Middle school students have reading interests that run the gamut from Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Twilight. Sometimes as a parent it is hard to know what is age appropriate for your child. Through this blog, I will try to help parents make informed decisions about what is available in our library. I am hoping that this blog will be a resource for our parents, and that we can all work together to make our students life-long readers!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Court of Fives

Court of Fives
by Kate Elliott
From the publisher:
"On the Fives court, everyone is equal.

And everyone is dangerous.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family, she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for the Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors.

Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the two Fives competitors—one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy—causes heads to turn. When Kal’s powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test her new friend’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.

In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

The world building in this book was so confusing I felt like I needed a full-sized map in front of me at all times with little green army men positioned all around. Or, more probably, different colored little army men so I knew who was who. And the world-building that was done was boring. It was given in pages of explanation, and in terms that didn't come together in my head. But that's just me. Other people may appreciate the complexity. 

I also didn't really love any of the characters. The main character, Jes, puts her whole family at risk by joining the Fives competition, which she knows will hurt her father's career and make her sisters even less marriageable than they already are because of their mixed heritage. But SHE wants this so badly that she does it anyway. She is constantly talking about her love for her family, and yet she destroys their lives. And then we are supposed to feel empathy for her as she struggles to save her family like she is some big hero, when she is doing exactly what she wants and the rest of her family is bitterly suffering for her selfishness. 

The love interest, Kal, is a spineless little princeling who just blindly does whatever Jes tells him to.

And what the heck is wrong with Bettany? The main character has a twin sister who is always shut away. I thought she had some disease, but the best I could figure is that she had a tendency to be outspoken and full of anger for their situation, so they didn't want her to say anything to embarrass them. 

All that sounds very negative, and those things really did bother me, but it wasn't all bad, and I think teenagers will really like it. There was a lot of action, a very evil bad guy, a cool competition that I pictured as an ancient or medieval American Ninja Warrior, and plenty of suspense with a little magic thrown in. I definitely see readership for this one in my library.

Areas of concern:
*The parents of the main character were never able to marry because of their different citizenship and status. 
*It is discovered that one of the sisters has a lesbian lover and that she has been taken away to be a concubine to the evil bad guy. (That whole story line was very small and just mentioned - nothing graphic.) 
*Some kissing between the main character and her spineless little princeling.
*Because the main character looked like a Commoner and not a Patron, sometimes she was fondled when she was out in public.
*The main character is caught in a bathing house without clothes in front of a group of men. 
*Some weird, mystical/magical scary suspense at the end of the book. Not really sure where that is headed.

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 12+
School Library Journal - Grades 7-10

Monday, September 28, 2015


by Sara B. Larson
From the publisher:
"Alexa Hollen is a fighter. Forced to disguise herself as a boy and serve in the king's army, Alex uses her quick wit and fierce sword-fighting skills to earn a spot on the elite prince's guard. But when a powerful sorcerer sneaks into the palace in the dead of night, even Alex, who is virtually unbeatable, can't prevent him from abducting her, her fellow guard and friend Rylan, and Prince Damian, taking them through the treacherous wilds of the jungle and deep into enemy territory.

The longer Alex is held captive with both Rylan and the prince, the more she realizes that she is not the only one who has been keeping dangerous secrets. And suddenly, after her own secret is revealed, Alex finds herself confronted with two men vying for her heart: the safe and steady Rylan, who has always cared for her, and the dark, intriguing Damian. With hidden foes lurking around every corner, is Alex strong enough to save herself and the kingdom she's sworn to protect?"

There were things I loved about this book and things I hated about this book. 

Things I loved: 
*I loved the main character, Alexa! I have read several reviews comparing this book negatively to Throne of Glass , but my problem with that book was that I didn't like the main character, Celaena. In my review of that book, I mentioned that I needed more of Celaena's back story in order to care about her. In Defy , Sara B. Larson gives us a character to root for. We are shown her previous life and why she has been forced to be a fierce warrior. She fights and kills to defend her prince, whose guard she is on. She never glories in the killings. 
*I loved so many of the characters! Alexa's twin brother, who took care of her and protected her. The prince's guard, who shared a wonderful comradery. Lisbet and Jax, and even Tanoori. There were many people to care about in this book. 
*I don't usually appreciate a love triangle, but I really liked both Rylan and Damian, so it was easy to sense Alexa's confusion.
*There was a lot of action and excitement. 
*Secrets, secrets everywhere!

