Monday, November 5, 2012

2012 Reading List - Revisited

This school year has been a big one for me. I started work on my Master's Degree. I am in the Educational Leadership program at the University of Northern Iowa. I'm in the Principalship program. It is a 37 credit hour program that takes 2 full years to complete. 425 hours of internship are needed by the end of the two years and I am attempting to accomplish this while still teaching and raising two little rambunctious children!

Suffice it to say, my involvement over at Heavy Medal this year has been almost non-existent. I still read each post and all the comments and I long for the time and expertise to contribute. But I have found that my heart just isn't in it because my time has been allocated elsewhere this year. I've really enjoyed reading a lot of professional works, about teaching and leadership, and found that I have read far to little of this type of work over the last few years as a teacher. But I do miss spending time reading for enjoyment. For fun.

Back in March, I listed 18 titles I was excited to read this year. I feel like I haven't read anything, so I was a little pleased and surprised when I revisited this list and discovered that I had in fact read 7 of them. Not great, but not near as bad as I was expecting. I also have read a few titles from this year that I did not include on that list.

Here are my most recent readings, and a short blurb about what I thought . . .

I would compare Rebecca Stead's LIAR & SPY, to M. Night Shymalan's Unbreakable movie. Both Stead and M. Night had monster success with earlier or first works (WHEN YOU REACH ME, The Sixth Sense). Both Stead and M. Night captivated audiences with their twist endings. Both artists' follow-up works, were highly anticipated. I found both, to be quieter than their predecessors.

I felt like LIAR & SPY was Stead's arthouse flick. Her attempt at a quieter, more subtle work than what WHEN YOU REACH ME turned out to be. I'm not sure Stead would have ever expected WHEN YOU REACH ME to become the blockbuster it did, but it did nonetheless.

I do like Stead's characters and language, and boy can she write New York City, but my problem with LIAR & SPY was that nothing seems to happen. It just didn't pull me in the way WHEN YOU REACH ME did. Maybe it's unfair to compare the two. I'm not sure how the casual reader is going to be able to not do that though. There are so many similarities in the narrative, there's so much mystery to the story, that in the end, I felt more letdown than anything. I also think children will be bored by it. And my 5th graders, devour WHEN YOU REACH ME.

If there's a book I would like to champion for the Newbery Medal this year, despite my limited range of completed readings, it would be Jerry Spinelli's JAKE & LILY. I'm a Spinelli-geek. I love the guy. I have a sentimental connection to MANIAC MAGEE and it probably blurs his work to me. Leaves me biased.

I read early on in the Newbery season that WONDER was "the book" to read/beat. Period. I also read early on that WONDER was "the book" about bullying that kids should read. Period. I have to "wonder" (sorry for the bad pun), if whoever said that had read JAKE & LILY.

I didn't realize before reading it, that JAKE & LILY was about bullying. I didn't think it would cover that territory. When it did, I was blown away at the subtle change in direction of the narrative. I wondered if kids would catch on. So I read it out loud to my 5th graders. They were speechless.

The book starts out with Jake and Lily, two twins, alternating chapters and writing about their connection as twins and friends. Then Jake begins to change and wants to spend time with other friends and Lily has trouble accepting this. My 5th graders strongly disliked Lily during this stage. But Spinelli has a few tricks up his sleeve. And shortly after Jake decides to spend some time away from Lily, Spinelli yanks the tablecloth out from under the plates and silverware and the narrative takes an unexpected turn. Spinelli's language is fun and kid-friendly. The man may be getting up there in years, but he sure knows how to crawl inside the mind of a 12-year-old.

I strongly disagree with whoever said WONDER was the book to read about bullying this year. If your child only reads one book about bullying this year, make sure it's JAKE & LILY.

In an attempt at reading something outside my comfort zone this year, I purchased BOMB: THE RACE TO BUILD AND STEAL THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS WEAPON by Steve Sheinkin on my iPad, without knowing it was raking in the starred reviews from various children's literature magazines. To make Jonathan Hunt happy over at Heavy Medal, I just wanted to make sure I tackled a nonfiction title and this one sounded the most appealing.

Wow. If all nonfiction authors could write at such a breakneck pace, and weave such a taut story, I would read more of it. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. It reads like a Hollywood screenplay, and I could no doubt, imagine this as a psychological thriller someday playing on the big screen. I was totally sucked in to the narrative, and the most impressive feat, to me, is the number of different angles to this story. There were so many people involved in researching the bomb and building the bomb and then to add to it, the stealing of ideas . . . I devoured this book in mere days. It was fantastic.

If I was handing out grades for these titles, which is something I like to do, I'd give . . .




I've got a nice head start on the work I'll need to complete for my grad class in the next few weeks, so I'm really hoping for the time to read some more of these titles. My wife bought me IN A GLASS GRIMMLY for my birthday, and I can't let it sit on the kitchen table, untouched any longer.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Case of the Deadly Desperados

Shoot-'em-up Westerns are a rare thing in children's literature. It's one sub-genre of the historical fiction canon that I can say I haven't read a lot of. Truth be told, I haven't even encountered many. Lots of historical fiction novels for children are set within the same time period as Caroline Lawrence's THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS, but none in recent memory have taken the same path Lawrence has to tell her story. This book was a blast!

THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS begins with P.K. Pinkerton, our twelve-year old hero, hiding out in the bottom of a cave. His foster ma and pa have been scalped and murdered by none other than Whittlin' Walt and his 'pards. And worse yet, now they're after P.K. because he has in his possession a document that would make its bearer incredibly rich. Gunfights, clever disguises, Soiled Doves, and saloons ensue.

If this book was eligible for the Newbery, I would be championing it pretty hard this winter. But sadly, Caroline Lawrence does not reside in the US and apparently this novel was published in the UK before its rights were purchased and published here, early this 2012. Either way, I am making it my mission to insert this title into as many conversations as I possibly can.

Random Acquaintance #1: Hey Mr. H! Did you catch Clint Eastwood on the Republican National Convention the other night?

Mr. H: No I didn't. Have you read THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence though?

Random Acquaintance #2: Hey Mr. H! How did your fantasy football draft go?

Mr. H: Not bad. Have you read THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence?

Random Acquaintance #3: Hey Mr. H! How are the kiddos? 

Mr. H: The fam is doing well. Thanks for asking. By the way, have you read THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence?

Seriously. I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed this book. I am a father of two children now. My daughter is two and a half years old and my son is six months. My life consists of going to school, coming home to entertain them and make supper, wash dishes and pick up the house, put the kids to bed, and then maybe, just maybe, take a little bit of time to catch up on school work and lesson plans. Plus, I've started graduate school this year and am earning my masters in Educational Leadership. Suffice it to say, I don't have a lot of time to read for fun.

Taking part in the discussions on Heavy Medal during Newbery season is something I love to do. I can't possible read even half of the books people will be discussing in depth on that blog this year, but if I focus my efforts, I can tackle the big ones. Wasting time reading books that are ineligible, or not worthy of discussion, will frustrate me because I could have spent that time reading a favorite of bloggers over there. Even knowing that THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS is ineligible, doesn't bother me. Not in the least! I should be upset but I don't care. That's how much I liked this book!

I loved P.K.'s voice. It's reminiscent of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. I'm sure Asperger's syndrome is not something that was being diagnosed back in the Wild West. Which makes the intricacies of P.K.'s narrative so rich. It's obvious P.K. is autistic, but a name cannot be placed on it because it doesn't exist. P.K. refers to his difficulties showing and feeling emotion as his "thorn". He struggles socially because he has no emotional response to situations. His foster ma and pa were scalped right in front of him and he was as sober as could be!

Which makes Lawrence's twist ending, that much more clever. A twist ending you say? Sometimes knowing a twist ending is coming, ruins a reading experience. Not that case with this book. I promise you, there are two surprises in this book you will never see coming. I didn't anyway. And I can't remember the last time a book caught me the way this one did.

It's crude and it's violent. It's thrilling and surprising. It's the book I've enjoyed most this year. I can't wait to see where Lawrence takes P.K.

Final Grade: A

The False Prince

THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen was the first book I noticed this year, with any type of Newbery buzz. Newbery buzz, as children's literature fans are sure to know, can be a double edged sword. Peak too early, and you may find yourself doomed (OKAY FOR NOW). Swoop in at the last minute, and sometimes you're in better shape (MOON OVER MANIFEST). Suffice it to say, we're now in September and the current buzz surrounding this book, is almost non-existent.

Jonathan Hunt listed THE FALSE PRINCE on his 2013 Newbery Reading List back in January already, the same time I was able to get a paperback copy in my hands through a Scholastic Book Order. Oddly enough, Amazon doesn't list the publication date until April, but since I was hearing things back in January I felt lucky to get my hands in on the action early! Which I rarely ever get to.

THE FALSE PRINCE tells the story of Sage, an orphan thief who finds himself recruited ('kidnapped' might be a better word) along with three other orphan boys, by a powerful man named Conner. Conner plans to pit the boys against each other in hopes of disguising one of them as the long-lost (and believed to be dead), young prince of a discontent nation. With certain death awaiting those Conner doesn't find worthy, each boy is determined to win his approval. As Conner's true motive begins to reveal itself, an even bigger secret surfaces that alters everything!

A strange sense of deja-vu came over me while reading this book. About halfway through I felt as if I had read this book before. Then it hit me . . . I had! Back when it was called THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner. Once I realized this, reading this novel became an interesting experience. Because I began to see everything differently. In fact, I began to realize that Nielsen was more than likely going to end her novel exactly as Whalen Turner had, by pulling the rug out from under readers. I even guessed how . . . just like Megan Whalen Turner! By using an unreliable narrator.

Novels with unreliable narrators are a tricky thing. When done well, they can blow readers away. When done not-so-well, they can leave readers frustrated, confused, and angry. Books like this almost seem to invite criticism. To me, it's different if the narrator has amnesia or is suffering from denial or something like that. But when the narrator is a perfectly healthy individual who is purposely hiding something from the reader, only to reveal it at the very end when the story reaches its climax, I tend to feel as if the author was merely out to "trick" their readers. Personally, I feel like that is the case with this story.

I admit, Whalen Turner's novel could be very guilty of this as well, but she went on to write an extremely complex series of novels, each one exceeding the previous in terms of brilliance. So it's easier to forgive her for tricking her readers. Nielsen has planned a trilogy with this cast of characters so it may be unfair to judge her yet. But right now, I can't think of any other way to describe this novel than to say it's THE THIEF's younger, easier-to-read cousin.

It's not a bad book. The psychological intrigue was interesting. I liked the suspenseful way the kidnapped boys began to compete against each other, yet, befriend each other and rely on each other in the same way. In the end though, I just felt sorry for the other boys because I was able to see through the main character's secret early on and they weren't able to see that they were competing in an unfair competition.

I suppose, if a younger reader has not encountered THE THIEF, and enjoys middle-aged suspense and mystery, this would be a good read. However, if that child reader is smart, and loved the taut storytelling on display in THE THIEF, I'm afraid they are going to put this one down because it just doesn't stand up when compared.

Maybe comparing it isn't fair. But THE THIEF was just that good. I couldn't help it.

Final Grade: B

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The One and Only Ivan

What is it about children's books and animal cruelty? Have you ever noticed how many children's books have been written about dying animals? When I was in grade school, I hated books about animals. WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, CHARLOTTE'S WEB . . . I never understood why kids would want to read sad books about animals. Maybe it was because we were never animal people in my family. Pets were messy, a lot of work, and we were a sensitive bunch and I think deep down, just never wanted to get to know something so cute and cuddly that was going to die long before us.

I bring this up because I should have known what was coming in THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. I should have seen the sad looking animals on the front cover and stayed far away. I should have read the blurb on the jacket by none other than Kathi Appelt, author of THE UNDERNEATH for crying out loud, and put this book back on the shelf. But I had to give it a try . . . there's just something about distinguished literature for children and sad animals . . .

Ivan is a mighty gorilla, trapped in a small circus (that doubles as a shopping mall) with an aging elephant, a stray dog, and a new baby elephant. Ivan is quite the artist and people pay $25 for his artwork (which is usually just of a banana). When Ruby, a baby elephant joins the troupe and begins asking questions about their existence, Ivan finds himself promising her a better life, unaware of how he can provide one for her. Sad, sad animals ensue . . .

As I mentioned earlier, the back of this novel boasts a quote from Kathi Appelt, author of the brilliant THE UNDERNEATH, and I find it rather fitting because of all the children's novels I've read in recent years, the one that screams comparison the most, is THE UNDERNEATH. Everything in THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is so darn sad. Depressingly sad. When the details of Ivan's background are brought to light, I found myself needing to put the book down and take a break, just as I did with Appelt's novel at times.

Ivan narrates this book in a sort of verse-prose that is both simple and compelling at the same time. It's quite the feat by author Katherine Applegate. Ivan is an artist at heart and there's only so much art he can make inside the walls of his domain. The fact that he's an artist made it easier to stomach some of the beautiful language coming out of the mouth of this gorilla. But at times, I couldn't suspend my disbelief to the extreme because the figurative language was pretty for the sake of being pretty, and not something a gorilla, even this gorilla, would ever come up with. The wordiness of the verse took away from the poignancy of the story at times for me, oddly enough. Quite often, this style of writing is supposed to bring out the poignancy of stories.

If Applegate's novel were to come away with some Newbery hardware this winter, I can't say that I would be too surprised. However I can't believe that there isn't better written, more distinguished novels, out there for kids this year. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is a very good book, don't get me wrong. It's a very meaningful book, but it's a sappy sort of book that oozes Newbery . . . sad animals, dying animals, friendship and art, uplifting message (albeit, with an over the top, happy, somewhat cliched ending) . . . Maybe this is why I found myself not rooting for it in the end. Because it wouldn't surprise me if everyone else is.

Final Grade: B

Summer Hiatus?

I always have such big plans for the summer. Last year, I wanted to read 10 books. I read 2. This year, I wised up and set no such goal. Heck, if I read 2 books this summer I'll be thrilled. Well, I've done a little better than that in preparing for Newbery season and Heavy Medal discussions.

I try to choose books carefully. Of course, I want to read the Newbery frontrunners, but I also want to read books for me . . . books that I know will not be contenders but I enjoy, and books that could be dark horse contenders and need someone to champion them. I think I may have already found one of those . . .

I read my good pal Patrick Jennings' latest, INVASION OF THE DOGNAPPERS as the school year came to a close, as well as Jennifer Nielsen's THE FALSE PRINCE. I'll post official "reviews" soon, but I'll wet the appetite a bit by saying I liked one, and don't know what to think about the other.

Then I went on to read THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate. I am currently reading THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence and Sara Pennypacker's SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS is sitting on the nightstand waiting to be opened.

Books I want to read because they WILL be talked about this winter:

Books I want to read that will probably not be in contention for ALA awards, but I want to read them anyways:

Books I want to read that are not frontrunners, but look like my thing and may need a voice:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Boy Detectives, Origami Yoda, and ADHD

With Newbery season behind us, I've been having some fun with my reading choices. I'm not yet worried about cramming for discussions about age appropriateness and the underappreciation of nonfiction. Instead, I've been playing catch up with some authors that have escaped me in recent years.

First up, Sara Pennypacker. The spunky little Miss Clementine is a tad young for the students I teach, so suffice it to say, these books had slipped under my radar until recently. I have a few students each year, who can't get into books and are always looking for something to read independently. Usually they can't get into books because they are trying to get into books that are too difficult for them. And surprisingly, I don't have this problem with boys too often! It's my social butterflies, my girls.

Clementine will be a perfect fit for them. She's funny. She's insightful. She's endearing. The readability of the books is easy. The plots are simple and straightforward. Yet the voice that Sara Pennypacker has perfected is a brand of quality that is not always found in easier readers like these. Clementine's zany narrative is so deprived of focus and attention, that for many of my students that battle their own attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, it has to be reassuring to read this girl's thoughts.

The thing I loved the most about each of the three titles I read, is the way Clementine is deeply loved by her family and accepted by those in charge at her school. So often in books like this, I feel like the teacher gets the bum rap, mistreating the student and misreading the student's intentions. Most teachers I know, are patient people. We have to be. I couldn't help thinking while I read, that if Clementine was in my class, I would love her! Thankfully, Pennypacker understands this too. Her teacher understands her. Her principal understands her. Sure she has to own up to the trouble she causes, but they are caring and patient with her, just like most teachers I know, would be. The same cannot be said for other children's books that portray children with ADHD. So often the teacher is viewed as the villain. This was rather refreshing.

There are five Clementine books and I have only read three (CLEMENTINE; THE TALENTED CLEMENTINE; and CLEMENTINE AND THE FAMILY MEETING). A sixth one is also on the way, CLEMENTINE AND THE SPRING TRIP. Ms. Pennypacker has dipped her ink in the FLAT STANLEY series (four books) and has a stand alone title coming out this year that promises to be worth the read (SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS). She's an author I highly recommend. It's easy to see why her work has wide appeal.

Next up, an author whose work may not have the same wide appeal . . . Tom Angleberger. I read THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA last year and thoroughly enjoyed its unique approach to storytelling. Lots of boys gobbled it up too. Yet when I tried it as a read aloud with a mentor text writing lesson, it fell pretty flat. And this year, in my experience anyway, kids have grown bored with DARTH PAPER STRIKES BACK. It was widely read, no doubt. I just didn't see that same fevered excitement that I saw with ORIGAMI YODA. Boys read that book and recommended it to their friends. Then they reread it! With DARTH PAPER though, boys read it and say "Eh, that was okay, but I want to read THE HUNGER GAMES now!"

I tried HORTON HALFPOTT as a classroom read aloud too, and it just didn't work. Personally, I enjoyed it and it's English brand of humor, but not too many of my students did. The other thing I wondered about was Angleberger's chamilion-like departure of voice from his ORIGAMI YODA and DARTH PAPER books. The reason kids connected with them is because Angleberger was so effectively able to channel his inner 5th, 6th, or 7th grader and speak like real kids speak. HORTON HALFPOTT reads as if it was written by an entirely different author. It's wordy and descriptive and it's humor is very subjective. All humor is subjective in a way, but the humor present in this book, is just odd. I laughed out loud on a number of occasions, but my students were confused and found very little of it funny. By the time the book concluded, they could have cared less who stole the Lump. They just wanted to get on with the next Brixton Brothers book!

Which leads me to Mac Barnett . . . Having never read his first Brixton Brothers mystery, THE CASE OF THE CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY, I decided to use it as a mentor text in my writing class. I wanted to teach the students how to write mystery stories. This book was recommended to me and it was an immediate hit with my students. We had to go on and read the entire series.

Every book follows a similar pattern . . . boy detective Steve Brixton easily solves a case that has proved difficult to solve; Steve Brixton and his chum Dana get wrapped up in a bigger, seemingly unrelated case; Steve and Dana find themselves in many absurd, life-threatening adventures; Steve solves the bigger case which always ties back into the original, seemingly unrelated case. The second and third books also literally pick up right where the previous book left off. The best part about them, you never know where these books are going or just how crazy the adventure is going to get! Steve gets shot at by baddies, is kidnapped, is trapped in burning buildings, takes part in thrilling car chases, and falls out of second story windows on a regular basis. All the while providing a witty narrative that serves as a perfect How-To on how to write good old fashioned detective stories.

I had a lot of fun watching my students check out old Hardy Boys books from the library and see where author Mac Barnett's inspiration came from. I read the Hardy Boys growing up. I loved the Hardy Boys growing up. The Brixton Brothers tongue in cheek spoof on the Hardy Boys series was hilarious to me as an adult reader and when my students began investigating the Hardy Boys books, they saw the resemblance immediately. It was awesome!

Barnett has released three Brixton Brothers mysteries, each illustrated by none other than Adam Rex. THE CASE OF THE CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY kicks things off in thrilling fashion, while setting up the series perfectly. The second novel, THE GHOSTWRITER SECRET picks up right where the first novel left off and the reveal at the end, flips the entire series on its own head. A pretty daring move by Barnett to turn __________ into a baddie. The most recent, and third novel, IT HAPPENED ON A TRAIN, is the longest of the three and I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel like it. The beginning of the book tends to drag a little and a lot happens before anything actually happens! But, it picks up the speed and ends just as thrillingly as the preceding two.

I can't wait until the fourth, DANGER GOES BERSERK, is written and released. And I know my students agree.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Looking Forward to 2012

So I understand how silly this post seems, now that we're turning the page on March and almost heading into April, but I haven't yet begun my reading of "newly" published books, so I feel like I can still write about the books I'm looking forward to reading this year.

I'm going to list my Top 10, and start with number one to alleviate any sort of suspense, and then even round out with some honorable mentions. The books I am putting in my Top 10 are books that I am bound and determined to read at all costs this year. The books in honorable mention, I will get to if I can. So without further ado, the top 10 children's books, that I am most looking forward to in 2012 . . .

LIAR & SPY by Rebecca Stead. The Newbery Medal winning author of WHEN YOU REACH ME is back and I'm not sure I can wait until August to get my hands on her latest. The world has been waiting patiently to see how she would respond to the success of WHEN YOU REACH ME. At the end of summer, we shall find out. There's not another book I'm looking more forward to. Everything else on this list pales in comparison. LIAR & SPY is a book of two friends, attempting to spy on a mysterious older man living in their apartment building.

THE INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE: THE UNSEEN GUEST by Maryrose Wood. I love these books. They are a guilty pleasure of mine. They probably will not be discussed thoroughly on Heavy Medal come Newbery Season, but this third installment (which I believed to be the final, but am now not so sure), will be a book I will drop other books to read. They remind me of the beloved SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. I think I have an idea where the plot is heading now, after book 2, but I'm ready to be surprised. THE UNSEEN GUEST comes out next week, so I will not have to wait long to find out. 

IN A GLASS GRIMMLY by Adam Gidwitz. The man who brought us A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is back, and this time he's brought Jack and Jill along with him. The book's tagline promises more fractured fairy tales (maybe The Frog Prince, maybe Jack and the Beanstalk) and I couldn't be more excited. This book doesn't come out until late-September though. Ugh. If it's anything like A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, it will be a hit amongst myself and my students, and worth the wait. I love the fact that Gidwitz is a teacher too. Behind LIAR AND SPY, probably the book I'm looking forward to the most!

INVASION OF THE DOGNAPPERS by Patrick Jennings. My Pal Patrick . . . After meeting him last year I became an instant fan . . . According to the man himself, Mr. Jennings finished the final draft of his latest novel while sitting in one of my own personal favorite local coffee shops (Cup of Joe), while staying in Cedar Falls, IA as the featured author of our annual Cedar Valley's Youth Read event. I became an instant fan of Jennings upon meeting him and am excited for his newest book. Jennings has a real knack for understanding kids. He runs a kid's writing group out of his own home and learns a lot from them. My students thoroughly enjoyed his novels GUINEA DOG and LUCKY CAP. This comes out at the end of April. 

WONDER by R.J. Palacio. This book appears to have an early leg up in terms of Newbery buzz. It is about a boy with sever facial deformities, going to a public school for the first time. It was released already in February and has people comparing it to OKAY FOR NOW, which as some of you know, was my favorite novel of last year. That's a comparison worth getting excited over! Blogger Betsy Bird featured it in her Spring Predictions and traditionally, she usually gets at least one title right. This is a book I want to be ready to discuss on Heavy Medal in the Fall.

THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen. I've recently become hooked on Game of Thrones. Not the books. The television series. The medieval era has always been an interest of mine, and I've read comparisons of this book to Megan Whalen Turner's magnificent THE THIEF. THE FALSE PRINCE kicks off The Ascendance Trilogy . . . could this be the next big thing among some of Turner's avid fanbase? Or will it fail to live up to the bar Turner set so high? This book isn't officially published until April, but for some reason a paperback was offered in a Scholastic book order, so I snatched it up.

THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE by Christopher Paul Curtis. Another man that I have had the honor of meeting, thanks to Cedar Valley's Youth Read. Another man, kind enough to spend a week in our community, among our students, talking about his books and his craft. I met Christopher Paul Curtis fresh off his Newbery win for BUD, NOT BUDDY and the man was as genuine as they come. BUD, NOT BUDDY was fantastic and so was ELIJAH OF BUXTON so why wouldn't THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE be? Plus, for some reason, that striking cover is one of my favorites of the bunch. Miss Malone looks to come with an abundance of sass. I've already purchased this book and can't wait to read it.

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate. Another book receiving lots of early Newbery buzz. That buzz is perhaps the only reason it's on this list. I'm envisioning some discussions built around it on Heavy Medal and want to be prepared. Applegate's novel is written in verse and follows Ivan, an easy going gorilla, trapped behind glass, under the watchful eyes of humans, befriending an elephant and a dog. Applegate's novel promises to touch on deeper themes of friendship, courage, and hope in a kid-friendly way, in the vein of Emily Jenkins' TOYS series. This one was released already in January, yet I've failed to get my hands on it.

FAKE MUSTACHE by Tom Angleberger. I have recently been catching up on some reading that I feel I am far behind the world of children's literature on. Primarily the work of one Sara Pennypacker, Mac Barnett, and Tom Angleberger. I zipped through Pennypacker's CLEMENTINE series and loved them. I read Mac Barnett's BRIXTON BROTHERS series with my 5th grade students and we laughed hysterically. And I've caught up with Tom Angleberger's ORGAMI YODA, DARTH PAPER, and HORTON HALFPOTT books. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly stoked for his latest, FAKE MUSTACHE to come out on April Fool's Day.

JAKE & LILY by Jerry Spinelli. Speaking of guilty pleasures, Jerry Spinelli is another one of mine. I can't think of a book I've read of his, that I haven't enjoyed, and seen brilliance in. MANIAC MAGEE remains one of my all-time favorites and recent books like EGGS and SMILES TO GO are books I feel have been overlooked. It feels as if the children's literature world is bored of Mr. Spinelli. But I am not. JAKE & LILY is the story of two twins in the midst of a falling-out of sorts. Spinelli is always emotional and always effective and I'm rarely let down by his work. JAKE & LILY comes out in May.

Others that I am looking forward to and hope I have the time to read . . .
  • THE LEGEND OF DIAMOND LIL by Doreen Cronin. This is the followup to her much beloved early chapter book, THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS.
  • SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS by Sara Pennypacker. The author takes a break from her CLEMENTINE series.
  • WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS by Gary D. Schmidt. A science-fiction/fantasy adventure. Not sure if I can imagine a Gary D. Schmidt sci-fi adventure, but I'm excited to see what it's like.
  • THE HUMMING ROOM by Ellen Potter. Nina over at Heavy Medal was a huge advocate for Potter's THE KNEEBONE BOY. I've read some buzz over her latest and would like to give it a try.
  • SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS by Laura Amy Shlitz. A DROWNED MAIDEN'S HAIR was one of the best children's books I've read in recent years. I was not a fan of THE NIGHT FAIRY. But I'm willing to give anything she writes a chance thanks to A DROWNED MAIDEN'S HAIR. Plus, I hear this is a full fledged novel, her first since A DROWNED MAIDEN'S HAIR.
  • TWELVE KINDS OF ICE by Ellen Obed. Not really sure what this is about, but Betsy Bird insists, it will be big. We shall see.
  • IRON HEARTED VIOLET by Kelly Barnhill. The Minnesota author showed her chops with her debut novel THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK last year. While I found it to be semi-flawed, the lady undoubtedly has potential. This appears to be another work of fantasy.
  • THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence. I'm not sure I've read any good westerns for kids. I'm not sure I've ever wanted to exactly. But this promises to be one. A unique genre untouched by many kidlit authors.

One Round in the Bag

Over at Battle of the Kids Books, Round One officially wrapped up this morning, with WONDERSTRUCK overtaking OKAY FOR NOW (stupid Jeff Kinney and your stupid wimpy books) . . . making my total a whopping 5 out of 8.



I'm still a little stung that THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT lost because of a coin toss. I threw a mini hissy fit over judge Lauren Myracle's rationale behind choosing LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM over A MONSTER CALLS. And I really, really, really don't like WONDERSTRUCK.

Looking ahead to my initial picks, I still have three of my next four picks alive: BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, and DRAWING FROM MEMORY. I had A MONSTER CALLS going to the final round though, so that one hurt. My overall winner however, DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE (which I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying), is still going strong. Possibly paired in the most intriguing battle of the second round, against CHIME.

As for what I now think will happen in the second round . . . I'm not as confident about BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY being chosen over AMELIA LOST, seeing Marc Aronson as the judge, and would actually change my pick if I could. But I can't. I'm sticking with BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY but wouldn't be surprised to see AMELIA LOST.

I've gotta believe that DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE will prevail against CHIME, although the style and feel of the two books are sooooooooooo similar.


And I now think LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM will overtake WONDERSTRUCK. LIFE would appear to be a "writer's" book. One that I, the casual reader, may struggle to make sense of (the abundance of metaphors), but that fellow writer's and peers would eat up.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

SLJ's Battle of the Kids Books: Predictions

I personally thought it'd be fun to make some predictions before knowing which author judge is assigned to which battle. Often I make my predictions based on the judges preferred tastes (as if I knew) and it usually bites me big time. So instead, I'm going to make my predictions this year without the knowledge of who's judging what.

Round 1
Round 2
Round 3
Winner of the Undead Poll: OKAY FOR NOW

Big Kahuna Round
Tough Calls . . .

THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT over CHIME is a tough one to call. Both are totally different kinds of work. I personally, don't see either of these prevailing a round further, overtaking DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, but another tough call for me was choosing OKAY FOR NOW as my predicted Undead Winner. I think CHIME has a following and could overtake it. Although based on OKAY FOR NOW's support on Heavy Medal and Goodreads, I think it would be tough to pick against it as the Undead Winner.

I also had a hard time with what to do with WONDERSTRUCK. Personally, I didn't like it at all! However, Selznick too, has appeal. I don't get it, but he does. I could see WONDERSTRUCK making a run either in the brackets or in the Undead Poll.

AMELIA LOST is another one of those titles that I could really see other authors digging. For some reason my gut is telling me BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, but I wouldn't be surprised to see AMELIA LOST go far either.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SLJ's Battle of the Kids' Books

I love this event. Last year I was all in on A TALE DARK AND GRIMM. I love reading the judges' commentary and I love the March Madness feel of it all. However this year, I'm totally out of the loop.

There are 16 total titles. I have read 7 of them. Of those seven, OKAY FOR NOW and A MONSTER CALLS are the only 2 that I can get behind and hope for.

With a baby due any day (my wife and I's second), there's no way I can realistically devour each of the 9 remaining titles I haven't read. But I think I can tackle a third of those. 3. So which 3 do I focus on? My choices are:

- THE DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE (Because I see this as the front runner)
- DEAD END IN NORVELT (Because it's the Newbery Medal winner)
- DRAWING FROM MEMORY (Because Wendy loved it and I like Wendy's commentary over at Heavy Medal)

I'm intrigued by ANYA'S GHOST and THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING and if time allows, I really would like to read THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT, but I'm not making any promises to myself. 3 is ambitious enough at this point in time.

Oh, and by the way, did you catch my pick to win it all?

THE DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE. Haven't even read it yet. But I think it will win it all.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Newbery Lament

So, if there are any readers out there, checking in, you'll have noticed that I struck out blindly with my Newbery predictions. Ah well. The one year I feel as if I've read a wider range than usual, and I'm smacked back to earth and proven totally out of my league! As I said, ah well. At least I'd heard of DEAD END IN NORVELT. I actually own a copy of it. It just hasn't risen to the top of my pile yet.

The two gems that I would have personally loved to see some admiration for were PIE by Sarah Weeks and ICEFALL by Matthew Kirby. ICEFALL did manage to receive a Cybill nomination this year, as well as an Edgar Award nomination, so at least it has that going for it.

Why did I like these two books so much? I don't know. PIE isn't necessarily the type of book I'd normally enjoy. Over at Heavy Medal one commenter summarized it as "light entertainment fluff". I suppose it fits that description, but it doesn't really pretend to be anything else either. It's "light entertainment fluff" done extremely well, and Weeks doesn't hide it.

I liked the mystery. I like the friendship between Alice and Charlie. I like getting to know Aunt Polly through seamless flashback scenes. I like the humor. I like that it doesn't take itself too seriously, as evidenced by the numerous jabs at the Newbery Medal (some characters in the book make it a point to go after a "Blueberry Award", which coincidentally enough has criteria eerily similar to that of the prestigious children's literature award). I like that it is kid friendly and gender neutral. My 5th grade class loved it as a read aloud.

Sure there were things that didn't make sense, like why would anyone care about a Mayoral election in a town as small as Ipswitch? And why would anyone hate their sister as much as Alice's mother hated Polly? And how could a woman as talented as Polly afford to live by giving away her labor for free? And why in the world would a woman leave a much sought after piecrust recipe to . . . well, that I better not get into.

Unlike the light, whipped mystery in PIE, Matthew Kirby's ICEFALL weaves a tale that Megan Whalen Turner herself would be proud of. The plot is fairly simple: To keep his family safe during a time of war, a Viking king sends them to hide in a glacier of sorts, and wait out the winter to return until all is safe. While in hiding however, his family and their protectors, begin to fear that someone amongst them is up to no good.

This is really a coming of age tale, set against the back drop of the Vikings' time. Solveig is the book's star, the king's ignored daughter, who has to not only get to the bottom of the treachery unfolding before her, but also learn how to question the blinding trust she's placed for so many years in those she's loved.

It's a slow start, glacier paced at best, but it adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere Kirby is after. By the time things begin to fall apart, we actually care because we feel as if we too, are trapped with this group of characters. Everyone seems to be a suspect, yet no one seems to be a suspect. It's a brilliant series of events that end in a thrilling, emotional climax. And . . . Kirby has succeeded in creating something more accessible than Megan Whalen Turner's heavier work, yet keep it in the same vein as her tales without sacrificing anything. I can't say enough about the book. Give it a read.

(Somewhat obvious by now) Final Grades:



Friday, January 20, 2012

Bold Newbery Predictions

Okay, so maybe not so bold, but some of the predictions I'm about to make are for books I haven't even read. Just heard the right amount of buzz on.

For the record, I did more reading this year than I ever have, of Newbery eligible contenders. I thought I had read at least 30 but looking back, it's closer to 25 eligible titles. Maybe closer to 30 if we count the Elephant and Piggie easy readers that Heavy Medal has been clamoring over.

Here are my predictions:

Of the books I've read, the following three titles would not surprise me in the least . . .

They would not all be my personal choices (although OKAY FOR NOW remains my favorite read of the year), but I can at least see the merits behind them and could understand them being honored in some way Monday morning.
Of the books I've read, I'm really pulling for the following three titles to receive some kind of honor, though I'm not sure their chances are anything but a long shot . . .

Now onto the bold part of my predictions, books I haven't even read yet! Last year, MOON OVER MANIFEST came out of nowhere to grab the Medal and I have a feeling, a few titles announced Monday morning will surprise folks. Maybe even the Medal again. Similar to MOON OVER MANIFEST, the following books have received just the right amount of buzz (somewhat small), have some starred reviews to their names, and just have the overall look and feel of a Newbery book, and I wouldn't be surprised in the least to see their names announced . . .

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY was honored by none other than Apple, as their Book of the Year. BREADCRUMBS draws on classic fairy tales, much like the shortchanged A TALE DARK AND GRIMM from last year. The fact that Gidwitz's novel was left out last year gives me a gut feeling about Ursu's tale this year. YOUNG FREDLE received lots of early buzz, but was mentioned never on Heavy Medal this season. Kind of makes me wonder . . .

Both SPARROW ROAD and WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE just have plot descriptions and covers that scream Newbery to me. 

So, that's how I'm calling it. Like I said, maybe not so bold, but we'll see now Monday morning if I'm onto something.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


In 2007 the children's literature world was bowled over by Brian Selznick's THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. It was a 500+ page, groundbreaking novel, telling its story in equal parts text and illustrations. I didn't get around to reading the book until after it won the Caldecott Medal, the following year. I found it sorely overrated. With all the hype, I expected more out of the story behind the engaging design. Now four years later, Selznick has returned to the format that made him an overnight sensation, with his latest novel WONDERSTRUCK. Fresh off of Martin Scorsese turning HUGO into a masterpiece, was Selznick looking to cash in?

WONDERSTRUCK tells two stories, one taking place in the late 1970s with words and the other taking place in the late 1920s with pictures. In Gunflint, MN 1977, Ben gets curious about his nonexistent father after his mother dies in a car accident. He's struck by lightning through a telephone, wakes up in a hospital bed with an epiphany, hops a bus to New York City and does some investigating, Basil E. Frankweiler style. Ben has difficulty hearing. In New York City 1927, Rose appears to be trapped, confined to her house by her father with the New York City skyline framed in her bedroom window. She dreams of escaping to the city and finding her favorite silent movie star. Rose is deaf.

Like HUGO CABRET, this book left me with mixed feelings. I devoured the book in two days time, which is quite the feat for this busy teacher. So obviously I was engaged and interested in the story. However I couldn't help rolling my eyes throughout and when I finally turned the book's final page, I wasn't sure I liked any of what I had just read. Like HUGO CABRET, I felt that the format tricked readers into thinking "epic", when the story was really anything but. Too many inconsistencies in Ben's story and too many unanswered questions in Rose's.

In Ben's half of the story, too many things happen that just flat out don't ring true. Too many magical coincidences occur and we're supposed to believe them, why? Because Ben is struck by lightning through the phone? Is this supposed to let us know we have to suspend our disbelief? The story isn't really "magical". It's about a boy's search for family. Forget the fact that Ben was able to connect the dots of his past by merely looking at a couple random items in his mother's bedroom. Forget the fact that Ben, who cannot hear, is able to slip out of his hospital room at night and board a bus for New York City successfully. This leap coming from a somewhat sheltered child who's idea of a dream vacation was to visit Duluth, MN a mere few hours south of Gunflint. I could forget about those inconsistencies if that's all there really was. What really irked me about Ben's story, the final straw, was the way he was able to function in New York City.

In THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, which Selznick is obviously channeling here, the main characters lived close to the city. They were familiar with the city. They had been to the museum before. It made it all absurd, but believable. The same cannot be said for WONDERSTRUCK. Ben, who I remind you cannot hear, just hops off the bus in New York City and in a matter of minutes, he's found he's way to the exact building he was looking for. Seamlessly. No struggles. When he reaches a dead end, he follows up on another clue and once again, finds his way without difficulty. By the time he reaches the museum and decides to stay, I was so infuriated, I stopped caring. And we had really just gotten to know Ben. Very little development of character.

When the two stories converge, it's not so much a surprise as it is a plot device. And one that's been done better before. When we find out who Rose really is, it's told in a series of illustrations, that blend the two narratives together. As I said, it's not a surprise, but it's well done. However then, instead of answering Ben's questions about his father, Rose takes him on a trip across the city, telling this boy she's just met the entire story of her life, before talking about his father! Now I realize, there ended up being a good reason that she took Ben where she took him, but I couldn't help but feel that Rose's revelations in this section of the book were more for the reader's benefit than Ben's. It was Selznick's only opportunity to answer any remaining questions about Rose, whether the timing made any sense or not.

The film adaptation of HUGO CABRET may be destined for Oscar buzz, but I'm afraid the best thing WONDERSTRUCK has going for it is a Lifetime Original Movie. The characters are thinly drawn, based primarily on their deafness, and the plot is far too contrived. If it wasn't for the incredible format of the book, I'm not sure what kind of reception a story with this many holes would receive. Is it easy to forgive the book because of Selznick's talent of balancing a story between pictures and words?

Not for me.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, January 9, 2012

SLJ's Heavy Medal Shortlist Vote

Tomorrow morning, thousands of children's literature enthusiasts and regular Heavy Medal contributors and participants, will flock to the site and place their "Top 3" votes for the 10 titles on Heavy Medal's Mock Newbery shortlist. Okay, maybe not thousands but maybe hundreds . . .!

The three I will be voting for . . .

First Place: OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt. I read this book before I read many others this year and the bar was set very high. Troves of criticisms (many of which I personally found a bit trivial and trite) were brought to the table and upon two rereadings, the book's strengths were only strengthened in my eyes. Nothing else I've read this year even comes close in terms of style and voice. I will be enthusiastically giving this my first place vote tomorrow morning.

Second Place: THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA by Jennifer L. Holm. I fought as hard as I could to get TURTLE IN PARADISE the attention it deserved last year on Heavy Medal, that I think I approached my first reading of THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA with a little bias. Maybe I had my mind made up before I even opened the book. Rereading the book with my 5th graders confirmed that like OKAY FOR NOW, Ms. Holm's voice and character development here are as good, or in my opinion, better than any of the other shortlisted titles.

Which brings me to my third place vote . . . I really only felt strongly about my top two, and had mixed feelings about the remaining eight titles. There were some titles I could remove immediately from consideration, like THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE, which I finished last night. I recognized areas of strong writing, but overall, it's hard for me to argue this book's strengths when I feel that writing like this is all too often classified as "distinguished" when I'm not so sure it's not just "good".

I also can strike WONDERSTRUCK from the list (which I will get to in a whole other post). I had lots of issues with this title. At least when considering it for the Newbery Medal. In my opinion HEART AND SOUL was far too big and I can't bring myself to vote for SIR GAWAIN when I don't even feel that it's in the top 3 of books of its own kind (easy readers like THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS, TOYS COME HOME, and CLEMENTINE AND THE FAMILY MEETING).

That left me with four titles:

While I feel that Jonathan Hunt valiantly argued I BROKE MY TRUNK's rightful place in this discussion, I still feel like a vote for it would be settling for diversity in genre and titles and not necessarily a vote for the most distinguished text. Same with THE MONEY WE'LL SAVE, which I did find to be very smart and cleverly paced, but maybe I'm bothered by the reliance on pictures in both texts to really back either as a finalist.

Of the remaining two titles, I had to go with AMELIA LOST over A MONSTER CALLS. Patrick Ness is a brilliant writer. Parts of A MONSTER CALLS are beautiful. What tipped the scale toward Fleming's biography to me, is readability. I think the Newbery Medal should reward books that all children should read. I cannot say that A MONSTER CALLS is a book that all children should read. It's dark. Some of it's deepest themes, would mean nothing to a large population of children readers. AMELIA LOST, is a book that all children should read because it is a riveting, unique look at one of the most revered women our society has ever seen. Therefore I'd give my third place vote, to AMELIA LOST by Candace Fleming.

Can't wait to see how the results turn out.