Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Crossover

I've been trying to track down Kwame Alexander's The Crossover since last year, and managed to get my hands on it days before it won the 2015 Newbery Medal. As a fan of novels in verse, I couldn't be happier.

JB and Josh are the twin sons of a retired basketball superstar. They are fairly interchangeable at the start of the book: popular, talented, and funny. Then JB gets a girlfriend and Josh is hurt by that, and their differences come to the surface.

With a tearjerking ending, this book will appeal to so many different readers. I have the boys will read any basketball book, the kids who like novels in verse because they are quick reads, the readers who want the "hot titles." The Crossover is good for all of them. I am so happy that it won THE major award, another point for the We Need Diverse Books movement.

Monday, February 23, 2015

I Was Here

I Was Here is so incredibly readable. I opened it up and suddenly I had zoomed through a third of the book. Bravo Gayle Forman for grabbing me and hooking me.

Cody's best friend committed suicide and now she is picking up the pieces of Meg's life. Meg always shone brighter than Cody, but hid a dark side that comes to the surface when Cody starts to investigate her death. I wanted to know more about their relationship and why Meg would choose to end her life. I found their friendship to be believable and perfect for the small town setting.

I was disappointed by the romance in the book. I understand that the target audience is young adults, but it felt inauthentic for Cody to fall for this guy who seemed fairly unlikable and was involved with her dead friend. Ben just didn't have enough of a spark to make that big leap. The only thing I can think of is that her mother has terrible taste in men and Cody shares it. The story didn't need Cody and Ben to fall in love for people to read it.

I Was Here isn't on the same level as If I Stay, but it was the most engaging book I've read lately.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Long Walk to Water

I'm sure every book reviewer has that moment when they wonder, "Am I a bad person if I don't like this?" For me, that book is A Long Walk to Water. As I was procrastinating writing this review, I saw a tweet that said, "A Long Walk to Water is so good! It sparked a thoughtful discussion about if reading helps us become better people :-) #titletalk" Oops.

I really wanted to love it. There were many Sudanese "Lost Boys" that worked at the Trader Joe's near where I grew up. I had a vague idea of why they were in Massachusetts and always marveled at them, so tall and friendly. I was eager to read a story that I could share with my students, but I just didn't get it from Linda Sue Park's short novel.

I wanted more in-depth information, especially since it is based on the true story of Salva Dut. Perhaps it is because the book is targeted at children, but I wanted to know about Salva's time in a refugee camp. Since he spent six years there, it merited more than one sentence. While I admit that the book picked up at the end, for me, most of the book was similar to Salva's journey across Sudan: a grueling slog. I won't be recommending it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Nest

I had heard that Nest by Esther Ehrlich was a sad book, and it's true. This was probably the most dismal middle grade novel I've come across. Beautifully written, but it's dark.

Chirp's mother has an illness that will never get better, and it's affecting the entire family. Her psychologist father is trying to hold things together, her older sister is going to adult parties, and Chirp tries to make her mother happy. She's too young to understand that choreographing dances and baking pies can't touch the sadness of depression.

Ehrlich makes you feel for the characters. Poor Chirp and her friend Joey, the bad kid from a bad family, just want to be normal children, but the odds are stacked against them. Joey, in particular, was just a raw wound of a character. I wanted to bundle him up and bring him home with me. Unfortunately, we don't get to write the endings to the books we read.

In my classroom, I post the covers of all the books I read, so I know my students will ask me about Nest. I am hesitant to recommend this book to anyone--I don't know many fifth graders who like to be sad and finish a book feeling unsettled. Still, it was well written and any book written in Cape Cod gets bonus points from me.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Spy School

Ben Ripley is like many kids who think it would be cool to be a spy. When the CIA selects him for a top secret spy school, he's surprised, because math is his only strength. If he thought he was unqualified before arriving, he knows it once assassins start trying to kill him and all his fellow students seem suspicious. When a genuine crisis occurs, Ben has to use everything he knows to prove he belongs, and to stay alive.

I dove right into Spy School after finishing Stuart Gibbs' book, Belly Up. I found them to be very similar: funny, clever, and full of adventure. When I told the premise to my 5th graders, they were all very eager to check out the book when I finished. It is perfect for their age group, as all Gibbs' books seem to be.

Now, I'm torn. Do I read the sequel to Belly Up or do I read the sequel to Spy School first?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Belly Up

Hooray for Stuart Gibbs and fun middle grade mysteries!

After the heaviness of The Winter Prince, I decided on something light and selected Belly Up, based on the cover. I was so happy to find a successor to Carl Hiaasen's animal mysteries.

