Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Scones and Sensibility

Author: Lindsay Eland

Publisher: EgmontUSA
Pages: 320
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

As a big Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables fan, I was immediately intrigued by the description of Lindsay Eland’s Scones and Sensibility and wanted to read it. Eland tells the story of 12 year old Polly who is a hopeless romantic and the quintessential present day embodiment of a Jane Austen character. Polly’s parents own a local bakery and during her summer break they ask her to deliver baked goods to local businesses and customers. Since Polly can’t get out of this job, she begins to see this as an opportunity to do some matchmaking. The targets of her matchmaking are her sixteen year old sister, Clementine; her best friend’s father; and a local widower and the town’s curmudgeon. With Polly on the job of Cupid, the fun begins.

In starting the story, I was impressed at how well Eland was able to capture the language and rhythm of an Austen novel or the voice of Anne (Green Gables). When reading Polly’s dialogue, I could easily imagine that I was reading Austen or L.M. Montgomery. However, I was surprised that after awhile, Polly's constant use of this manner of speech was somewhat exasperating. Though Polly slips into modern vernacular on occasion, she remains true to the language of her literary idols. Surprisingly her parents, and neighbors seem to accept this archaic dialect from Polly and it isn’t until almost the end that her sister and best friend really express their frustration with her speech and of course her behavior.

Unfortunately, Polly’s speech wasn't the only thing that wore on me but her interfering and meddling in the lives of other felt a little excessive. I found that somewhere in the middle of the book I wanted to shake Polly and tell her to “listen” and “wake up”. I gave Polly’s sister, Clementine and her best friend, Fran kudos for accepting Polly’s eccentric manner as well as they did. However at this point in the story, I was pretty committed to seeing what happened with all of her matchmaking, and I kept reading. My persistence was rewarded with some of the best scenes of the book, and I found myself laughing out loud in several places. When I came to the conclusion, I felt that Eland had done a nice job of wrapping up the story and helping Polly learn some important life lessons.

I can imagine middle grade girls who do love Anne of Green Gables or Elizabeth Bennett thoroughly enjoying Polly’s story. Though this book may have a specific niche – pre-teen or early teen girls who are fans of 19th century romance novels, I plan on sharing it with my students. I would like to gather their thoughts about the book since many of them are not familiar with the stories that this novel ties into. I am hoping that as they read the story it may prompt them to seek out one of the stories referred to in the novel.

Overall, Scones and Sensibility is an enjoyable read and a solid debut novel by Lindsay Eland and I look forward to future offerings from this author.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and wonderful reading in 2010,
- Aly

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Beautiful Creatures Swag Winners - Congratulations!

We are excited to announce that we have two winners in the Beautiful Creatures Swag Contest. All of the names were assigned a number and then the numbers were put into a container and two were selected. Winners were number 4 (Tiffany) and number 7 (Mitsie). Congratulations to our lucky winners. Your packages will arrive as soon as I can make it to the post office (hopefully on Monday if the snow doesn't have me stuck somewhere). Thank you for everyone who commented and waited patiently. This was our first contest so we are learning. We are hoping to have some new contests in 2010. Keep following along for more reviews and more contests.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Teen Fiction Tuesday: Let it Snow

Let it Snow, by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Publisher: Speak
Pages: 338
Reading Level: 12 and up
Enjoyment Level: High

More holiday spirit... This book is three stories in one from three wonderful authors. Although, before this, I've only read An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green, and nothing from the other two, knowing that the three of them are all over the teen fiction world, I did expect a lot from their stories.

What I didn't realize (because I didn't bother reading the back of the book first) was that each of the novellas takes place in the same little town around the same snow storm. I read John Green's bit first, even though his was the second story, then I moved on to the last story before reading the first one. So you might say I was out of order. And I swear I don't usually take so long figuring things out, but it took me a few pages into the last one to realize that everything was connected.

I love that they're all connected, though. It adds more depth to the characters and to the town. It was also nice to see the differences and similarities in writing styles from author to author. Each story adds a layer, especially since the first is more pre-snowstorm, the second is during, and the third is after. In the third (Lauren Myracle's, "The Patron Saint of Pigs"), all three sets of characters come together in the end. I love that.

My favorite story out of the three is Lauren Myracle's. I found the main character to be more empathetic than the others, and I like that there's a real change in Addie from beginning to end.

John Green's ("A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle") was fun for the adventure aspect of it, more than simply the romance. Hash Browns!

Maureen Johnson's ("Jubilee Express") had that very nice, warm romance that was great to finish off, even though it's actually the first story.

As holiday romances go, these are light, and yet they also have a lot of Christmas spirit. They're quick reads and very fun to delve into. If you need more to get you in the mood for the holidays, pick this book up. You won't be disappointed!

Until next time, snuggle up and read a good book!

~ Vilate

Monday, December 14, 2009

Middle Grade Mondays: Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally)

Author: Lisa Yee
Illustrator: Dan Santat
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Pages: 160
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

Summary of Book (Amazon’s Description):
Meet Robert Carver Ellis-Chan -- a perfectly normal fourth-grader who gets into perfectly crazy situations! Like when he was running for class president and discovered his big sister's panties (static-) clinging to the back of his sweater. Or when he got stuck to the rare sticky (and stinky) Koloff tree on a field trip. . . . Then there's his family -- busy mom, ex-pro football player dad, a bossy older sister and an adoring younger one -- and best friends (one of whom is a secret, because she's a *girl*). Life may be complicated for Bobby, but it's going to turn out just fine.

During the spring, I had an opportunity to meet Lisa Yee at the UCLA Festival of Books. After hearing Lisa speak, I was interested in reading her most recent book, Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally). Bobby is a fourth grade boy sandwiched between his football playing older sister and his princess accessorized little sister. His father is an ex-football player turned “PTA lady” and his mother works out of the home full-time. Life is about to change for Bobby. He doesn’t understand why his best friend Holly doesn’t want to hang out with him anymore. And as if that weren’t bad enough, Bobby wants a dog for a pet but instead he acquires a goldfish. If that wasn’t all, Bobby and Holly end up facing off against one another for fourth grade class president. Now the fun has begun…

Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) is an enjoyable, if somewhat quirky read. The dialogue between students seems genuine and Bobby’s confusion over the situations he finds himself in is typical of this age group. Fourth grade is the time when children begin to change in their relationships to parents and peers. Parents are now the source of embarrassment, and understanding the evolving relationships between boys and girls can be confusing. Yee tells Bobby’s story with humor, and tenderness.

Lisa Yee has also developed some great characters, which could seem comical and over the top, but work in this story. Though this is considered a Middle Grade fiction book, I would recommend Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) for the younger end of the age range (3rd to 5th graders). My 3rd grade niece and several of my students not only found Bobby’s predicaments humorous, but loved the references to local establishments which were recognizable despite some minor name changes (we live one city over from the town that the fictional setting was based on). Additionally, the story is simple and Bobby is very easy to relate to making this tale particularly good for reluctant readers.

As the holiday season and winter vacation is quickly approaching, I encourage you find a book and a child and read together.

- Aly

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Blogger Holiday Swap

More Christmas Spirit!

Book Blogger Holiday Swap

Like many others, this is my first year to participate in the Book Blogger Holiday Swap (what an awesome thing to put together, by the way!), and I'm so happy I was able to do it. It's been rough getting laid off, so I've been working extra hard to make sure I've got the Cmas spirit.

I didn't let my own Secret Santa recipient know it was me when I sent her the package, but I had Julia (www.julia-hunter.com). I tried to get her a couple of things she'd enjoy! I hope she gets the package okay. :)

I received my package yesterday from Carey who's at thetometraveller.blogspot.com. She sent me a lovely card as well as a book that hasn't even been released yet! I'm really excited to read Witch and Wizard by James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet. I might even have to review it.

Thanks, Carey, for a wonderful gift! And thank you, Book Blogger Holiday Swap for helping us all enjoy the season a little more.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Teen Fiction Tuesday: Ex-mas

Ex-mas, by Kate Brian

Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Pages: 216
Reading Level: 13 and up
Enjoyment Level: High

It's not always easy to find good teen books for Christmas, but as I was browsing Target yesterday, my eye caught the lovely green and candy cane cover of Ex-mas, by Kate Brian. As I was in the Cmas spirit, I thought I'd take a shot and went through my usual book-selecting routine. Needless to say, this one ended up in my shopping cart. And since I just got it yesterday and I'm blogging it today, that should tell you something about what I thought about the book before I even get into the review...

