Wild Librarian Bookspot

Welcome, book-lover types and interested others! After years of running a bookclub, it's clear that folks need to spread the word about good books ... and bad ones. I'll be uploading as many titles as I can. Read on.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

"Pax" by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

This is a difficult, sad, beautiful, simplistically powerful novel.  There is Peter, a boy without a mother who loves his pet fox.  There is Pax, a fox who loves his boy.  There is a father who is a soldier and war is coming.  Pax and Peter are separated, with each facing a kind of crucible.  As they fight to get back to one another there are many stories about how war destroys not only land but living creatures great and small, in body and in spirit.  At its core, this is a book about the pointlessness and destructiveness of war.  The book is symbolism, metaphor and allegory.  The place and time are ambiguous.  The time period could be now or then, the location here or there.  The generic setting is meant to let the reader focus on the voices -- those of Peter and Pax, as they grow to see a world they never expected.  For any animal lover, this novel pulls at the heart-strings.  The conclusion, one which makes sense yet is hard, will leave you reaching for the Kleenex.  The story ends with many questions about the future.  Again, this harkens to the uncertainty of war, the "not knowing" what may come.  A saving grace in the darkness seems to be the connections we have with one another, how we are separate but can learn to care, learn to love.  It is easy to see why this one made the National Book Award Longlist and is a New York Times Bestseller.  A good read, with an important message.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"Absolutely Almost" by Lisa Graff

This is the book "Fish in a Tree" should have been.  Albie struggles in school.  He is an "Almost" in the sense that he isn't really good at anything, just "almost good".  His overachieving parents believe he can overcome with a little more effort but no matter how hard he tries, it never gets better.  The beauty of this book (over the aforementioned title by Ms. Hunt) is that it isn't clean.  A series of complex threads intertwine to make a kind of messy, slice-of-life story with fits and starts but not simple answers.  Albie transfers schools, deals with bullies, gets a new nanny and struggles with his one significant friendship while simultaneously working to create more.  The adults are not black and white.  His nanny is great but has her flaws, his parents care but don't seemingly have the time to really understand who their son is.  His teachers are aware of the bullying but don't stop it.  In one of the Kleenex moments in the book, one teacher gives Albie advice which changes his perspective.  It doesn't solve the problem but is one of the baby steps in growing up.  The end comes suddenly and not with the kind of neat conclusion you might expect.  Albie has made some progress but still struggles, questions remain.  The "absolutely real" voice of Albie and the urban NYC setting should make this a good read for many students.  Not as upbeat as "Tangle of Knots" (my Lisa Graff fave) but hugely accessible.  Another strong hit from an up-and-coming author to watch.

"The Girl Who Drank the Moon" by Kelly Barnhill

I don't even know where to start with this delightful fantasy which brings a kind of freshness to the genre.  First and foremost, Brava/Bravo to the Newbery committee for going outside their Historical American Fiction comfort zone to recognize an unusual, engaging book.  A page-turner from the beginning, it kept me up at night to finish it.  There are so many threads -- a story being told from mother to child, a madwoman, babies left in the woods by leaders with a hidden agenda, an apprentice who is more than he seems, a nice witch, a child who drinks moonlight, an adorable dragon, a sweet swamp monster, a sorrow eater, paper birds and MAGIC.  Lots of it.  There are varied voices as the story veers from one character to the next, all embedded with rich vocabulary and beautiful descriptions.  Luna, aka "the girl" in the title, has a real voice and one never doubts that she is an eleven/twelve year old child even though what awaits her is stupendous.  Ancient mythology weaves in with poetry and symbolism and yet the whole thing is quite readable.  It is a strong book in any category and will hopefully be one of those Newbery winners which actually has appeal for the kids willing to tackle it. 

"Lily and Dunkin" by Donna Gephart

What saves this from being your standard problem novel are some very solid characterizations, Ms. Gephart's ability to avoid the obvious in plot development and a kind of unique "layering" of the various issues.  There isn't one issue, there are many.  Lily needs her Dad to see her as she is, but she also needs to deal with bullies at school.  Dunkin needs to be true to himself but also be honest about his own challenges.  There is a tree that needs saving and a few lessons learned along the way which are just subtle enough to make an impact without hitting you over the head.  The extensive afterwards in the book makes for some good learning.  I was surprised by information on topics about being transgender and living with bipolar issues which I was unaware of.  Don't let kids turn away from this book because of the blah cover art and the sense that this is a romance.  It isn't.  This is a novel of exploration of self.  The eighth grade age is perfect for this kind of discussion and the back-and-forth internal struggles of the two protagonists absolutely hit the right mark in terms of being realistic.  The one unrealistic part may have been the "all is well/neatly tied up" ending, but by then I cared so much about the characters that I really wanted things to work out.  It's a great read and about more topics than you might expect, given it's status as an "LGBT" title.  It's rounded -- just like life.  Enjoy.

"Juana and Lucas" by Juana Medina

This Pura Belpre Award winner is an interesting but complicated little tome.  First, it looks like a picture book but is actually a step-up chapter book.  Second, the title is somewhat misleading, in that you might think it is about a girl and her dog, but it isn't.  It is about a girl and her family and her English classes and her friends and her neighbors and her city ~~and~~ her dog.  The dog doesn't actually appear in some chapters beyond a mention.  On one hand, it gives a nice "flipped view" of what English feels like to someone who lives in another nation (it also, coincidently, gives a nice overview of life in Bogota, Colombia).  It also mixes Spanish words in, sometimes defining them, sometimes not, so that readers get a good flavor of the language without being overwhelmed.  On the other hand, this feels like one of those "preachy" books which adults write for kids to teach them something.  The vocabulary is, at times, a little high-falutin' for the audience (i.e. "illuminated", "eternally" and "neurotic").  Juana doesn't want to learn English and all the adults tell her why she should.  Near the end of the book she learns another "lesson" about idolizing an action figure who isn't what she imagined.  Like oh-so-many books, this looks like a childhood memoir in disguise, which I rarely care for and often comes off with too much adult perspective.  None-the-less, the book is saved by the artwork and layout.  Ms. Medina creates engaging child-like figures in bright colors to illustrate the tale, but beyond that she turns the text into an "almost" concrete poem, playing with word font, size and direction.  It makes the story more engaging and exciting as phrases literally jump off the page at you.  Kids will enjoy this even if I found it slightly lacking.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

"Everything Everything" by Nicola Yoon

Huge kudos to Nicola Yoon for an unexpected, delightful, amazing novel.  Huge thumbs down to the Hollywood hype factory which exposes a MAJOR PLOT POINT in their 30 second commercials of a movie based on the book.  Unfortunately, knowing that plot point did reduce some of the joy in reading it, although there is much to appreciate.  Ms. Yoon writes in such a way as to be both simple and complex at the same time.  The voice of Madeline is strong, the settings vivid.  While this is a love story, and I don't particularly like love stories, Madeline's yearnings go beyond to boy to the world, to life.  Her passion isn't just about her body awakening, it is about her mind awakening to hopes, dreams and thoughts which she never dared to let herself have.  Ever take a bite of something simple, like pudding, and discover a half-dozen subtle flavors dancing around which you didn't expect?  It is kind of like that.  With echoes of Emma Donoghue's "Room" this story drew me in and didn't let go.  A page-turner I tore through in two days, it is the kind of writing which makes me eager to read her next novel, "The Sun is Also a Star" (preview provided at the end of this book).  Definitely a new talent worthy of her NY Times Bestseller status.  Brava.

"Jack Strong Takes a Stand" by Tommy Greenwald

Jack Strong has had it.  There is Cello, Chinese, Baseball, Karate, there are "volunteer" activities, tutors and more.  His schedule (listed neatly at the front of the book) is so packed that he literally doesn't have time to play a single computer game, much less hang out on the couch with his beloved grandmother.  So, he takes a stand.  By sitting down.  What could be a preachy, pedantic novel with a "POINT" is very accessible and warm.  Mr. Greenwald takes a modern issue many readers will readily identify with and embeds it with good characterizations and lots of humor.  Jack feels real.  His honest surprise at how his impulsive 7th grade behavior manifests into something he doesn't predict is genuine and keeps the novel from being a "lesson tome."  Family members and school friends have layers which create some unexpected twists.  The story as a whole is short and enjoyable. As a minor quibble, the drama at the end seems to be a bit much, but willing suspension of disbelief should suffice in letting any doubts go.  Greenwald again gets kudos for making the resolution more about complexities than a simple wrap-up.  The cartoonish drawings didn't add much to the narrative as far as I was concerned but will make the book more appealing to hesitant readers.  Overall a great little read which I wish I could recommend to a parent or two.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

"Mexican White Boy" by Matt de la Pena

This book is ostensibly about "Mexican White Boy" Danny Lopez, but it is also about a "Mexican Black Boy" named Uno.  The chapters swing between the two young men who have a lot in common and nothing in common.  Both are lovers of baseball and both feel a certain disconnect within their communities due to their mixed heritage.  Both want a stronger connection with their fathers.  But Uno is a talker, a deal-maker, an entrepreneur in the making.  Danny is troubled, lost and a true phenom.  While I found the book difficult to get into (baseball ... I am ~~so~~ not a sports person) it was the relationship between these guys and their inner struggles which finally got me hooked.  Worried about the stereotypes depicted in the opening pages I began to see deeper through Danny's eyes -- what that community is like when they are amongst themselves.  A minor quibble with the book included a violent act which comes out of nowhere near the end of the story and disappears just as quickly, seemingly put there for no other reason than to advance the plot.  The characters and the setting, however, feel real.  This is what you might see driving through a Latino neighborhood which is less well off, but Matt de la Pena is gently asking the reader to see the full dimensions of the people who live here.  His characters are complicated, tremendously imperfect and he doesn't clean anything up.  Many threads in the story are left unanswered.  But, in the end, that is real life.

