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Posts from March 2012

Sound Bender: Lin Oliver & Theo Baker

Book: Sound Bender
Author: Lin Oliver & Theo Baker
Pages: 272
Age Range: 10 and up

ImagesSound Bender is a fast-paced middle grade / middle school novel with an intriguing premise. On his 13th birthday, Leo Lomax learns that he has an unusual talent. When he touches certain objects, he can hear their past. After Leo's parents are lost in a plane crash, he and his brother are sent to live with his father's wealthy stepbrother, Crane. Crane is an importer of mysterious and valuable objects. Leo's ability, mixed with Crane's treasures, sparks a globe-trotting adventure (one that appears to be the launch of a new series).

Theo Baker (Lin Oliver's son) has a background as a record seller, a DJ, a record producer, and a sound designer. His enthusiasm for all things sound-related comes through in the characters of Leo Lomax and Leo's mentor, Jeremy (who owns a record store). Leo is a sympathetic character, believably conflicted in his relationship with his younger brother, devastated at the loss of his parents, and compelled to do the right thing. His best friend, Trevor, a tall black kid who chooses to be a scientist instead of a basketball player, is likeable, too. Some of the other characters, like Uncle Crane and his unusual employees, are a bit more cartoonish. But Leo is the heart of the book.

Leo's love of all things sound-related is reinforced from Sound Bender's earliest pages. Like this:

"Hollis shuddered at the very mention of spiders. He is definitely not a big fan of the bug world, never has been. Me, I kind of like bugs, especially cockroaches because they make this little tick, tick, tick sound with their wings when they scurry around in the dark, which I've actually recorded. It sounds cool, like when you click one of your fingernails against your thumbnail." (Chapter 2)

Sound Bender is a nice balance of science fiction and realistic fiction. Leo's gift is plausibly explained, without going into too much detail. Uncle Crane's apartment is like something out of a futuristic movie, but not so far out as to be impossible. The book's action is suspense-filled, but slightly more plausible than the current generation of teen spy novels (Anthony Horowitz, etc.). When they aren't using Crane's limo or private jet, Leo and Trevor take the subway. During their free time at school, they hang out in the library.

Oliver and Baker's writing is more action-focused than literary. But I think that they do a decent job of channeling adolescent boy-speak, without overdoing it. Like this:

"He flexed his biceps, and I saw that he definitely had man muscles. I'd been waiting for mine to pop out for a while now. I know it's all supposed to happen at once ... growth spurt, puberty, man muscles, facial hair ... but so far, even though I'm thirteen, I have nothing to show in any of those departments. Zip. Zilch. Nada." (Chapter 4)

"Hollis blocked me with his body and pushed the button. There was a little whir, then a table made of shiny silver metal descended from the ceiling. No kidding, it looked like a spaceship landing." (Chapter 4)

Sound Bender has an original premise in the idea of sound bending, and an appealing mix of science fiction and adventure novel. There are intriguing gadgets, menacing characters, and (mostly by way of background) cute girls. I think that 10 to 14 year olds, particularly boys, will enjoy it. Recommended for science fiction and spy novel fans.

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: November 1, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It: Sundee T. Frazier

Book: Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It
Author: Sundee T. Frazier
Pages: 198
Age Range: 9-12

ImagesBrendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It is a middle grade novel about a biracial boy who, the summer after his fifth grade year, learns a few things about racism and forgiveness. Brendan Buckley hasn't worried about his race too much up until then. He's more focused on being a scientist, and taking a scientific approach to answering life's questions. However, a chance meeting with his estranged, white grandfather, Ed, forces Brendan to confront long-buried family tensions.

I'm not a big fan of "issue books", as a general rule. But Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It doesn't feel like an issue book (though racial relations play a large part in the story). Brendan is a strong, likeable character. He's the kind of kid who wonders what dust is made of, so he looks it up, and checks out some dust using his microscope. He's not generally a troublemaker (in fact he's the peacemaker in his family), but he's willing to lie to his parents in the interest of learning more about his long-lost grandfather.

Brendan has believable relationships with his best friend Khalfani, his parents, and his grandma Gladys. He develops an interest in rock-hunting, only partially as a way to get to know mineralogist Ed better. In short, Brendan is much more than just his grandma's "milk chocolate" boy, and Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It is much more than just a book about the travails of being biracial.

