Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pick 6: Pirates

Who doesn't love pirates? They're a great subject for kids books. Pirate picture books abound but they feature in novels as well. Here are six new kids novels published in the past six months that feature pirates in some way.

6 new pirate novels

1. The Ghastly McNastys: Fright in the Night by Lyn Garnder

2. The Voyage to Magical North by Claire Fayers

3. The Treasure of Maria Mamoun by Michelle Chalfoun

4. Skeleton Island by Angie Sage

5. The Jolley-Rogers and the Ghostly Galleon by Jonny Duddle

6. Doodle Adventures: The Pursuit of the Pesky Pizza Pirate by Mike Lowrey

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Non-fiction book review - Inside Your Insides

Inside Your Insides by Claire Eamer

An excellent volume of non-fiction. Loads of information in language that is accessible without being oversimplified. Each fact is supported with a brief explanation/exploration. We learn not just what microbes are in and on the human body but what purpose they serve, how our microbe levels can change, and what effect such changes have on one's health. Eamer doesn't shy away from details either. Some of these facts might make your skin crawl but that doesn't make it any less fascinating. Cartoon style illustrations add to the appeal. A great choice for young readers with even a passing interest in science.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Book review - Watched

Title: Watched
Author: Marina Budhos
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: Bright Lights, Dark Nights by Stephen Emond
                     Borderline by Allan Stratton
an interesting approach

Summary (provided by publisher): Marina Budhos's extraordinary and timely novel examines what it's like to grow up under surveillance, something many Americans experience and most Muslim Americans know.
Naeem is far from the “model teen.” Moving fast in his immigrant neighborhood in Queens is the only way he can outrun the eyes of his hardworking Bangladeshi parents and their gossipy neighbors. Even worse, they're not the only ones watching. Cameras on poles. Mosques infiltrated. Everyone knows: Be careful what you say and who you say it to. Anyone might be a watcher.
Naeem thinks he can charm his way through anything, until his mistakes catch up with him and the cops offer a dark deal. Naeem sees a way to be a hero—a protector—like the guys in his brother's comic books. Yet what is a hero? What is a traitor? And where does Naeem belong?
Acclaimed author Marina Budhos delivers a riveting story that's as vivid and involving as today's headlines.

My opinion: Given the cover and the description I was expecting something in the realm of a thriller - governmental conspiracy and profiling. Free citizens who are anything but. These elements are present but to a much smaller degree than I had anticipated. It makes a difference that the protagonist is the one doing the watching. He's been intimidated into informing but he finds that he likes it. the real focus of this novel is on loyalty - to country, to family, to culture. It raises some concerning issues about our government's hunt for terrorists but doesn't dig into them very deeply. I wasn't thrilled by the ending which sort of petered out instead of anything sharp or dramatic. It raises some fascinating points but isn't overly compelling.
Advanced reader copy provided by NetGalley.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Birthday cards

It was my brother's birthday this week, so of course I had to draw him a card. This was my first effort which started as a doodle on my notes at work.

In the end, though, I couldn't think of anything to write for it. I came up with this instead.
Inside: "Al thinks it's perfect"

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Picture books for everyone

A Squiggly Story by Andrew Larsen and Mike Lowery

I'm a fan of any book that encourages kids to express themselves without self-consciousness, especially when it comes to writing. Larsen's approach is excellent. This book tells kids that there is no wrong way to tell a story, that even non-readers can write their own story. In the vein of Peter Reynolds' The Dot, this is a story of creativity without limits. This would be a great book to use in a group setting with kids of any age as a lead in to non-traditional story telling. I'd love to walk middle graders through the process of writing a story entirely with symbols.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book review - Snow White

Title: Snow White
Author: Matt Phelan
Genre: fairy tale, graphic novel
Similar books: Rapunzel's Ravenge by Shannon Hale
                     Fairy Tale Comics edited by Chris Duffy
                     The Diviners by Libba Bray (I know this seems like an odd choice, but the atmosphere is similar)
artfully done - one to read and reread

Summary (provided by publisher): The scene: New York City. The dazzling lights cast shadows that grow ever darker as the glitzy prosperity of the Roaring Twenties screeches to a halt. Enter a cast of familiar characters: a young girl, Samantha White, returning after being sent away by her cruel stepmother, the Queen of the Follies, years earlier; her father, the King of Wall Street, who survives the stock market crash only to suffer a strange and sudden death; seven street urchins, brave protectors for a girl as pure as snow; and a mysterious stock ticker that holds the stepmother in its thrall, churning out ticker tape imprinted with the wicked words "Another . . . More Beautiful . . . KILL." In a moody, cinematic new telling of a beloved fairy tale, extraordinary graphic novelist Matt Phelan captures the essence of classic film noir on the page—and draws a striking distinction between good and evil.

My opinion: I didn't love the first pages of this book but by the end of the first section it had really grown on me. Its a pretty traditional presentation of the story but the 20's New York setting gives it a fresh twist, especially as Phelan really captures the atmosphere. The use of text is spare and purposefully, allowing the illustrations to tell much of the story. Black and white images serve two purposes: they demand that all the details are strong as there is no color to distract from minor errors and the small touches of color have extra impact. Its a great choice for fans of graphic novels, fairy tales, and 20's culture.

Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Great Owl Repaint Project part 4

We're coming up on the halfway point of my collection of owls. This one is a little smaller than the ones I've done before but probably has the most detail, especially as it includes a stump she's perched on. The original paint job wasn't bad, just a little boring.

Her new look is inspired by a screech owl in it's red phase.
I call this one Evangeline. Meet the rest of her family: Leif, Clara, and Beatrice.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Book review - Framed!

Title: Framed!
Author: James Ponti
Genre: mystery
Similar books: The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg
                     The Black Dragon by Julian Sedgwick
a great kid's mystery

Summary (provided by publisher): Get to know the only kid on the FBI Director’s speed dial and several international criminals’ most wanted lists all because of his Theory of All Small Things in this hilarious start to a brand-new middle grade mystery series.
So you’re only halfway through your homework and the Director of the FBI keeps texting you for help…What do you do? Save your grade? Or save the country?
If you’re Florian Bates, you figure out a way to do both.
Florian is twelve years old and has just moved to Washington. He’s learning his way around using TOAST, which stands for the Theory of All Small Things. It’s a technique he invented to solve life’s little mysteries such as: where to sit on the on the first day of school, or which Chinese restaurant has the best eggrolls.
But when he teaches it to his new friend Margaret, they uncover a mystery that isn’t little. In fact, it’s HUGE, and it involves the National Gallery, the FBI, and a notorious crime syndicate known as EEL.
Can Florian decipher the clues and finish his homework in time to help the FBI solve the case?

My opinion: Framed has definite Sherlock Holmes influences. While Ponti never uses the term "deductive reasoning", Florian's TOAST method is similar - observe small details and logically infer what the combination of these details might mean. It is, perhaps, and oversimplification of deduction, a method easily learned and masterfully applied by Margaret in a matter of weeks, but accessible to the readers. It's a fun read with a notable level of tension and action but not so much as to overwhelm young readers. The exploration of the art world is a nice touch as well. I would easily recommend it for any 4th-6th grader as Florian never comes to real physical harm.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Books on screen

Where the Red Fern Grows

Before I get into the details of my comparison I want to be clear: I watched the original 1974 film adaptation, not Disney's 2003 remake. If you've seen the Disney version I'd love to know how it compares. Feel free to share your opinion in the comments.

For the most part, this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book. While small details frequently deviate from the book this is often the case with movies. The spirit of the story remains the same, with one significant exception. The big coon hunt is a much shorter scene in the film than the book and has a vastly different ending, giving Billy more of a moral victory and imparting a life lesson rather than the literal victory in Rawls' original story. It's a slow moving story, both on the page and on the screen, but the movie lacks much of Billy's internal journey. Without the monologues on sportsmanship, the relationship between a boy and his dog, and the nature of God, there is surprisingly little to this story. It plays well on screen, though, especially if one can handle the rather cheesy soundtrack. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Non-fiction book review - Learn to Program

Kids Get Coding: Learn to Program by Heather Lyons

The title to this one might be a touch misleading as the reader who completes this book won't actually be able to do any programming to speak of. This is more an introduction to the concept of programming, the ideas behind it, than any sort of practical manual. 
That being said, it is quite accessible. Concepts are presented in an easy to understand manner with clear examples. And I was impressed by the scope of programming languages mentioned and the section on picking the right language for the job. Given it's brief length, it is a solid introduction.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Book review - Olivia Decoded

Title: Olivia Decoded
Author: Vivi Barnes
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: Second Star by Alyssa Sheinmel
                     Defending Taylor by Miranda Keneally
a solid sequel

Summary (provided by publisher): This isn’t my Jack, who once looked at me like I was his world. The guy who’s occupied the better part of my mind for eight months.
This is Z, criminal hacker with a twisted agenda and an arsenal full of anger.
I’ve spent the past year trying to get my life on track. New school. New friends. New attitude. But old flames die hard, and one look at Jack—the hacker who enlisted me into his life and his hacking ring, stole my heart, and then left me—and every memory, every moment, every feeling comes rushing back. But Jack’s not the only one who’s resurfaced in my life. And if I can’t break through Z’s defenses and reach the old Jack, someone will get hurt…or worse.

My opinion: The first book in this series, Olivia Twisted, was a modernized retelling of Oliver Twist, adding in elements of cyber crime and romance. While the plot followed the original in a general way, the new elements added enough to maintain interest. This book acknowledges that plot, of course. There are frequent references to their history of cyber crime and the final events of the first book. There are enough references to get a sense of what happened in that volume without having actually read it. What's missing in this one is the appeal. If you haven't read Olivia Twisted you don't know these characters. Without the connection, seeing their relationships develop and watching them grow as individuals, this book looses some of it's impact. The plot is largely logical but would have benefited from a little more background to the major plot points. A decent effort if you've read the first book, though that one stand pretty well on its own.

Advance Reader Copy provided by Entangled Publishing.

Monday, September 5, 2016


This spring I made some wooden spoon puppets for a craft fair but I wasn't overly fond of the way they turned out. I decided to play some more with the concept and this is what I came up with.
Something about a cow lends itself to this form.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Book review - A Long Pitch Home

Title: A Long Pitch Home
Author: Natalie Dias Lorenzi
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: Drita, My Homegirl by Jenny Lombard
                     The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

even better than I expected

Summary (provided by publisher): Ten-year-old Bilal liked his life back home in Pakistan. He was a star on his cricket team. But when his father suddenly sends the family to live with their aunt and uncle in America, nothing is familiar. While Bilal tries to keep up with his cousin Jalaal by joining a baseball league and practicing his English, he wonders when his father will join the family in Virginia. Maybe if Bilal can prove himself on the pitcher's mound, his father will make it to see him play. But playing baseball means navigating relation-ships with the guys, and with Jordan, the only girl on the team—the player no one but Bilal wants to be friends with. A sensitive and endearing contemporary novel about family, friends, and assimilation.

My opinion: I really enjoyed the narration in this book. Bilal's voice really shines. His confidence in Pakistan, his uncertainty and depression during his early weeks in Virginia, is sense of loss and feeling out of place, all of this comes through in his dialogue and narration. More than most characters we can understand why he makes poor choices regarding Jordan. At first he genuinely doesn't understand what is going on. Later, he doesn't want to lose his small group of tenuous (and admittedly fairweather) friends. 
All in all, this is a quick and compelling read. It highlights sports, politics, and the need for interpersonal understanding and patience. A solid choice for nearly any middle grade reader.

More Information: A Long Pitch Home releases September 6.
Advance Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Graphic Novel Spotlight - Bone

Bone by Jeff Smith

If you've spent much time around middle graders, you probably have some passing familiarity with this graphic novel series. Originally published as black and white comics in the 90s, they've been collected and published in graphic novels, first in black and white and more recently (by Scholastic) in full color. These adventures, populated by a curious blend of humans, rat monsters, dragons, talking animals, and whatever the Bone cousins are meant to be, have continuing appeal for young readers. And to older readers too. I picked up Out From Boneville somewhat reluctantly, thinking I'd just flip through it and see what the fuss was all about. I chuckled through my first rat creatures scene, grew curious about the cast of characters, and before I knew it I had joined the lengthy hold-list at my local library for the next volume.
Some have objected to the series given references to smoking, drinking, and gambling (many of which have been removed or softened in the Scholastic editions). Honestly, though, the average kid is not going to notice these things. They are so immersed in the complex adventure, in the complex characters and the overt humor, that subtle questionable references escape them. This is a series that kids come back to time and again. They pour over the minutiae of the illustrations, absorb all peripheral material (which now includes at least one collection of short cartoon stories and three prequel novels). Bone is a great gateway to more traditional fantasy novels too. I've seen kids graduate from Bone to The Lord of the Rings.