Things I hated: 
*Probably just this one thing, but it is deserving of a whole section. The breeding houses and the continual references to them were very disturbing. There was a whole chapter at the beginning of the book that was so horrific I almost stopped reading. I felt like I needed to take a shower or something to wash the yuckiness off of me. I'm not happy that I have purchased this for my middle school library because that one chapter alone is too intense for middle school.  I read several reviews that called this a "clean read".  Yes, as far as the romance goes, it just involves kissing.  However, references are made throughout the book about all of the rape that goes on to propagate the army. No, no and no. 

There were so many things to love about this book, but I find it hard to recommend because of the violence and the breeding house references. I'm thinking the next book won't have as many concerns for me. I did love the moral at the ending of the book, 

"“True beauty is what lies inside of us, not what the world sees. A beautiful shell that houses a vile soul becomes sullied over time. But an outer shell, imperfect as it may be, that houses a beautiful soul shines with that beauty, radiating it for all who have eyes to see.” 

Areas of concern:
*The above-mentioned rant.
*A couple of the characters are incredibly sadistic, and there is a lot of horrifying violence.
*Kissing while lying in a tent together.
*I don't remember any bad language.

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 12-18
School Library Journal - Grades 8+

Monday, September 21, 2015

Things We Know By Heart

Things We Know By Heart
by Jessi Kirby
From the publisher:
"When Quinn Sullivan meets the recipient of her boyfriend’s donated heart, the two form an unexpected connection.

After Quinn loses her boyfriend, Trent, in an accident their junior year, she reaches out to the recipients of his donated organs in hopes of picking up the pieces of her now-unrecognizable life. She hears back from some of them, but the person who received Trent’s heart has remained silent. The essence of a person, she has always believed, is in the heart. If she finds Trent’s, then maybe she can have peace once and for all. 

Risking everything in order to finally lay her memories to rest, Quinn goes outside the system to track down nineteen-year-old Colton Thomas—a guy whose life has been forever changed by this priceless gift. But what starts as an accidental run-in quickly develops into more, sparking an undeniable attraction. She doesn't want to give in to it—especially since he has no idea how they're connected—but their time together has made Quinn feel alive again. No matter how hard she’s falling for Colton, each beat of his heart reminds her of all she’s lost…and all that remains at stake."

The movie Return to Me (which I can't even type without singing the song in my head), has been one of my top favorite chick flicks of all time for a lot of years. When I saw the synopsis of this book I was hoping for a teenage Return to Me . It did remind me of that, but it didn't pack the emotional punch that the movie did. Sure it is fun to read about teenagers who think their love will last forever and that there has never been a love like theirs, but realistically we all know that doesn't happen very often. However, the author did a wonderful job of drawing me in and making me care about the main character and feel her pain. The romance between Quinn and Coleton was sweet and touching (for most of it) and believable. They were both keeping secrets from each other, so that kept the tension going throughout the book. I loved that both of the characters had strong families who were there for them through all of their pain. 
All in all I quite liked it, but now I need to go rewatch my movie for the thousandth time.

Areas of concern:
*A handful of mild cuss words.
*A sex scene between teenagers that spoke of a bra coming off and fingers being run over scars and laying on top of each other kissing - then fade to black. I was so disappointed because before that happened it was a very clean read.
*Brief thoughts of suicide. 

Suggested Ages: (quite differing opinions on this one)
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 11-16 
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 14+
School Library Journal - Grades 8+

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie

Drums, Girls &
Dangerous Pie
by Jordan Sonnenblick
From the publisher:
"Thirteen-year-old Steven has a totally normal life: he plays drums in the All-Star Jazz band, has a crush on the hottest girl in the school, and is constantly annoyed by his five-year-old brother, Jeffrey. 

But when Jeffrey is diagnosed with leukemia, Steven's world is turned upside down. He is forced to deal with his brother's illness and his parents' attempts to keep the family in one piece.

Salted with humor and peppered with devastating realities, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie is a heartwarming journey through a year in the life of a family in crisis"

Think of the part in Disney's Beauty and the Beast where Belle takes a book out of her basket, hugs it and says, "I just read the most WONDERFUL story".  That is how I felt when I finished this book. I laughed, I cried, I hugged. I have so many students here at school who ask if we have The Fault in Our Stars , and I always tell them we don't have it because it is a high school book.  Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie is the book I will start steering them towards. It is a beautiful story of a family fighting cancer. The only raging teenage hormones in this story belong to our main character, Steven, who is madly crushing on the "hottest girl in 8th grade" and she doesn't really even know he's alive. It is a lovely coming-of-age story and besides hugging the book, I wish I could hug the author.

