Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith Book Review

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson
Illustrations by Sydney Smith
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Release Date: March 17, 2015

In this wordless picture book, a little girl collects flowers while her distracted father pays her little attention. Each flower becomes a gift, and whether the gift is noticed or ignored, both giver and recipient are transformed by their encounter.

Another beautiful book for the wordless picture book category, Sidewalk Flowers is about finding beauty and kindness. It is so easy for grownups to only see their endpoint, walking quickly here and there, forgetting or not willing to stop and look at the flowers once in a while. It reminds me of the book The Phantom Tollbooth when Milo comes upon a city that is invisible because the residents quit looking at it and eventually it just faded away into nothing. It was this story that stuck with me when I moved to Boston. I didn't want to miss anything, allowing the city to fade into nothing but errands and work. This book is saying the same thing. I also love that the child is collecting because there is some driving need in her to be generous and kind. A flower for the lady in the taxi. One for the dead bird on the sidewalk.

Rosario's Fig Tree by Charis Wahl Book Review

Rosario's Fig Tree by Charis Wahl
Illustrations by Luc Melanson
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Release Date: March 1, 2015

Rosario lives next door to a little girl who helps him plant his vegetables every year. One spring, Rosario plants a fig tree which soon bears sweet purple fruit. But when fall comes, Rosario does the strangest thing. He bend it over and buries it in the ground. When spring comes around again they plant the usual beans and tomatoes, but not a new fig tree. No, Rosario unearths the fig tree and somehow, brings it back to life.

Being a city kid, gardening was something that I only understood on a purely intellectual level. At one point I vaguely recall my parents trying to plant a vegetable garden but NC soil (i.e. clay) isn't the most conducive for gardening and we eventually gave up. Fast forward to two years ago, when I planted my first herb garden on my small balcony at my apartment. Turns out, I have a bit of a green thumb. My garden has grown since then and now my balcony is stuffed with Thai Chilis, Cayenne Peppers, Lettuce, Parsley, Lavender, Oregano, Cilantro, Thyme, Sage, Basil, Dill, Rosemary, Garlic, and Chives. If you saw the size of my patio you would be quite surprised by this.

Which is the reason why I have been gravitating towards books with a gardening bent lately. I was fascinated by the information in this one because I had no idea that you could do this to any plant and it survive. Heck, I was surprised when my Chives survived the winter and bloomed. Seriously, I didn't know Chives could flower. There was a lot of great useful information in this one. What I found off putting were the illustrations, which reminded me of bad computer generated pictures. This is a great shame because Luc Melanson is a fantastic illustrator. These illustrations simply didn't work for me though. As I always say though, children aren't art critics (and neither am I for that matter) and don't hold such staunch feelings against illustrations that we adults do.

Look! by Jeff Mack Book Review

Look! by Jeff Mack
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: April 7, 2015

There are only two words in this entire book, but sometimes two words are all you need to say a lot of stuff. LOOK and OUT is what one attention starved gorrilla uses as he desperately tries to get the boy to pay attention to him.

Ridiculous in its slapstick nature and simple in its language, Look! really is a great book. I mean, this kid is missing so much as he sits there glued to his television screen, but the gorilla never gives up. The entire story really is about trying to get a kid to read rather than watch TV. (although this binge-Netflix watcher believes it is possible to do both) Kids will easily be able to join in on this one, making it perfect for storytimes. I am sure that this will be one that teachers and librarians in particular are going to love. Nothing wrong with that mind you, but us book types have a tendency to go ga-ga over books that promote reading. I can't imagine why.

