Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Depression of all kinds.

So here's a funny story. Brand new student comes to the library; I press her to get a book so she's prepared for Sustained Silent Reading. There is a faint nose wrinkle. "I have a book with me," she says.

"Oh! May I ask what it is? Do you like it?"

"No, it's a Dork Diary book. It's stupid."

"What would you like to read?"

"I don't really like to read. Anything is fine." She gives a huge sigh and a big shrug.

"Let's see. You're a 7th grade girl and it's past February. Let's get you a depressing book!" The girl looks at me like I was dressed for my own personal Bay City Rollers Roller Disco Day, which is silly, because that was on Friday.

I whip out several Melody Carlson True Colors books. The seventh grade student guide murmurs "Ooh. Those are really good." New girl still looks apprehensive.

"Okay," I say, laying the books out on the top of the shelf. "We have alcoholism,anorexia, cutting, depression, or divorce. Any of those sound good?"

Her eyes light up. She snatches up the silver one, about cutting. "Can I check out this one?"

"Sure," I reply. "It's the best match with the outfit you're wearing."

People seem to think that my ability to get children books that interest them is somehow magical. It's not. It's based on two things: knowledge and observation. I know all of the books in my library, and I know students. I was able to look at the way this particular 7th grade girl was dressed and made up, and realizes that she was not going to be a Warriors kind of reader.

There are developmental stages, and the urge to read depressing books is certainly one of them. It's a tough balance, though, in middle grade fiction. That's why I was SO pleased to read Stronger Than You Know.

17425196Perry, Jolene. Stronger Than You Know
September 1st 2014 by Albert Whitman Teen

Joy has been raised by an abusive mother who rarely let her leave their small trailer and did not protect her from a succession of friends who thought it was funny to extinguish cigarettes on her back and boyfriends who did even worse. Taken away and put into the custody of her aunt and uncle, Joy is having difficulty fitting in and working through her understandable anxiety. Men make her nervous, she doesn't like to eat in front of others, and crowds make her want to disappear. She has a hard time connecting to her cousins, Trent and Tara, and rarely speaks at school. She is making progress, however, and her therapist, Lydia, has her write down how things have changed. The biggest change is that she makes the acquaintance of Justin, a neighbor boy, and is able to talk to him while walking to school. She also goes to kung fu lessons with her uncle, and is empowered by them. Things are not all smooth sailing-- she is still shy with Justin, and he doesn't understand her whole story, she is unhappy that she must rely on drugs on occasion, and she feels that her aunt and uncle have made their own lives worse by taking her in. With the help of her support system, she is able to make steady progress toward a more standard "normal", even when she has to testify against her mother.
Strengths: This brilliantly elucidated Joy's terrible past not by describing it in sordid detail, but in evidencing it in her inability to cope at her aunt's. Her insistence that the cigarette burns, which everyone thinks are so horrible, were the least horrible part of living with her mother is chilling. Worldly readers will be able to guess at exactly went on, and more naive readers will just know how traumatized Joy is without becoming so themselves. Brilliant. Joy's difficulties are not made light of, but the people in her life try to do the right thing. I thought that her relationship with her uncle was very well done, especially his motivation for being so concerned about her. Justin is perfectly understanding, while being angry about Joy's treatment and a little bit frustrated. Her cousins care for her but also feel inconvenienced until they fully understand what she went through. I will be very happy to give this to students!
Weaknesses: Justin was a tiny bit too perfect, and Ty a little too randomly jerky, but otherwise this was pitch perfect.
What I really thought: Disappointed that Perry's other books are more young adult!

22750166Belford, Bibi. Canned and Crushed.
March 3rd 2015 by Sky Pony Press
E ARC from Edelweiss

