Sunday, September 30, 2012

Titanic: voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

I grew up in the Land of 10,000 Frozen Lakes. In Minnesota, it oozes cold. I thought I KNEW cold. But I found out I didn't when I decided to jump off a sailboat into Lake Superior.  Whooee, I was so unprepared for air whooshing out of my lungs when I hit the water. Imagine a big block of ice being dropped onto your chest. The water temperature was in the 50's and my teeth were chattering and blue within a short amount of time. Thank goodness I had a life jacket on. The coldness was paralyzing. That is why I cannot imagine being submerged in 28 degree water for HOURS and surviving with no limbs amputated from exposure. Yet unbelievably, many survivors of the Titanic did just that in this page-turning nonfiction account of the sinking of the Titanic. Their voices are powerful and dramatic in this description of the lucky few who survived this disaster.

When I first started this book I thought... argh... I'm never going to be able to keep track of all these people. Don't let this trip you into not reading it. You don't really need to keep track of everyone. Think of it as one collective voice that moves the storyline forward. So many people from the stewards to the passengers are heroes in this tragedy. The story is a powerful comment on the culture and class structure of that time, not to mention the overconfidence of those in charge of the ship, and lack of understanding of the seriousness of the accident after they hit the iceberg. Many crew members and staff sacrificed their lives in order to save others and even though some were responsible for the errors they were noble in their efforts to save the ship and others in the end. It just made the fate of those on board even more tragic. So many good people. So many collective mistakes.

The author doesn't dramatize the text with her voice; instead, she presents the facts in such a way that they speak for themselves. She also uses a variety of people on the ship which gives different viewpoints of the event. That's why you can't worry about all the different characters in the story. This variety of peoples' perspectives shows how the disaster impacted people in different ways. For instance, in first class people couldn't tell that there was an accident; in second class, they felt a bump but it wasn't violent enough to toss a person on the floor; and in third class, a noise was heard and water was rapidly seeping into the cabins so people knew it was serious. The different viewpoints makes for a unique and rich narrative that allows the reader an omniscient view of unfolding events.

The book not only has firsthand accounts, but gives interesting details and primary documents that are inserted throughout chapters. Some inserts are original letters that use the language of the time while others are original photos; all add to a historical feel that help draw the reader into the story. In addition, there are blurbs that give the historical context as to why there weren't enough lifeboats or the reason the special watertight doors failed or the testimonies of different survivors. The design and chronological layout of the book is brilliant with answers to questions I had not even thought about; plus, the appendices and facts about discovering the Titanic in 1985, and the price one can get today for a Titanic relic such as a life belt make for good stuff.

I was amazed reading about the firsthand accounts of how many men went down with the ship so that the women and children could be saved. What is truly incredible is that they didn't storm the lifeboats but insisted that the women go. They knew there weren't enough boats but did not panic. It is quite a comment on society at that time as to what actions were considered noble and honorable. For me, it was heroic and sacrificial adding to the poignancy of tragic loss. Approximately 1500 people died, and 80% of them were men. Seventy-five percent of the women and 55% of the children were saved. The biggest loss was with third class passengers and there were several reasons for this such as not knowing English, not knowing how to get to the deck and the steward running out of time as he scurried people out of the ship's bowels, and passengers staying in their cabins waiting for instructions that never came when they should have evacuated.

There were so many things that went wrong on the Titanic from the Captain driving too fast and not paying attention to iceberg warnings, to the wireless operators not knowing the seriousness of the situation, to the disorganization of people evacuating on lifeboats, to a nearby ship (10-20 miles away) not responding to the rocket distress signals launched by the Titanic, to the lifeboat operators not going back for survivors fast enough and passengers heedlessly drowning from hypothermia. The list of mishaps is so unbelievable it is like pushing a small snowball down a hill and watching it build into a giganto ball that mows down everything in its path.

I was a little confused at first with the voice of Frank Browne because he is 17-years-old and boards the Titanic at Belfast. He is actually studying to be a Jesuit Priest and it would have been helpful if this had been stated right away. I'm thinking he's a high school kid who is living at home with his parents and not at a seminary school. The Titanic sailed from Belfast to South Hampton and Frank is only sailing this portion. He meets an American couple who offer to pay his passage to New York. He wires the priests asking for permission to go and they say, "No." So he doesn't. He is in the book because he took a bunch of awesome photos and because he is a symbol of fate or luck. He was so close to sailing on that fateful ship. It seems that many people who did survive were lucky like Frank and the author hammers this point home with the different voices explaining their experiences.

I remembering  skipping 6 blocks to elementary school in January with partially wet hair that would freeze into icicles and clink together like wind chimes. Kind of cool and weird. I know. This book makes me think of my icicle wind chimes. Kind of cool and weird.  In a mesmerizing way. I bought this book because it has been showing up on Newbery 2013 lists on Goodreads. I can see why. A ringer, for sure.

Reading Level 7.6
5 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Side by Side: Five Favorite Picture-Book Teams Go to Work by Leonard S. Marcus

My job as a teacher librarian is to get the bouncing bundles of energy to cuddle, stroke, and lick their books.  Okay, maybe not lick, but I need to ignite a reading fire inside them. I was reading Bink & Gollie Two for One and laughing hysterically at the illustrations (along with three parents who sat down to listen), changing my voice with the text and mimicking the movement of the characters in the text. I'm no actress, believe you me, but it was such a gas reading this story I was completely caught up in the joy of the plot, characters and pictures. We all had laughing stomachaches by the end. When I finished I thought how much fun it would be to hear the collaboration story of illustrator Tony Fucile who worked on The Incredibles (I think Bink looks like Dash) and writers Kate DiCamillo and Allison McGhee. This story oozes fun. It is a brilliant piece of collaborative work! One you might even lick!

While this book by Leonard Marcus was written before the collaboration Tony, Kate and Allison, it is special in that it touches on great collaborative efforts between artists and writers in the 1980s and 1990s. You get to see picture book-making as an art form and what went into the creation of some unique books. I want to pass this on to my students and it is really hard for me to find books that are helpful. Don't miss this gem! It is a short bugger and while sometimes I wished for more details, other times I appreciated that it wasn't a thick textbook that would take me hours to read.

