Monday, May 16, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 5/16/16

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

I have read so many wonderful baseball-related books in the last year or so: The Distance to Home, A Long Pitch Home (coming out in September), The Only Game, and The Way Home Looks Now.  I now have another great one to add to the list - Soar by Joan Bauer.

The protagonist in Soar is Jeremiah.  He is not a baseball player (although he'd like to be), but he is a baseball expert, and he is obsessed with baseball.  Walt, Jeremiah's adoptive dad, is a nerdy robotics engineer.  Together they form a tight unit, with humor playing a huge role in helping both of them deal with a significant challenge - Jeremiah has had a heart transplant and he deals with serious ongoing health problems as a result.  When Walt's job sends them from St. Louis to Hillcrest, Ohio, Jeremiah is overjoyed to find that it is a town that is, like him, obsessed with baseball.  The high school team is the state champ, and the community is bonkers for baseball.  

While Jeremiah can't play baseball because of his heart issues, he knows the game like no one else, and fairly quickly he takes an active role in reinstating the middle school team after it has more or less disbanded.  As a reader, I couldn't help but love Jeremiah and his earnest approach to middle school, and to life.  He's quirky, spirited and funny, despite some serious health setbacks.  

Although this book probably would be most appreciated by readers who also enjoy baseball, it is not just a "sports fiction" story.  The real story lies in the characters, and although Bauer touches upon some heavy stuff (PED use by underage athletes, serious illness and adoption) the overall tone of Soar is fairly light and heartfelt.   For readers (like me!) who love baseball and a good emotional wallop, Bauer's newest is a winner.

Monday, May 2, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 5/2/16

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has authored dozens of books and she still hits the mark when it comes to middle grade readers.  Her latest novel, Going Where It's Dark, is an exploration of both external and internal darkness and it is a page turner!

Thirteen year old Buck stutters and his only friend has moved away, leaving him vulnerable to the town bullies who seem to take great pleasure in making his life miserable.  His extended family loves him, but they worry about him too, and can't really understand who he is.  The one thing that brings Buck peace and allows him to forget about his stutter is exploring underground caves.  He keeps his caving secret and takes risks that even he knows are dangerous.  When he befriends a cranky old man who just happens to be a former speech pathologist for the army, Buck starts to gain a little bit of confidence, despite the fact that the bullies are becoming increasingly dangerous.  The apex of action in this novel is truly heart-pounding and the two "darknesses" - the internal one that Buck struggles with, and the external one that is all too real - come together in a fairly extreme way.  

I love that this book is both a character driven one, and an action/adventure story.  Buck and family members are deeply human - flawed, but trying so hard to do the right thing  - and their growth feels entirely genuine.  At the same time, the action is pretty breath-taking (maybe I found it especially so because the thought of being underground in a narrow cave is entirely terrifying to me).  I think the combination will work well for all sorts of middle grade readers.  

Once again, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has created an eminently readable and powerful story!

Monday, April 25, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 4/25/16

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

I have been a fan of Rodman Philbrick's work since I read The Young Man and the Sea when it came out back in 2006.  That book remains a favorite in my library and resonates especially with my middle grade boy readers who, like the protagonist, live on the water here in mid-coast Maine.

Philbrick's new offering is an apocalyptic tale set in a world that is just like ours, except for the fact that a geomagnetic storm has destroyed all forms of electricity.  Cars won't drive, lights won't illuminatebatteries won't power; there's no TV, no radio, no running water, no heat, no phones, no computers.  Charlie, his younger sister, and his mom hunker down and make do with that they have.  As long time residents of Harmony, New Hampshire, they are industrious and creative, so they find ways to stay warm and fed, despite the fact that it is the dead of winter.  The community, however, starts to splinter, and there are those who use the chaos to their advantage, including one particularly scary right wing militant family.  When Charlie's diabetic mom slips into a coma because she doesn't have the medicine she needs, Charlie makes a bold decision to try to help her, even though it means risking his own life.  

