April 17, 2014
by Janie Chodosh
Poisoned Pen Press
When a heroine addict dies on her bathroom floor, the police only take a quick look at the facts. One addict + Crappy apartment + Dead = Overdose.
Faith isn’t entirely surprised eventhough the dead addict was her mother. The crazy thing is that mom insisted she was clean. No, she hadn’t looked good towards the end but the papery skin, sores, and bruises weren’t the same old symptoms. Still, dead is dead.
Faith is bundled out of Phildelphia and to her aunts house. Aunt T doesn’t fuss but she works hard for all she has and wasn’t banking on having to take in her sister’s teenage daughter. Faith does her best not to impose but even here she knows who she is — the daughter of an addict.
Then she gets a message from her mother’s friend. They were in the same clinical trial and now she needs help. The next day, the woman is dead. Faith believes in science too much to accept this as a coincidence. And she’s been thinking about science a lot lately. Could she have the same genes as her mother? Sure, she has some of her mother’s genes but the ones Faith is worries about are for addiction.
Then she finds out that the trial her mother was involved in had something to do with genetics. Could this be what made her mother sick?
To solve the mystery, Faith has to learn about not only genetics but gene therapy but she also has to learn an even more difficult lesson – how to trust.
This isn’t an easy book to get into to simply because Faith isn’t particularly lovable. She holds people at a distance because, not surprisingly, she has trust issues. And Chodosh does an amazing job portraying this character. In addition to make her suspicious of others and more than a little bristly, she’s stepped outside of the “troubled family/poor neighborhood” stereotype and given us a girl who is really good at science. Faith may not understand everything that she finds about genetics but she understands enough to get herself into serious trouble.
Fortunately, she also learns enough to start trusting. Between her new best friend, clothes-horse Anj, a may-be boyfriend, her Aunt and even her Aunt’s boyfriend, she has the support she needs to face this mystery and everyone who made this treatment, what should be a hope for addicts, into a nightmare.
Personally, what I love most about this is that it is smart fiction. The main character is brainy and loves science. She may not understand everything that she reads but she knows enough to realize when the facts don’t add up.
April 14, 2014
The Mermaid and the Shoe
by K. G. Campbell
Kids Can Press
King Neptune has 50 daughters, each with remarkable talents ranging from gardening, to singing to training fishes. And then, there’s Minnow with her limp garden, disobedient fish and a voice that does not bring light to the deep. Her one talent is her ability to ask questions. Lots of questions.
Then one day something new drifts down to their home in the deep. Readers will immiedately recognize it is a red high-heeled shoe. The mermaids try it out as a hat and a jewel box but nothing works. Soon their attention drifts off to new things, all except Minnow. Not surprisingly, Minnow asks questions.
First she asks an octopus what it is. Then a whale. She travels into the shallows to ask the crabs. There, she explores the surface. Just as she’s ready to leave, a little girl runs down to the water. When the girl pulls off her shoes, Minnow realize what it is that she has found and returns to her people with a story to tell. Minnow has found her place.
From the start, I had a soft spot for Minnow, not surprisingly since Minnow is the nickname my son earned in Scouts.
Campbell’s watercolor and pencil illustrations are dark and moody when she depicts the world of the mermaids but lightens and brightens as Minnow ventures to the surface. I love the way she depicts the images that Minnow paints with her words. They appear as scenes in giant bubbles, floating toward her audience.
This isn’t a loud story so it would work for bedtime but it is also an excellent choice for quiet reading time with that special young reader in your life. Encourage and inspire them with Minnow’s story.
April 10, 2014
A Song for Matthew Shepard
by Leslea Newman
Oh my goodness. Read this book.
I could begin and end my review right there. It is simply that powerful, but I sense that some of you may need a bit of convincing.
I chose this one because April is National Poetry Month and this is a story told through poetry. No, it isn’t a novel in verse because this is a true story. Or as true as it can be. When Matthew Shepard was beated to death, Newman, like many people, mourned that he had died so alone. How would anyone ever know the truth of what had happened?
Then, thinking like a poet and a writer, Newman noodled. The fence held Matthew throughout the night. A doe may have lingered by his side. Stars, moon and the convicted. All had been there and could tell the story.
Each poem in this book is told from a different perspective — that of the fence, a deer, one of the police officers, the judge. Bit by bit we learn about what happened and how Matthew’s life, and death, shaped his community and his world.
The poems take many different forms including:
- “Every Mother’s Plea” is a deceptively simple haiku. I say deceptively simple because it goes beyond simple syllable counting (5-7-5) to end with a realization, much like the traditional form.
