Friday, August 2, 2013

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Western Asia seems to be a theme this summer, as this book takes place in Afghanistan in an unspecified time, but one where the Taliban ruled and their very strict interpretation of the Koran made it impossible for women to have any freedom, let alone rights. This book is about one well educated, once prosperous family who stayed in Afghanistan because they loved their country, but slowly, over time, saw almost everything they loved about Afghanistan and most of their possesions stolen away by the Taliban and their rules. In this story, the father is, one day, taken by the police without explanation. Without him, the family has no way to earn money, let alone walk to the market unaccompanied. The responsibility of earning money falls onto the shoulders of the middle daughter, Parvana. They chop off her hair and she becomes their long lost cousin visiting from parts afar and she is sent out to the market to continue reading letters for people at the market, the job her father did to support the family. This desperate change was extremely dangerous, for if anyone discovered she was a girl, she would be beaten and most likely killed and her family would endure unknown punishments. However, if she didn’t, her family would starve to death. To find out more about her adventures in the marketplace and the friends she discovers, read this book. It’s worth it, although the ending is slightly anticlimactic. 

One of the things I liked about this book, was the author’s ability to make the reader feel the love for the country, despite the ruling party. It’s a deep seated love that might be difficult for some people to comprehend but explains why people who could leave, stayed. Grades 5-8 Easy read but a complex tale

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

Annie, the main character, is more grown up than her eleven years of life tell. She has only vague memories of her mother and father and her grandmother only hints that her dad was murdered by "an angry man". In addition, she has spent her life lying to social workers and teachers to protect her grandmother and brother. Life for Annie isn’t easy; they are poor and her grandmother isn’t always feeling well and can spend days in her room in bed. This leaves the running of the house and caring for her younger brother in Annie’s hands. When she and her brother Rew have free time, they spend it in the trees in the backyard-a mixture of birch and chocolate they call the Zebra Forest-and Annie tells stories. Stories about their father as a pirate are the favorite, but he also stars as a secret agent or a pilot. Summer would have passed by just like that, except that the nearby prison has a jailbreak and their world is shattered. 

This is a well told tale, although the emotional upheaval doesn’t seem as deep or traumatic as I think it must have been for Annie and the huge coincidence seems too big to be on accident. We get a better sense of Rew’s pain as he grapples with his new reality, but as Annie is the narrator, it seems like we should get to see her pain more closely and we don't. Perhaps it is glossed over a bit because it is, after all, a children’s book? Grades 6-8 (easy read but content a bit much for younger readers?)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Boys without Names By Kashmira Sheth

India is a country with possibility and danger. Recently I read about how farmers throughout India are going bankrupt and killing themselves because they borrowed money for seeds (made by Monsanto so they are not self seeding and must be bought every year) but their crops didn't meet expectations so they owe money, more than they can make, and have no options. The story begins by telling the tale of how Gopal's family cope. The family of Gopal deals with that tragedy by leaving their village in the middle of the night and going to the big city of Mumbai, chasing the dreams a big city can offer. Things are not what they hoped and they are separated. Gopal’s naiveté gets him trapped in slave labor with several other boys who are so guarded, it seems impossible to find any happiness or companionship. 

This is a story that is a bit disjointed...has a lot to say about India today but half the book is the set up--the explanation of the family, the situation, the setting--and the other half is Gopal’s experience as a slave laborer. Liked it because it’s a story that should be told, but would have liked a more focused story. Grades 4-7

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen

Guess what this one is orphan! Man, there are so many books about orphans, but I suppose too much drama can’t happen with mom and dad around, so the main protagonist is an orphan. This orphan named Sage is feisty, a troublemaker and a loner. One day a man named Connor, well dressed and moneyed, enters the orphanage and leaves with Sage. Sage is joined by 4 other orphans, all the same age and eventually they learn of Connor’s plan. The kingdom in which they live, they learn, is in peril as the King, Queen and Prince have been murdered. This is not public knowledge and Connor is going to groom one of his orphans to pretend to be the youngest prince that went missing 4 years previously and take over the kingdom. His plan is dangerous, traitorous and treacherous and each boy is pitted against the others to rise to the challenge of acting like the missing prince. 

