Tuesday, March 15, 2016

March Recommendations


AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, by Sabaa Tahir, is a terrific fantasy inspired by ancient Roman culture. Life in the Martial Empire is tough and uncompromising. Laia and her family subsist as they can, until her grandparents are killed and her brother gets arrested for treason. Laia seeks out the Resistance for help in setting him free. In return, she agrees to go undercover as a slave in the Empire’s brutal Military Academy. Told in the alternating points of view of Laia and Elias, an unwilling student at the Academy, this is top-notch, if rather violent, fantasy. (YA)

THE BEAST OF CRETACEA, by Todd Strasser, is an interplanetary adventure based on that classic story of revenge and madness, Moby Dick. Gone are descriptive passages about whale species and shades of white. Instead, Strasser focuses on the action. Ishmael wakes up aboard a rusty old ship called the Pequod, and he’s amazed by the clean, beautiful planet on which he now finds himself. The Earth he has left behind is a filthy, coal-burning, oxygen depleted mess with very little water. His job is to hunt sea creatures to send back to feed Earth, but the real quarry on this ship is the Great Terrafin. Aye, there be pirates, too! (YA)

ALL AMERICAN BOYS, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, is a provocative look at race relations, specifically how one white policeman reacts when a woman trips over a black kid in a convenience store. It’s narrated alternately by the black kid, Rashad, along with a witness, Quinn, who is white, a close friend of the policeman, and a classmate of Rashad. Pair it with Kekla Magoon’s fascinating How it Went Down, and you will have plenty to think about, guaranteed. (YA)

Picture Books:

I love Jessixa Bagley's (Boats for Papa) new book, BEFORE I LEAVE, a tenderhearted look at moving away and leaving a best friend behind. From the opening endpapers to the closing ones, the delicate watercolor illustrations tell at least half of the story. It’s charming.

In THE RED HAT, written by David Teague and illustrated by Antoinette Portis, young Billy Hightower lives on top of the world’s tallest building. It’s only the wind and Billy Hightower, until one day there’s a new building across the way, and living on top is a girl with a red hat. The strong illustrations use only a limited palette of blue and black, white and red, to deliver a strong and unique tale.

And, finally, Laura Vaccaro Seeger tackles some common kid fears in I USED TO BE AFRAID. She cleverly uses dye cuts to make turning the pages fun, as readers see how being afraid of shadows cleverly turns into shadow play against the wall, how being afraid of the dark turns into sitting with a pet looking at the moon, etc. Her illustrations are always bright and engaging, too.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Girl in the Blue Coat--Shelf Awareness Pro

I had a new book review in Shelf Awareness Pro!

YA Review: Girl in the Blue Coat

Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown, $17.99 hardcover, 320p., ages 12-up, 9780316260602, April 5, 2016)

Girl in the Blue Coat by Washington Postjournalist Monica Hesse (Stray; Burn) is not only an intriguing missing persons case, it's a poignant, wonderfully crafted story of love and loss, courage and redemption. In 1943 Amsterdam, 18-year-old Hanneke Bakker--so blonde and green-eyed someone said she's "the girl Hitler is dreaming of to put on his Aryan posters"--trades in the Dutch black market to support her family.

Making deliveries on her secondhand bicycle, Hanneke finds and sells goods such as tea and cigarettes that are hard to come by now that the German Green Police occupy the city. Hanneke's heart has hardened since her boyfriend, Bas, died at the hands of the Nazis she encouraged him to fight, and she is missing her best friend, Elsbeth, who married into the Gestapo. So when elderly Mrs. Janssen begs her to find a missing Jewish girl named Mirjam Roodveldt, a 15-year-old she had been hiding in her pantry, Hanneke surprises herself by reluctantly agreeing to help: "That action is soft; I am practical. That action is hopeful; I am not," she thinks.

Once she commits to helping Mrs. Janssen, however, Hanneke becomes obsessed with finding clues about the girl in a blue coat "the color of the sky," who apparently disappeared into thin air. When she goes to the Jewish Lyceum to investigate where Mirjam went to school, Hanneke is confronted by memories of her own carefree days at school, a life which has since been "demolished, brick by brick." With that one dangerously high-profile act, she becomes an accidental member of the "huge and sprawling" world of the Dutch resistance, and slowly her worldview broadens. There's Judith who smuggles food to Jewish prisoners; Mina who finds homes for Jewish babies and secretly photographs the German occupation; and a surprising number of Hanneke's neighbors who harbor Jews in hidden rooms, all forming an intricate web of underground activity that becomes apparent the deeper Hanneke digs.

Although Judith is initially scornful of Hanneke for being concerned only about the welfare of Mirjam and not the greater cause, it is by following the trail of "a scared girl, one of many" that Hanneke is slowly able to make sense of the horror, and the heroism, abundant in this war. As she says, "But maybe because, in a country that has come to make no sense, in a world I cannot solve, this is a small piece that I can." Hanneke does solve this mystery, and finds a way to heal. And she will touch readers' hearts, too. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. Printed 3/8/16.

Shelf Talker: In this fine YA novel, the search for one missing Jewish girl in German-occupied Amsterdam makes 18-year-old Hanneke an accidental member of the Dutch resistance.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

March's Book of the Month--The Thing About Jellyfish

March’s Book of the Month is a heartfelt middle grade novel, THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, by Ali Benjamin.

Suzy Swanson is devastated when her ex-best friend Franny drowns the summer before seventh grade. Suzy cannot believe there is no rational, scientific explanation, that "sometimes things just happen.” It’s a terrible answer. On a class field trip to the aquarium, Suzy learns about the lethal Australian Irukandji jellyfish, is convinced that a sting from one caused Franny’s death, and becomes obsessed with proving this is the case.

Woven into Suze’s present day trials in middle school is a portrait of her friendship with Franny, how it grew and changed over the years as the girls themselves grew and changed. Though very different, they are inseparable from the time they meet at the pool when they are five, until the day in fifth grade that Franny admits to liking Dylan—it’s all downhill from there, and we see how the relationship unravels.

Shortly after Franny dies, Suzy decides to stop talking, and the story is very much about the importance of communication. It’s also about science and jellyfish (obliviously), about being different and finding your place, and it’s about Diana Nyad.

It’s also warm and sweet and prickly and well-crafted.

And brave and awful and I’ll stop now!