Monday, April 14, 2014

Odd, Weird, and Little by Patrick Jennings

http://bit.ly/P0CAsy



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                                                

R.Rauch                                                                                                                   



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:
Enjoy!

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.

P.Sassoon

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          



Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Georges (named after Georges Seurat) and his family have moved out of their house and into an apartment, in the same neighborhood, leaving behind many treasures and memories. Georges' dad lost his job and is trying to start his own business. Georges' mom is a nurse and is working a lot of double shifts to help with the financial difficulties. Georges misses his house, especially his bedroom, and he misses seeing his mother.

Georges is still at the same school, which isn't necessarily a good thing. He is the victim of bullies and his friend since kindergarten has abandoned him to be friends with the cool kids. There is a big taste test coming up in science and school lore maintains that is determines who is a loser and who's not. Georges is dreading it because he is sure it will cement his position as an outcast and a victim.

Friendship possibilities improve for Georges when he meets Safer, a quirky homeschooler who lives in his building and has a warm, inviting, but equally quirky family. Safer soon draws Georges into his spy games, convincing him of one tenant's nefarious deeds and shady character.

There are several layers to this story, as there were in Newbery winner Stead's When I Reach You. Besides the mystery involving the enigmatic neighbor, there is the mystery of why Safer rarely leaves the building. Georges' dad spends a lot of time at the hospital with Georges' mom, who is supposedly working and Georges never want to go along.

Georges handling and the eventual outcome of the feared taste test at school is both clever and potentially believable. While all of his problems don't go away, the resolution of the story is both hopeful and satisfying. Rebecca Stead has written another good story full of characters with whom kids can relate.   

R.Rauch                                                                                                                           2012



Monday, July 15, 2013

Below by Meg McKinlay


The day 12 year old Cassie was born is a memorable one in the history of her hometown. It is the day that Old Lower Grange was purposely flooded by the town's mayor, in order to provide access to water for surrounding areas. Every building in the town was replicated in great detail and renamed "New Lower Grange." For Cassie, the mystery of the original town which now lies beneath a large lake, is irresistible, even though the town's inhabitants are repeatedly warned to steer clear of the area of the lake beneath which Old Lower Grange resides.

Despite not being a strong swimmer, Cassie decides to swim out to the forbidden area, just barely being rescued by a boy named Liam who also seems drawn to the mysterious waters. Together they unlock a secret that lies beneath the lake that provides some much needed answers for Liam's family and the true nature behind the mayor's seemingly friendly behavior.

While the story starts off seeming a bit like a futuristic type of novel, it is actually more of a mystery/suspense  story. The "big reveal", however, doesn't quite live up to the level up suspense that builds throughout story and leaves the reader wishing for more details behind the decision to "flood" the original town.

P.Sassoon. 2013.





Friday, July 12, 2013

I Represent Sean Rosen by Jeff Baron



Say you're a kid with a great idea -- a really, really great idea -- that you want to sell to Hollywood.  Then you find out that they won't pay any attention to you unless you have an agent, but you're just a kid, and you can't afford an agent.  What can you do?  If you're Sean Rosen, you just invent one!

This book, told in the first person, perfectly describes Sean's life and thoughts as he develops "Dan Welch," agent for Sean Rosen.  We never even learn what Sean's really big idea is, because he decides to start with a trial run, selling a movie idea.  The fact that he doesn't actually have a movie idea doesn't worry him until he unexpectedly gets a quick reply and has to come up with an idea in a hurry.  But Sean is a 13-year-old who is not easily discouraged, and he is never lacking in ideas.

This is a very entertaining book, and it's great fun to watch Sean's progress as he deals with each difficulty in negotiating with a major entertainment company.  You not only get to see his movie idea develop, you get descriptions of his parents, his friends, and his school, all told in Sean's inimitable style.  "I Represent Sean Rosen" manages to convincingly portray the thoughts of a bright 13-year-old, while at the same time serving up delightful doses of dead-pan humor. 

I greatly enjoyed reading this book, and I recommend it to anyone, especially anyone interested in someday becoming a major figure in the entertainment industry.  2013

M. Adams

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate


This year's Newbery winner is a first person narration in the voice of  Ivan, a silverback gorilla, who resides at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. A large billboard outside the mall, which features prominently in the story's resolution, proclaims the presence of the One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.

Ivan's has two best friends. The first is Stella, an old elephant, and another featured animal of the mall. The other is  Bob, a homeless dog who lives off scraps left by the mall patrons and who sleeps in Ivan's "domain," as he calls his glass walled cage.

Ivan was born in the wild and captured with his twin sister, Tag, who died during the trip to the U.S. He first lived with his trainer, Mack, in his house, but was transferred to the mall when he became too big and unmanageable to live with people. He has had no contact with other gorillas in the twenty-seven years since his capture and spends his life being stared at and imitated by the many people who pay to see him and the other animals.

While Ivan is generally disdainful of humans (slimy chimps), he does like Julia, the mall custodian's daughter. Julia is quiet and patient, unlike the noisy humans that Ivan sees all day. Julia is the one who first introduced Ivan to the world of art. When she noticed him watching her draw while she was waiting for her father, she pushed a crayon and some paper into his cage and he began drawing the things he saw. Mack, seeing the opportunity to further capitalize on the animals, began selling Ivan's drawings in the mall gift shop.

As Stella becomes older and sicker, Mack brings in a new, baby elephant, Ruby. He hopes to train Ruby to perform with Stella and bring in more business for his ailing circus. When Stella is dying, she extracts a promise from Ivan to provide a better life for Ruby than this mall existence.

This poignant tale is much more than an animal rights treatise. The author conveys a thoughtfulness and intelligence in the animals, especially character of Ivan, that lends depth to the story. Although obviously fictional, the book is based on a real gorilla that lives at the Atlanta Zoo. Despite the size of the book, it is a quick read. It has very short chapters, lots of white space on the pages and several illustrations. The personification of the animals will make this book appealing to a wide audience, not just animal lovers. 2012

R.Rauch

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life (So Far), by Ann M. Martin




Realistic fiction fans who enjoyed Junie B. Jones, Ramona, and Fudge, will be quickly drawn in by the humor and insight of Pearl Littlefield, the protagonist of this new book by Ann M. Martin, author of favorite series that include Main Street and the Baby-Sitters Club. Pearl’s first writing assignment of fifth grade provides the vehicle for a sensitive and often funny tale of a summer vacation that begins with her father losing his job as an economics professor, and ends with her going into business with her best friend.  Readers will surely see themselves and their own travails in Pearl’s complaints about her older sister, Lexie, and uncertainty about how to patch things up with her best friend, JBIII, following a fight at a waterpark. 

Martin writes about the serious theme of a parent’s unemployment in a way that is thoughtful and age-appropriate, without dragging down the overall light-hearted tone of this book. Intermittent illustrations, letters, and tween-style lists add appeal to the narrative, and a section at the end of the book provides information on the New York City sites Pearl and her family visit during a staycation. The novel’s title, presumably selected to provide continuity with Martin’s first book featuring Pearl Littlefield, Ten Rules for Living with My Sister, does not accurately describe the story. This, however, is a minor weakness in an otherwise first-rate book that will be most appreciated by fourth through sixth graders. 2012

D. Rosen-Perez