Friday, December 22, 2017

Shelf Awareness--Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

MG Review: Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison (Little, Brown, $16.99 hardcover, 96p., ages 8-12, 9780316475112)

Originally begun as a social media project during Black History Month, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History highlights courageous African American women who broke new ground by following their dreams--women who persevered, didn't listen to "no" and found success despite overwhelming odds. Bessie Coleman was denied entry to "every aviation school in America," so she moved to France and "became the first African American woman in the world to receive her pilot's license." Phillis Wheatley was "the first African American woman poet ever to be published." Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who attended "a private school in Massachusetts," became "the first African American woman physician in the country." And, at 80 years of age, Alma Woodsey Thomas had her colorful paintings exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, "the first-ever solo exhibition of an African American woman artist at one of America's most important art museums."

The short, engaging biographies are accompanied by charming portraits. Each woman, depicted in clothing and costumes reflective of her time and vocation, seems to be looking within, mustering the strength necessary to persevere in the face of daunting odds. Backgrounds are minimal, rendered mostly in pale shades, which leaves the focus on the women and helps ground them in history. Debut author Vashti Harrison created Little Leaders with her younger self in mind, but she hopes readers of every background will find these stories compelling. Little Leaders will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of high achievers. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: This collection of mini-biographies highlights 40 extraordinary African American women.

Friday, December 15, 2017

December Recommendations


In SONG OF THE CURRENT, by Sarah Tolcser, Caroline Oresteia comes from a long line of wherry folk, who listen when the river god speaks in the language of small things. But the river god hasn’t called her yet, and she’s afraid he never will. When her father is arrested for refusing to carry a shipment for the Margravina’s soldiers, Caroline knows she’s ready to take the helm of the family boat. Romance, magic, and a strong heroine make this one fun read. (YA)

FAR FROM THE TREE, by Robin Benway, recently won the National Book Award in the YA category. Grace, Maya, and Joaquin are siblings who share the same birth mother. When Grace has a baby at sixteen, who she puts up for adoption, she suddenly needs to find out about her biological family. (YA)

THE AFTERLIFE OF HOLLY CHASE, by Cynthia Hand, is a witty modern take on A Christmas Carol. Mean girl Holly Chase is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve, but chooses to ignore their warnings until it’s too late. She ends up working for top-secret Project Scrooge as the Ghost of Christmas Past, trying to get others to mend their ways before it’s too late. She's bored out of her mind, until one year a Scrooge turns out to be totally hot… (YA)

Picture books:

TONY, by Ed Galing, illustrated by Erin E. Stead, depicts the quiet beauty of a long ago, pre-dawn ritual: a horse named Tony, "all white,/ large, sturdy,/ with wide gentle eyes/ and a ton of love,” pulls a wagon loaded with milk, butter, and eggs, and is met every morning by the narrator. Exquisite!

In FLASHLIGHT NIGHT, by Matt Forrest Esenwine, illustrated by Fred Koehler, three kids, having a sleepover in a tree house, find that their flashlight beam "opens up the night.” The rhyming text takes the kids (and readers) on a spectacular adventure, and the art has plenty of details to pore over in this ode to imagination.

And in THE WAY HOME IN THE NIGHT, by Akiko Miyakoshi, a city-dwelling bunny in her mother’s arms is carried “through the quiet streets,” catching glimpses of neighbors who are already home. Evocative text and a gorgeously rendered world where animals live in apartment buildings.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Shelf Awareness--The Cruel Prince

YA Review: The Cruel Prince

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (Little, Brown, $18.99 hardcover, 384p., ages 14-up, 9780316310277, January 2, 2018)

A tall stranger mysteriously appears in the home of seven-year-old twins Jude and Taryn, "as if stepping between one shadow and the next." He proceeds to murder their parents in front of them, then whisks away the twins and their older sister, Vivi, to live with him in Faerie. Although the twins are human, Vivi, with her "split-pupiled gaze" and the "lightly furred points of her ears," is the stranger's heir, fathered when the girls' mother was his wife. Before Mom renounced her vows, that is, and escaped Faerie with her unborn child.

Now Jude is 17, and being raised like "a trueborn child of Faerie." She is frequently reminded by the fey servants how fortunate she is that her adoptive father, Madoc, treats all three sisters as Gentry, because to most of the Folk she will always be "a bastard daughter of a faithless wife, a human without a drop of faerie blood." Even after being given True Sight and charms to resist most enchantments, Jude knows that life as a mortal in Faerie will never be easy. Regardless, she feels at home there and revels in the spectacle, pageantry and "beautiful nightmare" of the Faerie Court.

Determined to win a place at Court through skill rather than marriage, she hones her bladesmanship. She aims to be granted a knighthood, and with it a place in one of the royals' personal guards. This would allow her "a kind of power, a kind of protection." For a time, her biggest obstacle is brutal Prince Cardan, the sixth child of High King Eldred, and his nasty friends Valerian, Nicasia and Locke, who despise Jude and Taryn for the crime of being human. Insults, violence, threats of ensorcellment and near drowning are some of the indignities the sisters endure before the stakes begin to rise. High King Eldred, who "has lost his taste for bloodshed," decides it's time to "abdicate his throne in favor of one of his children." Madoc denies Jude the right to try for a knighthood, leaving her with a desperate need to prove she's not weak. When she is recruited to spy for third-born Prince Dain, she takes the opportunity to prove herself and is drawn into dangerous games of Faerie power and intrigue.

