Thursday, March 23, 2017

Jack and the Geniuses At the Bottom of the World

31305496Nye, Bill and Mone, Gregory. Jack and the Geniuses At the Bottom of the World
April 4th 2017 by Amulet Books
Copy provided by the publisher at ALA (Also on Edelweiss)

Jack isn't as scientifically talented at his "siblings" Matt and Ava, but he has his moments. When the kids' drone gets stuck on the balcony of a weirdly imposing building, he manages to find a way in, and the children all get to meet Hank Witherspoon, a wealthy inventor. Because all three children had been in foster care but then published a book of sappy poetry that made a lot of money, they are living on their own and even homeschooling themselves. When Witherspoon is impressed with their scientific knowledge and wants them to travel to Antarctica to see the winners of a desalination contest, they are of course allowed to go. Once there, they get to find out about a lot of ways to desalinate water, find out about the climate in Antarctica, and get involved in a mystery about one of the scientists who has disappeared. Will they be able to find her before she freezes? Who will win the contest? And will they all be able to travel to Hawaii since their social worker, Min, objects?
Strengths: This is a fairly good blend of science and adventure. I know that teachers like to have books with science in them, but they are often dry. The addition of a mystery definitely punches this one up a notch as well. It felt a little like Gibbs' Space Camp, so I'll be able to recommend it to fans of that series. I also liked the science notes at the back. This one is more middle grade than Frank Einstein.
Weaknesses: It was completely unrealistic that the children were emancipated from foster care AND home schooled themselves. I understand that dead parents lead to more adventures, but couldn't Witherspoon have somehow been made their foster father instead? Took me a long time to get past that.
What I really think: Good cover, good science, a tiny bit of name recognition, since the science teachers still trot out the (25 year old) science videos. (I wonder if these videos are still all that relevant. It's worse than my teachers showing Hemo the Magnificent (1957) to my classes in 1979.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

#WNDB Wednesday- One Good Thing About America

Freeman, Ruth. One Good Thing About America
March 30th 2017 by Holiday House
ARC provided by publisher at ALA

Anais and her mother and brother Jean-Claud have moved to the United States from Congo, leaving behind her father, Oma, and older brother Olivier. She is living in a room in a shelter, and trying her best to survive at school. She misses being in Africa, where it is warmer and sunnier than it is in Maine, but her teacher tells her to think of one good thing about America every day. Some days it is easier than others. Anais is worried about her father, who is being watched by the police, and doesn't understand why it is so hard for her mother to be granted asylum and for her father and brother to come to America. She makes some friends at school, enjoys her classes, and learns many of the crazy customs and practices of America. 
Strengths: I very much appreciated that the author based this book on her work with students during her internship in ELL classes. She also says that she can't know exactly what it is like for her students who are new to this country, but that until they can write their own stories, she hopes this book will fill a need. I agree. We have a fair amount of ELL students in my building, and Anais voice was very similar to one of my students in particular. I, too, would like to buy books written by #ownvoices authors, but until more are available, I think that authors who have experience working with children in these situations are a good resource for my students to understand what it must be like. 
Weaknesses: I'm never a fan of dialect and misspellings, although I understand the choice to use them. While there are some web sites to direct readers to information about what is going on in Africa, I would have liked a short explanation within the book. 
What I really think: I will definitely buy a copy of this, and I know that our ELL teacher will want to read it!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Popular Fantasy

29563587Mull, Brandon. Dragonwatch: A Fablehaven Adventure
March 14th 2017 by Shadow Mountain
ARC from Publisher; also available on Edelweiss

After saving the world in the Fablehaven series (has it really been seven years since the last one came out?), Kendra and Seth are back. This time, they find out that unless they are able to take over control of Wyrmroost, the dragons will escape and take over the world, since Celebrant, the dragon who is a caretaker, wants more freedom for both himself and his charges. With the forces of Fablehaven behind them, Kendra and Seth are able to impress Celebrant enough that they are made keepers. The road isn't smooth-- they have to find a scepter that goes along with the caretaker's medallion. It's a good way to get to know the various inhabitants of their new kingdom, but time is running out. Celebrant is bound and determined to get rid of them, and only Seth's inspired last ditch attempt keeps everyone alive to continue to work on the emerging dragon problem.
Strengths: Mull writes great fantasy books that are complicated enough for kids who adore fantasy but logical enough that I can generally remember the plots. His books are filled with amusing characters, but it never feels like there are too many of them, or that they are all the same. I adore Kendra while disliking Seth and worrying that he will ruin everything-- I wonder if boy readers are annoyed with Kendra and applaud Seth's habit of ignoring rules to good results! Even though fantasy is not my thing, I can definitely appreciate the craft that is evident in Mull's work.
Weaknesses: It's been 11 years since the first book came out. We really, really need a reissued hard cover set to replace the worn out volumes. Great series, but with this new book, demand will be high for the first series, and I'm circulating little piles of tape, glue and paper at this point!
What I really think: Definitely purchasing. Mull is the modern day equivalent of Susan Cooper or Anne McCaffrey. Classic stuff the readers are very passionate about.

