Sunday, October 15, 2017

October Recommendations

Novels:

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???

--Lynn

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."

--Lynn

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

Novels:

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!

--Lynn

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.”

--Lynn

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

Novels:

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.

--Lynn

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?

--Lynn

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

Novels:

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.

--Lynn

Monday, July 3, 2017

July's Book of the Month--Du Iz Tak?

July’s Book of the Month is the 2017 winner of the E. B. White Read-Aloud Award and a Caldecott Honor book, DU IZ TAK? by writer/illustrator Carson Ellis.

Conveyed through exquisite illustrations and dialog in a made-up language, DU IZ TAK? follows the progress of a small plant unfurling amid the passing of seasons. Among other minute whimsies, we behold a fort, a transformation, and some top hat-wearing bugs. Ellis provides plenty of small-scale narrative which plays out between the different insects who come and go within this small patch of land, including a web-spinning caterpillar and a menacing spider who gets his comeuppance.

With her gorgeous colors and attention to detail, Ellis has created a unique, delicate, and fantastic universe. But it’s the addition of the invented language that makes this book truly outstanding, giving readers even more reason to linger as they try to decode the buggy discourse.

And, once again, I am interested in how a good book is made better by a high production value. The large format and thick, creamy pages help this book stand out. Candlewick has produced another winner!

--Lynn

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Apprentice Witch--Shelf Awareness

MG Review: The Apprentice Witch

The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol (Chicken House/Scholastic, $16.99 hardcover, 336p., ages 8-12, 9781338118582, July 25, 2017)

Arianwyn Gribble is mortified when her magical assessment by the Civil Witchcraft Authority goes horribly wrong. Instead of focusing on the four cardinal glyphs, her mind is taken over by a larger, bolder symbol, an impossible one that "didn't really exist except in her imagination." The evaluation gauge undergoes a power surge and fails to pick up the required level of magical energy. Arianwyn's humiliating result is officially classified as "ungraded." Instead of the bright silver star of a fully trained witch, a "dull bronze disc" is pinned to her coat. The moon brooch identifies her as an apprentice who "has not yet reached the maturity of her powers."

Nevertheless, her service is needed (it helps that Grandmother, on the Council of Elders, has some say in the matter). Arianwyn takes a position in the small town of Lull, near the Great Wood. Rich in natural magic, "a quiet and pleasant town to live in," Lull has been without a witch for many years and is willing to welcome an apprentice. Provided, as the mayor puts it, she can "fulfill her role without incident." But Lull is not as idyllic as Mayor Belcher advertises. En route to the town, Arianwyn finds herself fighting off a dangerous dark spirit creature. When she begins a spell to banish it, the mysterious glyph flashes before her eyes and her mind goes blank. Arianwyn and her fellow passengers scramble to escape, leaving the dark spirit stunned but not banished. Worse, she may have created a dangerous rift, an opening into the world "anything could get through from the void." Arianwyn is sure that her performance could not have been more pathetic.

Settling into her new home, a musty charm shop named the Spellorium, Arianwyn manages to make charms and deal with the less dangerous beasts that plague the neighborhood. Gradually, she grows more confident and the townsfolk come to accept her. She enjoys the staunch support of best friend Salle (who was involved in the initial melee with the dark creature), and a strange kinship with the other spirit creatures she encounters. Even her district supervisor, while initially skeptical, begins to understand that some great power lurks within the awkward apprentice. All seems to be going well until the mayor's niece arrives, none other than sneaky, cruel Gimma Alverston who taunted Arianwyn mercilessly in school. Something huge, dark and twisted is haunting the Great Wood, and dangerous patches of hex mold are spreading about the area. And why does Arianwyn keep seeing visions of that strange, "tempting and terrifying" glyph?

