Saturday, October 15, 2016

October Recommendations

Have you read anything great lately? Here are my recent favorites:


THE SECRET KEEPERS is by Trenton Lee Stewart, who also wrote The Mysterious Benedict Society. It’s a wonderful, suspense-filled story, wherein eleven-year-old Reuben Pedley squeezes into the narrowest alley he’s ever seen, climbs to a dangerously high ledge, and discovers a wonderful treasure—a round, antique pocket watch with an incredible secret power. Reuben has to escape danger after danger to outwit The Smoke, the dangerous mob boss-like ruler of New Umbra, who wants that watch at all costs! Smart fiction for readers who aren’t afraid of a long book. (MG)

THE FORBIDDEN WISH, by Jessica Khoury, is a superb original take on the story of Aladdin. Zahra is the genie of the lamp, where she’s been imprisoned for hundreds of years. Apparently she got too emotionally involved with her last master and caused the destruction of an empire. When Aladdin finds her and takes her to his city, the King of the Jinn forces Zahra into a bargain. But which will she chose—love or freedom? Really great adaptation! (YA)

Two amazing early readers are from Holiday House’s I Like to Read series.:
In PUG, Ethan Long tells a complete, funny story, with just 30 words (plus some doggie yapping). Pug wants to go out, but everyone is warm and cozy inside. Who wins? and why?
Likewise, in UP, Joe Cepeda pulls off a wholly imaginative tale using only 27 words. In both cases, excellent full-color art does a lot of heavy lifting. These two books are standout examples of the genre.

Picture Books:

In MOTOR MILES, by picture book master John Burningham, we meet Miles, a difficult dog who doesn’t seem to like doing any of the normal doggy things. What Miles does like is going for rides in the car. So Mr. Huddy, the man who lives next door, makes Miles his own car. Of course he does! Miles practices a lot, and pretty soon he’s driving himself and his owner Norman to school, to the seaside, to the countryside, and all over the place. When Norman grows too big to join Miles in his car, Mr. Huddy comes to the rescue once again. Just amazing!

GIANT SQUID, written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Eric Rohmann, is stunning non-fiction from the Neal Porter imprint at Roaring Brook. Fleming's beautiful poetic text is perfectly paired with Caldecott-medalist Rohmann’s lush oil paintings, and the result is a surprisingly comprehensive portrait of the elusive creature.

Finally, I’ve been a fan of the Little Elliot books right from the beginning, and this third one doesn’t disappoint. In LITTLE ELLIOT, BIG FUN, by Mike Curato, we join Little Elliot and Mouse as they visit the amusement park. The rides are all too scary for Little Elliot, until Mouse shows his friend something special. A sweet story is accompanied by the distinctive, detailed art that makes it so special.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Romantics--Shelf Awareness Pro

YA Review: The Romantics

The Romantics by Leah Konen (Amulet/Abrams, $18.95 hardcover, 336p., ages 13-up, 9781419721939, November 1, 2016)

This charming novel, narrated by Love herself ("[f]requently referenced, usually misunderstood"), is both a love story and a romantic comedy. Ironically, that's the genre most hated by movie buff and high school senior Gael Brennan, who is a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Anderson films. So it figures that romantic comedy is a favorite of Sammy Sutton, the incredibly annoying babysitter of Gael's little sister, Piper.

According to Love, Gael is a Romantic, someone "who ruthlessly believes in Love in its finest form." Unfortunately, Gael's beautiful new girlfriend, Anika, does not. She's an Adventurer, defined as someone who "primarily seeks out a partner for life's adventures (and misadventures...)." Shortly after Gael professes his love to her, a very quick "one month to the day since they'd first kissed," Gael arrives at school early to discover Anika liplocked with his best friend, Mason.

Heartbroken, Gael punches Mason, quits band and generally mopes around, watching movies and eating snack-sized Snickers bars until his birthday. That's when his mom, oblivious to "The Ultimate Betrayal," invites Anika and Mason to Gael's birthday dinner. Overcome, Gael flees the restaurant, only to be run down by cute, first-year college student Cara, on her bicycle. As Love informs her readers, this accident leads to that "dreaded enemy of True Love since the dawn of freaking time," the Rebound.

