Friday, September 29, 2017

Brainstorm 121: Creative characters

This week’s Brainstorm features some of the great books out there on the creative process, thinking outside the box, and persevering despite setbacks. This list is obviously not exhaustive, there are many, many other great books on creativity, perseverance, and problem solving out there. But here are some that came out recently or that I was introduced to fairly recently. Feel free to comment with your favorite creative characters and books on the creative process.

Fiction Picture Books


The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
A little girl and her assistant (aka dog) set out to make the most magnificent thing. They start off full of energy and zest. But as the mistakes and rejects start to pile up, the inventor and assistant start to get more fed up until one smashed finger results in an explosion. The assistant suggests a walk, which the girl doubts will help, but finds a surprisingly good idea to brighten her spirits and give her a fresh new attack on the problem.

Target Readers:

  • Creative Readers: A fantastic story about perseverance and learning through mistakes, especially during a creative process such as inventing. A great book to use when talking about making revisions, problem solving, or creative strategies.
  • Realistic Fiction Fans & Animal Fans: The little girl and her assistant are sure fun to follow around, and the illustrations are fantastic. Pretty much anyone should find something to enjoy in this book. 
  • Compare/Contrast Fans: Read this one and Andrea Beatty’s Rosie Revere, Engineer about another little inventor.


The Guild of Geniuses by Dan Santat
Mr Pip is Fredrick Lipton's best friend. Mr Pip is a monkey. Fredrick Lipton is a famous actor. When Fredrick's birthday comes around Mr Pip gets up early to get his present ready, but then he realizes his friend has all sorts of fabulous presents from lots of famous people. Would he even want Mr Pip's gift? Fredrick realizes Mr Pip is down, so he takes him to all the vets in town and when they can't provide an answer to his despondency, he leaves him with the Guild of Geniuses to figure out what's wrong while he goes on a two week movie shoot. The Guild puts their collective genius together, but seemingly fails to solve the mystery of Mr Pip's blues.

Target Readers:

  • Friendship Story Fans: This is a sweet story about friendship and value that money can't buy. 
  • Humor Fans & Problem Solving Fans: The Guild of Geniuses provide humorous entertainment along the way with their various ideas and remind readers that sometimes the answer is so simple we miss it by overthinking.


This Is My Book! by Mark Pett
Mark Pett introduces himself and explains what an author and illustrator does. He creates a panda character and then the panda proceeds to mess up all of Pett's plans for the book.

Target Readers:

  • Kids Learning Parts of a Book: This is a good choice for introducing who an author is, who an illustrator is, and what a character is when teaching parts of a book. 
  • Humor Fans & Interactive Book Fans: Kids will likely be thrilled by how the panda messes things up and enjoy the interactive parts of the book (a pull tab and pop-up are added by the panda against Pett's wishes). 


Ideas Are All Around by Philip C. Stead
Philip C. Stead and his dog Wednesday go on a walk as the author tries to decide what to write his story about. In the end, the walk and process of brainstorming becomes the story.

Target Readers:

  • Stream of Consciousness Fans: There are not many picture books that can illustrate what a stream of consciousness story is like. (In fact, I can’t think of any others besides this one.) But it also isn’t as annoying as some of the “classic” adult books written in this style. It’s a light intro. 
  • Those Needing a Creative Boost: This story definitely encourages readers that anything can be turned into a story, and inspiration is all around if you only look. 
  • Unique Art Fans: The unique illustration style that combines photographs and painted pictures fits the theme of this book. It should encourage artists to think outside the box.


If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen
A kid with a fantastic imagination describes to his dad his dream car.

Target Readers:

  • Rhyming Text Fans/Read Aloud Fans: Van Dusen’s spectacular rhyming makes this a very fun read aloud. 
  • Scifi Fans/Fantasy Fans/Imaginative Readers: A delightfully fun book that imagines the perfect car. Keep the imagination going by asking readers what they'd add, change, or do different in their dream car. And if you like this one, also snatch up Van Dusen’s similar If I Built a House.
  • Easter Egg Fans: Keep an eye out, Van Dusen’s other picture book stars Mr. Magee and Dee are hiding in the illustrations somewhere in here.


Biographies


In the Bag: Margaret Knight Wraps It Up by Monica Kulling, ill. by David Parkins
A picture book biography of Margaret Knight, a factory worker in the 1800s who beat the odds, made history, and went on to become a patent-holding semi-famous inventor.

Target Readers:

  • Inventor Fans/Biography Fans: Fantastic picture book about a woman inventor who holds many patents, one of which was a machine that makes paper grocery bags. If you're studying inventors, make sure you include this amazing lady along with Edison and Bell. 
  • Fans of Stories of Real Kids Who Changed Their World: Not only was Margaret Knight a woman not afraid to tinker around with tools when it wasn't fashionable, she's inspirational for kids too. She invented a safety device for looms when she was just a child that saved hundreds of lives. She’s a great example that being small doesn’t mean you can’t make a huge impact.


Some Writer!: the Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet
Melissa Sweet introduces readers to the author of Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web through her own text and illustrations describing his life from childhood through college at Cornell on to his rambling years, work at The New Yorker and eventually his retreat to Maine and a quieter writing life until his death. Included are numerous photographs of White and his family, primary sources (such as manuscripts and childhood notes) and quotes from both White and other famous writers who knew him.

Target Readers:

  • Biography Fans: This is an exemplary biography in many ways. It is attractively designed. The writing flows so well. It is highly readable, aimed at the middle grade crowd but could be read aloud to kids younger or enjoyed by those older too because of the engrossing in content. Sweet balances both information about the man's life and the background on his work. 
  • Future Authors: There's lots of tantalizing details about the inspiration, setting, and process of writing all of his children's classics. Along the way readers not only get to learn about a cherished author and his creative process, but they’ll likely pick up some valuable writing advice too. Sweet found some exceptional quotes about writing that came straight from E.B. White's pen. 
  • E.B. White Fans: If you love this author’s works, you should love learning about how they each came to be.

