Sunday, December 31, 2017

Review: Invisible Emmie

Invisible Emmie Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another great "middle school angst" graphic novel from a debut author! This one is a little bit different from the others.

First of all, the main character does not somehow stand out as being different from everyone else, nor is she teased, picked on or bullied. Instead, she is ignored. Emmie is very quiet, shy, and introverted. She does not talk to other people or speak up in class, and is perfectly ordinary in almost every way, other than having artistic talent. So no one really notices her, and she feels invisible. Katie, on the other hand, is pretty, popular, and outgoing. These two seem to have nothing in common, until one day something happens that causes their lives to intersect, ultimately helping Emmie to find her voice and become visible.

Not only are the two characters' personalities different, the author presents them in two different illustration styles. The passages about Emmie are more like an illustrated chapter book, written in regular prose paragraphs accompanied by doodles to illustrate, while the parts about Katie are told in traditional panels, comic book-style. The colors for Emmie's pages are soft and muted, while Katie's story is told with bright, vibrant colors, further reflecting the differences in their personalities. (Not being a graphic novel person, I preferred reading the "Emmie" sections, no surprise.)

I really enjoyed this book, and thought it was interesting how the author used a different format and color palette for each characters' perspective while telling the story. I don't want to say too much in a review, but in the end it will even make more sense that Katie's perspective is shown in a more cartoon-y fashion. This is a great story for all those kids who have a hard time finding their voice and often feel insignificant, and I readily identified with Emmie's character. While I wasn't quite as shy and quiet as she was in school, I too often felt ignored and invisible, and to be completely honest, I often still do even as an adult.

Fans of Raina Telgemeier and Victoria Jamieson will love this book as well, and I would also suggest it to fans of the middle grade Dear Dumb Diary, Dork Diaries and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Terri Libenson is the cartoonist for the syndicated comic "The Pajama Diaries". Her second middle-grade graphic novel, Positively Izzy is due out in May, 2018.

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Monday, December 25, 2017

Review: Like Vanessa

Like Vanessa Like Vanessa by Tami Charles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book! I think this is a must-order for any public or middle-school library! Besides being a much-needed book with diverse characters and cultural authenticity, it is a wonderfully rich and multi-faceted story with a positive message about beauty and strength that will have readers reexamining their definitions of beauty and hopefully inspiring them to recognize their own natural beauty. It is due to be released on March 13, 2018; be sure to look for it!

Set in the Newark projects in 1983, 13-year old Vanessa Martin, long-time Miss America pageant fan, is thrilled and inspired to see Vanessa Williams crowned as the first black Miss America (along with Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles, who was also black, as 1st runner-up). Vanessa dreams of one day being on the Miss America stage herself, though she wishes she fit the conventional standards of what is considered beautiful: long, wavy hair; light complexion, slender but curvy body. She sees her hair as too tightly coiled, her skin too dark, and her body too big and shapeless. But, an incredible voice, a school pageant, and a teacher who sees something special in her may come together to give her just the opportunity she needs to pursue her dream, IF she can find the confidence and courage.

While the central theme of this story may be facing fears and reexamining beauty, it includes several other issues that are all inter-related and part of the lives of Vanessa and her family, skillfully woven into the story and adding to it, rather than detracting from it as often happens when authors take on too much. We see the challenges of poverty, threats of gang violence, touching family relationships as well as difficult ones, how families are destroyed by drugs, and the lack of tolerance for those who were different. We also see typical middle school challenges of fitting in, being comfortable in your own skin, changing friendships, and learning how to recognize true friends.

This story has excellent character development, and I immediately fell in love with the characters of Vanessa, Pop Pop, and TJ. While Vanessa's father was a bit of an enigma and a somewhat unsympathetic character at first, I always had the feeling that his withdrawal from the family was the result of something painful and traumatic that had happened, that they were all keeping from Vanessa. I really loved the character of Vanessa's teacher, Mrs. Walton who turned out to be quite different from the well-intentioned but ill-prepared typical white teacher who wanted to "make a difference" but would quickly be overwhelmed and disappear before the end of the semester like so many others as Vanessa first assumed. Some have criticized this character as a "white savior", but I disagree and feel they completely mised the point. She was the child of immigrants and grew up in poverty herself and has a multiracial family. I thought the point of her character was to show that everyone can be guilty of stereotyping people and making mistaken assumptions based on appearances, and it's something we should all be careful of.

This story deals with some serious issues, but in an age-appropriate way that is not too graphic, nor bleak or disturbing. The overall tone is inspiring, challenging, and hopeful, and the story moves along at the perfect pace; never dragging, but never rushed, either. The author includes some historical notes at the end about the Miss America pageant and Vanessa Williams, as well as about her own background growing up in Newark and competing in pageants herself, inspired like the character in the story by Vanessa Williams' success. I always like it when an author includes historical context and background information. I recommend this book for ages 10 through 15, and I think many readers would find the themes relatable; fans of Rita Williams-Garcia's Gaither Sisters Series are sure to enjoy this book as well. I highly recommend it, and would not be surprised to see it as a Coretta Scott King finalist next year, if it can get the attention of the right people.

An impressive debut; I'm eager to see Ms. Charles' upcoming picture book and next middle-grade/YA novel due out in the next year or two.

[I received this as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Due out in March 2018]

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Tucket's Travels: Francis Tucket's Adventures In The West, 1847-1849

Tucket's Travels: Francis Tucket's Adventures In The West, 1847-1849 Tucket's Travels: Francis Tucket's Adventures In The West, 1847-1849 by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is actually a whole 5-book series bound in one volume and tells the complete story of Francis Tucket's adventures in the old west, starting with being kidnapped by Pawnee after straying too far from his family's wagon train. Over the next two years Francis meets a number of different people, some good and some very bad, as he suffers through many dangers and hardships as he works to find his way West and hopefully reunite with his family.

I bought this for my nephew, as he is a generally a reluctant reader, but does enjoy the adventure and survival stories found in many of Paulsen's books. I have to say, from the summaries I thought it sounded like a great story for a kid, but I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed it. I was a bit concerned about how Native Americans would be portrayed, since these books were written before there was much concern for cultural awareness or sensitivity, but I was pleasantly surprised there, too.

While I can't judge how accurate or authentic the portrayals were, I was pleased to see Paulsen did not fall back on stereotypes and the typical tropes. Different tribes were identified by name and were shown to have their own cultures and languages, and they were not portrayed as savages, but merely as people trying to survive and protect what was theirs, with some individuals being kind and friendly while others were hostile. Paulsen also provides notes at the end to give more historical context and correct misperceptions perpetuated by the TV and film industries.

The pace moved along pretty quickly and while it has a happy ending for Francis, there are many hardships and sad circumstances portrayed, as well as some significant violence, including various deaths. An attempted rape is alluded to, but the language used is vague and ambigous, so would go over the head of many young readers. The violence is realistic to the time period, but is not described graphically. Hunting animals for food is also described, as one would expect considering the story and time period.

I would highly recommend this to young readers who are interested in adventure and survival stories, and it is probably one of the few middle-grade Westerns still around; actually the only one I can think of, which makes it unique.

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: Guts: The True Stories behind Hatchet and the Brian Books

Guts: The True Stories behind Hatchet and the Brian Books Guts: The True Stories behind Hatchet and the Brian Books by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Beloved author Gary Paulsen, patron saint of reluctant readers, describes some of his real-life experiences that went into the writing of Hatchet, including witnessing more than one death, plane crashes, encounters with various wildlife, running the Iditerod, and roughing it in the wild. He also gives readers a glimpse into what must have been a difficult childhood, mentioning kind game wardens who looked the other way when he was forced to hunt out of season to feed himself because his drunken parents couldn't provide for him and he was hungry, and several low-paying menial jobs he held as a kid to get by.

