Friday, November 29, 2013

Shark Girl and Formerly Shark Girl - audiobook reviews

My reviews of Shark Girl and Formerly Shark Girl, as they appeared in the November, 2013 issue of School Library Journal.

Shark Girl. By Kelly Bingham. 3 CDs 3:06 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2013. ISBN 9781469274997. $54.97.

Gr 6–10— In her hometown of Santa Clarita, California, 15-year-old Jane Arrowood's life changes in just a few moments when a shark attacks her. Near death, she's rescued by her older brother and spends months in the hospital—first in a coma and then undergoing painful operations and therapy to deal with the amputation of her drawing arm. Peppered with letters, text messages, and newspaper clippings, this first person account offers themes of fate and rebirth as Jane, a talented artist, strives toward recovery and self discovery. The callous nature of social media is a subtext, as the shark attack was filmed by a beachgoer and went viral on the Internet and in newscasts. A young amputee helps Jane as she battles doubts and depression. Listeners will not likely recognize that this is a novel in verse because Kate Reinders's reading does not reflect the poetic structure of the text; instead, it comes across as a stream of consciousness. Reinders's vocal dynamics guide listeners easily in the frequent transition between spoken word and thought. Though it has obvious similarities to Bethany Hamilton's nonfiction memoir, Soul Surfer (Paw Prints, 2008), Bringham's novel (Candlewick, 2007) is bursting with raw emotion and is a powerful story in its own right. Short and affecting, this would be a great choice for a book discussion group.

Formerly Shark Girl. By Kelly Bingham. 5 CDs. 5:06 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2013. ISBN 9781468274911. $54.97.

Gr 6–10— It's been a year since the shark attack that cost Jane Arrowood her right arm. Now, as she returns to school with her new prosthesis, she adds the more mundane problems of a high school senior to her recovery regimen. While suffering frequent and debilitating nerve pain, she must find a date for the prom, boost her grades, and struggle with the fact that her mother may be secretly dating. Her biggest dilemma is choosing a school. She had always planned to go to art school, but her drawing hand was lost in the shark attack, and her artistic endeavors with her left hand have not measured up. The alternative is to enroll in nursing school to learn a profession for which she has a great deal of admiration since her accident. A new boyfriend adds another wrinkle to an increasingly complicated life, as does the possibility of another surgery. Like Shark Girl (2007), this sequel (2013, both Candlewick) is told in present tense verse, though listeners will not likely notice the pattern of poetry. Instead, they will hear the poems as very short, titled chapters. Kate Reinders turns in an excellent characterization of Jane, using inflection to highlight the difference between Jane's utterances and her frequent unspoken thoughts. Her youthful voice is well-suited for the part. Listeners who made a connection with Jane in Shark Girl will enjoy the sequel, but it lacks the raw simplicity and emotional punch of the first book.


Copyright © 2013 Library Journals, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Invisible Boy - a review

Ludwig, Trudy. 2013. The Invisible Boy. New York: Knopf.
Illustrated by Patrice Barton.

With an opening that will break your heart, The Invisible Boy chronicles the school days of a quiet, lonely, artistic boy who creates his friends with paper and pencil.

Can you see Brian, the invisible boy?  Even Mrs. Carlotti has trouble noticing him in her classroom.  She's too busy dealing with Nathan and Sophie. Nathan has problems with what Mrs. Carlotti calls "volume control."  He uses his outside voice inside too much.  Sophie whines and complains when she doesn't get her way.

Nathan and Sophie take up a lot of space.  Brian doesn't.

To illustrate the above, a page bursts with brightly colored pencil sketches of Sophie and Nathan. Sophie - crying, back of hand to head, the other arm outstretched for dramatic effect. Nathan - arms raised to the sky, jubilantly shouting and joyful.  The facing page has a small, black and white sketch on notebook paper of Brian - bespectacled, hands behind his back, eyebrows raised timidly, eyes taking a sideways glance at the drama on the opposite page.  He's darling and he's cute, and his situation is heartbreakingly familiar.

Brian makes a shy attempt to befriend Justin, a new student, and it begins to look as if he's finally found a friend. When the popular kids try to make Justin choose between Brian and the rest, Justin reaches out his hand to touch Brian's shoulder to include him in the group.  As he does, the invisible boy is infused with color emanating from the touch of his new friend. He is invisible no more.

This is a wonderfully illustrated story about loneliness, and the small amount of kindness and compassion that it takes to combat it.  It is however, a shame that it takes the introduction of a new student to remedy Brian's misery.  Before sharing this one with a class, teachers would be wise to prepare suggestions for kindness and inclusion that will work within their own classroom settings.

The Invisible Boy wraps up with Questions for Discussion, Recommended Reading for Adults and Recommended Reading for Kids.

Note: Patricia Barton is also the illustrator of another favorite of mine, Mine!  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Girl Who Soared over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two - a review

Valente, Catherynne M. 2013. The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. New York: Feiwel and Friends.

In this third book in a planned five book series, September returns to Fairyland and is reunited with her two dearest friends, the Wyverary, A-L, and the Marid, Saturday.  She is older now, and perhaps wiser (perhaps not).  Either way, she maintains her same indomitable spirit. Though she has brought her hard-earned treasure to pay her way, her worth must be weighed instead, and so she steps up onto the brass plates of the till in Mercator, and her value is announced,

     "You have been accepted into the Treasury as a Contracted Villain with all the rights, privileges, and dashing uniforms due.  Please take your receipt."
     The tray of the register opened with a loud chime.  September had to stand on her tiptoes to see over the edge.  Inside was a long scroll with her name written in little calligraphy and Charles Crunchcrab [the King] writing in large calligraphy. Underneath, several words glowed with scarlet finality:
Royal Scofflaw,

professional revolutionary,

and criminal of the realm.

     A goodly number of illuminated ravens and rats and wolves and raccoons danced in gold and silver ink in the margins.  Beneath her writ lay a suit of black silks, trousers and shirt and scarf and shoes that had never dreamed of squeaking, the very best any Criminal could ask for.
If her journey into Fairyland requires her to be a criminal and travel to the moon in an old jalopy named Aroostook, so be it. September will accept  her status and her mission: deliver a box to the Whelk of the Moon.

That Cat Valente is a deep thinker on many subjects (love, loss and worth, to name a few) is apparent in this rich and complex series, filled with artful prose and magic of the most capricious sort.  It is hard not to stop and ponder as the denizens of Fairyland spout deeply held opinions on such topics as


     "All money is imaginary," answered the Calcatrix simply.  "Money is magic everyone agrees to pretend is not magic.  Observe! You treat it like magic, wield it like magic, fear it like magic!  Why should a body with more small circles of copper or silver or gold than anyone else have an easy life full of treats every day and sleeping in and other people bowing down?  The little circles can't get up and fight a battle or make a supper so splendid you get full just by looking at it or build a house of a thousand gables.  They can do those things because everyone agrees to give them power.  If everyone agreed to stop giving power to pretty metals and starred giving it to thumbnails or mushroom caps or roof shingles or first kisses or tears or hours or puffin feathers, those little circles would just lay there tarnishing in the rain and not making anyone bow their noses down to the ground or stick them up in the air. Right now, for example, as much as I admire your collection, your coins aren't coins. They're junk."
and marriage,

"Marriage is a wrestling match where you hold on tight while your mate changes into a hundred different things.  The trick is that you're changing into a hundred other things, but you can't let go.  You can only try to match up and never turn into a wolf while he's a rabbit, or a mouse while he's still busy being an owl, a brawny black bull while he's a little blue crab scuttling for shelter.  It's harder than it sounds."
The Fairyland series is for dreamers and thinkers, and lovers and revolutionaries.  There is no room for timidity in Fairyland.  Go forth boldly and revel there.

Advance Reader Copy supplied by publisher at my request.

Links to my reviews of

Monday, November 18, 2013

Electrical Wizard - a review

Rusch, Elizabeth. 2013. Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.  Ill. by Oliver Dominguez.

While Thomas Edison was busy lighting up big American cities with his new invention, Nikola Tesla was pondering the current that made it possible.  While watching a college professor demonstrate a new electrical machine,
Inspiration flashed.
Nikola realized that the motor didn't need to be run by direct current.  Alternating current, like the kind created by the hand crank, could power the motor. Sticking with alternating current would be simpler than converting to direct current -- and it would eliminate that awful sparking.
His professor scoffed, and when Nikola Tesla traveled to the United States to meet his hero, Thomas Edison scoffed, too.  Although he gave Tesla a job, Edison saw Tesla's alternating current (AC) idea as a direct competitor to the power grid he had already set up using direct current (DC).  The two men had a falling out and became rivals in the race to power the United States.

Despite Edison's attempts to discredit Tesla's AC, which Edison considered (or at least feigned to consider) more dangerous, it was Nikola Tesla's alternating current that became the standard for the US, due largely to its spectacular debut at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the culminating event of Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit up the World.

Tesla polyphase exhibit at 1893 worlds fair

Inside the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago
By Starks W. Lewis, Brooklyn, NY [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Oliver Dominguez' illustrations in graphite, acrylic, gouache and ink add a feeling of age and seriousness, and break up the lengthy small text.  Electrical Wizard is a great choice for those inventor reports assigned each year. (Teachers, please allow the picture books!)

Back matter includes:

  • "Ahead of his Time" - a look at another Tesla invention - wireless transmission
  • "Tesla vs. Edison: The Rivalry" - notes on the inventors' rivalry (see note)
  • "Scientific Notes" - detailed, illustrated notes on AC and DC electricity and explanations of events featured in the book
  • "Select Bibliography & Further Reading"
Though born in Serbia, Tesla eventually made New York his home, and it is home to the Tesla Science Center.

In Edison's defense, that he and/or his associates electrocuted an elephant with AC current is true (and in a rather gruesome footnote, he actually filmed the event), however, the elephant had killed three people and had already been condemned to die. Electrocution was considered a more humane method of death for animals than the alternatives of the time.  Edison is guilty of using this horrific circumstance in an attempt to gain commercial advantage over Tesla by using alternating current to execute the animal, thereby implying an inherent danger in AC. However, he is not guilty of killing the elephant or other animals without any cause or motive save his own financial gain, a point not necessarily made clear in Electrical Wizard.
  • 2003. "America's debt to Topsy." Economist 368, no. 8334: 33. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 16, 2013).
  • Pollard, JJ 2010, 'The eccentric engineer', Engineering & Technology (17509637), 5, 15, p. 80, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 November 2013.

Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra notwithstanding, Thomas Edison is one of New Jersey's most famous citizens. Though most know him for inventing the light bulb, he also invented most everything one would need to use a light bulb -  and most importantly, the system for delivering electricity to the lamp - in effect, the entire electrical system of his day.  He is also credited with inventing the phonograph and motion pictures. If you are in New Jersey, a trip to the National Park Service's Thomas Edison National Historic Park is an enlightening experience. (pun intended) ;)

Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is hosted at NC Teacher Stuff
where you can check out other reviews of nonfiction books for children and young adults.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Highway Rat - a review

As a very young girl, one of my favorite books was an old copy of The Fireside Book of Folk Songs. I loved songs with risk and daring.  I was especially fond of singing sea shanties, but my favorite song was "The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies, O!"  In my mind it was so exotic and exiting. If gypsies had come to my apartment with a wagon, I would have gone with them in a heartbeat!  My taste in poetry was similar, and one of my favorites was "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, first published in 1906.  A dramatic, narrative poem, "The Highwayman" is a tragic love story about a robber and a landlord's daughter.  Hardly a likely poem for an elementary school child, but I loved it.

That is why I was so excited when I saw the cover for The Highway Rat. I immediately knew that it was based on the Noyes poem.  I was ready to like it before I even opened the book, and I was not disappointed.

Donaldson, Julia.  2013. The Highway Rat. New York: Scholastic.

Illustrated by Axel Scheffler.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Using the same rhyme scheme as the classic poem, "The Highwayman" (AABCCB), Julia Donaldson has done a spectacular job of remaining true to the meter, rhyme and mood of the original, while writing for a much younger audience.

The Highway Rat was a baddie.
     The Highway Rat was a beast.
He took what he wanted and ate what he took.
     His life was one long feast.
His teeth were sharp and yellow,
     his manners were rough and rude,
And the Highway Rat went riding --
     Riding -- riding --
Riding along the highway
     and stealing the travelers' food.

Accompanied by Axel Scheffler's vibrantly colored paintings, the story is bursting with energy - the eyes of the frightened animals wide with fear, the skies dark and foreboding. Heavy black outlining adds mood and shadow. The clever, "plucky" duck, however, offers readers the security that all will be well in the end. Her knowing look belies her simplistic dress.  It is she who leads The Highway Rat to his comeuppance and frees the rest of the animals from the rat's nightly thieving. He may not come upon the tragic end that Noyes' highwayman did, but the rat's larcenous ways do bring him to a tragic end,

As the animals rejoice and share the rat's plunder,

A thinner and grayer and meeker Rat,
     he robs on the road no more,
For he landed a job in a cake shop --
     A cake shop -- a cake shop --
And they say he still works in the cake shop,
     sweeping the cake shop floor.

I love this one! Little listeners will a flair for the dramatic will love it, too!

Poetry Friday is a weekly roundup of poetry posts and may feature original poems, favorite poems,  poetry book reviews, or poetry-related commentary and news.  Today's roundup is at Jama's Alphabet Soup.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Odds, ends, and a request

I'm blogging over at the ALSC Blog today.  
If you want to chime in with the name of a new kids' book that you can't wait to read, join me there.

In other news, if you don't follow me on FB or Twitter, you may not know of a free book offer that should interest you.  For the first time ever, the National Book Foundation (bestower of the prestigious National Book Awards) is offering free e-book excerpts of all of the finalists for the National Book Award in all three categories: fiction, nonfiction, and young people's literature.  The excerpts have been released as a three book series titled: The Contenders, with a book for each category. This is a wonderful tool for familiarizing yourself with the books, getting a "flavor" of each finalist, preparing booktalks for kids, or deciding what to read next.  The free E-books are available in most formats. Full details may be found at

And finally, a personal and totally non-book-related request:

My daughter is currently in an internship at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston (to say that she's thrilled would be an understatement).  The intern and co-op students at JSC have a Twitter account and are trying to reach 3,000 followers.  If you're on Twitter, please go there now and follow @NASAJSCStudents.  They're all working very hard and would love to share their activities with you.  Spread the word. Thanks.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Great American Dust Bowl - a review

Brown, Don. 2013. The Great American Dust Bowl. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

In a slim (80-page), hardcover, graphic novel, Don Brown offers a compelling account of the causes, effects, and consequences of America's 19th century push into the Great Plains - first for ranching, then small farming enterprises, and finally, large-scale, motorized farming.  Years of drought combined with loss of prairie grassland that had sustained the American Indians and the wild buffalo herds, led to dust storms of epic proportions that lasted for a decade. Describing one storm, Brown writes,

On May 3, 1934, whirlwinds lifted 350 million tons of dirt from the Montana and the Dakotas' prairie, gathered them into gritty clouds that reached fifteen thousand feet, a height equal to twelve stacked Empire State Buildings. 
Enough dust to fill 1,500 modern supertankers blew East.
Dust fell like snow over Chicago.
Midday Manhattan darkened beneath a dusty gray haze. Cars switched on their headlights to see. The Statue of Liberty seemed to disappear. Everywhere, dust: streets, sidewalks, grass, even the water in New York Harbor.
Panels of varying sizes, including double-spread pages, are presented primarily in sepia tones, denoting both the time period and the ever-present dirt.  Facts are presented in text boxes or within panels, in easy-reading Tim Sale Brush font, and dialogue (documented in the Source Notes and Selected Bibliography) appears in word bubbles.  Illustrations are pen and ink with "digital paint.  The hard-luck farmers are simply sketched, but convey seriousness and gravity.  Smiles can only be found on the "rainmaker," a snake oil salesman who profited from the sale of useless items that promised to bring rain, and on the faces of a small family who rejoices outside as rain finally arrives to break the drought.

When the rain came, it meant life itself. It meant a future.

The Great American Dust Bowl may be read quickly, but will not soon leave your mind. My library has cataloged this one as a young adult title, but it's certainly suitable for middle grades as well.  I highly recommend it.
  • Title: Dust bowl farmer raising fence to keep it from being buried under drifting sand. Cimarron County, Oklahoma
  • Creator(s): Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, photographer
  • Date Created/Published: 1936 Apr.
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions. For information, see U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs(
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA
  • Title: Liberal (vicinity), Kan. Soil blown by dust bowl winds piled up in large drifts on a farm
  • Creator(s): Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, photographer
  • Date Created/Published: 1936 March.
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Other reviews @

Other outstanding books featuring the Dust Bowl Era:

Other Don Brown books reviewed by Shelf-employed:
Looking for more reviews of nonfiction books? 
Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Wrapped in Foil.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Short stories, short shrift, and free Kindle stories

In the world of reading, short stories get short shrift.  Perhaps it's because we don't have a shared body of popular, modern works that we can discuss with friends and family, or because there are few mainstream published collections, or because the only time we've read them was in school when we were forced to analyze them to death.Whatever the reason, I wish they were more popular, especially for young people and reluctant readers.

Recently, there have been two great efforts to get short stories into the hands of kids.
  1. Jon Scieszka's Guys Read, are themed collections of short stories.  Vol. 1, Funny Business, Vol. 2, Thriller, and Vol. 3, Sports.  Stories are written by such heavy hitters as Christopher Paul Curtis, Kate DiCamillo, Adam Rex, and Jack Gantos, just to name a few. 
  2. Kazu Kibuishi's Explorer series does for the graphic novel, what Scieszka's collections do for boy-themed stories. Vol. 1, The Mystery Boxes, and Vol. 2, The Lost Islands . Here, the premise is slightly different.  The stories aren't within a certain genre, rather they  feature a certain item - a mysterious box in Vol. 1, and a mysterious island in Vol. 2. These also feature big name artists, e.g., Jake Parker, Dave Roman, and Raina Telgemeier. (My book club kids want to Skype with Raina Telgemeier ... just throwing that out there')  
For a YA audience, my favorite collection of short stories is Kathi Appelt's, Kissing Tennessee: And Other Stories from the Stardust Dance.

Laura Sullivan
©Laura Sullivan
So, why am I going on about short stories today?  Because, in addition to writing middle-grade fantasy and young adult historical fiction, author Laura Sullivan (Under the Green Hill, Guardian of the Green Hill, Ladies in Waiting, Delusion), is also a master of the short story. 

While all of her stories are available for sale, she is making them available for free in Kindle e-book format for a limited time.  Below is a list of all the available stories.  

Two are written for young audiences  "Snake Plant" is a creepy tale (think "Little Shop of Horrors" creepy) and will appeal to every child who finds his mother overbearing (isn't that all of them?) and "Clever Elody" is a feel-good fairytale about brains, love, and perseverance. 

"Snake Plant"
In the children's horror story Snake Plant, a young boy longs for a pet – any pet – but has to make due with an exotic vine that helps him battle his controlling mother.

"Clever Elody"
 The romantic children's story Clever Elody features a poetic prince, and the poor girl who teaches him how to turn one borrowed chicken into perfect bliss.
 Mark your calendar and take advantage of these free short stories as they become available - or spring for a few dollars and buy them whenever you the mood strikes you.
Thanks, Laura! :)

Lana Halliday is a comedy for adults about a consummate meddler who saves her friend from a gold-digger.
(Note: I read this story as well.  It's a great yarn that, while modern, harkens back to classic stories of simpler times.)
Larval is an adult science fiction story about a dissolute young man who finds out that humans are only a larval stage of a vastly powerful organism.
In A Man of Kiri Maru, a scientist visiting an exotic island falls in love and must undergo a ritual involving the dangerous, man-sized Humboldt squid.
An Ideal Household Appliance is an adult science fiction story featuring an insect-loving genius obsessed with the woman next door.
In Louring Age, an independently-living ancient woman with a vivid past comes up with a scheme to fleece residents of a nursing home... and then finds herself trapped there, mistaken for someone with Alzheimer's.
The Butterfly Hunter is an adult horror story about a man who devotes his life to shooting butterflies.
An Artistic Temperament is a comedy about a sixteen year old girl on holiday who is traumatized (and liberated) when she meets a man pretending to be an artist who specializes in death scenes.

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 ...