Sunday, January 31, 2010

OLIVIA (Picture Book)

Author/Illustrator: Ian Falconer
Publisher: Atheneum/Anne Schwartz Books (October 1, 2000)
Hardcover: 40 pages
Reading level: Ages 4-8

Ian Falconer, author/illustrator of the Olivia series, kicks off his first book with the following lines:

"This is Olivia. She is good at lots of things. She is very good at wearing people out. She even wears herself out."

As I read those words, I can imagine every parent or preschool teacher shaking their head in a knowing manner. Yes, we all know an "Olivia". And to every young child who hears the story of Olivia, there are countless giggles that spontaneously erupt in response to her antics. Falconer's Olivia series appeals just as much to his young audience as it does the adults in their lives.

Ian Falconer's simple charcoal illustrations with red, pink, and white highlights speak volumes and enhance the sparse text. In reading the story, I was pleased with how well the author/illustrator manages to capture the essence of an active, precocious child embodied in this porcine heroine. The story follows Olivia through her day. From her developing self-help skills (brushing her teeth, combing her ears, and trying on myriads of clothes) to numerous play activities (building sandcastles, dancing, and painting) to refusing naps and negotiating the number of books she wants to read, the reader gets a sense of Olivia's never ending energy. However, it is the closing lines that truly pulls the story together for me. It is bedtime and Olivia's mother has just finished reading to her and says "'You know, you really wear me out, But I love you anyway.' And Olivia gives her a kiss back and says 'I love you anyway too.'"

Many of the books in the Olivia series are available in both Hardcover and paperback, but there are several board book versions that are also extremely well done and several of them have a texture quality to enhance Falconer's beautiful drawings. I would encourage parents and teachers of young children to explore all of the Olivia books and their various formats. The newest Olivia book Olivia Acts Out is probably one of my favorites. Olivia will win over both children and adults and become part of often requested titles in the home and school library.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More Hush, Hush!

Here it is, folks! I have a couple of pictures from Becca's visit to Blue Willow Bookshop here in Houston.

She talked about her journey with Hush, Hush and then read from the book before answering questions from the audience.

After questions, it was time to sign books.

I now have a book signed and waiting to be given away as a blog-comment prize! All you have to do to get your chance is leave us a comment on this blog entry with your name and email address. You have until Wednesday, February 3rd to get your comments in, then I'll make a random choice to pick the winner!

Also be sure to check out the interview with Becca Fitzpatrick at the podcast.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Teen Fiction Tuesday: Hush, Hush

Hush, Hush, by Becca Fitzpatrick

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Pages: 391
Reading Level: 14 and up

Anyone who has not taken a good look at the cover of this book should do so right now. I mean it. Did you do it? If so, you are probably pretty intrigued already. I know I was when I first saw the cover. As much as I know that I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, this is definitely one of those situations where I bought the book because of the it. Lucky for me, it was a really good book.

For me, Hush, Hush started off on the wrong foot with a prologue. I have a personal bias against prologues. I hate them. I rarely ever read a prologue I like. I'm sad to say that this is true of Hush, Hush as well. However, as soon as I started reading the chapters, I completely forgot how much I disliked the prologue. The writing was smooth, the dialogue was real, and the characters were interesting.

The novel follows the story of Nora Grey, a smart, shy, distrustful high school student. The day she meets Patch, a transfer student in her biology class, strange things start to happen. Not only is Nora oddly attracted to Patch, but she also has the feeling that he may want to hurt her.

I was intrigued by the plot of this book. It was complex, involving romance, mystery, action, and fantasy. At times, there was so much going on, I wondered how the author would be able to wrap up all the pieces. Now having finished the story, I can see how many of the pieces were connected and how hints were sprinkled throughout the book. Even so, I don't think it's possible to guess the ending or to answer Nora's questions until they are revealed at the end. The story ended so completely, I felt entirely satisfied with this as a stand-alone novel. However, I was still happy to hear that there will be a sequel and now I've started to think about a few little mysteries that are still unsolved.

As much as I liked the book, there were a few occasions where I felt the situations were contrived. It was as if the author decided she really wanted to have certain scenes, then created a feeble reason for those scenes to take place. My biggest problem was Nora's “undercover” mission to get more information about Patch. It felt very unrealistic and unnecessary.

Despite those reservations, I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading. I know I'll be in line to buy the sequel when it comes out.

Happy reading!



