Lee Westfall is living a hardscrabble life with her parents despite the three pounds of gold dust they have hidden under the floorboards in their cabin. They must hide the source of their wealth because Lee is secretly a gold dowser who can sense its presence.
Her world turns upside down when her longtime friend (with potential) Jefferson strikes out for the California gold rush and her parents are killed by someone who knows about her ability. Soon she is trying to catch up to Jefferson while being pursued by her parents' killers.
Why I picked it up: Rae Carson wrote my third-favorite fantasy series of all-time, The Girl of Fire and Thorns.
Why I finished it: Carson is known for her strong female protagonists, and Lee is no exception. She is a hard worker willing to take on challenges. She doesn't make all the right decisions, but she struggles through hardship without compliant. This reads like a mashup of True Grit and The Girl of Fire and Thorns.
At the end, Carson includes a description of some of the research she did for the book, highlighting the historically accurate details she included and explaining some editorial choices, like the inclusion of “confirmed bachelors” in the wagon train.
It's perfect for: My son Stephen, who was crazy for the Oregon Trail (“You have died of dysentery.”) when he played it at school. When I found out that this book was about the California Gold Rush and riding in wagons over the plains, I knew he would dig it.
Welcome to Woundabout, where routine rules and change is feared. But transformation is in the wind….
In the wake of tragedy, siblings Connor and Cordelia and their pet capybara are sent to the precariously perched town of Woundabout to live with their eccentric aunt. Woundabout is a place where the mayor has declared that routine rules above all, and no one is allowed to as questions–because they should already know the answers.
But Connor and Cordelia can’t help their curiosity when they discover a mysterious crank that fits into certain parts of the town, and by winding the crank, places are transformed into something beautiful. When the townspeople see this transformation, they don’t see beauty–they only see change. And change, the mayor says, is something to fear. With the mayor hot on their trail, can Connor and Cordelia find a way to wind Woundabout back to life?
“This light mystery keeps itself on the right side of quirkiness, giving off a cozy charm.” – Booklist
“Lev Rosen sensitively addresses change, growth, and painful emotions like grief, while Ellis Rosen’s b&w illustrations are alternately haunting, comedic, and poignant, in keeping with the overall tone of the story.”– Publishers Weekly
“Original… This is a touching story about the importance of change despite the hardships of life.” – School Library Journal
Lemony Snicket is a juvenile apprentice in a secret organization. He's temporarily posted to the octopus ink boom town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Even though nobody in town knows what he's doing or why he's there, Snicket (the character) has a growing reputation as a detective. In this book he's involved in thirteen child-appropriate mysteries involving fallen picture frames, disappearing newts, and even the busting of a ghost or two.
Why I picked it up: I'm a Snicket fan, but long before I started reading his stuff I was a fan of Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown series, where a youthful detective uses logic, general world knowledge and a keen eye and ear for inconsistency to right wrongs and foil scams. I put in my hold request at my local library as soon as I read this collection of mysteries had solutions in the back, just like Sobol's books.
Why I finished it: The moody, introspective, and brooding first person narration that flavors and informs each of the mysteries held my interest. I expected nearly constant wordplay and cultural references, and I wasn’t disappointed. The client in the first story is both a minor and a miner, and an aged former race car driver takes pride in having competed in the Magritte Derby. (This is a reference to the Belgian surrealist painter whose picture of a hat is famously captioned “This is not a hat.”) Snicket doesn't use maple syrup because "I can't shake the feeling that it's like drinking the blood of a tree.” And it wouldn't be a Snicket book without a few evil touches: Snicket (the author) wrote thirteen mystery stories but provided twice as many solutions, which will dishearten those who like to read ahead to get a jump on the solutions (a failing of which I am guilty).
Readalikes: Trial by Journal by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise uses a complex epistolary format and a plot fraught with moral and ethical questions for readers of about the same age as its twelve-year-old heroine. The protagonist's journal (and other written records) reveals her quest for justice while she's impaneled as a juvenile juror. It has the same mix of adults being silly and wise, the same love of word play (the Klise sisters' puns are worse than Snicket’s!), and the same mix of illustrations and text to tell the story.
Before Winnie-the-Pooh, there was a real bear named Winnie.
In 1914, Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian on his way to tend horses in World War I, followed his heart and rescued a baby bear. He named her Winnie, after his hometown of Winnipeg, and he took the bear to war.
Harry Colebourn’s real-life great-granddaughter tells the true story of a remarkable friendship and an even more remarkable journey–from the fields of Canada to a convoy across the ocean to an army base in England…
And finally to the London Zoo, where Winnie made another new friend: a real boy named Christopher Robin.
Here is the remarkable true story of the bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.