This book is a somewhat random compilation of stories, in no particular order, jumping around among various points in Paulsen's life. The writing is not particularly eloquent, but it is gritty and compelling and will have the reader alternately laughing, gripped in suspense, and recoiling in horror (and maybe slightly dubious that one person really experienced all that?). I really liked the quotes from Hatchet sprinkled throughout to remind you of the part of Brian's story that is related to the real-life tale you are about to read.

Readers who were fans of the Brian series, or of tales of hunting and outdoor survival in general, will definitely enjoy reading Paulsen's memoir. I gave it 3 stars from my perspective, but easily 3.5-4 from the perspective of the intended audience.

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Review: Our Only May Amelia

Our Only May Amelia Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

May Amelia lives on a farm in Washington state around the turn of the last century, the only daughter of Finnish immigrants. In fact, she is often referred to as a miracle because she was the first girl born in the whole area that had only seen boys before that. Despite her "miracle" status, May Amelia is often the scapegoat for things that go wrong, simply because she's a girl. May Amelia has a hard time being the only girl in a family with seven brothers, and is often scolded for not being a Proper Young Lady due to her independent and adventurous spirit. Life is not easy for anyone living along the Nasel at that time, as frontier life was fraught with danger and tragedy.

I bought this book for my niece who also suffers being afflicted with too many brothers, based on summaries and recommendations, and decided to read it for myself. I found it an enjoyable read, except for one glaring issue - what in the hell does the author have against quotation marks?? The book was filled with dialogue, and not a single quotation mark to be found throughout. I found this to be distracting and confusing, making it hard to follow the story. I do not understand the purpose of this, and can't fathom why an editor let the book go to publication like that. I do not approve of such stylistic choices at all, but particularly for children's literature, since they are still learning and to see correct usage, not be confused. This is very different from having characters use improper grammer in a realistic way.

This is a charming story that draws the reader into May Amelia's world and will have them sharing her emotions. Her close relationships with her favorite brothers were very sweet and touching, but the brusque way her father treated her, blaming her for things that weren't her fault and complaining about her being a girl was maddening, though that was nothing compared to the constant verbal, emotional, and physical abuse heaped on her by her bitter, sadistic grandmother. I admired how independent and adventurous May Amelia was, not wanting to settle down and be a wife and mother, but desiring to travel the world instead. My favorite line in the whole book made me laugh out loud. May Amelia is getting fitted for a dress, and is accompanied by her friend Emma:

May Amelia - "Get Me Outta These Darn Pins"
Emma, shocked - "May Amelia you curse like a boy. You should mind your language--you'll never get a fella if he hears you talking like that."
May Amelia - "I got seven brothers already, why would I need another boy?"

This story is well paced and a fairly quick and easy read, other than the confusion caused by not using quotation marks. It would surely appeal to any other young girl who is burdened with too many brothers or is independent and adventurous like May Amelia and can relate to fighting others' expectations and gender stereotypes. Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series or The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate would likely enjoy this book as well.

Jennifer Holm has written several middle-grade novels, mostly historical fiction, including Turtle In Paradise, several of which have been award winners or honor books.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: Out of Darkness

Out of Darkness Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was inpired to read this after hearing the author, Ashley Hope Perez, speak at a children's literature conference recently. Ms. Perez was an excellent speaker, and I really enjoyed hearing how her students inspired her to write, and I particularly found the story of the real-life historical catastrophe that provided the inspiration and backdrop for this particular book interesting. But, for someone who seems very energetic and upbeat in person, Ms. Perez certainly writes a very bleak story.

I honestly don't know how to rate this book. I mean, it was very well-written and a compelling read, but the ending was so horrific and bleak and disturbing, I almost hated the book afterward. I ended up giving it 3 stars as a compromise, but if I were to break it down, I would give it 4 stars for quality and 2 stars for whether I liked it and felt I would recommend it. I really *wanted* to like it after enjoying and being impressed by hearing the author speak, but I just don't do well with dark and disturbing.

Ms. Perez does an excellent job developing the characters and making you care about them, (view spoiler) Since the book starts off with the explosion of the school right away, and the racism of the time is obvious, the reader knows the whole time that the ending can't be good, but can't help but to keep reading because the developing relationships between Naomi, the kids, and Wash are so beautiful, despite the constant threat of Henry, the twins' moody and tortured father who seems like could have been a decent person under different circumstances, if he were just a little bit stronger. Though one can feel the tension building for a sad ending, it isn't exactly what you expect, and is perhaps even worse.

To be fair, there is nothing unrealistic about the fictious events, that are in perfect keeping with the racism and attrocities commited in that place and time. It is very sobering and thought-provoking, and I did appreciate the author's note at the end, describing how the story developed from the thoughts and questions that came to her as she learned more about the New London school explosion and surrounding culture and events. However, I honestly don't know who I would recommend this to, unless someone was specifically asking for historical fiction related to racism and related attrocities. The ending is so dark and almost hopeless I don't think it is a book that just anyone could handle, though I do know a few who love anything that is dark, disturbing and depressing. I would not recommend it for younger teens, but for older teens and adults, and only those prepared for how dark and disturbing it really is.

Ashley Hope Perez has written two previous YA novels that have a more contemporary setting, and I'm curious if they are just as dark and depressing, but I'm not sure I'm prepared to find out just yet. Maybe in the springtime when my mood isn't already so dreary...

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Review: Beyond the Bright Sea

Beyond the Bright Sea Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"When I was a baby, someone tucked me into an old boat and pushed me out to sea. I washed up on a tiny island, like a seed riding the tide. It was Osh who found me and took me in....The island where we found each other was small but strong....we didn't need anything else. Not in the beginning....And then, one night when I was twelve....I decided on my own that it was time to find out where I'd come from and why I'd been sent away."

And so Crow introduces us to her story, how she'd mysteriously washed up on the shore of an isolated barrier island off the coast of Massachusets in the early 1920's as a newborn, and found by that island's sole inhabitant, a man she calls Osh. Osh raised her with the help of Miss Maggie, who lives on a neighboring island, and they were content with their unconventional family and simple life in relative isolation. That is, until the day Crow begins to feel the need to know where she came from and why she was put adrift in the sea, and is drawn to nearby island, formerly a leper's colony, in search of answers. Her search sets off a series of events and an adventure she could never have anticipated.

This is a beautiful story that explores the meaning of love and family and the joys of a simple life, but also includes mystery, adventure, and pirate's treasure; told in a poetic, lyrical 1st person narrative. The voice is so calm and the pace unhurried, that it at first seems deceptively simple, but as the author skillfully weaves the story, it becomes more complex and turns from a touching story of a lost soul finding an abandoned baby who helps him regain his humanity to a mystery ending in a treasure hunt. We also get a glimpse of the fierce independence and self-sufficiency of those living on the islands. Crow's character is well-developed, but we really only see a part of who Osh is, as he is very private about his identity and past, though he alludes to leaving his old life to avoid persecution and conflict and that it is just too painful to think or talk about, rather than being a secret.

The author's notes at the end tell a little bit about what inspired her to write this story, and some of the real history of the Elizabeth Islands.

