Monday, July 27, 2015

July Fantasy Fiction

I do love me some fantasy fiction!  I found this new one on Netgalley, although according to it's publication date, it came out last year.  Oh well, I just found it this week and it's going to make a great addition to our elementary school library.  It's called "The Red Sun" by Alane Adams.  It starts off with a mom and a dad who are really excited to welcome their first child.  At first, I thought I was reading a grown ups book, but that changes with the first chapter.  Sam is a regular kid who likes video games, burgers, and his friends but has a hard time controlling his temper.  He's gotten in trouble for fighting and is trying to figure out ways to channel his anger.  Some pretty weird things happen, like his favorite teacher is out one day and the substitute is really strange.  And then he meets a boy named Leo who says it's his job to protect Sam.  It turns out that Sam is a son of Odin, the Norse God and his mom is a witch and has been hidden by his parents to protect him.  Now that Sam is old enough to come into his powers, people are looking for him and not really in a good way.  Sam goes on a quest to set things right and it's full of exciting events, scary beasts, new friends, and startling discoveries.  I liked this one a lot.  Here's a book trailer for it.

The second one I read is a creepy one.  It's called "A Curious Tale of the In-Between" by Lauren DeStefano.  She says in the beginning of the book that she was inspired to write the story after a conversation with one of her cousins during a time of great loss.  The story itself has a very old fashioned feel to it.  It's about a girl named Pram who lives with her two aunts because her mother died just before Pram was born.  It seems like kind of a horrible place to start the story, but there it is. Pram is exceptional because she can see and talk to ghosts and they can talk back to her.  Her two aunts run a nursing home and so Pram grows up with out going to school (her aunts home school her) and with out any friends her age.  A city official comes one day and decides that Pram really ought to go to school and so she does.  At school, she meets a boy named Clarence that she comes to know and trust.  It turns out he's also dealing with a big loss, his mother died  and he misses her terribly.  He believes that her ghost is still at his house and he wants to talk to her.  They go to see a woman named Lady Savant who says she can talk to ghosts.  Lady Savant notices Pram and then things get REALLY scary.  If you like creepy ghost stories (like "The Graveyard book" by Neil Gaiman), then this one is definitely for you.  Although it says this book is targeted toward kids in middle grades, I think it would definitely be a book for at least middle schoolers because some of the things that happen (like suicide and an apparent lobotomy) are not really conversations I would like to have with my elementary school students.  

The third one I read is funny, adventurous, and a little mysterious.  It's called "Milo Speck, Accidental Agent" by Linda Urban.  It's about a boy named Milo, who leads a pretty ordinary life.  His mom left the family a while back and his dad travels a lot for work, so he's left at home with "Grandmother" who isn't really his grandmother but a babysitter who believes that he should do chores.  So one day, he's working on the laundry and he gets sucked through the dryer into Ogregon, land of the ogres.  It turns out that ogres really like to eat boys (which is their word for all kids, because they don't see well enough to differentiate).  Milo tries to escape and finds many odd things, including his dad's boss, his dad, giant turkeys, an evil scientist, and other kids who have also ended up in Ogregon.  This is a great story and I think the kids are going to love it.  I know I did.  Here's a book trailer for it.  

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Grown up books

I've been reading grown up books as a little change of pace and I found two really great ones.  One I had reserved at my local library so long ago that I completely forgot why I had reserved it.  It's called "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty.  When I started reading it, I almost put it down because the characters were some much like some of the parents at my school!  The story is set in a small community on the coast of Australia.  The community is kind of split between the working class and some fairly well to do families.  They all know each other from school and the story revolves around the parents of kids in kindergarten.  The story is told in a kind of fragmented way, where it jumps around from the past to the present and it's clear right from the beginning of the story, that someone was murdered.  And that's what's awesome about this book.  The characters jump to conclusions about each other and about their kids that leave you guessing and second guessing about what really happened.  I LOVED it.  It was really hard to put down and you don't find out until about the second to the last page who actually got murdered and who did it.  (I was surprised).  Don't miss this one!

