Sunday, January 4, 2015

This is to inform the reader that Children's Book Reviews by Liz Winn will no longer be receiving regular updates. Thank you to all who stopped by to read my reviews!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Touchdown Tony Crowne

Touchdown Tony Crowne and the Case of the Missing Cheerleader (Tony Crowne Mysteries #1) by Peter Guy George (Self-Published, 2013, 343pp.)

For fifth grader Tony Crowne and friends, the school year is starting off great. He’s got a prime spot on the school’s peewee football team and he’s just made a new friend in the clumsy but faithful Judd Judson. In addition, his other best friend, Ashley, was picked for the cheerleading team over her bullying nemesis, Felicity Whittaker. Then, right before kickoff at the biggest football game of the year, Tony realizes that Ashley is missing. Remembering Felicity’s vow to get even with Ashley for being snubbed during tryouts, Tony enlists the assistance of retired detective Bougereau to help solve the case. A charming detective mystery for sports lovers Ages 9-12.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

War of the Gods

War of the Gods by Justine, Juan, and Marco Borrego (New Generation Publishing, 2013, 68pp.)

Young Justin, half-mortal, half-god, is humanity’s only hope when Zeus and Jupiter overthrow the other Olympian gods following a disagreement. Now, in order to restore balance to the world, Justin must accomplish a set of impossible tasks, defeat Zeus and Jupiter, and free the imprisoned gods. A short, appealing tale of adventure recommended to children ages 7-9.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Lovely Fantasy Adventure

The Carnelian (Gemstone Chronicles #1) by William L. Stuart (Self-Published, 2012, 242pp.)

Aidan, his little sister Maggie, and their grandparents, Beebop and Nana, find themselves drawn into the magical realm of Celahir after they accidentally free Findecano, a Light Elf who has been imprisoned for centuries in a rock. Findecano explains that he was hidden away in this prison after he discovered a plot by the Dark Elves to steal the gemstones from the magical Elven Bow. The family accompanies him deep into the heart of Celahir to to recover the first of the gemstones, the Carnelian, which is reported to be in the clutches of a kelpie, a mythical horse-like creature that feasts on human flesh. While the set-up is a bit slow, the pace really picks up after the family departs our world for the magical realm of the elves. A lovely fantasy adventure that will appeal especially to children ages 9-12.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Charming, Short Chapter Book

Following Grandfather by Rosemary Wells, Illus. Christopher Denise (Candlewick, 2012, 64pp.)

Set in early 20th century Boston, Following Grandfather documents the tender relationship between Jenny, a young mouse, and her elderly grandfather, shortly before his death. Jenny's emotional journey to cope with her grief, coupled with black and white illustrations by Christopher Denise, make this a charming, short chapter book. Recommended for Ages 6-8.

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Friday, May 17, 2013

Interesting, But Needs A Lot Of Work

Allie Gator and the Seven Stones by Sean Eckenrod (CreateSpace, 2013, 272pp.)

A cross between Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, Allie Gator and the Seven Stones follows the adventures of Allie, a brave young girl whose life takes a turn for the fantastical after she falls in the Myakka River, and into an underwater world of excitement and intrigue. Populated by talking catfish, friendly alligators, and clumsy wood storks, it’s a world divided into seven imperiled kingdoms that have fallen out of balance since the seven magical stones have been lost. Now, Allie is presented with a mission that only she and a group of new friends can carry out: she must retrieve the stones and restore the world’s balance.

Unfortunately, Allie Gator and the Seven Stones is a problematic tale. While it has a lot of good ideas and some surprising lessons for the reader, the execution of these ideas/lessons leaves much to be desired. The two biggest issues for me were pacing and content. After Allie makes her initial entrance into the underwater world, she, along with the reader, is bombarded with a mass of names and concepts that we don’t have enough time to absorb. In this way, it almost reminds me of a video game: press START, and game characters start feeding you information. In regards to content, although each sea kingdom/adventure is meant to be unique in its own way, only four of these seven episodes—and the lessons learned along the way—made any impact on me as a reader. So, while Allie Gator has lots of potential to be a good read, I feel that it still has a long way to go before it gets there. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

As Charming and Irreverent as its Predecessor

Monsters on the March (Scary School #2) by Derek Taylor Kent, alias Derek the Ghost (HarperCollins, 2012, 256pp.)