Lauren Wolk is also the author of Wolf Hollow, which was a 2017 Newbery honor book. Personally, I enjoyed Beyond the Bright Sea much more. It's hard to say if it's actually better, or if I just preferred the more hopeful mood and sense of adventure, whereas Wolf Hollow was much darker with a rather bleak ending. I think this book may possibly get a Newbery nod as well, but then again, the awards committees and I never seem to be on the same wavelength. I would recommend this book to readers who like a little bit of everything in their stories, and who appreciate characters taking an emotional journey of self-discovery, as well as going on actual journeys of adventure. Readers who, like me, enjoyed Wolf Hollow but felt cheated by the ending, will find this book much more satisfying.

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Review: Before I Let Go

Before I Let Go Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just two weeks before Corey is due to go back to her tiny, remote hometown to visit her best friend Kyra, she receives the devastating news that Kyra is dead. Corey immediately flies home to see Kyra's family and attend the funeral, but finds she is now treated like an outsider. Corey cannot accept that Kyra's death was a suicide, and the more she looks into the last several months of Kyra's life, the more sinister things seem. Will Corey find the truth, or will the town of Lost hold on to it's secrets forever?

First let me first say it is difficult to give this book a fair rating and review because it is definitely not my cup of tea. I guess I would classify it as magical realism crossed with psychological thriller; it is very dark and creepy, with strong sinister overtones and a touch of paranormal. It does draw the reader in, even as much as I knew it was not my kind of book, I wanted to know what really happened to Kyra, and whether Corey made it out of Lost alive. Overall, the writing was pretty good, the characters were pretty well-developed and it was well-paced. The one thing that seemed odd is that while most of the book is told in a first-person narrative by Corey, there are a few short passages that are told instead in third person, by a detached narrator, which made it very disjointed and confusing.

I would not recommend this book to someone who likes lighter reads, realistic fiction, or lots of action. However, I would suggest it for those who like magical realism, psychological thrillers, and stories that are dark and disturbing.

This is Marieke Nijkamp's second YA novel; her first This Is Where It Ends was published in 2016. Before I let Go is due to be released in early January, 2018.

[I received a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

When Dimple Met Rishi When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dimple struggles to get her mother to understand and accept that she wants more out of life than to just find the Ideal Indian Husband, get married, and have babies. When her parents agree to her request to go to a summer program in web design, she thinks they have finally accepted that she is more interested in a career than marriage. But, unbeknownst to Dimple, her parents have already arranged her betrothal to Rishi, the son of another well-respected Indian family they know, and the two families have arranged for Rishi to attend the same summer program. Rishi knows all about the arrangement, while Dimple does not, which leads to a rocky first meeting.

This book is a fairly typical YA romance, and has a number of things going for it. It is well-written, the characters are well-developed and likeable, it features a strong, independent female character going into a male-dominated field, shows healthy relationships, features characters of an under-represented culture, and is written by an author from that culture. While I did enjoy reading it, I felt is was a bit predictable: girl struggles against parents' "old world" values, the requisite "meet-cute" and girl ends up falling for the very guy she did not want to like, and for that I would knock it down to a 3.75 stars.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a lighter, fairly tame, YA romance. While there is one sex scene, it is not described in graphic detail, and there is no drug use and the main characters do not drink, though there is one reference to minor characters being drunk. While the characters are Indian and some references to Indian clothing, foods, and customs are mentioned, this is certainly a book anyone would enjoy if they typcially enjoy romance. If you like this book, and would be interested in something similar, but a little grittier and more serious, keep your eyes out for Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, due out in January.

This appears to be Sandhya Menon's first published book, with a second, From Twinkle, With Love, due out in 2018, and a sequel to this one following Rishi's brother, When Ashish Met Sweetie, due out in 2019. It seems as though the author has a penchant for female characters with overly cutesy names, which is a bit of turn-off to me, and while I enjoyed this book, the similarities in titles makes me wonder if the writing in the next two will be too formulaic and predictable.

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review: The War I Finally Won

The War I Finally Won The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved the book that preceeded this one, The War That Saved My Life, but I was a little ambivalent about a sequel as they so often fail to live up to expectations. I am happy to report that was not the case this time, and I loved this book every bit as much as the first one.

The story picks up right where the first one left off, with Susan having guardianship of Ada and her younger brother Jaime, saving them from their abusive mother. Ada finally has surgery to correct her clubbed foot, and is now able to walk without crutches, and even run! While in the hospital for surgery, they receive word that Ada and Jaimie's biological mother has been killed in the latest blitzkrieg.

Ada's feelings about her mother's death are very complicated, ranging from numbness and indifference, to relief that her mother can't hurt them anymore, to fear of how that changes their situation. In this story Ada continues her struggle to learn how to love and be loved, and how to stop feeling afraid and trust others. There are many changes as the war progresses, resulting in Susan, Ada, and Jaimie sharing a cottage with Lady Thornton (and at times the rest of the Thorntons), and a young Jewish girl whose family managed to escape from Germany. We see much more of the war in the this story, and the horrible toll it took on the community.

This is a beautiful story about opening up and learning to love and to trust, and of people helping and supporting each other to get through even the most difficult circumstances. While the message is overall uplifting, there are definitely some parts that might cause some tears. I would recommend this obviously to those who read the first book, and I would recommend both books to those who like stories about overcoming difficult challenges, and complex feelings and relationships.

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Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz

The Librarian of Auschwitz The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In short, a very powerful, multi-faceted story that I highly recommend for teens and adults.

This is a fictionalized account of real people and events during the Holocaust, primarily set at Auschwitz. While the last names have been changed, the characters are very closely based on real people and the story follows the known facts, with a little fiction to fill in the gaps and make the story more real and personal. While there are a few side-stories, the main story follows Dita, a young teenager in Auschwitz who is recruited by Fredy Hirsch to be the librarian for the illegal school he has started for the children under the guise of simple child care that he has somehow managed to convince the Germans to allow (their ulterior motives are revealed much later in the story). Amazingly, the prisoners have managed to smuggle in and keep hidden 8 books, and Dita is placed in charge of maintaining them, supervising and coordinating their use, and keeping them safely hidden from the Germans. This is a job she does with commitment and dedication, even though it places her at great personal risk.

This is an amazing story that encompasses several themes. No matter how many stories about the Holocaust I read or hear, I will never stop being shocked at the horror, cruelty, and depravity that went on during that period. This book clearly depicts that, yet it also shows some glimpses of "normal" life that went on even amidst the horror, such as the eternal conflict between teenagers who think they are ready to be adults and their parents who want them to stay children just a little bit longer, friendships, gossip, and even love blooming between young couples, daring to dream of a future even while facing almost certain death. But most of all, it shows the determination to maintain dignity and fight to survive, despite the horror, and the risks Dita and others were willing to take to give the children a distraction, some sense of normalcy, and even a little happiness, even if it was for a short time.

There is a quote at the beginning of the book that really resonated with me, and it really sets the tone for the whole story:
"Throughout history, all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology—whether Aryan, black, Asian, Arab, Slav, or any other racial background; whether defenders of popular revolutions, or the privileges of the upper classes, or God’s mandate, or martial law— have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think."
Even though this is something I already knew, at that moment I found it very moving and profound. I found the idea that Jewish prisoners could have smuggled and hidden not one but several books a romantic notion and thought it was just a device for a good story, not realizing at first this was based on real people and events, and now I find it truly amazing they were able to do what they did, and can't help wondering whatever happened to those books after the camp was dissolved with no opportunity to smuggle them out. It would be amazing if they could be recovered and put in a museum.

As an almost-librarian and former educator I could readily identify with the desire to retain and protect as many books and as much knowledge as possible, even at great personal risk, and I particularly appreciated the descriptions of Dita lovingly caring for and painstakingly repairing the books, and recognizing that there was value in a seemingly silly and frivolous novel. I also found the idea of the "living books" very intriguing. At first, it made me think of a recent library trend of literally checking out real people (though in that instance it is primarily to learn about other cultures and experiences, rather than for storytelling), but then I realized it was really a return to the original oral storytelling tradition that pre-dates the written word and shows how both are important for the longevity and preservation of stories and information.

