Friday, July 29, 2016

Book review - The Infamous Ratsos

Title: The Infamous Ratsos
Author: Kara LaReau
Genre: beginning reader
Similar books: Dexter the Tough by Margaret Peterson Haddix
                     Weekends With Max and His Dad by Linda Urba
pretty cute

Summary(provided by publisher): Louie and Ralphie Ratso are no softies! Readers are sure to chuckle as the determined Ratso brothers’ plans to act tough go hilariously awry.
Louie and Ralphie Ratso’s dad, Big Lou, always says that there are two kinds of people: those who are tough and those who are soft. Louie and Ralphie are tough, tough, tough, just like Big Lou, and they’re going to prove it. But every time they try to show just how tough they are, the Ratso brothers end up accidentally doing good deeds instead. What’ll Big Lou do when he finds out they’ve been acting like softies all over the Big City? Perfect for emerging and reluctant readers, this clever and surprisingly warmhearted chapter book shows that being tough all the time can be really tough.

My Opinion: Firstly, this is a solid choice for kids beginning to read chapter books. The characters are likeable and have a basic level of complexity. Their aim is one that kids will relate to: to seem tough and gain their father's acceptance. The resolution is more emotionally complex but stated clearly enough to guarantee understanding. It works well enough on this level. I could also imagine using this book with older kids as a simple way to explore characterization. The Ratsos see themselves as tough, as bad guys, but their efforts always work out to be positive. Their actions, while intended to be mean on the surface, always end up helping those they wanted to hurt, implying that they meant to be kind all along, revealing their true character. This interpretation may be a bit of a stretch but as a simple example, I think it works.

More Information: The Infamous Ratsos releases August 2.
Advance reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Pick 6: Twins

I've noted before how the characters in teen novels tend to have certain hobbies. They are often talented musicians and artists with a penchant for Converse shoes. Another character type that occurs far more often in novels than in reality is twins. A high percentage of novels have twins or other multiples involved in some way: the protagonist's siblings, friends, neighbors. Fictional worlds are overrun with multiples. Here are six books published in the last six months that include twins or other multiples.

6 new books that include twins:

1. Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den by Aimee Carter

2. Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

3. Dreaming of Antigone by Robin Bridges

4. Tripping Back Blue by Kara Storti

5. True Born by L E Sterling

6. Gemini by Sonja Mukherjee

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Non-fiction book review - 50 American Heroes Every Kids Should Meet

50 American Heroes Every Kids Should Meet by Dennis Denenberg and Lorraine Roscoe

This book has a few really strong points.
1. Brevity. The profiles are brief, no more than 2-3 pages apiece. Just a quick introduction to who the hero is/was and the heroic thing they did/are doing.
2. Variety. The heroes included span a variety of time periods and types: politicians, athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, philanthropists.
3. Resources. Not only is the reader introduced to each hero, each section has recommended reading. Biographies, websites, and ways to get involved.
Those things combined create a book that could serve a number of purposes and reach a wide variety of audiences.

50 American Heroes Every Kids Should Meet releases September 1.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Book review - Secret Coders: Paths and Portals

Title: Paths and Portals
Author: Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes
Genre: sci-fi/graphic novel
Similar books: Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks
                     Waylon! One Awesome Thing by Sara Pennypacker
A solid second offering

Summary(provided by publisher): There's something lurking beneath the surface of Stately Academy—literally. In a secret underground classroom Hopper, Eni, and Josh discover that the campus was once home to the Bee School, an institute where teachers, students, and robots worked together to unravel the mysteries of coding. Hopper and her friends are eager to follow in this tradition and become top-rate coders. But why are Principal Dean and the rugby team suddenly so interested in their extracurricular activities?
From graphic novel superstar (and high school computer programming teacher) Gene Luen Yang comes the second volume of Secret Coders, a wildly entertaining new series that combines logic puzzles and basic programming instruction with a page-turning mystery plot!

My opinion: These books are a great way to teach kids the basic skills and philosophies associated with computer programming. Each program the characters learn builds on the skills they've learned previously. With each new idea, there is space left for the reader to work out a programming solution to a new problem.
And it's not just instruction. There is a larger plot, a purpose for the programming the characters are learning, as well as sub-plots related to character development. The art is eye-catching. 
My only complaint is that each book ends with an unsolved programming challenge. If you read these books as they are published, that means there are six months or more between writing a program and seeing the author-provided solution. This also means that when I started reading this volume, I was somewhat lost for the first few pages, not having access to the first book to reference the program in question.

More information: Paths and Portals releases August 30. 
See my review of the first Secret Coders book here.
Advance reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A super jar

Today's craft is one I've actually done before. Previously, I'd decorated some baby food jars with plastic animals and paint and sold them at craft fairs. For myself, I had something a little different in mind. I've had some little superhero figures around for a while with a vague plan to use them in some sort of craft, especially since I had duplicates of Hawkman and Daredevil. When I found myself in possession of an empty jelly jar I knew right away what to do with it. My new Hawkman jar now holds flash-drives.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Book review - Tales From the Haunted Mansion

Title: Tales From the Haunted Mansion: The Fearsome Foursome
Author: John Espisito
Genre: horror
Similar books: A Dog's Breakfast by Annie Graves
                     The Doll Graveyard by Lois Ruby
not particularly scary

Summary(provided by publisher): Welcome, foolish mortals, to Disney Press' spookiest chapter book series yet: Tales from the Haunted Mansion! Based on the attractions from the Disney Parks, each new book tells the story of one of the Haunted Mansion's 999 ghosts. With eerie illustrations throughout and a beautiful three-piece cloth cover, the books are designed to look like they came straight from the library in the Haunted Mansion.
Tales from the Haunted Mansion is a fun, spooky ride, just like the attraction from the Disney Parks. And if readers are familiar with the ride, they'll see elements of it throughout the entire story, from items straight of the Mansion (are those pictures stretching?) to lyrics from the narration that is heard in each Doom Buggy.
In this bone-chilling book, you will hear the terrifying tales of the Fearsome Foursome--four kids who look to out-scare each other. But just wait until they hear my spooky stories. Who am I? I am Amicus Arcane, your librarian and host. Your Ghost Host. So read on... if you dare!

My opinion: My first reaction to this book is mild boredom. It's neither scary nor surprising. There's an emotional distance throughout that keeps the reader from really caring about the plot. Without jump scares or strong sense of atmosphere we really have to care about the characters and their welfare for monsters to be truly scary. The emotional distance is not helped by narrative asides that pull us out of the moment every few pages. These were meant to add to the spooky atmosphere. Mostly I found them annoying. Add in a style that consistently tells more than it shows. True fans of horror needn't bother with this one.
Advanced reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Picture books for everyone

Too Many Moose by Lisa M. Bakos

Normally I'm not a fan of rhyming picture books. I generally find them tiresome, the effort to maintain the rhyme obvious. This book not only rhymes, it is alliterative. Yet the writing is nearly effortless. IT reads well and is funny to boot. Not only that but the illustrations are varied and dynamic, entertaining in their own right. Kids of all ages will enjoy this book at different levels and it is a great example of a number of literary elements so it would work well in and English classroom too.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Non-fiction book review - Like a Bird

Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song by Cynthia Grady

This short book is an ideal example of interdisciplinary or integrated education. Grady brings together art, music, history, religion, and visual interpretation and critical thinking skills in just 40 pages. For each song example in the book, Grady provides a brief history and description of how the artist has portrayed the concept. Then she asks the reader to evaluate both the lyrics and the painting, to judge the representation of the song, to find symbols, to interpret the emotions. Just an introduction to the subject, this would be a great choice for homeschoolers or a small classroom setting.

Like a Bird releases September 1.
Advanced reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book review - Click Here to Start

Title: Click Here to Start
Author: Denis Markell
Genre: adventure
Similar books: The Lost Cipher by Michael Oechsle
                     Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
some nice elements at play here

Summary(provided by publisher): Young fans of Ernie Cline's Ready Player One will love this classic video game inspired mystery filled with elements of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
What if playing video games was prepping you to solve an incredible real-world puzzle and locate a priceless treasure?
Twelve-year-old Ted Gerson has spent most of his summer playing video games. So when his great-uncle dies and bequeaths him the all so-called treasure in his overstuffed junk shop of an apartment, Ted explores it like it's another level to beat. And to his shock, he finds that eccentric Great-Uncle Ted actually has set the place up like a real-life escape-the-room game!
Using his specially honed skills, Ted sets off to win the greatest game he's ever played, with help from his friends Caleb and Isabel. Together they discover that Uncle Ted's “treasure” might be exactly that—real gold and jewels found by a Japanese American unit that served in World War II. With each puzzle Ted and his friends solve, they get closer to unraveling the mystery—but someone dangerous is hot on their heels, and he's not about to let them get away with the fortune.

My opinion: This novel is a great variation on a standard puzzle novel. It incorporates video games, history, literature, and science. The gaming elements are necessary for the plot to be believable. Otherwise, these kids finding obscure clues in strange places would have been a real stretch. The plot already had believably issues. It is a very elaborate puzzle requiring a lot of set up in a number of places, nearly impossible for and elderly and ailing man to accomplish. And for all of these complex clues in place for who knows how long, to go undisturbed, even one in a hospital room. There were a number of questions that remained unanswered at the end of the novel, including the questions I found most compelling. So, it's not a perfect novel. I found it a bit frustrating at times. But if you're a fan of puzzles and books that celebrate different kinds of intelligence this is a good choice.
Advanced reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The wonders of duct tape

Today's craft is something I made about a decade ago. I got a mandolin as a gift and wanted a case to keep it in. It turns out my mandolin is a slightly off-standard shape and having a case custom made would have been prohibitively expensive. So, I decided to make my own case out of corrugated cardboard, an old egg-crate mattress pad, hot glue, fleece, and duct tape. I've been using that same case ever since. Ten years and I'm only just now needing to add new tape.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Book review - DC Super Hero Girls: Finals Crisis

Title: Finals Crisis
Author: Shea Fontana
Genre: graphic novel
Similar books: Princeless by Jeremy Whitley
                     The Gumazing Gum Girl! Chews Your Destiny by Rhode Montijo
A nice, simple superhero story

Summary(provided by publisher): Class is in session! Welcome to DC Super Hero High!
It was the night before finals and the student body is hard at work... and nothing is going right! Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Harley Quinn, Batgirl and their friends are learning to become heroes, but no one knew the trials that awaited them. In the first original graphic novel from the DC Super Hero Girls line, meet the students of Superhero High School as they find out that fun, friendship and hard work are all parts of growing up!
The DC Super Hero Girls is an exciting new universe of Super Heroic storytelling that helps build character and confidence, and empowers girls to discover their true potential. Developed for girls aged 6-12, DC Super Hero Girls features DC Comics' most powerful and diverse line-up of female characters as relatable teens, playing out across multiple entertainment content platforms and product categories to create an immersive world. Icons including Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Harley Quinn, Bumble Bee, Poison Ivy, Katana and many more make their unprecedented teenaged introduction, as each character has her own storyline that explores what teen life is like as a Super Hero.

My opinion: I'm impressed. While recognizability of characters is clearly important in this book, it doesn't rely on it entirely. Each character gets at least a little bit of characterization, some insecurity r flaw that must be addressed by the plot. And each little plot ties up together in the larger plot. I will say that I found the ending a little disappointing. A) The culprit was pretty obvious from early on if you are at all familiar with superheroes. B) His motivations is revealed entirely via exposition in the final scenes. Some hint earlier on would have been nice. A nice choice for elementary readers though.

Advanced reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Books on screen


When I first heard there was a Goosebumps movie in the works, I wondered how it would work. There were so many Goosebumps books, how could they possibly pick one to adapt. No matter which one they selected some fan would be upset to have his/her favorite monster excluded. The solution really is ingenious. The movie features all of the monsters, all of the books. The plot of the movie, then, becomes a Goosebumps book itself. Just as the books were the perfect introduction to the horror fiction genre for kids, the movie is like a horror film with training wheels. It has the standard jump scares and romantic elements but with enough humor and lack of violence to be acceptable for preteens. It does suffer from some logical failings and a notable amount of overacting, so it may not hold up to multiple viewings but that was often true of the books as well.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Book review - Towers Falling

Title: Towers Falling
Author: Jewell Parker Rhodes
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: Nine, Ten: a September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin
                     Hold Fast by Blue Balliett
lovely complex story

Summary(provided by publisher): When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Deja can't help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means,
and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?
Award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes tells a powerful story about young people who weren't alive to witness this defining moment in history, but begin to realize how much it colors their every day.

