Sunday, December 21, 2014

Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman

This is a fictionalized account of the 1980 day when a series of damaging tornados struck one area of Nebraska, Grand Island. It is told from an eleven year old boy’s perspective and the voice and writing mirror that. It started as a normal day and turned into a night of awful storms, death, and destruction. This tale is simple and does share the violence and fear of the situation but really is written as if an eleven year old wrote it and therefore lacks the power it could hold. A short read and I’m unsure as to why it was nominated for a Bluestem.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Traitor’s Gate by Avi

Set in London in 1849, this is a story of a boy, John Horatio Huffam, whose father is accused of owing the unfathomable sum of £300 to a mysterious man. Through his adventures and sleuthing, he finds that his father isn’t the man he thought he was. His father, it turns out,  is a gambler, liar and actor and it’s John’s job to figure out how to get his family out of this situation or they are going to have to live in the debtors’ prison. Between his wealthy great aunt, a mysterious stranger and a street urchin Sary the Sneak, John has too many clues that lead nowhere.  A clever tale but I wonder how much prior knowledge is needed to get the more subtle nuances of the story.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Year Money Grew on Trees by Aaron Hawkins

Jackson is a 14 year old living in a relatively rural area of New Mexico in the 1980’s. His family is relatively poor and his neighbor, Mrs. Nelson, used to own all the land but had to sell some of it to his family because of bad financial times. Mrs. Nelson seems to resent the neighbors and is an ornery older lady. One day, after her son storms out of the house, she calls Jackson in to her house and offers him a deal. If he gets her orchard in shape, she will consider him the ‘true heir’ to the orchard because her son doesn’t deserve it. After a little discussion, he agreed to pay her $8000 and any profit above that is his. This begins the year of hard work for Jackson. He, despite knowing nothing initially, does research and seeks the help of his siblings and his cousins. This is a story about his adventures in trying to whip the orchard into shape with his cousins and adhering to his contract with Mrs. Nelson. I enjoyed this story but did feel sorry for him as he worked so hard. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Donovan Curtis is in middle school and, although he’d never claim to always make good choices, any shady choices he does make seem to snowball and...well, disaster ensues. One day this is exactly what happens. His actions cause serious damage and he’s caught by the superintendent, however, after he’s released, no one ever calls his parents. There is no follow up. And then the letter arrives. He’s been accepted into the gifted academy. His acceptance into the school is as much a surprise to him as it is everyone else, but he sees it as his way out of his current dilemma and goes. He meets interesting students there and, although he’s pretty sure he has nothing to contribute and his teachers are finding the same to be true, he finds his place and his contribution. Will he be able to hide there forever?

It’s an interesting book but, man, oh man, does it stereotype gifted kids. I mean there are kids that are completely dorky and have no social skills, but they are not all like that, nor are even the majority of them. Other than pigeonholing gifted kids, it’s an entertaining tale and you are rooting for Donovan the whole time. 

Grade 4-8

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Legend By Maria Lu

This is ANOTHER dystopian novel about a future where the United States is divvied up and there’s the “good” country and then the rest, which has devolved into chaos. In this case Los Angeles and the surrounding areas make up the “good” known as the Republic.  The city is divided up into sectors and there are wealthy areas and poor areas. Illnesses rage through the poor sectors, as well as violence, while the wealthy are insulated from almost all inconveniences of everyday life. Day, the protagonist, is a poor boy that is separated from his family because he escaped death and his family can’t know he’s alive or they will be in danger. Day spends his time wreaking havoc like a modern Robin Hood by saving people, robbing banks and distributing the money to poor people or destroying symbols of the Republic. He is careful to cause as little damage to people as possible and is known throughout the Republic as a thorn in the side of the government because he hasn’t ever been caught. Tess is a street urchin he has befriended and together they seem to accomplish anything. 

On the other side of the story is June. She is a privileged, extraordinarily bright girl who attends college even though she is young because she is so smart and shows such promise. She is raised by her brother because her parents were killed when they were younger. He’s in the army and a rising star himself. She is a bit restless at college and does manage to find herself in trouble, but because he is a captain and she has such potential, she is granted a bit more leeway. When tragedy strikes, June finds herself catapulted into serving the army and hunting down Day, the sworn enemy of her beloved Republic, until she begins asking questions about what is good and what her beloved Republic really represents. It’s an interesting tale that, although it has some violent moments, is well told and gripping. Encouraging people to not take things at face value, delve deeper, and ask questions is a great message. If dystopian novels are your thing, this is a good one to add to the list!

Ages 10-15

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Matched by Allie Condie

Ok, I confess. I don’t like romance novels. I don’t like girlie books where the girls worry about silly choices between boys or clothes or whatever. Vapid, empty and promoting the ignorance and/or sexuality of girls is not my genre and I was afraid this book was going to be that. It has some romance and mooning over boys and ooey gooey love but there is an underlying theme of the importance of strength, curiosity and choices. 

Matched is set in the future in a society that has removed all major choices from the people so they can live happy, uncomplicated lives. A girl, Cassia, comes of age in this society and we meet her on the eve of the ceremony of her match. Surprise ripples through the crowd at the announcement of her match, as it is abnormal because her match is someone she knows and usually it is someone from another area all together. However, when she gets home and looks on her computer to see what information the Officials give her about her good friend and match, Xander, a different face pops up on the screen, Ky. She questioned, was Ky meant to be her match? Mistakes don’t happen and Cassia’s brain and heart are thrown into confusion. In addition, her grandfather reaches the end of his life and subtly encourages her “do not go gentle into that good night” and eventually she ends up realizing the importance of choice and the highs and lows you can’t experience if your choices are removed. It reminded me a lot of The Giver, as it is a person who is successful in this artificial society, but as they learn more, they both struggled with the constraints the society has placed on people for their own good. It’s an interesting idea and, despite my apprehension about romance, I did enjoy the book for the most part. Ages 11-14 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Ivan is a silverback gorilla. He is trapped in a...domain is the word he chooses as it’s more dignified than cage. He is in a run-down mall in California and accompanied by an elderly elephant, Stella, and a stray dog, Bob. The mall is run by Mack, who loves Ivan and Stella but loves money more. George is the night maintenance man and his daughter, Julia, comes with him at night and sits by Ivan and Stella while her father cleans. Ivan is also an artist-loves to paint and draw and Julia shares his love of art. Over the years, the attendance is down and Mack, in an attempt to increase attendance, buys a baby elephant. This crushes Stella because it reminds her of her life and the pains she has suffered as a captured animal, especially since the baby elephant, Ruby, is so very sad about her loneliness and misses her family. On Stella’s deathbed, she makes Ivan promise to free Ruby. After Stella’s death, Ivan feels the weight of his promise. Will Ivan keep his promise?

The story is told by Ivan and his voice is simple and powerful is compelling. I enjoyed this tale. Definitely deserved the Newberry. Ages 9-12

Monday, September 8, 2014

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

The main character’s name is Jack Gantos who lives in Norvelt, PA, same as the author who really did grow up in a town called Norvelt. How much of this is autobiographical and how much is exaggerated, I'm not sure. Regardless, in this story, Jack is a teenager who lives in the a progressive town of Norvelt, which has fallen into disrepair. This novel takes place in a time period that is fuzzy-I’d guess somewhere in the late1950’s/early 1960’s as that coordinates with his age and some of the events in the story but I’m not sure. 

Jack’s summer begins full of promise until a gun of his father’s went off in his hands, wreaking havoc. After that, he was “grounded for life” and had to find creative outlets to entertain himself. He loves to read and dives into history books. His mother did let him visit his elderly neighbor Miss. Volker, whose hands were so arthritic she needed Jack to help her write her parts of the newspaper--the obituaries and the history on this day. As he spent more time with Miss Volker, he genuinely enjoyed the activities and looked forward to the calls, allowing him to escape the prison he called home. The accounts of the adventures of Jack and Miss Volker are entertaining but at times the story is distracted and a bit too hard to believe or seems disjointed in a novel that is supposed to be realistic fiction. I do like the character of Jack as well as the personality of Miss Volker, as they both are quirky and interesting but found parts of it a bit unrealistic. 

