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.  

Sunday, October 29, 2017

My new favorites

This has been a super busy week.  We had our state librarians conference called FAME in Orlando this past week.  There were lots of workshops, authors to meet, vendors to talk to and most of all friends from all over our wonderful state.  It was a great conference but I'm exhausted and exhilarated at the same time!  I'm also still whittling away at the CYBILS speculative middle grade fiction.  I'm sure you're not shocked to hear that I barely had time to open a book this past week, much less read one.  But I finished one today that is not to be missed.  It's called "Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth" by Frank Cottrell Boyce.  The last sentence in the completely irresistible first chapter is this "I probably shouldn't have written it all down.  It might get me into trouble.   We broke a lot of laws, including some of the laws of physics.  But I wrote everything down anyway, because I didn't want to forget any of it."  I sincerely hope I have a week like that one of these days.

 It's about a boy named Prez who is going to a foster family for the summer.  He had been living with his grandfather, but that is somehow not possible anymore (the story about that unfolds with the book).  He's placed with a big, loud family who has a small farm with animals.  Prez is ok with the family-they are nice enough and loud enough to cover up the fact that he doesn't really talk to anyone.  But right away, there's something kind of strange.  An alien shows up calling himself Sputnik Mellows (Mellows is Prez's last name).   He's wearing a kilt and aviator goggles and a yellow backpack and large number of weapons.  The foster family takes one look at Sputnik and believes he is a dog, but none of them can agree on what KIND of a dog Sputnik is.  After the youngest sister's birthday where she is nearly decapitated by a light saber and a tree is uprooted, Sputnik reveals he is actually trying to make a list of good things about the earth, because it is about to be destroyed.  Honestly, this one of the craziest books I've ever read.  It has so many hilarious, poignant moments that I'm tempted to read it again, RIGHT NOW because I'm worried I missed some of the good parts. This is brilliant.  DO NOT MISS IT.

Science fiction is usually not in my wheelhouse, but this one was amazing!  It's called "The Countdown Conspiracy" by Katie Slivensky.  It's about a group of 6 super smart kids who are chosen for a Mars space mission.  The main character, Miranda, is an expert in robotics.  In fact, she's built a robot that obeys her every command and she won a world wide competition, beating out her strongest competitor, Sasha, a Russian boy.  Miranda is very excited about the opportunity to go to Mars, but is also means leaving her family behind and going to train in Antarctica with scientists, computer programmers, and former astronauts.  However, the mission is more dangerous than it seems, because even before they get to the training site, Miranda and one of her team mates are attacked.  Security is increased and Miranda starts wondering why she was picked at all.  There are lots of very exciting plot twists in this one.  The characters are interesting and have lots of interesting kinds of interactions -they aren't all just friends because they're part of this small group and it's fun to watch how they figure out how to work together.   The science in this one is awesome-from robotics and coding to space science, that was super fun to read about.  And did I mention, at the heart of this book is a big fat mystery?  I liked it a lot and I think the kids are going to like it too.  

The last one is a kind of a folk tale fantasy adventure.  It's called "Journey Across the Hidden Islands" by Sarah Beth Durst.  It's about two girls, Ji Lin and Seika who are 12 year old twins.  They live in an isolated kingdom and have been separated for quite some time so that they can train for their jobs. Seika is meant to be the ruler princess and Ji Lin is meant to be the protector/guard.  They come home for a birthday celebration and are sent out on a quest to meet and negotiate with the dragon that protects their island kingdom.  It's a great quest full of magical creatures, including the flying lion that Ji Lin rides as well as koji that need to be destroyed.  It also has a lot of folktale elements that will make it a terrific read aloud.  What's also  great is that both girls are unsure about their abilities to do their jobs but each one gives the other courage when they need it the most.  They make a wonderful  team.  I completely love Sarah Beth Durst's writing-she writes some really great dialogue that will make you laugh out loud.  I think the kids are going to love this one.  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Middle grade fantasy fiction

I'm plunging into the dark heart of fantasy or speculative fiction.  I haven't had a chance to go here for awhile, so I'm looking forward to it!