Holly Black (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown; Doll Bones; The Darkest Part of the Forest) works her magic with this story, effortlessly giving all things fey a thoroughly modern sensibility. With The Cruel Prince, she introduces a stunning new series, full of all the glamour and brutality that Faerie can deliver. Secret strategies, twisted loyalties, love, lust and betrayal all come into play as Jude struggles to find her way among the Folk. And ultimately only she can decide how far she is willing to go to save her family, the royal line and possibly the whole of Faerie itself. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: Seventeen-year-old mortal Jude vies for power as she struggles to live among the stronger, more beautiful and deeply wicked inhabitants of Faerie.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

December's Book of the Month--My Sister Rosa

Hello! December’s Book of the Month is the wonderfully dark and creepy psychological thriller, MY SISTER ROSA, by Justine Larbalestier:

Che’s sister Rosa may look like a doll, with her big blue eyes, dimples, and blonde ringlets, but Che knows she’s no doll. She’s a ticking time bomb, call it "psychopathy, sociopathy, personality disorder, evil, or the devil within.” The trouble is that Che and Rosa’s parents don’t believe there’s anything wrong. Clever Rosa lets only Che see her dangerous side. He’s always got to be paying attention so she won’t set things on fire or kill small animals for the fun of it.

When the family moves to New York, “city of angry police and constant emergencies,” Che knows Rosa will be delighted with all the new opportunities to wreak her increasingly damaging havoc. She preys on the twin daughters of her parents' new business partners, as well as insinuating herself—menacingly-- into Che’s budding relationship with a woman he meets at his gym. Seventeen-year-old Che does his best, but his brilliant sister remains two steps ahead of him and his parents never seem to notice or care.

Larbalestier builds a complex portrait of a troubled child, a troubled family, and a whole lot of trouble for the mostly innocent bystanders they encounter. New York City serves as a vibrant and diverse backdrop, filled with believable secondary characters and opportunities for trouble of all kinds.

This is one creepy and thoroughly addicting book!


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Shelf Awareness--A Line in the Dark

YA Review: A Line In The Dark

A Line In The Dark by Malinda Lo (Dutton, $17.99 hardcover, 288p., ages 14-up, 9780735227422)

Even though Angie Redmond seems oblivious, high school junior Jess Wong is very interested in the two of them sharing a romantic "happy ending." But no matter what happens, Jess needs to first make sure her longtime best friend is "okay." When a girl from the exclusive Pearson Brooke boarding school, exuding the usual "we-are-the-sh*t aura," walks into the Creamery where Angie works, Jess immediately senses trouble. And this is before she watches "the Peeb" steal a bag of candy. Afterward, Angie admits she thinks the Peeb (whose name is Margot) is cute, and she and Margot quickly begin dating.

Jess knows she should be happy for her best friend, but watching Angie and Margot together is like "a punch in [the] face." The girls clash repeatedly over Jess's jealousy and dislike of Margot (Jess is sure Angie is "not seeing the real Margot") and the two don't speak for weeks. When they finally make up, Angie convinces Jess to go with her to a small Christmas party at Margot's summer house. The party includes Margot's best friend Ryan, Ryan's boyfriend and four other entitled Peebs. Tensions mount--helped by a healthy dose of alcohol--and secrets, lies and a gun turn into a recipe for disaster.

Jess is a talented comic book artist who draws what she can't say out loud. Her well-thought-out, alternate magical world helps her make sense of her own life, which in turn feeds her art. Her characters Kestrel, Raven and Laney form a familiar love triangle, with passions building out of control. Malinda Lo (Ash) delivers an enthralling mystery full of twists, turns, dark heroics... and high school. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: When Jess Wong's longtime best friend and crush Angie begins dating another girl, buried secrets come to light with disastrous results.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

November Recommendations

TRAIN I RIDE, by Paul Mosier, brings us Rydr’s story as she heads east from California via Amtrak. Her mother is dead, her Gramma just died, and she’s bound for a distant relative who lives in Chicago. It’s an emotional journey full of longing, regret, plenty of fun, and some very clever antics courtesy of a unique and absorbing main character. (MG)

ALL THE WIND IN THE WORLD, by Samantha Mabry, tells of Sarah and James who harvest maguey (a plant that gets made into mescal and tequila) in New Mexico. A sudden dust storm and a terrible accident send the two fleeing east, to work at a supposedly cursed ranch called The Real Marvelous. It’s got gorgeous, lyrical prose, fully fleshed out characters and setting, romance, and a touch of magic. Long-listed for the National Book Award this year, this will be a Book Talk discussion book early next year. (YA)

In JANE UNLIMITED, by Kristin Cashore (author of Graceling), Jane has floundered since her beloved Aunt Magnolia was lost while on a photography expedition to Antartica. Because of a bizarre promise, Jane accepts an invitation to the mansion of her former writing tutor, where she is confronted with five life-changing answers to a single question. An intelligent, quirky literary treat. (YA)

ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS, by Maggie Stiefvater, takes place in the "dark, true-dark" of the desert, where 18-year-old Beatriz Soria and her cousins transmit their pirate radio show from the back of a box truck. The entire Soria family are performers of miracles, and pilgrims flock to their ranch, where the darkness inside a person becomes visible. Read it for the language, for the way Stiefvater effortlessly weaves the narrative back and forth in time, and to savor the magic she conjures. (YA)

Also, two great paranormal series have just wound up:

LOCKWOOD & CO., by Jonathan Stroud (Bartimaeus books), caps off a terrific five book run with THE EMPTY GRAVE, an extremely satisfying wrap-up to this series about ghosts and other specters running amok in present-day England. It’s witty, snarky, charming, filled with action, and maybe a bit gross. Teenage Psychic Detective Agent Lucy Carlyle’s sidekick is a ghost in a jar. Not to be missed! (Upper MG)

