Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

Put down whatever you're reading and pick up The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, the most delightful middle grade novel I've read in ages.

This case study, written from the perspective of a class of sixth graders, attempts to discover if Origami Yoda is real. The weirdest boy in school, Dwight, carries a small paper puppet and uses it to offer advice which solves the problems of his classmates--predicting a pop quiz, repairing a damaged reputation, and providing a variety of romantic guidance. Somehow the advice is always perfect, despite the fact that Dwight is completely clueless. Could this folded paper have mystical powers?

It doesn't get more charming than this. The kids in the class face realistic issues, ones that I see playing out in my own sixth grade classroom each day, so readers will definitely relate. I felt a particular fondness for Dwight, the oddball who is so socially unaware that he can't help but alienate people. The characters are torn between their gut reactions to his strangeness and feeling guilty about how they treat him. This is so spot on.

There are so many elements of the novel which will appeal to young readers. The pages are made to look crumpled, there are doodles in the margins, and each character has his own font. There are even directions to make an origami yoda. Add those fun touches to a sweet and funny story, and you get an instant favorite. I'll be recommending this to everyone.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Flight Explorer, Volume One

As part of the judging process for the Cybils, I read and loved Volume Eight of the Flight graphic novels. When I spotted the first volume of the series, adapted for younger readers, I knew I had to check it out.

I love short stories and graphic novels, so Flight Explorer was perfect for me. Kazu Kibuishi rounded up a variety of illustrated stories that will appeal to readers who love fantasy, action, interesting settings, and fun characters. Many of the stories from this first volume have since become their own full-length graphic novels (Jellaby, Zita the Spacegirl, and Missile Mouse), so it often felt like visiting old friends.

You may recall my affection for Kean Soo's Jellaby. In the most heartwarming story in the collection, Jellaby experiences his first snowfall and shares a sweet moment with Portia. I can't get enough of their friendship.

I was also charmed by Phil Craven's story, "Big Mouth". The giant circular main character is enthusiastic and has a difficult time making friends, until he meets exactly the right one. This is the kind of story I want to keep at the ready for when one of my students is struggling to fit in. This story is simple enough for my ESOL students of varying levels to be able to add a few panels at any point in the story, changing the meaning or giving more examples of Big Mouth's quest.

The range of stories in Flight Explorer makes it a worthwhile investment for classroom libraries. I have a list of readers that I know will enjoy it as much as I did.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Way a Door Closes

The Way a Door Closes is a perfect example of why novels in verse belong in our classroom libraries.

At a slim 52 pages, it manages to meet many of my students' needs. Its length is not intimidating to developing readers; if it weren't for the cover illustration of adolescent boys, it could be confused with a picture book. Throughout the book are moving illustrations by Shane W. Evans, which may assist readers who are struggling to paint mental pictures of the story.

While the writing is simple and the length is short, it covers a heavy topic: what happens to a family when the father leaves. Author Hope Anita Smith begins the book with a portrait of a happy family, with thirteen-year-old CJ's observations of his life with his two siblings, parents, and grandmother. When CJ's father loses his job, he withdraws and then one day does not return. Smith handles the subject delicately, showing the repercussions for the family. His mother tries to move on, his grandmother holds the family together, and CJ tries to take on the role of the "man of the house." It isn't easy, but CJ maintain his loyalty to his father and believes he will return. I loved the section entitled, "Diamond in the Rough":

     Daddy has always spoken loud

     of being black and being proud

     of honest pay for a job well done,

     a father’s dream for his oldest son.

     He gives me words, each one a gem,

          words I wish someone had given him.

Smith treats the father with more generosity than he may deserve and it manages to be refreshing. Not all fathers who leave are gone forever. The Way a Door Closes does not delve into what the father's return means, but the sequel Keeping the Night Watch does.

The Way a Door Closes won the Coretta Scott King - John Steptoe New Talent Award and deserved it. I was touched by the struggles of CJ and his family, and hope that it can provide hope or solace for boys in similar situations.

This is my first post for Born Bookish's Novels in Verse Reading Challenge. I've taken an interest in free verse novels recently and wanted to do something fun with them. I've decided to have a Free Verse Friday, featuring novels in verse.

Amanda's challenge features three levels, with the highest being "Sonnet". I'm signing up to read 12 books, but know that I will read many more. You should sign up, too!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Map of Me

Is it grand theft auto if it’s your daddy’s truck? Is it kidnapping if she’s your sister? Is it even wrong if you’re chasing your runaway mother? In The Map of Me, Margie never even pauses to ask these questions. As soon as she sees her mother’s note that says, “I have to go,” she grabs her annoying sister, Peep, her daddy’s keys, and hits the road. This wouldn’t be too shocking if Margie wasn’t twelve years old.