Middle Grade Fiction


Robot Revolution (House of Robots, #3) by James Patterson with Chris Grabenstein, ill. by Juliana Neufeld
This is the third and final book about Sammy and his family, which thanks to his mother’s robotics skills, has many robots. In this one all the robots at the Hayes-Rodriguez household are all going beserk. Mom is absorbed in a new project so deeply that she's been neglecting regular maintenance of the household robots. Dad is in a deadline crunch for his graphic novel, so it seems it is up to Sammy and E to get the robots back to normal (E is a robot Mom created so Sammy’s sister Maddy who has SCID can go to school virtually). But trying to keep the robots at home from burning the place down or starting a revolution means Sammy’s grades are slipping and he can't spend any time thinking up a good science fair project. Will Mom finish before everything gets super out of control?

Target Readers:
  • Creative Types: Inventors, graphic novelists, and problem solving kids. Lots of creative juices are flowing and there’s a good message and perseverance and learning through mistakes woven in. 
  • Loving Families in Lit Fans: I really like the Hayes-Rodriguez family. I like that Sammy and Maddy get along so well, and that the entire family usually works as a team. This one shows how they aren't perfect, but they work through their issues and are stronger for it. 
  • Reluctant Readers/Scifi Fans: Of course, all the robots going wacky will be what really thrills most middle grade readers. With the topics covered, all the illustrations throughout, and slightly larger font size, this entire series is good for reluctant readers. 


Young Adult Fiction



Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell
Nicolette had a happy childhood learning to tinker with mechanical devices with her mother, but that ended with her mother's death of Fey's croup. It was made all the worse by the fact that the disease had a known cure, but the cure was a Faerie plant. And after the Queen's death of an overdose of the same plant, all Faerie items were banned and the Fey themselves were no longer welcome. Nicolette's father quickly remarried, a widow with two daughters of her own (and money to save the house). Nicollete dreamed of the fun she'd have with sisters, but it was quickly all too clear that that was never to be. Chastity and Piety couldn't have been any meaner or colder. And after father died, Stepmother made it abundantly clear Nicolette's place was as family servant. Nicolette didn't have it nearly as bad as her stepmother thought, though. Prior to her father's death, the family had a Fey servant, Mr. Candery who deeply cared for Nicolette and had some perception of her future fate. He left her hidden enchantments in the house, as her mother had left her little machines, and combined they helped to make life easier than it would have been. On her 16th birthday, Nicolette found a further gift left for her by her mother; the secret to how to get into her mother's hidden study and workshop in the cellar. The workshop proved to be well stocked and Nicolette was able to start dreaming about inventions to get her out of her role as family servant. The King has announced a grand Exhibition of the Arts & Sciences preceded by a ball where the Heir will make his first public appearance since his older brother's assassination many years earlier. While her stepsisters obsess about the Heir who is finally of age, Nicolette dreams of making a contraption that will capture her an investor at the Exhibition.

Target Readers:

  • Cinderella Rewrite Fans/Fractured Fairy Tale Fans: Obviously, the plot borrows a lot from Cinderella. The ending of this one doesn't quite follow the typical Cinderella tale formula though. At first I was disappointed, but then I decided I liked it for the different ending and the little spins it took on the typical story. (Hint: Those looking for non-mushy YA reads should also like this.)
  • Creative Character Fans: If you like creative genius characters, you should techy inventor Nicolette who is slightly socially inept (but in a lovable way). She’s an enjoyable creative genius to follow around. The sequel Venturess just came out and I’m eager to follow her around some more.
  • Steampunk/Scifi/Fantasy Fans: The world building is a mixture of steampunk (all the mechanical gizmos in a historical-ish setting) and fantasy (mostly the Fey and their magic). That mixture usually satisfies fans of both scifi and fantasy. 



Thursday, September 21, 2017

Brainstorm 120: Laughing is healthy...so read some funny books!

Laughter is good medicine. And we know that reading is good for you too. So it stands to reason we can say this is a list of quick reads that are super healthy for you since they should make you smile, chuckle, or even guffaw till you accidentally snort like a pig. Enjoy. (If you want more recommendations including some longer humorous reads check Brainstorm 65 too.)

Picture Books


Be Quiet! by Ryan T. Higgins
Rupert the Mouse has decided to make a wordless book. But it turns out it is quite hard to have a wordless book when you have to explain what you're doing to your friends and then they try to "help."

Target Readers:

  • Higgins Fans:  Those who have read Higgins' Bruce books will recognize these mice from those books (and keep an eye out for Bruce's cameo appearance). 
  • Humor Fans: This reads like a mouse Three Stooges routine. Poor Rupert's best laid plans end up a mess, but the results are uproariously funny (especially the other two mice's misunderstandings of some of Rupert's larger vocabulary). If you need a good chuckle, pick this one up. 
  • Read Aloud Hunters: This would make a very fun read aloud. (And don't miss the lines on the endpapers.)
  • Animal Fans: Cute animal fans should snatch this one up. 


If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, Don't! (Magnolia Says Don't, #2) by Elise Parsley
Magnolia is headed to the beach with her mom and two siblings. Her siblings are bringing things like boats and balls…she wants to bring the piano. Her mom says ok but do not to lose it, and they head off to the beach. Of course, things do not go as planned, and Magnolia realizes what a horrible idea it was to bring her piano to the beach.

Target Readers:

  • Those Working on Their Prediction Skills: Such a fun book to use with prediction exercises. Can readers predict how things will turn out? Can Magnolia manage to keep her piano safe at the beach? 
  • Humor Fans: Of course, this is also an excellent choice if you need a good laugh. It certainly made me laugh out loud more than once. The illustrations plus the text equal loads of fun for you. 


Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton, ill. by Tom Lichtenheld
Who's gonna win in an epic showdown: shark or train? Well, that all depends on the setting of the contest now, doesn't it? And boy does this book have some ideas for different shark vs train contests!

Target Readers:

  • Creative Thinking Fans: I love the way this book shows how settings can make all the difference in how splendidly someone (or something) performs. There are definitely easy applications to real life and everyone's different gifts and talents, but most of all this is a super fun book. 
  • Creative Writers: It would be fun to use this as a story starter and flesh out one of the epic battles depicted or dream up another crazy setting for a shark vs train showdown. I think my favorites were the lemonade stands, giving rides at the carnival, the go fish game, and playing video games.
  • Humor Fans: Even people who are scared of sharks and think trains are boring should find at least one spread in this book that will make them laugh.


Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee (Mr. Magee, #1) by Chris Van Dusen
Mr. Magee and his dog Dee decide to go out on their boat for the day. When a little whale decides to make a new friend and play with them, Mr. Magee and Dee have a very unexpected and wild adventure.

Target Readers:

  • Rhyming Text Fans: I knew Van Dusen could whip up great illustrations thanks to his contributions to the Deckawoo Drive books. I had no clue he could put together great rhyming text too! 
  • Adventure Fans & Humor Fans: This was quite the wild adventure. Those who like tales with a touch of the hilarious and epic, read this and all of Mr. Magee and Dee’s other adventures.
  • Historical Fiction Fans/Maine Fans: The book appears to be set in the 1950s or 1960s on the coast of Maine.
  • Those Who Like Not-Widely Known Info about Books: After reading this I picked up several of Van Dusen’s other non-Mr. Magee books and discovered that you can find Mr. Magee and Dee hiding in the illustrations somewhere in each one. Happy hunting. 


Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds, ill. by Dan Santat
The poor carnivores get a bad rap. Other animals tease and shun them, and eventually lion, great white shark, and timber wolf get fed up with it. They hold a meeting and decide that maybe they should try not eating meat so people will like them. That doesn't go so well, so they try disguises. Somehow, the other animals seem to see right through those. Eventually, lion, shark, and wolf decide to just be themselves and ignore what others might think of them.

Target Readers:

  • Those Who Speak Sarcasm Fluently: If you don't get sarcasm, you probably won't appreciate this book because it is dripping with it all over the place. If you’re trying to teach sarcasm, this is the book you need. If you like sarcastic humor, you’ll find that Carnivores is a delightful book about embracing the way you've been wired and empathizing with the misunderstood members of the animal kingdom. 
  • Compare/Contrast Exercisers: Read this one with The Bad Guys down below for a great compare/contrast activity. 


Lower Grade & Middle Grade Graphic Novels


The Great Pet Escape (Pets on the Loose, #1) by Victoria Jamieson
GW and his friends have been put behind bars. He's ready to break out, but to his horror, he discovers that Barry the Bunny and Sunflower enjoy their incarceration at Daisy P. Flugelhorn Elementary more than life on the streets. GW thinks they've been brainwashed and convinces them to escape anyway, but then they meet Harriet the mouse, 4th grade pet. Harriet has some seriously messed up plans that could hurt the children Barry and Sunflower have come to love. So instead of escaping, the Furry Fiends (that's the trio's group name) decides to save the school.

Target Readers:

  • Animal Fans: Kids are sure to love GW, Barry, and Sunflower. And the fact that they're in a graphic novel format...that just makes them all the more popular. It's a fun concept...what's not to love about the idea that the school pets get loose at night and are pitted against each other in a battle of taking down the school versus saving it? (And P.S. there are more books in this series on the way.)
  • Graphic Novel Fans: There aren’t a ton of graphic novels out there for lower grade readers. It’s a perfect genre for beginning readers though as the illustrations help support the textual understanding. And the illustrations are full color and super entertaining.
  • Humor Fans: Sunflower made me laugh out loud repeatedly. So funny.


Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea (Narwhal & Jelly, #1) by Ben Clanton
Jelly has never heard of a Narwhal and thinks he's imagining the new friend he just met. Narwhal has never heard of a jellyfish and thinks the same of Jelly. Together the two become fast friends, form their own pod, and discover the best book ever.

Target Readers:

  • Humor Fans/Beginning Readers/Animal Fans: Narwhal and Jelly are like a graphic novel marine version of Elephant and Piggie for lower grades. The illustrations are simple but cute and emotive. The plots aren't super complicated, but are fun and things kids will identify with, and overall they're super delightful. Don’t miss Narwhal and Jelly’s other books!


The Bad Guys (Bad Guys, #1) by Aaron Blabey
Mr. Wolf is out to prove that he is NOT a bad guy. He's recruited a group of others with bad raps (literally...they all have rap sheets) to prove that they are good guys. They're going to rescue 200 dogs from a pound. Well, if his fellow gang members don't eat the dogs or each other first.

Target Readers:

  • Those Practicing Making Predictions: I liked that the author surprised me with the ending of this. You totally expect all these characters to revert to their natural tendencies and for everything to go horribly wrong. (Well, it does go horribly wrong in some ways, but they all discover they like doing good and helping others.) 
  • Humor Fans: The conversations are funny. The illustrations are great. And I like the quirky personalities of all the characters. Very fun.
  • Reluctant Readers: The graphic novel setup makes this a super quick and engaging read. Watch your reluctant reader devour this and then as many of the rest of the series they can get their hands on.
  • Compare/Contrast Exercisers: As mentioned above, pairing this with Aaron Reynolds Carnivores would make a great compare/contrast activity.


Phoebe & Her Unicorn (Phoebe & Her Unicorn, #1) by Dana Simpson
Phoebe is a little girl. Marigold is a unicorn. Together they are a dynamic duo who will keep readers of any age entertained with their antics.

