A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Take two 11 year old children.

Remove them from each other in time and space.

Weave a narrative that pulls them together.

Show us truth.

Wake us up to our own privileged lives.

Leave us inspired.

Linda Sue Parks does all this in A Long Walk to Water.



Sudan: 1985
Salva: forced to flee for his life from his war torn village. He became a lost boy traveling across the dessert to a refuge camp in Kenya. Seven years later he ended up in America where he was adopted into a loving family.

Parks articulates the difference between these two worlds here:
"In the camp, he had worn an old pair of shorts and an even older T-shirt. He had taken as good care of them as he could, but there were holes in the shirt and the waistband of the shorts was stretched and threadbare. The camp workers handed out clothing whenever donations came in, but there were never enough clothes for those who needed them.
Now Salva's arms were piled high with new clothes. Underwear, socks, sneakers. A pair of long pants. A T-shirt and a long sleeved shirt to wear on top of it. And he was to wear all these clothes at the same time!"

After being told by the aid worker that he would receive more clothes in New York, Salvo's response was, "More clothes?.. How can I possibly wear more clothes?" (p 91-92)

Sudan: 2013
Nya: she walks eight hours every day - two trips to water and back so her family can survive. It is dangerous work. The water is contaminated. Then strangers come to the village and begin even stranger activities.

I can't tell you more without spoiling the story. It is very satisfying. I will without a doubt get a set for lit circles at the school. I can't wait to hear what kids have to say about it.

How I Overcame My Dread of Reading

Last summer I reached a point where I dreaded reading. The piles of books that I 'should' read for work were quite frankly, getting out of hand. If I lived forever I would never get through them at the rate the piles were accumulating. Somehow over the past year or so, reading had slowly but surely become onerous. I could enjoy a book when I finally got around to reading it, but facing those piles filled me with terror and loathing. 

Listening to audiobooks helped fill me with stories  and ease the guilt. But eventually even that depressed me. Finally, I started reading books I didn't have to read: adult books and any book that was definitely not on my to read pile. 

For some reason, many of these books have been about war.


I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Strictly speaking, this is a young adult rather than a truly grown up book, but I didn't have to read it! I was hooked from the first page. I really have no words to say how powerful this book is. I am afraid that if I try I will give the story away. 


I discovered Kate Atkinson and read Life After Life. Ursula, the protagonist, is reborn numerous times into the same life. It starts just before the first world war and continues through to the conflict in the gulf. I'm looking forward to reading more of Atkinson's work.


Right now I am in the middle of listening to Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden.  I read previously about Vimy Ridge, but through the descriptive power of first person narrative, I feel almost as though I was there. This is a stunning, heartbreakingly beautiful read. 

Today I think I'm on the mend. I've started to love reading again. I just wish some of the font wasn't so small!

Halloween Tales for Middle Grade Readers

The Graveyard Hounds written by Vi Hughes and illustrated by Christina Leist is a spooky mystery. This easy to read novel begins, as all truly scary novels should, with a violent lightning storm.  Afterwards strange things start happening at Annie and Mike's school. Then dogs start losing their bark.


I found Malice by Chris Wooding to be painfully terrifying. This is a novel best read by students in grades 6 and up who are not faint of heart. It's the story of teenagers tempting fate and getting trapped inside an horrific comic world where they are forced to fight for their lives. 


The first time I read Nightmares: Poems to Trouble your Sleep by Jack Prelutsky, (published in 1976) I fell in love with it. It remains my favourite Halloween poetry book to this day. It contains descriptive poetry about witches, werewolves, zombies, vampires and more. One of the most terrifying is The Ghoul. 

 
"The gruesome ghoul, the grisly ghoul,
without the slightest noise
waits patiently beside the school

to feast on girls and boys  

He lunges fiercely though the air
as they come out to play,
and grabs a couple by the hair
and drags them far away.
 

He cracks their bones and snaps their backs
and squeezes out their lungs,
he chews their thumbs like candy snacks
and pulls apart their tongues....."

Picture Books For Halloween

My favourite time of year is approaching. There is something magical about Halloween. Maybe it's the playing around with what's real and what's not. Perhaps it's about the potential for safely exploring the darker side of the cosmos. Whatever it is, it is pure fun!

Here are some seasonal books that I adore. 

Our newest addition to the collection is Halloween Hustle by Charlotte Gunnufson. The rhythm and rhyming make this book a pleasure to read out loud. Will skeleton make it to the Halloween party in time?  





AlphaOops written by Alethea Kontis and illustrated by Bob Kolar is another of my new favourites. It is a delightful alphabet book with a twist.  The letters, dressed up for Halloween, are in a play, but do not come in the usual order. 
Kontis has some fun activities that accompany the text here. 

Halloween by Jerry Seinfeld is a hilarious picture book that is enjoyed by older students and adults alike. Seinfeld reminisces on his younger self partaking of the festivities of the season. Guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.



Me and My Dragon: Scared of Halloween by David Biedryzycki is another new title in our collection. In this charming tale, a boy helps his dragon overcome his fears of Halloween. 




My old time favourites are the series of Old Witch books written in the1960's and 1970's by Ida Delage. These charming tales about an old witch and her neighbours reveal the best and worst in human nature. At the same time, you can't help but laugh at her antics and cheer her on.




