Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Call for Cybils Judges!

Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards

If you've missed the call for Cybils Judges and would like to be considered, head over to the site now and sign up. I am the head of Middle Grade Fiction, so if you read a lot of this type of book and would like to read a lot more, head over and fill out the application.

An excellent post on the intricacies of being a panelist was put up by the lovely Charlotte over at Charlotte's Library. There were around 150 books that the first round panelists needed to read last year; second round judges get 6-8. While some copies are sent to judges, we need to find most of them on our own.

Like anything worth doing, it's a lot of work, but it's a great opportunity to meet other like minded individuals who love books, get a fantastic overview of the books that were published in the last year, and to think critically about what books are well written AND appeal to young readers!

Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting

18507795Dionne, Erin. Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting
July 10th 2014 by Dial

In this sequel to Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking, we find Ollie whisked off to a scout camp to lie low in the aftermath of finding the stolen art with Moxie. Ollie is a little apprehensive to join an existing troop of boys he doesn't know, but likes the idea of geocaching and participating in a game of attrition where boys are tagged "out". There is the added thrill of mysteries on the small islands outside of Boston, and these become even more intense when the park ranger's daughter, Grey, shows up. What is the ranger really doing? And how much trouble will Ollie and his new friends get in while they break camp rules to investigate?
Strengths: Lots of adventure in the woods, complete with highjinks that are against the rules. A touch of historical information. I've been reading a lot about Graff's Absolutely Almost and how it is new and innovative that Albie is a "regular" kid-- Ollie certainly was regular in this book.
Weaknesses: I loved Moxie, and missed her character tremendously. This book didn't have the same element of danger, the mysteries seemed scattered, and something just didn't click for me.

This does, however, get HUGE points for #WeNeedDiverseBooks Wednesday-- Ollie is half Vietnamese (and has bad asthma), the scoutmaster is Fuentes, the parent volunteer is Gupta, and this boys include a Spezzano, Vargas, Pryzyblowicz, Ramirez and an Imprezzi. Troop leader Washington has dreadlocks. The ethnic makeup of Boston must be much different than the ethnic makeup of central Ohio-- we have a growing Somali, Hispanic and Ghanan population, but still have a vast majority of students with names like Williams, Taylor and Brown!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The League of Seven

18490612Gratz, Alan. The League of Seven
August 19th 2014 by Starscape 
E ARC from

In an alternate 1870s where First Nations people compose a large portion of the country, Archie's parents are librarians for the Septembrists, a group dedicated to making sure that the Mangleborn (giant beetle like evil doers who have been controlled for centuries but are roused by use of electricity). The Mangleborn attack Archie's parents and steal them away, and Archie ends up in the company of one of Edison's assistants who has realized that the inventor is evil and wants to release the menace. With the help of Mr. Rivets (his parents' robot helper), Fergus and Hachi, he assembles a team of seven adventurers who follow the formula for all good Septembrist groups (tinker, etc.) through the ages. Can they manage to control the Mangleborn threat and find out secrets of Archie's past?
Strengths: I really enjoy Gratz's work: The Brooklyn Nine,and  Prisoner 3087 were awesome. I appreciate that he thought about all the things that he would have thought were cool in books when he was ten and included those sorts of things in a good introduction to Steam Punk. There are plenty of gross moments in this, plus cool clockwork robots.
Weaknesses: Steam Punk is a hard sell in my library, and I don't like it myself, so this was sort of hard to read for me. My only REAL complaint about this was the short description of "p-mail" or pneumatic mail that was delivered "via a series of tubes called the Inter-Net" (page 101). This reminded me of Once Upon a Marigold, where "p-mail" is "pigeon mail". Just... no. But I will buy a copy of this for my fantasy readers who might like to explore this genre.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

MMGM- The Map Trap

13260468Clements, Andrew. The Map Trap.
July 22nd 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers 

Alton has had a life-long fascination with maps of all kind. He loves to look at them, hang them in his room, and draw them. He draws maps not only of real places, but of things like his teacher Miss Wheeling's mind, the heights of kids in his class, and charts of the cafeteria food correlated with the number of bathroom trips students make! After Alton tries to impress "cool kid" Quint by showing him the map of Miss Wheeling, the whole folder goes missing. Thinking that Quint has probably taken it, Alton rides his bike to Quint's house, and the two start to investigate. Fearing that people will hate him for all of his funny but unflattering comments after someone sends him a ransom note of sorts concerning the maps, Alton apologizes to a teacher whose use of "um" he has charted-- and she finds the chart amusing. Buoyed by this, Alton proceeds to apologize to everyone, so he doesn't have to worry about the maps resurfacing. In the process, he makes friends with Quint and gets along better with his classmates.
Strengths: Fun tale of making friends and facing the consequences of our actions. There are always a number of younger readers, especially boys, who love maps. Clements is a tiny bit young for middle school, but a great choice for struggling readers at this level.
Weaknesses: Quint's vocal tics were odd enough without Alton pointing them out multiple times, and the illustrations have an odd, 1980s quality to them.