First off, ArthurYorinks and Richard Egielski. I'm not familiar with their book, Louis the Fish, but I'm gonna fish for it on the shelves tomorrow. I don't even know if we have own a copy. Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski borrowed from Franz Kafka's, The Metamorphosis, (one of my favorites) when writing Louis the Fish. I can't imagine turning Kafka's odd piece of work into a picture book so I'm anxious to see it. The artwork is in watercolor and the aerial view of Louis in his bed was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's, Psycho. Sounds like a dark book, doesn't it? Mwa-ha-ha-ha.

The next collaboration between the husband and wife team of Alice and Martin Provenson has some great sketches of the dummy which is more cartoonish and funny than the final polished product. I found it fascinating how Alice describes their collaboration as one similar to the Medieval illuminated manuscripts made by many monk-artists. Everyone contributed to the end product and no one took sole credit for any part. She then explains how the two worked on the same picture with one doing the costumes and the other the airplane. I think my husband and I get along but I'm not sure we'd work that well together. It's not exactly the same as sharing a dinner.

The third slice of insight is with Jon Scieszka, Lane Smith, and Molly Leach. Marcus shows how much work these three put into their books. Wow! Wow! Wow! Molly's expertise was in magazine design and I found this particularly interesting how she influenced the look with placement of text and font. It harkens back to my journalism days. Actually it reminds me of how I didn't really understand design, but hey, I knew what Marcus was talking about in this chapter. Dily Evans has a book called, Show & Tell: Exploring the fine Art of Children's Book Illustration!, where she goes into more detail on how surrealist art influenced Lane Smith as an artist.

Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney had quite a tangle of mixed emotions as they went about retelling of Helen Bannerman's 1988 book called, The Story of Little Black Sambo. Considered by many as prejudice toward blacks in its caricature illustration and the derogatory use of the name, Sambo, Pinkney and Lester not only turned the tale into their own, they avoided the controversies and kept the charm of the story as the main focus. Great storytelling and illustrations!

Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen of The Magic School Bus series were the last collaborators explored by Marcus. Their combination of nonfiction facts with fantasy elements was extremely complicated and difficult to pull off. Degan was faced with presenting a myriad of facts and drawing the body anatomically correct - not an easy feat. But as you know, they not only pulled it off, they made it a highly successful series.

A great book to add to your knowledge-base of picture books, if that interests you as a reviewer, artist, writer, or teacher.

5 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook by Joanne Rocklin

This fun romp involves a cat named, Zook, who meows like a bull horn, "EE-OW! EE-OWEY!" so it be heard above all beings with a pulsating heart. Remember the wild-haired scientist Emmett who loved to shout "Gadzooks!" in the movie, "Back to the Future?" Zook's name makes me think of him and I picture the cat with wild eyes and hair sticking out like porcupine quills. But Zook's name comes from O'Leary's famous fried zucchini that was used to catch him. Yum, yum. Or yuck, yuck depending on your tastes. Oona, the wildly-wordy narrator, along with her loveable five-year-old brother Freddy, spews words like geysers. The two have made-up words, vernacular words, play-on words, big words, misspelled words, 1st grader words, long strung-together-like-on-a-string hyphenated words, and more. I think "pickapoo tree" is my favorite. Or maybe you like pittooee, frazzlebug, fiddle-i-fee, rowdies, playskool, wonnerful, yaba-blabba (second favorite), humongous, autodidact, rebus... you get the point.

So eat some taffy 'cuz this one's a laffy. Okay, that's lame... I'll leave the word-smithing to the rockin' Rocklin. Even if I can't smith a word (or is that sword? Never-mind), I can promise you laughter, strong characters, a layered plot with great details, and a delightful word bonanza. Ten-year-old Oona's cat, Zook, gets sick and has to go to the vet. Oona tells some whoppers to the people at the clinic as she tries to sneak Zook back home. Oona has The Rainbow Whopper Theory, meaning some of her whoppers or lies can vary from white whoppers (play on the word white lie) that means a person lies to make someone feel better to black whoppers (evil lies like the color black) that are meant to hurt. Then there is the fuzzy in-between blue, yellow, and red lies. It's like lies on a scale of 1 to 10. Oona tells her younger brother Freddy some white whoppers because she wants to protect him from feeling sad. Their father died two years ago and the family, including Zook, miss him terribly. Freddy doesn't have much of an appetite and Oona wears her dad's old Oakland Raiders sweatshirt... EVERY... SINGLE... DAY. Ew. She worries about Freddy and is more patient than most sisters.

When their mom starts dating another man, Oona notices her mom's "weird, chirpy voice." The problem is this man is the one Oona has named, "The Villian." He is the person who she thinks might have previously owned Zook. He's the man Oona thinks shot Zook with a BB gun. He's the man who is evil to animals and she doesn't want to have anything to do with him. But no one knows this because Oona removed Zook's name tag when she found him. She didn't want Zook returned to his previous cruel owner. This whopper is a tough one for Oona to deal with all by herself. When mom invites the Villian to dinner Oona is difficult and rude. Later, she realizes that her mom is happy and it is the Villian making her feel this way.

The amazing details, strong character voice, and humor are what hooked me. Take the previous paragraph where Oona is talking about observing her mom's happiness. "Happiness is all over her. Her fingers are happy, holding the fork to her happy mouth. Her elbows on the table are happy. Her shiny orange hair is shooting off happiness sparks, pulled up in a new happy hairstyle. And her eyes; her eyes are happy. I'm sad because I realize her eyes haven't looked like that for a long time. And it's the Villain who's making her feel that way." I laughed about her elbows feeling happy and the description of her red or strawberry-blond hair as orange. I found myself rooting for Oona and waiting for the next outrageous thing she would say or do.