In this sequel to Scary School—a playful tale that chronicled the goings-on at an elementary school for human and monster attendees—the students find themselves shuttled to the Albanian court of King Zog as a reward for surviving last year’s grueling Ghoul Games. Their host, King Zog, is the nicest, most well-behaved, pleasantest-smelling monster you could ever meet. Just don’t insult him, or pick your nose in his presence—that’s the quickest way to dismemberment. So after someone sneezes—rather unapologetically, I might add—during the court’s welcome assembly, Zog declares all-out war on Scary School. Now, once again, it’s up to the intrepid students and faculty to save their beloved school before they’re torn to pieces by Zog’s fearsome army of karate-practicing monsters and monster pirate allies. A sequel as charming and irreverent as its predecessor. Recommended to Ages 9-12.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Kadamba of Gentle Humilaith

Kadamba of Gentle Humilaith (Cosmic Library #2) by Mirti Venyon Reiyas (CreateSpace, 2012, 132pp.)

This second stand-alone installment in Reiyas’s Cosmic Library series deals with the effects of the malicious Thorn Virus spawned by the mischievous kinkas, a malignity which is gradually suffusing the universe—both people and things—with ill-will and unscrupulous behavior. On planet Ethera, Kon Fu-Zed, the ambitious director of an aerospace travel company, has plans to develop the previously untouched continent of The (pronounced “thay”) into an animalline-hunting theme park. He also can’t wait to try out his brand new invention, the “Whe-pin,” a devastating weapon which would be the nightmare of any endangered species. He appoints Tahdi Bellevue, an employee, to lead a surveying expedition. But when Tahdi lands on The, he meets Neelaiyahay, a half-tiger, half-human being who opens his eyes to the ecological consequences of Kon Fu-Zed’s plans. In the end, Tahdi and Neelaiyahay must defeat not only the physical manifestation of the thorns (which are clogging up inter-dimensional gateways), but convince Kon Fu-Zed that razing everything green to the ground is not beneficial to anyone in the long run.

As I finished Kadamba, my initial reaction was: “Well, that was okay. Things certainly happened, but at the same time, the events weren’t very...dramatic.” Then I  remembered seeing something on the author’s website about the name she has assigned for this particular genre: “Positive Young Adult Romantic Adventurous Fantasy.”

Ah, I thought. That explains it. The Cosmic Library series is one that keeps the conflict on a juvenile reader’s level while exploring interesting ideas. There are no cars and trucks exploding, nor people massacring their families and then setting themselves on fire. The series shuns violence, and instead choses to focus on the importance of choosing the path of positive thinking over that of negative (if you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ll know what I’m talking about).

Now, some of the best psychological fiction has no “action,” but instead mediates on the characters’ internal struggles. In this regard, however, Kadamba loses some points. Although I liked the relationship between Tahdi and Neelaiyahay, I didn’t feel like I got to know them, or the other characters, as well as I could have. Recommended for Ages 12-14, and for adults who are tired of the graphic violence in the media.

Click on cover for image source.

Unique Ideas, Narrow Target Audience

Ephemerine Tree (Cosmic Library #1) by Mirti Venyon Reiyas (Self-Published, 2012, 166pp.)

Eda, a young woman from planet Artea, is enlisted by Rainyun, a light-being from the Ephemerine Realm, to help steer her world away from environmental disaster. Reiyas produces a very creative piece of work to provide a unique, cautionary tale. Artea—and the rest of the galaxy, for that matter—is suffering from the use of the destructive tachyonic particle inverse dematerializer, a device built to extract electricity-producing potrillion juice from ocean caves at the expense of the environment. While the dematerializer seems to be a stand-in for fracking, the author is able to make it part of a very believable universe. While this short novel is great to read for its ideas, its focus on spiritualism and New Age principles may not appeal to mainstream readers looking for a face-paced action tale. Recommended for Ages 12-Up.

Click on cover for image source.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Kooky, Clever, and Irreverent

Scary School by Derek Taylor Kent, alias Derek the Ghost (Harper, 2011, 233pp.)