And JACKABY, by William Ritter concludes in epic fashion with THE DIRE KING. This quartet of novels takes place in the 1890s and features eccentric detective R. F. Jackaby (who rightly understands the supernatural are everywhere). He is ably assisted by Abigail Rook from their offices in New Fiddleham, New England. There’s also shape-shifting police detective Charlie Cane and the very ghostly Jenny Cavanaugh, owner of the New Fiddleham building. It’s Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter. (YA)


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Shelf Awareness--The Secret of Nightingale Wood

MG Review: The Secret of Nightingale Wood

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange (Chicken House, $16.99 hardcover, 304p., ages 8-12, 9781338157475)

When 12-year-old Henrietta Abbott (who has "always been Henry") and her family move to a large old home in the English countryside called Hope House, it's supposed to be a fresh start. But Mama is still "confused and upset" by the tragic death of Henry's older brother, Robert, and Father escapes by taking a job abroad. Henry and her baby sister (affectionately called Piglet) are looked after by Nanny Jane, while Mama is cared for by Doctor Hardy, who keeps her sedated with increasing doses of his "special medicine." Asserting that Mama is too ill to see her remaining children, the doctor chases Henry away.

Henry explores nearby Nightingale Wood, and stumbles upon a fragile woman living in a caravan whom she comes to know as Moth. Even though Moth has her own sadness, she understands that to "lighten the darkness," Mama "needs stories, music, sunshine, birdsong, the smell of a rose, the smile of her daughter." Even with the growing certainty that Mama will be committed to Helldon, "a ghastly gray tomb of a building," Moth helps Henry believe "there will be a way to help."

Literature and fairy tales allow Henry to make sense of her world. Moth is like "a forgotten, fairy-tale princess," while Doctor Hardy "fill[s] the doorway like an ogre." Mama, trapped in her room, is Rapunzel, and numerous literary nightingales allude to freedom. In her debut novel, Strange tells a lovely, extraordinarily enchanting coming-of-age tale. Henry is determined to put things right, even while Dr. Hardy and the other adults begin to question her own sanity. As the cook's husband puts it, "we've all been tossed by the waves... the [t]rick is not to sink." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: When her family moves to the English countryside after the death of her older brother, 12-year-old Henrietta Abbott struggles to put her increasingly fragmented world back together.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Novermber's Book of the Month--Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

November’s Book of the Month is the National Book Award-nominated middle-grade novel CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND, by Rita Williams-Garcia. She's also the Newbery Honor, Scott O’Dell and Coretta Scott King Award-winning author of One Crazy Summer and the sequels P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama.

All Clayton Byrd wants is a twelve bar solo when he plays blues harp with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the Bluesmen in Washington Square Park. When Cool Papa dies, Clayton loses so much--his best friend, someone he could talk to, tell anything, ask anything—someone who made him feel like a person instead of a little kid. Clayton’s mother has never approved of her father or his blues playing, and when Cool Papa dies, she gets rid of all his things, including guitars and mementos that were meant for Clayton. Not only is Clayton furious, he feels completely lost. With no one to turn to, he grabs his now-confiscated harmonica, cuts school, and heads for Washington Square Park, hoping to hook up with the Bluesmen and join them when they hit the road. His adventures on the subway help him figure out a few things about himself, his family, and what it means to be “cool.” A little jail time and a sympathetic ear from his dad also help to turn things around!

Most central to this story is the relationship between Clayton and Cool Papa Byrd, the grandfather he idolizes, but the scope also widens to address a complex web of dynamics among other members of the family, including his mother, Ms. Byrd, and his father, Mr. Miller. Given the low page count, this examination is remarkably nuanced.

Williams-Garcia lets music define the deep bond that Clayton enjoys with his grandfather, and the way this shared love informs his entire world view. She infuses her prose with plenty of “rhythm and slow-burning funk” in this novel of loss, forgiveness, and the “deep-down cry” of the blues.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

October Recommendations


GENUINE FRAUD, by E. Lockhart (author of We Were Liars), is a tale told in reverse, a thrill ride which keeps readers guessing the whole way. Eighteen year old Jule West Williams begins the story on her own in a Cabo San Lucas resort, but she’s not using her own name and she’s the run. Events step back to England, where we meet Immie, whose name Jule gave as hers in Mexico. Money, love, sticky fingers, and superheroes. Confusing? Yes, and readers will be swept away until the very end. (YA)

In LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND, when the alien vuvv arrive, they offer to "end all work forever and cure all disease." Except this causes most people to lose their jobs, and only the richest humans can afford the new “tech." High school senior Adam Costello and his girlfriend Chloe, whose family members are all out of work, go on 1950s-style dates that the vuvv pay to view. It doesn’t go well. This is a biting satire about the world's haves and have-nots, set in an increasingly stratified near-future where the human race has, for the most part, become expendable. M. T. Anderson has created a strange and wonderful fantasy about seeking love amid the filth, and keeping hope alive, despite unquestionable odds against it. (YA)

In THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END, by Adam Silvera, Mateo and Rufus have both been called by Death-Cast, meaning today is their End Day. They meet through The Last Friend app, and they’ve got hours, or even minutes, left to tool around the city, living life to the fullest, doing everything they’ve ever wanted to do before it’s too late. To find the meaning of life before they die. (YA)

Picture books:

CREEPY PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, a companion to CREEPY CARROTS with words by Aaron Reynolds and pictures by Peter Brown, is a pitch perfect, just-scary-enough saga about boys’ briefs. The art is laid out to look like old-time movie frames and the soundtrack in my head played “The Cat Came Back” as I read. Funny text, clear illustrations, and they nail the comedic timing—this one’s a winner.