Some of you may recognize Kate Brian's name from the Private series. While I've never read any of those, I do often think that I probably should, since they are quite popular at the moment. I might have to seriously consider it after reading Ex-mas, too.

The novel follows a girl, Lila, who is so devastated that a certain party is canceled, that she takes it out on the tattle-tale who ruined it all: her 8-year-old brother, Cooper. Being vindictive, she makes him believe that Santa is in danger due to Global Warming and, being eight, Cooper decides it's his job to save Santa. He takes off and Lila has to follow him to try and bring him back before their parents find out. But, never fear. Lila isn't alone. Her mad-at-the-world ex-boyfriend joins her, since his brother has accompanied Cooper on his all-important mission.

Although there are several points in the story where it's easy to see that the author wrangled the plot to fit a plan, the writing, overall, is smooth and it captures the attitude and personality of a modern teenage girl. The dialogue flows well and most of it feels very natural for the story and the characters.

Lila has just the right amount of angst mixed with the desire to be popular. She got a lot further in her popularity goal than I ever did, but I identified with her desire to have the social life that only comes to the very lucky or hard-working kids in high school. I enjoyed following her on her journey and her ultimate understanding of her place and her life. The hot guy in the book didn't hurt, either. ;P

The ending was a bit rushed for me (but those of you who've followed the blog or podcast should know by now that *most* endings are rushed to me) and I would've liked to see more of Lila's thought process as she came to the conclusions she needed to come to. However, I really like the fact that her development followed a nice, logical progression without being completely predictable.

I usually like my Cmas books to have a strong holiday theme. Even though Ex-mas is light on the theme, it still gave my own holiday spirit a push. The good thing about this one, is that it's still an enjoyable read even if you don't celebrate Christmas.

This is the perfect book for anyone who wants a little romance, a little adventure, and a little Christmas all at once. The only really bad part is that I finished it all in one night!

So Merry Christmas, because I've got a case of the anti-bah-humbugs. Go read something merry to yourself or to a child and enjoy the season!

~ Vilate

Friday, December 4, 2009

Beautiful Creatures Release Party

In all the excitement about reading the book and talking to Kami and Margie, Aly also went to the Beautiful Creatures release party.

On December 1st, I had an opportunity to participate in the Beautiful Creatures' Launch Party. It was held at Diesel's Bookstore, an indie bookstore in Santa Monica. I arrived early and had an opportunity to watch as the store was transformed with black tablecloths, lavendar tulle, and containers of lemon candy. There was an incredible team of family and friends who came out to help set up for the party and to be there for support.

When Kami and Margie arrived, it seemed as if they were like kids on Christmas day. Margie commented a couple of times that they didn't know if they were doing it "right". They joked about never having signed books before and that they would be happy to sign other people's books too. :-) As I looked around, I noticed that in addition to friends, family, and readers interested in Beautiful Creatures, there were several teen bloggers that I recognized from Twitter. It was fun to meet Khyrinthia, Senfaye, and Dream Reader in person.

Kami's two small children were bouncing with as much enthusiasm as their mother. The party flowed out of the store and into the courtyard. There was a table set up with champagne punch, a beautiful cake, and tiny little desserts. People gathered around socializing with people they knew and meeting new people. I chatted with some of the other bloggers and also with some of the book sellers and Librarians that I knew who were there.

Here's a beautiful shot of the cake.

I was also glad to see that Kami and Margi's fear about no one showing up was completely dispelled. The tiny bookstore was filled with supporters, and well-wishers, and a great testament to the community that Garcia and Stohl have created through their debut novel.

Thanks everyone for joining us in our past few posts while we discovered Beautiful Creatures! And now, for a little more fun stuff...


We've got swag from the party! If you want to get one of two sets of swag, leave a comment on this post including the following:

1. What Caster power you'd like to have and a brief explanation why you'd want it.
2. Your email address.

You have until Tuesday, December 15th to get your comments in. We'll choose the best two answers and email the winners by the end of next week!

We've been very excited about Beautiful Creatures. Thank you so much for joining us for the past few posts. Until next time, go read something good!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Interview: Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Written by Aly

Recently, I had the incredible opportunity to spend several hours over breakfast with the fabulous authors of Beautiful Creatures. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl took time out of their busy schedules to meet with me for an interview. Wonderfully enough, the formality of an interview was replaced by open and friendly chatting amongst girlfriends. Our conversation wandered around all over the place including discussions about books, publishing, the world of YA, teaching (all of us share a background in teaching), and, of course, Beautiful Creatures, the book.

As we sat down at a corner table in the restaurant to chat, Kami immediately ordered a Diet Coke. For any of you who were wondering if all the comments about Kami drinking lots of Diet Coke with ice were real, I am here to testify that they are.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was not going to be your typical interview. Despite having prepared questions, the direction of the conversation moved from a traditional question & answer to a free flowing dialogue. What I have written below is an organized account of our time together and hopefully reflects the essence of our conversation.

Two Authors, One Voice:

Even though I had read about Kami and Margie’s writing process, I was still curious about how two articulate and independent women were able to tell a story as one. During my morning with them, I found myself chuckling when one would finish the sentence for the other or how they easily played off of each other’s comments. From watching their interactions, I came to see why they have been so successful at creating one authorial voice.

The two met several years ago when Margie’s oldest daughter was in Kami’s class. They quickly found a kindred spirit in one another, and their friendship was born. The initial friendship expanded to include the sharing of books and a writing partnership, first as critique partners and eventually as story collaborators.

When they talk about their writing style or process, they use the phrase “writing over one another’s work” (the process of editing each other’s words until you have no idea who wrote what) and how the idea of this often times freaks out other writers. And yet for them, it works. They write sentences, paragraphs and chapters in this fashion, until it is truly a blend of the both of them, sans ego.

The Evolution of Beautiful Creatures:

From scanning through articles and interviews about Beautiful Creatures, I had learned the basic story of the Caster Girls and the role they played in the development of the book. However, I wanted to hear more of it from Kami and Margie. According to the duo, the story of Beautiful Creatures developed after being challenged by the teenage girls in their lives. Basically, the girls issued an ultimatum that if the pair were going to talk about writing, then they needed to “put your pen where your mouth is,” so to speak. Garcia and Stohl began writing and, week after week, chapter after chapter, they shared with their daughters, sisters, friends, and family the story of the Ethan and Lena and the supernaturals of Gatlin County, which would later become the manuscript for Beautiful Creatures.

Initially, they considered putting it on the web, but instead, gave it to their friend, author Pseudonymous Bosch (The Name of This Book Is Secret, from The Secret Series). Margie, then, shared about how she received the phone call from agent Sarah Burnes, who loved the manuscript and wanted to represent them. When Stohl got off the phone with Burnes, she told Garcia “I think we have an agent?!" (Sounds a little like magic to me?!?)

Once they had acquired an agent who believed in the book, the next step was to secure a publisher. It was fascinating to hear about how the manuscript auctioned off. With the guidance of their new agent, the manuscript found a home with Little, Brown and Company, a publishing company who understood the vision and direction of Beautiful Creatures, and have worked with Garcia and Stohl to see that vision come to fruition.

The Story of Beautiful Creatures:

I have to admit that when I first read the quote from author Holly Black describing the book as “A lush southern gothic…” I was intrigued. What was a Southern gothic tale anyways, and why bother writing one? Yet, in speaking with Garcia and Stohl, it is clear that they both knew they wanted to write a Southern gothic tale - something big and lush with a sense of history, the significance of family, and community. It didn’t end with just the idea of writing a southern tale. There were several other qualities they wanted the novel to possess. Between Garcia and Stohl, they have six brothers and they believed that the story would be better served by having a male narrator. Additionally, they were also adamant that there would be an empowered girl character who resembled in many ways the fantastic girls in their lives.

Garcia and Stohl also made a conscious decision about the choice of new names for their supernaturals. They wanted something different than vampires, werewolves, and traditional magical creatures – although they love novels featuring these as well. Not only were they intentional about the names for their supernaturals, but as they built their universe in which to tell the tale, they created a unique set of powers for these characters. Finally, no Southern gothic would be complete without traditions, secrets, and eccentric characters.

The People of Beautiful Creatures:

One of the elements that I enjoyed when reading Beautiful Creatures is the characters, both major and minor. I was curious how they developed their characters and were they based on anyone specific. According to Garcia and Stohl, Ethan and Lena were not created from specific individuals from their lives. However, many of the other characters are a compilation of the people who they have known. With genealogy trees in hand, names and people were modified or adapted to fit the needs of the story.

