Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena Book Review

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
Illustrations by Christian Robinson
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Release Date: January 8, 2015

Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. CJ wonders out loud though, why they don't have a car, why he doesn't have an iPod, and how come they always get off in the dirty part of town? His grandmother offers him sage advice, patiently explaining that if they had iPods, they would not be able to hear the musician on the bus. If they had a car they would not get a magic trick from the bus driver. As the bus travels down the street, CJ begins to see the beauty of the things around him, even the dirty old street. He sees the beauty in the people they are going to serve to, at the local soup kitchen.

This book absolutely deserves any and all accolades that it gets. The illustrations are bright, bold, and as beautiful as the character of the grandmother. She is a person who is living through example, taking her grandson each week, across town, to serve at a soup kitchen. He is still young, so he doesn't completely understand, but she is setting the example nonetheless. His questions of why they don't have more, or better, are met with love and a call for understanding. I think there are many many children who will be able to relate to CJ. Perhaps they too don't have cars, or the newest electronic gadget. Perhaps they, and their parents, need to be reminded of the beauty in the people and things around them.

As a child I remember being embarrassed when my mother would stop and ask if people needed rides home. She was a grown up. Didn't she know picking up strangers was dangerous? What I didn't realize or even think about was that my mother was smart enough and careful enough to know who to pick up. She offered an old woman a ride home from the grocery store as she pushed her cart down the sidewalk. Our mentally disabled neighbor often had a seat in our van. The same went for hospitality. We didn't have a lot of money, but there was always room on our floor for a band that was passing through. There was always some extra lemonade for the door-to-door salesman in the middle of July. My mother taught through example about hospitality and generosity and always patiently explained why whenever I questioned why we were picking up another stranger. By the time I was a teenager, I got it.

I don't think this one book is going to shape young people into caring individuals. That happens through example. But it is the answer to some questions and a jumping off point for deep discussion. I think it may be my new "birthday gift" book.

My Name Is Truth by Ann Turner Book Review

My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth by Ann Turner 
Illustrations by James Ransome
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: January 20, 2015

This is the true story of Isabella Baumfree, a former slave who later became known as a preach and orator named Sojourner Truth. An iconic figure of the abolitionist and women's rights movements, this story tells her story through her own words from the beginning to end.

This subject matter is an important part of our  American and particularly African-American history. It highlights are the important areas of Sojourner Truth's journey from being a young girl sold away from her parents to running away with her baby in her arms to preaching across the United States. However, I am going to have to agree with the Kirkus review here that states, "As a read-aloud, the text is strong and effective. As part of a curriculum, there are concerns. The first-person narrative can be mistakenly taken as an autobiography, which it is not, and quotations are not sources." Throughout the entire book I kept wondering how much was Sojourner Truth's actual voice and how much was the author taking creative license?

When writing a book about any true story one must take great care not to make up words or thoughts that no one (including the author) could possibly know. The difference being something like "Albert Einstein thought no one liked him..." as opposed to the more truthful "Perhaps Albert Einstein thought no one liked him..." It is such a subtle difference, but what the author would be doing with the second sentence is admitting that he or she does not actually know what Albert Einstein would be thinking. Unless they have a direct quote, it would be wrong to include such a thing in a biography. By suggesting that he could have thought something though, that is where the difference lies. Because there was no sourcing at the end of the book, I, the reader, have absolutely no idea how much of the book is Sojourner's actual words and what is made up. Since it is told in her voice and I am aware that she wrote an autobiography, I am going to assume that some of what is said is either exact quotes or paraphrasing. However, one should never assume. I made that mistake with Primates, which had a whole lot of made up things just so the author could create an interesting story. Whether that is the case with this book remains to be seen, but I definitely wouldn't recommend for schools and teaching until that issue is cleared up.

The Big Blue Thing On the Hill by Yuval Zommer Book Review

The Big Blue Thing On the Hill by Yuval Zommer
Publisher: Templar
Release Date: January 6, 2015

Things are peaceful at Howling Hill, where the bears, boars, and foxes live in harmony. That is, until a Big Blue Thing (a camper van to us humans) arrives on the hill. Everyone agrees--it needs to go. Each of the animals then sets about trying to scare away the blue thing, but nothing works. Finally, they consult the wise owl who calls forth all the bugs and makes them fly inside the big blue thing. As the insects swarm, the blue thing leaves in a hurry, leaving Howling Hill peaceful once more.