Ages 9-14

Thursday, September 4, 2014

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

This novel begins with Carley Connors in a car on her way from the hospital to a foster home. Carley’s past and present are exposed by the narration of the strong, fiercely independent voice of Carley. The horrors of Carley’s past are nothing compared with the ideal life the Murphy’s, her foster family, share with her. As this turns her world upside down, she eventually learns to love and trust. This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching coming of age tale. I think I cried throughout almost the entire book. Some of the tears were for the pain.  Some were simply sharing the deep confusion and conflicting stories unfold. Either way, it’s an emotionally charged book that I loved, but shredded my emotions, all at the same time. 

Grades 6-8 for some of the emotional depth and some violence

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Katsa lives in a kingdom that is medieval in nature, but, of course, there are special people called Gracelings. They can be identified because they have eyes of different colors and each Graceling can have a different grace. A grace is the amplification of any skill; swimming, dancing, fishing, fighting, reading, or the playing of music. Katsa is “graced” with the skill of a tremendous fighter-sword, bow and arrow or dagger all are lethal weapons in her hands, as are her own hands and feet. Katsa lives in a castle with her uncle, the king. People fear her and she has but one friend, the son of the king. Despite Katsa’s own desires, she has to be the henchman for her uncle, hurting people to send his messages. To combat this, she has created the Council, which does good deeds throughout hers and the surrounding kingdoms. It is during one of these rescue missions where she rescues an old man, that she encounters a Leinid, someone that is from a kingdom that is farther away. He is also graced with fighting, but not as talented as she is. Slowly they become friends and then must go on a journey together to investigate the source of the kidnapping of his grandfather, the old man Katsa rescued. 

This is a well written, complicated and fast paced novel with some raw violence. What I liked about it is that the main character is a fiery woman who is talented at fighting. We get to know her thoughts and her struggles with her violence, as well as her struggles with her role as a female in a male dominated world. At one point a man asks her to marry him and she can’t do it because it’s not within her character to submit to a man, and that’s what marriage means in the middle ages. As the story unfolds, watching her mature is a wonderful experience. The only thing I would change about this book is that there is sex. I can’t get around that and I can’t recommend this book to anyone younger than 14 because of it. It’s a shame because I really enjoyed the rest of the book. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mara Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

I have a weakness for historical fiction. This historical fiction novel is by the same author as The Golden Goblet, which is one of my favorites to use with my students and takes place at about the same time. It features a 17 year old girl Mara, a slave who strains against the reins of her masters during the end of Queen Hatshepsut's reign about 1457 b.c.e..  Mara is an interesting, clever, and devious girl whose wits are the means of her survival. Mara becomes mixed up in two plots-one to overthrow the pharaoh and one to prevent the overthrow.  Each campaign is lead by men, one stone-faced and cold and the other charming and fierce. Both men offer her the chance to escape slavery by being involved in a dangerous, life-threatening plot. In an interesting mixture of characters and action, Mara tries to please both masters and stay alive, while watching them create/prevent the revolution of Thutmose III. 

It’s an engrossing tale but isn’t historically correct (which bothers me). For example, in my cursory attempt at research, there is no evidence that Hatshepsut was overthrown and she was, in fact, still alive for a year after Thutmose III took over and there is no evidence that he took over violently or even that there was animosity. He just maneuvered politically, as far as I can tell. 

