Monday, February 21, 2011

Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter
(Feiwel and Friends, 2010)

Otto, Lucia, and Max Hardscrabble are not like most of the other kids in their small English town.  For one thing, their mother left - disappeared, really -  when they were very young.  Since that day, Otto has not said a word.  He communicates using a strange sign language that only Lucia can understand.  In addition, he ALWAYS wears a black scarf around his neck.  Their father is often absent, and the children are sent to live with a neighbor, except for this time, when they end up in tiny Snoring-by-the-Sea and end up having a great adventure!

I was intrigued by the cover of this book.  Its dark colors and menacing illustration made me wonder just what kind of story might be between the covers.  When I started reading, I was reminded JUST a bit of the Series of Unfortunate Events books.  I never finished a single one of those books, so it was good that Kneebone soon created a voice and a feeling all of its own.

I enjoyed traveling along with the Hardscrabble kids as they had their adventure - first, in London, alone, and then in the castle folly there in Snoring-by-the-Sea as they try to solve the mystery of the Kneebone Boy and also that of their missing mother.  The story had just enough red herrings to keep the mystery fun, and the adventures were harrowing enough to be exciting, but not scary enough for me to worry that one of the Hardscrabbles might not make it to the next morning.  I also liked the asides in the book that spoke directly to the reader, as if the narrator were sitting with me, telling me the story.  I don't always like that particular device, but in this book it worked.

I can see both boys and girls enjoying this adventure story.  I'm sure this book will see heavy circulation in my classroom library once I talk about it with my kids.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler

Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler
(Little Brown, 2010)

Delilah Hannaford's life has been a bit of a mess lately.  Her mother works ALL THE TIME, her grades are falling, her friends have changed, and her boyfriend isn't really much of a boyfriend at all.  Then one day a call comes that changes Delilah's life - her estranged grandmother has died, and Delilah, her mother, and her aunt need to go to Red Falls, Vermont, to settle the estate.  While in Red Falls, Delilah reconnects with her childhood friend Patrick and discovers some long buried family secrets.  When Delilah finally convinces her mom and aunt to talk about their past, Delilah learns more than she ever wanted to know.

I first became aware of Ockler in September 2010 when her book Twenty Boy Summer was challenged by a parent in Missouri.  When I hear about books being challenged, I tend to read them, partly to find out what all of the fuss is about and partly to support authors' rights to write their stories they way they want to be written.  I found TBS to be one of those stories that stayed with me and kept me thinking about grief and how it changes people.  It saddened me to think that this book might be unavailable to teens who might need it, and made me want to fight harder against censorship.

In Fixing Delilah, Ockler tackles the topic of depression and how it affects the families of those who suffer from it.  Both Delilah's grandmother and an aunt who died at age nineteen before Delilah was even born were diagnosed with and treated for depression.  The effects of their struggles touched the lives of each member of the Hannaford family in ways both large and small.  Ockler tells the story in a straightforward manner, not hyperbolizing or villifying. 

As I read, I found myself identifying with Delilah in many ways.  As the book opens she feels lost, not at all herself, as she tries to figure out her life.  I wondered if her late-night outings with her boyfriend Finn and some of her other antics were attention-seeking devices, designed (either consciously or unconsciously) to force her mother to take out her bluetooth earpiece and finally pay attention to Delilah.  I could empathize with the feeling of wanting a parent to BE THERE, to set limits, and to actually parent.  As Delilah learns the truth surrounding the death of her Aunt Stephanie, she begins to realize just how much her mom and Aunt Rachel feel responsible for not being around to help Stephanie, and perhaps save her from herself.  Having lost my own brother in the past two months, I am just now realizing the hole his passing will leave in the fabric of my extended family.  Like Delilah's mom, I was much older than my brother; I had a life of my own, a family of my own, and was not as involved in his life as I had been when he was younger.  If I had been in touch more, reached out more, could I have changed what happened?  Probably not, but reading about others who struggle with the same questions helps me deal with my own grief.

Readers who love books by Sarah Dessen and Ann Brashares will probably love Ockler and her books.  I'll be sending this book out into my sea of readers next week upon my return to school, and I can't wait to hear what the kids think. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill
(Greenwillow, 2009)

Bug Smoot has a problem.  A big, stinky, evil problem named Beals.  Seems that on the day she turned thirteen, her grandfather bought a mint condition 1958 Cadillac, not with cash or even a loan, but by selling his soul... and hers.  Now that Papa C has died, Beals has come to collect, and Bug has to figure out how to beat Beals and Old Scratch and save her soul.  Along the way she gets some help from her friend Pesto, his mom, and even a few souls from the Other Side.

I decided to read Soul Enchilada after reading Gill's newer book, Black Hole Sun (see review here).  I'm so glad I picked this one up.  While stories of people trying to beat the Devil out of a deal are not new (see "The Devil and Daniel Webster"), Gill's spin of the story is funny and exciting.  Bug is quite a character, a girl who thinks she knows herself, but isn't perhaps as strong or self-reliant as she thinks. I liked that she could be rude and tough but vulnerable at the same time.   I found the twists and turns in the story kept me wondering what was going to happen next, and at times my jaw dropped in surprise.  While the ending was not exactly unexpected, I didn't mind, because Gill kept me entertained along every step of the journey.