This book is a bit of an odd duck. The illustrations were adorable, but at times, some of the animals looked a bit strange and demented. At no point do any people emerge from the big blue thing (aka camper) for unknown reasons. I mean, we know that there are people inside so why not let us see them at some point? I wonder how the animals would react then? However, the storyline itself, of anthropomorphized animals being afraid of something innocuous like a camper was cute and funny. A bit of a mixed bag, I am sure there will be kids who will love it, even if it is missing any sort of internal logic.

The Jupiter Pirates: Curse of the Iris by Jason Fry Book Review

The Jupiter Pirate: Curse of the Iris by Jason Fry
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: December 16, 2014

In the future, pirating isn't just a space thing, but a family affair. Tycho Hashoone's family has been pirating for centuries except now they have a privateer's license and their pirating business is completely legal. Tycho and his two siblings are not only part of one of the greatest pirate...err...privateer vessels this side of Jupiter, but they are also in competition with one another to see who will become the next ship's captain. It has been a tough year since we last saw the Hashoone family. Since we last saw the Hashoones, it has been a tough year. Hostilities between the Jovian Union and Earth have reached a tipping point. They have had a run of terrible luck in the privateering department. But none of them realize that their next haul, a derelict ship floating through space, may be just what they need. Soon they are on the track of a long lost treasure, one with ties to their family, one that may reveal the truly piratical and cruel nature of what it means to be a pirate.

As I reviewed in the first book, The Hunt for Hydra, this is a high seas adventure set in space. As I had hoped, this second book did give us a bit more of the politics surrounding this "world" and as I suspected, it slowed down the plot considerably. Instead of a space race treasure hunt, this story was bogged down in political maneuverings.

This book has a lot of positives though. I still love the family dynamic, how well everyone works together and I find it almost sad by the prospect that they may all be split up one day. Tycho too is bothered by this and as this book progresses, he becomes more and more convinced that there has to be another way. They aren't pirates anymore. They have helped the Jovian Union numerous times. There has to be a way that his entire family can still sail among the stars rather than forcing them planetside, which would be a real waste of talent. I desperately want Tycho to become the captain (which is what I think the author is leading toward), but can also see that Tycho could do a lot of good if he were forced down to earth. He is not as headstrong as his sister nor as brash as his brother and he has just the right amount of compassion and intelligence to make him brave.

As in the first book, I also love that the children are given a lot of free reign with their parents permission to learn and grow. This is seen as necessary if they are to ever become captain. I wish there had been a bit more interaction with the people below decks as they are just mysterious people who obey and follow with seemingly no traitors among them, but perhaps that will be in the next book?

On the whole, another fun space adventure with a bit more politics than I would have liked, but plenty of space battles to make up for it.

The Extraordinary Mr. Qwerty by Karla Strambini Book Review

The Extraordinary Mr. Qwerty by Karla Strambini 
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: November 11, 2014

Norman Qwerty is a man of many ideas, and none of them are the least bit ordinary. He’s quite certain that no one else thinks the way he does and keeps to himself. But when his ideas get too big to hold in, he builds the most extraordinary thing! Soon Mr. Qwerty realizes he is not alone, surrounded by other people who were just afraid of what everyone would think of their ideas too. 

For such a simple storyline, there is a lot going on here. Between the text and the multi-layered illustrations I found myself wanting to spend more time with the pictures to the point that I would forget what I had just read. Not good in a picture book format, which leads me to believe that this story would have been better served as a wordless picture book. The illustrations really are busy, but this wouldn't be a problem at all if there wasn't text to keep up with. There is enough information in the art for a reader to get an understanding of the throughline making the narrative unnecessarily redundant. I read through this a second and third time, without reading the words and found that it was easy to understand and engaging. Strambini really is a very talented artist so I am hoping to see more of her illustrations, although I am hoping that the marriage between text and pictures is better executed in the next book she writes. 

Emmanuel's Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson Book Review

Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson
Illustrations by Sean Qualls
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Release Date: January 6, 2015

In Ghana, when a person is born handicapped or disabled, they believe it is a punishment from God. Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born with a deformed leg. Rather than beg on the streets like other disabled people, Emmanuel is determined to do everything. As a boy, Emmanuel hops to school more than two miles in both directions. He learns to play soccer, becomes the provider for his family and eventually, a cyclist. In 2001, Emmanuel rides four hundred miles across Ghana spreading a powerful message: disability is not inability.

It is amazing to me that in such an information age, there is simply too much information out there for us to know all of these truly fantastic stories of the human spirit and what it can do. I am so happy that some of them find their way into movies, books, and stage. Emmanuel's story is special though because it comes from an area that here in America has been almost dehumanized. When you mention Ghana, the first thing people in the west think of is Africa. That's it. An entire continent. Emmanuel's story shrinks that down into manageable bits. It shows us a bit of Ghana, the culture, and how it can change. It shows how his story is pertinent to his area, but also how it is universal as well.

