April 7, 2014

Breadcrumbs - by Ann Ursu

Whoa.  This is not your average middle grade fantasy novel, but it is definitely worth reading.

11-year-old Hazel is a pretty normal fifth-grader: Frustrated with her parents, having friendship trouble, and dreading the bus ride to school. That said, she's pretty extraordinary as well, though it takes the other characters and the reader some time to realize it.  Could it be her obsession with fantasy stories, from Harry Potter to The Chronicles of Narnia? Maybe the fact that her lone friend is her next-door neighbor, who happens to be a boy?  Or could it possibly be that when one day her best friend Jack suddenly has an abrupt personality shift and no only stops talking to her, but goes and disappears mysteriously, she is the only one with the courage to go after him?  Yeah, let's go with that one.

The incredible thing about this book is the pacing and the gradual shift from realistic fiction to fantasy.  We begin in the suburban school days of a Midwestern winter, but we end up in a fantastical forest, where anything is possible.  Throughout, it is all Hazel can do, and the reader can hardly believe she pulls it off, to keep her head and follow her heart.

Not your average book at all, and so much the better for that.

Give Me Liberty - by L.M. Elliott

Colonial times were tricky: Where do you throw your loyalty, with the Patriots or the Tories?  For indentured servant  13-year-old Nathaniel, the revolutionary fever in Virginia has thrown his world upside down, and left him wondering not only what is right, but what is possible.

This story follows Nathaniel from his work on a Virginia cotton plantation to Williamsburg, where he finds a new master in kindly school-teacher Basil, whose love of language opens Nathaniel's eyes to a broad range of thinking.  As he works for a Loyalist carriage-maker and befriends a firebrand boy set on rebellion, Nathaniel feels torn. Finding himself in a situation where he must choose between the law and helping an escaped slave, Nathaniel digs deep and finds strength he never knew he had.  Soon war breaks out, and Nathaniel follows Basil to the battle lines, eyewitnesses to an explosive episode in American history.

This thrilling and brainy novel of the Revolutionary era will hold the interest of most readers, especially history buffs and liberty lovers.  There is drama, friendship, sacrifice, warfare, and some excellent flute-playing.  This is a great addition to this classic genre.

February 22, 2014

Codename Zero - by Chris Rylander (Guest Review by Nicholas)

Not much happens in North Dakota. At least that's what they want you to think...

Codename Zero is an awesome book about an average prankster who is pulling a prank involving fainting goats. Curious? Read more to find out.  When suddenly, a sweaty man shows up carrying a package and says, "Don't open it," what do you think our hero, seventh-grader Carson Fender does? He opens it (of course), and he is life changes forever.

Read this book if you like average people becoming powerful.  I give it five stars for its cool hideouts, weird friends, and unlikely heroes.

(Thank you to fifth-grader Nicholas H., who read this in one night and is never far from a stack of books, for this guest review!)

How to Train your Dragon - by Cressida Cowell

I know this book has been out for a while, and has ten more books in the series, but I had forgotten all about it and haven't read it for five years.  My loss! My son and I just finished this book, and it was really wonderful.  I didn't like it five years ago, but have changed my tune.   I can see why it's been so popular, and why it was made into a movie.

This is a funny book, told first-hand by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, the least-heroic Viking in his long-ago village.  He is not only the biggest failure in his tribe, he also happens to be the chief's son.  When the boys are called to climb a cliff to the dragon caves and sneak away with sleeping baby dragons, it figures that Hiccup gets the scrawniest, most toothless of the whole bunch.  Will his luck ever change?  When his stubborn dragon gets Hiccup exiled forever from his village, things are definitely not looking up.

Join Hiccup on a grand adventure right in his own backyard.  This is a wonderful story, full of shouting, dragons, more shouting, more dragons, and some other stuff too.  This book will inspire would-be heroes, and will remind all of us that you just can't judge a book (or a Viking or his dragon) by the cover.

February 17, 2014

Magic Marks the Spot - by Caroline Carlson

Aargh, Matey!  This is a delightful pirate story that is far from normal, and is wonderful for its quirkiness.  Hilary Westfield has always wanted to be a pirate, and is well on her way with her own sword, ability to tread water for well over half an hour, and swashbuckling attitude.  There are two problems:  1) Her father is admiral of the Royal Navy, and has a life mission of ridding the kingdom of pirates, and 2) The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates has rejected her application for piracy on account of her being a girl, and has forwarded it to Ms. Pimm's Finishing School for Delicate Ladies.  Hilary is on her way to the dreaded school when a magical theft turns things upside down, and she must battle stern governesses, magical thieves, treacherous sailors, and rapscallion rogues of all sorts in her quest to solve the mystery of the Queen's missing treasure.

Armed with her trusty sword, and backed by a nervous gargoyle and a mismatched crew of unexpected friends and associates, Hilary sets off to Gunpowder Island, where her fortunes will explode, and she must sink or swim.

This is a witty adventure, full of twists and turns, interesting and surprising characters, and a perfect ending.  Boys and girls alike will enjoy this fantastic book.

Sports Camp - by Rich Wallace

Well, a more appropriate title would be impossible.  This is the story of eleven-year-old Riley, who heads off to a two-week sports camp with 59 strangers, to vie for the Big Joe trophy.  Over the course of those two weeks, Riley learns many lessons, including:

  • everybody has something to contribute
  • training can enhance your natural talents
  • never eat week-old in refrigerated fried chicken
  • legends can't hurt you, but giant snapping turtles can
  • first impressions can be deceiving
  • sometimes cheaters DO prosper
  • but sometimes they don't

This short book is great for kiddos who love sports!  Softball, basketball, water polo, swimming, and archery were all part of the competition, pitting cabin against cabin.  Riley was the smallest in his group of boys from New Jersey, and was hopeless at basketball, but he found ways to contribute in the endurance events, and earn his teammates' respect by working hard and never giving up.

It was an interesting story that built toward a predictable but exciting conclusion, but the very end didn't tie things up quite as neatly as I had hoped.  It was good, but kind of abrupt.   Read this if you enjoy camp, competition, huge turtles, or lousy dining hall food.

February 5, 2014

Phoenix: Out of the Ashes Book 1 - by Jeff Stone

Mountain biking, kung fu, a tough girl with deep secrets, and a very, very old grandfather.  Bring these all together and you've got the story of 14-year-old Phoenix Collins, a mountain-biking teenager with a mission.  Full of action, fighting, cycling, and a bit of history and travel, this exciting book kicks off a new series with a pretty unique version of good guys vs. bad guys.

Jeff Stone wrote the Five Ancestors series, which was seven books about ancient kung fu warrior children who had the adventure of a lifetime as they traveled and fought to save their country and all that they believed in.  It was an excellent series, and this book carries the same story forward 400 years, with a new set of characters.  While you could read this series on its own, I think it will mean more if read after the original series.

