Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie

Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie
Jordan Sonnenblick
Scholastic, 2004

Stephen is a normal eighth grade boy. His younger brother drives him crazy, the girl he has a crush on doesn’t know he exists, and he loves to play the drums – so much, in fact, that he is one of only two middle schoolers who have made the All-City Jazz Band.

Stephen and his younger brother have a love-hate relationship. As he states in his journal:

Having a brother is horrible. Having any brother would be horrible, I suppose, but having my particular brother, Jeffrey, is an unrelenting nightmare. It’s not because he’s eight years younger than I am, although that’s part of it. How would you like to be King of the Planet for eight glorious years, and then suddenly get demoted to Vice-King?

Even though he complains, Stephen loves Jeffrey and when an early-morning nosebleed sends Jeffrey and his mother to the emergency room, Stephen spends the day worrying. It turns out there is reason to worry – Jeffrey has cancer and only a little over a 50% chance of surviving the disease.

Immediately Stephen’s life is torn asunder. His mother and Jeffrey make repeated trips to Philadelphia for treatment, his father buries himself in his work and worries about money, and Stephen buries himself in drum practice and completely blows off his schoolwork. And then he gets a wonderful piece of advice from his guidance counselor: “Instead of agonizing about the things you can’t change, why don’t you try working on the things you CAN change?” And so he does.

I loved and adored this book. It is sad, but it’s also funny. It’s all about doing what you can, even when it seems that what you can do is but a drop in the bucket compared to the problems all around you. The characters are wonderful. I was especially glad that the character of Renee (the girl Stephen has a crush on) doesn’t turn out to be a shallow jerk but instead a good friend. And Jeffrey is cute, cute, cute – it broke my heart to read about him.

I know girls are going to love this book. I hope boys will too. I’d love to pair it with Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss, another cancer story but told from the point of view of the person with cancer.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow
James Sturm & Rich Tommaso
Hyperion, 2007

First of all, I must confess my ignorance when it comes to graphic novels. I do recognize their importance but I don’t have much experience with them (I hope to change that this year). It has also been almost twenty years since library school and what I don’t remember about analyzing illustrations would fill volumes. That said, I must start somewhere and this book was a wonderful introduction.

I orginally thought this would be a graphic biography of Satchel Paige but it isn’t. It’s more of a period piece, told from the viewipoint of a sharecropper who once got a hit off of Paige in a Negro League baseball game. Injured sliding home, he is forced to return to sharecropping and all of the horrors of the age of segregation. Although he wants better for his son (Emmet Jr), he is eventually forced to put him in the fields picking cotton. He never talks about his baseball career – he is a worn-down man. But when Satchel Paige’s All-Stars come to town to play the Tuckwilla All-Stars, he takes his Emmet Jr. to the game. His landowners, Mr. William and Mr. Wallace are on the Tuckwilla team. Satchel Paige doesn’t show up until the 8th inning, but when he does he shows why he is one of the greatest pitchers of all time, and inspires Emmet to share his past with his son and have some hope for the future.

Notice I haven’t said much about the pictures. This is a graphic novel so some comment about the pictures is necessary, but this is where my ignorance comes into play. I liked the pictures. I think they did a great job of illustrating the action. They are vital to understanding the plot. I just don’t know if I know enough about critiquing illustrations to have a valid opinion. I can talk about one illustration that I did particularly like. When Emmet is forced to put his son in the cotton field with him, there is a two-page spread of the two of them surrounded by cotton with no end in sight, in essence drowning in what was just a new form of slavery for many African Americans in the early twentieth century. It’s easy to see how Satchel Paige was such a hero to the African American community in this time of opression.

This book moved me greatly. It is an incredible snapshot of African-American life in the South in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It’s going to be a wonderful tool for the classroom.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reading Meme

I just got home from a lovely weekend in the moutains and discovered I’d been tagged for a reading meme by Becky. What fun questions to think about and answer!