As Gael, a Romeo, tries to find his Juliet, his problems are magnified by the reality that his own parents have separated. According to Love, Gael is "rocking a triple-whammy of heartbreak," caused by his parents' split, Anika's rejection and Mason's betrayal. Until she cheated on him, dating Anika distracted Gael from the pain of his broken family, and now maybe Cara (despite the obvious flaw that she's into James Cameron movies) can do the same. Meanwhile, Gael begins to realize that babysitter Sammy is good company, and quickly becoming a friend he doesn't want to lose. (At least she likes Serpico.)

Gael is a warm and sympathetic character, and the narrator Love thinks his passion for movies works beautifully with his love of love. Peeking into Gael's future, Love sees Gael drawing on his own experiences to make a "gorgeous, heartbreaking movie," and enjoying a long career inspiring people all over the world to fall in love--as long as he meets the right girl. Throughout The Romantics, Love carries on a droll commentary about the nature of the human heart and Gael's relationships with friends, his little sister, his parents and possible girlfriends, all the while enlightening readers as to how she works her magic. This playful, entertaining take on love by Leah Konen (The Last Time We Were Us; The After Girls) should find plenty of ardent fans. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Shelf Talker: This teen love story, wittily narrated by Love herself, follows a high school senior and bona fide Romantic through a series of amorous entanglements.

Monday, October 3, 2016

October's Book of the Month--The Nest

Welcome! October’s Book of the Month is the wonderfully creepy mid-grade book, THE NEST, written by Kenneth Oppel, with occasional (and also wonderfully creepy) illustrations by Jon Klassen.

There’s something wrong with Steve’s baby brother. No one really knows what, although it’s pretty certain he won't develop normally. When Steve first has the dream, he thinks he’s seeing an angel who tells him she has come to help with the baby, and this makes him feel better.

The dream seems so benign at first. Angels want to help fix the baby. Such a hopeful dream. But dread slowly builds, as a swarm of strange grey wasps make their nest outside the baby’s room. The Queen begins to manipulate Steve, begins to change her story. Slowly, Steve comes to realize that her kind of help may not be the kind his family needs.

This book has some important things to say on dealing with illness in families, on how hard it is for a kid with OCD to feel normal, and on how so many “normal” people may actually be broken, too, in their own ways. “No one’s perfect,” the babysitter, Vanessa, says. At times Steve feels “shattered and all in pieces,” but slowly he takes responsibility for doing what he can, and learns a lot about love and family along the way.

I love the way dread slowly builds. Each chapter begins with the corresponding number of wasps—each has one additional wasp, and this oh-so subtly, yet effectively, adds to the growing horror. By the climax, there is one especially striking page with no words. And the ear—look for the illustration of the baby’s ear!

Yes, this book is creepy, yes it’s a bit frightening, but I remember being fascinated as a kid with ghost stories and movies about all things ghoulish. I liked to be scared, and I liked feeling the horror. I think kids will like THE NEST.


Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Secret Keepers--Shelf Awareness

Mid Grade Review: The Secret Keepers

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart, illus. by Diana Sudyka (Megan Tingley/Little, Brown, $18.99 hardcover, 512p., ages 9-12, 9780316389556)

Eleven-year-old Reuben Pedley considers himself a "sneaker." While his caring but harried mom works two jobs and still barely manages to support them, Reuben enjoys solitary summer days sneaking around the Lower Downs, the worst neighborhood of New Umbra, a place "as gloomy and run-down as a city could be." One day, Reuben squeezes into the narrowest alley he's ever seen, and climbs to a dangerously high ledge. While holding on for dear life, he finds a beautiful, spherical antique pocket watch lodged in the brick wall. It looks valuable, and Reuben hopes to sell it for enough money to "turn things around for him and his mom."

