Sunday, May 29, 2011
The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner
(Frances Foster Books, 2011)
Summary from publisher:
While Nick Gardner's family is falling apart, his pest friend, the Scoot, is dying of a freak disease. Enter Jaycee Amato, a quirky girl with Siberian husky eyes and an odd affinity for Of Mice and Men. She's made a seemingly impossible promise to the Scoot and wants Nick's help to keep it. Armed only with the wisdom of Yoda, the beauty of Steinbeck, and the vaguest of plans, Nick and Jaycee set of on a secret whirlwind journey to find the father the Scoot has never known. When everything goes awry, will the pull of gravity be enough to keep them together?
What can I say about this book? I read it straight through in one sitting, completely pulled in to the story of Nick and Jaycee's journey to find the Scoot's father. From the very beginning as Nick describes his fever-induced hallucinations (I have a kid who does this, so I could relate), to the end when he discovers some things about his family, Polisner captures details that make the story feel real and relatable.
The only negative thing I can say about this book is that I wish I had gotten to know the Scoot better. Even though I know the story is Nick's, I especially loved the scenes about the Scoot. This is one character who is at home with himself and his issues, and I thought Scoot's obsession with Star Wars (and Yoda in particular) was endearing. I know kids like that, minus the rare genetic disease.
I will be purchasing this book for my classroom library once it comes out in paperback. It's a story I think will appeal to girls who love realistic fiction, but that I can also sell to those boys who are willing to take a chance on something other than fantasy, sci fi, or sports books. I'm wondering how it would fare as a read aloud, too.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine
Summary from publisher:
In Caitlin's world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That's the stuff Catilin's older brother, Devon, as always explained. But now Devon's dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger's, she doesn't know how. When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs. In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white--the world is full of colors--messy and beautiful.
I've had a run of books I've loved lately, which is very nice for helping to reduce the stress of the end of the school year. Add Mockingbird to that list. Since its publication last year, I'd been hearing amazing things about this book, but didn't get around to reading it until yesterday. Holy cow... what a story! Caitlin's story is a quiet one. The journey she undertakes is internal, rather than being an action packed thrill ride such as Throne of Fire. When the reader first meets Caitlin at the beginning of the year, she is struggling to understand the death of her older brother Devon, the one person who could explain the world so that she could Get It. His death leaves both her and her father reeling, but since she's on the autism spectrum, she doesn't understand the emotions involved. Throw in her inability to make friends and the fact that her mother died of cancer years before, and Caitlin's vulnerability becomes simply heartbreaking.
Like Sharon Draper did in Out of My Mind, Erskine takes you inside the head of a child who faces great challenges. It's often hard for other kids to understand why a classmate with Asperger's or other autism spectrum disorders acts the way she does. This book helps kids to see that those classmates really aren't all that different; they just face some special challenges understanding social cues, and with patience can become great friends.
I'm passing this one on to my older daughter to read this summer. It will also go in my "Mrs. Rench's Favorites" bin when I set my classroom library up again in the fall.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Summary from publisher:
When eleven-year-old Jack Martel crawls out of his pup tent on the first morning of his camping trip with his mom in Acadia National Park, he notices right away that something isn't right. Where is his mom's tent, and their rental car? And where is his mom? Any other kid might panic, might even go to the police. But Jack isn't like other kids. And his mom isn't like other moms. Jack knows that it's up to him to find his mom before someone figures out what's happened and separates them forever. But finding his mom in the state of Maine isn't the same as finding her in their neighborhood back in Boston. With nothing but a small plastic elephant to keep him company, Jack begins his search, starting with all the places they'd planned to visit together. But as the search drags on, a dark thought plagues him once he finds his mom, will he ever be able to forgive her?