Have you ever gone to a kids movie where there is adult humor and the kids don't get it but you do and you are laughing away while they look at you and hiss, "What's so funny?" This book has quite a bit of that. It would be a great read aloud because it entertains both adult and child. The theme of death is one that you'll want to discuss with your child and if they are going through the phase where they are afraid of death (age 8-10) then hold off reading this until they are older. At 200 pages it is a fairly quick read. Oona sounds too old for a ten-year-old in some spots but it is so funny I really don't care, such as when she describes the receptionist, "This one is wearing dangly, sparkly earrings with circles and spokes. They look like cat toys, and under normal circumstances I'd probably warn her about those earrings. Not the greatest fashion choice if you work around cats." Funny, but not the language of a kid. And Freddy would not be able to developmentally tell the story he does at the end because he is learning to read - only fluent readers can retell like that and normally they are not in kindergarten, but only a primary teacher is going to know that instead of the average reader. Plus, we'd loose the whole clever part where Oona teaches Freddy to read with rebuses. Freddy's made-up story is necessary in advancing the plot and showing how the characters change when telling stories to help them deal with loss, grow as individuals, and make sense of the world. It also shows how their father, The Great Rebus-Maker and Whopper-Teller lives on through them.

In an interesting twist at the end Oona finds out the truth about Zook's past and sweeps some whoppers out of her life. This is a story about stories, a story about words, a story about names. On the one side you have a serious storyline of loss and on the other side you have the joy and silliness of using made-up words and stories. It makes me want to be silly. Or spew sentences like Dr. Suess, "Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all!" Truly a winner.

Reading Level 4.6
4 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds

If you want to see a masterful creation of a historical setting with details galore, this book is a must. From describing how olives are harvested to making blood sausage to stitching a serious facial wound, Constant Leeds weaves nonfiction details throughout this book that are brilliant, fascinating and informative. She also does a stunning job presenting another culture in the 16th century. The message of tolerance between Muslims and Christians is one that I do not often see in children's literature. This isn't the author's main point and is not touched on until the end of the book, but I love how she weaves it in the storyline. Ignore the unfortunate cover on this book... it isn't a pirate story. I found myself wanting to skim ahead to get to the pirates, but Luc isn't taken until page 91, and his kidnapping is short; it is really a story about family, being a slave with no freedom, the power of knowledge or education, and forgiving those who have wronged you.

Luc's father hates him and is a mean, verbally abusive drunk. His mom's personality has shriveled so that  she "no longer sings" like she once did. The two younger brothers adore 15-year-old Luc and are puzzled by their father's anger. The prologue gives the reader an idea why the parents are a mess but the details are not clear. When Luc's situation becomes unbearable he becomes apprenticed to a kind fisherman in the village away from his home. Whereas, his father calls him a "curse," the fisherman calls him "lucky." This new family of Luc's consists of the fisherman, Pons; his sister, Mattie; and 15-year-old Beatrice, who they raised as a child. Life here could not be more opposite than his previous one. Tranquility and joy dance across the floorboards and Luc soaks it up like a sponge. When pirates capture him and sell him as a slave in Tunisia, Luc is purchased by a great scholar who educates him. Luc's new family is devastated and Beatrice will go to extremes to try and find him. Meanwhile Luc adjusts to his new life and the kind scholar, but struggles with being enslaved. Can he forgive those who have hurt him?

The beginning of the book's pacing is slow but the last half picks up speed. The domestic scenes are solidly established and this serves well at the end when Beatrice is so insistent to keep looking for Luc. There is the hint that she is in love with him and he with her. They never blurt anything out loud to each other, but do show an interest in each other.  I felt removed from the characters in the beginning and restless with the pacing. The details were so overpowering that I didn't really connect with Luc. The reader meets all the different characters and I needed more of Luc's thoughts. In the second half, Luc shares more emotions and thoughts; plus his situation is full of tension and confusion. The pacing picks up and I was able to settle down. We are told from the beginning who Luc is from the prologue. I wished the author had not revealed this because it took the tension away. If she had left it out then I would have been wondering about Luc's parentage. I think she could have played up the Pascal, Sir Guy, and Count angle to keep the reader guessing. The irony of Salah wanting Luc to find freedom in knowledge and learn to accept his slave status is ripe ground for discussions.

The theme of forgiveness touches on so many characters and how they deal with this is another great topic that rests on fertile ground. Pascal and Blanche can't forgive and it eats them up. Beatrice learns to forgive but it is a slow process. Salah must ask for forgiveness for not telling the truth. Luc must forgive those who have been cruel to him, Pons must forgive himself for losing Luc, and Louis must forgive his father for all the people he murdered. Through forgiveness, we learn, hope springs forth.

I find it interesting observing how different authors handle characters going to another country and learning a language. Oftentimes, they make them fluent too quickly. Leeds has Luc learning the language in two years. He's gifted and brilliant so I can buy that and  he's completely immersed in the language. I like how she says that Salah would give him one word at a time to learn and thought she tried to show him slowly learning it. I did raise my eyebrows that he could read Sinbad out loud to Salah, but at least she puts at toward the end of two year. Maybe it was an abridged version versus the adult version of Arabian Nights. It is really difficult becoming a fluent reader - that comes later in second language acquistion - and Luc being a slave made it somewhat unbelievable. Not that it matters. What's more important in that scene is that he is showing that he loves Salah and is grateful for him giving him the gift of education. 

I have spent 8 years living overseas and it is strange being illiterate in one culture and literate in another. I do think Constance Leeds captures this dynamic well with Luc when he first arrives in Africa. I could easily see Luc ignoring Bes and his constant insults because Bes is speaking in Arabic. I have done this before when I know someone is mad at me and they are spitting out words I don't understand in a different language. It is much easier to stay calm because I can't understand what they are saying. Plus, as Leeds explains, Luc just ignored Bes like he had to ignore his abusive father for years. I don't think Bes would have left Africa and gone to Europe with Luc or given him his pearls. I like the touch, but Bes was too small-minded, nasty, and self-centered. I think I needed him more fleshed out as a character for that to happen. 

A twist is thrown in at the end that made me wonder if the author plans on a sequel. If you are a patient reader, like nonfiction, and good-writing you will love this book.