I loved the characters in this book! They were all so well drawn and I felt like they were all my friends. I cried for some and cheered for others. These were real people going through a horrific experience. Steven is a normal 8th grade boy with a little brother who bugs him. When that little brother gets cancer, it turns Steven's world upside-down. The stages of grief he went through were valid and normal. Was he perfect? No, he was an every day kid. I found that so refreshing. I particularly loved the chapter "Take Me!".  In this chapter, Steven starts bargaining with God to save his brother. I think we all do the bargain-with-God thing when we are in those circumstances. Steven's bargains involved Ring Dings, never hitting his brother again, never having impure thoughts about the hottest girl in school again... A favorite quote:

"But let's face it - I am a thirteen-year-old American male. I have no willpower. So every night I'd go to bed totally convinced that I was going to gain twenty pounds and be a fat, violent pervert forever and that my little brother was doomed." 

He attempts many other bargains throughout the course of that chapter, and the end of the chapter is hysterical. I read it out loud to my 6th graders when I book-talked this book. Read it and see. And yet we are never allowed to forget that behind all of the funny things that go on, there is the black cloud of cancer hanging over all their heads. This was so well done. 

Another thing I loved about this book is the family dynamic. Once again, they are not perfect - they are normal. The dad is overburdened and worried about the mounting bills. The mom is naturally focusing most of her efforts on her 5 year old with cancer. They have problems, they have issues, but they remain a family and grow together throughout the process. Another favorite quote:

"Since when do you wear cologne to learn math? Oh, my son is growing up right in front of my very eyes. Maybe I should get out the video camera.

Maybe you should tie me to a stake, douse me in kerosene, and torch me right on our front lawn.

I won't need any kerosene, Steven - I'm sure the cologne will go up pretty fast!

Ha-ha, Mom. " 

I have also discovered, through my vast experience of reading middle grade and Young Adult books, that if you want a true picture of how schools and teachers really are, read a book written by a teacher. So often in books the teachers are portrayed as total idiots or uncaring jerks. I appreciated the care and attention the teachers and counselor gave to Steven in this book.   STEVEN doesn't always appreciate it, however (another case of real and normal).  

One last thing - I'm a percussionist, so I thoroughly enjoyed all of  the drumming references. I can't remember the last time I heard the word "paradiddle". The band teacher, Mr. Watras, reminded me very much of my own Jr. High band teacher, Mr. Art Lies, who cared about us tremendously, but wasn't above chucking his baton at our heads when we weren't listening or playing correctly. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I will definitely be reading more by Jordan Sonnenblick and continuing to book talk his books. 

Areas of concern:
I don't think there are any concerns for parents in this one. Things that might have been a concern were handled so beautifully that they weren't a concern anymore.

Suggested Ages:
Booklist - Grades 5-8
School Library Journal - Ages 12+

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Love, Lucas

Love, Lucas
by Chantele Sedgwick
From the publisher:
"A powerful story of loss, second chances, and first love, reminiscent of Sarah Dessen and John Green.

When Oakley Nelson loses her older brother, Lucas, to cancer, she thinks she’ll never recover. Between her parents’ arguing and the battle she’s fighting with depression, she feels nothing inside but a hollow emptiness. When Mom suggests they spend a few months in California with Aunt Jo, Oakley isn’t sure a change of scenery will alter anything, but she’s willing to give it a try.

In California, Oakley discovers a sort of safety and freedom in Aunt Jo’s beach house. Once they’re settled, Mom hands her a notebook full of letters addressed to her—from Lucas. As Oakley reads one each day, she realizes how much he loved her, and each letter challenges her to be better and to continue to enjoy her life. He wants her to move on.

If only it were that easy.

But then a surfer named Carson comes into her life, and Oakley is blindsided. He makes her feel again. As she lets him in, she is surprised by how much she cares for him, and that’s when things get complicated. How can she fall in love and be happy when Lucas never got the chance to do those very same things?

With her brother’s dying words as guidance, Oakley knows she must learn to listen and trust again. But will she have to leave the past behind to find happiness in the future?"

I probably shouldn't say I enjoyed a book that is about a beloved brother dying of cancer, so I'll just say I was immediately caught up in it. I cared about the characters and felt Oakley's pain and confusion about life going on after you lose a loved one. I thought the way she would try to keep living, and then push people away again was very believable. If your children are wanting to read stories about love and death but you don't want them reading the language and content of a John Green book, or a Gayle Forman book - this is the book to point them towards. There is a sweet romance that doesn't go beyond kissing, there is little to no bad language, and even though the loss of a brother is tragic, it shows a girl learning to live through that experience. There is quite a shocking occurance towards the end of the book that really amps up the excitement level. But all ends as well as could be expected. 
I need more books like this in my middle school library. I will definitely be recommending this to my students.

