Saturday, March 10, 2018

Strong women in new books

I've been so lucky to read some awesome middle grade fiction this week about some interesting, powerful young women, I can't wait to share them with you!

The first one is called "Like Vanessa" by Tami Charles.  I was mildly horrified to find that it's categorized as historical fiction because it's set in the 1980s (heeeeyyyy, wait just a cotton pickin' minute.  The 80s are history?  Ok, they are MY history too).  Anyway, mild horror aside, this was a really great story about friendship, finding your true voice, making assumptions about people based on their appearance and working towards a goal.  It's about Vanessa, who is in 8th grade.  She has one true friend, but her friend is finding other interests and Vanessa is worried that they will not remain friends.  Vanessa also finds that she has other interests that her friend isn't so interested in.  Vanessa really wants to be Miss America.  Until now, she didn't think it was possible.  Until 1983, there had never been a black Miss America, but suddenly Vanessa Williams made history as the first black Miss America, and suddenly the Vanessa in the story thinks that might be possible.  The music teacher turns out to be a positive role model (in spite of Vanessa's initial assessment of her) and suggests that they start a beauty pageant in their school.  There's also a bit of a mystery to the story like why Vanessa avoids the bathtub and why her dad locks himself in his bedroom and works long hours to avoid the family.  I really liked this character's voyage of self discovery and I think a lot of girls will recognize themselves in Vanessa as a person who wants to be taken seriously, a person who can find their own beauty even if society is telling them otherwise, a person who values friendship and family.  This might tend more toward middle school than upper elementary, there is a scene of violence towards the end of the book that rings very true, but might be upsetting to some of the younger kids.  Overall, a solid read.

Here's a short interview with the author.

The second one has been getting a lot of buzz.  It's called "Amal Unbound" and it's by Aisha Saeed.  I was lucky enough to get to hear Aisha at a local book event called BAM that was in West Palm Beach last week end.  It turns out Aisha is graduated from one of our local high schools!  If I didn't admire her enough already, because this book was terrific!  

It's about Amal who is a girl who lives in Pakistan.  She is the oldest daughter in her family.  She has four younger sisters and so she has to help out a lot at home.  She also loves to go to school and dreams of being a teacher.  But she also has trouble being the submissive girl that her family believes that she should be.   So when she's at the market one day, she has an encounter with one of the rich people in the village that changes her life.  I don't want to spoil it, because the story unfolds so beautifully, it's really worth the wait.  It's beautifully written and Amal is a character that is going to resonate with a lot of kids.  This one would be appropriate for all the middle graders and will have some excellent tie ins to global issues, including treatment of women and treatment of girls and the value of education.  

Colby Sharp really liked it too!  Here's his video about it.

And here's the completely gorgeous cover.

So YAY for strong women!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black history month

At my school, I haven't done a good job of talking with my students about black history.  I did put together a black history display right in the entry way of the library but we've been busy working on a research project about the Winter Olympics and I have some other projects that I'll have to pick up so it's probably not going to get the attention it deserves this year.  But I have been trying to make sure that we have more ethnic diversity in our collection and to remind our kids that they have big opportunities if they work hard for them.  It's difficult to remember that sometimes when the media presents such skewed images of people of color or people of certain religions.  But we persevere.  Here are two titles that might help provoke conversation and help people understand one another more fully.

The first one is not history at all.  It's called "Astronaut Annie" and it's written by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Nicole Tadgell.   They're having career day at Annie's school and she's very excited about her choices.  Each person in her loving and extended family makes suggestions on what they perceive as her strengths.  It's lovely to see how each of them has a different idea about how her strengths might play out but in the end, Annie makes her own choice.  The soft water color pictures enhance the warm family relationships and Annie's energy just about leaps off the pages.  It's also nice to see at the end, there are author's notes about other women who reached high and were able to go places that women hadn't been before.  And although this could have been written about any family, Annie and her family are African American, which is lovely.  This one is expected in stores in March 2018.

