Monday, December 19, 2011

Ten Miles Past Normal by Francis O’Roark Dowell

ten milesJanie Gorman is a girl who desperately wants to be normal. The only real problem with that is that she’s not. That is, she’s not particularly abnormal. but her family lifestyle is a bit on the abnormal side of the spectrum. When Janie was younger, she went on a school field trip to a farm, and decided she wanted to live on a farm. Her parents actually loved this idea and decided it was high time they sell their suburban house and cars, pack everything up, and move out to the country. At first it was cool; everyone in 6th grade thought it was awesome that she had goats outside her bedroom window, but now, in 9th grade, Janie is known as “farm girl.” Her farm duty of milking the goats every morning (which more often than not results in animal poop on her shoes) does not help matters. On top of that, her mom runs a blog about her life on the farm. This, to put it simply, is not helping Janie achieve the normalcy she so desperately wants. Janie has yet to find her place in the world at her new high school. She eats by herself in the library every day instead of the cafeteria. All of her friends from middle school are in a different lunch, and she’s too shy to make new friends. Even her friendship with her pushy best friend Sarah is feeling rocky. At first Janie feels that it would be nice to go back to that old suburban life, but comes to realize that being “normal” isn’t always the coolest thing. She must know this somewhere inside of her. She certainly takes part in plenty of not so “normal” hi-jinks: she learns bass and joins Jam Band, she idolizes her best friend Sarah’s older sister (the infamous wild-child, high-school-senior Emma), shegets arrested while doing a school project on a local freedom school, and she kind of falls in “like” with a boy named Monster (yes, that is his real name). Janie begins to realize that coolness comes in many forms, and that being a wallflower isn't her style after all. "I'm the cute chick with the bass," she thinks. "Now that's a reputation I can live with." Review by Lizzy Healy

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Sparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor

sparrowNo music. No TV. No computer. No telephone. And every day, silence until supper. Those are the rules of Sparrow Road, an artists’ retreat set in an eerie mansion in the countryside of Michigan, where Raine O’Rourke is forced to spend her summer. Raine can’t figure out why her mother agreed to leave their Milwaukee home and her Grandpa Mac to work there as a cook. “Not everything’s a mystery,” her mother tells her when Raine pesters her with questions. But Sparrow Road is full of secrets. The mystery of why her mother took the job is solved when 12-year-old Raine meets Gray James, the father she has never heard about. The mysteries of the mansion take longer, but Raine and Josie, a quilt-maker, piece together the history of the former orphanage, and Raine uses clues she finds in the attic to write the story of a former orphan, Lyman Chase, which she shares at the end of summer festival, the Art Extravaganza. Review by Stacy Church

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Angel in My Pocket by Ilene Cooper

angelIt is common knowledge and mathematically proven that there are many dimensions in this world. The first dimension is expressed through one value, which defines a point. The second dimension is expressed through two values, which define an area. The third dimension is expressed in three values, which define a space. The fourth dimension includes time in the measurement. If you measure a room in the winter or in the summer, you will get two slightly different measurements, due to the time factor (In the cold winter time, when most matter contracts, it would give a slightly smaller value to the room’s measurements). Through mathematics we can explore higher dimensions, like the fifth, sixth, seventh and so on. What do these dimensions look like? What exists in those dimensions? Many people think that angels, spirits or other higher energy forms of life dwell in those higher dimensions and that sometimes they can take on our physical form and visit us. Angel in My Pocket is about such visits. Shortly after seventh-grader Bette finds a golden angel coin, things begin to change for her. She meets a mysterious new neighbor called Gabi, which is short for Gabriel. Gabi helps Bette come to terms with the losses and changes in her life and to move on. As the golden angel coin passes on to three other classmates of Bette, their lives are changed too. In time, all four become friends and marvel at what has happened to them. Angel in My Pocket is a wonderful story about finding friends, when you desperately need them. Review by Trudy Walsh

Wild Life by Cynthia DeFelice

wild life12-year-old Eric rushes home to show off the certificate he just earned for passing the hunter safety course, only to find that his parents have both been called up to serve active duty in Iraq. After that, things happen very quickly.  Eric is sent off to North Dakota to live with his grandparents.  He finds life with his grandparents unbearable, so he runs away off onto the prairie, taking only his gun, and a dog that he rescued, along with him. Eric is determined to make it on his own, and live off of the land. Wild Life is a fast-paced story of adventure and survival.  Review by Trudy Walsh

Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan

small actsSmall Acts of Amazing Courage takes us to India, where Rosalind lives in a beautiful home with many servants.  Her parents are English, and they are expected to send their children back home to England to get proper educations.  Independent-minded Rosalind doesn’t want to go to England, a country she feels no connection to.  Rosalind loves India.  She loves to explore the bazaars of the city with a native friend.  Her father returns from the war in 1918, and finds out that Rosalind has become involved in the lives of beggars, and has gone to listen to the rebel Gandhi speak at a street demonstration against the British.  He is livid and, over the protestations of Rosalind and her mother, books a passage for her to London.  He plans for his daughter to live with her aunts while getting a good English education.  Free-spirited Rosalind has other ideas.  She sees the whole world as a place to discover.  She wants to learn by getting involved rather than by just sitting on a school bench.  This, or course, gets her into all kinds of trouble, as you can well imagine. In Small Acts of Amazing Courage we read about Rosalind growing up in luxury in an exotic country, exploring bazaars, buying a baby from a beggar to save his life, always letting her heart guide her rather than her head.  It is a beautifully written book.  Review by Trudy Walsh

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Juniper Berry by M.P. Kozlowsky

index.phpJust think: To receive all that you desire, fill one balloon with your breath. This haunting idea is the basis of the mysterious story Juniper Berry: A Tale of Terror and Temptation by M.P. Kozlowsky. You might think at first that 11-year-old Juniper Berry lives a perfect life: she lives in a gorgeous mansion, has rich, beautiful movie-star parents, and everything she could possibly want… everything, that is, except a real loving family. Before Juniper’s parents were famous, they doted on her –she was the best thing in their lives. She dreamed of being a writer and she wrote plays that her parents spent hours acting out for her. But lately her parents have been distant, cold, and even cruel. Though on the outside they look the same, something is changing under the surface. Juniper spends hours in her big mansion using telescopes, magnifying glasses, and all sorts of tools that help her bring the world that seems so far away, right up close to her. She values truth and what lies beneath the surface of things more than anything. When she finally makes a friend in the weak, but gentle, boy named Giles, who lives down the road, they find they share a common bond. Giles’s parents have also been acting strange and cruel. Juniper and Giles are determined to find out why. On a cold and rainy night, Juniper follows her parents as they sneak out of the house and into the woods. What she discovers is a terrifying underworld ruled over by a strange man/creature called Skeksyl. He offers you anything you desire in the world, all bound in a balloon. All you have to do is exchange a balloon filled with your breath and for a balloon filled with Skeksyl’s breath. Once you inhale Skeksyl’s balloon, all the secrets of the world are yours. Juniper and Giles want to save their parents, but they, too, get tempted by this strange man/creature. It seems like such a small price to pay—a balloon of air –for everything you want. In this case Giles wants to be strong and Juniper wants to be loved. What they don’t realize is that piece by piece they are selling their souls for their wildest desires.

Can Juniper see the truth through this temptation? Can she hold strong and save not only her parents and Giles, but the many others who have also wandered down to that dark underworld? This is a haunting tale much like a modern folktale. Right from the start the story of Juniper grabbed me and pulled me into her world, a world where nothing is as it seems. I found the story thoughtful, exciting and very creepy. For a small hint of the kind of creepiness I mean, read the description of Skeksyl: “The man, if he could be called such a thing, stepped closer, slinking his way toward the children, his face still hidden but for a smile that glowed like moonlight. It was all teeth, long, yellowed teeth that stretched his purplish lips wide across his face-a twisted triangle of sneering terror. “I am so glad you came”, he nearly squealed.” You may think you would give up anything to get your greatest desire, but remember, be careful what you wish for! Review by Lizzy Healty

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

words in the dustThe newspapers are filled with headlines of places far away.  Afghanistan, especially, has been in the news this year.  We read mainly about the ongoing war there.  Words in the Dust takes us right into the heart of a family living in the Afghan mountains.  We meet thirteen-year-old Zulaikha, who has to help with the daily chores in the family compound.  Her life is complicated by the fact that she was born with a cleft lip.  When an American soldier notices her disfigured face, he is determined to get medical help for her, and Zulaikha’s life is forever changed.  Words in the Dust is a very intimate story of a young girl growing up in a typical Afghan family.  Zulaikha yearns to read.  Since there is no opportunity for her to go to school, she secretly learns the alphabet by tracing the letters and words in the dust. Books are a wonderful way to travel to different parts of the world.  Here is an exciting book about a very different land and culture. Words in the Dust will quickly draw you in, and you won’t be able to put it down until the last page is turned.  Review by Trudy Walsh

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

closeNow here’s the way to write a book in a folksy way without being irritating! The beginning tells it all: “The last place I thought I’d be when this day began is where I am, which is in a car. Mama’s car to be exact, and she’s driving headstrong through downtown Memphis with an Elvis impersonator on our tail.” 12-year-old Foster tells my favorite kind of story – funny/sad, and there’s plenty to be sad about. After Foster’s dad was killed in Iraq, her mom got mixed up with the wrong kind of guy, the aforementioned Elvis impersonator, in fact, and now they have to run away in the middle of the night. Things get even worse when Foster realizes when they finally stop running that she doesn’t have the pillowcase she keeps her special things in, including her dad’s dogtags. Luckily, Foster has a lot going for her, too. To begin with, she’s an amazing baker who’s determined to become the youngest Food Network star to have their own cooking show. She and her mom are really close, and she seems to make friends wherever she goes. She even makes friends with the aging reclusive movie star Miss Charleena, who is the first person in their new town of Culpepper to realize that Foster can’t read. They strike a bargain: Foster will teach Miss Charleena to cook, and Miss Charleena will teach Foster to read. When her favorite Food Network star, Sonny, is out of commission from a motorcycle accident, Foster (with the help of her new friend Macon, a future filmmaker who just got his first camera phone) sends him a recording of herself doing a special cooking show just for him. By the time Sonny sends her a letter back, she can pretty much read it herself! Review by Stacy Church

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Danger Box by Blue Balliett

dangerThis is the latest book by the author of the wonderful Chasing Vermeer, and it’s sequels.  I didn’t love everything about it (in fact, I almost quit reading during the first chapter because I found it annoyingly vague) but once I got into the real story, it pulled me right in.  First of all, I’m always interested in a book that’s told in the present tense, “I’m pulling the Danger Box out from the back of the toolshed.  Now I’m crouching by the rakes and hoes.  It’s a windy June night, and the shadows from the kitchen light are bumping and chasing.”  And Zoomy is a great character.  He lives with his grandparents, who love him despite his strange habits (incessant finger-tapping and list-making), and medical condition (pathological myopia).  In fact, his grandmother always seems to know what he’s feeling, and how to make him feel better.  It’s a pretty folksy tale, not always a favorite for me, but, for the most part, the author makes it work.  Zoomy’s life is completely changed by two things: his psychopathic father reappears in his life, and he makes his first friend, Lorrol, a girl he keeps running into at the library.  Zoomy’s dad, Buckeye, left behind a wooden box, and when they decide to open it, they find an old journal inside.  Zoomy begs to be allowed to read it, and of course, trying to figure out what it is opens the door for all kinds of discoveries and adventure.  There’s arson, theft, attempted murder…All in all, a good read.  Review by Stacy Church

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond & T. R. Simon

zoraThe jacket flap doesn’t do this book justice. I was expecting some far-fetched story about shape-shifting alligator men, but instead found a beautifully-written coming-of-age story about 2 young black girls growing up in the south around the turn of the century. It’s a little confusing unless you already know when Zora Neale Hurston lived, so I suggest you read the biography at the end of the book first. There’s also a timeline of her life. What a great beginning, too: “It’s funny how you can be in a story but not realize until the end that you were in one.” This story starts with the death of a young black man who thinks he can wrestle an alligator. Zora and Carrie witness the terrible event, and Zora comes out with a story a few days later of seeing a man turn into an alligator. Zora is a natural born storyteller, and whether her stories contain a grain of truth or not, she captivates her audiences. This particular story leads to some almost dire consequences when Zora insists that a local recluse is the half-man, half-gator. There’s another murder, and plenty of action (Carrie almost falls to her death over the side of Blue Sink, the same swimming hole where the first death took place), besides some really terrific writing. I enjoyed everything about this book. Review by Stacy Church

The Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby

clockworkI found book very confusing. I kept expecting it to be fantasy, but it really read like historical fiction set around the turn of the century. The historical detail is wonderful, but nothing about it seemed to be fantasy. Well, maybe the green violin that Guiseppe rescued from the harbor that, when he played it, seemed to bring magic to his music and dance to the feet of everyone listening. There are 3 main characters, and, of course, their lives intersect, and therein lies the charm of the story. They each live with terrible circumstances: Guiseppe is beaten by his padrone (owner), and lives in fear of being locked in the rat cellar if he doesn’t earn enough money; Frederick is haunted by his memories of bad treatment at the orphanage, and tormented by the question of what happened to his mother; and Hannah watches her once active stonemason father waste away from some unknown illness, too ill to work to support his family, and no money for medicine to save him. The whole story sort of hinges around a hidden treasure Hannah overhears her evil employers talking about. She’s determined to find out where it is, even if she has to lose her job to do it. Frederick is trying to build an automaton so he’ll be accepted into the guild with the title of journeyman, and he’s determined to find out what happened to his mother. Guiseppe wants to earn enough money to buy a ticket back to Italy so he can reunite with his brother and sister. They end up helping each other, and providing each other with something none of them have ever had –good friends. Back to the question of the book being fantasy. There is the matter of the piece of clay Hannah steals from the museum with the tag “golem” on it, which, when inserted into the automaton, not only makes it functional, but gives it heart. The only other thing is the green violin, which really does bring magic to Guiseppe’s playing. I’ve heard that some reviewers are referring to this book as being steampunk. I’m not sure about that, but here’s the Wikipedia definition of steampunk: “In general, the category includes any recent science fiction that takes place in a recognizable historical period (sometimes an alternate history version of an actual historical period) where the Industrial Revolution has already begun but electricity is not yet widespread, with an emphasis on steam- or spring-propelled gadgets.” You can decide for yourself if the book fits that classification or not. All in all, it’s a good read, although I found the ending very rushed and the wrap-up of the plot forced. Review by Stacy Church

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A True Princess by Diane Zahler

trueThe author, Diane Zahler, spins a beautiful fairytale with golden threads of magic, adventure, and romance all intertwined. A True Princess is based on H.C. Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea, but contains traces of other folktales and ancient Norse myths also.  Lilia arrives in a basket floating down a millstream, just like the hero in The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs by the Brothers Grimm. The babies in both stories are rescued and adopted by families.  Lilia is very different from the children in her adopted family.  She is not good at performing even the simplest tasks of cooking or cleaning.  She has trouble staying awake to do her chores because she never gets enough sleep on her hard, lumpy farm bed.  When she overhears her foster parents planning to get rid of her, Lilia decides to take charge of her own life.  Something urges her to follow the river to the North Kingdom, where she might have come from.  As Lilia journeys northward, she is joined by her brother and sister and the loyal family dog.  Thus begins their adventure together through the magic Bitra Forest, the realm of the elf-king, who captures them.  How Lilia outwits the elf-king and bravely rescues all the children from his evil spell is a marvelous story. A True Princess is a fairytale filled with adventure, betrayal, and heroic deeds, as a young girl with a brave and loving heart finds her way home.  Review by Trudy Walsh

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Saraswati’s Way by Monika Schroder

saraswatiAkash lives in India.  When his father dies, the family gives him away to work off their debt at the landlord’s quarry.  Life at the quarry is very hard, and the only way Akash survives it is by holding on to his dream: to one day go to a wonderful school in New Delhi.  Since Akash had been a very good student with a gift for math, he plans his escape from the quarry very carefully.  With twelve-year-old Akash we travel through India as he makes his way toward New Delhi.  When he finally arrives, the crowded city overwhelms him.  Will he survive life on the streets among thieves and drug dealers?  With tenacity, Akash clings to his dream and prays to Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge.  In the end, Akash realizes that he has to take charge of his own life and not wait for a god or goddess to rescue and reward him.  Saraswati’s Way is a powerful novel set in modern India.  Monika Schroder describes beautifully what Akash experiences.  The author also tells us, through the enthusiastic voice of young Akash, what reading a book can do for you: “It’s like going to different places without leaving where you are.”  Review by Trudy Walsh

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

smallIt took me a while to start to like this book, but then I really began to appreciate the story, which is a testimony to the resourcefulness and resilience of children who must cope with a parent with mental illness.  11-year-old Jack wakes up in his tent on what is supposed to be the first day of a camping vacation with his mom, only to find that his mom, her tent, and their rental car (with all their provisions in it) are gone.  It’s not the first time that Jack has had to deal with his mother disappearing, so he’s really good at covering up.  He uses the little bit of money he has to buy himself breakfast at the store nearby, and when his new friend Aiden invites him along on a family outing, he fends off Aiden’s mother’s attempts at meeting his mother, and still manages to go along.  As time passes, he starts to freak out, but he’s so afraid of being taken away from his mother and made to live with his grandmother (who his mother has told him terrible stories about) that he can’t bring himself to reach out for help.  Jack is obsessed with elephants –it’s one of the things he and his mother share –and he comforts himself with remembering stories and facts about them.  When all else fails, he decides to try to get to the animal park in York that he was going to visit with his mom, to see the elephant Lydia that lives there. There’s plenty of suspense as Aiden tries to make his way home to Massachusetts, and then to York, Maine, without being intercepted by the police or any of the well-meaning adults he encounters along with way.  Review by Stacy Church

