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?


Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Evil Wizard Smallbone--Shelf Awareness Pro

Children's Review: The Evil Wizard Smallbone

The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman (Candlewick, $17.99 hardcover, 416p., ages 10-12, 9780763688059, September 13, 2016)

In her entertaining modern-day fantasy set in Maine, Delia Sherman (Changeling; The Freedom Maze) examines whether an evil wizard can also be good; the qualities necessary for success; and the importance of writing one's own story.

After Uncle Gabe locks him in the cellar, 12-year-old Nick Reynaud runs away to avoid the rest of the "larruping" he was promised. Ever since Nick's mother died three years ago, Uncle Gabe had gone "from crabby to mean," viewing his nephew as "a waste of time, space, and Dinty Moore stew." Cold, tired, hungry and blinded by snow, Nick stumbles upon an enormous, sprawling house whose front door opens into the magically sentient shop, Evil Wizard Books. Three-hundred-year-old Evil Wizard Smallbone takes the boy into his strangely cozy lair, deems him "scrawny as a plucked chicken and numb as a haddock," renames him "Foxkin" and forces him into service as his new apprentice (more like minion). Nick refuses to believe "this crazy old dude" is a wizard, and it takes being turned into a spider to convince him it's true. Magic intrigues him, but Nick wonders whether "turning people into things" is any better than "laying into them with a strap."

As Nick competently attends to household chores and looks after the sweet barnyard animals he likes more than humans, he ponders how best to escape yet another bully. Thanks to the magic of Evil Wizard Books, he soon discovers E-Z Spelz for Little Wizardz, and he dives right in. In the book's Aptitude Test, Nick learns that his confidence is a "sometimes thing" and that his control and concentration "both stink." As the months pass, Nick studies hard and winds up learning as much about himself as he does about "fummydiddling with enchanted doo-dads."

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing in quaint Smallbone Cove, the nearby coastal town of fishing nets and seagulls, a "practically perfect place" of eerily similar townspeople controlled and supposedly protected by the Evil Wizard Smallbone. A second evil wizard, vile werewolf Fidelou with his gang of shape-shifting were-coyotes on motorcycles, wants in. Fidelou, who came to the U.S. from France 400 years ago, is looking to expand his own territory and gobble up the town. Nick will have to use all of his wits and newly honed magic when the two evil wizards go head to head.

A truly irrepressible hero, Nick has a lot to learn. But armed with important truths learned from his mother before she died, large doses of his own magic, and plenty of stubbornness, he is more than up to the task. The Evil Wizard Smallbone is a terrific middle-grade fantasy from a skillful, witty, always-inventive storyteller. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: Delia Sherman populates her excellent middle-grade fantasy with evil wizards, bloodthirsty were-beasts and a 12-year-old apprentice whose magical pursuits help him find himself.

Friday, August 5, 2016

August's Book of the Month--The War That Saved My Life

August’s Book of the Month is the impeccably crafted, heartwarming, and life-affirming THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

Ten-year-old Ada’s mam keeps her locked up in their squalid one room apartment because Ada is “a cripple.” (She has a clubfoot.) When her brother, Jamie, gets older and more independent, Ada resolves to fight for a better life for herself by learning to walk. She does, and just in time, too. London’s children are being evacuated to the countryside and Ada and Jamie sneak off to join them. A Kent woman, Susan Smith, reluctantly takes them in, but it’s not an easy transition. Susan is kind, but building a family takes time.

Because Ada has never been educated or allowed outside, it’s heartbreaking to see how little she knows of the world. She’s strong and determined, however, and she teaches herself all kinds of things, beginning with how to ride the pony in the meadow outside her new home. Slowly, slowly, Ada grows healthy, learns to read and write, and finds friends in the village. But the emotional abuse inflicted on her all those years by her mam has taken its toll, and trusting that this new life won’t disappear is almost impossible.

From the very first sentence, first paragraph, first page, I was completely hooked. This is one of those stories that became so real, I forgot where I was while reading it. On that very first page (one of the best first pages I have ever read) we have a complete set-up. Especially clear is Ada’s relationship with her Mam, which looms over the entire novel. Ada’s character shines through, and we are introduced to most of the people who figure prominently in the story. It’s so well done!

If you want an equally gut-wrenching, equally wonderful story about an abused London boy who is evacuated to the country during WWII, please seek out Goodnight, Mr. Tom, by Michelle Magorian, one of my all-time favorites.

