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03

Sep
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki

On 03, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

This One SummerFrom GoodReads: Every summer, Rose goes with her mom and dad to a lake house in Awago Beach. It’s their getaway, their refuge. Rosie’s friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had. But this summer is different. Rose’s mom and dad won’t stop fighting, and when Rose and Windy seek a distraction from the drama, they find themselves with a whole new set of problems. It’s a summer of secrets and sorrow and growing up, and it’s a good thing Rose and Windy have each other.

The words heartbreaking and painful have been thrown around to describe This One Summer, but while I agree there is some sadness, I didn’t get sorrow. I thought it was more a bittersweetness or nostalgia as the girls move into the adult world.

This One Summer is definitely one of those “coming of age” stories. And that apparently means a growing awareness of sex. I know we all have those moments and years where we come to realize how important and prevalent sex is, but I don’t find that part of adolescence all that interesting. What I prefer is seeing the girls, especially Rose, become aware that parents are people and have lives and thoughts and emotions beyond their children. That they can make mistakes and bad decisions. That they can unwittingly choose to hurt other people, their children included.

Rose’s mother is having a personal crisis, which I’m guessing is the sorrow and heartbreak, but it doesn’t appear that Rose knows much about what happened. I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going on, even Rose’s dad, because her mother is so shut down (very understandably). What happened to their family is sad, but I think from Rose’s perspective it’s more of a frustration and the reaction has been hurtful. (This sounds so vague, but I’m trying not to spoil the book. What happened isn’t a plot twist, but it’s revealed slowly and purposefully I think.) It’s these events and the fall out, like her parents fighting, that start to open the adult world for her and help her see them more as people.

I love, love, loved Windy. She is a little younger and doesn’t always “get it”. But she strikes me as one of those people who even when she does get it, will still choose to be a bit goofy and silly and live on the sunny side of life. She dances and says “boobs” and laughs about almost everything. She even names the older teen who runs the minimart “The Dud”. Her generally sunny disposition makes her a great friend and a good counterpoint to Rose who is much quieter, moodier, and more reflective. Rose is likable too. She’s one of those girls who, if she feels awkward or uncomfortable, doesn’t show it. She comes across as cool and confident. Still waters run deep, though. Rose is struggling with growing up and with some heavy emotional baggage at home.

Since this is a graphic novel I have to mention the art. It’s really wonderful. Everyone is identifiable. I love the use of the blue printing. It gives the book a cool, summery feel but also a touch of melancholy. No matter how good of a story there is, a graphic novel can be sunk by its art. Not so here. There are plenty of panels with no dialogue, but the story is beautifully conveyed through expressions on the characters faces, through their body language, and through the progression of panels.

The protagonists in This One Summer may be middle school aged, but I think there is much broader appeal here. Certainly seventh and eighth graders would enjoy the book, but I think it would do well with high schoolers and even adults who remember their own days as adolescents.

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01

Sep
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Emily’s Blue Period

On 01, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Emily's Blue Period

From GoodReads: Emily wants to be an artist. She likes painting and loves the way artists like Pablo Picasso mixed things up.Emily’s life is a little mixed up right now. Her dad doesn’t live at home anymore, and it feels like everything around her is changing.

“When Picasso was sad for a while,” says Emily, “he only painted in blue. And now I am in my blue period.”

It might last quite some time.

Emily’s Blue Period is a picture book about divorce, but I think it handles it in a very interesting way, a way that makes is accessible to all kids.

Despite the fact that this is a “divorce book”, it doesn’t take the tack of many divorce books I’ve seen. In fact the word is never even mentioned. It never tells kids it will all be okay. It doesn’t have Emily trying to get her parents back together and it doesn’t have her blaming herself for their divorce.

What it does do is show Emily and her brother struggling to make sense of their new reality. I think you can look at the book through the lens of Emily or through the lens of Picasso. Which is to say you can look at it as a divorce book or an art book (or both, obviously). Through Emily you see how divorce can be confusing for a child. But you also see her use the transformative power of art to make sense of what is happening to her family. Emily is clearly sad, but the book is hopeful as she works her way through understanding that home is not necessarily your house, but a feeling you create through love and although many things have changed, her parents love for her and her brother has not.

Taking the art angle, the reader learns about Picasso and about his art. But the great thing about this book is how his art is related to Emily’s life. It gives real examples, of the variety that are relatable and don’t shy away from the difficult times in children’s lives, of how Picasso used art. I think many or even most kids know someone with divorced parents, so understanding that it’s a hard and confusing and sad time for their friends still make the topic familiar. I think children who are not faced with divorce will still like Emily and her interest in art and may even find inspiration to use art to work through problems they are faced with.