The Star Maker by Laurence Yep

star makerThis is the story of a young boy growing up in the 1950’s in San Francisco.  In those days, Chinese-American families had no choice but to reside in Chinatown if they wanted to live in the city of San Francisco.  One of the good things that Artie discovers about living in Chinatown is that he is surrounded by all of his family.  His aunts, uncles and his grandmother all live close by.  On the holidays they get together and celebrate as one big family.  Since Artie is the youngest, he tries hard to keep up with his older brother and cousin.  They tease him constantly, and, in response, Artie makes up his mind to show off for them.  He boasts that he will get firecrackers for the Chinese New Year.  Good-naturedly, Artie promises to share them.  Cousin Petey promptly announces that Artie has promised firecrackers for everyone for the family’s Chinese New Year celebrations.  Now Artie is in trouble.  He wished he had kept his mouth shut.  Firecrackers are expensive and his family is large.  Is there possibly a way for Artie to get enough money together for firecrackers for himself and everyone else?  How Artie tries different ways to make money and solicits help for his project so that he can keep his promise is a wonderful story.  We meet Artie’s large Chinese family and learn about some of their customs and ways as they celebrate together.  The Star Maker by Laurence Yep transports us back to the early 1950’s in Chinatown in San Francisco where a young boy struggles to grow up and find his place in his large family.  This is a beautifully-written book that introduces us to the Chinese-American culture.  Review by Trudy Walsh

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Mourning Wars by Karen Steinmetz

mourning I found this book pretty heavy going, but I did enjoy the story, I just had to make myself keep going.  The cover is a bit melodramatic, also, with the subtitle: Born a Puritan Raised a Mohawk.  It’s 1704, and in the middle of the night, Eunice and her family are awakened by a band of Mohawk Indians who kill some of them and take the others prisoner.  After a grueling march to Canada, Eunice is adopted into a Mohawk family who love and cherish her.  It’s fascinating to read about what Eunice’s life was like in her Puritan family compared to her new life in the Mohawk family.  Over the next couple of years, the Puritans make some effort to get Eunice back, but the decision is up to her, and she decides to stay with the Mohawks.  She is a remarkably strong and loyal person, so the decision is difficult for her.  Part of my problem with following the story had to do with the names, which are long and sometimes similar, and part of my problem was trying to follow the history and politics of the time. There is a long author’s note at the end that does a lot to clarify things –I recommend that you read that first.  Review by Stacy Church

I, Emma Freke by Elizabeth Atkinson

freke Emma feels like a total misfit at her school, and not just because she’s almost 6 feet tall at the age of 12. Unfortunately, her home life isn’t much better: her mother expects her to spend every afternoon minding the bead shop they own, cook for her grandfather, and take care of most of the household chores while she goes out on dates with a string of unsavory men. Emma doesn’t know anything about her father, or whether she even has any other family. For her birthday, her mom (who she calls by her first name, Donatella) tells her that she doesn’t have to go to school anymore because now she’ll be homeschooled by her grandfather (who spends most of his time snoozing with his fat, old bulldog farting on his lap). What she didn’t tell Emma is that she didn’t make any arrangements with the school, so Emma gets busted for truancy. Out of the blue, a special delivery letter arrives inviting Emma to the Freke family reunion at a campground in Wisconsin, and Donatella wants her to go. Of course, once Emma gets to Wisconsin she finds herself surrounded by people a lot like her. Well, at first they seem a lot like her. With the help of an estranged cousin, Fred, Emma proceeds to shake things up in the Freke family, and, in the end, meets her father. There are some really funny parts to the book (especially the first scene with Ms. Fiddle, the school psychologist, asking Emma to use a clock to rate her own popularity in comparison to the most popular girl at school.

“Um. One minute past twelve?: I said in a tiny voice, because I wasn’t sure if there was a correct answer or if she really had no idea how invisible I was in middle school. “We were not including minutes,” said Ms. Fiddle, arching one eyebrow so high it made that side of her mouth droop. “Just hours.”