Target Readers:

  • Humor Fans: Students (and I) love this series much more than I ever expected. Mr Beagle (author of The Last Unicorn) wrote the intro and compared this to Calvin & Hobbes. I'd add a dash of Peanuts and say he's spot on. The first five books in the series are all comic strip collections but #6 coming out soon is a full length graphic novel. (I got to preview it thanks to Netgalley and the publisher, it’s just as fun as the rest of the series!)
  • Anyone!: Don't let the bright pink cover and girly look dissuade guys from picking this up. It's quite funny and explores topics that will entertain a wide group of people, from little ones all the way up to adults.


Young Adult Graphic Novels/Comics



The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 1: Squirrel Power by Ryan North, ill. by Erica Henderson
Squirrel Girl aka Doreen Green is a college student. She majors in computer science and hangs out with fellow nerds. She’s also secretly a mutant superhero with squirrel-like superpowers, the ability to talk to squirrels, and a side-kick, Tippy-Toe, who is a real squirrel. Squirrel Girl is a delightful addition to the Marvel world. She’s not really new, just getting a second chance after several decades and people are welcoming her with open arms (she’ll be joining the big screen superhero crowd soon).

Target Readers:

  • Normal Girl Character Fans: I love that despite her tail and ability to talk to squirrels Doreen is completely a normal girl in her shape, beauty, and her awkwardness socially. She's a very relatable character.
  • Animal Fans: Doreen's squirrel friends are adorable (and can seriously hold their own against any supervillain…I mean together with Squirrel Girl they take down Galactus in the first volume...if you aren't familiar with the Marvel world, that's something not many superheroes have done successfully). 
  • Computer Science Nerds: In just about every collection Doreen or her friends need to use their comp sci knowledge to save the day somehow.
  • Peaceful Resolution Fans: Throughout the series Squirrel Girl always tries to find nonviolent solutions before she ever throws a punch (and I seriously think North & Henderson should have her add a Psych minor to her college plans…she’s pretty good at the psychology stuff). 
  • Humor Fans: Squirrel Girl's current creators are comic geniuses. The subtle footnotes on each page always make me laugh. Don't miss them! 


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Brainstorm 119: Social & Ethical Issues Presented in Kid & Teen-Friendly Ways

Since we’ve been a little more light-hearted lately, I thought it was time to get a little more serious. I’ve had a handful of books in the back of my mind to share for some time about a variety of social and ethical issues presented in kid and teen-friendly ways. (I’m not including the immigrant/refugee/asylum seeker books in here because I have enough of those for their own post. Look for that in the future or you can go back to Brainstorm 47 and see what I shared on that a few years ago.) Here’s a handful of books that can help kids and teens think about a variety of social and ethical issues, from how to be a good friend to social media use to modern day slavery.

Fiction Picture Books


Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds, ill. by Matt Davies
Nerdy Birdy can't seem to fit in with the cool birds no matter how hard he tries. But then he is found by a group he can relate to, other nerdy birdies! They have similar interests and hobbies. Nerdy Birdie loves no longer being alone, so when another lonely bird shows up, he befriends her, even though she doesn't share all of his interests or nerdiness.

Target Readers:

  • Humor Fans: The writing and illustrations in this were extremely entertaining. Eagle's hunting illustrations and the nerdy birdies' t-shirts made me laugh out loud. 
  • Kids & Teens Dealing with Cliques or Friendship Issues: This is a funny book with an important message about cliques that is presented in such a way even little kids can understand but is humorous enough teens should be okay with reading it too. It also teaches some important aspects of how to go about developing a friendship, even with those who don't have all the same interests. 


Nerdy Birdy Tweets by Aaron Reynolds, ill. by Matt Davies
Nerdy Birdy and Vulture get sucked into the new game Tweester. When Nerdy Birdy posts something about Vulture to get laughs but hurts Vulture's feelings, will the two be able to keep their friendship?

Target Readers:

  • All Social Media Users: There are so many good things in this for kids (or teens…or adults) about using social media! There's the hint that Vulture is feeling neglected because Birdy is spending all his time playing the game and "talking" to online friends instead. Birdy gets all obsessed with getting online friends, but they don't prove to be great friends in the end, though Vulture does. There's the message about being careful about what you post and considering others' feelings over your own popularity. And it's all wrapped up in a very fun package. Fantastic book to use when opening up a discussion about the pitfalls of social media (and it encourages balance and boundaries, not just chucking social media all together).
  • Humor Fans: Nerdy Birdy manages to make readers think and laugh at the same time. A winning combo. 


Good Morning to Me! by Lita Judge
Beatrix the parrot has a hard time remembering to use her morning voice, and if not for the hard work of a good friend, it could be disastrous!

Target Readers:

  • Animal Lovers: An entertaining story of a lovable though accident-prone and forgetful parrot and his other animal friends with attractive illustrations. Perfect for animal lovers.
  • Kids Learning to Control Their Voices Based on the Social Context: Learning how to regulate your voice doesn’t come naturally, and this is a good reminder for kids who have trouble with using smaller voices at different times. It also provides a good opportunity to talk about when it is okay to use a big voice and when and where you should use a small voice.
  • Kids Learning to Be Considerate: Thinking about me first comes naturally to us humans. (Just watch two toddlers with some toys!) Learning to be considerate of others can take decades upon decades. Beatrix provides a fun opening to talk about how to consider others' needs and not just our own.


Water Princess by Susan Verde, ill. by Peter H. Reynolds
A little girl in Africa longs for clean, clear water to come to her. But she must make the long walk to the well and back with her Maman just so they can have a drink and wash their things.