For those who might be concerned this book may be too depressing or too much of a tear-jerker, I did not find that to be the case. While it does depict horrific and tragic events, the story is told in a more matter-of-fact way and not in an overly emotional way. Yes, it is shocking and horrifying and sad, but it is also defiant and hopeful and inspiring. While I did get a little teary at times, overall I was left with a feeling of admiration for the strength and determination of the characters and real people that inspired them.

My only criticism of this book is that at times the writing shifts back and forth from a beautiful, almost lyrical style, to a dry, straightforward reciting of events typical of a history book or biography. I realized later this was likely due to the book being based on real people and events, and trying to stick as closely to the known facts as possible and do justice to all of the people the characters are based on by filling in their stories without detracting from Dita's. While there were only a few passages where this transition was a bit jarring, I do wish a little more editing and re-writing had been done to make it flow a little more seamlessly.

This book is a little hard to place definitively into a specific genre because while it is technically fiction, it very closely follows the known facts, and I think was only fictionalized in order to fill in the gaps and make it easier for the reader to relate to the "characters" on a personal, human level and see what some of them were thinking and feeling, rather than viewing them in a detached way as historical figures.

While marketed as a YA book, I really think it will be a YA/Adult crossover with many adults reading it (and I would probably put a copy in the adult fiction section as well). I would recommend this book to fans of The Book Thief as well as dystopian themes related to censorship such as Fahrenheit 451, and anyone who is interested in historical fiction, non-fiction, or biographies related to Auschwitz specifically, or the Holocaust, WWI, or Jewish history in general, or to those who appreciate good stories about the fight for survival or to preserve knowledge and culture.

There are so many different perspectives from which to view this story, it really could appeal to a wide audience, and I predict it will be on many classroom reading lists, and a likely candidate for the Mildred L. Batchelder Award for outstanding youth literature originally published in another country.

[I received this book as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Review: Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life

Review of Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Tougas Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charlotte and her siblings, twin brother Freddy and younger sister Rose, have lived a rather nomadic life, subject to their mother's next whim or troubles. Charlotte doesn't even bother trying to make friends anymore, knowing that she will soon be uprooted and have to move someplace new; she and Freddy have each other and don't need anyone else, and Rose easily makes friends anywhere she goes. Their mother's latest whim has taken them to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where she believes the spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder will inspire her to write a book. But this move turns out differently, as Freddy suddenly makes new friends and Charlotte feels abandoned, betrayed, and angry at everyone, especially Laura Ingalls!

Naturally the title of this book caught my attention, having read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books and grown up with Melissa Gilbert's portrayal of Laura on the television series, but I really didn't know what to expect. Despite some of the other lukewarm reviews, I really enjoyed this book, and I think many tweens could relate to some of Charlotte's angst. In my opinion, the story was well-paced and the characters were generally well-developed (if I had one small criticism it would be that Rose's voice often seemed a bit too mature for the age of the character).

I felt a great deal of empathy for Charlotte, having no stability in her life and always being subjected to her mother's whims, or skipping town to avoid debts or difficult situations, and the hopelessness she expressed when explaining how there was no point in making friends or being invested in school because she knew they would soon be on the move again was heartbreaking. Even more so was her unfairly being accused of a crime after she had finely started to open up, make friends, and like living there. This story deals with many facets of tween angst: being the new kid, fitting in, making and maintaining friendships, relationships with siblings, difficult relationships with parents, and having a single parent who, while loving, is often self-centered and selfish.

I found myself frequently angry with Charlotte's mother, at how flaky, irresponsible and selfish she was, refusing to seriously consider how her decisions and lifestyle affected her children, preferring to gloss over everything with pollyannic platitudes. She clearly loved her children, but was too immature and self-centered to see how much she was hurting them. However, I loved the character of Charlotte's teacher, Mrs.. Newman, and how she turned out to be far from the meanie that Charlotte initially judged her to be, and even risked her job to stand up for Charlotte and protect her rights, in addition to nurturing her intellect and helping her to open up.

I found this story to be richer and deeper than many middle-grade books that often feel superficial and simplistic; it has some serious emotional upheaval and drama, but without being too dark. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction with a little family drama and complex relationships, and those who might also have dealt with moving frequently, being the new kid and having trouble fitting in and making friends, and parents who don't always consider their needs. I think this could be a good book choice for a tween book club as well, and I like how it ties into a classic series that most people know. Some would also be happy to know that it also brings up the mistreatment of Native Americans, and some of the racist comments made by Laura and characters in her books.

Shelley Tougas has written several other middle-grade books, both fiction and non-fiction, including Finders Keepers and Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration.

[I received this book as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Review of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Julia Reyes feels like no one in the world understands her, and is caught between her mother's repressive, traditional Mexican expectations of her to be submissive, spend her time cooking and cleaning, and living with her parents until she marries someone appropriate, and her own desires to be independant and make her own decisions. She dreams of going to college far away and becoming a writer. She will never measure up to the memory of her sister Olga, recently killed in a tragic accident, who in her parents' eyes was the "perfect Mexican daughter". But, as Julia struggles to make her parents understand her need for independence and privacy, she discovers that Olga was not the perfect daughter everyone thought she was.

I've seen this book compared to "Gabi: A Girl In Pieces" and in many ways it is similar. Gabi and Julia are both struggling against their mothers' rigid, traditional gender roles and expecctations, and desire to go away to college and make their own choices in life. They both experience tragic deaths in their families and have friends going through the dramas of teen pregnancy (or the possibility of) and not being accepted by their families because of sexual orientation. Food is also prevalent in both stories, and both express their feelings through their writing.

However, while Gabi seems to be fairly well-adjusted and deals with her issues with humor and confidence, Julia's story is much darker and more melancholy. Julia feels overwhelmed, and trapped in a life she doesn't want, and feels powerless to get out. Her depression and anxiety become more severe after her sister's death, until she can no longer cope. While I would have to say I enjoyed the lighter tone of Gabi's story more, this book is very powerful and could possibly help others who may be dealing with depression and anxiety as well. I think this book does a lot to help de-stigmatize mental illness, and illustrates how a combination of medication and therapy can help. The secondary story of Julia's sister Olga also adds an additional element of mystery to the story.

While the Mexican culture and immigration issues do play a significant part in this story, I think most people can relate to the struggle between others' expecations of them and what they want for themselves to some degree, and many people can relate to the feelings of frustration and despair that Julia has, so it certainly should have appeal to a wide audience.

Recommended for teens and adults.

[I received this as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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Review: Warcross

Review of Warcross by Marie Lu Warcross by Marie Lu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emika Chen unexpectedly finds herself in the middle of the world's biggest gaming event, working undercover for the game's developer to stop a hacker, which proves to be bigger and more dangerous than she ever imagined.

When I first read the summary for this book it sounded a little like Earnest Cline's Ready Player One, but without the cool '80s pop-culture references, and I suppose it is. They both take place within the context of a worldwide game everyone plays and feature lone teenagers just trying to survive eventually learning to trust and work with others, and involve intrigue, danger, and romance. But there are two key differences: in Warcross the emphasis is on hacking rather than gaming, and there is no great quest for a huge reward at the end, but rather a worldwide team championship and a reward for catching a hacker. And no cool pop-culture references.

