Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Seeking Refuge by Irene Watts and Kathryn Shoemaker

Cover image for Seeking refuge : a graphic novelHere is a very different graphic novel from the ones I have reviewed this month.  This is a story about a Jewish German girl who is evacuated from Germany right before the instigation of concentration camps.  She is sent to England, but has no family there to take her, so she is passed from home to home.  In some she is treated as a servant, in others she is expected to take the place of a diseased daughter.  None of the hosts respect her religious background or understand her longing to be reunited with her mother again.

This is a touching and sober historical fiction story.  The pictures are done in black and white pencil sketches and monochrome coloring reinforces the serious mood of the story.  This could be a good companion graphic novel to Lois Lowry's Number the Stars.  In some ways it is more culturally balanced because it shows that the British, although they helped the refugees, were not 100% hospitable.  It would be interesting for a group to read both and then compare and contrast them. (134 p.)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Star Scouts by Mike Lawrence

Cover image for Star scoutsAvani has moved to a new town and is having a hard time fitting in with her new Flower Scouts group.  All they want to talk about is boys and makeup, and make fun of Avani because she used to compete in rodeos.  Then one night, Avani is mistakenly transported to another planet where she meet Mabel, a friendly alien, and the Star Scouts.  Although they look very different from Avani, she soon fits right in.  Her main problem now is how to convince her father to let her go across the universe to Camp Andromeda.

This is a delightful science fiction twist on the old "new girl at a new school" theme. Lawrence's story and illustrations are full of action and humor. Avani gets to do so many fun things, readers will be wishing they could be Star Scouts as well. Parents should be forewarned that Lawrence doesn't have any reservations about potty humor.  One of the classes at the camp is "Alien Scatology" and one of the campers makes a robot named "Goose" that pinches people's butts.  Of course, that just adds to the book's appeal to the target audience.  (185 p.)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bronze and Sunflower by Wenxuan Cao

Cover image for Bronze and Sunflower
(Unfortunate Cover)
In rural China during the Cultural Revolution, Sunflower meets a mute country boy named Bronze while her father works at a cadre school (a place where city folks were sent to learn the virtues of hard labor). When her father dies, Sunflower is adopted by Bronze's family. Although they are very poor, the family loves Sunflower and make great sacrifices so that she can go to school and have a good life. She, in turn, comes to love her new family, and especially her new brother, with all her heart.

This is a book that has received a lot of starred reviews this year. It is a good book for the kind of reader who wants to totally immerse themselves in another time and culture for a while. No one who didn't live in a small Chinese town could have written the story with so much detail and intimacy. Cao is Chinese, and this book is a translation from Chinese.  There is a real Asian flavor, a sense of the importance of community working together and of individuals sacrificing for the good of the whole that you don't find in Western writing. I am glad I read it. That said, I found it a little slow. The story covers 5 years in Sunflower's life, and it seemed that long by the time I finished it. The other issue is the ending. What is up with the ending???  (You will have to read it to find out what I mean by that.)   Still, I can see why it got good reviews, and it is a solid addition to multicultural literature for children. (386 p.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Mighty Zodiac #1: Starfall

Cover image for The Mighty Zodiac. StarfallOne of the Guardian Dragons has died and left part of the world unprotected.  It is up to the zodiac animals to find the magic stars that will turn their master, Master Long, into the new guardian dragon, but first they must defeat the evil shadow rabbits.

This was a fun adaptation of Chinese folk tales.  The animal characters remind me a little of the animals in Disney's Robin Hood.  The illustrations are all in full color, and tell the story with energy. This book is pretty devoid of subtlety.  As I read it the voice in my head kept slipping into the announcer voice from the old live-action Batman TV show.  It has been amazing to me as I have read more graphic novels, what a range there is in style and "voice" in the illustrations.  This one is not sophisticated, but I think 8 year old boys (or superhero fan girls) would love it and then play Mighty Zodiac pretend games during recess for a long time afterward. (148 p.)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Adventurer's Guide to Successfull Escapes by Wade Albert White

Cover image for The adventurer's guide to successful escapesAnne is an orphan waiting for her 13th birthday so she can leave the orphanage forever.  She hopes that she and her friend, Penelope, will be accepted into a questing school, but there is little chance of that--or at least that is what they think.   The day before Anne's birthday she and Penelope are  recruited by a school and given their first quest. They receive one more addition to her team, a boy names Hiro, and together they face seeming insurmountable odds to pursue their goal.

