Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 Review

Book talk: Have you ever had an older sibling who pulled a mean trick on you?  Then you'll understand just how sweet the sight of Byron standing with his lips frozen to the rearview mirror is for Kenny.  Just last week By had clobbered him with a fistful of snow right in the mouth.  But now, as they were supposed to be scraping ice off the windshield, Byron had decided to check himself out in the mirror and kiss his own reflection.  Now, Kenny is free to look on as his parents try to free Byron.  Now Kenny has the upper-hand, and he uses it to give By a new nickname: the Lipless Wonder.  As the weather improved, Bryon's behavior didn't.  There was the flaming parachute incident, the Swedish creme bird tragedy, and a haircut that went a step too far.  Now Byron's got himself exiled to Birmingham for the summer to be straightened out by grandma.   It will be a trip that changes the family forever.

Rocks my socks:  I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard and so long when reading a book.  I saw Christopher Paul Curtis speak this summer and he is just as hilarious in person.  There were so many great surreal moments from Kenny playing war with his friends using American and Nazi dinosaurs to Byron's definition of peon: "them folk what was so poor that the rich folks would just as soon pee on them as anything else."  Not to mention Winnie's evil twin: the wool pooh.  The novel isn't all amusing anecdotes, though.  It has a real heart and purpose to it.  Even for readers who know what happened in Birmingham in 1963, when the attack occurs it's sudden and surprising, and because we've spent the rest of the novel seeing how good-humored our narrator normally is, his reaction is all the more heart-wrenching.

Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader: The novel is historical fiction and it does an excellent job taking a reader back to a specific time and place.  But it is also about a boy growing up and the often hilarious hijinks that ensue.  I'd give this to someone looking for a laugh or a book about childhood.  The novel does grapple with some difficult themes, but in an accessible way.  I'd say 4th grade and up.


The Fuse #8 top 100 children's novels entry on the book is a great resource

Scholastic has a reading guide for the novel with an interview with the author, activity ideas, and more

There are several fan trailers on YouTube for the video including this one of the more traditional variety and this one reenacting scenes from the novel using rats

Reading Rockets has several video clips of an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis

Random House has a site for Christopher Paul Curtis

Scholastic has a page for the book with a link to the author's note

Last but certainly not least Christopher Paul Curtis has his own website with links to various interviews, news, and more

Source: Free copy from a Scholastic reading summit

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963: Buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wicked Lovely Review

Book talk:  What do you think of when you hear the word 'fairy'?  Well, Faeries are real and they're nothing like the beautiful, bubbly creatures depicted in children's books.  Some faeries hardly even look human.  They all seem to delight in torturing the humans who are blissfully unaware of their existence.  Aislinn wishes they were invisible to her too, but like her mother and grandmother before her she is cursed with the ability to see them.  That means that not only can she see the horrible things that they do, but she has to pretend that she can't.  The other humans would think she was crazy if she admitted to seeing them.  Even worse--if the faeries knew she had the sight it would attract their attention, and a faery's attention is never a good thing.

Rocks my socks:  I always liked faeries but I had grown tired of faery stories because they always seemed to be portrayed in terms of black and white: either the faeries are boringly sweet or remorselessly evil.  It was nice to read about faeries with a complicated society made up of individuals who run the gamut from good to evil and everything in between.  Marr is also a gender studies teacher which brings a refreshing change to the story as she uses creatures that have lived and wooed women for hundreds of years to examine how women's role in society has changed.  Neither of those are what kept me reading until one in the morning on a school night though.  The faeries and gender concerns are really just tools for examining love in all its splendid (and not-so-splendid) variety.  Marr explores the anguish of watching someone you love fall for someone else, the confusion of feeling drawn to someone you know you shouldn't, the phantom pain of feelings that you thought had died long ago rising to the surface, the strength required to move on even when you don't want to, the brief burst of a fling, and the patience required to wait for someone who is worth it.  Of course there's also the standard passion of a long-awaited first kiss and the love-that-conquers-all.  Despite their being faeries the characters seemed very human and nuanced to me and I quickly grew to care for them and became lost in their world.  And a world where the guys woo girls by helping them researching their problems using interlibrary loan is not one that I am eager to leave.

Rocks in my socks:  none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone looking for a dark fantasy novel that's focused on characters and their relationships.  The novel does explore various aspects of relationships including the faery king's harem and has violence of several varieties although these aspects are more alluded to than described in graphic detail.  I'd probably save it for teenagers.


Melissa Marr has a general website as well as one specifically for the series complete with official songs, character and discussion guides, and a map of the town

There's an excellent trailer for the novel

There's an entire wiki devoted to the serires

Wicked Lovely has a Facebook fan page

Source: #ALA12

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr: Buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Breaking Stalin's Nose Review

Book talk: Have you ever felt on top of the world one day only to have the ground fall out from beneath your feet, leaving you lower than you've ever felt before? Tomorrow Sasha will become a Young Pioneer.  It's a day he's been waiting for for a long time. He'll be one step closer to becoming like his father, the great communist hero who helps unmask enemies hiding in their own country.  His father will even be the guest of honor at the ceremony.  Sasha goes to bed thinking that tomorrow couldn't get any better.  But when he wakes up, he will find out that it could easily get a lot worse.

Rocks my socks:  I love the perspective this book provides.  Sasha starts out as a gung-ho communist and even writes a letter to Stalin about how he pities children who have to grow up in other countries.  Then his world slowly comes crashing down around him as he discovers the web of lies he's been caught in his entire life.  The novel is an exercise in dramatic irony as the reader waits for Sasha to realize what it means to live in Stalinist Russia.  Of course the novel is aimed at a pretty young crowd so they might not know that much about the era.  I'd be interested in knowing what it's like to read for someone who doesn't know any more than Sasha does at the beginning and makes all these discoveries along with him.

Rocks in my socks:  One of the great strengths of this novel is how accessible it is with its easy chapters and plentiful pictures, but it felt like a weakness to me as well.  There were a lot of great scenes and moments to explore, but they were all passed over too quickly to do so.  I never got enough of a feel for any of the characters, including Sasha, to really become invested in them.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to 4th grade and up looking for a quick historical fiction to read.


MacMillan's has a trailer for the book on their YouTube page

ALA has a video with Yelchin talking about his background and winning the Newbery Honor

MacMillan's has a page for the book with the trailer, pictures from the novel, excerpts, reviews, and a discussion guide

Eugene Yelchin has a site dedicated to the book packed full of extras and more information about the setting of the novel

Yelchin's main website has information about his other books, his exhibitions, his life, and a portfolio of his work

Source: #ALA12

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin: Buy it or check it out today!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ashes Review

Book talk:  The past few years have not been kind to Alex.  First both of her parents die, then she gets diagnosed with cancer.  Alex is sick of chemotherapy and sick of doctors and she's sick of getting sick.  So she ditches the new experimental treatment her aunt signed her up for to go for a solo hike while she still can to spread her parents' ashes. Aunt Hannah isn't happy about it, but there's not much she can do.  Her aunt should have been worrying about her own imminent death instead, but there wasn't anything she could do about that either.  Alex never suspected that she'd outlive so many people.  But now she has to fight for survival in a whole new way: find food, weapons, and shelter, protect those supplies from bandits, and avoid becoming a meal for the Changed.

Rocks my socks: Despite this not being the type of book I'd normally pick up, once I did I kept reading until past midnight when I finished it.  Alex is a realistic and strong protagonist and I enjoyed reading about her.  The other characters she encounters are layered and believable as well--even the minor ones.  Bick is a child psychiatrist and former Air Force major which lends an unique perspective and expertise to the story.  For what is essentially a zombie thriller there is a fair amount of time spent considering moral questions and delving into the characters' emotions.  She accomplishes this without letting the pace lag.

Rocks in my socks:  Bick repeatedly uses a structure that is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.  She'll set up a scenario in a paragraph and then contradict the sentiment with a short line.  Almost like she's afraid the reader will stop reading if she ends the chapter on a happy note so she sneaks an extra line in saying 'hey--don't worry it'll pick back up in a second!' Of course there's also some sketchy science involved with how the zombie apocalypse occurs, but I doubt it's possible to write an entirely realistic and scientifically accurate zombie apocalypse novel so that didn't bother me too much.

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to teens looking for a fast-paced novel.  Fans of zombies and/or wilderness survival will enjoy it in particular.  There's an endorsement from James Dashner on the cover so it should be easy to convince the legions of Maze Runner fans to pick it up as well.


Ilsa Bick has her own website with the usual blog news updates as well as articles about film and television

There's a decent fan-made book trailer over at YouTube

Edgmont has a video up of Ilsa Bick talking about what she'd put in her survival pack

There's an interview with Bick over at Random Acts of Reading

Source: school library

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick: Buy it or check it out today!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Smile Review

Book talk:  Braces were going to be bad enough, but when Raina trips and knocks out her two front teeth she's in for an even longer journey full of pain and trips to various -dontists.  It will take years to get her mouth looking normal again.  While she waits she has to deal with friends who are acting less and less friendly, decide who she wants to be, and cope with all the other usual pains of growing up.  Sometimes it seems like nothing will ever be right again and she's finding it more and more difficult to find reasons to smile.

Rocks my socks:  I went through braces, an expander, retainers, and headgear when I was growing up, but that was all nothing compared to Raina.  It was cathartic to read about experiences that were similar to and even worse than my own (I remember customizing my retainer and nearly spit out my drink when one of Raina's friends shows her the picture of Joey McIntyre on hers.)  I love the way Raina illustrates concepts--for example to show how she was always thinking of her crush she draws a thought bubble reading "15...16...Sean" as she enters the combination for her locker.  My favorite part by far though was when she finally stood up to her mean friends.  She ends up finding new ones that she gets along with better and I think it will be a great example for other students.

I love the way Raina depicts the Loma Prieta earthquake
I found her description of growing up particularly apt--it's funny because it's true!
Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to anyone who has had any major dental or orthodontic work done or who soon will.  Despite all she goes through Raina says in an end note that she is actually not afraid of dentists and believes that they can do a lot of good.  This will give students an idea of what to expect without being too negative.  Of course anyone looking for a good comic about middle school will enjoy it as well.  I'd give it to 5th graders and up.


Raina has her own website with some illustrationsfree webcomics, and more

Scholastic has a trailer for the book over on YouTube

Scholastic has a comics creator game for it as well that allows you to make your own comic using images from the comic

Source: #ALA12

Smile by Raina Telgemeier: Buy it or check it out today!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Malcolm at Midnight Review

*****Disclaimer: I am writing this review based on an advance reading copy****

Book talk:  When I say 'rat' what words come to mind? Sneaky? Evil? Untrustworthy?  Well don't believe everything that you read in books.  Rats aren't all bad--and Malcolm is determined to prove that even though he is a rat he can still be have valor and merit like everyone else in Mr. Binney's classroom.  Of course, Mr. Binney wouldn't have bought Malcolm in the first place if he didn't think he was a mouse.  It's not Malcolm's fault he's so small though.  As if being mistaken for a mouse wasn't enough Mr. Binney started reading The Tale of Despereaux 'in his honor'-a story where the rats are horrible, scheming creatures.  Even the other class pets are prejudiced against rats.  It will be hard for Malcolm to prove his worth with everyone against him, but maybe if he can solve the mystery of the spy that's trying to bring down the school, he will finally be able to prove that rats can indeed be trusted.

Rocks my socks:  I love the premise and I have noticed the unfair portrayal of rats in children's literature before.  This is a fun, humorous story but it could easily lead to further discussions of prejudice and how people may be misjudged.  The idea that all the class pets meet after hours to keep the school safe has a lot of appeal.  They extend the theme of judging based on appearances in little ways throughout the novel such as having the bunny character speak with a deep voice and act like a tough guy.   Malcolm steals the show though, and it's easy to root for him as he struggles with problems big and small from trying to do the right thing to giving up chewing his whiskers.  The ample pictures provide great, engaging snapshots of the action and include wonderful detail in the very human expressions on the animals' faces.  The story is written as a long note to the teacher and my favorite part is the meta-humor contained in the footnotes.  The narrator tells extra tidbits about the students to Mr. Binney and notes when he uses vocabulary words and includes the definitions to show he was paying attention.  Of course, this also helps stretch and build the vocabulary of the reader.

Rocks in my socks:  Between all the pets and all the humans there's a lot of characters and not all of them get the chance to be fleshed out beyond two dimensions.  This is particularly true of the human characters.  The perfect little girl character is entirely too perfect for my tastes and the teachers seem to have literally no life outside of school--all their romances and even events of significance in the past (thanks to their attending the school as children) take place on campus.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to students looking for a mystery and pet-lovers 3rd grade and up.  Those who enjoyed The Tale of Despereaux should enjoy this rejoinder.


