Monday, April 30, 2012

Explorer: The Mystery Boxes

Master of graphic novel anthologies, Kazu Kibuishi is back with Explorer: The Mystery Boxes which features seven stories about a mystery box. By inviting artists who are comfortable with writing short stories in graphic novel form, then providing them with a provocative theme, Kibuishi has guaranteed the reader an entertaining book. 

It's interesting to see what the artists can do with such a broad theme. Emily Carroll's "Under the Floorboards" is reminiscent of Anya's Ghost and Jason Caffoe's "The Keeper's Treasure" has beautiful illustrations and a great message. My favorite story might have been Rad Sechrist's "The Butter Thief", where a Japanese grandmother uses a box to protect the family's butter from spirits who want to steal it. Charmed by its unusual plot and cinematic artwork, Sechrist is an artist I will be watching. Kibuishi himself contributed the final story, "The Escape Option". Fans of the Amulet series will be eager to see more of his unique imagination and gorgeous art. 

Explorer: The Mystery Boxes is fairly slim at 128 pages, and most stories could have benefited from a few extra pages. I will be adding it to my classroom library, where it will probably never see any "shelf time". If you enjoy the Flight anthologies, you will love this book. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Good Braider

Viola, her mother, and her brother are doing their best in war-torn Sudan, where all the men have gone to fight and those left behind are terrorized by soldiers. Viola is not exempt from the violence; when she is raped, the family escapes to stay with an uncle in Portland, Maine. There, they must adjust to the extreme cultural differences between Sudan and the United States.

Terry Farish's The Good Braider is a powerful way to learn about the Sudan and an immigrant experience.The clash of the desires of the Sudanese elders and American teenagers is constant, with Viola trying to braid together her old life and new. Some of the surprises that Viola encounters are things I have never considered. For example, her American friend Abby tells her that she must wear her seat belt or the police will get her. Viola is stunned that the police would care whether she died or not.

I have read many novels in verse about the experiences of immigrants, although none geared for older readers, so I would hesitate to lump this into a unit on literature circles with books like Inside Out and Back Again, Home of the Brave, and All the Broken Pieces. The Good Braider is a stand-alone work. Although it is written in verse, it does not appear that way on a kindle, so the experience of reading it as poetry was lost. I recommend reading a paper copy of the book, so that Farish's words can truly sink in.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Eight years have passed since Leck's death and Bitterblue is now the Queen of Monsea, surrounded by her father's former advisers and burdened by paperwork and tasks she doesn't quite understand. She begins sneaking out of the castle and learns that her kingdom is not what she thought it was. In her explorations, she meets two thieves who will change her life forever.

Don't read further if you want to be completely unspoiled!

Bitterblue is the novel I have been anticipating most this year (and for the past three years), so I threw myself a mini parade when I learned I would get to read it early. It was worth the wait.

Kristin Cashore does something different with this novel; both Fire and Graceling are written from the perspective of a Graced character, someone with a special skill that sets them apart. Bitterblue is not Graced, although the majority of the people in her service are. After being so interested in these special talents, it was interesting for me to consider what it would be like to try to rule a kingdom full of Graced citizens. Short answer: it's difficult. Bitterblue is confined to the castle for most of the book, which is a change from the previous novels which change location frequently. At times, it is frustrating to wait for the Gracelings to go off on adventures and make the discoveries on Bitterblue's behalf. I wonder if Cashore did this intentionally, to make the reader empathize with the protagonist. A few of these scenes could have been edited out, without doing any damage to the book, particularly ones that lead to a reveal that anyone who has read Fire already knows.

Fans of the series will be happy to encounter favorites like Katsa, Po, Giddon, and Fire in this novel. There's never enough Po for me! It also continues the tradition that people who love each other might not necessarily always be together. Cashore's work touches on modern topics like birth control and same-sex relationships and sets them in a fantasy world, perhaps making them easier to talk about for young readers who have questions.

Cashore has said that she has ideas for a fourth book in this series, which comes as a relief to me. This is a world where I want to continue to immerse myself. Hopefully, I won't have to wait three years before I can do it again.

Monday, April 23, 2012

One Dog and His Boy

For all ten years of his life, all Hal has wanted is a dog. He has begged his wealthy, neglectful parents, but they will buy him anything except the gift of his dreams. When they finally let him get Fleck, they don't mention that he will have to be returned to the dog rental company in three days. This event devastates both, but motivates Hal to rescue Fleck and a crew of other lovable dogs. Along with a spunky girl named Pippa who lies surprisingly easily, the group travels through England and manages to find the perfect home for each character.

I didn't want to read One Dog and His Boy, as I am not an animal person. I'm allergic to dogs, so have never understood the devotion that they inspire in their owners. My parents recently adopted a rescue dog and are obsessed, listening to Cesar Milan audiobooks and spending every spare moment at the dog park. They will relate completely to Hal, and his feeling that "He'd wanted it and wanted it and when it happened it was even better than he'd thought it would be. He'd imagined some of it--the companionship and warmth--but he didn't realize a dog would make you laugh so much, nor that he would help you make so many friends." In spite of my reluctance to read a "dog book", I was charmed by One Dog and His Boy, Eva Ibbotson's final novel. It brought me back to the books that I read as a child, full of quirky adventures and happy endings.

Ibbotson's characterization of adults is particularly entertaining. There is no gray area for adults in this book: they are either caricatures of vices or idealized, complete with seaside cottages. I was frequently reminded of the adults in Roald Dahl's books, especially in the character of Albina Fenton, Hal's mother. She spends her days shopping with her friends, an interchangeable trio who all have names that start with the letter G. Any semblance to Roald Dahl instantly improves a book, in my opinion.

Middle grade readers are always desperate for animal books and will love One Dog and His Boy. The dogs' personalities and the sweet friendship between Hal and Pippa will linger with readers long after they put the book aside.

This book was provided for review by Young Adult Books Central. Read this and more reviews by clicking here

Friday, April 20, 2012

Love and Leftovers

In Sarah Tregay's novel in verse, Marcie's life is falling apart--her father has left her mother for a man, a young local bartender, and her mother has taken Marcie to live in their lake house in New Hampshire, hundreds of miles away from her friends, boyfriend, and life. Love and Leftovers chronicles Marcie's attempts to start over at a new school, while clinging to the life she wishes she still had.

I probably shouldn't have read another contemporary YA novel in verse so closely after finishing Sonya Sones' excellent books, since she is a master of the medium. While I was entertained by Love and Leftovers, it felt like a pale imitation of Sones' work, and since Tregay thanks Sones in the acknowledgments, that's possibly the case.

There are some parts of the book that I liked: I thought it was smart of Tregay not to explain everything for the reader. Since this book is supposed to be a collection of Marcie's poems, there shouldn't be an explanation for the characters' IM names or the inside jokes. I also loved the relationship that Marcie begins with her father's new boyfriend. It felt honest and his character had a lot of depth.

Still, I was underwhelmed and wanted a bit more from the book after having the bar set so high by Sonya Sones. I will be checking out Lisa Schroeder, whose name keeps coming up as another amazing author of contemporary novels in verse. Want a different opinion? Check out Mrs. V's review of Love and Leftovers.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Fault In Our Stars

You guys. This book.

I have to share the original moment I lived while reading this book.  I was on the bus, riding home from our field trip to a science museum in North Carolina, sharing a seat with a 6th grade girl who used JUSTIN BIEBER twice as her word in our morning games of Hangman. I was a bawling mess over the book, so these sweeties were trying to comfort me, while also asking me to try on the mustache-shaped mood ring they bought at the gift shop so they could see what color "sad" is. I love being a teacher. 

Anyway, back to John Green's masterpiece. If you read young adult literature, you've probably already heard tons about this novel about two star-crossed teenagers who have cancer. I really don't want to give any of the plot away, so I will share how much I loved the main characters, Hazel and Augustus. 

Hazel is the type of sixteen year old we all wish we were (without the cancer, obviously). She is wise and funny, beautiful and confident, plus she gets along well with her parents. The novel is almost overwhelmingly sad, but it is Hazel's narration that prevents it from going over the edge. Her sarcastic and honest voice had me laughing through my tears. 

Augustus Waters is probably the best YA boyfriend to ever be written. He says gorgeous things like, "You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are." His clever, generous heart is what you wish everyone experiences in a lifetime, even if it is far shorter than it should be. 

I am the endearing combination of broke and cheap, but this is a hardcover book I was happy to pay for, if only because it makes it easier for me to lend it to everyone I know. 


If you've read this book, you are probably as thrilled as I am that it didn't end the way I dreaded it ending. You know what I'm talking about. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

These are the books that I am most eager to get my hands on. They are either unreleased, not in my library system, or not at the Barnes and Noble near my house. I'm keeping my eyes out for these six. 

1. Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King - This has been on my radar since I read Please Ignore Vera Dietz over the summer. King's novel has haunted me and I want that feeling again. 

2. The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle - Engle's my girl, so I need to read this novel in verse, especially after reading Katie's review. 

3. Frost by Marianna Baer - The review of this novel on Stacked shot this to the top of my TBR list. A psychological thriller set in a boarding school is exactly my cup of tea. 

4. Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams - Another recommendation from Stacked...I really love that website. It's plot seems fascinating and would be a great addition to the novels in verse challenge at Born Bookish.

5. Insurgent by Veronica Roth - This one will be released in May and I can't wait. The buzz around this book is so big that they didn't even need to give out many ARCs, so I will be buying it the day it releases. Divergent was a book that I stayed up all night reading, then recommended to everyone I know. 

6. Thumped by Megan McCafferty - My review of Bumped wasn't glowing, but the more that I think about this novel, the more I want to know what happens to twins Melody and Harmony. I'm looking forward to reading this when it releases on April 24th. 

What's on your Most Wanted List? Have you read any of my Most Wanted books?

Friday, April 13, 2012

What My Mother Doesn't Know

I am so glad I am participating in the Novels in Verse Challenge because it has introduced me to authors like Sonya Sones. What My Mother Doesn’t Know gives an awesome insight into the mind of a typical high school freshman.

The novel follows Sophia through her romantic travails, her first being with Dylan, one of the cutest boys in school. From the first time they lock eyes until their final tears, the reader rides all of Sophia’s emotional waves. Sones is particularly adept in describing the feeling when you realize you don’t like someone romantically anymore, and the awkwardness that it brings. Sophia’s relationships felt realistic and similar to the ones my students will have.

A highlight is Sophia’s relationship with her best friends, Grace and Rachel. While neither of those characters is well-developed, their friendship is loving and fun. The girls provide a foundation for Sophia that is more supportive than the one she receives from her quarreling parents. They feel true to silly, wonderful adolescent friendships, whether they are popping each other’s pimples or treating a newly single friend to a movie.

I was surprised to learn that What My Mother Doesn’t Know was one of the most frequently challenged books of 2004 and 2005, due to a poem where Sophia describes her body’s reaction to the cold. While the book skews mature for my current class of sixth graders, I think there is so much to gain from adolescents reading this book. I also highly recommend it to mothers, who will benefit from seeing life through a teen’s eyes.

If you haven't signed up for the Novels in Verse Challenge yet, I recommend you do so. The lowest level only requires one book (in a year!), so reading What My Mother Doesn't Know could satisfy it for you. Do it!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

These are my favorite books I've read in the first quarter of 2012. I'm pretty psyched about how diverse the group is. If you were with me, I'd be pressing these books into your hands:

1. Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore - my review will post on April 25th. I loved this addition to the Graceling series.

2. Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver - I loved this one even more than Delirium.

3. The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger - What a middle grade gem!

4. Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard - Takes me back to my backpacking days.

5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - My review will post on April 18th. This is my new favorite book.

6. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater - Who do I love more, Sean or Puck?

7. What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones - My review is coming up tomorrow. Sones is my queen for novels in verse.

8. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse - School reading list done right. Ignore the cover.

9. The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan - Look for my review of this novel in verse later this summer.

PS. Do you love my new Photoshop skills? I am teaching myself, using the tutorials at Pugly Pixel.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I either need to get some survival training or I need to stop reading books about the apocalypse.

Ashes is an intense and thrilling addition to the genre, detailing what happens after an electromagnetic pulse kills the majority of adults and leaves most teenagers as cannibalistic zombies. Alex has never been lucky: first her parents died and then she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. While she hikes to scatter her parents' ashes, she manages to escape the worst of the calamity and teams up with a cranky young orphan named Ellie and a cute veteran named Tom. The three stick together as they try to survive, but my zombie reading experience warned me that nothing was going to work out.

I loved this book. It kept me up late at night and had me panicking about the fact that I don't know how to start a fire or fight, and that I have two canned items in my cupboard. Ilsa J. Bick is insanely talented and able to weave a story that doesn't follow a predictable structure. Some of the sentences are so simple, yet knocked me out, like, "That was the last good time." This sentence pops up only halfway through the book, by the way.

Ashes ends with one of the best cliffhangers I've ever encountered, and I actually didn't know that it is the first in a trilogy, so I scrambled to the computer to learn more. Happily, Shadows will be released in Fall 2012, so while I have a wait to learn what happens next, I am comforted to know that eventually I will know.

If you love action, guts, being scared, and being surprised, make sure that Ashes is at the top of your To Read list.

Monday, April 9, 2012


Critics who say that graphic novels are not worthwhile reading material should check out Americus, MK Reed's graphic novel that may convince them that young readers should not be prevented from reading what they love.

Neil is a nerdy freshman who loves the fantasy series The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde and misses his best friend, Danny, who was sent away to military school for loving the novels and being gay. Danny's mother and her conservative church group decide that the series does not belong in the local library, and begin a crusade to ban it. From his job as a page at the library, Neil gets a ringside view of censorship and bravery.

Most impressive are the rich and well-developed characters. Aside from the very authentic Neil, there are many side characters who round out his town. My favorite, of course, was the cool librarian, Charlotte, who loved the Apathea Ravenchilde novels as much as the kids. She serves as a foil for Danny's mother, two extremes in the censorship battle. Also noteworthy were Devin, the punk older guy who introduces Neil to music, and Amber and Stacey, juniors who adopt Neil in shop class. These bright spots balance out the realistic drudgery of high school in a small town.