When I heard this, I couldn’t help asking, “So who inspired the milk duds and popcorn?” Margie laughed and explained to me that her friend Kerri was the inspiration behind that particular food combo. This lead Kami to talk about how one particular story in the book about Ethan’s three aunts and a baby squirrel was modeled on an experience she had with her mother who frequently rescues animals in need. I also discovered that Link and Ridley’s characters were influenced and developed through the feedback of the Caster Girls (a group of girls that read through the original chapters) who demanded more of these two characters.

Supernatural Powers:

In talking about some of the characters in the book, I mentioned that I was curious about the powers that their supernatural beings possessed. I began campaigning for a lexicon of the powers included in the book to be developed. Kami laughed about the request, and both agreed it would be a good thing to include on the website. They promised that once things settle down that one would be created.

Of course, my curiosity was piqued, I had to ask both Kami and Margie which powers they would want.

Kami: Cataclyst or a Sybil – She spoke about how she would love to be able to manipulate the elements or read people’s faces.

Margie: Palimpsest – She shared about how she would like to be able to walk into an old house a see its history. I had to admit that was one gift that thoroughly confused me, but Margie can definitely explain this gift better than anyone else. *smile*

If you were wondering, they did manage to get me to tell them what powers I would want. After joking about how I would never be mistaken as having the power of a “siren”, I decided that the power to heal was a cool gift to possess.

The Portrayal of the South in Beautiful Creatures:

One of my friends has asked me to see what reactions that the duo had received about their portrayal of the South. Garcia shared that most of the Southerners that they know who have read the story have appreciated how the tale seems to capture the essence of the South. Kami’s family is from North Carolina, and Margie has studied the South for years in college, so they both have a deep love for Southern culture. There is both a respect for the people and an understanding of the quirky characteristics that make the South the South. They were particularly flattered when authors like Carrie Ryan, a Southern writer, and Melissa Marr, an author who also taught Southern literature, felt there was authenticity in the world they created.

Beautiful Creatures – The Story Continues:

Now, I would have been remiss if I didn’t try to extract some information from the two of them about the next book. Both are extremely adept at not giving away secrets, nor did they reveal much about what would happen in the second book (which has recently finished revisions and back in the hands of their editors). However, I was able to garner from our discussion that some of the questions that arose in Beautiful Creatures will be answered or expanded upon. Such as Ethan’s mother’s death, and if and what powers if any Ethan actually has. Rest assured, the world of Beautiful Creatures has many secrets yet to be explored.


Somewhere I had read that Kami considered herself to be superstitious, and the book definitely has its share of superstitions in it. So when I brought up the topic, I wasn’t surprised that this was nearly as lively of a conversation as the book discussion (see below). Margie basically indicated that if there is change on the ground she feels compelled to pick it all up. However, Kami’s list was significantly longer than Margie’s. Some of her superstitions include, not knowingly stepping on a grave, and “knocking on wood” to avoid a jinx. Kami also doesn’t like crows, harbingers of bad omens.

Books Outside of the world of Beautiful Creatures:

I couldn’t have breakfast with two authors and not ask them about books. But be prepared if you are going to ask this question, because they are well read in the area of YA fiction. The conversation around books flowed at an amazing pace. Though I had not read quite as many of the titles they had, I was glad that I was at least familiar with the authors and titles that came tumbling out. Kami’s tastes tend to lean slightly more toward fantasy and sci-fi, with a few realistic fiction novels thrown in. Margie is a fantasy reader, who also reads a great deal of the realistic fiction available today. However, both Stohl and Garcia agreed that there were some more recent titles “you really should read,” which included:

The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan
Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Fire by Kristin Cashore
Rampant by Diana Peterfreund
Everything is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis
Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Upcoming releases, such as White Cat by Holly Black, Shadow Hills by Anastasia Hopcus, and The Body Finder by Kim Derting are getting early praise from one or both of them (depending on who is hiding the advanced copy), though these books will not be available to the general public for several months.

In thinking back on my morning with Kami and Margie, I realized what a unique experience I got to have. With the recent release of Beautiful Creatures, their lives are going to be rapidly changing. At least, I can say that I met them “when”. I had an exciting morning with these amazing ladies, and truly appreciated getting to know them better as authors and individuals. I wish them the best with the official release of Beautiful Creatures.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beautiful Creatures

Authors: Kami Garcia and Margi Stohl
Publisher: Little Brown
Pages: 563
Reading Level: YA

Excerpt from cover of book:
“Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she is struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even with the overgrown gardens, murky swamps, and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.

Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.

In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.”

In my eyes, there are books and then there are BOOKS. Every time I crack open a book, I wonder if this will be the one. The book that whisks me away to a new place, consumes me, calls to me, and lures me away from other things. Is it a book that haunts my thoughts? Does it make me believe that I am there in its world vs. being in my world? And most importantly, when I finish the last page, does it make me want to go back and read it over and over again?

A few months ago, I heard about the upcoming release of Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margi Stohl. I had not previously heard of Garcia and Stohl and aside from a really well done book trailer by VLC productions all I knew was that it was a YA Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Love story. For whatever reason, I found myself really drawn to it and became a fan of the book before even reading it. This can be dangerous in a way. What happens when the book finally comes out? Will it live up to expectations or fall flat? I took a risk with it and I am so glad that I did.

Beautiful Creatures is definitely one of those books that meet the criteria for “stand out” book in a genre. After reading about 15 pages, I found myself being consumed by the story. If I hadn’t needed to be a responsible adult, I would have just kept reading and finished it in one sitting. However, by the time I got up to 300 pages, my ability to be a responsible adult was quickly taking second place to my need to finish the book.

Garcia and Stohl have created a story that is gorgeous, haunting, and addictive. There is a bit of a risk that an author(s) take when a debut novel is 563 pages. Either you better be able to capture the reader right from the beginning or risk losing them after 200 or 300 pages. Never once did I have the sense that the story was taking too long or why hadn’t it ended yet. The writing is rich and well-crafted. What is also amazing to me is that the writing is seamless. There is no sense that this is a novel written by two people. It is written as one authorial voice with both authors being deeply in-tune with one another.

As I read through Beautiful Creatures, I appreciated the balance between being given enough information to understand the story but also enough questions and mysteries left for me as the reader to ponder where the story would go next. I dislike when I feel that the author is holding back or not giving me the information that I need to fully grasp the tale. I never once felt that way as I read through the book. There were questions that arose and ones that I had at the end, but I felt that these might be answered in the sequel.

Another element that I was drawn to in the story was the sense of place and history that is evoked by the plot and characters. I could imagine myself in Gatlin, seeing Amma make biscuits or pie, feel the humidity, or hear the southern drawl of the characters. I was fascinated with how Garcia and Stohl used the past and tied it into the present. And there was a community feel. Most YA fiction seems to leave out adults. However, Ethan and Lena were surrounded by adults – some who cared, some who got in there way, some who were dangerous, and some who assisted them.

Finally as I read through Beautiful Creatures, I was also struck by how Garcia and Stohl balanced tension, conflict, and mystery throughout the story. I didn’t just feel like the characters were solely in love with one another and caught up in their own world. Instead the challenges faced by both Lena and Ethan kept them solidly grounded in real life issues even whilst dealing with supernatural ones.

For those of you who enjoy YA Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Love Stories, you will find Beautiful Creatures to be an enjoyable read.


P.S. I have recently contacted Kami Garcia and Margi Stohl about doing an interview for YA Literature Review. Both have graciously agreed to meet with me, so keep an eye out for an interview posting.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Middle Grade Mondays: The Name of This Book is Secret

Author: Pseudonymous Bosch
Publisher: Little Brown
Pages: 384
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

Summary of Book (Good Read’s Description):

Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he'd love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn't want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn't want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.

I think I fell in love with this book at the first page where in bold letters it said “Do Not Read Beyond This Page!” Now if that doesn’t catch your attention then maybe the first chapter will. It is filled with a page and a half of “xxxxx’s”. Yes you read it correctly. All “x’s”. I was pretty convinced at this point that the author was brilliant. In chapter 1 ½, the author continues explaining that this was a book about a secret that was so secret and dangerous that he was afraid to share anything about the book and normally in the first chapter you find out all of those things.

