Showing posts from July, 2017

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh, 288 pp, RL 4

Why is Spirit Hunters, the first book in a new series by Ellen Oh (founder of We Need Diverse Books, a "grassroots organization of children's book lovers that advocated essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.") so awesome? Where do I begin? First, Spirit Hunters is a really, truly, chillingly scary ghost story for middle grade readers. And if you don't already know this, writing a scary ghost story for middle grade readers takes A LOT of finesse and Oh delivers on finesse. Like writing mysteries for kids, writing ghost stories for kids requires removing a lot of adult elements from the story. Unfortunately, it is these adult elements that often make the story exciting. Mysteries need murders and bad people, and so do ghost stories, and, like I said, it's tricky business getting that right in a kid's book. Up to now, Mary Downing Hahn is the only author I know of who…

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova, 241 pp, RL 4

With brave, Svetlana Chmakova cements her place on the shelves next to Raina Telgemeier, proving once again that she is a gifted chronicler of the lives of tweens. In awkward, we met Peppi (short for Penelope) Torres, newly arrived at Berrybrook Middle School and navigates the challenges of avoiding the mean kids, finding her tribe and struggling through a challenging class. With brave, Chmakova returns to Berrybrook Middle School where Jensen Graham takes center stage. Jensen is going to save the world someday from a zombie apocalypse, if the effects of sunspots (Jensen's greatest fear) don't destroy the earth first. Jensen also plans to become an astronaut and discover the ruins of an ancient civilization while exploring Mars. However, his immediate, everyday goals are usually to make it from class to class without attracting the attention of the mean kids and making it through class without attracting the attention of his teachers. The high point of his day comes after schoo…

Lemons by Melissa Savage, 320 pp, RL 4

I am a huge fan of cryptids (animals that people believe are real, yet their existence has not been definitively  proven) and was so excited when I discovered that Lemons by Melissa Savage is set in the Willow Creek, California, the Bigfoot capitol of the world just a few years after the famous Patterson-Gilman footage of an unidentified subject (looking very much like Bigfoot) was filmed in 1967. I was less excited when I learned that Lemonade Liberty Witt, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Lemons has just lost her mother and been sent to live with a grandfather she never knew. A deceased parent is a prevalent plot point in middle grade fiction, regardless of genre. Absent parents make so many things possible in a kid's book, whether it's travel to another world or a trip down the block. In today's reality, adults play a huge part in children's lives and are always around, in the form of parent, teacher and caregiver. From the perspective of a young reader, a book wi…

The Next Best Junior Chef: Book 1 Lights, Camera, Cook! by Charise Mericle Harper, illustrations by Aurélie Blard-Quintard, 192 pp, RL 3

Next Best Junior Chefis the new trilogy written by Charise Mericle Harper and illustrated by Aurélie Blard-Quintard. While there are a few chapter books and middle grade novels that come each year with cooking and baking as important plot points, this trilogy stands out for so many great reasons. I am a huge fan of books about food, cooking shows and competition cooking shows. I have watched every reality food show on Netflix and Hulu (although I draw the line at cupcake competition shows, even if my favorite fictional television show foodie, Dev Shah, hosts the equally fictional Clash of the Cupcakes) and have even been known to turn on the Great British Baking Show in my library before school and at recess. Reading Lights, Camera, Cook!, I almost felt like Harper wrote this book just for me. Now I can talk to my students as enthusiastically about a foodie book as I do about foodie television shows. And, having watched so many shows (including Master Chef Junior and Chopped Junior) I…

Lights, Camera, Middle School! Babymouse: Tales from the Locker, Book 1 by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm, 208pp, RL 4

After twenty books, Babymouse is growing up! Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm are aging up their cupcake loving, heart t-shirt wearing, bent-whiskered mouse along with the graphic novel format for a new series, Tales from the Locker. The first book in the series, Lights, Camera, Middle School! is a mix of traditional and graphic novel, but Babymouse, despite a cool wardrobe change, is still a mouse with a big imagination who wants to do big things. And, she is still a mouse who makes mistakes, faces defeat and still comes out on top with humor.
Babymouse begins middle school worried about the usual things like being able to open and close her locker, making new friends and navigating the cafeteria at lunch. And, she doesn't want to fit in anymore. Now Babymouse wants to stand out. Illustrations on almost every page, as well as occasional comics panels - all in black and white, the pink is gone - continue to bring Babymouse's exuberance and imagination to life while remaining b…

Meet the Bobs and Tweets by Pepper Springfield, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, 80 pp, RL 2

Bobs and Tweets written by Pepper Springfield and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, is a new chapter book series that does something a little different than most bridge chapter books. Springfield's books are written entirely in rhyming quatrains! The Bobs are slobs and the Tweets are neat. Each family has seven members, with the youngest in each breaking the mold. Bob Seven, also known as Dean Bob, is a very tidy fellow and owner of Chopper the dog. Tweet Seven, also known as Lou Tweet, is a right mess and owner of Pretty Kitty. In the first book in this new series, Meet the Bobs and Tweets, worlds collide and a friendship is born. In the second book in the series, Bobs and Tweets: Perfecto Pet Show, Dean and Lou build on their friendship despite their differences and the differences of their families. Meet the Bobs and Tweets introduces the two very different families to readers while telling the story of how they ended up living right next to each other on Bonefish Street. If you k…