Areas of concern:
Death of a loved one.
Possible divorce of parents.
A violent accident that involves blood, but is not too graphic.
Sweet romance with some kissing.

Suggested Ages:
School Library Journal - Grades 7-10

Friday, September 11, 2015

Dream a Little Dream

Dream a Little Dream
by Kerstin Gier
From the publisher:
"Mysterious doors with lizard-head knobs. Talking stone statues. A crazy girl with a hatchet. Yes, Liv's dreams have been pretty weird lately. Especially the one where she's in a graveyard at night, watching four boys conduct dark magic rituals.

The strangest part is that Liv recognizes the boys in her dream. They're classmates from her new school in London, the school where she's starting over because her mom has moved them to a new country (again). But what's really scaring Liv is that the dream boys seem to know things about her in real life, things they couldn't possibly know--unless they actually arein her dreams? Luckily, Liv never could resist a good mystery, and all four of those boys are pretty cute..."

I'm not quite sure what to think of this book. There were some things I really liked and some things I couldn't stand. I will admit I was expecting more. I loved this author's Ruby Red , with it's snarky yet charming main character and the many exciting adventures, but this one didn't hold quite the charm for me that Ruby Red did. 

Things I liked: 
*Another snarky and funny main character.
*Little sister Mia. I laughed out loud several times at her antics. 
“Liv, stop it!" hissed Mia. "You look like a lovelorn sheep!"
I gave a start. "As bad as that? Oh, that's terrible." I added - and I was to regret it in the course of the day - "If you see me looking like that again, give me a nudge or throw something at me. Promise?"
"With pleasure," said Mia, and three hours later, because she always kept her promises, I was black and blue around the ribs and had been hit by assorted flying objects: several chestnuts, a spoon, and a blueberry muffin.” 

*I loved the relationship between the sisters. 
*I liked the character of Grayson, although I'm sure we will find out many more things about him in the coming books in the trilogy.
*I thought the concept of sharing dreams was pretty cool (although I would definitely be putting a lot of safeguards around MY door). 

Things I didn't like:
*Bad teenage behavior throughout! Guh, I could go on another Raven Boys rant - which would be apropos because this one actually reminded me just a little bit of that book. 
*How many outrageously gorgeous students can GO to one high school?! I got so tired of hearing about perfect features and hot looks. When the 4 beautiful boys are spotted walking down the school hall in perfect unison, I pictured a slow motion take of Edward, Emmett, Jasper, Alice and Rosalie walking down the corridors of Forks High School and kind of giggled to myself.
*The dream-theme was pretty interesting, but the demon-theme was not very believable. Actually, I guess that is a good thing for me. But I feel like it was meant to be very atmospheric and dark and it didn't make that impression on me.
*The main character seemed to really have her head on straight, which made it so annoying when she started to agree to do the stupidest things.
*There was a mild romance, but I never really believed in it or felt it. 

Now let's talk about the ending. What?! Until the last page and a half, I was thinking, Hmmm, why is this a trilogy? It seemed to be having a good ending. Then, BOOM! Okay, now I see why there needs to be another book. 
I think middle schoolers will like this book, but I don't think I will recommend it to them because of all the bad behaviors. 

Areas of concern:
*A lot of bad language! Never the *f* word, but tons of others.
*A lot of teenage drinking and partying. One party was going on in the pool house with the teenagers, while the teenager's dad was throwing an adults-behaving-badly party in another part of the house.
*Dysfunctional families abound. Is there one good, loving family in the whole book?
*A lot of talk about teenage sex. One of the main plot points is that they are having trouble finding a teenage virgin to conjure up a demon.

Suggested Ages:
Booklist - Grades 7-10
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 12+
School Library Journal - Grades 9+
*Mrs. Duke is going to have to side with School Library Journal on this one.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Distance Between Lost and Found

The Distance Between
Lost and Found
by Kathryn Holmes
From the publisher:
"Ever since the night of the incident with Luke Willis, the preacher’s son, sophomore Hallelujah Calhoun has been silent. When the rumors swirled around school, she was silent. When her parents grounded her, she was silent. When her friends abandoned her … silent.

Now, six months later, on a youth group retreat in the Smoky Mountains, Hallie still can’t find a voice to answer the taunting. Shame and embarrassment haunt her, while Luke keeps coming up with new ways to humiliate her. Not even meeting Rachel, an outgoing newcomer who isn’t aware of her past, can pull Hallie out of her shell. Being on the defensive for so long has left her raw, and she doesn’t know who to trust.

On a group hike, the incessant bullying pushes Hallie to her limit. When Hallie, Rachel, and Hallie’s former friend Jonah get separated from the rest of the group, the situation quickly turns dire. Stranded in the wilderness, the three have no choice but to band together.