Friday, April 28, 2017

"Flying Lessons & Other Stories" edited by Ellen Oh, Cofounder of WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS

True to their word, the creators of the "We Need Diverse Books" campaign created this anthology of short stories by some of the hottest, and most diverse, YA authors out there today.  In the forward, Ellen Oh writes a short introduction, which is both amusing and abstract.  It sets the tone for ten tales which range widely across time and place.  All of these vignettes deal with being the odd one out and most feature Middle School aged protagonists, but the concepts and vocabulary can be quite complex.  This is one of those situations where Middle School readers will read and enjoy the book, but an older reader might see some subtleties which could otherwise be missed.  As a tribute to the late, great Walter Dean Myers, the final story is his.  Ms. Oh explains how he was a mentor and inspiration to so many.  The bad news is that these stories are short -- many end right when you want to find out more.  The good news is that each tale gives a strong flavor of that particular author's works -- which will hopefully lead readers to their full-length novels.  My only comment to the folks from the "We Need Diverse Books" campaign on this first effort is "More, Please".

"Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library" by Chris Grabenstein

Took forever for me to get to this uber-popular book.  I can see the reason why it is such a large draw.  Funny, smart and fast-paced with a clever plot you can't quite predict, it is an accessible page-turner which left me with a lot of smiles and an overall "good" feeling.  Okay, it is a very obvious suck-up to librarians everywhere but there is enough real kid action to entice almost any reader.  Mix a G-Rated "Hunger Games" with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" and you have a book which is a bit of a romp.  Our lead is Kyle Keeley, a typical 12 year old boy who acts first, thinks later and doesn't like to read.  The thing is, Kyle is street-smart and he is kind.  He just feels a little lost in the shadows of his two older brothers -- the jock and the brain.  He ends up locked up in the town's new library with 11 other kids in a game-filled maze.  With 24 hours to solve the riddles and tremendous prizes awaiting, Kyle must figure out how to solve the puzzles.  This is, quite simply, a delightful book which will draw in almost any reader.  Bravo to Mr. Grabenstein for his adorable book and library homage.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"Roller Girl" by Victoria Jamieson

Another obvious "autobiography as novel" this one, too, has been extremely popular with young readers.  Told in graphic novel form, the art isn't particularly dynamic (although it is very colorful) nor the tale particularly lyric, but I can see the appeal.  In many ways, it was more simplistic than I expected, but since it rings true, the attraction will be there for any kid who ever struggled with the changes which accompany growing up, including losing a friend as they move from Elementary to the overly-social, cliquey world of Middle School (in this case, Junior High).  Astrid, a girl who likes black and tends to be a different drummer, finds herself alone one summer when best friend Nicole goes the way of ballet camp and other bottle blondes.  Astrid finds herself struggling at Roller Derby camp and oblivious to the skills required to make and keep friends.  What follows is a good lesson or two which isn't preachy in the slightest.  One of the most important lessons is about resilience.  Astrid is way behind the other skaters in ability level and doesn't think she can make it past day one.  But she is somehow determined.  She gets knocked down (actually, physically, a lot, like, a whole lot) but gets up every time.  And that is the point.  Getting up.  It's a celebration of inner strength which any pre-teen will identify with.  Throw in the kind of diversity which is part of the real world (Astrid's mom is Puerto Rican and her idol is African American) as well as a journey for identity and you have a story which feels like "us."  For fans of Raina Telgemeier's work, this makes a solid follow-up.

"Counting By 7s" by Holly Goldberg Sloan

A huge favorite among student readers, it has taken me a while to get to this one as it has been checked out every time I have looked for it in the past year or so.  So very glad I finally got hold of it.  "Heartwarming", "Bittersweet", "Charming" and "Smart" don't even begin to describe this absolutely delightful book which is not only good but one I could see kids re-reading over and over.  It's a tough opening when Willow Chance, a "different" kind of kid, has her life literally upended in a single moment.  The path of the tale after that winds in lots of directions (hint:  seven is a major theme), some of them being what you might expect, others being nothing like what you would expect.  Ms. Sloan gets major props here for writing a really layered story, building in metaphor and symbolism not so much with a heavy hand but the delicate strokes of an artist.  She doesn't let anything go and she doesn't shy away from the many sides to, well, everything and everyone.  She creates a rich, real tapestry of complex, human characters, including Willow herself.  Much like Fleischman's "Seedfolks" this is a tale of how our interconnectedness as people is both spiritual and undefinable.  I laughed, I cried, I couldn't put it down.  Absolutely one of the best I have read this year.  Brava.  Grab the hankies and get ready for a book which will not leave you even after you finish the last page.