Sandro has difficult family circumstances-- even though his mother is a US citizen, his father came to the US for an engineering job that fell through, and is living and working illegally. When he is injured on the job and unable to get workers' compensation, he is unemployed and doing odd jobs like picking up dead animals for the city. Things get even tighter for the family financially when Girasol, Sandro's sister, is diagnosed with Kawasaki syndrome and must eventually go back to Mexico for treatment, leaving Sandro and his father in the US. Sandro is usually in trouble-- he thinks it is a good idea to put a dead cat on his teacher's car window when he thinks she has been mean to him. He hopes to help his father financially by winning an art contest, and also by organizing can recycling at his school. He feels that Abiola, a girl in his class, is mean to him because she tattles on him, and he starts to bully her. He eventually damages her bicycle because he is jealous, and is accused of race bullying. He deletes all of the correspondence that the school sends his father and gets himself deeper and deeper in trouble. Eventually, he finds out that the school is getting the money for the recycling, and they are using it for the school playground, but help comes from an unexpected place and does make things easier for the family.
Strengths: I was really hoping for a book that featured cultural diversity in a positive way, and this has many good things-- Abiola's mother is understanding and helpful, and even Abiola herself isn't as bad as Sandro thinks. It addresses the fact that some families have one parent who is a citizen, but the rest of the family can have a precarious status. It's also good that Sandro wants to help his family out.
Weaknesses: However, Sandro is an unpleasant character. Even though he has serious issues facing his family, he ignores all of the support out there and makes things worse. His repeated use of the phrase "Cheese Whiz" didn't help. I really have to debate this one, because while I liked the community around Sandro, I really wanted to slap Sandro himself.

22403036Bliss, Bryan. No Parking at the End Times
February 24th 2015 by Greenwillow Books
E ARC from Edelweiss

Of course, Canned and Crushed was STILL cheerier than this book. Again, I wanted some diversity (family living out of van, religious), but the parents were so dysfunctional and caused so much trauma to the family that it was just horrifying. Perhaps this would be a better book for high school readers. I think perhaps the cover also appealed to me.

From "Abigail doesn't know how her dad found Brother John. Maybe it was the billboards. Or the radio. What she does know is that he never should have made that first donation. Or the next, or the next. Her parents shouldn't have sold their house. Or packed Abigail and her twin brother, Aaron, into their old van to drive across the country to San Francisco, to be there with Brother John for the "end of the world." Because of course the end didn't come. And now they're living in their van. And Aaron’s disappearing to who-knows-where every night. Their family is falling apart. All Abigail wants is to hold them together, to get them back to the place where things were right. But maybe it’s too big a task for one teenage girl. Bryan Bliss’s thoughtful, literary debut novel is about losing everything—and about what you will do for the people you love. "

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Princess Academy #3/ Nuts to You

Hale, Shannon. The Forgotten Sisters (Princess Academy #3)
March 3rd 2015 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
E ARC from

In this sequel to Palace of Stone (2012), Miri is all set to go back to her home and family with Peder and the other girls from the academy when the king sends for her. There is war brewing, and the way he has decided to avert it is to send Miri to a far flung swamp to teach three distant cousins of the royal family to be princesses so that the king can marry one of them and not go to war with Miri's country. Reluctant to do this, Miri realizes that she can secure the future of her town in Mt. Eskel by striking a deal with the king to get the land under her village given to her if she is successful. Once she gets to the princess' home, she finds that Astrid, Felissa, and Sus have no parents, spend their entire day in pursuit of food, and are barely eking out an existence in their bare house of linder stone. Not only that, but the traders are stealing their money from the king. It's difficult to train the girls to read and write when so much time is spent on survival, but eventually she gets them to learn via stories and connecting the lessons to their every day life. When the swamp is attacked by the warring faction, the girls manage to escape, meet up with Peder (who had left Mt. Eskel and was trying to make his way to Miri), and try to get to Steffan and Britta to warn them. Family secrets are revealed, and an apt and amusing (if a little surprising) conclusion is drawn.
N.B. I read this on my Nook, which I don't have in front of me, and I can't for the life of me remember some of the names. That's the thing with e ARCs-- I don't really want to scroll back through them for details.
Strengths: This is my favorite book of the series. Hale excels at world building, and Miri's adventures in the swamp, from wrestling caiman to highjacking the princess' money back by becoming bandits, are quite fun. She maintains her connection to home through letters that are quoted but not received, and the romance with Peder is nice. Lots of good girl power in this series! I will have to dust off the other two and get them to readers.
Weaknesses: No cohesion in the covers at all, which makes it hard to convince students it's a series! The princesses could have been developed a bit more-- I could tell them apart, but they didn't have much depth. Once the sisters left the town, the sailing and fighting dragged on a bit.
What I really think: Enjoyed this, but the books are all so different (this one seems more middle grade than the second book) that it's hard to get readers invested in the series.