The Summer of Bad Ideas by Kiera Stewart, 304 pp, RL 4

The Summer of Bad Ideas by Kiera Stewart is the perfect summer read, like a mini-version of an adult beach read. There is family drama, secrets, adventure, mistakes, friendship and even a the possibility of romance under the stars. Stewart takes common themes like sense of self, struggles with friends and parents and plays them out in an exotic setting with an interesting cast of characters. 
When Petunia, her mother's mother and someone she never met, dies, almost thirteen-year-old Edith Posey-Preston finds herself in a minivan next to her eight-year-old siblings who are probably geniuses, headed to Pinney, Florida for six long, hot summer weeks. Staying at Petunia's house along with a menagerie of reptiles is her cousin Rae and her mother's brother, A.J., more people she doesn't really know. Together, the families are going to fix up Petunia's house before selling it, but when Edith, who decides to go by Edie, finds a list of, "Good Ideas for Summertime 1962,…

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, 464 pp, RL TEEN

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a very important book. I am not a skilled or brave enough writer to convey here my experience of this book as a middle class white woman, but I can tell you that this book made me think, really, deeply think about race, class and prejudice in America and it made me question my way of thinking, my lack of thinking, my lack of understanding. It made me check my privilege, something I thought, working at a school with a student population that is 90% minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged, I had already done. For a much better written, more informed review, read Anna Diamond's piece in The Atlantic. I listened to the audio version of The Hate U Give, which was read by the superlative Bahni Turpin, member of the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles and narrator of some of my favorite books. Her range of voices is equal to or beyond to that ofJim Dale, narrator of the Harry Potter series.
Extraordinary and ordinary is how you might describe…

Chirri & Chirra AND Chirri & Chirra in the Tall Grass by Kaya Doi, translated from the Japanese by Yuki Kaneko

This is going to be a review, but also a discourse on the picture book itself. Reading a picture book can be a magical experience for me and I have the deepest regard for the creator of this kind of picture book. And this kind of picture book is rare. Working as a children's bookseller for almost 20 years, and reading hundreds of books out loud each year in a professional and parental capacity, I feel able and qualified to offer my opinion on what makes a superlative picture book. Working as an assistant to a literary agent with a client list that includes many Caldecott winners (including Jon Klassen, who won the Caldecott and the Caldecott honor in the same year) helped me hone my critical eye and understand my instincts and tastes on a more intellectual level.  Writing reviews of picture books for the last nine years, I have reviewed almost 1,000 picture books. And, while I see more picture books every year, I choose to review less every year. I assume that my readers are like …

Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis, illustrated by Jerel Dye, 210 pp, RL 4

Pigs Might Fly, written by Nick Abdazis and illustrated by Jerel Dye, is like nothing I've ever read before. It is a little bit like something I've seen before, specifically the Miyazaki movie Porco Rosso in which WWI flying ace is the victim of a strange curse that makes him an anthropomorphic pig. But really, a pig flying an old-timey aircraft is where the similarities end. The world of Pigs Might Fly is 100% pig, with pig themed names for towns, people and sayings, not to mention a very cool pig-themed creation myth.
A detailed, awesome map of the Pigdom Plains at the start of Pigs Might Fly sets the scene for Lily Fatchop, girl inventor, believer in the truth of science and the power of magic, in balance. One of the most fascinating aspects of Pigs Might Fly is the presence of science and magic and the way that they are perceived and practiced in the various cultures in the story. An inventor, engineer and respected government employee, Lily's dad, Professor Fatchops, i…

Heartwood Hotel Book 1: A True Home by Kallie George, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin, 173 pp, RL 3

I love a good forest story. I was enchanted by the (slightly weird) world of Beatrix Potter as a child and spent many hours imagining life in Toad Hall, Ratty's waterside home and Badger's complex burrow deep in the Wild Wood. I even created the label Forest Story to keep track of books in this genre I reviewed. And, while there aren't a lot of books that come along in the precise vein of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the WillowsKallie George's new series, Heartwood Hotel, with charming illustrations by Stephanie Graegin, is a marvelous forest story with the kind of caring, friendship and community that you find in Grahame's book. And, be sure to check out the equally charming and wonderful Heartwood Hotel website for these books where you can learn more about the hotel (the staff, the menu, the rooms) and print out creative activities that let readers design a room for the hotel, create a menu and craft a miniature suitcase!
In the first book in the series, A…

York: Book 1 The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, 448 pp, RL 4

Perhaps because of my early and abiding love for E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I never pass up the chance to read a middle grade mystery filled with puzzle clues, maps and museums, especially if the book is set in New York City, which seems to be THE place for this specific genre. However, this is a genre of kidlit that is especially challenging to write. It's hard to keep the plot complex and suspenseful while also making sure that it is reasonable and as realistic as possible. York: The Shadow Cipher  by Laura Ruby does all of this and more. In fact, one of the challenges as an adult reader of this middle-grade-mystery-genre is maintaining enough of a willing suspension of disbelief to be carried along by the story. Ruby achieves this with two important plot points. Early into the mystery, Ruby has one of her young sleuths express skepticism for the ease with which they seem to be finding and decoding clues that none of the many adul…