Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Momma Left Me by Renee Watson

What Momma Left Me by Renee Watson (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Summary from publisher:
Serenity knows she is good at keeping secrets, and she's got a whole lifetime's worth of them.  Here momma is dead, her daddy's gone, and starting life over at her grandparents' house is strange.  Luckily, certain things seem to hold promise:  a new friend, a new church, a new school.  But when her brother starts making poor choices, and her grandparents hold to a faith that Serenity isn't sure she understands, it is the power of love--in all its forms--that will repair her heart and keep her sure of just who she is. 

Serenity is a character I fell in love with from almost the very first page of this book.  She's an eighth grader struggling to do what she feels is right in situations that she should not have to deal with.  All her life, Serenity has kept her mother's and her father's secrets:  the secrets about where her dad gets the money the family needs to survive and the secrets of her mother's bruises.  Now that both of her parents are gone, Serenity is keeping others' secrets as well, including the secrets of her brother's shady activities and the secret of her best friend's sexual abuse. 

Watson does an amazing job of taking some hard facts of life that we know are true for so many kids and writes about them in a way that makes thinking about these issues approachable for middle school kids.  Yes, this book deals with physical and emotional abuse, theft, sexual abuse, and suicide, but none of is graphic or even really described.  Rather, Watson shows what a caring, supportive community can do to counteract and, as Serenity's grandparents point out, help people to "rise up" and overcome troubles.

While this is another book about dealing with loss, it approached the topic in a different way from others I've read.  It will find a place on my classroom library shelves come fall.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter 
(Disney-Hyperion, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Katarina Bishop has worn a lot of labels in her short life:  Friend. Niece. Daughter. Thief. But for the last two months she's simply been known as the girl who ran the crew that robbed the greatest museum in the world.  That's why Kat isn't surprised when she's asked to steal the infamous Cleopatra Emerald so it can be returned to its rightful owners.  There are only three problems.  First, the gem hasn't been seen in public in thirty years.  Second, since the fall of the Egyptian empire and the suicide of Cleopatra, no one who holds the emerald keeps it for long--and in Kat's world, history almost always repeats itself.  But it's the third problem that makes Kat's crew the most nervous, and that is...the emerald is cursed.  Kat might be in way over her head, but she's not going down without a fight.  After all, she has her best friend--the gogeous Hale-- and the rest of her crew with her as they chase the Cleopatra around the glob, dodging curses and realizing that the same tricks and cons her family has used for centuries are useless this time.  Which means, this time, Katarina Bishop is making up her own rules.

Uncommon Criminals is the perfect summer read.  Fun, light-hearted, full of adventure and a little romance come together in the perfect mix.  I read most of this book either at the pool or sitting in my town's park listening to a free concert, and at points I couldn't put it down.  Carter does a great job of keeping the reader guessing about what will happen to Kat and her crew next.  There were moments when my jaw dropped in surprise, and moments where I was truly worried about how Kat would get herself out of trouble this time.  I don't want to spoil any of the surprises, though, so I won't go into detail!

One of the best things about this book is although it is the second in a series, it can stand alone.  True, there are references to the museum job in Heist Society, but they are not intrusive into the story line of the second book.  I also liked the developing romance between Kat and Hale.  Kat is unsure about her changing feelings for Hale since he's also her best friend.  This is a story line that many teenage girls can relate to. 

While the book is somewhat unrealistic (how many 15-year old girls can go gallivanting around the world without answering to anyone?), it does satisfy a craving for adventure that many readers feel during lazy summer days.  It's a perfect YA companion to the many crime novels on the market for adult readers.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin

Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin (Dial, 2010)

Summary from publisher:
Phoebe finds herself drawn to Mallory, the strange and secretive new girl at school.  Soon the two become as close as sisters...until Mallory's magnetic older brother, Ryland, appears.  Ryland has an immediate, exciting hold on Phoebe--but a dengerous hold, for she begins to question her feelings about her best friend and, worse, about herself.  Soon she'll discover the shocking, fantastical truth about Ryland and Mallory, and about an age-old debt they expect Phoebe to pay.  Will she be strong enough to resist?  Will she be special enough to save herself?