This is a page turner, with pretty much non-stop action, but I also like that Philbrick addresses some bigger questions about how we take care of one another in our communities, how dependent we are on "the grid" and how doing the right thing can sometimes be incredibly scary.  

The Big Dark addresses deep philosophical questions within a remarkably short (under 200) page span, which makes this a great choice for both reluctant and avid middle grade readers.

Monday, April 4, 2016

It's Monday! What Are Your Reading? 4/4/16

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

Well, a new Maine Student Book Award list is out and I am pretty pleased with the depth and breadth of it.  Once again this year I was impressed by how difficult it is to choose 40 books for kids in grades 4-8 that encompass everything that we're striving for - kid friendly choices that are well-written in a wide array of genres.  Sounds easy, but it most definitely is not!

So, I am now on to c2016 books and I've already read a few that I really loved, including Jaleigh Johnson's The Secrets of Solace, Ruta Sepetys' Salt to the Sea, and Eugene Yelchin's The Haunting of Falcon House.  

The one that I am highlighting here today, though, is The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, by John Boyne (author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas).  This is not an easy book (I seem to be highlighting a lot of those here at Bibliothecary Prescriptions lately), but it gives readers an unusual glimpse into the development and psychology of a fervent member of Hitler youth.  Although it is hard, at times, to feel compassionate towards the protagonist, Pieter, Boyne chillingly shows the slow and steady progression he makes towards the angry young man that he becomes.  

Pieter is born as Pierrot, in Paris, to a French mother and German father.  His best friend, Anshel, is Jewish and deaf; they provide comfort and kindness to each other in a world that can be painful and harsh.  They are separated, though, when tragedy strikes and Pierrot becomes an orphan.  After a brief stint in an orphanage, Pierrot is adopted by his father's sister, who works as a housekeeper at a magnificent estate in the Austrian alps.  The master of the estate is not in residence and everyone seems a bit on edge.  Pierrot is bewildered by the sudden change in his circumstances; he is distraught when his aunt Beatrix tells him that it is not safe for him to send or receive letters from his friend Anshel.  The reader understands before Pierrot does that Beatrix is trying to protect him from something tremendous, and horrible.  That something arrives in the form of the master of the estate: Adolf Hitler.  

Hitler is impressive and formidable, frightening and charismatic.  Pierrot becomes "Pieter" and he craves Hitler's attention and approval.  Although the other adults around him try hard to steer him away from the xenophobia, anti-semitism, and hatred of Hitler, Pieter is susceptible to Hitler's power.  Slowly,  Pieter, whose best friend was once a deaf Jewish boy, becomes a miniature mimic of Adolf Hitler.  It is heartbreaking to watch his devolution.  

This book is hard to read; there is violence, an attempted sexual assault, and a depth of sorrow that seems fitting for a book whose protagonist is close to Hitler.  If I had to categorize it, I would call it YA, but it certainly would be also be a powerful read for mature middle school readers, perhaps within the context of a unit on World War II.  For its powerful, unforgettable message, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain deserves a place in the World War II canon. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

It's Monday! What are you Reading? 1/25/16

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

Graphic novels are hugely popular amongst my upper elementary students.  I love them for the way that they equalize voracious and struggling readers and give all kids access to wonderful stories.  This past week I read a graphic novel that is really unlike any other that I've seen.  

Child Solder: When Boys and Girls are Used in War by Michel Chikwanine, Jessica Dee Humphreys, and Claudia Davila is the very powerful and personal story of Michel, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I had been hearing about this book, and read reviews that suggested it was appropriate for elementary-aged readers, but I was skeptical.  The title alone, Child Solider, was a little bit off-putting for me, as a children's librarian.  But, I'm so glad I received a copy from NetGalley and gave this book a read anyway.

Child Soldier is a powerful, but surprisingly kid-appropriate look at a horrible reality. This book will not be for everyone - sensitive readers will be impacted by both the text and the illustrations, but the story is told gently and I think that for many kids it will be eye-opening but not traumatizing. 

