Monday, June 30, 2008

City of Ember

Duprau, Jeanne. 2004. The City of Ember. New York: Random House.

GR 5-9. At age twelve, all inhabitants of the perpetually dark City of Ember receive their assignments. Doon Harrow, a grave and quiet youth, gladly trades his messenger job for ebullient Lina Mayfleet’s Pipeworks laborer assignment. Although older residents recall times of plenty, the city is now plagued by power outages, shortages and deprivation. Bent nails, broken china, even old can labels are saved for reuse. Stores offer pieces of string, scraps of wood, and shreds of clothing. Doon is convinced that he will find an answer to the city’s problems underground in the Pipeworks, where the generator is kept; but not everyone is willing to admit there is a problem, especially the mayor. As the city’s power source falters and light bulbs become scarce, Lina finds a mysterious message from the past. Together, Lina and Doon seek to discover the mystery and possibly the salvation of the City of Ember.
Reminiscent of Lowry’s The Giver with a darker edge, DuPrau’s tale of dystopian survival and friendship transcends genres, mixing science fiction, mystery, and suspense while posing a question even deeper than the Pipeworks – in matters of life and death, which, if any, innately human protocols may be abandoned? In The City of Ember, Doon and Lina must choose. The palpable fear of utter darkness and the “unknown regions” add urgency to their mission. The behavior and dialogue of Doon and Lina and the other Ember inhabitants is believable and relevant to today’s youth. The action is swift and suspenseful; and readers will enjoy deciphering the cryptic message that may hold the key to the City of Ember’s future. The only disappointment in this debut novel is the cliffhanger ending. Readers may be left wishing for a more satisfying conclusion.

The movis is due out in November. I'm looking forward to it, but can't believe that the trailer gives away a key element of the novel! Read the book first!

The Great Fire

Murphy, Jim. 1995. The great fire. New York: Scholastic.


You may have heard the story of how Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the great Chicago fire of 1871, but did you know that no one really knows what started the fire? The fire was first spotted by a friend of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. “Peg Leg” Sullivan stopped to rest on a wooden sidewalk after he stopped to visit the O’Leary’s and found that the they had already retired for the night. “Peg Leg” was nearly the first casualty of the night. When the fire broke out, he rushed to the barn to save the O’Leary’s livestock. Ironically, when his wooden leg became stuck in the floor boards, it was the O’Leary’s calf that saved him. What followed was a series of truly unfortunate events that led to one of the greatest US disasters. Jim Murphy’s book details the horror of the thirty-one hour fire and its aftermath that left 100,000 people homeless. With temperatures up to 1500 degrees, the fire consumed 17,500 buildings and 73 miles of street. One survivor remembered,

All the mansions were being emptied with the greatest disorder and the greatest excitement. Nobody endeavored to stay the flames now. A mob of men and women, al screaming and shouting, ran about wildly, crossing each other’s paths, and intercepting each other as if deranged. We tried to force our way along the avenue, which was already littered with costly furniture, some of it burning in the streets under the falling sparks, but it was next to impossible…I saw a woman kneeling in the street with a crucifix help up before her and the skirt of her dress burning while she prayed. We had barely passed before a runaway truck dashed her to the ground.

Why didn’t someone pull the firebox? Why were the firefighters sent to the wrong street? Why didn’t the O’Leary’s house burn? What really happened that October night in 1871? Suspense, intrigue, history – the true story of The Great Fire has it all!

Boy Meets Boy

Levithan, David. 2003. Boy meets boy. New York: Knopf.


Imagine a town and a high school where everyone, and I mean everyone, fits in. Start with Paul who has known he was gay since his kindergarten teacher wrote on his report card, “Paul is definitely gay and has very good sense of self.” Paul’s best friends are the on again-off again couple, Joni and Ted; Kyle, the ex-boyfriend; the quiet and closeted Tony; and the unforgettable Infinite Darlene, who used to be Daryl, and now is the school’s star quarterback and the homecoming queen. The cast of characters is rounded out by loving families; Chuck, the not-so-star quarterback; teachers; the Club Kids, over-achievers spread “thinner than Saran Wrap;” a Harley Davidson-riding cheerleading squad; the French Cuisine Club; Rip, the school bookie; and the newly arrived Noah, an odds-maker’s dream.

Paul has lived in this town all his life.

As we cross back through the park we see more people, mostly regulars. The Old Queen sits at his bench, reminiscing about Broadway in the 1920s. Two benches away, the Young Punk shouts loudly about Sid and Nancy and the birth of revolt. They rarely find themselves without a willing audience, but when the foot traffic slows, the Old Queen and the Young Punk sit together and share memories of events that happened long before they were born.