The story is primarily told from the point of view of Cassandra (“Cass”) though the author has an odd way of interjecting himself at regular intervals into the story. Cass teams up with Max-Ernest to find out the mystery of the Symphony of Smells. Uncovering the mystery leads both children to several adventures and a few dangerous situations. What they do discover is that there is something unexplainable about the disappearance of a magician (the owner of the Symphony of Smells)and who exactly are the mysterious woman and man looking for him?

Though at times it might seem annoying to have the author speak to the reader, it does provide a certain amount of humor. In one critical point of the story, the author declares that he does not think he can continue with the story because it just might be too dangerous. After a discussion of how he can be bribed to tell the next part (chocolate works wonders), the author does indeed continue on. Even the ending of the story, which I will refrain from revealing, is treated in a unique manner which drove me a bit crazy while being very entertaining.

It is hard to find books that will appeal to both boys and girls and books that will hold the interest of reluctant readers. However, Bosch has created a series which appeals to both genders. Its larger print, occasional pictures and sense of humor will draw in reluctant readers despite what might seem like a book with a lot of pages. Children who enjoy reading stories with equal parts humor, mystery and suspense will find The Name of This Book is Secret an engaging read and will be eager to start in on the second book of the series called If You Are Reading This It Is Too Late. As a result, my class copies are frequently checked out by my students.

Though I am certain that Pseudonymous Bosch would be mortified that I was recommending his books to children, remember this is a very "dangerous book", the Secret Series gets my thumbs up for entertaining middle grades fiction. If you ever do get to see Pseudonymous Bosch at a book signing, I would also encourage you to attend. He is just as entertaining in person as his books are to read.

When you were a child what was your favorite type of book to read? Let me know in the comments section.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving

Author & Illustrator: Dav Pilkey
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks (2004) – original 1990
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

When thinking about a picture book to review for Thanksgiving, Dav Pilkey’s ‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving immediately came to mind. It is a book that is part of my annual readings with my students and over the past several years I have enjoyed watching the first graders at my school perform the book as a play. So when I was looking for some basic information on the book, I was surprised to see that the Editorial Reviews on Amazon were kind of negative. As I result I picked up my well-worn copy and had another read.

Pilkey’s ‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving is a parody of Clement Moore’s poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. In Pilkey’s version, a school teacher takes a group of students to a turkey farm run by Farmer Mack Nugget. The turkeys all have names of famous comedians (i.e., Larry, Moe, Groucho, etc.). Though children may not identify with whom the turkeys were named after or that the picture of Farmer Mack Nugget and the teacher is reminiscent of Grant Wood’s American Gothic image, the adults reading the story to their children will recognize and enjoy the references. Children will enjoy the playful antics between the students and the turkeys. When the students in the story realize what will happen to the turkeys, there is an outbreak of panic and mysteriously fatter children leave the farm than the ones who arrived. In the end, the turkeys are guests at Thanksgiving dinner rather than the meal and everyone feasts on veggies and jelly with toast.

After another read through the story, I find myself in disagreement with some of the negative reviews. Any reader familiar with Clemont's original poem will recognize Pilkey's parody, and to me it seems that this is part of the charm of the book. Since children are typically familiar with the original poem, I find that it immediately engages them. The animated cartoon-like illustrations highlight the light spirit and merriment of the story, and the ending provides a happy solution to the turkeys’ grim plight. The story also lends itself to being performed as a form of readers’ theater and I have seen many audiences of primary age children giggle in delight at the antics of the children and turkeys as performed by their classmates.

Though there are always dozens of picture books to chose from for any season, and thought this may not be the "ultimate" Thanksgiving picture book, I do see it having it's place among any collection of Thanksgiving picture books. My hardcover version of this tale will continue to hold a fond spot in my Thanksgiving collection of picture books and one that I will enjoy reading again and again.

Do you have a favorite Thanksgiving picture book? I would love to hear what it is. Please leave a comment with the name of the book and why you love it?! Thanks! - Aly

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What We're Reading Wednesdays

The long-awaited Beautiful Creatures is finally here, written by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

Aly and I are both reading this one, and Aly will be reviewing it on the blog soon. Right now, I'm on page 54 and so far I'm loving it. I really like the fact that it's written from a boy's point of view and that it takes place in the South (home sweet home!).

If you haven't already, you should pick this one up. You'll enjoy it!

~ Vilate

Sunday, November 15, 2009

SLOB by Ellen Potter

Publisher: Philomel
Pages: 199
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

There are some books that readers might miss out on simply because they are not featured prominently in a store nor do they have the mass appeal that other more widely popular books enjoy. Ellen Potter’s SLOB is one of those books. Recently, there were no copies of this book available at my local Barnes & Noble and even at the local indie bookstore the only copy was way above kids’ eye level and if I hadn’t been looking for something else I wouldn’t have even seen it. To me, this is a shame because SLOB is an amazing piece of middle grade fiction which I only happened upon because it was assigned reading as part of a book club.

I will say that this review is going to be difficult to write because I really don’t want to give away any spoilers. What I can tell you is that the story is about a 12 year old boy named Owen who is a genius and overweight. With that information you might think that this is just another one of those middle school stories about a boy who is bullied because of his size. And though that is a big part of the book, it really isn’t what the story is all about. This is the first time that I can actually say that not having even read the summary made the book more enjoyable. I was able to truly appreciate the author’s skill in unveiling the motivations behind Owen’s behaviors.

My suggestion at this point is for you to stop reading the review and go out and read the book. This way I don’t have to worry about spoiling the story for you. However, since you are not likely to just go out and purchase a book because I said for you to do it, then if you must continue reading on be forewarned that there may be some spoilers.

The story opens with Owen discovering that the three oreo cookies in his lunch have been stolen. To most of us, this may not seem like a big deal, but for Owen, those three cookies help get him through his school day. Owen is the smartest and fattest seventh grader in his school. When he isn’t trying to discover who is stealing his lunch, he is trying to cope with a cruel P.E. teacher, and avoid the school bully. At home, Owen is an inventor who is attempting to build a machine that can capture digital information from a specific date and time from two years ago. Much of what seems like one thing on the surface turns out to be quite another thing as the story unfolds including the title of the book.

Anyone who has every gone through middle school will be able to relate with some part of Owen’s story. You will find places that will make you laugh and other parts that will make you want to cry. Potter does a wonderful job telling Owen’s story and though the ending might seem a little too nicely wrapped up, it does provide for a satisfying and hopeful conclusioin. Overall, SLOB is a stand-out in the field of “coming of age” stories. I recommended it to my sixth graders and have made it a point to tell my local bookstores that this is one book that should be on their shelves.

- Aly

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare

Publisher: Bantam Doubleday (Dell) (Houghton Mifflin)
Reading Level: 12 and up
Enjoyment Level: Highest
Newbery Medal Winner, 1959

Like so many books I read as a child, this is one of my favorites. As much as I love the new stories that continue to be published, there's something about childhood favorites that make them all the more magical than even Harry Potter (and that's saying something since I adore Harry Potter).

The Witch of Blackbird Pond caught my fancy when I was about ten years old. As some of you already know, I've been a voracious reader ever since I learned how to read the words 'cat' and 'dog'. And I rarely waited to pick a book because I had to. I wish I remembered more about what I was thinking when I chose this story, but I might've just been drawn to the word 'witch' in the title. No matter, this has been a favorite almost all of my life.

Kit Tyler comes to America after her grandfather passes away. She finds herself moving from a lush Barbados upbringing to the harsh, work-oriented Puritan society of her aunt and uncle. She doesn't fit in and makes several mistakes on her road to growth as a person. However, as the story unfolds, she is also the only person to recognize certain truths around her, and she is able to help her family and friends because of her free and independent childhood.

The setting makes for an interesting read - I'm not usually interested in historical fiction, myself - and some readers may be surprised by the way things are described. The story was written before certain terms were considered not politically correct and there is no gloss over the way of life that is portrayed. It feels more real to me as I read because it's true to the time-period the author is representing and that makes the characters and plot deeper.

Kit is a character that is almost modern for the story, though. Despite the historical feel and accuracy, a lot of girls used to the technological age in which we find ourselves will be able to identify with her struggles and her personality. This is especially true for anyone who has felt like they didn't fit in. Thinking about it now, that's probably why I love the story so much. It's been a rare thing to feel like I fit in anywhere.

The other characters flow so well around Kit that you'd think the story was completely true. It's beautiful how the author was able to paint such real characters that create an amazing story.

Readers used to a lot of showing versus telling, action, and fast-paced writing, might find the read a little slow, but the story is definitely character-driven and well worth the time it takes to savor the novel.