Feeling at once fresh and familiar, James Nicol's enchanting debut will charm fans of Jennifer Nielsen, J.K. Rowling and Eva Ibbotson. The world of The Apprentice Witch is comfortable, funny and well-imagined. Underneath all the magic, fey creatures and monsters, Arianwyn's struggles with self-doubt will ring true with readers. A few loose plot points hint at a sequel, but this one stands strongly on its own. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: Distracted by a mysterious magical glyph, a witch-in-training fails her evaluation and is sent off to a remote town, in disgrace, as an ungraded apprentice.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Girl in Between--Shelf Awareness

YA Review: The Girl in Between

The Girl in Between by Sarah Carroll (Kathy Dawson/Penguin, $16.99 hardcover, 256p., ages 12-up, 9780735228603)

The only thing that the unnamed, "invisible" girl who narrates this lyrical yet chilling novel wants is a safe place for her and Ma to live, 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.

Now, they live in an old mill they call the Castle. Even though the mill has broken windows and rotten floors, it's the best place they've had since the day Ma and Gran had a massive fight, Ma packed her backpack and they left Gran's. As long as they're together, they'll be fine. But the girl has to remember not to stress Ma out. She doesn't want her to go back to drinking and getting what she needs from Monkey Man, a frightening drug dealer Ma sometimes works for. There's another danger looming, too. The Authorities are planning to tear down the mill to make room for new buildings, just as they've done across the road.

Sarah Carroll's heartbreaking debut, The Girl in Between, relates a darkly compelling story, albeit one tinged with hope. 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. Even when Ma leaves, even when she's sad and her eyes sink "as deep as the canal that runs past the mill," she always comes back. Eventually. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: An unnamed girl and her alcoholic, drug-using mother are off the streets now, living in an old mill, but they still fear that the Authorities will take the girl away.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Midnight at the Electric--Shelf Awareness

YA Review: Midnight at the Electric

Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson (HarperTeen, $17.99 hardcover, 272p., ages 12-up, 9780062393548)

The year is 2065. Sixteen-year-old orphan Adri Ortiz has sacrificed everything for a chance to be one of the lucky few living on Mars, "starting the world over... but with more brains." As a colonist-in-training, she moves to Kansas for her final three months on Earth, into the home of Lily, an elderly cousin she never knew existed. While unpacking at Lily's, Adri discovers a mysterious postcard and, on further investigation, finds a journal and bundle of letters written long ago. They become "the moment she first touched her own history."

Catherine's journal describes how she's been in love with Ellis, their farmhand, forever, but fears the dust storms of 1934 will kill her younger sister, Beezie, coating her lungs until she can't breathe anymore. She understands that it will take courage to save themselves, but Ellis and Mama refuse to leave the farm. When Catherine discovers a postcard and letters sent from England in 1919 by a girl named Lenore, she finds the will to act. Lenore is driven to escape the "suffocating gloom" of her brother Teddy's death in World War I, though she seems unable to come to terms with the grief. Lenore means to sail to America, join her best friend Beth, and make a new life.

In Midnight at the Electric, Jodi Lynn Anderson (My Diary from the Edge of the World; The Vanishing Season) weaves a shining tale of hope in the face of adversity. Her strong, independent women are linked through time by family ties, friendship and the gift of a tortoise named Galapagos. Even while facing "terrible uncertainties," they continue to seek a better life for themselves, their loved ones and, ultimately, the entire human race. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Sixteen-year-old Adri, preparing to colonize Mars in 2065, finds her life is surprisingly interconnected with two women from long ago when old letters come to light.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

June Recommendations


CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND, by Rita Williams-Garcia, features young, harmonica-playing Clayton, who loves the blues as much as Cool Papa, his electric guitar-playing grandfather, does. When Cool Papa dies and Clayton’s mom gives away all of Cool Papa’s instruments, Clayton runs off to join the blues band that he and Cool Papa used to jam with. Clayton has adventures and learns a thing or two, but so does his mom. It’s an appealing story about loss and forgiveness. (MG)

In THE LOTTERYS PLUS ONE, by Emma Donoghue, nine-year-old Sumac Lottery is a member of a very large, very boisterous, uber-diverse family consisting of two pairs of same-sex parents, seven homeschooled kids with unique interests, and plenty of pets, all living in an old brick mansion in Canada. Enter one grumpy, conservative grandpa who needs to stay with them, after accidentally setting his own house on fire. Sumac finds her familiar world shaken to its core, in this wonderfully zany, clever, heartfelt story. (MG)