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and What Are You Reading? day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers.

Yearly Status Update/Rant:
We have been back at school for a week now. I love the start of the year! So much energy and enthusiasm, especially since I've convinced my principal to let me rename the library the Portal to Other Dimensions and to call myself the Portal Keeper Master. I felt that after Common Core, testing, building renovations, staff turnover, and an otherwise stressful year, students and teachers needed something fun and stress relieving. What better way than to sell reading as a release from all of those concerns? I'll share more about the "Portal" as the year progresses.

One reason that I need some stress relief is that at the beginning of June, both of my parents (who are 80) went from being in reasonably good health and living alone in a four bedroom house, to being in poor physical and mental health and living in a senior community, with my mother, who has had Parkinson's for a number of years, in assisted living. The downsizing and transfer took some considerable time.

Most years, this would not bother me, but this year, it's hard. Reading books like The Map Trap can be difficult, since I once had a student who not only adored Andrew Clements' books but who also was very fond of maps, competing in the Geography Bee and translating this love into global traveling. Like so many other students, he is no longer at my school or in my life, but the books that he checked out still are on the shelves and I come across them daily.

Long time readers may be reassured that I and my family are fine, as we are embracing this philosophy every single day: “Go back?" he thought. "No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!" So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go! 

I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii, 79 A.D.

20578944Tarshis, Lauren. I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii, 79 A.D.
August 26th 2014 by Scholastic Inc. 
E ARC from

Marcus used to be the slave of Linus Selius, a scientist, and his father, Tata, helped the man out with his studies. When the scientist died, Tata was sold, and Marcus' life at Festus' house in Pompeii became very difficult. Pompeii is seeing a lot of natural disturbances, and when there is a tremor in the market place that knocks an old lady down, Marcus helps her up. She warns him that dire times are coming and advises that he should "follow the hand of Mercury". When Marcus sees gladiators coming into town and recognizes his father among them, he is determined to rescue his father from certain death. The disturbances, as well as the appearance of a horse the two are able to ride, make this escape possible, but Tata feels compelled to go back to the town and let everyone know that disaster is looming and that everyone should flee. The guards don't take the slaves seriously and their freedom is again in peril. Can the two survive not only the volcano but also the evil Festus?
Strengths: I'm a huge fan of this series. The books are fast paced, exciting, and impart a great deal of historical information to reluctant readers. Pompeii is covered in our seventh grade social studies curriculum.
Weaknesses: Disclaimer: I taught Latin. There were some details in this book that struck me as not quite right. At one point, guests come to Festus' house driving a chariot. Chariots were used only in the military, as far as I know. Horses were not really ridden, as they were very hard to obtain and expensive to keep, which makes me think that Marcus' chances of finding an abandoned horse who was amenable to being ridden would have been slim. Tata was an educated slave from Germania, and it seems unlikely that he would have been sold as a gladiator, even if Festus had a grudge concerning him. Of course the guards wouldn't have listened to the slaves. I doubted the pair's ability to escape after ash started falling.

So I'm torn. This is a good story, and some of the details of Ancient Rome are good. Am I being too picky? Tarshis clearly did research, so am I misremembering details?

By the way, an excellent online resource for Roman life and culture, Mary Johnston's The Private Life of the Romans, is available at

Saturday, August 16, 2014

XYZs of Being Wicked

18812590Chapman, Lara. The XYZs of Being Wicked
July 22nd 2014 by Aladdin 

Hallie is the first girl in her family in about five generations, and since she is from a family of witches, she is sent rather suddenly to the Dowling Academy School of Witchcraft. She is a bit surprised, but glad that she can start over, far away from former BFF and current nemesis Kendall. She's also eager to see what magic she will be able to do. When she arrives, things go well until her roommate turns out to be Kendall, who still won't speak to her. Luckily, she soon meets Ivy, whose roommate is the equally obnoxious Zena, the daughter of the headmistress. Ivy and Hallie start to ban together, and start to enjoy their classes, especially the ones dealing with discovering their magical gifts. Hallie's discovery is impeded a bit by an amulet she was looking at in the library, picked up when the custodian was around, and hasn't been able to get back to the display case! It belonged to one of the founders of the school, and it seems to have imbued Hallie with some of its power. The school is only about good magic, not black magic, so Hallie is surprised and worried when she hears Zena and Kendall trying to cast a spell to make other girls ugly, especially when the spell seems to have the opposite effect and make them prettier. Hallie has to figure out her gifts, her lineage, and how to fit in at the school and deal with a roommate who won't even talk to her.