There’s a lot about the story that I found too cliched, but it’s still an entertaining read. Review by Stacy Church

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mission Unstoppable: The Genius Files Book #1 by Dan Gutman

missionWhen Coke was born, his parents had already chosen his name (which had nothing to do with the soft drink). Professor McDonald, Coke’s father, had written a book about coal and its influence on the Industrial Revolution. Coke, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is the “residue of coal left after destructive distillation.” Author Dan Gutman encourages the reader to check that fact out on The McDonalds thought that Coke would be a great name for a boy –short and strong sounding. However, when shortly after Coke’s birth, another baby, a girl, is born, the parents are stumped. What to name the twin sister? As a joke, one of the nurses suggests: “Pepsi!” Everyone laughs, but the name sticks, and Coke and Pepsi start their lives together. This is the first book in a new series by the popular author Dan Gutman detailing the exploits of these energetic twins. If you enjoy reading funny books that are full of adventure, then you’ll love this new book Mission Unstoppable. This is a quick read and a page turner. It will keep you at the edge of your seat! Enjoy it and look forward to more adventures with Coke and Pepsi. Review by Trudy Walsh

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sweet Treats & Secret Crushes by Lisa Greenwald

sweetI kept wanting to like this book as a nice, light read, but in the end I really couldn’t.  First of all, the story is told in three voices by best friends Olivia, Kate and Georgia, and there was so little to distinguish the characters of the three girls that I really couldn’t tell which one was talking at any given time.  The idea for the story is cute enough:  3 best friends confined to their big apartment building on a snow day, which happens to fall on Valentine’s Day, ruining each of their secret plans involving the boys they have crushes on.  Georgia’s parents own a Chinese restaurant on the main floor of the building, so the girls spend the day learning how to make fortune cookies (with their own made-up fortunes inside) and going around the building giving them out to the people who live there.  The girls fight, they make up, they fight, they make up.  They meet their crushes, they like them, they don’t like them.  If you’re just looking to pass a little time, this book will do the trick, otherwise there are plenty of other fun books to read instead.  Review by Stacy Church

Season of Secrets by Sally Nicholls

seasonI couldn’t wait to read this new book by the author of one of my favorite books, Ways To Live Forever (see bookbits January 25, 2009).  Things are tough for Molly and her older sister Hannah.  Since their mother died, their father hasn’t been able to take care of them, so they’ve come to live with their grandparents in the tiny apartment over their poky little country store in a small town outside of London.  Their dad comes to see them, but Hannah is so angry she usually drives him away.  She does her best to drive everyone away, including Molly.  There’s not much solace at their new school either, which is so tiny that all ages of kids are together in one room, and there’s only one other girl Molly’s age. I guess Molly has told tales at home before, because when she tries to tell everyone about the man she saw being hunted on the lane on the dark, rainy night Hannah tries to get her to run away from their grandparents’, no one believes her.  Then she sees a statue at the church that looks just like her man, “…face made of stone.  A man.  He’s got big eyes and a long, thick nose.  There are leaves sticking out of his face and his hair.  He looks bright and wild, like an old god or a goblin in a fairy tale.  He doesn’t look like he ought to be allowed in a church.  It’s the hunted man.”  It’s hard to know what’s real in this book, but Hannah does finally see him, too, and another kind of hunt ensues to try to save him.  Later Molly realizes that things aren’t always so clear-cut, when she sees her hunted man become the hunter.  This book is beautifully written, and I love the blurring of realistic fiction with fantasy.  Review by Stacy Church

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

tale darkIf you aren’t yet in fifth grade –DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK!  If you have never read any of the grim “Grimm’s Folk Tales,” maybe you should not read this book.  The author of A Tale Dark & Grimm warns repeatedly that this book is bloody, scary, and not for the faint of heart.  The main characters, Hansel and Gretel, weave in and out of the most gruesome of the Grimm’s folk tales.  Mr. Gidwitz describes unbelievable places and scenes of horror in detail, and warns you continuously that worse is yet to come, while he dares you to read on.  Some of the things that happen to Hansel and Gretel are so gross you know right away that they couldn’t possibly have happened.  Sometimes the author lets you in on the secret that what is happening to Hansel and Gretel is all an illusion, but, is it?  To find out, you have to read this book!  Review by Trudy Walsh

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Truth with a Capital T by Bethany Hegedus

truthTwo things I don’t like about this book:

The cover, which almost kept me from picking it up.

