Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone

Felicity is mysteriously dropped off at her grandmother’s home in Bottlebay, Maine by her parents. There is so much tension between family members that Felicity wonders what happened to make grandma not come out of the house to greet her son who is Felicity’s dad. Her uncle won’t return her dad’s hug or look at her Mom in greeting. What’s going on? Then there is the wooden door on the second floor that is always closed and that she is to avoid. She knows that someone is in there, but who is it? Felicity does know that her family left London because of the constant bombing. World War II has started and it is too dangerous to live there. Her family finds secret passage to America but her parents whom she calls, “my Winnie” and “my Danny” don’t stay with Felicity. They return to Europe.

Scared, homesick, and lonely, Felicity talks to her teddy bear as a way to deal with all the changes and the lack of adults in her life. She knows that she is too old to carry around a teddy bear but it is the one constant in her life. The reader discovers that in London, Felicity’s parents would leave her home alone and work late nights. They didn’t abuse her but she was neglected. A housekeeper looked after her but not overnight. The new adults or relatives in Felicity’s life whisper around her and don’t give her straight answers. They don’t make it easy for her to adjust to a new country and they have strange secrets such as staying away from the wooden door and not touching the piano that is nailed shut. Gram criticizes Felicity. Felicity, understandedly, responds in anger by not answering them, looking at the ceiling or turning around and facing a wall. She doesn’t want to be there and is in culture shock moving from Britain to America. She is teased for using different words, but eventually settles into a routine. Soon people are adjusting to each other and Felicity develops a loving relationship with her aunt and uncle, as well as, discovering the secret of the mysterious person behind the wooden door. But the biggest surprise comes when she unravels the mystery surrounding the fight between “her Danny” and Uncle Gideon.

This story is so well-written. The voice of the characters are distinct with Uncle Gideon repeating himself often because he’s nervous around Felicity and Aunt Miami who is melodramatic and full of pizzaz. Felicity is British and often talks about how a British kid would act versus an American kid. She thinks about the differences in languages and stereotypes. She changes throughout the story and starts adapting American customs; we hear her calling her “plaits” “braids” and singing jazz songs. The author does a terrific job with the setting. The wind talks to her and reveals her mood. It can be angry, moaning, whipping, or calm, warm, and gentle. Metaphors and similes of the ocean and ships are sprinkled throughout and adds to the powerful New England setting feel: Oh, come now, it’s only a game, you two,” Uncle Gideon said later, after he had crushed us both at Parcheesi and we were sitting there feeling like two smashed-up fishig boats side by side on the beach. Uncle Gideon looked over at us in a terribly cheerful way. p 50-51. This focus on nature reminded me of The Secret Garden, although it isn’t as extreme (see review).

Felicity changes from the beginning to the end of the story gaining confidence and adjusting to a new culture and family. The plot is predictable in some areas but it doesn’t take away from the story. The reader will figure out what’s going on between the parents and what Winnie and Danny do for a living long before Felicity. The mystery is slowly revealed adding tension and keeping the pace moving along. I got a kick out of the part where Felicity reads, The Little Princess, by Frances Burnett Hodgeson and when she has to do chores with The Gram (grandma’s nickname) she compares herself to the orphaned main character in The Little Princess.

Felicity has a crush on a boy so there is some romance but just in her thoughts. She never even tells the boy she likes him. The ending hints at a romance between Aunt Miami and the Postman, Mr. Henley, and leaves the reader with hope that Felicity’s parents will survive the war.

