Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Non-fiction book review - The Great Penguin Rescue

The Great Penguin Rescue by Sandra Markle

Personally, I'm a sucker for pretty much any penguin book. I knew very little about African penguins so this was right up my alley. It's a solid piece of non-fiction. Facts are relayed in a clear and concise manner, the perfect blend of readable vocabulary and conversational tone without ever becoming condescending. We've got history, animal biology, sociology, and ecology all in one book, entirely supported by engaging and well-framed photos. A great choice, even for very young readers.

More information: The Great Penguin Rescue releases September 1.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Book review - The Shakespeare Stories

Title: The Shakespeare Stories
Author: Andrew Matthews
Genre: classics
Similar books: Poe: Stories and Poems by Gareth Hinds
                      The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue presents Macbeth by Ian Lendler
might help with comprehension

Summary (provided by publisher): Discover the literary world of Shakespeare with these fantastic kid-friendly retellings of his most famous works. From the ghostly adventures of Hamlet to the fairy-filled romp of A Midsummer Night's Dream, these stories come alive with illustrations throughout that capture the humor and drama from the original stories. This set is a perfect introduction to Shakespeare for young readers!
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Henry V
The Merchant of Venice

My opinion: On it's own, this book is a little light on details. More of an overview than complete stories. It would be best used as a companion to reading the original text. Shakespeare can be overwhelming for young readers. The language can be a barrier. Once one understands the basics of the plot, though, one can better appreciate the artistry and humor of the original writing. That's the real value of a book like this one.

More information: The Shakespeare Stories releases September 1.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Book review - Elsie Mae Has Something to Say

Title: Elsie Mae Has Something to Say
Author: Nancy J. Cavanaugh
Genre: historical fiction
Similar books: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelley
                      Gentle's Holler by Kerry Madden
good, not great

Summary (provided by publisher): Elsie Mae has long treasured summers with her grandparents in the Okefenokee Swamp, so she is devastated to hear that a shipping company plans to build a canal right through it. What will that mean for the people and animals that call the swamp home?
So she writes a letter directly to President Franklin Roosevelt himself and sets off to enjoy what may be her last happy summer there with her new dog, Huck. But when she arrives, she discovers a team of hog bandits who have been stealing from the swamper families.

When her cousin Henry James, who dreams of one day becoming a traveling preacher like his daddy, shows up, Elsie doesn’t think things could get worse. But she devises a plan to use Henry and his “Hallelujahs” to help stop the thieves—and maybe just make enough noise to gain Roosevelt’s attention…

My opinion: Elsie is a pretty standard example of the rough and tumble heroine, girls who would rather wander in nature and play with animals than be "proper" and "lady-like". This novel would sit nicely in a display with The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate or even To Kill a Mockingbird though it is somewhat less charming. All of the plot threads try to interweave into a cohesive fabric but instead become tangled up and confused. Each plot is a bit thin on supporing details. It's a decent way to explore a lesser known bit of history. Additionally, it's a quick and relatively engaging read with a spunky heroine.

More information: Elsie Mae Has Something to Say releases September 5.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Graphic novel spotlight - The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North

You may be under the impression that all superhero comics are the same - brooding and insanely muscular hero beats up on various oddly costumed psychopaths. They're just about violence and anger, you tell yourself. And most of the time you would be right. But then there's Squirrel Girl. Originally introduced in 1991, Squirrel Girl has never been meant to be taken overly seriously. Historically, she's a pretty quirky character. This modern iteration takes her quirks to the extreme. Doreen Green attempts to live a "normal" college life while fighting crime and protecting her identity (in ridiculous ways, of course). Yet she remains an incredibly effective hero. In this first volume she fights Kraven, Whiplash, and Galactus, using innovative and frankly ridiculous methods to win. Best of all, every page has hilarious footnotes that just add to the humor. This is a great series both for fans of traditional heroes and those who've always found the concept of superheroes over the top.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Non-fiction book review - Fault Lines in the Constitution

Fault Lines in the Constitution by Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson

Usually all kids learn about the constitution is the names of a couple of the signers, the governmental structure, a few important amendments, and maybe the preamble. It quickly becomes one of those dry documents that we accept as a fact but otherwise ignore. This book pushes the reader to examine not only the text of the Constitution but it's historical context and implications. The Levinsons point out several inherent failings and short-sighted elements. We are lead to believe in school that the framers were whole hearted believers on this document, that our government is perfectly formed. Books like this one show us several other ways to organize it, that our entire system is built on an uneasy compromise. 
All told, this book is too much to absorb at once. It would make a great supplement to regular curriculum, though.

