Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reader's Advisory, Or What To Get My Niece For Her Birthday

So my niece's 9th birthday was this month, and I usually get my nieces and nephews books since I know they already have way too many toys, the boys don't care about clothes, and the girls (or their mothers) are very picky about clothes. 

This niece is the easiest to shop for, probably because we have very similar tastes in books, and she is a voracious reader, just like her favorite aunt. She is smart, reads above grade level, and her mother isn't too concerned about mature content. She appreciates the classics and has already read several, likes either historical or realistic fiction, and likes spunky female characters, as do many girls her age. She is the poor neglected middle child in a family of five children, and is overshadowed by both older and younger brothers, so I also look for books with characters who are beset with siblings, especially the male variety.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lingren.

Illustrated by Michael Chesworth and
Louis S. Glanzman, 2005. Puffin Books.
160 pages. Ages 8 - 12

The first book I thought of for her was a classic that I loved as a child, Pippi Longstocking by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, first published (in English) in 1950. Since that time, many versions have been published using various translators and illustrators, so there are a few different editions out there with different illustrations and cover art. This is the edition I happened to buy.

Pippi is a very unusual little girl who also happens to be nine years old. She lives alone as her mother is an angel in heaven and her father is "cannibal king" (actually a sailor who is missing at sea), though she has her horse and monkey to keep her company. Pippi is unusually strong and very eccentric due to her very unusual childhood. She has her trademark red pigtails braided so tight they stick out, freckles, and a wardrobe of patched clothes, odd accessories and mis-matched stockings.

She is befriended by her new neighbors, Tommy and Annika, and together they have lots of fun and a few adventures. Pippi lives by her own rules, likes to tell tall tales, and though she sometimes inadvertently makes fools of and frustrates adults, she has a good heart, is never mean, and usually ends up a hero. There are two other full-length books, Pippi Goes On Board and Pippi In The South Seas, as well as some picture books and short stories based on excerpts from the longer books. Pippi Longstocking is a great, fun, silly story full of imagination, perfect for a quick summer read.

Since my niece has already read several classics, and I know her mother is already familiar with those and can get them for her, I wanted to pick something relatively new, in the historical fiction genre that might have a similar "feel" of the classics she's already read. I also wanted the second book to be a little longer and slightly more challenging than Pippi. I had a few ideas of my own, and got some great suggestions from colleagues as well. 

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by
Jacqueline Kelly, 2009. Henry Holt & Co.
352 pages, ages 9-12.
I finally decided on a 2010 Newbery honor book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. This story is set in Texas at the turn of the previous century and tells the story of 11-year old Calpurnia Tate who is struggling with finding her identity as she enters adolescence, and is expected to take on traditional gender roles. To her mother's dismay, she is not very interested in "womanly" activities like cooking, baking, needlework, and housekeeping, but would rather spend her time outdoors, studying nature with her naturalist grandfather.

Over time, Calpurnia develops a close relationship with her grandfather as he nurtures and encourages her scientific exploration and education, giving her a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species and teaching her the scientific method, leading to the possible discovery of a new species. In addition to all this are all the typical issues 11-year old girls deals with, as well as dealing with six brothers.

I chose this book because of the historical setting, and I really liked the whole scientific exploration facet to the story, coming from a background in scientific research myself. I especially appreciated how each chapter begins with a quote from The Origin of Species. I also thought my niece would find some commiseration with Calpurnia since she has even more brothers than my niece. And as a bonus, there is a sequel titled The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate if she really enjoys this story.

She reportedly liked the books I chose for her last time ("Middle Grade Novels I Gave For Christmas"), so hopefully these will be a hit as well!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan

The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo, Book One) by Rick Riordan. May 3, 2016. Disney-Hyperion. 384 pages. Ages 10-13.

The god Apollo has been cast out of Olympus and sent to earth in the form of a 16-year old mortal boy, acne and all, completely stripped of his powers as punishment for his descendant Octavious' role in the gods' recent battle with Gaea.

He finds himself on the streets of New York, and quickly set upon by some street thugs. To his humiliation, he is rescued by a 12-year old girl named Meg, who turns out to be a demigod, and finds himself bound in service to her. He convinces her they must get to the safety of Camp Half-Blood, and they enlist the aid of Percy Jackson.

