Monday, February 27, 2017

The Serpent King

Do you need to cry? Really hard and for a long time? Then may I introduce you to Jeff Zentner's The Serpent King? I haven't read a book like it, and that's always a good thing.

It tells the story of three outcasts in rural Tennessee. Our protagonist is the son of a disgraced Pentecostal minister who handled snakes and is now in jail. Imagine bearing that load through high school. The best parts of his life are his two friends: Lydia, a fashion blogger headed to greatness, and Travis, a lovable giant who wears a dragon necklace and lives for fantasy novels. I enjoyed their friendship and the way they tried to protect each other from the many forces working against them.

While I felt this book deeply, I also felt that some parts didn't ring true. The teenagers were so eloquent and wise that it was unrealistic. While it made for beautiful reading, it didn't sound like any of the 11th graders that I know. For example, "I read somewhere that a lot of the stars we see don't exist anymore. They've already died and it's taken millions of years for their light to reach Earth," Dill said. "That wouldn't be a bad way to die," Lydia said. "Giving off light for millions of years after you're gone."

This is definitely grimmer than your standard YA fare, but it is a quality book that will leave you thinking about it long after finishing. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied is the first in a series that I'm very excited to add to my classroom library. I'm always on the lookout for appropriate middle grade novels that are realistic to the lives of my students. True, our heroine Ana lives in a zoo, but she has a typical seventh grade life of family embarrassments, crushes, and friendship changes.

Author Jess Keating was a zoologist before turning to books, and this shines through in the novel. Each chapter starts with truly fascinating facts about animals that I found myself sharing with whomever would listen. Sixth graders love animal books and this nicely mixes that content with adolescent situations.

I loved Ana's voice and think my students will relate to her insecurities and share her mortification at some of the events in the book. There are some laugh out loud moments and Ana has a twin brother, which should appeal to the male readers in my class. Once I see how popular the first book is, I'll decide about adding the other two books to the library.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Take the Fall

I love a good mystery, especially one with unreliable narrators and lots of suspects. Take the Fall has those elements, but it falls short of expectations.

When popular Gretchen Meyer is killed, who is to blame? Her best friend Sonia is suddenly surrounded by potential suspects. When the primary suspect, Gretchen's ex-boyfriend, approaches Sonia for help, she doesn't know who to trust. As the novel progresses, Gretchen's dark side comes out and the reader is wondering who is the true villain.

I wish that this book had better writing and more fleshed out characters. I read until the end, but only to confirm my suspicions about the murderer. If you want to be shocked and thrilled, check out Dangerous Girls or Dangerous Boys by Abigail Haas. Everything in those books deliver on the promises that Emily Hainsworth tries to make here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Outpost and Horde

I decided to review these two books together because Ann Aguirre's "Razorland Trilogy" took over my life and I read them in a row without coming up for air. It's been a long time since I loved a series this much. It's fitting that I read this after The Young World, which was another attempt at post-apocalyptic teen lit. Outpost and Horde are everything that novel wishes it was.

Over the course of the series, we watched the four main characters mature. Stalker went from a violent gang leader to someone more selfless and caring. Tegan changed from a tormented rape survivor to a talented medical practitioner. Fade went from an outcast to a loved leader. And our heroine, Deuce, went from a single-minded huntress to a complete person--a family member, military hero, and self aware individual. I loved watching their evolution. 

While the series started as one of many dystopian novels following in The Hunger Games' wake, it
developed into something more. At times, I was reminded of The Lord of the Rings. There was a small band of adventurers who are hopeful, despite the odds. There were journeys across the land filled with travails and loss. In my mind, I pictured the Freaks as the Orcs. These books surpassed my expectations and I was engrossed. 

There is some sexual content in the third book, so I will recommend it to upper middle school students. That's the only thing preventing me from running in and book talking the whole series to my sixth graders tomorrow.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Fun Picture Books

The Mermaid and the Shoe is a dreamy book about a mermaid named Minnow who doesn't know what her purpose is. She feels useless until one day she finds a strange object that sets her off on an adventure to discover what it is. In that search, she finally learns her purpose.

I loved seeing the world from the perspective of Minnow, particularly the way she conceptualizes things on land that don't make sense to her. For example, a lighthouse is referred to as a huge shell with a door and a child as a 'landmaid.' Author K.G. Campbell has fun with language in this story; I hope "eyes the size of sand dollars" is a phrase that catches on around my Bahamian school!



It's hard to be a goat when there's a unicorn in town. What good are your marshmallow squares when the unicorn can make it rain cupcakes? Goat spends much of the book seething with jealousy until Unicorn starts to appreciate Goat's special gifts. A fun message without preaching to readers.

I love the illustrations in this book and how fun and silly everything is. I've never read a Bob Shea book before, but need to seek out more. This is a book I'll be buying for my niece when she's in kindergarten.



I love the message in Chopsticks. Nobody's ever seen them apart, but when one chopstick is injured, the other has to stand on his own and learn who he is without his mate. Rather than dividing them, it gives them more to share with each other when they are reunited.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal has written a funny book that young readers will love taking apart. There is silly wordplay (the whisk "whisks away") and fun illustrations. I love all the things that a chopstick could do; my favorite was testing a cake to see if it was done. This would be a great read aloud or bedtime story.




A brilliant idea that I'm surprised no one has had before. Tell Me a Tattoo Story is about a little boy whose routine is to ask his father to tell him about each of his tattoos. Fortunately, they are all heartfelt and appropriate! They detail a book he read as a child, his longest trip, meeting his wife, and the most special of all--the birth of his son.

I can imagine any parent with a tattoo wanting to buy this book for their child. It's nice that the father was in the military, but the story doesn't dwell on it. I hope Alison McGhee sells a ton of copies, based on this clever idea.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Enclave

I liked this way more than I expected! Enclave has been on my Goodreads list since November, 2013 and I finally got to read it. My students are thirsty for anything dystopian, so I am making an effort to read all the ones on my list. I often read the first book in a series, but don't always read the rest. As soon as I finished Enclave, I downloaded its sequel.

A plague has decimated the population of Earth and driven its inhabitants underground. Deuce grew up in one of these enclaves, where the life expectancy is short and growing shorter as mutants in the subway tunnels become more organized and deadly. She and her partner are exiled to the world aboveground and need to learn to survive in a place that may be even more deadly than where they left.

I liked the character growth we see in Deuce over the course of the series, and how she is valued by males for her strength. There is a lot of fighting and action in the book, but I never wanted to breeze past it because the descriptions are interesting. While there are references to 'breeding', I don't think this book is inappropriate for my 6th graders. I can see quite a few of them devouring the whole series, as I know I am going to. This book was worth the wait!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Lions of Little Rock

This cover is way better than my copy!
This is such an important book to have in classroom libraries right now. It tells the story of friendship between Marlee, a shy white girl, and Liz, a black girl who gets caught "passing" as white at school. This is just one of the tensions in Little Rock in 1958, the year after the Little Rock Nine integrated schools. I had no idea that the public high schools were closed for a year in order to prevent integration.

I was charmed by Marlee, who is truly naive, but grows more vocal and brave throughout the book. I also liked that many of the 'villains' showed their humanity. I want young readers to discuss what overt racism looked like and learn to fight against it, especially with how often it occurred in this past election cycle. It would be a good talking point for how ugly it is in the book, and that hate speech is equally as ugly on social media.

Things wrap up nicely in The Lions of Little Rock, which makes it middle grade-friendly. I appreciate author Kristin Levine's research and will be eagerly book-talking this title.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Young World

When I learned that author Chris Weitz is a film director, a lot about The Young World made more sense. He is accustomed to presenting entertainment at face value, and may have to use shortcuts for the time allotted. What this translates to in novel form is stereotypical characters, lot of cheap thrills such as murders and animal abuse (I skipped that part), and rapidly changing narrators.

While all of this sounds negative, it was a good book to listen to on the treadmill at the gym. The action moved quickly and it reminded me very much of the movie "The Warriors." A group of teens make their way across a post-apocalyptic New York City, battling different factions. The Union Square hippie crew of the book could easily have swapped out for the Baseball Furies of the movie.

I won't be recommending this book to anyone and I'm not interested in the sequels, but it passed a few hours of cleaning and exercise.

Monday, January 9, 2017

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

When I first heard about All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, it shot to the top of my TBR pile. I was really curious to read a story about a boy who was raised in a co-ed correctional facility, particularly since it is geared towards a middle grade audience. As an avid viewer of "Orange is the New Black," I wondered how author Leslie Connor would deal with the challenges of daily prison life. For the most part, she didn't. Perry refers to some of the residents as "cold ones" and avoids them, and he gives privacy to them when they seem sad, but otherwise, the book focuses on creating a family wherever you are.

I enjoyed the setting, which is unique for a middle grade novel, but sadly not unique to many readers. As Connor writes in her afterward, "one in twenty-eight school-aged children have a parent in the prison system." Kids need to see their lives in books, and while I don't know if this is realistic, it's a start. It could also help take away the stigma of prison for kids who are unfamiliar with it. There is a lot to learn from seeing the kindness in characters who have made a life-altering decision.

I have only one complaint, which seems to be a common quibble for me with recent middle grade novels. This book weighs in at 344 pages, which will intimidate many young readers. If Connor took 100 pages off, the audience for the book would expand so much.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Words in the Dust

Summer is my favorite season for so many reasons. One is that I have so much more time for reading. The Audiobook SYNC program helps with that: every week they offer two free YA audiobooks for download. I love audiobooks, but they are pretty expensive for just me. So I take full advantage of the program, which is how I was introduced to Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy. 

I was a bit hesitant to read a book about Afghan girl written by an American soldier, but Reedy explains himself well in his Author's Note. He says, "Of course, another problem I had in keeping my promise is that I have never been a girl and I am not an Afghan. Many would say that stories about Afghan girls should best be told by Afghan girls. I agree completely. I would love nothing more than to read the story of the girl who we helped in her own words. However, the terrible reality is that by some estimates, 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate." Knowing who the author is made me pay particular attention to how Americans are portrayed in the book. Yes, there are the savior bits where they give away gifts and selflessly help Zulaikha with her cleft lip. But the Americans also make huge mistakes by not learning enough about the culture, such as offering pork to Muslims. 

I enjoyed getting the background information on what life is like in a typical Afghan household, although I don't know if young readers will feel the same. I was rooting for Zulaikha to succeed despite all the odds stacked against her. And then, the book ended. I'm pretty sure that I just didn't download the final section of the audiobook, but if I didn't, it is the most abrupt ending ever. Some day, I'll have to check this out in a book store and see how it really ended.