A lovely book for slightly older kids who are either interested in art or have parents divorcing. The format uses chapters to break the story up even though the chapters are short. I’m not sure how well issue books work for reading aloud to a group, but if any book like that is going to work it would be this one. I think really it makes art, abstract art at that, come alive and feel relevant and understandable.

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29

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

On 29, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Grisha Trilogy

I loved this trilogy. I often like first books, but won’t continue with a series simply because there is always a long list of books to work through. But the Grisha Trilogy warranted a full read. Warning, I may spoil certain parts of the books because I am reviewing the three as a whole.

For me I was drawn to the mythology, culture, and world building. The story is clearly set in a country based on Russia and her folklore. I know very little about Russia as it doesn’t tend to be a country we study much in the US, except as the enemy. And that hardly delves into their rich culture. As much as we celebrate diversity as something involving non-white people, I think there are plenty of white people who we know little about and are, in actuality, very different from us. Russia has some incredible fairytales and myths and how their environment shaped their culture and society is fascinating. The Grisha trilogy doesn’t detail any Russian history, but it does draw on the country (from the Czarist days) and you can easily see the parallels. Themes and characters from the folklore is woven very deftly into this world.

I was also drawn to the romance in the book. I’m not normally a romance fan per se, but the romance between Mal and Alina really added to the tension of the book. You really want to see them together, but you also know it can’t help but end poorly. They are also friends before they are lovers which is a dynamic I like to see because I think friendship is an incredibly important aspect of romance and romantic relationships. I will warn anyone purchasing this book for a collection, there is no sex in the first two books although it’s hinted at and there are some steamy kissing scenes. The third book, however, has an incredible first-time sex scene for Alina. It’s very beautiful and romantic, but it is sex and although it’s not graphic it doesn’t exactly happen off page either. (Side note, when Mal tells Alina he just wants to push her against the wall and kiss her so much she forgets that other men exist made even practical, unromantic me swoon.)

For the intended audience, I think teens will certainly like the romance and may be curious about the books’ cultural connections to Russia. But I think Alina will be the real draw. She’s a complicated character. Life has not been easy for her and denying the magic in her has cost her a lot in terms of her health, mental and physical. Besides Mal, she has never had a real friend and things are complicated with Mal. When she is taken under the Darkling’s wing it’s easy to see why she is drawn to him. He feeds right into her vulnerabilities. Thankfully she  figures this out. Her lack of confidence in all areas is endearing, instead of irritating. Knowing her history it’s easy to see where it comes from and it makes her very human and relatable. She’s cantankerous, but under her prickly exterior she is compassionate and generous. Despite the emotional baggage she has, she’s a strong young woman interested in helping her people.

One last thought, Leigh Bardugo can write. She weaves an amazing story into a fascinating world and works the language of Ravka into conversation and description. Nothing feels stilted or awkward.

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28

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Throwback Thursday Review: Outside Your Window by Nicola Davies

On 28, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Outside Your WindowFrom GoodReads: The buzz of bees in summertime. The tracks of a bird in the winter snow. This beautiful book captures all the sights and sounds of a child’s interactions with nature, from planting acorns or biting into crisp apples to studying tide pools or lying back and watching the birds overhead. No matter what’s outside their windows — city streets or country meadows — kids will be inspired to explore the world around them.

I decided to include this title in my throwback series for a couple of reasons. First, I really love to use poetry to encourage kids to become readers. Second, I’ve been reading this with my daughter for more than a year now and we just love it.

As you probably already figured out, this is a collection of poems about nature. But what I have loved about is that the poems are organized around the seasons. There is a section each for spring, summer, fall and winter. This is the kind of book you can leave out in a classroom, on a nature table, or in a bedroom. You can pick it up whenever you have a few spare minutes and select a poem or two for your current season.

The poems themselves are really lovely and evocative. Not every child is going to have experienced all the nature in the book, but there is something for everyone from a window box on an apartment balcony to a farm. The illustrations are a mixture of collage, watercolor and probably a few other media thrown in. They really do a wonderful job complementing each poem. They are bright, cheerful with seasonally appropriate color palettes. The animals are all very charming and a nice enticement for many children. It’s a large book which I think encourages kids to open it out on the floor and pore over it. The paper is heavy and thick which adds to the sensorial experience of reading it.