Welcome to Scary School, where human children intermingle with monster kids, the school librarian is a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a giant squid lurks in the school moat, and gargoyles carry off students who loiter on the playground after recess. You may notice that the mortality rate is a little higher here than most elementary schools. That’s because children are in constant danger of being eaten by the teachers, or accidentally killed in one of Mr. Acidbath’s science experiments, or purposefully maimed by their classmates, or falling prey to Principal Headcrusher’s bone-shattering grip… But that doesn’t mean they have to stay dead. They can always come back to life as a vampire or zombie.

So, why put children in such a hazardous environment? According to Principal Headcrusher, “the more scared children are, the better they learn” (69). Honestly, who wouldn’t be able to improve their test scores if their lives depended on it? Okay, so some teachers may be a little too eager to punish student transgressions (Dr. Dragonbreath, the dragon history teacher, was put on probation last year for eating his entire fifth grade class) but some of the teachers are very kind to students. Take Ms. Fang, for instance. According to the student body, she’s by far the “nicest, sweetest teacher at Scary School” and “only ate twelve kids last year” (13, 15).

Need I say more? Scary School is a clever, kooky, irreverent children’s book that will be enjoyed by anyone who adores Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School, or Mike Thaler’s Teacher from the Black Lagoon. Recommended for Ages 9-12, but grown-ups may get a kick out of it, too.

Click on cover for image source.

Friday, July 20, 2012

An Original Jumble of Genres

Xor: The Shape of Darkness by Moshe Slipper (CreateSpace, 2012, 296pp.)

What starts out as just another ordinary day for Lewis Nash comes to a screeching halt when someone blows his house up, killing his adopted father. Not long after that, he learns that his biological parents aren’t ordinary people like everyone else—they are Lord and Lady Shaper from planet Xor. What exactly is a Shaper, you ask? It’s a person who can change the shape of things around him, more or less. And Xor? Xor is a place where magicians and robots coexist, a world whose peace is threatened by the fearsome Realm Pirates. Ordinarily, the Lord and Lady Shaper would put a stop to that—only, they’ve recently gone missing. Now that he’s come of age, Lewis learns, the entire planet is counting on him to stop the Realm Pirates from taking over Xor with their wave of darkness—only here, the “darkness” is not only literal, but metaphorical.

Robots and Magicians? Does that make it fantasy, or science fiction? Maybe both. Yet fans of either will both enjoy this very original jumble of genres that touches on important themes without getting too serious for young readers. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

Click on cover for image source.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Richly Imagined and a Delight to Read

The Prince Who Fell from the Sky by John Claude Bemis (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012, 272pp.)

On an Earth where mankind has been wiped out by a nameless catastrophe, only animals remain. The bears, coyotes, rats, dogs, and other woodland creatures are subjects of the Forest, living cheek by jowl among the ruins left behind by the fabled “Old Devils.” But mankind, it appears, hasn’t completely disappeared for good. When a spaceship crash-lands in a meadow, killing all aboard except for a small boy, the lonesome she-bear Casseomae rescues the young’un and treats him as her own cub. Some animals, however, fear the child as a sign that the dreaded Old Devils are due to return and reclaim the Forest. Determined to protect her newly adopted “cub” from hostile parties, Casseomae sets out to find a place where she and her ward can live in safety. A truly creative story that straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction, The Prince Who Fell From the Sky is richly imagined, as well as a delight to read. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

Click on cover for image source.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tess, Terrorists, and the Tiara

Tess, Terrorists, and the Tiara by Terry Baldwin (Middleton Books, 2012, 135pp.)

Fifty years ago, Tess’s grandmother became the last winner of the Miss Land of the Free pageant. Today, Grandma’s health is declining due to Alzheimer’s. Deciding to make the most of her remaining years of cognizance, Grandma decides to give her diamond tiara - the one she was crowned with - to her granddaughter. The problem is, she has two: Tess, 13, and Brianna, 16. In order to make the decision fair, she and Grandpa invite the sisters to participate in a contest during their summer visit. Whoever earns enough “Helpful Points” before school starts will win the tiara.

Poor Tess thinks her chances of winning are dismal. Her pretty older sister is smart and competent, while Tess, on the other hand, has been described by friends and family as sweet but scatter-brained, constantly distracted by an over-active imagination. Here is where the story incorporates not only “Tess” and the “Tiara,” but “Terrorists” as well. After reading an article in National Geographic about the frightening, misogynist nature of Muslim extremists, Tess notices one of the neighbors clad head-to-toe in a dark cloak, and recognizes it from the article as a burka. Putting two and two together, Tess fears that the neighbors are terrorists who are targeting her grandmother - Miss Land of the Free herself!

