Sunday, May 31, 2015

Summer Reading 2015 The Education of Ivy Blake


I definitely need to have a talk with the folks at Penguin Young Readers. Why do they keep picking books to highlight through their Author Live Chats that make me cry? (This and others such as The Secret Hum of a DaisyNightingale's Nest, and The War that Saved My Life have all made me keep the tissues close.) Actually Penguin can't take all the blame, because a friend had already recommended Prairie Evers, which is the book that first introduces the character of Ivy Blake.

Why all the tears? Because Ivy's life is a mess, or her mother is anyway. Ivy has been living with Prairie's family, but her mother shows up and wants Ivy to come back to live with her in the rental house she has found. Even though she would rather stay with the Evers family, Ivy decides it is the right thing to give her mother a chance. As you might guess from the crying, things do not go well. The police come to the house several times, Prairie gets her feelings hurt because Ivy is hiding things (ashamed of the trouble her mother is in), and Ivy begins to feel hopeless.

But this is not a depressing book, there are just sad parts. As Grammy Evers knows, Ivy is determined and curious, good at waiting, independent, a survivor - just like the heron Grandmother nicknames her for in Cherokee, "Knasgowa." And there are more people than just the Evers who care about her; some are kids and some are adults, but when Ivy finally realizes what she wants to do, they all pull together for her.

This is a wonderful story of resilience, of trying to see the best in people, of rising above your circumstances, and of following your dreams. It shows the power of friendship and love. For readers who enjoy realistic fiction, perhaps books like Faith and Hope and Ivy June, this is a title they should try.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Summer Reading 2015 Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton


For teachers and students looking for books about slavery and its effects, this is a good read-aloud. It shows another facet of the institution of slavery, especially how it differed in North Carolina from many of the states in the Deep South. George isn't physically abused, but he is separated from his family when their owner decides to divide up his estate. George is able to use his gift for words to earn money and nice clothing when he visits Chapel Hill on the weekends, but he still has to work all week on the farm. Even after he becomes a published author and others offer to help him buy his freedom, his owner refuses. It is not until the Emancipation Proclamation that George is finally a free man.

The way bits of poems are worked into the illustrations helps to show how big a part of his life these words were. The list of helpful sources that is provided at the end of the story is great for anyone who wants to learn more. I also found the author's note very helpful. His explanation of why he originally chose not to work on books that dealt with slavery shows how the topic can still cause many conflicting emotions in people. I think this book would be wonderful to pair with Dave the Potter, another story of extraordinary creativity.

Visit Curious City DPW for poetry workshop ideas.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

*Update - We won a copy of the book from a giveaway and it will be added to our library. (11/02/2015)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Summer Reading 2015 Hunter


I love Mercedes Lackey's books, and this one is no exception. The main character, Joyeaux Charmand, is tough and competent enough to make fans of Katniss and Tris happy. There are plenty of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties going bump in the night, and in the daytime, to keep action junkies satisfied. For those who like a little intrigue, there are plots and politics and rivalries to try and sort out. And there is even a possible romance, if you like something a little warmer and fuzzier to go with all the bullets and levin bolts flying around.

Try to imagine a world a bit like the movie "Priest" (the one with the specially trained monks that know how to kill the vampires), where humans live in enclaves together for protection. Those in Apex city are more like we are in today's world with video channels and food network, etc. Those out in the countryside are in self-sufficient villages that work together to survive. And everywhere else are the creatures from Otherside - things like hellhounds and goblins and drakken and tommyknockers. Apex is the main city for the government and military that have reorganized and fortified the area following the cataclysmic breakthrough by magical beings and monsters into our world (similar to "Pacific Rim"). Joy's uncle happens to be the Prefect of the police force in Apex and is one of the most powerful men in the city, alongside the civilian Premier Rayne and the military's General Priam. 

Joy is a Hunter - she has "hounds" who are actually creatures from Otherside that help humans fight the creatures that like to eat people. She has been raised in a village in the Rockies, but is summoned to Apex by her uncle. And that's when the fun really begins... I look forward to seeing how the story develops as the series continues, because it is off to a great start.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Summer Reading 2015 For the Right to Learn


This is a great picture biography for elementary schools. It focuses on Malala's love of learning and her desire to go to school. Although it talks about the Taliban and their threats, and the attack on the school bus, it does not go into gory details that would be distressing for younger readers. The shooting itself is not shown, only some drops of blood on a school book represents the incident. A scene of Malala in the hospital shows her in bed with a bandage on her head and stuffed animals and other gifts from well-wishers all around the room. What comes through clearly is her joy in going to school and her determination to stand up for everyone's basic right to an education.