Friends For Life by Andrew Norriss Book Review

Friends for Life by Andrew Norriss
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Release Date: August 25, 2015
(UK Title: Jessica's Ghost)

When Jessica sits down next to Francis on a bench during recess, he is surprised to learn she is a ghost. It doesn't freak him out too much, but it is interesting since he is the first person who has been able to see her since she died. They quickly become fast friends, something that Francis isn't exactly used to consider his--eccentricities. A bit of an outcast, Francis is a boy who is into fashion, designing clothes in his attic that he puts on dolls. He thought he would be embarrassed if anyone ever saw this, but Jessica loves it. Then, on a whim, his mother insists that Francis try to befriend a new boy down the street who doesn't want to go to school. Except the new boy is a girl, Andi, and Andi and Francis have absolutely nothing in common. Except that Andi can see Jessica too. The three bond so well that Francis begins to get quite the reputation as a people fixer. Soon he is "hired out" to help another person, Roland, who never leaves his bedroom. Roland is the third person who can see Jessica. But why can they all see her when no one else can? The secret lies with Jessica and her death and the reason why she hasn't been able to move on. The reason why she returns to her hospital room every night. The reason they are all friends for life.

When this story began I expected it to be a story about friends despite differences, learning to love who you are, and overcoming bullies. And to some extent those things are all a part of this story. However, without giving too much away, once Jessica's secret is revealed this story takes a turn into something deeper, darker, and far more important. It made me uncomfortable, forcing me to question if a child should be reading this. This is always a good question in my mind, because this is the protective nature of an adult. We want to protect children from darkness, from the untidy things in life, and some kids need that protection as they aren't yet ready to deal with those things. But there are kids out there that need this book. It's fictional nature may be just the thing the Francis, Rolands, and Andis of the world need. There is a good deal of power in these pages and as truths are revealed, a great deal of revelation too.

Have You Seen My Monster? by Steve Light Book Review

Have You Seen My Monster? by Steve Light
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: April 7, 2015

There is a monster on the loose at the county fair and one little girl is in search of it. Throughout the book readers will spy the friendly monster along with twenty shapes, identified by their proper names like trapezoids, ellipses, kites, heptagon, nonoagon.

Author of Have You Seen My Dragon?, Steve Light moves from counting to shapes in a way that is absolutely extraordinary. Seriously, when was the last time you read a kid's shape book that mentioned quatrefoil, trapezium, and curvilineaer triangles? Just like in Have You Seen My Dragon?, Light uses color to differentiate between the different shapes, with the monster always hiding in the background. None of the shapes ever felt forced and if the colors and text were removed that pointed out that this was a "shapes" book, it would still be a rather fantastic picture book. Shapes are just a super added bonus. A great introduction to shapes that go beyond circles, squares, and triangles, I can think of so many applications for this book. Who knows, this may be the beginning of a child's love affair with Geometry. 

Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred) by Josh Schneider Book Review

Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred) by Josh Schneider
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release Date: April 7, 2015

Everybody sleeps. Except Fred, who is far too busy with a to-do list that is far too long. It doesn't matter that all the animals are tired, Fred goes and goes and goes. Until he doesn't.

As I read this I had vague flashbacks of my youngest brother who had a lot of energy and a terrible time sleeping. Still does as a matter of fact. It was not unusual to walk into his bedroom at midnight and while the other two boys were blissfully sawing Zzz's, there he sat in the moonlight playing with blocks or pacing the room and pretending. It was infuriating for everyone in the house and I could relate to the animals in this story who seemed frustrated and exhausted.

Due to the aforementioned animals in this story this was a fun search and find kind of book with plenty to look at on every page. I always love these kinds of books because it makes the book feel more intimate with the reader. Despite its busyness, I think it would make a good story for bedtime and as with any good bedtime story, Fred does fall asleep in the end.

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry Book Review

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry
Illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: April 7, 2015

When Stick rescues Stone from a prickly situation with Pinecone, the two become good friends. But what happens when Stick gets stuck?

In this rhyming picture book, we have a very simple story about a stick and story and a very very subtle message about bullying, but an even bigger message about friendship. There isn't much to say about this one. It is a solid, adorable, and well-illustrated story that has a message but never felt didactic.

