Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Girls Made of Snow and Glass 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

Love, Hate & Other Filters 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 layer, 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 see 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 andmake 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

My Brigadista Year 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

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

Sidetracked 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

Wishtree 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

In Over Their Heads 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

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

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

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

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....

....to 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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Up's & Down's of Programming

This week was a roller-coaster ride of successful and not-so-successful programs. There is nothing like the high you get from a successful program, but there is also nothing like the low from an unsuccessful one, and it's even worse when that same program was previously successful.

On Wednesday we repeated my "DoodleBot" program from last year. This program uses the motor from cheap electric toothbrushes, pool noodles, and markers to build a simple "robot" that creates art. When I did this program last year, it was a huge hit. There was a little bit of troubleshooting, but it was not a major issue, and it has been my most popular blogpost.

This time around, we had lots of problems. To start with, it was a much larger group (35 versus 10), probably too large for a program of this type, that is a little more complex and sophisticated, and prone to bugs. Second, we were expecting 35 kids, but they were supposed to have several teen aides to help, along with the camp director and the three of us from the library. So, we thought we would have enough help and supervision to handle a group this size. But, then the teen counselors decided they wanted to make their own DoodleBot, which brought our number of particpants up to 40, and reduced our "adult" help to 4, and stretched our very limited supplies past what we were prepared for.

Then, after the kids finished personalizing their bots and were ready for the motor, at least half the motors wouldn't work right! For some reason, the connections were being much more finicky that before, and were loosening or shifting just enough to break the flow of current through the circuit. This had happened before, but not to the extent it did this time. The motors would only work intermittently, and this particular group was not as good at problem-solving on their own as the previous, so were constantly getting upset and asking for help. It was a very frustrating experience for me, the kids, and my co-workers, and I felt completely defeated.

I still do not understand why we had so much more trouble this time around. The bot prototype I made that has been sitting on my desk for a year still works fine. So, I have a lot of trouble-shooting and creative problem solving ahead of me with this one.

Since we did not really have enough motors left because of the extra participants, and I didn't have enough time to get them all working again, I decided to change gears at the last minute for Friday's program at a different location and do my "Mirror, Mirror" program, which has the demonstration of a couple of cool special effects using mirrors and reflection, followed by making kaleidoscopes. For complete details, see my previous post.

I LOVE this program! It is very cheap, uses easily obtainable supplies, relatively easy, no complicated prep, it really can't go wrong, and the kids really like it! So yesterday I quickly got everything together, and the program was a big hit. At first I could tell the kids (16 kids around ages 8-10) weren't thrilled to have to put away their games and come sit at the tables for the program, and were thinking "this is going to be lame". But when I showed them the mirascope's holographic image projection and the infinity mirror, they started coming around.

By the end, we heard exclamations of "So cool!" over and over, and several asked how long we were staying and if we were coming back next week! They were trading back and forth, looking at each others' designs and patterns. I really like how all their kaleidoscopes looked different, and that no matter how much or little time they put in their designs, they still looked cool when you looked through the kaleidoscope. Here are some of their kaleidoscopes:

And here are some of the images they created (if you look closely at the second one on the bottom row you will see a dinosaur in the pattern):

I am so glad I got to end the week on a positive note, but I am still really bummed and frustrated that we had so much trouble with the Doodlebot program after it worked well the previous time. If you want more details and step-by-step of what we did, check out my previous "DoodleBot" and "Mirror, Mirror" posts.

Now, off to take a nap, then relax and read a book before I tackle trouble-shooting tomorrow...

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Review of Dumplin' by Julie Murphy

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy, 2015 
Balzer + Bray, 384 pages
Ages 14 & up

Sixteen-year old Willowdean is, in her own words, fat. For the most part, she is comfortable in her own skin and accepts her body the way it is, even if her former beauty queen and pageant organizer mother can't. She and her best friend Ellen have been friends since they were little, bonding over their mutual love of Dolly Parton, and always have each others' backs.

But that summer things begin to change. Willowdean and Ellen get jobs at different places, and Ellen starts hanging out with a "mean girl" she works with and takes her relationship with her boyfriend to the next level, and she and Willowdean begin drifting apart. Meanwhile, Willowdean is crushing on the hot boy at work, and much to her surprise, he seems to like her, too! But, while she enjoys their make-out sessions, Willowdean also feels a surge of insecurity about her body everytime Bo touches her, and she fears what people would say if they saw them together, causing her to pull away and break things off.