NOW, by Antoinette Portis, is a lyrical celebration of living in the moment, as defined by a young girl who shares her favorite things with readers. The engaging art is boldly designed and deceptively simple.

Board book:

CHEER UP, BEN FRANKLIN, by Misti Kenison, is a concise adaptation of the state of affairs during the revolution. Apparently, Ben Franklin is sad because no one is around to fly kites with him. Betsy Ross is busy sewing the flag, Paul Revere is busy riding his horse, etc. Luckily, (spoiler) Ben makes it to Independence Hall, where his friends are, and he joins the other delegates in signing the Declaration of Independence. I really love this book because of the precise way it’s boiled down history, though I’m not sure who the target audience is—an older sibling who’s already been to school reading to a drooly baby maybe???


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Shelf Awareness--Otherworld

YA Review: Otherworld

Otherworld by Kirsten Miller and Jason Segel (Delacorte Press, $18.99 hardcover, 368p., ages 12-up, 9781101939321, October 31, 2017)

Eighteen-year-old Simon Eaton is one of only "two thousand lucky gamers" chosen to test an early version of Otherworld 2.0, a reboot of what is "known in geek lore as the greatest game of all time." It's a virtual reality app that requires exorbitantly expensive equipment, including headset, haptic gloves and "dainty booties." When Simon (illegally) uses his mother's credit card to buy his own gear, he also buys a set for Kat Foley. Since his parents have "very important golf balls to hit, frittatas to eat, and luxury leather goods to acquire," Kat was both his best friend and all the family he has needed for 10 years--until she began avoiding him. Six months after Simon was sent to boarding school, Kat started blocking his calls and "slowly began to vanish."

Simon is sure Kat's in trouble, so he figures "a few grand and a near death experience with [his] father" are worth it if Kat will talk to him in Otherworld. Unfortunately, their avatars die too quickly and they're booted out of the game. But then Kat kisses him in real life and warns him to stay away until "this is over." Simon's suspicions are confirmed: Kat is "knee-deep in some kind of sh*t." He follows her to a party in an abandoned factory where the floor collapses, injuring Kat. She's rushed to the hospital, where she's diagnosed with "locked-in syndrome," a rare condition that leaves her unable to move despite her normal brain function. Her stepfather enrolls her in an experiment designed by tech billionaire Milo Yolkin and the creators of Otherworld, in which a disc attached to her scalp allows her to move freely in "a world as real as this one." Simon, frantic to be with Kat in any world, follows her but finds the stakes are rising: regular players with headsets "get sent back to setup" when they die in the game, but those with discs can die "for real." Simon must navigate the hazards of this increasingly dangerous game-gone-wrong to help Kat get out alive.

Authors Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller (Kiki Strike) keep the action nonstop while they convincingly ratchet up the tension. Simon, with the giant "schnoz" he inherited from his "two-bit gangster" grandfather ("the Kishka"), is the bane of his mother's existence, and he's pretty good at annoying most other folks, too. But his love for Kat rings true, and he brings plenty of humanity to the high-stakes gaming and intrigue of this first installment in a series. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Shelf Talker: Otherworld, a CGI virtual reality game so real you can taste, smell and feel it, becomes increasingly dangerous as Simon races to find his best friend Kat before the game literally kills her.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

October's Book of the Month--The One Memory of Flora Banks

October’s Book of the Month is The One Memory of Flora Banks, by Emily Barr.

Flora is 17, but she only knows this because it's written on her hand. She can't remember anything that's happened since she was 10, when a brain tumor left her unable to make new memories. Flora writes lots of things on her hand, like "Don't drink alcohol" at the party for her best friend Paige's boyfriend, Drake, who is leaving for Svalbard, Norway. But Flora does have a cup of wine, and she winds up on the beach kissing Drake. And, incredibly, Flora remembers!

Unfortunately, Paige finds out. When Flora's parents leave for Paris to be with Flora's dying brother, Jacob, they think Paige will "babysit" Flora. Except Paige doesn't want anything to do with Flora anymore. Flora knows that if she can just find Drake, her brain will work again, so before long she has written enough notes on her hand, in her notebook and on her phone to enable her to buy a plane ticket from Cornwall, England, to Svalbard, where she intends to kiss Drake and "remember it to infinity.”

Flora's resourcefulness in overcoming her disability, along with her determination to gain some measure of autonomy from overprotective parents, makes her a strong and appealing character. In her YA debut, the author does a terrific job portraying how disorienting life must be for someone who can't remember what she does for more than two or three hours at a time. Life is always a mystery, yet Flora persists. Certainly, the most important advice she can give herself is etched right onto her hand: "Flora, be brave."


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Shelf Awareness--All The Crooked Saints

YA Review: All The Crooked Saints

All The Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic Press, $18.99 hardcover, 320p., ages 12-up, 9780545930802, October 10, 2017)

In 1962, in the "dark, true-dark" of the desert, 18-year-old Beatriz Soria and her cousins transmit their "pirate" radio show from the back of a box truck. Even though the voice of the DJ belongs to the talented Diablo Diablo (otherwise known as Joaquin), it is Beatriz's logical mind that powers this enterprise. Daniel, "the Saint of Bicho Raro," comes along even though he's more concerned with miracles than the clandestine radio station.

