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Middle Grade



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Morris Award Nominee Reviews

On 05, Feb 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

I can’t remember when I read all these. Either at the end of December or sometime this month. I definitely read a couple this month. Is this a sign that I read too much? :) As with my post last week, because these all have the award nomination in common, I’m going to write a longer post to review them all together.

Debut Novels

This was a disparate set of books both in content and in how much I enjoyed them. I am always a little baffled by what gets picked for awards and this set was no different. And why were these books all so depressing? Can we have a happy debut next year, please?

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets: I loved, loved, loved this one. Poor James he’s got a messed up home life and I really felt for him. But he’s also a really cool kid or at least he will be once he’s in college and works through some of his anxiety issues. He’s into literary poetry (as in not writing crappy, whiny, angst-y poetry) and photography. He can quote Whitman who isn’t really my favorite, but I can appreciate the level of interest or obsession he has for something that most high schoolers couldn’t be bothered with. He also is self aware enough to know that he needs someone to talk to and has invented a therapist in his mind that is a pigeon. That was kind of funny too, because the nonfiction book I read this month was actually about pigeons. He also gets it together to get a job and earn money to see a real therapist. All in all, he’s just a much more mature high school student. The kind of kid I would have been friends with or would love to have in my library. In terms of the writing it felt very polished. I would be happy to see this one win the Morris.

Charm & Strange: I’m not sure why everyone was so surprised by the twist in this one. I saw it coming from miles away. I really don’t want to spoil anything for anyone though, so I can’t talk too much about the actual story. Even this may be a spoiler, but I will say it was an amazing portrayal of a kid who is horribly damaged and shows to what great lengths the mind will go to block out that damage. The book was beautifully written and I like the alternation in chapters between past and present, although using the matter and antimatter (and also the title) felt a little unnecessary and just plain pretentious. There was little connection between quantum physics and the actual story. I wish it had been more hopeful at the end for those kids reading this who have experienced similar trauma, but sometimes life isn’t happy. Another I would be happy to see win.

Sex & Violence: I thought this one was a really beautiful story about healing and about how men can be just as impacted by sexual violence, even if they were not the ones raped. I know some people have complained about Evan, and even though he could be pretty cavalier about his sexual relationships, I think he mostly didn’t attach to people. I don’t think it made him a dirtbag, just showed his baggage from his parental relationships and questionable early relationships. Sadly it took a violent attack to make him realize he does care, deep down, even when he won’t admit it. All around a well-crafted and well-written book. I wonder if this one won’t win the Morris because the content is so explicit

Belle Epoque: This one was not my favorite. The concept was interesting, but it rang rather historically false to me. Especially how Maude suddenly feels very at home with the upper class. People were very aware of their social class and I have a hard time believing even some one as idealistic as Maude would think she could be mistaken for an upper class/nouveau riche girl or would fit in. There was an really fabulous story of friendship in here, though, that I don’t think we get to see often enough in YA. And for those kids that like historical novels and are interested in Paris, this is a good one. In terms of the award, I think the first three novels above were much better written and more nuanced.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds: This was my least favorite by far. The writing felt stilted to me, it was awfully long, and despite the fact that it’s marketed as a book about spiritualism there is very little of it. I wondered about the historical accuracy of this one too. Some of the influenza information in it didn’t sound right to me and upon checking the author’s note at the end she lists a lot of (pop-science and history) resources she lists no flu resources. There is a fantastic book by Alfred Crosby (America’s Forgotten Pandemic) about the 1917/1918 outbreak that is incredibly detailed and includes a ton of statistics, analysis and historical information. I would have liked to see that listed. I would also have liked to see a reference to Unraveling Freedom, a middle grade nonfiction book about how Germans and Austrians, etc. were treated in the US during WWI. It’s an excellent eye-opening book that would be right at the right reading level for kids reading Blackbirds.

I also thought Mary Shelley (who didn’t not really need to have both names used all the time) was a bit too free for the time period. She was, however, incredibly plucky and determined so she was a likable character despite the book’s flaws. Her aunt was also really great. And this is a time period that doesn’t get written about all that much (WWII is much more popular) so I think it’s good to see something about it in YA.

I do wonder if these issues occur all the time in historical fiction and I am both bothered by them and don’t read enough to understand it doesn’t matter. That entirely possible. I would suggest reading The Diviners instead or in addition to this one.