25183019Emerson, Kevin. Last Day on Mars (Chronicle of the Dark Star #1)
February 14th 2017 by HarperCollins/Walden Pond Press
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Liam and Phoebe's families live on Mars because problems with the sun made Earth uninhabitable. Now, further problems are causing everyone to evacuate Mars and move to yet another planet. Liam has never really understood his parents' longing for Earth, but as he and his friends are spending their last days on Mars, he starts to get it. His parents are working at figuring out the final kinks in crucial terraforming plans, so he and Phoebe are waiting to get on the starliner. Of course, they think it a good idea to go out in a solar storm, and see a strange observatory-like building on a hill. They've never seen this before, and their parents don't know anything about it. When Phoebe's parents want her to travel into the tunnels and open a valve, Liam goes with her. Like good space kids, they wear their space suits and take along provisions, which is a good thing when they are caught in a quake. They barely survive, and Phoebe is injured. Luckily, they have enough communication left that Liam's robot, JEFF, manages to send out a skimmer to them. They are saved from falling off a cliff, but instead of going right back to base, they investigate the observatory and find a dead alien with a wrist device. When they do get back, things are very fraught, and it's unlikely that they will make the starliner. Liam's mother gives him an important data key, but he and Phoebe end up trying to catch the starliner with JEFF's help. Evil is afoot, however, and mysterious forces are working against Liam and Phoebe's attempt to catch up with the rest of the Martians.
Strengths: This was a nice mix of Dystopian elements and space adventure. The explanation for why the group had to be on Mars, and why they had to leave, was well done and not belabored. The projects that the parents were working on sounded interesting; like with MINRS, I sort of wanted to know more about the community BEFORE everything started to go south. The frisson of romance with Liam and Phoebe was nice. This is clearly the start of a series.
Weaknesses: Wasn't quite understanding the evil aliens and their plans. There were brief chapters devoted to explaining some of what they were up to, but I would almost rather have had that discussed briefly as they ran into the aliens.
What I really think: Good space adventure. While this is not a hugely popular genre, there are always die hard fans, so I like to add good titles to the collection.

30312806McMann, Lisa. Dragon Captives (The Unwanteds Quests)
February 7th 2017 by Aladdin
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

This book is set ten years after the final battle that has left Alex's hand damaged, and his ability to do magic compromised. Aaron is married and has a young child. Thisbe and Fifer are really wanting to do magic, but Alex is worried about them, not even letting them enroll in magic school with their friend Seth. When a dragon, Hux, shows up, Alex finds out that the dragons are outgrowing their wings, but are also enslaved by the Revinir, evil ruler of the former dragon land. The children decide they can prove their worth by going with Hux and making the wings for the dragons, but run into problems. They meet a slave named Dev who helps them, but also lets them know horrible things that are going on in the land to which they have traveled. Can they help the dragons and manage to get back home to Artime?
Strengths: My students adore these. They are very long but fairly easy fantasy stories that seem to appeal to strong elementary readers. The print is large, the plots are easy to follow, and even though the original series is seven books long, readers actually seem to read ALL of the books. I'm sure they will be glad to have a second series with new characters.
Weaknesses: This is fairly standard medeival-ish dragon fantasy. Nothing really fresh, but since no one reads McCaffrey anymore, I guess we could use some new dragon fantasy books.
What I really think: Not my cup of tea, but definitely a serviceable, popular series. Foughts almost broke out over who would get my ARC first.

Monday, March 20, 2017

MMGM- What life was like in the 1950s.


It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and  #IMWAYR day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday.


31212941Holbrook, Sarah. The Enemy
March 7th 2017 by Calkins Creek
ARC from the publisher at ALA

Marjorie Campbell is trying to navigate junior high in Detroit in 1954. Her best friend Bernadette is frequently absent with earaches, and things are odd at home. The family has taken in a high school boy, Frank, whose parents are dead, and her father suffers PTSD from being in WWII. Her mother is hiding books that the public library was going to burn because of their "Communist" themes. When a new girl sits by Marjorie during class, she is friendly, but doesn't want to be friends with Inga because she is clearly German, although she claims to have moved from Canada. With all the talk about Communist sympathizers, Marjorie doesn't want to get drawn into friendships that may make her look suspect and put her father's job in jeopardy.
Strengths: Wow. I don't know that I've ever read a book that drew me so clearly to a particular time. The details of every day life in 1954 Detroit are exquisite. The thing that really blew me away, however, was the depiction of a time when almost all of the fathers had fought in the war. We don't think about that aspect of the Baby Boom, but it's true. Kurlansky's Battle Fatigue talked about it a little, but this really brought the concept home. It made the whole idea of fighting Communists in the public library seem a little more plausible to me. The other thing that I've not read in another middle grade book is the idea of rampant prejudice. Bernadette (whom I'm assuming is Catholic) isn't allowed to have Lutherans in her home. Negroes live south of 8 Mile Road. We just fought the "Japs" and the "Krauts", so we certainly don't want to hang out with them. I grew up hearing this sort of talk from my aunts and uncles, and being appalled by it, but it was certainly a part of the culture. Given the current circumstances, I think this is important to find out. Children today really don't understand why people were opposed to Kennedy-- hopefully, it won't take 50 years for other prejudices to work themselves out! We clearly need more books about the Baby Boom experience! (I missed being in that generation by 6 months!)
Weaknesses: The print is a bit small, and there's not a huge general plot. Not that I minded-- Marjorie's relationship with Inga would have been enough for me.
What I really think: This is worth buying if only for the scene where Marjorie and Inga's fathers get together for coffee and talk about their experiences during the war-- fighting on opposite sides. Chills. So good! (And one of my students, who normally only likes murder mysteries, loved it as well!)