I picked up this book when my local Borders was closing mostly because I loved Werlin's earlier book, Impossible.  Like Impossible, this story has its roots in faerie lore, this time imagining a backstory for a real family's centuries of success.  At first, I found the story to drag a bit; I wondered when the action was going to start.  Once Ryland came into the picture and Phoebe found herself drawn so inexplicably to him, I began to think about abusive relationships, and how people who find themselves vitims are drawn to their abusers.  Ryland, because of his mission, is manipulative and emotionally abusive to Phoebe, and it isn't until Phoebe begins to believe in herself that she realizes she has the strength to stand up for herself.

I'm not sure that Werlin meant for readers to take that particular path, but the breadcrumbs are right there, and there are important messages for teen readers about listening to your internal alarm bells when they go off. 

Of the two books, I liked Impossible better, but Extraordinary was good, too.   I can think of several girls who I think will enjoy this book, and I will point them to it if they come to visit their old seventh grade teacher once they start eighth grade.  This was a good choice for a summer read!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium by Lauren Oliver (Harper, 2011)

Lena lives in a not-to-distant Portland, Maine.  She is a senior in high school, just a few months shy of her eighteenth birthday.  Lena lives in fear of contracting amor deliria nervosa, a disease so horrible it can ruin a person's entire life, destroy families, even cities and countries.  In our time, we call this condition love.  Luckily for Lena, a cure for amor deliria nervosa has been discovered, and the procedure is scheduled for each person shortly after his or her eighteenth birthday.  Once a person receives a cure, he or she marries a suitable match, has children, and lives happily ever after.  Or so Lena thinks.

Delirium is another in a long line of dystopian YA fiction that has become hot over the past two years or so.  I had a hard time getting into the story of Lena and post-war Portland, although about half-way through the book the action picked up.  Oliver's world-building seemed to take longer than it should, and I was also somewhat confused by the motives of Lena's best friend, Hana.  I can understand that she needed to be part of the story to push Lena past her comfort zone, but later in the book her actions and decisions don't seem to ring true to the character Oliver created earlier in the book.

That aside, I did enjoy Delirium.  I thought about what it would be like to live in a world without love; I thought back to my teen years and what I thought and felt about love then compared to what I think and feel about it now.  I considered the power of parent-love and how it is different than the love I feel for my husband - not better or worse, just different.  How would my life be different if I didn't feel the pain and joy love brings?

This  is a book I can easily put into my classroom library, and I know that there are many girls who will tear through it and eagerly await the second in the series.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur

Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur 
(Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)

Summary from publisher:
A tragic accident has turned eleven-year-old Aubrey's world upside down.  Starting a new life all alone, Aubrey has everything she thinks she needs:  SpaghettiOs and Sammy, her new pet fish.  She cannot talk about what happened to her.  Writing letters is the only thing that feels right to Aubrey, even if no one ever reads them.  With the aid of her loving grandmother and new friends, Aubrey learns that she is not alone, and gradually, she finds the words to express feelings that once seemed impossible to describe.  The healing powers of friendship, love, and memory help Aubrey take her first steps toward the future.

This is the third book in a row I've read dealing with grief and loss.  In this book, Aubrey's father and younger sister were killed in a car accident.  Her mother, unable to deal with grief and feelings of guilt, leaves Aubrey all alone in the house.  Luckily, Aubrey's grandmother realizes what's happened, and comes to take Aubrey to live with her in Vermont until her mother is found and receives treatment for her depression.

I could not put this book down once I started reading.  I was completely drawn in to Aubrey's conflicted feelings not only about her mother's abandonment of her, but also toward her younger sister.  Of course, Aubrey loved Savannah, but like most siblings, she was sometimes annoyed and jealous of her.  Now that Savannah is gone, Aubrey feels guilty about these very natural feelings, and has to work through them.  Luckily, she finds a friend in Bridget, who lives next door to Gram in Vermont.  Slowly, Aubrey begins to open up to Bridget about her feelings, and this eventually helps Aubrey open up to others as well.

