Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

Ever heard of a genie in a bread box? Me neither. There's no genie in this story but there is a magical bread box. It grants wishes. Sort of. It grants only certain kinds of wishes. Rebecca, who is 12-years-old, has to figure out what wishes are acceptable. And while this story has a magic bread box, it really is not a fantasy story. It is realistic with a magical element that only Rebecca knows about. Lately, I've been grabbing books that seem to be a grab bag of genres. The Apothecary starts as historical and is quite realistic before turning on the fantasy and mystery elements. Falling In is a fantasy that seems very realistic. Breadcrumbs starts out realistic and then turns into a fairy tale. But... none of these plots are like this book. Summer of May is probably the closest except May is a lot more angry at her mom than Rebecca.

All is not well between Rebecca's parents. Dad is sleeping on the couch because her mom is mad at him for losing his job. They don't talk much any more. When Rebecca's dad doesn't recognize her mom's birthday, she packs up Rebecca and her two year old brother, Lew, and drives from Baltimore, Maryland to Atlanta, Georgia to stay with her mother, Rebecca's grandmother. Her mom is in such a rush to leave that Rebecca doesn't get to say "Goodbye" to her best friend. Or anyone at school. She hardly gets to say "Goodbye" to her dad. Her mom drives off with the car door open in the middle of her and her dad's goodbyes. Rebecca originally thinks it is a vacation but when they get there her mom tells her that Rebecca is going to go to school there. Naturally, Rebecca is furious. Her mom did not explain that she and Rebecca's dad were separating. When Rebecca finds a bread box that grants wishes, she uses it selfishly and unselfishly. When the wishes start to backfire, she tries to fix them and makes even a bigger mess than initially. 

Rebecca is a likable character who tries to fit in as the new girl at school. The author captures the cliques that are going on at school and how Rebecca knows what she needs to do to be "in." Rebecca also recognizes the fickleness of being "in" and "out" of the group based on the leader of the clique either liking or not liking someone. She knows that the leader, Hannah, is mean but follows along for the security of belonging to a group. 

Rebecca misses her dad so much that she spends time babysitting her brother, Lew, who also misses his dad. Rebecca knows Lew is too young to express those feelings but when he cries because she said the word, "daddy," she knows that she isn't the only one suffering from her parents separation. Lew is adorable. I love how the author captures a two-year-old's language with words like "nuffing and Shooshee and otay." It reminded me of my daughter calling convertibles "bloken" cars.

The internal changes going on with Rebecca and her mother are the strength of this story and push the plot along at a good pace. I was able to figure out the plot fairly easily in spots and then I didn't see some of the twists coming at all at the end. I like how the author doesn't paint Hannah as a one-dimensional bully and the ending was creative with the addled Adda. There is a lot going on in this story with themes of bullies, stealing, separation, siblings, friendships, mother-daughter relationships, and cliques. 
If you like stories that are more character-driven than plot-driven and have an emotional punch to them then you can't go wrong with this book. You may not find a genie in your bread box, but you will find magic in this well-told story.

Reading level 5.7
4 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, March 23, 2012

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Ya gotta love Ivan.

He’s big. He’s hairy. He’s completely loveable. Did I mention that he’s a four hundred pound silverback gorilla? Yep, 400 pounds... a powerhouse of pure muscle. Only problem is that Ivan’s big body is housed in a little cage with three glass walls that sits off the highway at a circus-themed mall. You would think Ivan would be depressed, wouldn’t you? But he has lived in this mall for 27 years and accepts his situation. His dry humor knuckle walks through this story from his observations of humans to his hilarious disgust of certain members of his family tree, "Chimps,” he says, “…there’s no excuse for them.”

I love this line.

It makes me think of my brothers and sisters. Ivan would have observed us as ill-mannered chimps with ape-like appetites chaotically scampering around our house. Ivan might have liked the chaos, once he got over the disgust of our chimp-like behavior. Not that he would say anything out loud. Yes, Ivan, is a well-mannered ape. When children spit and throw pebbles at him, he thinks, "slimy chimps" and then apologizes because his mother would have been ashamed of him. Well, maybe NOT so well-mannered. He did chuck a poop ball (called me-balls) at the “spit-pebble children” that splatted on the glass separating them from him. Sometimes, he thinks, a cage has its advantages.

Ya gotta love Ivan. He’s pretty funny.