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?
 Antonement by Ian McEwan. My mom says it’s one of the best books she has ever read, but I couldn’t get past the first few pages. 

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

 The event would be afternoon tea on my back porch. I would love to have Father Tim 
from Jan Karon’s books, Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Dumbledore from Harry Potter. Why? Because they all remind me of who I would like to be. I may love teen problem fiction, but the comfort I get from reading about truly good, wise, and kind characters cannot be surpassed.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave? The book I never thought I’d finish was Moby Dick, and it would be a great punishment to have to read it again. I must also give the ultimate book that people try to get through and don’t succeed, War and Peace (although my mother has read it and really enjoyed it). 

Come on, we've all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you've read, when in fact you've been nowhere near it.

 I must admit I am a terrible liar, so I don’t tend to do it. I did read the Cliff’s Notes to Gulliver’s Travels when I was in high school (I read half of the real book and just couldn’t take it any more).

 People assume I’ve read more classics than I have, but I do try to correct them when they make that assumption. I freely admit the need to read more classics.

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to reread it that you haven't? Which book?

 Not really. I do tend to pick up books, thinking that I haven’t read them, but realizing that that I had after a few pages.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (if you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead and personalise the VIP) 

I cannot, will not state just one so I’ll pick one from different age categories. Picture book: Miss Rumphius (all people should strive to make the world a better place). Early Reader: Winnie-the-Pooh (because people always need to remember the importance of friends). Middle Reader: Harry Potter (again, the importance of friends, sacrifice, and because everyone should know Harry and his companions) Young Adult: Lord of the Rings (ditto what I said about Harry Potter) Adult: Bible (not that I think the Bible is only for adults to read – far from it -- it’s just that many Christian adults don’t read the Bible)

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?
 French – I’d love to read Dumas in the original language.

A mischievious fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

 Easy choice – To Kill a Mockingbird. I pretty much read it every year anyway.

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)?

 The amount of passion that adults have for children’s and young adult literature continually amazes me. Since I started reading blogs I have become more deliberate about what I’m reading. I feel the pressure if I haven’t posted a review recently, which means that I’m not doing as much rereading or reading as many adult books as I’m used to. 
I also feel more snowed under – there’s so much that I haven’t read and I feel much pressure to “catch up.”

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free. The most important component of my dream library would be always-expanding shelves so that I never have to agonize about culling my collection. New books that I wanted would magically appear, and yet somehow the “to read” shelf would never overwhelm me. There would be sofas for me to sink into that would always be comfortable, even after hours of reading. There would also be good lighting. While I don’t have to have leatherbound volumes, I do love hardbacks with attractive covers. I am also into the old fashioned wood and leather feel to the furniture, with oriental rugs on the floors. Biltmore House has a wonderful library – I’d take it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Boot Camp

Boot Camp
Todd Strasser
Simon & Schuster, 2007

Boot Camp opens with Garrett in the back of his kidnappers’ car. He is not likely to be rescued, however, because his parents have authorized his removal from their home. Garrett has been making some questionable decisions: an affair with his teacher, skipping school, smoking pot, staying out all night. His parents cannot seem to stop him so they have him removed to a boot camp for troubled teenagers in upstate New York.

Garrett knows something about boot camps, but he’s not prepared for all of the abuse. It seems that as long as nobody makes marks, physical abuse is allowed, even encouraged. Garrett at first thinks he will be able to outwardly confess his misdeeds and work his way out of the camp in six months or so. After all, nobody understands his love for his teacher and the fact that they were meant to be together.

Garrett is soon taken to TI (Temporary Isolation) for a minor offense. In TI he is forced to lie face down on a concrete floor twenty-four hours a day for days, perhaps even weeks at at time. The goal is to break him, but Garrett is a hard nut to crack. He’s not going to break easily and the other option, death, is not pleasant either. He soon meets two other people, Pauly and Sarah, who are not likely to survive the camp and who are determined to try an escape to Canada where the authorities cannot get to them. Nobody has ever escaped successfully, but they feel it is their only chance and try to persuade Garrett to join them. It is a tough decision for Garrett – he still feels as though he can beat the system – but eventually he decides to go with them in a harrowing escape attempt.

I’ll admit to having some problems with this book, and quite frankly I don’t know where to start with my analysis. It is clear that Strasser is writing a cautionary tale and it is also clear that he has done some research to back up his claims that boot camps are scary places where kids are often abused, even at times until they die. I have no doubt that boot camps are not pleasant. I also have no doubt that kids are abused in the attempt to “straighten them out.” I do have problems, however, with the amount of sadism in some of the employees. It just was a bit too heavily laid on.

I also take issue with the fact that Strasser never really confronts the reason Garrett is sent to the camp. While I’m not advocating that boot camp is the right place for a kid such as Garrett (or for any kid for that matter), sleeping with your teacher, staying out all night, skipping school, and smoking pot are all wrong things to do and that is never really addressed. Instead I felt the reader is encouraged to feel that Garrett was justified in his actions because nobody really understands him.

All of that said, Boot Camp is a powerful book and I think that students will really enjoy it, and, perhaps, learn from it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Miracle on 49th Street

Miracle on 49th Street
Mike Lupica
Philomel Books, 2006

Molly has had a rough year. Born and raised in London, she and her mother move back to Boston when her mother is diagnosed with cancer. After her mother dies, Molly goes to live with Barbara, her mom’s best friend from college, and her family. Barbara, Mr. Evans, and their daughter Kimmy are all kind but they aren’t family. Family is what Molly needs. Family is what Molly craves. She has never known her father but just before she dies her mother tell her who her father is: Josh Cameron, the most famous sports personality in the world (think Michael Jordan). Although she loved Josh, Molly’s mother realized that his primary interests would always remain basketball and himself, so she chose to not tell him she was pregnant and go to live in Europe.

Molly, however, is willing to take risks to gain a family. She and her best friend Sam concoct a scheme for her to meet him alone so that she can tell him who she is. The meeting goes disastrously – Josh doesn’t believe that she’s his daughter. After a second, equally frustrating meeting, Josh’s housekeeper and substitute mother finds out about Molly and insists that Josh apologize and get to know her. But as Molly learns more about her father, she realizes that maybe her mother was right – Josh will never be able to see beyond himself and basketball. But this book is entitled Miracle on 49th Street for a reason.

Here’s my confession: I love the sappy, the sweet, the good, happy-ending story. Yes, I also love teenage problem fiction, but sometimes I need to have the happy and I loved this book. Like Molly’s favorite movie, Miracle on 34th Street, this book had its unrealistic elements, but who cares? It made me happy and that’s all that matters ☺

One one interesting note: I searched online for reviews of this book and one that I read was clearly written by a student who said it wasn’t a YA book because “Although the main character is a teenager, there is hardly any slang and no cursing.” I wasn’t aware that these were important criteria for defining YA novels. I always thought a YA novel was a novel that appeals to young adults. Silly me.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Percy Jackson Excitement

Rick Riordan has posted a reading from his new Percy Jackson book, The Battle of the Labyrinth, on youtube. You can find it here (sorry but I don't know how to put the video on my blog). It sounds wonderful, and I also learned I have been mispronouncing his name! May 6 cannot come soon enough. Also, on his blog, he tells us why there won't be any ARCs available for us to read (it's on the January 19th post).


Trudy Krisher
Holiday House, 2006

Set during the McCarthy Era, Fallout is the story of Genevieve, a girl from the coast of North Carolina. Her father is an ardent supporter of McCarthy and her mother tolerates him. Their furniture is covered in plastic, and that image pretty much expresses the family dynamic. Genevieve’s best friend has moved away and her mother is eager for her to make new friends. Hurricanes are battering the North Carolina coast, creating a different sort of fallout than Genevieve is learning about during her Civil Defense classes. Enter Brenda Wompers, a new girl from California whose views certainly don’t mirror those of the community. Brenda questions the instructor during Civil Defense class, asking why they needed to have duck-and-cover drills when there is no way anyone would survive a nuclear war. When Genevieve’s teacher assigns Brenda to be her tutor in math, she is not thrilled. She is already friendless – having someone the rest of the school thinks as different will not earn her any new friends. As she and Brenda become close, however, she begins to question some of the beliefs she has grown up with.

Brenda and her parents are not quiet about their beliefs and they challenge the school’s teachings more than once. It is inevitable, perhaps, that they are labeled communists and from that point the writing is on the wall as to whether their business will succeed.

There is a lot to like about this book. The characters are well rounded and they all have their share of flaws. I especially liked that Brenda and her family are not simply the victims in the plot – they have their own flaws which create many of their predicaments. I also like the background that the hurricanes create. Being from North Carolina and having a sister who lives at the coast, I am quite familiar with the feeling that there’s a bulls-eye on your town.

I don’t think that this is a book for everyone, but I do think, that with some booktalking, students at my school will enjoy it.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Why Blogs are Important

I love reading blogs. At this point (it changes frequently) I read 50 blogs each day. To find out that other people have the same passion for children’s books as I is really amazing. I love the teachers at my school but no one has the passion for young adult literature that I have. I also love to read author blogs and begin to understand the thought processes that go into reading some of the incredible pieces of children’s and young adult literature out today.

Jen Robinson reported in her Thursday Afternoon Visits that there had been some discussion at the ALA Midwinter meeting last weekend about the trustworthiness of blog reviews. She referred to a post at Reader’s Carousel which I promptly went over to and read. (Let me insert a side note here: Jen Robinson’s blog is a must read. Not only does she have great reviews, she is also wonderful about finding information on children’s literature, literacy, and reading that is invaluable to me as a librarian).

First of all, let me state that reviews from traditional print sources are important too. The collection policy of my school system states that materials “be reviewed favorably in standard selection sources.” I depend on my two journals for these reviews.

With my library budget (which while larger than many people's, is still too small) I can only afford to subscribe to two library/media journals each year. I use School Library Journal and Library Media Connection as my primary print review sources, but they cannot review everything out there. Inevitably books fall through the cracks. Also, I like the fact that that I can have access to reviews by many people from many different perspectives. Before I only had two people’s opinion on books – now I have many more.

Bloggers tend to really tell you how they feel about a book. In a blog review you often get an emotional response. Bloggers will use the word “I” – they are more personal. Book reviews in journals are more formal and dry. As I have gotten to know the likes and dislikes of individual bloggers, it’s much easier to tell if I’m going to like a book based on who reviewed it. Quite frankly, so much time passes between when I read a book review in a journal and when I actually get the book in hand (sometimes more than a year) that I never connect the reviewer with the book.

Reading about the same book over and over really helps me get a feel for what are the most important books released during the year. This was the first time in many years that I had actually bought the Newbery winner before it was announced (and an honor book too!). I also get to hear about many books that haven’t been released yet. This has taken a dent in my personal budget as there have been some books that have I haven’t been able to wait for my school to receive (after all, it will now be year before my next major book order arrives) and I have gotten it for myself.

I’ve expanded my focus. It used to be that I would only read reviews for books recommended for my grade level. I have learned lots about high school books (again, to the detriment of my bank account) and some about the picture books that have been recently published. It’s nice to have a frame of reference when I hear a fellow librarian talk about a specific book or author.

I know some people say they don’t have time to read blogs (I hear it all the time). It only takes me 20 minutes a day to go through my blogs if I don’t comment on any of them (and many times my comments only take a minute or two). I find it well worth the time expenditure.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Greg Heffley does not have the perfect life. He’s the middle kid who is terrorized by his older brother and who is always caught in the act when he tries to terrorize his baby brother. Middle school isn’t beginning to work out so hot either. As Greg puts it, “I’ll be famous one day, but for now I’m stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons.”

As the year goes on, Greg gets himself in and out of trouble. He tries to bulk up during his wrestling unit in P.E. His mother forces him to try out for the school production of “The Wizard of Oz” and he ends up being a tree. He gets on and then kicked off of the school safety patrol.

I was introduced to Diary of a Wimpy Kid by being told that it was Captain Underpants for middle school students. Since I wasn’t really familiar with Captain Underpants books (they are more on the elementary level), I didn’t know what to think. What I found when I read the book was pure silliness that was a blast to read.

Greg is a middle school student through and through. He make stupid decisions and is never willing to accept the blame for those decisions. He’s not really good about learning from his mistakes, but many middle school boys aren’t. The cartoons are hilarious and I found several laugh-out-loud moments (which isn’t really great when you are administering a final exam as I was this afternoon). This is another book my 6th grade boys are going to eat up.

On a side note, I’m going to booktalk this book with Middle School is Worse than Meatloaf. I think they will make a great pair.

Getting Air by Dan Gutman

Jimmy, David, and Henry are on their way to fame and fortune. They are flying to California where they hope to get sponsorships from skateboard companies. Unfortunately their plane is hijacked by terrorists. Feeling that they are the only people who could save everyone (almost all of the only other passengers on the plane are group of old ladies from a knitting club), the boys spring into action. They use Jimmy’s titanium skateboard and literally beat the terrorists to death. Unfortunately the terrorists have already killed the pilots and before they died, the pilots had jettisoned the majority of the fuel. After they crash into the Canadian wilderness, there are only six people on the plane left alive: Jimmy and his sister Julia, David, Henry, an airline attendant, and an old lady from the knitting club named Mrs. Herschel. Now the survivors must find food, shelter, and water as they struggle to hold on until help arrives. And if the opportunity to use the skateboard arives, so much the better.

There should be a sign on this book that reads: SUSPEND BELIEF. If you do that this is a fun read and certainly will appeal to boys. I cannot tell you the number of boys at my school who love skateboarding but hate to read -- finally I have something to offer them. I will certainly use it in my booktalks and I'm sure it will be popular at my school.

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

“Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality”
--Emily Dickinson

Keturah lives in a small village on the outskirts of the kingdom. She sees a beautiful deer and follows it into the forest. Getting hopelessly lost, she finally settles beneath a tree and waits for Death to come. Come he does, riding on a horse. She tells Death she is not ready to die; Death’s reply is that no one is, but then he makes an offer. He will not take Keturah’s life if she will just name one person to take her place. Although he points out several people who are old or sad or tired of life, Keturah is horrified and refuses the offer. She is even more horrified to discover that the plague will arrive in her village, ensuring the deaths of many. She must find a way to warn the village and stop the plague, but first she must get death to agree to spare her.

She begins to tell Death a story, but like Scheherazade, she does not finish her story; instead promising to tell the ending the next night if he will allow her to live that long. Death agrees, and even agrees to allow to live past the next night if only she can find her one true love. Thus begins Keturah’s quest – to find her one true love and to save her village from the plague.

This is a beautiful, beautiful tale with a surprise ending. I found it magical. It’s not so much that I was eager for Keturah to defeat Death (he is scary, but not in a monster-way) but that I wanted her to be happy because she cared so much about the people of her village.

I thought Leavitt did a magnificant job with the setting. I could see the village and the people as they went about their lives. I could feel the hopelessness of many and then their happiness as Keturah helped lift their sorrows and worries.

This was a National Book Award Finalist in 2006. I have not read the winner of that year (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing) but I can certainly see why this was a finalist. It was delightful.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Behind Again

Yet again I find myself behind in my book reviews. I do have some sort of excuse, however. Last week the hard drive to my precious iBook melted and I've had to do without a computer for several days. Right now I'm using a loaner, but I hope to have my computer back soon. Those who know me are quite aware of my obsession with Macs and my iBook contains 18 years of my life. Fortunately I have a clean backup from this summer, and I think we managed to get most, if not all, of the new stuff off but still . . . I miss my computer.

I don't have time at this point to thoroughly review the three books I've read since last weekend so short blurbs will have to do. I'm still heavily into the new books at my school library, and will be for some time.

Schooled by Gordan Korman

Capricorn Anderson has been raised in a commune by his Grandmother. Everyone else has left the commune so it's actually been just the two of them. When his grandmother breaks her hip, Capricorn (all of thirteen years old) drives her to the hospital. Because his grandmother will be in rehab for some time, Cap is placed in a foster home. Cap has never been to school (he has excelled as a home-schooled student) and he might as well be a creature from outer space when it comes to what he doesn't know about surviving in a middle school. When he is elected eighth grade class president, he doesn't realize that the position has traditionally gone to the biggest geek in the school. He sets off to do his best as president, and ends up transforming the student body.

I cannot begin to say how much I loved this book. It has been compared to Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, but I must say that I liked this one better. It has a great deal of humor and I loved the character of Cap. Sometimes we all need reminders of who we need to be, and Cap does that.

Enter Three Witches by Caroline B. Cooney

This is the story of Macbeth told from the point of view of a young attendant to Lady Macbeth. At the beginning of the story Lady Mary's father dies when he rebels against King Duncan of Scotland. Mary is left as witness to what then transpires as Duncan is murdered, and it becomes obvious that Macbeth and his wife are not innocent. As things begin to fall apart for the couple, Mary finds herself betrothed to a monster of a man, and in a fight for her life.

I first read Macbeth in eleventh grade, and while it's not one of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, I do enjoy rereading it occasionally. Cooney uses many lines from the play, which sometimes seemed jarring but I liked anyway. It certainly doesn't hurt that Shakespeare had many wonderful lines from which to choose. I think this would be a good introduction to the story for young adults and may entice them to read the real thing.

Strays by Ron Koertge

Ted O'Connor is sixteen and an orphan. His parents have been killed in a car wreck, and he's been shuffled off to a foster home to live with two veterans of the system. Ted has always worked in his parents' pet shop, and he has a strange affinity with animals -- he can talk to them and understand them. As Ted begins to adjust to his new life and make friends for the first time, his ability to understand the animals begins to diminish.

I had two beefs with this book. First of all, the review I read recommended it for grades 7 -up and I must disagree. I think it's a better high school book and so I'll be donating my school's copy to the high school (which means there's a book out there that I didn't get because I got this one). It's not just the language -- it's the situations which I think are more appropriate for high school readers than middle school readers. But that's really my problem, and is not the fault of the book.

My second beef is that when Ted loses his ability to talk to animals, it doesn't really seem to bother him. It would bother me. It would bother me a lot. So I don't believe that Koertge develops this part of the story very well. I think the book had an interesting premise, I just don't think it succeeded as well as I wanted.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Reynie Muldoon is an orphan, and a very gifted young man. He has surpassed everyone at his orphanage and now has a special tutor. When he sees an ad in the paper asking “Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?” he jumps at the chance to do something new and different. After two days of very strange tests, he and three other students are the finalists. What have they won? An opportunity to save the world. They are introduced to Mr. Benedict who has determined that indeed the people of the world are in danger.

It seems that a Mr. Curtain runs a school for gifted children and he is using them to send messages subliminally to the world through the television. Mr. Benedict is sending the children to the school to determine the purpose of Mr. Curtain’s plans and, if possible, how to stop him.
The four children come to the school with very different talents. Reynie is able to solve intricate puzzles, Sticky can remember anything he has ever read, and Kate is incredibly athletic and acrobatic. Constance’s abilities have yet to be discovered by the other three who find her quite annoying but Mr. Benedict assures them that she is vital to their success.

After the children reach the island where Mr. Curtain’s school is located, they must discover how to become messengers – the children chosen to send the messages over the televisions. They find out that Mr. Curtain’s plans are indeed nefarious and the prospects for stopping him are not good. They must work together in order to infiltrate Mr. Curtain’s organization stop him.

I had seen The Mysterious Benedict Society on a number of Newbery lists, so when it arrived with my book order, I was eager to read it. I wasn’t, however, very excited by it. There were parts I liked, but I felt overall that Mr. Stewart was trying to be too cute, too clever and, quite frankly, it got on my nerves. I also felt that the book was too long. Now don’t get me wrong – I love long books (after all I just read World Without End and it was over 1,000 pages). I did feel that this book rambled on a bit and it could have benefitted from some tighter editing.

The important question is, of course, what will children think of it? I honestly don't know. I think the size (485 pages) will be off-putting to many. I know that Harry Potter's length didn't deter anyone, but I think he's a special case (and the first couple of books weren't all that long). If they can get beyond the length, I think there will be an audience for this book, but it will be limited.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The best part of coming back to school today after a wonderful Christmas break was finding an ARC of The Dead & The Gone waiting for me. I’ve been dying to read this book and it certainly didn’t disappoint. But on to the review . . .

Life As We Knew It was one of my favorite books that I read in 2007. I found myself thinking about it for days and wondering how I would survive if faced with the same conditions as Miranda and her family (I dare anyone to read it and not want to start hoarding canned food). Miranda lived in rural Pennsylvania and her location definitely assisted in her survival. I did wonder, however, how people in big cities, without access to things like firewood, would be able to live through the long winter that was created by the atmospheric conditions. The Dead & The Gone takes us to one of the largest cities in the United States and attempts to answer that question.

Alex lives in a small apartment in New York City with his parents and his two sisters. His older brother is in the Marines and is stationed in California. When the moon is hit by an asteroid and pushed closer to the Earth, his father is in Puerto Rico and his mother is quickly called in to work at a hospital in Queens. Alex and his sisters are initially not panicked when they don’t hear from their parents (they do get a garbled phone call that might be from their father, but that’s it), but as time goes on, Alex begins to realize that they are on their own.

Life in New York becomes brutal. There is very little food, and many people escape, either to relocation camps or to other places outside the city. Alex’s family has no place to go, and since they have not found their parents’ bodies, they hold on to a sliver of hope that they might still be alive. If they leave the city, their parents and their older brother may never be able to find them.

As people in the city begin to die of starvation and disease, Alex learns that one of the only ways to get food is to strip the bodies of the dead and trade what he gets (watches, coats, shoes, etc) for food. It is a brutal, soul-robbing way to survive but it is what Alex must do if his family is to live. Eventually Alex realizes that the only way to make it through this is to leave New York, but how can he get himself and his sisters out?

There is so much to love about this book. First of all, I loved the fact that it was a completely different story than Life As We Knew It. While I certainly hope that Ms. Pfeffer writes a sequel to Miranda’s story, this book was meant to be an completely different story, and it is that. The entire tone is different – and that is made perfectly clear early in the book when Alex travels to Yankee Stadium to search through hundreds of bodies for his mother.

I also loved the religious aspects to this story. Faith is very important to Alex and his family, and it helps sustain them through some very rough periods. And without the help of the parochial schools that the family attends, the family would have not been able to stretch out their food.

Even though it is only January 2 and I have a lot of books to read before the end of the year, I would be surprised if The Dead & The Gone doesn’t make my list of best books of 2008.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Sisters Grimm: Magic and Other Misdemeanors by Michael Buckley

In this installment of the series much is happening at Ferryport Landing and none of it is good. Prince Charming has disappeared after losing the mayoral election to the Queen of Hearts. His fiancĂ©e, Snow White, gets more and more depressed as the days go by and she hasn’t heard from him. To make matters worse, the Queen of Hearts has imposed impossibly high taxes on all of the humans in the town, forcing all but the Grimms to move away. And then someone is stealing magical items from the Everafters – items that if combined could do much damage. And what’s with all of the storm clouds that suddenly appear, causing tears in time? Sabrina and Daphne are in over their heads as they race to figure out what’s going on before everything falls apart.

While not my favorite of the Sisters Grimm books, I did enjoy this addition to the series. It did have some surprises, and was a fun read. One of the things I liked about earlier books in the series was the attention to strong themes (for example, prejudice was the theme of the 2nd book, addiction to magic was the theme of the 3rd book) – I didn’t get that with this book. I will continue to read this series – I’m eager to find out how it ends.

Reading and Blogging Goals for 2008

Happy New Year!

I’ve been thinking the past few weeks about what I wanted to accomplish with my blog and reading over the next year. I’ve enjoyed keeping this blog and reading close to 50 other blogs each day – I think it’s made me think more about what I’m reading and I’ve certainly become more aware of the new young adult books available. In the past I’ve read simply what’s in my library in school, so most of what I’ve read is more than I year old by the time it arrives (I spend my entire budget in one lump sum because I’m always afraid of losing it if I don’t spend it when it’s allocated to me). This year I’ve bought a number of the books I’ve read about on the blogs. This has not been great for my personal budget, but it has been a lot of fun. Many of those books that I’ve read are more appropriate for high school students, and I’ve really enjoyed reading books at this level. I don’t think I want to teach high school, but now I have some titles to recommend to students who are ready for more mature reading. I have several teachers who also love young adult novels and they have benefited from my recent personal purchases.

Two areas of children’s literature that I see as a weakness in my personal reading are picture books and early chapter books. I haven’t taught at the elementary level in 18 years and I’m really ignorant about what’s out there for this level. I’ve never read Clementine (had never heard of it until this summer), Spiderwick, or many other books that students come into my school talking about. I hope to rectify that this year. I don’t know exactly what to do about the picture book dilemma except to go to my local bookstore and take the time to read several and make notes about them.

All of this said (and it was longer than I planned), here are my reading goals for 2008:

Children’s/ Young Adult books
Last year I read 85 children’s and young adult fiction books and 14 nonfiction books. I think that’s about right number wise. I would like to increase the nonfiction total to about 20 – 25 books. I do think it’s vital for me to have a number of nonfiction books to booktalk. I would like to read at least five biographies this year. I also would like to read Clementine, and a few other early chapter books. Any suggestions?

Adult Fiction
I’ve had The Historian on my to-read shelf for more than two years. It’s time to read it.

Adult Classics
Each summer I read a Jane Austen title. This summer it will be Persuasion. Last summer I also started reading a Shakespearean play. I think this summer’s title will be The Taming of the Shrew. I would also like to read The Man in the Iron Mask and The Age of Innocence some time during the next year.

Adult Nonfiction
I’ve had The Middle East by Bernard Lewis for more than seven years. This will be the year I read it. I also want to read Truman by David McCullough, a book that my mom gave me for Christmas. Finally I want to read another title by Michael Pollan, probably In Defense of Food.

In all I read 125 books this past year. I’d like to increase the total to about 150 books for this year.

Blog Goals
I don’t blog about every book that I read, although I do blog about most of the young adult fiction that I read. I do post both positive and negative reviews, because I appreciate reading all perspectives in the blogs that I read daily. I don’t pretend to be a great analyst of literature but I can tell you whether I liked a book and usually I can tell you why I did or didn’t like it. I would love to have at least 7 posts a month but I don’t know if I’ll make that in my busier months at school.