Thursday, November 16, 2017

Spinning by Tillie Walden

Spinning is a graphic memoir that is the coming of age and coming out story of author and illustrator Tillie Walden. For twelve years Tillie would wake up before dawn to get to the ice rink, first on the Jersey shore, and then in Texas.  After her figure skating lessons, Tillie would go to school and then to synchronized skating practice. In Walden’s visual narrative we see the effort, struggle and stress that accompany her athletic and social experiences.

Spinning is one of those books you may devour in one sitting if given the time (it is, after all, close to 400 pages long). While ostensibly about one girl’s experiences as a young competitive figure and synchronized skater, the story covers a much larger terrain, and will therefore appeal to many readers of both graphic novels (such as Mariko Tamaki’s ThisOne Summer), and traditional realistic fiction (works by Laurie HalseAnderson). The work also very much captures the zeitgeist of this period of stressed out teens and of increased awareness of sexual assault and harassment. Recommended. 2017.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package by Kate DiCamillo

What will Eugenia Lincoln do with the package that unexpectedly arrives at her doorstep? It is certainly not in her character to learn to play the joyous instrument that is inside, much to the chagrin of Baby Lincoln, her more upbeat sister. Find out what happens in this new installment of Kate DiCamillo’s series, Tales from Deckawoo Drive

In Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package we re-encounter not only the Lincoln sisters, but the beloved pig Mercy Watson as well. Children who enjoyed the colorful, square-shaped Mercy Watson books will likely also embrace this beginner chapter book, which transitions young readers to a more typical children’s chapter book format with frequent black and white illustrations. While the story is fun and appealing, some of the vocabulary (borne, obtuse, auditory hallucinations) seems too advanced for its intended readership. All in all, however, Kate DiCamillo fans and others in the K-3 set will likely enjoy reading to find out how Eugenia Lincoln solves the “problem” of her unexpected package. Recommended with reservations. 2017

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

Shelley Pearsall’s The Seventh Most Important Thing sneaks up on you. What starts out as a story about a 7th grade boy who is assigned by a judge to help the local junk man turns out to be a story with themes as profound as redemption. It also approaches the topic of outsider art, which is unusual for children’s fiction, and subtly suggests the existence of fine lines between mental illness, creativity and spiritual inspiration. Then, just as the reader has settled into this quasi-philosophical realm, he is shifted back into the world of realistic fiction, with a protagonist who has matured, and whose family situation has improved.

Arthur Owens’ father has recently died in a motorcycle accident. Spotting the elderly neighborhood junk man wearing his father’s hat, Arthur takes out his anger with the world on the man by throwing a brick at him. Hearing about the boy’s motivation, the junk man, whose name is James Hampton, convinces the juvenile court judge to assign Arthur the task of helping him in his junk collection, instead of a more traditional disciplinary choice. It turns out that James Hampton is collecting very specific types of junk, the seven most important things referred to in the title, some of which go on to hold symbolic meaning for Arthur. Arthur eventually discovers that the junk man is using these seven things to assemble a work of art entitled The Throne of the Third Heaven, in a rented garage. This part of the story is based on a real artist of the same name, whose masterpiece is now housed in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Arthur’s nerdy sidekick, Reginald, and probation Officer Billie are likeable seconday characters.

This book will appeal to a wide audience of children and younger teens who enjoy realistic fiction and stories of friendship, including those featuring male characters such as Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy.  It will also appeal to readers of books with a mild fantasy element such as Wendy Mass’ series that began with Eleven Birthdays. The plotline and theme of redemption bears strong similarity to Neal Shusterman’s young adult novel, The Schwa Was Here. Recommended. 2015

