Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor

When I saw that Sheila O'Connor was a professor at Hamline University where Gary Schmidt and Anne Ursu work I wondered if she would have strong characters like they do in their middle grade and young adult novels. She does. It is the main strength in this novel along with beautiful writing. The emotional arc of twelve-year-old Raine and the character development of secondary characters kept me going in this book. The plot was predictable and the action minimal, but the subplot had surprises and the ending was strong. Much of the tension is centered on adult issues and this will appeal to students who like realistic fiction that tug at emotions. The messages of missing people, addiction, abandonment, artistic creations, and dealing with conflict (between adults) make for good discussions.

Raine has come to Sparrow Road, an artists' retreat, with her mother for two months in the summer. Here mother is going to cook for the artists working on projects. Raine dreads coming and is mad at her mother for uprooting her from Milwaukee where they live with Grandpa Mac. When Viktor, owner of Sparrow Road, picks them up and explains the Silence Rule, no talking during the day so artists can work, Raine has a fit. Her mother didn't tell her about that ridiculous rule. Her mother has been secretive since they left and it fuels Raine's anger. On the first day, her mother goes to town with Viktor and when Raine begs to go along, her mother says, "No" telling her to lock herself in the cottage. Raine is a teenager and in the middle of nowhere and I thought this didn't seem very normal; not to mention not bringing Raine into town. When Raine's mom tells her to stay by the cottage so she can see her I did some more head-scratching, but eventually the plot unfolds and Mom's actions become clear.

As Raine settles into life in the big house, she makes friends with the artists; all interesting characters in their own right. "Suddenly Josie marched into the kitchen, her long, sure steps reminding me of the cowboys in the westerns Grandpa watched."Lillian is not quite right in the head even those she's sweeter than ice cream and the wise Diego is comic relief. The subplot where Raine starts to write and comes up with an imaginary friend based on an orphan, Lyman Chase, who drew a picture is an interesting way to show her emotional arc of figuring out what is going on with the adults around her, as well as, show the creative process. At first she struggles to write until Diego gives her the prompt, "What was or what could be..." When her imaginary character, Lyman, develops a voice of his own I wondered if this is what it is like for writers creating characters in their stories.

When they have an Art Extravaganza and Raine is terrified to read her piece out loud it made me think of fears of speaking in front of others and risks taken when doing anything public. Doubts creep into the mind and terror can reach out like tendrils through the body wracking up visions of people laughing or looking stupid. It is hard developing a thick skin and while nothing goes horribly wrong for Raine, she still has to get over her fears and vulnerability by stepping in front of family and friends. Blogging is that way for me. I feel vulnerable because it is a public domain. Am I learning and changing and getting better with analyzing books? I hope so. But I also know I have a lot of bad reviews. Perhaps when I hit my 10,000 hour mark that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in "Outliers" I will feel confident and not so self-conscious.

The plot is predictable which was probably okay because the mom seemed out-of-character in the beginning. Once it appeared her mom knew Viktor, I connected the dots as to what was going to happen next. While this takes a bit of the tension out, I didn't feel disappointed because the characters move the pace along and I anxiously anticipated what was going to happen next. I credit O'Connor's terrific writing to keep me going. I am not a very patient reader and don't like this type of book as a matter of personal taste. Another tweak I'd make is I think that the book had too much of an adult focus versus a child focus. Raine is dealing mainly with adult problems and there is no other kid that is her age to interact with in the storyline, only an imaginary friend. While she is surrounded by loving, supportive adults, I would have liked some other kids.

The character, Lillian sounds like a teacher even though she has the beginning of dementia. She talks about all children being brilliant and her love for her students is obvious. She is a teacher who sees the potential in students and her voice seemed very authentic to me. I wonder if the author taught young students before becoming a university professor. The emotional arc of Raine is well-written with nice depth as she deals with not growing up with a dad and having empathy for the orphans who once lived at Sparrow Road. Diego gives Raine some good advice when it comes to writing, "Just pick a piece closest to your heart. That's all art really is. Your feelings sent out to someone else." When Raine says she wants her piece to be really good (sounds like a clear case of writer's block), Diego responds, "Good will goof you up from the beginning. Art just has to be. Dream your dreams. Trust the words that come." Good advice, wouldn't you say?

Reading Level 3.9
Fountas & Pinnell: W
4 Smileys

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury, Morag Styles

No wonder I can't figure out artist's techniques in picture books. It can be intaglio, screen-printing, lithography, and a long list of doodads that are oftentimes combined and infused with digital editing using Photoshop and scanners. I'm not sure how much of these techniques my brain will transfer to picture books in my library, but I'll give it a go. I need to stretch myself as a librarian and I'd like to teach students visual literacy as I do read alouds; hence, my recent gorge of professional books on illustrators. This latest morsel is a terrific introduction to the art of book illustrating with a focus on European illustrators but not exclusive to them. The book included illustrators worldwide. Some are famous. Some are newbies. Some are oldies. Some make their own books and others get subsidized by their governments. All make for an interesting read. The scholarly text has a chronological layout that gives a clear progression of the beginnings of illustrations to the present and a comprehensive index, glossary, and resource page allowing for future reference. The authors say in the introduction that their focus is visual literary and not verbal, but they cover both emphasizing the artistic side of picture books.

This is not a long book, but it took me a while to get through, because I was ordering a bunch of books by illustrators who caught my interest from examples of their works. Many of the books did not have English translations which is probably okay because I found many in spite of this bump. The authors are professors from Europe and I found I didn't know many of the illustrators being mostly familiar with American illustrators. Working in an international school makes it even more important I widen my knowledge base. I was thrilled to find a Taiwanese illustrator I didn't know about, Jimmy Liao. The chapter, Suitable For Children, covers illustrators who are pushing the boundaries of what is suitable for children. I didn't realize that some countries subsidize publishing costs to allow for more experimental books. One example of the Norwegian authors, Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus, who create picture books for counselors to use with kids in order to discuss depression and domestic violence was unusual.

The authors cover a huge range in history from the printing press to present day eBooks. Like I said earlier, it's an introduction, and not an in-depth look into one period. Areas that are going to interest the reader can be pursued by referring to the additional resources in the back of the book or the resources referenced in the text. For instance, I want to pursue some printing processes. I kept thinking of the book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Erin Stead and was wondering if she used one of the older techniques mentioned here - I want to be able to share techniques with students. I also realize I don't look closely enough at the pictures and the emotional arc of the story as displayed in illustrated characters. I focus too much on the text and if anything this exploration of children's books has been good at revealing that tendency I didn't even know I had.

Ironically, I didn't like the design of the book all that well. I thought the flat matte and small typeset washed out the illustration details and was hard to read. I have a preference for glossy matte with illustrations so I'm prejudiced here. Perhaps it is too expensive to make a book this way.  Also my tired old eyes strained a bit on the small typeface, but I have 50 year old eyeballs; you young eyeball readers won't have problems with it... until you turn 50. Just wait. I was also trying to read it on the elliptical machine in a poorly lit room. Perhaps I am not being fair? You decide.

Several illustrators talk about their target audience of adults and children or not targeting any audience and just being self-indulgent. Illustrator, Bjorn Rune Lie, didn't have any children in his illustrations and has littered the space with so many graphic motifs that I'm not sure how a child would react to it. Only a few reprinted pages are exhibited, but the truck stop and all the odd characters in it make for a busy picture. It reminds me of a graphic novel in some ways and a collage of letterforms in another. The unique style gives pause that makes me wonder why don't we have picture books for adults? Why does it stop after a certain age? Why can't it be like graphic novels that are enjoyed by all ages like I see here in Taiwan? The authors raise many thought-provoking questions. A good book for professional development.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Illustrated children's books; edited by Duncan McCorquodale, Sophie Hallam and Libby Waite

The strength of this book is the illustrations. Uff-da, who woodah thunk? Sorry, I can't think of a better lead. This book is a bit confusing in spots and there is no index. I plowed through the dizzying lists of who's who in children's illustration history with an occassional crossed eye ready to give up only to get reigned in by an interesting section thinking (or thunking), " 'kay this isn't so bad..." Many of the early 1900s illustrators are unbeknownst to me and it was fun recognizing the illustrations and being able to put names with them. I didn't know who the blazes Thomas Bewick and Kate Greenaway were but have read other illustrators refer to them. Greenaway is the English equivalent to the American Caldecott, so I'm a bit embarrassed for not knowing who in tarnation she was in the literary world. I forgot all about Edward Ardizzone and seeing his illustrations resurrected all sorts of memories of perusing his books as a tot. If you want an overview of illustrators with not much depth and terrific illustrations then this book won't disappoint.

Leonard Marcus interviewed a bunch of illustrators who kept talking about the book, "Struwwelpeter," by Henrich Hoffmann that is reportedly violent and grotesque. Lo and behold, this book had the illustrations of "Struwwelpeter," (how do you pronounce a double "w") and they are fascinating in a bizarre way. The boy who sucked his thumb is getting one his thumbs cut off by the traveling tailor, with an intent look and creepy oversized scissors. Maybe the blood squirting in all directions is a wee offensive - not that it is realistic like video games kids use today. On the opposite page is an Edward Scissorhands-looking character with fingers that look like roots of a tree and porcupine-like hair. Weird and memorable characters to say the least. I can see why so many illustrators refer to it.

I wished the sections had dates for the authors, especially the chapter titled, "Author's and Illustrators 1659-1945." I assumed the authors listed are in chronological order but I'm a ninny with numbers and really have no clue if Lewis Carroll was born before or after L. Frank Baum. Plus, if I did know if would never stay upstairs in my gray matter so I would have liked birth and death dates of the authors. No index is a shame too. I can see grabbing this book for reference and wondering where the heck I read about such-and-such author.

The editors do highlight some famous authors and give quotes and information that I really enjoyed such as Maurice Sendak and Anthony Browne. Sendak was influenced by Mozart, Randolph Caldecott, and George Cruikshank. The latter was a British caricaturist who did illustrations for some of Charles Dickens works. Browne was influenced by Salvador Dali and René Magritte in "Through the Magic Mirror" and "Willy the Dreamer." He was influenced by Walter Crane in "The Tunnel." I like to pull out books and then look at the famous artists who influenced the illustrators and incorporating it into my read alouds. I think this visual literacy gets lost as we become adults and we don't notice the pictures like we did as kiddos. Of course it helps if you pick up a book a bazillion times like kids do.

The section "Illustrators and Authors 1945-Now" was the most interesting and helpful for me. I thought of some ways I can incorporate the information into my library lessons, as well as, some insight into writing reviews and analyzing art in picture books. I ordered many books for my library next year from the references and illustrations. If you are looking for picture books, then you will find this book useful. Tidbits such as "The Gruffalo" comes from a Chinese folktale, that Julia Donaldson wrote this story in two weeks, and Quentin Blake uses a light box (my architect father does the same thing) fed my artistic-starved knowledge base regarding picture books. I also learned that Brian Wildsmith's books are about children connecting and caring for nature. Our school is going to teach students how to care for the environment and I was just wondering what would be good for kindergarteners. This sounds like it might work for teachers.

Grace Lin is coming to visit our school and she talks about illustrators she loved such as Richard Scarry and Arthur Rackham. I quick flipped through the illustrators of the 1800s and found one photo of Rackham's work. It is much quicker to do a Google image search and I'm afraid I might not use this book that much because of the missing index. And yet, I know I'll pull it out as a reference book when I study other authors so all-in-all it is a good addition to my children's reference books.  Uff-da, that's a roundabout way of saying I liked it.

3 Smileys

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Show Me a Story!: Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World's Most Celebrated Illustrators by Leonard S. Marcus, David Wiesner (Foreword)

I read picture books as a living to rambunctious kiddies, but when it comes to the illustrations I'm a dodo bird. Text I get. Artwork I don't. A mom said her kindergartener had to read some book I was reading about a tiger and a wheel, "I have no clue what he was talking about, but can I have that book?" She inquired. That kindergarten read aloud had me toodling through the text sounding like a dodo bird with the kids, "What the heck is the illustrator doing here? Ooh, I really like the dreamy feeling, but did she use the computer to get that funky background? Or maybe it's a collage? Isn't it surreal? I think that's the idea. Oh heck... why are there little wheels on every page? Hmmm... I do recognize she's using watercolor." You get the picture. The beauty of kindergarteners is they love chittering librarian dodo birds. And I love them. Leonard Marcus interviews 21 illustrators who have had a big impact on the development of children's literature. His goal was to find out how these people decided to become artists and what experiences prepared them for a career in illustration. This book isn't for everyone. You need to have some interest and background knowledge of illustrators, publishers, art, and writing. The illustrators explain their techniques, typography, and apprenticeships, as well as, mention famous artists, designers, editors who influenced their work.

Take illustrator, Vera Williams. She went to Black Mountain College and studied under Josef Albers who was a part of the Bauhaus movement in Germany. The Bauhaus movement in the early 1900s believed in the combination of craft, art, and technology and was the precursor to the International Style found in architecture. I have some knowledge of Bauhaus furniture and architecture, but I think her illustrations look more folksy and would have never made the connection on my own. When William's describes how her studies influenced her painting specifically with color and light value to create a spontaneity in her work, I began to see the Bauhaus influence through the combination of craft and art. She explains how she purposefully makes her illustrations reflect how a child would paint and I started to appreciate more what she did in her picture books.  

Sections like Vera William's get more into technique than others. Each illustrator is like eating a different flavored Ben & Jerry's ice cream cone. James Marshall would be "Coffee, Coffee, BuzzBuzzBuzz", Maurice Sendak would be "Americone Dream", and Mo Willems might be "S'mores" because I always want some more Piggie and Elephant books. Marshall tells some hilarious stories and is quite outrageous calling teachers "cockroaches" because nothing can destroy them after spending a day with kids. His interview shows his wit so prevalent in his books. Maurice Sendak is quite a character whom the other illustrators refer to as being influential in their works. He took the children's book from a sentimental Victorian past to what you see today. Sendak pushed boundaries and saw children as more knowing and aware of the world around them. Mo Willems says, "Failure is funny" and discusses how he tried to imitate in his pigeon books Sendak's, "Where the Wild Things Are," manipulation of the audience's response through design. One of Willem's favorite characters was Charlie Brown because he was miserable but funny, not like "...Mickey Mouse and pals always merrily dancing around like they were on lithium." 

Leonard Marcus introduces each author and gives a summary of their strength as an artist in the field before launching into a question and answer format. I wasn't sure I would like this but found his questions really interesting and the answers unexpected. Sometimes he'd ask such a sophisticated question about the work I wasn't sure if it was the illustrator answering. Other times, such as with the William Steig interview, Marcus compares his book, "Amos & Boris" with William Blake's, "The Tyger." Steig was so flattered and excited never thinking of the two as connected.  It is obvious Marcus did a ton of research before his interviews. The chapters conclude with great quotes from the illustrators for the most part. Interviewers are stuck with what the person being interviewed says and Marcus shows tremendous writing and interviewing skills with the great chapter-ending quotes.

I didn't expect to get library lessons from this book, but got ideas for either author studies or more indepth read alouds. The artists discuss things that they've done when going on school visits or teaching art to kids such as Lois Ehlert's fish aquarium made with plastic milk cartons to complement the book, "Fish Eyes." While reading Tana Hoban's interview she talks about New York school children being asked what they saw on their way to school, to which they replied, "Nothing." The children were given cameras and it opened their eyes to what they passed everyday when going to school. I wonder if I give kids an iPad on their first day of library and have them take photos of what they see if we can put together a book or photo display that ties in with curriculum and gets them to notice their surroundings in a different way. I love this type of book. It turns my dodo brain into an electrically charged force field. Maybe "force field" is too much of an exaggeration, but it does make me excited about teaching. Elementary librarians should read this book. No excuse.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Crimson Crown (Seven Realms #4) by Cinda Williams Chima

This book needed another edit to pick up the pacing and cut out the romantic natter. Not that I don't like a bit 'o romance here and there, but I prefer more plot intrigue and character development than the petal peel plot of "He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not."  The repetitious pattern of Hans wondering if Raisa had betrayed him and vice versa made the pace plod and felt like a dandelion gone to seed with predictable plot points and action thinly scattered throughout the pages. The "I love you" scene where Hans gives a couple of pages of reasons why he loves Raisa was over the top and didn't quite fit with the wishy-washy wondering of whether or not she betrayed his love as obstacles cropped up preventing them from moving forward in their interest for each other. While this is a popular novel with students, I didn't think it was well-written and was disappointed in it as a wrap-up of the fourth book in the series.

Raisa has been crowned queen of the Fells and the division between the Clan and wizards is threatening a coup within the government. Han in an effort to help her joins the Wizard Council only to find his life threatened at every turn. When an attack from the kingdoms from the south threatens everyone, people must decide to either work together or not. Han doesn't really care about the Fells. He wants to marry Raisa and sets a plan in motion against great odds.

The theme of prejudice toward others of different races and intermarriage never really achieves depth because the supporting characters don't really change and grow. The father and grandmother are bigoted and at the end seem so one-dimensional in their treatment of Raisa and Hans. More could have been done with this to elevate the tension and show tolerance and understanding. Micah has an interesting character arc along with Crow. They both make choices to not be cruel to others. Hans has to learn to trust people but I never really got into his development. I knew he would change so it didn't hold my interest.

In the end I got annoyed and bored with Hans constantly being blamed and everyone trying to convince Raisa he's guilty while she claims he's innocent. The only part that I found interesting was the flesh-eating birds and the twist at the end, but they were few and far between. This book is entertaining, but don't expect much plot or character depth.

2 Smileys

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March by Cynthia Levinson

When the Red River crested in 1997 the water was filling up the streets like a bathtub and moving so fast I couldn't get sandbags piled around our house quick enough. My husband was working and I was chiseling ice off the grass so the water wouldn't seep under the sandbags. I knew it was a losing battle and plugged desperately away lugging 40 pound bags in a semicircle as the water inched closer. When a college student popped around the house saying loudly, "Hey, you need some help?" I thought an angel had dropped from the sky. Then another angel showed up. And another. And another. They didn't stop coming and before I knew it more kids than I could count were whipping up a sandbag wall. Exhaustion and gratitude made me just about sit on a sandbag and cry. The three local colleges released students that day and told them to help residents in one of the worst floods of the century. Students had a choice. They could have enjoyed a free day or they could help others. They chose to give and the students not only saved my house, they saved many other homes and businesses from flooding. It was an amazing experience for adults and students. Kids make a difference and it might mean saving a town from a natural disaster or in the case of the Birmingham Children's March portrayed in this book, forcing desegregation and influencing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed acts of discrimination.

Birmingham, Alabama was one of the most racially divided cities in the country. The government and police force were corrupt with supremacists and many blacks were murdered or abused; fear oozed in the town making everyone victims of oppression. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) wanted to change the subhuman treatment of blacks and integrate public places. They first staged boycotts and later sit-ins, but the police brutality made it difficult for them to get enough numbers to be effective. Their goal was to use nonviolent direct action protests to draw national media attention, shut down the city, and fill up the jails with more people than it could contain. Even with the help of Martin Luther King Jr. the adults could not get enough recruits to implement the plan and their civil rights movement looked like it would stall.

When a 24-year-old preacher joined their cause, he came up with the idea of using children to fill the Birmingham jails since there were not enough adult volunteers. Students went to mass meetings and workshops that simulated not retaliating when someone was jeering or hurting them. The nonfiction narrative is told through the voices of Audrey, Wash, James, and Arnetta. The four represent different economic statuses that gives a well-rounded retelling of this time period from different perspectives. The wealthy black's experience was not quite the same as the one living in poverty.

The courage it took for thousands of kids to demonstrate against a corrupt government and racist people is nothing short of amazing. The police were brutal. The kids knew this. They knew they were risking their lives and injury by marching on the town in protest of segregation, but they did it anyway. They did it for freedom. For a future. They succeeded but not without deaths and injury. The first march had the police releasing dogs on the kids and hitting them with water from fire hoses. The water pressure was great enough to throw kids and adults in the air tumbling them into buildings and other objects. The next march was met with police resistance where they doubled the fire hose power and the force was so powerful it sheared the hair off the side of one kid's head when it hit her. But the kids succeeded in their goal. They got national attention and the city desegregated. It was ugly and didn't happen overnight, but it eventually came to pass.

The black and white photos mirror the black and white attitudes with the facts on the side enriching the text. The photos added to the setting and showed the violence but not in a disturbingly graphic way. The photo of the black girl holding the sign, "Can a man love God and hate his brother," while a white policeman confiscates it is particularly powerful. My favorite subtext of facts is on the first page that explains derogatory names blacks were called by whites and the history of how black people referred to themselves and why today they settled on African American. My Taiwanese-born library assistants like to call kids, "boy or girl." I had to explain that they can't get students attention by saying, "Hey boy," because of it's derogatory meaning that started with white slave owners putting down blacks to keep them in servitude and bondage.

The start of this story is wrought with tension that doesn't let up through its entire 150 pages. Audrey is 9 years old and announces to her parents, "'I want to go to jail.' ...Since Mr. and Mrs. Hendrick's thought that was a good idea, they helped her get ready." What a great lead to pull the reader into the story. Black history tends to be tense with the emotionally charged injustices that happen, but the tension was even more heightened for me because these were children and I'm not sure they all understood what they were actually going up against. James point of view shows just that - he didn't think jail would be as bad and inhumane as it was in reality. The writing is well-done and I particularly liked the author's articulation of civil disobedience and prejudices: "People breathe in the prejudices in their culture without any understanding of what they're taking in," "there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression [Martin Luther King Jr.]" and "Sobered by racism. Angry about violence. Determined to gain civil rights." These child protestors had to face a "mighty enemy" with no fear and their courage is an inspiration for all.
Reading Level 7.1
5 Smileys

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity by Elizabeth Rusch

My husband talked me into taking a geology class while attending University. I lasted two weeks. I say this because I really liked the first part of this book and the focus on robotics, but I lost interest when it shifted toward the study of rocks on Mars. I'm a tech geek. I love the guts of metal contraptions moreso than silica and pyllosilicates. See why I dropped my class? Rock names like that can lull or tangle a brain in minutes. While I thought this book was well researched and well-written, I needed more variety with the alternating narratives of the rovers when they were exploring Mars. The narrative pattern of something mechanical breaking on the rovers, the scientists waiting anxiously as they tried to fix it followed by the rovers recovering got a bit repetitive. Overall, the story is engaging and full of interesting facts and data.

Steve Squyres dreamed of sending a geologist to Mars, but when he approached NASA they were not interested. The climate was too harsh. It was too far away. A person needed too much equipment. And on and on. Squyres was determined and instead came up with the idea of sending rovers to Mars. He drew up a proposal and sent it to NASA who said, "Nada" again, but like a squirrel foraging for acorns, Squyres didn't give up. He spent eight years trying to convince NASA that his idea was valid and worth exploring. NASA decided to give it a go when Mars orbited to a spot that made it closer to Earth than it had been in 60,000 years. The program to build two exploration rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, to go to Mars was launched in the year 2000 with the objective of studying rocks and soils to see if they hold clues to past water activity on Mars. Opportunity and Spirit took three years to build and were launched in 2003.  Scientists were hoping they would last three months, but they have exceeded expectations and Opportunity is still tooling around Mars today while Spirit is resting in peace in a sand trap, its communication ceasing in 2011 with scientists.

The informational text is a narrative with subtexts explaining information. While the narrative is engaging and the subtexts are visually attractive, some subtexts didn't fit smoothly in with the narrative text - at least for my random reading habits.  Oftentimes, I read the subtext before the narrative and it would give away a point. Once I realized this, I made sure I read the narrative first and then the subtext. I thought the photos were beautiful and the layout attractive.

I would have liked Steve developed more as a person. I think that if his personality had been rounded out more I might have had a greater emotional investment in the tension of whether or not the rovers would survive the challenges faced on Mars. It might have countered my lack of interest in rocks too. As portrayed I didn't really care after the third malfunction or obstacle that needed to be resolved and found myself skimming. Others who like geology should not feel this way. No author can expect everyone to like his or her book and there is an element of personal taste or aesthetics that makes an individual like or dislike a book; hence, I don't particularly like the subject but I do recognize that this is an excellent expository text.

The ending talks about sending Curiosity to Mars, a new and better robot. That perked my antennae and made me go searching NASA's website to see what this new rover was up to. I also went on Wikipedia and looked up the guts of the machine. As I'm reading about the computerized mother boards on the rovers I'm thinking that someone could easily argue with me, "computer processing units and million instructions per second are not more interesting than silica and pyllosilicates." So now that I've worked myself into a hole and am basically saying that calling a book "boring" is not a good argument, I feel I should rewrite my review and get rid of my interfering personal taste comments. But I'm not going to. I'll leave it as a reminder to not take "boring-route-review" highway. A good nonfiction book for your library. I can't argue the craftmanship.

Reading Level 6.4
4 Smileys

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Hey folks, meet Ephraim Appledore-Smith, your average kid. I repeat, average. He used to think he was pretty smart until moving to Crystal Springs, Maine. Here everyone is a genius and most live longer than the average Joe Schmo. Ephraim goes from first to worst at school and it is not easy on his ego. Then he starts to wonder what the heck is going on. The town residents, teachers, and students are not normal with their sky-high IQ's. Even his smart sister and athletic brother have gone off the charts since moving there; unfortunately, this strange phenomena eludes him. When he hears the story of people coming to Crystal Springs in the past because of the healing waters, he wonders if that's the reason people are so smart and if it will cure his dad who has had a devastating stroke. The family has inherited the Crystal Springs castle that is now their home with the hope that their mom's mentor doctor-friend can rehabilitate their dad. History of the castle reveals that the healing water was bottled by relatives and sold to people all over the country before the hotel spa burnt to the ground. The bottled water business gave the Appledore family its fortune and the castle its name, "The Water Castle." Ephraim decides to dig into the castle's past and discovers his ancestor was looking for the Fountain of Youth and he takes up the same quest in an effort to heal his father.

Ephraim, his younger sister, Brynn, and older brother, Price, notice the loud humming the house makes and the strange blue glow at night and wonder about it. Ephraim thinks it is related to the healing waters and initially gets assistance from Brynn searching for it, but he soon realizes that he needs more specific help. He forms an unlikely friendship with classmates Will, who is brilliant at science, and Mallory, a black girl with in-depth knowledge of the castle because her family served the water castle owners for generations. Will's relatives have nursed their hatred for Ephraim's family's success for years, convinced that Ephraim's relative stole their idea of bottling the magical waters. Will desperately wants to erase this bitterness in his father and change him from one is jealous of others to one who is content. Mallory's parents are in the middle of a divorce and she wishes they could be a family like in the past. The two are drawn to Ephraim's quest and adventure to find magical waters that will heal his dad, not realizing that they all need healing too.

The characters internal struggles give this story a richness and depth that pulled me into it. Some might feel the start is too slow and be turned off by Ephraim's initial attitude and stupidity, but he changes as the story progresses and his clumsy attempts at socializing make for an authentic character. Teenage years are wrought with awkwardness and Ephraim fluctuates between being a kid who believes in magic and listens to his parents, to one believes in science and facts, and who talks back to his parents in an effort to grow up. Throw in Ephraim's anger and you have a complex personality who is grappling with loss and major life changes. I was discussing this novel with a colleague and she suggested that perhaps Ephraim represents the difficult transition from elementary to middle school. In elementary school, classes are small and students can feel smart. In middle school, students get lumped in classes with everyone else and the discovery that they are a "number" and "ordinary" can be a difficult maturation process. Ephraim also has the middle child syndrome where he is trying to find his place in the family hierarchy. Price is filling in for their father, trying to support their mother and Brynn, while Brynn is the baby who loves those around her. Ephraim, on the other hand, struggles with his identity and lashes out at his mother and siblings.

Not only does this novel deal with three sixth graders transitioning from childhood to adulthood, it tackles the hefty question of living for eternity; thus, creating a magical realism that mixes science fiction with reality. I've only read, "Tuck Everlasting," by Natalie Babbitt that attempts exploring this theme in children's literature. The subplot of Nora and Harry ties in with this theme and while I liked how Blakemore intertwines the story, she had some contradictions and left some plot elements hanging. I like that the ending is open to interpretation, but I didn't like some of the loose ends not wrapped up such as the bottle in the ground with the contradictory message in conjunction with what Mallory's parents discuss on page 179. (I'm being vague here on purpose - I don't give spoil a plot twist.) I also didn't understand in the subplot how Nora could be so highly educated (she knew French and Latin) and why the Jim Crow laws prevalent during the 1900s that disadvantaged African Americans economically, educationally, and socially were never reflected with Nora's situation. She doesn't face racism or discrimination in her story. I wondered, too, the connection between Ephraim's high radiation reading and how it prevented the healing waters from working in him. Perhaps there will be a sequel.

The author's mix of science, history, magic, and realism is well-done and marvelous. Creation stories evolved from humans trying to explain natural phenomenas. Science usurped these stories with their explanations over the years and the three characters use the scientific method to explore the healing properties of the water through the study of radiation, electricity, and genetics. The explanation of the Fountain of Youth in scientific terms is quite creative. The subplot reinforces this theme and Orlando's formal way of speaking helps set the tone of a time past. The writing is nothing short of terrific.

Ephraim was a fresh breeze in my recent profusion of book reading that has been laden with genius protagonists.  I love that Ephraim is normal. No Mr. Genius. No superpowers. Just a kid who discovers that he is normal and that's okay.  I hope if there is a sequel Ephraim does not become a genius. I like him just the way he is.

A great book club book.

Reading Level 5.9
4 Smileys

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Starring Jules (As Herself) by Beth Ain

A grade 4 teacher bopped into my office and asked for books on peer pressure that were easy to read. Perhaps a picture book? she asked hopefully. I looked at her slack jawed and mumbled, "" She laughed as I pointed to my head and sputtered, "...Brain dead." Seems to happen quite a bit this time of year. Today I grabbed this book and HOORAH! it is exactly what she was asking for - okay it's not a picture book - but I read it in 1 hour. Yepperoo, I think it might work! Do you know what I love to do but find it can be like untangling a knot in a gold chain? Recommending books to small, medium, and tall-sized people. This time of year I feel like an auctioneer with all the book requests piling on my shoes. So step right up folks... this book is a winner! I guarantee it will make you want to sit down with Jules and have a fizzy ice-cream cone, her creative name for blasting air through a straw into a glass full of milk.

Jule's high energy is "lovely" and her tomboyish attitude make for an unpredictable character and plot. Charlotte, her ex-best friend, went to a fancy-shmancy hotel and came back with two new friends and wearing sparkling clothes and lip gloss. Jules wants to make swimming pools for worms so it's easy to see why the two are not getting along. When a new girl, Elinor, shows up from London, the two girls pressure Elinor to be her friend. Charlotte tends to put down Jules and make others laugh at her and when Elinor sticks up for Jules as others are being mean to her, it makes Jules feel good inside.

The friendship lost between Jules and Charlotte is complex and while the two have grown apart they have not quite given up on each other. When Jules has the opportunity to audition for a commercial and panics because of what she has to do,she seeks the help of a reluctant Charlotte, whom she knows can help her. While Charlotte has more or a mouth on her, Jules isn't always nice to others either, and when her fears of losing her new friend make her act paranoid and mean toward Elinor she has to learn to apologize and make things right or lose her new friend. This story captures the complexities of learning how to make, keep, and release friends.

The message of tolerance toward others who are different is also addressed in the secondary character of Teddy. He loves chemistry and calls Jules, "Julesium." Charlotte can't stand Teddy because he is so odd, but there are hints that she is also jealous of the friendship between Jules and Teddy. They spend time digging worms at recess and seem to have fun together. Teddy also sounds like he is ADHD when first introduced, "To me Teddy is kind of like a bouncing Super Ball. The kind that bounces so high and crazy you have to cover your head once you've let it go just so it doesn't hit you when you aren't looking."

While Teddy acts and sounds like a seven-year-old, I didn't think Jules did. She sounds more like an 8 or 9 year old. Her relationships with the others is too mature developmentally, but  it doesn't take away from enjoying the book. The humor reminds me of a female version of Stink or the melodramatic Anne of Green Gables when she was a tot. The writing is terrific and shows how Jules feels awkward about growing up. The brother is comic relief and the parents give sound advice keeping situations light and manageable with their drama queen. I love when the mom laughs at her fizzy ice-cream cone then says, "Now stop it." The right mix of Jules pushing things to the limit and a parent reigning her in give her experiences authenticity.

Jules writes lists and words are defined to help the reader. While this common trope found in children's realistic fiction can be tiring at times, I thought the author cleverly worked word definitions into the storyline. I particularly like how Jules learns what "primo" and "Roma" mean through meeting Elinor and hearing her father use the word often. I've been getting a bit tired of reading a book where the protagonist or some young kid looks up words in the dictionary and I appreciated Ain's creative efforts at helping young readers define words by weaving it into characters' actions.

Maybe I should book talk this novel by demonstrating to 4th graders a fizzy ice-cream cone. What a heckuva an attention grabber. I like it. Maybe I'll auction it. Howdy folks, step right up and get your fizzy cone. Ten dollar bid now, now eleven, will ya' give me eleven? now twelve? twelve? Going, going, gone! Sold for eleven dollars to the young lady in the sparkly shirt who wants a bit 'o fun with Jules and her gang.

Fountas & Pinnell P
Reading Level 5.4
4 Smileys

Friday, May 17, 2013

The No 1 Car Spotter and the Firebird by Atinuke (book 2)

Atinuke stitches sentences together and word plays that make reading this story aloud irresistible. Goofy, but endearing characters give a taste of African village life in this funny early chapter book. When a leopard attacks the family goats, Oluwalase Babatunde Benson, nickenamed No 1,  is called upon to shoot it. "I fire a stone from my slingshot. It hits the wall. It does not even exit the window." His mama screams as the leopard attacks the goat and he fires another round. "A stone shoots from my slingshot  and exits the window. Hooray! Then a goat squeals in answer, and Mama snatches the slingshot from me. 'Do you want to join the leopard in killing our goats!' Mama shouts." Seeing the futility of hitting the leopard with a stone, No. 1 comes up with a unique plan to chase it away.

When others tease him about his slingshot skills and the weird way he got rid of the leopard, Grandfather responds, "There is no need to be good with slingshot... when you have a No. 1 brain!" He's proud of him using his noggin. The praise causes No. 1 to smile "my No. 1 smile. I am No. 0 at slingshot, but I am the No. 1 car spotter. I am No. 1 at chasing away leopards too!" Unlike the other supporting characters that complain and put down each other, Grandpa always supports his grandson pointing out what he is good at and challenging him to come up with different solutions to problems when the need arises. Ah... that every child could have a champion that builds confidence and encourages problem-solving!

Atinuke is "cleva-cleva" with language creating a rhythm through unusual wordplays capturing African culture. One example of the author mixing up conventions is taking a phrase such as, "He has his eyes shut tight" and reversing some words to "He has his eyes tight shut." She also adds "-o" to the end of words that were funny and create interesting alliterations and colloquialisms: "My goats will die-o", "The water will quench my engine-o", "There is something wrong-o with you". Just when I thought she might be going overboard she restrains herself and uses a different writing technique. She also shows a village of people who are poor economically but rich in relationships. When Mama Coca-Cola needs a new house, the entire village pitches in to build her one. When the roof originally leaks, the whole village offers buckets to help her, even though they need the buckets for cooking. While they complain when she wants to keep them, their actions are generous and collective at solving her leaky-roof problem.

Nicknames in No 1's village remind me of the Nigerians at a church we went to in Europe who had some nontraditional names such as Baptism and Baby. No. 1 lives with Nike, Coca-Cola, Emergency, Tuesday, to name a few. Auntie Fine-Fine and Uncle Go-Easy made me do a double-take, but that's okay. I need to slow down my reading speed. It might bother some readers, but I think it adds the right flavor in reflecting a different culture. It reinforces the message of tolerance in cultures and that each person is unique and different.

No. 1 loves cars so much he can yell out what the car it is by the sound of the engine. His favorite is the Pontiac Firebird that passes through his village but never stops. He knows a professor drives it and he is eager to impress him. When the river floods and No. 1 comes up with a solution to cross the road, he's more interested in the professor than praise from others. The professor and his car represent a different economic status. While the villagers are poor the tone is not depressing as so often found in books with poor characters and this is one thing I truly enjoyed in this story.  No. 1 doesn't feel sorry for himself and he is joyful with the life he leads. He might say, "O-ya! That's life in the "hot-hot bush."

I accidentally bought book 2. I didn't feel that I had to read book 1 to figure out the characters or plot in this one. After finishing it, I went ordered book 1 & 3. I wish I could find a book like this set in Asia. One that captures the culture and day-to-day living but is an early chapter book. That level book is just hard to "find-find."

Level 3.5
4 Smileys 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

**This review has spoilers** As a sixth grader I remember cooking all sorts of desserts. My best friend and I would make kringles or cakes and pies from scratch. I didn't realize she was my yellow brick road to cookdom until I started cooking on my own. My brick road crumbled once I went solo. That's why I get a kick out of authors who have protagonists who love to cook and are good at it like sixth grader Eleanor. She's so good that she starts selling her food at a local restaurant to save up for chef school. But cooking isn't just a passion for Eleanor, it also calms her inside, something she needs desperately as she watches her dad get carted off to jail. Her mom won't tell her what is going on and she turns to cooking to settle down. As the situation unfolds, she's spitting mad at her dad's actions. She turns to her friend, Frankie, whose problems are similar to hers and the two find words of wisdom from the homeless man, Tom.

This story has some inconsistencies in the characters and plot but for the most part has a nice message about forgiving others and learning to have empathy. Frankie has the same emotional arc as Eleanor in a subplot but both are dealing with different situations. Eleanor's family deals with addiction and Frankie deals with abandonment issues. Eleanor's mother doesn't talk to her when the author wants to advance the plot. This is supposed to add tension but it drags out the action and makes the plot forced. There was one part where I guessed what the dad had done so early it was a boring build-up to the big "ah-ha" moment. Unfortunately I've had two relatives steal money a grandparent left to them so it was a predictable plot element for me. I doubt students will catch it.

Eleanor's mom is presented as flaky and caring. The fluctuations of being a responsible and irresponsible parent made for a convincing dysfunctional family, but also a contradictory character.  The mom rushing off to give herself a deep conditioning treatment when she doesn't want to talk to Eleanor or keeping her up until midnight is irresponsible, but other times she makes an effort to talk to Eleanor and shows she cares. I didn't find her particularly bright with her superstitious mumbo-jumbo and I didn't think she was respectful to Eleanor (hiding her dad's letters) and to the father when he comes back from jail (she won't cut his hair even though she is a stylist). I thought the parents would get a divorce because of the mom's attitude but she is still going through her emotional arc of forgiveness. I didn't find her all that likable or consistent and the harshness of putting her husband in jail versus having an intervention made me think they were getting a divorce.

Dad is presented as caring and loving at the start, not irresponsible, but he steals money from his daughter. We learn how irresponsible and not too smart he is as the story progresses too. He isn't really presented as a gambler well enough to justify the harsh actions. I also had questions such as can a person be put in jail for spending their child's trust fund? If he's the guardian doesn't that mean he can get at the money? Isn't it legal since his signature is on the deposit box access slip? I wanted more explanation as to why the mom chose this course of action and legally how much he had to steal to be put in jail and how long he'd be in jail. He had just gotten a job and couldn't they have come up with a solution where he sets aside money for Eleanor? He seems reasonable. More importantly, if he has a gambling habit he needs intervention not jail-time. In this story the jail-time supposedly turns him around, but in the real world that isn't going to happen with someone who has a serious gambling problem. And giving the trailer to a homeless guy, Tom? I think this is supposed to show he's kind, but it didn't make sense to me in the plot. I struggled with this part of the plot being authentic.

Marisol didn't come alive for me and I didn't find Frankie's habit of chewing Tums endearing. Many people love this book, but it didn't strike a chord with me. While the themes of friendship and forgiveness amidst a family crisis are worthwhile, I found the execution, "meh." This book did remind me of Polly Horvath's books with characters who love to cook. I would recommend her novels to students who liked this book.  I also thought of the book, "Turtle in Paradise," that develops an interesting mother who is unable to take care of herself. This book's mom is not that extreme. I also thought of "Three Times Lucky," because the plot revolves around a restaurant where the characters come and go, but there is no similarity in plot or character development. This is one book you'll have to judge yourself. I know it is one that won't stay with me.

Reading Level 4.8
3 Smileys

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Legend by Marie Lu

How do you unwind and relax? I have several ways, but a favorite is watching brainless, entertaining action movies; particularly the summer-type - with a bit of humor, gobs of special effects, an engaging character, and maybe a touch of romance. My mouth goes slack and brain shifts to a lower gear. This dystopian novel reminds me of my escapist trips to movie theaters. It is predictable for the most part with a few surprises, it oozes tension with life-and-death situations, and it's characters are geniuses (of course). While young readers will like the entertaining book, I can't give it 3 stars because the cursory writing, stereotypical characters, and predictable plot that had more loose ends than a frayed rug. It sets up for the sequel and I know questions will be answered in upcoming books, but the author should have wrapped up at least one major plot point. It isn't just a cliff hanger, it's a crater hanger. Actually, there are quite a few crater hangers out there and it reeks of publishers wanting money. Cut a book in the middle and call it two books. Grrrr....

The main characters, June and Day, alternate points of view. June is a genius and the only teenager ever to get a perfect score on her Trials, a test that determines where students will be placed in the Republic. Her fame follows her to the prestigious Drake University where she is prepped to be a military leader. She is several years ahead of her classmates and gets into trouble because she is bored. Her family life and career has been one of wealth and success; whereas Day is a boy on the run who has failed his Trials and steals from the government scavenging daily for money and food. He's famous for scaling a four-story building in five seconds and taunting the government with outlandish feats and showy antics making him a hero to the people of the slums. He is a sci-fi robin hood, a champion of the poor, known to give away money he steals from the government. When Day's younger brother gets The Plague, he steals much-needed medicine causing him to slash paths with June that triggers a series of disastrous events that threatens those he loves and uncovers corruption in the Republic.

The start has a great hook that pulls the reader quickly into the story with tension resulting from Day being on the run from the government that wants him dead. Nice flashbacks are worked into the setup creating a backdrop of an autocratic society. The Republic suppresses the poor people with the power held by the Elector Primo. The Primo is old and it is appears the man, Chian, who runs the trials has quite a bit of control. These elitist men are contrasted with Day who grew up in the slums that are ruled by corrupt police, disease, and hunger. Life is harsh and the elite look upon the people inhabiting the slums as subhuman.

The characters are stereotypical with their athleticism and gorgeous looks. I like that they have different ethnic backgrounds but I was disappointed (although not surprised) that Day is a genius too. I would have found Day more interesting as a character who can't take tests, but is brilliant. He and June are too much alike and seem stereotypical of the brilliant character who saves the world. Perhaps it is the secret desire of many people to be geniuses which is why this is such a popular trope found in escapist literature. I think characters are more authentic when they must rely on their wits, like the character in "The False Prince," by Jennifer Nielsen. I thought the theme of those in the Republic viewing those as the slums as subhuman could have been explored more to create more depth and tension.

The plot starts out okay and has predictable spots and unpredictable spots. There is a romance thrown in the middle that slows the pace a tad but luckily it moves on. It might turn off some readers who are absorbed in the action, but the kissing doesn't last long and the two are too busy trying to survive to think too much about their feelings for each other. I thought Thomas could have been worked into the plot better as a surprise, but he's laid out as a one-dimensional character with no resolution at the end. The younger brother isn't explained nor is the Republic and who's behind the conspiracy. I wanted at least one resolution with the powers-that-be in the Republic, but it never happens leaving me miffed.

This book is popular with students. They like the action and don't care that the writing is perfunctory or the plot unfinished. The vocabulary is accessible and the romance clean. It's good for grade 5 students and up. I recommend buying it for your library and encouraging others to read it. Just don't expect too much. Grab a bowl of popcorn and settle in for a nice escape.

Young Adult
2 Smileys

Monday, May 13, 2013

Tracing Stars by Erin E. Moulton

Writing reviews is tricky. You don't want to be too nitpicky; you want to be respectful; and you want to give an honest take on a book. Personal taste can taint an analysis and (unbeknownst to you) can skew your review. That's why I really admire some of the Goodreads reviewers who walk the fine line of giving an honest review that helps me in my book purchases, as well as give witty, insightful, and very helpful advice. So thank you! I need to log more hours in before I will start feeling comfortable with this reviewing process and not wracked by self-doubts. This journey of better understanding literature is an odd walk and I know some of my reviews are kind of weird - in a good way - but weird all the same. Indie Lee Chickory is weird too. She tries to hide it and conform but she likes to make fish faces, calm her nerves by reciting different types of fish, and wear tomboy clothes. She wants to be liked by her sister and is frustrated by her awkwardness and always "messing" things up. I can relate to her inferiority complex and clumsiness whether it is writing reviews or burning dinner up on the stove. Indie's internal journey of accepting her uniqueness is what touched me the most in this realistic story and I think it will touch others as well.

Indie is a bit of an oddball at school who enjoys making fish faces and whom the other kids tease calling her a "fish freak." When her pet lobster sneaks into her backpack she tries to find it some water over recess. Problems rise when the lobster decides to peak out from under her shirt like an alien from outer space. She loses the lobster in the ensuing melee and then sets out to get it back with the help of a newfound friend, Owen, who is even odder than her. He sounds like a walking encyclopedia who makes lists in a notebook trying to categorize everything. His personal life is out of control and this is what calms him.

Indie's sister, Bebe, is embarrassed by her younger sister and when Indie gets a job at the community theater where her sister has a part in the play production, Bebe is mortified with how Indie dresses. Every night Bebe lays out girly girl clothes for Indie to wear when she comes to the theater because Bebe is trying to impress another girl, Kelsey. Kelsey is a bully who hates Owen's different personality. Indie desperately wants to please her sister and stop doing klutzy, embarrassing things and she wants to be Owen's friend. When a prank goes too far, Indie has to decide between being herself and feeling good about her choices or following the crowd.

The plot has some unbelievable spots, but they add tension, humor and drama so I didn't care. I don't think the kids would steal a neighbor's golf cart (why not ask) and then forget to return it, especially Owen. I don't think Sloth would have freed Indie from her bedroom or a lobster would have crawled in her backpack, but it's fun. Indie sneaks out of the house at times when her family is awake and I didn't think this would happen either, because in previous chapters her mom comes in to say, "good night" and she and her sister are close in age. This is one of those instances where I might be being too nitpicky.

The characters are interesting. Bebe is a perfectionist and finds it hard to be around her bumbling sister. I thought the flashback was a bit awkward. It is supposed to show how much Bebe wants to be an actress and why she is intolerant of her sister, but I think her perfectionist personality comes through with her extra play rehearsals in the early morning. The flashback isn't necessary for the plot or character development. I did like all the fish imagery and tying it in with the constellations. The other great scene is Sloth and Indie dancing around the shop room like crazy girls. I laughed hard and thought about how we'd do that in college singing into our curling irons like they were microphones and sticking popcorn up our noses with the floors vibrating from the cranked-up music. Good times.

I have never had a pet lobster. I didn't even know you could have them as pets, much less put them down your shirt; however, I did act out books. Probably the dumbest thing I did was carve a peep hole in their beautiful wood door with her. She got a new chisel set for her birthday. We ate clam chowder, saltines, and Velveeta cheese for lunch taking turns looking through the hole to make sure her brother wasn't spying on us. Little did we know that we should have been looking for an angry parent, not a snoopy brother. I had another good friend who saved all the spleens from the animals she dissected in biology class. She's now a neurosurgeon. I really thought she'd be a mortician. Guess we all have our quirks.

Reading Level 5.4
3 Smileys

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Fyre by Angie Sage

"So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night..." Remember the Von Trapps yodeling their goodbyes to the guests? I know they weren't yodeling... they were showing their prodigious singing talents. This song's lyrics kept settling in my ears because this story reads like the author is saying, "Goodbye" to all her characters. Many will like it or they might be like me who has read the series over 8 years and struggled at times to recall who the heck was whom. Here's a tip to you kindred spirit speed-demon-readers: the characters are listed in the back of the book. Yep! That's right. You might want to use your big brain and flip back and forth. My brain is not that big. What can I say? I like to do things fast. And when I don't particularly like a book, I read in warp-speed. I have enjoyed many of the Septimus Heap books, but not this one; I thought Angie Sage spread herself too thin with an abundance of characters that took the spotlight off the star: Septimus.

Students are always looking for stories in the same vein as Harry Potter and this series satisfies that need for escapism. The world building is well-done, the characters "okeydoky" (I did get tired of that anachronistic word), and the plot messy. Readers are left with an entertaining book, but a convoluted message because Septimus's internal struggle with figuring out his career path gets chucked on the wayside of the road's plot too many times.
Septimus is helping Marcellus and Marcia dispose of the evil two-faced ring. They must rebuild the fyre the Alchemist's used  in the old days before the great Alchemie disaster to destroy it. Sounds a bit like Lord of the Rings, eh?  Marcellus and Marcia distrust each other because they represent two opposing political parties of alchemists and wizards. The two bicker an awful lot throughout this story and I didn't like how they would fight over Septimus. For instance, they are in a room with Septimus and Simon looking for ancient gold. Septimus suggests using the Transubstantiate Triple bowls and Marcellus says, "He's good isn't he?" and Marcia agrees saying that is why she chose him as his apprentice. It is supposed to be funny but it puts down Simon who is standing right there suggesting he is inferior. Marcia and Marcellus are supposed to be leaders, but their paranoia toward each other, dingy actions, and prickly attitude toward others left me disliking them. Normally Marcia's prickliness shows she care for Septimus but she was catty about Jillie Djinn putting down her "fat legs" and disrespectful to Milo who is the king's daughter, to name a few.

Many obstacles happen along the way and many don't advance the plot but are instead used to say, "goodbye," to the characters. Nursie and Merrin are presented as bait but aren't used as such. Jillie Djinn doesn't add anything to the plot except making Marcia look like an impatient jerk. Syrah wakes up but says hardly a thing, and on it goes. Remember when I told you to use your big brain and flip between the back and front? Well, you might not want to because they contain one paragraph wrap-ups of what happened to whom. Like I said, Sage has too many characters and loose threads she's trying to resolve.

The characters don't change much. Simon finds redemption and I liked the part where his knowledge of dark magic assists in the battle with the evil wizards. Marcia learns to accept Marcellus and vice versa except they are quite stupid and juvenile. Pike faces his prejudices but even that lacks depth and Jenna doesn't change much. Beetle gets little page time and Septimus gets lost in the shuffle.

"So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

Adieu Septimus! I wish you had ended on a stronger note!

3 Smileys

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Jepp Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh

Thunderstorms of flashbacks have been pummeling me this month. Done well, I don't really notice them. Done not so well, and they make cumulonimbus clouds build inside me. I prefer an author using flashbacks in the present and working them into the plot; this way a sense of urgency remains and the pacing doesn't slow down. Alas, while I enjoy Marsh's writing and character development, I didn't care for her flashbacks and parts of the plot.

Jepp  is a dwarf in the 1600's who lives happily in a village working the inn with his mother. When a man comes and offers to take him to court, Jepp is curious to see the world. His mother reluctantly agrees and Jepp learns the prejudices others show to those who are different. He meets three other dwarves at the court and learns humiliating routines to entertain the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia. His experience at court is to learn that the rich and wealthy view dwarves as their playthings and not as human beings. While Jepp enjoys meeting other dwarves a terrible abuse happens to Lia, a dwarf he loves. Disillusioned, they flee the castle; thus ending Book I.

Marsh divides her book into three sections with Book I being told in a flashback as the protagonist, Jepp, is being taken north as a prisoner. At first, it appears that Jepp's life is at stake and this urgency creates tension making a good setup for the flashback, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the man dragging Jepp north has no intention of killing him, and flashback boredom settles in my bones like arthritis. Luckily Book II drops the flashback and I immediately got into the story of the quirky court of Tycho Brahe, who wears a prosthetic nose that keeps falling off and parades a moose in the dining area as entertainment to scholars and guests. I actually would have liked the story better if it had started in Book II with a few flashbacks worked into the action as Jepp travels north. When Jepp hears the birds he can flashback to Lia in her gilded cage. When he talks to Magdalene he can describe his past. But I've never written a book so maybe I'm being presumptious.

Book III involves Jepp finding answers to his questions. It contains more inner monologue and less action. Letters back and forth put more emphasis on the romantic aspect of the plot and less on the historical aspects given in Book I & II. The ending with the money didn't make sense to me. Would the laws allow Don to do that? It also seemed that Jepp should have returned to the island. I would not think Magdalene would do something that would be considered improper. I needed some explanation about her father's consent or lack of it, but it isn't given.

Marsh does a nice job developing her characters. This is one of those books where I would have liked it to be in third person. The villains are one-dimensional. We don't have any understanding as to why they mistreat others except that they are just nasty people. Jepp's voice is formal and highly educated. He's smart but I don't think he would have sounded like that running a tavern, although the author explains that everyone in their village learns to read. The astrology scenes are fascinating and were some of my favorite parts of the book and I'm not even interested in astrology. That is where I thought the story took flight and when the spotlight moved to other areas of the plot, I felt it dimmed in comparison.

Just an FYI, while it happens off the page and there is no graphic description, there is a rape in this story. It is a young adult book and while some young adult novels are okay for elementary I can't see this novel appealing to most of my high readers. I plan on giving it to the middle school library where it will have a larger audience and be more appreciated.

Young Adult
3 Smileys

Jinx by Sage Blackwood

The Chinese narrator's words emitting from the television are nonsensical  to my thick ears until I hear "Niu Rou." This means "beef" in Mandarin but my western brain hears the Roman emperor's name, "Nero." The sound comes from the back of the throat and whenever I try to pronounce it I either elicit a laugh or quirked brow. Such is my language life. Not so for Jinx where learning languages is like breathing in and breathing out. He's fluent in months and has taught himself six languages in about five years. Sigh... don't you love fantasy... you can do the unthinkable! Of course, Jinx has magical powers within himself that grant him this unique ability.

Jinx can read people's minds by seeing the colors of their thoughts. When his stepfather brings him to the Urwald forest to abandon him, Jinx is rescued by Simon, a crotchety wizard, who cares for Jinx and welcomes him to his home. He's absent minded and his motives for taking Jinx are questionable at times, but he's not cruel to Jinx and feeds him in exchange for his assistance. When Simon takes Jinx's magic from him without asking, Jinx goes on a quest to a powerful wizard to get it back along with the help of two friends, Reven and Elfwyn, who also need the wizard's help from curses of their own. This powerful wizard is evil and their success depends on how clever they are in manipulating him, but he has his own plans with no qualms at killing three kids.

I thought the start was slow. Jinx's stepfather is carted off by trolls and Simon is gruff and prickly. He's ornery toward Jinx. He's married to Sophie but they don't live together and she travels in a mysterious way to and from Simon's home. When he takes Jinx's magic it is unclear if he is an evil or good wizard. This adds wonderful tension to the plot. Simon doesn't do the right thing and it is a not really clear until the end why he did. The plot twist was nice and the untrustworthy adults with magical skills.

The stepfather scene where he crops up later is not resolved. The ending suggests a sequel and maybe it will be addressed then. I can't really get into the details or I'll spoil the fun but it is left hanging. Elfwyn's curse is like Ella Enchanted but not nearly as funny. I thought the author could have made her situations more humorous.

This entertaining book ends on a strong note with the pacing and tension picking up and some unexpected character revelations. While it has flaws, the world building exists and the characters are distinct. The witch is a strong supporting character using nicknames such as, "chickabiddies," and "chipmunk" for the children with a creepy grin that suggests she wants to eat them she teases about cooking them in the oven like the famed, Hansel and Gretel.

I'm always embarrassed by my poor language skills and am fascinated working with students who know two or more languages. They are like sponges when they are really little and it always takes longer to read than speak. The four and five years suck up the words like vacuums, not saying much at first. Then their brains sort it out and they start putting the sentences together. I wished I had been able to learn a second language at a young age. Maybe Jinx can give me a bit of that language magic. Lord knows I need it. Sigh...

Reading Level 5.3
3 Smileys

Monday, May 6, 2013

Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli

Just when I think I'm lassoing certain elements in children's literature, the hokey pokey comes along and turns me all about. This book is like my first experience of seeing an abstract painting. I tugged an over-sized hand hanging by my head pointing to the picture in the museum. "Uh... daddy, I can do that." The two splotched lines on a piece of white canvas didn't look too difficult. It wasn't until adulthood and viewing the painting at the Guggenheim Museum that I realized my architectural father really liked the composition and spacial elements the artist created in that piece. I feel a bit like that kid-in-the-gallery reviewing this book. I know I'm missing quite a bit that the writer is artistically portraying. I'll give it a go, but it will be more like a "spit gob," because I know I'm not well-read when it comes to allegories.

Allegories can be discombobulating - at least for me - because the literal interpretation happens by creating meaning between symbols. If you can't connect the dots you are not going to get it. The symbols in this book represent the transition from childhood to young adult. Jack's bike is stolen by the hated, germy "girl" at the beginning and he sets off to get it back with his two best friends. The imaginary land of Hokey Pokey has no adults and the landscape is part-fantasy, part-Wild West, where the Tattooer is a piece of playground equipment and kids bikes are horses that travel in herds. As Jack chases after the girl others notice his tattoo disappearing which suggests, "it's time..." to leave the Hokey Pokey. But Jack's isn't sure he wants to leave.

The made-up words tickle and the sentences oftentimes read like poetry. The language is quite unique and is what kept me engaged versus the simple storyline. Spinelli loves the written word and it shows. The kids hear "crickets clickit," they are "kidderpillars," and they make "pickerpoke yipping" noises. "The air smells of girl and burnt rubber" and "how-schmow" can that be? He captures the sillynilly kid-speak of youth and their imaginary worlds like no other book I've read."His screams are so forceful they blow a bulge in the make-do hood" or "He feels a fillip of fear for Dusty, for he knows how ornery this girl can be." The poetic word, "fillip" means to propel and is an example of Spinelli's many poetic alliterations.

I can't say I loved the start. It isn't linear. Shucks, it isn't really what you can call a start. The reader is dropped into the imaginary land of Hokey Pokey. I thought at first I was in the mind of a seven or eight-year-old mainly because of the squishy Wanda monster and going into the mind of the Destroyer or bully who is playing in a dump truck at a park. Later, as the story takes shape and more dialogue appears, I realize that Jack is older. More around ten-years-old. I think the author purposefully keeps the age vague so the reader will give it his or her own age; thus, reflecting the transition from imaginary play-worlds to a grown-ups world.

The subplot involving the birth of a playground bully, called the Destroyer, is interesting. He wants to dominate and instill fear in others because of his anger over older kids bullying him. When Jack exposes the bully for who he is, he teaches others kids how to to deal with him. The point of view is in the mind of the bully in the beginning, but after Jack talks to the other kids we don't go back into the bully's mind. I really liked the exploration into the Destroyer's psyche and would have liked popping back into his mind after the "Jackaroo" incident.

The ending evokes the sadness I feel when looking back on my childhood and thinking of how much fun I had playing and imagining pretend-worlds with my best friend. Our adventures started every morning walking to school, where the snow bank was a cliff and the street a raging river that instantly killed if you fell into it. The hill in the backyard was mount Everest and the trees were our horses. This story will surely elicit similar stories in older readers. This nostalgia is similar to how I felt after reading The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg, a book that recreates the joy of believing in the imaginary world of talking reindeer and elves and a jolly man in a red suit. Spinelli's use of Wild West imagery where the sun sets on childhood is poignant, but I wonder if it and all the symbolism will be lost on younger readers.

The question for me is who will be drawn to this book or is it more a literary piece that is better for teachers and requires adults to help the reader connect the dots? Maybe the imaginary world will draw young readers in or will it confuse them like an abstract painting? Will middle schoolers like to look at back and will they understand something that adults process and hold more dear as they age?  I'm not sure. You'll have decide yourself because "That's what it's all about!" 

Reading Level: 4.3
4 Smileys

Saturday, May 4, 2013

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

You can smell and taste Timberlake's sentences like beef bourguignon drenched in a saporous burgundy wine sauce. That's a mouthful, no? I've never used the word, "saporous." Makes me sound smart, don't you think? Okay, I know you are not fooled by me, but you might be fooled by Georgie. Georgie has a high-kickin' vocabulary too. She uses words like veneration, ornithology,  ablutions, to name a few. She delights in using big words. Listen to her conversation with the young Garrow's girl: "'It's a mule,'" I [Georgie] said irritably. I didn't care for my mount being referred to as a pet. Especially by a girl less than half my size, with not a tenth of my vocabulary." Meet Georgie. She is precise, blunt, strong-headed, and stubborn. Swagger in a bit of Annie Oakley and you have a fun character with a distinct voice. She's the right mix of youthful immaturity, thirteen-year-old sassy attitude, and raw honesty.

Georgie's sister, Agatha, has been found dead. When the body is returned to the family, it is in such an advanced state of decay it can't be properly identified. Georgie refuses to believe it is her sister. Guilt plagues her marrow because Agatha has run off as a result of Georgie interfering with Agatha's relationship with her fiance. Nobody likes a tattler, but imagine if your whistleblowing killed your sister. That's Georgie's quagmire.  A quest to seek redemption and answers regarding what happened to Agatha lead Georgie on a giddyup adventure set in the late 1800's with guns, horses, passenger pigeons, and one hilarious mule.Grab yer spurs with this fun one.

Georgie's character and the gorgeous writing made me devour this story. The beginning uses flashbacks which I have an aversion to because when poorly done they pull the plug on pacing, but that isn't the case here. At least for me. The flashbacks introduce Agatha and also make Georgie's high vocabulary more plausible since Georgie is looking back as an adult on her experiences in 1871. The beginning has more flashbacks and once the mystery starts to get solved by Georgie, they trickle near the end to reflect Georgie's thoughts. I wondered if the pacing would have been served better if the character information on Agatha came through interactions with characters and plot moving forward using tension set in the present versus Georgie thinking about it. I did like how Timberlake transitioned into the flashbacks especially when Georgie is blasting glasses to smithereens with her shotgun. The flashbacks are short so I didn't feel they interfered with the pacing.

My reading notes are a "cornucopia" of great lines. "I was like some old cow on her cud, continually rechewing wilted, partially digested conversations.Billy folded his arms across his chest. He'd been rambling on and on about Agatha, oblivious to the fact that my mind had been elsewhere. (Some people assume your attention. It is annoying.)" Or "But up until that moment, I possessed absolute certainty of the rightness of my cause. I would have said, with confidence, that my sister was seeing Mr. Olmstead for his library. (Beware of such convictions, for they are fraught with peril.)" Or "memories pressed in on me, so I set the pencil down and picked up the Springfield rifle." Eventually my notes tapered to jots of interesting word combinations: "a cornucopia of admirable characteristics," "yelped happily," "chitchat and parlor games," "wrangled my emotions,""cinched up her face," "trampousing about," and more. Then there are the euphymisms: shat for... you got it! Easy to guess that one. Dadgum means goddamn or damn-dumb - just kidding. Not quite as easy to figure out as shat.

Good children's books tend to touch both kids and adults. One thing I got out of this was Georgie's stages of grief. She has to face a tragic death and at first denies it. When she does accept it, the pain of her grief is so primal and violent, she howls. I cried here because it reminded me of dealing with a tragic death in my own life where I listened to a loved one grieving cried like her soul was being ripped from her body. Her anguish was wrenching and, at least for me, Timberlake captures this emotion brilliantly when Georgie goes beserk. Georgie's next stage of grief is blaming herself for her sister's death and seeking redemption. Timberlake mixes humor with the grief so it doesn't become overwhelming. She also shows Georgie grieving over her older sister getting married and leaving home. My younger sister explained to me that she had those same feelings when I got married and said she cried as a teenager. While Georgie grieves that she will not be able to run the store with her sister, I recalled my sister asking me how could I live without her. In hindsight I should have talked about my upcoming marriage. I remember laughing when she said, "Who's going to find your socks for you or let you in the house when you forget your house key?" I always threw rocks at her window to let me in the house. It never dawned on me that she was sad and showing sisterly love.

Timberlake does a great job with the inner landscape of the characters. While the story is a murder mystery and historical novel on passenger pigeons, I felt the steady beat of dealing with the loss of a loved one moreso than solving the crime. The mystery has a few small bullet holes in it, but I'm not going to talk about it because I'll give away the plot. Some obvious questions aren't addressed and Georgie does some incredible feats, but it wasn't enough to derail the story. It might draw a raised brow, but the humor pulls it along. The ending didn't quite work for me. It puts the stress on the pigeons and I thought put the emphasis on guns and the environment - it felt too much like the author's opinions. Georgie's reflecting but it didn't strike the right chord with me. I think the chapter before that ends on the feather would have been stronger because that encompasses not only the birds but Agatha who is compared to a feather that floats in the air throughout the novel, rather than a feather that settles on the ground. I did like how Timberlake kept using the cougar episode to show how Georgie was traumatized by it and thus, reinforcing her youthfulness and inexperience. Billy's raising of four brothers and skills as a caregiver, were another nice detail that were built on in chapters from him cooking to cleaning scrapes. All-in-all this is a book I can ballyhoo to the students about without a problem.

One last line to leave you with, "Have I mentioned my full name? It's Georgina Louise Burkhardt. Now, Georgina doesn't suit me - it's the kind of name that has daisies growing out of it. But Georgie is fine by me and fine by everyone else too."

Reading Level 4.9
4 Smileys

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Slither by Joseph Delaney

Tension; check. Monsters; check. Assassins; check.

I keep scratching my head as to what makes me pick up these horror books over and over. I'm the person who sits through horror movies with her eyes closed. Who gave up on "It" by Stephen King because it scared the sneakers off her feet. The one who had nightmares after seeing, "Jurassic Park." The person who lifts a Goosebumps book and drops it making the excuse she'll read it another time. For someone who doesn't do well with violence and gore, why do I keep having these sugar-like cravings for Delaney?

The books are a quick read. They are entertaining; I plow through ink in eager anticipation of the many bizarre monsters. They ooze tension in life and death situations and the females tend to be strong characters. Or maybe there is some latent Viking blood in me that secretly enjoys these books or the toned down children's version of the horror genre is more manageable for my touchy horror disposition. Whatever the reason, I have read ten of these books and will probably continue to do so even though I wonder why.

This book could stand alone from the series and seems like it might have a purpose in the eventual showdown with the Fiend. The Spook is not in it; only the witch, Grimalkin. The protagonist is an unemotional rat-like vampire, Slither, who alternates chapters with the voice of a human teenager, Nessa, who is at his mercy. Slither makes a deal with a farmer that his three daughters will not be bothered by him sneaking in at night to suck their blood if the father leaves the oldest to him after he dies. Every 40 years, Slither's government requires citizens to give them a female slave and Slither wants Nessa for this purpose.

When the father dies, the three daughters leave the farm with Slither. He has promised the farmer, who has provided him with wine and livestock blood over the years, to bring two of the daughters to their aunt and uncle. Once they set out one disaster after another strikes, leaving the group in multiple life-or-death situations. When Nessa saves Slithers life more than once, he finds himself acting in ways that are not "normal" for his species usual stoic murdering mentality.

The writing is functional - can't say I've scribbled any beautiful passages in my reading journal. Slither is a cold-blooded killer that would normally be a villain in most stories. He is bent on trying to not show weakness or be emotional, but he finds it hard to fight his feelings when Nessa shows unconditional love toward her sisters and bravery in battle. He is the character that struggles internally; moreso than Nessa. Her voice doesn't get the same page-time as Slither's. Readers might find Slither a hard character to connect with emotionally, but I found him curious. There are some nice plot twists that I didn't see coming, but I read the book in warp-speed so I wasn't on detail-mode. (And my detail-mode is not impressive even when I slow down.) Hence, you might see the plot twists coming.

This series reminds me a bit of "The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel" by Michael Scott, in that what was originally intended to be a smaller series has been stretched into one that goes on and on. Many of the books are separate adventures with the same characters. Seems like it should have ended a long time ago, but hey, I'm still reading them. Whatever. Like I said, I find them entertaining.

Action; check. Villains; check. Head scratch; check. Smile; check.

Reading Level 5.5
3 Smileys