The other grown up one I read is called "The Little Paris Book Shop" by Nina George.  I got this one as an advanced readers copy and I loved it.  It's about a man living in Paris.  He has a book shop on a barge that he calls a Literary Apothecary because he prescribes books to people.  (I SO want that job).    He has been living with a broken heart for 20 years (his lover left him) and although he has an adequate life, he's never really dealt with his broken heart.  A new woman moves into his apartment building (her husband just left her!  With nothing!) and he gives her a table.  In the table is a letter from his lover, which he has never opened.  The new woman opens the letter and encourages him to read it.  That sets in motion the rest of the book, where he decides to go and find the trail of his lost love.  I loved the text connections that he makes (prescribing books to people, with a bibliography in the back!).  I loved the places he visits (I had to stop reading and google the towns!).  And I loved the way the story resolves.  Can you tell I liked this one?  I did.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

July picture books

I stopped in at Barnes and Noble yesterday to have a look at some of the picture books I haven't read yet.  One of the things I dislike about Netgalley is that they give you picture books on a device and for me, the magic just isn't there.  There's something special about holding a book in your hands and feeling the pages, the magic of turning them and being able to closely examine the pictures.  So when I read one on a device that I really like, I need to go and put my hands on it!  That happened yesterday.  I read a completely awesome little picture book called "The Most Magnificent Thing" by Ashley Spires.  It's about a little girl who has a great idea to make the most magnificent thing.  She makes things all the time so it should be "easy-peasy".  She makes a plan, gets an assistant (her completely adorable dog) and starts.  But as with many things, it doesn't go according to plan.  So she tries again.  And again.  And AGAIN.  And then she has a complete meltdown and this is my favorite part!  She's so angry (and Ashley Spires does an awesome job of showing that) and there's this little note off to the side that says "It was not her finest moment."  I laughed so hard.  So many kids are going to be able to identify with that one!  Anyway, her assistant convinces her to take a walk and suddenly, she has new ideas.  I absolutely loved this book and I can't wait to put into kids' hands!.  Here's a little book trailer for it.

Another one that I really liked was called "Those Pesky Rabbits"  by Ciara Flood.  It's about a grumpy old bear who gets new neighbors, a family of rabbits.  He is not interested in the rabbits and really just wants to be left alone.  The rabbits however, have other plans.  They come over to ask to borrow things, the bear refuses, in not such a nice way.  The rabbits persist though and send him a basket of goodies and they become friends.  The pictures are very sweet and I think it has a nice message about being kind to people, but in the back of my head, I'm kind of wondering, why don't the rabbits just build a nice big fence and pretend there's no one there?  But I'm sure that's just crabby, negative me talking.  Here's a book trailer for that one.

The last one is called Ninja Bunny by Jennifer Gray Olson.  The pictures in this one are awesome!  The text makes it feel like a guide book for Ninja wannabes.  "Step one-be very quiet".  But the pictures show you that there's a whole different story going on.  The Ninja bunny is being observed by a whole bunch of other bunnies and you kind of wonder, do they want to be Ninjas too?  Anyway, the simple story ends with a revelation that even though Ninjas usually work alone, some bunnies have friends, and they will come to help!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

July reads

I've flopped down into the fiction section of my reading list... aaahhhh...  It's pretty hot and humid here so it's a relief to come in and flop down on the couch and pick up a book.  The hard part is choosing which one!  Here are some that I've been reading this week.

The first one was some wacky fantasy fiction.  It's called Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye by Tania Del Rio and designed by Will Staehle.  It has kind of an old fashioned, Roald Dahl-ish feel to it (which you notice right away if you read the table of contents, where every single chapter starts with "In which...", like chapter 1 "In Which a Mysterious Guest Arrives").  The main character is Warren the 13th.  He comes from a long line of Warrens who are the caretakers and operators of the Warren Hotel.  Sadly, the hotel has fallen on hard times because Warren's father (the 12th) died years before, leaving the hotel to his brother, Rupert, and his son, Warren (13th).  Rupert has not been particularly helpful with the upkeep and married a woman a few years earlier, who seems unkind, at best (think about James' aunts in James and the Giant Peach).  Anyway, a mystery unfolds around "The All-Seeing Eye" which no one is quite sure what it is but everyone seems to want it.  It's a fun, crazy story and I can't wait to actually see the book because the advanced reader's copy I read had the pictures kind of catty-wampus.  What I could see were gorgeous pen and ink drawings with puzzles and I think that's what's going to really make this book.

The second one I read is more young adult than the other two.  This one is called "Dream Strider" by Lindsay Smith.  This one is set in a world where dreams are the most important thing.  It's a highly stratified class society, where the bottom dwellers are essentially slaves and the society elite spend their time analyzing dreams and trying to protect their society.  The main character, Livia, starts out in the lower class, dwelling in the tunnels but works her way up to serving in a house and is noticed by a professor who wants to study her abilities to dream.  Her ability is fairly unusual... if she is takes the correct potion, she can dream stride, which is to take over another sleeping body.  This is a pretty good thing to do if you are trying to spy on people, which is what the upper echelons are trying to do because the word is out that someone is trying to put the Nightmare beast back together so that chaos will rule again.  It has a lot of interesting opportunities for discussion, starting with dream analysis, but the commentary on class structure, government, the ethicality of research, are really big.  There is also some romantic pieces that can also provide some good discussion (two of the secondary characters are gay).  I liked this one a lot and it has a super cool cover.  