Ivan eats crayons, books (they taste like termites), paints, breaks glasses, doesn't have a great memory, lets Bob sleep on his stomach, and makes perceptive observations. He says that humans "chatter like chimps crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say," and waste words, "...they toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot. Everyone knows that banana peels are the best part."

Ivan’s voice is the banana peel in this story. He tells about his situation in a non-emotional, practical way. Ivan doesn't feel sorry for himself. He doesn't think too far ahead, "I don't think about where I am, about yesterday or tomorrow." He isn’t angry. He's resigned. Remember, he's spent 27 years in this mall with a TV as his main piece of furniture. He approaches one day at a time with his best friends, Stella, the elephant with an injured foot that won’t heal; and Bob, the homeless dog who doesn’t trust humans. Stella and Bob must perform in the circus show each day. Mack, the mall owner, worries about business slacking and buys a baby elephant, Ruby. Ruby draws the crowds, but Mack is mad. Ruby is not learning the circus routine fast enough. When Mack threatens Ruby with a claw-stick and abuses her with long days of training, Ivan changes. He no longer accepts his situation, but must protect Ruby. He wants to give Ruby a better life. He wants to give himself a better life. He wants a change so bad that he goes from calling his home a "domain" to a "cage" to telling Ruby that she must leave this "prison." As he starts to work on his rescue plan, ideas and dreams start to blossom in his thoughts like never before.

Ivan's restrained voice is one of loneliness, humor, and thoughtfulness toward his friends and way of life that brings home the author's message of animal abuse with a punch. We like Ivan. We don't want to see him lonely or mistreated. Ivan reminds me of Anthony Browne's gorilla in the picture book, Little Beauty. That, too, is a story about a captive gorilla that makes a friend with a kitten because he's lonely. Both stories have happy endings but the fact remains that they are still in captivity and at the mercy of humans whose behavior is good and bad.

Applegate’s sentence structure is interesting and strengthens Ivan’s character. It seems fitting that a gorilla would think in short, simple verses; however, the sentences contain complex thoughts and delicious word choices, "I  like colorful tales with black beginnings and stormy middles and cloudless blue-sky endings." Applegate doesn't have Ivan personify any abstract notions, but emotionally moves the story along through Ivan's thinking and conversations that show the abuse humans have inflicted on the circus mall animals. Even Mack was once good and cared about Ivan before becoming jaded. When Ivan first goes through the door to the zoo he says, “I’m not ready for this. I’m not ready to be a silverback. I’m Ivan, just Ivan. Only Ivan.” Ivan describes himself as "Only Ivan" in the first chapter and is scared to be the "Mighty Ivan." He's scared to take that first step toward his new life. The plot is predictable with Stella's injury and that the circus mall will close. What isn't predictable is Stella's words of wisdom that help Ivan change and how Ivan's plan comes to fruition. There are some wonderful twists in the plot.

This story has violence shown to animals but most is secondhand. The firsthand violence is mainly experienced through Ruby learning the circus performance and Stella's neglect. Ruby's never actually hit with the nasty claw-stick but all the animals are distressed when their friends are abused either physically or psychologically. Humans, have the ultimate power in Applegate's story. Mack is the human who makes bad choices, while Julia and George are the humans who make good choices. Ivan has to rely on Julia to help him because he is helpless to cause change solely on his own. This brings up a whole set of questions about how to treat animals in an ethical way. What is going too far? Are zoos really the best places for animals? Applegate forces us to look inside and outside ourselves to think about how we treat  animals and how much we will sacrifice to do the right thing.  A moving story that will generate great discussions.

A must read.

Reading Level 4.0
5 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Soccer Hour by Carol Nevius

I've been reading this to first graders and they go nuts with the pictures. The composition is such that the ball or kid looks like they jumping right out of the book. Students like that the illustrations shoot diagonally across the pages or have an aerial view. The details and shadows were commented on as well, especially the page that shows the boy doing a chest trap. They particularly liked his hand and hair. We also discussed his expression. Is he in pain? Is he preparing for the trap? The one illustration that is painful for me to look at is the girl doing the throw-in. She's a really flexible kid. She reminds me of my friend who was double-jointed and could put her arms into unnatural positions.

 Students love the color of the soccer balls which stand out against the sepia tones. They also like to guess what country the ball color represents in soccer. Not to mention the students eager love for the game soccer and their running commentary while I read it. A teacher could use this book for a writing unit with small moments. Students love sports. I'm not crazy about the rhyming sentences but we talked so much on each page that it was fine.