Enola Holmes Series by Nancy Springer


Last summer I became addicted to Nancy Springer's Enola Holmes series. I just finished the entire collection. It was the perfect light summer reading. To be honest, it took me a bit to get into the first book, but by the end I was hooked. It wasn't difficult really since I am a fan of mysteries of all kinds so long as they are not too scary. 

Enola Holmes is Sherlock Holmes' younger sister. Their mother left to live with the Gypsies when Enola was 14 years old. When Sherlock and their older brother, Mycroft, intended to send her off to boarding school to become 'a proper lady', she was forced to run away. Enola moved to London where she set up a detective agency of her own (under a pseudonym) that focused on finding missing people. At times she was in direct competition with Sherlock. At all times she must be wary of being tricked and dragged back home and off to school by her brothers.

I love this 'what if' take on the Sherlock Holmes classic. It has a great character in Enola Holmes who is a spunky, smart, and independent. She is an excellent role model for girls in our times. I love that she has a social conscience and tries to help out the many poor and disadvantaged in 19th century London. I am impressed by how she uses disguises to fit into the different parts of London in order to solve her cases and save the day. What I especially enjoyed is that while Enola is seen by herself and others as rather homely, she is capable of using great artifice to make herself so beautiful that her brothers do not recognize her. This is a delightful dig at 19th century as well as more modern conceptions of beauty.

On top of all this the stories have great plots filled with all kinds  fabulous secondary characters. 

I was heartbroken when I finished the series. It felt like saying goodbye to a new friend.

Dragon run by Patrick Matthews

Because there are so many great books about dragons out there, I’ve started this year off with a dragon theme. I’ve been collecting quotes about dragons and summaries of dragon books to create bookmarks for the library.

I’ve read numerous books with dragons in them this summer. Dragon Run is the most recent.  It was a fabulous read: full of action, yet complex enough to keep me hooked till I turned the last page. 

It is set in a society where Dragons rule. At the age of 12, Al Pilgrommor and his friends head off to testing day to discover what ranks they will become. The higher the rank, the more opportunities they will have. Unbelievably, Al gets a one. Within minutes of this revelation, he becomes an outcast and is on the run from The Cullers who will kill him and his family if they discover his true identity. On the way he meets new friends, has numerous hairbreadth escapes, and discovers that the world is not how he thought it was. 

It has great characters, lots of action, and a plot with many twists. How can you lose? 

Other great stories with dragons include: 

The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

No Such Thing As Dragons by Philip Reeve

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

The Dragonet Prophesy by Tui T. Sutherland

 

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Each summer I try to read a classic children's book. This year it was Swallows and Amazons. I'm so glad I did. 

Four siblings: John, Susan, Titty and Roger, (The Swallows) get permission from their parents to sail to a deserted island on a lake and camp out for the remainder of their summer vacation.

While this is not a magical adventure like Half Magic by Edward Eager, that I read last year, it has its own kind of everyday magic, the powerful magic of imagination, play, and freedom.

The children imagine themselves as explorers and pirates as they spend their time fishing, visiting "the natives" for supplies, and exploring the world around them. Eventually they meet up with two sisters sailing their own ship (The Amazons) and agree to a friendly challenge. In case you want to read this book I won't spoil it for you except to say that after a bit of a stressful adventure, the two groups become fast friends.

This book resonated powerfully with me. When I was a child, my siblings and I headed out after breakfast and spent our summers in the hills just above our house, or down by the nearby river, creating worlds that paralleled the ones we lived in with our parents. The only rule was that we had to return in time for supper. This book returned me to those halcyon days.

I can't help but wonder if students at our urban school get the chance to experience this kind of joyful freedom here in the city. 

I'm giving this book only 4/5 stars because while I thought it was absolutely charming, I am not sure that many students in my school would appreciate this gem. It is very slow paced and full of descriptive details. In spite of this, I think it would make a fabulous read aloud. 

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

It took me a while to get into this book. I listened to it while traveling and initially had a hard time keeping track of all the characters. There are a lot of them. However, it is beautifully written and lovely to listen to, so I persisted. Eventually a few characters arose to prominence. Before I knew it, I was hooked. 

It is set in a small town in the USA in the 1970's.
It could have been the small town here in Canada where I grew up.

It is the story of a group of adolescents hovering on the cusp of adulthood. Nothing spectacular happens. They are quietly, awkwardly, coming to terms with themselves in reference to each other and what they want for their future.

It is introspective and philosophical. It resonates with deep truths about what it means to be human.

“I know I'm still young and there's a lot of time for things to happen, but sometimes I think there is something about me that's wrong, that I'm not the kind of person anyone can fall in love with, and that I'll always just be alone.”

My 14 year old self is half way in love with Hector. His older sister took him to a coffee house where, after watching a guitar player and having a 'satori' moment, he decides to learn to play. His father arranged for him to take lessons in the church basement. Two important people are part of this group. Meadow, who Hector develops a crush on, and Dan, the football star, who girls usually consider a hunk.

Hector's compassion, comfortable acceptance of who he is, and readiness to laugh at himself and his circumstances make him an ideal role model for all boys.

Debbie, another significant character, has a crush on Dan, the school football star.

Dan is the character I worry about. He has the potential to become a good person, but it will take work on his part and I am not sure he is capable of it.

I liked the use of the omniscient narrator who not only tells the story, but adds quirky commentary at the same time.

I loved the introspection - the peaking inside different individual's heads. I sometimes wonder if what goes on inside young men is really any different from what goes on inside young women.

I'm getting this one for our library

Marco Impossible by Hanna Moskowitz

I still haven't quite figured this book out. Don't get me wrong, it's good, but it hasn't been the best book I read this summer.

It is about two best friends, Marco and Stephen. The two amateur detectives have to deal with a bully and his friends who are threatening Marco because he is gay.  At the same time they are grappling with their first forays into romance.

I liked the characters, especially Stephen who narrates this. I loved his family who felt real to me. I'm not so sure about Marco who seems extremely self centered, but maybe it is because he is dealing with more than we are aware of til the end of the story.

The saddest thing in this book is how the two boys never really communicate to each other. Marco is starting high school in a private school and Stephen has no idea why he is abandoning him. On the last day of school they come up with a plan to crash the high school prom so Marco can tell Benji, who plays in the band, that he really likes him.  

Pretty much anything that can go wrong, does. 

The fact that they never really talk about the important stuff contributes to the ensuing chaos.

I will be getting this book for our school library because it is a great addition to our collection of books with gay characters. 

 

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt

Julian Twerski is a normal 12 year old boy growing up in Manhattan in the 1960's. Over winter break he and his friends did a terrible thing. After a one week suspension from school, Julian made a deal with his English teacher to keep a journal and write about the incident in exchange for not completing a Shakespeare project.

This book is the result. 

Julian writes thoughtfully about killing a pigeon, harassing a student teacher, causing a car accident, writing a love letter (with disastrous results) and learning to deal with not being the fastest person at school. He avoids the event that got him into this situation in the first place.

Julian and his friends; Quick Quentin, Shlomo Shlomo, Eric the Red, Howie Wartnose and Lonnie, are heartwrenchingly real. So are the girls; Amelia, his sister, Beverley and Jillian. I didn't like them all, but I swear I went to school with people just like them. I suspect students today will find themselves and their friends here as well.

This book is about bullying - how we can cause so much damage to others without really meaning to, how small acts of manipulation and cruelty can become larger ones.

I loved the way Goldblatt captured the time and place of Manhatten in the 1960's. 

What I loved most was seeing Julian mature as he comes to realize that while things can't be undone, it doesn't mean that nothing can be done. 

I will definitely recommend this book to students in grade 4 and up. 

When I can get it in paperback it will make a great book for literature circles.

Me & Jack by Danette Haworth

Joshua Reed's father is a recruiter for the US Air Force during the Vietnam War. His mother died a number of years ago. Joshua and his father travel from place to place so he has learned how to "play the new kid."

This time they ended up on Pennsylvania where they adopted Jack, a unique breed of dog, from the local pound. Jack and Joshua become inseparable. Other than some conflict with Prater, a boy who lives nearby, it seems like they might have landed in an ideal place. Then strange things start happening in the neighborhood at night and Jack ends up getting blamed. 

What transforms this novel into more than a great story about a dog, a boy, and friendship, is the backdrop of the war and the role it plays in how the characters interact with each other.

It is well written with an engaging plot. The characters themselves are rich and multidimensional. I cared for all of them, including Prater.

I'm going to recommend this book to the many dog lovers, but I'll also suggest it to those kids who seem to have a fascination for war.

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

I love love love this book.

Nate Foster has big dreams. 

He and his best friend come up with, and rehearse a plan so that he can sneak off to New York and audition for a Broadway musical production of ET.

Jankburg PA, his home town, is not a safe place for boys like Nate Foster.  He may or may not be gay. At age 13 he hasn't decided or figured it out yet. What he knows for certain, is that he is the antithesis of his older brother, Andrew, the jock. Nate has almost gotten used to being harassed and bullied by kids at his school because of his small size and perceived sexual orientation.

It's hard for me to articulate what I loved so much about this book.  It feels so refreshing, honest, funny, and sweet. It is  pure joy to read.
Tim Federle enables us to become Nate, experiencing New York and the freedom to be who you are for the first time. Exhilaration doesn't begin to describe it.

On the surface is the adventure into the big city and the audition. At a deeper level, the adventure of growing up and coming of age is quietly underscored. You can't help but be drawn into the characters and the relationships between them. There are secrets that beg to be revealed and when they are, your surprised response can only be, of course that's it.

I am most certainly getting this book for our elementary school library, even if we are nearly on the other side of the world away from The Big Apple.  






One For the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

This book should come with a small box of Kleenex. It is sure to make you cry. 

It starts as Carley Connors is released from the hospital into foster care. Carley does not want to go. At first she is angry, suspicious and terrified. She can't believe that happy families like this even exist. Eventually Mrs Murphy, Michael Eric, Adam, Daniel and Mr Murphy niggle their way into her heart.

I couldn't help but love all the characters: Carley, each individual in the Murphy family, Toni, and even Carley's mother.

