Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Books with puzzles and codes

I don't know how I fell down this rabbit hole, but I've been reading middle grade fiction and every one of them were mysteries that had some kind of code or puzzle.  A happy coincidence apparently, because they were all good.

The first one is called "Winterhouse" by Ben Guterson.  It's about a girl named Elizabeth who comes home and finds that her guardians (her parents were killed when she was 4), her aunt and uncle have left to go on vacation.  They've left her a train ticket and $3 and directions how to get to where she's going while they are on vacation.  All of this seems a little suspicious to Elizabeth-her aunt and uncle haven't wanted to spend an extra penny in the entire time she's lived with them and now suddenly, they want to go on vacation and send her to a hotel?  She can only imagine what kind of a terrible place it's going to be.  But when she gets there, she's pleasantly surprised, no, stunned, to find that Winterhouse is a beautiful place.  It's a lovely hotel, full of amazing amenities.  The staff is welcoming and friendly and she even makes a friend, Freddy, who is an inventor and puzzler, just like Elizabeth.    But of course, there is trouble afoot, there is a scary looking man and his wife who are trying to get to know Elizabeth and that feels strange.  Elizabeth also gets these feelings and then surprising things happen.  I really liked this story because Elizabeth is an interesting character and I liked her analytic mind.  I loved the anagrams that are tossed in as well as the world ladders at the beginning of each chapter.  I think the kids are going to like this one a lot.

Here's a book trailer for the book.

The second book drew me in because of it's very famous author-Neil Patrick Harris.  I think he's a terrific actor and I wondered if he was as good at writing.  It turns out he is!  He has a series that just came out called "Magic Misfits".  It starts off with a boy named Carter, who's parents were tragically killed and he is sent to live with an uncle (noticing a theme?).  The uncle is not a terribly nice person and he teaches Carter magic and sleight of hand so that the uncle can pick people's pockets.  Carter is determined never to steal from people and finds himself running away from his uncle, to make his fortune.  He ends up in a small town in New England called Mineral Wells.  There is a small fair there and that seems like it might be a good place for a magician to make a living, but the people in the fair seem more like his uncle than Carter was hoping for and ends up at a magic store with a man named Mr. Vernon.  It turns out there are two Mr. Vernons-one magician and one chef and they have an adopted daughter named Leila who has a circle of friends.  Leila and her friends invite Carter to join them and suddenly Carter is feeling more at home than he ever did with his uncle.  Unfortunately, there is trouble afoot.  The big boss at the fair is planning an event around the world's largest diamond, and Carter is sure the big boss is going to try to steal it.  What's really fun about this one is the magic tricks-there are directions for several different magic tricks in the book, which my students LOVE.  The second thing that's fun about it is that there are several different codes hidden in the text.  I think the kids are going to like this one too.

The last one is lighter on puzzles than the other two, but it's still a really great story.  It's called "The Ambrose Deception".  This one is more of a straight up mystery.  It's about three kids who are struggling to find their way.  Melissa is doing other people's homework for cash, Bondi is sneaky and Wilf is just looking to have a good time.  But they are each approached about applying for a $10,000 scholarship.  The scholarship has a couple of funny pieces to it- first, there are three clues that need to be solved.  Second, they are each given a driver and a debit card with no limits, except that they have to stay in Chicago, and third, they can't talk about this to anyone else.  I really can't tell you more about the plot without spoiling it, but let me tell you that the story is full of fun plot twists.  The one big thing that is a bit limiting about the story is that if you don't have a good sense of some of the cultural highlights of Chicago, the clues and their answers may seem kind of foreign.  My students struggle with the cultural nuances of our own state because of a lack of exposure and I'm pretty sure they have no idea what's in Chicago or even more tragically, that Chicago even exists.  I hope that kids will find the story is compelling enough to keep them going.  I also think it might be a really fun movie someday.  

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

New non fiction!

Here's what I found in some new non-fiction this week.

The first one is a biography called "Martin Luther King: The Peaceful Warrior" by Ed Clayton.  It was originally published in 1964.  The story is well written and doesn't seem to be anachronistic.  It gives a nice overview of Dr. King's life and some of the people who influenced him.  The artwork is warm and interesting.  I was a little fuzzy on what had been updated, since I hadn't read the initial work but overall it was a nice biography of Dr. King.  I read this one as an e-book from Netgalley so it will be interesting to see this as an actual book-to see the placement of the artwork and and how that all fits together.  I liked the fact that the book is written by people who actually knew Dr. King and how they interpreted the events of his life.  