The pacing seemed just a little bit off, as the beginning of the story seemed to go on and on, and then the middle ans the "end" seemed a bit rushed. While Emika's character was fairly well developed, I would have preferred more development of some of the other characters and more depth in her relationships with her Warcross teammates. I was also frustrated by the lack of an ending and wish I had known this was going to be a duology before I started reading it. I did not find this book as good or enjoyable as the aforementioned Ready Player One, but RPO was written for my demographic while Warcross was not.

However, I do think many teens and tweens would enjoy this book, particularly fans of Lu's previous books and those interested in gaming, hacking, adventure, and intrigue. An understanding of coding or hacking is not needed to follow the story as no details are given, only vague references, which makes the story more readily accessible to a wider audience, but may be frustrating or annoying to those who do have an advanced understanding of coding. Those who would prefer more details relating to the hacks and code should check out Cory Doctorow's books.

The release date and title of the sequel are currently uncertain, but possibly by the end of 2018 and a speculative title of "Darkcross" has been mentioned on Goodreads.

Marie Lu has written several other YA sci-fi and speculative fiction books, including the very popular Legend series.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Review: The Pants Project

Review of The Pants Project by Cat Clarke The Pants Project by Cat Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Olivia, who prefers to be called "Liv", is starting a new school that is known as the best in the district. However, it also has the most restrictive dress code in the district, one that requires girls to wear skirts. Liv likes the school, but hates the dress code. Liv hates wearing skirts and tights, and not only feels uncomfortable personally, but finds the whole thing impractical and sexist. But Liv is not a simply a girl who doesn't like skirts; inside Liv feels that he is really a boy. Can Liv convince the school to change the dress code, and find the courage to tell his family who he really is?

This book has a lot going on, and takes on many different, though related, issues: sexist dress codes, same sex parents, tween angst as friendships change, keeping secrets, bullying as Liv is bullied for both having two moms and for being different, and being transgender. I personally find it a little off-putting when an author tries to incorporate every topical issue into one story, but they all come together fairly well in this one.

I enjoyed the Liv's character, and how most of the time Liv was fairly mature and level-headed, using humor to deal with things, but prone to outbursts of rage when things were just too much. While I loved the character of Jacob and the friendship that developed between him and Liv, I also found him a little too good to be true. Readers will be pulling for Liv in the fight against the dress code, and love the humorous-but-effective way Liv and his friends protest it.

This book is very age appropriate, and while some might feel it is overly simplistic, I think that's appropriate for the intended audience. I also like that the tone is very matter-of-fact and it is not "dark and twisty" as YA books tend to be. I think this could good book both for tween kids who may be transgender, as well as for those who are not, to help them develop empathy and understanding. This book would certainly appeal to those fighting against school dress codes, which has been a big issue in my school district, as well as many others. I cannot speak to the authenticity of the portrayal of a trans child, and will leave that to those who can.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Review: All's Faire in Middle School

Review of All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imogene has grown up with a rather unconventional lifestyle. Her parents are part of the local Renaissance Faire; her mother has a shop to sell her crafts, her father performs as a knight in the jousting match, and this year Imogene is finally going to be allowed to start playing the role of squire. But that's not the only change in Imogene's life. This year, after being homeschooled all her life, she is going to start middle school, and middle school is definitely a place where you don't want to be different.

Imogene struggles to learn the rules in this strange new environment, and finds herself a bit lost. Her attempts to fit in backfire, and she ends up hurting a friend, as well as her little brother, as things spiral out of control. Will her family and friends ever forgive her? And will she ever find her place in this strange new world called middle school?

I really liked Jamieson's previous book, Roller Girl, but I think I liked this one even more. They are both excellent books that deal with angst of tweendom, but I think I related to Imogene's experience a little more. Not that I grew up in a Renaissance Faire, but I do know what it's like growing up poor, not having the "right" brands of clothes and shoes, and having trouble fitting in and feeling like an outsider. Jamieson captures those feelings perfectly. While cliques and snobs abound even in adulthood, nothing is quite as bad as middle school.

As I have mentioned before, while I recognize the value of graphic novels, they really aren't my thing and I don't read them very often. But if one is really well done, I can get past the format and really enjoy them, and this is definitely one of those. I think any middle-schooler could relate to this story, and I would recommend it to any of them, but especially those who like graphic novels, or are open to trying them. I wish more parents and teachers would recognize the value of graphic novels and not discourage kids from reading them, especially since they are such a great way to reach reluctant readers or those who are more visually oriented. Fans of Roller Girl, El Deafo, and Raina Telgemeier's books will love All's Faire in Middle School as well.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Review of Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clayton Byrd's parents were never married, but have a cordial relationship and his father is a part of his life. But Clayton is closer to his grandfather, who he calls "Cool Papa", and the two share a strong bond, strengthened by their mutal love of the blues. However, one evening Cool Papa dies unexpectedly, and Clayton's grief is compounded by the fact that his mother seems to be trying to erase his very existence due to resentment lingering from her childhood.

I had a hard time deciding how to rate this book, as I did not enjoy it nearly as much as the author's previous trilogy about the Gaither sisters. But I decided that was more because I was not really the right audience for this book, and I did not identify with the main character, an only child dealing with a significant loss, as I did with Delphine being the oldest child with siblings and all the sibling bickering, plus I preferred the longer story covering a whole summer, as opposed to mainly one day.

The final factor that interferred with my enjoyment of the story was how much I disliked Clayton's mother. I found her to be extremely selfish, self-centered, and childish, putting her need to nurse her childhood hurts and resentment and punish her father's memory over her child's needs, and her actions made me very angry on Clayton's behalf. The relationship between Clayton and Cool Papa was very special and touching, and it was sad that Clayton's mother was so jealous of it and tried to erase Clayton's memory of it, rather that appreciating it and helping Clayton grieve and remember. But, it is realistic as the death of a family member often brings out the worst in people and causes family infighting.

I do think this book is well-written, and the characters pretty well-developed, although in fairness you only see one side of Clayton's mother and just a glimpse of his father. This book would have a lot of appeal to reluctant readers as it is shorter and less intimidating, and they get to have an adventure along with Clayton. I would recommend this to readers who prefer more realistic fiction, and might be looking for something with a little adventure, maybe some vicarious rebellion, or are struggling with loss and/or complex family dynamics. And having a well-written book featuring diverse characters is always a plus.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Review of Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Bashardoust Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mina is the daughter of a magician who is only interested in expanding his own powers and influence, by whatever means necessary. Her father has no affection for her, but rather sees her as a posession, a pawn in his schemes. She lives in the warm South, but is lonely and shunned by everyone because of her father.

Lynet is from the cold North, where it is always winter, and is the pampered and spoiled daughter of the King. All the people adore her, her father most of all. However, he has placed unfair expectations on her, expecting her to grow up and not only take her dead mother's place as Queen, but to be exactly like her in every way, without giving any thought to what Lynet might want.

Two young motherless girls who seem to have nothing in common, but share the same sinister secret of their existence, find their lives intersecting. At first, their relationship is innocent, even touching, but soon becomes dangerous due to the actions and influences of others and events beyond their control. Are they destined to be ever at odds as long as they are both alive?

This story is described by many as a "feminist" retelling of Snow White. I'm not sure I'd agree with that, but I suppose that depends on your definition of feminist literture. It is conspicously devoid of the seven dwarfs or any hansome prince coming to anyone's rescue, and it does feature strong female characters who are fighting to determine their own destiny, rather be controlled by their fathers. Plus it has the same-sex attraction and romance that seems to be requisite in today's feminist literature. But there is no over-arching theme of fighting for all women's rights, they were strictly concerned with themselves and their own realities.