This is a story about accepting who you really are and learning to be the best person you can be. This book is about the power of love and forgiveness. It's also about so much more than this. It is a testimony to the superpower each one of us has to make the world a better place. 

This is one I will recommend to everyone, especially my grown up friend Karen who loves these kinds of stories. 

Sigh....






Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner

I read the first chapter of this book when it arrived in the library but didn’t have time to read more. That ending refused to leave me alone. 

'Before' was a time of peace between the leaders of Faerie and the leaders of Human. Then came a deadly war that left both groups devastated.

Lisa was born after the war into a town that lives by the rules. “Don’t touch any stone that glows with faerie light, or that light will burn you fiercer than any fire. Don’t venture out alone into the dark, or the darkness will swallow you whole. And cast out the magic born among you, before it can turn on its parents.”

When her baby sister was born with “faerie-pale hair clear as glass from Before,” her father, a sensible man, took the newborn to a nearby hill, left her for the faeries and “never looked back.” But Lisa “crept out before dawn to see whether the faeries had really come. They hadn’t, but some wild creature had.”

Shortly afterwards, her mother left.  
Lisa slowly realized that she too had magic. After an altercation with her father she fled the village hoping to escape him and save her community from herself. Her friend, Matthew, a young man with his own secrets, followed her. They discovered that while the world outside their compound is indeed terrifying, there is also a world very different from their own. In a short time they were on a journey in search of Lisa's mother that took them into the very heart of the land of faerie. 

There is some beautiful writing in this book. The plot has some interesting twists and turns. The apocalyptic world Simner has created is dark and terrifyingly realistic with trees that reach out branches and roots in search of blood, spirits of the dead that extend their arms out of the earth hoping to be brought back to life, and plants that fight being harvested. There are some very scary moments. I came to care about and want these characters to survive. The ending is satisfying even without a sequel or two to come. 

I wish I had enjoyed it more. Still, there will be many readers in our school who I know will devour this series. I on the other hand will stop at this one. 




The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente


Did I like it? Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes!

I read it while camping miles from nowhere, high in the mountains at a place called Nevertouch Lake. For one week we were the only people there. Each morning I woke to an orchestra of bird song. Late into the evening we watched stars so bright they hung like Christmas lights in the sky. Loons serenaded us throughout the day. A lone eagle provided a daily aerobatic display. Small rodents and deer paraded through our campground. Thankfully we saw no bears, not even a trace of them.  We fished and ate trout right out of the lake. A fire had ravaged the land about eight years previously, but the earth rejoiced in the birth of so many new plants, especially high mountain wild flowers. The land exuded enchantment. 


I can't imagine reading this book in a more suitable setting. I was enthralled by the magic of Valente's world in the same way that I was enthralled by the magic of the land around me.  

So many quotable quotes.....

"It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else."

“I'm not lost, because I haven't any idea where to go that I might get lost on the way to. I'd like to get lost, because then I'd know where I was going, you see.”

"Autumn has a hungry heart - September is the beginning of death"

"Just remember that Autumn is called fall, and some falling places are so deep there's no climbing out. Autumn is the very soul of metamorphosis, a time when the world is poised at the door of winter which is the door of death - but has not yet fallen." 

I admit to being distracted by my environment, but one cloudy morning I "stumbled" into the arms of the book and couldn't stop til it was done.

It is the story of September, a young girl, who leaves Omaha, Nebraska, by climbing onto a leopard's back with Green Wind to a journey into Fairyland. Therein she befriends A-Through-L, affectionately known as El, a wyverary,  (a wyvern and library hybrid) and Saturday, a marid, and has many adventures.

The Marquess, the evil ruler of Fairlyland, is a finely drawn villein. You can't help but feel sympathy for her by the end.

The illustrations by Ana Juan perfectly compliment the text. (watch the book trailer below to see what I mean)

This book has been reviewed in other places as being part Alice in Wonderland and part Wizard of Oz. It is true that it brings these other books to mind, but for me, I made more connections to Terry Pratchett's work than these two. (I was pleased to read in the end notes that he has been an influence in her work)

It is exquisitely wordy and delightfully pretentious.

It wants a precocious child reader. I'll feed it to readers who are fans of Terry Pratchett, Philip Reeves, Rachel Hartman, Tamora Pierce and anyone else I can think of before September (the month) rolls around again.

It is definitely a fairytale adults will relish. It will make a marvelous read aloud.

These words from Valente resonated deeply with me.  "Everyone to greater or lesser extents, is faking adulthood, bumbling through as best they can, imitating the adults they grew up with and the also-faking-it adults around them, going through huge shifts in life and perception every few years."

 This faking-it-adult is now going in search of the rest of Valente's work. 







every day by david levithan

What if every morning you woke up in a new body? There would be some parameters. First the body would be about the same age as the one you woke in yesterday. Second, it would be within a 500 mile radius of the last body you were in. 

This is the experience of our main character, A.
The body itself could be any gender, or as ambivalent about gender as possible. It could be gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, or trans. It could be any skin color or size. It could be physically and emotionally healthy, or diseased, drug addicted, or mentally ill. It could wake into a healthy family, a dysfunctional one, or wake to no family at all.

This premise alone boggles the mind. 

Add to this falling in love with a body's partner.  Complicate it by having another body realize you were there, and start stalking you through your email address. 

Then someone tells you that you are not the only one. That person also says there is a way to stay longer than a day.

There are so many quotable quotes. 

“If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: We all want everything to be okay. We don't even wish so much for fantastic or marvelous or outstanding. We will happily settle for okay, because most of the time, okay is enough.” 

“If you stare at the center of the universe, there is coldness there. A blankness. Ultimately, the universe doesn't care about us. Time doesn't care about us. That's why we have to care about each other.”

My only complaint about this book is that I didn't think much of the main romantic component. It felt unrealistic to me. There were other romantic relationships in the book that felt more real, even if we only experienced them for one day.   

I'm not sure what appealed to me most about this book. I loved the descriptions of experiencing the different physical bodies. I liked that A could experience love in so many facets. I was fascinated by the awareness of living inside a different body, of what depression might feel like. I enjoyed the musing on moral dilemma. I liked that this book is more about questions than it is about answers.

I loved most of all, that there is no pronoun to describe A.

Mimi Power and the I-Don't-Know-What by Victoria Miles

I'm a fan of Victoria Miles and her work.

I enjoyed Mimi Power, but there were times when I wanted to kill Waby, the little sister.

I don't recollect my two younger brothers or two younger sisters or either of my own two children being nearly so annoying!  (They are, after all, still alive.)

Mimi Power is 10 years old and has a seriously irritating 3 year old sister. Waby, (Lily Jean) can ruin any event or outing with instant hysteria when she doesn't get her own way. This causes problems for their whole family, but Mimi in particular since she narrates the story.

If you are a fan of Junie B Jones you will probably like this book. As annoying as she is, I admit that some of Waby's antics had me chuckling.

One chapter titled "Waby Goes to the Dentist" contains one sentence. "I don’t think I have to tell you how this went."

In another incident their father brought home a very expensive piece of prehistoric poop and Waby got her hands on it. I laughed out loud. I read parts of it to my partner much to his disgruntlement, since he was reading a "serious" book.

My complaint is that even while she worried about her art and buying clothes, Mimi herself didn't feel real to me. All of the humor and most of the grief comes about because of Waby. Perhaps it is because of this that Mimi's character never seems developed fully. What does come through is that these two girls love each other. (Perhaps this is why all little sisters and brothers survive?)

In spite of my piddling complaints, I can think of at least 5 kids off the top of my head I would recommend this book to.

This feels like the first in a series. I hope to get to know Mimi better in later books.

I'll read them, if only to find out what kind of mischief Waby gets herself into.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

“Life can be long or short, it all depends on how you choose to live it. It's like forever, always changing. For any of us our forever could end in an hour, or a hundred years from now. You can never know for sure, so you'd better make every second count. What you have to decide is how you want your life to be. If your forever was ending tomorrow, is this how you'd want to have spent it?”
 
This is my first Sarah Dessen novel. It won't be my last. While it may not have made me "sawooon," it was still a delightful, light read. It's about grieving and getting through it. It's about trying to be perfect and letting go enough to realize that being who you are is good enough. It's about friendship and what happens to us without it. It's about family. It's about loss, acceptance and forgiveness. 

Macy's father died traumatically. Since then she and her mother have lived together in a shallow, sterile existence. Macy works hard to be perfect so her mother won't worry about her. On the outside she looks "fine, just fine," but really, Macy is miserable. Her sister, Caroline, who has successfully dealt with her grief and been able to move on, does her best to support them, to help them realize that, “Grieving doesn't make you imperfect. It makes you human,” but they are trapped in their safe, regimented world. Then when Macy makes new friends and starts to be happy again, her worried mother grounds her. It looks like not even Caroline's advice can save her.

There were times while I was reading this book when I was very angry with Macy's mother.  Honestly, I suspect I would been much more vocal about my unhappiness than Macy was. In the end I realized that perhaps Macy's way was better. It was certainly better for Macy and her mother.

If you like realistic fiction that can make you cry, you will like this one. 

This book is probably more of a teen (12 +) than tween book. Mostly this is because there are parties where drinking takes place. 

Keeper by Kathi Appelt

I tried hard to read Appelt's, The Underneath, but the evil in it terrified me. In spite of that, I have had numerous children come to me with the book clasped tight against their heart, asserting it is the best book they have ever read.  So when Keeper came along, I didn't know quite what to think. Honestly, I avoided making a decision and consequently never purchased it. When I found it as an audio book in the public library, I decided I should give it a try.

I'm so so so glad I did.

First off, it is truly a beautifully written book. 

It's a story about an odd sort of family who live on a road that borders the Gulf of Mexico.  Keeper is a young girl who has had a DISASTER of a day. It was all because the crabs for the special blue moon gumbo told her they wanted to be set free. As a result of listening to them she ended up hurting all the people she loved most in the world. To make amends, she set off in the dead of the night of a blue moon in search of her mermaid mother. 

Second, It is truly a beautifully written book.