The illustrations are well done and show the beauty of the Swat Valley juxtaposed with the sad sight of school walls riddled with bullet holes or the scene of families fleeing from the Taliban. Readers also find out about Malala's mother deciding to learn to read as an adult, underscoring the fact that this young woman is an inspiration to people of all ages. There are additional facts in the afterword, including Benazir Bhutto's children giving Malala some of their mother's shawls.

This is short enough to be read aloud for a class, whether they are studying biographies or looking at examples of character traits such as courage and integrity. 

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Summer Reading 2015 Ratscalibur


"The Spork in the Scone!" "He's drawn the Spork from the Scone!" And that's how Joey becomes a hero. Okay, maybe the explanation should start a little earlier than that event. Joey is a boy who has just moved into the city with his mother, because she is starting a new job. So far, he is not very impressed with the garbage on the sidewalks and the bars on the apartment windows. His Uncle Patrick comes to visit and brings Joey a pet rat. What they don't realize is that the rat is actually Gondorff the Gray, a powerful ragician who turns Joey into a rat and sends him on a mission. 

It seems that -agic exists among many of the species on Earth. Mankind has magic and magicians. Rats have ragic and ragicians. Squirrels have squagic and squagicians. You get the idea. Gondorff sends Joey back to the kingdom of Ravalon with a message for King Uther that his quest to reach Squirrelin and ask for his aid against the evil Salaman has failed. And when Joey actually reaches the court, no one will listen to him until he draws Ratscalibur.

So, if you enjoy stories like RedwallWarriors, or The Tale of Despereaux, or the idea of Camelot retold with rats sounds entertaining, then you should read this book. I had fun just looking for all the names from other famous stories that showed up in slightly different versions like Gondorff, Ratscalibur, Parsifur, etc. This is a great middle grades fantasy adventure with plenty of action, humor, and pizza crusts.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Spring Reading 2015 Family Pets


People often think that graphic novels (and comics), only deal with superheroes or humor. While this story does have many funny moments, it also shows how grief and loss can put a survivor's life into a holding pattern. Thomasina loses both her parents in an accident when she is very young. She lives with her grandmother for a while, then they both move in with her aunt and uncle. At the beginning of the story, Thomasina is now in high school and still feels as if she is waiting for her life to start. She knows that in books and movies, when a child is orphaned, they later find out they have magical powers or some other awesome event takes place. That hasn't happened to her.

Then one morning she wakes up and her family has been turned into pets and her pet snake has been turned into a really cute teenage boy. Thomasina and her abuela are the only ones in the house still in their original form. With her former snake, Sebastian, Thomasina has to find out what happened and how to get her family back.

There are plenty of pop culture references that will make readers laugh and knowingly shake their heads. (I'm still not sure how Sebastian absorbed so much of this while he was in snake form.) There are also plenty of realistic details about how families wind up keeping secrets from each other and not bothering to communicate with one another. And for those who enjoy seeing how authors imagine the wizarding world in ways other than Harry Potter and Hogwarts, this has a new twist on the coexistence of magic and muggles.

An entertaining read for urban fantasy and graphic novel fans.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Spring Reading 2015 Mechanica


A simple way to introduce this book would be to call it a retelling of the Cinderella story. That would even be accurate, as far as it goes. But it is so much more than that. This complex world with the kingdoms of Faerie and Esting so different from each other is an intriguing place. The folk from the Faerie kingdom are re-imagined in a way that shows them as distinctly nonhuman, however humanoid their appearance can be. The magic of Faerie and the mechanical, gear-driven inventions of Esting are as unlike as their creators. And there is Nicolette, our heroine - intelligent, inventive, and so lonely and mistreated since the deaths of her parents. Our hearts can't help but long for her success and happiness.

I love the descriptions of her mother's inventions, the little mechanical bugs that Nicolette called "buzzers." I can picture them darting about with the light flashing off the stained glass wings or shiny metal legs. The settings of the markets (day and night), the ballroom, and the Exposition transport the reader into this amazing world full of wonders such as clockwork horses and floating ships. And as Nick discovers her mother's workroom and dares to imagine a new life for herself away from the drudgery of caring for the Steps, our hopes grow along with hers.

I highly recommend this for anyone who enjoys fairy tale reworkings, mixtures of magic and mechanics, and young adults who are brave enough to reach for their dreams.

The publisher was kind enough to supply a galley for me to read and review.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Spring Reading 2015 Travels with Gannon and Wyatt: Egypt


Fans of movies like "The Mummy" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" will love the story of the twins and their trip to Egypt. When Gannon and Wyatt get the chance to work with a famous archaeologist on his dig, they can't believe they are actually searching for the lost tomb of Cleopatra. Just visiting the city of Cairo itself is an adventure with the architecture, haggling in the marketplace, and the mixture of donkey carts in downtown traffic alongside cars and trucks. Once the boys get to the dig site, they get to work alongside Dr. Aziz, his grad student assistant, and two other teenagers who have been chosen to be part of the team.

Descriptions of desert storms, the grueling work of excavating ruins in the sand, the foods like falafels and flat bread, the descriptions of the extreme temperature differences between day and night all bring to life the tough conditions historians work in at these sites. Even with modern equipment like radar scans, there is still a lot of educated guesses and luck involved.

Another thing about all the books in the series is the way the boys' mother always finds somewhere to volunteer in each place they visit. Whether it is helping to repair a whale watching station damaged by a storm (Great Bear Rainforest), or teaching English to children in a local school as she does in this story, she always finds a way to join in the local community. And their father takes the opportunity to study local art and artists for inspiration with his own work. It really is a learning experience for their whole family wherever they go.

If you haven't tried one of these books yet, this may be a great one to start with - ancient pharaohs, possibly cursed tombs, mummies - it has a lot to offer. Fans of Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles might enjoy another adventure set in Egypt, but without the magical interference.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Spring Reading 2015 Travels with Gannon and Wyatt: Botswana


Having a mother who works for an airline makes it much easier for Gannon's and Wyatt's family to travel. When their mom gives them a list of destinations to pick from, they all settle on Botswana as the site of their next adventure. They plan to visit the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta, which will allow them to see the wildlife in two very different habitats. Just a day after landing, their Jeep is charged by a protective male rhino, but they manage to make it safely to the Bushmen village for a visit. But that danger seems mild compared to the news that there is a poacher preying on the animals in the Delta that they have come to observe. It seems like no matter where the boys go, someone who doesn't share their appreciation for nature is causing trouble.

The boys' journal entries as they describe their first taste of wildebeest stew, or how they noticed a child in the Bushmen village wearing a New York Yankees ball cap, give readers a sense of being in these faraway locations. Plants, animals, food, weather, language and customs - eventually it all makes its way onto the pages. And the photos of things like a traditional Bushmen hut reinforce the differences between the lifestyle of families back in the states and those in Botswana. The references to great explorers of the continent like Stanley and Livingstone can lead readers to accounts of expeditions from the past.

Fans of stories full of travel and adventure, with some danger and conservation topics mixed in, will enjoy this series.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Links for the book's website and the "Travels with Gannon and Wyatt" blog have been shared in previous posts.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Spring Reading 2015 Secret Coders


The narrator of the story is Hopper Gracie-Hu, a seventh grader. Hopper moves with her mom to a new town and has to start the year at a new school, Stately Academy. She doesn't want to be there and her first day doesn't start off well. But at lunchtime she notices something odd about the birds in the courtyard and another student sees the same thing. That is the beginning of her friendship with Eni. Together they try to find out what secrets the academy is hiding. There are plenty of things odd about the school: it looks like a haunted house, the janitor's shed is padlocked shut, the janitor chases kids away from the shed like it is the Pentagon, the principal is meeting with a creepy looking guy who is offering him some kind of deal, and did I mention those odd birds? 

This is a book that combines some of the coolest things there are - secrets, robots, coding, and cool friends. Folks with a bit of programming in their background might notice the similarity between the name of our narrator and Grace Hopper (if you don't know who Grace is, you can look her up). And we are left with a cliffhanger to keep us waiting for the next book, Paths and Portals. Fans of Gene Luen Yang will be happy to have a new series and those who aren't fans before Secret Coders will be converted once they read it.

A fun read and cool introduction to coding, programming, and binary language. Perfect for middle grade readers who enjoy graphic novels, math, puzzles, or coding. I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley. For more information about the author, visit his website. And you can also visit the site for the book to find out more info as the books are released and even subscribe to Gene's email list for updates.

** Great interview with Gene Luen Yang about comics and coding:

Spring Reading 2015 Seaborne: The Lost Prince


Fans of "Pirates of the Caribbean," here is a new series for you.Teenager Dean Seaborne works as a spy for the pirate king of the Caribbean, One-Eyed Jack. It is Dean's job to infiltrate the crew of any ship the pirate king plans to attack and find a way to sabotage the ship or betray its weaknesses to Jack.  But when an assignment leaves him adrift on the ocean, he is rescued by a mysterious crew and winds up sailing into the Bermuda Triangle.