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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Monthly Author Review: Holly Black

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

True to my New Year’s Reading Resolution I choose to read a number of Holly Black books this month. Since I read so many, but wanted to both talk about the experience as a whole and only write short reviews of the books I decided to do one large-ish post. In an effort to cut down on length I will link the title of the book to its GoodReads page so you can read the synopsis and I’ll only include my thoughts in this post.

Holly Black

On the whole I really enjoyed Holly Black’s writing. She is an incredible author. Her dialog was strong, she really paints a visual picture without sounding stilted or formulaic. Even in her novels that I considered weaker, it was evident that she is a skilled author. It was also very interesting to see her both across time and across genres and age ranges. She is clearly very versatile.

The Coldest Girl in Cold Town: This was the first book I read and I was little skeptical before I began reading. I’ll be the first to admit I enjoy a good vampire novel from time to time, but I’m getting a little tired of all the supernatural stuff. Plus, I really wanted to read some of the faerie fantasy to beef up my knowledge there. However, I am so, so glad I read this one first for a couple of reasons. First, being one of her most recent books I think she’s matured a lot as an author so it was probably also one of her strongest in terms of writing. And there’s nothing like starting out on a high point.

Second, this was an homage to all the wonderful and terrible vampire novels that have been written and you can tell how much Holly Black loved those novels. She so lovingly creates this story. I’ve said before how sometimes some of the YA I read touches a nerve with my old self as a teenager and that’s what makes me love the book. This was one of those. It reminded me so much of the awful vampire novels I read in middle/high school (the ones my dad wouldn’t let me read once he found out the content) and absolutely loved. In retrospect they were miserably bad, but I saw them elevated in this book. I had forgotten how they had made me feel, how engaged I was with a book (something rare back then), how I reread them over and over.

This is not the vampire novel for those who loved Twilight (which I did!), although there is a bit of a romance. This is much much darker and grittier. In some ways it reminded me of This Is Not a Test, in that it’s essentially about a girl who has nothing to lose.

Doll Bones: A brilliant middle grade book from Holly Black. This one didn’t remind me of books I read as a kid, but of the joy of being a kid at play. This is a book for anyone who remembers playing pretend games with their friends and loving it. It’s also on the creepy side which makes it feel like an older book and also helps it not to feel like a heavy-handed coming-of-age novel. As a side note, I wish I had been as creative as this trio in my imaginative play. They’re brilliant. There is also an awesome adventure aspect to this one and wee bit of romance, so there’s really something for everyone.

The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Field Guide: This is definitely for the young crowd (third, maybe fourth grade, depending on reading ability). I enjoyed it and thought the illustrations really added to the story. However it still read like a series book. It ended rather abruptly and you could tell not much was resolved in an effort to get the story arc going. On the upside it wasn’t as tedious as some of those older series for this age group (like The Boxcar Children). Which even though I loved them as a kid and kids love them, they make for really really boring read alouds for parents. A great read aloud selection.

Tithe: This was the one I was most interested in reading and maybe I set my expectations a little high. It was definitely a good story (with a bit of a mystery) and well written. Obviously, it’s gotten a lot of praise (and circulation, the cover was quite worn!). But for some reason I had a little trouble following the plot and keeping the Seelie and Unseelie courts straight and some of their rules/lore. I just didn’t click as much with Kaye as I did with some of her other characters. I couldn’t help but think that since this one of her earliest novels it showed when comparing them to her later ones. I can confidently say that I would have continued to read her books if I had picked this one up first, but I don’t really think that matters because a teen with interest in faeries would have no problem with it.

White Cat: This one took me a lot longer to get into (more on that thought in another post), but once some of the background had been laid it was an amazing story with a lot of twists and turns. Holly Black is really good at coming up with creative magical worlds (although this one for all intents and purposes takes place in the world as we know it, just with a dash of magic) and I think the concept of this book it really shows how good she is. This one would be really good for getting boys into reading magical realism and low fantasy.