Reading Level 1.9

4 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dumpling Days by Grace Lin

Living overseas is difficult and wonderful. On the street, Chinese conversations flow around me like incense and the street signs look like mixed-up chopsticks. Communication oftentimes means charades, and buying what looks like milk, might be a carton of yogurt milk. At first, this new lifestyle for me was overwhelming, but now I have become used to the strangeness of it all, laughing at my mistakes and learning to find joy in each day. Pacy has similar experiences in Dumpling Days by Grace Lin, where she too, must adjust to her new surroundings in a foreign country for the summer and learn to find happiness in the adventure of each day.

Pacy is an artist. She visits Taiwan with her parents and two sisters to see relatives and take a painting class. She learns in class that Chinese painting is about sending a message, not painting a picture. Like brushstrokes on a canvas, Grace Lin paints many messages in this novel, one of them being do not compare yourself to others. Pacy compares her artwork with another girl in class and it makes her dissatisfied and unhappy. She wants to paint the best picture in class and win a blue ribbon at the exhibit, but realizes on the last day that she has been so focused on winning that she makes herself unhappy and misses out on making a friend with a girl named Eva. She learns in Chinese painting that you cannot go back and erase anything and thinks how that happens in life; how she cannot go back and make friends with Eva - art class is over and she'll never see her again.

Pacy finds that her painting talent is fickle, "The fortune-teller had said my special skill would be used all my life. Why did it keep disappearing? It made me hollow and fragile, like an empty eggshell." How true! A part of Pacy's growth as an artist, or any artist or athlete for that matter, is the ups and downs of acquiring new skills. Pacy also likes her paintings but hopes for "an even better one." She is not always content and it is how she deals with these internal struggles that adds tension and makes this story so enjoyable to read. Pacy learns that while winning is fun, it cannot be the only pursuit because it takes away her joy.

Pacy explores not only the artist within herself, but she is struggling to find her identity. Pacy is Taiwanese-American and some people expect her to speak Chinese because she looks Asian; however, she cannot speak it and is overwhelmed by being in a foreign country and not understanding the language. She's a Twinkie, Chinese on the outside and Americanized on the inside. She gets angry at times, feels ashamed at other times, but she learns to deal with it and change in a positive way. Even her relationship with her two sisters changes, as they too, deal with a different culture in their own way. When Lissy gets some glamorous photos done, Pacy decides that they are fake and that Pacy needs to be herself and real wherever she is in the world. She is examining who she is in the world and what is important to her as a person. Pacy also misses her friend Melody who has moved to California. She thinks about her often, especially when someone does something that reminds her of Melody, and she sends her a postcard from Taiwan. I think the strength of this book is that the action is grounded in every day life. There are no dramatic plot twists but everyday occurrences and the reader will be able to relate to much of what Pacy is going through during her vacation.  At times I felt like I was reading my journal when reading this book, making many connections from my experiences living overseas, and it added tremendously to my enjoyment of the story.

But unlike my random journal writing, Grace Lin constructs this story with rich imagery and repetition. The chapters are full of wonderful similes and metaphors found in Asian culture such as chopsticks, umbrellas, and soup: "His fingers reminded me of chopsticks picking the best pieces of meat from a dish," "Seeing him made all my grumpiness from being hungry fall away like rain being shaken from a wet umbrella," "A warm, happy feeling filled me like I had swallowed a bowl of delicious soup." The culture is explained and built upon through the internal struggles of Pacy. The ghost month and superstitions that are associated with it are woven throughout the plot and images and cultural explanations are built upon each other using repetition that creates a snowball effect. For instance, when Pacy is finding her identity as a Taiwanese-American, she thinks about the meaning of her name and her siblings names in Chinese. She learns about the use of name chops in Chinese culture and in paintings meanwhile relating and reflecting on this knowledge through incidents that happen to her and her sisters in Taiwan. When Pacy has insight into who she is as a person or artist she comments that it is a "beautiful thought" which is her sister Lissy's Chinese name. Folk tales and family stories from the past are also used to connect the culture to Pacy's internal changes. As Pacy learns about Taiwan culture so does the reader. The dumplings are used throughout the story. They give Pacy comfort, represent something she likes in Taiwan, and add humor to the plot (they also made me so hungry we ate at Din Tai Fung, a famous dumpling restaurant). The author uses the dumpling as a simile and also explains and illustrates how to make dumplings and the different kinds found in other countries. The author's message is stronger using this technique. Plus, the chapters are like small episodes in and of themselves which makes for a good read aloud.