The writing is tight, the pacing is exciting, maybe even thrilling, and the detail is exquisite.  However, the talk about cycling, both mountain biking and cyclocross, is overly detailed, and may lose (or win? who knows!) readers in the intended age range.  In this way, it reminded me of Will Hobbs books like Go Big or Go Home, which are good, but very sport-detail-heavy.  Overall, this is an excellent book that I did not want to put down!

January 7, 2014

The Storm Makers - by Jennifer E. Smith

Sometimes books with awesome covers can end up being pretty bad, but this one was as good as it looks.  It feels like a story we've heard before:  A normal boy is minding his own business when a mysterious stranger arrives, and suddenly the boy discovers he has special powers.  The interesting twist here is that the main character is the boy's sister, the super power doesn't really work, and the bad guy seems kind of like a good guy.

The boy in question is 12-year-old Simon, who recently relocated from Chicago to a rural Wisconsin farm with his parents and twin sister Ruby.  A terrible drought is hitting much of the nation, and the big worry is whether the family can make farm life work when nothing will grow.  When Ruby catches a disheveled man sneaking out of their barn one morning, things start to get interesting.  What is Simon's power, and why isn't it functioning correctly?  What is Ruby's role in the story?  Can two kids on a farm save their country from a not-so-natural disaster?

It's an interesting story with good pacing, some fun surprises, and a satisfying ending that hints at, but doesn't require a sequel.  To top it all off, it's beautifully illustrated by Brett Helquist, the master.

December 27, 2013

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict - by Trenton Lee Stewart

I opened this book expecting it to be my new favorite book. Why?  This comes at the end of an amazing series, the Mysterious Benedict Society and its follow-ups, and it focuses on possibly the most intriguing character in those stories, Mr. Benedict himself.   Was I disappointed?  Not a bit.

Although not an action-packed story, this book is nonetheless full of quick wits, realistic adventures,  mystery, reading, problem-solving, courage, and unlikely friendship.  It's got a little of everything, and a bit of something more:  Wonder and Genius. Can you tell I am a big fan of Trenton Lee Stewart?

When you begin this book, you meet young Nicholas, the precocious orphan with a remarkable memory who is just heading to his last-chance home, a very odd and problematic mansion full of mean boys and inattentive caretakers.  Before long, Nicholas puts his impressive mental talents to the challenge of solving a decades-old mystery before his arch-nemesis, and to the ultimate goal of getting himself out of this dead-end life and into a successful path to a rich, orphanage-free future.  Of course, nothing in this poor boy's life is easy, and this task may be his most difficult and hopeless yet.  Or not.

Mr. Stewart's latest book is a wonderful balance of just about everything, and is a must-read for anyone who's read his series, and even those who have not.  Like any of Roald Dahl's best work, this book is a stand-alone, unforgettable novel of an extraordinary boy whose pluck and wits help him make the best out of a troublesome life.  Go read it.


Dangerous Waters - by Gregory Mone

This is not the Titanic story you're expecting, except for one thing:  Not to spoil anything, but THE SHIP SINKS.

What is this story?  It is the tale of young Patrick Waters, an Irish lad whose brother just landed a job as a coal man on the Titanic.  Due to remarkable circumstances, Patrick ends up on the ship as well, and that's where the adventure begins.

Meanwhile, a dangerous man can be found sneaking around London, trying to steal a very valuable book which contains a remarkable secret.  His search leads him onto Titanic, and before you know it, all of our main characters' lives are intertwined.

This is a thought-provoking book, but also an adventurous, fast-paced tale.  Patrick is an Everyman type of hero, and the bad guys are truly bad.  Violence, mystery, a bit of love, and of course... a shipwreck.  What more can you ask for?

One thing you could ask for is a little less fancy language, and more plain-speak.  As in his novel Fish, Mr. Mone can get carried away with his wording, making his books a bit more appropriate (or fully understandable) for teens than for younger middle-grade readers. While I appreciate an author who doesn't "dumb down" his writing, it does take away from his stories, but just a little.  All in all, this is a rousing adventure on the high seas, and I recommend it to anyone who's not afraid of a little iceberg.

November 18, 2013

Flora and Ulysses - by Kate DiCamillo

This is by far, and without any argument, the BEST book I've ever read about a pessimistic girl and her super-hero squirrel.  More than that, it is just a delightful story, full of hope and wonder, ridiculous and laughable characters, and a really obnoxious lamp.  Who would have thought that a squirrel could do such things?  Or that a mother would be capable of such wickedness?  Or that a father would introduce himself quite so often?

Like much of Ms. DiCamillo's work (Tiger Rising, The Tale of Despereaux, or Because of Winn-Dixie, to name a few of her firsts and my favorites), this story is about more than it seems at first.  It is ostensibly the tale of a girl whose parents have split up, leaving her in the uncomfortable middle.  When she meets a special squirrel, it begins a chain of events that change her life forever, bringing several new people and great adventure (relatively speaking) into her life.  Behind the scenes, it's really about family, and what it really means to be a family.  It's about love, beauty, and poetry.  It's about time someone wrote a book like this, and this was the right person for the job.

I should note, the book does have a number of clever illustrations, and the reader gets a good feel for the characters through these drawings. I like the subtitle, "The Illuminated Adventures," as it reminds me of those beautiful hand-colored illuminated bibles of long ago.  The drawings, though wonderful and humorous, are not overpowering, and it is definitely NOT a graphic novel.  It is, however, a book for the ages.

November 2, 2013

Pi in the Sky - by Wendy Mass

When you're reading a story about characters in another dimension, one in which the folks who create and maintain the Universe look like normal people, but can turn their legs into wheels, and in which pie delivery is essential to planet building, you know things are going to get weird.  That's exactly what happens in this surprising, creative, but somewhat strange and disappointing book by Wendy Mass, author of so many good realistic fiction works.  I found myself wishing she had just stuck with excellent stories like The Candymakers, as this one just lost my interest.  It's totally sci-fi, which is not my genre of choice, so please don't be scared off by my so-so review if you like that kind of thing.

The story follows one boy, Joss, seventh son of the Supreme Overlord of the Universe (who likes to hit golf balls out of his office window).  Joss delivers pies, while his brothers and father are responsible for running all aspects of the Universe.  This leaves him somewhat disappointed with his life, but at least he has his best friend Kal.  Until Kal disappears into a previously unknown dimension, that is, and Joss needs to pull out all the stops, with the help of a pushy earthling named Annika (can't tell you how she comes into the story, but she's the best character in the book), to save his friend Kal and a little planet called Earth.

The book really has nothing to do with Pi, just pie.  You could read into the whole planet-making thing with the idea of Pi, but it's a stretch, really just a cute title that the author's publisher came up with.  If you like sci-fi, give it a try.  If you're more of a realistic fiction fan, pick up The Candymakers.

August 22, 2013

Agent Colt Shore: Domino 29 - by Axel Avian

How does a teenage boy end up an international agent fighting to save the world from bad guys?  There are so many books with similar plots on the market now that I didn't expect anything original from this one.  That's where I was wrong.

First-time author Avian blew me away with his character, Colt Shore. This teen enjoys hanging out with his friends and doing normal stuff, but when a mysterious stranger, a slick Bond-like gentleman with a fancy car, shows up in his house one day and announces that they are leaving for Colt's new school, everything changes.  Of course it is a secret school for young members of an international organization that fights bad guys... but it's not for spies.  An "agent" is tasked with supporting the good guys rather than hunting down the baddies, and that's what Colt begins training to do.  A series of surprising events and revelations carry him into places he never expected to go, saving people he never expected to meet, and making choices he never wanted to make.  It is a thrilling adventure, with rock and roll, cool gadgets, and wild stunts.  Yes, even a hint of romance, too.

Best of all, this book is a true original in a genre packed with copycats.  Alex Rider is the king of teen spies, but Colt Shore beats him out in several ways.  Colt is down-to-earth, humble, and does what is needed without thinking of himself.  He is an Everyman hero, a character that you can identify with and that you will cheer for from cover to cover.  I could hardly put this book down, and suspect I'm not the only one.  Despite its psychedelic but somewhat unappealing cover, this book is a keeper.

July 30, 2013

Sidekicked - by John David Anderson

Finally, a superhero book that really gets it right.  This is the story of would-be sidekick Andrew Bean, who would like nothing more than to have his hero pay him some attention, for the girl he likes to stop hanging out with his mortal enemy, and for those pesky villains to stop hanging him over pools of acid.  Sadly, when it seems that things are getting better, they are actually on their way to getting much, much worse.

Through Andrew's view as narrator, we meet an unlikely crew of middle school students who are secretly training to become superhero mascots.  When they are not training in the school's basement, they are trying to live normal lives, which isn't easy.  It becomes even harder when a super-villain long thought dead returns to terrorize their city, and the superheros who are expected to defeat him are not who they seem.

This is a great story, a wonderful take on the superhero genre from an unusual point of view, and an excellent bit of writing.  You don't have to love superheros to admire this super story.

Pieces of Georgia - by Jen Bryant (Guest Review by Georgia M.)

Georgia McCoy's life is falling apart at the seams. For starters, her mother died when she was only seven, and now, to pay the ever increasing bills, her grieving dad must work overtime. Her best friend, Tiffany, is always playing sports with little time for Georgia. Almost to the point that Georgia's best friends are the horses she tends. And, to top it off, Georgia is on the "At Risk" list at school and has to visit the school counselor. Georgia makes a deal with her counselor that instead of visiting the guidance office so often, she can write to her mom in a journal. That is where Georgia's story begins.

Georgia writes to her mom about everything-- like her love of art, all her troubles, and about receiving a mysterious card in the mail for her 13th birthday. The card is a year-long membership to a nearby art museum which she begins to visit often after school. Through the art and her writing she begins to feel like the pieces of her life are coming together.

This wonderful book is full of great twists and turns resulting in IRA Young Adults Choices List 2008 and many more awards.

(Thank you to charming and talented 6th grader Georgia M. for this wonderful review!)

July 22, 2013

Spy School - by Stuart Gibbs

Ben, a 12-year-old boy is invited to go to a secret school for spies.  He doesn't really fit in, but by the end of his first year, he has not only proven that he belongs at the school, but has managed to save the school (and the country) from destruction by the enemy, but has become friends with the school's most beautiful (and talented and deadly) girl.  It sounds like a story I've read time and time again, but the author keeps it interesting with a number of twists and turns and some excellent spy-speak.

There are a lot of references to spy agencies, which may prove distracting for readers who are less familiar with that lingo, but which will appeal to fans of James Bond, Alex Rider, and the like.  This is a nice coming-of-age story with an unlikely hero, and it is a tight plot.  We don't get a lot of background or in-depth character description, but that keeps the book short enough to hold the attention of the boy readers, who are clearly the target audience.  However, the most compelling character is definitely Erica, a ninja-like girl who steals the show, and Ben's heart.
For a book that seems a lot like so many others I've read, this still stands out for its quick pace, surprising outcomes, and good writing.

July 17, 2013

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities - by Mike Jung

It's kind of a weird title, but I figured that a geeky book should probably have a geeky name, so let's go with it.  It really is a geeky book, but in a thrilling and action-packed way.

This is the story of middle school student Vincent Wu and his two best friends, who together form the fourth (and smallest) Captain Stupendous fan club in their city.  In case you didn't know, Captain Stupendous is simply the coolest, most amazing super hero there is, and he happens to save their city from villains on a pretty regular basis.  As the story gets rolling, Vincent's girlfriend (or maybe she would be if he ever got the courage to actually TALK to her!) is kidnapped by a new super-villain, and Captain Stupendous is nowhere to be found.  That's just the beginning, because soon Vincent and his buddies are wrapped up in a stupendous adventure to bring Captain Stupendous back, defeat a giant indestructible robot, and rescue the girl of Vincent's dreams.  How will they do it?  With geeky style, of course.

This is a great super hero book, but it's even better as a book about friendship that deepens through shared adventure.  It has a surprising amount of "girl power," so ladies do not be scared off from this excellent book!  This book is sure to give lots of kids, including brave girls, some great ideas.

June 25, 2013

Hold Fast - by Blue Balliett

Life can be hard for everyone.  However, if your  family is poor, your dad suddenly disappears (and is wanted for questioning by the police you were hoping would find him), and you are suddenly living a desperate life with your mother and little 4-year-old brother in a scuzzy homeless shelter, "hard" takes on a whole new meaning.  Welcome to the life of 11-year-old Early Pearl, a Chicago pre-teen who went from worrying about girly problems like what to wear the next day to solving the mystery of her father's disappearance in the blink of an eye.

This is a mystery, though not your Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown type with clear clues and an easy, logical ending.  When Blue Balliett writes a book, you can expect things to be a bit more complex, and they certainly are in this book.  There are international crime rings, retired English teachers, strangely-accented secretaries, and tiny, valuable, and totally mysterious diamonds to mix things up for the reader.  You'll find yourself solving the mystery right along with Early, and that is the way it should be, because you will be so sucked into the story that you won't want to stop to figure out who the bad guy is.  This is great writing, and a powerful plot, and will leave you wanting more until the (satisfying) end.

Though Mrs. Balliett has a reputation around my school for being a difficult author for upper-elementary kids to read, this is probably her most accessible book, and it deserves a look by those who lost interest after too many obscure art references in the Chasing Vermeer series.  There is a delightful story-within-a-story about Early's brainstorm for helping the homeless children of Chicago find homes, and indeed this story serves the secondary purpose of reminding us that people who are on the streets are not there by choice, and that even the most hardworking, honest, and brave folks may be out of luck with few options.

One last thing: It could be said that this is also a book about American poet Langston Hughes, who shows up throughout as a constant source of inspiration to the Pearl family, and without whose writings the mystery may never have been solved.  What's the rhythm, Langston?  It's high time you read this book and find out.