D. Rosen-Perez

Saturday, June 27, 2015

One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart

There are many reasons to like Beth Kephart’s One Thing Stolen. The story unfolds in present-day Florence and includes interesting historical references. Nadia has been reluctantly displaced from her Philadelphia home and her best friend Maggie in order to live temporarily in Florence with her mother, brother and father, a professor who is writing a book about the 1966 flooding of the Arno river and the so called “mud angels” –an onslaught of volunteers who converged on the city to save its artwork. Much of the book is an interior monologue conveying Nadia’s growing fascination with a mysterious and beautiful boy on a Vespa who may or may not really exist and her memories of time spent with Maggie back in West Philadelphia. At the same time, the reader becomes increasingly attuned to the fact that something is wrong with Nadia. Her speaking abilities are deteriorating, and she is increasingly obsessed with stealing objects that she then incorporates into intricate nests she constructs and hides in her temporary bedroom. Over time, the reader gains more of the family’s perspective, and a neurologist is brought in to untangle what is happening to Nadia. The suspense mounts as the reader eagerly waits to find out whether Benedetto, the boy on the Vespa, is real, and what affliction Nadia has been stricken with.

Many readers will enjoy this book’s suspense, its characters and the lovely and historical setting. However, those who find flashbacks and changes in narrator difficult to follow will find the story confusing, and become frustrated towards the end of the book when Nadia’s friend Maggie suddenly becomes the narrator just at the point where we wish a clear resolution to all of the mystery. In addition, it is not particularly believable that a well-respected neurologist who is an old friend of Nadia’s father and a former “mud angel” happens to coincidentally be on-hand to help the family.  Recommended with reservations.  2015

D. Rosen-Perez

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Skink No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

When Richard's cousin, Malley, fails to meet him on the beach one night, he knows something is wrong. He can't reach her by phone or text and when he checks her house, it is obvious that she is not there. When he finally gets a text from her, saying that she was grounded, he knows it is a lie.

Richard and Malley meet regularly at the beach to search for turtle nests and contact the state wildlife office so the nest can be marked and protected. The person Richard did meet at the beach when Malley didn't show, is Skink, former Florida governor, Clinton Tyree. Several years ago, while still governor, Skink was so disgusted by the greed and corruption that he snapped and disappeared. He now lives off off the grid, crusading against environmental crimes and sabotaging development projects that he considers harmful. He was on the beach that night to catch turtle egg poachers and he dispatches one in ambulance shortly after that. Skink is a character in several of Carl Hiaasen's adult novels.

Malley's parents are not concerned about her disappearance because they think she is in New Hampshire at the boarding school they wanted her to attend, to keep her out of trouble. Richard manages to piece together various clues to figure out that Malley has run away with a guy she met online, Talbo Chock. When he discovers that Talbo Chock is an alias and that the real Talbo Chock was killed in Afghanistan, he knows he has to let Malley's parents know and they contact the police.

Richard isn't really satisfied with the police efforts and teams up with Skink to find and rescue his cousin, using the cryptic clues that Malley gives him in her few phone calls. Their escapades include encounters with alligators and wild boars, an odoriferous gar fisherman and his brother, and the slightly deranged kidnapper.

Carl Hiaasen's novels are well known in adult and children's literature. This is his first young adult novel. Hiaasen's love of the environment and horror at the destruction of it by overdevelopment is central to the book, as it is in his others. He also manages to convey the dangers of online encounters, without going into gory detail or becoming preachy. The relationship between Richard, the very likable protagonist, and Skink is well developed. Malley is a spunky and confident, despite being the cause of all the problems. A really fun read as long as the reader is willing to suspend disbelief at times. 2014

R. Rauch

Friday, December 5, 2014

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Rain Reign joins the new and growing genre of literature told from the point of view of a young person with autism.  Ann Martin’s newest work also joins the ranks of other realistic fiction books featuring young protagonists who, despite absent or sub-optimal parenting, manage to thrive due to the support and intervention of another relative, educator, or community member. Rain Reign is also a story of a girl and her dog.  Many middle grade readers will find this to be a winning combination, particularly given Martin’s expert writing and character development.

The reader quickly enters the mind and life of Rose, a young girl who is fascinated by homonyms and prime numbers. These fascinations make for some interesting wordplay. Identifying homonyms is a source of joy for Rose that the reader gets to experience vicariously. Conversely, when Rose becomes anxious and agitated, the mention of prime numbers grows in frequency. Rose also occasionally addresses the reader directly to charming effect, with instructions to skip to another chapter, lest we not share the protagonist’s enthusiasm for homonyms, for example.