Reading level 5.7
:-):-):-):-) 4.5 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Aviary By Kathleen O’Dell

Unable to leave the house because of a heart condition, eleven-year-old Clara can’t wait to watch the children come home from school through the windows of the mansion she’s trapped in or listen to them talking outside the garden wall. She’s like a bird in a cage with clipped wings. She has never been outside the garden walls and is homeschooled by Mrs. Glendoveer, an ailing woman who has lost her family. Clara’s mother is a nurse and cares for Mrs. Glendoveer along with the cook, Ruby. For the most part Clara has been content to stay home with her heart condition but lately she’s feeling restless. When Mrs. Glendoveer dies the three are allowed to take care of the mansion along with her four exotic birds in the aviary. At first they terrify Clara until one mysteriously says the name, “Elliot,” to her unraveling a mystery that leads Clara into danger, friendship, and freedom.
I found it difficult to figure out the time period of this story. It’s set during 1903 when the film, “The Great Train Robbery,” was released, but I didn’t figure that out until page 174. The beginning reminded me of “The Secret Garden” with an ailing child who has no contact with other children and a garden out back so I was thinking it was from the Victorian era, but it isn’t. Daphne is a spunky confident girl who makes friends with Clara. Readers will like how the two develop secretive signals so they can see each other without any adults knowing. It’s like a secret club.

The author has the girls use terms that are old-fashioned but it isn’t consistent. Clara sounds like an adult many times. She’s giving Mrs. Glendoveer her medicine: “Let’s get this down your sore throat where it can do some good, shall we?” or when she asks her mother if she thanked Ruby for the flowers. Clara even lectures her mother at one point and sounds like the adult while her mother sounds like the child. Clara’s developmentally too old for an eleven-year-old but I don’t think it takes away too much from the story. Clara is a good-hearted, obedient child even if her voice is not authentic. The mother’s character didn’t ring true for me either. She seemed too smart to be that afraid of exposing her daughter to the world. I think there needed to be something more life-threatening than thinking the father was mad and Clara might have inherited that madness.

The plot reveals too much and is forced in some spots. It didn’t ring true that Woodruff Booth would send Daphne a long letter explaining all that information about the Glendoveer family and his relationship with them, and it didn’t seem necessary when Clara finds the same information in Mrs. Glendoveer’s diaries. I think there would have been more tension if the author didn’t reveal so much. Daphne and Mr. Booth could have just agreed to meet. Also the clues are told in some parts of the story through letters rather than slowly revealing themselves through action which I think slows the pacing down alittle.

There is magic and children who have drowned but live in the spirit of an animal. This might be confusing for younger readers. While there are flaws in the story it is cute and entertaining.

Reading Level 4.5
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wan-Long Shang

Lucy is going to have the perfect summer. Big sister is off to college and she thinks she will get the bedroom to herself. Right? Wrong!

Great-aunt Yi Po is coming for the summer. Basketball season starts and Lucy can’t wait to play with the team. Right? Wrong! She has to go to Chinese school on Saturday.

The sixth graders are going to play the teachers in a pick up basketball game and Lucy wants to try out for captain. Right? Wrong! Not if the bully Sloane Connors has her way. She’s scaring everyone off from trying out to be captain. See if Lucy gives into Sloane’s nasty bullying ways or stands up to her.

What a great story and readers will be able to relate to Lucy who is trying to find her identity as a Chinese-American juggling expectations from eastern and western cultures. She’s pretty self-centered at first with her great-aunt coming and is so mad about giving up her room that she divides it in half with a desk and dresser calling it her Great Wall. As the story continues Lucy changes and learns to love her great-aunt. At the part where the students play the faculty in a basketball game, I thought the story was a little cheesy, but I did get a kick out of the athletic librarian ; ) Students will like the feel-good ending – I don’t think they will find it cheesy like me. The characters were very authentic and changed throughout the story by learning from their mistakes. Lucy is a feisty girl with an attitude and is willing to admit when she’s wrong.

Lucy’s Grandma Po Po has died and the family is grieving over the loss. Part of Lucy’s hostility toward Yi Po is that she misses her grandma terribly and is trying to deal with the loss. Lucy fights with her siblings and they get along other times. Some history is given on the Chinese cultural revolution. A wonderful story that is well-written.