Author Tami Lewis Brown has created two sisters who couldn’t be more different. Younger sister Peep is an overachiever: she skipped three grades, is perfect in the eyes of all adults, and needs to figure out all the angles before doing anything. Margie is the opposite, all bold actions and impulsive mistakes. Margie is tortured by her perceived flaws, flashing back to them throughout the novel.

Although The Map of Me takes place in a stolen car, most of the story is internal. It may progress slowly for middle grade readers who want more action or a neater resolution. Instead, they get a character study of a girl who is determined to persevere and keep moving forward.

Read this and more reviews at Young Adult Books Central.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Gordon Korman’s Swindle team is back and they’ve gone to the dogs. When Luthor, the massive Doberman, destroys a dog show and injures a champion dog, Savannah’s family faces a massive lawsuit and are forced to take him to the pound. Griffin Bing, also known as The Man With The Plan, and his friend Ben can’t let Luthor be left there—but the only way to keep the dog safe would be for him to win Best In Show at a national championship. Is it possible to do this before Luthor eats his competition?

I haven’t read the other books in the series, but I knew I wanted to read Showoff as soon as I saw Gordon Korman was the author. Korman is one of the best writers for middle grade readers, constantly rolling out stories full of humor, adventure, and heart. The other books aren’t necessary in order to enjoy Showoff; the characters aren’t so well-developed that you miss anything.

Griffin and his friends are likable—the kind of kids that readers will wish were in their gang. The fact that they have access to a collection of bizarre inventions and animals only makes them more interesting. The read star of the novel is Luthor, the silly smile he displays on the cover is only one of his many emotions. Readers will be coveting their own giant, prize-worthy Dobermans by the novel’s end.

The true proof of Showoff’s appeal? I had the book on my desk and three students came up to ask if they could borrow it. My copy won’t even see the shelf for a few weeks…Korman’s that good.

Read this and more reviews at Young Adult Books Central.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers

The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers is the kind of novel that you pick up to read the first few pages, and then it’s suddenly 2:00 a.m. and you missed dinner. Proof: I received this in the mail yesterday afternoon and am already dying to share it with you.
Lucy’s sophomore year does not begin as expected: she is unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend, Alex, before homeroom. As she weeps over where things went wrong, three glamorous older girls reach out to her with a beguiling promise. If she does what they say, they will teach her the magical skills to never have her heart broken again and let her join the ancient sisterhood of the title. Of course, promises and magic often have strings attached and Lucy must decide if the sisterhood is worth the high price of joining.

The absolute best thing about this novel is how deftly Lynn Weingarten describes heartbreak. Through a series of flashbacks, the reader learns that Alex was never really the right boy for Lucy, but she is so caught up in her infatuation that she can’t see it. In a particularly poignant scene, Lucy realizes she is jealous of everything that takes Alex’s attention away from her. Who hasn’t felt that way about someone that you like just a little bit more? Weingarten’s descriptions of Lucy’s sadness offer reassurances that other people feel similarly and that maybe some magic awaits on the other side of the misery.

There is an underlying theme of confidence to the novel, and Weingarten provides subtle tips on how readers can approach their love lives with the upper hand. I wish that when I was a teenager there had been a novel that said things like, “Giving a guy an easy opening line is often the difference between him standing, staring, wishing he could talk to you and actually being able to do it.” While it’s never quite clear if the sisterhood is actually trustworthy, the advice they give is spot-on.

I was frequently surprised by the twists in the novel, perhaps most of all by the ending. At times, I was reminded of “The Craft” and “Clueless”, which is definitely a good thing in my book. I was excited to learn that Weingarten is working on a sequel because I am eager to read more about what magic the future holds for Lucy.

Read this and more reviews at Young Adult Books Central.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cybils 2011 Results

Happy Cybils Results Day, everyone!

I was surprised and pleased to see the winning titles in the graphic novels category, in which I was a Round One Judge. If you haven't read Anya's Ghost or Zita the Spacegirl yet, check out my reviews by clicking on the titles. I think you'll enjoy them as much as I did.

Looking at the list, I have a few new books to add to my reading list, especially Nerd Camp and Stupid Fast.