I would simply describe it as a unique and very interesting re-telling of Snow White, featuring strong female characters that were much more complex and multi-faceted than the original tale, with it's good versus evil simplicity, and handsome prince rescuing the damsel in distress. I was first intrigued by the caring, mother-daughter relationship Mina, representing the "Evil Queen", and Lynet, representing Snow White, had, and the genuine affection they each had for one another. Then enters Nadia, the young female surgeon who replaces the handsome prince and the dwarves from the original story, but also serves as a device to introduce conflict, and things begin to change.

The story moves along at a fairly decent pace, changing back and forth in both point of view and timeline in a carefully woven tapestry, and the characters are very well-developed over time. I almost quit reading, because I really didn't want to see the touching relationship between Mina and Lynet be destroyed as events along with Mina's ambitions seemed to be forcing her to become the Evil Queen. But I pushed on and, hopefully without giving too much away, I found that I was very pleased with the ending, and I think most readers will be, too.

While I had a little trouble buying some of the magic (a glass heart? really? how does that work?), once I got past that as the story drew me in, I found I really enjoyed it, and honestly can't think of anything I really didn't like about it. I would recommend this to fans of fantasy or magical realism with strong female characters, particularly those looking for something with themes of learning to be independent and standing up against others' expectations in order to be true to yourself and determine your own future.

Recommended for ages 13 and up.

This appears to be the author's debut novel and is due to be released in early September, 2017.

[I received a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review]

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Love, Hate & Other Filters

Review of Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[I received a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Maya is a first-generation Indian-American Muslim teenager, who is struggling with her parents' traditional, old-world expectations and her very American desire to be independent and choose her own path in life, which is very different than the one her parents would choose for her. Her parents expect her to do whatever they tell her to do, which is to go to school close to home, be a doctor or a lawyer, marry a nice Muslim boy and have babies.

But Maya is in no hurry to get married, and in fact has a major crush on a boy at her school who is neither Indian nor Muslim, and she dreams of going to film school in New York and becoming a filmmaker. She is finally brave enough to tell her parents she wants to go to NYU, and with the support of her aunt, they finally agree. But then, a terrorist bombing is linked to someone with the same last name as their family, prompting attacks on her parents' office and Maya herself. In the midst of their fear, Maya's parents suddenly become very controlling and repressive, and put Maya on lockdown. Will Maya dare to defy them? Are they safe anywhere?

This story was not exactly what I was initially expecting from the description. I was expecting the central focus to be on the terrorist attack, and the resulting fear, suspicion, discrimination, and retaliatory violence towards Muslims. However, this was really a coming-of-age story, focusing on the conflict between the traditional "old world" values and expectations of one generation of immigrants and the greater demands of freedom, idependence, and choice by their American-born children; the bombing and acts of violence towards Maya's family was only part of the story, to show the fear that motivated Maya's parents' sudden change of heart and seemingly unreasonable controlling behavior and irrational response to her decisions. There is also some typical teenage romantic angst involved as well.

I really enjoyed this story. It was well-paced, the characters were well-developed, and I liked how it did address anti-Muslim discrimination and violence, showing it from the Muslim perspective, without being overly heavy-handed and preachy. The story revealed how the Aziz family was really not so different from anyone else, and may help readers develop a greater understanding of the issues and to develop empathy.

I liked Maya's parents, though did find myself disgusted by their rash overreactions to Maya's decision, and I loved her aunt, who was able to give Maya the support she needed and provide a voice of reason for her parents, as well as providing an example of a strong, independent Indian Muslim woman. Kareem was also a great character, and I found myself wishing Maya would forget her school-girl crush, and develop a mature romantic relationship with Kareem, despite the fact that he was her parents choice. I would have liked to have seen the character of her best friend developed a little bit more.

I thought it was a little odd that Maya didn't make much more of her parents' hypocrisy in expecting her to be a good little girl and let them control her life and make all the decisions about where she should live, got to school, and who she would marry when they themselves had defied the tradition of the arranged marriage and snuck around to make a love match, then moved to the U.S. to build their own life they way they wanted. It was odd that they had never been *that* traditional or devout as Muslims, yet they expected their daughter to simply fall in line and do what they said and make no choices for herself.

I think this would be a great book for many teenagers to read, and I think they might be surprised to find how much they can relate to Maya, whether they are Indian, Muslim, or neither. This is really a perfect example of a book providing needed mirrors and windows, and I would highly recommend it.

I believe this is the author's debut book, which is expected to be out in January, 2018.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review: My Brigadista Year

Review of My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[I received a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

From the award-winning author of "Bridge To Terabithia" and "Jacob Have I Loved", this fictional memoir is set during and shortly after the Cuban revolution, as seen through 13-year old Lora's eyes. While now most of the Western world views Fidel Castro as an evil dictator, at the time he was seen as a liberator by many of the Cuban people and the atmosphere was very hopeful. One of Castro's goals was increased opportunities for education, and his regime created a sweeping literacy program that recruited young educated people, the "Brigadistas", to go and live with illiterate families in the country to teach them to read and write while also working in the fields along side them.

Thirteen-year old Laura sees the recruitment poster at school, and is eager to do her part to help her country. Though her parents are understandably concerned about her safety and initially refuse to give permission, her grandmother persuades Lora's father to let her go, with the promise that Lora will come home if it becomes to hard or dangerous. Lora is very excited to be a part of something bigger than herself, and quickly forms strong friendships with her host family and their neighbors.

However, despite her enthusiasm and dedication, Lora has to adapt to a much harder life that she is used to and faces many dangers and challenges along the way, causing her to doubt herself. Will Lora be able to see her mission through until the end, or will the threat from the members of the Batista regime who have hidden in the mountains prove to much? One young literacy worker has already been murdered; will there be more?

This is wonderful coming of age story that I hope finds its audience. The voice is somewhat unique, while the events being described happened when the protagonist and narrator was 13, she is telling the story as an adult, thus the voice and point-of-view is more mature and sophisticated than that of many popular middle-grade books. Again, while this is historical fiction, I think being written as a memoir helps hook the reader and makes it seem more real, and I loved that it came complete with an epilogue, where the now grown Lora summarizes her life up to the present, which was a wonderful bonus to an already satisfying ending.

The story is well-paced, with characters the reader will grow to love and care about. While the focus is on dedication, giving back, and being a part of something important, it gives a glimpse into the events of the revolution, and the lives of the campesinos, and there is an element of adventure and danger. I would recommend this for ages 10-14, and for readers who like historical fiction, or like inspiring stories about children accomplishing great things and being involved in important causes. Readers who may be interested in mission work, social causes, or teaching in particular would enjoy this book.

While historical fiction typically doesn't find much of a readership among my patrons, I would talk up the revolution and adventure aspect and try to relate it to some of the dystopian novels that are popular to peak their interest, since they often deal with revolution, repressive regimes, and fighting illiteracy and misinformation as well.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: The Long-Lost Secret Diary of the World's Worst Pirate

Review of The Long-Lost Secret Diary of the World's Worst Pirate by Tim Collins The Long-Lost Secret Diary of the World's Worst Pirate by Tim Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[I received this as a digital advance reader copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

Thomas is a young man traveling by merchant vessel with his parents in the 18th century. They are traveling to one of the Carribbean Islands where his father is to be the new Govenor. But Thomas does not want the aristocratic life of a politician's son. Instead, he fantasizes about being a pirate, singing bawdy songs, hunting for treasure, and living in total freedom.

When real pirates sieze their ship and force everyone to transfer to the sinking pirate ship, Thomas decides that this is his chance to be a pirate and hides down in the cargo hold instead of going with his parents. After he is discovered, the Captain decides to let him join their crew, and Thomas discovers that the pirate life is not at all like his romanticized fantasy!