I'm considering using this as a read-aloud with my seventh graders.  There's enough suspense and action to keep the kids entertained, and it will be an interesting contrast to some of the other books we've read so far this year.

This is definitely a 5-star book for me, and I can't wait to see what Gill comes up with next.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles

Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles
(Harcourt, 2001)

Earlier this school year, I had the opportunity to see Deborah Wiles talk about her inspiration for writing her latest book Countdown (Scholastic, 2010).  As she talked about her childhood and how much of her own life ended up in Countdown, she mentioned that all of her books are full of experiences and stories from her own childhood.  I knew that Love, Ruby Lavender was already in my classroom library, and I knew that I needed to read it. 

Nine year old Ruby Lavender and her grandmother, Miss Eula, live in the tiny town of Hallelujah, Mississippi.  Ruby relies on her grandmother for friendship, advice, and companionship, and when Miss Eula decides to visit her son in Hawaii, Ruby feels left behind.  Ruby's feud with Melba Jane, her quest to make sure her chicken Ivy's chicks hatch, and her growing friendship with the new girl Dove all help to keep her busy while Miss Eula is away.  Little does Ruby know that she will be a different girl when Miss Eula returns home to Hallelujah.

I thoroughly enjoyed this sweet story.  Ruby's character was exactly what one would expect from a feisty 9 year old in a small town.  She is at turns gruff and vulnerable, and as the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand exactly why Ruby relies so much on Miss Eula.  While the story is definitely aimed at middle grade readers, I will be telling my seventh graders about this story.  Some will view this book as being too young for them, but I'm hoping through my booktalk I can convince those who have not met Ruby to give this book a try.  Wiles's message about the power of friendship and the transformative power of forgiveness is one that all kids could benefit from. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Vordak the Incomprehensible: How to Grow Up and Rule the World by Scott Seegert

Vordak the Incomprehensible:  How to Grow Up and Rule the World by Scott Seegert (Egmont, 2010)

Summary from book cover:  Are you someone who likes "doing the right thing"? Do you enjoy "sharing" and "caring" and "treating others as you would want to be treated"?  If so, than you are a pathetic goober and a complete waste of my time.  Put this book down immediately.  But if your feeble little mind dreams of a bigger, better, more evil future, then I, Vordak the Incomprehensible, will teach you everything you need to know about Supervillany.  From selecting a supremely evil name, to molding a menacing multitude of minions, my magnificent manual will make dominating the planet so simple that even a sniveling little pipsqueak such as yourself can one day GROW UP AND RULE THE WORLD!  MUAHAHAHAHA!!!!"

I was first introduced to this book by banter between Paul W. Hankins and Vordak himself on Twitter.  Paul made this book sound incredibly fun, and I have to admit,  I did have fun reading it, even though I'm not the target audience (that being, of course, middle grade boys).  The text is a great mix of advice and drawings that illustrate Vordak's evilness.

This tongue-in-cheek self-help book is a delight.  Boys will have fun reading this crazy book; it is right up their alley from references to boogers to instructions on how to create an army of minions.  I can't wait to see the reactions of my students when I booktalk this one tomorrow!

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Across the Universe by Beth Revis
(Razorbill, 2011)

This book got quite a bit of pre-publication buzz on both Twitter and Goodreads.  From all of the things I'd read, I knew it was a book I would like:  dystopian themes, some mystery, some romance.  I must say I was NOT disappointed.  This is one of the first 5 star books I've read this year.

We meet seventeen-year-old Amy as she is about to be cryogenically frozen in preparation for a trip across the universe to Centauri Earth, along with her parents and many other people chosen to help set up a colony on the new planet.  However, fifty years before the ship Godspeed is scheduled to land, Amy is awakened and thrust into a whole new world aboard the ship.  She gets to know Elder, the seventeen-year-old future leader of Godspeed.  Together,  they set out to solve the mystery of who is unplugging the Frozens, and end up learning more than they ever imagined.

I was completely hooked from the very first chapter; the creepy description of the freezing process made me want to read on; once Revis took me to the Godspeed, I just wanted to find out what would happen next.  The story has twists and turns enough to keep readers going, and now that I've finished, I can see the little clues Revis planted along the way.  I picked some of them up and began piecing the mystery together.  Just when I least expected it, Revis threw a curveball and I actually exclaimed out loud in surprise (luckily, I was home on a sick day, so there was no one to hear me talking to myself).

Revis has much to say about power and how it corrupts and the power of human relationships.  Sensitive readers will want to be warned about The Season, where people on the ship "hook up" so that all of the women in a particular generation become impregnated at the same time.  The descriptions are not graphic, but teen readers will definitely know what's going on.  I did feel a little uncomfortable in those parts, but not enough to keep this book off of my classroom library shelves.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs

Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

Teddy Fitzroy lives at FunJungle, a zoo/theme park in Texas where his mom is one of the main researchers in the primate exhibit.  To say that Teddy knows his way around FunJungle would be an understatement.  Teddy also knows how to get himself in trouble, so when he discovers the park's mascot, Henry the Hippo, has been murdered, not everyone is ready to believe him.  Teddy decides to investigate the murder for himself, and ends up in a bigger mystery than even he could have guessed.

I saw Belly Up in the Scholastic Book Order a couple of months ago, and decided to get it for my classroom library based entirely upon the cover design.  Its bright colors and funny title caught my eye in the flyer.

It was the story, however, that kept me reading.  The writing is engaging, and the pacing is fast enough to keep readers interested but not so fast that they miss clues.  The mystery keeps twisting and turning, and I was thoroughly satisfied with the ending.

I'd recommend you belly up to this fun read.  You won't regret it!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea 
(Delacorte, 2010)

Mr. Terupt is a rookie fifth grade teacher.  The kids in his first-ever class think this could be a good thing; new teachers are easy - they don't come down as hard on kids as old teachers.  However, Mr. Terupt's students soon learn he's not just any teacher.  Mr. Terupt has different ideas about kids and learning, and very little gets past him.  He seems to notice everything. But it isn't until a horrible accident occurs on the playground that the students learn the most important lesson of all.

This story is told in seven voices over the course of the school year.  Each of the kids - four girls and three boys - has a problem that needs solving or a secret that's harder and harder to keep.  As the school year progresses and the kids get to learn more and more about each other, friendships form and shift, and the class learns important lessons beyond reading and math.   At first I had a hard time keeping the voices straight, but soon the kids' personalities came through and I didn't even have to look at the names at the beginning of each chapter.

I'm not sure I would have heard about this book if it hadn't been for a posting by Paul W. Hankins over at the Centurions of 2011 Facebook group.   This isn't one that's gotten a lot of buzz on Twitter that I've seen.  I'm really glad I happened upon this title because it's a book I think kids (especially middle graders) will connect with.  Right now my fourth grade daughter is experiencing many friend issues, much like the "girl wars" in this book.  I plan on handing her this book later on today and telling her I'd like to talk about it when she finishes.  I have a feeling talking about this book will help her to find ways to talk about what's going on with her and her friends in a different way. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Taking Off by Jenny Moss

Taking Off by Jenny Moss (Walker, 2011)

I first heard about this book after reading a blog post by Teri Lesesne.  It was earlier in January, before the anniversary of the Challenger explosion.  Teri wrote about having dinner with the author and talking with her about this book.  I immediately ordered the book, and I finally got around to reading it (thank you, snowpocalypse 2011!).

The book is about 18 year old Annie Porter, a high school senior living just outside the Johnson Space Center.  Annie is having trouble deciding what to do with her life.  Her mother and best friend, Lea, are both trying to convince her to go to college.  Her boyfriend of two years, Mark, is trying to convince her to stay with him and make a life together.  What Annie really wants is to be a poet, but she's paralyzed by fear and self doubt.  But then, she meets Christa McAullife at Lea's house, and Annie is inspired by Christa's courage and zeal for life to follow her dreams. 

I was a junior in high school when Challenger exploded.  Like Annie, I was trying to figure out where my place in the world was.  Unlike Annie, I knew I wanted to go away to school, to escape the town where I grew up, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. It wasn't until I was a sophomore in college that I realized I really, really wanted to teach. 

As I read Taking Off, I could identify with Annie and her search for herself. Moss managed to make Annie's struggle real, and although the book is set in the late eighties (complete with references to side pony tails and spiral perms), it is a timeless story.  

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Linger by Maggie Stiefvater

Linger by Maggie Stefvater (Scholastic, 2010)

Summary from cover flap:  Once Sam and Grace have found each other, they know they mus fight to stay together.  For Sam, this means a reckoning with his werewolf past.  For Grace, it means facing a future that is less and less certain.  Into their world comes a new wolf named Cole, whose past is full of hurt and danger.  He is wrestling with his own demons, embracing the life of being a wolf while denying the ties of being human.  For Grace, Sam, and Cole, life is a constant struggle between two forces --wolf and human-- with love baring its two sides as well.  It is harrowing and euphoric, freeing and entrapping, enticing, and alarming.  As their world falls apart, love is what lingers.  But will it be enough?

Linger is the second book in the Werewolves of Mercy Falls trilogy.  It continues the story of Grace and Sam as they try to figure out how to remain together in spite of somewhat stereotypical YA obstacles (choices about the future, disapproving parents, etc.).  I found this second book to be a bit more compelling than the first.  Grace's mysterious illness kept me reading, as I wanted to know what was happening to her.  At first I thought perhaps she was pregnant with a werewolf baby (shades of Breaking Dawn, perhaps?), and I was glad to find out I was off base there.  By the last third of the book I had figured it out and was wondering how the heck Stiefvater was going to get Grace and Sam out of this situation.
The new character of Cole bothered me for most of the book.  I found him to be shallow and too self-involved.  By the end I had warmed up to him a bit, and I'm wondering what role he'll play in the series' final installment, Forever.