The first one is called "Last Day on Mars" by Kevin Emerson.  I'm going to tell you straight up that science fiction is not my favorite, but this one was a breathtaking adventure.  It's about a boy named Liam who has grown up on Mars.  His parents are scientists and they moved to Mars before Liam was born because the Earth was failing.  They've been living on Mars for the past 15 years and now it's time to leave there too because the protections they've built to help them survive there are failing. Liam is sad to leave Mars (it IS the only home he's ever known) and although he's heard lots of stories about how amazing Earth was, the new place they are going is uncertain and a bit fraught with peril.  But it also seems that there is some sabotage going on and Liam and his best friend Phoebe seem to be best positioned to help with some narrow escapes.  I really liked Liam and I liked the science aspects of the science fiction book better than I thought I would.  It's very fast paced and there's so much action that I think a lot of kids are going to like this one a lot.  It also appears to be the first one in a series-there's a giant cliff hanger at the end.  I can't wait to see what happens next in this one!

The second one is more in my wheelhouse-it's a book of fairy tales called "Brave Red, Smart Frog: A New Book of Old Tales" by Emily Jenkins.  Emily has written some terrific stories-she wrote one of my favorites last year called "Toys in Snow" which is just like it sounds-some toys go out and play in the snow but it's a lovely little imaginative story with lots of great language.  Brave Red, Smart Frog is kind of like that too.  It's 11 favorite fairy tales retold.  Each chapter is a different story so they go FAST.  Each one is like visiting a familiar place that's had a really great make over.  All the things you love are still there but it's somehow better and fresher than the one you remember.  I think my favorite retelling was the one about the Princess and the Frog.  In this retelling, both the Frog and the Princess make some big changes and I liked them both better for it.  One of the things that keeps you anchored in the old school is the art work which is beautiful and somehow very traditional yet modern at the same time.  I really liked this compilation and I can't wait to put it in my library.

The last one is the third and final (I think) installment in this series.  Two years ago, Gordon Korman came out with a completely brilliant science fiction story called "Masterminds".  It's about a group of people who live in a perfect small town in New Mexico that is very isolated.  It's so isolated that people don't really come and go from there.  The kids grow up thinking that this normal (well, for them, it IS normal).  Until one day, two of the kids decided to go out of town.  Not leave town, just go and investigate some things that are just beyond the border of the town.  As the approach the border, one of the boys, Eli, gets violently ill.  The other boy calls emergency services and Eli is scooped up and rushed to the hospital.  He's sick for a few days but then he's fine.  The other boy is GONE when Eli is released from the hospital.  Eli's dad tells him that he's been sent to live with his grandmother and suddenly, in a community where honesty is valued above all things, Eli starts to think that maybe people aren't really being all that honest with him and with all the other kids in the community.  It turns out their parents have a REALLY big secret.  It would be a total spoiler if I told you exactly what the secret is (because it's totally awesome), so I won't.  But I will tell you that the third book takes up where the second one leaves off.  This one is a very thrilling adventure full of wild chases and ethical dilemmas.  It also has a very satisfying ending to the whole story.  I thought this one was great.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Something new in middle grade fiction

Are you looking for something new in middle grade fiction?  Well, have I got a couple of titles for you!  These are new releases and are DEFINITELY worth looking for!

The first one is called "The Adventurers Guild" by Zack Loran Clark and Nick Eliopulos.  It's about a group of kids who live in a town called Freestone.  Freestone has an annual event called Guildculling where children who are of a certain age are called to join their professions.  For many of lower class children, there isn't too much of a choice, but members of higher societal families have greater opportunities for choices.  But there are always some surprises, and there are some very big surprises at this particular Guildculling.  I don't want to give too much away because each layer of this well written book has excellent suspense and interesting plot twists.  There is some wonderful political drama, some great opportunities for talking about class expectations and racism, as well as magic and thrilling combat.  I really liked this story a lot and I hope there are more to come!

  Here's a little preview of the book!

The second one is a fairy tale/quest kind of book.  It's called "The Silver Gate" by Kristin Bailey.  It's about a brother and sister, Elric and Wynnfrid who are on a kind a of quest.  Wynn has struggles to speak and remember things so she's been living with her mother in a hut out in the woods, while Elric lives with his dad and tends sheep for the lord of the manor.  It's not a really great life, but they do not appear to have a lot of choices.  When Elric and Wynn's mother dies, Elric decides he has to run away with Wynn to save her life.  So Elric is just looking for someplace safe, but Wynn is searching for a fairy kingdom because she's been called a changeling her whole life-a baby who was exchanged for another by fairies.  I liked this one because of the themes of bravery, loyalty, and family connection.  I liked the magical elements and I really loved the pet that Wynn brings along on the quest.    I think this one would make a good addition to our library.

 The last one is a sequel to one of my favorite books last year.  It's called "The War I Finally Won" by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  Like the first book, it's about a girl named Ada who was born with a clubfoot in a dysfunctional family in east London at the 1930s.  Ada escapes London with her little brother Jamie when the government starts evacuating children to the countryside because of the bombings in London.  Ada and Jamie end up with a woman named Susan Smith who is deeply grieving the loss of her best friend, Becky, who died of pneumonia some months earlier.  At the beginning of this book, Susan has come to London to get Jamie and Ada back-they had returned to London with their mother and Susan is determined to get them to come back to their small village with her.  While she's in London with the children, the village is bombed and her small house is destroyed.  So this new book begins with a bit of an uncertain future-Susan would like the kids to return but they don't have a house to go to, Ada's mom seems to feel the need to get them back, and Ada is getting ready to have corrective surgery fix her clubfoot.  I hate to tell you more about this story because each part unfolds in such a lovely way that it ALL feels like a spoiler.  Suffice it to say, this one is a bit more introspective and the new characters add some very interesting pieces to the story.  I loved this one just as much as the first one and it's definitely coming to live in our library.  
Here's a little video with the author about the book.    

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Super cool non fiction

We bugged out in advance of Irma and now I have a bit of a break in the action while we debate about when to go back... with no power it doesn't sound like that much fun to be at home, but I'm itching to get there!  Good thing I have some awesome new non-fiction to read to keep me occupied.

The first one is called "Bugs from head to tail".  It's written by Stacy Roderick and illustrated by Kwanchai Moriya.  It's an up close look at some really interesting insects.  Each double page spread shows one part of a bug (like it's eyes) and asks the reader to guess what insect it is.  Then the next two pages show the whole insect and tell a little about it.  There is a perfect amount of text to tell about each insect, enough to peak an early reader's attention (and maybe send them for more research) but not so much to be overwhelming.  I really loved the artwork in this one.  It's paper cuts and they are so closeup you can actually see the texture of the paper, which is so awesome, because it's meant to look just like the insect.  I thought this one would be a great addition to our elementary school library.

The second one is also a picture book.  It's called "The Elephant Keeper"  by Margaret Ruurs.  It's about a boy named Aaron who lives with his mom and siblings in a small village in Zambia.  His father has died and Aaron needs a job.  The manager at a local resort has agreed that Aaron can come and work there.  One morning on his way to work as Aaron approached the resort, he finds a baby elephant drowning in the pool.  Aaron tries to help, but it's really hard.  With the help of some of the other workers, they are able to get the baby out of the pool, but he's very weak.  They call the elephant rescue organization and they come and get the baby.  Aaron is conflicted about saving an elephant-the elephants trample and steal their crops.  People in his village kill elephants to make money.  Was saving the elephant a bad idea?  His mom convinces him that he did the right thing and when he gets to work the next day, the manager tells him what a great job he did saving the elephant and asks if he'd like to go and visit the baby.  Aaron goes and finds that there is a big group of people who work to save elephants and treat them almost like babies.  Aaron also finds that he's really good at helping the elephants so he gets a job there.  I really loved this story-it was a very moving story and on top of that,  in between the narrative story, there are bits of photographs and non-fiction text that support some of the ideas in the story.  I think the kids are going to love the fact that this based on a true story.  I can't wait to get this one in the library.

Here's a little video of an elephant rescue organization in Zambia that inspired the story.  

The last one is also a picture book.  It's called "See What We Eat" by Scot Ritchie.  It's an introduction to how we get food and how we might prepare food.  Each two page spread talks about a different kind of food production-dairy, grain, protein.  The last few pages are recipes for some healthy, delicious, kid friendly food.  The pictures are bright, highly detailed, and very interesting.  I really liked how on each page, the text is divided.  There is a part that gives a bit of an overview and then a second part that digs a little deeper.  This would be great for reading with different age kids-the little ones just get the first part, the bigger ones get both.  Brilliant!  This one is definitely coming to live in my library,