The nice thing about a collection of poems like this is that you can dip in and out of if, like with a lot of nonfiction. Kids whose attention spans are short or who are having a hard time reading can choose a poem or two, look at the illustration and move on to something else. Reading doesn’t have to be torturously long. Very young children, who may not want to sit still for an entire picture book or story, are often willing to listen to a poem or two and the use of language and vocabulary in poetry is especially good at getting little ones to listen to spoken words. An all around great book for all ages (parents included!).

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27

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…

On 27, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

CircumnavigatedFrom GoodReads: Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

I need to start by saying: OMG, this is the world’s longest title. It is also a little pretentious and very indicative of how the book goes. Which is whimsically, with a good vocabulary and just a little pretentiousness. In the best possible way.

It took me awhile to get into this one. At least the first 50 pages, if not more. The language and syntax initially made the story feel like it was trying very hard. I can’t say if that stopped eventually or I just got into the rhythm of the book, but I was sucked in to the point of wanting to finish. The book does have an excellent use of language going for it, which is partially to blame for the slow start. Is widdershins a word? Yes (it means counterclockwise, but sounds so much better), but it feels a bit arcane like some of the other vocabulary and syntax. To be clear the slow start and old fashioned vibe are not a count against the book, it just took me longer to move through it.

Fortunately both the characters and plot make you want to stay with the book. September is just a regular girl with a lot of doubt about why she ended up on this adventure. She meets a lot of characters like a trio of witches who explain what witches actually do (see the future), a cantankerous gnome, the green wind who is very fond of September, a leopard, a Wyvern whose father is a library and so he calls himself a Wyverary. The cast of characters alone is quite creative and most are good hearted or interesting. September decides to help one of the witches retrieve her spoon from the Marquess, the new ruler of Fairyland who rules with an iron fist, and this sets off a chain of events that pull September deeper and deeper into the troubles of Fairyland. She also becomes more attached to the friends she has made and more determined to help them.

The comparisons I’ve seen to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are apt, but at times, especially toward the beginning, it felt like the book was trying to be Alice which just made it feel contrived. On the other hand, it clearly wasn’t Alice. For starters September had a lot more presence of mind and was less of a ditz than Alice. September also makes friends and does things out of the goodness of her heart. To me, the adventure and language brought the book My Father’s Dragon to mind.

The difference between these, besides length and complexity, was how dark Circumnavigated was. September’s adventure is not all sunshine, rainbows, and friends. Things end well enough, but it is not without some unhappy revelations and discoveries. Things go awry in some awful ways and Valente doesn’t shy away from sharing them and how September reacts to them. September also becomes a bit contemplative about her situation at home with a mother who is constantly at work and a father who has disappeared to the war, a father who volunteered to disappear.

The book may appeal to upper elementary students, but it would take a strong reader to get through it or a highly motivated/interested one. The reading level was surprisingly low, but the vocabulary and sentence structure made it feel more difficult. (Or maybe that was just me?) I would suggest it as a good read aloud, especially for parents looking for a book that would appeal to them too. Otherwise this one is good for kids who like adventure, quirk, and whimsy. Readers who like twists on fairy tales may also find something to enjoy in the mythical creatures, witches, and September’s quest.

SPOILER ALERT:

There was a swoony bit right at the end. September has traveled with Saturday through much of her adventure. As a marid he experiences time differently, all at once and not chronologically. He explains that marids know to get married when they start seeing their children around and they find their spouse based on who their children look like. Just before September is whisked back home, Saturday asks if she saw their daughter. I think the anticipation of them falling in love in future books (there are two more in the series) is really sweet.

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25

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

On 25, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Year of Billy Miler

From GoodReads: When Billy Miller has a mishap at the statue of the Jolly Green Giant at the end of summer vacation, he ends up with a big lump on his head. What a way to start second grade, with a lump on your head! As the year goes by, though, Billy figures out how to navigate elementary school, how to appreciate his little sister, and how to be a more grown up and responsible member of the family and a help to his busy working mom and stay-at-home dad. Newbery Honor author and Caldecott Medalist Kevin Henkes delivers a short, satisfying, laugh-out-loud-funny school and family story that features a diorama homework assignment, a school poetry slam, cancelled sleepovers, and epic sibling temper tantrums. This is a perfect short novel for the early elementary grades.

I need to get two things off my chest with this book.

One, it has been likened to Frindle and the Clementine series. I have not read either of these. In fact I haven’t read a whole lot of those transitional chapter books. Mostly because prior to this I have found them incredibly boring. I have read a total of two Magic Treehouse books and I wish I hadn’t. But I also know that these books are wonderful for hooking readers, building confidence and building fluency. I can’t compare or even make too many read alike suggestions. I can say second graders, especially ones for whom reading is starting to take off will probably like this book. It’s easy but long enough to make them feel important for reading a chapter book.

Second, I just really wanted Billy to slap that little girl Emma Sparks. She is such a self-important braggart. Of course, I’m sure there’s a backstory for why she is such a brat, but my visceral reaction was to want him to slap her. Just to be clear, I don’t condone slapping children. Obviously. She is a book character so I felt okay having that reaction.

This was a family and friends book. Not much action here. I loved the approach of looking at Billy’s year through the lens of his different family members. Billy’s voice, worries, and actions felt very much like a second grader.  The secondary characters in the book were not very well fleshed out, but I think for the target audience that wouldn’t matter. I also think it fits well with the second grade world view. They aren’t nearly as self centered as they were at two or three, but eight-year-olds are still fairly self absorbed. (Totally developmentally appropriately, I think.)

One content warning: At one point Billy wants to stay up all night and when he is feeling sleepy he tries to keep himself awake by imagining something scary and horrible. It ends up being some kind of rotting corpse or monster or something. I’m a big chicken and it kinda freaked me out, so if you have a kid who is easily frightened skip that bit.

All in all, an enjoyable story about a boy.

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21

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Throwback Thursday Review: The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

On 21, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

I’m going to start posting reviews on Thursdays of books that I have read and never gotten around to reviewing properly. I may also use it to post reviews of books that were not published recently.

Pepper RouxFrom GoodReads: Pepper’s fourteenth birthday is a momentous one. It’s the day he’s supposed to die. Everyone seems resigned to it—even Pepper, although he would much prefer to live. But can you sidestep Fate? Jump sideways into a different life? Naïve and trusting, Pepper sets a course through dangerous waters, inviting disaster and mayhem at every turn, one eye on the sky for fear of angels, one on the magnificent possibilities of being alive.

It took me two tries to get through this book. It has a rough start that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (or so I thought). However, I was REALLY glad I stuck with it the second time around.

On his 14th birthday Pepper picks up his father’s jacket and, believing his superstitious aunt who has always told him this would be the day he died, he heads down to his father’s boat. Here is where I was lost the first time. Wearing his father’s coat seems to convince people that he must be his father and everyone begins to treat him as the captain. Despite the fact that they are seeing a 14 year old boy in a man’s coat. This happens again and again as he side steps from one adventure and life into the next. People simply assume because he is in a certain place, say behind a deli counter or in a newspaper room, that he belongs there and is either someone they know or should know and they simply go along with it. You have to let the absurdity of it wash over you and accept it and once you do, it’s actually quite enjoyable how Pepper hops from one adventure to the next.

I think ultimately there were a couple themes and messages in this book, none of them blatant. First Pepper learns to question what his aunt has been saying all these years. She is the one who has claimed to have seen a religions vision that proclaims that Pepper will die on his 14th birthday. As he gets more experience of the world it puts his life so far into perspective and his aunt (and parents to some extent) seem more and more ridiculous and tied to the idea that your destiny simply happens to you while you passively wait for it. From this Pepper also learns that you make your own luck and fate. He goes out and has experiences, meets good people, bad people, all kinds of people and he begins to take actions based on what he feels is right. This leads to more experiences and to building a family. A number of the characters he encounters stick around or keep popping up. And at one point he steps into the life of one of his sailors from his first adventure on his father’s boat. The man had died and left a widow, a woman whom he was very cruel to. Pepper steps in and is kind to her, takes care of her and their home. She grows to love him, but not as a husband. As a son. With her and his father’s former first mate Pepper find parents that are willing to love and care for him unlike his own who mostly wrung their hands over his impending death. He also has some friends that he has accumulated and they too become part of the family. So it is also a story about the chosen family.

The Death-Defying Pepper Roux is a quirky book. It would take a quirky, whimsical kid to really appreciate it (and probably finish it). In some ways it reminds me of Ophelia and the Magic Boy except Pepper isn’t such a sad sack. I would say kids who wonder about other people’s lives may find this of interest and honestly some adults may enjoy this too. Adults who were quirky whimsical kids. But I’m rather at a loss for any other books that this is like, which I guess is to say it’s unlike anything else, to my knowledge.

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20

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

On 20, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Thing About Luck

From GoodReads: Summer knows that kouun means “good luck” in Japanese, and this year her family has none of it. Just when she thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong, an emergency whisks her parents away to Japan—right before harvest season. Summer and her little brother, Jaz, are left in the care of their grandparents, who come out of retirement in order to harvest wheat and help pay the bills.

The thing about Obaachan and Jiichan is that they are old-fashioned and demanding, and between helping Obaachan cook for the workers, covering for her when her back pain worsens, and worrying about her lonely little brother, Summer just barely has time to notice the attentions of their boss’s cute son. But notice she does, and what begins as a welcome distraction from the hard work soon turns into a mess of its own.

Having thoroughly disappointed her grandmother, Summer figures the bad luck must be finished—but then it gets worse. And when that happens, Summer has to figure out how to change it herself, even if it means further displeasing Obaachan. Because it might be the only way to save her family.

The Thing About Luck had a lot of interesting pieces to the story, but what really shone for me was the relationships between Summer and her grandparents. Summer always feels like she is disappointing her grandmother and isn’t very sure her grandmother loves her. Although in the past year when she had malaria she knows her grandmother wouldn’t leave her side at the hospital and she overhears her grandmother crying about Summer growing up too fast. She just can’t seem to get that caring grandmother to line up with the ornery, more distant grandmother she seems to disappoint everyday. I think a lot kids can really relate to trying very hard to be good and do the right thing, but still feeling as though they have failed a parent or grandparent. Summer is, however, close to her grandfather who is much more patient and gentle. She feels close with him and secure in his love. The juxtaposition of these two relationships really begins teaching Summer how love can mean different things and look very different without being diminished.

Summer really learns a lot about love over the few weeks the book spans. She assesses her relationship with her brother Jaz, who at times provokes and irritates because he is so different (he’s probably Asperger’s), but realizes she loves him all the same. She experiences the heartbreak of rejection when her crush decides he would rather spend time with the daughter of one of the farmers instead of her. But she also sees that rejection can be a lot worse when she talks with one of the other harvesters whose fiancee left him. Summer is a reflective kid standing on the cusp of young adulthood, knowing she still feels like a child but having a growing awareness of the world and how it works and taking a more active role in it.

On another note, Summer and her family are Japanese and Japanese-American, I never felt like that was “an issue” or even really a focus. I suppose it may have determined what kind of work the grandparents could get, but Summer mentions plenty of other types of people who take jobs as harvesters. And being an immigrant was not a common thread. I really appreciated that the diversity felt authentic and organic. It didn’t feel like a check box, nor was it discussed and dissected at great length. There is a time and place and book for that, but I don’t think that was the point of Summer’s story.

I would give this to kids who liked grandparent-grandchild relationship in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. It would also be good for kids who like family stories where the family ties are strong, but not without strife. This is certainly middle grade, but could skew a bit younger (4th or 5th grade) depending on interest.

 

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19

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Summer Reading Round Up: Miscellany

On 19, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

More Summer Reading

A disparate selection of titles I read this summer. Again, for the sake of brevity I have linked to their GoodReads page where you can read the synopsis.

Zebra Crossing / Meg Vandermerwe: I picked this one up because it had three diversity points- Zimbabwean emigrants, South African setting, and an albino. The story didn’t sound exactly upbeat, but it sounded interesting and appealing. Turns out it was downright depressing. I really liked the main character, Chipo. She had not had an easy life, but she was a friendly girl with capable of making friends and feeling deeply. She could have stood to be more assertive, but I think she always intended to be, but wasn’t given the chance. I liked the book, but it would take a special reader to really click with this one because it is so sad. (YA)

School for Good and Evil / Soman Chainani: This was a rare DNF (did not finish) for me. The premise of the book was actually very clever and I can see a lot of fairytale elements which is what attracted me to it in the first place. I just had a really hard time connecting with the characters. More often than not I found myself frustrated by Agatha’s willful blindness to the fact that Sophie is a terrible friend and Sophie’s blindness to what a good friend Agatha could be. The message that looks can be deceiving also felt heavy handed to me. Plus I got at least 100 pages in and not much had happened to really further the plot enough for my tastes. However! I think had I made it to the end, things would have worked themselves out. This felt a lot like a case of me clearly not being the target audience. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to kids who like friendship stories and fairytales. Especially fractured fairy tales. There are even a few Harry Potter elements mixed in here. (MG & younger YA)