The entire Soria family are capable performers of miracles but Daniel is the "best saint that Bicho Raro had experienced for generations." Pilgrims flock to the ranch, where miracles come in twos. The first, performed by the Saint, will make the darkness inside a person visible. It will "draw it out and give it form." But the second, "getting rid of the darkness for good," is up to the pilgrim. One of the most important rules the Sorias have is that the family must not interfere in the second miracle or "a darkness would fall on the Soria as well, and a Saint's darkness" is a "terrible and powerful thing." Yet, unable to forgive themselves, Bicho Raro's current pilgrims have not been able to perform their second miracle and move on. The pilgrims are stuck in drawn-out darkness and the Sorias are stuck with the pilgrims. Until now.

When Tony and Pete drive in, every bed is full. Tony seeks a miracle but Pete just wants to work--he was promised a box truck (the very same one that Beatriz and Joaquin use for their radio station) and a place to stay as payment for a summer job. Tony gets his miracle and Pete gets his job, falling hard for both the desert and Beatriz as he settles in. Meanwhile, Daniel decides to "help someone he was not allowed to help." The Saint of Bicho Raro has fallen in love with Marisita, a girl whose first miracle left her in the center of her own personal rainstorm with a dress covered in butterflies. Despite the taboo, Daniel interferes, and his darkness has already started coming. To protect his family, he takes off for the desert, demanding that no one follow as he faces his demons alone. He brings only a small pack with water and food and the kitchen radio, so he can listen to Diablo Diablo in the evenings.

Skimming back and forth through time, Stiefvater's (The Scorpio Races, The Raven Cycle) tale is gorgeously told, unfurling like the black roses Francisco Soria obsessively cultivates in his greenhouse. Beatriz, who even as a 10-year-old child realized that the darkness is more about shame than being "terrible," has never wanted to be the Soria's Saint. But she must push through her own fear and darkness and, using her magic, her intellect and her "complicated and wiry heart," save her beloved cousin. A miraculous work. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Shelf Talker: A saint, a scientist and a DJ perform miracles (and science) in the Colorado desert.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Shelf Awareness--Jane, Unlimited

YA Review: Jane, Unlimited

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, (Kathy Dawson/Penguin, $18.99 hardcover, 464p., ages 14-up, 9780803741492)

Ever since her beloved Aunt Magnolia was lost while on a photography expedition to Antarctica, Jane has floundered, "trapped in the wrong version of [her] life." She drops out of college, works part time in the campus bookstore and rents a bedroom the size of "a glorified closet." She becomes obsessed with making umbrellas, her art form of choice, "almost as if one perfect umbrella might make Aunt Magnolia come back." 

Before she left on her final trip, Aunt Magnolia inexplicably made Jane promise never to turn down an invitation to Tu Reviens, the family estate of Jane's old writing tutor, Kiran Thrash. Now, Kiran chances upon Jane in the bookstore and invites her to a gala at the mansion. Jane hasn't seen Kiran in almost a year, but she quits her job, packs her umbrellas and joins Kiran at Tu Reviens. Jane quickly finds that mysteries abound: strange comings and goings (including a man carrying a diaper bag and a gun), missing art, people who may or may not have known her aunt, and a basset hound who's preoccupied by a painting.

As Jane faces a universe of possibilities that will determine her future, her friend Kiran says it best: "People tell you that what happens to you is a direct result of the choices you make, but that's not fair. Half the time, you don't realize that the choice you're about to make is significant." With references to the Brontës, Edith Wharton, Winnie-the Pooh and many more, Kristin Cashore (Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue) treats readers to an intelligent tale about the meaning of home, the need for compassion and the all-important power of choice. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: When Jane accepts an invitation to her friend's mansion, she is confronted with five life-changing answers to a single question.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shelf Awareness--Fireblood

YA Review: Fireblood

Fireblood by Elly Blake, (Little, Brown, $17.99 hardcover, 416p., ages 12-up, 9780316273329)

As the first installment of the Frostblood Saga concluded, Fireblood Ruby and Frostblood Arcus joined their powerful gifts to destroy the icy throne of Tempesia, that "timeless symbol of Frostblood rule." Rather than defeating its curse, their attempt released the Minax, a "haunting, shadowy creature" trapped within. This creature had influenced the previous Frostblood king, convincing him to butcher all of the Tempesian Firebloods. Although Firebloods still rule in their homeland of Sudesia, in Tempesia only Ruby survived.

Now, in book two, Arcus is king of Tempesia, ruling over a fractious Frostblood Court. Ruby fears the "bone-deep distrust" between Frostbloods and Firebloods makes her presence a liability to the new king's efforts to unite his people. Even though Arcus insists that she stay, Ruby joins the rakish Fireblood Kai on a journey to Sudesia, where the fire throne can be found; trapping and controlling the Minax imprisoned in the fire throne may be her best hope for destroying the murderous Minax back home. Unfortunately, Kai has hidden motives for bringing her to the court of the Fireblood queen. As a Tempesian and close friend of the Frostblood King, Ruby finds herself fighting for her life and her freedom, all the while trying to gather the knowledge she needs to destroy the curse of the Minax, put an end to the growing discord and destruction and mend relations between two bitterly divided countries.