I know that I was enthralled by the idea of magic when I was in middle school-- I wish I knew the name of the "spell" book that I checked out repeatedly from the public library! This was good magical realism, and the girl drama is certainly part of the middle school experience, even at schools that don't deal in magic. This has a great cover, too, and a sequel coming out in April 2015.
Weaknesses: I found it hard to believe that Kendall would have dumped Hallie as a friend because Hallie started to wear glasses and cook kids don't-- this wasn't even true when I was in middle school. I was also confused by the titles of both books, since the academy clearly frowns on black magic. I didn't find anything objectionable in the books, but if your school had fits over Harry Potter, there would certainly be concerns about portraying witches as real.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor

20702011Scieszka, Jon. Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor
August 19th 2014 by Amulet Books
ARC from Baker and Taylor

Frank is hoping to win the Midville science competition by creating a robot with a thought process driven by a neural network rather than linear programming.He manages to succeed, although the robot Klink is slightly more intelligent than the robot Klank, whose memory is from a digital watch and who has significant parts from a  Hug Me Monkey doll and a keyboard. Since the robots created themselves, he doesn't feel it's right to enter them into the competition, even though he hopes to use the prize money to help out his grandpa Al, who runs a fix it shop out of a converted factory. The robots help Frank and his friend Watson create an antimatter motor for a Fly Bike, but the robots and motor are stolen by the evil and conniving T. Edison and his evil sidekick, Mr. Chimp, who hope to win the competition and put Al out of business. When the science prize is given to T. Edison without any competition, he fends off any complaints by awarding money to each competitor. This doesn't assuage Frank, though, and thanks to his robots, he is able to save the day enough to come back for book two.
Strengths: It is a rare book that includes BOTH Asimov's Rules for Robots and a plot synopsis of Pilkey's Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants. That in itself should win this book some kind of award. Combine that with copious illustrations, robots, a chimpaneze who knows sign language and a flying bike-- you've got middle grade gold. Bonus: If you are a Lit God like Scieszka, you can have both Jeff Kinney and Tom Angleberger blurb your book!
Weaknesses: Scieszka's Knucklehead set the bar incredibly high for me. It is the funniest thing I have ever read in my life, and I keep expecting everything else by Scieszka to make me laugh so hard that I get lightheaded. This didn't, so I was vaguely disappointed. Had it been by anyone else, I would have thought it was brilliant, but I just want more of Knucklehead's realistic, slightly older humor!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Book of Bad Things

20578972Poblocki, Dan. The Book of Bad Things.
August 26th 2014 by Scholastic Press 
E ARC from

Cassidy loves spending the summer in a community away from the city, in a stable family, with a friend, Joey, to play with. She's back again, but this time, it's a last minute arrangement, and her host family forgets to pick her up. She does run into the nice Hal, who helps, but she knows that things are not going to be the way they were. Last summer, Joey's dog died after choking on a piece of blanket that he pulled out of the basement of Ursula Chambers' house, and Joey blames Cassidy and hasn't been the same since. Ursula has since passed away, and her house is found to be crowded with all manner of objects. Several people have taken things from the house... to their peril. When several people die, and their corpses go missing, Cassidy begins to suspect that something very evil is going on. With the help of neighbor Ping, she and Joey start to investigate and find out that Ursula's house was moved when the subdivision was built, and is now located in a nexus that seems to be drawing things into it. When they go into the house, they find that not only is it crowded with objects, but the community members who died make a surprising appearance. Things go from bad to worse when they think Hal has died, and the group research how to stop the evil from encroaching on their town. Framed by entries from Cassidy's notebook where she describes "bad things" in order to not be afraid of them, this story eventually makes this notebook (and the reason for it) and integral part of the story, and the solution to the problem.
Strengths: I definitely agree that Poblocki is a "modern master of the macabre". We could have ten authors writing stories like his, and there still wouldn't be enough to suit my readers. This is another great story, probably my second favorite, right behind The Ghost of Greylock. There's the supernatural, some zombies, emotional trauma, and lots and lots of scary twists. A must purchase for libraries everywhere!
Weaknesses: Cassidy's notebook entries are in a hand written font that was difficult for my old eyes to read in the E ARC, and weren't strictly necessary to the plot. I can see why they were included, though.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Saving Kabul Corner--#WeNeedDiverseBooks Wednesday

18048966Senzai, N.H. Saving Kabul Corner
February 4th 2014 by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 

This companion/sequel to Shooting Kabul is set in San Francisco. Ariana's family has an Afghan grocery, and they are doing well enough to purchase a house in Mission Hills, but when a new grocery store opens up, the family's future is in jeopardy. Not only does Pamir Market cut into Kabul Corner's income, but there is bad blood going back to an incident involving a goat that occurred when Ariana's grandmother was young.When both stores are vandalized, Ariana and her classmate Wali (who is the son of the owner of Pamir) start to suspect foul play from an outside source and begin to investigate. Also appearing are Ariana's cousin Laila, who is recently arrived from Afghanistan and whose father is still there, and Mariam, a character in Shooting Kabul.
Strengths: Lots of good details about life in this particular place-- the description of Wong Plaza was so detailed that I felt like I had been there! The different businesses shown, the owner's plight to keep the plaza occupied and away from developers; all very interesting. I also liked that this included recent immigrants and well as children who were born in the US. This would be a great one to pair with Pig Park.
Weaknesses: The children investigating was the weak part for me, but middle grade readers will enjoy it. It can be read as a stand alone, since the main character of Shooting Kabul, Fadi, appears only briefly.
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