Check out all the winners here. Happy reading!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Boy Meets Boy

I'm currently slogging my way through A Feast for Crows, which is the slowest novel in the Game of Thrones series. I decided to take a break and enjoy Boy Meets Boy, a beautiful confection by David Levithan.

As the title suggests, the novel follows the classic romantic plot structure, this time with male characters. Levithan creates a world where sexual preferences are beside the point--it is a high school where a cross dressing football player can be the homecoming queen, the PFLAG group is as large as the PTA, and where any combination of sexes in a relationship is common. In this hopeful world, Paul has a great group of friends, a supportive family, and many opportunities. When he messes up his budding relationship with a new student, Paul must be creative to win him back.

There is so much to love about this novel. This world of acceptance is what I wish for everyone. Levithan's writing is appealing and so many of the details made me say, "I wish I had thought of that!" On his website, David Levithan addresses the question about if this book is unrealistic, “I’m often asked if the book is a work of fantasy or a work of reality, and the answer is right down the middle – it’s about where we’re going, and where we should be.”

I will be leading a discussion on this book for members of my graduate school cohort. In my southern, rural university, the views on homosexuality run the gamut. As an entry point to the discussion, I've gathered very broad quotes and will give each person one to consider how it connects to the characters, our future students, and themselves. I hope this exercise highlights the similarities between all people and encourages a thoughtful, sensitive discussion.

The quotes are included below:

“I am three notes in the middle of a song.” P.3
“What you feel is absolutely right for you. Always remember that.” P. 8
“It’s a mighty thin border between peer pressure and bravery.” P. 20
“My life is crazy, and there’s not a single thing I can do about it.” P.26
“Who am I to approve or disapprove? If she’s happy, then good for her.” P. 28
“…it’s clear he’s seeing her just as she wants to be seen. So few people do that.” P. 34

“I guess hurt is essentially a firsthand emotion.” P. 43
“I know people always talk about living in the middle of nowhere—there’s always another place (some city, some foreign country) they’d rather be. But it’s moments like this that I feel like I live in the middle of somewhere. My somewhere.” P.58
“Sometimes the space between knowing what to do and actually doing it is a very short walk. Other times it is an impossible expanse.” P.98

Thursday, February 9, 2012

All These Things I've Done

Imagine a world in which chocolate and coffee are illegal. For some, this is the premise for a horror story. Since I don't like either, it was going to take a little more to make this society dystopian. I needn't have worried, Gabrielle Zevin provided.

2083 is not a good year for Anya Balanchine. Her mobster family's chocolate company has floundered since the death of her parents, and she must take care of her younger sister and older, mentally disabled brother on her own. While she tries to do well in school and live a normal life, things get worse when her grandmother's health declines and the Balanchine chocolate supply is poisoned. The responsibility continues to fall on Anya's shoulders and eventually, something has to give.

It was jarring to begin reading this novel after The Scorpio Games, since Zevin's writing style is so different from Maggie Stiefvater's. At first, I thought I didn't like All These Things I've Done, but realized that I was carrying my kindle everywhere I went so I could sneak in a few more pages. Once I succumbed to Anya's voice, I ended up really enjoying the novel and looking forward to the following two novels in this trilogy.

One thing I really enjoyed was Anya's relationship with her flighty best friend, Scarlet. When a cute new boy comes to school and Scarlet sets her sights on him, I predicted the petty jealousy that often arises when novels take on this topic. Instead, Zevin shows that the girls' friendship is stronger than a crush, which was refreshing. I love that Scarlet supports her friend through dark times and fills a role that was vacated by many others in Anya's life.

The other part of All These Things I've Done that really impressed me was Zevin's exploration of Anya's Catholicism. Many young adult novels don't discuss religion, maybe out of fear of alienating readers. Anya attends Catholic school and struggles with morality. Yes, she has seen many people killed, but she still wants to remain a virgin until she is married. It is not an easy vow for her to keep, and the novel handles the subject in a realistic and sensitive way.

The next book in the series, Because It Is My Blood, will be released in September 2012, so it will be awhile before we will know what comes next for Anya. I look forward to finding out.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races is a book as harsh and lonely as its setting, the fictional island of Thisby. Maggie Stiefvater sets a remarkable tone for the novel, so that the reader feels the November winds and the gnawing desires of the characters. There is a feeling of foreboding that hangs over The Scorpio Races, and strangely, I miss it now that it's gone.

Every November the capaille uisce, mythical water horses, rise from the sea. They are thirsty for blood and difficult to control, so there is no better test of manhood than to harness them and race them down the beach. The prize is also the best way to earn money on Thisby.