Ruby's fiery nature leads to some rash decisions, but her flaws make her an extremely likable heroine. Her adventuring is balanced with light touches of romance, and there is more than enough intrigue to satisfy. Fans of Frostblood will find themselves smitten with this second installment, and the breathtaking climax will leave them eagerly awaiting the third. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: Fireblood Ruby travels from Tempesia's Frostblood Court to the fire kingdom of Sudesia, where she must destroy the fire throne and gain control of the cursed spirit within.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Shelf Awareness--Landscape with Invisible Hand

YA Review: Landscape with Invisible Hand

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson, (Candlewick, $16.99 hardcover, 160p., ages 12-up, 9780763687892)

When the vuvv land in the middle of Wrigley Field, humans initially feel lucky they haven't been invaded: instead of violence, the extraterrestrial creatures offer to "end all work forever and cure all disease." Unfortunately, once they sell their "tech" to Earth's wealthiest, most people around the globe lose their jobs. The "captains of industry" with investments in vuvv firms thrive but, for the rest of humanity, only those who work with the vuvv personally (even in lowly jobs) can get by.

High school senior Adam Costello has been struggling since the vuvv landed. In his neighborhood, almost everyone is unemployed. Adam and new girlfriend Chloe decide to allow the vuvv (who don't experience romantic love but find it fascinating) to pay to watch them go on dates--apparently, the vuvv want to see "1950s love," since that was what they witnessed from their saucers before moving in. But, although Adam and Chloe grow to hate each other, they're trapped, dependent on the income. Adam dreams of becoming a successful painter, so he's thrilled when his art teacher, Mr. Reilly, enters him in a vuvv contest, in which the winner's work will be "exported to the stars." Except the vuvv only want still lifes and paintings of Earth before they came. Adam's strongest pieces show how Earth has been changed, leaving him torn between a possible win and thus providing for his family and doing what he believes is right.

M.T. Anderson (Feed; Symphony for the City of the Dead) has written a biting satire about the world's haves and have-nots, set in an increasingly stratified near-future where the human race has, for the most part, become expendable. It's a strange and wonderful fantasy about seeking love amid the filth, and keeping hope alive, despite unquestionable odds against it. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: When alien technology causes the human economy to collapse, Adam Costello and his fellow Earthlings struggle to survive.

Friday, September 15, 2017

September Recommendations


In A PROPERLY UNHAUNTED PLACE, by William Alexander (National Book Award winner for Goblin Secrets), Rosa Romona Diaz is not impressed when she and her mother move to a basement apartment underneath the Ingot Public Library, where Rosa’s mom is the new library appeasement specialist. Usually, the job involves calming down ghosts who get upset, but there are no ghosts in this town. In fact, it’s "the only unhaunted place that Rosa had ever heard of,” and nobody knows why. Except suddenly there’s a massive haunting at the town’s splendid but historically inaccurate Renaissance Festival. A succinct gem promoting respect and the power of listening. (MG)

THE WRATH AND THE DAWN and its follow-up, THE ROSE AND THE DAGGER, by Renee Ahdieh, are a richly imagined duology inspired by A Thousand and One Nights. In the kingdom of Khorsan, the Caliph takes his bride in the evening, only to have her put to death at dawn. When Shahrzad’s best friend becomes victim to this horrific cruelty, Shahrzad vows to get revenge. She marries the monstrous boy-king herself, and stays alive by weaving tales and charming him in her chambers at night. Determined to make sense of the nightmare, she digs into the Caliph's deeply buried secrets. Before long, Shahrzad finds herself falling in love, even as she feels honor-bound to kill this king who has so much blood on his hands. Over the course of the series, their love must survive a devastating curse, betrayals, dangerous magic, and the growing threat to Khalid’s throne, orchestrated by his uncle, the Sultan of Parthia, and Shahrzad's childhood sweetheart, Tariq Imran al-Ziyad. Mesmerizing. (YA)

Picture Books:

WHEN’S MY BIRTHDAY, by Julie Fogliano and Christian Robinson, is an exuberant, poetic celebration of that most personal and universal of holidays, the birthday. Loose, kid-like, collaged art perfectly suits this "happy happy" take on a “happy happy day,” where one can get wishes and kisses and berries and even tiny sandwiches with soup if one is extremely lucky!!

PUG MEETS PIG, written by Sue Lowell Gallion and illustrated by Joyce Wan, is a charming friendship story about contented Pug, who must make room for interloper Pig. It’s not friendship at first sight, but Pug and Pig work things out admirably by the end.

In Pug & Pig, Trick-or-Treat, Pig likes her Halloween costume very much. But Pug does not like his, until it’s scattered in pieces all over the yard. But who will celebrate Halloween with Pig? Pug has a solution so they can both enjoy the festivities!


Saturday, September 2, 2017

September's Book of the Month--Mrs Bixby's Last Day

September’s Book of the Month is MRS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY, by John David Anderson.

Ms. Bixby is one of the Good Ones, a teacher who makes "the torture otherwise known as school somewhat bearable.” She’s got a streak of pink in her hair, she reads The Hobbit aloud in class, and she’s made a personal connection, a substantial difference, in the lives of at least three of her students, Topher, Steve, and Brand.

When she gives her class the news that she’s got cancer and won’t be able to finish out the term, the boys decide to execute a complicated mission to visit her in the hospital. Even though it involves lying to their parents, cutting school, and plenty of nefarious shenanigans, these three boys give their beloved teacher the farewell party of her dreams. And they learn an awful lot about family, friendship, and life itself along the way.

Told in alternating points of view, Anderson does a terrific job of creating three very distinct characters, each with his own rich backstory. Each contributes a piece of the story, and the subplots coalesce into a rewarding novel that is funny, deep, and completely “frawsome.”