I loved this book. When I first started reading, I was reminded of Cynthia Voight's Homecoming, also the story of children abandoned by a mentally ill parent, which I also loved. Soon, though I began loving this book on its own merits. Jacobson creates a character who is courageous yet vulnerable. Jack knows the reality of his mother's situation, even if he can't put a name to it, and he realizes that if he's not careful, his life will veer out of his control. Jack makes decisions that make sense for an eleven year old who has learned to take care of himself; even though those decisions may not be "right" according to others. He does what he has to do to survive. Luckily, Jack meets people who take care of him, even if they don't realize that's what they're doing. Certainly, in real life, a child wandering alone through towns in Maine might run into real danger.
Read this one with a hankie in hand. It is incredibly sad in parts, but does have a heartwarming ending. I can't wait to use this book as a read aloud with next year's seventh graders!
Thursday, May 26, 2011
North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
(Little Brown, 2009)
Summary from publisher:
It's hard not to notice Terra Cooper. She's tall, blond, and has an enviable body. But with one turn of her cheek, all people notice is her unmistakably "flawed" face. Terra secretly plans to leave her small, stifling town in the Northwest and escape to an East Coast college, but gets pushed off-course by her controlling father. When an unexpected collision puts Terra directly in Jacob's path, the handsome but quirky Goth boy immediately challenges her assumptions about her self and her life, and she is forced in yet another direction. With her carefully laid plans disrupted, will Terra be able to find her true path?
As I read, my heart ached for both Terra and her mother. While not physically abusive, her father's cutting remarks are a constant source of pain for them both. Terra uses herself as a shield to try to protect her mother from her father's constant barrage of verbal abuse, using her running as a way to escape. Whenever I read books that involve physical or emotional abuse, I find myself telling the characters to just leave the abuser, but in reality I know that it is not that easy. Headley does an amazing job of showing the complexities of abusive relationships in a way that is not preachy or didactic.
Terra's journey of self discovery is one that almost every teen can identify with. Like many teens and adults, Terra judges her self-worth on her beauty, and in her mind she sorely comes up short due to a large port-wine stain on her face. Through her relationship with Jacob she learns to look at herself in a different way and find the true beauty within.
I highly recommend North of Beautiful. It's a quiet book, but one that will keep you turning the pages long after you should turn out the lights to go to sleep.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Illusions by Aprilynne Pike (Harper Teen, 2011)
Laurel is torn. Torn between human boyfriend David who has been with her through thick and thin and fae guardian Tamani who wants to be more than just a friend. Torn between living a life in the human world, hiding her true identity but staying with her friends and the parents who raised her or returning to Avalon, to live among the fae. Ever since the day Laurel discovered she was in fact a faerie and not a human girl, Laurel's life has been difficult, and things aren't getting any easier. The danger Laurel faces from the trolls who stalk her grows with each passing day, and in the end she has tough decisions to make.
Illusions is the third book in a series that began with Wings. While I've enjoyed the series as a whole, I feel this is the weakest of the three. As I read, I kept wondering when something was going to happen. Most of the book is Laurel trying to decide between Tamani and David, and even that question is unresolved in the end. I kept on reading because I enjoy the characters. At this point in the series, they feel like old friends. I'm hoping the fourth book (and there HAS to be a fourth book since so much is left unresolved) will tie up all of the loose ends and answer the lingering questions.
This is definitely not a stand alone book. In order to truly understand the word Pike has created, you have to read the first two. The whole series appeals to girls who like paranormal romances with a little action and adventure thrown in. Overall, an enjoyable read!
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Faithful by Janet Fox (Speak, 2010)
Summary from publisher:
Sixteen-year-old Maggy Bennet's life is in tatters. Her mother has disappeared and is presumed dead. The next thing she knows , her father has dragged Maggie away from their elegant Newport home, off on some mad excursion to Yellowstone in Montana. Torn from the only life she's ever known, Maggie is furious and devastated by her father's betrayal. But when she arrives, she finds herself drawn to the frustratingly stubborn, handsome Tom Rowland, the son of a park geologist, and to the wild romantic beauty of Yellowstone itself. And as Tom and the promise of freedom capture her heart, Maggie is forced to choose between who she is and who she wants to be.