The second one is also a biography.  It's about Andrew Carnegie.  It's called "The Man Who Loved Libraries" by Andrew Larsen.  It tells the story of Andrew Carnegie, who was born in a rural part of Scotland to a fairly poor family.  The family did work hard and eventually emigrated to the US where Andrew worked hard too.  However, he had help along the way, something he never forgot.  So after he made millions in the steel industry, he spent the later years of his life dedicated to philanthropic causes.  He helped to start Carnegie-Mellon University and gave a huge amount of money to the New York Public Library.  It's a nice story to give kids some background about an important historical figure like Carnegie and to perhaps start a conversation about how someone who has a lot of money might feel that they have an obligation to share that wealth.  

The last one is poetry, which in my library is non-fiction, but it feels like it could be a narrative story told in verse.  It's called "Can I Touch Your Hair?" by Charles Waters and Irene Latham.  The story is about two fifth graders, Charles and Irene that end up working together on a poetry project.  It's not really by choice, they both would rather have been working with someone else.  But it turns out, they have a lot more in common than they thought.  They agree that they will each write poems about different topics and the topics are presented in a two page illustrated spread.  The kids share their feelings about a variety of topics-church, shoes, hair, friends.  It turns out that even though there is a lot about them that is different, there is a lot that is the same too.  I think this would be an excellent on to use as a mentor text-the poetry flows so easily, the kids will be inspired to write poems just like them.  The story is also a great one-how people view others who are different from them and how they might not be as different as they thought.  I'm going to put this one on my list to order RIGHT NOW.  

Friday, January 5, 2018

New fiction for bigger kids

After having plunged into the dark heart of middle grade fantasy fiction for the past few months, I'm coming out on the other side, ready to read some new things!  I happened to get a hold of some realistic fiction for upper middle grade or YA, bigger than what I've been reading and what a treat.  Here are two I read this week.

The first one is a graphic novel called "Illegal" by Eion Colfer and Andrew Donkin.  I find graphic novels are not usually my first choice.  I read really fast and I love creating my own mental images.  I find the graphic novels require me to slow down, read the text and interpret the pictures because they are usually a big part of the story.  This one was worth slowing down for.  It's about a boy named Ebo.  It's told in two different parts and it flashes between the two parts of the story.  The story begins with Ebo finding that his brother, Kwame, has left the family home (which is pretty short on family-their parents are gone, their older sister is gone and they have been left in the care of a drunk uncle).  Kwame has gone in search of a better life in Europe.  Ebo decides he will follow rather than wait for Kwame to send money back and maybe both of them can find their sister.  The story flashes around but tells different parts of how difficult a journey this is-there are thieves willing to steal from other refugees, it's difficult to find money, food, shelter, medicine.  The terrain is difficult.  There are a few kind people along the way, but it's a brutal journey.  I think the story accurately reflects the experiences of a lot of people who have been escaping from the Middle East and northern Africa to try to find a better life.  I think it's big and scary and I think it will be a great one for big kids to read to help them to understand why someone would take such a big risk.

Here's a book trailer about it.

The other is by one of my favorite authors, Holly Black.  It's what I hope is the beginning of new series, because this was a story with lots of interesting characters and lots of questions left unanswered.  It's called "The Cruel Prince".  The story opens with a happy family, mom, dad, three little girls, when a stranger comes to the door.  There are some acts of horrific violence, and when the dust settles, the girls have gone to live with the stranger in Faerie land.  I'm in danger of spoiling some of the surprises, but suffice it to say that some of the girls are happier about living with the Fey than others.  There is some intense bullying, some graphic violence, political intrigue, wild plot twists, as well as messages about drinking and drug abuse, family loyalty, and finding your own true voice.  I thought it was terrific.  It will be an excellent addition to middle school or high school library but too big for my elementary readers.  

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New non fiction

I'm moving back into my post-CYBILs life.  For the last two months, I've been reading virtually nothing but middle grade fantasy (speculative) fiction.  It's been a lot of fun but I'm ready to move onto something else.

