Thursday, April 16, 2015

Short Version of the Fiction Book Review

How would we summarize the books discussed in last Friday's Material's Review in just a sentence or so? Here's how.

Note that these are just the books we talked about, there were some that were mentioned but not reviewed and for everything please refer to the full lists found here.

Also note, at the event Jane identified the Dorothy Canfield Fisher books that skewed towards the younger end of the age range, and would be appropriate for some kids not yet in 4th grade. You can find that list over at an updated Dorothy Canfield Fisher post.

These books are listed in the order in which we discussed them at the event. Thank you to the panelists (left to right) Deb from Candlewick Press, and Jane, Carrie, and Helen from Bear Pond Books

Smashie McPerter & The Myster of Room 11 by N. Griffin: A search for a classroom's missing hamster in highly styled writing with a sophisticated vocabulary - for fans of Kate DiCamillo. Younger middle grade, grades 2-5. 

Cody and the Fountain of Happiness by Tricia Springstubb: A strong writer with a story similar to the Clementine books, following Cody through her summer vacation in the start of a new series. Young middle grade, grades 3-6. 

Ruby Redfort - Catch Your Death by Lauren Child: Book #3 in this kid-detective series, for kids interested in intrigues and codes. Grades 5+

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson: The young narrator leaves the home of her guardian to live with her 19 year old brother, who is homeless. One of top books of the season, deals with serious issues of kids and homelessness. Grades 5+

Half A Man by Michael Morpurgo: In this semi-autobiographical book, a grandson, Michael, tells the story of his grandfather who was badly burned in WWII. Illustrated. Grades 5+

Vango by Timothee de Fombelle - A Bear Pond Books pick for the holiday season, good for teens and also adults, a romantic (in the classic sense) espionage escapade that one reviewer calls "steampunk without fantasy." The sequel will be published in August.

The Great War by Jim Kay: Authors were given items from WWI and wrote stories around them, a very useful classroom book. Grades 5+

Into the Grey by Celine Kiernan- Could be an adult book, a ghost story about a displaced family and a possessed twin. It's very scary. Mature teen readers.

Eden West by Pete Hautman- Dystopian fiction about an insular cult (we'll let you know when there's a book about a not-insular cult). If you liked Godless check this out. Mature teen readers.

Read Between the Lines by Jo Knowles: A story from multiple narrators, all involving the middle finger. Jo spoke at Bear Pond about writing this book last spring, see the article here. Grades 7+

Tight Rope Walkers by David Almond - A complicated coming of age story in the shipyards of northern England. For older teens, or even adults. Many starred reviews.

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon - A novel about Malcolm X's youth by his daughter and co-writer Kekla Magoon who lives in Montpelier, what more could you want? Grades 9+

Sign of the Cat by Lynne Jonell - An "old fashioned romp" with secret princes and princesses, evil villains, and a scene where the villain eats cats that upset Carrie, but her kids (ages 9 and 11) thought she was overreacting. Grades 3-7

Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb - An isolated island where first the narrator's closest companions move away and then a mysterious geologist arrives. Strong sense of place, gently addresses topics like abandonment and alcoholism. Grades 4+

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar - Story of a scientist who creates a replacement for oil that comes with its own ecological disasters. Carrie didn't love it, thought it was a little pat, but suspects that Louis Sachar knows his middle grade audience spot on and they will like it. Good for kids who are ready for the content, but are not necessarily strong readers.

Question of Miracles by Elana Arnold - Iris' best friend dies in a car accident, after which she moves to a new state with her family and befriends Boris - an odd kid who should have died as a baby but "miraculously" recovered. His Aunt is now petitioning for full miracle status. Rebecca Stead-esque. Ages 9-12.

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell - By the author of Rooftoppers. A true wild child in South Africa is sent to British boarding school and has to make the best of the situation. Boys will like it if they can get past the girl-centric cover. Ages 9+

Like A River: A Civil War Novel by Kathy Canon Wiechman - A story of two young teens enlisted in the civil war - one a boy and one a girl pretending to be a boy. Told first from the boy perspective, then the girl. It's cheesy, but in an enjoyable way. It's not too graphic, so would work for younger kids. Strong author's notes and photos to go with the fiction story. Good to use in the classroom after learning about Civil War. Grade 6+