30840370Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures (Young Readers' Edition)
November 29th 2016 by HarperCollins
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

This narrative nonfiction title follows the lives of several women who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Langley, Virginia. NACA later became NASA, so some of the women who were instrumental in working with calculations for airplanes during World War II also went on to work with the engineers who were responsible for putting a man on the moon. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden had a variety of backgrounds but shared several important characteristics-- they were very bright, very motivated to make better lives for themselves and their families, and very unusual for their time. As African American women, their opportunities were limited, and working with the government gave them more opportunities than many women had. There were certainly challenges, both in their personal lives and with the general climate for women in the work force at the time, but they all persevered and contributed greatly to the US air and space programs.

I haven't seen the movie that is based on this book, but the trailers look much more emotional than this text. While the hardships that the women faced aren't glossed over, they are presented in a more matter of fact way. I found this to be effective, and the juxtaposition of individual experiences with the general sociopolitical climate of the time made history come alive for me.

The most amazing part was how long ago women like Vaughan were able to break through barriers to excel in mathematical and scientific fields! I knew that women had made some strides in employment in the 1930s, and that there were lots of opportunities during the war, but many women were forced out of "men's positions" after the war was over. The intrepid women in this book managed to hang on to their positions. The other noteworthy part was how they managed to raise children while working long hours during a time when child care was not as readily available.

Not only is Hidden Figures an interesting book to read for pleasure, but it is also a very useful title when researching women's history or African American history. Hidden Figures joins Blumenthal's Let Me Play, Macy's Wheels of Change and Farrell's Pure Grit as a must read for girls who want to investigate women who fought for opportunities even when they came with a high price.

32278678Edwards, Sue Bradford and Harris, Duchess. Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA
December 15th 2016 by Essential Library (Abdo)
Copy received by the publisher at ALA

Covering the same topic in a more research-friendly format, this nonfiction book presents information about black women at NASA in a way that makes it a bit easier to follow the time line. There are also plentiful photographs to support the text, and informative sidebars that explain a variety of topics. I especially liked the last chapter, that talked about the impact of earlier women working at NASA on the state of women in science and technology today. The appendices are very useful, offering a time line, glossary, resources and an index.

I'm definitely looking into some of the other titles in the Hidden Heroes series: The Belles of Baseball, The Muckrakers, and Women with Wings, just for a start!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge

26836203Gray, Kristin. Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge
March 7th 2017 by Paula Wiseman Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Vilonia's grandmother died over a month ago, and she still misses her. Vilonia's mother is so depressed that she can barely get out of bed, and she is neglecting her job, which is to write obituaries for the local news paper. After reading that animals can help with depression, and realizing that the family chickens aren't quite as helpful as dogs, Vilonia offers to babysit her teacher's fish, and then is determined to get a puppy. There's a lot going on-- Miss Bettina, the newspaper editor, must be appeased, the chickens must be kept out of traffic, there's softball to be played, and a Catfish Festival to attend. Can Vilonia juggle everything and improve her mother's mood?
Strengths: This had its moments, and it was good to see Vilonia thinking about others and trying to improve things for her family despite her own sadness. The different pets were a nice touch, and the characters were well developed.
Weaknesses: Between the Mississippi setting and the irresponsible grief of the mother, this wasn't one I personally enjoyed. 

What I really think: I can see this being very successful in elementary and some middle school libraries-- the cover is intriguing and colorful, and the story mostly upbeat.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Cartoon Saturday- Olga and the Smelly Thing From Nowhere

30653691Gravel, Elise. Olga and the Smelly Thing From Nowhere
March 14th 2017 by HarperCollins
ARC from the publisher at ALA

Olga loves animals of all kings, so when she finds one that looks like a cross between a potato and a hamster, she takes it home and hides it in her room, even though it smells really bad. She tries to find out what it is, even trying to take it into the library past the suspicious eyes of Ms. Swoop, the tattooed punk librarian. With the help of a local store owner, Mr. Hoopah, she does discover that Meh (as she names it) loves to eat olives. When Meh goes missing, she enlists the aid of Chuck, who has a small dog with an overactive bladder. They find the Olgamus in an unlikely place, but are just glad to have the strange animal back and to have made some friends along the way. 
Strengths: This is a notebook novel, which means that it could be about anything and some of my reluctant readers would check it out. 
Weaknesses: This was super weird, and mentioned farts and pee more than it needed to. Also, it bothered me that Olga had Captain Crunch eyes-- they are drawn over top of her hair in the same way that Captain Crunch's eyes are drawn on his hat.
What I really think: I will probably buy a copy, and students will check it out, but it certainly was not anything that I liked. It feels like letting children eat weird, off brand Pop Tarts from China or Israel for breakfast. You know, the kind you can get at Odd Lots that come in flavors like persimmon or loquat. 


Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy, Happy Thoughts

It's been a weirdly hard winter. Nothing major, just small things. Changes. Other people around me having problems. Fatigue.

And SO MUCH sad middle grade literature.

Maybe I can make a deal with middle grade authors. You may kill off and/or incapacitate all the grandparents you want, just spare the parents, siblings and friends.

BUT! My faith has been restored by these three books! They don't come out for a while; I have reviews up on Goodreads. Whew. So much better. Such a relief to read. Not unicorns pooping rainbows, but realistic problems handled in constructive ways. Add these to your TBR pile immediately!

32075488  34225408  31708332

32711677
Another thing that definitely makes my day: Tom Watson. Stick Dog Craves Candy comes out just in time for my birthday!