- “Signs of Trouble” is a found poem created by road signs that were never meant to speak to us through such a poem.
- “Class Photo: Me in the Middle” is an alphabet poem combining youthful alphabet play (A to Z) with chilling reality.
This book will give you some idea of the range of what can be accomplished through various poetic forms as well as how a story can be told through poetry.
A daring teacher could use this book in the classroom — I saw daring because there would almost certainly be a parent that would complain. I would love to think that the complaint would be about the heartless violence Matthew suffered but, sadly, it would most likly focus on his sexuality. Sad, but true.
Frankly, I think it is a book everyone should read. Why? Astonishingly brief, its effect will echo through your mind for days.
April 8, 2014
Plant a Pocket of Prairie
by Phyllis Root
illustrated by Betsy Bowen
University of Minnesota Press
“Once prairie stretched for thousands of miles, an ocean of flowers and grasses, a sea of sky, home for bison and elk, prairie chickens, burrowing owls, five-lined skinks, Plain garter snakes, and Ottoe skipper butterflies.
So opens Root’s Plant a Pocket of Prairie. Given this opening, you might think “bummer book” but you’d be wrong. Root quickly moves on to tell readers that if they want to know what the prairie was like, they can do something about it. It’s as simple as planting a pocket of prairie. You don’t even need a field or a yard.
A container of the flower, foxglove beardtongue, brings in hummingbirds. Butterfly week, rough blazing star and asters bring in a variety of butterflies. Plant of plant and creature after creature, Root tells readers how to bring in birds, insects, toads, and mice. If enouch people plant pockets of prairie, who knows what they can bring back…
Root’s text is simple and poetic for a quick, inspiring read. She wraps up the book with a detailed author’s note abut how vast the prairie once was as well as the plants and animals that lived there.
Betsy Bowen’s paintings are a dreamy accompaniament to the text. Admittedly, I would have chosen a style that looks more like a botanical print, but I realize that her illustrations compliment the tone of the text. While not scientific illustrations, she uses simple black lines and bright colors to recreate clearly recognizable portraits of each plant and animal while sticking with the lighter tone of the text.
This isn’t a text heavy book and would work well for a read-aloud before a unit on prairie or grasslands or a visit to an existing patch of prairie. Use this text to inspire young diggers to plant their own patch of prairie.
April 3, 2014
This Dark Endeavor
by Kenneth Oppel
Simon and Schuester Books for Young Readers
Victor Frankenstein wasn’t always driven to re-animate the dead. True, he has always been the more impulsive of the Frankenstein twins. And, although both he and Konrad are proud, his sometimes takes a darker, more self-centered turn. The two are fencing, Victor finally getting the upper hand, when Konrad is struck down by a fever. Fortunately, their father is a magistrate in Geneva and they live a life of priveledge. Soon, doctors are visiting the home and Victor is confident that one of them will find a cure.
But as Victor and their cousin Elizabeth look on, the bleedings, tinctures and teas do nothing. Konrad grows weaker and thinner by the day.
Konrad convinces Elizabeth and their friend Peter that the only solution is to find the ingredients for the Elixir of Life, an alchemical potion sure to cure any illness.
When Father brings a noted scientist to their home, he allows Victor to look through his microscope where he sees the many things in human blood. Some are helpful but Konrad’s blood has turned on itself. The scientist is convinced that he can use a small amount of blood to make, perhaps not a cure, but something that will eliviate the symptoms at least for now.
The others are relieved when Konrad’s fever breaks but Victor is determined to finish the Elixir. What if Konrad has a relapse? Besides Victor will not be cheated of his opportunity to be the hero but being a true hero comes with at a hefty price.
Oppel spins a story that is part historic fiction but also a bit of dark fantasy. He combines the world of early chemistry and medical science with that of alchemy and folklore. In this imagined world we meet a young man who is driven both by curiosity but also the suspicion that no matter how alike he and his twim may seem, Konrad is smarter, more moral and simply a better man. He may see the good in people, but Victor sees what is wild and what is driven.
I’m not a huge fan of anti-heros and given his jealousy and dark imagination that is clearly what Victor is. Yet, anyone who has ever worked hard only to fail at proving themselves will identify with him. His drive to save his brother will definitely appeal to teen boys who also want to be heros and they will certainly identify with Victor’s anger at the many rules that seem to exist only to hold him back.
March 31, 2014
Mama Built a Little Nest
by Jennifer Ward
illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Beach Lane Books
Ask your young readers to draw a bird’s nest and chances are that they will draw a classic nest, a cup of twigs small enough to hold in the palms of your hands. While that may be the first thing we think of, it certainly isn’t the last word in nests as author Jennifer Ward shows us in this simple rhyming text.
“Mama built a little nest
inside a sturdy trunk.
She used her beak to tap-tap-tap
the perfect place to bunk.”
The books opens with the tree-hole nest of the woodpecker and continues to introduce one unique structure after another. The material selections range from spider silk to a grouping of stones while the ecosystems span forest, shore and desert.
The main text is styled in a simple rhyme but each facing page has a sidebar insert that goes into more detail including the type of nest (scrape, burrow, etc.) as well as the name of the bird itself.
Steve Jenkins cut paper collage illustrations are a perfect match for this text, bringing visual detail and texture together. No, they aren’t photographs but young readers would definitely be able to tell one bird from another based on these graphics.
This book is suitable for a wide variety of readers. At story time with younger children, focus on the main text. The rhymes are brief, tight and fast-moving for a fun read-aloud experience. For older children, or to help answer younger children’s questions, include the sidebars. If you are studying birds and/or nest, this is an excellent source for young readers. This isn’t a roudy book and ends by tying the nest back into the young readers world — home and bed — making this book excellent for bedtime or cuddle time.
Add this one to your bookshelf for both learning and fun as winter turns into spring.
March 27, 2014
Wake Up Missing
by Kate Messner
Walker Books for Young Readers
Cat just wants to be the person she was before her head injury. Besides? Who falls out of a tree trying to watch birds and gives herself a concussion? Cat. That’s who.
Things were bad enough before she fell out of the tree. Nothing had been said, but she knew she was loosing her best friend who now liked soccer better than camping. She didn’t need to be told.
But now she has headaches all the time. Even when she tries to go to school she often has to come home sick. Not only is Cat falling behind in school, but she’s a total clutz. Yes, even worse. She just gets dizzy and tips over. She can’t focus when she tries to read and clay, which she used to turn into a variety of lifelike birds, is just a cold lump in her hand.
Then her mother hears about a brain injury clinic in Florida. They help gets just like Cat but they take only a few patients at a time and Cat would have to stay there without her parents. Still, it would be worth it if she could just be the girl she was before.
At the clinic, she meets sporty Sarah, a hockey player who fell at a game, football playing Quentin whose inability to do math could cost him a scholarship, and Ben, who was thrown from his horse. As they begin treatments, they are all getting better, no one faster than Ben. But then, when she’s trying to get a look into an osprey’s nest, Cat overhears a phone call. One of her fellow patients has a terrible brain tumor from the treatments. The doctors have decided not to tell anyone because it would jeapordize their program which suddenly sounds altogether sinister.
To find out what is going on, they have to gain access to the computer and make their way through the gator infested Everglades.
As they struggle to help each other, Cat realizes that, with each even she experiences, she is moving farther and farther from the girl she used to be, but that’s okay. As long as she’s the one making the decisions.
As always, Messner’s book is a combination of cutting edge science and a great story. This time the science involves both head injuries and gene therapy. As always, the bad guys are a bunch of misguided adults who start out doing things for all the right reasons but don’t realize who will disappear in the process.
As edgy as this sounds, it is solidly middle grade. There are some hints at romance but it is of the hand-holding variety and the danger is more often an ominous feeling than true danger. Not that the bad guys don’t do bad things, but the majority of it occurs off camera. The one bit of on-screen violence occurs when the bad guy is dealt with in an icky, Everglades kind of way.
An excellent choice for a young reader who wants action, adventure and science but isn’t ready for a young adult or adult novel.
March 24, 2014
by Melody Carson
illustrated by Sophie Allsopp
As the sun sets, a small boy heads home after an evening of play at the park. He knows that it’s time to get ready for bed and, as he does, he says good night to the many things that surround him.
“Goodnight to the bird and the butterfly.
“Goodnight to my friends. I have to say goodbye.
“Goodnight to my wagon, didn’t we have fun?
“Goodnight to the big clouds and the sinking sun.”
A rhyming text of any length can be hard to pull off — near rhyme and forced word order make for a book that is tricky to read aloud. What a relief that this isn’t the case with Carlson’s sweet bed time book.
While she didn’t choose a sleepy pallette of cool colors, Sophie Allsopp’s colorful illustrations add dimension and beauty to this simple book.
If you are looking for a simple bed time story for your toddler or preschooler, this is an excellent choice. It is a sweet, quiet story that you could share after other bed time rituals or even after reading a longer book. That said, any young book lover striving to put off bed time will want to point out the things in the book and tell you what she or he would bid good night.
Putting together a gift for new parents or soon-to-be parents? This book would make a sweet addition to your gift bag.
March 20, 2014
by Mary Cronk Farrell
Abrams Books for Young Readers
Technically, the women in the Army and Navy nursing corps weren’t military. These civilians weren’t allowed into combat.
When these nurses shipped out to the Phillipines, they weren’t in a combat zone. Yes, they treated soldiers but they also treated the wives and children of officers. They assisted in labor and delivery and tonsillectomies, but that was before the Japanese advanced into the Phillipines. That was before the officers’ families shipped out.
Their role as noncombatants became a technicality when the first wounded soldiers arrived. War had come to the Phillipines. Over worked doctors could only do so many surgeries. They didn’t have any time at all for medications. Nurses dispensed medications and took over some procedures normally done only by doctors. None of them were trained in war-time medicine, but they learned on the job. And they were still there when Manilla fell.
Like Louie Zamperini, known since the publication of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, these women became Japanese prisoners. Their families received no word on whether they were still alive and they remained invisible to the outside world for several years. Yet, in spite of the fact that they were prisoners, they continued to treat those in need, providing what medical care they could to not only some soldiers but also the civilian prisoners, women and children, who lived in the camps.
When author Mary Cronk Farrell learned about these amazing women, she knew their story had to be told. Unlike Hillenbrand’s Unbroken which focuses on the plight of Louie Zamperini to illustrate the fate of POWs in general, Farrell pulls back to tell the story of this group. Why? Because they survived as well as they did by sticking together.
That said, Farrell does tell the stories of individual nurses as much as she is able, but initially the nurses had to promise not to discuss what had happened to them. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Department of Defense recorded oral histories of the nurses who had survived until that time. Unfortunately, not all of the women lived this long.
Pure Grit is suitable for tween and teens (ages 10 and up). This is a story of war and there are a few somewhat gory details (they were doing triage, after all). But there are no stories of rape, because unlike the women of Nanking, none of the military nurses were raped. That said, even many of their own families did not believe them when they said nothing like this had happened.
This is a truly inspirational story of a group of typical American women who did great things when put to the test.
March 17, 2014
by K.L. Armstrong and M. A. Marr
(Little Brown Books for Young Readers)
Matt’s known for as long as he can remember that he is a descendent of Thor. In fact, many of the people in Blackwell, South Dakota are descended from either Thor or Loki. Matt’s glad that he’s one of Thor’s own — because it means that he’s someone the town looks up to. He can also harness his anger and call on Thor’s Hammer, an electric-like blow. But there’s a down side as well. Matt’s always worried that his grades aren’t good enough and that if he does even the smallest thing wrong, someone will call him on it and tell his father, the town’s sheriff. If only he could figure out how to deal with the town’s trouble makers, the descendants of Loki.
Fen and Laurie are two of those descendents. Fen is old enough that he has turned into a wolf which means that he has to join the local pack of raiders or pay dues for himself and for Laurie. Laurie has never changed into a wolf, not all of Loki’s descendents can, so she doesn’t know it’s possible. She also doesn’t know what Fen is or that he is paying dues for both of them.
Then an announcement is made at a town festival. The end of the world, Ragnarök, is coming. Descendents of the gods must ban together to fight the monsters. Matt can’t believe it when he is named for Thor. Why didn’t they pick someone older or bigger or just better? Then he overhears enough to know that no one expects him to survive. His family is sending him off to save the world, yes, but also to die.
The first descendent that he finds is the descendent of Loki. Fen and Laurie are together when Matt finds them and Laurie insists on accompanying the boys. Her problem solving skills immediately prove useful and then they realize that she can also locate the other descendents. Still, everything isn’t as it seems and Matt has some tough decisions to make. Who can he trust? His instincts tell him to trust Fen even if Loki betrayed the gods during the last battle. I’ve only touched on the wide cast of characters. Matt assembles a group of seven characters, just enough for cliques to begin to form.
This story is an amazing blend of Norse myth and contemporary fantasy. With both strong male and female characters it is well suited for both boy and girl readers. Although there are some hints of romance, who likes who, this is solidly a middle grade fantasy suitable for readers from 8 to 12 years old.
I have to admit that half the reason I like this book so much is that all of Loki’s descendents aren’t wicked. I’ve always had a soft spot for Loki because I love trickster characters in general (think Iktomi and Coyote). In Loki’s Wolves, many of the descendents get in trouble with the law and are highly impulsive which often gets them into trouble. They are also capable of siding against other Wolves as Laurie and Fen do when they side with Matt when he first encounters the raiders.
Readers of Rick Riordan’s books will be drawn into this series as well.