Dumpling Days reads like a travel memoir dealing with everyday life in a foreign country with it's unique food smells, sounds, and sights and what it is like adjusting to all the changes, as well as, what it means to make new friends, lose friends, be a minority, be flexible, and have an identity. The illustrations are going to help readers visualize different cultural foods and items. Make sure to look at the page numbers! I love how the green man on the street lights walks through the pages.

Pacy's father says it is a good trip when "You take something with you, you leave something behind and you are forever changed." This can be said for living overseas as well. Taiwan has been a good life for me and I have learned to love it. Like Uncle Shin, I have two homes. I miss Taiwan when I'm in the U.S. and I miss the U.S. when I'm in Taiwan.  This is not a bad thing. This is a good thing and my life is richer for it.

I want to have a book club with this book next fall. With dumplings! Of course!

Reading Level 4.4
:-):-):-):-):-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin

What happens when people refuse to make choices? When they let the government decide what’s right and wrong? When they blindly follow rules? When they are taught to not think for themselves or disagree? This story explores through the eyes of a child, Sasha Zaichik, what happens in Russia when Stalin comes to power and the people embrace Communism.

Sasha is devoted to Stalin and wants more than anything to be a Young Pioneer, an organization that 10-year-olds are asked by the State to join. He never questions Stalin and follows the rules of Young Pioneers to a tee. He quotes from the book and cannot wait for the next day at school when he will join them officially with his dad, a Secret Serviceman, being the guest of honor at the presentation. When his dad gets arrested on charges of being a spy by a neighbor he is hauled off by the police in the middle of the night. Sasha is sure that there is a mistake and believes his dad will show up at school the next day. The neighbor moves into Sasha’s apartment and Sasha goes to see his aunt to stay with her, but she won’t take him in for fear of being arrested for harboring the son of an “enemy of the State.” Sasha sleeps in the basement and takes off for school the next day still in denial and still thinking that his dad will show up at the Young Pioneer ceremony.

At school, the propaganda machine is alive and well with the teacher making racist comments to a Jewish boy and putting down or mocking students. Sasha agrees with how she acts because it is the Communist Way. When Sasha makes a mistake and accidentally breaks the nose off of a statue of Stalin he knows that he will never be a Young Pioneer. He plans on telling the principal of the school, but hesitates for his mistake is punishable by death. He wants to be honest and do the right thing but honesty gets people killed. Honesty is not encouraged. Honesty is not found in teachers, authorities, neighbors, or children. People are encouraged to lie and turn others in to the authorities. The teacher has all the students write down the names of students that they think broke the statue. When a girl points out she didn’t see it and how can she accuse someone, the teacher bullies her into putting someone’s name down and frightens her by saying that if she doesn’t accuse someone she makes herself look suspicious. Truth does not exist in Sasha’s world. Truth does not exist in Communist Russia.

When another boy takes the blame for the statue being broken, Sasha is relieved until another boy tells him that he saw Sasha break it. When things escalate and Sasha’s world spins out of control he must decide if he really wants to be a part of the Young Pioneers and close his eyes to what is happening to his classmates and teachers at school or reject it.
The point of view from an innocent child makes the story even that much more powerful. It reminded me of the book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and how the naivete of the narrators make their situations ironic and poignant. Sasha quotes the rules, “A Young Pioneer is a reliable comrade and always acts according to conscience,” right after he has thrown an ice-filled snowball at a classmate that he knows will hurt and that breaks the boys glasses and cuts his cheek. No one in the story acts “according to conscience” except the woman at the end of the book who he meets in line.

The book is a quick read with only 140 pages and illustrated. There is plenty of action and some violence with a boy attacking a teacher and characters being dragged off to prison by policemen. I wasn’t sure about a boy attacking a teacher. Would a fourth grader be strong or desperate enough to strangle a teacher? He tries to create it that way but it still stood out as being out-of-place when I read it. Freedom of speech, making choices, and thinking for oneself are just a few topics of discussion. If planning on using this book as a read aloud, read it first. I’ve gotten mixed reviews on it from other adults. Some might see it as heavy-handed or disturbing in parts. I thought it was a terrific story.