When My Heart Was Wicked by Tricia Stirling - For readers who like Raven Boys, Alice Hoffman. The narrator had an evil (both in a fairy tale evil sense and also abusive) mother who taught her wicked spells, then she was abandoned and learned good spells, then the mother reclaims her. It does have cutting. Otherwise, not much mature content. Grades 9+

Jackaby by William Ritter - Sold well at Bear Pond over the holidays. A young woman abandons society life in London and lands in colonial Massachusetts. She starts working with Jackaby, an eccentric detective with an interest in the occult. Funny, smart, will appeal to anyone who likes Sherlock. Ages 13+

Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir - Getting a lot of buzz, written by a journalist based on some of her experiences. It's a fantasy, Roman world. The protagonist couldn't save her brother when soldiers came to take him and so she joins the resistance movement. Meanwhile, the son of the woman who leads the martial rulers wants out of his life as a soldier. And you can probably guess they fall in love. It's violent but not graphic. Ages 14+

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton- A sci-fi, fantasy book with a decent dose of realism that follows the intersecting stories of 3 teenagers in Scotland and Hong Kong. There will be a sequel. It's expected to be a top seller. Ages 14+

Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith - Illustrator Lane Smith's debut novel, very funny and endearing narrator Augie Hobble is working in an amusement park that's seen better days when weird things start happening. Fast moving. Pictures play an important part. Grades 3+

Unusual Poultry for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones - Narrator writes in letter form about her new life on a farm where she discovers, and cares for, magic chickens. It's not the strongest writing - a lot of set up without follow through (why are the chickens magic, for one thing) and pictures that don't add much, but kids probably won't care. Recommended because it's a more modern look at being a farm kid, not nostalgic, feels like it's 2015 not 1955. Lots of tie-in potential for classroom lessons. Grades 3-6

All the Answers by Kate Messner - Solid book with a straightforward plot, easily read and enjoyed by a wide range of reading levels. The simple set up is that the narrator finds a pencil that answers any question she writes. We had an earlier article with Kate Messner on using this book to teach writing, linked here. Grades 4 - 7

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai- A Valley Girl-ish 13 year old is sent to Vietnam for the summer with her grandmother, who hasn't returned to her home country since the war. Fresh look at rural Vietnamese life, feels current and interesting. The writing has some glitches, it could have used another edit, kids who aren't strong readers or don't feel comfortable skipping over the dull parts might get hung up on that. Ages 11 - 14 (the publisher says younger, but we're not sure why)

Good Bye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead- Three friends enter Junior High School at different stages of development, particularly in their relations with boys, and navigate staying friends. That sounds cliched, but it doesn't read that way. Rebecca Stead continues to be a great writer with unique, fully fleshed out characters. This book lacks the mystery element of her earlier books and (to be honest) probably won't appeal to boys. Some reviewers have bumped this up to YA, but we're standing strong that it's 6th - 9th grade.

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King - Wish we could recommend this. A.S. King is wonderful, the starting concept is intriguing: the narrator and her best friend drink a powdered bat and can see all the ancestry (moving backward and forward) of other people. King doesn't spend much time on the interesting bits, though, and a lot of the plot isn't plausible (even for those of us happy to go along with the premise). Read other A.S. King books! Read her next book! We feel bad being lukewarm here.

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach - Oh it has the trifecta for teenage angst - teenagers, teenagers with "labels" (as the uninspiring publisher's blurb explains), an asteroid with a 66% chance of destroying all life on earth in 10 days. What makes this book great is the writing - a debut by a super smart, funny author who will undoubtedly have many a great book over the rest of his career. Yay. Ages 14+, probably would need to be a mature 14.

My Near Death Adventures! (99% True) by Alison DeCamp - Stanley's mother brings him to his uncle's logging camp in 1895 where he really wants to learn to "be a man" like he imagines his long lost father is, but he's scared of everything. Scrapbook entries heighten the level of amusement. Strong boy narrator, strong girl character opposite him, highly entertaining. Grades 4+

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart - Debut book that will probably get a lot of attention. The set up is a boy who has cancer who runs away to climb Mt. Rainier with his dog, while his best friend who stays behind struggles with whether to tell the adults where he's gone. To an adult reader, it's pretty hokey. Kids probably won't mind. Grades 4 - 7

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt - The story of a girl who doesn't realize she has dyslexia, just feels "stupid" and uses her other strengths to hide the fact that she can't read. A new teacher helps figure out what's going on. There aren't a lot of great books about dyslexia, so this should be an excellent addition. Grades 5+