My opinion: Just last week I praised Nora Raleigh Baskin for telling a September 11 story that personalized the tragedy without a great deal of up close emotion. Rhodes' approach is the exact opposite. While the setting is fully modern, we see the ongoing emotional effect of September 11 on a few kids. Struggles continue for a survivor and for a middle-eastern family. This is more than a September 11 story though. It's a story about homelessness, depression, and divided families. Its about finding a place to belong when you're full of anger and fatigue and confusion. It's a beautiful, tough story that resolves with hope rather than with solutions. If you can only choose one book to bring the September 11 tragedy home to middle grader readers, this may well be that book.

Advanced reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ceramic vegetables beware

This spring our local Dollar Tree store had some small ceramic animals to paint. Not unexpectedly, the selection included rabbits, ducks, and the like. I bought a couple, put them on the table in my craft room, and promptly forgot about them. I remembered them recently when I was looking for a plastic rabbit to repaint as Bunnicula from the James Howe series. I don't think this is exactly what the designers had in mind when they made these kits but then the kit included red, yellow, and blue paint, so who knows what they were thinking.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Book review - Inspector Flytrap

Title: Inspector Flytrap
Author: Tom Angleberger an Cece Bell
Genre: Mystery/beginning chapter book
Similar books: Geronimo Stilton
                     The Ghost and Max Monroe by L.M. Falcone

a quirky introduction to the idea of a mystery

Summary(provided by publisher): From husband-and-wife team Tom Angleberger, creator of the New York Times bestselling Origami Yoda series, and Cece Bell, author/illustrator of the Newbery Honor graphic novel El Deafo, comes the start to a funny and clever illustrated chapter-book series about a mystery-solving Venus flytrap. With easy-to-read language and illustrations on almost every page, this early-chapter-book series is a must for beginning readers.
Inspector Flytrap in the Da Vinci Cold introduces kids to the humorous and wacky world of Inspector Flytrap's Detective Agency, home to the world-renowned solver of BIG DEAL mysteries. The plant detective works tirelessly with his assistant Nina the Goat on his community's unsolved cases. There's no case too big, but there are definitely cases too small for this endearingly self-important plant detective.
Celebrating the disabled yet enabled, the character of Inspector Flytrap is wheeled everywhere (on a skateboard, of course) by his goat sidekick as this mystery-solving duo works on cases such as “The Big Deal Mystery of the Stinky Cookies” and “The Big Deal Mystery of the Missing Rose.”
On his first caper, Inspector Flytrap heads to the Art Museum's Secret Lab to discover what important message lies in a mysterious glob on a recently discovered Da Vinci flower painting. The ingenious solution: Da Vinci was allergic to flowers, and the glob is, er, evidence of that ancient sneeze.
Combining wacky humor and a silly cast of characters with adventure, friendship, and mystery, the powerhouse team of Tom Angleberger and Cece Bell have created a uniquely engaging series that is perfect for newly independent readers and fans of Ricky Ricotta, Captain Underpants, and the Galaxy Zack series. Also included in these books are some graphic novel–style pages that will attract reluctant readers.

My opinion: A plant that solves mysteries is, admittedly, an odd concept for a book, especially once you add in the talking-goat assistant. It's an idea that most of us would not come up with in a hundred years. Angleberger and Bell make it work,  though. The plots are simple and surprisingly logical. By breaking the book up into several short mysteries it is easily handled by young readers and would also work well as a read-aloud in the classroom to fill in short amounts of extra time. Most importantly, it's funny and the humor holds up to repeat reads. I look forward to seeing how this series develops.

More information: Inspector Flytrap releases August 2.
Advanced reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Graphic Novel Spotlight: Hotel Strange

Hotel Strange by Katherine and Florian Ferrier

This is a quirky series to be sure, as one might gather from the covers. Characters cover a wide range of types, both in personality and in species. The art style is relatively flat, reminiscent of your standard kids' cartoon. The plot can be a little hard to follow at times as there are events and characters referenced with little to no explanation. For pure entertainment, this is a solid choice for elementary kids. Older readers may recognize some European and manga influence both in art and storytelling. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Non-fiction book review - Saved By the Boats

Saved by the Boats by Julie Gassman

There are a lot of stories to come out of September 11, tales of tragedy and of bravery. Of kindness and generosity. This is a story I had not heard before. The narrative is simple annd that simplicity is a definite benefit. It lends clarity without the clinical feel that a simple narrative can sometimes have. Instead, Gassman's writing allows the natural emotion, both inherent in the situation and conveyed by quotes, to come through. It is a clear and concise recollection aided by simple line drawings.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Book review - Nine, Ten: a September 11 Story

Title: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story
Author: Nora Raleigh Baskin
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: Somewhere Among by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
                     The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
a tough read for kids

Summary(provided by publisher): From the critically acclaimed author of Anything But Typical comes a touching look at the days leading up to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and how that day impacted the lives of four middle schoolers.
Ask anyone: September 11, 2001, was serene and lovely, a perfect day—until a plane struck the World Trade Center.
But right now it is a few days earlier, and four kids in different parts of the country are going about their lives. Sergio, who lives in Brooklyn, is struggling to come to terms with the absentee father he hates and the grandmother he loves. Will’s father is gone, too, killed in a car accident that has left the family reeling. Naheed has never before felt uncomfortable about being Muslim, but at her new school she’s getting funny looks because of the head scarf she wears. Aimee is starting a new school in a new city and missing her mom, who has to fly to New York on business.
These four don’t know one another, but their lives are about to intersect in ways they never could have imagined. Award-winning author Nora Raleigh Baskin weaves together their stories into an unforgettable novel about that seemingly perfect September day—the day our world changed forever.

My opinion: I wondered how Baskin would approach such a tragic, world changing event for a middle grade audience. With a topic like this one, so tied up in our cultural identity and shared emotion, it can be difficult to portray it accurately without becoming overwrought. Baskin's approach is brilliant in it's simplicity. She barely talks about it at all. The bulk of the novel focuses on the days prior. We get snapshots of the lives of four very different kids in four different places. We see their every day concerns, the things that complicate their lives. Then we are given four brief scenes, four moments when each of these kids become aware that the world has changed, that this huge tragic event has occurred. And that's it. No dwelling on emotions, on death despair and fear. Just that brief moment and then an epilogue a year later that brings all four kids together and in simple terms describes how their lives have changed. That's the best word for this book. Simple ans surprisingly calm. It's a gentle way to personalize the tragedy of 9/11 for kids who were not yet alive when it happened.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley

Friday, July 1, 2016

Book review - Dara Palmer's Major Drama

Title: Dara Palmer's Major Drama
Author: Emma Shevah
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: Drama by Raina Telgemeier
                     Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

Better, and deeper, than I expected

Summary(provided by publisher): From critically acclaimed author Emma Shevah whose debut novel Dream On, Amber received four starred reviews comes a new hilarious and moving story about a girl dealing with being different and finding her own way to rise above.
Dara Palmer knows for a fact that she was meant to be on stage. But when The Sound of Music is selected for the school musical, Dara isn’t cast as Maria—or at all. She can’t help but wonder: is it because she’s different? Maybe it’s because she was adopted from Cambodia and doesn’t look like a typical fraulein…
So irrepressible Dara comes up with a grand scheme to shake the school: write her own play about her own life. Then she’ll have to be the star.

My opinion: Initially I was rather annoyed by this book. It starts out with a rather shallow plot: Dara is outraged that she didn't get a part in the school play even though she is (in her own opinion) the best actor in her class. So it seems, at first, that this is going to be a book focused on humility and being able to take direction. It isn't until Dara begins to explore her roots, her identity as a child adopted from Cambodia, that I began to engage with the plot. This extra complexity makes it more than a simple entertainment. It remains easily understood by upper elementary/early middle school readers but leaves them with something to think about.

Advance reader copy provided by NetGalley.