Baldwin’s short novel isn’t not so much about a girl encountering a different culture or religion as it is a cautionary tale about judging people at face value. It’s certainly a nice message to teach children. However, I feel that the story would have been better served if it had shown Tess exploring another culture’s traditions and values than simply act as an exercise in tolerance. Recommended for Ages 9-13.

Click on cover for image source.

This review can also be found on my YA review site.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Plenty of Magic to Go Around

The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2011, 352pp.)

In 1855, six children from a wealthy New England family, the Glendoveers, were kidnapped for ransom. When their kidnapper’s getaway boat was capsized during a storm, the children drowned - all except for the baby, Elliot, who was never found. Decades later, their grieving mother lies on her deathbed in their old family home, cared for by a housekeeper and her daughter, 12-year-old Clara. Entrusted with the care of Mrs. Glendoveer’s aviary, young Clara is, at first, unnerved by the noisy birds. But when one of the birds keeps calling out the name “Elliot”, she becomes curious. When she learns of the family’s tragic history, she decides to solve the mystery of the missing child’s whereabouts. Despite the children’s morbid demise by drowning, this turns out to be a lovely story. I definitely have to say that with its creative premise and strong heroine, it’s got plenty of magic to go around. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

Click on cover for image source.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Nice Introduction to Marie Curie

Marie Curie by Leonard Everett Fisher (Atheneum, 1994, 32pp.)

Black and white acrylic paintings illustrate this overview of the life of Marie Curie, Nobel Prize winner in both Physics and Chemistry. A nice introduction for children - and certainly one to show girls interested in science - but not really a book you want to reach for at Story Time. Recommended for Ages 8-10.

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A Fine, Poetic Picture Book with Lovely Artwork

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson, the Voice of a Century by Pam Munoz Ryan, Illustrated by Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press, 2002, 40pp.)

A beautifully illustrated biography of Marian Anderson, an African-American singer from Philadelphia. Inspired to study opera after seeing a performance of Madama Butterfly, Anderson was a prodigal student who found her journey repeatedly blocked by racial barriers. The most powerful scene in the book depicts her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial: Marian stands in the far distance, while a mixed race audience sits together listening in the forefront. The author quotes lyrics from Anderson’s songs to accompany Selnick’s acrylic sepia-toned paintings, which makes for a fine, poetic picture book. Recommended for Ages 4-8.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Degas and the Dance

Degas and the Dance: The Painter and the Petits Rats, Perfecting Their Art by Susan Goldman Rubin (Harry N. Abrams, 2002, 32pp.)

The Impressionist painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is best known for his pastel and oil paintings of ballet dancers at practice. Rubin’s book focuses on these ballet paintings and describes the artists’ techniques. In addition to displaying over thirty full-color paintings, the book also gives brief biography, but otherwise offers little to no insight into who Degas was as a person. Recommended for Ages 7-10.

Click on the cover for image source.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Short But Charming

Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst, Illus. Lane Smith (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010, 113pp.)

Lulu is a spoiled brat who is used to getting what she wants. If someone tells her NO, she simply throws a tantrum until the other person submits to her demands. Her poor parents are used to this behavior and usually give her whatever she wants--except for one thing. When Lulu announces on her birthday that she wants a brontosaurus for a present, her parents flatly refuse. So Lulu decides to go looking for one on her own. Viorst’s tale is short but charming, and works in perfect unison with Lane Smith’s illustrations. It is divided into brief chapters, but with its artwork and dialog, could work as a picture book to read to school children during Story Time. Recommended for Ages 6-8.

Click on cover for image source.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Informative But Slow-Moving Portrait of Tribal Life in East Africa

Only the Mountains Do Not Move: A Maasai Story of Culture and Conservation by Jan Reynolds (Lee & Low Books, 2011, 40pp.)

Reynolds’ book gives a brief overview of the lifestyle of the Maasai, a tribe that lives in Eastern Africa. Although the book is informative, providing us with information on tribal traditions, food, and the different roles of men and women, the text seemed to wander through its subject, and would have been better presented in categorical sections. The author wraps up the book nicely by mentioning the Maasai’s remarkable resilience and ability to adapt in the face of change in the modern world. Also included is a glossary and pronunciation guide of the tribe’s language, as well as providing two websites with additional information about the Maasai. Recommended for Ages 4-8.

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A Short But Sweet Look at a Mother and Son

Love Twelve Miles Long by Glenda Armand, Illus. by Colin Bootman (Lee & Low Books, 2011, 32pp.)

Frederick Douglass, one of American history’s great orators and writers, was born a slave. When he was sent to live on a plantation twelve miles away, his mother made this journey on foot under the cover of night to visit her son. This lovely picture book presents an imagined conversation between Frederick and his mother, who tells him about her journey to visit him. The paintings are nothing remarkable, but nicely illustrate the story. A short biography of Douglass is included in the Afterward. Recommended for Ages 4-8.

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A Unique (If Somewhat Limited) Opportunity for Children to Learn about Tibetan-American Culture

Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure by Naomi C. Rose (Lee & Low Books, 2011, 40pp.)

Tashi, a young American girl, has grown up listening to her Tibetan-born grandfather (referred to as “Popola,”) talk about the land where he was born. One of the old beliefs, he tells her, is that the pollen from flowers has medicinal properties; if you sit downwind from flowers and let yourself be “dusted” by their pollen, you will be cured of any ailment. When Popola falls ill, Tashi knows that she will need many flowers to cure him. She finds a flower nursery and explains her problem to the kind owner, who agrees to let Popola sit and relax among his flowers. Soon, the nursery’s other patrons notice the ailing man, and it becomes a community effort to help Tashi’s grandfather get better. This feel-good story about grandfathers and granddaughters is pretty much like any other, but with one exception: the heroine’s ancestry provides a unique (if somewhat limited) opportunity for children to learn about Tibetan-American culture. Includes glossary and explanatory notes on Tibet’s culture, and the lives of Tibetan immigrants in the United States. Recommended for Ages 4-8.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Child-Friendly Account of Bravery During the Holocaust

Irena’s Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan, Illus. by Ron Mazellan (Lee & Low Books, 2011, 40pp.)

The picture book biography of Irena Sendler, a young social worker who joined the underground effort to smuggle Jews out of Poland’s Warsaw ghetto after learning that the Nazis were sending families to the Treblinka extermination camp. As a member of the secret organization Zegota, Irena found homes for Jewish children in Christian homes and gave them new identities. Prompted by parents’ concerns about being reunited with their children, she wrote each child’s real name and “new” name on paper and stored them in jars that she buried in a friend’s back yard. There are some moments that may be unsettling for younger children, specifically when a Nazi guard threatens to shoot a barking dog, and it’s mentioned that Irena was imprisoned, beaten, and tortured by the Gestapo before narrowly escaping a firing squad in 1943. Mazellan’s oil paintings, especially his dark-toned ghetto scenes, nicely compliment this otherwise child-friendly account of bravery during the Holocaust. Contains a glossary and pronunciation guide, and a list of author’s sources. Recommended for Ages 6-8.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Running Away From Home Has Never Been Such Fun

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (1967; Atheneum, 2007, 176pp.)

Young Claudia is ready for the adventure of a lifetime, but nothing exciting ever happens to her. So she decides to set her own adventure in motion by running away from home. Her destination? New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. With little brother Jamie at her side, this pair of crafty siblings infiltrate the museum, and soon become embroiled in a mystery that baffles museum officials and visitors alike. Claudia and Jamie are eager to help, but how can they provide answers without giving away the fact that they’re living in the museum? This fast-paced coming of age classic features a unique premise that will grab the attention of young readers and adults alike. Konigsburg’s young duo are smart and sympathetic, and their plan to sneak into the Metropolitan after lights out is so calculated and believable that even the most jaded readers will be hooked.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Sassy Saves the School Play (and the Environment) from Disaster (Sort of)

The Silver Secret (Sassy #3) by Sharon M. Draper (Scholastic Press, 2010, 112pp.)