Target Readers:

  • Those Who Want to Better Understand Water Issues and Get Involved in Helping: This book highlights a very real problem for millions of people in the world and puts it into terms that kids can understand. It says on the cover and in the back of the book that the story is based on the childhood experience of Georgie Badiel, a model originally from Burkina Faso. In the back of the book are pictures of real villages in Africa where clean drinking water has been an issue, and where Georgie Badiel together with Ryan's Well are working to change that. There are links to Georgie's organization and the Ryan's Well nonprofit in the back and both have further information on the issue of clean drinking water and what people can do to help, even kids. A great book to help make kids aware of a human rights issue, and one that is relatively easy to get kids involved in ways that make a very real and lasting impact.
  • Fans of Books Set in Africa: This is set in Burkina Faso and portrays what modern daily life there can be like.


Louise and Andie: the Art of Friendship by Kelly Light
Louise is thrilled to discover that her brand new neighbor Andie loves art just as much as she does. However, when their artistic tastes clash, will their friendship be over before it barely begins?

Target Readers:

  • Friendship Story Fans & Those Dealing with Friendship Issues: This is a cute story about how to mend misunderstandings. I love Louise’s little brother Art's role in this story. First off, I love that he is welcomed into the girls' play and isn't made a third wheel. Secondly, I love how he's the peacemaker. Way to go Art! 
  • Humor Fans/Animal Lovers: For comic relief there's Andie's dog and Louise and Art's cat's relationship going on on each page in the background too. 
  • Artists: Art and art style are an integral part of the story making this one young artists will identify with. Art teachers could also use this to talk about art appreciation even if you don't like or prefer a certain artistic style. (Oh, and, Andie's stylistic preferences and name give a nod to Andy Warhol.)
  • Compare/Contrast Exercisers: Read this one and the next one, Worst of Friends, about a real life friendship that had difficulties. 


Nonfiction Picture Book 


Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the True Story of an American Feud by Suzanne Jurmain, ill. by Larry Day
A biography of the relationship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who started out best friends, were divided by silly political disagreements for years, and then realized at the end of their lives that reconciliation was still possible and restored their friendship.

Target Readers:

  • Friendship Story Fans & Those Dealing with Friendship Issues: This is a great historical example of how we can let silly things ruin relationships, but thankfully, these two historic figures reconciled before it was too late. It is a cautionary tale with a happy ending. Great book to use when talking about peacemaking and fighting fair.
  • Biography & US History Fans: You also learn a bit about Jefferson and Adams and the political climate of the early USA in the process. 


Middle Grade Fiction


The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
Long before there were two princess sisters in Bamarre, the Bamarre people were slaves and peasants because they opened their land to the Laktis in need and the Laktis thanked them for their kindness by taking over. The Laktis think the Bamarre are weak by nature and claim it's for their own good that they're in charge. But the Bamarre grow tired of their servile status and long for someone to lead them to freedom.
When she was a small child Peregrine was handed over to Lady Mother to pay her father's trespassing fine. Her older sister Annet is also taken by Lady Mother to serve as Perry's maid. Perry grows up thinking she is a Lakti taken in by Lady Mother and Lord Tove. But as she nears the age when Lakti go to battle, the fairy Halina appears to Perry to tell her the truth of her Bamarre heritage and shares her hopes in Perry to help bring things to rights. Perry is shocked. What can she do?

Target Readers:

  • Fans of The Two Princesses of Bamarre: This is a prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre (which if you haven’t read, you really should…fantastic story of the love between sisters and a fun fantasy quest). Levine took her time in coming back to write this prequel, and the wait was worth it. The story is fantastic in many ways. And it's sophisticated enough you aren't quite sure how it will all tie in to the original Bamarre book until towards the end.
  • Fans of Skilled Writing: I'd forgotten what a spectacular writer Gail Carson Levine is. She knows how to do foretelling without making it obvious what's going to happen. She knows the perfect balance of tension. She knows how to write characters so well. And she knows how to work in relevant themes for today's readers seamlessly. 
  • Fans of Tactful Tackling of Prejudice: The Laktis and the Bamarre have a lot to learn about prejudice. Readers get to experience this foremost through Perry who grows up thinking one thing, that the Lakti are naturally the best and that the Bamarre are just wimpy and deserve to be servants, but then she is confronted with a startling truth that challenges her to really evaluate her own worth and others' intrinsic value as people. Her journey really helps expose just how ugly and twisted prejudice is, and encourages readers to see people as for themselves and not the labels put on them. 
  • Fairy Tale Fans: The Two Princesses of Bamarre has no fairytale base, but this one does. There's several Rapunzel elements mixed in, but Levine makes it all her own story. 


Children of Exile by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Rosi, her little brother Bobo and the other children of Fredtown have lived an idyllic childhood with their Fred-parents. Life is well-ordered and peaceful. And then the Freds start telling them they are going to be returned to their real parents. None of the children know anything about the land they came from or why they were taken a few days after birth to Fredtown. But one thing's for sure, they are in for a huge shock after their plane ride home. What is wrong with all their real parents? Why are so many missing limbs, and do people actually strike others and call each other names here? And why do they seem to hate the older kids raised by Freds? Rosi and her friend Edwy are determined to try and figure out what went on and why they were taken, especially when they overhear someone plotting sinister activities and Rosi's father points out a secret hiding place under the floor.

Target Readers:

  • Thriller & Dystopia Fans: This is Haddix at her best kind of writing: combining deep topics with suspenseful situations in a way you can't put down. I had several students devour this and then eagerly snatch up book two when it arrived.
  • Fans of Deep Issues Approached in Tactful Ways: Like Haddix’s Shadow Children series (another great one for human rights issues reading), she addresses some potentially hard and heavy topics like violence, war, prejudice, the meaning of family/home, etc. but does so in such a way it flows naturally with the story and doesn't feel overly heavy. 
  • Book Club Fans: This would be a great one for a book club because there's so many things to discuss in plot, characters and topics covered.
  • Fans of Plot Twists: The plot in this is pretty tricky. I thought I had figured this one out, and I was partly right but not fully. There’s definitely a twist at the end. 