With past betrayals and harrowing obstacles in their way, Hallie fears they’ll never reach safety. Could speaking up about the night that changed everything close the distance between being lost and found? Or has she traveled too far to come back?

I literally could not stop reading this book once I started it. My heart and my interest were won at the very beginning. My heart broke for Hallelujah, and I totally understood her. The good girl who had always done what was right and then one incident and one disgusting, deceitful, popular boy ruined her reputation and pretty much her whole life. I could see myself reacting the same way Hallie did - withdrawing from everyone and becoming incredibly angry that everyone actually believed the disgusting, deceitful, popular boy. 

There is really something for everyone in this book. It is an exciting survival story, it is a coming-of-age story, it is a story of identity - what makes us who we are, it is a story of forgiveness, it is a story of redemption. There is also vile bullying and a sweet romance. Probably the thing I like the best was how REAL it was. There wasn't a quick oh-you're-forgiven-for-everything scene, the issue of forgiveness resurfaced many times. The kids were on a youth group trip and while they were lost and suffering, they discussed God and how they felt about the whole concept. There was no saccharine sweet sappiness about it, there were questions and concerns and true feelings about how God could be letting this happen to them. However, I wouldn't classify this as a Christian book, it was just about kids who happened to be on a youth group trip and got lost. I also loved one conversation where Hallie asked Jonah why he never cursed - especially given the situation they were in. He talked about his father, who "curses up a storm when he's not in church", or his friends, who curse all the time when there are no adults around. He said:

“I know too many people who are one thing when they think it matters and another thing the rest of the time. And I don’t want to be like that . So I don’t curse at all. It’s like —what you see is what you get.” 

Words to live by from a teenage boy.

Because of the real feelings that are evoked in this book, I think middle school kids will love it - I know I did. The title is so perfect for the book - "lost" and "found" have several different meanings in it. I will definitely be watching for more by this author - this was her debut novel. Well done!

Areas of concern:
*A few curse words.
*Mysterious "incident" with a boy that has ruined a girl's life. The "incident" is finally explained in detail, but it doesn't go too far.
*Intense, non-physical bullying.
*Scary survival situations.

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 13+
School Library Journal - Grades 7+

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

House of Secrets

House of Secrets
by Chris Columbus &
Ned Vizzini
From the publisher:
"The Walker kids had it all: loving parents, a big house in San Francisco, all the latest video games . . . but everything changed when their father lost his job as a result of an inexplicable transgression. Now the family is moving into Kristoff House, a mysterious place built nearly a century earlier by Denver Kristoff, a troubled writer with a penchant for the occult.

Suddenly the siblings find themselves launched on an epic journey into a mash-up world born of Kristoff’s dangerous imagination, to retrieve a dark book of untold power, uncover the Walker family’s secret history and save their parents . . . and maybe even the world."

I did not like this one, but I kept soldiering on and finished. The concept seems amazing, and I think it could have been, but there were so many ridiculous situations it lost my interest. Actually, I don't think it ever had my interest. I thought a book written by the director of the first 2 Harry Potter movies and blurbed by J.K. Rowling must be good. However, now that I look back on what J.K. Rowling said, I realize that it is like when someone who hasn't been a very good employee asks for a letter of recommendation. You try to make them sound good without really committing yourself.
"A breakneck, jam-packed roller coaster of an adventure about the secret power of books, House of Secrets comes complete with three resourceful sibling heroes, a seriously creepy villainess, and barrel loads of fantasy and fear." 
All of those things are technically true, but it left out anything about loving the book or thinking it was amazing. Well played, J.K.Rowling.

A few positives of the book are that the siblings learn to really love and look out for each other. The character of Will was intriguing because of where he came from. The idea of being inside books is always a fun theme. 

It is possible that middle school boys might get a little enjoyment out of this because it is horribly gory. However, they will never be able to keep all the plot points together. I have no desire to read the sequel, especially when the publisher says, " ...they'll be tested in ways that cut deeper than before..." . How do you "cut deeper" than vivisection (which was a main plot point in this first book)? I'm just glad I am done with it.

Areas of concern:
The violence and gore are way overdone for a middle grade book. Vivisection, eyeballs pulled out in front of children, friends killed while children watched, parents missing and presumed dead.... I could go on and on. 
There are a handful of cuss words.
Skeletons keep coming alive and when they do they are naked and standing in front of the children, who proceed to have conversations with them first and then get them clothes.

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 9+  
School Library Journal - Grades 4-8
*Mrs. Duke disagrees with these suggested ages because of the extreme violence.  Possibly 7th or 8th grade and higher.