Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Liar & Spy

My son is quirky. Most of his friends are quirky too, so I tend to connect with characters who aren't the cool kids on the block. My house is often full of the not-so-cool ~ we're our own little island of misfit toys. I wouldn't have it any other way. Georges, Safer and Bob English Who Draws are well-written, believable and quirky, and they're the reason that Rebecca Stead has another hit with her latest middle grades novel, Liar & Spy.

Georges, his mom and dad have to move. Money is tight after Georges' dad loses his job, so the family moves into an apartment building. His first day in their new place, Georges and his dad find a note in the basement announcing an upcoming meeting of a spy club. Reluctantly, Georges goes to the meeting and meets Safer. He joins the spy club - which is really just Georges and Safer and occasionally Safer's little sister, Candy.

At school, Georges is lost. His former best friend now hangs out with the "popular" kids, dresses like a wannabe skater and ignores Georges. Without a group to call his own, Georges ends up sitting next to a kid they call, Bob English Who Draws, and trying his best to ignore the taunts of the class bully.  

A science class experiment and a covert mission to spy on a mysterious neighbor reveal truths about Safer and Georges. Truths that test their friendship, and for better or worse, push them to be different.

I love Liar & Spy and can't wait to share it with my ten-year-old son. I recommend this book to middle grades readers who don't need a high-octane adventure to engage with a story or stick figure drawings to connect to a character. Liar & Spy would also make a great read aloud for parents or teachers who want a character-driven story about bullying and unlikely friendships.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Books About Boys

My husband is the baseball fan in our family. I prefer basketball. Of course I'd heard of the great Satchel Paige, but knew next to nothing about his prowess as a pitcher. King of the Mound ~ My Summer with Satchel Paige taught me some of the subtle nuances of pitching and catching and the relationship between the two.

Nick is a young pitcher with a lot of promise until Polio leaves him with a bum leg. His father, a minor league catcher, defines himself by his skills as a player, and can only sees Nick's limitations.  Nick thinks his pitching days are over.

Two unlikely friendships forever change how Nick feels about himself and others. The legend Satchel Paige joins the local minor team and takes Nick under his wing, teaching him lessons about baseball and what it means to persevere in the face of adversity. And Nick's neighbor Emma helps Nick confront his fears, proving to him that not everyone sees him as a cripple.

This book was equal parts fun and inspiring. You can't help but love Nick, and the Satchel Paige stories were interesting even to a non-baseball lover. I recommend this book to kids eight and older, especially those who like baseball. King of the Mound is definitely a draw for sports-minded reluctant readers or lovers of baseball history. I'd also suggest this book to teachers who are looking for a strong story featuring an African American icon. Great any time of year, King of the Mound would make a wonderful lesson or read aloud during African American Heritage month.

Patricia MacLachlan writes well-crafted stories with genuine, believable characters. She wraps these charming stories in small packages and presents them to us as gifts.

Her latest middle grades fiction, Kindred Souls, is a love story - a spirited grandfather and his school-age grandson share an enviable bond. Grandpa Billy is in his twilight years and yearns for the comforts of his past. His grandson Jake can't imagine a world without Billy. When Billy gets sick, Jake and his family work together to give Billy a piece of his past - a sod house built in the same spot as Billy's childhood home.

Like MacLachlan's Sarah Plain and Tall, Kindred Souls is a timeless piece of writing to be cherished by young and old. I recommend this book to independent readers and a young middle grades audience, but it will also be enjoyed by parents, grandparents and teachers who crave well-written stories with simple plots and memorable characters.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Blogworthy Books from the CYBILS

At the rate I'm going my short list is going to be anything but. There are so many exceptional titles. Thankfully, I'll have my fellow Round 1 Middle Grades Fiction panelists to help me sort it out. Here are three well-written and wonderfully readable books.

The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook is story of love and loss and moving on. Big sister Oona uses her vivid imagination to craft adventurous tales for her little brother Fred about the previous lives of their ailing cat. Oona and Fred live in a tiny apartment with their mom. Their father has passed away, and both of the children are still dealing with the loss - Oona is sad and protective, and Fred misses the dad he is slowly starting to forget.

When her mother starts to date, Oona becomes resentful and suspicious. When her imagination and catnapping plans get Oona into trouble, she makes some discoveries about the real life Zook led before he wandered into their lives and learns to open her heart to possibilities.