This is a story told in the diary style that has been popular with middle-grade readers every since Diary of a Wimpy Kid came out. It is a quick and easy read, and is fairly entertaining, though the language and writing style sound very modern, rather than true to the 18th century setting. While I found that to be an annoyance, I don't think the intended audience would be bothered by it.

I did like that it portrayed pirate life to be hard, full of violence, and often meeting a gruesome death (but in an age-appropriate way), rather than overly romanticized as fun and adventurous. I also liked that there are snippets of factual information interspersed throughout the book, and then a great deal more factual and historical information about pirates at the end of othe book, as well as a glossary.

I would recommend this for ages 8 to 12, and for readers who enjoy diary-style novels as well as those who are interested in pirate stories, and anyone looking for a quick and easy, somewhat light-hearted read with a little adventure.

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: Sidetracked

Review of Sidetracked by Diana Harmon Asher Sidetracked by Diana Harmon Asher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[I received a digital advanced reader copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

This is a story of overcoming obstacles, friendship, and comraderie. Seventh-grader Joseph Friedman faces many challenges; he has ADD as well as sensory and anxiety issues, is small, skinny, and weak, and is often made fun of by the kids at school. He is amazed by Heather, the new girl who is tall, strong, and takes no crap from anyone. Joseph ends up joining the cross-country team, after his Resource Room teacher practically forces him to. But, Joseph is pleasantly surprised to find that not only is his teacher the coach, but that Heather is also on the team. And, other than Heather, most of the other kids are not particularly great athletes. They all begin to gel as a team, supporting and encouraging each other, and Joseph discovers he can do more than he ever thought possible.

I loved this book! I was not an athlete, but I find that I often enjoy sports-related books and movies. There is just something about the comraderie and pushing one's self physically and mentally, and everyone loves an underdog. While I was never an athlete myself, my kids did cross-country and track, and I worked many a cross-country meet as a parent and also helped coach the middle school track team, and this book gave a very realistic portrayal of what cross-country is like. It is generally an overlooked sport, and doesn't get the recognition and glory that football, basketball, and soccer do, but it is often a safe haven for those who may not be exceptional athletes, but are willing to train and try their best. Runners are generally very encouraging and supportive of each other, even if they are not on the same team, and the focus is on achieving a personal best for most runners.

The story moved along at a satisfying pace, and the characters were well-developed and realistic, not caricatures as they often seem in middle-grade books. I loved seeing the relationship Jospeh had with his grandfather, and the friendship that developed between him and Heather. Heather reminded me very much of my own daughter, who is also very athletic and tough, and I could totally see punching a bully in the face. I liked that the outcome was completely realistic. {Spoiler} Joseph did not become Mr. Popularity, or miraculously win a huge race, but he did form some new friendships, become stronger both physically and mentally, and learned not only to stand up for himself, but that he could do more than he thought. I think readers will be very satisfied with the ending.

I loved this book, and I think it could appeal to a fairly wide range of readers who might find it inspiring: those who feel like they don't quite fit in, those who enjoy sports stories, those who are runners themselves, those who can relate to or like to root for the underdog, and those who need a push to challenge themselves. I would recommend it for ages 10-14, and it should appeal to boys and girls equally. A great middle-school read!

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Review: Wishtree

Review of Wishtree by Applegate Wishtree by Katherine Applegate
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[I received a digital advanced reader copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

This story is narrated by Red, a 216-year old oak tree in a residential neighborhood, who starts out telling the story of his life, the animals who reside in and around him, and about the curious custom that has developed, where on the 1st of May every year, people ties wishes to his branches. As the story evolves it comes to focus on the girl who lives in the house next to him, and takes on the broader issues of prejudice and intolerance.

I'm afraid I'm going to be one of the few dissenters who is not absolutely enthralled with this book and does not give it an overwhelmingly glowing review. I had a very hard time getting into the story at first, for a couple of reasons. To start with, the format was somewhat off-putting to me. I have read other books written in free verse that I really enjoyed, but this one seemed very choppy to me and did not flow well at all, particularly in the beginning. Rather than being led from one thought to the next, it was a struggle. Also the story really dragged in the beginning and did not really seem to hook the reader and draw them in early enough. In all honesty, I probably would not have finished if it was not by a well-known author and I did not know people would be asking it about it.

As the book progressed, it seemed to become more narrative in nature and became more interesting as the conflict was introduced, both the issues of intolerance towards Samar's family and the issue of whether Red would be cut down. Once the story really got going, I was much more interested and found it very enjoyable. While I enjoyed Red's storytelling, especially the story of Maeve and how he became a wishing tree, Bongo was easily my favorite character, with her banter and mischievous "deposits", as well as her tender-hearted gift-giving. While I tend to be a bit cynical and often suspicious about authors' true motives when they seem to be jumping on the latest social justice bandwagon, I must admit the ending did make me tear up (as well as laugh when Bongo gave someone a well-deserved "gift").

Many refer to this as book all children "must read", and while I have no doubt that it will be assigned in many a classroom this year as well as mentioned numerous times as a potential award-winner, I really wonder how many kids would really find it appealing and enjoy reading it? I think this is one of those children's books that is more appealing to adults than children. Adults will describe it as "beautiful" and "powerful", but I'm afraid many kids might describe it as "boring". I think the slow pace at the beginning would be an obstacle for many readers, though if they can get past it, I think they would find the rest of the story much more enjoyable as I did. Still, I think this book is best for those who don't need a lot of action and dialog to draw them in, and can appreciate something that is more "quiet" and thoughtful in nature, and especially those with an interest and appreciation for nature and relationships between people and nature. Recommended for ages 9-13.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: All Things New

All Things New All Things New by Lauren Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This is the story of Jessa, a teen who suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks. While she has learned to hide her anxiety much of the time, and the panic attacks have become less frequent, she really hasn't gotten "better". After discovering her boyfriend has been cheating on her at a party, Jessa leaves and ends up in a terrible car accident, leaving her as damaged on the outside as she is on the inside. In addition, she finds that she cannot form images in her mind, but she starts seeing injuries on other people's faces that aren't really there. She goes to live with her father for a fresh start and a change of scenery, where thanks to new friendships she slowly begins to heal and make sense of her strange symptoms.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. I found the premise very interesting, and in some ways Iiked the story very much, but there were some issues. Jessa was a sympathetic character, but so much of the story was spent in her head, and seemed a bit cold and detached. For me this wasn't really a problem, but I think some readers would get bored and lose interest without a little more dialogue and emotional responses to liven it up. I loved the character of Marshall; he breathed some much needed life and levity into the story. Without giving too much away, I thought the way Jessa's hallucinations were explained in the end was good, but I personally felt the story got bogged down with the heavy religious awakening and imagery at the end, that didn't seem to fit the tone of the rest of the story. Also the ending seemed to be just a bit rushed, with a lot happening in a very short time, while the story prior to that had moved very slowly. I would prefer the pace to be evened out just a little more.

I would recommend this book to readers that do not need a lot of action and dialogue to hold their interest, and enjoy books that are more psychological, philosphical, and introspective in nature, that have a character working through issues and feelings, on an emotional journey rather than a physical one.

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Review: In Over Their Heads

Review of In Over Their Heads by Haddix In Over Their Heads by Margaret Peterson Haddix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't quite like this as much as the first book, but I think that's because I'm an adult, not the age it was intended for. I would probably give it a 3, but rated it 4 stars in looking at it from the perspective of its intended audience. And also because it takes place in Mammoth Cave, which is in my home state.

