood of Olympus. I think Riordan did an excellent job of characterizing Tartarus in a way that was unsettling and believable. I can only wonder at how epic the conclusion is going to be.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review: Amelia Lost

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
By Candace Fleming
Published 2001 by Schwartz & Wade

What really happened to beloved aviatrix Amelia Earhart? Even decades after her disappearance, we still don't have the definitive answer. In this biography, Fleming explores Earhart in depth, as well as the search for clues about her disappearance.

I picked this up on a whim last fall, in the mood for some nonfiction. I definitely picked the right book. This is one of the best examples of nonfiction for young readers that I've read. Fleming chooses to tell Earhart's story in alternating chapters - chronologically through her life and through the search for her and her plane. It's an extremely compelling way to tell the story, one that I think has high appeal for kids and teens. It makes what could be the boring part - the straightforward biography part - all the more captivating because you begin to wonder how it ties into the other, exciting part - that of the all-encompassing search for her after her disappearance.

I, like most people, can admit to a passing interest in Amelia Earhart. What Fleming's book does best, I think, is highlight the parts of her that are often overlooked in other biographies, particularly those for young people. Do most people know how obsessed she was with cultivating a particular image of herself? Do people know that most pilots who knew her would describe her as reckless and, often, ill-prepared for flight? I don't think so. I certainly didn't. I felt like the more I read about her in Fleming's biography, the less I found to admire. It's important for kids to learn that there can be a culture, a particular image, built up around certain people and that they should do their best to find the truth behind that image. Fleming's book provides a nice introduction, whether or not it's intentional or explicit, into the culture of celebrity, something I think is extremely important for kids to learn about.

This is a stunning example of nonfiction for young readers. I highly recommend it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Review: Sold

By Patricia McCormick, read by Justine Eyre
Published 2012 by Tantor Audio

At a young age, Lakshmi is sold into prostitution by her family. Forced to live a nightmare, she struggles to find good and hope amid the ruins of her life. When an opportunity for change comes into her life, will Lakshmi find the courage to help herself?

This was the second Patricia McCormick book I read last year, following Never Fall Down, and it certainly won't be my last. I've had this book on my radar since it was published and when the audio was offered as a free SYNC download last summer, I took advantage of it.

Once again, McCormick has written a powerful, important, and heartbreaking story, this time told in verse. This novel is heartbreaking from the beginning as Lakshmi doesn't know she's being sold into the horrors of prostitution. It's heartbreaking because it is a sad reality around the world for many young girls and women. It's a quick read, but McCormick has packed an emotional punch into her simple and direct prose. It works wonderfully.

What I love most about this is that McCormick does not shy away from writing books like this for teens. I think, too often, we don't give teens and young readers enough credit. They deserve to know what life is like for kids around the world that are the same age as them, even if it is awful and horrifying. McCormick does not dumb things down for a teen audience - she presents them with difficult topics and heartbreaking stories and it is up to the readers to decide what it will mean to them. Her writing is graceful and strong and I appreciate that she writes books like this.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

February Round-Up

It is time for the second monthly check-in regarding my personal reading goal this year - to read only books I currently own (or, I suppose, am gifted, though I don't tend to receive books as gifts anymore) and not get distracted by piles of library books. Here's what I read this month:

Middle-grade: 3

Teen: 2.5

Adult: 11

Picture books: 1

Library books: 6

Books owned: 11.5

I didn't read nearly as many books as I did in January, largely because I read mostly adult novels this month. That may be the solution to my delayed review problem - read a lot of adult novels (which I don't review on the blog) and I'll eventually be posting my reviews of youth books in real time! Two notes about the library books that will probably continue to appear in these check-ins throughout the year - I don't buy audiobooks, and I listen to a lot of them, so that's pretty much what accounts for the library books. Additionally, I don't often purchase picture books, nor do I check them out. I will read the new picture books that arrive at work while sitting on the desk, so those will always be counted as library books as well. I think when you take these two things into consideration, I'm doing well. In fact, I think that accounts for all the library books I read this month! Now, if only I could read the books I own faster! I seem to be working my way through a large swath of adult novels which generally take much longer to read. Hopefully, my pace will pick up as the year goes on.

Oh and that half book is literally the second half of a book that I started last summer, couldn't stand, and put down. I'm notorious for not giving up on books, so I soldiered through the last half of it in February.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

Rufus Goes to School
By Kim Griswell, illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev
Published 2013 by Sterling Children's Books
Rufus really just wants to go to school. Unfortunately, he's a pig, and the principal has a problem with pigs in school. I really loved the vocabulary in this book. It's got a nice repetitive nature but uses different vocabulary every time to change the scenes a bit. It's just a really cute, heartwarming story that would be a great addition to the getting ready for school/going back to school book list. The illustrations are quite charming as well.

Mr. Wuffles!
By David Wiesner
Published 2013 by Clarion Books
In general, I'd say I'm a fan of Wiesner - his art is always lovely to look at and the stories he tells with it are generally unusual and interesting. I knew his newest book would get a lot of awards buzz and I wasn't wrong - this won a Caldecott Honor in January. I read it back in the fall when it arrived at our library and I'm sad to say that I didn't like it. While the art is on par with anything else Wiesner has done, I just didn't enjoy the story here. However, I like that it's basically wordless and I can see the kid appeal. Just not my personal cup of tea.

Mo's Mustache
By Ben Clanton
Published 2013 by Tundra Books
Mustaches are very in right now and I'm not terribly surprised to see picture book authors capitalizing on this trend, though it's a bit strange if you think about it. Maybe not, though, as there seems to be something inherently amusing about a mustache. I guess it's pretty clear that my personal tastes lean toward the downright silly as I really enjoyed this one. Mo gets a mustache and it isn't long before everyone he knows has one of their own. Why is everyone copying him? I really like how simple and expressive the illustrations are. A very fun story.