I had one issue with this book and that was the cover. Holy crap it’s awful. The boys on the cover look more like Abercrombie models to me than what I pictured for the characters. Plus, based on the back, I thought there was a gay romantic plot line, which would have been awesome even if it really wouldn’t have fit with any of the actual plot lines. Nope those guys are the older brothers. Whoops. I hate all that black pleather too (they wear totally normal clothes in the story) and the guy on the front with that white cat and his eyes blocked out…there is just something totally strange about it to me. Plus the characters are all youngish and these guys look way too old. While this would be a great book to put in the hands of male patrons, I would guess they wouldn’t want to be seen with it. Here’s to hoping you have the ebook version.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Book Review: Mr. & Mrs. Bunny — Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath

On 27, Nov 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten


Mr and Mrs Bunny

From GoodRead: In this hilarious chapter book mystery, meet a girl whose parents have been kidnapped by disreputable foxes, and a pair of detectives that also happen to be bunnies! When Madeline gets home from school one afternoon to discover that her parents have gone missing, she sets off to find them. So begins a once-in-a-lifetime adventure involving a cast of unforgettable characters. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who drive a smart car, wear fedoras, and hate marmots; the Marmot, who loves garlic bread and is a brilliant translator; and many others.

This is the funniest book I have read in ages. Maybe ever. The characters are ridiculous. The plot is ridiculous. The whole premise is just plain silly. I tend to have a dry, dark sense of humor and there are definitely dry and darkly humorous moments, but the sheer silliness of the book (and a few wink, wink kind of moments) totally bowled me over.

While this is clearly fantasy and you have to believe that animals can talk and interact with humans, there are all these little moments when you realize Horvath has been almost literal about applying the fantasy story to the real world. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny buy a house that comes with a SmartCar. I assumed it was a rabbit-sized car, but it turns out it’s an honest-to-goodness, human-sized SmartCar. They have to have Madeleine drive it because, as rabbits, they are too small. And for some reason these moments are some of the funniest moments of the book.

I did find myself wondering if the intended age range for this book would get the jokes and I’m still not exactly sure. I think there is plenty of humor and adventure in this book for younger readers that, even if they don’t get all the jokes, they will still love the book. Plus with multiple readings they will pick up more and more and this is most certainly the type of book you read over and over. I also think it’s really for the quirkier reader. I actually think this would make the perfect read aloud because, like the movie Shrek, there are several layers of humor and story going on which make it interesting and funny for adults and kids alike.


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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Unfinished Books and Tides by Betsy Cornwell

On 03, Oct 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten


From GoodReads: When high-school senior Noah Gallagher and his adopted teenage sister, Lo, go to live with their grandmother in her island cottage for the summer, they don’t expect much in the way of adventure. Noah has landed a marine biology internship, and Lo wants to draw and paint, perhaps even to vanquish her struggles with bulimia. But then things take a dramatic turn for them both when Noah mistakenly tries to save a mysterious girl from drowning. This dreamlike, suspenseful story—deftly told from multiple points of view—dives deeply into selkie folklore while examining the fluid nature of love and family.

I am the kind of person who can pretty much find any book enjoyable. Well, at least any YA book. It’s very, very rare that I put a book down and leave it unfinished, even the ones I don’t enjoy. Case in point, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl really irritated me, but I finished it. I promptly wanted my time back, but I finished it.

I know as a librarian I can’t read all the books in a collection or read all the new books that come out, but it’s still important to read a selection. I also know that not everyone shares my ability to like most books and that it’s important to find the right book for the right person.

For that reason I don’t like to give negative reviews. What I like about a book is so subjective. And many of the faults I find with it may not be things that even register with another reader. Or topics that are triggers for some may not be at all with others.  On the other hand, because we can’t all read everything, it’s important to give an honest assessment of the books you read. That way another librarian reading your review (or another reader for that matter) can use it to gauge whether a book is right for them or their collection.

All of this is a roundabout way for me to get at the most recent book I started reading, Tides. I put it down and returned it to the library without finishing it. And guess what? The world didn’t end! I thought it might, but it didn’t.

The premise sounded really interesting and I love when books incorporate mythology/legends into them, so I thought it would be a sure thing. While I think plenty of people could like this book, I didn’t. I think first and foremost there was just way way too much going on in this story.

*(kind of) SPOILER ALERT* The grandmother is gay and there’s a whole backstory there with an older selkie, Maebh. One of the grandkids has an eating disorder. Noah, the other grandchild, has a summer internship. Noah meets a selkie, Mara, and there’s a romance budding there. There are sibling relationship issues and baggage. There’s parental baggage. And then there’s more. It just kept building up. Problem was, the book is a little under 300 pages. There just wasn’t enough time to really explore anything.This in turn made the pacing feel off and too rushed. I couldn’t feel the attraction between Mara and Noah. Relationships and stories felt very rushed or they really dragged.