No one has won more races than Sean Kendrick, but this year, the stakes are higher. Likewise, Kate "Puck" Connolly is desperate to win, and as the first female to ever enter, the odds are stacked against her. I don't want to say anything more about the plot, because this is a novel that I insist everyone reads.

Sean and Puck are probably two of my favorite characters in a long time. They are both prickly outcasts and slow to warm up to, but once they are in your heart, they sit there and burn. Stiefvater alternates between their perspectives and I both loved and hated the switches, because I wanted more of each of them. Unlike in other novels (ahem, Across the Universe), we don't get both of their perspectives on a situation, so when I wasn't reading, I was thinking about how Sean might have seen things. To use a title from another Stiefvater novel, this one lingers.

Put down whatever you're doing and go get The Scorpio Races. Then call me so we can gush.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Drawing From Memory

One of my favorite bloggers, Katie of Book Love, recently posted about the School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids’ Books. I love the idea of pitting some of the best books of the year against each other, as well as getting to read authors’ justifications of the winners.
I’ve read five of the books:
Inside Out and Back Again
Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Anya’s Ghost
Drawing From Memory
I am currently reading Between Shades of Gray, and would like to read a few more of the novels before the competitions start on March 1st.

Drawing from Memory is a book that I read in consideration for the Cybils, but never reviewed. At first, it looks like a picture book, but it is so much more than that. This collection of photos, illustrations, sketches, and comics is Allen Say’s version of an autobiography, both heartwarming and informative.

It is a unique graphic novel, full of things to learn. Say’s drawings give a great feeling for life in Tokyo in the 1950s. His drawings of people on the street show so much of the fashion and jobs that people held, in a far more interesting way than reading an article on the subject.

My favorite part of the book detailed how Say moved into his own tiny apartment at age twelve to focus on his studies. Having lived for a year in Japan, I loved following his adventures as a child living on his own in Tokyo. Say’s apartment looked very similar to mine (read: minuscule) and his daily activities mirrored many of mine. I smiled to see him sitting in a restaurant like I did and exploring the city with wide eyes.

Drawing from Memory is not a typical graphic novel, and difficult to categorize. I think  it would appeal most to young artists, who can pore over Say’s work to see how his art developed, and be inspired by how he finagled an internship with Japan's top cartoonist. The cover does it a disservice; almost any of the illustrations inside would be more likely to grab a young reader's interest. If I wanted one of my students to read it, I would hand it off, already opened to the first page.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Unwanteds

In Quill, thirteen-year-olds are categorized as Wanted, Necessary, and Unwanted. The Wanteds attend university, the Necessaries do manual labor, and the creative Unwanteds are sent to their death. When Alex Stowe is sorted into the Unwanteds, he must leave behind his Wanted twin brother Aaron. What Alex and the other Unwanteds find at the Death Farm is a secret world called Artim̩, full of magical creatures and new outlets for their creativity Рdancing, drawing, acting, and singing. With the two societies existing so closely, it is only a matter of time before there is a showdown between the magical weapons of Artim̩ and the military strength of Quill, with the brothers divided.
Lisa McMann’s first foray into middle grade books has many features that will appeal to younger readers. Alex and his Unwanted friends are well-developed and likable. I enjoyed that they were flawed and all of their choices had consequences. McMann strikes the right balance in portraying complicated family relationships, particularly with twins.

The highlight of The Unwanteds is the way that the arts are used as weapons, such as the imaginative “slash singing, slam poetry, and fire steps”. My favorite parts of the novel involved the students learning about the arts, such as discovering music or creating fire-breathing origami dragons. At 400 pages, it is not a short novel and I wish there had been more scenes with the students in their classes and developing their powers. I was also concerned that there seemed to be a message that creativity exists only in the arts, while the children who liked math and economics were not seen as creative. As an adult reader, I realized that the reason Aaron was a successful Wanted was because he was creative, but this point may not be clear to middle grade readers.

Kirkus called it “The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter,” which I believe does a disservice to The Unwanteds. Readers who pick up this novel expecting it to be The Hunger Games will feel manipulated by the lack of similarity between the two. Likewise, readers who want this to be a Harry Potter novel will be disappointed when it doesn’t measure up. The Unwanteds is an enjoyable introduction to dystopian novels on its own and when I recommend it, I won’t mention either of those other titles.

Read this and other reviews at Young Adult Books Central.