“Written by one of the descendants of the veterinarian that started it all. Add in the luminous artwork of Sophie Blackall and you’ve got yourself a historical winner on your hands.” – A Fuse #8 Production
Seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple can’t bring herself to believe in her parents’ church, the evangelical Church of America, and its charismatic leader, Beaton Frick. Frick predicts that the Rapture will occur and the faithful will ascend to Heaven on New Year’s Eve, so Viv and her friends have a blow-out party that night. When Viv gets home she discovers her parents gone and two holes in the ceiling of their bedroom. Was Frick right? As the news spreads that thousands of people have disappeared, those left behind must deal with the aftermath. Viv and her best friend, Harp, along with Peter, the cute guy they met at the party, head out on a cross-country road trip in search of relatives and answers to their questions.
Why I picked it up: The cover, with Vivian levitating above a highway, was rather enticing. The note that it is a Rolling Stone Best YA Novel also helped. When I discovered that this is Coyle’s first novel, I knew I had to read it -- I love reading an author’s first book.
Why I finished it: I was intrigued by the themes of belief, doubt, and questioning authority. Vivian emerges as a strong, confident young woman who can think for herself. She’s a great example for young teens, and Coyle throws in a little action, adventure, and romance for balance.
Readalikes: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. Both books have strong female characters and show a level of respect for teens dealing with faith, religion, and questioning their parents' beliefs.
A stunning debut about how grief can open the world in magical ways.
After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory– even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy’s achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe…and the potential for love and hope right next door.
? “A painful story smartly told, Benjamin’s first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience.” – Kirkus Reviews, starred review
A housefly buzzes into a classroom of kids studying butterflies and sets them straight about how awesome flies are: “Well, guess who else metamorphoses, can fly, and is beautiful (at least according to my mother).”
Why I picked it up: I’ve been working up a plan for an insect-themed story time.
Why I finished it: It’s an informative, amusing mix of the visual language of comics (word balloons, thought balloons) and text. When the housefly is talking about his 500 brothers and sisters hatching into short, greasy larvae, his parents are pictured looking down at them saying, “Adorable.” Then before he knew it, his daughters laid eggs and blessed him with thousands of grandmaggots (or more). (Family “photos” are shown in thought balloons above the explanation, and there’s a hilarious picture of the fly later in a rocking chair, surrounded by family members, some of whom are sitting on its lap.)
It's perfect for: Tristan and Jade. They could probably use a good excuse to be a bit messy at mealtimes. The fly gives them one when it says, “You can do your part to fight fly hunger by leaving your sandwiches, ice cream cones, and candy lying around!” And they will love that the houseflies have to throw up on solid foods in order to eat them, too. (Flies don’t have any teeth, so they do this to liquify their food which they can then sop up with their spongy mouths.)
Lola loves writing in her diario and playing soccer with her team, the Orange Smoothies. But when a soccer game during recess gets “too competitive,” Lola accidentally hurts her classmate Juan Gomez. Now everyone is calling her Mean Lola Levine!
Lola feels horrible, but with the help of her family and her super best friend, Josh Blot, she learns how to navigate the second grade in true Lola fashion – with humor and the power of words.
In this first book in a series, Lola’s big heart and creative spirit will ring true to young readers.
“A wonderful melding of cultures and soccer facts, Lola Levine captures the diversity of the contemporary classroom.” – Jamie Campbell Naidoo, University of Alabama
“Dolores ‘Lola’ Levine is a sparkling, biracial second grade child who loves the color purple, signing letters with her father’s Jewish term ‘Shalom,’ and practicing Spanish to speak with her Peruvian relatives… Lola Levine is Not Mean! is a perfect book for early readers who will delight in Lola’s many humorous conundrums and their peaceful resolutions.” – Ruth E. Quiroa, National Louis University
“Young readers will enjoy spending time with Lola Levine – a confident, articulate aspiring writer and thoroughly modern, soccer-playing 2nd grader. Her father is Jewish, her mom is Peruvian, and Lola and her younger brother are completely original. Readers are sure to recognize the situations in which Lola finds herself in this fast-paced, gently humorous, contemporary novel.” – Maria Salvadore, Reading Rockets
Why I picked it up: I need some weird stuff for my teen summer reading recommendations.
Why I finished it: I thought I had seen it all, but a lizard that can poke its own needle-sharp ribs out of its skin to become too pointy to eat? That beats Wolverine’s claws many times over!
It's perfect for: Future scientists, because the author interviewed the people who are studying these strange creatures and read their original research. I dug the story of how Robert Young and Vinicius Goulart at the University of Salford accidentally discovered that the two spot astyanax fish will injure and shun one of their school to sacrifice it to a predator, making sure that only one of them gets eaten.
After young Carl Sagan visits the 1939 World's Fair with his parents, he develops a passion for outer space. This leads to him getting a doctorate, hosting a television program about space science, and helping launch the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft.
Includes an author's note, source notes, text notes, and a bibliography.
Why I picked it up: I was touched by Neil deGrasse Tyson's anecdote about the support and encouragement he received from Sagan when Tyson was just a young man, beginning to dream of being a scientist, as told by Tyson during his updated version of Sagan's classic science TV series, Cosmos.
Why I finished it: Sisson starts off, "In the Milky Way galaxy, in a neighborhood of stars, on the third planet from our sun, in a big city, in a small apartment, lived a boy named Carl," which I found charming. It reminded me of how astronomy-obsessed kids finish their home addresses when they first start to write them down: ...The Earth, The Solar System, The Milky Way Galaxy, The Universe. Also, I am a firm believer in the importance of both science and art, so I appreciated how Sisson shows that Carl turned to both science fiction and science fact to further his interests. Throughout the book, Sisson's cheerful illustrations perfectly capture the beauty of outer space, making it easy to see why Carl was so captivated.
Readalikes: Readers who love Sagan's statement, "The very matter that makes us up was generated long ago and far away in red giant stars," will enjoy You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim. Kelsey shows readers how interconnected the Earth and its inhabitants are, something that Sagan and Tyson both point out.
Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell
Julie has just spent five years at an asylum when she’s hired by a rich man to be his nephew’s nanny. She and the boy are kidnapped at gunpoint from a park. After a struggle they manage to escape and flee through the countryside, pursued by a ruthless contract killer.
New York Mon Amour
Contains several shorter works set in New York City. “Cockroach Killer,” the longest, takes up most of the book. When an exterminator notices a button for the thirteenth floor in an elevator, he pushes it, and accidentally overhears a conversation about an assassination. By the time he finishes the job in the building, he’s being followed by thugs. He turns to a tough coworker for aid, but the man seems more determined to profit from the situation than to help.
Why I picked it up: I’ve been a fan of Jacques Tardi’s since I found a few of his then out-of-print graphic novels after a lecture on French comics greats by Fantagraphics’ Kim Thompson. And the other day I noticed that two of the Tardi graphic novels on my shelf were written by Jean-Patrick Manchette, whose wonderfully short crime novels (Fatale, The Prone Gunman) I enjoy.
Why I finished them: Run Like Crazy... is perfect Tardi. His fluid inking style seems to dance across the paper, giving characters just the right blend of individuality and emotion. He doesn’t use much cross-hatching, but his inks are old school, and he’s a master of putting just the right amount of black and white on a page to create a dark, criminal mood and a sense of sudden violence.
The above is why the opening of New York Mon Amour was so startling. “Cockroach Killer” uses not only a combination of white, various grays, and blacks, it also uses red -- the color of the exterminator’s uniform, his matching company van, and the blood that spatters after things get rough. (It’s worth noting that the blood isn’t just red, it’s mixed with thick, wet blacks. It’s still classic Tardi.)
I had three unread Tardi graphic novels on my shelf, though I’m only reviewing two here. The third is Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot, which is an adaptation of The Prone Gunman. I read that book much too recently to read the story again right now, but it was a wonderful discovery, too, and looks just as fantastic as these two.
Readalikes: My two favorite ongoing crime comics series, Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth’s Stumptown, which takes place in modern day Portland, Oregon, and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s The Fade Out, set in late 1940s Hollywood.
Smith asks big questions about big things. How big is the earth? Or the solar system? Or our galaxy? How old is our planet, and when did animals and people first appear?
To answer these questions, he takes these big, hard-to-comprehend phenomena and compares them to everyday objects we can easily picture. He describes the Milky Way Galaxy if it were the size of a dinner plate (which is nicely illustrated in pastels (I think) by Adams), and says our solar system would be smaller than a speck of dust on the plate while the visible universe would be about the size of Belgium. Neat!
Why I picked it up: Smith is the author of another book that takes big ideas and brings them to a human scale, called If the World Were a Village, which I really enjoyed for its easily understood use of comparisons.
Why I finished it: Smith compresses the history of the last 3000 years into one month for comparison’s sake. The first Monday begins with the widespread use of iron, paper is invented on the 12th, and the telephone is invented on the twenty-ninth. For another comparison he imagines all the water in the world as if it has been poured into one hundred glasses on a waiter's tray. Three of them hold fresh water and the rest hold salt water.
It's perfect for: Sorin, a boy who is trying hard to learn some basic math. I think he would really like seeing all these different concepts wrestled into shapes and pictures that he can understand. He'd particularly enjoy the last pages, which condense one person's life into twelve slices of pizza: four slices for school, four slices for sleep, and one slice for preparing and eating food.