More information: Fault Lines in the Constitution releases September 1.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Book review - Zinnia and the Bees

Title: Zinnia and the Bees
Author: Danielle Davis
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen by Catherine Lloyd Burns
                      The Book of Dares for Lost Friends by Jane Kelley
unique, though some elements give me pause

Summary (provided by publisher): A colony of honeybees mistakes seventh-grader Zinnia’s hair for a hive — and that’s the least of her problems. While Zinnia’s classmates are celebrating the last day of seventh grade, she’s in the vice principal’s office, serving detention.Her offense? Harmlessly yarn-bombing a statue of the school mascot. When Zinnia rushes home to commiserate with her older brother and best friend, Adam, she’s devastated to discover that he’s gone — with no explanation. Zinnia’s day surely can’t get any worse... until a colony of honeybees inhabits her hive-like hair! Infused with magical realism, Danielle Davis delivers a quirky, heartfelt debut, exploring both the complex life of a young loner and a comical hive of honeybees. Together, these alternating and unexpected perspectives will touch anyone who has ever felt alone, betrayed, or misunderstood.

My opinion: I am at times quite enamored with this book but others leave me feeling rather ambivalent. I guess in part I expected it to be more ecological, less about relationships. I get that the bees are symbolic but I had had trouble buying nobody noticing the bees on Zinnia's head. And while having the point of view of the bees was necessary for exposition I struggled with the chapters where the bees were blaming their scout. That personification felt like it was taking things a bit too far. It's a largely pleasant, relatively quick read, though the moral might be a bit heavy handed.

Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Pick 6: New Kids

Moving to a new town or a new school is a classic set-up for a youth novel, and with good reason. Finding yourself in a new situation, adjusting to new schedules and a new peer group; these are a solid framework for addressing personal and family issues. Here are six books published in the last six months that feature kids who recently moved to new towns as a primary character.

6 New books with kids new to town:

1. Star Scouts by Mike Lawrence

2. Girl Out of Water by Laura Silverman

3. Lemons by Melissa Savage

4. Bang by Barry Lyga

5. All Things New by Lauren Miller

6. Sidetracked by Diana Asher

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Non fiction book review - Torpedoed!

Torpedoed! by Cheryl Mullenbach

This book is the perfect combination of narrative and historical fact. Mullenbach explores the full historical context of the sinking of this ship. The portrayal of the sinking itself is almost clinical, allowing the reader to absorb all of the facts with very little emotional manipulation. This means that what we feel reading about these tragic events is genuine. While Mullenbach's book presents a fairly in depth exploration, it's scope is fairly narrow. Hopefully that will mean that readers finish this book hungry for more, leading them to read more about naval warfare and World War II.

More information: Torpedoed! releases September 1.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Book review - Ban This Book

Title: Ban This Book
Author: Alan Gratz
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: I Kill the Mocking Bird by Paul Acampora
                      Lunch Money by Andrew Clements (or really any Clements book)
loads of fun

Summary (provided by publisher): An inspiring tale of a fourth-grader who fights back when her favorite book is banned from the school library—by starting her own illegal locker library!
It all started the day Amy Anne Ollinger tried to check out her favorite book in the whole world, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from the school library. That’s when Mrs. Jones, the librarian, told her the bad news: her favorite book was banned! All because a classmate’s mom thought the book wasn’t appropriate for kids to read.
Amy Anne decides to fight back by starting a secret banned books library out of her locker. Soon, she finds herself on the front line of an unexpected battle over book banning, censorship, and who has the right to decide what she and her fellow students can read.

My opinion: The plot of this novel may reach some ridiculous extremes. But it's ridiculous in the same way as the beloved Frindle. It is altogether compelling and charming. We see Amy Anne learning about censorship and freedom of expression. We see an exploration of the way we judge others without knowing their stories. Gratz subtly explores value judgments. And most importantly, the message of the novel is clear without becoming exceedingly repetitive. Gratz leads us to the desired conclusion without beating us over the head with it. I would easily recommend this book to any 3rd-6th grader.

More information: Ban This Book releases August 29.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Book review - Hit the Ground Running

Title: Hit the Ground Running
Author: Alison Hughes
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: #16thingsithoughtweretrue by Janet Gurtler
                      The Other Way Around by Sashi Kaufman
nothing to write home about

Summary (provided by publisher): Sixteen-year-old Dee and her seven-year-old brother, Eddie, have been on their own for six weeks. Their father has seemingly vanished into the baking Arizona desert. Their money is drying up and the rent is coming due, but it's a visit from a social worker and the prospect of being separated from Eddie that scares Dee enough to flee. She dupes her brother into packing up and embarking on the long road trip to Canada, their birthplace and former home. Lacking a driver's license and facing a looming interrogation at the border, Dee rations their money and food as they burn down the interstate in their ancient, decrepit car.

My opinion: This book delivers exactly what it promises: a teenage girl hits the road for Canada with her brother and precious little money when their father disappears and social services is knocking at their door. And that's exactly what happens. They go to Canada. Along the way, they see some stuff and have a close call or two. But that's it. It's a quick read but not a particularly compelling one. There's no real underlying tension. We have no clear idea of what Dee thinks she's running towards. While the voices and characters are fairly strong, that's not enough to combat the slow drag of the plot.

More Information: Hit the Ground Running releases August 29.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Books on screen

Ender's Game

Orson Scott Card's book is a slow moving, contemplative exploration of the nature of war and loss of childhood. The movie version is a majestic exploration of the morals of war and space exploration. Both of these stories, viewed separately, are successful. The movie isn't a particularly accurate representation of the novel, though. While many of the plot elements are present in the movie, there is an issue of scope. At the start of the novel, Ender is 6 years old. The book follows him through several years of training and the way each step of that training steals a little more of his innocence and humanity. The time frame of the movie isn't 100% clear, though it seems to be a matter of months. While Asa Butterfield portrays the 12 year old Ender well, his age by nature means that a great deal of that innocence and childhood is lacking. Butterfield's Ender has less distance to fall. And therein lies the problem. Card's novel hinges on the idea that those in charge have determined that the only way to defend the planet is to utilize the innocent creativity of a child. In the process of getting their solution, they essentially destroy Ender. It's a process that takes years of progressively chipping away at his soul. The movie version, while it has beautiful graphics and a fantastic cast ( Harrison Ford and Viola Davis and Graff and Anderson blew me away), it lacks the impact and depth of the novel. All of that to say, in and of itself Ender's Game is a decent movie. But, if you're familiar with the book, it may be a bit of a disappointment.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Book review - Guardians of the Gryphon's Claw

Title: Guardians of the Gryphon's Claw
Author: Todd Calgi Gallicano
Genre: fantasy adventure
Similar books: The Eye of the North by Sinead O'Hart
                      The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordan
A fun adventure

Summary (provided by publisher): A new action adventure series set in our famous national parks! Enter the world of the Department of Mythical Wildlife, where our protagonist, Sam London, is tasked with protecting legendary animals that secretly live amongst our treasured wildlife.
    Haunted by a dream of a mythical gryphon, Sam London uncovers an ancient secret that will change the way he sees the world forever. Recruited by Dr. Vance Vantana, an eccentric zoologist and park ranger sent by the government, Sam is whisked away on an adventure that takes him to the farthest reaches of the globe. Along this journey, Sam learns an incredible truth: mythical creatures are real and living among us in our national parks. A special department in the U.S. government ensures that their existence remains hidden.
   But Sam’s dream is an omen that the secret may now be in danger. Someone seeks the power to expose these creatures and overthrow humankind—and that power can only be found in a magical talisman known as the gryphon’s claw.

My opinion: On the one hand, this book has all the necessary adventure plot elements, especially for a mythology basked book: a sympathetic and unassuming protagonist, who finds himself enmeshed in a wild adventure, plenty of mythological beings both familiar and obscure, quirky characters, betrayal, and interesting settings. So its a fun read. Its also fairly expected. It doesn't push a lot of plot boundaries. Also, because there's a great dal of world building, the characters aren't particularly complex. Some of the plot points are sort of vague, floating between events without clear cause and effect. So to sum up: entertaining but will feel familiar.

More information: Guardians of the Gryphon's Claw releases August 29.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.