Emmanuel's story, his bike ride across his country, brought attention to disabilities and their misconceptions. He developed a huge following, reminding me of the fictional Forrest Gump and his run across the United States. Emmanuel had a message though, one of hope and empowerment for others like himself. The illustrations by Sean Qualls are spot on and blend seemlessly with the text. I am so happy that this book exists to continue Emmanuel's message of equality, understanding, and hope to another generation of children.

Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony Book Review

Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: December 30, 2014

Mr. Panda is offering donuts. However, as he offers, not a single friend, not the penguin, skunk, or whale seem to know how to say please and so Mr. Panda gives them nothing.

When I first read this book, I had a knee-jerk reaction that a lot of reviewers seem to be having where Mr. Panda is a bit of a jerk for offering donuts and then just walking away when they don't say please. A fact that is not completely obvious in the beginning. Why isn't he giving them donuts? What is the deal? Oh...I see...they didn't say please.

After having just read a chapter in Wild Things by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta, concerning subversive children's literature, I have a bit of different perspective on this. I think we expect out children's literature to always be neat and tidy. We want our children to learn to be giving and even demand that they say please and thank you, but are bothered when a character (or child) refuses to give something over when that please or thank you is withheld? What do we want? The reality is, we live in a world where people don't always say please or thank you for things and it is our prerogative as human beings to not do something for someone just because they command it. In fact, I have witnessed many times, where parents have disciplined a child for not saying please or thank you or even taking said object/food away from the child for not being polite. To teach a lesson.

That is all that Mr. Panda is doing here. He offers, they demand, he walks away. No, you can't have a donut if you are going to be a jerk about it. Mr. Panda isn't the one who is the jerk, it's all the other animals.

Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson Book Review

Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Release Date: October 7, 2014

A girl from the forest arrives at Pennyroyal Academy, with no name and only the vaguest idea of why she is there. She enlists to become a Princess, a role that isn't about a title, but rather training, for Princesses are trained to fight witches. There she is given the number Cadet 11, which she shortens to "Evie", and begins life at Pennyroyal Adademy as a princess in training. As Evie learns what it means to be a princess though, she isn't sure if she is capable of fighting witches, but she does know there is a reason she is there.

I desperately wanted to like this book. A school where girls (princesses) are trained to fight witches and boys (knights) are trained to battle giants and dragons. Fairies are drill sergeants. The princesses of legend like Cinderella and Snow White are warriors. Secrets involving dragons, curses, and witches surrounding you at every turn. Sadly, what is a terrific idea was so poorly executed that I began to wonder if there was something the matter with me. Why would I continue to read a book that was so bad?

The first answer is simply that I was listening to it as an audio book and for some reason audio books feel like less work. I'm in the car anyway so I may as well listen to something, so why not this. A note regarding the audio book, the woman who read this Susan Duerden, was for lack of a better word--terrible. Although she did fine with the various voices, she ended almost every single sentence with her voice going up at the end. Every single sentence. This did give it a sing-song quality, but also made it sound strange, as if there was never an ending to any sentence.

The story itself was full of so many plot holes and unnecessary mystery that I started to become anxious. Evie arrives at the academy, having just run away from her dragon parents although she is human, and knowing nothing about the academy except what was on an advertisement that she happened upon in the forest. Although Evie has no name when she arrives and refuses to tell the reader, adults, or other cadets about her family, she is accepted right away. When they say she has a memory curse, she is adamant that she does not, even though she has no name or recollection of her life before living with dragons. In fact, it seems to surprise her greatly when the memory curse treatment begins to work. Halfway through Evie goes from a kind of likable but completely uncommunicative newbie, to an insufferable brat whose newfound communication skills are used to yell at the people around her. Then she magically finds her compassion at the end and becomes a warrior princess.

And there is the other rub. This is how magic apparently works for princesses: They are kind, loving, and compassionate. Once they find that inside of themselves they somehow can create a magical shield around themselves that can ward off witches. In the meantime, while they are trying to find that secret compassion within, they train in a boot camp that is absolutely ridiculous. At one point the princesses have to wrestle with the knights and use the skills they learned from their sewing and weaving classes to win. For some reason, even though these girls are supposed to be learning how to be fighters, they still have to attend balls, make dresses, and learn to dance. There is a war going on and these girls are running around pining after the knights and going to balls. On top of that, even though girls are regularly being sent away for not having what it takes to be a princess, one character in particular who is very very un-princesslike is allowed to stay for reasons that I can only assume have to do with keeping tension in the story. If you were trying to train girls who needed to be compassionate, loving, and kind, one would think they would have to take classes in caring for others. Wouldn't the teachers give lectures about what true compassion is? Wouldn't you go visit the town and help the poor and needy? Those things would teach compassion far better than a wrestling match in the mud or sewing a new dress.

The setting was vague throughout. I never got a good picture of how anything looked. The castle, the academy, where Evie lived with the dragons. And the romance. Evie spends so much time falling in love with a boy who drips with Prince Charming ooziness that it was sickening. Really, the boy was always charming and never once admits to her that she has saved his life numerous times. For whatever reason he can also turn himself into a frog which plays no significant role in the book whatsoever. By the way, why are the boys called knights and the girls princesses? Why aren't the boys Princes? I am also not sure what age this is geared toward. The corniness of the story made me think that it was for middle graders, but with the addition of heavy romance and the fact that Evie is fifteen, it is being touted as a young adult book. It is not. I was truly disappointed in this book (as you can see) and was really hoping for something with a bit more understandable magic and not as many secrets that weren't really secrets.

Wild Rover No More by L.A. Meyer Book Review

Wild Rover No More by L.A. Meyer
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 4, 2014

On August 3, 2014 I opened up my Facebook to find this note from the author page of L.A. Meyer:

Ahoy there, mates,
A bit of sad news, I’m afraid… Sorry- can’t be helped. My stalwart companion, L.A. Meyer, ever the cheeky bastard, has concluded that it is high time we pull anchor and set sail for the Great Beyond. Thick as thieves we are, so as always, I shall accompany him on this voyage. Never a dull moment, eh?
Chin up, you, for we have left many a tale in our wake, some virtuous, others a bit tawdry, but ain’t that the way of life? In fact, WILD ROVER NO MORE awaits you at the beginning of September. I should ever so much love to tarry, but the bosun’s at his whistle again… We must be off.
Think of us from time to time, won’t you? And snap a quick salute when next you pass the ocean blue. We are out there somewhere- you can count on it.

I can tell you now that there were some definite tears shed, not only for an author I loved, but for the way in which he chose to say goodbye. 

This is L.A. Meyer's final book. I don't know if he held on in order to complete this last book or what, but I am so grateful that he managed to finish. That he left this legacy behind. Jacky Faber has gone on her last adventure and what wonderful adventures they are too. Jacky has traveled the world, she speaks many languages, she has garnered a plethora of friends and enemies. Of course, some of that is coming back to bite her on her little Cagney ass, but she takes it in the way she has always done. Head up, teeth apart, chin set.

I did wish there had been a bit more of Jacky as a governess and a lot less of her time at the circus, which was rather a stupid place to be when trying to hide out, but I was satisfied with the final book in this twelve book series. The ending was a bit of a tear jerker, but in typical Jacky fashion, it was fun and perfect. Honestly, I am going to miss Jacky. And because there will be no more books and simply because I can, here is what I imagine for Jacky's future:

Jacky, despite her protestations will have three children. Two boys and a girl. I can see her on her schooner, bright red wig on her head as the two boys scramble around the mast. They are like their mother, adventurous and strong-willed. She has already had to deal with one of them running away. The girl is like Jaimy, which sort of bothers Jacky, but then she loves Jaimy and it was bound to happen. There are already plans of sending the youngest to Mrs. Pim's School for Girls. Unlike Jacky, her daughter will absolutely love it there. As Jacky grows older, she continues to sail, but she is a little less flirtatious, a little less adventurous, more eager to visit friends than make new enemies. Somewhere in there though, there is the occasional adventure involving old sea wrecks and treasure and visits to New Orleans. She continues to buy ships for her trading company and by the time she is an old woman, has quite a trade going on. Jacky is generous with her money and makes sure that those she knows and love are taken care of. When they are very old, Jacky finally agrees to move to the English countryside with Jaimy, but she desperately misses her home and so, old and frail they make one final trip across the Atlantic. As she arrives in Boston her sons and daughter and many many grandchildren are there to greet her. Jacky looks out at the ocean knowing that this last voyage was truly her final adventure and somehow she doesn't mind so much.     

Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews by Kathleen Benson Haskins Book Review

Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews by Kathleen Benson Haskins
Illustrations by Benny Andrews
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release Date: January 6, 2015

Benny Andrews loves to draw. While everyone else was drawing impressionist paintings, Benny chose to draw what he saw around him. He drew his nine brothers and sisters, his parents, the red earth of the fields, the hot sun beating down on them, the rows and tows of crops. He dreamed of better life than that though, one where people would see his art and not his skin color. Benny's dream came true when he left Georgia behind, eventually becoming one of the most important African American painters of the twentieth century, opening doors for other artists of color.

I admit that I am not a connoisseur of art. Part of the reason I started this blog was a way to share and explore some of the many illustrators and artists out there who are working in the children's book industry. Benny Andrews is yet another artist that I am very glad to find through this discovery process. His work is colorful and relateable.

On a purely graphic design side of things though, I was disappointed in the way the art and text didn't work cohesively together. Some of the illustrations chosen for certain pages didn't match what was being said in the narrative. There were large swathes of white space in the first half of the book, purely due to the fact that certain illustrations didn't lend themselves to a 2 page spread. Although Benny Andrew's art is quite beautiful, I didn't feel like it worked so well as a picture book because the text was not working in tandem with what was being presented visually. This did not happen throughout the entire book though and I found myself drawn in more as the story progressed.

I honestly was more interested in the biography and timeline at the end of the book then I was by the narrative in the book, which means that this picture book biography, for me, did not work well in a picture book format.

This book did lead me to do some of my own research though and I really have enjoyed some of the interviews and images I have come across. I share the words of Benny Andrews with you now:

The Dinner That Cooked Itself by Jennifer Hsyu Book Review

The Dinner That Cooked Itself by Jennifer Hsyu
Illustrations by Kenard Pak
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
Release Date: December 16, 2014

Long, long ago, in a small town in ancient China, there lived an honest and respectful man called Tuan. Tuan was lonely and looked hard for a wife, but even the matchmaker couldn't help him. After bringing home a snail, strange things begin to happen. Onethe first night, Tuan's luck changes as a beautiful meal is laid out before him. But who cooked it? The second night, the same thing happens. By the third night, a huge sumptuous feast appears as does a goddess.
 As I understand it, this is a retelling of a classical Chinese fairy tale called the Swan Maiden. I liked that it had a classic feel with things done by three. Three girls, three nights, three feasts. As with many fairy tales, they tend to be a bit wordier than the average picture book story, but I thought Hsyu and Pak did a good job of balancing text and art. Pak's illustrations are absolutely beautiful, feeling very much like illustrated representations of the careful brush strokes in Chinese calligraphy. There is a nice focus on the calligraphy and how they play a part in ancient matchmaking (probably some modern as well). At the end are two pages highlighting the calligraphy showing the different characters used in the book and how to write it. Definitely a great book for introducing Chinese fairy tales, culture, and writing. 

A perfect book for any time of the year, but especially timely for the Chinese New Year (February 19).

Girl Defective by Simmone Howell Book Review

Girl Defective by Simmone Howell
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 2, 2014

Skylark Martin, Sky for short, lives with her father and little brother in a vintage record shop and is trying to find her place in the world. Her younger brother, Gully, who wears a pig nose that their absent mother sent him, is destined to be a private eye. He is determined to find the guy who threw a brick through the store window even if he recklessly puts everyone else in danger. Her friend Nancy, a few years older and completely unreliable, always has interesting advice for Sky, but it isn't always the best advice. Then there is tragi-hot Luke, her dad's newest employee and brother to the recently dead Mia Casey. Sky isn't like her mom or her dad or Nancy, but finding who she really is isn't as easy as everyone makes it look.

This isn't my usual book fare, but something about the cover and the title really drew me in. It's not that I always judge books by their covers, but sometimes it is the thing that make you pick up a book.  A cross between Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist and Empire Records, Girl Defective is a nice blend of coming of age novel and musical review. There is a tad bit of crazy mixed in too.

In the beginning, Sky is a pretty vanilla character. Her interests are those of the people around her. She keeps her mother's things, not because she likes them, but as a way of staying connected to her. Because her dad loves music, she loves music, quoting him when she needs a good opinion. Her friend Nancy easily sways Sky to drink, party, and even do drugs, and Sky envies Nancy's free ways. At no point does Sky struggle over the morality of what she is doing, only pondering where her part in all this is. For Sky, this story is her awakening, that moment where a person begins to discover who they are outside of their family and friends.

Although I really like this aspect of the story, because I can relate to the struggle of having to find yourself, free from your familiar bonds and peer pressure, the book was ponderously slow at times. The only thing interesting about Luke is his dead sister, which is a shame, because there was so much potential in a character like that. Since we are never given more than a glimpse into his previous life or even the person he is now, he just remains the mystery boy with a dead sister. Nancy would be interesting too if she weren't so damned mysterious. I kept waiting for us to find out something about her, for her to reveal something to Sky, but she never really does. She is a stranger in the night, passing through, convincing everyone she can that she is happy and okay. Sky sees through this facade, but all I could imagine for Nancy's future is that she will wind up dead in the water just like Luke's sister. There is no future for Nancy and there doesn't seem to be a past for her either.

Sky's younger brother Gully was perhaps the most interesting character. Fearless, strong-willed, and persistent, I kind of wish this had been Gully's story. I wanted to know what he was thinking, why he was so driven to find vandals, and why he quit talking at one point. From the beginning, I thought that Gully was probably autistic with his obsession with routine, lists, detective work, and lack of social cues. I could be wrong, but that is definitely how it felt.

In the end, this was a book with a compelling narrator, but lacked a good throughline or focus. There was some exceptional bits of writing and I was intrigued enough to read to the end, but sadly it was not memorable or groundbreaking and left me feeling like there should have been more. More plot, more characterization, more music, and more resolution.

Surrounded by Sharks by Michael Northrup Book Review

Surrounded by Sharks by Michael Northrup
Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: May 27, 2014

Stuck in a small hotel room with his family on the beginning of their vacation, Davey decides to sneak out and find a quieter less stinky place to relax and read. Still early, Davey encounters no one as he makes his way to a secluded beach on the island. Not much of a swimmer, but wanting to at least enjoy his private beach, Davey ignores the "No Swimming" sign and goes in for a quick dip. What he didn't take see though was the rip tide that is slowly pulling him further from the shore. By the time he realizes what is happening, it is too late and he is being sucked out into the ocean. And there is something else too. Something circling below the surface, watching, waiting.

The things in this book are the very reason why I do not swim in the ocean. Period. Not only do I hate the beach, but I absolutely loathe the open ocean. Rip tides, sharks, jellyfish, salt water. I find absolutely nothing redeeming about it and this book only helped reiterate my irrational fears.

This is Michael Northrup's strength too. He takes these situations, like blizzards and swimming in the ocean and in a Jack London like style, deftly weaves together a man vs. nature tale. The narrative jumps back and forth between Davey, his family, and a girl who was the only person who saw Davey before he disappeared, and even a shark. Knowing what Davey is going through on the ocean as he clings to a plastic water jug and sharks circling below his feet, adds an immediacy and frustration with the other characters. Davey is barely surviving while his family casually searches through the island for him, completely missing his glasses and book on the secluded beach. Davey's brother, Brandon becomes frustrated by the many miscommunications and the fact that the grown-ups don't want to listen to him. Their concern for their son is real, but until 2/3 of the way through the book, they still believe that Davey has simply run off. This tension is beyond frustrating, but is a very important element in the pacing of the narrative. I was practically flying through the book in the end as the race was on as to whether the Coast Guard or the shark was going to get to Davey first. The end is action-packed although a bit tidy and not to ruin the ending, but I am okay with people not getting eaten by sharks.

A very solid adventure story with some interesting and relateable characters. I would consider this one to be a good read for those who are getting a bit old for the middle grade books, but may not be ready for the more intense (and depressing) young adult ones.

A Crankenstein Valentine by Samantha Berger Book Review

A Crankenstein Valentine by Samantha Berger
Illustrations by Dan Santat
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: December 16, 2014

He's BAAAAACK! See what happens to an ordinary kid on the most lovey-dovey, yuckiest day of the year-Valentine's Day.  Cheesy cards, allergy-inducing bouquets, and heart-shaped everything? It's enough to turn anyone into a monster. But Crankenstein might just find a way to turn his sour day sweet... because even the crankiest monsters have heart.

Secretly, I think we all have a hidden Crankenstein within. Perhaps not towards Valentine's Day, but there has to be something that everyone else loves that you can't stand, but might come around under the right conditions. Of all the holidays though, I can understand why Crankenstein would be a little grumpy. A perfect book for storytime and full of craft ideas, this is a fun holiday book. 

Ordinary People In Extraordinary Times: Writing Characters in Historical Fiction

Years ago, while I was still in college getting my MFA, one of my professor's offered a sage bit of writing advice. She told us to ask ourselves, why does my story start here? Why is this the opening sentence, the opening chapter? What is significant about this specific moment in time that we feel the reader needs to come in on? What makes this day or hour more interesting than all the others? Because that is why the reader is reading, right? To be a part of something interesting, entertaining, or at the very least, informative.

This bit of advice should be thought about when creating narrators and characters as well though, especially in regards to historical fiction. Why this family? Why this girl or boy, man or woman? Why should we be interested in this person over the millions and billions of people living in that time period? What makes them special?

It is estimated that almost 108 billion people have lived on this earth throughout all of human history. 99% of which lived ordinary lives, even while living through extraordinary times. Most of these people, despite the events going on in the world, would have rather boring stories. Their lives mattered to those they loved or hated, but who they are has been lost to the ravages of time. When I read a book, specifically historical fiction, I do not want to read about those ordinary people. We all lived through 9/11, which was terrible, but if you tried to write the story from my perspective it would be from 500 miles away and rather brief. I can think of a dozen people who would have a far more interesting viewpoint. This is not to say that our perspective's are bad or insignificant for they are important to us, only that they would not make an interesting read in a novel.

When you set an ordinary main character into an extraordinary setting, it is very easy for these great events to overshadow the characters. In a book I am currently reading, the story is set during the civil rights era. The main character, is rather ordinary. Extremely ordinary. So ordinary that her view of this time period feels overly naive and didactic. The main character acts as if prejudice, racism, segregation, are completely new things to her, despite being surrounded and confronted with it on a daily basis. By far the more interesting character is the secondary character, a black boy who has Freedom Riders living in his house. There is danger in him, defiance, a drive to understand, the need for more. I want his story.

Yes, we should have characters that the reader can relate to, but the result needn't be the everyday commoner. Why would I read a story about the ordinary? I see that everyday, living my life. If you are going to write historical fiction then I expect interesting things to happen to interesting people. Historical fiction is hard to write, it requires hours upon hours of careful research, the least we can do is make sure that the characters don't get so bogged down with history that they themselves become boring caricatures.

Violet and Victor Write the Best-Ever Bookworm Book by Alice Kuipers Book Review

Violet and Victor Write the Best-Ever Bookworm Book by Alice Kuipers
Illustrations by Bethanie Deeney Murguia
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: December 1, 2014

Writing is not easy, or so Violet and Victor Small discover. Carefully crafted, this is the story about how to write stories from a child's perspective. There are all the necessary elements from narration, to pacing, to plot. Both children have very different views on how this story should be done, but somehow managed to create a story together.

This reminded me of how we used to pretend when I was little. Being a writer and reader even at a young age, it wasn't unusual for us to create stories, character sheets, and maps before we began to play. Sometimes we spent so much time building our world that we ran out of time to play and had to return to it later. Anything that encourages children to not only read, but also to create stories themselves get's an A+ in my book.

The Zodiac Legacy by Stan Lee Book Review and Giveaway

The Zodiac Legacy: Convergence by Stan Lee & Stuart Moore
Illustrations by Andie Tong
Publisher: Disney Press
Release Date: January 27, 2015

While on a class trip to Hong Kong, Steve, a Chinese-American teenager, stumbles across something big. Beneath the museum they are touring, a man named Maxwell is unlocking the power of the Zodiac. Maxwell is determined to soak up each of the mystical powers one by one, to take over a corrupt and wasteful earth. However, Maxwell isn't so innocent himself, with the death of thousands on his head and that of his company, The Vanguard. There are those who are resisting though and Steven gets caught up in the middle, accidentally taking on the power of his Zodiac sign, The Tiger. Maxwell only gets seven of the Zodiac powers, the rest escaping to find hosts fit enough to wield the powers of Rabbit, Rooster, Ram, and Pig. Together with half Dragon Jasmine and Zodiac-ologist Carlos, Steven must circumvent the globe to recruit the other powers before Maxwell does. Will a half-Dragon, Tiger, Rabbit, Rooster, Ram, and Pig be enough though?

Stan Lee is well-known for his work with Marvel and this book was right in line with the kind of stories he likes to tell and produce. With help from Stuart Moore and Andie Tong, they have put together a book that fans old and new will love. Rather than use the typical Greek, Norse, or even Egyptian mythology though, this story firmly roots itself in Chinese mythology. Each "superpower" or Zodiac sign is made to seem extremely cool so that there isn't one zodiac sign that wouldn't seem like an awesome power to have. The Rooster uses sonic waves to damage or even destroy her enemies. The Pig is a computer hacking genius. The Ram is almost indestructible. 

As with any plot-driven action-packed superhero origin story, there isn't a whole lot of characterization going on. The characters are purposefully made to be stereotypes of their own zodiac signs. This did work in the context of the story, but sometimes left me wanting to get a little more up close and personal with some of the characters. I was intrigued by Liam the bruiser (Ram) who was always looking for a fight with a lie on his lips. That said, there were a LOT of characters in this book. With twelve zodiac signs plus various peripheral characters, it would have been confusing and long-winded to give too many of them space in the book. Steven is, of course, the main characters, but since the viewpoint does shift between different characters, including Maxwell, there were times where it felt a bit much. Like, this would work if we were reading a comic book, but not so much in a novel.

There are some great moments though. I love that Steven really struggles with issues having to do with his ethnicity, like not feeling Chinese enough in Hong Kong. He wasn't just an insert-ethnic-character-here kind of person and it gave him weight, purpose, and history. History that became extremely important in the story and based on the end, will play a big role as we move into the series. The illustrations by Andie Tong were things of beauty that are usually reserved for comic books and not books like this. Extremely detailed, I found myself flipping through the book, not because I wanted to spoil the ending for myself, but simply because I wanted to enjoy the art that went into them.  

I think any fan of Stan Lee, Marvel, comic books, or superhero stories are really going to like this one, no matter their age. My husband is already recommending it to people based simply off of what I have said about it.  

This book was provided to my by Disney Enterprises, Inc. in conjunction with Big Honcho Media in exchange for an honest review and book giveaway.

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About the Creative Team:
Stan Lee is known to millions as the man whose Super Heroes propelled Marvel to its preeminent position in the comic book industry. His co-creations include Spider-Man, The Avengers, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, as well as hundreds of others. He introduced Spider-Man as a syndicated newspaper strip that became the most successful of all syndicated adventure strips and has appeared in more than 500 newspapers worldwide. Stan currently remains Chairman Emeritus of Marvel, as well as a member of the Editorial Board of Marvel Comics. He is also the Chairman & Chief Creative officer of POW! Entertainment, a multimedia entertainment company based in Beverly Hills, CA.

Stuart Moore has been a writer, a book editor, and an award-winning comics editor. His recent writing includes Civil War, the first in a new line of prose novels from Marvel Comics, The Art of Iron Man 3 (Marvel, with Marie Javins); and THE 99, a multicultural super hero comic from Teshkeel.

Andie Tong has worked on titles for various franchises, including Tron: Betrayal, Spectacular Spider-Man UK, The Batman Strikes, Smallville, Wheel of Time, TMNT, Masters of the Universe, and Starship Troopers, working for companies such as Disney, Marvel, DC Comics, Panini, Dark Horse, and Dynamite Entertainment, as well as commercial illustrations for numerous advertising agencies including Nike, Universal, CBS, Mattel, and Habsro. When he gets the chance, Andie concept designs for various companies, and also juggles illustration duties on a range of children's picture storybooks for Harper Collins. Malaysian born, Andie migrated to Australia at a young age, and then moved to London in 2005. In 2012, he journeyed back to Asia and currently resides in Singapore with this wife and daughter.

Nurse, Soldier, Spy by Marissa Moss Book Review

Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss
Illustrations by John Hendrix
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: March 1, 2011

At the age of nineteen, Sarah Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Civil War. As Frank Thompson, she fought the Confederacy. First a soldier, then a battlefield nurse, Sarah was as brave as any man and she kept her secret well. After showing considerable bravery, Emma was recruited to become a spy. Disguising herself as a black man, Sarah crossed enemy lines. What she discovered was that if people ignored you as a woman, they ignored slaves even more. She found out who had been leaking information to the confederates. Eventually, Sarah had to return to her skirts and feminine ways, but soon everyone knew of Sarah's adventures through a book she had written.

As with the Ballots for Belva, I sought out this book because there is apparently a good deal of women's history that I am unfamiliar with. Don't worry, I have been reading "grown-up" books as well. As a child one of my favorite "characters" to play was Belle Starr the female outlaw. It wasn't because I thought that being an outlaw was good, but rather because she was one of the few women that I was aware of that had done more than sew, wear dresses, and make babies. (to be fair, Belle made babies too and wore dresses) I would have been beside myself to find out that someone like Sarah Emma Edmonds existed.

I absolutely love that someone wrote a book about this woman. I love that picture book biographies, and biographies in general are beginning to expand beyond the basic list of more famous people like Einstein, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller. Moss does such a good job of telling Sarah's story with the care of someone who is revealing a secret. As a child, the image I had regarding women and their roles in society were very limited. I am so happy to see that authors are pushing against that and providing young readers with a broader perspective of the world.