This continues the story of Under Their Skin, in which Eryn and Nick made the shocking discovery that all the adults and older children in the world are really sophisticated robots, including their parents. Not only that, but their step-siblings, Jackson and Ava, are robots as well, but built illegally by their parents and passed off as human. At the end of the first book, the extended family has taken refuge in Mammoth cave, where Nick makes a startling discovery. As the drama continues in the second book, the family is discovered by a local girl name Lida Mae who says her family has lived in and around the caves for generations. As the story continues, the children are constantly having to re-evaluate what the truth is and who they can trust, even within their own family.

I felt like this book dragged a little compared to the first and I got a little tired of the back-and-forth "robots are bad-robots are good" rhetoric, but overall I think there is enough action and suspense to hold a child's interest, especially someone who has a particular interest in robots. I would recommend this for ages 8-12, and for readers who like sci-fi, particularly those who are fans of Haddix's previous Shadow Children and Missing series.

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Review: Orphan Train Girl

Review of Orphan Train Girl Orphan Train Girl by Christina Baker Kline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, I enjoyed this book, though I did not realize it was an abridged version of a book first published for adults when I picked it up. I would have preferred to read the original version first in order to compare the two.

This story tells how the lives of two seemingly very different people happen to intersect. Vivian Daly is a somewhat wealthy, refined elderly woman who Molly assumes has had a relatively easy life and couldn't possibly understand her. Molly is a teenager who has bounced from one foster home to another, after her father's death caused her mother to become unable to care for her. Molly has become somewhat jaded, withdrawn, bitter, and slightly rebellious as a result.

But the two meet when circumstances result in Molly having to help Vivian go through all the stuff in her attack as a form of community service, and Molly is suprised to find that Vivian not only doesn't judge her like other people, she seems to actually understand her. Then a class project leads Molly to interview Vivian about her life, and Molly is surprised at what she hears. Rather than the boring, cushy life Molly assumed, she learns that Vivian sufferred through circumstances even worse than her own, and the two end up help each other.

This story is told through alternating points of view, Molly's in the present, and Viviane's in the past. At times I felt like it shifted back and forth a little too frequently, and I would have preferred to stay with each POV just a little longer, but overall it worked. Sometimes the story seemed a bit choppy, with events ending a little abruptly and pieces missing, which I realize is a result of it being edited down from a longer and more adult novel. From reading summaries and reviews of the original version, it is obvious that some of the more sordid events from both Molly and Vivian's lives have been sanitized for the children's version, and rightfully so, but I wish it had been done just a little more smoothly.

Despite these minor flaws, it is generally a well-told story and moves at a satisfying pace, and will provoke an emotional response. I think readers who enjoy stories with children dealing with and overcoming difficult circumstances and are open to historical fiction would enjoy this book, such as fans of The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, or Paper Things by Jennifer Jacobson .

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Review: Short

Review of Short Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd give this a 3-1/2 if I could. This book was okay, but did not quite live up to my expectations. I had seen it on a couple of lists of recommended middle-grade books, and was on the waiting list at my local library for longer than I had expected, so I was really expecting to be "wow'd" by this book and find it to be a must-read.

However, this was not the case. It was an enjoyable enough read, though it did drag at the beginning, but you wouldn't be missing anything if you didn't read it. It might be helpful for a child who has issues with their own height or physical characteristics, as Julia learns not to let her height (or lack thereof) define her, and even embraces her shortness by the end of the book. I also think it might be helpful for a child who has trouble "reading" people and picking up on both verbal and non-verbal cues, because Julia often explains her actions as a result of picking up on such cues.

So, in short, it's good enough to read, but not great enough to be a must-read.

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Review: When We Collided

Review of When We Collided When We Collided by Emery Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the story of a summer romance between two teens, Vivi and Jonah, but it is really so much more than that as both Vivi and Jonah are dealing with much bigger issues. Vivi has bipolar disorder, but has stopped taking her medication because she doesn't think she needs it anymore. Jonah is unaware of her diagnosis, but is confused, frustrated, and concerned by her increasingly impulsive and outrageous behavior as she begins to enter a manic phase. Jonah shoulders a great deal of responsibility for his 3 younger siblings after the recent and sudden death of his father led to his mother being unable to function due to grief and depression, which the family is trying to hide.

While I found Vivi to be a slightly less sypathetic character, she was the breathe of fresh air that Jonah's family needed, helping them rediscover what it was like to have fun, and to laugh. I loved Jonah's character, stepping up to help take care of his family, and could see why Vivi, and only child of a single parent, was drawn to them. Vivi's mother is a frustrating character at her hands-off parenting style considering Vivi's diagnosis and escalating behavior, and seems partly in denial as well as a bit self-centered. This story is fairly well-paced and has a satisifying ending with some resolution.

I would recommend this to those who enjoy teen romances that are slightly more edgy and also deal with serious issues, such as fans of books by Rainbow Rowell or John Greene, or specifically looking for fiction that has teen characters dealing with mental health issues.

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Review: Unbecoming

Review of Unbecoming Unbecoming by Jenny Downham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I highly recommend this book, which tells the stories of three generations of women in the same family, each with their own secrets. I think this book could appeal to many people because of the cross-generational content, and each character facing different challenges, making it highly relateable. Mary is struggling to hold on to her memories of her colorful past, and sacrifices that she made that her daughter never understood. Caroline struggles with caring for an elderly parent she barely knows and has always resented, as well as being a single mom to two teenagers, one with special needs (that are never really quite spelled out). Katie is the peacemaker, trying to mediate between her mother and grandmother while dealing with her confusion about her sexuality and fear of telling her mother.

This is a well-paced, but thoughtful story with multiple story- and time-lines that are very well integrated in a way that is easy to follow and enjoyable to read, not succumbing to the confusion that sometimes arises when this is attempted. I would recommend this for ages 15 and up; it is an excellent example of a successful YA-Adult crossover, and would be good for a mother-daughter book club. It would also be a good book to ease someone into LGTBQ themes, as this is only one part of the overall story.

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Slight Change of Plans

I recently decided to discontinue this blog and integrate the posts on youth programming into my other blog and do book reviews on Goodreads instead...

Well, only then did I discover that Goodreads has a setting that will automatically post reviews to a blog as well. I wish I had known that all along! In light of this discovery, I have decided to make use of this feature, so book reviews will continue to be published on this blog, via Goodreads, while youth programming and general commentary will be found at Adventures In Storytime (and Beyond), along with everything related to early literacy.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Time Has Come.... make some major changes.

I've been back and forth about this for the last year, and I've decided to semi-retire this blog, at least for the foreseeable future. With working on my MLIS and everything else going on in my life, I just do not have time (or enough content) for a second blog, and this blog has never attracted the readership that my storytime blog does.

So, I have decided to integrate the two on my "Adventures In Storytime" blog. That blog will still primarily focus on storytime and early literacy, because that is 80% of what my job is, but I will include my other programs and miscellaneous commentary. I probably will not include book reviews for middle-grade and older, but will likely start using Goodreads for those. I've had an account on there for a while, but really haven't used it much until now.

I will leave this blog up for anyone who still wants to access the existing content, and in case I decide to pick it back up later if the focus of my work changes significantly in the future. If time permits, I may start copying some of the content back to the storytime blog and/or Goodreads.

I hope you've found this blog helpful, and will continue to follow me on Adventures In Storytime, Facebook, and Goodreads

**NOTE: After I started using Goodreads, I discovered that there is a setting that will automatically post your review to a blog and/or Facebook (I wish I'd known that all along!), so I will make use of that feature and keep posting book reviews on here as well.