Thursday, June 30, 2016

Brainstorm Vol 77: 4 reads for the 4th

Four reads for the 4th of July.

Picture Book Resources

Explosive Story of Fireworks by Kama Einhorn, ill. by Daniel Guidera
Just like the title states, readers will explore the history and development of fireworks from ancient China to the present.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Engaging Nonfiction: I'm really liking this History of Fun Stuff series. They do a fantastic job of making the history lively and interesting, relating key points (that even educated adults might not know), and accompany the highly readable text with eye-catching, fun illustrations. This is the kind of nonfiction book it would be easy to convince kids to read. 
  • Pre-Fireworks Display Read: For those curious kids, this will be a good read to explore the history and science of fireworks without too much info (no blowing up the backyard danger).

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ill. by Jeffery Thompson
Longfellow’s classic poem about Paul Revere’s ride to warn of the coming of the British is accompanied by woodcut illustrations.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • American History Myth vs Fact: Thanks to Longfellow’s classic poem, there’s a few misconceptions about history. It’s a good opportunity to invite further digging into other history resources to determine myth vs fact.
  • Poetic License: This poem is a great illustration of what poetic license means.
  • History & Poetry (& Don’t Forget Fun): Of course, you can just enjoy this American poet’s historical poem for fun and not worry about all the historic or literary details.

Crankee Doodle by Tom Angleberger, ill. by Cece Bell
Yankee Doodle does not, not, NOT want to go to town. Absolutely not. And he would never stick any part of a bird in his hat, never mind call it some pasta…but even the most stubborn and cranky Yankee Doodle is no match for his pony.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Musical/Vocabulary History: This is a very funny imagined conversation between Yankee Doodle and his pony over the origins of the silly song. But you better watch out, you might actually learn some word history in this book if you’re not careful. 
  • Fun American History Read: If you’re looking for a fun historical read that won’t take too much time, this is a good one. It will probably be most appreciated by middle graders.
  • Everyone’s Favorite Husband/Wife Author/Illustrator Duo: Tom and Cece are married, and both have individually endeared themselves to the kidlit audience. Tom created the Origami Yoda series, and Cece won a Newbery Honor a few years ago for her somewhat autobiographical graphic novel El Deafo (which is hand’s down the most popular award winner in the history of our library…probably your library too). Put these two well-loved people together and you have one dynamic duo kids love to see produce things together. See if you can find other things Angleberger and Bell have worked on together.

Graphic Novel Resource

The United States Constitution: a Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey, ill. by Aaron McConnell
You would really think that a graphic novel walk through the Constitution of the United States would be hard to do, and probably boring. But Hennessey and McConnell have an incredible way of turning those topics that probably put you to sleep in US History (or a deep coma in US Gov't) and make them interesting, memorable and not insomnia inducing. This book walks readers through the history of the development of the US Constitution from conception to ratification (and all the bumps along the way). Then it breaks down the document Article by Article, explaining the importance of each section to US citizens of the past and present and landmark cases relating to them. Then the need for the Bill of Rights is discussed, followed by explorations of each right, along with amendments made and their impact both historically and currently. Hennessey does an incredible job of breaking things down in a way that is easy to understand, while not minimizing the debates surrounding the trickiness of interpreting certain sections.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • History/Government Teachers: If you teach US History or US Government, this is an incredible resource and your students will thank you for using this instead of a normal textbook.
  • US History Students: If your teacher didn't take the advice above and you're completely lost in class, this could just save your grade and help you make sense of things a little better. The illustrations and the breakdown of the articles and amendments in understandable language help you utilize multiple learning methods and make remembering this stuff easier.
  • Curious Readers: You really can’t find an easier to understand or more memorable book out there on the US Constitution. This is fantastic.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Brainstorm Vol 76: Newish books that feel like old classics

Here's a few relatively recently published books that portray some feels of old, beloved classics.

Picture Book Resources

Blue on Blue by Dianne White, ill. by Beth Krommes
Follow a family on a farm through a day that starts out sunny and blue through a thunderous storm, to a quiet night. A fantastic celebration of a good ol’ thunderstorm. Thanks to the setting on a farm and little modern conveniences highlighted, this has a timeless classic feel.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Poetry/Rhyming: This book is written in fabulously done rhymes. A great addition to any poetry or rhyming unit. 
  • Word Choice: Writing poetry that evokes a storm takes careful planning, and White demonstrates that beautifully with her word choice. Read this to delight in carefully chosen vocabulary that wonderfully complements the illustrations to bring the sunny moments, thunder, and quiet to life. 
  • Art: The illustrations in this are amazing. They involve interesting points of view and style, as well as careful color choice to bring the storm to life. 
  • Stormy Day Read: We’re in the middle of rainy season here in Thailand, which means we’ve been getting torrential downpour thunderstorms pretty much daily. This is the perfect read to go with pattering rain and crashing thunder.

Mama Seeton’s Whistle by Jerry Spinelli, ill. by LeUyen Pham
Every day as the Seeton children grew up, they're mama would call them home to dinner with her simple but effective whistle. It didn't seem to matter where they were in the neighborhood, they could hear it. As the children grow and spread out farther around the world, Mama Seeton misses her children. Papa tells her to go ahead and do like she always used to to see if it would make her feel better. At first it seems it did nothing, but then her four children return from all over the world and Mama Seeton's whistle appears to still work. Eventually her children carry on the whistle with their kids.

It is really hard to convey in a summary the emotional power of Spinelli's words and LeUyen Pham's illustrations in this book. It is sweet and lovely, and has wrapped up in it all the love of a close-knit family. Spinelli says in the back that the story is based on the Mrs Seeton who lived next door to his family growing up. I also loved reading LeUyen Pham's notes in the back on how she had to research this book and plot out the timeline since it covered so many years so she could appropriately have hair styles, clothing, home electronics, etc change correctly. Her researched paid off. The book is very impressive and sweet.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Intergenerational Family Reads: This is the perfect book for a family reunion read, whether with grandparents or aunts and uncles. Talking about the Seeton family traditions can open the door to talking about your family traditions.
  • Historical Changes: This book gives a brief look at different changes through time in the life of one family. Read the illustrator’s note on the research she had to do to correctly portray this. Ask children how things have changed just since they were little, and perhaps have adults share some things they’ve seen change just in their lifetimes.
  • Sweet Read: If you are looking for a sweet and loving read, this is just the ticket.

Middle Grade Fiction Resource

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
One day, a hurricane sinks a cargo ship carrying robots fresh from the factory. One robot's crate is washed onto an island and some playful otters accidentally turn her on. Roz meanders the island figuring out how to survive and where she is. Most of the creatures fear her as a monster. Over time, Roz's careful observations allow her to catch on to the language of the animals and she starts to communicate. They still fear her. When an accident happens while Roz is climbing, an entire family of geese is accidentally killed except for one egg. Roz takes care of the egg since she was responsible for the accident, and soon finds herself the mother to a little goose dubbed Brightbill. Roz's care of Brightbill helps other animals realize that Roz isn't so bad, and soon Roz finds herself with a whole island of friends. She helps them as best she can, and they in turn help her. The island is a better place for the arrival of Roz, until one day other robots come to the island to retrieve Roz and take her back to the factory.