Reading Level 6.7
4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

This novel is like an exploding bottle of Mountain Dew that showers everyone with emotion, fear, friendship, and hope. Thirteen-year-old Marlee chooses not to talk out loud. She'll confide with her sister and talk with her family or Sally, her friend from kindergarten, but it is not much. She's no chatterbox, that's for sure, nor is she a selective mute. She talks in her head and deals with stress by reciting the times tables or prime numbers. She usually describes people in her head as types of drinks. When she meets Liz, Marlee astounds herself by speaking three words out loud, "Please sit down." She wonders if Liz is wholesome as whole milk or if she is a shot of whiskey. "I couldn't place her, and it made me nervous." When she later learns Liz's secret, things take a dangerous turn, but by then they are best friends and Marlee is going to stick by Liz no matter what. The problem? Marlee endangers Liz's life and really doesn't realize the magnitude of hatred, divisiveness, and bigotry in the town of Little Rock, Arkansas.

The tension makes this a page turner and the life-and-death situations really amp up the excitement, especially since Marlee's radar doesn't detect the extent of racial hate that exists in Little Rock. She makes decisions that threaten her safety scaring her parents and Liz's, but she and other youths don't realize that people will commit murder over the color of skin. She only sees herself as sticking up for a friend. We applaud Marlee when she finds her voice that she didn't know she had and shows courage and strength in suffering.

The character of Marlee and how she changes is like a flower blooming. I love how she uses numbers to size up people, control herself from blurting angry words at others, or describe relationships such as with her mom, "So we didn't talk, and by not talking we made it even worse. It was like a repeating decimal. You can divide 10 by 3 for as long as you want, but all you're going to get is 3.33333 with evermore 3s after it. There had to be some way to finish the problem." (p. 170) It's wonderful how Liz teaches Marlee to be brave and speak out loud and then Marlee teaches Liz how to not get angry and have outbursts against those teasing her. The two become real friends and it reminded me of the blast I had with my best friend growing up. Like Liz, my friend, dared me to climb a tree and I got stuck swaying in the boughs like Marlee because I was too terrified to scamper down.

I wanted the supporting characters such as Liz more developed, especially toward the end of the novel. I found my interest waning at the end when Marlee starts to sound too perfect and too grown-up. The leap from being slightly immature to being a wise woman was too great for me. She sounds like a teacher at the end, such as when she talks to JT, "JT," I said gently, "you're thirteen. Your brother is not an excuse. It's time you started thinking for yourself" (223) or when she shrugs off Sally being vain and not caring about the issues (228) or when she isn't angry at Liz's mother for not letting them even talk on the phone or when she agrees to being punished for jumping in the trunk. I'm not sure the danger of the girls talking on the phone except the mother was that scared, but the mother already knew the huge danger she was placing her daughter in, so it doesn't make much sense that she is that fearful, although it does add more drama and tension. I also thought Marlee would show more anger. Yes, she's level-headed and smart but she's also thirteen and the 13-year-olds I know tend to be more self-centered and get angry as learn the meaning of injustice.

I kind of wished the book had ended when Marlee's mom finally takes a stand. That was a heartwarming emotional scene with nice repetition to dramatize the message. After that section, the plot seemed forced with Marlee in the trunk of the car and forgetting the dynamite. Marlee is an extremely bright, level-headed, detailed girl, but her not grabbing the dynamite seemed out of character even if the situation was highly stressful. I see how the author uses the dynamite to push things to an extreme, but that's the section where I started to notice the plot structure and wasn't as swept along with the story as in previous pages. That said, it adds great tension and plenty of action.

I really liked the development of Marlee and Liz's friendship. I did wish the adults were more fleshed out as characters. I was so happy when Marlee's mom finally stood up, but I still wanted more after that; it seemed that Marlee was still teaching her mom more than her mom was teaching Marlee. There were a few too many comments on Marlee's bravery from mom and I wanted her mom to show more depth. I also didn't like that Mr. Harding didn't intervene when he knew Marlee was cheating for JT. He saw her every day for lunch! Crikey, he had plenty of chances to bring up the issue and they do talk at the end but it seems awfully late in the plot. It is  the teacher's responsibility to keep kids safe and I think Mr. Harding would have done something. If he was a jerk of teacher then I could see him choosing to ignore it, but as a conscientious teacher, I didn't buy it that he wouldn't say anything. BUT, I am an adult reader and a teacher with my own biases. I don't think young readers will notice.

Christianity is used as the author weaves 1 Peter 3:14 throughout the story to emphasize suffering to do the right thing and not being afraid. There is some romance but only kids asking each other on dates or going to the movies. The characters are dealing with academic cheating, relationships, and abuse. The abuse is not gone into great depth but it shows one family with the father possibly abusing the wife and the older brother abusing the younger brother. Lots to mull over in this terrific novel and the tension and fear of racism during the 1950s is well-captured by the author. It's obvious that she did quite a bit of research for this book and she lists more resources in the Author's Note at the end. Marlee changes dramatically from start to finish which makes her interesting even if I thought the changes made her sound a little too old by the end. The author carefully shows how Marlee gains courage finding a voice to speak out and learning to face fears such as flying, climbing a tree, or going off a high dive. While the ending is too pat for me the book as a whole tastes like a carbonated soda. Enjoy!

Reading Level 3.9
4 out of 5 Stars

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Glory, glory! I got 16 boxes of new books and am tearing through them like my shirttails are on fire. I took that from the word wizard, Sheila Turnage. She slaps great sentences together like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sprinkle in heavy doses of humor, kooky characters, seriousness, and a mystery set in the south and you have some delicious crepes or craps as eleven-year-old Mo's best friend, Dale, calls them. Another favorite line I have is Mo describing how she is herbicidal, "I've killed every plant I ever met, starting with my lima bean sprouts in kindergarten." Me too, Mo.I even came close to killing the dog with a poisonous plant that I accidentally planted in her kennel.

Wave a checkered race flag when you start this book because it will suck you in from the start with the teaser about Mr. Jesse turning up dead, to the hint that things are not well with Dale's family, to Mo explaining that the closest thing she has to family is the Colonel and Miss Lana who run the town's cafe. Except Lana has skipped town and the Colonel is missing so it isn't clear what's going on with their relationship. Mo is a sassy southern gal who was found as a baby by the Colonel in a hurricane strapped to a piece of floating wood. Mo says things I wish I had the guts to say. No one in the town resembles "normal" but they care and support each other in an endearing way.

