Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Frostblood--Shelf Awareness Pro

YA Review: Frostblood

Frostblood by Elly Blake (Little, Brown, $17.99 hardcover, 384p., ages 12-up, 9780316273251, January 10, 2017)

Elly Blake's Frostblood Saga series debut is an exciting fantasy of polar opposites in which darkness vies with light, and ice with fire.

Seventeen-year-old Ruby Otrera is a Fireblood from a remote mountain village, born with the ability to conjure "a river of heat"--and even fire--from "the well of flame [she'd] found in [her] deepest self." Her skin is unusually hot, and she has to be careful not to ignite things when her temper gets the best of her. Unfortunately, she lives in a land where the ruling class of Frostbloods wields ice, "a power in complete opposition" to Ruby's. The Frostbloods, under the reign of ruthless, tyrannical King Rasmus--the Frost King--have all but killed off the Firebloods they despise. Ruby's very existence endangers her village.

Ruby desperately wants to learn more about her gift, but with her grandmother gone, there is no one left to teach her properly. Before she can practice enough to gain any measure of control, the Frost King's soldiers discover and capture her. They kill her mother, destroy her village, and lock Ruby in Blackcreek Prison, where the cruel, drunken Frostblood guards throw buckets of freezing water on her, merely to watch her hot skin hiss and steam.

When a pair of Frostbloods breaks into the prison and offers Ruby sanctuary, eventual freedom and the chance to avenge her mother's death by killing the Frost King, she warily accepts. According to Brother Thistle, who runs an abbey dedicated to the god of the north wind Fors, and Arcus, the mysterious, hooded young man who lives there, Ruby may well be "the most powerful Fireblood left in the kingdom." Arcus and Brother Thistle begin training Ruby to master her gift so she can complete her task. In the process, Ruby and Arcus's teasing banter starts to heat up. The sparks that fly between them may not be unexpected, but they are fun to witness, especially as Ruby keeps glimpsing the handsome features of the "conceited icicle" beneath his ever-present hood, and his nicknames for her ("Lady Firebrand, "Thorn in My Backside," "my raging inferno") begin to escalate.

Their plan is abruptly accelerated when Ruby is betrayed by a monk, captured by Rasmus's soldiers and taken to the king's palace, where she begins to learn the true depths of the Frost King's cruelty. Forced to fight in his arena for the court's amusement, Ruby wonders whether she is the peacemaking "child of light" from an old prophecy, or rather a tool of the darkness.

At its core, Frostblood is the story of a young woman's struggle to understand herself, her power and her role in a world that loathes her. Ruby's first-person voice is powerful and passionate, and readers will want to know what's next for her in the Frostblood Saga. --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.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

December Recommendations

Novels: 

I continue to enjoy the most excellent JACKABY series, by William Ritter. The title character, Mr. R. F. Jackaby, is a detective and a Seer of supernatural beings. In book three, called GHOSTLY ECHOES, narrator Abigail Rook and her boss, Jackaby, are investigating the decade-old murder case of their landlady, Jenny Cavanaugh, who is now a ghost. This world contains beings of all sorts, from vampires to chameleomorphs to Abigail’s half-man, half-hound boyfriend, Charlie. (YA)

THE INQUISITOR’S TALE, by Adam Gidwitz, is a loose adaptation of the Joan of Arc story, told by multiple narrators in the style of The Canterbury Tales for kids. It features Jeanne, a peasant girl who has visions of the future (and a resurrected dog), William, a young monk with extraordinary strength, and Jacob, a Jewish boy who is a miraculous healer. This clever, engaging tale is also populated by good monks, bad monks, King Louis IX of France, an angel, and a farting dragon. It’s an excellent read!! (MG)

HEARTLESS, by Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles), is a prequel to Alice in Wonderland, telling the backstory of the Queen of Hearts. Catherine is a noble young lady, who has caught the eye of the King of Hearts, but all she wants is to open a bakery, where she can sell her delectable treats to the kingdom. When she meets the mysterious and sexy Jester, things get even more complicated. Fun and absurdist, as it should be. (YA)



Picture books:

OWL SEES OWL, by Laura Godwin, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey, is a sweet, spare reverso poem, accompanied by rich illustrations of a young owl's nighttime flight. It’s a cozy read, and a literary treat.

THE UNCORKER OF OCEAN BOTTLES, by Michelle Cuevas, illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Erin Stead, tells the story of the gentle man who watches the waves. He is tasked with opening any bottle found at sea, and making sure to deliver it. He loves his job, but wonders if he will ever receive a message himself. Stead perfectly evokes the dreamy text with her signature woodblock print, oil pastel, and pencil art.