I enjoyed Jonathan Hill's simple black and white illustrations, particularly the small details in posters on the wall and CD covers. Less successful, for me, were the excerpts of Apathea Ravenchilde which were interspersed throughout the novel. I already had an idea of what those books would look like, so they took me away from Neil and his friends. The drama of Neil's life was enough for me.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy

Sonya Sones has written many free verse novels, but none are more personal than her first, the aptly titled Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. Sones has crafted her journal entries from when she thirteen into poems that may help readers coping with loved ones with mental illnesses.

When Cookie's older sister has a breakdown and is hospitalized, everything in her life shifts. Her parents begin arguing, her friends desert her, and her world begins to revolve around the unnamed sister. Since they are drawn from Sones' real life, all of the emotions are authentic. Cookie veers between anger, shame, fear that she is going insane, and hope that maybe she will be the one to bring Sister out of the darkness.

My favorite part of the book actually had nothing to do with Sister. Cookie gets her first boyfriend, which is also her first dose of normalcy since Sister's hospitalization. I love the hopefulness that she brings to the relationship and am so happy that the boy was the sweet and understanding presence that Cookie needed.

While the poems did not catch me the way other verse novels have, I enjoyed viewing this as a companion to Susanna Kaysen's excellent Girl Interrupted. It's always interesting to have the perspective of the sibling left behind. In the case of Stop Pretending, it is probably more beneficial to the reader.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


After a supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park erupts and destroys his Iowa home, fifteen-year-old Alex sets out to find his parents and sister in another state. Under a blanket of steady falling ash, he treks through the increasingly dangerous countryside, meeting Darla, a farmer who is probably the most capable character I've encountered in years. Ashfall is Mike Mullin's relentless debut novel and the first in a trilogy that fans of dystopian literature will love.

Mullin's view of our post-apocalyptic world is grim, much more than in books like Life As We Knew It, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and Pretties. This is more comparable to The Road (not that I'd know, eek) or The Walking Dead. It's also probably more realistic--when goods run out, things get dire. It's for this reason that I don't think Ashfall is suitable for middle school students. Violence, rape, and cannibalism are all facts of life in the wake of the eruption.

Books like this always make me want to stock my cabinets and become more self-sufficient. I don't know anybody who grew up on a farm, so I wonder if Darla is a realistic character. I feel like she might be, which shames a useless city girl like me.

There are some great parts of the novel; it's suspenseful and full of unexpected surprises. Perhaps my favorite aspect was how it broached safe sex. Alex and Darla have an intense courtship and want to make it more physical. Their discussions are among the most pragmatic I've encountered and far more mature than I've seen between adults in similar "end of days" situations, like on "Lost". My one quibble is that he negates it by having them wonder if condoms are reusable and never answering the question (They're not, kids!).

For the first book in a series, Ashfall wraps up fairly nicely and I don't feel a burning urge to read Ashen Winter when it comes out in October. I guess I prefer my blissful ignorance, although I will pick up a few extra cans of tuna at the market when I go next.

Monday, April 2, 2012

My Cybils Experience

Thanks to Katie's clever idea, I wanted to write about my experiences as a Round One judge for the 2011 Cybils.

I first heard of the Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) a few years ago when I started writing book reviews. I set the goal of one day being a judge. When the call for judges went out in August, I knew that this had to be the year, since it's my first year living in the United States after seven years of teaching internationally. I filled out the application form and crossed my fingers.

On September 18th, I received an email saying that I would be a judge for the first round of the graphic novel category. I expressed a preference for the first round, as that was the round when the bulk of the reading is done. I thought my
 personality worked better with narrowing the field than debating the minutiae of the finalists.
This adorable illustration was made by winner Mo Willems.

A few weeks later, we were given access to a database, where we kept track of all the nominations and marked down when we read them. This involved using the interlibrary loan system, sitting on the floor of Barnes & Noble, and getting packages of books from publishers. This was the most fun part of the process; who doesn't love coming home to a bunch of new books?!

Over the course of a few months, the panelists read tons of books and then came up with our list of five favorite middle grade and five favorite young adult graphic novels. Over the course of a two hour google chat conversation, we narrowed the nominations to a list of finalists, which was sent on to the second round judges.

I loved this experience and learned so much about book blogging. If you are organized and able to read a lot of books in a short amount of time, I highly recommend applying to be a judge. It's a lot of work, but has made me more knowledgeable about graphic novels. I now have a treasure trove of graphic novels that my students borrow and adore, hundreds of dollars worth of books that are newly published and incredible additions to my classroom library.