Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Spitting Image by Shutta Crum

Jessie lives in a small poor town in the 60's. When a social philanthropist comes to town, Jessie gets involved with "the President's fight against poverty." She soon finds out that helping the "poor" is more complicated than she could have believed, especially when the "poor" are her friends and neighbors. How do they feel when people see how poor they are and when they receive help and attention from strangers? Jessie's best friend, Robert, is from one of the poorest families. His father is a drunk and his mother has to work all day to support the family. Dickie, who is a bully, has a father who is mean and violent. Jessie doesn't know who her father was, but she wants to find out. When this book came out in 2003 it got a lot of attention. Many librarians had it on their short list for the Newbery Medal. It has all the elements of a Newbery winner. It has more social issues than you can shake a stick at; unwed mother, abusive fathers, neglected children, alcoholism an much more. That said, they are handled well and are not oppressive. The main character is very sympathetic. She is big hearted, but hot headed and has to struggle to keep from getting into fights. The other characters are interesting, dimensional and realistic. The book deals with very difficult issues in a way that is accessible to fairly young children (maybe 6th grade and up). If there is a child, especially a girl, who likes to read social issue books, this is a good choice. Reader beware,-spoiler alert- in the end Jessie finds out that her inception was the result of a rape. Some kids in 6th grade can understand and deal with that kind of plot, but it might be too much for others. (218 p)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Wedding Planner's Daughter by Coleen Murtagh Paratore

Willa's father died the day after he and her mother were married. Willa's mother, Stella, is successful professional wedding planner, but has shut her own heart to any thoughts of romance. As long as she could remember, all Willa has ever wanted was a father, but whenever Stella seems to be getting close to any man, she uproots Willa and moves to a new state. Finally Willa and Stella end up in Cape Cod where Stella was raised, and for the first time Willa feels like she really belongs. She has her grandmother nearby and a really good friend. Now all she has to do is get her mother to fall in love with her English teacher so they can get married and Willa can finally live happily ever after. This is a light, humorous romance with all of the expected elements. 12 year old Willa has her first crush, and her first kiss (on the cheek). The relationship between her mother and her teacher is on again, off again. Of course, dreams do come true and it is all good in the end. Willa is a believable 12 year old and the supporting characters are full blown and interesting. (200 p)

The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

Last week I went on a little vacation with my husband. I decided to take a book with me to read during down time and the one I chose was The Red Pyramid. I am a great Riordan fan. I have read all of his Lightning Thief series and I consider him about the best fantasy action writer for children right now. I am afraid, however, I was a little disappointed in this book. It was a good book, but it was too much like the Lightning Thief. I think if I had read this before reading that series I would have thought it was great.

In this story a boy, Carter lives with his dad who is an archaeologist. His sister, Sadie, lives with their grandparents because their mother has died. On one rare occasion when Carter actually gets to see his sister, their father performs some kind of ancient Egyptian ceremony, and is captured by some kind of demon. The rest of the book Carter and Sadie are trying to find and rescue their father. As they do they come to discover that they are descendants of Egyptian Pharaohs and have the ability to interact with the ancient Egyptian deity. Of course this gives them powers they never knew they had and enemies who chase them around the world. Their are some things about the book I really liked. It is always fun to see how Riordan sets ancient myths into a modern setting. As always his action sequence writing is fast paced and exciting. I also liked that fact that the main character was black, but it wasn't a huge issue in the story. I think if kids like The Lightning Thief, they are likely to enjoy this one, too. (516 p)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sidekicks by Jack D. Ferraiolo

The cover of this book looks like it should be for kids about 8 years old. Wrong! This is definitely a Young Adult book. The reason it is YA book is the first chapter. In that chapter, the superhero sidekick, Brightboy, AKA 15 year old Scott Hutchinson, is rescuing a woman who was thrown off the top of a building by a super villain. As he rescues the very attractive woman, he gets a little more "excited" than he had intended. His "excitement" shows as a bulge in his yellow tights. The event is recorded by national TV and Bright Boy becomes a laughing stock. Although this the kind of problem every teenage boy deals with some time in their life, it makes for an awkward first chapter of a book. Bright Boy's costume malfunction motivates all the events in the first half of the book. He meets a female sidekick and she takes him to the superhero tailor and helps him pick out a less revealing costume. This causes friction with his super hero mentor, who wants him to keep his original costume, but practice better self control. Bright Boy defies his mentor and starts to fall in love with the other sidekick (whose mentor, by the way, is Scott's mentor's arch nemisis). Then, all of the sudden, the book takes an amazing twist, and the reader is thrust into a whirlpool of plot and characters so that everyone who used to be a good guy, is now a bad guy, and visa versa. It is a very well crafted story, and totally unpredictable. It got a well deserved starred review in SLJ, but I noticed that my library does not have a print copy (I downloaded it from NetLibrary). I guess the first chapter was just too much for our selectors. (227 p.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