Then one day Will is going through her late-aunt's things, and finds a registration form for the local beauty pageant from many years ago. She realizes that her aunt must have thought about entering, but didn't because of her weight. Will then realizes her aunt missed out on other things because she let her size hold her back, and Willowdean vows not to make the same mistake. So, she decides to do the most outrageous thing she can think of, and enters the pageant to prove to herself and everyone else that she deserves to be there as much as anyone else.

My Thoughts
I did not read this when it first came out because I was not all that impressed with the author's first book, Side Effects May Vary.  But, I kept hearing people saying good things about it, so I decided to give it a try, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I found I really enjoyed this book, and that it did not suffer from the same problems the first book did. Willowdean was a very likeable and well-developed character with strengths and flaws and a wonderful spirit. The supporting characters were well-developed as well.

This is a fun read that is not too serious, but has a meaningful message, perfect for a summer read. It deals with issues most teenagers deal will deal with to at least some extent: body image, changing friendships, dating, and struggling against parental expectations. This book would appeal to those who like realistic fiction, and particularly to those who enjoy books by Rainbow Rowell, Sarah Dessen, or John Green. Another book that deals with body issues (as well as several other teen issues), but is more serious is Gabi: A Girl In Pieces, by Isabel Quintero.

Other Books by This Author
Julie Murphy has also written two other teen novels, Side Effects May Vary and the just released Blue.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Glad That's Over!

So as you may or may not know, I started an MLIS program last fall, focusing on public libraries and youth services. This May I took a crazy, intense 3-week class in Multicultural Youth Literature. Let me tell you, I don't recommend it! Taking a regular class crammed into 3-weeks that is; the pace and workload were grueling, and I don't think I got as much out of it as if it had been a full semester class. However, I highly recommend a course in Multicultural Literature for all librarians, but especially youth services. 

In just 3 weeks, we had to write 16 critical book reviews, participate in 5 online discussions, write two 2-page papers, and a big bibliography project. Fortunately, the professor gave us the reading list in advance, so I was able to obtain and read all the books before class started (luckily, I read very fast). But, I did learn a lot about selecting diverse literature. I've had a few people ask for the reading list out of curiousity, so I thought I'd go ahead and post it here, with a very brief mini-review of each, starting with picture books. 

Each of these books is written by a cultural "insider", and most (if not all) have received literary awards that consider quality and authenticity. I've put an asterisk on the ones I particularly liked (there were only two I really didn't like).

Picture Books

*Let's Talk About Race (2005), by Julius Lester, illustrated by Karen Barbour. 

Julius Lester explains the concept of race and racism in simple, age appropriate terms, without emotion or blame. He explains that we each have our own story, and that race is one part of that story. He goes on to say that some people try to say that their race is better than others, but that story is not true, and that under our skin we are all the same.

I think this is an excellent book for introducing the topic of race and racism with children.

Crossing Bok Chitto: A Chocktaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom (2006), by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges.

Tim Tingle, a recognized Choctaw storyteller and author, tells an Old Choctaw tale about a friendship that developed between a slave family and a Choctaw tribe, and how the Choctaw helped them escape to freedom across the Bok Chitto River.

An interesing legend, and shows how people of different races help each other.

Just A Minute: A Trickster's Tale and Counting Book (2003), by Yuyi Morales.

Senior Calavera (similar to the Grim Reaper) has arrived to escort Grandma Beetle "home", but she is not quite ready to go, and keeps asking him for "just a minute" to finish up another chore, culminating in her birthday party and Senior Calavera deciding to leave her with her granchildren.

Authentic illustrations, and counting from 1 to 10 in both Spanish and English.

Lailah's Lunchbox (2015), by Reem Faruqi, illustrated by Lea Lyon.

Lailah has just moved from Abu Dhabi to Peachtree, Georgia, and is excited that she is going to be allowed to fast for Ramadan for the first time. But then she begins to worry about how to explain to her new teacher and classmates why she can't eat lunch, and takes refuge in the library, where the librarian helps her find the right words.