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson - Two (if not more) thumbs up. A solid girl power story about growing apart from a best friend and joining roller derby. Will be compared with Raina Telgemeier. Grades 4-7

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko - Intriguing historical fiction story about the bubonic plague in San Francisco - includes medical mystery, quarantines, social / economic / ethnic stratification, political cover ups, and vaccines. Ages 9-12

War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley- We love it. A lot. Another solid historical fiction, this time about a girl who has a club foot and has never been allowed out of the apartment by her abusive mother. She runs away when children are being evacuated from London to the countryside. Another book with a resiliency theme, not overwritten and not as bleak as it sounds. Ages 10+

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby- Summarized as "feminist magical realism", sort of a Persephone story set in an Indiana small town. For older readers, wouldn't recommend below 9th grade.

And, this just in. . . 

We didn't have a copy in time for the review, but local author Linda Urban has another chapter book en route to bookstore shelves near you (September 1st): Milo Speck Accidental Agent. There's a magic sock, there's a land of ogres, there's a plot against children everywhere, and giant turkeys. Basically, it's a funny and fun book for the 4th - 7th grade age range. Linda's previously-new book The Center of Everything is a Dorothy Canfield Fisher nominee. And Linda will be at the store doing a book signing on Saturday, May 2nd, at 11:00 am, for her other new book, a picture book: Little Red Henry.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Young Adult / Middle Grade Fiction Materials Review

Thank you to everyone who joined us for Friday's Materials Review. We had a great time and talked about a lot of books.

And now for the summary.

Here is the list of the books that were read / mentioned as part of this review - including both the books from Bear Pond staff and Candlewick (as personified by Deb):

And, at Morgan's suggestion, we've got a bonus list of popular early reader chapter books. These were a little too young for the ages we covered in the full review, but still highly recommended:
And here is our one sentence (or so) quick takes on notable books:

We're keeping track of all our Materials Reviews in the Author-Educator Series speakers list, under Bear Pond Staff (ie. the end of the list). 

Have an area of publishing where you'd like to know more about the latest and greatest books for classroom / library use? Let us know

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Final Review Preview

On Friday, April 10th, from 9:30 - 11:30 am, we're hosting our semiannual materials review. There will be books to look at, giveaways to enjoy, and a panel of Bear Pond staff, plus our rep from Candlewick Publishing, talking about particular Titles Of Note. The focus will be on middle grade and YA fiction. We know from our fall review that there is not enough time for everything everyone wants to say. . . so here is our final preparatory blog post to start the conversation, from Helen. 

A final, super-quick review before the Big Review Day (ie. tomorrow) - this one posted early because I realized that what I had to say about the book makes more sense with links.

So. We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach.

Don't read the publisher's blurb.

My apologies to whoever wrote that description, possibly the author himself (who I'm going to say nice things about soon), but it sounds hokey and does not at all capture the strengths of this book:

"Before Ardor we let ourselves be defined by labels - the Athlete, the Slut, the Slacker, the Overachiever. But then we all looked up. And everything changed. They said the asteroid would be here in two months. That gave us two months to leave our labels behind. Two months to become something bigger, something that would last even after the end. Two months to really live."


What you should really read is what the author has to say in his own words. I recommend browsing the short pieces Wallach has published elsewhere (linked here) to put you in the appropriate mood for tackling his debut novel.

Wallach is funny. He's sharply funny and has the perfect perspective to bring to a (let's face it) depressing book about the possible end of civilization as witnessed by a group of teenagers who  already suffered angst before any asteroid appeared. He has also written a book that is clearly YA literature. It's not an adult book with teenage characters grafted in, or a middle grade book bumped up a category for "mature topics". We All Looked Up is a smart and thoughtful and thoroughly, satisfyingly, young adult book.

If you have any old Pearl Jam CDs hanging around, and are of an age to have listened to those as a teen, I recommend dusting them off. You'll want to listen to them again. It won't feel like a cliche, I promise.

I whined a bit when I drew this book as part of my Materials Review stack. That blurb - you can tell, it bugs me still. But the author's letter at the start of our reviewer's copy changed my mind. I thought, "Well, if I'm going to read a book about an asteroid hitting Earth, this is the guy I'd like to have telling the story."

For example, I think every debut author should include a list of ideas that didn't work:

"I wrote my first novel during my freshman year in college. It was a Douglas Adams-inspired work of science fiction about sending all of Earth's ugliest people to another planet. It did not sell. I know: shocking. Since then I've written a book about a family breakdown told in the form of a grad school application; a book about a personal assistant to a B-list movie star, whom she accidentally kills. . . " [a long list follows here] ". . Then, like a bolt out of some color other than blue (because good writing is about avoiding cliches!) an idea came to me."

And voila several years later, We All Looked Up.

The important part: Tommy Wallach is a really good writer. He'll probably be an even better writer in his next book. And his next. And maybe he'll return some day to that B-list movie star book because I really want to read that one.

Want to learn more about exciting YA and Middle Grade fiction for 2015? Come to the Bear Pond Books Children's Room at 9:30 am Friday, April 10th. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Books in Series - New and Upcoming

On Friday, April 10th, from 9:30 - 11:30 am, we're hosting our semiannual materials review. There will be books to look at, giveaways to enjoy, and a panel of Bear Pond staff, plus our rep from Candlewick Publishing, talking about particular Titles Of Note. The focus will be on middle grade and YA fiction. We know from our fall review that there is not enough time for everything everyone wants to say. . . so here is another preparatory blog post to start the conversation. 

One request we received from our last materials review was to give a quick run down of popular series about to have another installment that we expect will sell well in the store (and, presumably, lend well in school libraries). Okay. We will and also highlight a short list here:

SeekerDayton, Arwen ElysDelacorte2/10/2015YA
Island of Dr. LibrisGrabenstein, ChrisRandom House3/24/2015MG
The Golden SpecificGrove, S.E.Viking7/14/2015MG
The Curious World of Calpurnia TateKelly, JacquelineHenry Holt7/7/2015MG
ClarielNix, GarthHarper Collins10/14/2015MG
Completely ClementinePennypacker, Sara Disney-Hyperion3/3/2015MG
Magnus Chase & Gods of Asgard: Sword of SummerRiordan, RickDisney-Hyperion10/6/2015MG
Guys Read: Terrifying TalesScieszka, JonHarper Collins9/1/2015MG
Gone Crazy in AlabamaWilliams-Garcia, RitaHarper Collins4/21/2015MG

These are all recommended reading.

Here's the missing book: Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith, coming out this May. It's not listed in any of our booksellers materials as the first in a series, but surely that's an oversight. As Smith himself said in a Publisher's Weekly interview:

“This book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger; it works as just one book, but it can continue and I would love to do another one.”

Presumably he's already working on it.

Lane Smith may not be established as a middle grade fiction writer yet, but he's already well-known for his picture books like Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, Lulu and the Brontosaurus, and It's A Book (for which this worth-a-watch video made the social media rounds a few years ago). Now he has bumped his spirit and style into an older reading group without any hiccups - at least, not ones apparent in the final book.

Return to Augie Hobble is an illustrated middle grade novel. It's about a kid, working at his family's struggling amusement park, failing his creative arts project, and trying to explain weirdness in the world around him. It's one of those books that's hard to explain because it moves fast and if you give away a plot point, it ruins the magic. So, don't read other reviews, other reviewers might not be so careful. Just buy the book.

Without any plot-like discussions, two noteworthy things about the book:

1.) The illustrations are whimsical, funny, and integral to the plot of the book, not just tacked on as a nod to the author's picture book history (in case you worried). 

2.) This kid Augie may be the most endearing narrator ever. He's likable in the way Olivia of the Olivia picture book series is - you slap your forehead, you think "Oh boy, kid, what are you doing?" and you ultimately wouldn't want him to change. If he were real, you'd describe Augie as A Character (in this context, he's a character and A Character).

Lane Smith is being a little coy when he says Return to Augie Hobble doesn't end in a cliff hanger - it doesn't, it stands on its own, but it's obviously also assembling the team for a longer series. So go ahead and look for Book #2 sometime in the near future.

Want a tour of noteworthy new books in middle grade and young adult fiction? Join us Friday, April 10th at 9:30 am in the Children's Room. Free, with snacks and coffee. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Historical Fiction Titles

On Friday, April 10th, from 9:30 - 11:30 am, we're hosting a materials review. There will be books to look at, giveaways to enjoy, and a panel of Bear Pond staff, plus our rep from Candlewick Publishing, talking about particular Titles Of Note. The focus will be on middle grade and YA fiction. We know from our fall review that there is not enough time for everything everyone wants to say. . . so here is another preparatory blog post to start the conversation. 