Claire of the Sea Light / Edwidge Danticat: This is technically an adult novel and I didn’t pick it up because it was touted as a crossover, but any teen who likes literary novels and diversity could easily slip into this novel. It was not especially long either, which is often a plus with teen readers who are pressed for time. I cannot say how much I loved this novel. Danticat’s writing style is so lyrical and lovely, but not dense at all. The stories in this book, that follow a variety of people from the town Ville Rose around, felt like peeking into secret parts of people’s lives. Like when you see people driving and wonder where they are going and who they are. It was a sad novel, but not without hope. It also embraced the idea that things in life can come full circle. (YA)

The Martian / Andy Weir: This book was incredible. It was so good I made my husband read it. It was so good he, who reads a book every couple of years, finished it in two days. It was that good. It was definitely a plot driven novel, but there was enough character development to make it interesting for the people in the book. While it’s a survival story, Mark Watney is a funny guy. His quips and general attitude toward his situation make for good reading. And he is so clever in solving problems that seem insurmountable, like surviving on Mars. Interestingly, everything he talks about is technically possible and all of the equipment and technology is currently available even if it can’t quite be used to get to Mars just yet, so there is a realistic bent to a story that seems impossible. Another adult novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to give to a YA audience. I would even give it to a middle schooler who is nuts about space travel, just be aware that there is a mention of sex (although no actual sex) and several swear words. (YA)

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18

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: I Put a Spell On You by Adam Selzer

On 18, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

I Put a Spell on YouFrom GoodReads: Come spelling bee season, the tiny town of Preston erupts in excitement: the bee is televised, and the hottest ticket in town. This year, an assortment of sixth-grade miscreants is going for the top prize: Jennifer, an overscheduled free spirit whose parents are obsessed with her college applications; Mutual, a previously home-schooled outsider who’s enrolled in public school for the first time in order to participate in the bee; Harlan, the class clown who has spectacular plans for making the most of his time in the spotlight; and Chrissie, the constant observer, who suspects something is off at the bee and will stop at nothing to get to the truth. Principal Floren is acting shady to everyone—but, as he insists, “I am not a crook.”

Part mystery, part spoof, I Put a Spell On You was really clever. The story is told several ways. First, Chrissie Woodward, who has been investigating the odd events surrounding the annual spelling bee, tells her story through her observations. Second, Chrissie has taken depositions of a number of the kids in her class. Third, series of interoffice memos between the principal, his assistant, the sixth grade class teacher, and all school. Each chapter is one of these narratives. Finally, through notes passed between Jason and Amber.

Not only does this make the story a little more interesting to read than a single, straight narrative, it gives you insight into a variety of the characters involved. It adds depth to them in a type of story that usually chooses plot over character.

And these characters were funny! Jennifer loves Shakespeare but her parents are always pushing into clubs and activities to make her look good to colleges (nevermind that she’s only in sixth grade). She uses the spelling bee to get out the activities and studies by reading Shakespeare. Mutual has nutty parents who have homeschooled him to protect him from corruption. He’s all too happy to be corrupted, though, once he starts at public school. Of course he isn’t actually corrupted. He simply learns that maybe his parents are always right about things (turns out heavy metal doesn’t make you a murder) and appearances aren’t what they seem. Harlan is looking to be a class clown so people remember him because he keeps thinking about his own mortality. This could be dark and depressing, but it’s handled as a carpe diem kind of mentality. Then there are the two goth kids who sit in the back of the room and befriend Mutual. Principal Floren is a shady character who bribes kids and staff with extra cookies from the lunchroom. Jake is the lunch lady’s son that wants to become a professional chef. Except he’ll eat anything for a dollar, which sounds at odds with his dream. But he explains that he’s hoping he’ll discover a new flavor combination. He enters the bee to win the gift certificate that’s been donated by the local appliance store who has a cookware set he really wants. So while the story is very funny, the characters really make the book.

I have grouped this into my Kidlit pile based on the ages of the kids in the book (sixth grade), but I would say it could appeal into the middle grade area too. It isn’t quite as sophisticated as some middle grade novels can be, but there’s a lot here to like.

*Swear word alert*, the word “crap” appears two or three times. Just in case you want to hand this book to a younger audience or have a more conservative community.

I would give this one to kids who enjoyed Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, Peeled by Joan Bauer, and Adam Canfield of the Slash by Michael Winerip. You may also want to recommend it to kids who like Michael Beil’s The Red Blazer Girls or that may be a series to move on to from this one. The mixed narratives reminded me a lot of The Westing Game, too.

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