A great story for explaining what Ramadan is all about to children that is culturally authentic.

Heather Has Two Mommies (2015, first published in 1991), by Leslea Newmann, illustrated by Laura Cornell.

Heather has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two pets, and two mommies. On her first day of school she enjoys making new friends, playing at different centers, and snack time. During circle time the children talk about their parents and Heather realizes she is the only one with two mommies, and wonders if she is the only one without a daddy. But they all learn that every family is different, and special, and that all that matters is they love each other.

Middle Grade

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (2017), by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, illustrated by Yutaka Houlette.

This book tells about Fred Korematsu, who was interred along with many other Japanese-Americans during WWII, and filed suit against the U.S. Though he initially lost, many years later the case was reopened after evidence was discovered showing the U.S. attorneys had lied, and ultimately the case was decided in favor of Korematsu.

An important subject, but I didn't care for this particular book. It is told in alternating formats, one in free verse, and the other a jumble of historic facts, events, pictures, and timelines. Informative, but hard to read because of the lack of continuity, and Fred was portrayed as more of a legendary hero, in a superficial, flat way rather than as a real person. I would look for better books on this subject before buying this one, but it's OK.

*Amina's Voice (2017), by Hena Kahn.

This tells the story of Amina, the child of Pakistani immigrants, who loves to sing but is too shy to perform, and is dealing with all the changes that middle school brings. Her best friend Soojin is thinking of changing her name to something more "American" and has suddenly started acting chummy with their former "enemy". She also has to adjust to her much more conservative uncle visiting from Pakistan, and their community mosque being vandalized.

This is a great story that shows the plurality of the Muslim religion, and how people from various religions and cultures can be friends and pull together to support each other as a community. I highly recommend!

*El Deafo (2014), by Cece Bell.

In graphic novel format, Cece Bell shares her childhood experience with losing her hearing due to meningitis, learning how to adapt, and being self-concious about her hearing aids. She later realizes that her hearing aids and microphone give her "super powers", such as being able to warn the class when the teacher is about to return, and "El Deafo" is born. Cece not only struggles with being able to hear, she also has trouble finidng her voice when one friend becomes pushy and domineering, and another is well-intentioned, but insensitive.

Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), by Jacqueline Woodson.

In this memoir written in free verse, Jacqueline Woodson describes her early childhood, when she was first uprooted from Columbus, Ohio and moved to Greenville, North Carolina, after her parents split up, and then again after her mother moved them to New York. She describes hard times, tragedy, and living with segregation in the South, but through it all were the bonds of a close-knit, loving family and her developing dream to be a writer.

Not for those who need more action and drama, but other dreamers who enjoy a more thoughtful book, and particularly other aspiring writers, would appreciate.

Teen/Young Adult

*Gabi: A Girl In Pieces (2014), by Isabel Quintero.

We see all the struggles Gabi and her friends and family go through during her senior year in the form of Gabi's diary. And Gabi has a lot to deal with: body image, a domineering mother who expects her to be a "good Latina girl", a meth-addicted father, a best friend that's pregnant, another that has just come out as gay, and trying to find romance. Gabi copes with it all with humor, food, and discovering her talent for poetry, which leads to some truly beautiful poems within the book.

I highly recommend this book; well-written, authentic, and all teens can find something to relate to.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (2014), by Meg Medina.

If it weren't bad enough that Piddy's mother suddenly decides to move to a different neighborhood without considering Piddy's feelings at all about changing schools in the middle of her junior year, Piddy is suddenly faced with finding out some girl she doesn't even know wants to kick her ass for no apparent reason.

This story focuses on the issue of bullying, but also has Spanish phrases and Latin culture sprinkled throughout. It is painful and frustrating to see how Piddy continues to suffer in silence, letting fear and pride get in the way of asking for help.

American Born Chinese (2007), by Gene Luen Yang.

This graphic novel uses three alternating stories that are interwoven in a very confusing timeline to tell the story of how an "ABC" boy struggles with his cultural identity, stereotyping, and facing the temtation to turn his back on his heritage for the sake of fitting in as an "All-American" teen.

Some people love this book, and I'm sure others could relate to the ridiculous stereotyping the protagonist faces as a child and struggling to fit in, but I wish it had just been told in a more straightforward, linear fashion. I found it very confusing and it took me reading a couple of other summaries and reviews, then re-reading before I could follow the story and what the message was.

*March: Book One (2013), by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell.

This graphic novel is a great way to get reluctant readers to read about history, and pays homage to the comic book that was used to teach members of the civil rights movement about passive-resistance and non-violent protest. In this first of the trilogy, Congressman Lewis tells about his childhood and early calling to the ministry, and his involvement in the civil rights movement, leading up to the march on the Nashville mayor's office. The print is on the small side and harder for adults to read, but the pictures bring history to life.

*The Hate U Give (2017), by Angie Thomas.

This story descibes Starr, a teenager living in the inner city who struggles with a dual identity as she splits her life between her friends and family in the neighborhood, and her more wealthy, predominantly white, suburban friends at the private school she attends. She has already witnessed the death of a childhood friend in a drive-by shooting, then tragically witnesses the shooting death of another friend in a traffic-stop gone bad, which causes her to question everything, and throws her neighborhood into turmoil.

This book has gotten rave reviews and is very well-written with wonderful character development. I loved Starr's close-knit family, and how hard her father worked to overcome his days as a gang member and become a good father and fight for their community. It is a very engaging story to read, but I have to confess I was a bit uncomfortable with the strong anti-cop message I perceived. While perhaps slighly less enjoyable to read, I prefer the message in Kekla Magoon's How It Went Down, which shows a similar shooting from many different perspectives, illustrating how no one can ever know what really happened, because each witness sees and hears something different, and it's all filtered through their own personal experiences and bias. THUG readers should keep in mind they are only getting one side of the story, albeit a very sympathetic and compelling one.

*Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015), by Becky Albertalli.

While Simon happens to be a gay teenage boy who is a bit hesitant to "come out of the closet" for fear of rocking the boat, this story is about all relationships, those with family, friends, and romantic interests. The main character has a good relationship with his parents and siblings, and a strong circle of friends, all of whom he thinks would be okay with his being gay, yet he still hesitates to tell anyone. Until a classmate accidentally sees a e-mail exchange between Simon and his secret pen-pal, and uses it to blackmail him into interceding on his behalf with a romantic interest.

A very touching, funny, and sweet story. Not too sappy or "polyanna", but not too heavy and serious, either. I highly recommend this one, as well.

Young Adult/Adult

Anna and the Swallow Man (2016), by Gavriel Savit.

Set in German-occupied Poland during WWII and written in a very detached, formal literary style some describe as poetic, this tells the story of a young Polish girl who is left alone in the streets after her father is taken away by the Nazis. She is taken in by a strange man with a gift for languages, and together they wander around the countryside, trying to stay invisible in order to survive.

Some give this book rave reviews, and I did really like it at first, but I think it gets lost in the middle, and then rushes to a non-ending with way too many things unexplained and too many questions unanswered (and I feel the author failed to properly research certain facts). Some have referred to this as magical realism, but I did not see it that way at all.

I personally would not have included this book in the reading for a multicultural youth literature class. For one thing, it seems to be written more for adults than kids. It is most definitely NOT a middle grade novel, despite the age of the main character. I could see it being assigned in high school English classes, but I think very few teens would find it appealing. The other thing is that many people have assumed Anna was Jewish, but the book gives no indication of this (unless I missed it), identifying her only as Polish, and saying her father was taken because he was an intellectual, thus an enemy of the Nazi empire. Furthermore, she did not speak fluent Yiddish, nor did she know the Hebrew prayers. It takes place during the Holocaust, but is not really about the Holocaust. I'm just not sure it really represents an identifiable culture. I would not recommend this book if you are like me: tend to be more literal, hate loose ends and things that don't quite add up, and need an ending that is more than just a stopping point with no closure. But other people loved it.

Have you already read some of these? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Summer Means More School-Aged Programs!

Unfortunately since I started working on my MLIS degree I haven't been able to keep up with regular posts on this blog, especially book reviews, because even when I have time to read, I don't have time to post a review! Right now I'm taking a Multicultural Lit class that is taught as a super-intense 3-week class (ridiculous, I know!), and I have to read and review quite a few books for class, so once the class is over I hope to have time to post some of them on here.

The other thing I'm looking forward to in the summer is school aged STEAM programming! Yay, I get to put my previous degrees to use and "get my teacher on". I love library programming because it has all the fun stuff about teaching, with none of the crap! Last year I just did one official program, and did test runs of a couple of others at home. This year, I'm doing around 8 programs for various groups. I will be repeating the Doodlebots program with a couple of new groups, and doing the Kaleidoscope program with several different groups.

But, I will be doing two new programs as well, one of which I am in the process of developing right now, and I think it's going to be pretty cool. I hope the kids think so! It will be coming up the latter part of June, and the second new program will be in July (but I have no idea what we'll be doing for that one yet; suggestions welcome!). So check back, as we go into summer, full STEAM ahead!

Saturday, April 29, 2017


Well, I'm happy to report that despite coming down with a stomach bug overnight (fortunately very mild and symptoms controlled with PeptoBismal), our presentation on early literacy (for early childhood teachers) today went much better than the last one! Not that there isn't always a little room for improvement, overall I was very pleased with it.

We applied the lessons we learned from the last time, and I scrapped the slides from before (which was recycled from someone else's presentation due to time constraints) and started from scratch, greatly reducing the number of slides, the amount of text on each slide and eliminating repetition. I had time to really think about what I was going to say and what examples to show, and we carefully selected which books and items to take so we weren't so overwhelmed. I think it was just about right this time, and while I was still a tad nervous, I was much more relaxed than last time.

It helped that we had an audience that seemed much more engaged than our previous one, and I'm happy to report that no one in the first session went to sleep! In the second session there were a few that were nodding off at times, but I think that had more to do with the fact it was after lunch, very warm in the room, and the attendees had been there since around 8:00 am, than it did our presentation. At least no one decided to just put their heads on the desk and blatantly take a nap like last time! We had more questions and comments than before, and quite a few attendees complimented us and sincerely thanked us for coming. 

Would I do anything differently next time? I don't really think so. I think this time I had the slides just right, and my delivery was much better, so it's just a matter of continuing to get experience and becoming even more comfortable with public speaking. 

In case you're curious, our presentation covered what early literacy is (and isn't!), early literacy skills/components, the five practices (talk, sing, play write, & read), tips for selecting books for preschool read alouds, tips for keeping kids engaged in a read-aloud, how your library can help you, and other resources.

The other cool thing was I got to meet John Archambault, co-author of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom! He was the keynote speaker for the event, and was very gracious, posing for pictures and talking to everyone, and he autographed the sign that was on the door of our presentation room.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Let's Try This Again...

Last fall I had the opportunity to challenge myself and give an early literacy presentation for child care workers and preschool teachers, along with my manager. I am always looking for opportunities to expand my repertoire and gain new skills and experiences, so I was glad to do it. Unfortunately, it didn't quite go as well as I'd hoped.

To start with, we only had 2 weeks to put it together, and with me being only part-time and my boss being a very busy outreach manager, that amounted to very little time! We did the best we could, but it just really wasn't enough time to prepare adequately. I knew the material well, but I did not have the actual presentation of it down. Plus, I got a little nervous, and when I'm nervous I tend to talk too fast. I forgot to pause and show examples, and realized it was too repetitive, and the slides were way too text heavy. To make matters worse, two of the attendees blatantly put their heads down on their desks and went to sleep! 

Fast forward to this spring, and we were asked to do a similar presentation for another early childhood "summit" by another group, which is this coming Saturday. This time around I hope I have learned from the mistakes the last time. The slide presentation is shorter, much less text, and larger fonts, and is more focused. Also, we fortunately were asked to focus on just preschoolers, whereas last time we covered birth through age 5. We've also had more time, so hopefully I will know the presentation much better. I'm really hoping I'm more relaxed, too! I am not afraid of public speaking, and right now the idea of doing it doesn't make me anxious in the least. But then when the time comes, the nerves start to kick in!

But one really good thing is that my manager is much more accustomed to public speaking and does a great job. The other great thing is that our session is not until 10:15am, versus 8:00 am the last time! So I can get a little more sleep, and get there early enough to have time to set up without feeling rushed, and have a chance to relax. I am just not fully functional at 8:00 in the morning!!

So, anyone have any advice for keeping the nerves at bay and keeping the audience awake? Short of an air horn, that is 😈