March 2, 2015
Top Secret Files:
The American Revolution
by Stephanie Bearce
I’m a history buff so I read a lot on various periods, both fiction and nonfiction. When an author comes up with things I don’t know about well known figures, it surprises me. Bearce has done it again.
As with the other books in the series, this one is all abou spies, secret missions and facts long hidden. I was a little surprised when she started with George Washington. Seriously? Washington? I may know a lot about ol’ George, but I didn’t know he had worked as a spy for the British.
In addition to giving readers little known information on big names like Washington, Bearce also sets the record straight about a few people that readers may have heard of but actually know very little about. Everyone knows Benedict Arnold traitor, but Bearce fills in the details about how he first fought for the US and then later turned spy. The one that really pulled me in was Paul Revere. Bearce not only fills readers in on the details of the big ride but she also tells a bit more about Revere’s day job as a silver smith. It wasn’t just fancy dishes. Revere also did dental work and had worked as on early forensics investigator.
In addition to well-known figures, Bearce pulls in hereos I had never heard of including Nancy Morgan Hart from Georgia who not only spied but fought hand to hand. Then there was Peter Francisco, a giant of a man who carried a canon on his shouldiers to keep the British from capturing it.
As always, Bearce’s books are peppered with hands on activities from sharp shooting (safe to do indoors) and writing invisible messages.
The information is quirky and fascinating which will help turn young readers on to history. Written in brief chapters, this book is suitable for reluctant readers who will be able to read for a while and then take a break.
Unlike some series, each of these books stands on its own. You can start with the American Revolution since it came first. Or read about World War II if that is a favorite time period. Wherever you start, you are going to want to pick up the other books in the series to see what other authors haven’t been telling you!
February 27, 2015
by Kristin Cashore
I’m not sure how I missed this one when it came out but in a way that’s good news. If you love this book as much as I do, you’re going to want to read more and there are two companion books, Fire and Bitterblue, already available.
Katsa is a girl with a past. At sixteen, she’s feared across the Seven Kingdoms because she is graced. The graced are easy to recognize since they all have eyes of two colors. Katsa has one blue eye and one green. What isn’t obvious at a glance is the nature of a person’s grace. That said, everyone knows what the Lady Assassin can do. Since she was 8 years-old, she’s been able to kill a man with a single blow.
Katsa’s a girl with a past. What she isn’t sure about is her future. She tired of being the heavy for her uncle the king. It would be one thing if the people she went after for her were truly bad, but most often they are simply greedy or refuse to give him something he wants.
The Council may be her way out. Or at least her way to sanity. She and a group of friends have been using the king’s own spies to uncover injustice and set things right. They have to work quietly but Katsa likes to believe she is making a difference.
Then on a nighttime mission she meets a young man. Like her, his eyes are two colors — one silver, one gold. But the strange thing is that he doesn’t fear her. Almost everyone fears her and she isn’t sure what to make of this especially since he stands between her and the exit. Only later does she discover that he is a prince, that his people don’t fear the graced, and that their mission is one and the same.
I absolutely refuse to tell you anything more about the plot because to do so would mean giving something away and Cashore does a marvelous job of revealing information bit by bit. That said, you won’t feel cheated because the characters are also in the dark, living in a world of secrets and misunderstanding. Suffice it to say that throughout the course of the book, Katsa learns about herself including the nature of her long-misunderstood grace.
If you have a young reader on your hands who loves fantasy, consider this book. It is young adult and deals with mature themes. There is violence, but the worst of it occurs off scene and it isn’t treated lightly. There is also a very strong romantic element to the plot and there is on-scene sex, subtley and sensitively written.
This novel is complex and layered. The characters are wonderfully drawn and just as complex as the plot. Add this to your fantasy reading list today.
February 23, 2015
Mr. Putter and Tabby Dance the Dance
by Cynthia Rylant
illustrated by Arthur Howard
Harcourt Children’s Books
As you can see, I’m on a bit of an easy reader kick. Part of it is because I’ve rediscovered the Mr. Putter and Tabby books and am especially enjoying the titles that have come out since my son was a new reader. That said, I wasn’t sure how Rylant was going to pull this one off. Ballroom dancing? For new readers? But she does.
Mrs. Teaberry has been watching a television show about ballroom dancing. It looks like fun so she decides that she and Mr. Putter should give it a try. Mr. Putter isn’t so sure. He finally agrees, because she is his friend, but hopes he’ll like it more than he liked roller skating.
The four friends, because of course the pets have come along, arrive at the ballroom to discover a world of sparkling lights and sparkling costumes. Mr. Putter doesn’t know the rumba or the foxtrot but he’s certain he can manage a one-two-cha-cha-cha. He and Mrs. Teaberry head out onto the dance floor.
So does Zeke. This is often where things go awry because Zeke gets into some mischief. Out on the dance floor, he grabs a set of tuxedo tails and the rose from a tangoing couple. Everyone is having such a great time, they simply don’t mind. The message is clear — everyone belongs on the dance floor.
As someone with two left feet, I’m not 100% certain I agree — let’s just say that I’d be much harder to get out there than Mr. Putter. But the message comes through loud and clear as Mr. Putter tries something new with his friend and has a great time. His crew may not be a sleek or as stylish as the majority of couples but out on the dance floor it just doesn’t matter. That’s a message that we need to hear much more often in our society.
Zeke’s antics will help pull boys into this book but with the emphasis on sparkle the appeal to girls is more direct. That said, if you don’t share it with your young male reader, he will miss a very important message, subtly delivered.
February 19, 2015
Blue Lily, Lily Blue
by Maggie Stiefvater
Trying to describe a Maggie Stiefvater novel is like trying to draw the facets of a diamond in two dimensions. Here is the simple version:
The four Raven Boys and Blue Sargent are on a quest. Somewhere along the mystic ley line that runs through their town, an ancient Welsh king lies buried. Wake the king and win a favor.
It sounds pretty simple but the king isn’t the only “sleeper” buried along the line. They have been instructed to wake one and not wake the other. The third is, inexplainably, somehow in between.
Unfortunately, they aren’t the only one seeking this burial or these sleepers. There are other people looking for ways to tap into this source of mystic energy. Some are much more ruthless than others.
As always, Stiefvater has drawn a marvelous group of characters.
Blue Sargent is a local girl. She lives wiht a group of a group of strong women at 300 Fox Way. Born into a family of female psychics, Blue’s home life is unconventional in the extreme. She lives with her mother and a group of aunts, cousins and friends. The women are all psychics and one of them, working with Blue earlier in the year, has predicted the death of one of the boys. She believes she has no psychic powers, other than amplifying the powers of others, but is slowly coming to realize that she is a mirror.
Gansey is the one who is supposed to die. The golden boy of the group, he holds them all together with his wit and charm. When they win the favor, he wants to bring Noah back to life.
Noah may reside with Gansey and Ronan but he doesn’t live with them. He’s a ghost. Normally kind, something in Noah is changing and he’s not always as human as he used to be.
Adam may be a local kid, like Blue, but he stills attends the same prestigious school as the other boys. His father has been arrested for abuse and Adam has to get through the trial while coming to grips with his new abilities.
Ronan, an endless bundle of rage and furious energy, is like Blue in many ways. Like her, he’s coming to grips with his psychic abilities — he can dream things into being. He wants to use the favor to keep his younger brother alive.
As the five teens come to know each other better, their relationships within the group change as well. If you’ve yet to meet these characters,
Don’t be confused like I was. The book ended and I thought, “What the heck?” The Raven Cycle isn’t a trilogy. If it was Blue Lily, Lily Blue would tie things up nicely. As it is, it leaves you wanting more as do all of the books in this series. Series, as in more than three. I’m not sure where I got the idea it was a trilogy because it isn’t. This book is the sequel to The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves. There is one more book to come.
I know I haven’t done these books justice but if you like gritty fantasy, give this series a try. You will not regret it.
February 16, 2015
Mr. Putter and Tabby Turn the Page
by Cynthia Rylant
illustrated by Arthur Howard
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I used to read the Mr. Putter and Tabby series on a regular basis back when my young reader was just starting to read independently, but he’s 15 now. I was thrilled to rediscover this series at my local library.
Mr. Putter and Tabby share a love of many quiet activities from taking a bath to napping to reading. Not surprisingly, they have favorite books. Mr. Putter loves cowboys. Tabby loves rabbits. They both love gardening.
At the library, Mr. Putter sees a sign-up sheet for story time with your pet. He signs up to do this with Tabby and then tells his friend Mrs. Teaberry about the opportunity.
Mrs. Teaberry loves new things so it isn’t surprising that she latches onto this idea. Will anyone want to hear Mr. Putter and Tabby after hearing Mrs. Teaberry and her good dog Zeke? Mr. Putter practices reading with gusto.
If you haven’t read Mr. Putter and Tabby, you may be surprised that to discover just how funny these took are. There is generally a slapstick, silly element that appeals to the youngest readers. This comes through in Arthur Howard’s expressive, colorful illustrations.
There is also a more subtle side to the humor. Often these jokes come through the text or subtleties in the illustrations (look for Mrs. Teaberry’s cookies and check out the ingredients).
Because this is an early reader, the illustrations may expand on the text but only a little. Their true role is to support the text and the reader, providing clues for words the reader may have troubles deciphering.
If you haven’t read these books, share them with your young reader who is working to develop his own reading skills. There is enough to these books that you can also share them with your picture book-aged child. These books are great read-alouds.
Don’t glance at the illustrations and put them down because the characters are not kids. They may be a little older than many early reader characters but these two are kids at heart. Whether your young reader is somewhat shy or a real fire cracker, she will identify with one of these characters.
February 12, 2015
The Right Word:
Roget and his Thesaurus
by Jen Bryant
illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
As a small boy, Peter, his mother and his baby sister moved frequently. Wherever they went, Peter took his books and his love of learning. When he was eight, he began to write his own book. Unlike many people, he didn’t write stories — either made-up stories or true stories. He wrote lists.
He listed the Latin words his tutor taught him. He listed the Elements, words about the weather and things to do with the garden. Peter quickly learned that finding just the right word to express himself could be a tricky thing. He gathered more and more words, adding them to his book.
As a young man, he went to medical school in Scotland. Although he earned his degree, he was only 19 years old when he graduated. He agreed with his uncle — no one would accept that such a young man was actually a doctor. He had an excellent education, but what else could he do? Peter became a tutor. Only later would he work as a doctor.
He also joined science societies. He gathered with other scientifically minded men and wrote and spoke about his studies.
By this time, other writers had published books of word lists. Peter’s children read these books but assured their father that his was much better. Peter got out his book of word lists. He added to it and eventually published it. Roget’s Thesaurus is still used by writers today.
At first glance, this may seem like a dry topic but Bryant has done a great job of capturing the tension experienced by a shy young man who grew up with a keen mind and an active curiosity. She shows his struggles to express himself but also to learn as much as possible about the world.
The mixed media collages that illustrate the book contain some copies of Peter’s original book but Sweet also used watercolor to add to the word rich images.
The book includes both a note from the author and one from the illustrator as well as a detailed timeline and other information. I was surprised to learn that Peter’s original word lists were not arranged alphabetically like they are today but by topic. And how cool is it that thesaurus translates as treasure room?
Young readers who often struggle for the right word to fill in the blank on a worksheet or to answer an adult’s question will quickly empathize with Peter. Share this book with your class and challenge them to create illustrated word lists of their own.
February 9, 2015
Henry and the Cannons:
An Extraordinary Story of the American Revolution
written and illustrated by Don Brown
Roaring Brook Press
You may not have heard of Henry Knox but it turns out that he was a pivotal figure in the Revolutionary War. Who knew? I sure didn’t.
The British Army held Boston. They knew that Washington and his modest army had little chance of taking the city from them.
Cannons would make all of the difference. Colonel Benedict Arnold had taken Ft. Ticonderoga in New York for the Americans. There were plenty of cannons there but it was also 300 miles away. Getting the cannons from there to Boston would be impossible.
Fortunately, no one was able to convince Henry Knox of this. You’re going to have to read the book to discover how he did it but is it well worth the read. Let’s just say that it involved ships, oxen, horses and quite a bit of sweat in spite of the freezing temperatures.
If you have a young history buff who is all about George Washington, pick this book up. If you have a young reader who loves a tense story with a struggle to victory, this is a great book. And the best thing is that the story is 100% true. How cool is that?
Don Brown’s water-color paintings are soft and muted but pen and ink add the level of detail necessary to show just how great was this struggle through snow and mud and ice.
This book is an excellent choice for together reading with an early grade school child. It would also be a great introduction for learning about Washington and the struggles of the Revolutionary War. This book seller turned self-taught soldier may have been an unlikely hero but he was up for the job when Washington needed him and is sure to inspire readers today.
February 5, 2015
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas
by Lynne Cox
illustrated by Brian Floca
Schwartz and Wade
Once an elephant seal decided to make Christchurch, New Zealand her home. Most elephant seals live in the salty water of the ocean along the rocky coast. Not Elizabeth, that’s what the people called her. Elizabeth swam up the Avon River and settled in the heart of the city.
The people of Christchurch, especially the children, would slow as they passed the river and try to catch a glimpse of their city’s latest resident. The problem came one slightly, chilly morning.
Maybe she didn’t like the cool, damp grass. No one knows, but for some reason Elizabeth made her way up the embankment and stretched out across the two lane street. As long as a surf board and weighing 1200 pounds, that a lot of seal in the middle of the road. People worried she might get hit by a car so they took her out to sea.
It took some time before Elizabeth found her way back, but the people were still sure they knew better. This time they took her hundreds of miles away. For almost three months the children kept watch until Elizabeth found her way home.
This is a sweet story that is almost too good to be true, but true it is. The people of Christchurch really did share their city with an elephant seal and they named her Elizabeth. The author heard the story when she was visiting the city herself and decided that this was a story young readers would love.
Brian Floca has used pen and ink to give detail to the dreamy quality of his water color paintings that, in turn, lend this dream-like sense to the story as a whole.
Share this story with young nature lovers who are interested in stories of urban wildlife and sharing their space with the wild creatures of our world.
February 3, 2015
Waiting is Not Easy (An Elephant and Piggie Book)
written and illustrated by Mo Willems
Readers will know something is up as soon as Piggie somersaults onto the page. He has a surprise for Elephant but he won’t say what it is. It is an understatement to say that Elephant does not wait patiently. He wines. He gripes. He gets a little nasty, but still Piggie won’t end the waiting. He simply reassures his friend that it will be worth it.
And it is.
The surprise is the awe-inspiring beauty of a star-filled night sky, something Piggie couldn’t have rushed even if he wanted to. The best part of it is that Elephant gets it. Once he has shared in the surprise he completely and totally gets it and comes up with an equally amazing something to share with his best friend.
I love the characters in the Elephant and Piggie books. While one has a trunk and big ears and the other has a curly tail, they are obviously real children in their behaviors and their attitudes. This is a big part of the reason that young readers identify with these characters. Somewhere in the pair, young readers see themselves.
If you aren’t familiar with the Elephant and Piggie books, these are early readers, suitable for kids who are just learning to read on their own. Willems’ expressive illustrations show the characters’ emotions so clearly that they provide top-notch clues to words that some reader may be struggling to decipher.
That said, as much as these books appeal to new readers, they are also good for reading aloud simply because of the character’s silliness and expressive behavior. Pick up an Elephant and Piggie book to share with a young book lover in your life, but don’t forget to read it yourself. They really are fun!
January 29, 2015
The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets
by Nancy Springer
This isn’t a new book but young mystery lovers should check it out.
Enola Holmes. That name may sound a bit familiar. At least, her last name might. She is the sister of none other than the renowned detective Sherlock Holmes.
Enola is every bit as brilliant and unconventional as her brother. That might be acceptable if she was a boy, but Enola is a young lady in a world that expects very specific things from a girl. A girl who departs too much from what is expected might very well find herself declared insane and committed to an institution. Enola actually knew a woman who was committed after sitting on the ground.
Not that Enola thinks that her brothers would do this (she does have two brothers, you know), but she’d rather avoid finishing school or anything else they might dream up for her. She has rented a room and taken on work as a locator of missing persons. Her latest case is to find none other than Dr. Watson. The police are having no luck and from the clues she has seen, Enola suspects that the kidnappers are women. After all, they know the language of flowers and they know it well — something no man would be bothered to pursue.
As Enola searches London’s alley ways and rooftops for clues, she has to watch her step and it isn’t just the filth of this urban center she needs to avoid. Her brothers are still looking for her. In fact, she has to decide if the secret message left for her in the newspaper is from her mother or if it is a trap set by a brother.
I’m not going to give you any more about the plot because this is a mystery. I don’t want to give anything away. Springer expertly plants both clues and red herrings so this one is great fun to try to solve as you read.
This book is equal parts historic fiction and mystery. Springer brings both the squalor and wonders of London to life. But equally real are her characters from the brilliant figures of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes to the caring concern of both Doctor and Mrs. Watson.
This is book four in the series. While readers would surely enjoy books 1-3, it is possible to start with and understand book 4. Share it (or all of them) with the young mystery fan in your life.