Dale and Mo had planned to go fishing but with the Colonel missing, Mo has to open the town's cafe. Dale says he has a boat and Mo asks him if he stole it. "'I wouldn't say stole;,' he said. 'But I did borrow it pretty strong.'" She's quick on her feet as well as quick with the mouth as we meet the other characters in the town as they come for food at the cafe. When the first customer comments that she's grown she says, "I'm standing on a Pepsi crate, Mr. Jesse. I ain't grown that much since yesterday. You want to order? I got other customers to think about." Except no one else is in the cafe.

The humor takes the edge off the serious parts where we discover Dale's dad is an abusive drunk and people get hurt in a kidnapping scheme that has gone awry. Oh yes, there's a murder too! This well-written book has plenty of action, odd yet lovable characters, a tinge of romance, and an unpredictable mystery. The only part I didn't quite get was why Lana didn't reveal to the Colonel his true identity. Ah well. It doesn't take away from the story so I really don't care. This would be a great read aloud. My newest favorite book. Dig in.

Reading Level 4.5
5 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Wooden Mile (Something Wickedly Weird bk #1) by Chris Mould

This weird, creepy book is going to appeal to some, but I don't think it is going to entice most readers. Stanley Buggles has inherited a house from an unknown relative in Crampton Rock, but the village is not quite right. People scuttle indoors when night falls, lookout towers are sprinkled here and there, and a talking taxidermied fish cautions Stanley against a lady who lives in the water. When Stanley discovers that a werewolf is on the loose he is recruited by pirates to kill it. Unbeknownst to him is that the pirates want the werewolf eliminated so they can ransack Stanley's home that hides a magic amulet hidden by his relative.

The narrator reflects the British author as he describes Stanley as a sensitive little chap and ink drawings made me think of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell; however, this story is uniquely Chris Mould's. He has some gory descriptions such as the death of Stanley's relative, the pirates messed up body parts, the dogs missing limbs, and the skeleton in the cage. These descriptions add more horror to the story, but it is toned down with the pirates more doofuses than brutal killers, and the death of the werewolf not what it seems.

Stanley doesn't leap off the page as an interesting character. The weirdness of the story is what had me stay with it. Stanley does change from being fearful in the beginning to ingenious or able to solve his problems by the end. Spoiler alert* I don't know how to write about the plot without giving away too much so if you don't want to know what happens then skip to the last paragraph. The plot has some holes that are not explained such as the fish warning about some lady in the water, Stanley concerned about the gun instead of the man/werewolf he just killed, and Mr. Cake working in his shop and miraculously recovered from a bullet to the head. The amulet isn't explained either. The end leaves more questions than answers.

The narrator says in the beginning that this tale is dark and twisted and it is a good description of this story. A fast read if you are looking for something different and slightly ghoulish.

Reading Level 5.5
3 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Marty Mcguire Digs Worms (bk. 2) by Kate Messner

Meet 5th grader Kayla. She didn't like to read, until she met Marty Mcguire.

Here's the routine:
"Have you got the new Marty book?" Kayla asks. The staff is greeted every morning before school with this question.

"No Kayla, it is on a boat in the ocean," One of us replies. She hollers from the circulation desk into my office, "You'll give it to me when it comes, right?"

"Yes, your name is first on the list," I reassure her and she giggles and prances to class.

Last week my reply changed to: "It's getting closer Kayla. The book is in Taiwan customs." 

Four weeks later she comes to the library and starts, "Have you got... Oh!"  I put the book in her hands before she can finish her sentence and she does a happy dance at my feet with a grin the size of a watermelon slice. Where's that video camera when you need it?

Marty Mcguire may be in third grade but she appeals to all ages with her spunk and energy. She loves science and struggles with sharing her best friend, Annie, who gets along with Veronica, a frilly girl who is quite the opposite of tomboy Marty.  This book has Marty and Annie planning a science project together that involves worms. Things don't go quite as planned when Annie decides to help Veronica, as well as work with Marty; plus, the worms seem kind of boring because they won't eat all the leftovers from the kids. Marty has to learn to deal with her discouragement over the project to save the earth and realize that it is small steps that make a difference in making change.

Another terrific story with great pacing, word choices, and characters. The focus is more on science in this book than relationships. Lovers of nonfiction books will like the facts sprinkled throughout with an engaging story. The beginning information on poison dart frogs is a funny reference to the frog fiasco in the first Marty book and her love of frogs while giving facts about why they are called, poison dart frogs, and what is happening to their habitat. Worms are surprisingly interesting and kids will love the "worm poop" facts and the clever advertising the girls use to get Veronica to use it on her plants.

The adults at Marty's home and her school create a community of support for her from Grandma Barb to the janitor to the teacher. They give guidance and wisdom as Marty learns from her mistakes and grows in understanding. The wonderful imaginations that children have is captured by Messner and I was transported several times back to my own childhood and the escapades my best friend and me had while growing up in Minnesota. 

There's plenty of fodder for adults to laugh at in this story. When we have a character education assembly in the auditorium I secretly sit by the little 4 to 6 year-olds because it is so funny when one gets crocodile-snapped in the chair. Messner catches the hilarity of this as Marty mentions it throughout the book. When Marty puts paper in the food processor it reminded me of when my friend and I chiseled a hole in their oak door because we wanted a peephole (we were acting out a book and were on a ship), and the kind janitor who helps Marty reminded me of the time my best friend and I climbed the church's steeple tower only to be caught on the way out by the janitor who was very kind to us (we were acting out Nancy Drew that time).

Dear Ms. Messner,
You are very prolific. Please crank out another Marty book so we can all do our happy dances!
Thank you!

4 out of 5 Smileys
Reading Level 3.8

The Surge (Storm Runners book 2) by Roland Smith

I thought I had book #1, but low and behold I grabbed #2. Ah well. Sometimes I like book 2 in a series because you can bungee jump into the action. This is definitely a jump with its action-packed, tense chapters. Chase and his friends have survived Hurricane Emily only to face the surge of flooding waters that follow. This picks up where book #1 left off which is at the farm of the Rossi Brother's Circus. The hurricane has destroyed the house and the animals are loose. One barn still stands where the kids seek shelter with Mama Rossi. Only this barn has a pregnant elephant that is about to birth a 225 pound calf. Problem? The generator is running out of power and the elephant can't birth in the dark but in order to get gas Chase has to go outside and not get hit by flying debris or eaten by the deadly lions and leopard that broke out of their cages. A terrific, nail-biting adventure story.