Let me be up-front and firmly assert that I LOVE historical fiction with a little romance put in. Faithful was just the type of book I was in the mood for. As any reader of YA knows, paranormal romance and dystopian fiction have been the hot trends for the past few years, so I've been reading LOTS of those. It's much harder to find a good historical fiction book, especially one that pulls the reader right into the story from the very first page. At first, I didn't much like the character of Maggie; she struck me as a spoiled brat, worried only about herself and her own needs. As I got farther into the story, I began to understand why Maggie was the way she was, and even Maggie herself realized that she needed to change if she was to lead a different life than the one her father had planned for her.
In addition to the sweeping vistas of Yellowstone and the budding romance between Maggie and Tom, Fox works a mystery into the story: what happened to Maggie's mother, and what was her inexplicable pull toward Yellowstone. As Maggie searches for her mother, she digs up some family secrets that set her world spinning.
I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of Faithful. In fact, I could barely stand to put the book down when it was time to cook dinner for my family or grade papers. I can definitely think of several students who would enjoy this book as much as I did.
I'm looking forward to the early June release of Fox's next book, Forgiven, which looks to be a companion to Faithful.
Monday, May 16, 2011
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
(Little Brown, 2009)
Young Minli lives in the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, where she and her parents spend their days working hard in the fields. At night, Minli listens to her father's tales about the Old Man of the Moon--he will know how she can bring good fortune to her family. Along the way, she meets many magical friends, including a talking fish, a powerful king, and a dragon who can't fly.
I picked this book up because it is nominated for the 2012 Rebecca Caudill Young Reader's Award in Illinois. I'm not sure it is a book I would have picked up otherwise. While I think the cover art is gorgeous, the summary of the book on the back doesn't do much to sell the story.
It took me a bit to get into this sweet book, told mostly through Lin's interpretations of Chinese myths and fairy tales. Once Minli sets out on her journey to find the Old Man of the Moon, I found myself unable to put the book down. I was drawn in my Minli's courage and determination to help her parents, and her loyalty to the dragon who becomes her friend. Over the course of her voyage, Minli finds the secret to true happiness and good fortune, and I was glad that Lin was able to convey this lesson without being didactic or preachy.
I think my older daughter would enjoy this book. She loves adventure stories and novels that involve a quest. While she's been firmly entrenched in the three series by Rick Riordan, I think Where the Mountain Meets the Moon would be an interesting change of pace for her. The adventure is quieter, the heroine more subtle than Percy Jackson or Sadie and Carter Kane, and the magic a bit more subtle, but these all add up to a good read.
The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg
With their family home facing foreclosure, seventeen-year-old Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, need to raise a lot of money fast--no easy feat for two women in 1896. Helga wants to tackle the problem with her usual loud and flashy style, while Clara favors a less showy approach. Together they come up with a plan to walk the 4,600 miles from Mica Creek, Washington, to New York City--and if they can do it in only seven months, a publisher has agreed to give them $10,000.
Historical fiction is probably one of my favorite genres. I love how these stories can take me back to another place and time and let me experience adventures that would be impossible today. When I picked up The Year We Were Famous, I immediately liked the plucky main character, Clara. As the book opens, Clara's mother has been in bed for months, grieving for a lost child. Clara is responsible for caring for her siblings and running the household, as well as trying to figure out how to keep the family farm. Clara seems to take all of this in stride, as she does her mother's sudden rise from bed and subsequent manic cleaning spree. I was prepared not to like Helga; at first I thought her to be selfish and self-centered, but as Helga's story unfolded, I began to understand her more, as well as her choices as a parent. Helga and Clara must work through some difficult mother-daughter issues as they traverse the country, and end up better people as a result.
In addition to the characters, I also really enjoyed the story of Clara's and Helga's adventure. They face everything from a possible bandit to a seemingly endless lava field to a rushing river, and still manage to journey onward. Knowing that the story was based on the lives of the author's great-aunt and great-grandmother made the story that much more intriguing.