In many ways the strongest part of this book is the beginning, which is the more character-driven portion of the novel. Things become less interesting when Rose’s dog, Rain, runs away during a storm, she and her uncle set about finding her, and complications ensue. Perhaps this is because this plot-driven portion of the book seems less original, and reminiscent of a section of Kate DiCamillo’s excellent Because of Winn-Dixie. It could also be said that Rose’s obsession with prime numbers is not a new literary idea, given that in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, also a book about a young person with high functioning autism, the topic of prime numbers is also explored, even providing the pattern with which to number the chapters. To be fair, the question of whether people with Asperger Syndrome (which is how Rose identifies herself) have an affinity for prime numbers is a topic of discussion readily found on the Internet, so perhaps both of these authors are simply displaying their research acumen in giving both of their characters this trait. Similarly, reading about the super-storm (named Susan in this work of fiction, but inspired by Hurricane Irene of 2011 according to an author’s note) through Rose’s eyes recalls the protagonist of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a post 9-11 work of fiction that also features a young protagonist who is presumed to have autism. This reader was left wondering whether employing the astute musings of a child with autism as a lens through which to view catastrophic events (climate change, terrorism) might be a new literary device.

On a sunnier note, the character and voice of Rose are among many positive and creative aspects of this novel. The description of the interaction between Rose and her classroom aide, Mrs. Leibler, and Rose’s employment of “conversation starters,” in contrast with the more organic drawing together of Rose and her peers through her dog’s appearance at school and sparks of connection with her classmate Parvani all offer a window into Rose’s world. Having the opportunity to experience this world is a very satisfying experience for the reader. 2014
D. Rosen-Perez

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Nightmareland by James Preller

Just in time for the spooky Halloween season, we have this new book, Nightmareland, by James Preller.

Part of the Scary Tales series, Nightmareland is a spine-tingling book that describes the night a nine-year-old boy really gets into his new videogame.  Once Aaron starts playing the game, he quickly finds himself in a land inhabited by creatures from his own nightmares -- wolves and evil snowmen.  He uses his own knowledge of video games to help himself survive, but is eventually overwhelmed.  It takes the help of his sister and the pizza-delivery guy, who luckily knows quite a bit about video games himself, to help Aaron escape from the nightmare castle.

This is a good book for children looking for a scary, but not too terrifying, book.  It is good at describing atmospheric scenes, but stays away from anything likely to cause too many real nightmares.  Good for anyone who enjoys Goosebumps or other scary stories for younger readers.  At 85 pages, it is a quick read, and good for anyone looking for a shivery tale just right for chilly nights when the darkness falls early.
M. Adams

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

30 Days of No Gossip

Maddie is the gossip queen of Troy Middle School. She was shy and unpopular in elementary school, but she found herself to be the center of attention when she became the source of information, rumors and gossip. She even publishes the Troy Tattler, the school's unofficial gossip newsletter.

Maddie's best friend, Vi, is quiet, brainy and extremely interested in design. She doesn't participate when Maddie and their other friends gossip, preferring to withdraw and sketch.

When Maddie reveals Vi's crush on a boy to the boy himself, with only the best of intentions, Vi is furious and challenges Maddie to stop gossiping for thirty days or their friendship is over. Since Maddie values Vi's friendship, she accepts the challenge, but the task is daunting. As anyone who ever attended middle school knows, gossip and rumors are it's life's blood.

Maddie struggles with what gossip is and whether it has made her as popular as she thinks it has. When does passing on information cross the line into gossip? Is it okay to spread negative or judgmental information? Is talking behind people's backs hurtful, even if they don't find out? What if they do? What kind of person is she being when she engages in gossip? Are people interested in her or are they only interested in the information she has to share?

When Maddie finds out about a really big secret, that a TV makeover show is planning a big decorating project at Troy Middle School, she is challenged to keep the knowledge a secret. It is practically impossible to keep such a secret in that environment, but she doesn't want to jeopardize the project and she especially wants Vi to have a chance to participate and show off her design talents. Maddie watches helplessly as the little bit of information she does divulge,  grows and takes on a life of its own.