It's a dreamy whirlpool of a story.  With each drowsy rotation the story picks up and combines details into an increasingly complex, richer narrative. It spirals round and round revealing itself through the different perspectives of the characters. The reader, pulled deeper and deeper into its world, hangs on the cusp of that vortex. Each time it winds itself back to Keeper, not only do we learn more about her, we also see her spin closer and closer to calamity. 

Third, It is truly a beautifully written book. 

The language is pure poetry. It is magical, tense and harrowing. This should mean I could probably sell a large number of kids on it. But at the same time it is V E R Y slow paced. It edges snaillike towards the final climax - and even that is satisfying, but not spectacular. This is more of a book about characters and how they came to be who and where they are than it is about plot. 

I will most certainly get a copy for the library. 
I am positive I will find enough readers to justify its purchase. 
Perhaps I can convince a teacher to read it out loud to his or her class.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman


Oh what an exquisitely written book!

I was completely engaged by the reality and inhabitants of Goredd, a world populated by dragons and humans. An uneasy peace between the two groups has prospered over the last 40 years. Just as the anniversary is approaching, a royal prince is murdered.

Seraphina, the protagonist, is half dragon and half human. Her life depends upon keeping this secret. Yet her gift for music, inherited from her dragon mother, has brought her to the notice of the human court.

She is drawn into the murder investigation as companion to the royal guardsman, Prince Lucian Kiggs, to determine if dragons were involved in the prince's death. Eventually they discover that this is just the first move in a convoluted plot to destroy their world as they know it.

I was gripped by the plot, but seduced by the passages about music. I became the musical instrument wherein Hartman's words played haunting refrains and melodies.

I can't wait for the sequel!


Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch



Last Airlift won the non-fiction Red Cedar Club Award this year. All the students at Dickens who have read it enjoyed it immensely. I even have a couple creating a book trailer for it.

Because I hadn't yet got around to reading it, last weekend I took it home. It is indeed a great and emotional read. (Imagine me sitting on the ferry trying to surreptitiously wipe tears from my eyes.) It deals gently with a difficult topic.

It is the true story of Tuyet, a young girl who was on the last plane taking children (mostly babies and toddlers) out of Vietnam just as the war was coming to a close. According to the notes at the end of the book, the Vietcong were planning on fostering all the children with families and killing the ones that were either half American or not perfect. Tuyet, because of her deformed leg and foot, was sent with the rest of the younger children out of the country. This book follows her on her journey from her home in the orphanage to a new home in Canada. It helps us understand how challenging it was for her even when she reached the safety of her new country and a loving family.

This would make a great companion book to Inside Out and Back Again





Variant by Robison Wells

I am nearly converted to science fiction fandom after reading this book. Like many of the titles I have been reading recently, it was recommended to me many times by students. We have two copies in the library and it is almost always checked out.

I snatched it up on Thursday to bring home and read on the weekend. I lied and told one of the kids that I had no idea where it was.

I'm really glad I did. I was surprised by how easily I slipped into Robison Wells' world. I started and finished it in one session.

Benson, a 17 year old foster kid, applied for a scholarship to Maxfield Academy, a private boarding school, and got in. He hoped his life would improve. Once there he discovered that not only is life more restricted, it is also dangerous. People are not who they seem to be. Escape seems impossible, yet not escaping will probably mean certain death.

I admit to being terrified on more than one occasion. This book has it all: hints of romance, suspense, tension, and violence.  It has a remarkable plot twist. It was indeed a great read. However, I must admit that I am now freaked out that some younger readers in grade 4 have been reading (and recommending) it.

I read somewhere that adults read differently from children. As an adult and a parent I am keenly aware of what might happen to the characters. Children on the other hand read the same material as a great adventure. I hope this is true.

Still I am in a quandary since it has been on a shelf to be read by any student. Now I am not sure this was a good idea. I don't think I can remove it, but I might get younger readers to get their parents' permission before reading it.



The Girl Who Could Fly

Sometimes a great book needs its time. This is true about this one for me. I tried a couple of times to get into it and kept getting stalled at the part where Piper McCloud and her parents were at the the July 4th picnic, Piper's first social outing.

I have been told by numerous readers (including my mother!) that it is a really really good read.  I conceded that they might be right since since the two copies we have in the library are always checked out.  I used this as an excuse to not try it again. Truthfully, I probably still wouldn't have read it except for two things. First, a grade seven girl at the school returned a library copy and asked if I had read it. I confessed I had tried but couldn't get past the picnic. She told me that is the closest thing to boring in the book and that it got a lot more exciting after that. Second, on the very same day, Piper, a grade 3 girl at our school actually brought me her copy to read. I believe the Gods and Goddesses  were trying to tell me it was this book's time for me.

I came home from work and started to read. I stopped to eat supper and clean up the kitchen afterwards. Then I went back to reading.

I apologize for not finishing this book earlier. It is indeed brilliant. 

Piper McCloud's parents had been married for 25 years before Betty discovered she was pregnant. Piper arrived soon after. She seemed to be a normal baby until she started floating off her bed and around the house. Then there was a time that she floated outside the house and was carried off by a storm. Betty and Joe attempted to keep her a secret by home schooling her and keeping her away from other people. They forbade her to fly, but Piper couldn't stop herself. 

Eventually she was discovered and taken to a facility called I.N.S.A.N.E. by Dr. Hellion. There she met other children who possess special powers. At first Piper was content. Soon she came to realize that things at the facility were not what they seemed and that they were all in terrible danger.

The book is brilliantly written. I have no excuse for not becoming enthralled by it earlier. The Midwestern farming setting is beautifully portrayed. All the characters, even the evil Dr. Hellion are well developed. Piper is a spunky indomitable character you can't help but admire. It is nearly impossible not to fall have in love with Conrad. I dare you to read this book and not care about all of them. Forester has created a story that has such an authentic feel to it, you can nearly believe it is real.

On the one hand this book is an engaging adventure novel. On the other it is about learning to accept who you are. It is about coming to terms with the fact that life and people are full of changes. It's about friendship and love and the power we wield when we embrace them.

I am going to be pushing this book at all the readers at the school.

The Perks Of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky


There are books you want to tell everyone about, stories you want everyone to read, those books where the voice is so powerful it haunts you long after the last page is turned and the book is closed. This is one of them.

I listened to this book. I now want to get my own copy to read. I might even rent the movie.

It isn't often that I am blown away by voice in writing, but I think I gushed about it at least 5 times during this book. I suspect that Johnny Heller's narration accentuated this. No matter, Stephen Chbosky has created an unforgettable character.

Charlie narrates his story through letters to an anonymous reader. He will burrow his way inside your psyche. While he was in mine I revisited my own coming of age 30 years before his time. I contemplated my children's experiences of this process since they grew up in Charlie's era.

Charlie is a complicated contradiction. There is something about him that makes him different from his peers. It's not just that he is brilliant, although genius poses its own social problems for kids. He has serious mental health issues, but it's more than this. I wondered if he was on the autism spectrum. Ultimately Charlie is outsider and insider at the same time.

He is more than a character in a book. Charlie is me, you, all of us. These letters are written to us. Right off the bat he lets the reader know that he has high expectations of us because we "listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have."

If I get this book for our library it will have to go on the grade seven shelf. I'm not sure if they will be ready for it, but it is most assuredly a book I would recommend they read sometime in their high school years.

I loved Charlie. I want to know that he grew up to become a truly fine man. I really do.

The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie

What a fabulous picture book!

The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie is the story of Princess Sue, who follows all the rules. She expects that once her prince arrives, her world will be full of excitement. 

Fortunately her prince comes.
Unfortunately, he has different ideas. 

"It's me who wears the armour here,
and you wear dresses, are we clear?
Just smile a lot and twist your curls.
Dragon-bashing's not for girls.

Alone in her tower, Sue started to spit,
"What a disaster, my prince is a twit!"

Then in the skies she suddenly spied...."

And so, with a little help from an unlikely companion, Princess Sue takes her life into her own hands so that she can have the adventure she craves.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Beware, this book is not for the timid. 

Arn Chorn Pond began his life as an ordinary kid growing up in a village in Cambodia.  This is his story. I listened to it as an audiobook. I don't know if it would be easier to have read it, but I am certain that the cadence of language would not have been as profound. It felt as though Arn was telling his story directly to me. It is a harsh tale to attend to.

Generally I like historical fiction. I like learning about the past through the lives of fictional characters. I certainly learned a lot as I read this book. However Arn is not a fictional character. He is a real person. I wish with all my heart it wasn't true, but it is.

I had heard of the killing fields of Cambodia, but avoided reading the details. It was enough to know that the Khmer Rouge were responsible for at a minimum, the deaths of two million people.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up this book. It starts out so sweetly with Arn talking about the time before war with his Aunt, his brother and his three sisters. It wasn't idyllic, they were poor, but it is akin to the kind of childhood I had as a kid. 

Arn was 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded his village. Bit by bit his ordinary life disintegrated.  Within a few months he was separated from his family and forced to work long hours in rice fields with other kids his age. They either died a bit each day from starvation, or the Khmer Rouge came up with new ways to evaluate and kill them instantly.
Arn was forced to live with torture and death on an ongoing basis. He learned to become blind, deaf, and numb to it all. He survived because he was able to learn to play music. Even that was embedded with terror. I can't imagine the horror of performing music day in and day out that is played over loudspeakers in an attempt to drown out the sounds of killing and torture.

More times than I can remember I pulled my ear buds out because I couldn't listen anymore. Yet as Arn's narrative progressed, I was compelled to continue. I told myself, if he could live through this, I can listen to his story and bear witness to what he endured. Maybe I just wanted to know that he survived.

He ended up becoming a child soldier before making his way to Thailand.
 
This is a story of war, but it highlights of the power of relationship and caring. At the same time as it reveals the darkest human actions, it is also a story about redemption.

I couldn't help but make connections to another book, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah,  the story of a child soldier from Africa.

Then I wondered if we will ever get to read the story of our own Canadian child soldier, Omar Khadr. I suspect that if more people could read these kinds of narratives, we might be treating him very differently.  

This book is gonna haunt me for a long time. 

The Dragonet Prophesy by Tui T. Sutherland

This kind of fantasy book is not my favorite genre. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how the story drew me in and kept me coming back for more until I had finished the book. 

It is the story of five different races of dragons who hatch at the same time and grow up together. They include Clay, the Mudwing, Glory, the Rainwing, Sunny, the Sandwing, Tsunami the Seawing, and Starflight the Nightwing. They have been raised by a group of harsh teachers, who under the directions of the Talons of Peace, have kept them hidden underground from the rest of the world.

It is their destiny, or so they have been told, to end the perpetual wars between the different groups of dragons and bring peace to their world. 

This book, the first in the series, is told from Clay's perspective. The group flees from the cave after discovering that their teachers plan to murder Glory. After a harrowing escape, the dragonets end up captured by the evil Queen Scarlett of the Skywings. She plans to have them battle in her Colosseum as
entertainment before she ends up killing them all. With the help of Peril, the Queen's champion, they manage to escape.

I liked that this book has enough plot twists and turns to keep the story interesting. The individual characters of the dragonets are developed enough for the reader to connect with them.  While there are moments of violence, it wasn't enough to scare me off, or have me skipping sections. (I am a wuss about this generally.) Indeed, when the main characters are in the middle of it, the violence is often accompanied by a kind of moral analysis of the situation. 

 I will definitely recommend this book to fantasy readers, but I still haven't decided if I will read the rest of the series. I think this one was relatively satisfying and will leave it to the kids to tell me what happens in the rest of them.

I couldn't help but make a personal connection between this book and the school where I work. We are a mix of cultures here at Dickens - children from many different backgrounds become friends and work together to make a difference in the world.  I think that our children, like these diverse dragonets, who have learned to live and thrive in conditions of multiculturalism, are proof and hope that the rest of us across the planet can learn to live together in peace.

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

This review is written by Delaney and Millen in Division 14. 

An orphan named Sage lives a dull life in an orphanage in Carthya, a mystical country. Soon, though, after being whisked away by the noble, Conner, he finds himself in a castle with two other boys.  Conner has a plot to place an impersonator in the throne, since the mysterious death of the king and queen has just taken place - and the impersonator will be one of those boys. Sage finds himself tested to prove his similarity between himself and the missing Prince Jaron. The other competitors, Roden and Tobias, try to show Conner they are better suited for the position of king. While at times Sage finds himself being friends with the two orphans, he knows in the end they will have to be enemies. It is unlikely Conner will let the losers walk away with their lives.

This book was a thrilling page-turner. At times it seemed most likely that one boy would become prince, but soon it appeared that the other one would be crowned. The character development and fast paced plot was a brilliant way to engage the reader. Both of us found it difficult to put down because we always wanted to find out what happened on the next page.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

If you have never read anything by Terry Pratchett, you are living an impoverished life.

I first came to reading Terry Pratchett through his novel, Nation. It was an honor book for the Michael Printz award and I find anything that gets close to winning is worth reading. Nation was a spectacular book. It dragged me under and spat me out. I wanted it to never end. There are few books like that. However, the problem with having written a book that powerful, is that everything a reader reads afterwards will be compared to it.

Dodger is another Michael Printz honor book. While an entertaining read, (in my mind it is impossible for Terry Pratchett to write anything that isn't entertaining ) it is not of the mind blowing caliber that Nation is. That said, it is still a delightful romp. If Nation is a full course meal, Dodger is a delicious satisfying snack.

I liked as always Pratchett's wry wit and satirical comments on life. There are many quotable quotes.

I liked the placing of his character in Victorian England wherein he meets up with many significant actors of the era including, Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Benjamin Disraeli and Robert Peel. Even the fictional Sweeney Todd makes an appearance. I suspect that only Terry Pratchett could do this and pull it off with such dour playfulness.

The dark underbelly of Victorian England, that is, the life of the poor, is revealed in all its gore and glory. “There were two ways of looking at the world, but only one when you are starving.” Pratchett manages to educate the reader as he fills in the details of their existence to provide the backdrop for the novel. At the same time he leaves us wanting to know more. This is no mean feat.

The novel is full of adventure and suspense. Readers must abandon their belief in what is possible. This novel is what Pratchett calls historical fantasy. While many of the characters have lived and breathed, Dodger himself is a charming rascal - a modest superhero in Victorian times with a penchant for thievery. The 17 year old makes a living as a tosher, someone who scavenges in the sewers of London in search of money and jewels. He lives with Solomon Cohen, a Jewish clockmaker and jeweler, who attempts to guide him towards living the right sort of life.

The novel begins on a dark and stormy night in London.  Dodger emerges from the sewers to see a girl being attacked by two thugs. After he rescues her, two men, Charlie and Henry show up. The girl, later named Simplicity, is taken in and looked after by Henry and his family. It emerges that she is fleeing from an abusive marriage that has political significance. Be assured that she is no damsel in distress in any traditional sense. In the process of becoming her "knight in soaking armor" Dodger finds himself mixing with the high and mighty of the times. It catapults him on route to a thrilling encounter deep in the sewers with a gifted assassin.

This is the kind of book that will engage readers in history and most probably make them want to learn more. While in the middle of it, I wanted to go back and reread Dickens. I want to read more about the lives of the many real characters Pratchett introduced us to here. I want to read the work of Henry Mayhew.

Thank you Mr. Pratchett for making my reading life such a pleasurable place to live in.