Here are a couple of quotes, to give a feel for the book:

"I was busy researching a question that come to me during dessert the night before: How do they get the ripple in fudge ripple ice cream?

Here is What I Found Out: They pour fifth gallons of fudge into a two-hundred-gallon vat of vanilla ice cream, and a machine stirs it around with a paddle the size of a Ping-Pong table." (Chapter 2)

Who wouldn't love a kid who likes to find out things like this?

"When I woke up again, I had the Jitters. The Jitters is what happens before I know something, but after I realize I don't know it. Gladys says I get ants in my pants. I think of it as an electrical storm going off in my body." (Chapter 3)

"Dori's only four, but she thinks she rules the place. She once told a policeman who came to investigate a neighborhood break in that even he had to take off his shoes before he could come in. Being around Khalfani's little sister makes me think it's not so bad being an only child." (Chapter 4)

There aren't a lot of plot surprises to Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It, and the whole story does rely on a coincidence (a chance meeting between Brendan and Ed). But those are minor quibbles. Overall, it's refreshing to find a book that tackles racism head-on, from the viewpoint of a three-dimensional, middle-class, brown-skinned protagonist. I enjoyed meeting Brendan Buckley, and I look forward to reading the newly published Brendan Buckley's Sixth Grade Experiment. Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It would make a great choice for reluctant middle school readers, especially boys. (There are a couple of Brendan and Khal's experiments that will particularly appeal.) Recommended.

Publisher: Random House (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: October 2007
Source of Book: Bought it on Kindle

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Grave Mercy: His Fair Assassin, Book I: Robin LaFevers

Book: Grave Mercy: His Fair Assassin, Book I
Author: Robin LaFevers
Pages: 560
Age Range: 14 and up

ImagesGrave Mercy is the first book in Robin LaFevers' new His Fair Assassin trilogy. Grave Mercy is a satisfying blend of historical fiction and paranormal romance novel. Ismae Rienne is marked with a hideous scar on her back, "left by the herbwitch's poison that (her) mother used to try to expel" her from the womb. The fact that she survived this is considered proof that she was sired by the god of death himself. After an attempt by her abusive father to marry her off results in her near-murder, Ismae is spirited away to the Abbey of Mortain. There, she and other daughters of Mortain, the god of death, are trained to become assassins. Ismae is eventually sent to the court of Anne of Brittany as a spy and an instrument of Mortain's justice. She struggles, however, with her growing feelings for one of her potential targets.

I found the romantic elements to be believable, without overwhelming the story.I was reminded a bit of Kristen Cashore's Graceling and Fire in this. LaFevers's prose is not quite as lavish as Cashore's, and the paranormal aspects in Grave Mercy are a bit more subtle, but the historical detail adds considerable substance to the book. Anne's court is a dangerous place, full of intrigue and metaphorical as well as literal poisons. It's not clear at all who the young Duchess, and Ismae, should trust - everyone falls under suspicion (and those who don't, should).

LaFevers immerses the reader in 1488 Brittany, through foods, clothing, social customs, and behaviors. I would have liked to see an afterword explaining which characters in the book were historical and which were fictional. Perhaps this will be added for the finished book. As it was, I was intrigued enough to do some online research regarding Anne of Brittany. Certainly I will never forget her as a character, young, dignified, and besieged from all sides.

Ismae is a strong and sympathetic character, too, of course. She chafes under the gender restrictions of her time, but never lets them hold her back when action is truly needed. There are a number of solid supporting characters in the book, male and female. I hope that some of them will recur in the next book of the trilogy: Dark Triumph (which apparently features a different protagonist).

Ismae's voice has an old-fashioned quality that adds to Grave Mercy's immersion of the reader in late 15th century Europe. Here are a couple of examples:

"The maids in my village talked of falling in love with a man at first sight. That has always seemed naught but foolishness to me. Until I enter Sister Serafina's workshop. It is unlike anything I have ever seen, full of strange sights and smells, and I tumble headlong into love.

The ceiling is high, and the room has many windows. Two small clay ovens sit on the floor, and in front of the fireplace is a range of kettles, from one big enough to cook a goat whole all the way down to one so small it could belong to the fey folk of hearth tales."  (Chapter Four)

"The town is entirely enclosed by thick stone walls that stretch as far as my eye can see. Eight watchtowers loom at regular intervals. I understand now why the duchess has chosen this city for her headquarters. Surely these walls are impenetrable.

Provided the enemy comes from without." (Chapter Sixteen)

See what I mean? LaFevers uses just enough old-time language for flavor, but not enough to render the book difficult to read, or to make it difficult for modern-day teens to relate to Ismae (a fine line, indeed).

One note on audience. Grave Mercy is definitely YA, not middle grade. The book begins with Ismae's attempted rape by her new husband, and there are many later references to seduction and mistresses, etc. There is nothing that feels gratuitous, or historically inaccurate, but this is definitely more a book for high school readers than for middle schoolers.

Grave Mercy has a lot to offer teen readers: intrigue and adventure; romance and mystery; dark powers and hidden passageways. I hope that it gets wide success, and brings Robin LaFevers the acclaim that she deserves. Highly recommended for teen and adult readers, particularly (though not exclusively) women.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (@hmhbooks)
Publication Date: April 3, 2012
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: March 19

JRBPlogo-smallToday I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's and young adult books and raising readers. There are 1520 subscribers. Currently I am sending the newsletter out once every two to three weeks.

Newsletter Update: In this issue I have six book reviews (two picture books, two middle grade/middle school, and two young adult titles) and one children's literacy roundup. I am still recovering from pneumonia, so my non-review posts have been a bit sparse. But at least I'm taking time to read while I rest... 

Social Networking Update: I also found some time in the last couple of weeks to sign up for Pinterest, where you can find me under JensBookPage (the same as my Twitter id). I'm sharing things like Baby Bookworm's favorite titles, my recent reviews, my favorite mystery series, and books that catch my eye (sort of an abridged to read list). I'm not a very visually-oriented person, so the stream of pins that other people share is a little overwhelming sometimes. But I have seen some nice quotes, pictures of cozy libraries, and things like that. 

Reading Update: Since the last newsletter, I read 1 middle grade, 4 young adult and 6 adult novels. I find the adult titles to be more of a break when I'm sick, because I don't feel compelled to review them.

  • Greg Leitich Smith: Chronal Engine. Clarion. Completed February 28, 2012. My review.
  • Lissa Price: Starters. Delacorte Books for Young Readers. Completed February 27, 2012. My review.
  • Megan Bostic: Never Eighteen. Graphia. Completed February 27, 2012. My review.
  • Y.S. Lee: The Agency 1: A Spy in the House. Candlewick. Completed March 12, 2012. Kindle eBook (purchased). Will likely wait and review the whole trilogy together. I have the second one on request from the library. But I did very much enjoy this one.
  • Han Nolan: Pregnant Pause. Harcourt. Completed March 13, 2012. Review to come.
  • Jo Dereske: Index to Murder (A Miss Zukas Mystery). Avon. Completed March 2, 2012. Not a stellar installment of the series, but I do love the consistency of Miss Zukas as a character.
  • Nancy Atherton: Aunt Dimity Down Under. Penguin. Completed March 7, 2012. Library copy. The second-to-latest of this cozy mystery series. Perfect comfort reading when feeling ill.
  • Craig Johnson: Hell is Empty. Viking. Completed March 7, 2012. Library copy. The latest entry of the Walt Longmire series. Unusual and compelling (though why the character would get into the situation he gets himself into does strain belief a bit).
  • Barry Maitland: Dark Mirror (Brock and Kolla Mysteries). Minotaur Books. Completed March 7, 2012. Library copy.
  • Barry Maitland: Chelsea Mansions (Brock and Kolla Mysteries). Minotaur Books. Completed March 11, 2012. Kindle ebook. The two most receent titles in the Brock and Kolla series of UK police procedurals. Both very well done.
  • Nancy Atherton: Aunt Dimity's Death. Penguin. Completed March 15, 2012. This was a re-read of the first book in the Aunt Dimity series. Reading this book is like wrapping oneself up in a warm blanket.

ImagesI also, of course, continue to read picture books and board books aloud to Baby Bookworm. We're currently at about 750 books read for 2012. This includes many, many re-reads (I re-list each book no more than once per day, but still...). She understands that she has a birthday coming up, and her current favorites are Birthday Monsters by Sandra Boynton and Happy Birthday, Little Pookie by Sandra Boynton. She's also just fallen in love with Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang. She likes the bit where there's a sneaker missing, later discovered in the cat's clutches. She's also addicted to the Spot the Dot, Pat the Bunny, and The Monster at the End of this Book apps on the iPad.

I'm currently listening to Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card (though I'm finding it disappointing compared to the previous books in the series). I'm reading This Body of Death by Elizabeth George.

How about you? What have you and your kids been reading and enjoying? Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms.

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Project Jackalope: Emily Ecton

Book: Project Jackalope
Author: Emily Ecton
Pages: 224
Age Range: 10-14

41R4vRIQO7L._SL500_AA300_Emily Ecton's Project Jackalope is a middle grade/middle school novel about two kids (apparently ~7th grade) on the run from shadowy government agents. Jeremy's odd neighbor, Professor Twitchett, has been using him as an errand boy, and leaving him not-so-secret messages in their apartment building lobby. When Professor Twitchett disappears, leaving his latest experiment, a living, breathing Jackalope, in Jeremy's care, Jeremy turns to his annoying classmate Agatha for help. The two soon find themselves running from agents who have mysterious gadgets, like a flashlight that makes people (and animals!) vomit, and trying to protect the cute, fuzzy Jack from those who wish to use him for evil.It's an entertaining ride.

Honestly, the existence of the Jackalope (a mythical rabbit-based creature with antelope horns, an affinity for whiskey, a gift for mimicry, and a lethal temper) is less over-the-top than many other aspects of Jeremy and Agatha's adventure. Their parents have no idea what's going on, they're chased by men with guns as well as by someone in a white van, they hide out in an expensive hotel, etc. One can picture it as an over-the-top Disney movie (something that the author alludes to, in fact). There's even a playful seal who helps in an escape sequence.

I didn't care too much for Jeremy or Agatha. Jeremy, the first-person narrator, tends to over-explain things in an annoying manner. And Agatha, though smart and capable, is rather abrasive. The fast-paced plot doesn't leave a lot of time for character development in either of them. But Jack is pretty fun!

Here's Agatha:

"I followed the sound of Agatha's voice to her locker, where she was in the middle of a pissing match with Carter Oliver. (Not literally.) Those two have been numbers one and two in the science fair every year since third grade. Agatha's still got a huge chip on her shoulder about last year, because she tought she was going to win big with her working model of the Titanic (complete with real iceberg, sinking, and Celine Dion soundtrack). (Chapter 4)

And here's Jeremy:

"Carter Oliver is this super-smart, super good-looking, super athletic, all-around perfect person. Everybody loves him -- teachers, kids, parents, chipmunks, you name it. If you met him, you'd think he was the best kid ever. Just being around him makes my hair get greasier, my face turn pimply, and my muscles all turn to flab instantly. Add that to the fact that I was publicly seeking out Agatha of all people, and socially, I was going to be a troll by the end of they day." (Chapter 4)

I do think that although the narrator's voice didn't quite work for me, it stands a good chance of working for 10 and 11-year-old readers, especially boys. Project Jackalope has plenty of reluctant reader appeal, with gadgets, chases, and a drunken Jackalope singing campfire songs. There's a contentious boy-girl partnership that has no romantic overtones, and a strong focus on kids acting alone, while being smarter than the adults around them. I think that Project Jackalope would make a good middle school library purchase, and will catch kids' attention.

Publisher: Chronicle Books (@ChronicleBooks)
Publication Date: March 21, 2012
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Chronal Engine: Greg Leitich Smith

Book: Chronal Engine
Author: Greg Leitich Smith (blog)
Illustrator: Blake Henry
Pages: 192
Age Range: 10-14

9780547608495_lres2-200x300Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith is excellent reluctant reader fare. It's about time travel and dinosaurs, and features an 8th grade boy rescuing his older brother and sister. There are full-page black and white illustrations (by Blake Henry) in every chapter, adding a hint of graphic novel feel (though these illustrate, rather than augment, the story).

Max, Kyle, and Emma are sent to spend the summer with their estranged grandfather on his ranch outside of Austin, Texas. Within just a few hours their grandfather is in the hospital, recovering from a massive heart attack, and Emma has been kidnapped by a time-traveling bandit. Max and Kyle, together with a new acquaintance named Petra, have to use their grandfather's time machine to travel back to the age of dinosaurs and rescue Emma.

Chronal Engine is pretty much nonstop action, though sprinkled with many facts about dinosaurs (and other flora and fauna of the Late Cretaceous period). Leitich Smith pays a bit of attention to the paradoxes of time travel, but doesn't get too bogged down in the details. Instead, he spends his energy conveying the feel of the time period in as much detail as possible, while keeping the plot moving. Like this:

"We were all silent, watching the sauropods approach.

Then I gagged at the sudden stench. The wind must have changed. And what the books and fossils didn't tell you was how much the things smelled. Like every putrid odor at the zoo put together with a feedlot and an overripe cat box." (Page 48)

"We could see herds moving below, on the other side. Triceratops, probably, and some kind of crestless hadrosaur. Smaller herds or packs, maybe, of two-legged ornithopods grazed and darted nearby.

Farther up was a swampy-looking lake, with cypresses and lily pads growing out of the water. And on a spur of land sticking into the lake, on the near side, was a charming little quaint wooden cottage and some kind of work shed a little distance beyond." (Page 128)

There's kind of an old-fashioned feel to Chronal Engine. Not in the sense of the time-travel, but more in the style of the book. With the exception of a few references to computers (and a shiny, modern cover), it feels almost like a book that I could have read (and enjoyed) as a 10-year-old. The illustrations are more modern in tone (with a high-end animation sort of style), but the inclusion of regular, full-page, captioned illustrations calls to mind old-fashioned adventure stories for kids. An author's note at the end gives some literary antecedents for the book, and suggests that this quality was intentional on the author's part. There's not a lot of character development, but again, that fits in with the book's genre.(Leitich Smith refers to books like this, about groups of individual stranded in remote settings, as "Robinsonades".)

Chronal Engine is a fun, well-researched novel with an appealing premise. Although Max is about to start 8th grade, and Kyle and Emma (twins) high school, Chronal Engine reads to me more as middle grade than YA. There are a few references to one character or another being cute, but nothing that isn't PG. I think it would work well for middle grade or middle school readers, particularly those with an interest in dinosaurs. I don't think it's as good a pick for older readers, due to a certain lack of complexity to the story. But for current and former, dinosaur-mad boys and girls, Chronal Engine will be irresistible.

Publisher: Clarion Books (@hmhbooks)
Publication Date: March 20, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Doodleday: Ross Collins

Book: Doodleday
Author: Ross Collins
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8

51OPzHE3d7L._SL500_AA300_Imagine if, one day a year, everything that anyone drew ... came to life! What you would have would be Doodleday, by Ross Collins. As Harvey's mother heads out to run errands, she warns him not to do any drawing, because today is Doodleday. She doesn't explain why, however. And the next thing you know, there's a "fat, hairy, and ENORMOUS" fly "destroying the kitchen." Harvey does what any right-minded kid would do, of course. He tries to draw something else, to take care of the fly. And then the situation gets completely out of hand. Not to worry, though. Mom comes home in time to save the day. And Harvey learns to never draw anything on Doodleday.

It's a fun premise. Not completely original, perhaps (Bill Thomson's CHALK comes to mind as a recent book with a similar concept), but executed with enthusiasm and humor. Collins uses lots of varied text sizes, with bold phrases for emphasis, and words sometimes shown at angles. In general, the text is formatted to add emphasis to whatever is happening. Like this:

"As soon as Harvey finished drawing, he heard a terrifying
from outside.
There above the house was Harvey's bird.
And there was Mr. Bagshaw's fence,
being turned into a nest.
Mr. Bagshaw wasn't happy at all..."

The "squawk" is in huge, curving letters.

Collins interlays regular colored backgrounds (perhaps computer-generated?) with crayon sketches of Harvey's doodles. So, the above features the crayon outline of a giant bird, with a more realistic-looking fence in its beak. It's a bit hard to describe, but effective at separating out the doodles-come-to-life from real life.

Harvey is a hapless, tow-headed boy in a vest. And his mom is basically a superhero (in an yellow mini-dress that could almost be an apron, and matching cowboy boots). The havoc wreaked by the doodles is everywhere.

The idea of a day when everything one draws comes to life is appealing (if a bit horrifying for Harvey is practice). Doodleday the holiday is a neat idea (and a neat word, I think). Doodleday the book is an energetic story, likely to appeal to 4-8 year old doodlers everywhere.

Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Publication Date: March 1, 2011
Source of Book: Library copy
Nominated for 2011 Cybils in Fiction Picture Books by: Natasha Maw

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Willow and the Snow Day Dance: Denise Brennan-Nelson

Book: Willow and the Snow Day Dance
Author: Denise Brennan-Nelson
Illustrator: Cyd Moore
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8

9781585365227Willow and the Snow Day Dance, written by Denise Brennan-Nelson and illustrated by Cyd Moore, is the story of a little girl who, through genuine goodwill, helps to make a neighborhood. When Willow moves to "a canary yellow house with turquoise shutters and a cherry red door" in a new neighborhood, she writes friendly little notes to her neighbors. She seeks their help with everything from cuttings for her garden in the spring to hats and mittens for the poor in the fall. In return, she shares effusive thanks, as well as flowers, vegetables, and yard art. But will her winning ways be enough to thaw the Grinch-like heart of Mr. Larch, owner of the best sledding hill on the street? Willow and the Snow Day Dance culminates with the first snowstorm of the winter, where all is revealed.

Willow and the Snow Day Dance is undeniably sappy. It's the Hallmark Holiday Movie of picture books (though not specifically about Christmas). But it's still a book possessing warmth and charm. Willow's notes to her neighbors brim forth with enthusiasm. Like this (except that you have to picture it in youthful printing, with colored pencil illustrations, and a little heart to dot the i in Willow):

"Dear Neighbors,

Thank you for all the mittens, hats and scarves! The charity drive at my school was a big success! Lots of head and hands will be warm!

Your friend and neighbor, Willow"

Although there's a strong intrinsic message to the book, about reaching out and being neighborly and so on, the message is conveyed entirely through Willow's actions (and the responses of her neighbors). This keeps Willow and the Snow Day Dance from feeling didactic.

Cyd Moore's illustrations are bright and cheerful, and suit the tone of the book. Willow's notes and signs dot the book, conveying a fair bit of the detail, and giving Willow and the Snow Day Dance a bit of a kid-assembled feel. WIllow's hair crackles with life, reflecting the energy that she brings to her activities. And the page in which a host of kids (and one adult) each undertake "the snow day dance" in their bedrooms is a riot, nightcap-wearing moon and all.

Willow and the Snow Day Dance is not a book for cynics. (And yes, there are picture books that are excellent for cynics.) But if you're looking for a cozy, uplifting sort of book to warm a winter's night, Willow and the Snow Day Dance could be just the ticket.

Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press
Publication Date: November 21, 2010
Source of Book: Library copy
Nominated for 2011 Cybils in Fiction Picture Books by: Lois Hume

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Starters: Lissa Price

Book: Starters
Author: Lissa Price
Pages: 352
Age Range: 12 and up

51byoFMiQsL._SL500_AA300_Starters is a new post-apocalypse dystopia for young adults, by Lissa Price. The premise is a little contrived, but works for the setup of the story. In a not-so-distant future America, medical advances have led to people routinely living to 200 years old. A bacterial weapon, spread by a hostile Pacific Rim country, has wiped out the population between ages 16 and 60 (because the more vulnerable segments of the population were vaccinated first). Kids orphaned by the virus, unless they have grandparents to take them in, become "unclaimed minors." They are not allowed to work (because that would take jobs away from the older people), and if captured by Marshalls, are placed in horrible state institutions. The young are called Starters. The old, Enders.