Anyway, forgiving the historical inaccuracies, this book is mostly a page turner although, at times, too descriptive and so a bit of a yawn. There are also times there is too much going on, too much drama, too many strings of plot to hold on to as it weaves this intricate tale, but overall it was fun to read and a great glimpse into daily life in ancient Egypt for girls.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

You are right. This is a modern, sci-fi twist on Cinderella. This one takes place in the future of Bejing, after WW IV, where computers are utilized to the max. In this story, she’s a cyborg, which means she’s human but with lots of robot parts, like her foot and her hand, for example. It also means she loses certain human rights and is owned by her stepmother. She was, at age 11, turned into a cyborg because of some kind of hover accident where she was burned and so her hand and foot were replaced with synthetic parts. Cinder is also a mechanic, a very good mechanic and not at all interested in girlie things. She has 2 stepsisters and lives with them and her stepmother.  Obviously the stepmother is mean to her and just uses her to work and make money and do things for her but doesn’t love her or care of her really at all. This is a story about Cinder’s need for her own identity and independence, much like the fairytale. There is, of course, a prince and  he falls for Cinder but she knows she’s inappropriate and there’s tension there. There is also a ball, but again, was different in a good way and there is an evil queen, which is a nice addition to the tale. This is a clever twist on an ancient tale and the ending...well I liked it. It was interesting and not predictable. Definitely made me want to read the sequel. I also thought, from the cover, that it was going to have inappropriate content, but it didn’t. I guess I shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover!

Ages 10-14

Monday, August 11, 2014

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

One Came Home is a novel set in a rural town in Wisconsin in 1871. It begins with a rather jarring statement--the date of her sister’s first funeral. Of course that does a great job of creating curiosity in the reader, so you read on. In this case, the main character is an intelligent, sassy and yet naive 13 year old girl, Georgie, who is a great shot and quite stringent in her beliefs of right vs. wrong. Because of her moral compass, she reveals a secret about her sister which sets wheels in motion and eventually leads to this funeral, where everyone but Georgie believes that Agatha, her sister, is dead in her coffin. This is the story of how everything got to this point and then continues to explain how it is later resolved through some serious dramatic plot (and at times violent) elements. What makes this story so great is the voice of Georgie. It is humorous and vibrant and makes the story thoroughly enjoyable. I loved this book and found myself laughing out loud at times (causing some looks on the el), reading rapidly through very suspenseful parts as well as crying at others. It is an interesting tale that also reveals some about life in post-Civil War Wisconsin. 

Age 11-15 but has some violent parts so again, depends on your tolerance for violence

Friday, August 8, 2014

Unstoppable by Tim Green

Ok. I have to admit it. I like Tim Green and I know my students devour his books once they start. Tim writes about kids playing football, a great combo (two of my favorite things). In this book, initially I was afraid it was going to be a formulaic story with a mild twist, but I was mistaken.  Harrison is a foster child and had a rough, rough life. The story picks up in Harrison's life as a 13 year old who is large for his size and working on a farm where he is mistreated and neglected.  We also learn that he loves football, and although he never was able to play, he feels like he would be great. Through a bit of bad luck, he's removed and placed elsewhere. I'm not going to reveal too much but he does get to play football in his new home until another twist. This twist took my breath away. Impressively, even the writing and pace seemed to reflect the haze and confusion the characters were experiencing. The voice of Harrison is honest and developed well, although Green seems to gloss over the real work it must take to earn a person who has experienced that much heartache and trauma. He managed to make a student with a scary background seem so misunderstood and maligned that Green created strong empathy in his reader (me). I was rooting for Harrison the whole way and, surprise, surprise, I did cry in a couple places. Interesting story and could appeal to boys and girls alike, but they need to have a basic understanding of football to really understand some of the nuances of the story. Because of some violence, I’m not quite sure what grades to recommend it...depends on what kids can handle. I’d say 7th grade and up but younger could certainly appreciate this story, but have to be a little less sensitive to violence and trauma in novels.

