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


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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Hold Tight, Don't Let Go

Happy 2015! I hope this is your best year yet.

It's been a great year for novels about the Haitian earthquake. I enjoyed Serafina's Promise and A Song for Bijou, which were both geared towards middle grade and middle school students. Thanks to NetGalley, I got to read Laura Rose Wagner's Hold Tight, Don't Let Go. Due to the language and some of the situations related to the bleak options for young girls, I would recommend this book for mature eighth graders and up. But I definitely recommend it!

Magdalie often forgets that she and Nadine aren't even really sisters. Magda was taken in by Nadine and her manman, living a simple life of school and helping manman clean the house of her cruel boss. Everything changes when the earthquake happens. Manman is a casualty of the disaster, Nadine moves to Florida to be with her father, and Magda has to find where she belongs in Haiti.

It is interesting to see what authors focus on when describing the aftermath of the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Wagner isn't graphic; she tackles the internal uncertainty that resulted. "We are still afraid of sleeping under cement roofs. Everybody is--everybody in this city is afraid of that. Everybody is ready to run all the time…We dream about earthquakes--in our nightmares we are frozen and cannot run. The kid Kervens who lives in the tent near the mapou tree, he was under the rubble for seven hours on January 12, and now he won't sleep without his sneakers on his feet." Wagner was in Haiti for the four years living up to the earthquake, so she has a good grasp on the before and after of the event. Her love for the country and culture shines through. The characters are well-rounded and aren't victims, even in the worst circumstances. I particularly enjoyed Safira, a friend who purchased medicine to save her mother's life by getting impregnated by a man with some money. Safira remains an optimistic influence on those around her, even though she has made difficult choices.

I hope that Hold Tight, Don't Let Go is translated into Creole so that Haitians can enjoy it. There is so much pride in this novel. "Rayi chen, di l dan li blan…You hate the dog, but you have to admit that it has beautiful white teeth." This saying comes up several times in the novel and I think it really emphasizes Wagner's point. There are so many different sides to Haiti and this novel gives us a good view of them.