Chikwanine was five years old when he was kidnapped by a rebel army and forced to become a child soldier.  There is no sugarcoating his horrific experience, which included being forced to use cocaine and commit murder, but neither the text nor the illustrations in this book are gratuitous.  The illustrations often show the expressions on Michel's face, rather than the atrocities he witnesses, which softens the blow for readers a bit.  The book includes extensive back matter which provides additional information and context about the plight of child soldiers globally.

This is not an easy read, but it is an important one and I think there is a large audience for it.  I would hesitate to hand it to some children to read on their own without the opportunity to follow up with questions and discussions, but hopefully Chikwanine's story will lead to just that - greater understanding, and greater dialogue about one of our world's most shameful realities. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 1/18/16

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

One of my big lifetime dreams came true last weekend when I attended the ALA Midwinter Conference and the Youth Media Awards.  The Oscars have nothing on kid lit awards!  It was an amazing experience and although I was befuddled initially by the Newbery Medal winner (a picture book?!), I am coming around on that choice after having shared The Last Stop on Market Street with students.  They have loved it and wholeheartedly endorsed the Newbery committee decision, which has been rather eye opening for me.  Perhaps the kids have a more organic sense of what the Newbery Medal means!

I had been feeling a little bit burned out on reading recently (a new experience for me) but The Sound of Life and Everything by Krista Van Dolzer snapped me out of it.  This is a really unique, thought-provoking book and I loved it.  

Set in California shortly after World War II, The Sound of Life and Everything After blends the line between historical fiction and science fiction because although it is set in the past, scientists and doctors have discovered how to bring people back to life using DNA.  Ella lost her brother Daniel and her cousin Robby in the war; her aunt is determined to bring Robby back to life with the help of the mysterious Dr. Franks.  A shocking thing happens, though.  Instead of Robby, the person who returns to life is Japanese.  Convinced that this man is the one who killed Robby, Ella's aunt wants nothing to do with him.  Ella and her mother, though, feel both sympathy and tenderness for this new/old person and they bring him home to care for him.  

Their decision is met by outrage by both their family and the community.  Xenophobia and racism are the expected reactions to a Japanese man (especially one thought to be the killer of Robby), but Ella remains steadfast in her care for Takuma.  Despite the horrific behavior of adults and kids alike, Ella lets her heart feel love for this mysterious being and in so doing, changes her family and her community.

The Sound of Life and Everything feels like such a timely read to me.  It asks us how we can transform fear into love and grief into hope.  The ending is poignant - extremely so - and the characters are unforgettable and I highly recommend this book!

Monday, December 14, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 12/14/15

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin is a slim but poignant account of what it is like to grow up with a parent in prison.  Ruby remembers just hints from the night when her mother was arrested; since then she has lived with her aunt Barbara (or "Matoo" as in Ma two).  Now approaching sixth grade, Ruby's eyes are opened to the reality that not only will her mother be in prison until Ruby is thirty one years old, but also that her mother took part in something horrible.  

Ruby's survival technique has been to keep her secret close to her heart; she has never really had a good friend - at least, anyone who she trusts enough to tell about her mom.  But then she meets Margalit, a sweet girl with whom she makes a genuine connection.   Margalit has sorrows of her own, and together the two girls forge a real friendship.  But, it is not easy to have a close friend when you hold a secret that feels shameful.  Ruby constantly must navigate her wish for normalcy with the reality that she visits her mom in prison every weekend.

Baskin quite masterfully captures the many emotions that Ruby experiences, without ever being maudlin or depressing.  There is one plot twist that felt unbelievable to me, but on the whole I was completely captured by Ruby and her emotional evolution.  