Stay tuned on the blog tomorrow for pictures from Becca's Houston visit as well as a chance to win a copy of Hush, Hush signed by Becca Fitzpatrick!


Monday, January 25, 2010

Middle Grade Monday: How To Train Your Dragon

Author: Cressida Cowell
Publisher: Little, Brown Young Readers
Pages: 224
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12

As a reader, I have preferences for the types of books that I like to read. One of my guilty pleasures is Urban Fantasy stories. As an educator, I recognize that not all students will like every genre and that I must read beyond what I enjoy so that I may be able to match books to individual students. My ultimate goal is to turn reluctant readers into enthusiastic readers. Additionally, I try to convince students to read the book that a movie is based on prior to viewing the movie. I say all this as an introduction as to how I found myself reading Cressida Cowell's How To Train Your Dragon: The Heroic Misadventures of Hiccup the Viking.

I first discovered this book on a trip to the local indie bookstore with my niece. She selected it as one of her purchases for the day. Next, in a conversation with her, I discovered that an animated movie based on the book was being released in March 2010. My niece was more than agreeable to lending me her copy of the book for me to read. In flipping through the pages, glancing at the hilarious pencil sketch drawings and ink blotches, I couldn't help but cringe a little. Fantasy stories were one thing. Fantasy stories with 9 year old slapstick humor - well that was another thing.

Once I removed my adult reader hat and swapped it for my 9 year old inner child, I delved into the story of Hiccup and Toothless, the Dragon. Hiccup is the son of the Viking leader and along with a dozen other young boys he is required to capture and train a dragon as part of his initiation into the world of being a Viking warrior. The reader soon discovers that Hiccup has not inherited his father's strength and skill as a fighter. He would rather read and study. However, in an effort to make a place for himself in his village, Hiccup commences to capture and train a dragon. Toothless, as Hiccup calls him, is rude, lazy, and one very scrawny dragon. Together, Hiccup and Toothless prove that the underdogs may just be able to do something that all the others could not do.

Children will be entertained by the hilarious antics of Hiccup and Toothless. Hiccup's ability to speak "Dragonese" and determination to train the stubborn but likable dragon will engage the reader. The short chapters, quick pace, and artwork sprinkled throughout the pages will drawn in even the most reluctant readers.

Though this may not be one of those books I would want to read over and over again, it certainly deserves a spot on my shelves for books that will attract reluctant readers. I will warn readers that this may be one book to movie where reading the story prior to watching the movie may not be necessary. After finishing the book, I viewed the trailer for How to Train Your Dragon. It will be interesting to see how closely the movie follows the book. Regardless of the similarities and differences, I anticipate that both will be equally enjoyable.

- Aly

Monday, January 18, 2010

Middle Grade Mondays: Operation Yes

Author: Sara Lewis Holmes
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Pages: 256
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12

As an educator, I find that I tend to be more sensitive and possibly more critical of books where school and teachers are central to the story. When I read Sara Lewis Holmes’ Operation Yes, I was pleasantly surprised. The story opens with Miss Loupe on the first day of school taping off a “stage” area on the floor in front of the classroom. Her students are not sure what to make of this strange sight. How often is it that you see your teacher crawling around on her hands and knees in front of the room? Now this may not be unusual behavior for a teacher at an alternative school, but Young Oaks School is on a military base and all the students are children of military personnel. For Bo Whaley, the son of an Air Force Commander, maybe sixth grade will be different from past years and maybe that is a good thing.

Lewis Holmes shares with her readers the story of Miss Loupe a new teacher who was once a student at Young Oaks. After leaving the Air Force Academy, much to her father’s disappointment, Miss Loupe focuses on teaching and theater. Bo Whaley struggles to stay focused in class and not get into trouble. Gari, the daughter of an army nurse called back into active duty, must live with her cousin Bo until her mother’s return. Bo just doesn’t want to move again, Gari is angry with her mother being called back up, and Miss Loupe has a few challenges of her own.

While reading the story, I found myself truly enjoying the ways that the author captured the various people at the school. The principal with her need to meet standards and expectations, the school librarian who builds a castle in the library and shouts out the titles of famous children’s books when she is cursing, and the grumpy cafeteria worker were just a few of my favorite people. Miss Loupe is inspiring in her role as teacher and her enthusiasm engages students in the learning process albeit in a less than traditional manner. Students learn from her to say “Yes”. Yes to challenges and yes to risks. How does this lesson of learning how to say “Yes” pull them all together when one among them is emotionally hurting? This is the essence of the book. Learning to say “Yes” can pull everyone together and bring healing and growth into their lives.

This book gets one of the highest recommendations that I can give a book. Some books I hand to students that I think might be particularly interested in a story. Other books I select for the classroom library. However, really good books I read out loud to my students. Operation Yes is one of those really good books which I will be reading out loud. Because even if you don’t live on a military base and attend a military school, everyone can learn to say “Yes”.

Enjoy! And let me know what books you would recommend for read-a-louds?!
- Aly

Friday, January 15, 2010

Fantasy Friday: Fairest

Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 326
Reading Level: 10 and up
Enjoyment Level: Highest

This one's a bit last minute, although I planned to get it up here a few hours ago. I decided to do Fairest this afternoon, and picked it up to just skim it over so I remembered enough about it for the blog. I started reading the first paragraph, and here I am five hours later finally getting to the blog... Yeah. I ended up reading the entire thing.

If you're a fan of YA books, you should most definitely have a few specific books on your shelf: Neverending Story, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and Ella Enchanted. For me, these are must-haves. And ever since I read Ella, I've almost voraciously picked up other books by Gail Carson Levine.

Fairest came out a couple years ago and I was immediately drawn to it. It's a quasi-re-telling of "Snow White" set in the same world as Ella Enchanted. I love it when authors revisit worlds, especially when they are as imaginative and rich as the one Ms. Levine has created.

In Fairest, we meet Aza, who has always been "ugly" in her eyes and the eyes of those around her. However, in the land of Ayortha, everyone is a singer. Aza is one of the best. Her beautiful voice and kind demeanor land her in the royal castle and in a heap of trouble with a magic mirror and a beautiful queen. There are also a few gnomes thrown in for good measure.

It's always difficult for me to pinpoint exactly why writing sucks me in and spits me back out at the end of a story. I can go on about how well the author writes, and how great the story is. The characters are wonderful and the setting is vivid. But I think, for Fairest, it's the tone of the main character that really does it.

Aza believes she is ugly and doesn't make excuses for it. Yet, it's difficult for her to realize why people love her. It takes a bout with the magic mirror and a magic potion to help her understand that her beauty is inside, and it's okay. The story and Aza's outlook feel very real. Her lesson is learned slowly and through hardships: like real lessons in real life. She is relatable. Even at the end, she hasn't quite given up the idea that she isn't traditionally beautiful, but she doesn't feel bad about it by then. Aza learns to embrace herself and let herself be loved by others.

If you haven't read this one, I highly recommend you do. In fact, this would be shelved just one below my must-haves. Read it and love it! As fairy tales go, this story is about as honest as they come.

Until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate

Monday, January 11, 2010

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Author: Gennifer Choldenko

Publisher: Puffin
Pages: 240
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

Several months ago, I heard about the AL CAPONE series by Gennifer Choldenko, and my interest was piqued. It isn’t easy to write historical fiction for middle grade students without the risk of coming across as boring or dry. As an example, I just recently went through about a dozen historical fiction stories for this age group and tossed them aside because I couldn’t imagine reading them let alone recommending them to my students. However, Choldenko scores big time with me for being able to combine a coming of age story with historical fiction and doing it in a superb manner.

Al Capone Does My Shirts is set in 1935 in the midst of the great depression and 12 year old Moose Flannigan has moved with his family from Santa Monica to Alcatraz Island. His father has accepted a job as an electrician/prison guard and has moved the family to the residential apartments adjacent to the prison which houses some of the most dangerous and famous criminals of the time including the infamous mob boss, Al Capone. With his father busy with work, and his mother preoccupied with the care of his sister with special needs, Moose must establish himself with new peers including the Warden’s mischievous daughter who seems set on getting Moose into trouble. Moose hopes to use baseball as a way to establish himself with his new classmates, but when his sister Natalie is dismissed from a special school in San Franciso, Moose finds himself caring for her after school while his mother works.

Choldenko does an amazing job weaving historical facts with the lives and experiences of her fictional characters. On the one hand, this is a story about a family that struggles with the challenges of having a child with special needs in a time when it was more common to institutionalize children like Moose’s sister. On the other hand, this is a story of the lives of the families that who lived in close proximity to some of history’s most notorious criminals. Never once did I feel that the story poorly represented either history or the lives of Moose and his family and friends.

This was one book that I couldn’t put down and I stayed up late reading and then went out the next day to buy the sequel. Moose is a relatable main character and his story is told with warmth, humor, and skill. Choldenko’s experience with her own sister with autism shows in the respect and realism in which she writes how Natalie’s disability impacts all of those around her both positively and negatively.

I can't say enough good things about this book and you must read it to find out more about the connection between Moose and Al Capone.

- Aly

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fantasy Friday: Intertwined

Intertwined, by Gena Showalter

Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Pages: 440
Reading Level: 14 and up
Enjoyment Level: High

Another day, another book... This one, though, I read by choice, and I was pleasantly surprised that I still have the ability to choose books I like! Especially since I started reading and thought I might've made a mistake...

Intertwined follows four characters, Aden, Mary Ann, Victoria, and Riley, whose lives are all - you guessed it - intertwined. Aden attracts ghosts and all sorts of other supernatural beings. He's been in and out of mental institutions all of his life, but when he moves to a "ranch" for troubled teens, he starts to find a place for himself. That place includes Mary Ann, who seems to have supernatural powers of her own, Victoria (a vampire princess), and Riley (a werewolf - my favorite monster!). Together, they're determined to solve the mystery of Aden's powers and save the world of mortals from the monsters he attracts.

When I first started reading, I got the terrible feeling that the author was juggling way too many characters. In addition to the four main characters, there are also four souls trapped in Aden's head. That's a lot of voices all clamoring for attention. Luckily, I was not disappointed. The author does a brilliant job keeping everyone straight, giving them unique personalities, and avoiding confusion for her readers. And all of that makes the story - and the intertwining - much more rich and interesting.

The only real complaint I ended up with, is the same one I have about most of the books I read: the ending is too quick. This time, though, it's not just because I wanted the story to keep going (which I hope it does with a sequel!). The author has a very long time to build up to the climax at the end, but there's very little denouement. I didn't have much time to really digest what had happened before the "happy" ending came to be. I almost felt cheated when the story wrapped up so neatly right have a big fight scene where power shifted and vampires died.

But since the rest of the story is so good, I think I can recommend the book to others without reservation. It's a quick, fun read and the plot kept me very interested. I was invested in the characters. The author made me care about what happened to everyone, and she mixed pretty much every supernatural being that I can think into this, flavoring the world with magic and depth.

If you've got some time (or even if you don't), get yourself a copy of this. It's fun and easy to read and love.

Until next time, go grab a book and enjoy the fantasy world of fiction!

~ Vilate

Monday, January 4, 2010

Middle-Grade Mondays: Invisible Lines

Invisible Lines, by Mary Amato and illustrated by Antonio Caparo

Publisher: Egmont USA
Pages: 299
Reading Level: Ages 9 through 12
Enjoyment Level: Medium

Usually, I leave the mid-grade books to my wonderful compatriot, Aly, but I received a copy of Invisible Lines to review before she started helping me out. With all the other stuff going on right now, plus some other issues with the book, I'm just now getting the review done, so my apologies to the publisher who sent it to me!

Trevor Musgrove has just moved to a new school and new apartment as his family struggles to make it and stay together. He loves to draw, loves soccer, and loves his new class with a teacher that makes learning interesting and fun. Trevor has a difficult time with one of his classmates and learns that, while he doesn't always get what he wants, he can try to make the best of his situation.

The story is interesting, but the pace is pretty slow. I had a hard time getting into the plot enough to read this in a couple of days - which stretched into more than a month. It may be that I just couldn't empathize enough with the character, but it's also just that the action happens slowly. The emphasis of the story is more on the development of Trevor, and I felt like the plot ended up lacking something because of it. I also felt like there was a disconnect in the chemistry between Trevor and his mother. At the end where they resolve a few things between themselves, it still felt as though they weren't really on the same level.

At the same time, there are some bright spot in the form of interesting characters. Trevor is well-developed even though I feel like he's disconnected from the rest of the setting and plot. The teacher, Mr. Ferguson, is quite the character, with a wonderful array of knowledge about mushrooms. There is a good message in the story, with a thread of theme that tries its hardest to connect Trevor to his development and surroundings. And it's easy to see that the author did her homework in the area of fungi.

So, while this book wasn't for me, I would recommend for kids who might struggle with reading. The plot and theme are easy to follow, as is the development of Trevor as a character. Opportunities abound for kids to pick out various setting details and concepts that will help them with reading comprehension.

Thanks to the publisher for giving me the opportunity to read this!

Until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate