“The London Eye Mystery” by Siobhan Dowd

london eyeThis one is  not just a great mystery, but in intriguing portrait of an unusual mind and of a family.

The narrator, Ted, has Asperger’s syndrome and his ister, Kat, is a typical, impatient teenager. When their Aunt Gloria and her son Salim come to visit at the family’s London home before they move to New York City, Ted is pleased to find that he and Salim click–it has not been easy to make friends. However, when Salim disappears while riding on the London Eye Ferris wheel, it takes all of Ted’s literal persistence and Kat’s rebellious determination to find him. What I love about this book is Ted’s relationship with his family: he is an odd duck, but he is their odd duck and they know how he rolls. And all his quirks make him a great detective!

June 8, 2009 at 5:05 am Leave a comment

Almost Forgot!

And I really liked How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor. Georgina is desperate; it seems like her overwhelmed mother will never keep her promises to her children, after their father leaves and they are forced to live in their car. Georgina is tired of sleeping in the car, never having her homework, fearing that her classmates will find out. So she naively hatches her plan–steal a dog, then claim the reward. She is too young and hopeful to imagine what could go wrong, but it all does. And she struggles with guilt–for lying, for hurting those she starts to care about: the dog Willie and Carmella, his owner. As she struggles with the problems she has created, and talks with a homeless man who tries to help her, with his help she sees that “Sometimes the trail you leave behind is more important then the path ahead of you.” Yes, there are troubling moral issues here, but that’s an opportunity to discuss: is it wrong to act badly under bad circumstances? What else could she have done? What would you have done in her place?

June 5, 2009 at 1:31 am Leave a comment

Boy, it’s been a while!

But I haven’t been slacking. In fact, that might be why I haven’t been blogging–reading too much. Very brief notes:

Earthquake at Dawn by Kristiana Gregory tells the fictional account of the experiences of a real young woman, Edith Irvine, who took some amazing photos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. This one was more literary and a higher reading level than The Earth Dragon Awakes (see below).  What I found fascinating was the fact that officials tried so hard to suppress and manage the truth about the event, to lessen the financial impact on San Francisco and California. Also, the confusion in the city and the fear of not knowing what had happened to loved ones. A good read.

Basketball or Something Like It by Nora Raleigh Baskin –another great book by Baskin–this one tells  the stories, through various narrators, of a bunch of kids and how their parents can mess up something  that’s intended to be fun: basketball. Competition for court time, over potential scholarships, between siblings for family time and attention, all figure here. But this is more than just a rant against insensitive, selfish parents–the kids’ stories are compelling, and they find a way to take the game back and become friends. Mostly male players, but one (really good) girl.  Nice basketball action.

Runaway by Wendelin Van Draanen. This one is really memorable–Twelve-year-old Holly runs away from her creepy, abusive foster parents and heads for California, living on the streets and snagging food and shelter anywhere she can. As she travels, she keeps writing in the journal that her  teacher gave her. She even writes poems, almost against her will, ranting against the teacher the whole time, but finding that the writing helps her survive. Gritty and unforgettable–makes you appreciate the everyday luxuries of a roof, dry clothes, and a bed.  Great character–feisty, unflinching, smart. And a great cover.

Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst joins The Great Good Thing, Inkheart, Magic by the Book and other books about books. In this one, Julie bemoans the fact that her family is so weird–she has a shoe-eating, ravenous vine called the Wild under her bed, her brother is a boot-wearing cat, her father is missing–oh, did I mention Julie’s mother, Zel, owns a hair salon? Yeah–that Zel , as in Rapunzel. This is a very creative take on the idea that fairytale characters might want to control their own destinies and not have to follow their destined plotlines. The devious and invasive Wild wants the old stories to be played out–so who will win? Julie learns more about her mother, her father and herself than she ever imagined. Funny, suspenseful and original. A bit more telling v. showing than I like, but I’m looking forward to more from this author. My 10-year-old daughter highly recommends it.

Shift by Jennifer Bradbury–a great mystery for older teens. Chris and his best friend Winn set off on a last, pre-college adventure, a cross country bike trip, but they get separated near the end. Chris heads off for college,  followed by a detective–Winn has disappeared. What really happened on their trip?  You will not be able to put this one down. Note: there is nothing inappropriate here, but the tone is just better for 14+

Swim the Fly by Don Calame is inappropriate in all the right ways: Fifteen-year-old Matt Gratton and his two best friends, Coop and Sean, always make up a goal for their summers together, and this year it’s a biggie–see a LIVE woman naked. Their odds, since none of them has ever even asked a girl out? Pretty slim. To make matters worse, Matt has volunteered to “swim the fly” to impress a cute new girl on the swim team, since their team has no one to compete in butterfly. One small problem–he can’t swim butterfly. Full of adolescent language, obsessions and humor, this is a book to hand to a high schooler and get out of the way. BTW, girls will like getting inside boys’ heads with this one. Hilarious, sweet and wise–Screenwriter Calame may see this in a multiplex someday soon.

June 5, 2009 at 12:35 am Leave a comment

“All Shook Up” by Shelley Pearsall

all-shook-upThirteen-year-old Josh has been sent to stay with his dad in Chicago, after his mom goes to Florida to help her mother recover from a fall. Since his parents’ divorce, Josh has felt “like a two-way mirror”, uncomfortable with revealing things about one parent’s life to the other. So he is reluctant to report to his mom that his dad  has lost his job as a shoe salesman and is now trying to support himself as an Elvis impersonator.  Starting over in a new school isn’t easy, either, and he lives in fear of his fledgling friends finding out about his father’s weird occupation. Which leads him to a really desperate and stupid plan. ..

I thought Pearsall’s “Trouble Don’t Last”– her historical fiction about an escaping young slave– was great. It felt like we were reading what that experience would really be like. Once again, her Josh has a very believable voice. Pearsall’s  characters are odd and challenging. It’s hard to know what they will do or say next, which I love.

Most kids can relate to the idea of their parents being embarassing, but this poor kid has it really bad. Terrific book.

April 10, 2009 at 4:27 am Leave a comment

“The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906” by Lawrence Yep

earth-dragonMy grandmother lived through the 1906 earthquake, so I was looking forward to  reading this book. This is what I liked about it: it was short (128pp) and quick moving, with lots of vivid, quirky, realistic details. I loved that it showed the experience of both an American boy and his family’s  Chinese servants/friends in alternating chapters, and the prejudice that can exist even (or maybe especially?) during an emergency.

However,  I sometimes found the language a little clunky.  This may be because the author was trying to make the text more accessible for younger readers. Also, for the most part, the scientific information about earthquakes flowed pretty easily around the story elements, but the comparison of the earthquake to the bomb at Hiroshima seemed an anachronism. Also, I liked  that the boys discovered that their own parents could be just as hereoic as the characters in “penny dreadfuls” the first time it was mentioned, but not the third or fourth time.

Having said all that, I do think that this might be just the ticket for a reluctant reader who has to read some historical fiction, or for a teacher looking for an exciting and suspenseful read-aloud.

I really enjoyed Yep’s “The Dragon’s Child: A Story of Angel Island” (2008) which describes his father’s experience in 1922, emigrating from China as a child, and the rigorous testing done by U.S. Immigration officials before they would allow him and his father into the country. The process was fascinating, and the tension giving way to a real relationship between the boy and his father gave it heart. This is also relatively short (144 pp), but Yep manages to explore some deep issues here.

April 10, 2009 at 2:48 am Leave a comment

“Nightmare at the Book Fair” by Dan Gutman

Boy, this was fun and funny:  Fifth-grader Trip Dinkleman is hit by a box of books at the book fair and is sent on a series of adventures, each one inspired by (and sometimes parodying) a particular genre: mystery, science fiction, humor, historical fiction, sports fiction, fantasy, even reference. In most cases the last sentence of one chapter is the first sentence of the next. My sons were cracking each other up over the exploits of Captain Obvious and the Exaggerator. What a great read-aloud for the beginning of the year or before introducing various genres. And I loved the nod to the Wizard of Oz (movie) at the end. Great stuff!

April 10, 2009 at 2:24 am Leave a comment

“Shug” by Jenny Han

shugWhat do you do if you fall in love with your oldest friend–and he doesn’t notice? Suddenly everybody in her class–even her best girl friend, Elaine– is pairing up, and feisty Shug ( short for’Sugar”) is mad, because Mark still wants to be just friends–or maybe that’s what she wants, too.  Is she ready for something more? Now that they’re starting middle school, have all her friends lost it?

Shug’s parents are no help–her dad travels on business, and after he’s home for a few days, her mother starts drinking a little more, and her dad decides he needs to get back to his office in Atlanta.  Her older sister Celia is too perfect and popular to get it–and she has a boyfriend now, too.

Jenny Han has done a great job of capturing that time of wanting to grow up, but being afraid of too much change–and refusing to show it.

April 3, 2009 at 7:15 pm Leave a comment

“The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah” by Nora Raleigh Baskin

The Truth about my Bat Mitzvah

The Truth about my Bat Mitzvah

This wonderful book begins with a quote, in Yiddish:

“If I try to be like him, who will be like me?”

Twelve-year-old Caroline’s grandmother has just died, and her grandfather gives her a Star of David necklace that her grandmother, her Nana, wanted her to have. This gift triggers many questions for Caroline. Her father is Christian, her mother is a non-observant Jew. Why did they stop celebrating Hanukkah? Her best friend, Rachel, is becoming a Bat Mitzvah–does Rachel know something important that Caroline has missed? Does Caroline want to be “more Jewish”? What will her friends think?

In additon to showing a young girl dealing with the loss of her grandmother,  trying to decide whether to wear a particular necklace and whether to stand up to a snooty classmate, there are larger issues here, too:  How do we know who we are? Many tweens and teens (and adults!) struggle with their religious and cultural identity: What do I really believe? What will people think of me? Why is my family the way it is? Family history shapes so much of who we are and who we will be, often without our knowing it. As Caroline remembers her grandmother, and learns more about her family’s history, she get a clearer picture of who SHE is, and might become. Caroline remembers all the little rituals she shared with her Nana–watching her “put on her face”, ordering Chinese food when she visited, going out to lunch together, the smell of her special perfume. How do these family rituals compare to religious ones? 

Touching, funny, sad and terrific, with a wonderful sense of the importance of being yourself, no matter what religion you might follow.

April 3, 2009 at 6:27 pm Leave a comment

“Bound for Oregon” by Jean Van Leeuwen

The hardcover

The hardcover

Jean Van Leeuwen lives in our town, and I had always meant to read this book, which came out in 1994. When a local middle school teacher was looking for material on westward expansion, I finally sat down to read it, and could barely put it down.

Based on an real young girl’s reminiscences, “Bound For Oregon” is filled with specific and vivid details that will speak to young readers and make this episode in American history come to life. Told by nine-year-old Mary Ellen Todd, the tale unfolds very naturally: from the hardship of leaving family behind, to the boredom of listening to the wagon wheels turning every day, to continual uncertainty, illness and death, hunger and thirst, and ultimately to success. Crossing rivers, climbing mountains, facing Indians, racing to beat the snows — it’s amazing that anyone made it!

The paperback

But this book is more than just a list of hardships: the author has fleshed out the factual details with the relationships within the family. For example, Mary Ellen wonders “Mother”, who is not her own birth mother, really cares for her. By the end of their journey, and especially after the birth of a baby boy, they have grown to love and respect each other. Mary Ellen gets annoyed with her two younger sisters, but when cholera strikes, she realizes how much she loves them. Her grandmother, who had to stay in Arkansas, is such a constant presence it feels like she’s in the covered wagon with them. Through it all, Mary Ellen’s father’s faith and his steady, gentle nature keep them all going, although Mary Ellen does privately question his wisdom when things are at their worst. These feelings and concerns really add to the realism of the story. I’m very impressed and excited to be able to recommend this book for kids who want historical fiction, westward expansion, or just a book about a spunky girl.

March 19, 2009 at 5:20 pm Leave a comment

“Chains” by Laurie Halse Anderson


Boy, this was terrific–just what you want historical fiction to be: an engrossing story, vivid characters and details about a place and time you thought you already knew, without your feeling “taught”. This story, of a young slave girl who is sold to a Tory family from New York City, shows how precarious life in that city was, as the events of the war changed the fortunes of Patriots and Tories, and of the slaves they owned–or to whom they promised freedom. I couldn’t put it down , and I’m still thinking about it three weeks later. Great book.

February 17, 2009 at 6:04 am Leave a comment

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