I highly recommend The Year We Were Famous to anyone who enjoys good old-fashioned historical fiction. Pick it up... you won't be disappointed.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
The Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan
In this second installment of the Kane Chronicles, Sadie and Carter must awaken the sleeping god Ra in order to stop chaos from destroying the world. Of course, many obstacles get in their way in order to complicate their quest including an attack by a vulture goddess and a giant baboon, an evil magician, and a fiery lake. Over the course of the book, Sadie and Carter learn to trust their instincts and that sometimes sacrifice is necessary for the greater good.
Like The Red Pyramid, Riordan takes ancient Egyptian myths and brings them into the 21st Century. Both books are full of action, sure to keep kids turning the pages. When my pre-ordered copy arrived in the mail last week, my 9 year old daughter got quite upset that the book wasn't for her. I had to go out and get her a copy of her own. I can tell you she's loving it! I'm loving that she's challenging herself with a more complex story than those in the Riordan's Percy Jackson books (which I also enjoyed). If pressed to choose which series I like more, I'd have to say it's the Kane Chronicles. I really like Sadie and Carter and how they have a typical sibling relationship. They also seem like real kids, albeit with magical powers!
I am positive this book will see heavy circulation in my classroom library. I have several students who can't wait for me to bring it to school!
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Doug Swietek is new in Marysville, which makes him stick out like a sore thumb. Even worse... his brother is a hoodlum who is quickly accused of robbing a deli. After that, many people in town, including Principal Peatie and many of the other teachers at his new school believe he's a hoodlum, too. Luckily for Doug, though, there are people who believe in him. There's Lil, his new friend (and perhaps more?), and his science teacher Mr. Ferris who encourages Doug to pursue his dreams, and Mr. Powell, who shows Doug the wonders of Audubon's art and teaches Doug to look at the world in a new way. As the school year progresses and Doug faces new challenges, he learns to trust himself more and more and begins to realize the power of true friendship.
This is an amazing story, one of the best realistic fiction stories I've read in a really long time. Over the course of the book I laughed out loud AND cried, sometimes both in the same chapter. My heart broke for Doug as I read about his abusive father, a man who definitely rules the mood of his home. I wanted so much for Doug and his mom to just get up and leave, but I knew that wouldn't happen. Each time Mr. Swietek did or said something mean to Doug, I felt worse and worse.
The thing that I loved about this book, though, was how Doug came to realize what's really important in his life. Through his art lessons with Mr. Powell, he learned to look at the world with an artist's eye, to consider events from different perspectives and to think about alternative explanations. I'm not sure if Doug would have made it through the school year without Mr. Powell, a gentle force in Doug's life.
Schmidt created a story that completely enthralled me. I found it hard to stop thinking about this book, even when I was busy with my day. I hope this book gets some love come awards season; it certainly deserves it!
Monday, May 2, 2011
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Summary from book jacket:
What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life? Samantha Kingston has it all: the world's most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High -- from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last. Then she gets a second chance. Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death -- and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.
Samantha and her friends are quintessential Mean Girls. They are snotty, bratty, obnoxious, and a few other words I can't write on a family-friendly blog. However, I found reason to like both Samantha and lead-Mean Girl Lindsay over the course of this story. Oliver writes about high school in a way that took me back to my own days at Belleville West in the late 1980s. Yes, the styles, cars, and to some extent language, were different, but the core of teenage relationships is still the same. As I read, I thought about situations I witnessed during those days and how I might have reacted differently if I had the opportunity for a "redo." Would I make different choices? What would have been the repercussions?
As Samantha relives her last day over and over again, she learns (albeit slowly at times) to think for herself and to think of others. She slowly realizes the reasons behind Lindsay's iron-fisted control over the popular group of girls, and the fears Lindsay is hiding. Sam also realizes that Rob, her oh-so-dreamy crush isn't so dreamy after all. As Samantha grew up, I kept hoping that she'd wake up and live happily ever after, even though I usually dislike the happily-ever-after ending.
This book is definitely PG-13. I'm still trying to decide if I can in good conscience put this one in my classroom library. The girls' language is pretty raw in parts, and the topics of their conversations somewhat graphic, although no actual sex is described in the story. I do feel that the lessons Samantha learns are important ones that teens can identify with. I'll let you know what I decide.