"Wolf Hollow" by Lauren Wolk

This award winner seems to have more detractors than fans, so I was curious.  After reading a book which starts off as "Calpurnia Tate meets Nancy Drew" I get it.  Set in western Pennsylvania in the early 1940s, the novel starts off like a simple historical fiction tale.  But then it kind of takes an odd turn.  And then another.  ***SPOILER ALERT***  First, we are introduced to a homeless vet who wanders in the area.  Our heroine, Annabelle, describes him, well, not as 12 year-old might, including one section where she speaks of his nice "smell".  Ummm.  Okay, and then we get a bully.  Except it isn't exactly a bully, but a 14 year-old sociopath in the making.  Things go dark from there.  Very dark.  All of this tried me in reading this book but the over-arching issue was that the clear goal of the author to MAKE A POINT actually didn't happen.  The novel begins with the protagonist stating that this was the year she learned to lie.  But she doesn't.  The actual story is of her trying to keep lies and not keeping them at all.  The author's afterword talks about how she admires her hero's bravery, but I'm not sure there was any significant character growth.  Annabelle seems fairly unchanged from the beginning of this journey to the end.  In the end, if there was meaning in her sitting next to a grave talking to the air, I missed it.  This, and general sloppiness (am I to believe this community in the foothills of the Appalachia mountains has moderate temperatures and gets no snow in November/December?) made this one a "fail" for me.  The only possible plus was the cover, which cleverly used the actual opening words to create a powerful image.  I can only imagine well-meaning adults selected this title for a Newbery Honor and other awards because the theme of bullying is so prevalent right now.  Unfortunately, I have never been one who felt like books with a heavy moral lesson worked for me.  For this same reason, I disliked "Fish in a Tree".  Books of this type seem to appeal to grown-ups seeking to solve problems more than readers looking for something engaging and realistic.  Sorry, folks, I'll pass.

"Egg & Spoon" by Gregory Maguire

Once upon a time, I thought the trippiest YA novel I had ever read was Libba Bray's "Going Bovine".  That book has just lost the crown to this one.  Drawing on Russian history, Russian myth, and a fair number of archetypes, this wild adventure/allegory roars through a moment at the end of the Tsars' reign to tell a story which seems appropriate to children and yet is inexplicably dense.  Maguire weaves in so many threads I often had to pause and backtrack.  His prose is so dense I had to look up quite a number of words (me! that's rare) An omniscient narrative voice reminiscent of the ones in Zusak's "Book Thief" and DiCamillo's "The Tale of Despereaux" paints a vibrant picture of a dying nation, even as three children come together to put magic back into the world.  There are other literary parallels.  Peasant girl Elena and noblewoman Ekaterina have a Mark Twain moment while a prince hides -- not to find his princess but to escape from her.  There are themes about monarchies, communism, belief, hope and global warming.  There is a firebird, a dragon, and, of course, Baba Yaga!  One could not have a tale of Russia without Baba Yaga.  Here is where I had my one and only complaint.  The crotchety old witch is a personal favorite but this particular rendition of the character makes her into a time-traveler of sorts.  She rambles on constantly, using phrases and references of the modern era (at one point, she serves a child some Cheerios).  I think it was meant as humor but became a distraction which pulled me out of the narrative.  Nonetheless, this is a rich, remarkable story which satisfied and transported me.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

"Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom" by Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke

For one of "these kinds" of books, this is quite good.  Succinct, to-the-point, and free of eduspeak jargon, the book is written by two teachers who use their classroom examples to get right to the heart of things.  Rather than theory, this is practical.  They talk about a lesson they did, how it worked with their students, and then provide sample worksheets and questions.  Each chapter ends with a terrific "Things to try tomorrow" section.  The six chapters run about 20 pages each, making the book easy to read in short bursts.  Highly applicable, the messages are common-sense.  Message #1 -- You can dip your toe in.  You don't need to go whole hog and up-end your classroom.  Just take one thing that looks interesting and give it a try.  Message #2 resonates throughout every page of the book -- Technology is useless if not grounded in solid classroom instruction.  In many ways, this is a book about good classroom practices more than it is a book about technology use, as many of the lessons "use" tech, but aren't "about" tech.  An added bonus to this brief little tome are QR codes throughout, which link to videos of the actual lessons and practices taking place.  This is the kind of professional reading I like, something you can "apply" rather than "discuss".