This is an easy read with believable characters and dialogue. The redecorating project seems a little contrived, but I think most upper elementary students would buy into it. This book may plant some seeds for thought as to what we say about other people and whether we are hurting anyone by doing it. It also gives some insight into rumors and their amazing ability to spread, becoming something much larger than their origin.      2014       


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rump: the True Story of Rumplestiltskin by Lisa Shurtliff

This is an expanded retelling of the old Rumplestiltskin story, in which the author takes an unlikable character and turns him into an unlikely but likeable hero.

Rump, who lives with his beloved grandmother, in a poor village on the side of a mountain. Their subsistence depends on the meager amounts of gold that they are able to mine for the king which they trade for rations. Rump endures endless teasing and bullying because of his name, which he is convinced is incomplete. His mother died before managing to get his whole name out.

The greedy miller of the original story runs the village, collecting the gold and distributing the rations as he sees fit. Most of Rump's bullying is at the hands of the miller's sons, who are the ones that discover Rump's magical ability to spin straw into gold and report it to the miller. Unfortunately for Rump, under the rules of magic, he is compelled to trade the gold for whatever is offered and his ability to produce more gold than he could mine does nothing to improve what he receives from the unscrupulous miller.

When the king comes to the village to find out the source of the increased gold production, the miller boasts that it was his daughter, who is beautiful but definitely not the sharpest tool in the drawer, who can spin straw into gold. The king takes her to the castle to spin gold or die, with the eventual promise of marriage if she succeeds for three nights.

Rump sets out a quest to find his true full name, which he believes will lead to his true destiny. While on his quest, he hears of the miller's daughter plight and feels responsible. In this version, it is the maiden's own lack of acuity that leads to her promise of her firstborn child, which under the rules of magic Rump must accept.

This is an enjoyable fantasy book, with good characterizations, an interesting plot and a lot of humor, starting with the title character's name.  It is a good choice for anyone assigned a fantasy book report, especially those who don't like fantasy books. The elements of fantasy are easy to understand and don't require acquiring a new vocabulary.                  2013


Friday, May 30, 2014

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

At first, this book seems like a typical coming of age story. Maggie Mayfield deals with the usual classroom dramas and social awkwardness of fifth grade. But we soon find out that Maggie is dealing with a difficult situation at home. Her father, with whom she shares an especially close relationship, suffers from a debilitating illness, which as the book goes on, we discover is multiple sclerosis. As the story unfolds, we share Maggie's journey from at first believing that her father will recover from his disability to realizing that he will most likely become progressively more debilitated. Along the way, Maggie's focus shifts from "fixing" her father to learning to accept her family the way it is and that being "brave" is continuing to live life to the fullest even when conditions are difficult.

The beauty of this story is how Maggie, through the course of the novel, goes from seeing her family through a child's eyes to the more mature realization that no family is perfect and that each member must contribute however they can to support the whole.

It's no surprise that this novel is semi-autobiographical, with the author herself having been the child of a parent with a chronic illness, since Maggie's voice rings especially true throughout. There are a few slightly disturbing scenes of Maggie and her sisters being alone with her father while he has a health crisis, that may be disturbing to younger readers. Overall, a great coming of age story about dealing with a family crisis. 2014.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Odd, Weird, and Little by Patrick Jennings

5  Reasons Why Your 4th through 6th Grader Should Read Odd, Weird and Little by Patrick Jennings

1.      One of the two main characters of this charming book is (spoiler alert!) an owl disguised as a merely eccentric, accordion playing, briefcase toting, hat wearing “new kid” from Quebec.

2.      The above set-up leads to hilarious classroom scenes and wink-worthy word-play.

3.      This book requires suspension of disbelief in the way that fantasy and children’s books featuring animal characters (Cleary’s Runaway Ralph, Birney’s Humphrey series) do, while still reading like realistic fiction--making it appealing to a variety of readers.

4.      Your 9 year old will walk around the house saying “wait a second… I think this kid may be an owl", while your 11 year old will be seen slapping her palm against her forehead saying “I can’t believe they don’t realize he’s an owl!”

5.      Since “the other” in this book is an animal, and not simply an unpopular kid, or one of the typical victims of marginalization in our society, the themes of bullying and “being yourself” can be explored in a non-pedantic, non-moralizing way.  
2014 D. Rosen-Perez

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

The Year of Billy Miller, which is a 2014 Newbery Honor Book, is the story of Billy Miller, his family and his year in second grade. It is a very mellow story, with each section focusing on a different member of his family and one focusing on his teacher.

Billy suffered a concussion during the summer before second grade and he is worried because of his injury that he isn't smart enough for second grade. To encourage him on his first day of school, his dad reminds him that it may be The Year of the Rabbit, but he believes it will be The Year of Billy Miller.

The book charts Billy's experiences over the course of the year, as he faces different challenges. By the end of second grade, Billy has gained a lot of confidence and maturity and he, too, believes it is The Year of Billy Miller.

This is a very sweet family story and Billy is an engaging character. The vocabulary and story are easy to follow. The font is fairly large and there is plenty of white space on the pages, however the book is long, 226 pages. I am not sure who the intended audience is. It would be a good book for second and third graders who are very good readers. Older children may find the plot slow and may be turned off by a book whose protagonist is a second grader.         2014
R. Rauch

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Flora is an unusual girl, who doesn't seem to have friends. She loves comics and the Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto, in particular. Incandesto is a modest, unassuming janitor, with only his faithful parrot, Dolores, as a companion. Flora claims to be a natural born cynic and she always expects the worst, so she  memorizes all the advice for surviving disastrous situations given in the back of the Incandesto comics. Some of this advice does prove helpful in the unbelievable situations that develop in this book.

Flora's divorced mother, Phyllis Buckman, writes romance novels, for which Flora has little regard. Her mother hates Flora's comics and her cynicism. She discourages Flora from reading comics. Flora believes her mother loves her lamp, the little Shepherdess, more than she does her.

Flora's father, George Buckman, is a sort of mousy, sad accountant. He is often flustered and he is easily intimidated by his ex-wife. He seems to love Flora but doesn't know how to express it or relate to her.

When Flora's next door neighbor, Donald Tickham,  buys his wife, Tootie, a super-powerful vacuum, a Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X, it is so powerful that it vacuums his pants right off. Next Tootie accidentally vacuums up a squirrel and an unsuspecting superhero is born, able to lift the very vacuum that sucked him up over his head.  As he and Flora soon discover, he can also fly and type poetry. She names him Ulysses, after the vacuum that inadvertently created his superpowers.

Tootie's great-nephew, William Spiver,  is staying with the Tickhams and he is suffering from temporary, hysterical blindness, due to a traumatic incident that he doesn't like to discuss.  He is inexplicably drawn to Flora, who finds him annoying at first, but becomes very fond of him in a short time.

Flora's mother, who couldn't stand the superhero comics, is really pushed over the edge by a superhero squirrel and plots to get rid of him, first enlisting Flora's father. That fails because Flora's father actually likes Ulysses and Ulysses saves him from his landlord's ferocious cat. Then Flora's mother takes matters into her own hands and tries to do away with Ulysses herself.

This book was extremely well reviewed by the conventional review sources and won this year's Newbery Medal, however,  I have also read many negative reviews. I love many of Kate DiCamillo's books- Because of Winn Dixie, The Tale of Desperaux and all the Mercy Watsons, but I don't love this one. The book requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief and I can do that with a book that I really love. I didn't connect with these characters. I felt sorry for Flora but I didn't relate to her, or find her charming or endearing. The adults were sort of bizarre, Roald Dahl type adults, either mean or too mousy to be effective. It is nice that Flora  finds hope and discovers her mother's true feelings for her, but I involved enought in the story to really care. William Spiver's problems get resolved a little too quickly and without sufficient explanation.          2013                                                


Monday, February 24, 2014

Buddy by M.H. Herlong

This is the story of Tyrone Elijah Roberts, who everyone calls "Li'l T", and his dog Buddy. On the surface it seems as if this will be another endearing tale of a boy and his dog, which on its own would be a great story. But halfway through the book it becomes so much more than that.

The story begins when Li'l T's family hits a stray dog with their car. Li'l T has always wanted a dog but his family, which lives in a poor section of New Orleans, cannot afford one. Due to the accident, the dog must have one of its legs amputated and Li'l T knows immediately that this is the dog he's always wanted. His family is not so easily convinced, especially since the state of the dog's physical health is unclear and there is no money to feed and care for him.

Li'l T convinces his father that he will raise all the money to pay for Buddy's upkeep by mowing neighbor's lawns and the family agrees to take him home. Soon after, the foreshadowing of Hurricane Katrina begins. Even as news coverage of the impending storm starts, residents of New Orleans are either disbelieving of the danger or unable to find a place to go. Li'l T's family is one of the lucky ones. They leave to stay with an aunt in Mississippi but are forced to leave Buddy behind, locked in an upstairs bathroom, thinking that they will be returning in just a couple of days.

When Lil T's family realizes the scope of the storm and that their house has been destroyed they believe that Buddy has most likely perished. Li'l T is devastated, even when his parents surprise him with the gift of a brand new puppy for Christmas. When the reverend from their neighborhood sees a television special on pets rescued from Hurricane Katrina, he spots a three legged dog who looks just like Buddy, living in California. The entire church bands together to find Li'l T a way to get to California and bring his dog home. Things don't turn out exactly as Li'l T expects and he meets someone who might just need Buddy even more than he does.

This is an incredible, multi-faceted story with themes of family and community running through it while highlighting the struggle that so many families faced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Li'l T grows as a person as he struggles between his desire for a pet to love and doing what he knows is right for his family and community. These are not easy choices for him and he is often conflicted as to whether to do the right thing or satisfy his personal needs. In the end, with the help of his family, his good character triumphs. This is a great book for animal lovers and those interested in family stories and historical novels. 2012.

P. Sassoon

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger

When Sarah Magru Kinnson was nine years old, her father pawned her to work as a servant for another man in their village, because he had debts he couldn't pay. It was only supposed to be until the harvest came in and her father could pay off his debt, but slave traders saw her and offered more money than her father could ever hope to pay. So, Magulu, or Sarah as she became known later, ended up as one of the three captured children on a slave ship bound for Cuba. There they were sold and ended up on the infamous ship, Amistad, bound for the United States.

The captured Africans didn't know what was going to happen to them and the sailors indicated that they intended to eat them. The adult males on the ship staged a successful revolt and ended up in charge of the ship. They tried to force the surviving crew to sail them back to Africa, but the captain sailed the ship back to towards the U.S. every night, in hopes of being rescued. Eventually, that happened and the ship was brought to Connecticut and the Africans were held at the New Haven jail until a trial could be held and their fate decided.

This process took several years, as the trial progressed from the court in New Haven all the way to the Supreme Court. During this time, Sarah and her companions, Kagne and Teme, were educated and dressed like Americans. Sarah also converted to Christianity while she was in New England.

When the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decisions that the seizure of the Africans was unlawful and that they were to be returned to Africa, there was no money for ship to return them. As they waited for funds to be raised, the three children continued their education.

The author of this historical fiction book performed extensive research and relied heavily on the Sarah's letters, which have been preserved by the Tulane University Amistad Research Center. Her interest was piqued when she first visited an Amistad exhibit and discovered that there were children aboard the infamous ship. She was also intrigued because the captives were from Sierra Leone, where she had been a Peace Corps volunteer.