For students who have an incarcerated parent (and all of us who work in education know too many who do), this book will act as a lifeline, as true bibliotherapy.  For other middle grade readers, Ruby will be a character who both inspires and instructs.  This is an important book for libraries to have and to share.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 11/16/15

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

My pick of the week is Wish Girl by Nikki Lofton.  Beautiful, lyrical, heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting, Wish Girl is Lofton's follow up to Nightingale's Nest.  While I appreciated the extraordinary writing and carefully crafted characters in Nightingale's Nest, the darkness of that book was hard for me to absorb.  What was unwritten and unsaid was almost as powerful as what was written and said; for me, it was an unsettling read.

When I started Wish Girl I was afraid that I might be in for a similar sort of uncomfortable reading experience.  Peter doesn't fit in his family; he is quiet and reflective where his parents and sisters are brash and loud.  When the family has to move to the hills of the Texas countryside, everyone is stressed out by the change.  Peter, though, takes comfort in the nature around him, reveling in a magical valley, where he finally feels at home.  It is in the valley that he meets Annie, the "wish girl."   Annie has cancer and she is attending a nearby camp, sponsored by the Make a Wish Foundation.  

What could have been a grim, dark story is actually surprisingly filled with light and beauty.  That is partly because of the way that Lofton describes the valley - the sunlight, the flora and fauna, the sense of peace that it exudes - but also because Annie is, despite being in a very perilous position health wise, a complete fire cracker.  She is joyful, funny, and an amazingly loyal friend.  Together she and Peter discover the mysteries and magic in the valley, while also uniting against a couple of local bullies.  

I felt a fair amount of trepidation as I neared the end of Wish Girl but, without giving away too much, I'll say that I thought that the resolution was perfect.  

Monday, November 2, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 11/2/15

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

If I had to pick one genre as my favorite, I would have to go with historical fiction.  As a children's librarian, this is a bit unfortunate, because it can be hard to convince elementary-aged kids to invest in reading about the past.  If the topic is "exciting" enough (think: World War II), historical fiction will sell itself, but books that take place during quieter or less well known times require a bit of a leap of faith for many middle grade readers.  Often, kids are missing the background knowledge needed to make sense of the setting, so they are often wonderful read alouds, as an adult reader can fill in the gaps that kids might have.

This week I read a brand new historical fiction title that I loved.  Sara Joiner's debut novel is After the Ashes, set on the island of Java in the 1880s, at the time of the eruption of Krakatua.  While I had a vague knowledge of Krakatua (or Krakatoa), After the Ashes made it real to me in the way that only historical fiction can.  

Katrien Courtland is Dutch by ancestry, but Indonesian in every other way.  She has lived her whole life on Java, and feels most at home in the jungle, studying the plants, animals and insects that live there.  She is an unusual girl for the time and place - obsessed with Darwin's theory of natural selection, more interested in spending time with her native friend than in fashion and social niceties.   She is being raised by her father and her aunt (after the death of her mother) and they grow increasingly concerned about making her into a proper Dutch young lady.  Katrien has no interest in that and is resolute about her scientific experiments and study.  Everything changes in an instant, though, when Krakatua erupts.  Suddenly, Katrien's life is turned upside down (literally) and her knowledge of nature becomes lifesaving.  

Joiner's description of the island post-Krakatua is stark and shocking and it is hard to imagine a disaster of such a magnitude.  Although it is not war, I think that I'll be able to "sell" this book to kids based on the survival/adventure angle.  Hopefully, once in, they'll be invested to finish this unique offering by first time author Joiner.

Other books I read this week and enjoyed:

Monday, October 26, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 10/26

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

As we draw closer to the end of the year, I feel a great urgency to read as many middle grade c2015 titles as I possibly can for Maine Student Book Award contention.  Before I was on this committee, I really had no idea how incredibly challenging it is to develop a well-balanced, please-everyone list!  Because the MSBA list targets students in grades 4-8, it includes a huge age range of readers.  It's rare to find a book that would suit that full spectrum of ages, not to mention the full spectrum of interests.  I'm grateful to other members of the MSBA committee who are as obsessive as I am about ferreting out possible titles for the list!