Young Adult Fiction


The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan
Amadou and his little brother Seydou came to the cacao farm from their village in Mali believing that they'd be paid every week, sending money home to their families, and once they'd repaid their worth set free. But it has been two years and Amadou has never seen any of the boys paid, and the only way anyone has left is by dying. It's not a great life, but Amadou has learned how to avoid the worst punishments and keep his little brother safe so he'd rather not rock the boat. But then a girl shows up at the farm, a girl who seems to know nothing of work and never signed up to be here and seems to have a bevy of secrets around her. Her fiery spirit awakens a spark in Amadou he thought long dead and buried...a desire to be free. But trying to escape is foolishness...isn't it?
Note on content: Some harsh violence.

Target Readers:

  • Those Concerned about Human Rights: Modern slavery is by no means a light topic. And I kept putting off reading this because I was afraid it would be too heavy. It is heavy. But I also found it an excellent read. Yes, some very harsh things happen to Amadou, Seydou, and the girl, but in the end this book is hopeful. It shocks but doesn't wallow in the filth. It is hard, but important. And the author managed to put together a story that conveys the horror and reality of modern slavery without taking readers to the very worst places that can go (no sex slavery involved). In other words, she created a believable story of modern slavery that will make modern teen readers aware and moved to do something, but not scarring those readers horribly in the process. The author also provides notes in the back about how readers can get involved in fighting child slavery.
  • Thriller Fans: I was surprised by the depth of plot involved in the story once the kids get away from the farm (can't say too much about this without spoiling things). I can see this being made into an action/thriller movie produced by someone who wants to build awareness. 
  • Understanding the Importance of Fair Trade: Fair trade is a word that can get ignored as just another marketing scheme and not many teens (or adults) really understand what it’s all about. Reading the book and then the author’s note will help you really understand the importance of fair trade. This is a great read for teens who want to make a difference in this world and the author provides notes in the back of how people can get involved in encouraging fair trade chocolate.
  • Chocolate Lovers: I think this is an important read for chocolate lovers. Don’t worry, I’m not saying you will be giving up chocolate, it’ll just make you a more savvy chocolate consumer.
  • Contemporary African Setting Fans: Readers get to see both sides of modern Africa through the story, the bare bones bush living and the modern city living. 


Young Adult Nonfiction


Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time by Tanya Lee Stone
Inspired by the documentary Girl Rising this is the story of the challenges girls around the world have in getting education, why education is important for anyone but especially girls, and interviews with girls from around the globe who have overcome huge hurdles to get an education.
Notes on content: It is mentioned that some girls have been physically or sexually abused but no details are included.

Target Readers:

  • Those Concerned about Human Rights: Words cannot express how important this book is and how amazing the stories of these girls are. The book focuses on stories of girls who have been rescued from modern-day slavery or child marriage, or who just didn't have access to education. It's an eye-opening look at very real problems for millions of girls in the world. And it explains how just access to education can give these girls a much higher chance of getting out of poverty and breaking unhealthy cultural cycles. If you have teens who are complaining about their first world problems (especially homework!) or teens looking for a cause to pour into, have them read this. It's great in that it informs but doesn't overwhelm. It presents very real and harsh difficulties, but just enough to motivate without permanently scarring. A very inspirational and important read.
  • Inspiring Read Fans: Anyone who loves stories of people who have overcome really tough circumstances will devour this book.





Thursday, September 7, 2017

Brainstorm 118: Fantastical schools

As promised, this week features fantastical schools. Not always the best at education or creating a learning environment, but those that feature aspects a little out of the norm. Of course when I mention this Hogwarts is probably going to be the first fantastical school to pop into your mind, or maybe it’s Ender’s somewhat twisted scifi military school, or Gibb’s Spy School that trains the next generation of CIA agents, or the mysterious school full of turtles and secrets in the Secret Coders, or maybe it’s even Ms. Marvel’s school that seems to have a run-in with aliens or a supervillain on a regular basis. I’m going to stick to some of the lesser-known fantastical schools out there to help me narrow down my options and hopefully broaden your reading horizons.

Picture Books


Just Another Ordinary Day by Rod Clement
A little girl narrates her ordinary daily activities.
Fantastical School: I guarantee you’ve never seen a school quite like the one this girl attends. I think I’d like to visit.

Target Readers:

  • Those Who Appreciate the Way Words & Illustrations Work Together: This sounds like a pretty basic story, but the illustrations will surprise readers with an unexpected alarm clock (man with a gong), going down to breakfast (straps on wings and flies), off road vehicle (elephant), new classmate (alien girl), librarian (pirate), and pet kitty (lion).  
  • Readers Learning to Appreciate Other Cultures: This is a great book to help kids start thinking about ways their “boring” ordinary day may seem exotic to someone in a different culture and vice versa.
  • Humor Fans: If you’re looking for a quick, fun read this is a great fit.
  • Fantasy Fans: Another good pick if you’re looking for a quick read for a fantasy fan.


The Problem with Pelly (1st Graders from Mars) by Shana Corey, ill. by Mark Teague
Pelly gets teased at school for her fluffernobbin. All the other kids have tentacles on their head. Pelly decides to try and be like the others, but a visit from an opera star helps Pelly realize it's better to be herself, and it is ok to be different.
Fantastical School: It’s school on Mars!

Target Readers:

  • Anyone Who Has Felt Like They Don’t Fit In: All kids will deal with this issue at some point or other. This book offers a great conversation opener for kids about differences and teasing. 
  • Readers Practicing Using Semantics: There’s some made up Martian vocabulary in here (which you probably figured out from the summary). It provides a good opportunity for young readers to practice using context clues to figure out the meaning of an unknown word. They’ll probably do so without even realizing it.
  • Science Fiction Fans: A school on Mars provides plenty of elements to keep scifi fans satisfied.