The Perilous Journey of the Not-So-Innocuous Girl by Leigh Statham Book Review

The Perilous Journey of the Not-So-Innocuous Girl by Leigh Statham
Publisher: Month9Books
Release Date: March 17, 2015

Lady Marguerite lives the life of most aristocratic girls in 17th century France. Except Marguerite is not like most girls. Hotheaded and determined to make her own destiny, Marguerite sets off after her best friend Claude, a common smithie in the family's steam forge, and the man she has decided to marry. The trip to New France is fraught with peril though, with pirates attacking their airship and dashing young captains.

Romance stories aren't my thing, but I have not been able to stop talking about this book. Mostly due to the fantastic historical reference and clever use of steampunk within. Not being Canadian, apparently I was never taught about the King's Daughters. Never heard of it? Gather round children and let me teach you some history.

The King's Daughters (or filles du roi) was a term used to refer to almost 800 young French women who immigrated to New France (a.k.a. Canada) between 1663 and 1673. They were sponsored by King Louis XIV who provided the girls with a trousseau in which they were given clothes, household items to begin their new life, a dowry, and the ability to choose their own husbands. Most of the girls were commoners although a few daughters of nobility did choose such a life either because of limited options, money, or both. This also guaranteed that instead of filling their new colonies with prisoners, they were instead populating New France with willing young women who were wards of the King. Quite an honor. My hat is off to these young women too, who chose to leave their homes forever, to go to a place that was just beginning to see civilization in order to build a better life for themselves and have a choice in who they married.

In the back of the book Statham mentions that this is how one her ancestors arrived in the new world. This alone made for an interesting read. Throw in some steampunk automatons, a vapid companion, a budding romance, one girl determined to be her own woman, airships, and pirates and I would say that all in all it was a fun book although not terribly original. Then again, what is these days? This is the usual romance story with some fun tweaks that make something old not feel worn.

At times I did find Marguerite to be infuriating in her arrogance, condescension, and snobbery. The girl signs up to go to New France as a King's Daughter almost on a whim. Yet it doesn't occur to her what kind of life she will lead there, what kind of men will be available for her to marry, the women who will be joining her, or her role in all of it. This could be chalked up to youth, but for Marguerite it seemed to have more to do with how quick she was to make decisions, even bad ones. I wished she had made more peace with her fellow passengers before she became their savior, but then it would have had the other thing I can't stand which is a bunch of catty women sitting around figuring out how not to be catty.

All in all a good book for romance lovers and steampunk aficionados alike, with a bit of real
world history thrown in for good measure.

All My Stripes by Shaina Rudolph and Danielle Royer Book Review

All My Stripes: A Story for Children With Autism by  Shaina Rudolph and Danielle Royer
Illustrations by Jennifer Zivoin
Publisher: Magination Press
Release Date: March 9, 2015

Zane is a zebra, but isn't like the other zebras because he has an autism stripe, one that makes him stand out from the other zebras. With care and love, his mother points out all the other stripes that make Zane special and how his autism stripe is just as much a part of him as those others. 

The story itself is simple yet effective for calming the worries of the higher-functioning autistic children/zebras. What I am confused about though is the intended audience. Although it is not uncommon to have a page or two of informational text in the backmatter concerning the material covered in the story, it is uncommon to have a couple of pages dedicated to this. By extension, this meant that the picture book portion is considerably shorter than the average picture book in order to insert information like, What is autism? This is where my confusion lies. If the book is for autistic children then needing information like what is autism seems rather redundant. If the story is supposed to be for non-disabled children to understand autism, this makes no sense either since the story is definitely geared towards a child who is having trouble coping with their disability. Greater yet, if the story is for non-disabled children, then why is all the backmatter clearly for adults? Perhaps the book is for adults then, teachers or librarians who need all that background information about how to handle, diagnose, and relate to an autism diagnosis. But if that were the case then why is it a picture book as well? Why not create a non-fiction book for adults? This book is clearly having a bit of an identity crisis and although I do think the story works for autistic children, it doesn't seem to be clear about who its audience actually is. 