Like the author, I didn't know that there were children aboard the Amistad. I found this fictionalized version of Sarah's life fascinating as I contemplated all she endured and striking contrast between the life she left, the life that was forced upon her and the life she chose, once she was an adult. The book is short, 64 pages, and there are numerous beautiful, colorful illustrations. This would be a good choice for anyone interested in the subject of the Amistad or the history of the slave trade. It would also be a good choice for a reluctant reader who has an historical fiction assignment.      2013

Renee Rauch

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

Remember the good old shag rugs of the 70's?  No? If you're too young, picture the glories of a room like this:
  Now imagine if a whole world had sprung up deep in the undergrowth of the fabric, complete with towns and villages and warring tribes.  That is exactly what the popular author Terry Pratchett imagined back in his youth, in 1971.  Now, all these years later, this book has been reissued, and the humor is still fresh, more than 40 years later.

The Carpet People tells the story of the Munrung Tribe, who are forced to leave their home when the terrible Fray attacks (picture a very large noise and a terrible wind that pulls things upwards -- now what could that be on a carpet?).  Led by the tribal chieftan Glurk ("Admittedly he moved his lips when he was thinking, and the thoughts could be seen bumping against one another like dumplings in a stew") and his more educated brother Snibril, they encounter other tribes and lots of adventures as they  wander.

Pratchett's typical dry humor is evident throughout the book, but it is also full of battles and strange creatures, all of which add up to make a very entertaining read.  This is definitely a book for older children, not because of any inappropriate content, but because the humor is dry and at times sophisticated.  However, for any reader who appreciates wit and adventure in a fantasy book, I would definitely recommend The Carpet People.  2013
M. Adams

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Man with the Violin, by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dušan Petričić

 The Man with the Violin

“Stop and smell the roses”, the old adage says, but how about “stop and hear the music?” This new picture book by Kathy Stinson, with illustrations by Dušan Petričić provides an account of an event that took place during rush hour in a Washington D.C. metro station six years ago. One January morning, renowned violinist Joshua Bell, incognito in jeans, long sleeved T-shirt, and baseball cap,  set himself up in the station and commenced playing six classical pieces on a Stradivarius. All in all, only seven people stopped to listen. According to Bell there were many children who attempted to stop, but were rushed along by their parents. After forty-three minutes of playing, the violinist, who typically plays to sold-out concert halls, had collected a meager $32.17 in his open violin case. 

Petričić’s fanciful drawings are mainly in black and white but contain splashes of color that highlight the young protagonist’s experience with the music and convey the sensation of being hurried through the station. These illustrations are more successful than the text in retelling the anecdote from a child’s perspective. Adults might receive the book as an admonishment or as a criticism of harried lives that don’t allow for a moment’s pause to perceive beauty. They might suffer second-hand embarrassment on behalf of the masses of commuters who did not recognize greatness as they rushed to catch their trains. Children, however, will likely enjoy the illustrations, and share the initial curiosity and eventual joy of young Dylan in realizing that he was right in wanting to stop and listen. 2013.

Here is Joshua Bell and a chamber group performing Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in C Major:

D. Rosen-Perez

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech

When John and Marta find a young boy asleep on their porch, they're not sure what to do with him. The boy seems unable to speak but possess a crumpled note which indicates that his name is Jacob and that someone will be back for him.

Meanwhile the boy displays unusual artistic and musical talents, which lend a fairy-tale like quality to the story. When days and then weeks pass with no one claiming the boy, the couple start to believe that they are actually a family and that the boy belongs to them. When the boy's father does eventually show up, he's a ne'er do well who does not seem to even care about Jacob's well being. John and Marta are however, forced to relinquish the boy to his father's care but find that caring for children suits them and they begin a life of taking in foster children. Coming full circle, one day in the future, John and Marta find a grown-up young man asleep on their porch who turns out to be the boy that they cared for all those years ago. This is where the story ends.

This is a very sweet tale but the characters are not well developed and we never find out why Jacob was abandoned or why his father returned. It's also never explicitly stated why John and Marta don't have any children of their own and they never talk about specifically longing for a child or being unhappy that they do not have any. Because of this it's difficult to become absorbed in the story or understand the characters' motivations.It is also never explained why the boy can't speak and there is a hint of mystery or perhaps something magical in the beginning of the story, which never really comes to fruition. Recommended for readers looking for a short and sweet tale. 2013.