Last week Jane wrote about some of the considerations behind choosing the Dorothy Canfield Fisher list, including finding a balance of different types of books. The same is true for our materials review. When Jane read the Top 10 Historical Fiction Titles post on Nerdy Book Club recently, it reminded her of how many great historical fiction titles are not going to fit into our review session. To remedy that, here is a round up of Historical Fiction links:

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Books That Got Away

If anyone questioned Jane's commitment to finding the best in middle grade writing (which no one really questions) how about this - not only did she serve on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher committee this year, selecting books for the master list, but she also went straight from that to reading a new pile of books for our April 10th materials review. That is a lot of middle grade fiction. Possibly more than the rest of us read across our years spent in actual middle grades. Here are her thoughts on some of the books not on the DCF list, but on her list of recommended reading. 

Choosing 30 middle grade books every year for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award list is easy, and at the same time very difficult. It is easy to find plenty of good middle grade novels each year to read. It is difficult to read almost 100 books in the span of about 9 months.  It is difficult to take a list of about 70 books and whittle them down to a list half as long for the final nominees. It is easy to spend time with other children's book lovers talking about each book and why we like it.

Each year we end up with several books that don't make the DCF list but wish we had extra wiggle room for. Sometimes it is because the book isn't eligible for various reasons. Sometimes it is because we have to create the right balance of book genres and so have to leave off one in favor of another genre. And inevitably there are the personal favorites that just don't get majority vote.

The new 2015-2016 DCF list is made up of great books. Here are a few other notable middle grade novels that did not make the list, but certainly have the chops.

Screaming at the Ump delivers a realistic portrait and engaging story about a boy who lives with his father and grandfather and helps them run a small academy for aspiring umpires. Casey is still stung by his mother's new marriage and subsequent move out of state, and is hoping to finally write for the newspaper at his new school. Many realistic situations are woven into the plot, including his discovery that one of the trainees is a former major leaguer (and someone he had looked up to) who quit under a cloud of drug-use suspicion-- a truly publication-worthy scoop. Vernick uses a light touch to weave multiple threads together in a well-crafted way when Casey realizes the same skills an umpire needs—being objective and fair, knowing the rules, and being in the right spot to make the call—also apply to becoming a good journalist and healing his broken relationship with his mother. There is deep reader satisfaction as Casey comes around to making some good choices for himself.

Accomplished author and editor Andrea Pinkney Davis creates a sensitive mirror into a distant tragedy in her latest novel in verse The Red Pencil. Pinkney was inspired to research and write The Red Pencil after learning about what was happening in Darfur, Sudan, in 2003. Through deceptively simple prose poems, she has 12-year-old Amira tell her story. Living with her family on their farm in South Darfur, the artistic Amira expresses herself in ephemeral drawings on the sand, yet she also yearns to learn to read and write. While her father is supportive, her more traditionally minded mother is not — it is simply not their way. A dutiful daughter, Amira goes along with her mother’s wishes. But one day everything changes. Their village is brutally attacked and many are killed, among them Amira’s beloved father. She and her sister and mother make a long, hard journey, both physical and emotional, to a refugee camp. There, made mute by the horrors she has experienced, Amira is given a red pencil by a relief volunteer and uses it to begin to reclaim her voice and life through drawing and writing. Pinkney's choice to use short prose poems and simple imagery is very effective at guiding young readers through difficult terrain, and paired with Malala Yousefzai's story would make for some solid current events discussion.

One of my favorite fantasy novels from last year comes from a UK author Piers Torday who grew up on the floor of his mum's bookshop in Northumberland. The Last Wild is an inventive and offbeat quasi-apocalyptic fantasy in which Kester Jaynes learns that he is the chosen savior of “the last wild,” the few remaining animals on Earth. The larger world is in tumult, wrecked by global warming and “the red-eye,” which killed off most animal life and threatens humans with extinction. Torday manages to keep the plot from becoming maudlin and infuses deep love in the relationship between Kester and the animals, who save him from the Spectrum Hall Academy for Challenging Children. Boy needs the wild, the wild needs the boy-- the passionate reciprocity between both is palpable.

To learn more about the new DCF list of nominees, and to hear about many other great newly published books for kids from middle through high school, join us on April 10th at 9:30 am in the Children's Room. We'll have a panel of reviewers, including yours truly, and plenty of lively discussion and of course, yummy pastries.