July 24, 2014
The Scorpio Races
by Maggie Stiefvater
On the island of Thisby, cool temperatures bring a nip to the air and the ocean water. But that isn’t all it brings.
Farmers count their stock every morning. Mothers keep their children close to home. And any business that takes a person to the beach is a bit more dangerous than usual. The water horses emerge from the sea, sometimes hungry for a run. Other times hungry for blood and flesh.
Riding a water horse is like nothing else — fast, breath taking and potentially deadly. Sean Kendrick has won the race but if he can win it again this year, he will be the owner of the water horse that he himself trained. Not bad for a poor orphan who owns little more than his boots and his coat.
But Puck Connolly needs to win the race. The money is the only way that she can save her parent’s home and, if the rides, her older brother will stay on the island a few more weeks before he leaves to find a job on the mainland.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot. Sean and Puck can’t both win but they strike up a friendship that builds into something more. Sean is driven to win, it is the only way he will ever own this amazing horse, but he’s equally driven to keep Puck safe even if it means putting himself in harms way — more so than usually happens when you are riding a man eating beast of bone and magic.
As always, Stiefvater has pulled together an amazingly complex story with characters you will love and characters you will loathe. The story is based loosely on the myths of the Celtic water horses but Stiefvater admits to discarding the parts that just don’t work for her story, or any story she could imagine.
The plot runs fast, tensions run high as the water horses pound their way down the beach of Thisby.
July 21, 2014
The Year of Billy Miller
by Kevin Henkes
On vacation with his family, Billy makes a hasty decision. When the wind blows his new Black Hills baseball cap off his head, he steps onto the middle rung of the guard rail to make a brilliant save. Only, his save isn’t so brilliant and Billy falls. He wakes up in the hospital with a lump on his head. The doctor says he’s lucky not to have been hurt much worse, but Billy doesn’t feel lucky. What kind of kid falls like that and lands on his head? Then he hears his parents talking about how the blow might make him forget things.
Now Billy is worried about starting second grade. What if the lump on his head means that he won’t be smart enough? What if it changes him in some crucial way?
From day 1 of second grade, Billy examines his interactions with his teacher and with his new classmates. Did the teacher misunderstand what he said? Maybe she thinks he’s mean, or not so smart, or both. Mom and Dad do their best to reassure him but Billy needs to figure it out for himself.
The school year is divided into quarters and this book is as well — Teacher, Father, Sister, Mother. Each story is about Billy maturing in how he deals with one of these people. I know, that sounds pretty ho hum, but Henkes story is light and humorous and touching all at the same time. Billy learns to relate to a knew teacher, helps his father through an artistic slump, comforts his sister and shows his mother just how much he cares. With each mini-story, he gains a bit of confidence until he is sure that his mother was right — this is indeed The Year of Billy Miller.
The book as a whole may intimidate some less confident readers; it is after all a chunky 230 pages. While each section builds on the one that preceeds it, they can be read individually with a healthy break in between. This book is an excellent choice for competent readers who, like Billy, lack confidence in what they can achieve.
A light, fun, touching story.
July 17, 2014
by Melissa Stewart
Need an enticing summer read for a reluctant reader? Or a young reader who is simply too busy to read more than a page or two at a time? Then pick up Grossapedia.
From animals who roll poop (dung beetles) to animals that eat poop (baby elephants) this book is a store house of animal things icky. Poop, pee, saliva, vomit and blood — they’re all covered within this 110 page book.
Animal nut that I am, I still learned a lot including the fact that a desert tortoise pees on anything that picks it up as a defense mechanism and that the saliva of the short-tailed shrew is toxic and paralyzes potential meals with one bite. Chomp!
The animals in the book range from been there (dogs) to little known (giant petrels) and everything in between.
Some animals get a full two pages while others get only a page. This means that there isn’t any in-depth coverage but it does make fora book that is easy to pick up and put down — great for reluctant readers.
Is this book too gross? Not by a long shot — it is a strictly factual look at the biology of a wide variety of animals. I didn’t think that some of it was gross at all (limpid mucus) but would also get a little gaggy if I spend too much time thinking about baby animals eating poop.
Whether your young reader loves to learn odd ball facts about animals or just likes reading about things that are a big icky, pick this one up. It really is a quick read and would be great for a few moments here and there throughout the summer. That said, you will probably have to listen as he reads about jackals or pigs or parrot fish.
July 14, 2014
The Night Gardener
by Jonathan Auxier
Molly and Kip aren’t sure what to expect when they arrive at the mansion where Molly has been hired as the maid, but it certainly isn’t what they find.
The first trick is in getting there. No one in the vicinity will tell them how to get through the sour woods to the Windsor’s mansion. At best, they give only vague directions. More often than not, they mutter vague warnings then say no more.
It isn’t until the siblings encounter a tiny old woman carrying a pack that they final get the directions they need. A storyteller, Hetty agrees to help them out on one condition. Molly has to tell her what they find at the mansion.
As they travel through a forest where no birds sing and no animal hum, Molly wonders what Hetty expects to hear.
Then they catch their first sight of the house — a structure that is as dark and delapidated as the massive tree that grows around and through it. They make their way across a yard covered with row upon row of shallow hills to the front door.
Molly gets to work, cleaning the massive home, serving her new mistress and cooking the meals. Kip busies himself in the yard, whipping the gardens into shape but avoiding the big tree which has been warned by their mistress never to touch. The children’s aren’t sure how but somehow they know that this tree is at the heart of the mysteries that surround this grim family. Why is everyone so listless and pale? Why has their hair gone dark and lank? And why is Molly’s doing the same?
This isn’t blood and guts horror but horror of a more traditional sense – ominous, moody and dark. Mytery and magic. Tone and timber. The sour woods are a creepy place.
But this is still a solidly middle grade story. Yes, there are human villains. Yes, they threaten people and people do get hurt (I’m not saying who or how or why) but it isn’t a gory story. It is all about the atmosphere which only begins to lighten when Kip and Molly face their past, open up to each other and solve the mystery threatening adult and child alike in the Windsor home.
The children are Irish emigrants and the setting is vaguely creepy English manor house. The mood of the book is helped along by dark scratch board styled illustrations by Patrick Arrasmith.
There’s no way this is a beach read, it is far too moody and dark, but it is a fast read and one that should definintely be on the list of young readers who enjoy a spooky tale.
July 10, 2014
A Hitch at the Fairmont
by Jim Averbeck
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Dazed and lost, Jack just goes through the motions at his mother’s memorial service. Without a body to bury, all that he has of her there is a photo provided by her acting troupe. Where’s the aunt whose taking custody of him? Jack expected her to show up at the service but she’s late, pulling up in a convertible with two wooden cases in the back. Everything that belonged to him and his mother has been sorted and boxed up without any input from Jack who is wedged between these boxes in the back seat for the ride back to San Francisco.
Thus begins Jack’s new life. Hateful Aunt Edith barely squeezes him into her life at the posh Fairmont Hotel. She doesn’t even upgrade to a suite with a second bed. He sleeps on the too-small sofa and takes care of her pet chinchilla, a weasly disagreeable creature named Muffin. He does his best to do whatever task she gives him but can’t answer the question that she puts to him again and again — did his mother ever give him a string of numbers with no explanation.
One day Jack recognizes one of their “neighbors” in the hotel, a stocky, serious man named Alfred Hitchcock. He’s in town scouting locations for a new movie and doesn’t really want to get involved when Jack discovers his aunt missing and a ransom note written in chocolates on the bed. Finally, Jack convinces Hitchcock that he needs the director’s expertise in mystery, murder and mayhem to figure out what is going on before he is an orphan all over again.
Will they figure out what is going on before Jack becomes not just an orphan but a victim?
Although young readers may not know who Hitchcock is when they start reading the book, knowledge of his movies isn’t essential to the plot of the book. That said, it is interesting to recognize the movie titles used as chapter titles and the locations Hitchcock is scouting.
Through his author’s note, Averbeck makes it clear that the public knew one Alfred Hitchcock, mysterious, dark and brouding, while his family and coworkers often found themselves confronted by his practical jokes and sense of humor. Averbeck does a great job in bringing both of these figures onto the page to create a Hitchcock that middle grade readers can both identify with and adore.
The mystery is a fast-paced adventure, worthy of any Hitchcock novel and Jack a solid Hitchcock hero as his world is turned upside down even as he struggles to define his place in it.
This book is a bit meatier than your typical beach read but it is an excellent choice both for young mystery lovers and older Alfred Hitchcock fans.
July 7, 2014
Saucy and Bubba
by Darcy Pattison
As much as Saucy loves the creativity and fun of gingerbread day, it’s also a day she dreads. There’s no telling what kind of shape her step-mother Krissy will be in on any given day. Krissy is an abusive alcoholic but not everyone sees this side of her.
The bakery in town sees her as a creative crafter, baking and assembling a new gingerbread house each month. Some are based on easily recognized public buildings. Some are known only to locals. Regardless, her attention to detail and still are astonishing and bring business into the bakery.
She’s a loving mother to seven-year-old Bubba, reading him stories, getting him to help with her chickens and treating him with the love she would show her own child.
She even makes Daddy smile. As much as Saucy missed his smiles and laughter after Mama died, she just can’t bring herself to trust Krissy. Not after she left them at the ball field and forgot to pick them up. Now when her words are slurred and her temper short even if this temper is always directed at Saucy.
On baking day, Saucy finds the bottle of rum hidden in the back of a kitchen cabinet. She knows the drinking hasn’t stopped. She has to keep Bubba safe even if it means running away and taking the bus to Aunt Vivian’s house in Albuquerque.
Even without the cover art, it is clear this is a modern Hansel and Gretel story complete with a mean step-mother and a clueless father. The question is — wil Saucy be able to identify all of the wolves to keep Bubba safe on their journey.
I’m not going to talk any more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away but this is an extremely powerful story. Admittedly, I know Pattison and read an early version of this book but it is truly one of her most moving pieces of writing.
That said, it is going to make any an adult squirm. Why? Because we want to believe that it is easy to pick out the threats to a child. It scares us to think that we might miss something and that someone who is drunk and out-of-control can also be methodical enough to only abuse one child. This is the kind of book that makes an adult squirm.
But this is its truth and why it is so powerful. This is clearly a story for the young reader who needs to know that grown ups don’t know everything and that sometimes the only person you can protect is yourself.
Not many books move me to tears. Be warned. There are wolves in the woods.
July 3, 2014
The Grudge Keeper
by Mara Rockliff,
illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
In the town of Bonnyripple, no one worries about holding a grudge. Instead, whenever someone slights them or hurts them or just plain annoys them, they write their annoyance down and take it to the home of Cornelius, the town Grudge Keeper.
There, it is tucked into a drawer or a jar or tucked away on a shelf. The ramshackle cottage is bursting at the seams with accrimony because none of the grudges are every discarded.
Then came the day that the wind rose.
Although it starts out gently enough, soon it is rattling cupboards and shaking shutters. Toupees fly, inkpots are hurled and, predictably enough, chaos ensues. No one escapes unscathed so when the wind disapates they all head to the Grudge Keepers cottage, new grudges carefully recorded and clutched in their hands.
What they find, astounds them. Everything is topsy turvey and all mixed up. They shoulder past each other, each person searching for their own annoyances lest someone else get there first. Only when they hear a groan do they think to look for Cornelius.
I’m not going to tell you how the story ends because I don’t want to ruin the twist. To find that part out, you’ll have to read it for yourself!
Mara Rockliff pens a delightful story with a fairy tale feel. It is complimented perfectly by Eliza Wheeler’s pen and watercolor illustrations. She does a perfect job of making the characters comical and humorous instead of dark and serious which helps the story avoid becoming preachy although it definitely contains a lesson.
This is an excellent choice for the classroom and a great way to spark discussions on forgiveness.