A lot of books I choose to read because they received starred reviews.  This one did not.  It is a B-level fantasy at best, but it was entertaining.  The author added some steam punk elements that were fun and there is good chemistry between the three children.  The main shortcoming is that the quest that was supposed to be impossibly difficult was really not very difficult at all.  If that was a high level quest, a low level quest probably requires the student to successfully make it to the bathroom and back.  Still, it is a fun story and I would recommend it to younger children who are good readers, who want a longer book but can't handle emotional intensity yet.  (374 p.)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Trouble with Chickens by Doreen Cronin

Cover image for The trouble with chickens : a J.J. Tully mysteryChildren's book lovers will probably recognize the name of Doreen Cronin as the author of several very successful picture books, including Click Clack Moo and Diary of a Spider.  This is (I believe) her first attempt at writing longer fiction. 

J.J. used to be a rescue dog, but now lives as an "outdoors" dog on a farm.  He tries to keep his rescue skills alive by protecting the other farm animals.  When a  mother hen comes to him and explains that one of her babies has gone missing, J.J. is on the case. 

This was cute.  J.J. talks like an old fashion gum shoe detective.  There are some funny moments when the rival house dog tries to look cool, but is foiled by the cone around his neck.  The baby chicks turn out to be more intelligent than they seem at first.  It was not an awesome novel, but a decently amusing one for a 6 or 7 year old. (114 p.)

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Phantom 'Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Cover image for The phantom tollboothThe other day I was feeling guilty because I had never read the children's fantasy classic, The Phantom Tollbooth.  When I saw it was available on OverDrive I jumped at the opportunity to assuage my guilt.

Milo is bored of everything.  Then one day a large toy arrives at his house with his name on it.  It is a tollbooth, like those you see at the entrance to a toll road.  It comes with an instruction book and some coins to pay the toll. Once Milo pays the toll, he is whisked away in his little toy electric car into a world of fantasy. 

This book has a similar flavor to Alice in Wonderland.  There is not really a strong plot, and Milo is not a well developed character, but the people and creatures he meets are interesting enough to carry the book.  They are all personifications of plays on words (e.g. the "watchdog" on the cover) and there are many puns and much snappy patter.  I know people for whom this was their favorite book as a child, though contemporary children might not know some of the old fashion terms used in the puns (it was written in the '60's). None the less, I found it amusing and am glad I read it.  (279 p.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez

Cover image for NightlightsI haven't been keeping up with my comic book.  This is one that receive starred reviews.

Sandy likes to draw, and her drawing helps her escape into the world of imagination. One day she meets a girl, Morfie, who admires her artwork. That night, Morfie haunts Sandy's dreams as a hungry specter who wants to eat Sandy's imagination. Lines between reality and fancy are blurred until they become dangerously thin.

This is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel all done in eye-popping color. It is also slightly creepy which, I think, will increase it's appeal to the target audience.  It ends on a cliffhanger, so I expect we will be seeing a sequel soon. (54 p.)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks

Cover image for Save me a seatIn India, Ravi was the top student and the best a cricket.  Now on the first day in his new school in the United States, he finds that he is no longer a star. At his old school he would have never associated with a kid like Joe, who is big and awkward, and has a learning disability.  Now the two boys find themselves thrown together in the same remedial class, united because they are both victims of the same bully and in need of a friend.

I really enjoyed this book.  It was sweet and both of the main characters were very sympathetic.  The chapters in the book alternate between Ravi's and Joe's point of view and are written by Varadarajan and Weeks respectively.  I liked that in the end the authors included both a glossary for kids unfamiliar with Indian terms, and one for kids unfamiliar with American terms.  This is a heartwarming read for those who like the books of R. J. Palacio and Lisa Graff. (216 p.)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Shannon Hale

Doreen was born with a squirrel tale and the ability to talk with squirrels.  Her parents always urged her to keep her tale hidden so that other kids don't feel bad that they don't have one, but when Doreen moves to a new state and starts at a new middle school, she finds it hard to make friends, and to keep her amazing Squirrel Girl abilities a secret.