Mr. Watson did such a fun and gracious interview for School Library Journal! Check out the entire BeTween newsletter is you don't already subscribe to that!

http://www.slj.com/2017/03/books-media/tomwatson/

And finally, even though it's probably blocked at everybody's school, a fun musical number. My daughter's friend mentioned the group Daft Punk, of whom I had never heard. It sounded like men in eyeliner screaming, so I didn't investigate. When I finally did, I realized they were just ELECTRONIC DISCO! I love disco, and have a secret adoration of Parliament Funkadelic. Anyway, it was an amazing "new" discovery (they have been active since the 1990s), and it explains SO MUCH about why my daughter (who loves KC and the Sunshine Band, The Bay City Rollers and The Partridge Family) is friends with this person. 

So, to make your day, Lose Yourself to Dance, by Daft Punk:


Ms. Yingling

Guy Friday- Gang Tackle

29394218 Howling, Eric. Gang Tackle
August 30th 2016 by Orca Book Publishers
Copy provided by publisher at ALA

Jamal is a senior at an economically struggling school in urban Toronto. Football has been cut, so he won't be able to play. Luckily, a local business man, Mr. Fort, offers to provide $20,000 and equipment from his company, Fort Sports. The catch? He wants to coach. The team is glad to be able to reassemble and have great new equipment, but they realize early on that Fort has his own agenda. A sports channel follows their team, and Coach Fort is constantly prattling on about how disadvantaged the players are and how he is saving them from a life of flipping burgers and stocking shelves by helping out the team. Behind the scenes, Fort is ill-equipped to coach, makes racist comments, and is anything but helpful to boys who have other concerns on their minds. Jamal works at a McDonald's while his mother is a clerk at Best Buy, and when their car's brakes need repair, he tries to find a way to get money. Unfortunately, he takes a local gang up on their offer and gets arrested while trying to rob the store at which his mother works. Fort steps in to save him, but the boys on the team decide that playing football is not a pleasant experience when they have to deal with their self-centered coach. They publicly state that they want to "sack the coach", and Fort pulls his support. Trying to find a way to fund the team, Jamal puts his computer programming skills to use and comes up with a football game app. When the news cover it, he manages to sell enough copies to continue the football season.
Strengths: Orca Sports books are consistently good, even if they aren't great. They are set in  high schools, which middle school students LOVE, they cover social problems as well as lots of sports details, and they are short and easy to read. The covers (with the exception of my personal favorite, Crack Coach) are simple photo illustrations that age well. The characters are diverse. Why don't I have every single title they have published? I know some librarians have made comments that their students don't read football books, but I cannot keep enough titles on my shelves!
Weaknesses: I wish these were a bit larger. The Canadian paperbacks have especially small margins, so when I buy these in a prebind format, there is very little white space on the page. I'm sure this is a measure to keep costs down, but I would love to see these titles in a nice dust jacketed hard cover.
What I really think: Putting this in the collection immediately and putting it on hold for one of my students who reads three football books a week and has literally run out of books to read. He's had to resort to humorous books that have no sports. He's not pleased, and since he's an 8th grade boy, there's a LOT of eye rolling and sighing when I ask him to try other types of books!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Calico Girl

30312789
Nolen, Jerdine. Calico Girl
February 14th 2017 by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Callie's father Hampton is the son of a plantation owner and a slave, so while her father is free, the rest of her family occupies a tenuous place in society in 1861. Hampton's sister, Catherine, is now in charge of the family's land and possessions, and is being told to sell slaves further into the south so that the money can be used for the war effort as well as to feed her own family. Callie's half brothers are to be sold, but Hampton manages to get them all taken to a fort and put under protection of the forces from the North. While there, Callie meets Mary K. Pearce and starts to get an education, and is offered a position in a school further North. Told from alternating perspectives of different members of the family, we get a feel for what it was like to have been a slave, and then to experience freedom during this difficult time in US history.
Strengths: It was very interesting to me that Ms. Nolen felt compelled to write in the preface that while she was not allowed to discuss slavery in her family, she was very intrigued by it. I have seen this phenomenon when our 8th graders study the Civil Rights movement-- there are always some parents who don't want to hear "negative things". In this well-researched novel (I appreciated the timeline at the beginning of the story, the notes and bibliography, as well as the inclusion of an actual but little known historical figure), Nolen doesn't shy away from the difficult aspects of slavery, but concentrates on the more positive things, such as family loyalty and love, as well as the eventual freedom of the characters.
Weaknesses: While the premise of the book is a good one, the language is very stilted, and it is very slow paced.
What I really think: I understand what Nolen was trying to do, but her background in picture books is evident. For a successful middle grade novel, the philosophical pondering about family and place in the universe need to be offset by more adventure and excitement. This might be a more successful book for elementary students who need an introduction to slavery during the time of the Civil War.


I love Ally Carter's work. Really. But Grace is seriously annoying, and I just want to slap her for most of the book. She is forever going off half cocked and is then surprised when things don't end well. Also, she was offered a pretty good alternative to Alexei. I'm one of those people who think that Princess Diana would have been better off if she had stayed with Prince Charles. If she really wanted to get back at Camilla, she would have stayed married and never let her come to light! Anyway, teens and tweens don't have these objections to the series.