Perkins, Lynne Rae. Nuts to You
August 26th 2014 by Greenwillow Books
Cybils MG Speculative Fiction Finalist, 2014

Jed is an unfortunate squirrel who gets picked up by a hawk and manages to escape, but in doing so ends up very far from his home territory. Luckily, his friendTsTs sees him fall and is able to pinpoint his location to a power tower (or giant frozen spider web, if you're a squirrel) some way away. With some other squirrels, she takes off to rescue him. Jed finds the local squirrel community to be understanding, even if they speak like Australians and have a little trouble understanding each other. There are bigger problems, however-- the path along the power towers is being trimmed, and many animal communities are in danger. Jed and TsTs try their best to warn others (while greatly enjoying the peanut butter sandwich scraps left by the workers) with various degrees of success.
Strengths: This was a cute animal story with serious issues of animals losing their habitats. The layout of the book was very well done, and the accompanying illustrations are pleasant. I can see this being popular in an elementary school, especially with fans of Avi's Poppy books.
Weaknesses: Pretending that the story was told to the author in exchange for peanut butter was a bit twee, and the environmental theme was weakened for me because the workers were just clearing a narrow path, not completely cutting down a whole forest. Wouldn't it be somewhat safer for the animals if the branches didn't touch wires?
What I really think: This is as close to hell in book form as it gets for me. Talking animals being philosophical IN DIALECT. I only got through it because they weren't telling tales around a campfire. Or did they, and I blocked it out? My least favorite type of book, but I can see its merits and understand why it was a Cybils finalist. Better than Perkins' Criss Cross and Appelt's The Underneath.

Monday, March 02, 2015

MMGM- Nonfiction Picture Books

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. Nonfiction Monday also occurs today.

22504704Meltzer, Brad. I Am Jackie Robinson
January 8th 2015 by Dial
Copy received from Penguin Young Readers

This fifth book in the Ordinary People Change the World series is a good overview of the life of Jackie Robinson, with more text than one might imagine. (Other books in the series have an Accelerated Reader reading level of 3-3.5, and are worth half a point.) It covered the challenges he faced because of prejudice in a way that younger students can understand, and showed how Robinson helped pave the way for baseball teams to be integrated. The amount of text and placement of the pictures is just right for my struggling readers-- I've been showing a lot of pages of books to students to gauge what catches their eyes, and I think this will engage them. I wasn't thrilled with the characters on the margins opining about what the "b" on Jackie's hat stood for, or the fact that the cartoon version of the child Jackie appears even in the scenes where he is an adult, but I don't think students will care. I may have to investigate the rest of the series. The pictures in this are better than the ones in the Scholastic series of biographies, and there is less information, which will appeal to some students.

23080097Paul, Miranda. One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
February 1st 2015 by Millbrook Press

In the 1990s, plastic bag pollution was causing many problems in Isatou Ceesay's village-- goats would eat them and die, they would collect water and breed mosquitoes, and the bags would let off toxic chemicals when they burned. Ceesay could see that the bags had their uses, but since there was no good place to discard them, she started collecting the bags, washing them, and crocheting strips of the bags into purses. She sold these in the market and started a small business.

This is a great book to teach children to be more globally and ecologically aware!

I loathe plastic bags and never take them at the store. Whenever I go shopping, I carry my own bag, and have a large collection of cloth bags useful for any number of purposes.  In this country, I think that the plastic bags that bread comes in are a bigger threat, because they are harder to recycle. Back in 1989, I attempted to crochet with those, but since I can't crochet very well, I didn't get very far! My only quibble is the timeline in the back of the book that says that plastic bags became a problem in Gambia in the 1970s. I don't know anything about the introduction of plastic bags in Africa, but they weren't used widely in the US until the 1990s. I will assume that Ms. Paul did her research, but it struck me as odd.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Imaginary

22443909Harrold, A.F. The Imaginary
October 23rd 2014 by Bloomsbury Children's
ARC from Baker and Taylor

