Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

I recommend this book for: grade 4-7

Joey is wired - he bounces off walls, mouths off to the teacher, steals pies, and rips his fingernail off in a pencil sharpener entirely by accident. Everything wrong he does is an accident - Joey has inherited behavior problems from his (abusive) grandmother and (absent) father, and his ADD and other problems are getting out of control. When he injures a classmate - by accident - and gets suspended from his school, Joey has to go to a special ed school where understanding teachers and doctors help equip him with what he needs to get better.

This novel attacks a lot of difficult issues - emotional abuse, ADD, estranged parents, special ed, and the complex relationship Joey has with his mother, who disappeared for many years and struggles with drinking and her son's behavior. Joey's observations on the way he loves his mother and grandmother, even when they've been mean to him, are astute and rather mature, but nice to hear articulated. Kids will find Joey's antics funny, and those who have some of the same problems might gain reassurance both from reading about someone they can relate to and the hopeful outlook for his "getting fixed." Another positive aspect is how Joey, one of the "normal-looking" kids adapts and makes friends with the other special ed students, even though he fears them at the outset. This is not a book for every reader - Joey's narration, as energetic as he is, can get a bit confusing at times - but those who can appreciate it will do so thoroughly.

Ask the pros.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

I recommend this book for: grades 4 and up

This book was as beautiful as the cover - I love those dandelions! The narrative is composed of 7th grader Josie's poems, beginning at winter break and ending the following autumn. Some of the many topics covered are living with cerebral palsy and being an outcast at school, life on her grandmother's farm where she is constantly surrounded by growing things, her busy student mother, and Jordan - a new neighbor who is facinated by science and treats Josie like a friend, something she's never experienced before. The poems are bursting with life, just like Granny's garden, and all of the beauty and heartache of Josie's life is honestly portrayed. As her family relationships and her new friendship with Jordan change and grow, Josie blooms. This book would be great for reluctant readers because of the length (I finished it in about half an hour), fans of poetry, and special needs kids/teens, but I can see many readers enjoying the different levels of this inspiring story.

Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith

I recommend this book for: high school vampire fans

I've decided that I shouldn't read vampire books. I read this one because I read a review that recommended it for fans of Stephenie Meyer, and I definitely fit into that category, but Tantalize was definitely not for me.

With that said, it's a very well-written book. The plot is intriguing - in a world where vampires and werepeople (Wolves, Cats, even Armadillos!) are acknowledged (although not accepted by any means) members of society, Quincey and her uncle D work to open their family's vampire-themed restaurant. I loved the idea. I loved Quince's quasi-romance with her smoldering half-werewolf best friend, and the building excitement as murders begin to pile up. Kieren (the Wolf) is one of the prime suspects, and Quince feels distant from him as she spends more time with Brad, the new chef for the restaurant who feeds her growing need for companionship and red wine. I was completely wrapped up into this story through the first 3/4 of the book, which I devoured like the tasty pasta dishes Brad creates in the kitchen.

What didn't I like? The nasty change that comes over Quincey at the end of the book, the almost complete lack of resolution (romantic or otherwise) - I read the last page and shouted "Are you kidding, that's it??", startling my husband. And, it turns out, I'm a huge wimp and couldn't sleep after reading this book. But as an avid Stephenie Meyer fan, I had to ask myself why, and here's what I came up with. I once heard Meyer's books described as "vampire books for people who don't like vampire books", and I think that's apt: they're high school romance with interesting characters, some of whom happen to be vampires who don't feed on humans. So, if that's what you're into (like me), Tantalize probably isn't for you. However, if you're into the eternal youth/black leather/feeding on blood elements, this book might be a great choice. Just don't expect an ending, particularly a happy one.

But then, I'm just a wimp: what more courageous reviewers thought.

Friday, August 24, 2007

How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'Connor

I recommend this book for: grade 3-5

Georgina has big problems - her father left the family and they got kicked out of their apartment, so she currently lives with her mother and little brother in their car. Mom is working two jobs, trying to save up enough for a new home, but meanwhile the three of them are washing up in public bathrooms, wearing the same clothes for days in a row, and parking in a different place every night. But then Georgina sees a poster offering a $500 reward for a lost dog, and she has a brilliant idea - she and her brother can steal a dog, then take it back for the reward money, and all of their problems will be solved! Right?

This was an okay story - Georgina isn't a character who really affected me, but it was great to see a book about homelessness for this age group - it's actually becoming a more common problem in our area, and as librarians, we see the homeless population, either coming in for help or just for a place to be out of the elements. Predictably, Georgina's plot doesn't work out the way she had hoped, and her guilty conscience persuades her to do the right thing - so the message is there, the side characters are pretty interesting, and the situation certainly has its drama . . . and still, the book wasn't one of my favorites. Oh well.

Teen geniuses and teen lit

The other night I happened to catch part of the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament on TV. I like to think I'm smart, so I kept it on and quizzed myself. Imagine my delight when the last category proved to be about books! And then imagine my sadness . . . the three teen geniuses could answer questions about 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 without blinking an eye, but the rest of the questions, which were about teen literature, elicited three blank stares. They didn't know who Princess Mia is! They hadn't read The Book Thief! There is something seriously wrong with that!

Okay, I'm clearly biased in favor of young adult literature - I happen to think it's one of greatest things on the planet. However, I pretty much skipped over the teen section when I was younger - I glanced in, read a lot of Fear Street and a little bit of Lurlene McDaniel, then went on my merry way to the adult section. As a result, I missed out on a lot of great literature - not just stories, but literature. Teen fiction isn't just fluff for the limited attention span of IMers everywhere - when you skip over the teen section, you miss out on great books like The Giver, a distopia story to rival Brave New World in its frightening vision of a possible future. You miss The Book Thief and its amazing, unique viewpoint on the Holocaust - one of the best "literary" books I've ever read. You miss An Abundance of Katherines, a story about a disillusioned teen prodigy in which you practically have to be a prodigy yourself to not miss most of the jokes. Of course there's some garbage out there on the shelves, but that's true in just about every genre, and many of the young adult books I've read have had more original plots, more believable characters, and more life in them than most of what I ever read for a class assignment. I'm not advocating ignoring the classics by any means, but it makes me sad to think there are teens who could really appreciate these phenomenal books that teen authors labor over, but who pass over the entire genre in favor of the adult books. My advice? Read in the teen section while you're a teen. Find some stories and characters you can relate to, find challenging material on the teen shelves, because I guarantee you that it's there. And hey, it just might come in handy when all of you smartypants are face to face with Alex Trebek!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I recommend this book for: high school and adults

Note to self - Jane Austen is great company when you're home sick! Stuck at home today with (gasp!) no new library books (although the pile on my desk at work is stacked up over my head), I pulled this one off the shelf. I've read and re-read Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, always passing by this volume - probably because it was assigned reading in an English class that we never got around to discussing. But once I started, I found this book engrossing and finished it all today!

Catherine Morland is the heroine of this story - pretty and 17, not overly accomplished, but a voracious reader of Gothic novels. The first half of the book explores her family relationships and sends her off to Bath with a childless couple as chaperons. The second half takes her to Northanger Abbey, the home of some new acquaintances (including a most fanciable young man who shares her taste in books), and where her imagination starts to run away with her. Although the horrors she imagines never come to pass, the things that honest, English people of good society are capable of doing are rather atrocious indeed - from a social standpoint, of course.

Fans of other Jane Austen works will probably eat this up - although there's no Mr. Darcy to swoon over, Mr. Tilney is a good character, and Austen's observations about human behavior as witty as in any of her other novels. My favorite: "she was so far from seeking to attract their notice, that she looked back at them only three times." Priceless.

Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen

I recommend this book for: grade 5 -8

Several middle schoolers recommended this title as a possible book club book, and it definitely has a lot to discuss, especially for that age group! Juli has been head over heels for Bryce since 2nd grade, and he's been just trying to keep her out of his hair. Now it's almost the end of 8th grade, and things are beginning to flip: Bryce is starting to see Juli in a new light - she's seeing him in a new light as well, but it doesn't look favorable. Told in alternating chapters between their two voices, it's interesting to see how each remembers conversations and incidents - I thought the discrepancy between the two viewpoints was funny and very true to life, and that Van Draanen managed to capture the awkwardness and embarrassment of forming relationships very well. Juli is a great protagonist with beautiful ideas and a sparkle of her own, and although Bryce is less likeable at the outset, seeing him grow in the right direction is interesting to watch. With that said, there were things that didn't exactly fly with me - like how Bryce's dad had absolutely no redeeming characteristics, and his best friend completely ditched him and told him why, directly. Overall, though, this was an enjoyable story of the frustrations and joys of seeing yourself and the people around you for what they really are - one of the more rewarding parts of middle school.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Way Down Deep by Ruth White

Haha, Himitsu, I just keep on blogging and blogging . . .

I recommend this book for: grades 4-8

Ruby appeared in the tiny Appalachian town of Way Down Deep as a 3 year old in June of 1944. Not being able to speak very much, nobody knew how she had gotten there, but Miss Arbutus, the owner of the boarding house, took her in and raised her as her own. Now Ruby is 12, and with the introduction of a new family in town, the mystery of Ruby's past is beginning to unravel - but is the life she loves about to unravel with it?

This book was a joy, with quirky characters that made me think of Billie Letts, and a touch of magical realism. There's Robber Bob, who attempted to rob the bank with a toy gun to support his children, and the Sheriff, who walked in on the middle of the robbery without noticing anything amiss. The librarian, Miss Wordy, likes to use words like "inasmuch" and "albeit", and Miss Arbutus herself sends Ruby on all of the errands because she doesn't like to see people in person or use the telephone. The smalltown setting is picturesque and perfect, and the way Ruby brings joy to all of the people (and goats) around her is inspiring. This one's a definite winner!

Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis

I recommend this book for: grades 4-7

Oh, it's fun to read kid's books! The heroine of this tale is 7th grader Emma Jean, logical thinker and social outcast. Her scientific way of looking at things doesn't make her friends, but she's mostly content to observe from a distance, saving her friendship for her mother, the kindly custodian, and the professor who boards on the third floor of her house and cooks authentic Indian meals. But then Emma Jean runs into Colleen crying in the bathroom, and Colleen asks her to help . . . and Emma Jean knows exactly how she can.

With her keen powers of observation and a basic knowledge of word processing, Emma Jean is out to save the 7th grade from every problem that's in her power - with mixed results. The crisis of the book comes when Emma Jean's interference causes a bigger problem than the one it solved, but it's only middle school angst, and resolved very neatly. Emma Jean is an interesting character - her verbosity annoyed me in the earlier chapters, but as I spent more time with her it grew on me. A clever, funny book with lots of heart, most tween girls who can get past the long words will just eat it up!

What the pros said.

Beige by Cecil Castellucci

I recommend this book for: high school, especially fans of punk music or California
This novel started out slowly, but it gained steam and definitely delivered at the end. Katy lives in Montreal with her mother, an archaeologist. Her father lives in L.A., plays with several punk bands including the infamous Suck, and hasn't seen Katy since he was kicked out of Canada for trying to bring drugs across the border when she was 7. Their reunion happens when Mom decides to spend the summer in Peru excavating, and that it would be better for Katy to spend some quality time with Dad, a.k.a. "The Rat" than come along.
Katy has a hard time fitting in to this new world - she hates messes, doesn't particularly like music of any kind, and she resents being shoved off onto Lake, a young punk rocker and daughter of The Rat's bandmate. But then some great moments happen: Katy and her father talk honestly about his addiction. Katy makes discoveries about her mother's past and makes friends on her own, and gets her heart broken by a handsome Californian. I really like the way Cecil Castellucci writes, and her exploration of the punk scene in all of its dirty, profane glory is incredibly fun. As an outsider slowly becoming an insider, Katy (labeled "Beige" by Lake) gives an interesting perspective, and her growth as a character made me want to cheer, even if it did happen a bit too quickly to be believed.
One clever thing I loved about this book is that at one point, Katy's friend gives her a punk primer - a mix CD of must-know songs. Each chapter is named for one of the songs, and the action of the chapter somehow relates to the title or the band . . . it's a glorious thing.
And if you like this one, try out Boyproof as well!

The Castaways by Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo

I recommend this book for: middle and high school

I read great reviews of this graphic novel, and was somewhat disappointed. It follows Tucker, a 13 year old boy who follows his father's footsteps and hops a train, trying out the life of a Depression era hobo. It was definitely a quick read, but it was so quick that although there was certainly much to admire in characters like Elijah, the old black man who takes Tucker under his wing, I felt like I didn't have any time to get to know them and care about them. Tucker's mother was the only one I felt was fairly well-developed. But, it wasn't a bad book - the illustrations were certainly lovely, and there was a good bit of historical detail packed in to both the illustrations and the dialogue. I might recommend it to reluctant readers in need of historical fiction - although I don't know of many teachers who have embraced the graphic format just yet.

Disagree? So do the pros.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Jack Plank Tells Tales by Natalie Babbitt

I recommend this book for: grade 4-5, reluctant readers, teachers or parents in need of a good read-aloud
My most recent foray into the juvenile department was rather nice. Jack Plank used to be a pirate, but he didn't really have the heart for pillaging, so his shipmates left him ashore in the Caribbean with no hard feelings. Jack finds a place to board with a widow and her 11 year old daughter, Nina, who helps Jack every day for a week in trying to find a suitable job. Each day at dinner the various occupants of the boarding house and friends suggest a new job to Jack, but he has a fantastic story to explain why none of them will work for him. Poor Jack is afraid he'll have to go back to sea, until his new friends come up with the perfect job and all ends happily. Jack's stories are fun twists on traditional tales - one shipmate transforms under the full moon, but not into a wolf, while another buys a mummy's hand and gets haunted by the ghost of the dead king, and still another plays music so beautiful that the wildlife is enchanted - the wildlife being a huge family of crocodiles!
I can imagine that finding the right audience for this book might be a problem. Kids who want pirate tales may grow bored, as there's very little actual piracy that goes on in the stories, and the pirates themselves are a rather unusual lot. However, this would be great for reluctant readers, as each chapter is a short story unto itself, more like beginning readers in structure than most chapter books. And this would be a great read-aloud, with plenty of natural stopping places and short episodes. Over all, not an A+, but definitely enjoyable.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Change of pace

Ahh, summer reading is over! The luxury . . . until school starts, plus the summer reading planning for next summer, plus kids in here frantic for homework help . . . there is no peace unto the librarians . . .

As for reading, the staff summer reading program here focuses on teen lit., so I've been frantically reading more young adult titles than usual even for me, and I think it's making me moody, so for a switch, I'm re-reading Persuasion, my 2nd favorite Jane Austen book, and I'm going to try to integrate some more juvenile/picture book titles, and maybe even (gasp!) a grownup book or two. Hey, variety is the spice of life, after all - and I have to stop moping around over werewolves and wildmen!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover by Mitali Perkins

I recommend this book for: middle and high school girls

Okay, so after all the intensity of the newest Rowling and Meyer releases, something slightly lighter was just what I needed. Not that First Daughter doesn't tackle some serious issues - displaced persons, the traffic of young girls in other countries, religion, and real vs. perceived identity - but this is a fun book!

Sameera Righton, (Sparrow to her close friends and family) has always been a world traveler - attending boarding school in Brussels, and accompanying her adoptive parents all over the globe on various diplomatic assignments. But now she's headed back to the States to join her father's presidential campaign. Mom and Dad have hired a team of experts to help Sameera both help on the campaign and to avoid becoming a target for the ugliness that presidential campaigns always seem to create. Problems? Well, first of all, she's a major target for the media because of her race - she was born in Pakistan. Tara, her campaign staffer, has created a whole new image named Sammy: all American girl, complete with fabulous makeover, little to say on issues that actually matter to Sameera, and a custom blog that is little more than gushy endorsements for her father, America, and the fabulous stores that supplied her wardrobe. Sameera is not impressed, and neither are the 29 people who regularly participate in her real blog, where she talks about the things that matter to her. At first she gives in to Tara, but when people she cares about start getting stomped by the media, Sparrow springs into action to help her father win her way - and it is awesome.

Of course, the campaign is just a bit too clean for realism - despite asking Sameera to turn into a valley girl in front of the cameras, which is a pretty dirty trick, and the terribly twisted headlines that emerge, all of the ugliness seems to come from the media. Righton's opponent for the presidency is very ladylike (of course, the woman had to lose . . .), and there seem to be no hard feelings there. One thing Perkins did really well was depict the online culture that many teens participate in - checking one another's blogs and posting comments, how important that is to some people. Even if it wasn't totally believable, it was cool to read about young people getting involved in politics on their own ground - and hey, maybe we're getting there - Obama has a myspace, after all!

Also, there's a fantastic librarian character, a grey-haired lady who blogs along with Sameera and beats all the middle school boys at a small Ohio town's first ever Xbox championship. I hope I'm that cool when I'm an old librarian.
Oh, and if you'd care to check out what fictional Sameera is saying about the current election (I find it a bit strange, myself, but to each his own), check it out at www.sparrowblog.com.

Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

I recommend this book for: grade 8 and up, fans of vampires, werewolves, romance

If you ate Stephenie Meyer's books, they'd taste like dark chocolate. The woman is amazing.

Book three of my favorite vampire love saga held me just as enthralled as the other two. It was different, yes, but in ways I loved - explanations of where Jasper and Rosalie came from, as well as a few peeks into what Edward was like as a human. Bella stands up to Edward and his riduculous overprotectiveness (he really was getting on my nerves, halfway through, I wanted her to just run off with Jacob and be done with it) - and unlike some other critics, I've never considered Bella to be a weak character. Still, it was nice to see Edward not get his way all the time. The development of the love triangle worked out better than I'd hoped for Jake, my favorite character - he got a chance to shine right along with Edward. Another change - this volume was a bit steamier than the previous two, which were romantic but squeaky clean, but Eclipse is a bit of an escalation in the relationships. Nothing really happens that parents should worry about, but there is a bit of discussion that made me blush!

In the end, I can't talk too much about the plot (some readers might want to cheat, and I can't condone that! ;-), but the Amazon reviews are always good for giving a little taste of what happens, so read those. I loved this book and recommend it highly, but make sure you read Twilight and New Moon first!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen

I recommend this book for: high school fantasy fans

This was sooo cool. Many times as I was reading I started flipping out, then tried to explain to my husband how cool the thing that had just happened was, but I couldn't approach being coherent at all. That's the kind of book this was.

During WWI, Jack, Charles, and John, three young Oxford men, meet in London. All they have in common (other than their school) is that they are being questioned by the police in connection with the murder of a professor. John was his student, but the others are completely unconnected. As they go to get a drink together (at 221B Baker Street, mind you), they are approached by a strange man who insists that their lives are in danger and convinces them to flee with him to his ship. They narrowly make it aboard with their lives.

The professor was the custodian of a book, the Imaginarium Geographica - an atlas of all the fantasy worlds ever created. A long line of illustrious writers had passed it down through the ages, and John is the next one. The peculiar challenge that these three must face is the Winter King, who is using some terrible magic to put lands in Shadow, turning the inhabitants into fearsome creatures who do his bidding. John, Jack, and Charles sail with their guide, his daughter, and a young man named Bug in a living dragonship on a mission to save all of the worlds.

My, that's a wordy explanation. Clearly, there's a lot going on in this book. It was completely delightful - since all of the fantasy worlds are inside the Archipelago of Dreams, from Prydain to Avalon, there are all sorts of interesting characters and places - it's a bit like reading Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland all at the same time. But then there are the author's own additions, like the Cartographer, who lives in the Keep of Time, an ever-growing tower, and the real origin of the Loch Ness Monster. Simply brilliant. It made me laugh and gave me chills. I think Owen did a fantastic job in paying tribute to the authors he mentions, as well as to the mythology of various cultures. A must-read for serious fantasy fans!

Not everyone agrees . . . don't read the first review if you don't want the coolest plot point spoiled!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Jango by William Nicholson

I recommend this book for: middle and high school, fantasy fans, just make sure to read the first one first!

Wow and a half. This book is the first one within my memory that tempted me to pull it out at red lights on my way home from work - I was just dying to know what happened next! (I resisted the urge, but barely!)

This sequel to Seeker exceeded all of my expectations. In the first book, Seeker, Morning Star, and the Wildman all sought to become members of the Nomana, warriors who protect their sacred island and their god with strength that comes from magic. I was so impressed with Seeker because it was an engrossing fantasy that didn't fall into a standard dragons, elves, young wizard at school storyline. The closest comparison I can come up with for the Nomana are Jedi, but the story and the world feel totally original.

As Jango begins, the three heroes of the last book are in training, but of the three, only Seeker is truly happy. The Wildman cannot be defeated in battle, but his ambitions aren't those of the Noble Warriors, and Morning Star is filled with conflict, absolutely in love and completely doubting her worthiness. A new warlord appears on the scene with horses - something unheard of - and begins terrorizing the land, heading for the city of Radiance and the Nom itself, just as the Old Ones prepare to make their attack on the All and Only, the god on the sacred island. Seeker, Star, and Wildman follow their separate paths and face the threat, but will their strength be enough when their entire way of life is threatened?

I started this one yesterday and finished this morning. Fantasy fans should definitely look into this series - it's one of my favorites, and I know I'm not the only one.

Professional reviews - the first one is a gross oversimplification of the plot, but the excerpt at the bottom of the page is great!