Reading Level 5.7
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Winterling by Sarah Prineas

There’s nothing like a nasty villian. A witch queen? A crow lady? Mor, the villian in this story, is all of those things, murdering the true heir to the land and stealing her magic thus causing the seasons to stop. Winter is constant and the only way to bring spring is to sacrifice an animal or human in a ritual known as The Hunt that renews Mor’s power. Don’t be fooled by the constant winter and thinking this is another Snow Queen. Mor is more closely linked to Morrigan from Celtic mythology, the battle Goddess who appears on the battlefield in the form of a crow and returns later to feed on the dead. This story is a potluck of myths and folklores that might have you thinking of the White Queen in Narnia, or Puck from a Midsummer Night’s Dream or Sisters Grimm, or Odin’s Hunt in Norse mythology, or Artemis from Greek mythology, or the Mother Goddess from ancient myths, to name a few.

The heroine, Fer, goes to Mor’s land when she accidentally opens The Way pulling wolves who are chasing the shape-shifter Rook, (or Puck), into her world on Earth. Fer has never felt that she belongs on Earth and when The Way opens she is determined to visit it. She is living with her Grandma and knows that her parents went through The Way only to never return back to Earth. After traveling through The Way with Rook she meets Mor and discovers Mor not only knew her parents but was an ally.

Mor is covered in glamorie, a magic that hides her true self, and allows her to manipulate people or animals by using crow feathers, touching skin, or binding promises. Fer can feel that something is wrong with the land but cannot figure out what it is. When people start to seek Fer’s healing powers, she sees that they are turning into wildlings and losing their human-side completely. She knows something is wrong with the land and she is determined to find out what it is as well as what has happened to her parents.

Girl power abounds in this story with female characters of Fer, Fer’s mom, Grand-Jane, Leaf woman, and Mor. The female-dominated roles made me think of myths of the Mother Goddess. Fer, the spunky, strong female heroine,
is willing to stand up for what is right. She also insists that Rook has a choice even though he keeps telling her to not trust him because of his bondage to the Mor.

Rook is an interesting character who struggles internally because he’s under the power of Mor. We find out that he’s with the Mor because of Phouka but I never completely understood why except that Phouka helped Fer’s father
escape with Fer to Earth when she was a baby. I wanted to know more. I did want more answers to my questions such as how did her grandma become a healer? How did her mom become a healer? What really happened between her mom and dad? It would seem that the book is the first in a series.
This is a quick read at 260 pages.

Reading Level 5.0
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hound Dog True by Linda Urban

While Linda Urban does a great job creating interesting kooky characters who can make changing a lightbulb, fixing a leaky faucet, or installing doorknobs fun; I found this book a tad boring. It does have some great themes about making friends, believing in yourself, and finding what you are good at in life. Problem is it takes awhile getting there and I found it slow in the beginning. Sweet, but slow. Mattie is painfully shy and likes to spend her time with Uncle Potluck, a funny man who is a custodian at the nearby elementary school. They have a terrific relationship and the beginning slowly progresses as Uncle Potluck makes work fun calling the lightbulb a “distinguished veteran” that needs a proper burial or saluting the portrait of the principal of the school. Mattie writes in her journal what they do each day because she likes writing. She used to write stories until she had a bad experience at her previous school.

Mattie has problems talking to other adults or peers because of her crippling shyness. She remembers standing in front of a class and saying something stupid and being teased by other students. She has moved many times to many different schools and it has been really hard on her. When she and her mother live with her uncle, Mattie meets the girl next door where she becomes friends with her although it is not easy, particularly when they first see each other.

Mattie thinks in choppy sentences and there are many images throughout the story where I had to go back or stop to think about what the author was writing because the imagery got to be too much. The sentences made me think of Frances Hardinge’s book, Fly By Night, except not as extreme. Hardinge’s plot got lost in the collage of beautiful sentences and images. In Hound Dog True it seemed that the word choice and metaphors sometimes interfered with the story’s pacing, especially in the beginning of the story.

Some readers might be uncomfortable with the references to girl’s changing bodies. Quincy is more mature and there are references about bras several times. The book is a quick read, entertaining, and unique with the voice of a terribly shy girl.