The chapters are a short 2-4 pages. A second storyline follows Chase's dad trying to get to the farm with two reporters. I didn't really understand why the reporters were along. You need to read the first book to get all the details, which I obviously didn't. The two reporters had some funny dialogue. Speaking of dialogue, this book is chalk full of it that makes for an easy read. I wanted more background information on Chase and his dad by the end of the book. Guess I'll have to make a go of book #1.

The kids can shoot guns, drive big rigs, and jump off 30 foot platforms which makes it a fun read. The Rossi family is from the circus so the author tries to give it some plausibility. There is a teeny tiny hint of romance between Chase and Nicole but they are too busy trying to stay alive for anything to happen. Mama Rossi is a psychic which comes in handy in making some predictions but she's not quite as good as her ancestors. Thank goodness. The plot would not have been very interesting if she was that good! The ending is somewhat abrupt and sets-up for the next book.  I would have liked a little more resolution, but hey, it's a whirlwind of fun action.

If you like this book, try The Ninth Ward, about Hurricane Katrina.

Reading Level 4.1
4 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sadie and Ratz by Sonya Hartnett

I am number four.

My parents had five kids; four of them six years apart. I have pulled the curtain on certain parts of my childhood such as when my older brothers tried suffocating me at the bottom of my bed in my bedsheets, or bamboozled me out of my Halloween candy, or broke my bed and pinned the blame on me. Yes, when we were wee ones, we had moments (gasp),when we were piranhas. And because I was the youngest, it took me awhile to figure out how to fight back. But I learned. I fought verbally and physically. The war of sibling rivalry raged fiercely at times as we learned to get along. Children's picture books touch on sibling rivalry, but they don't tackle it quite like this book does with its wonderful metaphor and revealing power struggle between the sneaky, clever siblings of Hannah and her baby brother.

Hannah tells this tale. She explains that her two hands named, Sadie and Ratz, can be wild beasts. Sadie is the bossy one and Ratz does whatever Sadie tells him to do. We then find out she has a younger 4-year-old brother that she calls, Baby Boy, whom she wishes was a dog, and gets angry with when he takes her things or changes the TV channel. When this happens then Sadie and Ratz wake up and rub Baby Boy's ears until he screams like a banshee bull. Then Baby Boy lets Hannah see what it is like to get picked on when he cleverly blames Sadie and Ratz for something he did.  Hannah doesn't like this one bit. She even sends Sadie and Ratz on vacation. But Baby Boy goes too far in a surprise ending.

Okay, I confess. I was secretly delighted with Baby Boy's retaliation. And yes, I did the same thing, getting my older brother blamed for things that I did. And he did the same thing to me. We fooled Mom and Dad sometimes. And sometimes we didn't. Sadie's hands as a metaphor of her as the bossy older sister who controls her brother is quite brilliant. Some Goodreads reviewers say the book is too dark and maybe it is for really young kids (I think they will like it in the same vein that they like Junie B. Jones) and while I don't think most youngsters will understand the hidden layers, I do think grades 3-5 will understand the deeper concepts and be able to discuss it.

Sonya Hartnett's word choices are delicious - I took the word piranhas from her story. She is a master when it comes to putting sentences together with great characters, pacing, and rhythm. This is the second book of hers that I have read and it is always a treat to see how she crafts a book. I was surprised when I first got this book because it looks like an early reader; however, one can delve into more complex themes with older students. Even though it is an easy, quick read (blargh - this review took me longer to write than read the book), don't be fooled because it's for all ages.  Professional reviewer, Elizabeth Bird, has an excellent review on this book and covers more themes that can be used for home, class or book club discussions.  I recommend reading her review.

This book won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2008 and it is easy to see why. The charcoal illustrations by Ann James enrich the text with the expressive faces of Hannah and Baby Boy. I love the pages with him screaming like a wild thing and Hannah contemplating what to do when he starts to get her back. The movement and mood is captured in the thick and thin charcoal strokes reflecting the characters and plot.

Even though we fought as youngsters, when I got older, my brothers did look out for me. Yes, we did figure out how to get along. Now I'm married and have a family. Except I didn't have five kids like my parents. I had one child.

That's right, one. Hmmm.

Reading Level 2.3
5 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Wish in the Woods (Faerieground bk #1) by Beth Bracken and Kay Fraser

Reading in a second or third language is hard business at best. Heck, I can't even speak in a different language and I've been overseas for 8 years. It is a beautiful thing to behold when all those languages click into the proper gears and students are able to read fluently. In the meantime, try and find a fifth grader who is reading at a Henry and Mudge level a book that interests him or her. I have toiled in the stacks many an hour hunting for high interest, low vocabulary books. Behold, I felt like I had discovered an agate on the shore of Lake Superior when I stumbled upon Stone Arch publishers that targets this type of reader. Fairies never seem to lose their appeal from year-to-year and this one delivers a tense tale.

Soli and Lucy are best friends who have done everything together for more than ten years. They've walked through the Willow Forest together to school and while Lucy knows that fairies live there, Soli doesn't or doesn't believe the rumors. Soli is quiet and shy while Lucy is bold and bouncy. When Soli wants to meet a guy, Lucy decides to help out and talk to him. The two end up  being attracted to each other and kiss. Soli is so mad that she wishes Lucy would disappear. Her wish comes true on faerieground and Lucy finds herself in an alternate world with creepy fairies who are scarier than she thought they would be.

The two girls struggle with jealousy. Lucy thinks her mom gives Lucy so much attention that she loves her more than herself. Soli thinks Lucy is beautiful and outgoing - like a light being turned on. Lucy struggles with wanting other friends besides Soli. Sometimes she's tired of them doing everything together. Soli struggles with feelings of betrayal when Lucy kisses the boy she likes.