So, here's one in contention: My Diary from the Edge of the World (publication date November 3) by Jodi Lynn Anderson.  Magical realism can sometimes be a bit hit or miss for me, but in this book Anderson takes such great care with both the magical elements and the realism.  Gracie and her family live in Maine, until they decide that they must take a huge leap and try to find the Extraordinary World.  You see, life on this planet is really different - sasquatches, angels, and dragons all coexist with humans and life can be very dangerous with this heady mixture of creatures.  Most unnerving is the fact that a dark cloud has gathered and appears to be coming for Gracie's younger brother, Sam.  In this world, a dark cloud means death and the family is determined to outrun it.  They set off for the Extraordinary World, a place that Gracie's dad is convinced exists.  There is an adventure aspect to this book, then, as the family traverses across the continent, dodging dragons, befriending (sort of) a sasquatch, and relying upon an angel to deliver them safely.  But, each character also goes on an intense internal quest, of sorts, as they determine who they are and where they are going.  Anderson's storytelling is, at times, truly lyrical and a surprising late plot twist truly took my breath away.  This is a beautiful book, about the journeys that we all must make over the course of our lives - at times joyful, at times painful.  

It is also a very long book, which will require a fair amount of stamina for middle grade readers.  Resolute fantasy readers will love it!  

Some other books I've read and enjoyed recently:

Monday, October 5, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 10/5/15

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

It was an exciting week for me because Brian Selznick's The Marvels arrived in the mail.  Wow, this book  is quite a presence even before you open it - it is massive (bigger than a brick), the cover is a lush, rich purple and the pages are gilded on the edges.  So, it is impressive before you even crack it open.  Once inside it feels quite similar to The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck; one notable difference is that the first half is almost exclusively illustrated, while the second half is almost exclusively text (whereas in the previous two books there was some text interspersed with the illustrations).  I love Brian Selznick's illustrations because they truly do set the scene in impeccable detail.  The Marvels spans decades and centuries and the drawings capture each era perfectly.  

For me, the switch from illustration to words was just a little bit jarring.  I wasn't quite ready to leave the world of pictures behind (or make the leap two hundred years forward to the 1990s), but once I adjusted, I was just as captivated by the words as I had been by the illustrations.  That said, I was so happy that Selznick chose to return to the art of visual storytelling at the very end of the book.

For those who love Brian Selznick's style, The Marvels will not disappoint.  For those who are unfamiliar with his work, this will be, well, a marvel.  As an elementary school librarian, I think this book is a little more complex than Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck; I found myself making quite a few mental connections and leaps as I was reading, wondering if my students would be able to keep up.  I know that they will be awed by the book and I'm looking forward to seeing what they think!

Other books I read and enjoyed this week:

This is SUCH a cool book!  Great for all ages.

Monday, September 28, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading 9/28/15

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

This past week I read Gary Schmidt's Orbiting Jupiter (publication date 10/6/15) and truthfully, I am still trying to recover.  I had read on GoodReads and in reviews that this is a book about teenage pregnancy and yet SLJ has a suggested reading age of grades 6+.  Sixth grade seemed a little young for a book about teen pregnancy, so I was interested to see how Schmidt dealt with this difficult topic.

Well, as it turns out, I wouldn't describe this as "a book about teenage pregnancy."  Yes, Joseph is a thirteen year old father, but the story is so much bigger.  So. much. bigger. Schmidt addresses the pregnancy with a surprising light hand (in terms of the actual “how she got pregnant” moment) and aside from the fact that the kids obviously had sex, there is nothing at all racy or excessively YA about it. 

Instead, it is a book about love and sorrow and about the ways that family can both wound and save us.  It is hard for me to write a review without spoilers, so I am going to keep it brief.  Suffice to say,  Orbiting Jupiter completely blindsided me - I literally couldn’t sleep after I read it.  It is haunting and stunning and I highly recommend that you read it.  

Other books I read and enjoyed this week: