Saturday, November 23, 2019

Completely awesome new science fiction

I am not usually attracted to science fiction.  I blame a steady diet of fairy tales and magically related books in my youth, but one really great thing about CYBILS is that it sends you places you didn't even know you wanted to go, reading books you didn't even know you should look for.  So here are two of my new favorites (go ahead, call me fickle).

The first one is called Cog and it's written by Greg Van Eekhout.  It's about COG, which is short for cognitive development.  Cog is a robot with artificial intelligence, so he's meant to learn things and he looks exactly like a 12 year old boy.  He lives with his inventor, Gina and she's trying to teach him lots of things, like shopping and smiling.  Gina tells him that he learns from his mistakes.  So one day Cog decides to make a mistake to learn something new.  He goes outside by himself.  He sees a dog in the street and car coming straight for the dog.  He calculates the speed at which the car is moving and decides that he should save the dog.  In doing so, he is badly damaged but Gina brings him home and is able to repair him.  But apparently, in doing so, she exposes her Cog project to the home office and they think Gina's been making some modifications that they want.  They tell Cog that they are going to remove his brain.  Cog decides this is a bad idea and comes up with a plan to escape.  The escape plan is fraught with peril and evil corporate villains.  It's scary and funny and full of heart, which is a bit surprising, considering all the main characters are robots.  This is a WONDERFUL story about free choice, loyalty, creative problem solving, and compassion as well as some of the consequences and ethical dilemmas of artificial intelligence.  I love this one.

The second one is also WAY outside my usual wheelhouse.  It's called Cogheart by Peter Bunzl.  Ok, and it's a little hilarious that these two title are so similar, but where COG is set in the present, Cogheart is set squarely in the Victorian time and would definitely be considered steampunk.  It starts with John, who is captaining a zeppelin, which is attacked by pirates.  He sends his trusted confidant, Malkin, to take an urgent message to his daughter, Lily.  Malkin is a mechanimal-an animal that has been created to look and act like a real animal, however, this mechanimal can think for himself.  Lily, meanwhile, has been in a boarding school, where she has been bullied and unappreciated.  She likes reading stories about air pirates and would rather go on adventures than dress up and act like a lady.  Her governess from home comes to tell her that her father has been killed, Lily and the governess head for home and weird things start happening.  Lily comes to understand that maybe the governess ISN'T really acting in Lily's best interest, but is maybe a lot more interested in John, her dad's inventions.  This is a very fun, very fast paced story with lots of plot twists, chase scenes, betrayals, and new loyalties and friends.  I liked this one a lot.  

Here's a video introduction: 

Sunday, November 3, 2019

and there be dragons... in middle grade fiction

My students are super excited about dragons.  They love Tui Sutherland's series Dragonwings but these two new ones are going to thrill them!

The first one is by one of my favorite authors, Sarah Beth Durst.  If you missed it, she wrote an amazing magical story called "The Girl Who Could Not Dream" that had one of the best characters (Monster) that I've read in a long time.  Her newest one, Spark, is about a girl named Mina who is quiet and lives with her very noisy family in a country called Aloria.  Aloria is special because they always have perfect weather, thanks to storm beasts and their guardians.  There are different kinds of storm beasts, wind, rain, sun, snow, and lightning that each provide things that their country needs. The guardians spend two years bonding with their storm beast while it's still inside the egg, but they don't know what kind it will be until it hatches.  Everyone is very surprised then, when Mina's egg hatches and it is a lightning beast.  Lightning beast are loud and noisy and unpredictable which seems opposite of Mina.  The family discusses give the lightning beast (named Pixit) away, but in the end, Mina finds enough of a voice to make sure he stays.  Mina and Pixit go to the big city to the special school for storm beasts and their guardians and Mina starts to make friends.  One day, during a competition, Mina and Pixit get blown off course and end up where they shouldn't.  Kind strangers help out, but tell a surprising tale of terrible weather that seems to coincide with a big celebration in Aloria.  This is a terrific story of finding your own voice, standing up for what you believe is right, even when it's hard or scary, friendship and family.  I really liked this one a lot and I think the kids at my school are going to like it too.