Friday, July 4, 2014

SLOB by Ellen Potter

I must admit that I have mixed emotions about books about fat people. Often authors try to simplify why a person is fat and then, miraculously, the person figures it out and loses weight by the end of the book-part of the resolution-the end. I object to that because it’s never that easy. Never. People spend their entire lives struggling with their weight and to reduce it to such a simple, “Oh I figured out why I eat so much so now I can control it and lose all this weight” minimizes what real people do when they struggle with their weight.  Of course this is intermediate fiction, which usually wraps up novels nicely in a beautiful bow, but somehow this seems more unfair. 

This story stars Owen, a fat kid who is picked on and has a hard time standing up for himself. This story is a typical story about a kid who struggles, reveals a traumatic moment that is at the heart of his struggles, and then, miraculously he is cured of his urge to overeat and he loses weight. The end. Sorry to reveal the end, but it seems trite. 

What I did like about this story is the voice. The voice seems genuine and reveals a complex and interesting kid whom I would really like to meet and chat about life. He is quirky and bright and humble, all at the same time. In all I liked the book, but am not a fan of the message. 
Grades 4-8

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Boston Jane: The Claim

This follows Jane Peck in her adventures in Oregon, her new home. Without revealing too much about the first book, Jane has become comfortable in her new life, being a practical and helpful woman in the community. All that is shaken to her roots when her old bully Sallie Biddle comes to town and belittles her and her way of life and slowly, piece by piece, starts taking away all that is important to Jane. This is a good book for girls, especially middle school girls, because there is a lot about social pressures and norms and how awful people can make you feel. It can be the beginning of some interesting conversations. 

Ages 9-13

Boston Jane: An Adventure by Jennifer Holm

In Philadephia in about 1840, Jane Peck lost her mother when she was very young and is raised by her father, a loving, fun father and talented surgeon. He lets her run wild in the streets with the boys and has her assist him in his work at times and thus she grows up to about age 11 when she discovers she’s not like other girls. This mostly happens because of another girl her age, Sallie Biddle, but also because of a dreamy apprentice of her fathers’, William. The two of them manage to convince poor Jane Peck that she needs to go to finishing school and become a true lady. Her father allows her to go, despite his reservations that it will empty her mind and make her a useless human. Jane is swept up in the rules and regulations of becoming a true Lady and tries, in vain, to gain the respect of Sallie Biddle, who teases her relentlessly. Then William leaves to go off the the frontiers of Oregon to become a timber trader, despite Jane’s father’s objections that it is a lot of work and a waste of his doctor talents. Jane is distressed by William’s departure but is somewhat placated by their written correspondence. After a time, William proposes to Jane and Jane, after pleading with her father, eventually ventures out west, beginning a journey that not only sees Jane vacillate between the new “lady” side of her and the more practical, strong and stubborn side of her but also produces a great deal of heartache, danger and sickness, that eventually will end in triumph. A well written book with strong character development

Ages 9-13

Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington

Sarah Newton lives with her father and they have a secret they hid from their community. Jane Newton, Sarah’s mom, tried to drown both Sarah and her twin brother. Only Sarah survived but her mother was put in a mental hospital and her father was accused of neglect but eventually exonerated. It was a huge story and when people figure out who they are, they feel like they have to move to a new community. Her father has had a hard time moving on past the whole incident and drinks at times to get through, even though he knows he should not. Sarah, at times, must take care of him, instead of the other way around. In the midst of all this, Sarah is just trying to be a normal girl and she has normal day to day problems. It’s the end of sixth grade and she is afraid she’ll be shipped off to live with her grandparents for the summer for a summer of perpetual boredom.  Instead she is allowed to stay and spends her days with her neighbor Charlotte and Charlotte’s younger brother, Finn. Through this summer, Sarah learns about love through her first crush, Finn, and about heartbreak through her neighbor Mrs. Dupree whose husband passes away and about forgiveness through her parents. It’s an interesting book but a bit full of cliches and the voice is in the present tense, which was weird to read. 
Ages 9-13 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

This is a story of a junior in high school who loved to run and she was quite good at it. Then, through an accident, she loses part of her leg and running is no longer an option. This story picks up her tale as she is recovering in the hospital and tells of her recovery process, both physically and mentally and her adjustments easing back into a life that was centered on her running, which she can no longer do. The stress of recovery, the social implications, the familial stress all weigh heavily on this girl, but with her best friend pulling her up and her own sheer will, she discovers that her will to run came from her determination, which can be repurposed. She also discovers that people should be recognized for who they are, not their disability, as she befriends a girl with CP who helps her figure out math. It is a relatively simple, heartwarming tale of perseverance and friendship.  It reminded me a LOT of Shark Girl, which I liked as well. 