Reading Level 5.3
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright

Skilley, the cat, has a secret. He hates to eat mice and loves cheese. He finds the perfect job at the Ye Olde Chesire Cheese Inn which makes the best cheese in the county. He makes a pact with the mice at the Inn where he pretends to kill them in exchange for them giving him cheese. Charles Dickens, the writer, goes to the Inn as well and is trying to write his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. He’s having a dickens of a time. When the barmaid brings home a vicious tomcat, who truly eats mice, and has a history of being Skilley’s enemy, things become complicated. Add to Skilley’s tangled mess a ghost in the Inn, cheese disappearing, and a raven who was injured by the tomcat and is owned by Queen Victoria, and you have a mystery that needs solving. Dickens helps in that department and also saves one mouse from the fate of being eaten. Grateful, the mice help him write the first line to his novel: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The writing is terrific in this book and while kids aren’t going to get all of the references to Dickens works and characters, they will enjoy the story in itself (while the adults laugh). There is a fun twist at the end regarding the missing cheese. The characters in this book remind me of some of the Victorian characters in Dickens novel – especially the cook or the poor boy who first found Skilley. The theme of friendship and what happens when feelings are hurt is explored. A poignant part of the story is when Skilley has to apologize to his friend and he must do it in a heartfelt way. The chapters are short and it is a quick read. This would be a fun read aloud. Read it with great expectations.

Reading Level 5.2
:-):-):-) 3.75 out 5 Smileys

Thursday, December 15, 2011

When Life Gives You O.J. by Erica S. Perl

Zelly wants a dog so bad that she agrees to Grandpa Ace’s plan to lug around an empty orange juice jug as a “practice dog.” Can Zelly do it? Can she prance around town and not care what other people think about her? Zelly is new to town and her best friend, Allie, is off at camp. She doesn’t write and Zelly is worried. Dragging her dog, OJ, around does distract her but she wonders if Allie will make new friends and forget Zelly. Jeremy moves in down the block and they strike up a friendship. He offers advice for her mission to get a dog and he teaches her how to play tennis. The two also have to deal with a bully in their class. When Allie decides that walking an old orange juice jug is just too much, she has a fight with her grandpa that has dire consequences.

What a strange premise, but it works. The themes of sacrifice, persuasion, friendship, standing up for yourself, and fitting in are ones kids can relate to. The story is infused with Yiddish words and Zelly’s cultural traditions are nicely developed. Ace is a hoot and shouts when he talks because he can’t hear. The characters are well-rounded and developed and both change throughout the novel. I like how real Zelly is. She doesn’t always make the right choices and when she makes a bad one she realizes it and tries to fix the problem. Ace is also pig-headed and it’s easy to see how Zelly would lose her temper at him. The plot is well done and so is the pacing. I like how the author slowly reveals clues in the beginning that suck the reader into the story. It would be an excellent read aloud for asking students to make predictions. The reader doesn’t really discover the entire story of why the family is in Vermont until page 38.

One question I had was I wasn’t sure why Zelly, a 5th grader, would be motivated to walk the dog when the parents clearly aren’t going to get one. I think it would have been more believable if they always held on to the possibility that they might get one for her. I also thought Jeremy’s reason for getting a bike was odd. When I read it I asked myself, “really?” But these are minor questions that don’t take away from the story. The book is a wonderfully written story. I’m going to recommend it as a read aloud to a grade 4 teacher.

6.4 Reading Level
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Once upon a time there was a girl that lived in a cold, cold city. It was so cold and snowy in this city that “it didn’t seem to matter [to the girl] as she was mostly snow herself now. She breathed it, in and out. It collected in her gasping lungs. The snow was colonizing her, breath by breath.”
The girl’s name is Hazel and the city is Minneapolis, Minnesota. Brrrrrrr……

A fairy-tale twist on the Hans Christian Andersen’s, Snow Queen, Hazel is adjusting to a new school, one parent because her dad split from her mom, and a best friend who is a boy that doesn’t want to be her friend anymore because she’s a girl. Hazel struggles to fit in. She is creative and looks different from the other students as a result of being adopted from India. Her best friend Jack is the one person who makes her feel like she belongs. When he starts to show an interest in other boys his age and wants to be with them, Hazel is upset. Jack is going through his own family upheaval. His mom has depression and Jack and Hazel compare it to the Dementor’s in Harry Potter who steal peoples souls from them. Jack’s mom is described as having blank, soulless eyes. When a Snow Queen appears at the park where the kids sled Jack is lured away into an enchanted castle where only Hazel can rescue him.