Image result for spark by sarah beth durst

The second one is also a dragon story about finding your own voice.  This one is called Dragonfell and it's written by Sarah Prineas.  It's about Rafi, living in a small village in what appears to be part of the United Kingdom (it never really says where, but judging by the accents, that's where it is) in the late part of the 1800s or very early 1900s.  People of the village think Rafi is different and not necessarily in a good way.  The people of the village are mostly weavers (including Rafi's disabled father) and the new factories that are starting to populate the cities are making life hard for the weavers.  The factory owner, Mr. Flitch, seems to have taken in interest in Rafi, also not really in a good way.  Two people show up at his family home and when they start threatening Rafi's dad, Rafi seems to set a fire that scares them away, but it also scares his dad and the villagers.  One of the villagers, a wise old woman gives Rafi a book about dragons and that starts him on his quest-to find the dragon that used to protect, not harm, their village.  During his quest he encounters a young female scientist, several goats, as well as scary villains, and truths about his own life as well as the life of dragons.  This is a wonderful story about being different and accepting as well as owning your differences and how your community can help or hinder that progress.  I liked this one a lot too and I'm pretty sure it's coming to live in my school library as well.  

Image result for dragonfell sarah prineas

Monday, October 21, 2019

My new favorites! Middle grade fiction

I'm having SUCH a good time reading middle grade speculative (or fantasy) fiction for the CYBILS awards.  I LOVE being a first round panelist.  It can seem overwhelming at times (90 chapter books before Christmas?!  GAH!!) and then you open one up and it's awesome and amazing and wonderful and then you remember, why it seems like such a good idea to do this!  

This first one is exactly like that.  It's called "The Spinner of Dreams" by K. A. Reynolds.  It's about Annalise, who is 12 and was born cursed.  Her left hand is twice the size of her right and it has a black broken heart on it.  The people of the village know about the curse and are not happy to have someone cursed living in their midst, so her wonderfully kind and loving parents have built fences around the house to protect her but as she had grown bigger, her big hand had grown more powerful and the people of town more afraid of her.  Her parents decide to get her a pet (since she doesn't have any friends) but when they go to the shelter, they find the perfect cat (one that can talk!) but it runs away before they can take it home.  Annalise is bereft but has a bit of a revelation.  She's going to go to the Fate Spinner and ask to have the curse removed.  So, she leaves a note for her parents and sets out on an epic adventure.  This magical adventure involves a magic cat (named Muse, can you think of a more perfect name for a cat?), a three legged fox, talking trees, a very angry and cursed sorceress, mythical and magical beasts, harrowing danger, and wild plot twists.  There is also some very amazing writing and some of the best similes I've read in quite some time. (like this one - "she was as thirsty as a salted slug").  There are big themes of friendship, loyalty, and persistence.  I adored Annalise and I was sorry when the book was over!  And I can't say enough about what a great writer K. A. Reynolds is-more than once during the story, her beautiful words brought me to tears, including this amazing quote -  "Never be sorry for showing the world who you are or who you wish to become...These struggles have brought you exactly where you need to be." Our kids need to hear messages like this over and over and over again. Make sure this one ends up in your library!

The second one is called "A Wolf Named Wander" by Rosanne Parry.  It's based on a true story, but it's written from a wolf's point of voice, which is why it ended up in the speculative fiction pile rather than the realistic fiction pile.  It's beautifully written in a voice that makes you wish you could actually be friends with the storyteller, who is a wolf named Swift.  The story starts with Swift and his litter mates in the den and follows Swift's life as he becomes more independent but how tragically, he is separated from the rest of his pack.  But he perseveres and makes a new life for himself.  At the end of the book, there is information about the particular wolf that inspired the story, as well as some scientific information about wolves.  I think the kids will like this one a lot.  My students are really interested in the wolves and this story is really compellingly written-it's hard to put down!  I think fourth grade and up will love this one.  

Sunday, October 13, 2019

More new magical fiction!

I've been plowing through the fantasy fiction list for  CYBILS.  The librarians at my local library are stunned that I want to check out 12 books at a time.  I'm not sure if they're more surprised that I want to read that many or that I can CARRY that many at a time.  Either way, there have been some amazing titles!

The first one is called a companion, but I think you could totally call it a sequel.  I'm not sure how well it stands alone, because I loved the first one SO MUCH.  This one is called The Bootlace Magician and it's by Cassie Beasley.  It's the companion or sequel to Circus Mirandus, which came out a couple of years ago.  The Bootlace Magician opens with Micah living in the Circus Mirandus.  He's a knot tier and doesn't really see how tying knots is going to be anything magical but he keeps going.  His guardian, the Lightbender, gives him a lot of support, as do the other magicians in the Circus Mirandus.  Micah's hoping to see his friend Jenny, who lived near by, when Micah lived with his grandfather.  But some weird things are happening, birds are behaving strangely and Micah starts digging around in the Circus Mirandus and comes across some things about his family's past-specifically with his grandmother, Victoria, who left the Circus under mysterious circumstances.  What's great about this story, in addition to the amazing magic and awesome characters, is the big theme of finding yourself and your own magical story.  This is a terrific story for middle grade students and up who like fantasy fiction and don't mind some danger and scary parts.  I loved this one and I can't wait to put it in my library.

The second one is the start of a series of books about kids with magical powers.  This one is called The Revenge of Magic by James Riley.  It's about Fort Fitzgerald, who is lives through a terrifying event at the Lincoln Memorial.  He and his dad are there, sightseeing and minding their own business, when suddenly there's an earthquake and a monster comes up out of the abyss and snatches Fort's dad and takes him underground.  Fort isn't quite sure that's what really happened because everyone else seems to think it was more like just an earthquake and Fort's dad disappeared.  But Fort is sure a monster has his dad, and his only clue was a girl's voice in his head.  One day, when he's trying to put his life back together, living with his aunt, a man shows up and offers Fort a chance to come to a school that would help him figure out what really happened to his dad.  Fort jumps at the chance, but it turns out not everyone is so eager to have Fort there.  This is a very fast paced mystery, with plot twists that will leave you guessing.  The characters are interesting and relatable.  The monsters are scary and mysterious and there are also some scary government conspiracies thrown in for good measure.  This would also be a good one for middle graders.  I liked this one a lot too! 

Here's the book trailer. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Super fun new speculative fiction

I'm super excited to get to be a part of the CYBILS awards this year.  In case you don't know what that is, CYBILS is a group of people who blog about literature for young people and each year, they give out several awards in different categories.  I'm SO lucky this year to get to be part of the first round panelists for speculative fiction (which some people call fantasy fiction).  I've got a lot of reading to do over the next few weeks, but I thought I'd share a couple of the best ones here.

My first new favorite is science fiction.  It's called "We're Not From Here" by Geoff Rodkey.  This story starts with Lan, who is living with his (or possibly her-in the book, Lan's gender is never specified, which was amazing to me!) family on Mars.  Earth has become uninhabitable and Mars is on it's way to also becoming uninhabitable.  Happily, there is another planet (very far away) that is willing to take them.  So Lan's family along with another 2500 escapees from Earth and Mars, go into suspended animation for 20 years to reach their new home.  Except that when they get there, the leadership of the new planet doesn't want them any more and there's no where else for them to go.  Lan's mother persuades the leadership of the planet, Choom, to allow their family to come as an experiment and live there.  Part of what makes this book terrific is the idea of what it's like to go and live somewhere completely alien to you, the other part is the dialogue, which is hilariously on pitch.  The characters in the book are interesting and mostly people (and creatures) I'd like to get to know better.  I thought this one was terrific and I'm hoping there is going to be a sequel.

My second new favorite is a combination of fairy tale and magical mystery.  It's called Twinchantment by Elise Allen.  The story opens with a tragic back story.  An evil magician comes to the king and kills off his family, except for one young son.  The new king defeats the evil magician along with a good magician and they banish all magic (except for the good magicians, who end up as a magical army) to a magical prison.  The story flashes forward several generations to a new young king and his pregnant queen, who is viciously attacked by the same evil magician.  The queen appears to survive the attack unscathed and gives birth to a beautiful baby girl named Flissara.  Except that Flissara is actually twins (which are considered exceptionally evil magic) and so they have been carefully hidden for their entire 11 nearly 12 years, with only one of them ever seen at a time.  The queen is attacked again and lays dying and girls decide they must go to the evil magical prison, get the evil magical wizard, and make him reverse the spell.  Except, things don't go according to the plan.  I really liked this one a lot.  The girls appear to have dark skin and dark curly hair (YAY for an African American princess magician!!!) and have completely different skill sets-Fliss is athletic and strong but struggles with making decisions and interacting with people.  Sara is artistic and a wonderful storyteller but is clumsy.  Together, they are strong and I loved, that as the story progressed, they both found that they didn't have to be limited by what they first thought were weaknesses.  I loved the dialogue in this one too and I loved the little surprises from different characters along the way.  This was a really fun book to read.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Social issues in middle grade fiction

Some stories are hard to tell.  Here are two that must have started in a place where it was hard to tell these stories.  They are voices we haven't heard very often, but these story tellers told them brilliantly.

The first one is called "Maybe He Likes You" by Barbara Dee.  It's about 12 year old Mila who is in 7th grade and lives with her mom and her little sister.  Her dad is more absent than Mila would like.  Mila has a tight group of friends that she hangs with.  They are celebrating her friend Omi's birthday on the playground and have a group hug, when the boys from the basketball team come and ask to join the group hug.  Mila feels really uncomfortable  but tries to be a good sport because her friend Zara likes one of the boys and Mila doesn't want to make a scene.  But then the boys seem to keep wanting to touch her and keep making excuses about how and why it happens.  Mila continues to feel uncomfortable about it and the boys keep making excuses that get weirder and more lame.  Mila tries to tell a lot of different people, the boys themselves, the basketball coach, the school guidance counselor, the band teacher, her friends, even her mom and each them make excuses about Mila over reacting or the boys being boys.  In this era of #metoo, this is an incredibly important conversation to have with students.  This book belongs in every single library that serves middle grade and high school kids.

Here's Colby Sharp's take on the book.

This second one is called Redwood and Ponytail by K. A. Holt.  It's about two girls who are trying to find their way in the world.  Kate is a cheerleader and her mom is determined that Kate follow in her footsteps as cheer captain.  Tam is an athlete who plays volleyball as well as other sports.  They both have strong family support and although they didn't really know each other,  as this new school year starts, it turns out, they have almost all their classes together and it's hard to avoid each other.  They find that they enjoy each other's company a lot more than they thought they would, especially since at first glance, they don't have that much in common.  What's great about this book is the way that it's told in different voices-Tam's voice, Kate's voice, their mother's voices, Kate's sister's voice, family friends, and a really interesting kind of a chorus voice.  The entire book is written in verse, which in addition to having a lovely rhythm, makes the book go fast, which will make it appealing to lots of kids.  What's also great about this story is how vividly it describes what it feels like to fall in love for the first time.  Not only the really great parts of falling in love, but also the really terrible, nagging self-doubt parts of love.  I thought this book was terrific.  This should definitely find a place in every middle and high school library.  

Saturday, September 14, 2019

My new favorite middle grade fiction books

I do love middle grade fiction.  Middle grade fiction has such an amazing array of topics that it's willing to discuss and hash out.  Here are my two new favorites.

The first one is just about to be published.  It's called "Roll With It" by Jamie Sumner.  It's about Ellie who is 12.  She lives with her mom and because Ellie has cerebral palsy, she is mostly in a wheelchair.  Ellie's mom is worried about Ellie, but also about her dad (Ellie's grandfather), who is suffering from dementia.  So Ellie's mom decides to quit her job and move in with her parents.  Ellie thinks is on one hand, great.  She loves her grandparents and loves spending time with them.  On the other hand, terrible.  Her grandparents live in a small, single wide trailer.  Their trailer isn't handicapped accessible, which makes things difficult.  Ellie doesn't really have any friends at home, so she's not sorry to leave any of them behind.  She finds some new friends-next door is Coralee, who wants to be a triple threat-an actress, a singer, and a dancer and is currently competing in beauty pageants, and Bert, who is a one of 12 children.  He's also really super smart but not so good at social situations.  This amazing cast of characters comes together to accomplish so much.  This story touches on some of the realities of living with cerebral palsy, as well as parental abandonment, bullying, dealing with someone with Alzheimers, family loyalty and baking.  The dialogue in this one is amazing.  The way the characters come together is just wonderful.  I can't wait to give this one to my students!

The second one is called "Shouting at the Rain" by Linda Mullaly Hunt.  You might remember some of her other amazing books like "Fish in a Tree" or "One for the Murphys".  This one is about Delsie, who lives with her grandmother because her mother abandoned her when she was small.  Delsie know that her Grammy loves her to bits and pieces, but sometimes she really wishes she knew more about her mom.  Delsie and her grandmother live in a small community in Cape Cod.  Her grandmother cleans houses for a living.  Delsie's best friend, Brandy, comes from the mainland to spend summers there, but Brandy is a lot different this summer-she doesn't seem to want to do the things they used to do and she does want to wear makeup and get mani-pedis.  Delsie, not so much.  Delsie doesn't like to wear shoes, she loves watch the weather and she finds a new friend, Ronan, who seems a little strange to Delsie at first.  This book is full of really interesting characters-from Grammy, to the next door neighbors, to the new girl who is so mean, each one is so clearly drawn and  each one has such a clear voice.  This book touches in a million different social issues including child abandonment and drug addiction, second chances, bullying, friendship, and what it means to be part of a family and part of a community.  I loved this one.