This was an adorable and sweet story about an outsider robot who soon becomes beloved by the entire island. Roz is relatively unemotional as befits a robot, but she is also programmed to be helpful. It is fun to see how her helpfulness eventually wins her friends all over the island, and how they help her when she gets into tight spots too. The ending is a little bittersweet, but hopeful. The entire time I read this I pictured it in my head as a cartoon from the 60's or 70's for kids. Perhaps it was the influence of the illustration style or maybe it was the light feel of the story. Even the serious parts don't feel overly heavy. It's cheery and happy and sweet. It would appeal to a variety of ages. Everyone will fall in love with Roz and Brightbill.

I recently featured this in Brainstorm 73. See Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers there.

Young Adult Fiction Resources

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schilz
Joan Skaggs is stuck in a dead end life. Her father has taken her out of school and expects her to do all the female jobs on the farm. He doesn't think she deserves any money of her own, and doesn't expect her to ever marry. When he decides she's wasting too much time reading (even though she does it after her chores are done) and burns her books, Joan decides to run away. With money secretly left for her by her dead mother, Joan escapes to Baltimore and finds a position with the Rosenberg family as their hired girl to help their aging servant Malka. In order to secure her position, Joan changes her name to Janet Lovelace and says she is 18 instead of 14. Through her diary entries, readers watch Janet, a Catholic, adjust to city life in a Jewish household, and follow her on all the ups and downs of a teenage girl trying to make it on her own in the 1911s.

Joan/Janet reminded me of a mix of Anne Shirley and Pollyanna. She has pluck and determination, but is also a bit naive at times. She craves more knowledge and longs to be loved, and finds both in the most unexpected ways. She does the best she can, often bungles it in a well-meaning way, but also inevitably ends up helping those around her in unexpected ways. So the book reads like a classic historical fiction. I loved the first half of her story, found the bits on Jewish customs interesting as well as the way Janet and the Rosenbergs work out their differences of faith, rolled my eyes a little at her "falling in love" towards the end (though it is oh so believable of a teenage girl), but liked the way the book wrapped up.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Jewish Life/Multicultural Read: This book provides an eye-opening education on what a Jewish household of early 1900s America was like. You learn a lot about their faith and practices through Joan’s working there.
  • Historical Fiction Fans: A traditional-feeling historical fiction set in 1911s Baltimore. 
  • Fans of Anne Shirley, Jo March or Pollyanna: Joan/Janet reminded me a lot of these classic heroines. If you like their adventures, you should give this book a try.

Hattie Big Sky (Hattie, #1) by Kirby Larson
Hattie Brooks has been tossed from family member to distant family member ever since the death of her parents. She feels like she has never felt settled or really part of a family, and her present position with the overbearing Aunt Ivy and sweet (but mostly too quiet for Hattie's good) Uncle Holt is getting more and more tenuous when she gets a letter from Montana. The letter is from her mother's brother Charlie telling her that he is passing on his claim to her as he is dying, "all" she has to do is prove up on it...oh, and bring a cat. Eager at the chance to have something of her own, Hattie boards the train and sets out from Iowa to Montana. She arrives and finds out in order to prove the claim she will need to put up a LOT of fencing and plant and harvest 40 acres. Hattie has never done any of this before, but she thanks God for some kind neighbors He's placed near her who do know about all this stuff. Hattie arrives in January and has until November to prove the claim. Some of those in the area scoff at the 16 year old trying to make it on her own, and it soon becomes clear the Martin family has their eyes on adding her land to theirs. That might not be so bad, but Traft Martin leads a gang of cowboys who are enforcing patriotism in the area to support the WWI effort. Their methods are a bit suspect, and it sure seems they only believe settlers of German heritage are the "unpatriotic" ones. Hattie doesn't like the way they treat her friend Perilee and her husband Karl one bit, and it could land her in trouble with Traft and gang. Can the town and surrounding area make it through the war without tearing each other apart, and can Hattie make it to proving her claim in November? Oh, and how about Hattie's friend Charlie off in France, will he make it home in one piece?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Little House/Historical Fans: Hattie’s story feels quite a bit like a Little House story for teens. It is quite interesting, especially knowing that the author based it on her great grandmother's life. And a heartfelt read, telling a story of a teen girl gaining some grounding and learning who she is through the trials and joys of one year. I was a little surprised at part of the ending, but I appreciated the realism of it. I was also pleasantly surprised by the portrayal of Hattie's faith in God. I didn't expect it in a "secular" book, but enjoyed it and felt it fit the time period well too.
  • WWI Era in the US: It is unusual to find a ranching/out west story during the time of motor cars and WWI. Larson did a great job of weaving in current events from 1918. I learned a lot about prairie life during the first world war from this.
  • Work Ethic: There’s a lot modern teens could learn from Hattie’s work ethic. Suffice it to say, she isn’t one to laze about and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. A great discussion question for teens would be whether or not they would be willing to try what Hattie tried to have a place of their own. Would they be willing to work that hard for something else, or do they feel they already have?
  • Characters to Love: Hattie is a spunky, character easy to cheer on.

Hattie Ever After (Hattie, #2) by Kirby Larson
Hattie Brooks is finishing off her work as a chamber maid in the Vida, Montana hotel when she suddenly gets the chance to go to San Francisco with a traveling group of vaudeville players as their wardrobe manager. She also has an offer of marriage from her long-time friend Charlie, and though she deeply cares for Charlie, Hattie feels like she really needs to figure some things out before committing to settle down. Getting her little letters home about life on a claim published has given her the writing bug, and Hattie dreams of writing for a newspaper, though she knows that her chances as a female reporter are slim. Once in San Francisco, Hattie stumbles on a chance to start from the ground floor in the newspaper business, working as a cleaning lady at night. She jumps at the chance to get her foot anywhere in the door. Also, seeing that the newspaper has a "morgue" (storage room of past issues) motivates Hattie to do research on her Uncle. Because Uncle Chester recently received a piece of mail from San Francisco that included a love token. Hattie determines to track down this Ruby from her Uncle's past. First of all, to let the poor woman know that Chester is dead, and secondly, in hopes that Ruby can shed more light on this mysterious man. Hattie quickly moves up the ladder in the newspaper office, when she uses her time in the morgue to help answer a reporter's scribbled question on his desk. Ned, a reporter whose sister worked in the vaudeville troupe with Hattie, champions her cause and eventually helps get her writing skills noticed as well. As Hattie moves up in the newspaper world, she also eventually learns more about Uncle Chester and Ruby, and eventually more about her true heart's desires.

Whereas Hattie Big Sky felt like a Laura Ingalls Wilder story for the YA crowd, this book felt like reading the book equivalent of a 1930-40s black and white movie. It had all the flavor and feel of a movie that would star Barbara Stanwyck or Ginger Rogers as the undaunted and precocious Hattie, and I loved it. Parts of it, like the truth about Ruby, were easily predicted. But other parts, like where Hattie would eventually end up and with whom, were a little harder to pin down beforehand. Overall, a fun historical fiction with some good subtle messages along the way.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Fans of Black & White Movies: This book reads like a movie from the 1930s starring a plucky young woman eager to prove herself as a reporter and solve a family mystery along the way.
  • Historical Fiction: This is a fun, clean historical fiction set in early 1900s San Francisco for teens with touches of romance, some great life lessons, and just enough mystery to keep the pages turning.
  • Reluctant Readers: I know, historical fiction isn’t super popular with teens right now. But the size of this and it’s predecessor will be tantalizing for teens. This is a fairly quick read compared to other YA lit out there two or three times its length. It will only take a few hours to read, and it is hard not to start cheering for Hattie.

A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier
When the Spanish flu hits Cleo Berry’s city in Oregon in the fall of 1918, her brother and sister-in-law are down in San Francisco and their house keeper is visiting her family and Washington. The mayor has ordered the closing of all schools, and Cleo decides to return to her empty home rather than wait for her brother at boarding school. That night she sees an ad in the newspaper from the Red Cross asking for help, particularly those with cars and/or nursing backgrounds. Cleo doesn’t have a nursing degree. In fact, she can’t figure out what she’s going to do after graduation from high school in the spring, but she does have a car and her own past makes her eager to make sure there aren’t people out there suffering alone. So the next day she finds herself signed up with the Red Cross, armed with an armband, information brochures, gauze masks and a neighborhood to check. She goes door to door making sure everyone at home is fine, or if someone is sick that there are healthy people able to take care of them. As the days go by, the intensity of the situation helps her form fast friendships with others working to save whoever they can. She becomes good friends with another 17 year old volunteer, Kate, the motherly woman in charge of the nurses, Hannah, and a young medical student who was injured in the war, Edmund (and who has an annoying/endearing habit of trying to make sure Cleo is safe). Many volunteers barely make it through one day canvasing neighborhoods and working in the make-shift hospital. Cleo is definitely tempted to quit, but even when tragedy strikes close to home, she finds herself driven to help. And Hannah thinks Cleo may have found some future direction in the midst of this horrible pandemic.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Historical Fiction/Spanish Flu: I devoured this in just a few hours. It was so well written, the history elements are spot on, and I loved the balance of revulsion at the horror but hearts deep enough to persevere on and do something. The horrors of the flu are conveyed but the book doesn’t smoosh readers’ faces in it or overdo it. 
  • Count Your Blessings: The mortality rate of the flu is sobering, yes, but the way the book is done should leave readers still hopeful, challenged to do more with their own lives, and with a better appreciation for what they do have.
  • Normal Girl Doing Extraordinary Good: Cleo could have given up several times, but she chooses to do what is right and loving, even if it costs her. Her back story provides a very believable drive for this, but she still goes above and beyond even what you might expect. She’s also very relatable in feeling like she is too ordinary to be good for any occupation, something I think a lot of young adults wrestle with. And even though she feels ordinary, she is anything but. I love her heart and what an incredible role model she is. 
  • Light/Classic Historical Romance: The little romance that develops between her and Edmund is sweet and spunky (shades of Anne and Gilbert), and adorable. My only qualm with the book is that I wanted a little more from the ending. But I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Nonfiction Resource

Everybody Paints by Susan Goldman Rubin
The author introduces readers to three generations of the Wyeth family, focusing on N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth (though other artists in the family also frequently appear, like N.C.’s sister Carolyn). You also get little looks into the life of Howard Pyle (who apprenticed N.C.).

A big part of classics are the illustrations that brought them to life. I’ve always been a fan of the illustrated classics N.C. Wyeth is famous for illustrating. I found the information on the entire Wyeth family fascinating. This book just focuses on main points of their lives, but it was sufficient to give a good introduction to each generation. I learned a lot.

Activity Tie-in/Target Readers:

  • Art Lovers/Potential Artists: The best part about this book is the way it has been put together, it feels like a serious work of art itself. Numerous painting reproductions, photographs of the family, the glossy paper, and full color pages make this a feast for the eyes as well as a highly readable biography. It also gives great insight into how much work is required of painters. Several Wyeth family members’ daily routines are included, and all were hard working. It’s a good dose of reality for want to be painters who think its going to be all fun and ease.
  • Biography Fans: This is a very readable biography about people whose work you have probably come across at some point in your life whether you realize it or not. For example, that picture you have in your head of what A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court's hero looks like? I don't know about you, but mine came from an illustration by N.C. Wyeth.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Brainstorm Vol 75: Ferris Wheels, Engineers & Fairs

It is summer time. Time for people to start visiting fairs and amusement parks, and to ride Ferris wheels. It sounds like a perfect time to read a book about the original Ferris wheel, fairs, and engineers who make such rides possible.

Picture Book Resources

Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, ill. by Gilbert Ford
Before the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893, there was a contest for a feat of engineering. At the last World Fair, Paris had unveiled the Eiffel Tower, and the United States wanted something to rival that wonder. George Ferris came up with the idea for a giant wheel that would hold carriages of people. At first, the directors of the fair scoffed at his idea. But as the time for the fair drew closer and they had no better options, they told Ferris to build his wheel. Ferris had to overcome several obstacles along the way, but eventually his wheel was a smashing success and replicated the world over.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Math/Science Field Biographical Picture Book: Looking for a biography that isn’t too long or one that is beautifully illustrated or one about a person in a math/science field? This fits all those bills.
  • Short History Read: A nice, quick historical nonfiction read for kids about something that they can still see today.
  • Chicago: Headed to Chicago? Live there? Read about a huge event that happened there.
  • Perseverance: A lot of people told Ferris this wheel could not be built and if it was, it would result in disaster. But he persevered through hardship and didn’t listen to the naysayers, and now we can ride fantastic wheels all over the world.
  • Pre-Fair/Amusement Park Read: A great book to read before you go ride those big wheels this summer.

Have You Seen My Monster? by Steve Light
A little girl is enjoying the fair while looking for her monster who snuck in before her. As she hunts around the fair (and her monster has a grand ol' time himself) readers will get to learn names to all sorts of shapes found in the fairgrounds attractions.

I’ve highlighted this in a past Brainstorm, but it doesn’t hurt to feature it again. It would make a fun pre-fair visit read.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Shapes: Light does most of his illustrations in this with black and white, and just a splash of color that helps highlight the shapes. And what an assortment of shapes! This book could be used in classes all the way up to high school for the shapes highlighted. Do you know of another shapes book that includes petrafoil, rhombus, nonagon, heptagon, trapezium, and trapezoid? I sure haven't seen one. And learning those through a fun book is way less agonizing than memorizing a list for geometry class. Of course there's the good ol' standard circle, square, and triangle that make appearances too, but Light includes every other sided figure 3-10, plus a few others that usually aren't highlighted until high school geometry classes (if then). But hey, there's nothing wrong with kids learning these figures at a young age (it certainly will make their geometry class easier), and I'm sure parents will burst with pride when kids start pointing out petrafoils and ellipses in the decorations at their grandparents' houses.
  • Pre-Fair/Amusement Park Read: The little girl and her monster go all over a typical fair, including on a Ferris wheel. This would be a great book to help prepare kids for what’s likely to be at the fair they will visit. And to talk about safety there. Don’t get lost like the monster!
  • Hide-n-Seek: There are elements of this book that can be treated like a game of hide-n-seek. Of course, you're looking for the monster on each page. But beyond that there's other things to hunt for. For example, star isn't a shape featured, but you can find stars all over. If you're looking for a book that will keep little ones occupied for a while, and stand up to multiple readings, this is a good one.

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty, ill. by David Roberts
Rosie Revere makes all sorts of gadgets out of recycled materials, but when her uncle laughs and then another contraption fails, Rosie is ready to give up engineering for good. But wise Aunt Rose helps Rosie see that every great engineer learns from their mistakes and perseveres.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Repurposing/Recycling: Rosie makes all sorts of things using recycled and repurposed materials. She could help readers brainstorm ways they can recycle things themselves instead of creating unnecessary trash. For an extension activity see if readers can find real engineers who use recycled/repurposed materials.
  • Math/Science Careers for Girls: Rosie is a perfect example of a girl that picks a job perhaps not typically considered a girl job.
  • Learning from Mistakes/Persevering: Nobody likes mistakes, but Rosie learns a very important lesson about how mistakes aren’t always horrible. She is also a good example of persevering through hardship, both great character qualities.
  • Rhyming Stories: This story is told entirely in impeccable rhyme, making it fun to read and listen to.

Middle Grade Fiction

Fair Weather by Richard Peck
Rose lives on a typical Illinois farm of 1893. She, her older sister Lottie, and her younger brother Buster have heard about the fair happening in Chicago, but they never in their lives thought they'd see it themselves. But then Aunt Euterpe shocks the family by first of all sending a letter (a momentous event in itself) and then announcing that she was going to take the children and Mama to the fair this summer. The letter includes four train tickets to Chicago. Now Rose knows Mama and she's bettin’ no one is going to Chicago, but she didn't reckon on two things. One, Mama isn't too keen on this Everett fellow courtin' Lottie (Mama thinks he's a drifter and a grifter), and two, Aunt Euterpe said something about gettin' the children a broader education in her letter. Of course, Mama is too much of a homebody to go herself, so she sends her ticket back to Aunt Euterpe. Granddad, though, has other plans. He has a hankerin' to see the fair himself, so he sneaks the ticket out of the mail and shocks the children by appearing on the train with them. Aunt Euterpe doesn't quite know what has hit her when her spunky father and three children older than she remembered show up in Chicago. One thing's for sure, none of them will ever be the same after their summer together seeing the sights the World's Fair has to offer.

When it comes right down to it, there really isn't a whole lot to this story other than some backwoods country kids, an overly-timid woman who has buried herself in grief, and a spunky, old man enjoying the sights of the World's Fair. But at the same time, Peck does do an awful lot in a mere 139 pages. I picked this up because I just finished The Devil in the White City and what better time to read this fictional book than when all the historical facts of the World's Fair of 1893 are fresh in my mind? Peck's information on the Fair lined up with what I had just read, and this book brings some of the finer details of the fair to life as it portrays it from the perspective of a country girl. The little things that Peck threw in to build the characters a little more were nice touches, and he added a nice dose of comedy along the way. Buster and Granddad combined are enough to keep anyone entertained. They are quite the pair.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Fun Historical Fiction: This is a fun and funny, quick read. If you're looking for a historical fiction, or one for reluctant readers, this could be a good choice.
  • Chicago Fiction: If you’re visiting Chicago, live there, or studying it, this would be a good read.

Note: There is another middle grade fiction about Ferris’ wheel and the 1893 World’s Fair that won a Newbery Honor in the 1950s, The Great Wheel by Robert Lawson. I just recently read it to see if I would add it to this blog, but I would only recommend it for those who want to say they’ve read every Newbery Honor book. It gets rather bogged down in extremely technical details of building the wheel and includes some language that we’d now consider racial slurs. Fair Weather is much better for modern middle grade readers.

Adult Nonfiction

The Devil and the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
Larson chronicles the World's Fair of 1893 from the moment of conception through till its close and aftermath, the life and crimes of Dr. H.H. Holmes and how Geyer eventually uncovered his evil deeds, and the assassination of the Chicago mayor in October 1893. For much of the book Larson alternates chapters between plans for the fair and the key people involved (foremost Burnham & Olmstead) with all that H.H. Holmes was up to unbeknownst to anyone. Every once in a while a chapter on Prendergrast (assassin of the mayor) would appear.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Riveting Nonfiction: Larson is able to weave history in a way that just leaps off the page. You would think hearing about architect, engineer and landscape plans for the fair would be dry as dirt, but Larson makes it all quite interesting. Of course, the parts on Holmes are horrifyingly captivating. 
  • True Crime/Forensics Fans: If you like crime stories or forensic mysteries, the parts on Holmes are just for you.
  • Chicago History: I'm somewhat familiar with Chicago because of friends and family in the area, so I found it interesting to connect older parts of the city as described in 1893 with present day.

Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artist’s Quarreled and Thomas Edison Became a Count by Jill Jonnes
Step back in time and experience all the joys and the many trials, headaches, and antics involved in the years and days leading up to the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, the six months of the fair, and then the days after the fair's close. Along the way you will meet several of the major personalities involved in the various aspects of the fair, from engineers/scientists Gustave Eiffel and Thomas Edison to Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, newspaper men, ambassadors, and numerous artists.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Interesting Nonfiction: This may sound like a rather ambitious scope for a book, and it is. This book had amazing potential to be extremely scatterbrained and lacking coherence, but Jonnes pulls it off swimmingly. She does an incredible job of helping the modern reader step back in time and experience the fair in all its varied aspects. She also does the admirable job of expounding this history in a story form that is gripping and highly readable. Maybe not quite as good as Larson, but very close. It doesn't feel like reading a history book, it feels like reading a story. I'm pretty good on my history knowledge but Jonnes plunged to such intricate depths I learned a lot of things I had never known before. 
  • Paris History: If you’re headed to Paris or just interested in it, you can learn a lot about the city, iconic monuments there, and figures of the past in this.
  • Event Planners: This would make any event planner feel better about their craziest events. You think the last wedding you organized was crazy? Try managing all the major personalities involved in a World's Fair! This'll make the last bridezilla look like a piece of cake.
  • Compare/Contrast: This book and Devil in the White City relate the two World's Fairs that happened back to back. The 1893 Fair was trying to live up to this one. There are personalities that were involved in both (like Buffalo Bill) and both had their own unique challenges. It is interesting to read about each and compare the similarities and differences.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Brainstorm Vol 74: Thrilling series for Middle Grades

Are you looking for a series to get a middle grader (3rd-8th) absolutely hooked on reading this summer? There’s nothing better than a suspenseful, high action series to get you absorbed in reading. Here are three thrilling series for middle grade readers (or anyone who likes a good thriller).

Masterminds series by Gordon Korman
There are currently two books out in this series, Masterminds and Masterminds: Criminal Destiny. I have only read the first so far, so that’s the one I’ll provide a review for. It was a superbly written and very exciting thriller/mild dystopia. BUT IT ENDS IN A CLIFFHANGER!!! I need the next book asap! Ahem. Yes. I'll be ok. Maybe. Book two is a must find this summer, and probably another copy of book one.

Masterminds (#1)
Serenity, NM is a calm and peaceful place. Most people work for the orange traffic cone production factory. No one goes hungry, and in fact, everyone has enough money for their own pools, basketball courts, etc. There's no crime, and honesty is engrained in everyone so much many things, like tests, are done on the honor system. Eli is one of a handful of kids his age in the town. They're all preparing for Serenity Day, the day the town celebrates the founding of this model, crime-free, honesty-based town by FDR in 1934. There will be the yearly water polo game, the presentation of the kids' Serenity projects, a picnic, and fireworks. Everything seems perfect, until Eli's friend Randy convinces him to check out an old car he found outside the city limits. Eli has never set foot outside the town before, he's never really had a reason to. Randy is Eli's best friend, and Randy really wants to show him this old sports car so off they go. But as soon as they get near the town boundary, Eli starts to get very sick. A helicopter full of the Surety, who are in town for protection of the factory and town, appears almost immediately and next thing Eli knows he's waking up at home being told that Randy is moving to his grandparents' house in Colorado. Randy says some strange things in his goodbye to Eli, and eventually Eli figures out Randy's left him a secret goodbye letter. In that, Randy tells him that the whole thing about his grandparents is a lie and the town is shipping him off to a boarding school, and he can't contact Eli even if he wanted to. He warns Eli that there's something strange going on in Serenity. Eli's peers tell him it the letter is just one of Randy's pranks, but when lightning strikes close to Serenity one night while Eli is doing research on the Boston Tea Party the website changes from saying the Boston Tea Party was a peaceful tea party where Britain and the new US negotiated things to something about a protest against the British government and dumping tea into the sea. Eli decides to show his dad Randy's letter, and soon finds himself waking up from being drugged. He catches on, and fakes taking further pills. But Eli is now sure, Randy was on to something, and Eli's own father is in on it as well as other adults he's trusted all his life. Eli and three of his peers start poking around, and what they find out about Serenity will shatter their worlds.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Dystopia Fans: There’s a bit of a dystopian thread in the plot of this story. Which is appropriately ironic since the town is supposed to be a utopia. I can’t tell you too much about the secrets without spoiling things, but suffice it to say they are big. Big enough you could write an adult thriller/dystopia with the same basic plot. Korman keeps things middle grade appropriate though, which is hard with an exciting dystopia, but he pulls it off and does so without readers needing to suspend belief much at all.
  • Action/Supsense Fans: I’ve found this to be an easy sell to students. All I have to say is I found it a very exciting book. That I NEED the next book, and they fight over who gets to read it even when I warn them it ends in a horrible cliffhanger. This was added to the library a month before school got out and it hasn’t once made it to sit on the shelves it’s been such a high demand.
  • Ethical/Philosophical Issue Thinkers: There’s a big, huge moral/ethical dilemma at the root of the plot that asks some very interesting nature vs nurture questions for those who like those debates.

Spy School series by Stuart Gibbs
There are currently three books out in this series about a kid wrongly recruited to spy school who still manages to survive. A fourth comes out this fall, Spy Ski School.
Stuart Gibbs has an amazing voice for his male middle grade characters. They are just the right mix of insecure, humorous, and real boy. I love following Ben around just as much as I've enjoyed following Teddy Fitzroy around FunJungle. I also really enjoyed the premise of these stories. All the books and movies portray spy training as glamorous and amazing. Ben points out all the pitfalls, and realistically has second thoughts about the glamour of becoming a spy. There's some of the feel of other spy series, like Alex Rider, but this one tones down the more serious content and keeps it solidly a middle grade series that isn't taking itself too serious. Little touches, like having spies drink gatorade (to make sure you stay hydrated and ready for anything) rather than alcohol help make this happen. And the mystery/spy element is done quite well. Each book has kept me guessing till the end but didn't have me so tense I was chewing off all my fingernails.
Here are reviews for the first three books.

Spy School (#1)
Ben Ripley is beyond thrilled when one day he arrives home from school to find a real, live, honest to goodness spy sitting in his living room waiting to whisk him off to spy school. Who wouldn't want to be excited when the US government shows up saying you are top spy material? The debonair agent Alexander Hale waits and feeds Ben's parents a story about Ben winning an elite scholarship to a science school and gains their approval to take Ben away. Ben is super excited, that is until about 2 minutes after stepping on campus and finding people firing very real weapons at him. Within just the first few days of school Ben has been shot at, had a bully threaten him (a certain species he thought he'd escaped when he left normal school), had an assassin try to kill him for information about some super secret program called Pinwheel, and had a ninja knock him out in self defense class for talking out of turn. Oh, and guess what else? Spy training textbooks are just as boring as normal textbooks. Ben is beginning to regret ever coming to spy school, when he starts to uncover a very sinister plot that could threaten a lot more people than just him.

Spy Camp (#2)
Ben Ripley's all excited about spending the summer at home with his family and friends, when the Principal drops a bombshell on him. All spy school students are expected to attend spy camp. He gets one weekend at home and then he'll have to report to Happy Trails camp. But even before he gets to leave for his weekend at home, a note from SPYDER appears informing him that they are coming for him soon. Upon arrival at spy camp, Ben finds another not from SPYDER. Since spy camp isn't secure and SPYDER is gunning for him, the higher ups decide he'd be safer heading out into the middle of nowhere with "Woodchuck" Wallace, the psycho camp leader survival specialist. For cover, a whole group of students is taken out in a bus with Ben and the plan is for him and Woodchuck to slip away from the group to foil SPYDER. But when the bus driver is Alexander Hale and SPYDER is smarter than anyone thinks, you know things are not going to go according to plan, and everyone's in store for one wild spy adventure.

Evil Spy School (#3)
When Ben and his team accidentally load a live mortar during the opening skills test at Spy School and Erica realizes this just in time for Ben to swivel it away from people, Ben kinda sorta blows up the principal's office and gets himself expelled. He isn't back at home for 24 hours before SPYDER comes calling trying to recruit him. Normally, Ben would never consider going to the dark side, but something Erica said as he left spy school makes him think the expulsion was just a cover for him to go into SPYDER as a double agent, and so he accepts. He soon finds himself in a house with fellow agents-in-training Ashley, a former US gymnast who just missed the Olympics cut and has a serious chip on her shoulder, and Nefarious Jones, who seems melded to the gaming system. Things at SPYDER's spy school are pretty much the same as at Ben's old school, only SPYDER's stuff is nicer, and there's the whole evil bent. Eventually Murray shows up and Ben realizes they are getting closer to SPYDER's next big thing. But Ben can't figure out what that thing is. Even though everyone has seemed to have bought his defection to their side, no one has told him anything important. And it's getting more and more important for him to figure out what the enemy is up to before he gets stuck in the middle of their plans and/or caught as a double agent.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Spy Fans: Hand this series to spy fans who aren’t quite ready for more serious and grittier spy adventures. Or who like their spies but just don't like the grittier content. It’s light on the body count, but still plenty exciting.
  • Reluctant Readers: The kids who have come in asking for this series are not regular visitors to the library. The exciting adventures draw in even reluctant readers.
  • Mystery Fans: Each of Gibbs’ books has some secret to work out or mystery element, and he’s a good mystery writer. These books will keep you on your mental toes.

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales written & illustrated by Nathan Hale
Currently there are six books in this graphic novel series covering US history in an exciting and engaging manner. One Dead Spy (#1) covers the American Revolutionary War, Big Bad Ironclad (#2) covers the American Civil War, Donner Dinner Party (#3) relates the tragic Donner expedition, Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood (#4) summarizes WWI, The Underground Abductor (#5) is a biography of Harriet Tubman, and Alamo All-Stars (#6) details the Texan journey from Spanish territory to independent state to part of the US including the infamous Battle of the Alamo.
I hope Nathan Hale continues to make many, many, many more books in this series. They are such a great addition to the book world. It's great when students can accidentally learn things about incredible people while having fun reading. And any books that can convince kids to read about history in their free time are doing something right. Now there are some minor swear words in some of these (pretty much all in actual historic quotes) and death is frequently a component of battles (though the monochromatic color scheme of these helps keep the gore down), so these aren’t for all kids. Most upper elementary and middle school students should be able to handle the content, but some parents may want to preview them first.
Here are reviews of three of my favorites.

One Dead Spy (#1)
Nathan Hale's execution for being a spy in the Revolutionary War is postponed while he and the executioner wait for the official orders. While waiting, the gallows turns into a giant history book that swallows Hale and spits him back out with the knowledge of all history past and future. The executioner and British soldier are dubious, but they are soon won over as Hale regales them with the tale of how he ended up caught as a spy and how the war will turn out.

This book focuses on the Revolutionary War from the perspective of the historic Nathan Hale (not the author of the same name), and thus, the battles he was mostly involved in. Along the way, readers also get to know Henry Knox, Ethan Allen, Ben Tallmadge, George Washington, Thomas Knowlton, Major Robert Rodgers, and a short postscript story about Crispus Attucks. Hale knows a way to make history come alive like few others. He manages to make things funny and entertaining, and thus very memorable. Readers will come away from this with a much better understanding of the Battles in Boston and New York City. I really appreciate the bibliographic material provided which explains where the author took some creative license because details are hard to find. I also appreciate it because I think I am going to have to hunt down some of the ones on Henry Knox. That guy is a hilarious character in this book, and I want to know more about him. Also, I have a fairly good grasp of history, but I did not remember the part about Washington getting his forces to construct a fort that would "magically" appear over night. Hale unwinds that tale quite entertainingly.

Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood (#4)
Nathan Hale, the Provost, and the Hangman are back for another tale from their future (our past). This time, they demand a tale of war...with animals and a touch of humor to lighten up the grim facts. So Nathan Hale gives a broad sweeping overview of the Great War with different animals representing each country. Due to the grand scheme of the tale, Hale only focuses on the main things that led to war and the most important battles.

As Hale has the characters mention during the story and the bibliography, covering an entire war that spanned the globe in one book is a rather daunting task. It was impossible to cover all the details, but I felt Hale did a good job covering the highlights and giving a satisfactory broad overview. In fact, it probably does a better job of covering WWI than most textbooks, and I know it does so in a much more entertaining and memorable way. I liked the usage of different animals to represent different countries, because it definitely helped make it easier to see who was involved where and when. I also liked that every once in a while Hale would insert true-to-life illustrations of important people minus their animal facade to remind readers that this was a real person.

The Underground Abductor (#5)
Nathan Hale (the historic character), the executioner, and the British soldier this time regale readers with the story of Araminta Ross, aka Harriet Tubman. Ok, really Nathan Hale tells us all about this amazing woman who overcame personal hardship, escaped slavery, didn't rest in her safety but helped dozens of other slaves obtain freedom, and as if that weren't enough, also helped serve as a spy for the North in the American Civil War. As usual, the executioner and British soldier provide comedic side notes as Hale spins the tale.

I've heard about Harriet Tubman in history classes throughout my student years and even taught about her as a teacher, but I still learned several things from this book that I never knew about her before. A fantastic biography!

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Fiction Addicts: I know there are those readers out there who won’t touch nonfiction without a serious bribe or grade attached. (I confess this has been my attitude for much of my life.) This series just may convince them that nonfiction doesn’t have to be boring.
  • Graphic Novel Fans: It won’t take any persuading to get graphic novel fans to read these.
  • Action/Humor Fans: Hale makes sure to incorporate lots of high action and hilarious moments in these books.
  • Reluctant Readers: It isn’t hard to convince kids to give one of these a try. I mean, it's a graphic novel, and by the time you try a few pages you're pretty much hooked (and a good portion of the way through the short book) so why not finish and try the next one?
  • Struggling History Students: These books can make tricky moments of history much easier to understand. Hand this to the kid who is supposed to make heads and tales of WWI or the conflicts in Texas. I guarantee they’ll better understand what went on after reading Hale’s rendition of history. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Brainstorm Vol 73: Fun characters to hang out with this summer

Looking for some fun characters to hang out with this summer? Here's just a few ideas. Most of these are new books/series to our school. (But of course, don't forget there's lots of great "old" fun characters to hang out with too, like Elephant & Piggie, Tacky the Penguin, Frog & Toad, Percy Jackson, Zita the Spacegirl, David of the Reckoners, Linh Cinder, Hercule Poirot, etc. etc. etc.)

Woolbur by Leslie Helakoski, ill. by Lee Harper
Woolbur's parents are in danger of pulling out all their wool. Woolbur continually comes home with notes from his teacher saying Woolbur hasn't done things quite the way he was supposed to. Grandpaa keeps telling Maa and Paa not to worry, Woolbur will be fine. Finally, they've had it and tell Woolbur he needs to do things the way the rest of the class does. Woolbur agrees, but the result is NOT what anyone foresaw (except for possibly Grandpaa).

The twist at the end of this book was hilarious. [Instead of conforming to the class, Woolbur convinces the class to all do things his way so he is technically following his parents' rules. (hide spoiler)] Woolbur is constantly thinking outside the box in ways others never would have dreamed. It's the kind of thing that makes you shake your head but also be slightly impressed with his creativity. He isn't bad. He's just so energetic and creative that some don't know what to do with him.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Thinking Outside the Box: Boy does Woolbur know how to think outside the box. He’s a crystal clear example of what this concept means.
  • Understanding Differences: This is good book to read with a group that includes kids who have disabilities or differences that make them seem a teensy bit weird to others, not bad, just weird. Off the top of my head, I'd say primarily those learning to understand ADHD and mild forms of autism could benefit from this, but it could also be a good book to pull out if you find the class divided into cliques between the "cool" kids and the "nerds" or "artsy" kids.

The Princess in Black (Princess in Black, #1) by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, ill. by LeUyen Pham
Princess Magnolia is apparently a perfect princess, with an immaculate castle and tons of pink, frilly clothes, and a sparkly unicorn named Frimplepants. But when monsters cross the border into her kingdom from Monster Land, Princess Magnolia becomes the heroic Princess in Black and Frimplepants becomes her faithful steed Blacky who together vanquish monsters and save the citizens (and goats) of the kingdom. But keeping a secret identity is tricky, especially when snoopy Duchess Wigtower comes to tea just as there's a monster alert. Can Magnolia keep her secret and save the kingdom?

There are currently 3 Princess in Black books with a 4th on the way in November. She and Blacky are definitely fun to hang out with. Read all of them!

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Strong Princess Lovers: If you’re looking for a princess who can hold her own, look no further.
  • Lower Grade Fantasy Lovers: If you’re looking to get a lower elementary student hooked on a series, who can resist a princess with a secret identity in books with eye-catching full-color illustrations?!
  • Lower Grade Spy/Superhero Story Fans: With her secret identity, Magnolia has to be sneaky like a spy or other superheroes. There's always that little bit of suspense about her being discovered.