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson Book Review

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Publisher: Dial Books
Release Date: March 10, 2015

Astrid and her best friend Nicole have been friends since kindergarten. But after Astrid falls in love with roller derby and signs up for derby camp, Nicole decides to go to dance camp instead, putting their friendship in jeopardy. Roller derby is a lot harder than Astrid thought it would be and it turns out that she isn't that good at it. With a truck load of persistence though, Astrid finds herself in her first roller derby match. But will Nicole be there?

I am absolutely unequivocally in love with this book. Perfect for fans of Smile and Sisters, Roller Girl is beautifully drawn and full of fantastic characters. Astrid is your typical middle schooler who is dealing with her first friendship-breakup. This is one of the harder growing-up lesson and I really felt for Astrid as she struggled with this. Sometimes friends grow apart and it isn't because of other kids or bullies, simply that you don't share the same passions anymore. Even more interesting is Jamieson's choice in making Astrid not that great at roller skating and by extension, Roller Derby. Despite weeks at Derby Camp, Astrid doesn't improve significantly either and yet she perseveres. I remember reading an article years ago that said that the people who are most successful at a thing are not those who are naturally gifted, but rather those who have to work hard in order to be good. With her goals and passion, I can see Astrid improving greatly in the sport she has chosen.

What I also loved about this story, beyond the great derby names and colorful illustrations, is its uniqueness. There are only a handful of books featuring Roller Derby and I must admit, this is the first one I have read. Jamieson highlights the independence and strength required for the sport, as well as the hard work and dedication. Truthfully, having never seen a live derby match, it made me interested to go to one. There is a lot of depth in this coming of age story and a good deal of fun that I think young readers are going to love.

Ben Draws Trouble by Matt Davies Book Review

Ben Draws Trouble by Matt Davies
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: April 7, 2015

More than anything, Ben loves to draw. He draws boats, bicycles, sharks, and spaceships. Mostly though, he likes to draw people. Things turn upside down when Ben loses his sketchbook at school. The reaction is not what he expects though. Instead of berating him, he is introduced to the world of theater where his art can be appreciated and a much grander scale.

In the beginning I thought this story was going to be a picture book version of Harriet the Spy. Lose your journal in which you have drawn some unsavory pictures of your teacher and classmates and learn a lesson about not leaving a journal laying about and being nice behind people's backs. What I loved was the theater twist in which a good teacher sees Ben's talent and rather than chastising it, channels it into something productive. She gives Ben's art purpose. It's the simple and yet it felt so incredibly unexpected and complex, that I read through the book twice.

I think kids and adults are going to love this one, but more importantly, I want more parents and teachers to see creative potential and to encourage it rather than squash it. This seems like a no brainer, but I think that when you see hundreds of kids a day, a person can get bogged down in the minutia and not see the individual talents of the kids they are working with. Same for the parents. Let's show kids that their abilities, even if they do not feel like a "talent", can be channeled into something useful and important.

Gabby Duran and the Unsittables by Elise Allen and Daryle Conners Book Review and Book Giveaway

Gabby Duran and the Unsittables by Elise Allen and Daryle Conners
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: May 12, 2015

The Association Linking Intergalatics and Earthlings (hereby known as A.L.I.E.N.) has a new member. After months of investigation, Gabby Duran, has proven herself to be a babysitter extraordinaire. Her celebrity clients fly her around the country to care for their rambunctious little humans. Associate 4118-23432B, otherwise known as Edwina, believes Gabby can be trusted with the truth: aliens are living among humans on Earth. And here at A.L.I.E.N we believe that even extraterrestrials need a babysitter now and then. No one was up to the task...until now. After accepting the top-secret position, Edwina has paired our new associate up with her first charge, a little girl from the planet Flarknartia. The timing for associate 4118-25125A is less than ideal. It's a school day on Planet Earth, Gabby's audition for the solo part in the band is tonight, and this tiny alien is a bit more than meets the eye. Can Gabby Duran, Associate 4118-25125A, First Sitter to the Unsittables, keep her otherworldly charge safe in the unpredictable halls of middle-school and keep A.L.I.E.N hidden?