Sassy’s school puts on a recital about the importance of environmental conservation and keeping the Earth clean. Sassy desperately wants to be on stage, but since she can’t sing or dance, the music teacher puts her in charge of whole production as stage manager. The “silver secret” of the title refers to Sassy’s piccolo, which she is learning to play with a private tutor. Fearful that she won’t be good at this instrument, she initially decides to keep her progress a secret from her friends, but later reveals her talent to much admiration from her classmates. In the end, Sassy saves the day by performing “What a Wonderful World” on her piccolo when one of the soloists originally planned to perform the song gets sick before the big performance. Although environmentalism is mentioned in the story (a list of “How You Can Help” ideas is included), the real narrative focuses on Sassy’s job as stage manager, her piccolo playing, and a brief but pointless side plot where she loses her favorite shoulder-bag (dubbed by all as her “Sassy sack”), only to recover it a chapter later. Sadly, conservation only plays only a minor role in the story. One of the scenes meant to educate the reader the kind of recycled or organic products available on market takes place at the mall in a store that specializes in such items as--but not limited to--water filters, energy-saving lightbulbs, purses made from recycled plastic bottles and organic dog food. One of Sassy’s friends even goes so far as to make a statement about harmful “chemicals and additives” that can be found in non-organic foods (96). Draper fails to adequately explain this line of dialog to the reader, which presents a problem: unless a teacher or parent reads this book with a child and then leads a discussion about the differences between organic and processed foods, how are grade-schoolers even going to know what “additives” are? In regards to the “ideas” list, it leaves much to be desired. Aside from helpful suggestions to use only recyclable products, plant a garden, write letters to your Congressman, etc., it prompts children to “use online resources” to find out more information, but doesn’t even bother to list any kid-friendly sites. The Silver Secret? A nice story for grade-school girls, perhaps, but not especially helpful in the classroom. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

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Nice Way to Teach Kids About Hurricanes and Marine Wildlife

The Birthday Storm (Sassy #2) by Sharon M. Draper (Scholastic Press, 2009, 112pp.)

Sassy and her family travel to Florida to throw a birthday party for her grandmother, only to learn that a hurricane is heading straight for Grammy’s house on the beach. In addition to this, Sassy finds a nest of sea turtle eggs in danger of being swept out to sea by the storm. Can Sassy save both the party and the baby sea turtles from disaster? The story serves as a platform to teach children about the proper response to situations like those found in the book (how to help endangered wildlife, how to prepare for a hurricane), as well as show how families can think of new ways to have fun, even when plans don’t go as expected. Includes information about sea turtles and hurricanes. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

Click on cover for image source.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Touching Portrait of Homesickness and Longing

My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood by Rosemary Wells with Secundino Fernandez, Illus. Peter Ferguson (Candlewick, 2010, 72pp.)

Writer Rosemary Wells and Cuban-born architect Secundino Fernandez have teamed up to chronicle the events of his childhood. The young “Dino” depicted in these pages is a remarkable little boy. Even from an early age, he is in love with Havana’s buildings, taking note of the colors and architectural quirks that make these places special. When he and his family move from Cuba twice during his childhood, first to Spain to care for a sick relative, and lastly to the US to flee Castro’s dictatorship, it is not without a sense of mourning. What makes the story so poignant is its emphasis on homesickness and longing, reminding the reader of things they may take for granted. Ferguson’s vibrant oil paintings only add to this rich experience. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Discovering Cultural Roots

Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes (Chronicle Books, 2010, 224pp.)

Twelve-year-old Izzy is sent to spend the summer in New Mexico with her grandmother, where she discovers her cultural roots and learns about her heroic father, who died before her birth. Although the plot proves to be average at best (as well as a little predictable), Cervantes’s novel delivers a nice message on the power of love, and provides an interesting glance into Hispanic culture. Izzy witnesses a fiesta in honor of her grandmother’s friend’s birthday, and her grandmother herself teaches her the art of tortilla-making. The author also includes recipes for tortillas and a glossary of Spanish words used in the story. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Solid Coming-of-Age Tale Set in Elizabethan London

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (Clarion Books, 2010, 167pp.)
Sharp-tongued Meggy doesn’t make friends easily. How can she, especially since most people don’t even bother to look past her crippled legs? When her father, whom she has never met, calls her to London to serve as an assistant in his alchemical work, he is disappointed by her limited range of motion. But what she lacks in physical strength, she more than makes up for in quick-wittedness, loyalty, and perseverance. Meggy’s story is an inspiring one. Despite her handicap, she learns to depend on her inner strengths and proves that she has a great deal more to offer than at first glance. Cushman brings Elizabethan London to life for the reader, and also provides a helpful historical note and bibliography for those who are curious to learn more about this time in history. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Great Read About Mothers, Daughters, and Racial Identity

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad, 2010, 224pp.)

Delphine doesn’t know what to expect when she and her two little sisters fly cross-country in the summer of 1968 to visit Cecile, the mother who left them years earlier. Cecile, a dedicated poet, considers the girls an unwanted distraction, and sends them to attend a summer camp run by the Black Panthers. The story of this unforgettable summer isn’t just a tale of a mother and her daughters, but of a child rediscovering and embracing her racial identity. Lyrical prose and fully-explored characters make this an excellent read for any age. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

As Disappointing As It Seems

As Simple As It Seems by Sarah Weeks (HarperCollins, 2010, 192pp.)

Verbena Colter is in for the shock of her life when, at age 11, she discovers that she was adopted as a baby after her alcoholic mother gave her up, and the reason for her trouble learning to read is because she suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. How can she stay as her mother’s “Sweetpea” when she knows that she’s no longer the person she thought she was? While it’s a nice story that charts a young girl’s growth after a life-changing event, Weeks choses to use fetal alcohol syndrome as a plot device to initiate Verbena’s self-doubt and introspection rather than make it the focus of the book. This in itself would have been very interesting, and while the hero’s journey is certainly a worthy cause to write about, in this case, it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. The first-person “voice” of the narrative is also a little disappointing. Although we learn at the end that Verbena is recounting her childhood years as an adult, the mature tone doesn’t quite fit the overall story, making the prose ring a little false. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Flawed Read About Young Royalty

Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country (The Royal Diaries) by Kathryn Lasky (Scholastic, 2002, 202pp.)
This fictional diary chronicles the adventures of twelve-year-old Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots) during her childhood in France living with her future husband and in-laws. Unfortunately, the events that made Mary an important figure in history happened much later in her life, leaving Lasky to scrounge around to fill the pages. The narrative is episodic and somewhat plodding, with Mary’s shrewish soon-to-be mother-in-law Catherine de Medici serving as the primary villain. Catherine’s villainies, which include exhibiting a bad temper and rifling through Mary’s personal papers for a reason not readily apparent to the rest of us, are appropriate for a children’s book, but don’t seem to really ever come to a head. That said, this makes Mary’s reaction, to act like a true queen and forgive Catherine for her scheming, a bit late in coming. However, it is especially interesting to note, the author’s pointed irony in having her heroine learn a very important lesson: that the best decisions come from time and contemplation, not impulse (historically, Mary Stuart’s greatest flaw was her impulsive nature). A flawed read with some redeeming qualities for young girls interested in the lives of princesses. Recommended for Ages 9-12.
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Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Lovely Collection of Short Fiction

Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Stories by Jane Yolen (Harcourt Brace Books, 1997, 192pp.)

Jane Yolen presents twelve very fine fantasy stories aimed at juvenile readers. In “Tough Alice,” our Wonderland heroine must rely on her wits in order to get the better of the fearsome Jabberwocky. “Mama Gone” tells an eerie tale of a young girl who seeks to put her vampire mother’s soul to rest. A family finds new beginnings on a relative’s farm after a phoenix’s fiery rebirth destroys their apartment building in “Phoenix Farm.” Now that violence is part of New York City’s past, its denizens go “Wilding” to satisfy their cravings for danger in this futuristic tale of the same title. “The Babysitter” is a creepy story about a haunted house, a babysitter, and one Halloween night. The final entry is a brilliant twist on Peter Pan, the Nebula-winning novella “Lost Girls,” where Darla finds herself a prisoner of the Lost Boys in a Neverland where Captain Hook, an advocate of women’s rights, is the least of her worries. A lovely collection of short tales to be enjoyed by young and old alike. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

You Can’t Go Wrong with Avi

Midnight Magic by Avi (Scholastic, 1999, 249pp.)

It’s 1491, Renaissance Italy. When Mangus the Magician and his loyal servant, Fabrizio, are enlisted to banish a ghost haunting the royal family, they soon learn that there’s more at stake than just their lives—the entire fate of the kingdom rests in their hands as well! As usual, you can’t go wrong with Avi. Vividly drawn characters and a labyrinthine plot with more than a few twists and turns prove this to be a light, fun thriller from one of the masters of young adult and children’s literature. Recommended for Ages 9-12.

Click on the cover for image source.