Amanda has an imaginary friend, Rudger, with whom she spends lots of time. Her mother is understanding, even if some of her friends aren't, and the two have many good times. There is a creepy fellow named Mr. Bunting who seems to be hanging around entirely too much, and it turns out that he eats imaginary friends! When Amanda is hit by a car, Rudger is in danger of fading, but is found by a cat, Zinzan, and taken to a lovely library where imaginary friends can hang out between jobs and find listings for new ones. He makes a friend of Emily, who helps him try to find a new real person to befriend, and also meets a dog, Fridge, who was the imaginary friend of Amanda's mother. Rudger really wants to find Amanda, though, and after a tragedy strikes, he makes it to the hospital where the two are eventually reunited.
Strengths: Very beautiful illustrations from Emily Gravett, and an interesting premise.
Weaknesses: Very sad. At first, we think Amanda has been killed. This is too violent and disturbing for 2nd through 5th graders, yet too young for 6th through 8th graders. At least American ones. Very odd.
What I really think: This depressed the hell out of me on so many levels. It takes a certain kind of skill to make a book that is BOTH twee AND depressing. I worry about the English. I really, seriously do.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cartoon Saturday-- My Grandma's a Ninja

My Grandma's a Ninja by Todd Tarpley, Danny Chatzikonstantinou
March 1st 2015 by NorthSouth (NY)
E ARC from

This was a delightful picture book that I may have to buy for any of my friends whose children are foolish enough to procreate. If my own daughters are silly enough to have children of their own, I may have to write to the author and suggest a sequel My Grandmother is a Magical Unicorn.

This was very fun, but I have to stop reading picture books!

From Goodreads:
"When Ethan's grandma suggests they take a zip line to school, Ethan realizes that his grandma is a little different. In fact, she s a ninja! Ethan is soon the hit of the school when his grandma drops from the ceiling at show-and-tell, and teaches the kids karate moves and how to do backflips in slow motion. But when his grandma deflates his team s soccer ball, everyone is upset including Ethan. Why can t he just have a regular grandma? But when Ethan tries out his new karate moves during the championship game . .. he's happy that his grandma isn't ordinary."

20256612Prince, Liz. Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir
September 2nd 2014 by Zest Books

This is by no means a middle grade book: way too many casual f-bombs litter the pages. I've seen this reviewed several places, and was intrigued. Prince, born in 1981, never felt "girly" and dressed more like a boy, even having a gender neutral hair cut. She didn't mind being mistaken for a boy, but disliked the bullying that she had to put up with. 

I'm very sorry that Prince had to put up with bullying; that's never acceptable. But I was confused by this. I am much older than Prince, but never felt particularly "girly". Not wearing skirts wasn't an option when I was very small, but I spent most of 6th grade wearing three different pairs of colored Tough Skins jeans (red, green and brown) and often wore my father's neckties to school, for reasons I cannot begin to explain. I was on the weird end of the social scale, but people didn't give me that hard a time. My daughters, born in 1993 and 1998, wore "boy" shoes and jeans, and plain t shirts. My older daughter hung out with the boys and was often the only girl at birthday parties. She still loves to play Lord of the Rings Risk with a group of guy friends. My younger daughter still wears running shoes, jeans, and a hoodie nearly every day, and no one has ever given her a hard time. 

So I'm just confused. In my school, we've  had a decent amount of boys rock some pretty long hair, and as far as I know, no one has given them trouble either. This is 40 years after Marlo Thomas' Free To Be You and Me, which I definitely read when my children were small. We had trucks and dolls, kitchens and workshops. I really thought that most of the US had moved beyond gender stereotypes, but apparently that is not the case. 

March 1st 2015 by NorthSouth (NY) 22061971Isbell, Tom. Prey.
January 20th 2015 by HarperTeen
ARC from Baker and Taylor

In a dystopian US, we meet Book, who is an LT in a camp, and Hope and Faith, twins who have been on the run from the government with their father. When he dies, he tells the girls to split up because they are twins, but Hope thinks that Faith won't survive without her. In the meantime, Book meets a boy, Cat,  who shows up at his camp injured. Cat tells Book that LT means Less Than, and tells him that all of the boys in the camp are somehow damaged by all of the radiation, and are used as a breeding ground for people for the government to hunt for fun. Hope and Faith get captured by the people running the camp for girls, and are the subject of horrible medical experimentations with very bad endings. There is a brief romance between Book and Hope against all of the odds, some mystery involving the girls' father, and attempts at escaping the system which results in being chased around by evil people.
Strengths: A dystopia with a military feel. Lots of action. A little romance. Quick read.
Weaknesses: Horrible treatment of people by other people. Sadistic, Mengele-like treatment, with very little mention of motivation for said treatment.
What I really think: This was super depressing, a bit oddly written, and had a lot of really nasty human-on-human violence, which is something I can't stand. Won't buy.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army