June 21, 2013

The One and Only Ivan - by Katherine Applegate

What's so great about the great apes, anyway?  Reading this book, you'll figure it out.  Ivan is a gorilla, and this is his story.  You don't get to read many books told from a gorilla's perspective, so don't pass this one up.

It's a sad, but hopeful tale of Ivan and his animal friends, all part of a small curiosity zoo at a random interstate shopping center.  The author drops us right into the middle of the story, where we find plenty of struggle.  The zoo owner struggles to make ends meet, the animals struggle to keep their spirits up, the kind custodian struggles with his conscience as he sees things slipping downhill, but there will be no struggle for this book to hold your attention.  The chapters are very short, and we are truly transported into the mind of a gorilla, for better or worse.

This is a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it.  There's not much action, but plenty of drama.  If you love art, wild animals, friendly mutts, custodians' daughters, or stories that break your heart before they stitch them back together with magic, this is for you.

June 12, 2013

The Odd Squad: Bully Bait - by Michael Fry

One is so tall that her classmates tease her relentlessly.  One is so strange that nobody wants to be near him.  The last is so short that he gets stuffed in his own locker every day. Life is hard for seventh graders Molly, Karl, and Nick, and there seems to be no way out.  When these three oddballs get forced to start a Safety Patrol together by their principal, things seem to be worse than ever.  However, helped by their apparently deranged Shakespeare-quoting school custodian, the three soon learn that working together, they can overcome their fears and actually turn things around.

The story is told by Nick (the shortest seventh grader in the history of the universe, according to himself), and centers around his interactions with Roy, the school bully.  Through the course of this graphic novel, Nick learns more about his tormentor and finds new strength and empathy that he never knew he had to make some really tough decisions that could either save them all, or ruin everything.

As a graphic novel, this is kind of Wimpy-Kiddish, with more of a story line, and more likable characters.  It wasn't an earth-shatteringly wonderful book, but it was funny, well-written and drawn, and touching at parts. I'd recommend it for a fun and easy read to anyone who enjoys graphic novels, school stories, and seeing bullies get what they deserve.

May 27, 2013

H.I.V.E. Book 1 - by Mark Walden

There are all sorts of books out there about how to become a super hero, but how on Earth do you train to become a super VILLAIN?  You go to H.I.V.E., of course.  However, this super-secret Higher Institute of Villainous Education is not only extremely expensive, but nobody seems to have ever heard of it.  When young Otto Malpense is tranquilized and brought to the school, he didn't know what to think.  Why would someone kidnap a poor orphan?  Although he doesn't exactly get an answer to that question, he does learn quite a bit about the school as he and his new classmates begin their six year course of study to become the next generation of criminal masterminds.

Otto is an exceptionally bright and funny boy, and the book is even more exciting by the fact that Otto and three of his friends are planning a grand escape.  The mysteries and action build to an exceptional, and somewhat unexpected climax, when the teens put their plan into action.  The secretive and truly villainous headmaster, Dr. Nero, has his work cut out for him trying to tame Otto. The technology in this book is mind-boggling, and the characters are captivating.  It has elements of many of my favorite books: The Mysterious Benedict Society, Harry Potter, The Girl Who Could Fly, but it is truly its own creation. As this series progresses, I can't wait to see where the author's imagination takes us!

April 20, 2013

A Crooked Kind of Perfect - by Linda Urban

I know, I know... kind of a girly cover.  Well, it's about a girl.  And a boy. And her dad, and a really big organ, and another girl who is really snotty and spoiled, and some more organs, and a piano.  Right.

This is the story of Zoe, a ten-year-old girl who dreams of one thing: Becoming a piano prodigy and playing at Carnegie Hall.  When her agoraphobic dad (he's afraid of leaving the house) buys her a wheeze-bag organ instead, she is sure things can't get any worse.  With her mom spending every spare moment at work, and class tough-guy Wheeler following her home, things get even stranger for Zoe.  How can a normal girl possibly deal with an organ, misguided parents, and this strange new friend?  By finding out that the world can be perfect after all, just in a slightly crooked way.

This is a delightful story about not just dealing with the life you're given, but finding a way to thrive.  Zoe thinks she's just a normal girl surrounded by oddballs, but to the readers, they all become heroes.

One Dead Spy - by Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale is/was one cool dude.  The original Nathan Hale was awesome because he was a spy for General George Washington during the American Revolution, and risked (and lost) his life in the fight for liberty.  The author Nathan Hale is awesome because he wrote a book about a dead guy with the same name as his, and because his illustrations and sense of humor are just outstanding.

This graphic novel is a biography of the short-lived American spy Nathan Hale.  Told by the spy himself to his own executioner (hangman) through a series of flashbacks, this is also a great summary of the first part of the American Revolution and its causes.  It's really a wonderful book for anyone interested in this time period, and a good introduction to early American history and military history for reluctant, or any readers.

This series has two books (#2: Big Bad Ironclad), and I can't wait to see what else the author comes up with. Excellent book!

April 5, 2013

Wildwood - by Colin Meloy

If you're in the mood for a rollicking mystical animal adventure fantasy written by a famous musician about a lost forest paradise near Portland, Oregon, I think we've found the perfect book for you.  This long, well-written story tells of young Prue McKeel, whose life is pretty darn boring until the day her baby brother is carried away by crows.  When she sets out to find him along with her nerdy classmate Curtis, things really get interesting.  They follow the crows to an overgrown woodsy area on the outskirts of town, where they discover talking animals, hidden cities, and all sorts of surprises you would not expect outside of an adventure fantasy novel.

The animals and people in the Wildwood are at war, and as sides form and armies gather, Prue and Curtis must choose their paths and dig deep to find their courage.  Their choices are hard, but the stakes are tremendous.  Will Prue find her brother?  Can the children ever go back home?  Will the Dowager Princess and her coyote minions release the Ivy? (Okay, getting a little ahead of ourselves there...)  There are a lot of interesting plot twists, and the book builds to an exciting and powerful conclusion.

The book is charmingly old-fashioned, from the delightful illustrations (she also illustrated my favorite book, The Mysterious Benedict Society) to the characters' use of old-timey technologies. It's a fun book, and worth checking out! Note: The second book, Under Wildwood, is also available.

March 12, 2013

Forge - by Laurie Halse Anderson

This is a heartbreaking work of historical genius. The sequel to Chains, this is the story of Curzon, an escaped slave who ends up accidentally joining George Washington's revolutionary army.  At first he seeks some way to escape, but before long he begins to appreciate the soldier's life, and to feel part of something larger and more important than himself. When he is identified by his former master, things get tricky, and getting to a happy ending requires not only all of Curzon's wits and talents, but those of his newfound friends as well.

