April 28, 2014
The Water Castle
by Megan Frazer Blakemore
Walker Books for Young Readers
What do you believe? Who can you believe? Can two seemingly contradictory stories be true?
Ephraim Appledore wants to believe that his father is going to get better. After all, that’s why they’re living in the Water Castle.
A long ago Appledore built the strange castle-looking home while simultanteously looking for the Fountain of Youth. In fact, the family money came from sales a water tonic that promised to fix anything for anyone. What if Ephraim could find a bottle of this cure-all for his father?
Before the stroke, his father was an artist. Now he just sits. He can’t paint. He can’t speak. Sometimes he can’t even swallow without choking. Its all too much for Ephraim who turns his attention to remaking himself in their new home.
He’s determined to be the smart city-boy in this tiny Maine town. What he doesn’t count on is the amazing powers of the town itself. Everyone here is faster than normal, even Ephraim’s brother is a better athlete than ever, setting records even againt the local stars. As if that wasn’t bad enough, everyone here is smarter too including Ephraim’s younger sister.
Ephraim, on the other hand, is still just Ephraim, and he’s caught in a place he doesn’t understand. Why does Will Wylie seem to hate him as soon as he knows who Ephraim is? And why is no one surprised by this? And what’s up with Mallory? As Ephraim learns the town history, he learns that the Wylie’s tried to bottle the Fountain of Youth too. They blame the Appledores for their poverty. Mallory’s family were assistants, or servants depending on who you ask, to the Appledores. She wants no part of that life.
But soon the three find themselves working to solve the secrets behind the Appledore fortune. Where did the water come from? Will it actually grant eternal life? Little by little, they piece together how three seemingly different stories could all be true and how, in spite of history and people’s expectations, they can all be friends.
Part science, part fantasy and part mystery this is a fun adventure for middle grade readers. With the different personalities of the three friends, Blakemore has created a group of characters to appeal to a wide variety of readers. Ephraim take the part of “every boy,” an good enough student with a curious mind and a drive to make things better for his father so that life can be like it was. Will is nothing short of brilliant but insecure because of his family’s poverty. Mallory doesn’t want to believe because doing so could mean tying herself to a past she doesn’t want.
Belief and disbelief struggle in a mysterious tale that ends with a somewhat ambigious ending . . . depending on what the reader believes.
April 24, 2014
The Here and Now
by Ann Brashares
Prenna lives a life of rules — who she can speak to, what they can talk about, and how she must behave. She tries not to complain about because its much, much better than the home she left behind, riddled with plagues and pollution. A mosquito bite is a death sentence. Then again, now that she’s left home behind, complaining or making waves of any kind is a death sentence.
Prenna doesn’t come from a different place. She comes from a different time and slipping up in any way could alert time natives to the presence of her and her people.
She tries to keep her interactions with time natives casual but there’s something about Ethan that makes her want to talk to him and to trust him. She knows he’s really good in physics, but he always finds an excuse to ask for her help. And she can’t say no. Wouldn’t that look odd to her teachers? After all, she’s supposed to try to fit in even though she doesn’t know the card games that everyone plays and slips up in lots of little ways. But Ethan always makes excuses for her and helps her in little ways, even teaching her to play cards.
Then he tells her about the day, years ago, that he went fishing by himself. The air above the creek began to shimmer and out of this distortion stepped a girl — a girl who now calls herself Prenna. Prenna doesn’t remember this, but she still has the sweatshirt that someone gave her that day.
Ethan has known about her all along yet he’s never used this knowledge to hurt her. When they discover a hidden cache of future newspapers, Prenna reads an obituary that numbs her through and through. How can she keep Ethan alive and discover all the lies and does it really matter if the cost is Ethan’s life.
Time travel is hard to do well but Brashares has created a well-thoughtout means of travel with a set of rules that all travelers must follow lest they wreak havoc on the present and, through it, the future. Prenna is a passionate characters young readers will want to know better as she struggles with the same things that readers struggle with every day — figuring out who she is, why she’s here and what is really going on.
This book hooked me and prompted me to read on in spite of the many things on my to-do list.
April 21, 2014
The Monster who Lost His Mean
by Tiffany Strelitz Haber
illustrated by Kirstie Edmunds
Henry Holt and Company
In addition to eating eyeball soup, there are certain traits that every monster has in common:
Each monster has a custom-made set of these letters, M-O-N-S-T-E-R, to remind him of these traits. One day, a monster’s M disappeared. The other monsters started calling him the Onster, teasing and taunting.
Without his Mean he no longer fits in and the Monsters make sure he feels it. In tears, he heads off in search of his missing M. He looks at home, on the playground and even in garbage cans. His M is nowhere to be found. Without his mean, what is he?
No longer able to be mean to the human children, he finds himself playing with them instead. Soon, he’s tearing up the basketball court with his new team and realizes he doesn’t miss his mean all that much afterall until he hears the other monsters making fun of him and his friends. Maybe he should fake it? But each time he comes up with a wicked plan, he leaves it behind for something more fun instead.
Just as he realizes that he no longer fits in with his old life and his old friend, something fabulous and new comes his way.
Clearly, this is a not-so-subtle anti-bullying story, but the wonderful thing is that the message, so clear to the adult, it hidden behind the story. Kirstie Edmunds digital illustrations give the reader a host of big, brightly colored, slightly goofy looking monsters. Even when they’re being mean, they don’t look super scarey.
There are all kinds of little details that young readers will want to look for like the dachshund and the owl. The ick factor (eyeball soup) will appeal to young readers both for the shudder it gives readers but also the giggle.
Pick this one up for storytime and classroom use.
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.