30254923Carter, Ally. Take the Key and Lock Her Up
December 27th 2016 by Scholastic Press
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

After Jamie is badly injured and Alexei is accused on murder in See How They Run (Embassy Row #2), Grace is hiding out with them in a remote woods in the US. When a place lands near them, they panic with good reason-- the Prime Minister is there to try to get Grace to come back. She doesn't, and the three are on the run again. As long as Grace and Jamie, descendents of the deposed family of the princess Amelia, are alive, they will be hunted down to assure the stability of Adria. Grace is tired of running, so thinks it's a good idea to hunt down the PM and see what she has to say. She is drugged in a park in DC and flown to Paris, where she meets with the Society but manages to escape. She eventually meets up with Alexei, and the two try to figure out a way to survive. Eventually, Grace tells everyone her brother is dead, and ultimately lands in an unusual situation that she is told her mother helped create.Will she bow down to the demands of the Society, or will she come up with a solution on her own?

This satisfying conclusion to the Embassy Row series addresses many of the loose ends. Grace manages to reconnect with her mother, find out more information about the Society, and also learns more about Alexei's past as well as the history of Adria.

The best part of these books is always traveling around Europe with a hot guy, not worrying about funding or travel arrangements. Even though her life is supposedly in jeopardy, you have to envy Grace her ease of travel. It helps to have well connected friends!

I do love that when the Society tries to derail her plans, they at least offer up Thomas to replace Alexei. Teens will agree with Grace's choice and root for her to return to her one true love, but I thought that Thomas had a lot to recommend him!

Readers of Benway's Also Known As, Monaghan's A Girl Named Digit, and Lee's A Spy in the House who want to hone their international espionage skills will definitely want to pick up this series after they finish Carter's The Gallagher Girls and Heist Society series!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hello, (Star-Crossed) Universe

30653713Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe.
March 14th 2017 by Greenwillow Books
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Virgil's family calls him "Turtle" because he won't come out of his shell. His parents are both busy nurses, but his grandmother seems to understand him, and comforts him with stories. He has a crush on a girl in his class, Valencia, but doesn't know how to talk to her, so he consults Kaori, a girl who gives "psychic advice". Virgil also has to put up with local bully, Chet. When Chet throws Virgil's backpack down an abandoned well, he panics because his hamster, Gulliver, is in the pack, and jumps down into the well to retrieve him, and then is stuck. Valencia, whose deafness causes her some issues when dealing with others, is out in the woods observing squirrels on her way to get advice from Kaori, and vaguely notices the shift, but thinks little of it. When she arrives at Kaori's, Kaori is waiting for Virgil and voices her concern over his disappearance. The girls decide to investigate, and wisely start by asking his grandmother. Eventually, they come across Chet in the woods: he has been torturing snakes and has been bitten by one. All of the events come together, and Virgil is rescued from the well, tentative friendships are formed, and the adventure is neatly wrapped up. 

It's difficult to write understandable and distinct characters in alternating chapters, but Kelly does a good job of this, even though some chapters are in first person and others are in third. Virgil's fear of everything is palpable but not overdone, Valencia's eccentricities and interest in animals are quirky but endearing, and even Kaori's business interest in psychic readings (and her attempt to advertising them on a message board in town without getting in trouble with her parents) is portrayed realistically. Adults, rather than being absent, are hovering at the edges so that there can be adventure but also help if situations get out of hand. 

Virgil's grandmother plays an interesting role, sharing Filipino legends with him in order to make him stronger. One of these, about Ruby San Salvador, helps him when he is stuck in the well, since he has lengthy conversations with the spirit while waiting for help to arrive.

Readers who enjoy books with diverse casts but a general feeling of sadness such as Rivers' The Girl in the Well is Me, Appelt's Maybe a Fox or Spinelli's Eggs will find Hello, Universe to be a complicated blend of social issues framed in a classic neighborhood adventure story. 

Don't think I will buy this one-- Chet was too stereotypical, and I couldn't believe that any 6th grader would be stupid enough to jump down a well. Okay, VIRGIL, didn't seem stupid enough to jump down a well. I'm sure this will get lots of love, but I don't see it circulating well in my library. 

27242442Dee, Barbara. Star-Crossed
March 14th 2017 by Aladdin
E ARC from Edelweiss

Mattie is in middle school, and her friends Lucy and Tessa know that she's had a crush on Elijah forever. The friends like to hang out, and try to stay on the good side of popular Willow, who can be very mean. When the school play is Romeo and Juliet, Mattie is thrilled that she gets a major part, and is okay with the fact that Mr. Torres, the director, wants her to work with Liam, the actor who has been cast as Romeo. New girl Gemma has been cast as Juliet, and Mattie thinks she is perfect. When Liam breaks his arm, Mr. Torres suggests that Mattie take over the role of Romeo. She's glad to have the acting experience, but worried because she has a huge crush on Gemma, and doesn't want anyone to know. Her sister and her friends are all supportive, and Gemma doesn't seem to mind, either. The play is a success, and Mattie learns to be true to herself and to not let her life be run by jerks. 
Strengths: This was a great book to see. We have moved beyond a need to have the whole story be about emerging sexuality-- we just need to see characters of different kinds going about their lives. I loved that Mattie's sister and friends were very supportive, and also that the thought was brought up that having a crush on Gemma meant just that Mattie had a crush on Gemma. It might mean more later, but for 8th grade, it might just mean that she really like Gemma. For my students who still ask why "we have books like this", (used to describe a character in Rick Riordan, of all things!), this is a great mainstream title to introduce them to the fact that we have books like this because we need to be inclusive rather than judgmental. 
Weaknesses: There was a LOT of Shakespeare in this. A LOT. I'm not a fan, and I don't know many middle school readers who are.
What I really think: I'll buy it despite the Shakespeare because it's a book I need to have.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Uncommoners

After the weekend of depressing reads that I had, it's a pleasure to introduce a fantasy that is not completely grim. How could it be, with that lovely cover? Just pretend you never read Rowling, then you'll like this.

I'm off to the Battle of the Books competition because the coach can't make it. These things happen. I do get to sit down today, which will be a pleasant change! Plus, I have the world's best sub!


19370891Bell, Jennifer. The Crooked Sixpence(The Uncommoners #1)
January 31st 2017 by Crown Books for Young Readers
ARC provided by the publisher

Ivy's grandmother was in an auto accident on Twelfth Night in 1969, which left her with retrograde amnesia. This hasn't affected Ivy and her brother Seb's life much, although they are familiar with the story. There is just one mysterious photograph of grandma Sylvie before the accident. When Sylvie falls and has to go to the hospital, odd things start to happen. Creepy people show up at the hospital, and Ivy and Seb end up getting sucked through a suitcase into an alternate London, Lundinor, where there are markets that sell "uncommon" objects; things that have bits of people's spirits in them. Ivy can tell just by touching an object if it has this quality, and she starts to find out secrets about her grandmother's past. There is a sinister organization called the Dirge, who were looking for the Uncommon Goods. It turns out that Ivy's grandfather was part of it. The immediate threats are contained by the end of the book, Sylvie starts to remember a little about what when on in her previous life, and Ivy and Seb are prepared to find out more and return to Lundinor for more adventures.
Strengths: I hadn't wanted to read this book, but once I started, the exquisite world building sucked me right in. The blurb on the cover says "Part Tim Burton, part J.K.Rowling", and I have to agree. Bell did an excellent job of distilling facets of Harry Potter that were appealing (saving the world, alternate universe, quirky clothes and delicious food) but putting them into the story in a fresh way. Uncommoners are collectors of things, so their outfits are "Hobsmatch", lemon squeezers are lights, and Sylvie's ancestral house can only be located by someone in the family. The threat of the Dirge is serious, but not overly scary. Valian is a good guide, and Ivy and Seb get along. Unlike The Iron Trial series, another attempt at duplicating the intriguing aspects of Harry Potter, this has a fairly pleasant world and had MUCH better food. I feel like I'm not doing justice to this one. It was fantastic.
Weaknesses: The parents were sent off on a trip at the beginning, which I guess was necessary, but I would have liked to see them included in the adventure a little bit.
What I really think: I don't buy every fantasy book out there because there are SOOOOO many, but I will be very happy to purchase this one. Great debut!

Monday, March 13, 2017

MMGM- ALL the Girl Power!

It's MMGM at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and #IMWAYR at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday



28818218Mary Cronk Farrell is hosting a giveaway of her fantastic new book, Fannie Never Flinched: One Woman's Courage in the Struggle for American Labor Union Rights  HERE.

If you missed it earlier, here is my review




30312547Khan, Hena. Amina's Voice
March 14th 2017 by Salaam Reads
Copy provided by the publisher

Amina (AH min ah) lives near Milwaukee, and enjoys being with her friend Soojin. She loves to sing, but doesn't like to do so in public. Things are changing in her world-- Soojin has decided that once she and her family have become citizens, she will change her name to something that sounds less Korean, and is also friendly with Emily, the girls' former nemesis. At home, Amina's brother Mustafa is becoming an obnoxious teenager, and her father's older brother is coming from Pakistan to stay with the family for three months. Because her father respects his brother so much, he expects Amina and her brother to be on their best behavior, which includes no singing around the house as well as entering a Quran recitation contest, which has Amina very nervous. When a misunderstanding causes Soojin and Emily to stop speaking to her, Amina thinks things can't get any worse... until the mosque her family attends is gravely vandalized. What do the vandals mean, "Go home!"? Amina is home, and has to reconcile how she sees herself with how others see her, not only regarding her Muslim background but her singing and her relationship with family and friends.

Many middle school students are involved in religious organizations without thinking too much about the philosophy of the religion, and it is great when a book can speak to this experience and hit the right balance. Amina occasionally thinks about whether her actions are consistent with her religious beliefs, but is more concerned with the social aspects-- her Sunday school class, the Quran competition, and how her culture is understood by her friends at school. While this book will speak to students who share Amina's Muslim background, it also addresses universal concerns that middle grade students have in a realistic and touching way.

The details of Amina's home life are wonderfully drawn, and the descriptions of food, clothing, celebrations and family relationships again serve as vivid mirrors or clear windows to a way of life. Her individual quirks, such as being afraid of speaking in public and having trouble eating when she is upset, are very common among middle school students, and are depicted with a light touch.

When I was in middle school, I loved reading stories about ordinary girls struggling through their own middle school experiences so that I could compare the things they went through with my own life. Paula Danziger, Ellen Conford and Betty Miles were authors I turned to for this sort of book; today, Lauren Myracle, Meg Cabot, and Heather Vogel Frederick offer this same reassuring type of story. Amina's Voice is a lighthearted but insightful look at Amina's very ordinary life that also manages to delve into much more serious and timely issues of culture, acceptance, and the concept of home.