Plenty of pirates, seafaring adventure,  a lost prince, spies, sea serpents, dangerous rites of manhood, the Bermuda Triangle, death-defying feats on a sailboard, even a bit of a romantic interest, what more could you want? The action is fast-paced and as full of stunts as any Hollywood action film. Dean and the other characters are nicely fleshed out with their unique strengths, weaknesses, and loyalties. And the setting is everything a swashbuckling tale could need - grimy pirate towns, tropical islands, and fast ships cutting through the waves.

A gripping adventure that leaves you ready for the next book. I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Spring Reading 2015 Travels with Gannon and Wyatt: Great Bear Rainforest


This time out, Wyatt and Gannon are traveling with their parents and an old friend, Captain Colin, to the Great Bear Rain Forest. They plan to study the habitat of the spirit bear, then volunteer at a whale research lab. Gannon is excited to leave on the trip because he can put off all the chores he has been avoiding at home. Wyatt can't wait to meet Dr. Hans Brezner, a famous environmental scientist, who is also part of the expedition. But both boys are in for disappointment - because they have to help with chores around the boat, and Dr. Brezner seems very preoccupied. And it seems they may not get to see any grizzlies, because the number of salmon in the streams is drastically lower than in previous years and they are an important food source for the bears. Not to worry, though, there is plenty of excitement. Mix together some wicked weather, poachers, crooked business deals, and a pack of wild wolves, and you have an unforgettable visit to a temperate rain forest.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that there are rain forests in North America. Most people assume all rain forests are tropical, but temperate rain forests like those in British Columbia also exist as amazing habitats. The journal entries of Gannon and Wyatt offer descriptions of the wildlife, the First Nation people of the Gitga'tt tribe, and the threats to the area from commercial entities. The boys' adventures also show what can happen when visitors run into danger in the wilderness.

This is an entertaining addition to the series and a good read for fans of adventure, exploration, and survival stories. I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

I've already posted the link the book's website in other entries, but you may also want to follow their blog.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Spring Reading 2015 Talent for Humanity


If you are looking for some uplifting stories to read, this collection fits the bill. Each section describes a different person's journey through life, the experiences they have had, and how the learned to make a positive impact on those around them. Using music, photography, film-making, performances, and other arts - each of these individuals has chosen to share their talents and spread creativity and hope to others.

The collection is multicultural and includes men and women who have shown a "talent for humanity" or compassion. Locations of their activities range from Iran, Israel, London, to L.A. and Atlanta. They've done everything from caring for the sick and dying in Calcutta to teaching Shakespeare to inner city youth in L.A. What they all have in common is a desire to make the world a better place and spread the feeling that we are all part of the solution to the world's problems.

This would be great for starting a discussion with students (teens and up), about fairness, equity, and how people are marginalized and devalued by society, as well as what can be done locally and globally to address these issues.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley. * It is listed as adult nonfiction, due mainly to some of the intense situations described. 

Spring Reading 2015 Travels with Gannon & Wyatt: Greenland


For those who have seen  movies like "8 Below," "Snow Dogs," and "Balto," here is another story in which humans are dependent on their sled dogs to survive in a frozen wilderness. Wyatt and Gannon have traveled to Greenland to meet up with the guide who will take them on a trip into the Arctic Circle. They plan to gather data like temperatures on the Greenlandic ice sheet to report back to the Youth Exploration Society. Their guide, Unaaq, has taken their parents on a polar expedition before, and his nephew Nuka is very experienced and is also helping with the trip. But they get word that a group of villagers have been stranded on the ice because all of their dogs came down with a mysterious illness and can't pull the sleds. The boys decide to go with Unaaq and Nuka to try and rescue the villagers and keep them from starving out on the ice.

As with all of the books in this series, information about the geography, culture, and language of the area are worked into the journal entries the boys write during their trip. Details about what kinds of food are eaten, the clothing, and traditions fit easily into the story, but there are also plenty of scientific observations about climate change, pollution, and wildlife. Compared to some of the other books, this one seemed to put the boys into more danger just because of the unforgiving environment - imagine traveling through a land where an average January temperature is -40! I like the way the authors show the boys take the trip seriously by preparing beforehand. They research, practice working with sled dogs, and make sure to get qualified guides and the right sort of clothing and equipment.

Fans of the series will enjoy this installment, and newcomers will be pulled in to the exciting world travels of the twins very easily. Recommended for readers who enjoy travel and adventure stories, books that include conservation themes, and survival stories.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley. Visit the series website for more information about the boys and the books.