Cover image for The unbeatable Squirrel Girl : squirrel meets worldI was pleased to see that Shannon Hale was contracted to write this one: First, because I thought she would keep it clean, and second I hoped it would actually have good writing and character development. My first hope was certainly realized.  This is a book I would feel totally OK giving to an 8 year old girl.  The second was mostly realized.  The book is written well enough that the target audience will love it.  Not only does Doreen have a squirrel's tale and strength, she also has a squirrel's chipper, slightly hyper personality.  Her parents are super sweet, too. That said, I didn't think Hale really ever connected personally with her character.  Doreen remained a cartoon character to me.  I didn't ever think she was a real person with real feelings. Maybe that is what Hale was going for, but I would have enjoyed a little more depth. Still, as I said, I am not sorry I read it, and I am pretty sure kids are going to love it. (324 p.)

(There was one incredibly funny part that makes reading the book totally worth it.  At one point Doreen exchanges texts with Tony Stark (Ironman) and they are so funny.  I won't say more, but, yep, I laughed pretty hard.)

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan

Cover image for The dark prophecyIn this second of the Trials of Apollo series, Apollo is traveling with Leo Valdez and Calipso to try to find Meg and the second oracle.  They follow clues to the American Midwest.  There they find a safe haven for Demigods and mythical creatures, but they also find the second evil emperor of the Triumvirate.  Everything leads up to an epic battle.

I must admit, I am finally getting tired of these.  They really are very much alike.  In this one the thing that bugged me is that Apollo spent so much time telling about his various past love affairs that went wrong.  I didn't want to hear about how he treated this or that human/god with cavalier sexual disrespect. Of course, there was the normal fast-paced action and snappy patter, but I think I am done.  Bye, bye, Apollo. (though I might read the next Magnum Chase .) (414 p.)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Lost in a Book by Jennifer Donnelly

This is a story published by Disney that is a companion story to Beauty and the Beast. The story takes place between the time the Belle first arrives at the castle and the time that Belle and the Beast dance and the Beast lets Belle go.

Image result for Beauty and the Beast lost in a bookThe story starts with a scene where two sisters, Love and Death are playing chess and discussing Belle and the Beast.  They argue about whether Love or Death will win out in this instance and end up making a wager.  For the rest of the story Death is actively trying to thwart Belle's growing attachment to the Beast by creating an alternate reality, called Nevermore, that Belle can access through a magic book in the Beast's library.  In Nevermore Belle can have all her heart's desires. She knows it isn't real, but the Countess (Death) promises that is could someday become real. Belle is torn between the friends and the glamorous life she finds in Nevermore and her growing friendships with Mrs. Potts, Chip, Lumiere, and Cogsworth in the real world.

If you are thinking that this is a cute book you could read aloud to your five-year-old Disney-princess-loving daughter, think again.  This has some seriously intense and creepy scenes.  The final scene when Belle  figures out what Nevermore and the Countess are, nearly rivals Gaiman's Coraline in creepiness.  That said, I liked this book. The pacing dragged a little in the middle, but I thought overall it was well crafted.  Donnelly shows Belle and the Beast laying the foundations of a real relationship and it makes Belle's declaration of love for the Beast that occurs at the end of the movie much more believable. I will give this book to kids ages 10+ who really like the new Beauty and the Beast movie. (341 p.)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard

Cover image for Becoming BachAt the library we have been assigned to prepare book talks that we can video record for the school librarians.  We must choose one picture book, one nonfiction, one intermediate or comic book and one fiction novel.  The books have to have been published in the last year. 

For my nonfiction I found this beautifully illustrated picture book biography in which Leonard gives the reader a glimpse into the early life and musical legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach. The spare text --there are only a few lines per page-- is written in first person, as if Bach is telling his own story. He relates how he was orphaned at a young age and was raised by an older brother.  He became a professional musician quite young, and lived his whole life within 200 miles of his birthplace. The text is good and very accessible, but the thing that makes this book amazing is the illustrations. Leonard is clearly trying to portray with color and line the beauty and complexity of Bach's music. Sometimes multi-colored musical staves, or flowery patterns, swirl through the illustrations.  In other pictures, the images themselves are made with musical notes.  I think Leonard does a great job suggesting Bach's music, and I think it would be wonderful to read the book with some of Bach's music playing in the background. (32 p.)