Reading Level 4.3
:-):-):-) 3.5 out of 5 Smileys

Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake by Michael B. Kaplan; illustrated by Stephane Jorisch

 How can you not love Betty Bunny? She’s such a bundle of energy she explodes off the pages of this picture book like a whirlwind sweeping up everything in its path. Betty Bunny doesn’t want to try chocolate cake becauce it is “yucky!” When mom makes her eat a piece she declares, “I am going to marry chocolate cake!” Her older brother, Bill, responds (like a typical older brother), “Whatever… but you’re going to have really weird-looking kids.” Betty Bunny loves cake so much that it is all she can think of at school. She even eats mud because it looks like chocolate cake. At dinner, Betty Bunny no longer wants healthy food but just chocolate cake. When her siblings tease her she gets so mad that she throws her dinner in their faces. Sent to her room she has a temper-tantrum before her mom talks to her about being patient. Mom says she’ll leave a piece of cake in the refrigerator just for Betty Bunny after dinner. Except Betty Bunny thinks the cake will get lonely and she puts it in her pocket and brings it to school, which sets off another string of events (and laughs).

Betty Bunny is funny because she doesn’t really learn how to deal with sweets. She’s instantly addicted to them and just when it looks like she’ll be able to control herself she does something silly. Betty Bunny is the youngest of 4 siblings and the author does a terrific job showing how siblings can tease each other. It isn’t vicious and some comments are helpful while others tease. The humor is for the adult reader as well as the child. Betty Bunny’s mom tells her that she is a handful. Betty Bunny goes to school and announces to the teacher that she is a handful and loves chocolate cake. Later when Betty Bunny is sent to her room for throwing her food at her siblings “she wanted to say something especially nice to her mother. ‘Mommy’ she said, ‘you are a handful.’” The language has strong patterns and repetition that make for a great read aloud and good for young readers acquiring language.

Stephane Jorisch’s illustrations catch the humor of the text. The characters have the heads of animals and bodies shaped like humans. I like how brother Bill looks like a teenager with his hat on backwards, shirt with a rabbit (that has an attitude – it is sticking out its tongue), and insecure-but-trying-to-be-cool body language such as resting his head on his hand with an amused expression on his face while Betty Bunny holds up her piece of chocolate cake gazing at it with an adoring expression. Or later in the kitchen when Bill is wearing a smiley shirt and stands with his shoulders slightly hunched. Mom holds everything together. She’s young, dressed hip, and gives consequences to Betty Bunny’s actions all the while making sure that Betty Bunny knows she loves her. The cartoon-like pictures in gouache watercolor show some interesting shading and add texture and depth. I read this out loud to first graders and they laughed hard at Betty Bunny’s comments using the word “yucky” in different situations and Bill’s continued teasing of Betty Bunny wanting to “marry” her chocolate cake.

This book is a hoot!

Reading Level 3.3
:-):-):-):-):-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Marty Mcguire by Kate Messner

Ask any 3rd grade teacher. Ask any librarian. Ask any publisher. There are not enough books for readers who are just starting to read longer chapter books. We need more Marty Mcguire books. It’s well-written, funny, and entertaining.

Meet tomboy, Marty. She is having problems with her best friend, Annie, who has embraced dancing, frilly things, and new friendships… like Veronica Grace, the ultimate girly girl. In order to win back Annie, Marty tries to play dress up and learn to dance with the other girls at recess, but she keeps getting distracted by the boys catching a bullfrog at the pond. It looks like so much fun! Eventually, she wanders over to the boys not only catching the frog but falling in the pond with her dress up clothes.

When the teacher tells the students they are going to have a play called, The Frog Prince, most of the girls want to be the princess and dress up, but not Marty. Ugh! She wants nothing to do with the play. When the teacher chooses her to be the lead, she refuses, but mom and dad won’t take no for an answer. Marty becomes the Frog Princess. And not only does she embrace her the role, she comes up with a few surprises of her own.

Words are repeated that will help early readers with reading and if the word is difficult like, “improvise,” it is used multiple times throughout the story to help the child learn it. That is probably the hardest word and “spontaneous” but they are defined for the reader. Messner does a nice job of weaving frogs into the story either in nature or in the fairy tale.

This story deals with conflicts and girls not being nice to each other. Marty can have an attitude at times but she also recognizes when to apologize to another person. It is a good story to use about discussing kindness toward each other and how to deal with conflicts at school. My husband told me Marty sounds like Junie B. Jones except Junie B. doesn’t always apologize when she calls people names. Guess I will have to read one of those books. If you are looking for a book at this level but about sibling conflicts try, “The Stories Julian Tells.”