31213390Kops, Deboarh. Alice Paul and the Fight for Women's Rights
February 28th 2017 by Calkins Creek
ARC provided by the publisher at ALA

In this very timely book, the story of Alice Paul's life is interwoven with the women's movement in the same way that Paul's life was interwoven with her work. Giving just the right amount of information about Paul's early life, Kops paints a colorful picture of a driven and pioneering woman who saw an injustice and dedicated herself to righting it. The most amazing thing to me was that Paul was just slightly older than my grandmother, but managed to graduate from college and eventually earned a Masters degree as well as a PhD in sociology AND a law degree. She spent time in England working with Emmeline Pankhurst, and spent a lot of time in jail for her outspoken and often violent protests. Returning to the US, she threw herself tirelessly into working for women's suffrage in the US. Paul devoted her entire life to women's issues, starting work on the Equal Rights Amendment in 1925! She passed away on July 9, 1977-- my 12th birthday.

I learned a tremendous amount about women's history from this book. I had no idea that the ERA had been in the works for so long, or the reasons behind some women's opposition to the amendmTitle VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. While this was helpful in putting into legislation some protection for women, it also did not help the cause of the ERA.

While this book might be a bit long for the average middle school reader to pick up for pleasure reading, it is an essential purchase for History Day projects as well as for readers who are dedicated to learning more about women's rights. It is both entertaining and informative, and a great companion to Blumenthal's Let Me Play, Macy's Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) and other works that help budding feminists understand that while we have come a long way (baby), there is still a long way to go.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

In the Spotlight

30653700Leavitt, Lindsay and Mellom, Robin. In the Spotlight (The Pages Between Us #2)
March 14th 2017 by HarperCollins
ARC from Young Adult Books Central

Piper and Olivia are back, writing notes to each other about EVERYTHING in their notebook. Olivia is distraught because her librarian, Miss del Rosario, doesn't think there will be enough people on the Battle of the Books team. Olivia has enough trouble dealing with stress, so Piper agrees to help her out by making a promotional video for the Battle. It does surprisingly well, and once it gets tweeted about by young adult author Juan Verde, there are a huge number of people who want to join. The only problem that Olivia sees is that they aren't take it seriously enough and she is afraid they will lose. Piper has problems as well-- she doing so poorly in school that her parents get her a tutor, which makes her worry that they don't think as much of her as they do of her four siblings. Also, while Olivia gets a lot of coverage about the video, Piper doesn't, and it was all HER work. In the end, everything works out, but not until there is a LOT of drama!
Strengths: When I read the title, I was afraid it was yet another school play book, but having it about Battle of the Books is inspired! This would have delighted a 7th grade me. There are problems, but not huge ones, supportive and involved families, and lots of drama. And crushes. Pretty cover. Everything I could want in realistic tween fiction. Hooray for the collaboration between these two authors!
Weaknesses:One of the girls talks to two boys on the phone one evening and is very excited about it. I don't think either of my daughters EVER talked to anyone on the phone in middle school. Seemed dated. Also, I don't know that Finding Brooklyn by Lisa Schroeder would be appropriate for a middle school BOB. Of course, that doesn't mean it wouldn't get on the list.
What I really think: This is like Laura Conford for a new generation. I don't like the inclusion of text messages and paragraphs written in numbered sentences, but it will speak to the girls of today. Adore Tuesday Mourning for tween covers!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ish and Fish

30753996Rivers, Karen. Love, Ish
March 14th 2017 by Algonquin Young Readers
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Ish is surviving the defection of her best friend, Tig, by planning her future on Mars. There is a web site that claims to be taking applications for people to live in a colony, so Ish is planning her whole life around this, from the clothes she wears to the food she eats. The beginning of school is hard without Tig, who has moved to another town and not answered any of her e mails. It doesn't help that Ish is often at odds with her mother as well as her older sister, Elliot, who is still very angry about finding out that she and Ish were adopted. When Ish starts 7th grade, she has to deal with the mean girls, as well as a new boy who calls her "Fish". That's insignificant, however, when she passes out on the first day of school. The reason: a brain tumor. Ish is not happy about the aggressive treatment, which leaves her bald and ill. One upside is that new boy, Gavriel, visits her in the hospital and becomes her friend. The downside is that Ish is very, very ill. Brain tumors, even when referred to as the Brussels Sprout or Nirgal, don't fool around.
Strengths: Rivers writes a very good hallucinatory scene, and this is certainly an artistic choice that sets her work apart from other middle grade authors. She uses this in The Girl in the Well is Me as well. Her characters are well developed, and the family supportive but slightly dysfunctional, which is realistic. There haven't been many books about children dealing with cancer lately, and they are something some readers like to investigate.
Weaknesses: Ish is the sort of character who has purposefully alienated herself from her peers at school, and I have trouble connecting with these characters. Also, while interesting, the hallucinatory scenes might make it hard for some readers to understand what is going on with Ish's cancer treatment.
What I really think: Buy this if 
The Girl in the Well is Me circulates well in your library. I will think about this one and purchase if I have some extra money.