Grades 4-8

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiance by Veronica Roth

This series captivated me. I loved the series and the exhilarating pace and constant action and thoughts about humanity. It is another dystopian novel in which the society has tried to put people into neat little boxes, which we all know don't fit real people. On a large scale, these books explore what makes us human as well as how much leaders and people with power can manipulate our perceptions based on the information we are fed.

The first two books follow Tris as she discovers herself, the meaning of strength and love through all kinds of tests, violence and tribulations as she makes her way through her city, which takes place in the ruins of Chicago. Initially it is about survival and fitting in and then she learns she is different. The serums that the leaders use to control the population don't work properly on her and she discovers she is Divergent. Divergent people are frowned upon and she must hide it if she is to remain alive. Through the support of her trainer and her friends, she manages to survive and eventually flourish. Her trainer, Four, sees strength in her she never new was possible and she sees his heart hidden behind all of his tough exterior. They fall passionately in love, creating the scenes that are inappropriate for younger audiences. Their passion is, at times, raw and fairly sensual and when she has to face her fears, one of hers is the depth of this love and it's not appropriate.

The last book breaks the trend a bit, as it point of view is through two perspectives, Tris and Four as they manage to escape the walls of the city and discover the larger picture. Again the book is about leadership and strength and what makes evil and human and Tris and Four try to save their old world and find a home in their new world. There were moments the words captured human struggles so clearly, it took my breath away.

Grades 7 or 8 (depending on the student) and up

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Liar & Spy By Rebecca Stead

This is a story that tries to honestly deal with the idea of bullying...what it really looks like and how the victim feels, without making it melodramatic. This kid, Georges, had the deck stacked against him because of his name (after Seurat) but he had some pretty strong familial support and a good friend until the summer before the book starts hits. During that summer, his dad lost his job, meaning his mom has to pick up many extra shifts, making her pretty out of the picture and his dad trying to pick up the pieces. Because of the loss of income, they have to sell their house and move into an apartment. Also during that summer, his best friend went off to camp and came back cooler. School started and his friend Jason sat with the cool kids, the same ones that tease Georges consistently. All of this is the backstory. Once they move, it is mostly Georges and his dad, eating out, unpacking. Georges meets a kid in his building and they begin a spy club. The other kid, Safer, lives in another apartment and is homeschooled. Safer tells Georges about Mr. X who wears all black and is generally suspicious. This is a story about how they begin to forge a friendship through the act of spying and Georges begins to figure out life without his mom around and managing the bullies at school, and both Safer and Georges finally face what really scares them. This story has a genuine voice that seems to capture the voice of a middle schooler. 

A NY Times bestseller. grades 5-8

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Goblin’s Secrets by William Alexander

This is a book about an orphan, Rownie, who lives with a “person” named Graba and several other orphans. Overall it’s a tale of Rownie finding a home and saving their town from forces beyond anyone’s control. 

It’s definitely fantasy and it was interesting, but I had a hard time figuring out what the characters were. The description and the depth of the characters was definitely lacking and made it hard to understand what characters were doing, why they were doing it and how...Like Graba, she’s like a witch but she has robot legs and somehow she is bigger than she should be, but is also just like a person somehow. But towards the end, her character morphed a bit and became even more evil. It was one of the weirdest books and I found that I didn’t always understand what was motivating the characters. Some of their movements puzzled me and seemed random. Overall I hated reading this book...sorry!

Reading level 4-7