Have you read THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE? What do you think?


Monday, August 1, 2016

How to Hang a Witch--Shelf Awareness

YA Review: How to Hang a Witch

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather (Knopf, $17.99 hardcover, 368p., ages 12-up, 9780553539479)

 In How to Hang a Witch, Adriana Mather concocts an exciting contemporary story of ghosts, witches and an ancient curse, and spices it with just the right amounts of mystery and romance. The author, like her protagonist, is a direct descendant of Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister who incited the witch trials in 17th-century Salem, Mass.

When 15-year-old "Sam" Mather's father slips into a coma, she and her stepmother, Vivian, sell their New York apartment so they can pay his medical bills. They move into the enormous Mather home in Salem, which has been in Sam's family since Puritan times. Sam, with her "affinity for sarcasm" and a reputation for trouble, quickly finds that, as a member of the witch-hanging Mather clan, she's not welcome in Salem. Her most aggressive enemies at school are the Descendants, a group of rich goths whose ancestors were the accused and hanged witches. To make matters worse, Sam is terrified her dad will die, and all Sam and her stepmother do lately is fight. Luckily, handsome neighbor Jaxon appears to be on her side, as does the gloomy but irresistible ghost Elijah. Sam certainly needs all the help she can get when people begin dying and the whole town looks to blame her for the body count.

Sam starts to see the witch trials as "a scarier version of high school," which happened "because no one stood up for the accused." Mather delivers a timely condemnation of bullying and the politics of mass hysteria, while still completely charming her readers with large doses of suspense and steamy attraction. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: In this topical, modern-day ghost story, descendants of the Salem witch trials fight a centuries-old curse.

Friday, July 15, 2016

July Recommendations


PAX, by Sara Pennypacker, is the moving story of a boy and the fox that he raised. When his dad goes off to war, the boy must leave the pet behind and move in with his grandfather three hundred miles away. But the boy is overwhelmed with worry and runs off to find his fox. Told in the alternating voices of fox and boy, this is a dual survival story, as each learns what it takes to live and thrive. It’s an age-appropriate look at compassion and responsibility that will tug at reader's heartstrings (and quite possibly give them a good cry). It’s also a nice example of quality bookmaking. From the illustrations by Jon Klassen, to the deckle-edged pages, to the deep green and gold-embossed cover, this is a book to hold and enjoy. (MG)

In UNBECOMING, by Jenny Downham (Before I Die), a grandmother Katie never knew she had comes to live with her mum and brother. But Mary has Alzheimer’s and brings more questions than answers. What’s the real story of Katie’s family tree? How does Mary fit in, and why hasn’t she been around before? Mum is hiding plenty of secrets, but Katie has a secret, too. Three generations of red-headed women confront past and present with confusion, clarity, and an astonishing amount of heart. Don’t miss this top-notch storytelling about letting go and learning to honor your own, true self. (YA)

A wonderful book, THE PASSION OF DOLSSA, by Julie Berry (All the Truth That’s in Me), is historical fiction with a distinct magical touch. In 1241, a young noblewoman named Dolssa shares visions of Christ, her beloved. The Catholic Church arrests her for heresy, but she escapes before the burning. Botille, peasant from a small seaside town, finds Dolssa and saves her from the men who pursue her. Botille brings Dolssa to the tavern she runs with her two sisters, where they desperately try to keep Dolssa a secret. All plans fail when Dolssa shows an ability to heal the sick, and a friar obsessed with finding her appears. The writing is absolutely mesmerizing in this smart, literary tale.

Picture Books:

In MORE-IGAMI, written by Dori Kleber, illustrated by G. Brian Karas, Joey loves to fold things. When he discovers origami he knows he must become a master. But his passion for paper-folding gets him in trouble, until he finds the perfect place to practice his art. Karas’s illustrations are terrific, as always, in this appealing look at doing what you love.

THIS IS NOT A PICTURE BOOK, by Sergio Ruzzier, is a creative and whimsical homage to books, be they funny or sad, wild or peaceful, books that take you places and bring you home again—books!

A BRAVE BEAR, written by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Emily Hughes, begins “Everything was hot. The sun was hot. The air was hot. Even the shade was hot.” And—yes—I read it on a very hot day! I followed this bear and his dad to the river, enjoying the concise-but-descriptive text and stunning pictures, as the bears share a great day and look forward to tomorrow.