The second one is not a fun read.  It's called "Ghost Boys" by Jewell Parker Rhodes.  I really enjoyed Jewell Parker Rhodes books, especially "Towers Falling" so when I saw this new one (it's supposed to come out in April 2018), I really wanted to read it.  It's a very compelling story about a boy named Jerome.  He lives with his very supportive family and struggles with bullies at school.  He is determined to protect his little sister and his grandmother tries to help out too.  A new boy comes to school and Jerome is torn about making friends with him-will the new boy make him an even bigger target for the bullies?  He decides to make a friend and Carlos has a surprise.  It's a toy gun that scares the bullies away, for awhile.  Jerome takes the toy gun to protect himself on the way home.  As he goes through the park, someone see him with the toy gun and calls the police.  The police come and as Jerome is fleeing, they shoot him and he dies.  The rest of the story is Jerome watching his family deal with the pain of his death, which would probably be enough of a story but for Parker Rhodes, it's not enough.  So she introduces some new characters.  Another ghost boy, who was also killed by a white man, named Emmett and a girl named Sarah, who's dad is the police officer who killed Jerome. It's a lovely conversation about race relations in America today.  It's not easy to read but I think it's an important story for lots of people to hear.  I hope that it could help people to understand some of their own feelings about race relations.  

Sunday, January 28, 2018

What's new in middle grade fiction?

I'm finishing up a rotten cold (which gave me laryngitis so bad I missed 3 days of school!).  I feel well enough to read, YAY!  So I was digging around on my Kindle for something new and look what I found!  New middle grade fiction!  So here's what I was reading this weekend.

The first one I actually read over the summer and somehow got shoved to the back of the pile of books on my iPad.  It's was really a fun read.  It's called Sidetracked by Diana Harmon Asher.  It's about Joseph, who lives with his mom and dad and his grandfather and struggles with ADHD.  It makes it difficult for him to focus on anything for any length of time, which people at school find very exasperating.  Joseph is small and skinny which he finds exasperating and keeps hoping to find something he's good at.  Two different things happen fairly close together.  One is, a new and very athletic girl shows up at school.  The second is that Joseph's special education teacher starts to be the cross country coach.  The teacher encourages all her exceptional students to join the cross country team and so Joseph does.  And so does the super athletic girl, who's name is Heather.  Joseph decides to try running and with some help from Heather, starts showing improvement.  She and his teacher encourage him to consider his personal best rather than beating someone else.  What's great about this one is the theme of bullying, that it's not always the skinny little kids who get bullied, sometimes it's just people who are different but you don't have to just keep taking it. This will be a nice one for a middle school or elementary school library.

The second one is called "Someone Else's Shoes" by Elise Wittlinger.  It's about Izzy who is 10 and having a hard time.  Her parents are divorced and her dad is remarried and he and his new wife have a BIG surprise for Izzy.  Her cousin and her uncle are living with Izzy and her mom, her aunt committed suicide and her uncle is so depressed.  Her cousin Oliver is kind of strange so Izzy is hoping to help him.  Her mom is dating a dentist.  The dentist has a son who gets into a lot of trouble and Izzy's friends are acting weird.   Izzy really wants people to notice her, but she keeps choosing some kinds of crazy ways, like buying a pair of shoes that are a little small (they give her blisters) but they are so beautiful!  Or coloring and cutting her hair (by herself).  When her uncle disappears, Oliver and Ben hatch a plan to go and find him and Izzy wants to go to.   I liked this story a lot.  Izzy is an interesting and well developed character and so are the other characters around her.  It has some nice themes of friendship and taking time to get to know people rather than just judging them by appearances and kindness.    This will be another great one for an elementary or middle school library.

The last one is actually an old book originally published in 2008.  It's been refashioned as a new English book (which explains some of the very British vocabulary that pops up occasionally) that is the first one in a series of four books by a well known author-James Dashner.  He's pretty famous for a series of middle grade/YA novels that started with The Maze Runner, which is scary, dystopian future.  This  one is funnier and crazier.  It's a little scary but it's so much fun, I think the kids are really going to like it.  It's called "The 13th Reality Journal of Curious Letters".  It starts off with a guy in a post office in an obscure (and made up) town in Alaska with an unusual man trying to mail a number of letters.  Then a crazy, kind of scary lady all in yellow shows up asking (not very nicely) about the letters.  Then it flashes to a boy named Tick.  Actually his name  is Atticus but has earned the nickname Tick from the local bully, who is pretty relentless in his bullying.  Tick has learned to endure the bullying without too much complaining.  He has a really awesome family, a loving mom, a dangerous little sister, and a really amazing dad.  He receives one of the letters, which explains that he's being invited (mysteriously) to solve some clues and save the world.  It also turns out that other kids are being invited and there are some fantastical people he meets along the way that various try to help or kill him (but not usually both at the same time).  It's a really fun story to read with lots of exciting plot twists.  I'm a little surprised it didn't do better in America but maybe if it does well in England, they'll look to republish it here because it was a good read.  It's probably best for upper elementary or middle school.  

Here's a book trailer for the first book.

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!