This is a well told tale, without any magical elements but is kings, castles and knights through and through. I enjoyed it. Grades 4-7

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

This is a tale of racism in the south in 1958, Little Rock, to be precise. Taking place in Little Rock the year after the integration of the high school that divided the community, this story analyzes how the variety of people that lived here felt about race. The main character, Marlee, is twelve, white and struggling with friends and other middle school woes including the fact that she has a difficult time communicating with people outside of her family. She’s having a hard time standing up or even sharing, until a new girl, Liz joins the school and helps Marlee find her voice. Then one day Liz no longer attends Marlee’s school and rumor is that Liz, in fact, is a black girl who was passing for white. This brings to the surface the racism, the bystanders and the activists and eventually everyone has to take a side. Can Liz and Marlee bring this divided community together, or will their friendship rip Little Rock apart?
Really liked this book, as historical fiction but also as an exploration of deep seated racism and its roots. Grades 4-7

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott

I have to start by saying I genuinely enjoyed this book! This is a story about a pair of twins that, by helping an employer, get mixed up in saving the world. Turns out they may or may not be the twins spoken of in a prophecy where the twins determine who wins in the world war of good vs. evil, determining the fate of all humans. Let me back up...and I hope I am not giving too much away when I say this, but these two, a boy and a girl, help Nicholas Flamel and his wife protect a book that contains very powerful magic that could be very dangerous in the wrong hands, which is personified by Dr. John Dee. This book is well written, with the right amount of explanation mixed with action, as well as the right amount of reality mixed with fantasy. It is highly engaging and fun to read, if this is your genre. Grades 5-8

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

This is a fantasy adventure story about 3 children who are sent away by their parents because their lives became too dangerous. These 3 grow up in orphanages, with Kate, the oldest, looking after the other 2. After about 10 years where no one will adopt them and they have been shuffled from bad orphanage to bad orphanage, the book begins. The last orphanage sends them off to the mysterious house of Dr. Pym located in a remote area in a town no one knows. Turns out it’s a magical town and the children are a bit puzzled by the things they see. In exploring their new giant but cold house, they discover a book which takes them back in time to a place where an evil Countess has taken over the town because she is looking for something she knows must be there. Turns out she is looking for the book the children used to get them back in time and the children are pursued throughout this town, time and the mountains that surround it by awful magical creatures but helped by various people and dwarves. They see death, greed, treachery and this journey tests each of the children, revealing their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their familial bond. A well woven tale ultimately about family and believing in yourself...was fun to read and total fantasy! Grades 5-7

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander

Have you ever wondered about underground life in a middle school? This book portrays the school that boys who love movies like The Godfather or Moneyball fantasize that school was like. Long time friends, a boy who is street smart and a boy who is book smart, team up and together they solve average kid’s problems using a no longer used bathroom as their office. One day they learn that a bad, bad kid is trying to take over their territory/school and they decide to fight back. Nothing happens the way they plan, their trust is shattered and it threatens their close friendship, as well as their safety in their own school. How will they emerge from this chaos? An entertaining book, albeit a bit ridiculous at times.
Grades 4-7

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

An interesting tale told in an original voice for the narrator--well rarely published anyway. I find many of my sixth graders write like this, using a voice that is talking directly to the readers, is very dramatic and engaging. I will say I was a bit annoyed by the self-importance of the narrator at times and the whole mystery around the SECRET, but it was, overall, an amusing book. It is about a girl who sees impending doom in everything and is determined to survive those disasters. She cries wolf a bit too often, so when a real disaster strikes, you guessed it, no one believes her. I won’t give away too much of the story, as it is, after all, a SECRET, but will say it’s a mystery that is a bit hard to imagine at times, but interesting at the same time. I think this is tailored for 4-7 grade.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick

This is a story that fits well for middle school, for that is the time that many people adopt different personalities, either out of curiosity, due to stereotypes, or because of a girl/boy. This book is about a boy’s experience will all three. He falls into this personality of a Zen master and takes it as far as it will allow him. Never mind that you would think he learned his lesson watching his father scam person after person until he was finally caught and sent to jail, but perhaps that is what drives his inability to be himself. Perhaps it's true that sometimes you need to learn lessons for yourself. It’s an interesting peek into middle school personalities but is a little clean, cliched, too neatly tied for my taste. Real life is just a little messier, but maybe that's why books are better!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. La Fevers

Theodosia is a character that is British through and through. She lives in London with her parents, who are museum curators that focus on Egyptian artifacts. They are busy and Theodosia spends a great deal of her time at the museum as they work. She has full reign to wander and learn and knows a great deal about Egyptian black magic and spells. In fact, she has a sixth sense about spells and sets about removing them from the various artifacts her parents bring home. A lot of work!

When Theodosia’s mother returns from Egypt with a prized artifact, Theodosia senses the curses surrounding it are worse than anything she’s seen so far. Then it goes missing and Theodosia has to find it and figure out a way to get rid of the spell, all without her parents knowing! It’s possible the British Empire is in trouble! Her adventures introduce her to some great people and some evil people. This is the first in a series.

Grades 4-7 maybe but content is higher? Would need knowledge of ancient Egypt to fully comprehend