The Little-Known Facts at the beginning of each chapter, which then lead to corny statements from Maebelle about her life as it relates to the little-known fact.

Things I do like about the book:

Great characters, great story, great historical background

The writing is a little clunky, and a little too folksy for my taste, but it’s definitely worth reading.  Maebelle gets to travel to Tweedle, GA (if the cutsey name puts you off, this book is not for you) to spend the summer with her beloved grandparents, newly retired from the country music circuit, while her parents go on a tour to promote their new book.  What she didn’t know is that she has to share them with her newly adopted cousin Isaac.  She takes things out on him a bit (including throwing a dirty, stinky diarrhea diaper into his clothes hamper in the middle of the night), but of course teams up with him to solve the mystery of the locked wing of the family home, which may hide secrets from the slave era. Review by Stacy Church

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan, Drawings by Peter Sis

dreamerI don’t know how I missed this book when it first came out, but when I saw it on Horn Book’s list of Best of 2010, I grabbed it.  Pablo Neruda is one of my favorite poets, so it was fascinating to read this fictionalized account of his childhood.  It’s amazing that so dreamy and introspective a child could withstand the relentless bullying of his father and grow up to be one of the most sensitive poets the world has ever known.




I scarcely knew, by myself, that I existed,

that I’d be able to be, and go on being.

I was afraid of that, of life itself.

I didn’t want to be seen,

I didn’t want my existence to be known.

I became pallid, thin, and absentminded.

I didn’t want to speak so that nobody

would recognize my voice.  I didn’t want

to see so that nobody would see me.

Walking, I pressed myself against the wall

like a shadow slipping away.

Neftali Reyes grew up in the small town of Temuco, Chile.  His father was an important man who completely dominated his family.  Neftali was weak and sickly, and always collecting things –oddly shaped stones, twigs, and even words he liked the sound of, which he wrote on scraps of paper and kept in a drawer.  Neftali’s older brother Rodolfo wanted to be a singer, but their father considered any occupation other than businessman or doctor to be a waste of time.  He forbid Rodolfo to sing, and even though Rodolfo wasn’t able to stand up for himself, he did try to help Neftali pursue his interests and avoid their father’s wrath.  His stepmother and younger sister Laurita provided some much-needed love and affection in Neftali’s life. When his father discovered something Neftali had written and published in the university newspaper, he threw all of the notebooks containing Neftali’s life writings out his bedroom window and then set them on fire. Neftali knew that if he were going to keep writing, he would have to write under another name so his father wouldn’t find out.  So he became Pablo Neruda.  Ryan’s The Dreamer shows how Neftali’s wonder at the natural world, and his reverence for the beauty of the land and creatures of Chile sustain him through a bleak childhood, and save him from despair.  Review by Stacy Church

Winner of the 2011 Pura Belpré Author Award

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben H. Winters

finklemanIt all started with the special project in Mr. Melville’s class.  Everyone liked his special projects –they were always so totally random.  The latest special assignment is to find a mystery (any mystery) and solve it.  Bethesda Fielding knows right away that the mystery she wants to solve is Ms. Finkleman, the music teacher.  Well, not Ms. Finkleman exactly –the mystery of who Ms. Finkleman is outside of Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School.  When Bethesda starts asking questions, she finds out that mousy, non-descript Ms. Finkleman is more mysterious than ever.  No one knows anything about her.  That’s why Bethesda decides she has to snoop in Ms. Finkleman’s desk.  She doesn’t find anything helpful, but there is a scrap of paper with some sort of code on it, so Bethesda takes it home.  As she ponders the possible meaning, something about it seems familiar.  She figures out that the initials stand for titles of songs on an old record of her dad’s, a record of a punk band called Little Miss Mystery and the Red Herrings.  Ms. Finkleman must be Miss Mystery!  Poor Ms. Finkleman, who has always thought of herself as an agouti (a small shy nervous creature, living in habitats with larger creatures who are always trying to eat them), is about to be outed.  This is a hilarious book, with a lot of funny side stories, including the principal’s bets with a rival school’s principal, which always end up with her having to wear something ridiculous like a giant foam sombrero that reads, “Go Grover Cleveland.”  When the principal gets wind that her music teacher is really a rock star, she decides this is her one chance to win a competition against Grover Cleveland –the upcoming Choral Corral.  She blackmails Ms. Finkleman into putting on a rock concert instead of her planned program of traditional English folk ballads, and mayhem ensues.  This book is so well written that I couldn’t stop reading until I finished it!  Review by Stacy Church

Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner

sugar and iceI really enjoyed this new book by the author of another book I liked, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. Snow and Ice tells the story of 7th grader Claire Boucher, who spends her time skating on the frozen pond, teaching skating to younger children and helping her family on their maple farm.  Claire loves skating more than anything, and when a talent scout sees her stellar performance in the annual Maple Show, she’s offered a full scholarship to the summer program at Lake Placid, under the tutelage of an intense Russian skating coach.  She hates competing –the only time she tried, she missed her performance because she was in the bathroom being sick –and she doesn’t think there’s any way her family can manage getting her there, but when her parents find out about the offer, they’re determined to make it happen for her.  What an intense world she finds herself dropped into!  Her own coach has always been encouraging, even when Claire makes mistakes, and she’s never been subjected to mean girls who are willing to sabotage their “friends” so they can shine brighter.  Claire also didn’t realize how much she would have to give up in order to participate in the program, including her beloved coaching job, and (almost) her friendship with her best friend, Natalie, who she never has time for anymore.  This book is a great glimpse into the choices talented kids have to make, whether they’re skaters, soccer players, or musicians. Review by Stacy Church

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

grimmWhat a fantastic idea for a book!  Wouldn’t it be great if you could go to a library and check out Snow White’s stepmother’s magic mirror or the Pied Piper’s pipes?  Elizabeth has no idea what she’s getting herself into when she accepts a job at the New-York Circulating Material Repository, but she can really use something good in her life.  In the opening scene of the book, Elizabeth gives her gym shoes to a homeless woman outside of her school.  Now, I don’t know about you, but this is sort of a fairy tale, and it seems to me that good things happen to people in fairy tales who give away their belongings to help someone less fortunate.  So when the homeless woman gives her what looks like an ordinary number 2 pencil, I was kind of wondering if there would be more to it than that. Soon after starting work at her new job, Elizabeth starts to hear about a special collection called the Grimm Collection, but no one seems to want to talk about it.  And no wonder.  It turns out that everything isn’t on the up and up in the Grimm Collection (which you’ve probably guessed contains magical objects from the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales), and some of Elizabeth’s new friends are part of the problem.  Eventually Elizabeth finds herself in the middle of a complicated situation involving objects that aren’t as magical as they’re supposed to be, and some that have just plain disappeared.  When her coworker Anjali is kidnapped, it’s up to Elizabeth and the other pages to find her and set her free from a magic spell.  There are trips on a magic carpet, tea parties with magically refilling dishes, attacks by a giant menacing bird, and rescues by an equally giant dog.  Review by Stacy Church

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Dear Anjali by Melissa Glenn Haber

anjaliThis is the story of 12-year-old Meredith, whose best friend Anjali died suddenly from encephalitis. At Anjali’s funeral, Meredith is really irritated that people keep talking about what Anjali could have done with her life if she hadn’t died so young, when what they really should be doing is appreciating Anjali for who she was, but of course when she tries to put this into words, it just comes out sounding lame. The story is told in the form of letters that Meredith writes to Anjali, one every day, mostly written on her dad’s old typewriter, because “I really have to bludgeon my fingers to pound out the letters and that seems right because it DOES hurt and it SHOULD hurt to have to write the words…”  Meredith has a funny way of writing, even when she’s sad, and it really seems like she’s talking to her best friend. I like the way Meredith makes phrases she uses into trademarked sayings by typing TM after them: Normal Human Being TM, Expert-EaseTM, Katie “I am a Princess of PerfectionTM” Beals (speaking of her sister).  When invited to go to the movies with her crush, Noah Spivak, and her worst enemy, Wendy Mathinson, Meredith writes, “that’s when I told him I had more intriguing plans like being ripped to shreds by dobermans while having rusty spikes nailed into my head.” I was so happy that Meredith hated Wendy as much at the end of the book as she did at the beginning; she was still just as mean as ever. The story takes an interesting turn when Meredith finds out that Anjali wasn’t honest with her about her feelings for Noah Spivak, who Meredith has had a crush on since 5th grade.  Anjali always told her Noah was out of her league, and then confessed that she liked him, too, but she never told Meredith that she and Noah actually went to a party together (and at Wendy Mathinson’s house, no less!) and even kissed.  Meredith has to somehow reconcile this info with her own growing relationship with Noah.   Review by Stacy Church