So imagine my immense joy this morning to look in Netgalley and find something completely different from what I've been reading, NON FICTION.  So I dove in and what a reward!  Here's some of what I found.

The first one is called "Spy on History: Victor Dowd and the World War II Ghost Army" by Enigma Alberti.  It's the story of a group of soldiers during World War II that were artists, weathermen, sound engineers and writers that helped to mislead the Germans into thinking that there were a lot more American soldiers in different places than there actually were.  The story is written in a very easy to read conversational prose that moves the story along quickly.  It recounts several different times during the war when the Ghost Army was able to successfully trick the Germans and the local townspeople.  It also has graphic novel type illustrations that are clues to different things in the story. It tells you how to interpret them in the back (in case, like me, you weren't paying close enough attention to the pictures), which I think kids will find very amusing.  I know I enjoyed going back to see what the pictures really meant.  I think a book like this will engage a lot of kids who like puzzles as well as kids who like history.  The only reason I might not put it in my library is that in the front of the book it says that there will be a physical envelope that will contain tools that help you solve the mystery of the book.  In my library, it would take perhaps two checkouts before all the tools would disappear, so this might not be the right fit for my library, but I could highly recommend it for a home read.

The second one is a picture book about sustainability and problem solving.  It's called "Iqbal and his Ingenious Idea" by Elizabeth Suneby.  It's about a boy named Iqbal who lives in a small village in India or possibly Pakistan.  His teacher is organizing a science fair with cash prizes.  The project must showcase sustainability.  Iqbal is inspired by his mother, who is coughing from the smoke of their cooking fire, to create a new cleaner way to cook.  The story is simply written so it will go quickly but with enough details that you can really understand Iqbal's motivation. It's a nice lesson on how people's lives are different around the globe as well as creative problem solving and inventing.  This would be a really great one paired with "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" by William Kamkwaba.  I think this will be an excellent addition to our library.  

This last one came the day before winter break and I was able to sneak it home before any of my students checked it out!  It's a picture book biography called "The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist" by Cynthia Levinson.  The story starts with Audrey and her mother making a delicious dinner for their friend Mike who is coming from out of town.  It turns out Mike is Martin Luther King Jr. and he's in town with some other ministers to help to organize protests in Birmingham, Alabama.  Audrey really wants to participate too and so she does.   The pictures in this one are lovely and highly animated-you almost feel like you're right there with Audrey every step of the way.    This is a lovely story that kids will enjoy and hopefully it will help them understand that it's never too late to stand up for what is right. 

Here's a book trailer about the book. 

Happy New Year everyone!  May the new year be full of wonderful surprises and terrific new books!

Friday, December 8, 2017

More middle grade fantasy fiction!

So I'm knee deep in the CYBILs list.  In case you didn't know, CYBILs stands for Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Award.  I've been lucky enough to serve as a panelist this year on the middle grade speculative (fantasy) fiction and it's SO MUCH FUN.  It is a bit daunting to see the list-there are over 120 books (chapter books!) and we have two months to read them.  I was WAY behind the power curve this year, because I've mostly been reading picture books for another book award I read for so I've been scurrying to catch up.  I'm getting there, but I'm a little relieve that weather here in South Florida is supposed to be terrible tomorrow, in hopes that I'll actually think it's a good idea to sit down and read during the day time, instead of waiting until I go to bed, when invariably, I'm tired enough, I get to "The ..." and fall asleep.

Anyway, this week, I've had a chance to read some great ones that I'd never heard of so it was very exciting!  The first one is a new series called the Uncommoners and the first one is called "The Crooked Sixpence.  It's by a new author named Jennifer Bell.  It's set in London in current times and it's about a girl named Ivy and her older brother Sebastian (they call him Seb).  They have parents who love them but are very busy, so they spend a lot of time with their grandmother.  Unfortunately, at the opening of the book, Ivy and Seb are in the hospital, with their grandmother who fell and is badly injured.  Their grandmother had a strange accident some time ago (in 1969, in fact) and since then, she's had acute amnesia.  She remembers everything since then, but nothing before.  But the accident seems to have brought back some memories.  The kids are sent back home and are waiting the arrival of their parents, but when they get home, they find their home has been ransacked and there's an ominous message on the wall.  The kids realize this must have something to do with their grandmother's amnesia so they set out to try to unravel the mystery.  This is a super fun book that is exciting and mysterious and magical.  And I'm so happy to see that there is already a sequel, YAY!  Because Ivy and Seb and the other characters are so terrific, I can't wait to see what happens next.

Here's a link to Jennifer Bell's lovely website.  And here's the book trailer.

The second one is called "The Unicorn in the Barn" by Jacqueline Ogburn.  It's about a boy named Eric who's hit a bit of a rough patch.  His family has lived in Western NC for several generations, but his grandmother, who is the matriarch of the family (Eric's mom died when he was small), has gotten very sick.  In fact, she's so sick, they've had to sell off part of the family property to pay the bills.  The new family that moved in is a mom and daughter and Eric's first introduction to the daughter is not a happy one.  But the mom is a veterinarian, which is pretty handy, because right after his first introduction to the daughter, he spots an animal that he thinks might be the white deer people have been talking about.  The animal is limping and it limps right over to the barn that his grandmother used to own but has been taken over by the veterinarian.  It turns out that it's not actually a deer, but a unicorn.  This is a lovely story about taking care of each other and family traditions and following your own path.  I liked it a lot.  

Here's one of the inviting black and white drawings from the book. 

And here's the lovely cover.

The last one is called "Dragon's Green" by Scarlett Thomas.  It's about a girl named Euphemia (Effie) who lives with her dad and his new wife (her mom disappeared awhile back during a world wide earthquake that caused the world to lose internet access) and her new half sister.  Her grandfather has an extensive library that she loves to spend time in but her grandfather is forbidden to teach her magic or talk about magic.  But Effie seems drawn to the magic (her dad thinks it's nonsense and probably what caused her mom to disappear).  One terrible day, her grandfather is attacked and badly injured and suddenly Effie is flung into a world she doesn't know and is ill prepared for-the magical one.  But she also finds she has friends who are willing and able to help her with the magical perils.  I thought it was a very fun read and was very well written.  I'm very happy to hear that it's the first one in a series, because I love the idea that I'm going to get to read more about Effie and her friends.  Here's a link to Scarlett Thomas's beautiful  website.   And here's the cover.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Ghost stories!

I don't usually read ghost stories.  I don't really like to be scared (there's enough scary stuff in the world for me-keep it out of my head!).  But I read a couple this week that were quite remarkable!

The first one is called "Olive and the Backstage Ghost" by Michelle Schusterman.  It's about Olive who lives with her mom.  Her mom used to be a famous singer and now she wants Olive to be a famous singer.  Olive's dad has disappeared?  Gone away?  Died?  It's a bit mysterious about what actually happened to dad, but he's not in the picture.  Olive is feeling over pressured by her mother and when she does poorly at an important audition, Olive runs out looking for an escape.  She finds solace at the Maudeville theatre, a beautiful old theater she never noticed before.  She finds people who appreciate her talents and want to make her a star, but there's something not quite right.  This is a super creepy story with a kind of an alternate reality.  It's kind of like "Coraline" by Neil Gaiman.  The parents story lines are a little thin but it's an exciting story to read.

The second one is called "Journey's End" by Rachel Hawkins.  It's about a girl named Nolie who is following her dad, a scientist, to a small town in Scotland from her hometown in GA.  Her parents are divorcing, which feels terrible to Nolie but she's excited to go to Scotland and happy to see her dad.  The town called Journey's End is on the coast and her dad is studying a fog bank.  People have been known to disappear into the fog back and then are never seen again.  Nolie meets a girl who lives in town-Bel's family runs a small gift shop in town and have deep roots there.   They do NOT have a good relationship with the scientists.  They believe that the scientists will damage their town's claim to fame and ruin their tourist business.  The story also flashes around in time to some of the victims of the fog.  One day, a boy no one knows turns up and things start changing pretty fast.  I liked this exciting ghost story.  I really liked the characters, who were funny and adventurous.  I also liked the Scottish language lessons that got thrown in a long the way.  I'm going to go and order a few of these for my school library RIGHT NOW.

The last one is a BRAND NEW book, it was just released in October.  It's called "The Bone Thief" by Alyson Noel.  It's about a boy who feels like he just doesn't fit in.  Grimsly Summerfield is completely and resolutely normal and that's the problem.  Grimsly lives in a magical town called Quiver Hollows.  He was discovered there by his guardian, Professor Snelling.  He's been surrounded by magic and taught by the best, but he is resolutely NOT magical.  His best friends, Ming (who can levitate), Ollie (who's been bending spoons since he was a baby) and Penelope (who doesn't really speak much but can send telepathic messages) are very supportive, but one day the magic starts disappearing from the town and the townspeople (who are somewhat less supportive) believe it has something to do with Grimsly.  So Grimsly sets out on a quest to set things right.  This is a very fast paced, very funny magical story where the ghosts that do the haunting are the scariest kind-the ones with no love.  This one will be great in an elementary or middle school library.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Spectacular new fantasy fiction!

I'm plowing through the CYBILS middle grade speculative fiction.  There were a few dogs in the pile but I've hit a bit of a hot streak and it's SO much fun to read such imaginative, creative, exciting stories!  Check out these beauties!

The first one is called "The Shadow Cipher" and it's the first one a series called York by Laura Ruby.  I'm relieved that this only the first one because the characters and plot of this one were so interesting, I was really sorry for the book to end!  It's about fraternal twins, Tess and Theo, who live with their parents in an old apartment building in New York.  The apartment has been in their family for several generations and there is a story about a mysterious treasure that's hidden with lots of clues and ciphers.  They connect with a boy who lives in their building, Jaime, who is a computer whiz.  He lives with his grandmother, the building's caretaker.  Suddenly, they have a very sharp deadline for solving the mystery, a developer has purchased the building and is planning to knock it down and build something more modern.  One of the things that's really great about this book is the setting, which is New York, present day, sort of.  There are a lot of things in the book that are realistic, like subways and cellphones, but there are lot of things in the book that are very fantastic-like the Guardians in the subways that are robots but very lifelike robots.  Or the cat that is Tess's therapy animal, that weighs 45 pounds and likes to fetch things like socks.  The characters in this one are great (like the 6 year old annoyance who also lives in the building or the super creepy bearers of bad news).  I really loved this one and I think the kids are going to like it too.  In case you're interested, here's a link to her webpage that has an excerpt.  And here's a link to the publishers page and it has a part of the audiobook.

The second one is a very fun fairy tale.  I DO love a good fairy tale and this one is particularly excellent.  It's called "The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart" by Stephanie Burgis.  It's about Aventurine who is a young dragon.  Her favorite pastimes are annoying her older brother and dreaming about escaping the family lair (even though it's full of treasure and a family who loves her).  She has an older sister that is very famous in the dragon world (she writes poetry that dragons love) and worries that she will never find her passion.  One afternoon, while everyone is resting (hunting is hard work!), Aventurine decides to make a run for it and busts out of the cave.  She is enthralled with the big wide world around her and hungry.  She smells something delicious (humans) and decides to pursue her prey.  And I flat out can not tell you any more (which is only like the first 10 pages) because it would totally ruin the book!  I will tell you that there are some amazing plot twists, some really funny characters, and some terrific themes of friendship, loyalty, and treachery as well as a terrific lesson on finding your passion, no matter what your family thinks.  This one was awesome and I can't wait to give it to my students.  

Here's the book trailer.

The last one is a fairy tale.  It's called "Snow and Red" by Emily Winfield Martin.  It's the story of two sisters, Snow and Red who are basically living a fairy tale.  They have a loving mother and father who are wealthy enough to indulge most of their whims, when suddenly the father disappears and their lovely home and gardens are yanked out from under them and they have to go and live in a dilapidated cottage in the woods.  Both girls miss their father terribly and cope with the loss in different ways.  They often go walking through the forest, looking for food, entertainment, and their dad.  They come into contact with lots of interesting characters, some kind and some pretty evil.  The story is entertaining and well written.  What really set this one apart for me was the art work.  Each chapter has a beautiful full color embellishment and there are several full page watercolor pictures and decorations through out the book.  It gives the book a feeling of richness and tradition that I really liked.  I think the kids will like this one as well.