Super Amoeba (Squish, #1) by Jennifer L. Holm, ill. by Matthew Holm
Squish wants to be just like his favorite superhero and do what's right. But when it comes to the class bully, Squish is finding the bravery to do what's right a little hard to find. Can he save his friend Penny from being eaten without letting Lynwood cheat off him in science?

Having a cast of single-celled characters certainly lends itself to unusual situations and humor. (Like the bully Lynwood repeatedly almost eating Penny.) Squish is a relatable amoeba. Penny is hilarious in her perkiness, and Pod is...interesting. And the science teacher in me likes all the science facts and fun. There are currently seven adventures with Squish and an eighth coming out in August. Each of them has these single-celled characters deal with real-world problems.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Reluctant Readers: This is a great series for reluctant readers. They’re super fast reads. Squish is guaranteed to suck them in quickly. And they’re graphic novels, a huge plus.
  • Lower & Middle Grade Graphic Novel Fans: This one has appeal across the grades. It’s short and sweet enough for lower grades, but engaging enough for middle grades too.
  • Science Fans: I know I’m not the only one out there that can’t resist a good, nerdy science fact or two with my fiction.

Harriet the Invincible (Hamster Princess, #1) by Ursula Vernon
Harriet Hamsterbone's parents forgot to invite the evil fairy to her christening, and so, as expected, she's been cursed to prick her hand on a hamster wheel on her 12th birthday. When her parents finally tell Harriet about the curse when she's ten it backfires as Harriet realizes that if she can't thwart the curse, she's also invincible till she turns twelve. So off Harriet goes to fight ogres and join jousting tournaments and go cliff diving, while her parents start searching for prince to break the curse. Harriet returns home for her 12th birthday and manages to foil the evil fairy, but manages to still put everyone else in the castle to sleep until she can find a prince to help her break the curse. Harriet finds it's a little hard to find a prince willing to help out a princess who isn't typically princessy, but eventually she finds the right guy. She just has to rescue him first.

A very fun twist on the Sleeping Beauty tale that manages to empower the princess but doesn't put the prince down in the dirt either. They eventually form a great team (a team that isn’t mushy) and I probably liked that twist best of all - though I also loved the moment when Harriet realizes the curse means she's invincible...why has no Sleeping Beauty rewrite thought of this before?! Kids will like the illustrations throughout, and of course, Vernon makes it funny. Harriet’s second adventure is great too, with a new twist on the Twelve Dancing Princess, and #3 is coming with a new twist on the Rapunzel tale. Harriet is a hamster with a good head on her shoulders, a healthy dose of bravery, a trusty quail steed, and a firm resolve that she and her friends are not ready for any mushy stuff.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Fairy Tale Fans: Harriet’s fractured fairy tales are the best. No really. Go read it.
  • Humor Fans: Hide this book behind a false cover, start reading, and I guarantee even the boys who turn up their noses at fairytales won’t want you to stop. Vernon’s writing is sure to give readers their dose of laughter for the day.
  • Strong Princess Lovers: This is another great one for those looking for strong princess leads.
  • Animal Lovers: All the characters in the Hamster Princess tales are some kind of animal. And they’re adorably illustrated (in a strong princess kind of way).

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
One day, a hurricane sinks a cargo ship carrying robots fresh from the factory. One robot's crate is washed onto an island and some playful otters accidentally turn her on. Roz meanders the island figuring out how to survive and where she is. Most of the creatures fear her as a monster. Over time, Roz's careful observations allow her to catch on to the language of the animals and she starts to communicate. They still fear her. When an accident happens while Roz is climbing, an entire family of geese is accidentally killed except for one egg. Roz takes care of the egg since she was responsible for the accident, and soon finds herself the mother to a little goose dubbed Brightbill. Roz's care of Brightbill helps other animals realize that Roz isn't so bad, and soon Roz finds herself with a whole island of friends. She helps them as best she can, and they in turn help her. The island is a better place for the arrival of Roz, until one day other robots come to the island to retrieve Roz and take her back to the factory.

This was an adorable and sweet story about an outsider robot who soon becomes beloved by the entire island. Roz is relatively unemotional as befits a robot, but she is also programmed to be helpful. It is fun to see how her helpfulness eventually wins her friends all over the island, and how they help her when she gets into tight spots too. The ending is a little bittersweet, but hopeful. The entire time I read this I pictured it in my head as a cartoon from the 60's or 70's for kids. Perhaps it was the influence of the illustration style or maybe it was the light feel of the story. Even the serious parts don't feel overly heavy. It's cheery and happy and sweet. I wasn't sure how Peter Brown would do as a chapter book author, but he did a fantastic job. Everyone will fall in love with Roz and Brightbill.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Read Aloud: This would appeal to a variety of ages, but would especially make a great read aloud for 1st-3rd grades. 
  • Survival Fans: Roz has to get pretty creative to be able to survive on a wild island.
  • Light Sci-fi Read: Most of this story has to do with surviving in the wilderness, but there are sci-fi elements. When Brightbill migrates it is clear this is some time in the future when robots are everywhere. And of course, there’s Roz, who is a pretty advanced robot. This would be a light intro to the sci-fi genre for the lower end of the middle grades.
  • Animal Lovers: This is also a great pick for animal lovers, since there's a whole island full of critters that Roz gets to know.

The Trouble with Weasels (Life of Zarf, #1) by Rob Harrell
Zarf is a troll. Trolls aren't exactly the most popular of creatures, but Zarf manages to have some friends. There's Chester the human training to be a jester...except he really isn't that funny. And Kevin Littlepig, who is a pig, and a bit of an extreme worry wart. So the King of the country manages to get himself captured by Snuffweasels and his son takes over as king, which is really bad news because Zarf just tackled the prince in a moment of lost cool. Anyway, Zarf ends up in the dungeon, but he realizes the Prince is totally incompetent and somebody has to rescue the King. So, thanks to the help of the school lunch lady, he breaks out, gathers his friends (and a guy he found in the dungeon), and is off to save the kingdom. Or just try to survive the woods. Whichever seems most important.

I absolutely love this author’s Monster on the Hill so I figured I should give some of his other work a try. This was a pleasantly diverting read (ok, so I admit, I laughed out loud several times). There's illustrations scattered all over the book which help it fly by at super speed, and Zarf and gang are quite fun to travel around with. Lots of fairy tale elements, like Kevin is part of the Littlepig family and the 2nd book in the series sees the return of a certain wolf with a vendetta against them and some other fairy tale characters. So far there’s two Zarf books with a third coming out in September.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Sneaky Life Lessons: Don't tell kids but there's some good stuff on learning to manage your temper and using your talents for good in this book. 
  • Non-Mushy Fairytale/Fantasy Fans: Hand this to kids who like fantasy adventures with dabs of humor. (Especially those who like fantasy but want to avoid the mushy princess tales. No mushiness in here. Well, Kevin has a crush on a butcher, but it is a very teensy, tiny, minor side thing that gets about three sentences. And it’s highly ironic since he’s a pig.) 
  • Humor Fans: Zarf’s adventures are fraught with situations designed to make readers laugh, and illustrations throughout to help. These are lots of fun.
  • Reluctant Readers: Zarf would be a great character to pull in those kids who say they don’t like to read.

Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd
Before you crack the cover on this book you need to find yourself a nice porch with a rocking chair, a cup of hot cocoa and some muffins. And after you’ve established a proper rocking rhythm, you’ll crack the cover and find that the words flow with the rocking of your chair. Soon you’ll be transported to a tiny Appalachian mountain village, where life is perhaps just a tiny bit magical, the heroes of the past are ever-present, and one girl believes her destiny is to save her beloved town from bulldozers of the future.

Before her Mama passed, she showed Emma the special Book of Days. In it are recorded all the women in their family, dubbed the Wildflowers, who have had the Destiny Dream. Emma will know the Destiny Dream when she has it because it always starts with the girl or woman standing in a field of blue flowers and then it will show them some symbol that will guide them to the path for the future. Some of the Wildflowers were Civil War heroes, some were musicians like Mama, some were suffragists, and others were journalists. When Emma finally has her dream, she thinks what she sees means she is supposed to find the legendary treasure of the Conductor to save her family’s home/café from the developmental dreams of Warren Steele. Legend says those of pure heart can hear the ghost of the Conductor, follow his song, and will be led to his treasure hidden somewhere in hills of Blackbird Hollow. But the legend also comes with a warning, those who seek the treasure without a pure heart often are driven mad by the search and eventually disappear, never to be heard from again. Emma has heard the song of the Conductor drifting out of the graveyard in her backyard. She knows her motives are pure, she just wants to save her family’s café so that she and Granny Blue and her brother Topher don’t have to leave. Yes, home is filled with sad memories of Mama’s illness, and Emma often wakes with the hard task of facing the Big Empty. But there are also so many good memories here. Memories of jamboree nights at the café when the entire town turns up to sample Boneyard Brew cocoa and dance away their troubles. Memories of adventures with her best friend Cody Belle, baking muffins with Topher, giving tours of the cemetery, and riding the hills on Granny Blue’s motorcycle. With the help of Cody Belle and newly returned Earl Chance - who doesn’t talk but is still a good friend - Emma is determined to face any ghosts in Blackbird Hollow necessary to hunt down the treasure.

Natalie Lloyd is a magician with words. I love the way her sentences lure you in and feel like music. They encapsulate that storyteller-rocking-chair-magical-rhythm that sings of anticipation, the warm blanket-feeling of a loving home, the bittersweet memories of days gone by, the creepiness of a cemetery at night, and the restfulness a cozy mountain town where just touches of magic are possible. It transports you up and down with the story, and refuses to let you go until Emma’s tale is done. And what a magical tale it was. Now, personally, I approached this with equal measures of anticipation and wariness. I adored Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic, and was looking forward to more of her wordsmithing. But I had also heard that much of the story is wrapped up in a legendary ghost, and I’m not a huge fan of ghost stories. However, having now read this, I can’t say enough how much I loved this story. Lloyd did so very many things well, and the ghostly part of the book had a not-so-spooky explanation and went in a direction I was very excited about. It was a stroke of brilliance. (A stroke of brilliance I can’t tell you about without spoiling a big part of the plot, but suffice it to say there’s a historical thing and a great message. And it's really, really good!) While the characters themselves are so fantastic, there’s lots more to love in this story, from the various magical flowers in Blackbird Hollow to Penny Lane the crow, but I don’t want to spoil it. I definitely recommend enjoying the magic by reading it yourself or with others; it would make a great read aloud! Suffice it to say fantastic characters, superb writing, a well-done mystery with a rich ending, and lots of happy-sigh-inducing feels. One more note, while you needed ice cream on hand to read A Snicker of Magic this one requires hot cocoa and muffins. They’re always enjoying the hot cocoa in the café accompanied by Topher’s special peach lavender muffins.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Value of History: There’s a celebration of both family history and local history in this story that's so well done.
  • Authentic Grief: I thought that Lloyd did a fantastic job in the way she portrayed Emma’s grief over her mom’s death. The way she describes the Big Empty so encapsulates what it is like after a close loved one dies, but she doesn’t let Emma wallow in grief. Emma is having fun, going on adventures and excited about the future. Her memories of her Mama are bittersweet; just as often likely to make her smile as to make her cry. I’ve written recently in some reviews of books about kids who lost loved ones about how wary I am of reading such books due to my own family history of loss. But I really liked this one. Lloyd gets it. She gets how to handle the ebb and flow of grief in Emma’s character, while not making it the central part of the story. And Emma is handling the grief in healthy ways. It’s the most authentic and respectful portrayal of a kid handling grief well I’ve come across. (Partly because most other books that include the loss of a close loved one focus on the kid starting off not dealing with the grief well, that’s the main plot of the story, and the climax is eventually them getting to a healthy grief.) 
  • Kids Born with a Cleft Palate: Another thing I liked was having Emma deal with some insecurities about a scar on her lip. Eventually it comes out that she was born with a cleft palate and had surgeries to repair it. I have never read a book about a kid born with a cleft palate, and yet it isn’t all that uncommon. Here’s a story for those kids.
  • True Friendship: Earl Chance was another fantastic addition I applauded. He has been severely traumatized by surviving a tornado and has been mute since that storm. His lack of speaking doesn’t make one lick of difference to Emma or Cody Belle, they swoop in and make him their friend without batting an eye. And they don’t try to fix him. I love their acceptance and unconditional friendship. Those two are some stellar role models for readers. 
  • Appalachia Setting: If you want to curl up in a valley in Appalachia for a while or know someone else who might, pick up this book.
  • Mystery Lovers: Those who like to match wits with the author and try to figure things out before the characters have a challenge in store in this book, but it’s a fun challenge. There’s just enough clues clever readers may get things worked out before Emma.
  • Word Lovers: Natalie Lloyd is a magician with words. Half the time I’m reading her books I’m just marveling at the way she puts words together to make a book magically sing.
  • Light Fantasy Fans: There are just tiny touches of fantasy in this. Mostly it reads like a contemporary story with a mysterious puzzle.
  • Read Aloud: Natalie Lloyd's writing makes for splendiferous read alouds.

Groot by Jeff Loveness, ill. by Brian Kesinger
Ok, now, who can resist a book full of lovable Groot?!
Groot and Rocket are off on an intergalactic road trip. Groot wants to see Earth and take the scenic route. They have a few adventures along the way, reminisce about how they met up, foil the plans of some rather incompetent wannabe Earth invaders (with a little help from the Silver Surfer and his girlfriend), and eventually make it to Earth where Groot and Rocket enjoy the sights and track down an Earthen girl Groot met a long time ago.

This was hilarious. Rocket and Groot are so much fun to follow on a road trip, and the wild cast of characters they run into along the way are super entertaining. The only quibble I had was the ending of the last story. It isn't entirely clear if Groot finds Hannah or not, but the back story of his home planet was quite interesting so I'll be ok. The comedic elements more than make up for any quibbles: the 1996 robot with a battle floppy disk, aliens that mistake planet Earfk for Earth because they can't read the map, and of course, Groot and Rocket's interactions. So much funny to love.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Groot Fans!: And that pretty much includes everybody, so I don’t think I need to write any more. (Ok, one sentence more. There is some violence and three minor swear words, so some parents may want to preview this first.)