But once at Camp Half-Blood, they find that strange things have been happening, including the inability to communicate with the outside world, the disappearance of several campers, and the loss of the Oracle of Delphi. Then two of Apollo's children disappear, and he and Meg set out in search of them and the Grove of Dodona, a grove of ancient, prophetic oak trees thought long gone but miraculously regrown in the woods around the camp.

Apollo discovers who the mastermind is behind everything that has been happening, and fights to save the Grove of Dodona, his children, and Camp Half-Blood itself, only to be betrayed by the person he felt the closest to and bound to protect. Now he must follow the prophecy given to him by the Grove of Dodona and set out on a quest to find Meg and stop The Beast.

My Thoughts
This is the first book in Riordan's latest installment of fantasy-adventure series based in Greco-Roman mythology. While the god Apollo is the main character and narrator of this series, Percy Jackson and many of the other characters from the first two series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus, make an appearance as well.

This book started out a little slow and I got a little tired of Apollo's non-stop self-centered self-pitying, but the pace picks up and things get more interesting once they get to Camp Half-Blood and other characters join the story. It was a decent read, but didn't seem quite on par with Riordan's previous books. But I've also read a number of mythology-based novels lately, so I could just be a little burned out on the whole genre. Personally, I think Riordan's last book, The Sword of Summer, was better written with more character and plot development, and more action. 

Obviously I would recommend this to fans of the previous Percy Jackson series, as this is a continuation of that story, or any of Riordan's other mythology-based series. I think readers who enjoy fantasy-adventure in general would probably like this as well, and it's not dependent on reading the prior two series. This book takes a different twist on the usual story of a seemingly normal tween/teen discovering that they have divine or supernatural powers, and instead has a divine entity losing his powers and becoming a seemingly typical teenager, complete with acne and flabby abs.  I think many teens will find Apollo's feelings and experiences as a mortal teen very relatable.

Other Books By This Author
Rick Riordan has written several mythology based series: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus, The Kane Chronicles, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, as well as several companion books, graphic novel versions, and non-fiction mythology books, in addition to some adult fiction.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review of "My Life After Now"

My Life After Now by Jessica Verdi. April 2, 2013. Sourcebooks Fire. 305 pages. Teen and up.

Lucy seems to have everything going for her--a good relationship with her dads, a promising talent for acting, two best friends, a great boyfriend--and dreams of starring on Broadway someday.

Then, it suddenly starts to unravel.  First, she loses the lead in the school play to Elyse, her former nemesis from summer camp.  Then, her biological mother, who has never been part of her life and has substance abuse issues, suddenly shows up again.  Finally, her boyfriend Ty cheats on her with, and leaves her for, Elyse.

Needing to blow of steam and escape her problems, Lucy and her two friends get fake ID's and go to a club in the city.  Once there, they all have too much to drink and Lucy manages to catch the eye of one the band members performing.  The next thing she knows is that she wakes up naked in a stranger's bed the next morning with no memory of what happened.  Ashamed, she sneaks out and makes her way to her friend's house and tries to put the incident behind her.

As time passes, Lucy finds that she actually enjoys the role she was given in the play, and doesn't miss Ty anymore.  She develops a friendship with Evan, another actor she has several scenes with, that blossoms into a romance.  Just when she is feeling good about things again, she suddenly recalls the events of that one night and realizes she had unprotected sex with a stranger, an IV drug user.  What she finds out after that leaves her devastated and scared, and very alone.

My Thoughts
Overall this is a good book, and it brings attention to a serious issue that seems to have been forgotten but not gone.  In another lifetime I worked in HIV research in the early-ish years, right at the time Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive.  Then, there was lots of discussion, publicity, education, and community efforts at prevention of HIV, but in recent years there's been hardly any mention of it and this generation of teens is dangerously uninformed.  So I give lots of kuddos to Jessica Verdi for shining a light on it again, and for including some basic information, as well as discussion questions.

The story is pretty well-paced and believable for the most part; how many times do young women get drunk at bars or parties and do things they wouldn't normally do?  Lucy is a fairly believable character, though her being a performer and having two dads made me want to compare her to Rachel on the TV show "Glee".  I certainly sympathized with her having to deal with so many things going wrong at once, and for having to deal with the serious, life-altering consequences of one lapse in judgment.