I explain all this to Noah, and I love the wonder that shows in his eyes. We continue to tour through the town, and everything is new to him: the I Scream Parlor, which shows horror movies as you wait for your double dip; the elementary school playground, where I used to tell the jungle gym all my secrets; the Pink Floyd shrine in our locals barber’s backyard. I know people always talk about living in the middle of nowhere – there’s always another place (some city, some foreign country) they’d rather be. But it’s moments like this that I feel live I live in the middle of somewhere. My somewhere.

He loves his town, his school, his friends and his family, and you will too as the not-so-classic story of Boy Meets Boy works its way into your heart.

The Trap

Nixon, Joan Lowery. 2002. The Trap. New York: Dell Yearling.


In Joan Lowery Nixon’s, The Trap, it’s Julie Hollister who is looking forward to a miserable summer. Her Great Uncle Gabe has broken his ankle in a fall and Great Aunt Glenda needs help taking care of him. Julie’s family has decided that she is the one for the job. Her friends and teammates on the Santa Monica swim team will just have to make do without her this summer.
Aunt Glenda and Uncle Gabe live on a remote Texas ranch, Rancho del Oro; and as soon as Julie arrives, she realizes that things are not as tranquil as they appear. Uncle Gabe’s fall may not have been an accident, valuable items are disappearing, and now … well, now, there’s been a suspicious death. Julie is determined to find out what’s going on at Ranch del Oro, but the isolation of the ranch, the absolute darkness at night, and the peculiar occurrences have left her spooked.

I didn’t like being alone in the darkness, so I hurried to the kitchen door and reached for the handle. I tugged, expecting it to open, and was shocked when it didn’t budge. The door was locked.

I hadn’t locked it. I knew I hadn’t. It was the kind of knob with a center button you had to push in and turn. They were so easy for intruders to open with a credit card that everyone in Santa Monica had installed dead bolts for better protection. If I just had a credit card to push the lock back…but I didn’t.

Behind me, I heard the rustle of bushes. Whirling, I pressed my back against the door. Opposite me, at the edge of the clearing, I could sense movement. Shadowy movement I was barely able to make out. Whatever was there was well hidden by the dark night.

But I was out here with it.

Turning, I pounded on the door, yelling in panic, “Aunt Glenda! Help me! Let me in!”

You won’t want to put this mystery thriller down until you figure out The Trap.

Gregor the Overlander

Collins, Suzanne. 2003. Gregor the Overlander. New York: Scholastic.


Gregor’s dad disappeared two years ago, and his life has never been the same. In the summer, it’s the worst. His mom works. His sister Lizzie is allowed to attend summer camp. But 11-year-old Gregor, the man of the house, must spend the long, hot summer at home – looking after his baby sister Margaret, better known as Boots. Worse yet, he’s got laundry to do.

As he hurried across the laundry room, Gregor heard a metallic klunk and then a giggle from Boots. “Great, now she’s dismantling the dryer,” thought Gregor, picking up speed. As he reached the far wall, a strange scene confronted him.

The metal grate to an old air duct was wide open, secured by two rusty hinges at the top. Boss was squinting into the opening, about two feet by two feet, which led into the wall of the building. From where he stood, Gregor could see nothing but blackness. Then a wisp of … what was it? Steam? Smoke? It didn’t really look lie either. Some strange vapor drifted out of the hole and curled around Boots. She held out her arms curiously and leaned forward.

“No!” yelled Gregor as he lunged for her, but Boot’s tiny frame seemed to be sucked into the air duct. Without thinking, Gregor thrust his head and shoulders into the hole. The metal grate smacked into his back. The next thing he knew, he was falling down, down, down into empty space.

So begins the epic journey of Gregor, a poor 11-year old boy from New York City, and his baby sister, Boots. They hurtle through the mysterious portal and arrive in the Underland, where they are received as the “princess”, and Gregor the Overlander, warrior of prophecy. In a world inhabited by pale humans with violet eyes and translucent skin; murderous rats of man-sized proportions; and cockroaches, bats, and spiders of gargantuan size, who can Gregor trust? Their only way back to the Overland is to fulfill the ancient prophesy, a strange quest with an uncertain outcome. With his baby sister in tow, Gregor sets off to find his destiny in Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The 39 Clues

I am reading all of the buzz about Scholastic's upcoming book series, website, trading cards, interactive site, and movie - The 39 Clues. With top writers like Rick Riordan and Gordon Korman lined up to write the series, and Steven Spielberg interested in the movie, The 39 Clues appears to be a huge undertaking. The series will focus on the fictional Cahill family and its links to important events in history throughout the ages. The story, set to unfold in books as well as online, debuts in September. Stay tuned!