There's an adorable trailer at HMH's YouTube page

The author has her own website with news, an amusing about the author section, and a blog for her job as a school librarian with book recommendations and more.

The illustrator has a website as well

Source: free advance reading copy at #ALA12

Malcolm at Midnight by W. H. Beck: Buy it or check it out today!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Drama Review

****Disclaimer: I am writing this review based on an uncorrected proof****

Book talk:  Have you ever wondered what goes on back stage at a show?  Or can you remember the panic when a prop malfunctions or an actor misses a cue for yourself?  Callie can--and she can't wait for this year's musical: Moon over Mississippi.  She's in charge of set design and she already has a lot of great ideas--like having a canon that goes off during the play.  But just as she's dreaming up an excellent set, reality comes crashing down--they can only afford two set pieces this year and the school board isn't thrilled at the idea of pyrotechnics onstage.  Off stage Callie makes new friends as old ones stop talking to her.  Everyone is scrambling to decide who will go with who to formal and the drama of the real-life relationship of the romantic leads threatens to derail the drama onstage.  This year's production will certainly be one to remember--either as a great success or an epic failure.

Rocks my socks: I wish I could say that this reminded me of my jr high theatre days but my school only had an acting class, not full productions.  Even my high school productions weren't on a stage anywhere near as nice as this one.  I wish I went to Callie's school!  Still, certain theatre experiences are universal and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane that this comic provoked.  You don't have to be a theatre geek to relate to Callie's story though.  A lot of it focuses on the kind of relationship drama that anyone who has survived middle school can understand.  I loved the details of the characters' expressions as they faced these dramas and the way their passion for theatre brings them together even as things fall apart.

Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader:  I'd give this to theatre fans or anyone looking for a good comic that takes place in a middle school.  I'd say it's fine for 5th grade and up.


Raina has her own website with some illustrations, free webcomics, and more

Scholastic has a trailer for the book over on YouTube

Source: Free uncorrected proof at #ALA12

Drama by Raina Telgemeier: Buy it or check it out today!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fire in the Streets Review

****Disclaimer: I am writing this review based on an advance reviewer copy****

Book talk:  Maxie, Patrice, and Emmalee have been best friends for as long as they can remember.  Normally when they're together they're talking a mile a minute, but these are not normal times.  As they head to the protest, fearing that riots may break out and promising to stay together, they sit in silence.  Maxie knows that these protests are important and she'll have to be brave if she wants to be a Black Panther but Patrice and Emmalee would rather be enjoying what's left of the summer.  Soon Emmalee and Patrice stop going with Maxie when she volunteers at the Panther office, and when a traitor is discovered in their midst Maxie wonders if there's anyone she can trust anymore.  If you suspected someone you loved of betraying everything you believe in, which would you sacrifice?

Rocks my socks:  I enjoyed seeing what happened after The Rock and the River and I particularly liked the perspective that centering the story around a different character provided.  Both books are superb but I could relate more to the talkative Maxie and her struggles as she slowly drifts apart from her childhood friends.  Maxie is a strong lead and I was completely immersed in her story and eagerly flipping pages to find out what would happen next as she faced astonishingly difficult choices.  These decisions would generate a lot of excellent discussions in a reading group or classroom.  As with the first novel, the historical setting helped provide me with deeper understanding of the period it was set in and a perspective that is too often missing from history lessons on that era.  Maxie's story and voice will stay with me for a long time into the future.

Rocks in my socks: none

Every book its reader:  Of course those who enjoyed The Rock and the River will be eager to continue with this novel. While reading both with allow a richer understanding and is something I definitely recommend as both are excellent, this novel stands well on its own and does enough to establish context that reading The Rock and the River first is not necessary.  I'd give this to anyone looking for an absorbing historical fiction or for a book to spark rich discussions and debate.  Those with an interest in the civil rights movement in particular will find this an excellent read. The novel discusses a dark and difficult era and some violence is necessary to do the story justice, but I would say it's okay for mature middle schoolers.  Adult readers will find plenty to sink their teeth into as well.


You can find a video of Kekla Magoon talking about her passion for history at Simon and Schuster's page for the book

Kekla Magoon also has her own website where you can find a bio, blog, and various media including podcasts, videos, and pictures

Source: free advance reviewer copy at #ALA12

Fire in the Streets by Kekla Magoon: Buy it or check it out today!