There is plenty of white space between lines and text that isn't going to overwhelm the reader. The illustrations are beautiful in watercolor and have a dreamy quality that suits the plot. Each chapter alternates from Lucy or Soli's point of view. If fragment sentences drive you crazy, there are some. I personally like fragments and how they add rhythm and impact to text and the sections that have it do just that. The simple text is accessible for all with interesting characters and a tense plot. These books will probably interest girls more than boys. 

All of the books make a complete story. In the next book you find out why Soli is in the shadows and the fairies show up. The first book is more realistic and the fairies don't appear until the end. The next book is more of a mystery or quest to free Lucy and the theme of betrayal continued. In the third book, Soli must be brave and change. The fairie queen's plot thickens, stakes get higher, and tension mounts. The illustrations are quite striking in the third book.  Make sure you have all the books in the series because all the endings are cliffhangers - except the last book. Then it does truly end. It's really one book broken into 4 books. The last book has some interesting twists. One of those some might find confusing. Read page 82 carefully for Lucy's reaction to Soli.  Fairieground is like no book that I've ever read and is a terrific addition to your library.

Reading Level 2.7
4 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

When I was 10 my dad had me help him sheetrock the basement ceiling. He piled three phone books on the tallest chair in the house, told me to scramble up as he stood on the ladder next to the chair holding a heavy piece of sheetrock flush with the ceiling. He needed help holding the sheetrock while attaching it to the ceiling. Sweat trickled down his face as I quickly clambered on top of the slippery phone books. Once my head was in position, he used a noisy power drill shooting screws into the sheetrock around me, making my perch unsteady and sending a fine spray of white powder that fell like snow on everything and everyone in the room. After sheetrocking, he taped and textured the ceiling in a unique design that I had never seen before on any of my friend's ceilings. As an architect, my dad's house has always been like a member of the family. Doors were built by him, rooms redone by him, rooms added by him, murals put on the walls by him; the design of the house was a product of his imagination; the yard - his secret garden. He is so bonded to the house that at times he'll talk about it in the third person. Family members look at each other and go, huh? We don't really get it, to be honest. How can a person be so attached to a house? Yet, we don't really think of the objects that we're attached to in our own  life. Maybe we don't name them, but we do develop attachments. For some, it might be their cell phone. For me, is it my computer. His just happens to be a building. Celie in this book reminds me of my dad except she's bonded to a magical castle. It protects her and she loves it like a family member. Her bond is so strong that those who know her well recognize that love. They may go, huh, like we do with my dad, but they respect her for that connection and rely on her to communicate with the castle when they sense danger.

Celie is eleven and pouting because she can't go with her parents to pick up her brother from graduation from the College of Wizardry. She is left with her good-natured brother, Rolf, and bossy sister, Lilah. Celie loves the castle that creates new rooms when it is bored; rooms with bouncy floors, slides, and sizes or contents inside that stretch and shrink at whim and with purpose (umm... dad I want a bouncy floor in my old bedroom, if you are reading this). When Celie's parents get ambushed and are presumed dead, foreigners from neighboring kingdoms invade the castle and plot to dethrone Rolf, the newly crowned king. The three siblings have to bond together and seek the castle's help in preventing this coup. 

Celie is a spunky character who changes from an innocent child in the beginning to one who must work with her siblings as a political takeover emerges around them. The three bicker somewhat in the beginning but bond together in their time of need recognizing each others strengths and using them to rid their beloved castle of the enemy. Celie is the mapmaker of the castle and knows its perimeters better than anyone. Rolf, is good at handling people and is able to hold off the Regents. Lilah is super-dooper organized and helps run the castle household or plan an attack on the enemy. The attacks begin as silly pranks that kids will enjoy that delay Rolf from signing a succession which he knows will be a death warrant. When the stakes get higher and the pranks are stopped, the tension mounts and Celie must act more mature. Strong-willed and strong-minded she takes up the task that makes for an exciting end to the story. 

The author shows that not all of the Regents are villainous, but some are cowards. They are afraid to stand up for what is right. Celie calls them on this at the end and when they confess and turn to help her, it is a great example of how to try to correct a mistake. Also, Celie forgives them and does not harden her heart against their lack of judgement. She's angry and shouts but in the end does the right thing. Her leadership and good innocent heart make her an endearing character. She vacillates between being a child and acting like an adult and this makes her authentic as well. In this book when she grabs her old stuffed toy for comfort, it is touching and rings true to the character. That said, it is going to appeal to fantasy or fairy tale lovers in grades 4-6. I don't think it will appeal to older teens because the protagonist is young. The only hint of romance is between Pogue and Lilah. The author keeps you guessing with Pogue as to what side he's on in the beginning which makes for some nice tension, but it is pretty clear whose side he is on after the first third of the book. 

A couple of things I wished were different but that didn't take away from my enjoyment were that I wanted the spy to use something more original than an invisibility cloak; however, kids will love the nod toward Harry Potter. Another thing I wanted to know was how Lilah changed the table into a pulley system. Celie tells Lilah to use the table chair to hold her as she rappels down the wall and Lilah takes it further and invents a pulley system. The author does a great job showing the ingenuity of the kids as they deal with the enemy as pressure increases for Rolf to do the Regents bidding. I wondered why the omnipresent castle didn't spit out Khelsh and the Emmissary in the beginning since it had that capability. Perhaps if Khelsh had crippled the castle in the beginning while practicing some black magic so that it couldn't get rid of them? Just a thought...

Just like my dad's home or "castle" is an extension of his imagination and creativity in design, the castle in this book is an extension of Celie, who is growing up and becoming independent. She draws strength from the castle's stone when she needs to be brave or bold. She looks to it for guidance, protection, and wisdom. When it can no longer protect her she must rely on her own strength and ingenuity to stand up for what is right. I believe I get now. My dad I mean. Let this novel turn your huh's into aha's and make you marvel at the extension of Jessica Day George's creativity and imagination.

Check out these similar books:
Museum of Thieves has a building that's alive but that building is unpredictable and on the edge of being out-of-control. Good for younger students. Incarceron has an evil building with romance and violence that is more for older teens.