What a wonderful book with fantastic character development and layered writing. Different phrases appear throughout the book that have to do with how the characters change such as Hazel describing herself and Jack as being “scratchy and thick.” Or how adults say one thing and mean another. Hazel realizes that it is supposed to make a person feel better but they are just “plastic flowers of words.” This is why at the end of the story she doesn’t try to make Jack feel better by saying “everything will be alright.” She knows their friendship is changing and that they might not be best friends forever. But she’s okay with that in the end because it was worth knowing Jack. I’m not sure if young readers will understand that or be confused by the ending. It might seem abrupt. I really liked it with the promise of the future and new things to come as symbolized by the ballet slippers. I also got a kick out of the signed Minnesota Twins Joe Mauer baseball which was the magical object that snapped Jack back to reality. I laughed thinking, “Hazel’s magical wand is a baseball.” I’m a Twins fan so I loved the unique choice.

Hazel and Jack use their imaginations to play, oftentimes acting out stories. The novel is inundated with references to books and movies such as Narnia, When You Reach Me, Peter Pan, The Golden Compass, Harry Potter, The Little Match Girl, The 12 Dancing Princesses, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and more. The author weaves them in the story line and they are, oftentimes, quite funny. For instance, when Jack gets into the sleigh the witch says, “Would you like some Turkish Delight?” Edmund was lured by the White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia from being fed Turkish Delight. Or the part where Hazel asks a woman if she’s seen Jack. The woman reponds, “The princess saving a knight, eh?” “…I hope the knight doesn’t mind.”

The beginning of the story is realistic and the second half is fantasy. When I was Hazel’s age I would act out books with my best friend. We sat smothered in a hot closet of winter coats wishing with all our hearts for the back to open into the world of Narnia. That’s why I loved the twist in this book where it actually happens to Hazel. All that pretending and she and Jack get to enter their make-believe magical fairy tale world. But to Hazel’s surprise the world of imagination is more dangerous than reality. The author’s description of cold weather will make you feel like an icicle and I recognized some of the places she describes in the book. Minnesota is my home town so this added another layer of fun for me when reading the story. Terrific story and Newbery contender (I hope).

Reading Level: 5.5
:-):-):-):-):-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Sunny is a misfit lwho lives in Nigeria, was born in America, and is an albino. “Ghost girl,” the students tease at school. Her skin so sensitive to the sun that she has to use an umbrella whenever she is outside and she can’t play soccer – not that it matters – the males in her society always remind her that “girls don’t play soccer.” When Sunny is helped by the boy, Orlu, from being beat up by the class bully, they strike up a friendship that has Sunny meeting Orlu’s friends Chichi and Sasha. Chichi recognizes magic in Sunny who becomes initiated into the Leopard People. Regular people who can’t use magic are called, Lambs. The group of four learns magic and must figure out how to stop a man who is sacrificing children to an evil spirit he is trying to raise from it’s slumber.

This book was so unique in how it captures Nigeria, its customs, traditions, languages, and superstitions. I also like how Sunny is an American living in Nigeria and what it is like feeling as an outcast. Sasha is in the same situation. Before each chapter there is a page that gives facts about the Leopard People and how they came into existence and use magic. Sunny is a likeable character who grows in confidence from the beginning of the story until the end. She is bullied in the beginning, wonders what her place is in the world, and by the end she stands up for herself so that her father can’t slap her, the bully can’t beat her up, and she can play soccer with the boys regardless of her sex. The plot is face-paced and entertaining. I did think the ending is setup for a sequel. I had more questions than answers at the end, especially after Sunny reads her grandmothers note. Theauthor doesn’t explain the tribes and their history in a satisfactory way. I also thought the end scene with the villian was rushed. It should have dragged out more and shown more internal conflicts going on with the characters.