All of this was compounded scads of narrators. Noah, Lo, the grandmother, Mara, Maebh (the older selkie), and Ronan (Mara’s brother) all narrate. And I think later on at least one or two other narrators get thrown into the mix. As soon as you got something of one person’s story, it was off to another. Noah met Mara and was thinking about her and suddenly we’re on to Lo and the grandmother and Maebh. Then back to Noah where it picks up weeks later where it felt difficult to pick up the threads of his story and his feelings.

My final thought about it was that it felt (and looks) very middle grade, but some of the issues are way more YA. There wasn’t any sex, at least not that I got to by about halfway through, or even any questionable language. Still the eating disorder and the grandmother’s plot felt older to me while other plots felt younger and more simplistic. I would hesitate to offer it to either group just because it felt so hit-or-miss for me.

I really tried to get into the book, but I just couldn’t. Maybe someone with a higher tolerance for this kind of busy book and more of an interest in selkies could love it, but that person wasn’t me.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

On 26, Sep 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

WonderstruckFrom GoodReads:

Ben and Rose secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known. Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his mother’s room and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out alone on desperate quests to find what they are missing.

Set fifty years apart, these two independent stories–Ben’s told in words, Rose’s in pictures–weave back and forth with mesmerizing symmetry. How they unfold and ultimately intertwine will surprise you, challenge you, and leave you breathless with wonder.

I am ready to go live in a museum. Actually I have been ready since I read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (what kid wasn’t ready after that book), but Wonderstruck made me remember that desire. In Wonderstruck, Ben’s mother has recently died and while poking through some of her things he finds a few clues to who his father may have been. Using the clues, Ben runs away to New York City. He ends up at the natural history museum where he is befriended by one of the curators sons who hides him in an old storeroom that just so happens to be connected to his mysterious father. Toward the end of the story Ben visits a miniature model of the city that was originally an exhibit at the World’s Fair.

So, I’m not the biggest fan of the mixed graphic novel and written novel mediums, but Selznick’s stories are so good that it ends up not mattering. There is just something so cozy about the story and it’s settings. It might have to do with the scenes or the model of the city Ben visits, but I fell in love with this book. Plus Ben is such a neat kid. He’s got pluck and courage and curiosity. Just an all around great story about family and living in museums. :)

As a post script, I highly suggest reading the Author’s Note at the back where Selznick talks about how he got the inspiration for this story, it is so interesting. I could also see it being pretty inspiring for aspiring writers because his inspiration came from something serendipitous and mundane (he was given a behind the scenes tour of the NYC Natural History Museum and happened to catch a documentary on deaf culture and how the move from silent films to talkies impacted it).

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

On 12, Sep 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Akata Witch

From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too?

I have to admit I am a sucker for books written by Nigerian authors and/or set in Nigeria and that is the reason I picked up Akata Witch. I suppose if I had to booktalk this in a few seconds I would call it a Harry Potter read alike. But I feel kind of like I’m copping out comparing this book to Harry Potter.

It definitely shares a number of similarities. The four kids are wizards and witches. Sunny, the main character, was unaware of her abilities/ties to the magical community. There is a lot of learning about the power within yourself and your own inner strengths. There is also some good friendship material. It even kind of dragged in the same way I felt the first Harry Potter book did toward the beginning. But for some reason I just preferred these kids and this magical community to the Harry Potter one. Probably because I’m a sucker for Nigerian books.

All that aside this was a fun read. The story was pretty compelling and exciting. I loved that it felt very grounded in Nigerian culture and especially its traditional magic. I cannot speak to how closely it mirrors Nigerian magic, but it certainly feels authentic. Really this is what made Akata Witch stand out to me more than any other wizarding book (I’m looking at you again, Harry Potter). The depth of the culture really made the story more vibrant. And there was the added conflict of Sunny and Sasha feeling torn between being American and Nigerian. That just made the book feel more mature to me than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Sunny is a likable girl and she’s a pretty quick study so I never felt like shouting at her to stop being so naive or dense (I had that experience with a number of other books I read this summer). The other kids are fun too and possess enough sass and cheek to make them interesting, believable, but not exasperating.

All in all a fun book.

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