And, finally, VIRGINIA WOLF by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, is a fantastically creative take on depression, inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. One day, young Virginia wakes feeling wolfish. Her older sister tries to make everything better, but nothing works until Virginia growls that she wants to fly to Bloomsbury, a perfect place to defy the doldrums. Art is the answer!

--Lynn

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon--Shelf Awareness

MG Review: Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon

Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon by Torben Kuhlmann, trans. by David Henry Wilson (North South, $19.95 hardcover, 128p., ages 6-9, 9780735842625)

Armstrong is the inventive, lavishly illustrated history of a 1950s-era New York City mouse who is fascinated by the moon, a companion book to German author-illustrator Torben Kuhlmann's Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse.

Every night, this little mouse gazes through his "iron tube full of glass lenses" at the starry sky. Though the other mice believe the moon is made of cheese ("as yellow as Gouda, then as white as Camembert"), the little mouse tries hard to convince them it's actually stone. When he receives a mysterious, "mouse-sized" invitation to the Smithsonian, he hops on a train to Washington, D.C. In a basement underneath galleries of "human inventions," the little mouse discovers artifacts of the long-forgotten history of mouse aviation and vows to be the first mouse on the moon. So, on July 21, 1969, when the first humans walked on the surface of the moon, one extraordinary little mouse had already beaten them there! A whimsical take on space-travel history. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: German author-illustrator Torben Kuhlmann's richly imagined drawings distinguish this inspiring story of a mouse inventor on a mission to the moon.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

December's Book of the Month--Raymie Nightingale

December’s Book of the Month is RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, by the astonishing Kate DiCamillo. How does she do it: write book after strong book, all different, and all worthwhile?

Raymie Clarke is determined to learn how to twirl a baton. She’s got to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, so her father will read about her in the newspaper, leave the dental hygienist he ran off with, and come back home. But even though baton twirling lessons do not go as planned, Raymie meets Louisiana Elefante (daughter of the famous Flying Elefantes) and Beverly Tapinski (lock picker extraordinaire). Louisiana dubs them the Three Rancheros, “bound to each other through thick and thin.” Despite Beverly’s rather persistent grumbling, good-deed-doing ensues (sort of), as well as lots of adventures and insights into the human condition. Ramie’s soul expands and contracts as she considers such existential questions as the meaning of life, and the role of story.

There is not one misplaced or casual word in this book. Each statement is elegantly crafted and contributes to the whole. It’s been said that each chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie could stand alone as a short story—while reading RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, I felt like the entire novel was a short story. Everything single thing is important, and circles back around. It’s funny, and it’s wry, and it’s chock full of wisdom that will likely go over the heads of many readers who are enjoying the darkly zany plot line. But maybe they will find it again, maybe even years later and, looking through, be amazed at all that’s packed in here.

Have you read RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE? What do you think?

--Lynn

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

November Recommendations

Have you read anything fun lately? Here are some of my recent favorites:


Novels

WOLF HOLLOW, by Lauren Wolk, is one of my very favorite books of 2016. Twelve-year-old Annabelle lives a quiet life in rural Pennsylvania, until Betty Glengarry shows up with all of her cruel, bullying ways. Annabelle must protect her two small brothers, and also the shell-shocked WWl veteran, Toby, even when town sentiment tries to dictate otherwise. Annabelle’s courage and compassion will touch readers, as she learns to stand up for what she knows is right, in this pitch-perfect coming of age story. (MG)

Delia Sherman (Changeling) has written another amusing, offbeat magical fantasy in THE EVIL WIZARD SMALLBONE. When Nick runs away from his horrible uncle in the middle of a blizzard, he takes refuge at a magical shop called Evil Wizard Books. The resident wizard makes Nick his apprentice, but refuses to teach him any magic. Luckily the bookstore does so instead. Nearby residents include a town of eerily similar people (supposedly under the protection of Nick’s master, the Evil Wizard Smallbone) as well as the Evil Wizard Fidelou with his pack of evil shape-shifting bikers. A fun story examining whether an evil wizard can also be good, the qualities necessary for success, and the importance of writing one’s own story. (MG)

With intriguing, flawed characters and a gripping storyline, WRECKED, by Maria Padian, explores a college rape case in which alcohol is involved, evidence is scarce, and social-media insults are flying. Alternating chapters reflect the perspectives of Haley, roommate of the accuser, and Richard, housemate of the accused, who are also—very inconveniently—developing a sweet, stormy, and wholly believable romance. Powerful, suspenseful, and timely—don't miss this one! (YA)


Picture Books

ONE DAY, THE END: Short, Very Short, Shorter-than-Ever Stories, written by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, illustrated by Fred Koehler, takes a fascinating look at what happens when a picture book text is pared down to its barest essentials, allowing the illustrations to provide all of the—fun-- details. It’s worth studying just for that, but it’s also a completely entertaining homage to the art of storytelling itself.

