Friday, November 30, 2007

Kissing the Bee by Kathe Koja

I recommend this book for: high school

Another wow! Dana is a high school senior, a good student who spends most of her time with her best friend Avra and Emil, Avra's boyfriend. Dana's secret is that she has always wanted Emil. Avra's secret is that she plans to drive off into the sunset right after prom, taking Emil with her. And Emil has a secret too, not that he's telling.

It might sound at first like a typical love-triangle drama, but this was a moving and thoughtful book. Dana's biology project about the lives of bees and their mythological symbolism provides an overarching metaphor for the relationship between queen bee Avra and Dana the worker. The tension in some of the scenes is unbelievably intense, and I completely loved it. The last line of the book explains the title, and it was a perfect finish. I definitely loved it!

(Sadly, it's not for everyone - if you're uncomfortable with swearing, teen drinking and partying or implied -not graphic - sex, I wouldn't recommend this title.)

The buzz from the pros.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf

I recommend this book for: grades 4-6

Milada is a girl living in Czechoslovakia. The Nazis are around, but other than food shortages, the people in her small village are largely unaffected by the war. Then one night everyone is awakened in the middle of the night and arrested. Families are separated, and Milada finds herself on a bus with only one other girl - and both of them have blonde hair and blue eyes.

This powerful and haunting story about children who were retrained and adopted as Germans blew me away. The graphic details of the war are absent, but that doesn't keep it from being tragic as Milada struggles with remembering her actual past versus the lies the Nazis feed the children, making and losing friends, and even at times forgetting that there was a time before she was called Eva. This is engrossing historical fiction with emotional impact, moreso because it is based on real events.

Two small quibbles with this book:
1) As there is little description of the details of the war, children who have no context for what WWII means will be confused by the references to smokestacks and the horrible smell that comes from them. It won't ruin the book, but it's worth talking about with kids who might read this one.

2) The cover art, although I liked it more after reading the book, is unfortunate. It looks a bit like a 1940s propaganda poster, which I like, but I'm afraid it's just going to look dated and unattractive to a 10 year old.

The pros.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ida B. . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan

I recommend this book for: grades 3-5

Ida B. Applewood is a free spirit - she talks to the trees on her family's land and listens for their answers, sends rafts with messages downstream to see how far away they will make it, and takes long walks with her father in the evenings. Life is fairly idyllic, not even interrupted by school, as Ida B. has been homeschooled ever since kindergarten in the public school threatened to crush her spirit and her parents pulled her out. And then one day the trees whisper that trouble is coming . . . the discovery that her mother has cancer and must start chemotherapy has serious consequences on life as Ida B. knows it. Some of her trees are cut down to make way for houses to help pay for the treatments, and now -unforgivably, in her eyes - her parents have decided that Ida B. will have to go back to public school. Feeling betrayed and angry, she hardens her heart and decides that no one is getting through ever again.

I had mixed feelings about this book. Ida B. is definitely a great character, and I think many of her emotions came out realistically in the writing. A child's anger can be fierce, and certainly most 4th graders understand more about what is unfair in their own lives than they do about the affairs of adults and necessities. Even so, I found it troubling that she didn't seem to worry at all about her mother possibly dying, just about the fact that she was being made to do something she didn't want to do. Still, there are important themes here: forgiving and saying you're sorry, making the best of a bad situation, the fact that one bad teacher doesn't ruin the whole bunch, and of course the love of a family and others who care. Not a perfect 10 in my book, but still a worthwhile read.

From those who liked it better than I did . . .

One Little Chicken: A counting book by David Elliott , ill. by Ethan Long

I recommend this book for: preschool - K

There are a ton of counting books out there, but this one has the added appeal of dancing chickens. From one twirling chicken in a tutu to 10 chickens who shimmy shimmy shake, these birds are incredibly fun. My favorite picture is the spread of 5 chickens who "hula and they hula and they hula till it hurts," but all of the pictures are bright with lots of kid appeal and very expressively drawn chickens. Also, I can't wait to use this in storytime, because it has an ending that invites the listeners to get up and dance along - maybe with Sandra Boynton's Barnyard Dance? Great fun.

Blog backup

As you can probably tell from the ever-growing "Soon to be blogged" section in the sidebar, I'm falling behind on my reviewing. Blame it on end of the semester/holiday business or my on own selfish desires to do things like see my friends and clean my house, but I am still reading and considering, and I'll catch up eventually!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal by Paul Fleischman and Julie Paschkis

I recommend this book for: elementary school

The subtitle is "A Worldwide Cinderella," which just about sums it up. I read some excellent reviews of this one (see the link at the bottom) and couldn't wait to read it. The nearly universal Cinderella story comes to life as stories from all over the world combine into one tale. The artwork is lovely, and the simple text matches perfectly. A nice bonus is a map on the endpapers that shows the different countries whose versions of the tale are included. Not for young fairytale fans, but perfect for those who know and love the story, and especially kids who have heard versions from more than one culture. I can definitely see this title getting classroom use - for a folktales unit, you could read this book aloud, then assign small groups to read other books that are different versions of the Cinderella story and briefly talk about their differences or create a play using that storyline . . . hey, I might make that into a library program myself!

Reviews that made me want to read this book.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

I recommend this book for: high school

This book deserves a big WOW. I loved Zevin's Elsewhere, and this title did not disappoint me in spite of my very high expectations - in fact, I skipped a lot of housework to stay in bed and finish this one!

Naomi is a high school junior, a dedicated co-editor of the yearbook, a star tennis player and of course, a member of the popular crowd. Where's the conflict? After leaving a new, very expensive camera inside the school, she and her quirky best friend Will (the other yearbook editor) flip a coin to decide who should go back for it. Naomi loses, and on the way back out to her car, she falls down the stairs and wakes up in an ambulance with a boy named James who says he's her boyfriend, but not really. She's not sure if he is or not, because she can't remember anything that's happened since she turned 12.

As she struggles with the revelations of things she's forgotten (for instance, her parents' divorce!), Naomi has to face important questions about herself and her relationships. Can she be the girl she was, or does starting out with a clean slate make her a totally different person? How can she go back to that life when she can't figure out why she was dating Ace or why yearbook was so important to her? How can she stay away from James when he seems to be the only person who can relate to not having a past? I found it amazingly heart-wrenching and funny and thought provoking - all of those things Elsewhere was, but with characters who are alive - and they really did seem to live. A few things seemed like a stretch, such as Naomi's father not even questioning her when she tells him that she has to go to California the next day, but overall everything was very well done.

Some people may object to a few things in the book - teens are realistically swearing and drinking, and although she can't remember it and there is no detail, we find that Naomi had been sleeping with her boyfriend before her accident. I didn't find it offensive, as all of these elements were just small parts of the bigger picture of Naomi re-establishing her identity and figuring out what -and who - was still important to her. An engrossing and interesting novel.

From the people who get paid for this . . . I particularly like the book description section, which comes from the front flap of the cover.

I was sorely tempted to write above somewhere that Naomi ends up with the guy that the reader has known is the right one the entire time, but I wouldn't want to ruin the suspense for anyone. But yeah, she does, and I'm curious if it's just me or if anyone else was seriously reminded of the Anne of Green Gables love story while reading this. Guy and girl are best friends, he's in love with her forever, she finally realizes how she feels when he gets seriously sick and runs to be at his side even though there's another girl in the way, but that relationship ends because he's always been in love with her . . . okay, so maybe it's more archetypal than I thought originally. But seriously, all I could think of during that last hospital scene was Gilbert Blythe - not that that's a bad thing. Just wondering if I'm crazy . . . or maybe I need to rent the films again because I'm experiencing Avonlea withdrawal . . .

Monday, November 5, 2007

No Talking by Andrew Clements

I recommend this book for: grade 3-5

Did you love Frindle? Then you might like this book - or alternatively, you might hate it, because the story is very much the same. The basic premise is this: a group of 5th graders who are called "the Unshushables" by their teachers because of how much and how loudly they talk hold a contest to see who can stay quiet the longest - boys or girls. It all starts because Dave reads about Ghandi keeping silence one day per week to order his mind and wonders if it's possible. When loudmouth Lynsey's chattering breaks his concentration, he challenges the whole fifth grade to the speaking battle of the sexes. The teachers flip out because their authority is being undermined, but then they start to realize that it's not so bad, the kids are learning, and their classroom experience is actually improved. Everyone learns from the experience and they all become better friends and human beings.

Perhaps I'm being a little too snarky - the concept is absolutely brilliant, even if the reactions of the adults are ridiculously exaggerated in every case - but then, I'm sure adult behavior does seem that way to kids sometimes. There are a lot of funny things in the book - my favorite being Clements' astute observation that "a cootie by any other name is still a cootie" - but his omniscient narrative voice performed the double function of distancing the reader from the action of the story and really getting on my nerves. The device meant that the reader is always told about how the characters are feeling, never allowed to see it, and he kept saying things like "I could keep telling you about this, or I could jump and talk about that, but instead, we're going to jump to this other place, where such and such is happening. But there's more. There's always more." Not entirely my cup of tea, but I'll still recommend it to kids who want stories about school or semi-realistic fiction. A fairly enjoyable book.

Praise from the pros.

** One other, completely unrelated thing that bothered me is that I'm completely unable to tell from the cover illustration which one is a girl and which is a boy. Is it just me? This bothers me about Franklin's parents, too.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith

I recommend this book for: grade 5-8

Looking for a slightly quirky book about smart middleschoolers conquering all? Look no farther! Narrators Elias, Honoria, and Shohei all attend the prestigious Peshtigo School in Chicago (read: a fancy private school where the kids are geniuses and the parents are loaded.) All three are entering the science fair - Honoria because she cares about science and she wants to submit a real project that will beat the pants off of suck-up Goliath Reed's comparison of different brands of toothpaste, while Eli is forced into it by his scientist/musician father (who incidentally named all of his sons Johann - Elias is a middle name), and Shohei piggybacks on Eli's project. There are other things at play here as well, such as Honoria's crush on Shohei and Eli's on her. Then there are Shohei's struggles against his adoptive parents, who want him to embrace his Japanese heritage and force him to do so by redecorating his room with tatami mats and packing him sushi for lunch every day. The main crisis comes when Eli receives a bad grade on his project for not getting the results the chemistry teacher has come to expect, and he takes some drastic measures to prove that he's right. A good choice for readers looking for funny realistic fiction or something with the slightest hint of, not really romance, but a boy/girl thing.

They like it like piranhas like bananas! and beef hearts.

Slumming by Kristen D. Randle

I recommend this book for: high school

I picked this one up because I saw it on a list of books about LDS (or Mormon) teens, and that caught my interest. As an LDS person myself, I wanted to check it out.

Alicia, Sam, and Nikki are three seniors who share the bond of being the only people of their faith in the school. When Nikki idly wonders what makes some people beautiful and others not, they find themselves embarking on a human experiment to choose a social outcast and show them a little TLC, trying to shape them up and take them to the prom. Things are more difficult than they'd imagined, of course - Nikki zeros in on the class nerd and finds there's more to him than meets the eye, while the intimidating girl Sam chooses has an abusive family life that makes him physically ill when he knows the whole of it. Alicia's target, the school bad boy, is worse than she knows, and her naivete puts her in a very dangerous situation. The message that people are more than the stereotype others place them into is very clear, and the family situations the various teens face ring true - even the tragic ones. However, some things didn't sit quite right with me - one being the way Alicia completely shuts out her neighbor, Peter, for a transgression he committed when they were both 12. It seemed too extreme. As for the LDS element, it was clearly a part of the characters' lives - their values were clearly stated, an older brother receives a call to missionary service during the novel, church programs like hometeaching are mentioned . . . but I'm not sure why Randle chose to make the protagonists of this particular novel Mormons, if that makes sense. Overall, an okay book, but not one I'll read over and over again (like I did with her The Only Alien on the Planet as a kid!)

Professional reviews.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Bloomability by Sharon Creech

I recommend this book for: grade 5-8

Sharon Creech is one of my heroes - her books always leave me feeling fantastic, and kids need that out of literature now and then. Hey, so do librarians! This gem is the story of Domenica (who prefers Dinnie), a young lady who has traveled the country with her family in her 13 years, as her father is always finding new "opportunities" and her mother and siblings have followed him. Ironically, her older siblings opportunities get severely limited - her brother's behavior lands him in jail and later in the Air Force, while her 16 year old sister marries a Marine just before he gets shipped out of the country and has his baby 9 months later. Dinnie's opportunity looks more promising - her aunt and uncle take her to Switzerland with them, where Uncle Max is the new headmaster of an international school. Although her mind resists such a move, Dinnie doesn't fight them and begins what she calls her "second life" abroad.

Dinnie's experiences reflect not just moving to a foreign country, but to any new situation - learning a new language, getting used to new people, learning new things (skiing!), missing those she has left behind. I particularly liked the signs that she makes to post in her window: the first ones read "kidnapped!" - or at least, they're supposed to, but her limited Italian makes for some interesting phrases - while later ones reflect her acclimation and growing love for her new opportunity. Her new friends come not just from America but from Spain, Japan, and all over the world - one of them coins the title phrase "bloomability" while trying to find the word for possibility. This is a sweet, exciting novel about a young lady finding her place in a different world, and I'll certainly be recommending it!