Right now I’m finishing up the third book in S. E. Grove’s Mapmaker’s Trilogy, which began with THE GLASS SENTENCE, was followed by THE GOLDEN SPECIFIC, and concludes with THE CRIMSON SKEW. In the Great Disruption of 1799, continents were flung into different time periods and stranded there. Thirteen-year-old Sophia, her cartographer uncle Shadrack, and refugee Theo embark on a series of globe-and-time-trotting adventures to save each other, find Sophia’s parents, and put an end to a terrible war that threatens the stability of New Occident and other civilizations, past, present, and future. This incredible trilogy features rich, layered plots and intricate world building that should satisfy anyone who loves Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. (10-14)

A TORCH AGAINST THE NIGHT is the sequel to Sabaa Tahir’s best-selling debut, AN EMBER IN THE ASHES. It’s likewise full of twists and turns, action, adventure, and just enough romance to keep things interesting. In this volume, Laia and Elias are fleeing the city of Serra, trailed by elite soldiers of the Martial Empire, as they make for the notorious Kauf prison to free Laia’s brother Darin. I was relieved to find this installment was less crazy-violent than the first one, but it’s certainly just as thrilling. (YA)

And, finally, I’m on a Jon Agee kick right now. His MY RHINOCEROS is another charming, tongue-in-cheek farce from a picture book master. Having a rhinoceros for a pet is not like having a dog at all. No, instead of chasing balls, or sticks, or frisbees, a rhinoceros will pop balloons and poke holes in kites. It’s more useful than it sounds! Pair this with SPARKY! by Jenny Offil and Chris Appelhans, for some offbeat, new-pet fun. (PB)

--Lynn

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

June's Book of the Month--Freedom in Congo Square

June’s Book of the Month is the Caldecott Honor, Coretta Scott King Honor, Zolotow Award-winning, New York Times Best Illustrated book, FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE.

This moving collaboration from poet Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator R. Gregory Christie uses evocative rhyming couplets and vibrant art to describe a tradition begun by slaves in 1800s New Orleans which continues to this very day.

“Mondays there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop.” Art and text portray slaves endlessly engaged in a wide variety of plantation tasks. “Week in, week out, from sun to sun,” slaves hoed, planted, bricked and baked according to the whims of their masters. Weatherford shows how life was defined by this relentless list of chores that “was no ways fair.” Readers will glimpse the toil, fear, and despair slaves experienced as they worked their way through the week, each day bringing them one step closer to Sunday and the promise of an afternoon “half free” in Congo Square.

According to a forward by Freddi Williams Evans and an author’s note by Weatherford, Sundays in Louisiana were holy days, when even slaves had time away from work. At first they were allowed to gather at various locations within New Orleans, but later were allotted one specific field just outside the city limits. In time, this became known as Congo Square. Enslaved Africans as well as their free counterparts met here to sing, dance and play traditional African music. While African language and even musical instruments were banned elsewhere in the United States, in Congo Square “African rhythms, culture, and customs had free expression and were preserved.” News was shared, goods bought and sold, and African religious beliefs practiced. Every Sunday afternoon, slaves came together in Congo Square for “a taste of freedom.”

Working in tandem with Weatherford’s words, Christie’s strong lines serve to keep his figures caged. His art reinforces how, from Monday through Saturday, these workers toiled with backs bent, confined to their jobs. But, come Sunday, his stiff, sharply-angled slaves metamorphose into long-limbed dancers. They whirl through Congo Square, bursting with color and life. Masks, drums, and other African motifs decorate the pages now, and even the type comes alive and swirls across the page.

Readers of all ages will find much to admire as they enjoy this gorgeous collaboration which celebrates what may well be the origins of jazz music in America.