21469145Rauch, Georg. Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army
February 24th 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
E ARC from Edelweiss Above the Treeline

This memoir was penned by Mr. Rauch starting in the 1980s, and self-published in 2006, shortly before he passed away. It was written in German and translated by his wife, Phyllis Rauch. Letters that Rauch had sent home to his mother from the Russian front were the instigation for this tremendously interesting look at life at this time.

Georg grew up in Vienna, the son of a Jewish baroness and a gentile miltary man. Because of his father's war service, the family was left alone for a while, and his mother even sheltered Jews for a time. Georg did not manage to escape the draft, but luckily had skills as a telegraphist. He was going to be sent to officer's training, but when he told his commanding officer that he was Jewish, he was instead assigned to the infantry and sent to the front. He was still able to work as a communications officer, so instead of being involved directly in the fighting, he was often trying to reestablish communications, or telegraphing information back and forth. His letters tell intimate details of lice, worn out socks, the extreme cold of Russian winters, and the food situation. After spending time in Russia and being pushed back to Romania, he is taken prisoner by the Russians. Through luck, he manages to make some connections and agrees to spy on and report Nazis, but becomes tremendously ill. He is given special care because of his agreement, and is aided by a fellow Austrian... who turns out to most likely be a party member. Before Rauch has to turn him in, however, the Russians set them free, and he makes his way back to Vienna, eventually reconnecting with his family.
Strengths: This was a fascinating look at a little covered (in the US) facet of WWII-- what it was like to be in the Wehrmacht. It shows vividly that so much of life is luck-- things could have gone wrong for Rauch at so many points in the procedures, and yet he survives. I had a dear friend who was from Polish Silesia who also served against his will, and who was stationed in very much the same areas, so the story rings very true. The inclusion of the letters shows an unusually optimistic outlook, tempered by the analysis of an older and wiser viewpoint.
Weaknesses: I had to stop and refresh my memory on some of the fine points of who-was-where during the war; younger readers might benefit from more historical notes, but this would certainly dilute the narrative.
What I really think: Highly recommended. Just sad that Rauch is no longer with us to see this be widely read.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

K-9 (Knightley and Son #2)

20613680Gavin, Rohan. K-9 (Knightley and Son #2)
February 17th 2015 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
E ARC from

Now that Darkus' father Alan is back and conscious most of the time (after their adventures in book one), they are ready to take on another case. Bill and other members of Scotland Yard's department of the unusual have been attacked around London, seemingly by werewolves! Alan is convinced that they are out in force on Hampstead Heath, but when Darkus investigates, he finds something even more gruesome and disturbing. Tilly is also onto something, infiltrating Barabas King's group of young hoodlums who are working with trained Rottweilers. Add to this Fiona, a "dog whisperer" who thinks her house (near the Heath) has been attacked and to whom Bill is mightily attracted; Wilbur, a police dog that Alan has given to Darkus but who has run afoul of Darkus' stepfather Clive; and Alexis, a student at the school who fancies herself an investigative reporter, and you have lots of goings on in the dark of night around the heath! Even Clive and some teachers from the school get involved in investigating. While the crimes are serious, they don't involve werewolves, and before too long, Darkus is able to figure things out, although at a high personal cost.
Strengths: Very British, comic crime type novel that is a perfect read for students who adore Stroud's Lockwood and Company. There are some good, funny twists, and just enough action to keep sophisticated readers turning the pages.
Weaknesses: A bit long for middle grade, and slow in parts. There were also a couple of scenes that were very gruesome, and the ending was sad.
What I really think: This was gorgeously written and very atmospheric in the very best British tradition of mysteries, and I enjoyed it very much myself. I am a little less confident that it will circulate well, but will probably buy it because it will hold up for a long time for select readers.
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