Teddy Fitzroy gets to live in the world's greatest zoo, FunJungle, where his parents are employees and he can spend his day exploring the park. It's different from where he grew up in the Congo, but at least it's safe. Or it was, until someone murdered the park's mascot, Henry the Hippo, and then decided that Teddy was too curious. Now, he has to figure out who is the murderer, before he becomes the next victim.

This was an engaging and fun book that would make a great read aloud...maybe the one I will start with my class after we finish The Fourteenth Goldfish. I was happy to learn that there is a sequel, Poached, which I will be seeking out. The more modern, appealing mysteries I can recommend to students, the better!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Winter Prince

While I impatiently wait for Black Dove, White Raven to be released, I need to read everything else Elizabeth Wein has written. That includes the Lion Hunters series, which I had never heard of before. My ignorance doesn't stop there: apparently, this is a retelling of Arthurian myths. I had no idea, but aside from stumbling over a few of the names, it didn't make much difference.

Medraut is the illegitimate son of King Artos (the Arthur character), but would make a far better ruler than Lleu, his younger brother who will one day have the crown. King Artos promises Medraut to name him regent if he prepares Lleu for his future role. Medraut must grapple with jealousy, loyalty, responsibility, and honor, and does not always choose what's right.

Wein's novels Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire revolve around female friendships, so it was a jolt to read her writing about family relationships, particularly between brothers. It did not resonate with me as strongly as the feminine relationships, but really, nothing could. I appreciate how Wein brings the reader into the emotions of all the characters. I felt Medraut's pain, but could also sympathize with his sister Goewin, and even with Lleu. Wein hints at a lot of darkness--incest is a major topic in the novel--but does not overwhelm the reader. Sometimes wondering what happened is far darker than the truth, but if you seek out the accompanying very adult short story, "No Human Hands to Touch," you'll see that the truth is very grim indeed.

There are four other novels in this series and I intend to read them all. I also plan to read more about Arthurian myths, so thank you, Elizabeth Wein, for awakening a new interest for me.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Girls Like Us

After graduating from the special needs program at their high school, Biddie and Quincy are paired up to live together. Biddie will clean and cook for their elderly landlady, while Quincy works at a local supermarket. Unable to read or write, and with a history of being treated cruelly, Biddie defers to Quincy. This isn't always best because Quincy has been mistreated her entire life, since her mother's boyfriend bashed her head with a brick and changed Quincy's life. The two girls learn from each other and become more independent through their time together.

The feeling I had while reading Girls Like Us was heavy. There was a sense of foreboding hanging over the novel which mimics the way the characters felt when interacting with others. Would they be physically abused again? Would people treat them poorly because of their disabilities? I took on the characters' worries as my own.

Girls Like Us is a quick read, alternating between the perspectives of Biddie and Quincy. At times, it was very painful to read, but it was important. This would be a good choice for a high school book club; there are so many things to discuss and a lot of humanity to learn. I'm glad I read it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Loot

I've been reading lots of middle grade novels lately so that I have some good books to recommend to my fifth graders, but Loot is the first one that I have been very enthusiastic about. Both the boys and girls in my class will be competing to read this one!

March McQuin is the son of a famous jewel thief, but when his father dies during a job, he is left on his own with a prophecy hanging over his head. With a group of other misfits, he has to outwit professional thieves and commit a series of heists to break the curse hanging over him.

I loved that this isn't a "girl" book or a "boy" book, it's just a quality mystery and adventure. There are strong male and female leads, and the reader is kept guessing about who is trustworthy. My students are always looking for a good mystery and I often end up falling back on classics like The Westing Game. Loot is what I will be handing to students who are looking for action, mystery, and excitement in their next book.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Penny Dreadful

There's a trend that I don't understand in children's books. I can only think of them as nostalgic hipster books, but they are genuinely written for children. The Penderwicks, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and Horton Halfpott fall into this category, and so does Penny Dreadful. I don't know how much these books appeal to actual children; I've never seen any reading them.

Penelope Grey lives a privileged and boring life in The City, until she makes a wish for some action, and everything falls apart. Her family ends up moving to Thrush Junction in East Tennessee, a town filled with characters. Unfortunately, there seemed to be more focus on the quirks of the characters than the actual plot. Lots of descriptions of diverse characters abound, but it takes a very long time for anything to actually happen.

One of my goals for winter break was to read a lot of middle grade books that I could recommend to my students. That was the only reason I persisted in reading Penny Dreadful, when I wanted to abandon it at 37%. Still, I don't know that I will actually be recommending this book, as I don't have that many nostalgic hipster 10 year olds in my class.