The last one I read is historical fiction.  Like the other two, it was an advance reader's copy from Netgalley.  This one is called "Night on Fire" by Ronald Kidd.  It's about a girl named Billie (her parents wanted a boy) who is growing up in Anniston, Alabama.  It's 1961 and things are about to change in a big way.  When the Freedom Riders come to town, Billie is forced to question everything she knows to be true.  Does her maid Lavender love her family?  Are the people of her town good people?  Is it right for black and white people to be together?  It's very well written (lots of great similes!) and the story was compelling enough that I read it all in one sitting.  It would be great connected to "Revolution " by Deborah Wiles or "Lions of Little Rock" by Kristin Levine.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Summer reading

I've been reading some advanced readers copies this week and this week's pile seems to be non-fiction.  The first one is called Fur, Fins, and Feathers by Cassandre Maxwell.  It's a picture book biography about Abraham Bartlett who is considered the founder of the modern zoo.  As a small boy, he had the opportunity to interact with big animals that were on display and fell in love with them.  He taught himself about the care and needs of animals by reading and observation.  When he was appointed the director of the London Zoo, he was able to put his ideas into practice, creating more humane spaces and more successful feeding strategies.  The pictures are bright and engaging and I think kids are really going to like this one.  It would be good paired up with "Mother to Tigers" by George Ella Lyon, which was about Helen Martini, the founder of the Bronx Zoo nursery.

The second one is called "Book: My Autobiography" by John Agard.  It's a non fiction book about the history of the written language.  I read this one as an advanced readers copy on my Kindle but I really wish I could see what this one will look like as an actual book because the story is great. The voice of the storyteller (the book!) is funny and informal, so even though the material is a little dry, it moves along quite quickly.   It will work perfectly for one of the Montessori lessons on the history of language but it's really hard to tell for whom it might be appropriate.  The Montessori lesson I'm thinking of is targeted at kids ages 6-9 and this one felt like it might be a little big for them, just because the text in this version was pretty dense and the pictures, while interesting, were too far between.  So I'm reserving judgment.  I want to see this one in book format before I buy it,  but I'm definitely going to look for it.  

The last one is also a biography but it's for bigger kids.  It's called "Symphony For the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad" by M. T. Anderson.  This was a very interesting story about Shostakovich and his work.  The book starts in the middle... a spy network is trying to smuggle a piece of microfilm out of Russia and it turns out the microfilm has Shostakovic's 7th symphony, more than 100 pages of music, on it.  The music is analyzed, along with the text for any kind of message that might be lurking to help with the war effort.  The story then goes back and tells about Shostakovic's early life and training, moving forward though his entire life, from fame and fortune to distrust and derision.   There are black and white photographs that illustrate points.  I read the book while listening to Shostakovic's 7th's symphony.  I thought it was really interesting to read about this time period.  I've read historical fiction about it and so having some non-fiction was a good counter point.  I also liked how the author used interviews with people around Shostakovic, like his aunt and his sisters, to help make his points.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Getting caught up

I've been on vacation for a month and it seems like vacation was a bit busier this year than in year's past.  We went to my sister's house, as usual, which is awesome.  There is the usual amount of cooking (since my husband is a chef, it's kind of what we do) and hanging around the pool, but this year there were additional guests (my parents, my brother and his partner, my sister's father in law) and so there were extra trips and outings and now that I'm home and fighting jet lag, it feels good to just hang around and try to get caught up on some of the little things that haven't gotten done over the last month (like taking naps and reading for long periods of time!).  Weeding occupied my time this morning but it's so smoking hot outside now, that I'm glad to come into the air conditioned house and have a look what else I've been missing.

I did have time to do a LITTLE reading while I was gone (ok, on the plane ride home) and wow, were there some good ones.  The first one is non-fiction, a biography about Paul Laurence Dunbar, who I'm sorry to say, I'd never heard of before.  It's called "Jump Back, Paul:  The life and Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar" by Sally Derby.   This book is so terrific, that no one should have to wallow in ignorance as long as I have.  Paul Laurence Dunbar was a poet who lived during the Civil War Reconstruction.  Like other poets during his time,  some of his poetry was full of beautiful rhythm, imagery and flowery language.   However, unlike most of the poets during his time, Paul Laurence Dunbar was African American and so he also wrote poems in the African American dialect, still full of that same strong rhythm and beautiful imagery, but in a way that was accessible to a completely different group of people.  The way this book is structured is by a storyteller telling you about Paul Dunbar's life and then using poetry to illustrate points, so in addition to his life story, you also get to read several of his poems.  The storyteller's voice is so strong, you could easily use this book for a lesson in author's voice, but you'd be missing the main point, which is that Paul Laurence Dunbar was a terrific poet.  It would be great in an African American studies unit, a poetry unit, or a discussion on dialect.  DO NOT miss this one.

I had also been eagerly awaiting Katherine Applegate's new book, "Crenshaw".  I so loved "The One and Only Ivan", I was a bit worried that it wouldn't stack up.  Happily, my worrying was for naught.  "Crenshaw" is in a completely different direction from Ivan and in a good way.  It's about a boy named Jackson who lives with his loving family, his dad, his mom, and his little sister.  He has good friends and is working hard in school.  But suddenly, Jackson's imaginary friend, Crenshaw, shows up and Jackson can't really understand why.  As the story progresses, you come to understand that Jackson is really struggling with a lot of things.  Jackson's dad is sick and hasn't been able to work.  Jackson's mom has also lost her job and is working low paying jobs but it's not enough to pay the rent.  There are flashbacks to a time when the family was homeless and Jackson feels really helpless and unhappy about what's happening.  It's a really nice story about what it's like to be homeless and how being honest with yourself and with the people you love can help in a lot of ways.  It would be great paired up with "Hold Fast" by Blue Balliett or maybe with Dan Santat's book "The Adventures of Beekle".

The last one is probably my least favorite one.  Not because it wasn't well written or interesting, it's just that when I read it, it felt like I was watching a train accident and I kept wanting to yell "No!  Stop!".  This one was "The Trouble in Me" by Jack Gantos and it recounts the summer when the author was 14, had just moved to a new neighborhood, was feeling less than confident in his own skin, and found a role model in his next door neighbor, a wildly creative juvenile delinquent.  You can totally see how it was easy to fall for the charms of someone so dangerous and reckless and yet you keep thinking, "Really?  You're going to agree to THAT?"  This would be an awesome one to read in middle school or higher to talk about actions and consequences and the luck that the author had for surviving some of the things that happen in the book but it's too big for my elementary school library.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

More Sunshine State Young Reader books

This week I've been trying to finish up reading the new Sunshine State Young reader books.  This first one I liked a lot. It's called "Freaky Fast Frankie Joe" by Lutricia Clifton.  Frankie Joe lives in a trailer park and has lots of friends, all of whom are retirees.  Frankie Joe's mom has made some questionable choices and suddenly, Frankie Joe's dad is there to pick him up and take him to his house.  As they are driving, Frankie Joe finds out that his dad has remarried (actually, he never married Frankie Joe's mom) and has four sons there.  Frankie Joe finds that some things are better at his dad's house (Lizzie, Frankie Joe's stepmom is a great cook), most of the people are very nice and are willing to pay for Frankie Joe's speedy bicycle skills.  But some are not so great, including his oldest half brother.  Frankie Joe makes an elaborate plan to run away to get back to his mom.  But things change and so does Frankie Joe.  It would be great paired up with "The Pictures of Hollis Woods" by Patricia Reilly Giff or "One for the Murphys" by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
Here's a book trailer about it. 

Another one that is on the Sunshine State Young reader list for next year is one I read last year called "The Hypontists" by Gordon Korman.  This is a new series that Gordon is writing about a boy named Jackson Opus.  Jax has always been able to get people to do what he wants them to which doesn't seem too surprising, until people begin to take Jax exactly at his word.  So if he says "Oh, go jump in a lake," THEY DO.  When Jax makes the connection between what he's been saying and other people's actions, he's really afraid.  He finds that there are other people like him (some scary and some successful) and one of them is pretty famous and is willing to help him learn how to use his powers.  Jax goes and starts learning how to use his powers but starts to wonder if Dr. Elias Mako is really using his powers for good.  It's a really exciting mystery story with big themes of power and how you use it, loyalty, and friendship.  I liked this one a lot and it would be great middle grade and probably middle school fiction.    Here's a bit of Gordon Korman reading from the book. 

And here's a bit of a chat with him about the book.  

"A Snicker of Magic" by Natalie Lloyd is the last entry into the Sunshine State Young Reader pool that I'm going to review.  I read this one last year as well and I really loved it.  I'm so glad to see it's getting recognized.  This one is a really fun read.  It's about Felicity who loves words and sees them everywhere.  Her mom has been cursed with a nomadic heart and has been leading Felicity and her sister all over the US.  They have finally returned to her mom's home town, Midnight Gulch, where things used to be magical but are no longer.  Felicity believes that her luck is about to change and she's right, things are about to change in a really big way.  The language in this story is amazing and you can't help rooting for Felicity and her family.  Here's a little book trailer that shows what the story is about.