Reading Level 2.8
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, March 2, 2012

Princess of the Wild Swans by Diane Zahler

“Read this! Read this!” I look down at the beautiful renaissance-type artwork on the cover of Diane Zahler’s newest book that a 5th grader has shoved in my hands. What makes the students love her books? I know that one appeal is the cover, but I suspect that the stronger appeal is the inherent goodness of the teenage characters who are beginning to experience romantic feelings for each other. The stories are fast-paced and easy-to-read. They are not multi-layered but have plenty of action and innocent romance. I did find this book’s character slightly different from the previous two books. Princess Meriel in the beginning has more of an attitude and is spoiled as the only girl out of six children. She talks back to adults and needs to be the center of attention. At first I thought Meriel was going to run away because she complains about how her brothers get to do all the fun things like hunting and using swords and she has to learn to sew (guess I had the character from Trickster’s Choice on my brain), but in the end she isn’t bucking the princess role or female expectations, she embraces it and even tells her governess “she was right.”

This fairy tale adheres pretty closely to the original plot structure of Hans Christian Andersen’s, The Wild Swans, which makes it predictable in many ways: happy, wealthy family ends up with evil stepmother (witch) who wants the King’s kingdom; nasty mom turns sons into swans, tries to get rid of stepdaughter with curse; stepdaughter goes on quest to save brothers, has to sew shirts out of nettles, witch tries to stop her; lives happily ever after. Zahler uses this plot as her launching board and then puts in her own twists and variations into the story.

Meriel is not the pure character who prays to God like in Andersen’s story (the entire layer of religion and the evil Archebishop are not found in Zahler’s story), but instead, is outspoken and a go-getter. She knows right away that her stepmom is evil and she hates not having all of her father’s attention. When the stepmother tries to control Meriel’s movements by not letting her out of the castle, Meriel finds ways to sneak out. When suddenly Meriel’s brothers disappear and are sent to “school” Meriel insists something is wrong because they don’t even say “Goodbye” to her. She gets help from Cullen’s girlfriend, Riona, who is a half-witch. Riona instructs Meriel to not direct her thoughts at her stepmother which is how she controls minds and how Meriel’s father’s mind is being controlled by her stepmother. Riona talks to her mother, a witch who married a human, who instructs Meriel how to break the curse which is to knit shirts out of nettles and not speak a word to anyone.

Fortunately, Meriel can communicate with Riona and her brother, Liam, because they are half-witches and can hear her thoughts when directed at them. She also gets help from an unexpected witch but I won’t tell you who it is because it will spoil the fun surprise. Zahler has the evil stepmother in league with the “Faeries” and this part I found slightly confusing. The faeries used to dwell among the humans (some married humans, that’s how half-witches came into existance) but the faeries were forced by witches below ground because there was some cruelty going on that was never defined. The witches put a spell on the opening to Faeryland which is called the ”Faery spring” and the evil stepmother makes a pact with the Faery King to release the spell so the Faeries can rule over humans. The pact is the stepmother will marry a king and put her son on the throne releasing the protection spell so faeries can dwell and rule over humans. Meriel asks her stepmother why the heck did she pick a family with 5 sons instead of finding a king with no children?Ha! Good question. The stepmother replies that her father’s thoughts were only on her, the girl in the family.

The stepmother calls up a faerie to thwart Meriel in her quest and it is never shown how she does this or how she gets her powers. When the sons change into swan,s the Faery King, except he’s not called that I’m just assuming he’s the big honcho – he’s called an “onchu” which looks like “honcho” - decides the promise is broken between himself and the evil stepmother, but I don’t know why the witchy stepmother can’t try another spell to kill the sons since the king is bewitched. I think more explanations would have strengthened the storyline, such as making up that a Faery War occurred 70 years before because Onchu the Big Honcho wanted to rule the kingdom but he failed in his uprising; thus, causing the half-human, half-witches to force the faeries underground. I wanted the Faery world more fleshed out but that would make for a longer more complex story.

I thought the romance between the Prince Cullen and Riona interesting. The two want to marry but it isn’t allowed in the cast system with him being a prince and she being a commoner; however, when Cullen ends up being the human with the arm of a swan then it is okay for them to marry. They are both outcasts. She’s half-witch. He’s half-bird. It is not talked about but inferred in the story. I think it would be interesting to compare the original story with this one in a bookclub. There would be plenty to talk about!

Reading Level 3.9
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys