September 30, 2013
by Tahereh Mafi
Juliette has never known the warmth of human touch. Even her parents feared her and kept their distance. They never offered any sympathy when other children through rocks at her or ignored her. Why would they? They are convinced that their lives would have been so much better if she had never been born.
Juliette grows up in a world that is falling apart. Weather is erratic. Animals have mutated horribly. There isn’t nearly enough to eat.
But the Reestablishment promises to change all of that. If people will simply obey their rules and live in grim concrete compounds, everything will be better. Or you’ll be dead. Because that is the Reestablishment’s go-to punishment. Imprisonment leading to execution.
When they come for her, Juliette knows why they are taking her away but she doesn’t understand why they put her in a mental asylum where she is separated from everyone for almost a year. Sure, the guards drop in every once in a while but that’s never a good thing. Fortunately, they too are afraid to touch her.
And then they give her a room mate. Juliette finds out a day ahead of time and she practices talking. What will she say to her when this mysterious new girl arrives?
But then Juliette sees him. That’s right. Her roommate is a boy. A rugged, handsome boy that she thinks she may remember. But that’s impossible. How could he be here? And what will he do when he finds out that her touch is deadly? By touching him with even one finger tip, Juliette could end his life. When she does eventually touch him, she finds out something amazing. Absolutely nothing happens.
I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic fiction. I picked up this particular book after reading an interview with the author, Tahereh Mafi. Wow. I wish I had found her books sooner. Admittedly, one of the things that fascinated me is that Mafi is a practicing Muslim woman. She has written a book about a girl who must remain covered to keep those around her safe. All it takes is a layer of fabric or its absence to determine just how much danger is present.
Juliette is an amazing character. She lives in a world on the brink of war. Much of what she knows is based on lies and she has to come to grips with her gift. Will she allow herself to be used as the ultimate torture device or will she work with another group of people, many of whom have unique abilities of her own.
The beginning of this book is tough to read. Juliette doesn’t have anyone to talk to and she doesn’t speak much even when this fact changes. She is so frightened that it is painful to read her story, but just when I was wondering if I could take much more, the roommate appears and this is where the whole story changes.
This is a quick read and will prompt so many discussions on topics ranging from ecology to spin doctoring, from personal responsibility to truth, and so much more.
September 26, 2013
Mr. Tiger Goes Wild
by Peter Brown
Little, Brown and Company
All of the animals lived terribly proper lives. They greeted each other around town, sipped their tea just so and tipped their hats.
All this proper-behavior was getting to Mr. Tiger. He wanted to get wild — just a little. But how? What to do?
Then Mr. Tiger had an idea and off he ran down the street on all fours. His friends were appalled. How could he act like such an animal?
“If you must act wild,” said a disgusted looking elephant lady, “go do it in the wilderness.” And so he did.
Eventually, Mr. Tiger returns to civilization but it is clear (through the illustrations) that he has changed. And he isn’t the only one.
This is an incredibly simple story and so much of it comes through Peter Brown’s illustration which is a combination of ink, watercolor, gouache and pencil. The animals are blocky and not particularly realistic but express a surprising array of emotion.
For a story that is as simple as it is, it also packs a thematic punch and could easily lead to discussions on following the crowd, being true to yourself and inspiring others.
While preschoolers will be drawn to the illustrations more than older children will the story itself will appeal to children of all ages who have felt compelled to be something less than themselves in an attempt to keep the staid and stuffy happy.
September 23, 2013
The Bitter Kingdom
by Rae Carson
The Bitter Kingdom was one of those books that I just had to finish — yet again, Carson pulled me in a with her gripping plot. But, NO! I don’t want to finish. It’s the third in the trilogy and I adore these characters.
As always, Rae Carson has created a deliciously complicated story. Delicious, but hard to review because it is in fact that complicated.
Elisa’s kingdom is in turmoil with a usurper on the throne. Before she returns, she must save Hector, the captain of the guard and her betrothed. She truly loves him but marriage to Hector will cement the bond between two kingdoms and end the squabbling over who she should marry.
Hector was kidnapped at the end of book 2, The Crown of Embers. He isn’t an idle captive and he truly believes Elisa will come for him. But if she does, he also knows she will have a reason in addition to her affection for him. Unfortunately, he had been kidnapped before she announced their engagement (oops!). He knows that if he keeps his eyes and ears open he is sure to learn something useful.
Storm still has no magic as they head back into his city and country. But as a failed Invierno sorcerer, he was exiled to Elisa’s kingdom. If the returns without his magic, he faces death unless he can serve his father in some vital way. The Invierno are simply that “practical.”
Mula/Red is a slave girl that Elisa saved from abuse the only way she could, by buying her. She is half Invierno, something Elisa didn’t even know was possible as she was always told that that Invierno were just that different from people.
In the course of this last book Elisa saves Hector; discovers the big secret the Invierno have been hiding for hundreds of years; learns that they really are not two entirely separate people, and is also forced to realize that she is something more than the magic and the bearer of a Godstone.
As always, Carson writes with subtle humor and creates living, breathing characters who are full of extraordinary contradictions. These contradictions, of course, make them all the more real and likable, especially Storm who initially seemed cold and haughty.
I really can’t tell you much more about the specifics of this book without giving it all away but fantasy fans will devour it. There is fantasy, intrigue and a solid dash of romance. There are also threads that touch on themes in our own lives as we must sort fact from fiction about enemies and threats both distant and closer to home.
I highly recommend this book for teen readers although it will likely appeal more to girls than to boys.
September 19, 2013
The Last Dragonslayer
by Jasper Fforde
Jennifer Strange may be just a teenager, and a foundling at that, but she’s got her own Volkswagen Beetle and a Quarkbeast, perhaps the most frightening creature in the world. She’s also the operating manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management. It may sound glamorous but it means that she rides herd on 45 sorcerers of various kinds, sorcerers being easily distracted and not altogether good with the practical details of life.
And practical details can be a life saver in the United Kingdoms where not filling out the correct paperwork when you do a spell means your execution. Magic may still exist but it is no longer the power that it once was. In fact, none of the sorcerers at Kazam’s have nearly as much power as they had in their youth.
Then the two precogs on staff have a vision about the death of the last dragon. In fact, the vision is so intense that precogs of very meager abilities all over the kingdom of Hereford receive the vision as well. They know not only that the dragon will die but also the exact day and time. With the knowledge comes a struggle for the dragon’s land even as Jennifer gets a new responsibility. She, who loves all animals, is named the Last Dragon Slayer. And the vision says that it is at her hands that the dragon will die.
If you’ve read Fforde’s adult novels with the character Thursday Next, this series (of which the Last Dragonslayer is book #1) is very similar. Fforde brings Jennifer’s world to life. It is a world very like our own, but with a twist that satirizes the importance of paperwork, product placement and the idea that possession is 9/10 of the law.
Young readers will root for Jennifer as she works to outsmart the adults, hold her temper in check and figure out just what her place is in this mess created by the adults who allegedly made it all better. Not that all of the adult characters are bad. In fact, some of the adult character step forward in the end as they seek to spark Big Magic. But this is clearly a young adult novel and, as such, Jennifer and her friend Tiger Prawns can be expected to save the day in spite of the adults around them.
September 16, 2013
Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat
by Anna Branford,
illustrated by Elanna Allen
Violet Mackerel is at the mall with her mother (boring) when she notices a sparrow trapped indoors. She wonders how it can build it’s nest and what it finds to eat, before pulling a loose string from her own clothing so that it can craft a nest. The bird hops over and takes the string and Violet thinks she has hit on her special talent — helping wildlife.
Later, Violet visits the family garden and the lady bugs that live among the fennel. Her favorite is Small Gloria, a bug that is just a bit smaller than all the others.
Violet decides to help Gloria out by building her a special habitat — a jar with fennel and other fantastic things. Violet even goes outside in the rain and finds Small Gloria hidden among the pebbles at the base of the fennel plant. She puts Small Gloria in the jar and takes her inside where she will be safe and sound.
Unfortunately, a jar is not a lady bug’s natural habitat and things end predictably, if not well, for Small Gloria.
The good news is that Violet has a bit sister and her sister needs a science fair project. She decides, with Violet’s help, to create a ladybug life cycle out of beautiful beads. In the process, the two girls spend the afternoon together and they both lean quite a bit about lady bugs. Violet also learns that you can’t help an animal before you know something about it.
This is a chapter book — designed for those who are fairly new to reading but are reading independently with only a bit of help every now and again. There are some illustrations, black and white drawings, but not so many that they will help decipher the text. But, since this is a chapter book, the text is age appropriate for readers 6-10 (advanced 6 year-olds and reluctant 10 year-olds). Fortunately, with the concerns of both Violet and her older sister, Nicola, played out in the story, it meets the interests of both these younger and older readers.
Interestingly, this book was first published in Australia and is clearly set in the Land of Oz (what Australians sometimes call Australia). It has just a bit of something different which helps it feel extra special.
This book is sure to spark some discussions on which animals should remain wild, how we can help even wild animals, and how to deal with animals, like the sparrow, who end up in places they don’t belong. There are some sad moments but this isn’t a blue book.
September 12, 2013
When the Wolves Returned:
Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone
by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent,
photographs by Dan Hartman and Cassie Hartman
Walker and Company
If you have a budding naturalist on your hands, this book is a must read.
Over 100 years ago, the geysers and massive rock formations in Yellowstone fascinated visitors. Our government realized that although very few people managed to visit this remote area, these natural wonders needed to be saved for future generations. Yellowstone became our first national park.
Being the first is a good thing, people saw value in Yellowstone and realized it needed to be saved. Visitors continued to come and we can see antique photos of women in long dresses and men in suit jackets posing in front of geysers and other wonders. We also see pictures of them with the wildlife including deer. People liked the deer, but deer are prey animals. They are hunted by wolves.
And this is where is might be a bad thing to be first because people when Yellowstone was founded didn’t understand land and wildlife management the way we do today. Hunters were brought in to get rid of the wolves that preyed on the deer. Needless to say, this was a disaster and put everything out of balance.
Patent goes on to explain just which elements went out of balance and how this rippled through the area. She also discusses the objections that some people, ranchers, had to bringing back to wolves, as well as the changes that have been seen since the wolves’ return.
Patent has constructed a clever dual text that allows the book to be appreciated by a wide audience. The main text appears in a text box and, bold, is easy to spot. This text gives the basics and will appeal to younger children. But each spread also has a sidebar. As the name suggests, this text is printed to one side, generally below several photographs. This information expands on the main text going into greater depth.
Adults and children alike who love wolves will be pulled in by this book. As much as I knew, I still learned new things.
In addition to wolves, this book would support discussions on decision making, ecology, and balance. I highly recommend it for both the classroom and the home library.
September 9, 2013
Book 1 in the Curse Workers
by Holly Black
(Simon & Schuster)
Cassel almost never takes his gloves off even around his family.
Cassel lives in our world, or at least what our world would be like if there were people who could do magic. And I don’t mean pull the rabbit out of a hat slight of hand. I mean cause people to dream, and possible sleep walk to their deaths. Erase people’s memories, causing them to forget or planting substitute memories. The rarest ability of all is the ability to change something, or someone, into something else.
That’s why the gloves. You have to make skin to skin contact by hand to curse someone — because although these gifts can and are used for good, the fear that it could be used for bad is just too strong. Curse work.
Most workers grow adept at hiding their abilities, especially since using them is illegal. Not that Cassel is a worker. Everyone else in his family is but not Cassel. He has other things to hide even if he can’t wipe them from his memory. Again and again, his mind drifts back to the night he came too standing over the body of his best friend. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s holding the bloody knife and . . . he’s happy about it. What kind of a monster is he?
These are the thoughts that separate him from his fellow students until the night he wakes up standing on his dorm roof. He doesn’t know how he got there or even what path he took but the fact that he might have sleepwalked gets him expelled from school. After all, he might have been worked.
Out of school until he can finagle his way back in, Cassel has the time to poke around and what he discovers changes his whole world. Because he has been worked. And he has killed. But not in the ways he remembers. And now he questions how much of what he remembers even happened.
This isn’t a new book — it came out in 2010 — but it is an amazing piece of young adult literature. And it is young adult. This isn’t the magical world of Harry Potter — not that I’m panning Potter but this magic is very different. Every time a worker uses their gift, they suffer blow back. If they use it for good, the blow back can be good, but if they use it for ill? Unpleasant things happen, especially if you’re a death worker.
Not that this story is all dark. Black has worked an amazing amount of humor into this story. While some of it is still quite dark, it does lighten the overall mood. And Cassel does discover that he has some really good friends.
This is a real page turner and readers will be rooting for Cassel as he struggles to figure out just what has happened and where he fits in to this incredibly complicated world.
September 5, 2013
Warning: Do Not Open this Book!
by Adam Lehrhaupt,
illustrated by Matthew Forsythe
Paula Wiseman/Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Don’t open the book! Don’t do it. If you do, the monkeys are sure to get out.
Warning: This is not a quiet book. This is not a bed time book. This is a do you dare . . . are you silly or brave enough to turn the page kind of book. Caution tape and warning signs abound. Readers who look closely will even spot filthy foot prints and bites taken out of the warning signs.
Of course they’re going to open the book. Who could possibly resist?
Young readers will love the pure silliness of this book that actually speaks directly to them. “Oh, no. Now you’ve done it.” They will also love the fact that the monkeys are so ridiculously messy — more messy than any adult would allow. Things go from messy to super messy as additional animals show up. That’s right. As if monkeys weren’t bad enough, other creatures fly and lumber across the page.
I’m not going to spoil the ending but this one is going to yield some lively discussions as young readers toss out their ideas for corralling various creatures. Get some paper and crayons and invite them to get involved.
Lehrhaupt’s text is direct with just a bit of tease. Forsythe’s illustrations are digital but they have a playful “drawn by the reader” feel that compliments the story in every way.
Invite the little ones in your life to let the monkeys loose and then devise a plan to put them back again.
September 2, 2013
by Laura Hillenbrand
Having just reviewed David Patneaude’s Thin Wood Walls last week, it might look like I’m on a war book kick or even a World War II kick. Believe it or not, that isn’t the case. I read David’s book because he and I had discussed it after he read “Historic Fiction,” a blog post I wrote on my writing blog, One Writer’s Journey. I read Unbroken for book club. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have read it because I am generally overwhelmed (in a bad way) when I try to read adult nonfiction about POWs. Lucky for me that I didn’t skip this because it is an amazing book. It is an adult book but it is suitable for teens and might actually be something you would want a teen to read. Read on to find out why.
Unbroken tells the story of Louie Zamperini. Those of you who are sports enthusiasts might recognize his name. He was a distance runner who set numerous records and competed in the Berlin Olympics. But the story doesn’t start with Louie the soldier or even Louie the athlete. It start with Louie the holy terror.
As a toddler, he once jumped off a moving train. Strong willed and full of energy, his parents and teachers were at a loss about how to motivate him. This was a child who could not be bent to anyone else’s will. Eventually, he became something of a hoodlum in his California neighborhood, breaking into homes and restaurants just for the thrill of stealing food. He didn’t stop until he decided to stop.
By now, he was in high school where his older brother Pete was already an athlete. Pete had seen his brother make a quick getaway and knew he could run. He pushed his younger brother to run and helped him train. His fearless nature and unbelievable drive led him to constantly push his limits and set record after record. Even after WWII started and he became a bombardier, he continued to run, marking tracks out in the sand and getting other soldiers to clock him.
I don’t want to give away any more of the story but suffice it to say that these were not the only obstacles that Louie faced in his life.
Teens today need to hear the story of Louie Zamperini. No, he didn’t always respect authority but this was a man who didn’t give up. It wasn’t too late when everyone in his neighborhood, police included, thought of him as a criminal. It wasn’t too late when he was stranded at sea. It wasn’t too late when he had post-traumatic stress disorder after the war.
This is definitely a message that kids today need to hear. You can win. You can do it. It isn’t too late.