This is the winner of the Newbery Medal for 2011 and I am sad to say it took me 5 months after the Newbery announcement to get around to reading it. In my defense, I have had it on hold for quite a while. The real reason I hadn't read it earlier is that my fellow librarians were rather lukewarm about it. Some liked it OK while others found it slow and hard to get through. I therefore, entered into it with some reservation. In the end I was pleasantly surprised. This is a story of a girl, Abilene, who is the daughter of a drifter during the 1930's. Her father decides that she is getting too old to be riding the rails with him, and sends her to live with a preacher in a small town were he spent some of his childhood. He promises to return at the end of the summer, but as the days go by she begins to wonder if he really will return. Desperate to make some connection to him, she begins to look for clues to his childhood in the town. A eccentric Romanian woman begins telling her stories of the past, but never mentions Abilene's father's name. Abilene wonders how her father fits into the complicated past of the small town. As the synopsis suggests, the book is a moody, broody kind of story, but it is sprinkled with funny stories from the town's past, and a little sense of mystery as to what really happened. It reminds me, in a way, of Holes by Louis Sachar, one of my favorite Newbery winners of the last 20 years. Like Holes, this book takes objects, a few keepsakes Abilene finds in her room, weaves stories around them, and then connects those stories into the time line of the present. The thing that makes Holes a more compelling read than this one, is that the "present" day story of Moon Over Manifest, is not nearly as interesting as the "present" day story in Holes. Still, the book, overall is interesting and well crafted, and worth the effort.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

This is the first book in the Bartimaeus trilogy. Stroud has an interesting magic system. In this world London is the center of the society because it has the most powerful magicians. The magicians have no power of their own. They use pentacles and spells to enslave different kinds of demons, based on Middle Eastern legends, and the demons have to do what the magicians command. The title character, Bartimaeus, is a djinni who comes under the control of a precocious young magician named Nathaniel. Nathaniel has the djinni steal a powerful amulet from a rival magician who once humiliated the boy. Little does Nathaniel know that the amulet is at the center of a plot to overthrow the Prime Minister and that by stealing it he gets himself into more trouble than he bargained for. This book is really most appropriate for teens but 5th or 6th graders who are voracious fantasy readers will enjoy it as well. The reasons it takes an experienced reader to enjoy it is that it is kind of long, and because Nathaniel and his world are very emotionally complicated. The leaders of the government are either ruthless schemers, or incompetent bumblers. There is no clear good and bad, and the reader is not always sure whether Nathaniel, himself, is a good person. The best thing in the book is the character of Bartimaeus. He is arrogant and cheeky but also wize. When you read the Bartimaeus chapters, be sure to read the footnotes. They are the funniest part. Or better yet, listen to the book in recording. The reader does the footnotes sotto voce with a lot of attitude and it works very well. (462 p)

Monday, May 2, 2011

A History of Us: the First Americans by Joy Hakim

I enjoyed the George Washington: Spy Master so much I decided to read another nonfiction. This is actually the first in a 10 volume set on the History of the United States. It is an interesting book, part text book, part story book. If I were going to do home school I might consider it as a text for teaching American history. It is geared for about 4th or 5th grades. Admittedly, there are some parts that might seem condescending for that age group. During the book she tells the reader to pretend to be driving a time/space machine. I am not sure a 8 year old will go for that because it might seem too juvenile. Beside that, however it is quite a good overview of history. I learned a lot I didn't know before. The writing is informal and engaging. I think she is more likely to show both the good and bad in each situation--less propaganda than some American History text books. She stops every once in a while to ask searching philosophical questions. She just kind of throws them out without giving an answer. Much of the book is spent on both the Native Americans and the Spanish explorers. Hakim doesn't paint them in black and white, but rather admits that some native people were more just than others, and that many Spanish Conquistadors were evil, but others had good motives. All in all the book was not as engaging as the Washington book, but accomplished what it set out to accomplish quite admirably.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel

At an Easter gathering last week, my sister-in-law suggested I review Bad Kitty because it was her 6 year old son's favorite. I am not surprised. It is a very funny book. In fact, the 1st and 2nd grade age group find it hilarious. In the book, the Kitty is a good Kitty, until its master runs out of kitty food and tries to make it eat an alphabet of vegetables (e.g. Asparagus, Beets, Cauliflower...). Then it becomes a Bad Kitty. As the Bad Kitty, it does a bad thing for each of the letters of the alphabet. It "Ate my homework, Bit Grandma, and Clawed the curtains," etc. Just when the kitty is done with the Bad alphabet, the masters come home with an alphabet of delicious cat food. Then the cat goes through the alphabet again with ways of repairing the bad deeds. By the time you finish the book, you have gone through the alphabet 4 times. The illustrations and text are so silly, it is a delight. Especially funny are the pictures of the cat, first in the throws of horror at having to eat vegetables, and then in the ecstasy of delight when it gets the good food. This is a great one to share together, or for a child to read on their own. The pictures are a help with word decoding, and there is a lot of good vocabulary.