Graphic Novels


Babymouse Dragonslayer (Babymouse, #11) by Jennifer L. Holm, ill. by Matthew Holm
Babymouse fails her math test and her teacher offers her an unusual makeup option - joining the mathlete team. Babymouse isn't sure about this. She doesn't feel like she is very good at math or has much to contribute. The team really wants to win the Golden Slide Rule back from the Owlgorithms but is Babymouse the prophesied one or will she doom them all?
Fantastical School: Babymouse’s school is full of all kinds of animals, features all the typical school personalities, and has a locker that seriously has it in for Babymouse.

Target Readers:

  • Fantasy Fans: This Babymouse incorporated some of my favorite fantasy stories in Babymouse's daydreams, Narnia and Lord of the Rings (also, nods to epic fantasy tomes that double as door stops...if only they all came with their own dollies like Babymouse's)! 
  • Those Who Feel Like Math Is a Horrifying Beast: Many will agree with Babymouse's sentiments of math feeling like a horrifying dragon, but the book does a fantastic job of encouraging readers like Babymouse to persevere and maybe they'll find math isn't so bad. Great message and cleverly executed, and because of that we'll forgive the bad puns. 
  • Graphic Novel Fans: Babymouse is a nice long series for graphic novel fans. She’s fun and usually learns important things in her humorous adventures.
  • Reluctant Readers: Graphic novels are so hard to resist even the most hardened anti-reader will sneak a peek and next thing find themselves finishing the book.


Curse of the Were-Wiener (Dragonbreath, #3) by Ursula Vernon
Before she came up with Hamster Princess, Ursula Vernon wrote this series of books that features Danny Dragonbreath, a little dragon who can’t quite breathe fire, has access to the BEST bus system in the world (it even goes back in time and to fantasy locations), and the books are half graphic novel half text pages. In this book Danny’s best friend Wendell is bitten by a were-weiner from Transylvania during school lunch. Danny and Wendell must destroy the alpha wurst with the help of a sentient potato salad (that made an appearance in book 1 of the series) and its rat minions before Wendell and other school mates are completely transformed and in the thrall of the alpha wurst.
Fantastical School: Everyone complains about school cafeteria food, but Danny’s cafeteria takes horrible cafeteria food to a new level.

Target Readers:

  • Humor Fans: This is the funniest and least scary were-creature story you're going to find out there. Vernon's writing, illustrations, and comedic touches are brilliant. Danny and Wendell are as funny as can be.
  • Dragon Fans: Despite his inability to breathe fire, Danny is still an entertaining dragon to follow around.
  • Reluctant Readers: Danny Dragonbreath is so great for reluctant readers. There’s a high percentage of illustrations/graphic novel sections. When there is just text, it is a larger font than normal (perfect for kids who don’t like to read due to eye problems), and the topics covered are super engaging.


Middle Grade Fiction


Insert Coin to Continue by John David Anderson
Bryan Biggins is so sure that there's a secret level at the end of the Sovereign of Darkness video game he is playing it through for the 10th time (ok, and he kinda likes video games too). At the end of the 10th win, it does do something new...but then it proceeds to fry the computer. He goes to bed frustrated. But when he wakes up the next morning, things are seriously weird. He has to put a coin in a slot over his alarm clock to get out of bed, when he looks in the mirror his clothes have blue video game-type writing beside them dubbing them video game garb type names like "Breeches of Enduring Stiffness," he gets points for drinking his orange juice and his mother notices nothing strange. The day just continues to get more and more weird. His best friend, Oz, can't see the weird messages and thinks he might be going crazy. The middle school bully of course chooses today to come down hard on him. His classes are epically strange...and Bryan can't wait to finish this day of middle school video game style. Hey, he'll be happy to just survive!
Fantastical School: Anderson got to be very creative with all the different classes and parts of Bryan's day and how they could incorporate video game elements. Crossing the road feels much like Frogger, geometry becomes an epic white board race to solve the problems before the figures drop off the bottom of the board, science becomes a quest to find an escapee lab mouse in the boiler room, PE is a dodgeball war game, but my absolute favorite was English where Romeo & Juliet becomes a role playing game you have to choose at each step how to continue the play and manages to incorporate a ninja, a dragon and a zombie horde (best version of Romeo & Juliet ever!).

Target Readers:

  • Gamers: For anyone who loves gaming or who’s ever wished their life was a video game (though that may or may not change after reading this). 
  • Science Fiction/High Action Fans/Humor Fans: The pages in this just fly by as Bryan figures out how to survive this weird day. Lots of fun with an otherwise typical middle school day. 
  • Reluctant Readers: Definitely recommended for middle schoolers who are reluctant readers.


Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins
Nory is trying her best to get her magic right so she can attend the prestigious school her father oversees. But during the exams, her magic goes all crazy and her cute little kitten turns into a weird mixture of creatures. She soon finds herself shipped off to live with her aunt and attend a special program for kids with upside-down magic. The other kids in her class have magical issues just as bad, if not worse, than hers (at least she doesn't turn into a rock or constantly float). Nory is determined to get her magic under control and normal. But is normal what she really, truly wants?
Fantastical School: A school for kids with special needs (or perhaps superpowers?) magic-style.

Target Readers:

  • Light-Hearted Fantasy/Humor Fans: This is a super fun magical school fantasy for middle grades. Yes, it's a bit predictable, but the wacky magical oopsies are fun, Nory's aunt is a hoot, and the lessons Nory and her friends learn are great. 
  • Kids Who Feel Like Oddballs: Nory learns some very important lessons about how being different isn’t always bad, even if you’re different in ways others may say means you’re “broken” somehow. A “disability” may turn out to help you save the day.