I liked that she was responsible enough to get herself tested for STD's after she remembered having unprotected sex.  But there were other things about the story that really bothered me.  First, was Lucy having sex with her ex-boyfriend Ty AFTER she knew she had HIV.  Yes, the risk of female-to-male sexual transmission is very low even without protection, and they did use a condom.  But Ty did not know she had the HIV virus, and she had no right to make that decision for him and potentially put him at risk, no matter how big a douche-bag he was.  And then she hardly felt bad about it, and just wanted to gloss over it like it was nothing.  

Then, when she accidentally got cut at rehearsal and got her blood everywhere, Evan put himself at risk by getting her blood on him. Then on top of that, they put everyone else at risk by covering up her status and not telling anyone or calling 911, instead just telling her friends to clean up the blood.  Yes, Evan told them to wear gloves, use bleach and be careful, but he didn't tell them why.  I wish the author had not had it happen that way, or at least made a strong point of how wrong that was.

I would recommend this book for all teens, as the subject is important, and I think it would be great for a class or book club selection, and would be good to pair with some non-fiction research for a joint Language Arts/Biology project.  It would probably appeal most to teens who like realistic fiction dealing with important issues that are very relevant to all teens.

Other Books By This Author
Jessica Verdi has written two other YA novels, previously reviewed on this blog: The Summer I Wasn't Me and What You Left Behind.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Today At The Desk...

Once again I found myself returning to my roots and shelving in the Children's Department after the most recent page quit after just 4 months. Some people seem to think shelving is beneath them if they are not a page, but I actually like doing it. No, seriously!

Even though my back is very glad I no longer spend 3-4 hours a day shelving and I'm thrilled to get to do storytime and interact more directly with patrons now, I find I miss some things about shelving. First of all, the scientific/mathematical side of my brain enjoys the sorting of things, the order and structure of it all. It is all black and white; everything has it's correct spot, and it's either right or wrong. I've always said shelving is really a mathematical skill, and if you want someone who will shelve accurately, look to hiring people with a math or science background, rather than a literature background. Sorting, classifying, putting things in alphabetical or Dewey decimal order....that's all math.  

Shelving also helps keep me attuned to the collection. I know what books we have and where they are. I can keep up with trends and what is popular, because if I shelve it, that means it was checked out, or at least looked at in the building. New books I may have missed when they first came in have another chance to catch my attention. Also while shelving (or shelf-reading), I come across undiscovered gems that end up making great storytime books. So many picture books come out every year that it is really hard for books that are not by well-known authors to get noticed, and sometimes very good books just simply get over-looked. I love finding these hidden treasures! Oftentimes I find inspiration for my storytime programs or books I want to read while shelving.

Another reason I like doing a bit of shelving from time to time is it keeps me busy and moving. It might seem paradoxical, but nothing is more tiring than a slow day. Days where I don't have a lot of patrons to help seem to drag on forever, leaving me so drained and tired. I always find things to work on: storytime prep and planning, straightening the shelves, filling displays, etc., but it just isn't the same as staying busy interacting with people. Busy days seem to fly by and usually make me feel energized, rather than drained. Having shelving to do keeps me moving and busy, and I still feel like I've been productive, even on a slow day.

So today I happily shelved two carts and some DVD's, helped connect several patrons with the materials they needed, pulled materials for holds and transfer, introduced a patron to our Mango language service, and tracked down the "lost" parent of an unattended child. All-in-all, it was a great afternoon. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

"Booked" by Kwame Alexander

Booked by Kwame Alexander. April 5, 2016. HMH Books for Young Readers. 320 pages. Ages 10-12.

Twelve-year old Nick Hall seems to have things pretty good. Along with his best friend Cody, he dreams of being a soccer star and spends much of his time practicing and playing in tournaments. But soccer isn't his only interest; he also has a crush on April, a girl in his class.

The only minor problems Nick has is his father's insistence that he read and study the dictionary that he wrote, and getting reprimanded at school for constantly daydreaming in class. 

Then, one day Nick is blindsided when his parents announce that they are getting separated and his mother is moving to another state to follow her dream of training horses. From there, things just seem to get worse. Why can't his parents stay together and let his life go back to normal? As Nick struggles with all the disappointments and changes, he finds friendship and support from unexpected sources, including the quirky, former rapper, school librarian.

My Thoughts
Let me preface this by saying I generally don't personally care for "alternative formats," such as books in verse, graphic novels, books without proper punctuation, etc. If I can make myself start reading it, and the writing and story are good enough, I can get past the format. This is one such book. In fact, Kwame Alexander's previous book, The Crossover, was the first book written in verse I actually read (and enjoyed). While I found The Crossover to be more compelling and powerful, Booked is almost as good.

The story is very realistic, with issues that many tweens and young teens can relate to: first crushes, disliking assigned reading, frustration with parental expectations, disappointments, and coping with divorcing parents. Unlike The Crossover, there is less actual sports action in Booked, and the rap rhymes come from an unexpected source:  the school librarian.  As a former teacher and future librarian, it will probably come as no surprise that Mac was my favorite character. 

I LOVED that the author discarded all old-fashioned librarian stereotypes and made Mac cool and quirky, a former rapper with a Grammy to prove it, and able to relate to his students problems, and promote reading all at the same time.  I also liked how Nick's English teacher became an unexpected ally, choosing not to embarrass him and expose his secret crush, even helping him out by bringing April to visit him.  It was also nice seeing so many other great middle-grade and YA books mentioned, and hopefully readers of this book might be inspired to read some of those as well.

The one little thing that bugged me was the implication that Nick's parents HAD to chose between his career (linguistics professor) or her career (horse trainer), as though there were no colleges his dad could work at in Kentucky. As someone who lives smack in the middle of Kentucky horse country, I can assure you we have not one, but *three*, large universities, as well as a handful of private liberal arts colleges, within an hour's drive. While obviously the issues that led to their divorce would be more complicated that this alone, I take issue with the subtle implication that Kentucky has absolutely nothing to offer beyond horse racing. Aside from this, I think the story was very well-written and realistic.

I think most tweens & teens could relate to, and enjoy, this book.  Obviously fans of The Crossover would most likely enjoy this book as well, and fans of sports fiction in general. But I would not limit this only to those who play or enjoy watching sports; I never played sports and don't really enjoy watching most sports, but I still find I really enjoy books and movies that are related to sports. I think this book would be a good choice for some reluctant readers, and for those (like me) who are reluctant to try books written in verse. On the flip side, fans of books written in verse would find this a good transition into sports-related fiction. Though the suggested age range is 10-12, I think that is a bit narrow; I think some younger readers as well as some older readers would still be able to relate to Nick's story and enjoy this book.

Other Books By This Author
Kwame Alexander also wrote 2105 Newbery award winner and Coretta Scott King honor book The Crossover; the YA novel He Said, She Said, books of poetry for teens and adults, and several picture books.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Mythology-Inspired Fiction For Younger Readers

Ten years ago, Rick Riordan's book Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief first hit bookshelves and was followed by the movie version four years later. This led to a surge of interest in mythology and mythology-inspired fiction. 

While many kids have heard about Percy Jackson and are interested in mythological fantasy as a result, there are many younger and/or reluctant readers who are not quite ready for Rick Riordan's books due to content, length, reading level, etc. Here is a list of lighter mythology-inspired series that are less challenging in length and/or reading level for younger readers, or those who prefer a quick and easy read with illustrations. These are listed in approximate order of length, from shortest to longest, but reading levels vary.

Joan Holub now has a series of board books based on the Greek myths called Mini Myths for the youngest of readers. I don't know if toddlers can really be mythology buffs, but their parents and siblings can!  

I think these books would be great for encouraging older siblings to spend time reading with their younger siblings, and a good way for very beginning readers to practice by reading to younger kids. Plus, these books use the myths to help promote things like patience, kindness, sharing, etc.

For those newly independent readers, Joan Holub has also written early reader versions of several myths as part of the Ready-To-Read series. These readers are divided into levels based on vocabulary, sentence length, subject, plot complexity, etc.

I'm not sure how many of these there are, but I have seen the one about the cyclops shown, as well as Pandora and the Trojan Horse, and both level 2 and level 3 books. These leveled readers are often a good place to start for beginning readers since the vocabulary and sentence complexity are controlled, so the reader is less likely to get overwhelmed or frustrated.

Greek Beasts and Heroes is a 12-book series by Lucy Coats that is ideal for newly independent readers. This series are a re-formatting of Coats' original compilation of Greek myths as told through the journey of Atticus in Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Myths.

Each stand-alone book is a re-telling of one of the stories of Greek mythology in an 80 page book; the stories are short and the plots are simplified. There are color illustrations on every spread throughout the books.

Lucy Coats' newest series, Beasts of Olympus, tells the story of Demon (short for Pandemonium), the son of Pan who is summoned to Olympus to be the caretaker of the mythical beasts of the gods, with the promise of immortality. Demon finds his new role very challenging and the series follows his trials and tribulations dealing with mythical creatures and their owners.

The 5th book of the series was just released, with the 6th and final book due to be released in late August of 2016. While the reading level actually isn't lower than the Percy Jackson books, the length is much less intimidating and there are illustrations.

Think you already know the stories of Greek mythology?  Kate McMullan offers a very different version of the Greek myths in her series, Myth-O-Mania; each book is a parody of the original stories, told with a modern setting with Hades as the storyteller.

In Hades' versions, Zeus is portrayed as a liar and an opportunist and Hades is of course portrayed in a much more positive light. The original "hero" of the story is often portrayed as a fool who needs Hades' help completing his task. These stories are humorous with a modern twist, and there are even a few discussion questions at the end.

Beast Quest is a huge series written by many different authors under the publishing name "Adam Blade" about all different kinds of fantastical creatures. There are somewhere around 90 books in total, broken up into several sub-series within the Beast Quest series. 

These stories do not really follow classical mythology, but many of the beasts are inspired by creatures from classical mythology, such as the minotaur in the book shown. These are very short and engaging, and a very good choice for reluctant readers. My own son had no interest in reading at all until he came across this series in 3rd grade, then progressed to Percy Jackson, and now he is a voracious reader as a tween.

The Heroes In Training series by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams tell the stories of the Greek gods and heroes, but with a twist! In these stories, the gods and heroes are ten-year old children, who must discover their true identities and ultimately defeat their Titan enemies led by Cronus.

At this time, there are twelve books in the series, telling the stories of Zeus, Apollo, Ares, Hephaestus, Perseus, and more. These books a fair quick and easy to read, with modern language and a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, with black-and-white illustrations as well. A bit of an irreverent take on the Greek myths that young readers will enjoy.

Holub and Williams also coauthored the Goddess Girls series which, similarly to their Heroes In Training series, re-tells the stories of Greek mythology with a modern, and slightly irreverent, twist. This series follows Athena, Persephone, Aphrodite, and Artemis through their teen years at Mount Olympus Academy, where Zeus is the principal. Various other gods and mortals from Greek mythology and other traditions appear as well. There are currently 20 books in this series, and they get longer as you progress through the series.

The young goddesses face many of the same issues navigating the difficult tween/teen society as kids do today, so this series is very relatable to tween girls and has been very popular at my library.

The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence is an historical fiction series set in ancient Rome. The series features four main characters:  Flavia, a Roman girl; Nubia, an African slave; Jonathan, a Christian Jew; and Lupus, a beggar who is mute. The four of them have adventures and solve mysteries in Rome, Greece, and beyond. There are 17 books in the series as well as several companion books.

While this series is not based on mythology, fans of mythology-based fiction would probably enjoy them because of the setting in the ancient Roman empire.

Thor's Wedding Day by Bruce Coville is the only book I came across for younger readers that is based on Norse mythology. It was inspired by the ancient Norse poem, Thrymskvitha. The giant Thrym has stolen Thor's hammer, leaving the gods vulnerable to attack, and Thor must do whatever it takes to get it back, even dress up as a woman and pose as Thrym's potential bride, and accept assistance from the goat boy.

This story is a hilarious take on Norse mythology with modern language that young readers are sure to enjoy.

For readers who have already read these and are ready for the longer and more complex stories of Percy Jackson and beyond, check out my list of Mythology-Based Fantasy/Adventure Series For Tweens & Teens.