P. Sassoon

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Malcolm at Midnight by W.H. Beck

When Malcolm becomes the latest classroom pet in McKenna School, everyone is delighted to have such a cute mouse join the menagerie of animals. The only problem is, Malcolm is not a mouse. He is in fact, a rat! He decides to keep his true identity a secret when he learns that rats are mistrusted by humans, as well as the Midnight Academy, who are a secret society of classroom pets. The Midnight Academy entrusts themselves with the task of keeping the children, or "nutters", as they call them, out of harm's way. But when Aggy, their iguana leader goes missing, Malcolm's true identity is revealed and he is blamed for her disappearance.

Malcolm must prove his innocence and also prove that rats can be trustworthy creatures despite their unsavory reputation. Along the way he meets a fellow rat named Clyde, who certainly does give rats a bad name, and a spiteful cat named Snip, who has her own particular revenge to exact.

This is a charming animal fantasy which will remind readers of other precocious pets such as Humphrey of Betty Birney's Humphrey Adventure series and Freddy of the I, Freddy series by Dietlof Rieche. Lovers of books about talking rodents, such as A Mouse Called Wolf by Dick King-Smith and The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo will surely enjoy this book. 2013.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős, by Deborah Heiligman

By Deborah Heiligman
Illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Meet Paul Erdős, a boy growing up in Budapest in the early 1900s who loves numbers so much that he considers numbers his best friends. Paul’s mother, who is a math teacher, lets Paul stay home from school so he can spend all day puzzling over prime numbers and other mathematical topics.  Paul does go to high school and eventually travels throughout the world, becoming a renowned mathematician who shares his knowledge with colleagues in such areas as number theory and the probabilistic method. A lousy houseguest who is lacking in daily-living skills such as buttering bread and doing the laundry, Paul is nonetheless a generous individual and a beloved connector of people—a “mathematical matchmaker”. To this day, mathematicians talk about their  “Erdős number”—if you worked with Erdős you have an Erdős number of 1. If you worked with someone who worked with Erdős, you have an Erdős number of 2, etc.

It is a joy to accompany Erdős on his mathematical life journey, and for this we have to thank an author whose enthusiasm and affection for the subject truly shine through. The illustrations are also an important part of this book—allowing it to be read on varying levels. Younger children will appreciate the vivid pictures of Budapest and comical depictions of Paul’s social missteps, while older children will learn mathematical concepts by attending to details that are cleverly camouflaged in the drawings and explained in a note from the illustrator at the back of the volume. This book makes a good read-aloud, and parents who find themselves wanting to learn more about Erdős may wish to consult The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman, also in our collection. 2013

D. Rosen-Perez

Friday, August 16, 2013

Amber Brown Is Tickled Pink by Bruce Coville and Elzabeth Levy

Amber Brown is experiencing some big changes in her life, as she continues to cope with her parents' divorce and spending time with each of them separately. Her mom and her boyfriend, Max, are planning their wedding and the three of them will be moving to a new house after the wedding, leaving the house where Amber has grown up.

Although Amber didn't like Max in the beginning,  he has grown on her. He laughs at her jokes, coaches her bowling team and is an all-around nice guy. She is also looking forward to the wedding, which she realizes is supposed to be a big party. She has invited her closest friends from school and her best friend, Justin, who moved away in one of the earlier books, will be coming with his family. But Amber's mother wants a small wedding at city hall to save money and Amber's big plans are looking doubtful.

Amber comes up with a creative solution that is also economical and saves the wedding. It involves an unpopular classmate of Amber's, who to her surprise, turns out to be much nicer than she ever thought.

Amber feels badly when she has fun with Mom and Max and her father is not part of her happiness. She feels badly when she has fun with her dad and her mother is not part of the good time. She also resents it when either of her parents saying anything negative about the other.

I was a big fan of the Amber Brown books and I think that Coville and Levy have done an excellent job of capturing her voice. Their portrayal of a child dealing with her family dynamics, her classmates and the stress any family experiences when planning a wedding are very realistic.   2012

R. Rauch