This is a perfect read for November (or any time!) and I highly recommend giving it a try.

Until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury

Publisher: Random House (Yearling) (Knopf)
Pages: 145
Reading Level: 12 and up
Enjoyment Level: Middle of the Road

A year or so ago, I facilitated a book club where we read only YA books. For Halloween, it was amazingly difficult to find a book that followed the theme - Ray Bradbury's Halloween Tree was pretty much the only option that wasn't part of a series. So I kind of feel like I read this because I had to, instead of for enjoyment.

The story follows a group of boys who are out to go trick-or-treating. It's something they look forward to and are still at an age to get excited about it. One of their number, however, ends up sick and the rest of the boys are pulled along on a journey to save their sick friend.

The writing is typical Ray Bradbury, though, it does have the distinct feel of a book being written for the younger crowd. There is a sort of playfulness amidst the seriousness. The language is easily understandable for anyone. And despite the grim nature of the characters and plot, it's more creepy than outright frightening, though not so creepy as to make it difficult to read on a dark, stormy night.

In terms of the characters, they read as though they're thought out, but there is so much going on, that no one boy in the group stands out. The characters feel more like surface space - actors to play out the plotline.

And speaking of the plot, at times it feels like it's all over the place. Sometimes it got confusing trying to follow who was doing what and where. That being said, the imagery is well done and the world is very rich. As you read, you can believe that the events and setting are real.

I don't recommend the book for younger readers, as they may not follow it well and they might be frightened by some of the imagery. But i you want a book for Halloween that will put you in the spirit, this one will. It's got ghouls, demons, mummies - Ray Bradbury put them all in here. The mood is dark and reading the story aloud would add that extra spark - like a campfire ghost story.

Whatever you're doing this Halloween, be safe, have fun and and don't egg anyone's car.

Until next time, go read something scary!

~ Vilate

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Halloween Picture Book Reviews Part II

The Hallo-wiener
Author/Illustrator: Dav Pilkey
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

Dav Pilkey is a master of children’s humor. The author of the Captain Underpants series and The Dumb Bunnies brings his unique sense of humor and cartoon-style illustrations to life in this Halloween treat. Hallo-wiener tells the story of Oscar, the dachshund, who dreams of Halloween and scary costumes. Teased by his peers and fawned over by his mother, Oscar is the laughing-stock of obedience school. When he arrives home, his mother greats him with a surprise “I’ve made you a costume to wear for trick-or-treats!” It is a giant hotdog bun topped off with mustard. Groan! Yet, Oscar does wear the costume and the adventure begins. As with most tales of the harassed character, Hallo-wiener is predictable in its conclusion.

Sad to say, despite most children I know who enjoy this story, I was disappointed in it. The illustrations are bright with wonderful details which enhance key elements and lend humor to the story. However, though I believe that Pilkey’s drawings are fabulous; I feel as a storyteller he is capable of so much more. Why is it that a character who has been ostracized for superficial reasons only finds worth if he saves the day?

Readers who enjoy Pilkey’s other works will likely enjoy this story as well. However, with so many other truly phenomenal Halloween picture books available, I am happy to leave this to those who find it funny.

(*)My Rating: I will leave this one up to the reader.

Boris and Bella
Author: Carolyn Crimi
Illustrated: Gris Grimly
Publisher: Voyager Books
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

My eight year old niece asked me the other day where my copy of Boris and Bella was. After a thorough search of my home bookshelves which left me empty-handed, I nearly panicked. Before I turned myself over to a complete state of anxiety, I did a second search of my work bookshelf. Much to my relief, it was nestled safely among other books in my office. My personalized signed copy has been among my cherished books since I acquired it several years ago. I have probably read this story to my niece more than 100 times, and have read it to multiple classrooms of children over the years. If I were to be allowed to select only one Halloween picture book, then this would be the winner.

The reader learns early on that “Bella LeGrossi was the messiest monster in Booville… Boris Kleanitoff was the tidiest monster in Booville.” Carolyn Crimi’s odd-couple Halloween tale of a messy witch and a persnickety vampire is humorous and filled with wonderful word plays (“bar-boo-cue” and “boo-ffet”) and rhythmic tongue-ticklers. The unneighborly monsters attempt to outdo one another by each throwing the biggest Halloween bash. However, the other residents of Booville choose to attend Harry Beastie’s party instead. Rather than sitting around fuming about Harry’s party, Bella and Boris arrive separately ready to give Harry “a piece of their mind”. After awhile, the unlikely pair finds a mutual interest in dancing which dissolves the anger and hatred they have harbored towards one another. In the end, they discover that they just might be the perfect match for one another.

Crimini’s delightful play on words and rhythmic phrases are complimented by Gris Grimly’s pen and watercolor illustrations. Grimly’s ghoulish drawings and attention to details elevates this predictable tale and brings all of its characters to life.

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity of taking my niece to see Gris Grimly at a local indie-bookstore. His audience was equally filled with children and adults who admired his work, listened intently to the answers to their questions, and were mesmerized by the sketches he did in front of them. If you have an opportunity to see him at an event near you, I would certainly encourage you to do so.

(*)My Rating: *****

Cinderella Skeleton
Author: Robert D. San Souci
Illustrated: David Catrow
Publisher: Voyager Books
Pages: 32
Grades: 3rd to 5th (younger ages for read aloud with caution)

Most readers are familiar with the tale of Cinderella, but do you know the tale of Cinderella Skeleton? This is a ghoulish version of the classic tale and though it may be a picture book I will caution right from the start that this is not necessarily for younger children. Cinderella Skeleton lives in a mausoleum in Boneyard Acres. She is required to decorate the mausoleum with cobwebs and dead flowers. She is scorned by her stepmother and stepsisters who also prevent her from attending the ball hosted by Prince Charnel. With the help of a good witch, Cinderella is able to attend the ball and as with the original version she must leave at an agreed upon time. However, rather than just leaving behind a slipper, Cinderella Skeleton leaves behind her foot as well. The story continues in a similar manner to the original tale and ends in an expected manner, of sorts.

Robert San Souci is a skilled story-teller which is evident in this unusual variation on a childhood favorite. San Souci’s uses a style of verse that is rhythmic but not sing-song. It would be wise to practice reading this tale aloud before reading it to an audience because the unique style does require some rehearsing. It should also be noted that there are a number of word choices that depending on the level of the listener may require some explanation.

David Catrow’s illustrations are reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride or even Gris Grimly’s Monster Museum. The vibrant watercolors in greens, purples, and yellows are both eerie and haunting as they draw the reader in.

I enjoyed this haunting tale along with my upper grade students, but younger readers may either get lost in the text or be bothered by some of the references as well as the illustrations which depict those scenes. I would encourage parents and teachers to read the story in advance and to know their audience.

(*)My Rating: ****

So, what are you waiting for…grab a book, find a kid and start reading…
-Aly B

Rating Scale:

***** - it was amazing, definitely recommend it
**** - really liked it, recommend it without reservations
*** - liked it, recommend it
** - it was okay, recommend with reservations
* - didn’t like it, don’t recommend it

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Halloween Picture Book Reviews Part I

In preparation for Halloween, I chose some old favorites and some newer finds to review. This is the first of two postings. As with most picture books there are 100’s to choose from on any one topic, but there are some that are autumnal classics.

Frankie Stein
Author: Lola M. Schaefer
Illustrator: Kevan Atteberry
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

Mr. and Mrs. Frank N. Stein are excited over the arrival of their baby son, Frankie Stein, but something is not quite right. “He’s….cute.” says his mother. “Why doesn’t he look scary like us?” asked his father. So begins the story…

This play on the Frankenstein story tells the tale of the green-skinned monstrous parents trying to adjust to their adorable, pink-skinned, blonde haired toddler. After the initial shock that their son does not look or behave like them, the Stein’s try to teach Frankie how to be scary, how to act scary, and how to look scary. They paint his hair purple, add a few “green bumps”, and teach him how to walk like them. When Mr. Stein attempts to show Frankie how to moan and groan like a monster, Frankie is only able to produce a squeak. Mrs. Stein tries to tell him the history of all the monsters in the family as inspiration, but to no avail. Frankie tries practicing to be scary, but then discovers his own way to be scary. In the end, the Steins agree that Frankie is the most scary Stein of all.

Kevan Atteberry’s bright and bold illustrations bring Lola M. Schaefer’s story alive. Younger children will delight in the antics of the Stein family and will enjoy imitating Frankie’s attempts to be scary. I enjoyed the book and especially appreciated the story’s lesson that embracing individuality is important.