THEY ALL SAW A CAT, by Brendan Wenzel, is a beautifully illustrated musing on perspective, specifically the many different ways a roaming kitty appears to the many different animals—and one human—who encounter it.

In A CHILD OF BOOKS, artists Oliver Jeffers (The Day the Crayons  Quit) and Sam Winston use typography, watercolor, pencil, and digital collage to create a magical story celebrating the power of imagination. It's a stunning collaboration by for the older picture book crowd to enjoy.


--Lynn

Thursday, November 3, 2016

November's Book of the Month--Unbecoming

November’s Book of the Month is UNBECOMING, by Jenny Downham, a story about three generations of red-headed women dealing with life, love, and dementia.

Katie’s grandmother, Mary, suddenly turns up, and she's having trouble with her memory. She doesn’t recognize Katie, Katie's brother Chris, or even her own daughter, Katie’s mother Caroline. To make matters worse, Caroline and Mary have had an extremely difficult relationship, and Caroline bitterly resents having to take Mary in. It’s a mess, but Katie feels drawn to the mysterious grandmother she never knew she had.

While Mary’s dementia is a challenge, Katie also struggles with her own issues. Like being seventeen and getting tormented for kissing her best friend Esme, dealing with intense pressure from her mom to be perfect, and figuring out how to take charge of her own, soon-to-be-adult life. Mary’s presence brings plenty of unanswered questions, and the family begins to peel back the layers to expose a whole slew of secrets and misunderstandings. UNBECOMING describes the importance of being true to one’s own self vs. the stifling power of conforming to expectations, while also creating a multi-faceted take on family, past, present, and future.

The author creates compelling strands for all three women. But, first and foremost, it's Katie’s story, as she grows and begins to come into her own, allowing the stories of the others to feed into who she is and who she is struggling to become. Heartfelt and wise, UNBECOMING is also accomplished on a much more intimate level, with Downham (also the author of Before I Die) crafting beautiful words into beautiful sentences, into paragraphs and chapters that are a joy to read.

--Lynn

Friday, October 28, 2016

Wrecked--Shelf Awareness

YA Review: Wrecked

Wrecked by Maria Padian (Algonquin, $17.95 hardcover, 368p., ages 14-up, 9781616206246)

With intriguing, flawed characters and a gripping storyline, Wrecked by Maria Padian (Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress) offers readers a view of a college sexual assault case that is as engrossing as it is important.

MacCallum freshman Haley Dougherty is a devoted soccer player dealing with her third concussion, facing the bitter truth that "the defining activity of her life" is too risky for her now. It's not the ideal time for her quiet, "├╝berstudious" pre-med roommate, Jenny James, to fall apart, too. Haley, with "her bruised, barely-able-to-concentrate brain," soon learns what's behind Jenny's tears: she "drank some stuff" and was raped after leaving Conundrum, a notorious party house. When Jenny files a formal complaint, Haley becomes Jenny's adviser for the sexual assault case. Good-hearted "Math Dude" Richard Brandt lives with Jordan Bockus in a house next door to Conundrum. Over a few beers, Richard learns that Jordan got "a little action" with a freshman from the recent party there. That freshman was Jenny. Though Jordan is no real friend of his, Richard reluctantly agrees to be his housemate's adviser after Jenny files her complaint.

Wrecked soberly explores a college rape case in which alcohol is involved, memories are muddled, evidence is scarce, and social-media insults are flying. Alternating chapters reflect the perspectives of Haley and Richard who, inconveniently, given the confidential nature of their adviser roles, develop a tentative, sweet, stormy and wholly believable romance during the tangled investigation. In between chapters are short passages that chronicle a more complete, and ultimately devastating, version of events from the night of the rape. Powerful, suspenseful and illuminating. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Maria Padian's valuable, riveting novel (for male and female high school and college students alike) examines the anguish and complexity of a college rape case.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

October Recommendations

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

Novels:

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.

--Lynn

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.

--Lynn

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:


Novels:

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!”


--Lynn

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?

--Lynn

Monday, August 15, 2016

August Recommendations

Novels:

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?

--Lynn

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?

--Lynn

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


Novels:

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.


--Lynn

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

July's Book of the Month--Finding Winnie

July’s Book of the Month is the exceptional 2016 Caldecott winner, FINDING WINNIE: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, by Lindsay Mattock, illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

A mother, cuddling with her son, tells of how Harry Colebourne, a Canadian veterinarian on his way to care for horses in WWI, spied a trapper with a baby bear. He bought the bear for $20 and named her Winnipeg to remind his fellow soldiers of home. Winnie sailed to England, where she became known as the Mascot of the Canadian Infantry Brigade. When the order came that it was time to fight, Harry took Winnie to the London Zoo. A boy named Christopher Robin befriended her and he named his own stuffed bear Winnie-the-Pooh. Christopher Robin's father, who was A. A. Milne, wrote about all sorts of adventures that Christopher Robin had with his stuffed animals in the wood behind their home.

This is a charming story, framed as a cozy-but-true bedtime tale. We begin with endpapers showing the woods where bear cub Winnie plays, and end by learning how the author’s son, Cole, fits in (he was named after his great-great-grandfather). A family tree, as well as reproductions of old photos, a diary, and the official record card from the zoo, help illuminate the many layers of this story. The illustrations are also extremely descriptive, and beautiful, as well. Clearly, we are being offered an often-told, much-loved piece of family lore, passed down through generations, and now turned into this award-winning picture book. Readers of all ages will relate to the story the author tells her son about how one very special bear became the inspiration for A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.

I personally don’t read much non-fiction, but I found this non-fiction picture book a pleasure to read!

Have you read FINDING WINNIE? What do you think?

--Lynn

Sunday, June 12, 2016

June Recommendations

I’m on a roll, still reading great books!!! There is so much to love in kid lit these days!! Here are my recent favorites:

Novels:

THE LIE TREE, by Francis Hardinge, has been winning awards, including the Costa Children’s Book Award and the Costa Book of the Year in the UK, and now the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award here. I have been a fan of Francis Hardinge for a long time, ever since I heard her editor speak about her first US-pubbed book at an SCBWI Summer Conference. She has many books out now, and I have read and enjoyed most of them. THE LIE TREE describes the frustration felt by Faith Sunderly, a budding young scientist growing up in a time when young ladies do not study science. They are modest and well-mannered and they get husbands. But Faith idolizes her father, the grim, formidable Reverend Sunderly, a renowned scientist himself, and the finder of a fossil of great importance. Now, however, the fossil has been found to be a fraud, and the Reverend turns up dead. Faith determines to make sense of it all, including the origins of a mysterious plant that her father cherished above all of his recent finds. A complex and satisfying read! (Upper MG/YA)

THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, by Janet Fox, is so good!!! Like the above, this is a complex novel tinged with darkness, featuring a sensible young woman (who reveres her father) trying to make sense of impossible circumstances. But that’s where the similarities end. Siblings Kat, Robbie, and Amelie escape the German bombing of London in 1940 by relocating to boarding school in a remote Scottish castle. Here they encounter the icy Lady Eleanor, 13 magical charms, wartime spies, and the strange, silent children who haunt Rookskill Castle. Beginning with a deliciously eerie, off-kilter poem to set the mood, this literary WWII steampunk-ghost story is one of the best reads ever. If you liked The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, be sure to give CHARMED CHILDREN a try! (Upper MG)

And now for something completely different: RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, by Kate DiCamillo, is beautifully crafted fiction set in 1975. Raymie intends to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition so that her father can read about her in the newspaper, after which he will leave the dental hygienist he has run off with and return home to his now-famous daughter. Instead, during baton-twirling classes that never really materialize, Raymie bonds with the overly dramatic Louise Elefante (of the Flying Elefante family), and Beverly Tapinski (who intends to sabotage the contest). I love the way the author writes with terrific care on all levels, from plot arcs all the way down to her perfectly constructed sentences. (MG)


Picture Books:

Don’t miss A HUNGRY LION or a Dwindling Assortment of Animals, written and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins. Read it aloud and you will get the full benefit of the absurdity, alliteration, and surprises that abound in this wonderfully paced, wholly original, and very funny picture book.

A high profile picture book published recently, THUNDER BOY JR., by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is definitely worthy of all the attention it’s been getting. Narrated by Thunder Boy Smith Jr. (with help from his little sister), we learn how this little boy loves his father, but hates his name. When compared with his dad (who everyone calls Big Thunder), Little Thunder feels more like a burp or a fart. Quite reasonably, he wants his own name. Speech bubbles move the story along to a fitting conclusion, and the brightly colored, lively illustrations make reading it a pleasure.

And finally, LITTLE RED, by Bethan Woollvin, is a bold, graphic take on the Little Red Riding Hood story. This Little Red is tough and savvy and definitely not afraid. For fans of Jon Klaassen’s Hat books, who don’t mind a little carnage (in good taste, of course) along the way. And pay special attention to Little Red’s eyes—they’re simply rendered, but so expressive!


--Lynn