I look forward to booktalking this book to my new seventh graders once school starts.  I can see this book having wide appeal to the girls, who in seventh grade often gravitate toward "sad" books (although this one is not, it has elements of sadness) and books about friends.  It's a well written book that deserves a place on my classroom library shelves.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Positively by Courtney Sheinmel

Positively by Courtney Sheinmel 
(Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Summary from publisher:
Emerson Price was four years old when she and her mom were diagnosed as HIV-positive -- infected with the virus that causes AIDS.  Now she is thirteen and her mother is dead.  Emmy has to live with her father and his new wife, and she feels totally alone.  Even though everyone has always accepted her, she feels like no one really understands what it's like to be so afraid of getting a cold, to have to take pills every day, and to miss her mom more than she ever thought she would.  When her dad and stepmother send her to Camp Positive, a camp for HIV-positive girls, Emmy is sure she is going to hate it.  But soon she realizes that she is not so alone after all -- and that sometimes letting other people in can make all the difference in the world.

This is a book that I had to think about for a while before I could write a blog post about it.  I read it while traveling from Mackinaw City, Michigan, to Glen Arbor, Michigan, about three hours in the car.  I could not put it down.  I haven't read many books about HIV-positive teens, and Sheinmel hits just the right chords with this book.  Not only does Emmy have to deal with her disease, she also has to deal with the loss of her mother and her stepmother's pregnancy.  It's funny how sometimes life imitates art.  While I am not HIV-positive, I did lose my mother and gain a half-sister in the span of a week, so I can understand Emmy's torn emotions over staying loyal to her mom while at the same time learning to love her half-sister. 
One of the things I appreciated about this story is that it's not ALL about HIV.  Yes, the disease takes a toll on Emmy's life, but she has more to her life.  The emotional journey Emmy undertakes helps her to understand this as well.

I'm so glad I came across this title.  This is a book that could have very easily been overlooked.  I think many of my students will enjoy this book and its story of family, friends, love, and loss.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Naming of Tishkin Silk by Glenda Millard

The Naming of Tishkin Silk by Glenda Millard 
(Farrar, Straus, & Giraux, 2003)

Publisher's Summary:
Griffin Sik is an uncommon boy, from an uncommon sort of family--but lately Griffin isn't so sure that's a good thing. If he were an ordinary boy, he wouldn't have to worry about the secret in his heart and maybe he would understand why his mother and baby sister have gone away from home.  When Griffin starts school and meets the spirited Princess Layla, a once-in-a-lifetime friend who can heal souls, the answers to his questions gently start to unfold.  And just like the mythical beast whose name he bears, Griffin discovers that he has uncommon courage and the heart of a lion.

This sweet book would be a perfect addition to a middle grade library.  The story of Griffin and how he deals with the grief of losing his baby sister is very age-appropriate, and the friendship between Griffin and Layla rings true.  Because I've been in such a YA frame of mind lately, I was hoping for a bit MORE, but as I think about my almost-10-year-old, this is the type of book I could hand her to read that might open some discussions about recent losses in our family. 

Grief is not something we necessarily want our kids to deal with, but in reality, kids deal with grief all the time.  From the death of a beloved pet to the loss of a grandparent or even parent, kids learn firsthand how hard it is to deal with the loss of a loved one.  Books like The Naming of Tishkin Silk or even The Tenth Good Thing About Barney can help.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Mermaid's Mirror by L.K. Madigan

The Mermaid's Mirror by L.K. Madigan 
(Houghton Mifflin, 2010)

Publisher's Summary:
Lena has lived her whole life near the beach--walking miles up and down the shore and breathing the salty air, swimming inthe cold water, and watching the surfers rule the waves--the problem is, she's spent her whole life just watching.  As her sixteenth birthday approaches, Lena vows she will no longer watch from the sand:  she will learn to surf.  But her father--a former surfer himself--refuses to allow her to take lessons.  After his near drowning years ago, he can't bear to let Lena take up the risky sport.  Yet something keeps drawing Lena to the ancient, powerful magic.  And one morning Lena catches sight of this magic:  a beautiful woman--with a silvery tail.  Now nothing can stop Lena from seeking the mermaid, not even the dangerous waves at Magic Crescent Cove.  And soon... what she sees in the mermaid's mirror will change her life forever.