The book is an excellent portrait of life in Washington's army, and paints the conditions of the soldiers in Valley Forge in excruciating detail.  It also raises important questions about slavery, loyalty, and friendship, some of which do not have clear answers.  It is a book about hope, dreams, and glory, but also about suffering, fear, and loss.  It is an impressive and challenging book, and one of my favorites of the year.

You need not read the first book to fully enjoy this one.  In fact, I liked this much more than Chains.

March 10, 2013

The Keys to the Kingdom One: Mister Monday - by Garth Nix

Who would have thought the minute hand from a clock could a) be the perfect weapon, b) cure asthma, and c) help an average teenage boy rescue a magical kingdom from one of seven all-powerful nasty guys.  This book is a bit odd, but is very well-written, fast-paced, and captivating.  Some bits are hard to get used to, like one character named Will, who is actually a small part of a will.  You know, the paper that explains what should happen to your stuff after you're gone.  And that's a main character, so you see what I mean about the oddness.

Strange or not, this first book in The Keys to the Kingdom was amazing and hard to put down.  It was intriguing, mysterious, amazing, and even thrilling.  The levels of fantasy in this book get more extreme as the story moves on, and I can't wait to read the rest of the series.  The bad guys chasing Arthur (our main character) are really bad, and you wonder where the author gets his ideas, or if he, perhaps, is just a little sleep-deprived. Regardless, it makes for a fun read!

March 9, 2013

Icefall - by Matthew J. Kirby

If you were a Viking princess (and I assume you are not), and your father the king was fighting a war and wanted to keep you and your siblings safe, he just might send you to a remote frozen island just like Solveig's dad sent her to.  Two princesses and the crown prince must wait out the winter with a troop of brave but bored soldiers to guard them, and nothing but a glacier to keep them company.

Yes, it's an exciting-looking cover, and when I started reading this story I was a bit disappointed by the lack of action, the slow pace, and the deep character studies.  It turns out I just had to wait a little while, and the action picked up, made all the more thrilling by the information I had learned during those early chapters.

When I say it's thrilling, I should also mention the intense mystery. Someone trapped on the island is a traitor, but nobody can figure out who.  Before long, everyone suspects everyone else, adding to the excitement and suspense.  The end is powerful and unexpected, just as you may suspect from a Viking girl-power historical mystery drama.

Perhaps the best part isn't even the plot, but the author's amazing use of language.  It reads almost like poetry, or perhaps like the tale told by an ancient Viking bard.  This is a great book for anyone who likes storytelling, Vikings, exceptionally brave girls who have been underestimated, and large stinky nordic soldiers.

March 2, 2013

Cosmic - by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Liam is tall for his age.  He's 12, and just wants to be treated like a kid, but he looks so old that waitresses won't even let him see the kids' menu.  The school bus driver won't pick him up, because he thinks he's an adult.  The guy at the Porsche dealership gives him the keys for a test drive, because he think's he's a dad. Well, it's not ALL bad, it seems.

When Liam and his schoolmate Florida decide to act like father and daughter, it turns out to be pretty fun.  The faint mustache Liam has sprouted help them pull it off, and they get into all sorts of mischief, including a trip to China to visit a brand new theme park.  Before long, though, things get a bit out of hand, and Liam is telling his story... from outer space.  Okay, things got REALLY out of hand!

This is a hilarious story of one boy who isn't who everyone wants him to be, but who can't figure out who he really is until it's a bit too late.  If you're a bit tall compared to your peers, this book can be a warning.  For the rest of us, it is just a fun yet thoughtful adventure.

Wonder - by P.J. Palacio

Have you ever felt DIFFERENT?  It's hard, especially when you've just started middle school, you've got no friends, and you're more than just a little unusual.  In fact, when you've got a face like August Pullman's, nothing is easy.

We get this story of August's school experience right from August, as much of the book is told from his point of view.  The reader gets a first-hand view of the bullying, teasing, staring, and every other annoying behavior that August suffers through.  As the story moves along, the viewpoint shifts again and again, and we gain a more complete view of August's world, and that of his friends and family.  We are reminded that nothing is as simple as it seems, but also that the smallest kindness can have the biggest payoff.

This is a horrible story, and a wonderful one.  It will break your heart, and then make you jump up and cheer.  Once you finish this book, you will remember this story, and August and his friends and family, forever.  Please, read this book.

A friend who teaches fifth grade plans to use this book extensively with her students as they prepare for middle school, and I can think of no better training.  Read it and see what why.

Wonder Video - Barnes and Noble

January 29, 2013

Hat Trick - by W. C. Mack (Guest Review)

When you hear the phrase “Hat Trick,” what do you think of?  A hockey player scoring three goals, right? Well, the “Hat Trick” in the book Hat Trick refers to the main character Jonathon McDonald, and his quest to get good scores on three math tests.

Everything was going great in Jonathon’s middle school hockey career, until Eddie moved into town.  Jonathon was nervous that Eddie would take over his spot on the starting lineup, because they both play the same position.  Their rivalry continued into math class. But in math class, their play WASN’T as equal as it was on the hockey rink.

Jonathon struggled in math.  His parents decided that it was time that he needed some help.  To Jonathon’s absolute disgust, that help turned out to be a tutor named Eddie: his rival!  To make things even worse, his parents also decided that if he didn’t do well on the next three tests, he wouldn’t be able to play hockey for the rest of the season.

Now Jonathon needed to learn how to work as hard on his schoolwork as he did at hockey.  He also needed to learn how to turn a rival into a teammate.

Will Jonathon and Eddie get along?  Will Jonathon score a “Hat Trick” in math?  If you want to find out, then skate on over to the library or bookstore to “check” out this book!  I rate this book a 9 out of 10, and would definitely NOT put it in the penalty box. I think this book was a real page-turner!

(Thanks to 4th Grader and hockey player  Tyler K. for this excellent guest review!  Go Tonka!)

January 23, 2013

100 Cupboards Series - by N. D. Wilson

What began as a humdrum series has taken me for a wild ride, from which I may never recover!  I have to admit that 100 Cupboards did not especially impress me.  It turns out that this is one of those series where you just get through the first book to prepare you for the amazing story to follow!  The second and third books wowed me and left me reeling.  There were elements of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and a fantasy tale unfolded that was epic in scope and in imagination.  Through it all, N.D. Wilson keeps things light with his sly humor and humble, down-to-earth hero, Henry.  Is this really the kid who will save the world?

This series follows Henry to a farm in Kansas, and from there through a number of cupboards that he finds in his uncle's farmhouse attic.  Those cupboards lead to different worlds, which provides quite an adventure for Henry and his cousin Henrietta, but also a bit of risk.  In fact, before we know it, chaos strikes, and the fate of the world is in question.

If you like epic adventure fantasy stories, baseball, or Kansas, this is your series.  Don't you dare abandon it if the first book puts you to sleep, just keep going and you'll never regret it!

Eleven Birthdays - by Wendy Mass

Happy birthday! Again.  And again.  And... well, you get the idea. Poor Amanda is all set to celebrate her first birthday apart from her former best-friend Leo, when something a bit unusual happens.  Things repeat.  Everything repeats. What in the world!

This is the lighthearted but deeply touching story of Amanda and Leo, and the world around them that just won't do what they want it to.  We the readers travel back to the moment when it all went wrong for these two friends, and follow them as they try to make it right.  It is a fun story, full of interesting descriptions and funny moments.  The series promises to be fantastic, though the boys may shy away from it because of the covers.  Hey Boys:  Go ahead and read books because they're GOOD, even if they're about girls!

December 17, 2012

All The Wrong Questions: Who Could That Be at This Hour? - by Lemony Snicket

How do you follow up on the huge success of A Series of Unfortunate Events, one of my favorite series?  For Lemony Snicket, you do it with a new series with excellent pictures and a really confusing plot.

Yes, confusing.  There are some interesting characters, most notably a young reporter named Moxie Mallahan, and two (very) young taxi drivers, Pip and Squeak.  The main character is a 13-year-old Lemony Snicket himself, and the plot centers on his apprenticeship with an associate in an unnamed secret association. It's all very mysterious, which is of course the point, but parts of the book will leave you scratching your head.  If you want a good slapstick mystery comedy with a number of unanswered questions, characters with excellent names (the bad guy is named "Hangfire"), and some rich vocabulary, this is your book.

Honestly, I was expecting a bit more from Mr. Snicket.  I'm not sure how young readers will like this book (the one fourth grader I had read it so far rated it 5/10), but I'm guessing that if the series succeeds, it will be due to the author's fame and notoriety from his amazing A Series of Unfortunate Events.  These characters are interesting, but nowhere near as memorable as Count Olaf and the Baudelaire orphans!

Here's the official trailer for the new series.

December 7, 2012

Son - by Lois Lowry

Not at all what I expected.  How many times have I written that, yet it's perfectly true here.  You'd think I'd learn to not expect anything, and to just go with the flow, yet when I read the back of this book, about how a mother goes searching for her son, I definitely did not to read about an adventurous, mystical quest, and an epic battle between good and evil!

This is a powerful book on many levels.  Any parent will relate to it deeply because of the strong parental themes, but any child will be swept up in the mystery and adventure of Claire's quest to regain what once was hers: Her son.  Claire was born in the futuristic and utopian/dystopian village that was the setting of The Giver and its sequels: The Messenger and Gathering Blue.  Unlike these three, this fourth and last book of the series takes its characters on long, fantastical journeys, into new and mysterious lands, and places them in harms way again and again. Although it is a fitting end to the series, you could easily read this book on its own without ever having heard of The Giver.

This is an amazing, surprising, hair-raising, emotionally touching book.  It has elements of the movie Rocky, especially the training scenes as Rocky builds strength to take on that Russian powerhouse.  At the same time, it is reminiscent of the best Harry vs. Voldemort battle scenes in the Harry Potter books.  Yes, there is adventure and action, though sometimes you have to wait for it... wait for it... though it is worth the wait.

Not at all what I expected, but so much better!

September 23, 2012

Jake and Lily - by Jerry Spinelli

Twins!  That is so cool, except when it isn't.  Jake and Lily are no ordinary twins, they have an extra-special connection, and can sense things about each other.  They can't even play hide-and-seek, because they always know where the other is hiding.  You'd think a special connection like that would keep them close forever, but that all changes when Jake finds some new friends, a local gang that takes him away from Lily, and away from the nice, quiet life he knew.  Can Lily find a way to get her brother back?  Can Jake save himself before it's too late?  And where does an old ex-hippy grandfather fit in?  Through chapters told in each character's own voice, you will find a satisfying answer to all of these questions, and will close the book with a smile on your face.

Spinelli's latest is a bit different than his usual books, a bit more... normal.  I like his odd writing style in books such as Stargirl, Wringer, Loser, and Maniac Magee, but there's something nice about this book, as it's easy to read and just plain enjoyable. You'd almost think Sharon Creech wrote it, if you didn't see the cover!  The "Spinelli Factor" comes in with a subplot about bullying, which is a very powerful lesson for both the characters, and the reader.

This is a nice story, but one that touches on some difficult questions about growing up, the friends you make, and the consequences of the choices we make.

August 18, 2012

Ungifted - by Gordon Korman

Special Post:  Not only is this a review for a book that hasn't yet hit the shelves, it is a guest review!  Thanks to my young sixth-grade friend Ryan O. for an excellent write-up of Korman's newest book. 

Are you a kid who pulls pranks and rarely gets caught but then one time you think you’ve gone too far and get sent to another school but still don’t get in trouble? Well then, you sound just like Donovan Curtis from the book Ungifted by Gordon Korman. Ungifted is a story about a middle school boy, Donovan, who accidentally knocks the world of Atlases’ shoulders (Don’t worry, it was just a statue) and sends it tumbling into the glass doors of his school gym!  CRASH! He thinks he’s gone way too far this time and is prepared to be expelled for good from his school.  However, thanks to a small mix-up in paperwork, Donovan gets sent to ASD, The Academy of Scholastic Distinction- a.k.a. School for Gifted & Talented kids.

Donovan thinks that this is the perfect place to hide until the whole Atlas incident is forgotten, but he soon discovers that this “gifted” school is serious about learning. At his old school, Donovan definitely was not “Joe Honor Roll” so all the schoolwork feels ten times harder and if that wasn’t bad enough, some of the kids start to think that Donovan is too dumb to be in their special school. However, Donovan’s unlikely saving grace comes in the form of a robot. You’ll have to read the story to discover the end to this exciting adventure.
I really liked this book for a couple reasons. One was the genre- realistic fiction. Gordon Korman also wrote Schooled and Swindled as well as a few of the 39 Clues books.  Also, I loved the style in which the story was told by almost all of the characters! This helped me understand the story better!

Ungifted was one of the best books I’ve read this summer. I would rate it 9 out of 10 because it wasn’t the best book ever (Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan is still at the top of my list) but it was still an entertaining read for anyone who has ever felt out of place or struggled at school.   

Deadweather and Sunrise: The Adventures of Egg, Book 1 - by Geoff Rodkey

Egg is just your average thirteen-year-old boy, living with his grumpy dad, two violent siblings who hate his guts, a brainless tutor, and a bunch of washed-up pirates on a smelly volcanic island.  His life gets a little more interesting when his family suffers a tragic fate, he meets the love of his life, and her father promptly tries to kill him.  Before long, Egg has uncovered the father's evil plans to... well, to do some nasty stuff, like your typical criminal mastermind.  Good action, great characters, and an ending that leaves us waiting eagerly for the next chronicle.

This is a great new series that will appeal to pirates, children with nasty siblings, and island-lovers.  The rest of you will like it too, as this series has a lot going for it.  Check it out, and see whether you're more of a Deadweather person, or a resident of Sunrise!

July 23, 2012

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat - by Dave Shelton

This story is about what the title says, and not much more.  Well, there's a little more.  There's a very old (and scary) sandwich.  There is a ukulele.  There is also an old comic book in a foreign language.  All of these are important to the story, which is kind of a bad sign.  You see, this story begins with the boy climbing into a small boat and asking the Captain, a bear, to take him to the other side.  Before you know it, they are lost (though the bear will never admit this), and boredom and adventures ensue.  The story really has no beginning or end, it is simply a tale of these two seafaring partners and the ups and downs of their relationship.  Though it's not much of a story, it's really quite a fun tale.

My favorite parts include everything to do with The Last Sandwich, the sea monster bits, and the ukulele.  You will come to love both the bear and the boy, though at times you will want to strangle both.  If you are in the mood for an odd, fun little read that will leave you smiling, but scratching your head, you could do much worse than this.

July 9, 2012

Ghost Knight - by Cornelia Funke

Eleven-year-old Jon is annoyed that his mom has a new boyfriend, "The Beard," even though his dad has been gone for ages.  When his nasty pranks on his mom's mate get too wild, he is sent away to an English boarding school on the grounds of an extremely old and creepy Gothic cathedral.  His sour mood at being sent away does not improve when he discovers that a collection of ancient ghosts want him dead, and all because of something one of his ancestors did.  What would you do if you were alone in a new school, getting chased by bloodthirsy ghosts?  Well, Jon found a girlfriend.

While this is not a love story (it's more of a fast-paced action suspense knights and ghosts and sneaking around doing things you're not supposed to story), Will's relationship with the mysterious and brave Ella not only makes his classmates jealous, but helps him to find the solution to his problem.  Before long, there are ghost battles, searches for long-lost hearts (literally), demon dogs, a guy who shaves his beard and turns out to be someone other than who we thought he was, and some really boring teachers.  It's a magical, mystical gallop through an old English cathedral with a cast of characters you won't soon forget.

Note:  Like all of Ms. Funke's (pronounced FOON-ka) books, this was written in German and translated.  A book about an English boy, written in German, and published in America.  Hey, it works.

June 25, 2012

Smile - by Raina Telgemeier

I've never been a teenage girl.  Not once.  If anyone ever asks me what it's like to be one, I could just shrug.  More likely, though, I'll hand them this book. 

This is a very enjoyable graphic novel, and finally one written mainly for girls!  The author tells the story of her own childhood, from life as a tween with tooth trouble, all the way through high school, with all of the social situations that come along with those years.  The focus of the story may be on Raina's unfortunate dental problems, but the real story is her life itself, and told in this way, it's quite an enjoyable story!

There's drama, romance, athletics, dentists, orthodontists, braces, retainers, headgear, crowns, and stuff like that.  The illustrations are great, some of the tooth stuff kind of gross, but the take-away message positive:  Be yourself, you'll find friends who like you for who you are, just remember to smile.

Fake Mustache - by Tom Angleberger

Fake mustaches are dangerous, at least when they are worn by criminal masterminds (even seventh-grade ones).  That is one lesson you can take away from this book.  Another lesson may be, "Never mess with a cowgirl."  Perhaps you'll come away with this piece of wisdom: Just because you're a slightly nerdy, shorter-than-average seventh grader who has no friends except for a criminal mastermind, that doesn't mean you can't save the world.  In other words, this is a pretty funny book.

I love the way this book is told in the first-person by Lenny Flem, Jr., a slightly-unsure-of-him-self teen with a weird friend and weirder family.  When he discovers his friend Casper's evil plot to use his new fake mustache to become President of the United States, it's up to Lenny to stop him.  Good news: Lenny soon enlists the help of Jodie O'Rodeo, teen TV singing cowgirl star (retired).  Bad news:  Because of a tip from Casper, the entire country believes Lenny is a bank robber, and the authorities are hunting for him.  With a little disguise of his own, Lenny soon hatches a plan, and the race is on.

It's a goofy story, but it's funny, well-written, and worth reading.  It's not going to win the Newbery or anything, but will probably make you snort milk out your nose from laughing so hard.  Warning:  Don't drink milk while reading this book.  Or if you do, keep a towel handy.

June 22, 2012

Copper - by Kazu Kibuishi

If you enjoy Calvin and Hobbes for its humor, wisdom, and the interaction between a boy and his animal, you'll surely enjoy Copper.  This beautifually drawn book of short but poignant comic strips is, in my mind, a masterpiece.  Follow Copper and his dog Fred through all sorts of imaginative journeys.  Fred is nervous and scared, while Copper is curious and ready to explore. These two personalties play off one another perfectly through adventure after adventure.

If you're ready for a more grown-up comic, but still one that's childish and wholly appropriate for all ages, check this out.

June 21, 2012

Dark Life - by Kat Falls

It is the future, and the world has had some problems, and things aren't what they used to be.  Oceans rose, earthquakes toppled cities, and humans live crowded into tall buildings in big cities on the coasts.  The surface of the earth is no longer safe for farming, and humans need to eat, so the government (The Commonwealth) has started a colony of experimental farms on the bottom of the ocean.  This is the story of those colonists and their fight to survive their challenges, including attacks by the notorious Sea Blight Gang.

Our protagonist is 15-year-old Ty, the first boy born undersea, who dreams of having his own sea-bottom farm one day.  Problems occur and Ty realizes that he is going to have to fight if his dream will ever become reality, and his unlikely partner is a Topsider (their term for folks who live on land) named Gemma, a spunky girl with a mission of her own.  These two have a number of adventures, battle their fair share of nasty folks and creatures, and... well, I can't tell you how it ends up, can I?  Trust me that it is worth your time to read their story on your own.

This is a wonderful new series that takes on a new landscape and introduces some fascinating characters, both good and bad, and somewhere in between.  You will love reading about the technology these pioneers use to survive and farm the sea floor, but you'll also find the descriptions of the post-climate-change Earth fascinating.  I liked this book so much that as soon as I finished it, I went out and bought six copies because I know my fourth graders will want to read and discuss it as much as I do.  Do yourself a favor, and get yourself a copy, too.

Magyk: Septimus Heap, Book 1 - by Angie Sage

Harry Potter, watch out.  That's what one of my local librarians said as she shoved this book into my hand, and you know what? She has a point.  Nobody can dethrone the Harry series from top of my list, but this series is fantastic.  It is about a boy, but that is from there it takes a totally different direction than the Potter series, spinning out delightfully different tales in each book, but connecting them all together with the same central characters and setting.  If you love a good fantasy series that sucks you in and leaves you wanting more, here it is.
This is really the story of the Heap family, two poor wizards and their children who live in the "Ramblings", a ramshackle collection of apartments and such inside the castle walls of a kingdom which has been somewhat lost since the queen died a decade earlier.  This is a world of magic (magyk), but one in which wizards must study to gain their skill, and in which wizards are not as respected as they once were.  In this book we encounter a lost (and found) princess, a fashion-conscious Extraordinary Wizard, an ex-soldier called Boy 412, a witty message rat, a white witch who loves boiled cabbage, an extraordinary boat, and so much more.  I can't believe how much good stuff is packed into these pages. 

The funny thing about this book is, you spend the whole time wondering who the heck this Septimus Heap person is, and you don't find out until the very end.  That doesn't take away from anything though, and the author provides plenty of memorable characters, both good and bad.  It is a thrilling series that will have you laughing, cheering, and rushing to the library or bookstore for the next book.

MIddleworld: The Jaguar Stones, Book 1

Max Murphy is like many teen boys, always on the hunt for an even better video game to play.  Little does this boy from Boston know that his own life will soon outdo any video game he could think of.  Max's parents are famous archaeologists, experts on the ancient Maya culture who seem to care more about their research than their own son.  This obviously annoys Max, and when they take off on a last-minute expedition to San Xavier, the tiny Central American country where his father is from, Max couldn't be more miserable. 

This is an adventure novel, so of course things change quickly for Max.  Before he knows it, he has been swept down to San Xavier himself, but not by his parents.  Max suddenly finds himself in a web of family intrigue that takes him by surprise, but even that pales in comparison to his next adventure.  Running into the rain forest in pursuit of thieving monkeys, Max soon teams up with Lola, a teenage Maya girl, and the two of them do no less than save the world from an evil ancient Maya bad guy, and you wouldn't even believe who helps them out if I told you, so I'll let you make that discovery on your own. 

This book is a whirlwind of intense action and suspense, the supernatural, ancient prophesies, a lesson in Maya history, boy vs. girl rivalry, and just plain weird awesomeness.  Odd descriptions, I know, but the book totally surprised me and I'm not sure how best to characterize it.  Written by a husband/wife team, this is the first in what promises to be a thrilling series.

P.S. I know we're used to hearing "Mayan" to describe this culture, but the authors explain that the current accepted word is "Maya."

June 13, 2012

Wonderstruck - by Brian Selznick

Mysteries!  Wolves!  Natural history museums!  Sign language!  Lost family!  New friends!  That's a lot of exclamation marks, but this is a book that deserves it.  Much like the author's previous book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this story is told through both amazing drawings and words, with multiple story lines weaving together until the end, where it all comes together and knocks your socks off.

This is the story of Ben, a young orphan from Minnesota who finds a clue as to his father's identity, and who sets out on an adventure to discover the truth about his past.  It is also the story, told only through pictures, of Rose, a young woman who sets off on a journey of her own to find a mysterious actress in the big city.  These stories take place fifty years apart and seem to have nothing to do with one another, but part of what makes this an amazing book is that each of the stories can't be told without the other.  The end really will leave you, shall we say, wonderstruck!

This is a book not to be missed.  The artwork is incredible, the story thoughtful and well-crafted, and the character memorable.  Brian Selznick has a gift, and trust me, you don't want to be left out.  That said, this is a book that will probably mean more to slightly older readers.  It is a picture book of sorts, but I would recommend it to children from nine to one hundred and nine.

As Simple As It Seems - by Sarah Weeks

Simple?  Not so much.  Fifth grade is hard for everybody, but when Verbena Cole finds out that she is adopted, and that her biological father was a mean drunk, things begin to spiral out of control.  Once sweet and fun, Verbena begins to feel like she's destined for failure, and nothing really matters.  Sad stuff.

But wait!  Along comes a new neighbor, an oddball boy named Pooch who is visiting for the summer with his mother, and things began to get even more complicated.   Fake ghosts, allergy attacks, wild bike rides, and a mysterious boat all play a part in this odd but sweet story, in which Verbena and Pooch take a winding road toward friendship, changing both of their lives forever.

This may sound like a weird story, but it is really heartwarming and will hold your interest, especially if you are a 9-12 year old girl, which seems like the ideal audience.  Remember, though, that if 30-something Mister K enjoys it, you may too, no matter who you are.

April 12, 2012

Boom - by Mark Haddon

This was either a British science fiction story with a very descriptive scene about a flying sandwich, or an English work of realistic fiction, with some funky aliens who look like humans, but with little tails.  Maybe it's the story of a boy and his sister who hate one another's guts until a major event throws them together in a desperate race to save the Earth.  Actually, it is the story of two oddball friends who would do anything to save one another.  This story is so many things, but one thing it is NOT is boring.

The book begins as a realistic mystery when Jimbo and Charlie, two English schoolboys, begin to suspect that their teachers are up to something.  When they bug the staff lounge and overhear two of their teachers speaking in a foreign language, they get even more suspicious.  Before long they are in way over their heads, and not even Jimbo's sister's smelly biker kung-fu boyfriend can keep them safe.  At this point, things take a turn for the sci-fi-tastic, and the story really heats up.

Read this if you want a wild ride on a fun, intelligent, emotional, and strangely alien roller coaster of a story!

Belly Up - by Stuart Gibbs

If I told you this was a book about a grumpy hippo who liked to shoot his poop at zoo guests, would you still read it?  That's only a small part of the story, but it definitely held my interest.  It's also the story of mysterious animal deaths, an amazing zoo, a famous teenage girl, a nasty park security guard, the smell of dead hippo guts, parents who stick up for their son, an escaped deadly black snake, and a really, really rich guy.   Yes, it's an interesting story.

This book was very well-written, and held my interest throughout.  It is a bit funny, kind of like a Carl Hiaasen book (but without any of the swearing).  It's the story of a boy whose parents work at a top-of-the-line Texas zoo, and who is the only kid who has access to all the "behind the scenes" areas.  When he discovers that the death of a famous hippo may not be as innocent as it seems, he is drawn into an investigation that could cost him his life.

Read this if you love animals, but are not too squeamish about a little death and guts.  Also, if you love fast-paced realistic adventures with quirky characters.

April 3, 2012

The Wednesday Wars - by Gary D. Schmidt

This book was so much more enjoyable than I expected!  I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, given how much I liked this author's writing in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.  It's a tale of the 1960's, focusing on the life of one unlucky boy, Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader at Camillo Junior High.  At first we think the story is about his nasty teacher, Mrs. Baker, who tortures him each Wednesday while all the other students in his class go elsewhere for religion class.  She makes him read Shakespeare, for goodness sake!  Soon we dig deeper, the story expands, and it's a fabulous ride.

Dust-covered cream puffs, yellow leotards with feathers on the butt, escaped rats, a cranky and demanding father, and so many more mini-stories fill this book that it's almost hard to keep track.  By the end, the author has woven them all together into a coming-of-age story that speaks to that time in American history, but also to anybody who has been a teenager and lived to tell about it.

Some of the writing is at a high level:Quoting Shakespeare to make inside jokes, digging into the topic of the Vietnam War, but the author pulls it off well, and a discerning reader will have no trouble.  I'd recommend this book to 10-up, to fans of the 60's, people who like to run, and anyone who wants a surprisingly great story to enjoy.