--Lynn

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Doorman's Repose--Shelf Awareness

MG Review: The Doorman's Repose

The Doorman's Repose by Chris Raschka (New York Review Children's Collection, $17.95 hardcover, 175p., ages 10-14, 9781681371009)

Two stories about Mr. Bunchley, the new doorman at 777 Garden Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, frame this endearing, imaginative collection by Caldecott Award winner Chris Raschka.

Mr. Bunchley, who goes against the grain himself by preferring to talk flowers over baseball, opens the door to reveal the quirky inhabitants of this grand old (and equally quirky) apartment building, a "neo-proto-Aztec-Egyptian-Gothic"-style affair. Fred is the mysterious veteran of "some kind of war" who regulates gravity with pigeons. Myrna Murray-Burdett is the building's requisite resident opera singer ("lyric soprano"). And Victoria is a second grader whose fascination with plumbing helps save a depressed boiler named Liesl. Each inhabitant has a story, and each story is told with the utmost care and respect. Even some of the building's less human residents get their turn. Stories of the mouse families Brownback and Whitefoot are likewise captivating to readers, and Otis the elevator also gets to have his say.

In The Doorman's Repose, readers are reminded that everyone (indeed, every thing!) has a history, but kindness is prequel to understanding. Raschka's (Yo! Yes?; Home at Last; A Ball for Daisy) black-and-white art is beautifully offbeat and expressive. His intertwining tales wind through time, from apartment to apartment, and emphasize the bonds among various residents who have more in common than the "unseen world" of pipes that snake through their building. As Mr. Bunchley so nicely puts it, "This city is more interconnected than the loops of yarn in your grandmother's sweater." A wonderful story for all ages. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Intertwining tales about the residents and doorman of 777 Garden Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side make up this charmingly sophisticated collection.

Monday, May 15, 2017

May Recommendations

Novels:

In MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY, by John David Anderson, three boys must come to terms with the cancer diagnosis of a very special teacher. Faced with the prospect of not getting to say goodbye, they execute a complicated mission to visit her in the hospital, and learn an awful lot along the way. Told in alternating points of view, the subplots coalesce into a rewarding story that is funny, deep, and completely “frawsome." (MG)

THE ONE MEMORY OF FLORA BANKS, by Emily Barr, refers to the only thing 17-year-old Flora can remember since doctors removed her brain tumor when she was 10: kissing Drake, her best friend’s boyfriend, at his going away party. Flora knows if she can just find Drake her brain will work again, so she follows him from England to Svalbard, Norway. Barr does a terrific job showing how disorienting life is for Flora, who can only remember things for two or three hours at a time. But she perseveres, inspired by writing on her hand which reminds her “Flora, be brave.” (YA)

A LIST OF CAGES, by Robin Roe, is the incredibly moving story of high school senior Adam Blake and his onetime foster brother, Julian. Julian is having trouble dealing with everyone and everything in his freshman year, and the school counselor assigns Adam to draw him out. Julian’s got lots of secrets, and plenty of trouble, and the stakes rise for both boys as Adam tries to help. Reminiscent of Good Night, Mr. Tom, and The War that Saved my Life, and just as heart-wrenchingly wonderful. (YA)


Picture Books:

A PERFECT DAY, by Lane Smith, is a beautifully produced picture book from Roaring Brook Press, written and illustrated by a master of the genre. A perfect day for cat, dog, chickadee, and squirrel gets turned around when Bear arrives on the scene, eager to enjoy his own perfect day.

BEST FRINTS IN THE WHOLE UNIVERSE, by Antoinette Portis, shows how the more things are different on planet Boborp, the more they are just like on Earth. Yelfred and Omek have been best frints since they were little blobbies, but teef are long and tempers are short, and stuff needs to be worked out!

ALL EARS, ALL EYES, by Richard Jackson, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson, is a bedtime poem by the legendary editor that demands to be read aloud. Full of romping, chomping, whoo-whoooing, with crick-crick-crickets chirring, this poem delves into the dim-dimming woods and, with the help of nightfall-colored watercolor and digital art, soothes us to sleep.

--Lynn