From the very first page of The Mermaid's Mirror, I was completely engaged.  I wanted to know what was going on with Lena, and why she would sleepwalk her way to the beach.  As the story progressed, I could identify with Lena's search for answers about her past - why did her father forbid her from learning to surf?  what really happened to her mother when she was four?  why is someone or something calling to her from out in the surf?  When Lena discovers the truth about her mother (and herself), her life is turned upside down, and she has to make some tough choices - stay with her father, stepmother and brother or leave all that she has ever known and go and live with the mother she hasn't seen since she was four.

While parts of this book were somewhat predictable, the story as a whole was incredibly well written.  In her Author's Note, Madigan says this novel is her "love letter to the sea" and this comes across loud and clear in the surfing and shore scenes.

Last March I devoured L.K. Madigan's Flash Burnout in practically one sittting.  Her writing entranced me; I was incapable of putting the book down for any but the most pressing chores.  Reading The Mermaid's Mirror was no different in terms of its ability to draw me in.  The difference with this book was knowing that I wouldn't get to write more of Madigan's magical prose when I finished.  Sadly, Madigan passed away this past February, much to the dismay of her readers, friends, and family.  She will be missed.

I highly recommend both of Madigan's books.  Pick one up; you won't be sorry.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (Scholastic, 2011)

I first fell in love with Libba Bray's books when I read A Great and Terrible Beauty while on maternity leave with my first child.  The story of Gemma Doyle and her journeys through the realms fascinated me.  I waited anxiously for each of the books in the trilogy to be released, and was rather sad when I finished the last of them.  Bray's next book, Going Bovine, was completely different.  The story of Cam and his Don Quixote-like quest earned Bray a Printz Award.

Now we have Beauty Queens.  Again, completely different, which in itself is not a bad thing.  Bray is able to write in many genres, and her books certainly give readers much to think about.  In this book, it's society's expectations for girls and what is considered to be beautiful.  The book opens with a plane crash.  On the plane are the 50 contestants for the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant, their chaperones, and a camera crew.  The surviving contestants find themselves stranded on a "deserted" island, and they must figure out not only how to survive, but also how to get along.  There's also a bit of spy-novel mystery in the storyline that I don't want to give away.

I didn't love Beauty Queens.  It was a fun enough read for the beginning of my summer vacation, but I found that the story just didn't draw me in from the beginning.  I was almost halfway through the book before I found myself really wanting to know what happened next.  I must admit, though, that I did love the way the girls rescued themselves, instead of waiting for a hero to show up and do everything for them.

Perhaps part of the problem is that I'm in my 40s, and I've figured out that I don't need anyone's approval in order to be the person I am.  I've learned to be comfortable in my own skin and to speak out on issues that are important to me.  I can see, however, this book appealing to teen girls who are trying to figure out where they fit in the scheme of things, beauty-wise, relationship-wise, and career-wise.  Bray delivers ultimate girl power here.  

Top Ten Books of the Moment

Today on Twitter, Teri Lesesne (@professornana) and Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) were talking about the top 10 lists they created for a joint presentation they gave recently.  That got me thinking about my top 10 books.  Every year a student asks me what my favorite book EVER is, and I tell them that choosing a favorite book is like asking me to choose which of my children is my favorite.

I decided to take Teri up on her challenge of choosing my top 10 books of the moment.  I'm going to try not to think too hard about my choices, because otherwise, the list might not ever get made!  Here goes(in no particular order):

1.  Divergent by Veronica Roth
2.  Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
3.  The Running Dream by Wenelin Van Draanen
4.  Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
5.  Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
6.  Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
7.  Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
8.  The Giver by Lois Lowry
9.  Countdown by Deborah Wiles
10. Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Linked titles are ones I've previously reviewed here.