Reading Level 6.4
4 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Skyfall (Troll Hunters book 1) by Michael Dahl

I would plop this book between Secrets of Droon and Beast Quest in reading level for fantasy lovers out there. While easier than Beast Quest or Spiderwick Chronicles, it still has some high vocabulary words (cryptozoology for one) and a lot of characters to keep track of for young readers. Pablo, Zac, and Thora, are watching a meteor storm over a quarry when strange things start to happen. Actually strange things happen on the way to the quarry but the chapters bounce around like scenes in a movie. I did get confused a few times and I missed the detail that Zac's parents disappeared. I didn't really get that chapter and what was happening. Anyway the four stumble upon trolls and are helped by a centaur who transforms into a man with three arms. Again, I couldn't figure that one out either but it is suggested at the end he'll be explained in later books. They stumble upon Louise in the forest who's house is burning. She's seven and says, "the big bad wolf" burned it down. The four have to figure out a way to not get eaten by trolls who are chasing them.

There is plenty of action but the plot is confusing and clumsy. I think the author tries to do to much. Fantasy stories can be complicated when building a world and I think if he'd cut out a few characters and parents, it might have been a smoother read. I was also confused on some of the dialogue such as when Thora and Pablo are hanging from the rope and Pablo yells help. It made me think the troll was grabbing Pablo's legs but the troll was actually grabbing Thora's legs. Then as they are running away it seems that Pablo is behind Thora and I thought the trolls would have grabbed him but then it seems that Thora is the sole person they are chasing. As you can see - I was confused in spots. Also, the word "quarry" is mentioned a bundle of times but never explained. I thought it should have been explained to help the young reader visualize the scenes and tower. I like how the author sets the trolls in a setting involving a quarry and how they are defeated at the end. In Norway, a certain rock or mountain might be a troll and a parent and child will look at the shapes and tell troll myths (according to Troll with No Heart - see my review).  If you just want action and don't care about plot then its a fun read.

Reading Level 3.2
2 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Killing Floor by Lee Child

I used to peel through adult hard-boiled detective stories like oranges before entering the children's lit world. Now my hard-boiled detectives come in the form of geckos and cuteness such as Chet Gecko and Nate the Great. Ruby Redfort reminded me of what I was missing so when my friend, Angela, plopped this book with  tough-guy Jack Reacher on my desk and said in her down-under accent, "Yah gonna love Jack," I was ready for some fast-paced escapism. Giddy-up Ange. Jack is a hoot.

Jack Reacher does not belong to any one place. He has no commitments. No permanent job. No permanent address. No permanent girlfriend. He grew up with his brother as a military brat in more countries than he can remember (well he can, but I can't). School meant making friends every 6 months.His adult career was spent working as a military policeman which meant his arrests were with military lawbreakers. Those lawbreakers were trained killers such as Rangers, Green Berets, and Marines. Men like Jack had to be trained better than your average policeman. This makes Jack "Better with weapons. Better unarmed."  However, Jack's had it with bureaucracies.  He shook the dust off his police boots, hit the road, and didn't look back.

Jack uses music as a way to deal with his situations or control his emotions. The author weaves different types of songs throughout the entire book. I didn't know half of them but enjoyed the connection. Hit the Road Jack, kept tinging in my head but Lee Child never threw that one in the mix. I suppose that's too corny. Or uncool. Jack's left his murky, dark past behind and is roaming the countryside with no responsibilities or commitments. He washes his clothes by tossing out the old ones every four days and he never stays in any one place too long.

When Jack stumbles into the town of Margrave he is accused of murder and sucked into an investigation he has no intention of solving. He's left that world behind. When he discovers he knows the murder victim, He makes a 180; now he's out for blood and revenge. He wants justice and is motivated by loyalty to the dead man. Jack will stand up for what's right or best for a community but he won't go by the book anymore. He kills people with the detachment of someone who has spent too much time in combat and he doesn't have much internal dialogue or conflict about it afterwards. He's a trained lethal weapon and the body count in this novel is close to a dozen people. He stalks the bad guys just as they stalk him. He turns the tables and can kill a man by knife, rifle, crushing his larynx or breaking his neck to name a few. He has no problems with poking out eyes, head-butting, or using any means to stop the bad guys. No remorse for Jack. Just justice. Even if justice is taken into his own hands.

The writing didn't transport or delight me like some prose souffle... but the action, strong characters, and plot twists did. I was flipping through the pages in quick succession like a hyperactive librarian. Or someone wanting to escape from the humdrum of everyday routines. It's great being able to pretend that  I'm something that I'm not in the hero archetype found in the character of Jack. For a brief moment I am brilliant, tough, wise-cracking, tall (over 6 feet), detailed, have an awesome memory, can wield a weapon of any kind, and never make mistakes or if I do I can fix them. I wrote that sentence right after figuring out I had been using my inhaler upside down for the last three months - a lot more juice squirts out of that puppy when it's held upright... Jack Reacher would NEVER do anything so stupid. He'd find some cool way to take his meds. I'm sure a  karate-chop would be involved. Or he'd use the inhaler for target practice.

The murders are quite grisly in the book with nasty villains, plenty of good guys, and plenty of not-so-sure if they are good or bad guys. Jack becomes attracted to another woman in the novel but their relationship is mostly physical. I liked this female character. She's strong-minded and smart. There's only one macho scene where she makes Jack promise to protect her. I thought it was out of character because I didn't think one policeman would ask another policeman to make such an impossible promise, but I could be wrong and she is in a small town where violent crime is nil. She just struck me as too self-sufficient. I did see how the author used it to advance the plot at the end - the author couldn't exactly have the character leave town and live with a relative. If I get more specific I'll give away the ending. The other plot twist that seemed somewhat thin was how Jack found Hubble. I liked the deduction but in actuality it was a bit of a stretch. Still fun because it showed how unbelievably smart Jack was. Maybe a little too unbelievable, but still fun. Just like him killing all those bad guys.

When I get tired of reading Ace Lacewing, Bug Detective and Max Minnow (Wiggle Eyes) in Mystery in Bugtown, I know who what to reach for... Jack Reacher. Thanks, Ange