Young Adult Fiction


Pivot Point by Kasie West
Addie's parents have dropped a huge bombshell on her; they are suddenly and inexplicably getting a divorce in the middle of her junior year of high school. Her dad is not just moving out of the house, he is moving outside of the compound and several hours away. And her parents are making her decide who she will live with, of course they fully expect her to do a Search before making this life changing decision. Addie calls for backup support - in the form of her best friend Laila - and with Laila's help decides to search 6 weeks into the future down either path to see which choice is better. Oh. Did I mention that Addie and her parents and everyone else on the Compound aren't quite normal? Everyone who lives there has some kind of mind power. Addie's dad can tell whenever anyone is lying. Addie's mom can Persuade people really well. Laila can Erase people's memories, and Addie, when faced with an either/or decision, can search and see into her own future down either path. Of course, the Compound is tippy top secret stuff, and it's a huge deal to consider living out in the real world with her Dad. From the time Addie enters the Search, the chapters alternate between each possible future. One in which she stays with her Mom, decides that if her parents are going through a divorce she should try to live true to literature and do some semi-rebellious things to get her opinion about the state of affairs across, continues to get to hang out with Laila all the time, and starts to get noticed by the star quarterback (even though he is definitely not her type). In the other possible future, she moves to Dallas with her Dad, has to adjust to living like Norms (who have decidedly less sophisticated technology) and make sure she doesn't let anything about her extra powers or the Compound slip, has to make all new friends including a cute former quarterback, and try to figure out who she is when not defined by her powers. Both futures seem equally good until close to the end of the 6 week search, when a mystery building in the Compound is going to affect Addie drastically regardless of which future she chooses. The outcomes aren't exactly the same, but neither is good and Addie's choice gets infinitely more difficult.
Fantastical School: Imagine going to a school where everyone has some kind of mental power. Things are definitely interesting.

Target Readers:

  • Contemporary Fiction Fans: No, this isn’t technically contemporary fiction but there are frequently times while reading this book that you forget there is anything abnormal about Addie or her world. She comes off as incredibly realistic, and the majority of her problems are things any real teen faces at some time: loneliness, questions of identity, feeling torn between two worlds, and petty teen misunderstandings. 
  • World Building Fans: I think that contemporary feel is a credit to West's world building. She has done it so effectively yet subtly that it feels entirely comfortable and primarily fades into the background to provide plot support but never usurps the story (which is often the case when people with superpowers are involved, their powers and strange world are the primary focus with tiny things happening thrown in every now and then). 
  • Mystery Fans: The mystery that slowly builds in both paths is done well. It also doesn't take over Addie's story, but it certainly piqued my curiosity. 
  • Light Scifi/Superhero Fans: This will appeal to those who like reading about people with super abilities. It’s also a nice light intro to scifi.
  • Those Who Like a Mental Workout While Reading/Any YA Fan: You do need a certain amount of focus to be able to switch between story line paths every chapter for most of the book and keep track of which path you’re on. I originally thought this would dissuade many readers, but the teens at our school LOVE this book and even students who aren’t the strongest readers have told me this is one of their favorites. It just goes to prove you shouldn’t underestimate readers when they are really into the story. 


Dark Mirror by M.J. Putney
Lady Victoria Mansfield, known as Tory to her friends, is a perfectly respectable young lady from a perfectly respectable family. So it is a huge shock when she wakes one morning to find herself floating above her bed evidently on her own magical power. Tory immediately resolves to work hard to repress this ability. If it got out that she was a mage, it would scandalize her family and her own reputation would suffer irreparable damage. It's all right for the lower classes to have such base talents, but the aristocracy never stoops to such lows. Tory's best laid plans go out the window, or rather, over a cliff when her little nephew is in peril and the best solution is to save him with her magic. Though the relief of her brother and his wife is palpable, the rest of the family makes it clear Tory is no longer welcome and packs her off to Lackland Academy to be "fixed" of her magic. Tory arrives at Lackland to find that some of the other students would rather embrace their magical abilities than learn how to suppress them and have formed a group working to actually develop their magical abilities in the event they are needed in the war against Napoleon brewing on the horizon (somewhat literally since the school is quite close to Dover and France can be seen across the Channel). Of course, training in magic is decidedly frowned upon at a school that is supposed to cure lords and ladies of such things, so Tory and her friends must be ever vigilant and secrecy is tantamount. During one meeting, would-be discoverers try to raid the tunnels the group meets in and Tory is caught in a dead end. She is sure she'll never get to practice magic again, but suddenly a mirror appears in front of her and after touching it she finds herself in Lackland over a hundred years later, during WWII. Tory explores the future a few days with the help of descendants of some of her magical friends and then returns to her own time, but just days later Nick comes through the mirror from the future begging for Tory and her friends to come help with the retreat from Dunkirk. Unsure if they are up to the task, Tory and about 4 other friends go through the mirror and decide to see what they can do to help.
Fantastical Schools: A Regency boarding school for magical lords and ladies that feels like it is run by Dickens’ characters but with secret passages underneath and clandestine lessons on magic to help save the kingdom.

Target Readers:

  • Time Travel Fans/Regency Fans/WWII Fans: There’s a core group of students at our school who can’t get enough time travel in their lives. This book and its two sequels are regularly devoured by such students, much to their delight.  Personally, it hit two time periods sweet spots for me.  I quite enjoy books set in Regency England or WWII, and this had BOTH. I liked how Putney worked the actual facts of the events of Dunkirk in, and often attributed them to the work of Tory and her friends.
  • Strong Character Fans: Tory is a great heroine to traipse around with. She feels very real as she wrestles with whether to embrace her magic or not, weighing the costs and getting reconciled to the fact her life has changed forever. Lots of the secondary characters also gain surprising depth and manage to avoid falling into stereotypical.
  • Clean Romance Fans: There’s a romance that builds between Tory and one of the guys in the boys’ side of the school.
  • Fantasy Boarding School Fans: If you know a reader who can’t get enough of fantasy boarding schools, hand this one to them.