Joanne Rocklin is the author of this touching story, and I adored Oona and her relationship with Fred. I loved that Rocklin added little habits and details to Oona's character that helped me visualize and connect with Oona. I enthusiastically recommend this book to kids (especially girls) in the 9-10 age range. It feels to me to be an early middle grades story.

Ellen Potter is the author of The Humming Room, a Secret Garden inspired story about an antisocial orphan who would rather commune with nature than communicate with people.

Potter's main character Roo was safely hidden under a trailer when her father and his girlfriend were murdered. She loved her dad, but he was troubled and didn't take care of Roo properly and his girlfriend was neglectful and mean. Without nearby family, Roo ends up with her eccentric uncle on his private island.

I loved the mysterious feel of The Humming Room. The uncle's wife had died and there were rumors the uncle was to blame. Eery howling noises can be heard throughout the uncle's home - a former children's tuberculosis sanitarium, and  Roo discovers a beautiful garden hidden within the walls of the former hospital. Oh, and did I mention the ghost boy who can be seen rowing his boat on the misty river?

Potter definitely scores with this suspenseful story reminiscent of Jane Eyre (for kids of course.) I recommend this book for kids ages 9-12 who like mystery and quirky, strong characters.

The third book of this outstanding trio is The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. I can't stop talking about this book.

Marlee is twelve years old and scared to speak. Really. She doesn't speak to anyone outside of her family and a couple of friends. She has a lot to say, but she's too scared to say it. But Marlee's wordless world changes when she starts seventh grade in 1958.

Marlee lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. Laws are changing and African Americans are gaining rights they've never had before, but the segregationists of the south and the governor of Arkansas are against the integration of public schools. When Marlee meets a new friend, it throws her family into the heat of the segregation/integration battle.

This book is outstanding! It has incredible crossover appeal and would make a wonderful read aloud for a middle grades social studies teacher. I also recommend this story to middle grades and young adult readers who like strong stories of friendship, loyalty and human rights. And parents, you'll love it too.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Group of Three

I am happy and content and up to my eyeballs in Middle Grades Fiction - I love being a CYBILS judge! For the next three months my blog will be dedicated to reviews of nominated titles, but I have three beautiful and worthy books I want to post about first.

In Mary Pearson's The Adoration of Jenna Fox, a teenager wakes from a coma with no memories of life before her accident. Jenna's parents try to shelter her, and her grandmother is strangely distant and cold. No one wants to give Jenna straight answers.

Aided by videos of past birthdays, Jenna regains parts of her memory. Strangely vivid, strangely early memories. But a minor injury brings up major questions and leaves the reader wondering just how far they'd go to save someone they love.

TAJF is smart, well-written and a great read for lovers of soft sci-fi.

Speak is an award winner - a multiple award winner. It was even made into a movie starring everyone's (ahem) favorite lip-chewing, vampire loving ingenue - Kristen Stewart. I'm not necessarily recommending the movie. I can't - I only saw a few scenes. But I can and do recommend the book.

Told from the perspective of an ostracized, high school freshman, Speak is a powerful and darkly funny story of loneliness, shame and an unspeakable hurt. It's about finding your voice and silencing your demons.

At an end-of-the-summer party, incoming freshman Melinda Sordino commits social suicide by calling the cops. She starts high school with no friends and an awful secret about what really happened at that fateful party.

Speak is beautifully crafted. Melinda is believable and touching. It is a Young Adult novel worthy of its many accolades.

Karen Cushman spoke at the 2012 Summer Conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She was, in a word, inspiring. Having never read her work, I promptly added The Midwife's Apprentice to my TBR pile. It is a gem.

Winner of the 1996 John Newbery medal, The Midwife's Apprentice is the charming story of Beetle, a young woman rudely named by the midwife who finds her sleeping in a dung heap. With nowhere to go, Beetle goes to work for the midwife.

Over time, Beetle's self-confidence grows, and she discovers that everyone wants for things - even Beetle. Changing her name to Alyce, the young woman learns to make decisions for herself and plans for her future. "I know what I want. A full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world."

Karen Cushman includes an informative Author's Note, making The Midwife's Apprentice the perfect read for kids and parents interested in Medieval England and the practice of midwifery.

I love and recommend all three of these gorgeous books. They are about girl-power, finding your voice and the beauty of personal growth. Wow!

Blog you later!

Ali B.