My Rating: ****

Too Many Pumpkins
Author: Linda White
Illustrator: Megan Lloyd
Publisher: Live Oak Media
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

When Rebecca Estelle was a child, money was scarce and pumpkins were all her family had to eat for a month. As an adult, Rebecca Estelle refuses to eat pumpkin in any form and won’t even plant it. However, one day “long after Rebecca Estelle’s hair had turned snowy white”, a giant pumpkin crashes onto her yard. Not only is she left to clean it up, but she attempts to remove the whole thing from her memory. This lasts only until the spring time, when she sees new sprouts in her garden. As the pumpkin vines begin to grow, Rebecca Estelle tries everything she can think of to destroy the new plants. Despite all of her attempts to ignore the pumpkins, they continue to grow until her backyard is covered with the round orange gourds. Now what to do with all these pumpkins?

As a fan of Megan Lloyd’s illustrations, I was immediately drawn to Linda White’s Too Many Pumpkins. This is really more of an autumnal harvest tale than a Halloween story. Nonetheless, the bright, vibrant drawings and the main character’s aversion to pumpkins will enchant young children as they discover how Rebecca Estella solves her dilemma of “too many pumpkins”.

Though I truly enjoyed this tale, I would caution that younger children with shorter attention spans may require some of the text to be summarized in order to remain fully engaged with the story.

My Rating: ****

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything
Author: Linda Williams
Illustrator: Megan Lloyd
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

For parents and teachers looking for a “just right” scary story for small ones, Linda Williams’ The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything would be my first pick. The rhythmic language that repeats and builds with each page provides enjoyment for the listener as well as the independent new reader. Listeners and readers alike will delight in the way the little old lady fearlessly faces each piece of clothing that appears to her in the woods. The accompanying sounds provide the book with its own unique soundtrack. In the end, children will delight in the little old lady’s clever solution to her eerie problem.

During my first year of teaching, I discovered Linda Williams’ The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything and my love affair with this story has never waned. Megan Lloyd’s wonderful illustrations only enhance an already fabulous story. Even after literally hundreds of readings, it has been a book that I have enthusiastically read every fall since. This is a must have book for any library and for any fall reading list.

My Rating:*****

So, what are you waiting for…grab a book, find a kid and start reading…
- Aly B

Rating Scale:

***** - it was amazing, definitely recommend it
**** - really liked it, recommend it without reservations
*** - liked it, recommend it
** - it was okay, recommend with reservations
* - didn’t like it, don’t recommend it

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

Publisher: Walker Publishing Co., 2009
Pages: 195
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

Over the years, I have shifted my reading preferences from more realistic fiction to fantasy fiction and suspense. Much of this switch can be attributed to working in a field where I deal with the harshness of reality on a daily basis. When I do find time for pleasure reading, I want to simply escape. However, after starting a book club for 4th-6th graders, I realized that I would be remiss if the only novels I recommended were part of the fantasy and science fiction genre.

I was attracted to Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. for several reasons. First, Messner is a middle school teacher. As an educator, I want to be able to encourage and support teachers who are writers. Second, though I currently live in Southern California, I grew up in New England and the story is set in the fall in Vermont. Third, I was looking for a realistic fiction story to share with my students in our book club.

Gianna (“Gee”) is a twelve year old girl who would rather be drawing pictures, or running trails than doing homework. The story opens with Gianna needing to finish a science project by the end of the week. Her ability to compete in the upcoming Sectionals for cross-country hinges on her ability to complete the project on time and obtain a passing grade. It appears that nearly everyone has been working on this science project for the past three weeks except for Gianna. With the support of her best friend Zig, Gee believes that she will be able to finish the task and then compete in Sectionals. However, as most of us know, real life can trip us up on the way to the finish line. Not only does Gee have to deal her archenemy, Bianca, trying to sabotage her efforts, but there are unexpected challenges at home that continue to interfere with Gee's reaching her goals.

Messner does a phenomenal job in making Gee, her friends, school and home life seem real. In many ways, Gee is a typical middle schooler who struggles with her school work, with budding emotions for her male best friend, and with the transformation of her family life due to her grandmother’s failing memory. Without giving too much of the story away, Gee’s quest to find 25 leaves and assemble them into a display for her science teacher becomes the metaphor for all of the changes and challenges that she is facing.

I loved the tender and fragile relationship between Gee and her grandmother. And as a teacher, I recognized in Gianna so many of my own students who struggle to attend and to conform to the system and structure called school. My only criticism was that Gianna’s perspective often times seemed more mature than I would expect from a 12 year old who leaned more towards being a creative free-spirit than the “I’ve had to grow up too fast” type of kid. Much of Gianna’s reactions and dialogue seemed fairly aligned with her character’s persona, but at times the narration which was from Gianna’s point of view seemed more adult like. However, I don’t believe that it takes away from the story and I would recommend the book to children and adults, especially for children who are dealing with a close family member whose health concerns are impacting the lives of other the family members.

Enjoy the fall, and find time to read a book…

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Publisher: Random House, Inc.
Pages: 215
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years
Awards: 1968 Newbery Honor Book
Enjoyment Level: Highest

I read a lot growing up. Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do, and when I was younger, I'd read the same books over and over. I think I may have checked Egypt Game out of the library a dozen or more times. I didn't understand what it meant that it was a Newbery Honor book, I just knew that I loved the story.

It focuses on an eleven-year-old girl, April, who is displaced when her mother sends her to live with her grandmother. April soon meets Melanie and they discover that they both love anything to do with Egypt. They discover a yard in the back of an antique shop and their little land of "Egypt" is born. Soon, there are six players and danger they have to overcome as friends.

Even though this book isn't technically a fantasy, there is plenty of magic in it. Not to sound pretentious, but it's the magic of imagination and youth. When I first read this, I remember being drawn into the story like no other I'd read (except maybe Witch of Blackbird Pond) and I wanted to have what the characters had.

Each of the players contributes to the storyline. They all have problems to overcome and very distinct personalities. The unfolding of the game, the friendships and the problem-solving all flow together seamlessly. It's a beautifully written story and it's timeless in its subject matter. No matter what technologies we are inundated with in our modern world, the ideas and themes of The Egypt Game rise above it all.

Teachers will find countless resources online for teaching with this book. That's one of the many benefits of being a Newbery book, but with the plot being ripe with theme, character development, and conflict, you can rely mostly on the text for teaching material. And the book is perfect for middle-grade readers.

If you've never read The Egypt Game, you're missing out. Go find a copy and read it. Everyone should have the opportunity to travel to Egypt.

Until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate

Friday, October 2, 2009

Are You There God? It's me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Publisher: Atheneum Books, Simon & Schuster, 1970
Pages: 149
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12

Note: To celebrate Banned Book Week, I have posted several review blogs on some of the most challenged children’s books or children’s authors. Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret is listed at #62 on the top 100 challenged books published by the American Library Association. Released in 1970 the book wasn’t actually challenged until 1980’s.

This week I selected to review several classic children’s books which had been frequently banned or challenged. I began with Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. Next, I selected Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. And I am concluding the week with Judy Blume’s Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I wish I could say that these were the only books challenged by each of these authors but unfortunately, each one had several challenged novels with the honor for the greatest number of challenged books going to Blume.

In Blume’s book, eleven year old Margaret Simon struggles with body angst and religious confusion. The book opens with Margaret’s family moving from New York City to New Jersey. Margaret meets Nancy who together forms a secret club with two other girls, Gretchen and Janie. Blume uses the friendship between the four girls as a vehicle to explore the emotional ups and downs of transitioning from childhood to adulthood. This coming of age story has Margaret wondering when she would fill out her training bra or get her first period. At the same time, Margaret who comes from a mixed religious heritage but is being raised without religion, decides that it is time for her to select one. Using Margaret’s prayers which begin with “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret”, she seeks God’s help to what she should do and when her body would begin to change and develop. Her religious journey takes her to her grandmother’s temple, her friend’s Presbyterian Church, and also to a Catholic confessional.

Though the story may have been somewhat radical in 1970, for first exploring issues of puberty and religion, Margaret’s questions and experiences continue to be the same ones explored by every pre-teen girl today. As I read the book, I was at times transported back to my own pre-adolescent struggles and questions about life, boys, and my changing body. I found Blume’s willingness to deal with things in a direct manner refreshing and wondered why it had offended so many that it should be challenged as often as it was.