Callie lives on the streets as a scavenger until concern for her ill younger brother leads her to take part in a frightening new initiative. A company called Prime Destinations offers her the chance to essentially rent out her body. An Ender will control her, via neural chip, while her own brain sleeps. The Ender gets to live for a time in a young, vital body. And Callie gets the promise of enough money to rent a home for her brother, and buy him medicine. It seems almost too good to be true. Until Callie learns that her Ender plans to use her body to commit murder.

Starters is fast-paced and compelling. The plot has plenty of twists and turns. The fact that people can inhabit other people's bodies lends a constant sense of intrigue. You never quite know if someone is who they say they are. In tone and certain themes, Starters reminded me of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series.It's a book that readers will devour quickly. It's almost impossible to put down.

And yet, Starters raises intriguing questions, too. I'd like to be able to say that Starters isn't plausible. Not so much the science (though that's a scary concept), but more the utter callousness with which the dominant Enders treat the vulnerable young Starters. The gap between the haves and have-nots in Price's world, like the gap between the old and the young, is enormous. But neither gap is an inconceivable extrapolation of current trends. Thoughtful teen readers will find Starters chilling.

I also think that Price did a good job of conveying near-post-apocalypse nostalgia. Like this:

"I added pajamas to my internal list of things that I missed. Flannel, warm from the dryer. I was tired of always being dressed, ready to run or fight. I ached for fluffy jammies and a deep, forget-the-world sleep." (Chapter One)

"The smell of cinnamon filled the kitchen and made my heart ache. It reminded me of happy weekend brunches Mom, Dad, Tyler, and I used to have when we were a family." (Chapter Six)

She uses a light hand with such passages, but there are enough to make any reader stop for a moment of gratitude for day-to-day life and family. I think that these moments of gratitude are one of the reason that I enjoy post-apocalyptic novels so much, actually. I wonder how many teen readers feel the same?

It's not really possible for Price to include a lot of character development for most people in Starters. Many aren't even the same person from scene to scene. And it's often unsafe for people to reveal much about themselves anyway. That's ok. It completely works for the book. But Callie, the first person narrator, is likeable and has a solid teen perspective. Like this:

"My brain, no less. Probably my favorite body part. No one ever complained about a fat brain. No one ever accused their brain of being too short or too tall, too wide or too narrow. Or ugly. It either worked or it didn't, and mine worked just fine. I prayed it still would after the surgery." (Chapter Two)

Who wouldn't like her? She includes a little Cinderella sub-theme to some of her internal musings, too, a nice contrast to a generally more cynical worldview.

Starters ends not quite on a cliffhanger, but certainly with questions outstanding. I look forward to the sequel, Enders, due later this year.

I'm expecting Starters to be a hit. It positively oozes teen appeal, for boys or girls. It raises intriguing moral and scientific questions. And the twisty, action-packed plot will keep readers of all ages turning the pages. Highly recommended.

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: March 13, 2012
Source of Book: Advance review copy from NetGalley

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Children's Literacy and Reading News Roundup: Read Across America Edition

JkrROUNDUPJust in time for today's Read Across America Day celebrations, Carol Rasco has posted the end of February children's literacy and reading news roundup at Rasco from RIF. The roundups are brought to you twice a month by by Jen Robinson’s Book Page, Family Bookshelf and Rasco from RIF, and feature children's literacy-related events, literacy and reading programs and research, and suggestions for growing bookworms. Therre is a lot going on right now in the children's literacy and literature world.

Berenstains_bears-coverFirst up, I'd like to draw your attention to a special announcement included in the roundup. As you may have read, Jan Berenstain, co-creator with her late husband Stan of the well-loved Berenstain Bears books, passed away last week. Her family just designated RIF to receive memorial donations in Jan's name. If you would like to donate, just click anywhere in the announcement box at the top of the full roundup post at Rasco from RIF, or go directly to

2011RAAlogosmallSecond, as I mentioned above, today people all around the United States are celebrating Read Across America Day, organized by the NEA and held today in honor of Dr. Seuss's birthday. Here are a few of the many things going on today:

  • Sylvan Dell Publishing will be offering all seventy of their children’s picture book titles as free eBooks for you to read on their website this Friday, March 2nd. Click on the Read Across America icon in the upper right-hand corner of the website.
  • PBS KIDS is celebrating this special occasion with THE CAT-IN-THE-HAT-A-THON - a two-hour marathon of PBS KIDS’ popular series THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT!
  • Technically, this was posted yesterday, but it's a wonderful Dr. Seuss-inspired effort. Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production put out a call for a re-Seussification project, in which people reimagine classic Dr. Seuss books in the style of another illustrator. Betsy's favorite is Green Eggs and Ham in Eric Carle style. What's yours?

ShareAStoryLogo-colorThird, the annual Share a Story - Shape a Future literacy blog tour is being held next week (logo design by Elizabeth Dulemba). This year's theme is The Culture of Reading. The festivities will start Monday, with Donalyn Miller hosting a look at Creating a Reading Culture at home and at school. Terry Doherty (Share a Story founder) and Carol Rasco will be hosting themed days later in the week, with the help of many fabulous contributors.

Carol has lots of other literacy news in the full roundup. And here are a few extra tidbits from this week:

Tune in mid-month for the next children's literacy and reading news roundup. Thanks for reading, and for caring about children's literacy. And happy Read Across America Day!

Never Eighteen: Megan Bostic

Book: Never Eighteen
Author: Megan Bostic
Pages: 204
Age Range: 12 and up

Never18coverblNever Eighteen, as is implied by the title, is about a seventeen-year-old boy, Austin, who doesn't expect to live to see his 18th birthday. Megan Bostic parcels out the details slowly, in small references for alert readers (as when his best friend remarks on how he "could have" learned to drive rather than "could" learn to drive). Suspense over exactly what Austin's situation is keeps the reader guessing through most of the book, even as the broader situation is clear.

Despite the title, most of the text doesn't dwell on Austin's future or lack thereof. Instead, the story covers a single weekend during which Austin, assisted by his best friend Kaylee, follows a plan of action for making a difference in the time that he has. He visits various people, each of whom he believes is trapped in some way, and offers his help. He intersperses these visits with other activities, like visiting the county fair, and hiking to his favorite waterfall.

The whole sequence isn't completely plausible (the range of problems that the people in his life have, the range of activities that he undertakes in a short time, the notion that his Mom leaves him on his own to do it all, etc.). But it's still an engaging, almost metaphorical, journey, and nowhere near as sad as one would expect. Ultimately, there's a hopefulness to Austin that resonates with the reader, and makes Never Eighteen impossible to put down. I read it in a single sitting, with a few tears in my eyes at the end.

My only real problem with Never Eighteen was that I didn't find Austin (the first-person narrator) believable as a teenage boy. In fact, I spent the first several (short) chapters thinking that Austin was a girl. Yes, he talks about being in love with Kaylee. But I just figured that part of why he wouldn't tell Kaylee about his feeling was because she wasn't gay. It wasn't until a clear reference to an old girlfriend of Austin's who now had another boyfriend that I was sure that Austin was male. I'm not saying that a woman can't write plausibly from a male perspective, and vice versa. I just didn't find it quite successful here. I would be interested to hear feedback from male teen readers on their reactions to Austin.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of snippets, to give you a feel for Bostic's writing:

"Peggy nods and wears an expression that I've been witness to too much lately. Profound sadness. I've seen it at home, in the hallways at school, when I hang out with friends. I can't get used to it. And sometimes? It just plain pisses me off." (Page 35)

"This is my favorite hike, surrounded by trees and sky and soil. I've run into squirrels and marmots and even a black bear once. Nature has always been big for me, its raw beauty and magnificence. Sometimes I think about the trees and the mountains and how long they've been there. Much longer than I've been alive, and they'll be here long after I've gone. It makes you realize how small you are in the scheme of things, what little impact you have on the world. It's part of the reason why I'm doing what I'm doing this weekend, to make an impact. To know I might have made a difference, even if it was a small one." (Page 115)

Never Eighteen is a quick read, relatively light in tone for a book about dying. Austin draws the reader in from the first page. You wonder what's going on with him, and care what happens to him. And in truth (my quibbles about voice aside) he kind of made me want to be a better person. Teachers and librarians, I hope that this description gives you an idea of who to hand the book to.

Publisher: Graphia (@hmhbooks)
Publication Date: January 17, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).