A mash-up of The Babysitter's Club and Men in Black, Gabby Duran is a superhero babysitter. In the few short months that she has legally been able to babysit (this is my view and not mentioned at all in the book), Gabby has garnered quite a babysitting reputation. This was about the age that I began my "official" babysitting business and although I had a decent client list after a year, no one was picking me up in limos to babysit for movie stars. This is, of course, a fantasy though and in Gabby's universe there are such things as 12-year-old sitter's for the stars. And sitter of aliens. 

Gabby is a cute character. Smart and patient, with a deep understanding of how to get kids to behave. (this may be because she is a kid herself) Amidst her babysitting empire, Gabby also manages to maintain a good GPA and dreams of playing the French Horn, if not for a living, then at least for the solo at the recital on Friday. This was perhaps the most confusing part for me. Although the instrument playing added another "thing" that Gabby does, it was also something else that she does really well. The problem I had with this is that it seems like Gabby doesn't have any weaknesses. Even when a child turns into a giant slug, Gabby is on it with all the poise and grace that a super sitter would have. Sure she screamed for a minute or two, but once she let her logic override her panic, the giant slug kid was asleep in her lap. Although it made for an interesting story, it made Gabby rather one-dimensional and extremely predictable. Then again, it's not like the Babysitter's Club books were any less predictable and were often didactic to boot.

Besides, that's not why you would read this book anyway. This one is purely for the entertainment factor and on that level it exceeds. Babysitting can be an adventure and it turns out that when you are taking care of the tenth in line for the throne of Flarknartia (who also can turn herself into anything), things are bound to get a little crazy.

A copy of this book was provided to me by Disney Hyperion in exchange for an honest review and book giveaway. 

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About the Authors:
Emmy-nominated writer and New York Times best-selling author Elise Allen made a name for herself with her acclaimed young adult novel Populazzi (Harcourt), and the Jim Henson's Enchanted Sisters chapter books (Bloomsbury).  In television, she has written for talent ranging from Bill Cosby to Kermit the Frog, and is currently writing for the new Disney Junior show The Lion Guard. Her dog may or may not secretly be from another planet.

Daryle Conners is an award-winning writer, filmmaker and video game designer. She writes joke and riddle books and has designed many game titles for the PC and iPhone/iPad including Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Scene It? Harry Potter, Hot Wheels Slot Car Racers, and Scene It? Twilight Saga. Her non-fiction books include Lunchtime LOLZ, Nintendo DS Hot Tips, ROFLs,Video Game Secrets and Monster High Jokes, all for Scholastic. Daryle lives in Seattle, where she still babysits from time to time.

Learn More at the Official Site
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Follow Elise Allen and Daryle Conners on Twitter

The Beauty Within: Reclaiming the Fantasy Genre From Those Who Reject, Mock, and Abuse It

A recent video featuring Mal Peet (may he rest in peace) who discusses his newest book The Murdstone Trilogy has been circulating among my literary circles. In it, Mal Peet speaks of how he came to write a fantasy novel and quickly declares his complete dislike for the genre. He admits to a Tolkein-esque phobia declaring that Tolkein is "such a humanist old trouser coff of a writer." He sees writings like Tolkein as "ponderous, teacherly, old rubbish". He's not alone, of course. Gary Schmidt has admitted, in person (I was there), that he doesn't understand sci-fi and fantasy and wrote his book What Came From the Stars on a bit of a dare. After reading it, I don't think that he has come to understand the genre yet, although it has a decent enough rating on Goodreads. When Michael Chabon began writing fantasy, critics said that he had sold out, writing in an inferior genre and thus creating inferior writing. Ursula le Guin wrote an essay about it. There is of course her most recent response to Kazuo Ishiguro (author or Never Let Me Go and A Pale View of Hills) who was concerned that his new fantasy novel will be perceived as fantasy. "Well, yes, they probably will. Why not?" is her response. (her addendum to this point is here)

As a writer and passionate reader of both fantasy and sci-fi, I find the interview with Mal Peet to be rather offensive, inflammatory, and rude. Even more of an offense is the eye roll you get if you take issue with it. "Oh, you fantasy people. Always getting your knickers in a twist if someone doesn't love your beloved Tolkein." Never mind that they will (and have been) greatly upset when someone dares make fun of adult urban fiction, children's literature as a whole, or whatever genre they are into.

This attitude toward fantasy is nothing new. When I was in grad school they had visiting editors and agents come and do lectures. "Send me anything," the agent/editor would declare as we scribbled down their contact info, "except fantasy:" The shoulders of all the fantasy writers would droop just a bit and our hands would stop writing. While searching for an agent I ran again and again into phrases like, "no high fantasy" or "looking for urban fantasy only". Urban fantasy seems to be a catch-all phrase for fantasy that is barely fantasy. After all, we can agree that, to a certain extent, all fiction is fantasy, but in the case of "urban fantasy" we only want a tiny bit of magic in our real world scenarios. If I found an agent who looked interesting (a.k.a. said they liked fantasy) I would then search through their interviews for hints as to whether they truly liked the genre or were just looking for the next Harry Potter. 

More interesting still is that fantasy is nothing new. Some of our oldest written stories are fantasies. Beowulf and Grendel, The Odyssey and The Iliad. Myths and fairy tales are staples in our literary curricula and can found in some form or another in many homes. Parents teach fantasy to their children with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. It's part of our nightmares and our dreams. Some of the most dedicated fandoms exist because of fantasy. My co-workers can't stop talking about Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time

For those who aren't so gung ho about my favorite genres, they think comments like Mal Peet's are brilliant, adding sidebars concerning their own dislike. Here is the thing, disliking a particular genre or kind of book is fine. We all have our things. For example: I dislike books with talking animals or animals as a main character. Even as a child, I did not enjoy things like Black Beauty or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or Fantastic Mr. Fox. I was a vivacious reader so I did, in fact read all of those books, but I didn't like them. However, I also understand why people might like these types of books. If you were a child obsessed with horses, it makes perfect sense to me that you would gobble up every horse book you could find. Black Beauty is a wonderful book that has earned its classic status. As someone who doesn't like surprises, mysteries can be insufferable, but I don't dislike the entire genre and I definitely wouldn't poke fun or show disgust for something that I know many people read and love. It isn't for me, but thank goodness there are plenty of books that are. I have been known to turn my nose up to romance, particularly love triangles, but I wouldn't dream of making fun of someone or their reading/writing choices if they do like it.

For me, fantasy and sci-fi have always been a part of my life. My engineering minded dad used to read us Lord of the Rings when he tucked us in at night. I have fond memories of sitting in the doorway of my brothers' bedroom while my dad told us stories. Typical conversations over dinner would include discussions over the symbolism of spice in Dune or trying to remember all the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit. Watching Star Wars for the first time awoke a fire in me that would never be quenched for the entire Star Wars universe and all the books within. My mom read the entire Dragonsong series by Anne McCaffrey to me when I was ten. Things like The Chronicles of Narnia had me looking in every closet and cupboard for a hidden world. I used to dream that Peter Pan would one day come and take me away so I wouldn't have to grow up. I bonded with my dad over Lost in Space, The Muensters, Addams Family, Doctor Who and Star Trek. My favorite heroine existed in the form of Alanna, Tamora Pierce's plucky girl who would do anything to become a knight. 

When I grew older, I also fell in love with the idea that fantasy and sc-fi both ask the question, 'What If?' and then seek to answer that question.  

What if...our obsession with safety went too far? (Rash by Pete Hautman)
What if...a nanny arrived on the wind who was rather unexpected? (Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers)
What if...there was kingdom that was so regimented that to escape was nigh impossible? (Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake)
What if...there was a strange little boy who lived on a tiny planet? (The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

humanist old trouser coff writers". If you don't like the genre or certain author's within, that is fine, but for an individual or group to denounce the entire thing, scoffing at the people who create it, is just plain rude and close-minded.

Kenny Wright: Public School Superhero by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts Book Review

Kenny Wright: Public School Superhero by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts
Publisher: Arrow (Young)
Release Date: May 7, 2015

Union Public School is an inner city school with quite a reputation and complete with metal detectors. Definitely not the kind of place for a 'Grandma's Boy' like Kenny Wright. Struggling with bullies and secretly dreaming of great heroic deeds as Stainlezz Steel, Kenny finds himself in more trouble then he has ever gotten into in his life. First the detention that he needs to keep a secret from his G-Ma, never mind that he was found in the wrong place at the wrong time and totally innocent. Then there are the school bullies and apparently Kenny is just a walking target. When a new principal arrives (the fifth one in a year and a half), things start to look up. With things going they way they have been though, Kenny finds himself serving out his sentence by teaching Ray-Ray (the most annoying kid in school) how to play chess. In exchange, Ray-Ray teaches Kenny a thing or two about upping his street cred. Kenny isn't so sure he wants to be that guy though. What happened to the hero he wanted to become?

Even though I have read most of the Middle School:Worst Years of My Life series and was surprised by how good they are, I still went into this book with low expectations. I don't know why I have such a James Patterson bias, because he and Chris Tebbetts have proven themselves to be very good authors and whatever my hangup is, it is time to let it go.

Let's start with the fact that the setting is inner city Washington, D.C. in a school that is not so awesome and not just because it is a middle school. It is not an awesome school because no one cares or takes the time to invest in it. Sound familiar? Once they do get a principal that does seem to care, she is taken away. These people are sick of being treated like afterthoughts and I absolutely loved that G-Ma and the parents of this book fight back because they care about their schools and their children's educations.

Moving onto Kenny who is a remarkably complex character. His struggle isn't just with being bullied, but rather with trying to establish an identity separate from his grandmother. He is experiencing the beginning of growing pains and although he knows the kind of person he aspires to be, in real life that is a lot harder. Who wants to be picked on everyday? And how is a person supposed to become a man with their grandma breathing down their necks and volunteering them for stuff they don't want to do? Sure, this book could be seen as just another in a long line of "bully books", but I think it goes a bit deeper than that.

The friendship with Ray-Ray goes from, okay-Kenny-might-make-friends-with-his-bully to damn. Seriously, Ray-Ray is more than what he seems too and there are probably a lot of kids out there like Ray-Ray, just trying to make it through, look sort of tough, but lacking any kind of direction.

I did roll my eyes at some of the language as it felt like the authors were trying very hard to capture this so-called inner city feel and I fear that most of the language they use will date the book quickly, if it hasn't dated itself already. There were some moments where it felt like some of the characters were bordering on stereotypes, but for the most part I think they did their best to stay clear of those, and again it felt like they were trying a little too hard. Will kids pick up on this? Probably not, but I imagine there will be a few adults who may have a problem with it.

There is no happy ending here, but there is resolution which was another bonus point for me. The additional Stainlezz Steel graphics and storyline will draw in the Wimpy Kid readers, while doing the added job of showing Kenny's emotional state. And the reveal as to who this character is fashioned after may have made me tear up just a bit.

Please Note: I am confused as to what the actual title of this book is. My ARC says Kenny Wright: Superhero while one of the other versions says Public School Superhero. Either way works, but I would love to know which one is the final one.

Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli Book Review

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 10, 2015

In the early 1900s, Robert Miller, a.k.a. “Count Victor Lustig,” moved to Paris hoping to be an artist. A con artist, that is. He used his ingenious scams on unsuspecting marks all over the world, from the Czech Republic, to Atlantic ocean liners, and across America. Tricky Vic pulled off his most daring con in 1925, when he managed to "sell" the Eiffel Tower to one of the city’s most successful scrap metal dealers! Not once, but twice. Vic was never caught. For that particular scam, anyway.

Much like the Catch Me If You Can story, Tricky Vic is one of those tales that is so crazy that it has to be true. The author artfully tows the line between being an exciting action story and a cautionary tale concerning this skillful con artist. Like all con artists, it seems that greed was his ultimate downfall, but I enjoyed the book for what it was. There were great sidebars of information concerning a number of topics mentioned in the book as well, which would make it the perfect addition to any curriculum concerning the early 1900s. The illustrations were a fantastic addition to the story. Tricky Vic's character is portrayed by a man with a thumbprint for a head, which seemed like the perfect representation for a man who was many things, but never himself. The use of mixed media throughout was the perfect balance of stylized illustrations and historical photographs.  

Alistair Grim's Odditorium by Gregory Funaro Book Review

Alistair Grim's Odditorium by Gregory Funaro
Illustrations by Vivienne To
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Release Date: January 6, 2015

Twelve-year-old Grubb has never known anything beyond his miserable life as a chimney sweep. With the threat of living in a workhouse always hanging over his head, Grubb puts up with the insults and abuse from his cruel master. Until the day he makes a terrible mistake and finds himself stowing away in a trunk on a coach headed for London. When Grubb emerges, he finds himself the newest resident of Alistair Grim's Odditorium, a home like no other. Fueled by a glowing blue energy, with Samarai warriors as bodyguards, and talking pocket watches, Grubb knows that he has fallen into the most wonderful and terrifying place. When the Odditorium comes under attack, Grubb is sucked into an adventure that will require more from the young chimney sweep than he may be willing to give.

Feeling much like a fantasy steampunk version of Oliver Twist, complete with pickpockets, strange old men, and flying houses, I thoroughly enjoyed Alistair Grim's Odditorium, even if it did turn out to be book one of a series. Seriously, is it so difficult to just let us know from the beginning that we are at the start of a series?

There was a lot going on in the story. The lengthy nature of the text was due in part to the constant (but necessary) bits of exposition that were scattered within to keep the readers in the know. At times, this felt a bit convoluted and wordy, especially on the part of Mr. Grim whose info dump sessions felt almost like lectures. For the most part though, the information was vital to the telling of the story, even if it did slow down the pacing. What I wanted more of, and hope to see in the follow-up books, is a deeper knowledge of our many characters. Even Grubb felt a bit surface level and I desperately wanted more back story on almost everyone in the book. In particular, I was most interested in knowing something more about the enemy. Other than Mr. Grim's occasional info dumps, there is a great deal of mystery surrounding the Black Fairy and Prince Nightshade. To the point that the characters never felt like a true threat. Sure, they have evil plans and all, but since we know so little about them it is hard to say what they want beyond some magic.

Full of action, bravery, determination, and a bit of humor, this book is perfect for the kid who loves fantasy and doesn't mind if a book is a bit on the longer side.

Mac Barnett Ted Talk: Why a Good Book Is a Secret Door

I posted this on my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, but for those who don't follow me there, I thought this was definitely worth a blog post. Enjoy!

Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb Book Review

Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Release Date: March 10, 2015

Edmund is a ball of yarn and a ball of energy. From the time he could roll, he's been exploring everything he could, but his parents have always been right there to reel him in and roll him back up. But now that's he is bigger, Edmund is ready to discover the wonders of the world. Everything is new and exciting, but sometimes, even a little ball of yarn gets lonely, and there's nothing better than the comfort of being around those who care about you.

This is an adorable book. Edmund is given just enough leash (a.k.a. thread) to explore, while still being protected by his loving family who pull him back in when he goes too far. It is comforting in a way, at least it would be for a child with parents who do reel them back them. Another part of me wonders if a child will see it that way though, because when I look at this through the eyes of the intended audience, I would wonder why Edmund needs to be wound back up in the first place. If there was something like, he is wound back of tight before he is tucked in at night, that makes sense. The impression instead is that Edmund is reeled back in whenever he strays too far, which sounds great to parents, but would feel stifling to an independent child. Maybe this is just me and I am reading too much into this story. As long as you keep things surface level the book is just fine, but my experience with five-year-olds is that they WILL ask you a million questions and the logic of this story doesn't stand up under scrutiny.