Though ALA’s official Banned Book Week is wrapping up, books continue to be challenged and removed from libraries in the United States. Whether it is a book from 1970 by Judy Blume or a book from 2009 by Ellen Hopkins or Laurie Halse Anderson, just to name a few, people are still challenging the right for children, and teenagers to read books. Read a challenged book, and speak out in support of authors who boldly write about important topics. There are many children and young adults who are transformed by the stories on the pages of these books. May their words be free for all to read.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Publisher: Original Publisher – Alfred A Knopf, Inc. 1961
Pages: 160
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12

To celebrate Banned Book Week, I will be posting several blogs on some of the most challenged children’s books or children’s authors.

Over the years, Roald Dahl’s book, James and the Giant Peach has been banned and challenged because some believed that the book promoted drugs and disobedience and contained an improper racial reference, sexual references, and profanity. After reading the book, it appears that James & the Giant Peach may have been banned for exactly some of the very reasons that it is well loved. Where would most children’s stories be without elements of magic, adventure, greater than life characters, and a general sense of irreverence?

Though the book was written in 1961 and there are some figures of speech and other references that date the book slightly, the basic spirit of adventure and the main character as hero makes this story still treasured by young readers forty-eight years later. Somehow, despite all the reading I did as a kid, I managed to miss this book. I’m not sure how or why but I did. When I picked up the story, I was eager to find out what I had been missing all these years.

The story opens with a happy and well loved James who with his parents is visiting the zoo when a freak accident occurs and his parents are killed by a rhinoceros. This results in James being sent to live with two elderly aunts (Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker). James is treated poorly and unfairly by his aunts and after meeting an elderly man in the woods he is gifted with magical crystals. Before he is able to follow the elder’s advice, James drops the crystals which fall to the ground and are absorbed by the earth. Later, James discovers that the magical crystals did work causing the peach tree to produce an oversized peach and several enormous insects.

Upon meeting the insects, James is invited into the peach and with the help of the giant centipede the peach is freed from the tree and off he goes with his new friends on an adventure. From confused seagulls, to hungry sharks to revengeful Cloud Men, James and his friends are repeatedly bombarded and attacked. Yet, through it all, James proves himself to be a wise and level headed leader.

After reading James and the Giant Peach, I thought about what I knew of Dahl’s story and of children. Would I recommend the tale to children? Yes, beyond a doubt, I would recommend the book. Did I believe that the reasons the story had been banned would be evident to children readers? Not particularly. Can Dahl’s book motivate or interest a reluctant read? Yes. Once again, I feel like the benefits of this novel outweigh the negatives. Roald Dahl, thank you for a timeless story of friendship, and adventure.

Celebrate Banned Book Week, go read a banned or challenged book!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson

Publisher: Harper Colllins, 1978
Pages: 148
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years
Awards: 1979 Newberry Honor Award, 1979 National Book Award

Note: In honor of Banned Book Week, I will be posting daily blog reviews of children’s books that have been challenged or banned.

If I were asked to select my favorite children’s author, I would undoubtedly give Katherine Patterson that honor. From the moment that I first read Bridge to Terabithia, I fell in love with Patterson’s ability to draw her readers in with tales of believable characters, facing challenging situations, and living in diverse settings. Never once in all her stories does she shy away from hard topics which is likely why as the author of realistic fiction for children ages 9 to 12 she has had several books banned or challenged. Her story The Great Gilly Hopkins is no exception and is #21 on the American Library Association’s most banned and challenged book list.

Even after 31 years, Patterson’s story about a tough, hard to manage and hard to love foster child rings amazingly true to life. Eleven year old Galadriel “Gilly” Hopkins has spent the majority of her life in the foster care system. As a result, she has learned that to survive, you must be tough and not let anyone know that you care. The story opens with Gilly being placed in her third home in as many years. Upon arrival at her new “home”, Gilly assesses her new foster mother as a “hippopotamus of a woman” and her foster brother as a “freaky kid”.

Patterson does a remarkable job portraying the emotional challenges faced by children in long-term foster care, as well as the difficulties faced by the adults who care for foster children. Gilly is a child who has learned to manipulate the adults in her environment to behave and react as she wants them to respond. She uses profanity, lies, steals, and bullies others. Through a series of interactions and events, Gilly does experience a certain level of transformation as she learns to care about her foster mother, Trotter, and the timid and shy foster brother, William Ernst, and the elderly, blind African-American neighbor, Mr. Randolph, and her African-American teacher, Ms. Harris.

Though some of the references to Vietnam, and flower children may date the book, the theme of wanting to belong and be loved is timeless. When Gilly finally meets her biological mother, she learns the hard way that her dreams about her mother coming to rescue her and creating a home together will never materialize and that happy and ending do not always go together.

I find it sad that a book which deals with the realities of the life of foster children in such a compassionate manner should be challenged or banned. Those who have challenged it because of its topic, use of profanity, or issues of racism are either in denial or have never worked with children who live this reality on a daily basis. The ability to use this book to help children in similar circumstances far outweigh any of the negatives perceived by those who have cried out against it.

Celebrate Banned Book Week, go read a banned or challenged book!


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bran Hambric: The Farfield Curse, by Kaleb Nation

Kaleb Nation

Publisher: Jabberwocky (Sourcebooks)

Pages: 430

Reading Level: Middle-Grade

Enjoyment Level: High

I didn't plan to read this book, but when I saw that the author would be in town for a book signing, I decided to ask for an interview. I couldn't very well do an interview without reading the book, so...

The editor in me found several things in Bran Hambric that weren't so great. The overuse of the word 'suddenly' got on my nerves as did 'in an instant,' 'could feel,' and a few other choice phrases that bug me no matter whose writing I'm reading. Those little irksome things are less about the writing and the story and more about the editing.

I very much enjoyed the story. Bran Hambric is a boy with a past that is secret from even himself. Of course, like most secrets, they don't stay hidden for long and Bran's life is soon going directions he didn't think it would. He's fighting against bad guys and what he learns about his mother.

The characters are well-written and the plot flows around them in a way that is natural. Bran is a mage living in a city where they don't allow mages, so that helps make the setting rich. Readers will also find that they recognize much of the technology in Bran's world since the author mixed realism and fantasy (and it's done well!).

Despite the editorial issues, the language and imagery are vivid and witty. Several details are delightfully silly, which make this book perfect for younger readers. They'll laugh at the wacky family Bran lives but they'll also be able to handle the bad guy and the climax at the end.

The book is the first of a planned series which follows Bran Hambric and his friends, but Farfield Curse does really well as a stand-alone book. The plot is contained with a few loose ends that make you curious without leaving a reader dissatisied with the ending.

It was a pleasure to meet this author and I look forward to reading more of Bran Hambric. For the interview, please visit us at the podcast and, until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: 391
Reading Level: Young Adult

In the fall of 2008, I discovered Suzanne Collin’s book Hunger Games. However it took me a couple of months to finally read the book. Even though it had gotten great reviews, I struggled with the concept of a book premise where teenagers were forced into a game where they were required to kill one another. Yet, once I finally picked up the book and started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those “disturbing in a good way” books. To my amazement, I ranked the Hunger Games as the top book I had read in 2008. But then began the wait for the sequel Catching Fire.

At the end of the Hunger Games, main character Katniss Everdeen had found a way to not only win but to also keep fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark alive as well. Her behavior was viewed as an act of rebellion, and upon her return home, life was not as she expected. Her relationship with her best friend Gale is strained. Peeta, her fellow victor, is ignoring her and there are rumors of a rebellion rising as a result of her and Peeta’s actions in the arena. So what’s a 17 year old girl to do when the Capital feels that her actions were an act of defiance, and she has become a symbol of a potential uprising?

Suzanne Collin’s second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy picks up shortly after the end of the first novel. With this installment, Collins again contrasts the shallow, arrogant, self-centeredness of the Capital’s leaders and residents with the struggles, poverty, and oppression of the residents of the 12 Districts. Sinister President Snow informs Katniss that he is aware of her feelings for Gale and that if she doesn’t want it to seem as if she intentionally defied the authority of the Capital that she and Peeta will need to prove that their displays of affection in the arena were sincere. Embarking on the Capital’s cruel Victory Tour, Katniss slowly begins to recognize the role she has played in the growing unrest.

Though Catching Fire is somewhat slower paced than its predecessor, the intensity never quits. I found myself having to periodically stop reading and take a break, but my curiosity with how the book would end kept drawing me back to the story. I was particularly enthralled with how Collins gave readers glimpses into the lives of former victors, and the impact the games had on each of them. Additionally, I found a growing appreciation for Katniss as the ultimate flawed heroine who struggles as the reluctant symbol of a burgeoning insurgence. And with the 75th Hunger Games, Collins creation of new surprises doesn’t fail to keep her readers on the edge of their seats.

Once again, I find myself waiting for the next installment of the Hunger Games Trilogy. Wonder what I have to do to get an ARC of the third book????

Monday, September 14, 2009

Phantom Island: Wind - by Krissi Dallas

Publisher: AuthorHouse (self-published)
by: Krissi Dallas

Category: Teen, Fantasy

Pages: 399

I'll leave the real debate about self-publishing to another blog. I will say that I'm not usually a fan of books that have been published by authors. Though the opinions of self-publishing are changing, the fact is that nine times out of ten, they're still just not good enough to spend $18.00 on.

The author of Phantom Island approached me to do a review. I told her that I'd be happy to, but she wasn't guaranteed a positive opinion on it. She agreed and that was that. I guess, it's lucky that I won't be giving a negative review...

It took me a bit to get into the story once I started it. I'm not a fan of prologues. I more or less skipped the one in this book and didn't feel like I missed out on anything. After that, I did still have some issues getting started. There wasn't much action in the first couple of chapters so it was slow going. When the kids first get to camp, there was actually an entire section I skipped where the camp director was talking. I might have missed something, but if I did, I wouldn't know it because the rest of the story didn't really miss it. I felt like I got the whole picture without the speech.

Once the action got started, though, I really enjoyed the story. Secrets, lies (lots of them), a hidden island. Great stuff.

The imagery is vivid and the world Ms. Dallas has built is absolutely lush. I felt I could see what the characters were living. And I love the sense of history behind the people of the hidden island. The characters all intertwine and the story is woven around them very well.

Our main character, Whitnee, has a lot of trauma to work through, but she's well-rounded, if a little repetitious at times. It was a pleasure to go along with her on the journey through the strange new world. The way she interacts with the people around her showed her personality. Her friends complemented her and helped her through some very difficult things.

While there is action, for me this was mainly the story of a journey. It felt like a lot was set up. Usually with first books in a series, they tend to have the ability to stand alone... This one didn't really do that for me, but I didn't mind terribly since I know the second in the series if forthcoming. The ending did offer an outcome that I didn't expect and it left a lot of room for Whitnee to grow.

Overall, the pacing was good, barring the first few chapters. There are bits of sentences, some vocabulary, and grammar that an editor would've altered had this been published by a traditional house. If I didn't know it was self-published, I could guess that it was, or that an editor didn't take as much time as he should with the manuscript.

However, the little details I saw (and the editor in me cried out to change them) didn't detract from the story at large. The plot is pretty solid and I still enjoyed reading and getting lost on the island with Whitnee and her friends. I'll be looking forward to reading the next in this series.

(I think I'll consider myself an Aerodorian... and you'll have to read the book to figure out what that means!)

For people who are looking for some high fantasy mixed with teen angst and a lot of secrets, check out this book. I highly recommend it.

For more information you can visit the author's site (the link is above) or to buy the book from amazon.com, simply click on the link to the left and follow it over.

Until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate

Friday, September 11, 2009

Review of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Publisher: Tor Teen
Pages: 384
Age Group: Young Adult

Summary (adapted from book cover):
While skipping out of school to play an Alternative Reality Game (ARG), 17 year old Markus and his friends find themselves caught at the center of a terrorist attack on San Francisco. Apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Markus and his friends are interrogated and tortured. Upon his release, Markus finds that his city has become a police state and that his world has been changed forever. Can a 17 year old computer hacker and his friends fight back against the DHS and the sweeping paranoia of a community and bring about a change? Just maybe…

Before anyone says “I’m not into stories about computer geeks”, I want to challenge you to give this a shot. I consider myself reasonably computer savvy by way of the average computer user. However elevate it to the level of techno-babble, and my eyes glaze over and my head spins. Yet, author Cory Doctorow does a great job in making the story enjoyable for geeks and non-geeks. Though I questioned the extensive technical explanations from the story’s teen narrator in the early chapters, I quickly realized that I would likely be lost without them and felt free to skim the explanations about things that I had a better grasp of.

Doctorow’s main character is a likeable 17 year old computer hacker who enjoys hanging out with his friends and playing computer games. Markus finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and his responses to the circumstances set off a series of events that will forever change him and his view of the world. As he struggles to battle against the government, his close friends distance themselves from him and he finds a new ally and partner in a 17 year old girl who is his computer equal.

As I read through the story, I felt that the author did a reasonable job with the struggles and choices that Markus has to make. Are all his choices the right or best choices? No. Sometimes his choices actually set into motion a whole series of other events which at times make things worse. And despite questioning the actions and intentions of all adults throughout the story, Markus eventually finds he needs the assistance of his parents and several other adults in order to find the best resolution.

Adult readers will enjoy the references back to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and comparisons to the late sixties civil rights movement in San Francisco. Additionally, though some may find Markus’ parents’ reactions, particularly his father’s reactions somewhat annoying, I actually thought that given the circumstances that they were justifiable.

Overall, I found the book to be an enjoyable read which held my attention despite a few times when I started to glaze over from the more technical descriptions. I have already recommended the novel to both teens and adults that I know and would continue to recommend it.

Note: There are often lots of debate regarding YA stories and whether language or sexual content should be included in novels written for teens. The language and sexual content in this book is typical to what most teens would be exposed to in an average high school or age appropriate movie.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pure, by Terra Elan McVoy

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Category: Teen

Pages: 336

You can find the author here: Terra Elan McVoy

This does contain some spoilers, but hopefully not too many.

This is one of those books that just begged me to read it. I picked it up whilst browsing in Borders. The cover is very pink and the title really grabbed my attention. Knowing how often Christian values are belittled in the media these days, I think I was drawn to this just to see how it would undermine the idea of being 'pure' by the end. I know that's pretty unfair, but religion seems to be more of an 'edgy' topic these days than sex. So I did have some trepidation and I pre-judged the book. I can't say I apologize for that, but at it turns out, I was wrong and I'm very glad about that.

The story is about a group of girls who have made purity vows. They all have rings to show that they are promised to their husbands, sometime in the future. But one of them breaks her vow and the plot flows around that as the main character, Tabitha, struggles with her own questions about what is right and what is wrong.

For me, the pacing of the book was a little slow. The conflict came later that I expected and it felt like it took too long to build it up. On reflection, the personalities of the narrator and her best friend probably needed the set-up in order for the results to make sense, but even after finishing, I feel like the pacing could've gone a little faster.

However, the story progresses and I found myself relating to Tabitha and her questions of right and wrong. She struggles to stand by her friend, Cara, in a time of confusion while trying to figure out why Morgan, her best friend, is suddenly a stranger. Tabitha affirms to herself what she knows is right, but she chooses not to just abandon her friend. She understands, more than most people, that to be Christian means to be loving, despite the "mistakes" that people make.

The author does a wonderful job of presenting this plot in a meaningful way. Teens and adults alike will be able to sympathize and struggle right along with Tabitha. As she comes to an understanding with herself and her beliefs, the plot wraps up with her making amends with Morgan. I was happy to read the ending and that the author didn't cop out and make the girls BFFs again. Tabitha and Morgan had both changed too much to go back to where they were and that, for me, was the real taste of reality for the story.

Tabitha is a wonderful character. She is developed well and her progression, if slow, is natural and honest. I was very happy that the story didn't end the way I thought it might. I'm glad to be wrong.

The author did a good job, also, of making most of the characters come alive. Even people we meet once or twice felt like they had a story and even though we didn't get to see those stories, it was nice to know they were there. I was slightly disappointed by Morgan's development. She ended up being incomplete for me, though it would've been difficult to show her struggles when Tabitha wasn't talking to her. Still, the Morgan mid-story and the ending Morgan didn't progress naturally for me. It certainly wasn't enough to ruin the book.

The threads of religion and God are strong. If you have issues reading about those things, this book isn't for you. However, I would encourage anyone, even if they don't believe the same as Tabith, to read the book. She makes some wonderful arguments and sets a great example for anyone who wants to be a better, more loving, individual - Christian or not.

Until next time - go read something good!


If you are interested in purchasing this book, please note that I have left a nice, convenient link at the side of the blog that will take you right to Amazon.com. ^_^