But Reuben quickly learns the watch has an incredible secret power. He knows he must keep it out of the hands of The Smoke, a "monstrous individual" who unofficially rules the city. Unfortunately, the bands of men who patrol New Umbra, taking payouts and reporting back to The Smoke's representative, are already looking for him. The Smoke wants Reuben's watch, and will do anything to get it. The boy sleuths his way to nearby Point William's historic lighthouse, where he discovers the story behind the centuries-old watch, as well as two unexpected allies in spirited 10-year-old Penny Meyer and her brother, Jack.

Trenton Lee Stewart (the Mysterious Benedict Society series) expertly ratchets up the tension in this wonderful nail-biter of a story, adding danger upon danger as Reuben attempts to outwit The Smoke, put him out of business, and make New Umbra a decent place in which to live again. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: In this novel, 11-year-old Reuben Pedley finds an antique pocket watch with a powerful secret.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

September Recommendations

As summer stumbles into fall, what great reads have you discovered?

Here’s what I’ve been enjoying lately:


GREENGLASS HOUSE, by Kate Milford, takes place during twelve-year-old Milo Pine’s winter vacation. Just when he’s looking forward to relaxing with his family (they never have guests the first week of vacation), the doorbell rings. Somehow, on a cold and snowy night, the old smuggler’s hotel fills up with strange guests who tell strange stories about why they’ve arrived. Milo and cook’s daughter Meddy uncover plenty of secrets as they use lessons from an old role-playing game to help investigate a string of robberies and more. This is a top-notch mystery with plenty of atmosphere. Especially perfect for a cold night and a cup of hot chocolate, but worthy of being enjoyed anytime! (MG)

Jennifer Nielsen’s newest novel is a stand-alone, called THE SCOURGE. Like her False Prince trilogy, this one features a troublemaker with a heart of gold. Ani and her best friend Weevil are taken by the governor’s men to be tested for a deadly plague called the Scourge. Though initially Ani tests negative, a second, more radical test indicates that she actually has the disease. She and Weevil, who contends that he has it, too, are sent to the Colony, a place of banishment for all Scourge victims. Ani’s strong sense of justice stirs up more than the governor and her henchmen have bargained for, as she and Weevil do whatever it takes to uncover the truth. Strong characters drive this adventure. (MG)

HOW TO HANG A WITCH, by Adriana Mather, is a contemporary novel of ghosts, witches, and an ancient curse, all of which harken back to the 17th century witch trials in Salem, MA. Like the author, protagonist Samantha is a direct descendant of Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister responsible for the Trials. When her dad slips into a coma, Sam and her stepmother sell their NYC apartment and move to the family home in Salem to save money for medical bills. Sam immediately runs afoul of the Descendants, a group of rich goths whose ancestors were witches actually hanged in the Trials. Throw in a couple of handsome guys, one of whom is a ghost, and you have all the elements of a very engaging story. Good messages about bullying and mob mentality, too. (YA)

Picture Books:

These three especially strong picture books beg to be read aloud, and all for different reasons. Two are by editor-turned-author Richard Jackson (each with a different illustrator), and one is by Nina Laden, not to be confused with a book recently out by Dan Santat of the same name.

The first by Richard Jackson, IN PLAIN SIGHT, is illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney. It’s the heartwarming story of Sophie, who lives with Mama and Daddy and Grandpa, who lives by the window. Every afternoon, Sophie and Grandpa play a game. Sophie finds things her grandpa has lost, things which are hiding in plain sight. The lyrical prose says plenty, but it’s still spare enough to let the wondrous art carry a full share of the story. (Don’t forget to check check endpapers and under the dustcover, too.) This cozy book should end in hugs all around.

A second book by Richard Jackson, HAVE A LOOK, SAYS BOOK, is illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. If I said it was a story about textures, I’d be selling it way short. This one needs to be read aloud for the sheer joy of letting the words roll off your tongue. Hear yourself saying them, then read it to someone else and the experience just gets better. Once again, no wasted words and gorgeous art make this a wonderful example of picture book-making at its very best.