New York Times article

The 39 Clues homepage

The 39 Clues introductory video

Friday, June 27, 2008

Acting Out

Chanda, Justin (Ed.) 2008. Acting Out. New York: Atheneum.

Acting Out is a compilation of six plays by noted children’s authors, Avi, Susan Cooper, Sharon Creech, Patricia MacLachlan, Katherine Paterson, and Richard Peck. Besides being written by talented authors, the plays have something else in common. Using a technique used in improvisational acting, editor Justin Chanda asked each author to submit a word that must be used in each play. The resulting words, hoodwink, dollop, raven, knuckleball, panhandle, and Justin appear in every play. Part of the fun is noting how the author works in the unusual additions.

Note how “raven” appears in Richard Peck’s play, “Effigy in the Outhouse,” which takes place in the year 1910. One of his characters, Edna, the eldest and bossiest student in the one-room school house, yells out, “Stop all your rantin’ and raven. I declare, you’re all like hogs turned into an orchard.”

The plays are varied in style and content. The plays are mysterious, life-like, whimsical, environmental, historical, and more. Although Richard Peck’s humorous look at children in a one-room schoolhouse is my favorite, Sharon Creech’s spoof on the publishing industry is a hoot as well! A young Edgar Allen Poe, is trying to seal a deal with a modern day publisher,

TRISH: Ah yes, strategies, et cetera. The two-word title is OUT. Out, out, out!
POE: Out?
TRISH: Quite, Out. Your use of “The” is fine, mind you. Absolutely terrific! But we need “The something-something.” You follow? … “The Raven Code,” perhaps? “The Raven KNUCKLEBALL”? Or better yet. “Something-something and the something-something.” Let’s say “Polly Raven and the Silver Chalice, “ mm?

This book is perfect for older reader’s theater groups or school groups. A note of caution, though – although its title is Acting Out, any group wishing to perform these plays, must obtain written permission from the publishers. Performance rights will, however, be granted without charge to non-profit groups.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Happy Hocky Family moves to the Country!

Smith, Lane. 2003. The happy Hocky family moves to the country! New York: Viking.

This is an older title, but one that I just discovered. This is a hilarious story comparing city life to country life as the Happy Hocky family learns to adjust to their new home in the country. The deadpan delivery of jokes, combined with the delightfully simple illustrations is a perfect mix.

(Country Math)
A. Here is the wild bunny.
B. Here is the wild bunny's big belly.
C. Here is where Mrs. Hocky's GARDEN used to be.

or my favorite

Baby's Caterpillar Story
I have a caterpillar. Do you have a caterpillar?
I have a caterpillar.
My caterpillar is fuzzy.
My caterpillar is ...
I have a jar.
Do you have a jar?
I have jar.

(You'll have to imagine the illustrations of the bald, diapered baby and his soon-to-be-empty jar!)

Too funny!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Riding with the Mail: The story of the Pony Express

Thompson, Gare. 2007. Riding with the mail: The story of the Pony Express.

This book is part of the National Geographic History Chapters series, and is an excellent short introduction to the inspiration, inception, mechanics, and ultimate demise of the famous, yet short-lived Pony Express.

The short chapters and larger print make this an easy read for younger students, grades 3-6. Small "Did You Know?" textboxes add interesting facts. "The letters that the Pony Express riders carried were written on lightweight paper. The letters were wrapped in oiled silk cloth to protect the paper from being damaged in bad weather."

Captioned illustrations include period photos, advertisements and art.
A Report Guide, Glossary, Further Reading, and Index complete this non-fiction book for young readers.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Father's Dragon

Gannett, Ruth Stiles. 1986. (1948). My father's dragon. New York: Random House.

I read this book on a recommendation from a coworker who remembers it fondly from her childhood. First published in 1948, this Newbery Honor book is still in print. My Father’s Dragon is told by Elmer Elevator’s offspring, and is the story of Elmer’s daring trip to Wild Island to rescue a dragon. Encouraged to make the journey by a kindly alley cat, Elmer sets of on his adventure with a knapsack full of provisions,

“ chewing gum, two dozen pink lollipops, a package of rubber bands, black rubber boots, a compass, a toothbrush and a tube of tooth paste, six magnifying glasses, a very sharp jackknife, a comb and a hairbrush, seven hair ribbons of different colors, an empty grain bag with a label saying “Cranberry,” some clean clothes, and enough food to last” while on the ship - “twenty-five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and six apples.”

Needless to say, each of these items becomes necessary to his quest. Using resourcefulness and ingenuity, Elmer outwits the inhabitants of Wild Island. A rousing and timeless adventure story!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bird Lake Moon

Henkes, Kevin. 2008. Bird Lake Moon. New York: Harper Collins.

Bird Lake Moon starts off with an eerie feel. Mitch’s parents are getting divorced. He and his mother are planning to spend the summer with his grandparents at their home on Bird Lake. Spencer’s family is planning to spend some time at Bird Lake too. Both boys’ families are touched with sadness and a hint of mystery. There are secrets in these placid lakeside cottages, “a shiver went through Spencer and wouldn’t go away, as if a ribbon of ice had been tied to his spine.” Spencer and Mitch must come to terms with what is real and what is not. This is complicated by the story’s tagline, “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” Ultimately this is a tale of two boys, of friendship, of growing up, of moving on.

Bird Lake Moon’s chapters alternate between views of Mitch and Spencer. The families, particularly Spencer’s younger sister, Lolly, are well-developed and believable. This is a thoughtfully written novel with an element of mystery that makes it a real page-turner.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Buster Goes to Cowboy Camp

Fleming, Denise. 2008. Buster goes to cowboy camp. New York: Henry Holt.

A cute picture book for anyone who has ever had to leave a pet at the kennel or go away to camp. Buster, a pointy-nosed red dog (craftily illustrated in "pulp painting"), must go away to Sagebrush Kennels because "Brown Shoes was going away for a weekend of rest and relation." Betty, the cat, "was staying with Mrs. Pink Slippers next door. Mrs. Pink Slippers loved cats. Mrs. Pink Slippers did not feel the same way about dogs."

The story is cleverly told from sad-eyed Buster's view - humans are nothing but shoes and pants, Red Boots runs the Cowboy Camp. Other dogs are bigger, faster, or more skilled. Buster is homesick; but of course, not for long!

A uniquely written and illustrated story - full of "cowpoke" words.

Love That Dog

Creech, Sharon. 2001. Love that dog. New York: Harper Collins.

I recently finished reading this book with a discussion group whose members vary in age from young teen to young adult. The book went over fairly well and all members seemed to enjoy it, as we alternated between reading aloud, reading at home, and listening to the audio version.

Love That Dog tells the story of a young boy coping with the death of his dog, Sky. The story is written in the form of a school journal in which the protagonist, Jack, writes notes or assignments for his teacher, Mrs. Stretchberry. Mrs. Stretchberry is teaching poetry. Over a period of months, Jack learns to cope with the death of his dog and becomes more confident and self-assured in his own writing ability through a series of writing exercises. The book introduces the reader to famous poets and poetry, notably Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams. Much of the book is also centered around poet and author, Walter Dean Myers, who visits Jack's school.

Several of the group members professed a liking for the audio version, read by Scott Wolf.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Day the World Exploded

Zimmerman, Dwight Jon. 2008. The day the world exploded: The earthshaking catastrophe at Krakatoa. New York: Collins.

The Day the World Exploded is an adaptation for children of Simon Winchester’s, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. Although adapted for children, it is definitely for older kids, or children fascinated with the topic. The topic, surprisingly, is much broader than one would think. Trained as a reporter, Winchester pulls together all of the pieces that led to the literally earthshaking explosion that was heard over 3,000 miles away! More than just the story of the earthquake, Winchester places the story in its historical, political, scientific, and geographic proportion. The reader truly absorbs the impact of the explosion and resulting tsunamis when confronted by the science of the day (plate tectonics was a science in its infancy at the time of the eruption), the politics of colonialism (the Dutch East Indies Company was the world’s economic powerhouse at the time), the famous inventors integral to the story (Samuel Morse’s telegraph was invented and underground cables installed just in time to make Krakatoa’s eruption the first truly global event), and the enormity of the catastrophe (months after the explosion, New York fire fighters rushed to what they thought was a massive fire, only to find a blood red sky caused by volcanic ash that had drifted westward).

Extensive illustrations of all types accompany the story, period photos, recent photos of other volcanic activity, period etchings, graphic illustrations, maps and more. “News Briefs” are in the sidebar of many pages, “The crew of the British ship Bay of Naples claimed that when the ship was 120 miles from Java it encountered carcasses of numerous animals, including tigers, and about 150 human corpses as well as enormous tree trunks.” More lighthearted information is included also, including the story of a circus elephant that spent the night of the eruption in a posh Javanese hotel.

A beautiful book for historians and aficionados of natural disasters. The explosion of Krakatoa was truly the world’s first global natural disaster, highlighting the integral nature of nature.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

No More Dead Dogs

Korman, Gordon. 2000. No more dead dogs. New York: Hyperion.


Why does the dog always die in the end?

Wallace Wallace is tired of reading books that end with a dead dog. When his assignment is to write a positive review of Old Shep, My Pal, the honest Wallace Wallace just can't write it. So instead of working out with the football team, he finds himself assigned to after school detention in the gym with Mr. Fogelman, the drama club director, where the club is rehearsing for the new school play, "Old Shep, My Pal." Stubborn Wallace Wallace is determined to resist writing the review no matter how many detentions it takes. He stands his ground, but a change comes over him. Can he actually be starting to care about the drama club nerds and their stupid play?

There's nothing in the script to tell him what to do when the football team turns against him and the play is sabotaged. Drama Club president, Rachel Turner, is sure that Wallace is the saboteur. Will Wallace's famous honesty be his undoing? And what about Shep? Does the dog always die in the end?

Read No More Dead Dogs and find out! Your teacher didn't assign this book!

A perfect light book for summer reading. Enter Wallace Wallace -complete with a Cast of Characters, No More Dead Dog's chapters are written in the alternating voices of Wallace Wallace, Rachel Turner, Mr. Fogelman and other members of Wallace's school. Best for middle schoolers.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Americana Adventure

Garland, Michael. 2008. Americana adventure. New York: Dutton.

Americana Adventure calls itself "a puzzle," "a hide-and-seek game," "a cross-country trip," and yes, it is all these things. The story follows Tommy as he travels across the country following a series of rhyming post-it notes that refer him to his next destination, "Head north to New York. Liberty stands in the bay. See the Brooklyn Bridge and The Great White Way" - a sort of "National Treasure" adventure for the picture book set.

While the concept is an interesting one, there are a few problems with the presentation. First, using the rhyme posed above, when Tommy arrives in New York, the illustrations clearly show the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and Broadway, however, the story never explains or mentions these landmarks. The reader only learns that Tommy eats pizza at Original Ray's and is directed to travel on to Beantown.

Each double-spread illustration is full of famous or historical quotes, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," presidential nicknames, "Old Man Eloquent," hidden coins and camouflaged letters. These interesting asides, however, will likely mean very little to Americana Adventure's audience. The book arrived at the library cataloged as E non-fiction. It is too busy and disjointed for E readers, and too juvenile in appearance for J readers.

The best use of this book is a one-on-one reading with a child interested in American history. The book's concept is worthy of note, but its execution could be improved to make it more accessible to young readers.

Otto's Orange Day

Cammuso, Frank and Jay Lynch. 2008. Otto's Orange Day. New York: Raw Jr.

This book's aim is "bringing new readers to the pleasure of comics." It's similar in shape and format (small size, three short chapters) to an easy reader, although the words are more difficult, "Maybe if you were more specific..."

In Otto's Orange Day, Otto finds a magic lamp and asks its genie to make the world orange. As might be expected, an all-orange world is not all it's cracked up to be. Kids may be attracted to this book for it's cover art - Otto, the cute orange cat and the big blue genie painting themselves into the last non-orange corner of the world. Overall, however, there are better, more engaging graphic novels available.

The House in the Night

Swanson, Susan Marie. 2008. The house in the night. Ill. by Beth Krommes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

This is a cumulative story in the vein of "This is the house that Jack built," or "There's a hole in the bottom of the sea." The difference is that this is a very simple, soothing story - less about participation and more about exploration, "On that bed waits a book. In that book flies a bird. In that bird breathes a song..." The text is simple and calming, one sentence or less on each page.

The double-spread illustrations are "scratchboard and watercolor." The only colors, however, are black, white, and a golden yellow. The yellow is used to illuminate light-giving sources in the night and to highlight small areas.

A perfect bedtime story, meant to be read slowly and savored.

Gorgonzola: A Very STINKYsaurus

Palatini, Margie. 2008. Gorgonzola: A very stinkysaurus. Ill. by Tim Bowers. New York: Katherine Tegen.

Margie Palatini is always funny. This is not my favorite of her books, but it's definitely funny, with the biggest laugh coming on the final page.

A good choice for teaching hygiene to preschoolers,

"Birdie handed over a large toothbrush...and stood back a safe distance. 'Okay,' she called out from a no-smell zone. Go to it!'... 'And don't forget to floss. You've got stuff stuck in there from the Mesozoic era.'...Gorgonzola gargled. 'What do you think? Minty, huh?'


Beneath the Waves - a review

As we read disturbing news accounts of dying manatees , environmental disasters caused by toxic waste, and ocean pollution on the scale of ...