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Shelf Awareness--A Properly Unhaunted Place

MG Review: A Properly Unhaunted Place

A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander, illus. by Kelly Murphy (Margaret K. McElderry/S&S, $16.99 hardcover, 192p., ages 8-12, 9781481469159)

Rosa Ramona Diaz is not impressed when she and her mother move from the city to a basement apartment underneath the Ingot Public Library. Rosa's mom is the new library appeasement specialist, a job that involves calming down ghosts who get upset and keeping the really nasty ones distracted. But there are no ghosts in Ingot. In fact, it's "the only unhaunted place that Rosa had ever heard of," and nobody knows why. Which means that when Rosa goes out to explore, she leaves her "tool belt" behind.

While exploring, Rosa meets Jasper Chevalier, who is dressed as a squire and following his dad, "Sir Morien, Black Knight of Arthur's court and table." They make their way to the splendid Ingot Renaissance Festival, where "centuries smacked into each other" in a hodgepodge of historical reenactment. When a beast (mostly mountain lion, with "an antlered deer skull... where its head used to be") charges out of the forest, Rosa springs into action. She's got no salt, matches or chalk, but she's been well trained by her mom. Grabbing a roll of copper wire, Rosa manages to fend off the "rearranged wildlife," but she knows it's only the beginning. Ghost-free Ingot has just had a haunting.

Though primarily about ghosts, A Properly Unhaunted Place is also about respect; Rosa's mom doesn't hunt spirits or banish them. Rather, she appeases them using the powers of listening and speaking their language--she even offers her own voice (literally) and the beast absconds with it! Kelly Murphy's illustrations help bring life to William Alexander's (Goblin Secrets) succinct gem: a meticulously crafted world so tangible it feels like an alternate version of our own. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: A town with no ghosts hires a ghost appeasement librarian, then suddenly plays host to a haunting.

Monday, August 14, 2017

August Recommendations


THE APPRENTICE WITCH, by James Nicol, features Arianwyn Gribble, a young witch who is mortified when her magical assessment goes horribly wrong and she’s labeled an apprentice who "has not yet reached the maturity of her powers.” Nevertheless, she’s sent to a small town that’s in need of a witch, where she makes charms and deals with the less dangerous beasts that plague the neighborhood. Until something huge, dark, and twisted emerges from the Great Wood and Arianwyn has to step up to save the town. Feeling both fresh and familiar, this one’s for fans of Jennifer Nielsen and Eva Ibbotson. (MG)

In THE GIRL IN BETWEEN, by Sarah Carroll, the only thing that the unnamed, "invisible" girl who narrates this lyrical yet chilling novel wants is a safe place to live with her Ma, off the streets, where the Authorities can't get them. Because the last time they were sleeping in an alley, when Ma was still drinking and using drugs, the Authorities came to take the girl away. The girl never doubts her mother's love for her, and spends her time weaving fantastic tales, exploring the mill, and hoping that one day Ma will bring them home to Gran's. It’s powerful and, despite a young-sounding protagonist, probably a better choice for older kids. (YA)

THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas, is an intense, engaging story: sixteen-year-old Starr lives in Garden Heights, a poor black neighborhood, but she goes to school at an elite, mostly white prep school. She feels torn between who she is in each of these two very different worlds when, over spring break, she finds herself at a “Garden party.” Leaving with her old friend Khalil, Starr is the only witness when Khalil is shot by police. She has to navigate the ensuing community outrage and media fray as she decides who she is and who she will become. It recently won the 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction. (YA)

Picture Books:

THE LEGEND OF ROCK PAPER SCISSORS, by Drew Daywalt with pictures by Adam Rex, is packed with action and kid-friendly snark. From the mysterious Forest of Over by the Tire Swing to the great cavern of Two Car Garage, it’s Rock vs. Scissors vs. Paper to see who is the champion of them all!

In COLETTE’S LOST PET, by Isabelle Arsenault, Colette has just moved to a new neighborhood. When her mom sends her out to explore, she meets some kids and invents a lost bird who gets more and more spectacular. Everyone has fun searching for the parakeet named Marie-Antoinette who can surf, speak French, and is the best pet anyone could dream of. The art is rendered in panels and the text all in dialog. Arsenault has been on the NY Times Best Illustrated Books list twice, and the illustrations in this one does not disappoint.

TRIANGLE, by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, is about how Triangle leaves his triangle-shaped house to go over to his friend Square’s square-shaped house and play a sneaky trick. It’s droll and a bit philosophical, with Klassen’s signature art. The bookmaking is nice too—there are chunky board covers with no dust jacket, and regular paper pages inside, for a different look and feel.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

August's Book of the Month--Scythe

August’s Book Talk book is the futuristic dystopian fantasy SCYTHE, by Neal Shusterman.

It is some far distant year in the future. No one knows for sure when, because once death (along with pain, misery, disease, and old age) was conquered, there seemed little point in counting. However, a simple truth remains: to ease the tide of population growth, people still have to die. The Scythedom was created to deal with this responsibility.

Citra and Rowan have been chosen by Scythe Faraday to be his apprentices. They will both train for a year, although only one will be ordained as a Scythe. Neither wants to kill (now referred to as gleaning), but it seems they have little choice. In fact, Scythe Faraday considers their reluctance the very reason they will make good apprentices. He and other traditional scythes consider the taking of life to be a serious responsibility, a necessity for the good of society. However, a new school of thought is emerging, promoted by Scythe Goddard, whereby gleanings should be spectacular, en masse, and even enjoyable affairs. Citra and Rowan find themselves caught up in the politics of death and immortality in this novel full of twists, and turns, and the struggle for power in a world where most forms of power have been rendered obsolete.