30971730Wiesner, David and Napoli, Donna Jo.Fish Girl
March 7th 2017 by Clarion Books
Public Library Copy

Fish Girl lives in a beach side attraction run by "King Neptune" who has a show that includes him causing the waves to roil, but also has kitschy t shirts. Fish Girl is part of the show, but she must only offer glimpses of herself to keep the public intrigued. When a girl visits the aquarium and strikes up a conversation with Fish Girl, she starts to wonder about life outside her tank, and she starts to investigate the museum. eventually wandering out of it when she realizes she only has a fin when she is in contact with water. She likes the freedom of being outside of the water, but when Neptune finds out, he is very angry. Eventually, Fish Girl decides that she must make her break and join her friend in the outside world.
Strengths: I liked the idea of an author teaming up with an illustrator to do a graphic novel, and this is certainly an interesting book. This is formatted in much more pleasing way than a lot of graphic novels-- it's a slightly larger size, so the text is a bit easier to read. The illustrations are clear and bright. I love Napoli's novels, especially her twists on fairy tales.
Weaknesses: I was a little disturbed by the story-- Fish Girl is found as a baby and basically kept captive in an abusive situation.
What I really think: If any of the language arts classes were still doing units on folk and fairy tales, I would buy this, but since those have gone by the wayside, I think I'll pass.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Poetry Friday-- Fresh Picked Poetry

30804350Schaub, Michelle and Huntington, Amy (illustrations)
Fresh-Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmer's Market
March 14th 2017 by Charlesbridge Publishing
Copy provided by publisher

Starting with a vibrant picture of a family on their farm, loading produce into a pick up truck, this book covers a day at a market from the perspective of a boy whose family is selling things and a girl who lives in the city and is visiting the market. There are poems representing various stall owners and how they set up their wares, and a wide variety of products are showcased. There is honey, baked goods, and a lot of delectable looking fresh produce. The poems also address other things going on at the market, such as knife sharpening, music and how to tell if fruit is ripe, but my favorite is probably the poem about DIRT!

I am always picky about verse, and these passed my test. They scan well, have inventive rhyme, and embrace a variety of forms. The illustrations incorporate the text into them nicely, especially in "Delightful Bites, which has the words wafting across the page as the aroma from baked goods.

The pictures are brightly colored and are done in a looser, energetic style that befits the activity of the market place. The people in the picture are from many walks of life, which makes sense given the urban setting of the market. I enjoyed watching the girl who was visiting the market show up in various panels with her dog, who is clearly too rambunctious for the market and gets in a variety of trouble. The boy whose family has brought produce to the market watches her, and eventually the two meet up and discuss tomatoes and kale. 

The end of the book offers helpful information about making the most of a trip to the market, and why consuming local produce is a good thing. This would make a great read aloud before heading off to shop at a market, especially when paired with Karas' On the Farm, At the Market, Trent's Farmer's Market Day or Page's board book We're Going to a Farmer's Market.

29102834Frost, Helen. When My Sister Started Kissing
March 14th 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Claire and Abigail love coming to the lake. It is a large part of their family, especially since their mother died there in a lightning strike. This year, their father has remarried, and their stepmother Pam is pregnant. Claire is also distressed that her sister, who wants to go by Abi, is more interested in boys than in hanging out with her, and is alarmed that Abi is not following the rules, but sneaking out to meet the boys. Both girls struggle with their new circumstances, but find a way to finally move on after their mother's death. 

Strengths: I love Frost's poetry, and the fact that she uses forms and describes them at the back of the book. The poems are all very beautiful, and the characters are well developed. Summer stories, as well as romances, are always a good bet. 
Weaknesses: Considering the girls were very young when their mother died (Claire was an infant), it seemed a bit odd that they were still thinking about her so much. The story of two sisters growing apart would have been enough of a downer without this facet. 
What I really think: Conflicted. I don't think The Braid has circulated even once. This one might, but I'm debating.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Aladdin M!X Books

30312725Gutknecht, Allison. Spring Break Mistake
March 7th 2017 by Aladdin
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Avalon gets accepted into a week long spring break photography program in New York City, run by PhotoReady, the app that she and her best friend Celia use to post all of their pictures. Celia doesn't get in, so Avalon considers not going to the program, even though that means spring break at her grandparents' retirement community. She decides to go, and is glad that she and her roommate, Sofia, hit it off so well. Unfortunately they also get the cynical Kensington assigned to their room. Kensington is from New York City, so when the girls are allowed to travel about (trailed by a chaperone), she takes them to the "untouristy" areas. To complicate the week, there is the super cute Tate who seems to like Avalon, but who gets kicked out of the program. He still seems to be posting pictures from the city, so Avalon and her new friends try to track him down. She ignores Celia's calls, however, imperiling their friendship. Can she have fun and keep her friend?
Strengths: Friend drama, boy drama, family drama, "who am I and what do I want to be?" drama-- this has it all AND is set against a chaperone-lite NYC setting. Brilliant!
Weaknesses: Avalon was a little annoying. And what was with all the luggage for a one week stay? That didn't make sense at all. I did one week camps a lot at this age, and you took one suitcase.
What I really think: This will soon be dated (think computer dating!) , but it will be fun until it falls apart!


25446348Callaghan, Cindy. Sydney MacKenzie Knocks 'Em Dead
March 7th 2017 by S&S/Aladdin
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

Sydney's family has to sell their failing sporting goods business in California but are lucky that they have inherited a cemetery in Delaware. Sydney doesn't want to move, but thinks that everyone will think she's cool because she is from California. She's concerned that they will think she's weird because of the cemetery, but she's got it backwards-- they don't care about California but think the cemetery is cool. Kids from school hang out with her, they try seances, and work on a mystery involving the house's past use on the Underground Railroad.
Strengths: This author's Lost in... books are HUGELY popular. I like her easy writing style.
Weaknesses: I hated Sydney. She was snotty and stuck up and had no patience for her family's situation. Her mother was the same way. Dad came around. Also, they seemed like rather insensitive people to run a cemetery.
What I really think: May have to buy this for this author's fans, but it wasn't a personal favorite.