There are some things you should know about when reading this story so you aren’t surprised. There is swearing by the four kids in the book and children are being killed by a serial killer so it is darker than your average fantasy story. There is violence from the serial killer with kids losing their eyes and a fight at a festival where someone is killed. I didn’t really understand why that was in there or how it advanced the plot. The kids are punished by being whipped. Also, Sunny and Orlu become boyfriend and girlfriend… sort of. And Chichi and Sasha definitely are boyfriend and girlfriend. They all kiss. Chichi and Sasha smoke cigarettes. People compare this to Harry Potter and while it has some plot parallels it is for a more mature reader than Harry Potter.
Young Adult

:-):-):-) 3.75 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unwanteds by Lisa McMann

 This Harry Potter wanna-be book has a promising start with Alex Stowe being declared an Unwanted on Purge Day. Unlike his twin brother who is a Wanted, Alex has shown signs of creativity which is not tolerated in the land of Quill. He is sent off to be killed with the other Unwanteds where he meets a magician who has other plans for the Unwanteds.

I guess I liked the start of the book before it started going downhill for me. The characters in this book don’t change much, except maybe Samheed,which made it difficult for me to get pulled into the story. The plot isn’t well-written and feels rushed. I also thought the adults were preachy. I couldn’t understand why Aaron would become a cold-blooded murderer and I don’t think the parents would have been so callous toward their own flesh-and-blood. The kids kill their parents and the parents kill their kids in a battle at the end. Only one parent has his head on straight. There isn’t much depth to this book. It is also supposed to be a dystopian society but it doesn’t make sense. In 50 years people wouldn’t fall astray from their human-side that quickly and the magic isn’t fully explained. Mr. Today says he could have used a single word to stop Justine but never did. Huh? Why not? Because he wanted everyone to live in fear and innocent children be separated from their parents? This story had too many unanswered questions for me.
I do think some students will really like this book. On 300 people gave it 4 to 5 stars. I struggled with the writing in this one.

Reading Level 3.7
:-):-) 2 out 5 Smileys

Friday, December 2, 2011

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Ha has fled Vietnam and is in America with her mom and three brothers. English words have a ”Sssssssssss” sound that reminds her of snakes: MiSSS WasSShington, MiSSS SScott, hogwaSSSh. Some students make friends with her like Pem (Pam) and SSsi-Ti-Van (Steven) while others bully her by teasing her when she speaks; calling her pancake face, and pulling the hair on her arms. Ha is 10 and was born in Vietnam during the war. Her father disappeared on a mission for the Navy when she was one. When the family has a chance to escape to America, they end up in Alabama where Ha has to learn to adjust to Western culture.

Ha is a feisty, likeable character. She changes throughout the story going from a smart girl in Vietnam to a girl who struggles to communicate with others because she doesn’t know the English language. She hates going from being smart to stupid. It makes her furious and she screams in frustration and lashes out at those around her. She’s also picked on by other kids. She thinks about how she picked on a girl in class in Vietnam and how she is now being picked on in America. She wonders if she is being punished for her meanness in Vietnam. I like how Part I shows Saigon and Ha’s life in Vietnam. It sets up the traditions she has grown up with as a young girl that contrasts with Part II when she lives in Alabama and has to adjust to a new culture.This immigrant story has more of a contemporary feel because it is set in the 1970′s. The verse novel works well capturing the essence of the story that isn’t preachy or overly sentimental.

The family dynamics change throughout the story as well. In Vietnam, Ha is annoyed with her older brothers and doesn’t always like how they get the attention. For instance, one of the boys must touch the floor first for the New Year (Tet) to bring the family good luck. Ha doesn’t like it that male feet bring luck and she gets up before anyone else so her feet touch the floor first. On the journey to Alabama, the relationships between Ha and her brothers change. First, she comforts her brother Khoi and helps him deal with the death of a baby chick that has derailed him in a way that suggests he is struggling with leaving his country. Next, she takes self-defense lessons (along with other kids in the neighborhood) from her brother Vu who is obsessed with actor, Bruce Lee. Quang, her older brother, comes to her aid when the class bully threatens her. In America, the family bonds as they deal with an oftentimes hostile environment.

Reading Level 4.9

:-):-):-):-):-) 5 out of 5 Smileys