Shusterman, National Book Award winner for Challenger Deep and the author of numerous well-spun tales, unravels his complex world via narrators Citra and Rowan as they learn the fine art of killing, and supplements it with passages from the mandatory gleaning journals of Scythe’s Curie, Faraday, Goddard, and others. Ethical questions abound!

Have you read Printz Honor book SCYTHE? What do you think?


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wicked Like a Wildfire--Shelf Awareness

YA Review: Wicked Like a Wildfire

Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popovic (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, $17.99 hardcover, 416p., ages 14-up, 9780062436832, August 15, 2017)

In Wicked Like a Wildfire, Lana Popovic's gorgeous debut, the women of Iris's family are all witches who pass down a dangerous legacy of magic, some even dying for the beauty they create.

Iris remembers that the world of her childhood had been "brilliant and blazing and alive from every angle." Using her gleam (what her mother called "eating the moon"), Iris could make the whole world "explode into fractal fireworks." Twin sister Malina's gleam allowed her to harmonize three vocals by herself, creating "the precise pitch of wonder." But when a neighbor witnessed the seven-year-old twins and their mother, Jasmina, producing magic in their backyard, Jasmina put an end to the nighttime practices and forbade the use of magic ever again. That moment set Iris on a course of resentment and spite and, in turn, sparked a terrible, decade-long coldness from Jasmina.

Now 17, Iris feels like a thing apart, a "prickly offshoot" of the charm, grace and easy beauty her mother and sister share--the power to bloom had been her only way to feel both special and connected to the women in her family. One evening, Iris gets spectacularly wasted at a party and offers to "make a galaxy out of the ceiling" for an attractive new boy. Extremely hungover the next morning, she goes to work at Jasmina's café, where the appearance of a mysterious woman with striking white hair upsets Jasmina. When the woman leaves, Jasmina (who never drinks) gets stinking drunk and "weirdly lovey" with her black sheep daughter. The next day Iris arrives at the café to find blood everywhere and her mother's chest smashed in. Though Jasmina has no pulse and no heartbeat, something is keeping her from dying, keeping her faintly alive but moaning in relentless pain. And women begin appearing, women who also wield the gleam and issue conflicting demands of loyalty. Iris and Malina know they need to untangle the roots of their obscure family tree, so they set off with close friends (and brother and sister) Luka and Nikoleta on a road trip to find answers. Who was the white-haired woman? Who are these women with the gleam? And who was the new boy who let Iris make him a galaxy? What the teens find is a deadly curse passed down through the generations.

Popovic weaves a "wild and beautiful" tale, a contemporary world so seemingly different from our own that references to a "modern age full of mundane things" seem strangely out of place. The magic is old, going back to pre-Indo-European tribes and one woman who is at the heart of it all: a witch, a god, or both. Yet Iris's struggles with her mother ring true to any age, and the drive to create beauty feels universal. Readers will revel in the evocative language and sensory details that feel a time and place apart, in this first of a planned duology. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: Twins Iris and Malina are forbidden to use their magic, but when their mother is attacked, they must make sense of a deadly curse and the family of witches they never knew they had.

Monday, July 10, 2017

July Recommendations


In THE DOORMAN’S REPOSE, by Caldecott Award winner Chris Raschka, Mr. Bunchley opens the door for the many quirky inhabitants of his grand old (and equally quirky) apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Each inhabitant has a story--even some of the building's less human residents have a tale to tell, including  mouse families Brownback and Whitefoot, and Otis the elevator. A charming look at kindness and diversity.  (MG, but a wonderful read aloud for all ages)

In SPEED OF LIFE, by teen advice columnist Carol Weston, 14-year-old Sofia Wolfe's mom died nine months ago, all the other girls are getting their periods, and Sofia worries she may be the only one in her class who has never kissed a boy. She begins writing to Dear Kate, a popular advice columnist at Fifteen magazine. Sofia needs someone to ask all of her "superpersonal" questions, especially now that her dad is dating. But then she finds out that Dad's new girlfriend is Dear Kate herself! (Upper MG)

MIDNIGHT AT THE ELECTRIC, by Jodi Lynn Anderson, tells how sixteen-year-old Adri, preparing to colonize Mars in 2065, finds her life is surprisingly interconnected with two women from long ago. While unpacking at the home of Lily, a newly discovered elderly cousin, Adri discovers a mysterious postcard, journal, and bundle of letters. Through them she learns about Catherine and the dust storms of 1934, as well as Lenore over in England at the end of World War I. They are linked by family ties, friendship, and a tortoise named Galapagos. (YA)

Picture books:

MADELINE FINN AND THE LIBRARY DOG, by Lisa Papp, features a little girl who does not like to read. Sentences get stuck in her mouth like peanut butter, and sometimes the other kids giggle. But Madeline really, really wants a gold star for reading aloud in class. When she is paired with beautiful, patient, library dog Bonnie, she learns not to be afraid of making mistakes.

A HAT FOR MRS. GOLDMAN, with words by Michelle Edwards and pictures by G. Brian Karas, uses knitting to showcase the pleasures of a good deed well done. Mrs. Goldman knits hats for friends and neighbors, to keep their keppies warm, and Sophia makes the pom-poms. But when Mrs. Goldman’s own keppie is cold, Sophia is determined to knit her the most special hat in the world. 

In Korea, Hee Jun is ordinary. A regular boy, playing and laughing and bossing his sister around. When his father moves the family to West Virginia, Hee Jun, his little sister, and even his grandmother struggle to find their way. A PIECE OF HOME, written by Jeri Watts and illustrated by Hyewon Yum, is a heartfelt look at finding a bit of ordinary in a strange, new place.