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.