And, finally, ARE WE THERE YET?, by Nina Laden and Adam McCauley, should be read aloud because it’s more fun that way. The text is simple, mostly “Are we there yet?” and the answer, “No.” But the illustrations are jam-packed with details to discover, and they get more outrageous as the story progresses. Sit next to someone as you look for the many recurring elements, and, like the kid on the back endpapers, when you’re done you’ll all want to say, “Let’s do it again!”


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

September's Book of the Month--Waiting

September’s Book of the Month is WAITING, by the legendary Kevin Henkes. He’s previously won a Caldecott Medal, two Newbery Honors, and a Geisel Honor, and WAITING has brought new Caldecott and Geisel Honors. Also not to be overlooked is his supremely popular and beloved Lily (Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse), plus other mice characters which include Owen, Chrysanthemum, and Wemberly, each featured in their own charming picture books. But back to this story . . . .

Five animal toys wait on a window ledge. Mostly, they wait for different things, but one of them (a rabbit with stars) isn’t waiting for anything in particular. He just likes to look out the window and wait. Toys come and go, seasons come and go. Wind, rain, snow, fireworks, and the moon come and go. And still the animals wait on the ledge. One day a cat with patches joins them. What, if anything, is she waiting for?

There’s so much character development here, and so much emotion expressed on these pages. If you have ever wanted to write—and publish—a quiet picture book, WAITING is one you must look at. Read it aloud. Marvel at the uncomplicated yet expressive text and illustrations, the uncluttered page design, the muted color, the incredible production value of this book. Look under the dust jacket and you will find a little surprise on the board covers. The end papers pick up the color of the type. It’s perfect.

Have you read WAITING? What do you think?


Monday, August 15, 2016

August Recommendations


I finally got to read THE MIDNIGHT WAR OF MATEO MARTINEZ, by Robin Yardi, and I’m so glad I did! This funny novel features Mateo, a fourth-grader in Santa Barbara, who is obsessed with knighthood and who, aboard his silver bicycle, Steed, tries to recover his trike (ok, maybe it’s his sister Mila’s now) and save the neighborhood from a gang of thieving skunks. Mateo also has troubles with his ex-best friend, Johnny, who’s been hanging out with thuggish Danny Green. Plus, his mom’s on his case for not holding Mila’s hand on the way home from school, as if Mila listens to anything he says! Mateo is a good guy with a great sense of humor, and some incredible nighttime adventures. (MG)

NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST, by Eric Lindstrom, features blind high school junior Parker Grant, whose father died three months ago, and who hasn’t cried since. Parker is one tough cookie who loves to run, dispenses relationship advice on the Junior Quad, and wears a vest with buttons that say things like “Yes, I’m blind, get over it!” Parker’s Rules are a strict code of conduct that people in her life have to embrace. But when Scott Kilpatrick, breaker of Rule #1, forever subject to Rule # INFINITY, transfers to her school, Parker begins to lose her way. Lindstrom’s novel has great voice, characters, and is a terrific look at living and loving while in high school. (YA)

E. K. Johnston, author of The Story of Owen, Dragonslayer of Trondheim, brings us a very different story in EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR. Hermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, at the top of her game and on top of the world. Now, in her last year at cheerleading camp, someone has done the unthinkable. She has been drugged and raped at a camp party, and nothing will ever be the same. This is a good solid look at what it takes to survive. (YA)

Picture Books:

In IDEAS ARE ALL AROUND, by Phillip C. Stead, the writer and his dog take a walk, and treat us to all of the stories they encounter along the way. It’s illustrated with prints and photographs and collage and plenty of whimsy. A lovely way to get your imagination going in all kinds of unexpected ways.

LITTLE TREE, by Loren Long, is a bittersweet story about learning to let go. When Little Tree hugs his leaves tight, he doesn’t feel the cold of winter, but he doesn’t get new leaves in the spring, either. What would he do without his leaves?

In SURF’S UP, by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Daniel Miyares, Dude wants to go surfing, but Bro would rather read his book. It runs out there’s more than one way to enjoy the beach!

Have you read any books lately that you need to talk about?