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!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

One Dog and His Boy

One Dog and His Boy
by Eva Ibbotson
From the publisher:
"Eva Ibbotson's final masterpiece, a tale of a boy and dog who were meant to be together.

All Hal had ever wanted was a dog. "Never!" cries his mother. "Think of the mess, the scratch-marks, the puddles on the floor." But on the morning of Hal's 10th birthday, the unbelievable happens. He's allowed to choose a dog at Easy Pets, a rent-a-pet agency (a fact his parents keep from him). The moment he sees the odd-looking terrier, he knows he's found a friend for life. But no one tells Hal that Fleck must be returned. When Hal wakes up on Monday morning, Fleck is gone. If dog and boy are to stay together they'll have to run away. . . . From the renowned Eva Ibbotson comes a tale laced with humor and brimming over with heart, stunning in its beauty of the love of all things dog."

I am a huge Eva Ibbotson fan, and while this book did not disappoint, it wasn't my favorite. This is the last book she wrote before she passed away at the age of 85, so I am very happy she finished it. It is sweet and charming, and like all Eva Ibbotson books, the good characters are very, very good, and the bad characters are so terrible they are almost like cartoon caricatures. My dog lovers at school will love this one, as it is practically an ode to dogs. The dogs in the book are really the stars. They are loyal, funny, loving and heart wrenching. I adored every one of them. 

I mentioned that this one isn't my favorite by this author, but I did enjoy it. I haven't read all of her books for children (she also writes books for adults that I love - although they are now marketing them for Young Adult instead of adult, and I - and the author - don't agree with that). My favorite of her children's books is definitely Journey to the River Sea , followed closely by Star of Kazan and The Secret of Platform 13 - and yes, that was written before Harry Potter came into existence. I love her writing and her heart and her proclivity for always having good overcome evil.  Happy endings abound. 

Areas of concern:
*Terrible parents are depicted. Obviously a parent who would rent a dog for their son's birthday and not tell him that the dog had to be returned are not good parents. They are, in fact, so ridiculous that it doesn't seem real, and at the end they try very hard to change.
*Runaway children on their own with a bunch of dogs.
*Technically the dogs have been stolen by the children.

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 9-14
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 8-12

Monday, October 26, 2015


by M.M. Vaughan
From the publisher:
"* Kirkus Starred *
Parker and his sister will do whatever it takes to find their father in this adventure packed with action and mystery from the author of The Abilityand Mindscape.

Parker and his family share a secret: they can, with the help of advanced technology, communicate between themselves through their thoughts.

When Parker, his dad, and sister Emma move to New York three years after his mother's death, Parker is having a hard time. He misses London and his friends, his father is distracted with his new job, and Emma is looking out for him instead of the other way around.

And then Parker's dad, on the cusp of a technological breakthrough, is kidnapped. Thanks to a message his dad sent via thoughts before the signal cut off, Parker is suddenly on a rescue mission. Now Parker and Emma, along with their friend Michael and Polly the pig, must find this person - the only link to their father; but the search asks more questions than it answers. But all the signs point to one thing: the company his dad works for is up to something big. Huge. A perfectly sinister project that threatens far more than Parker's family. A project called SIX.

* Kirkus - Starred Review *

Three kids, a pet pig and a helpful chauffeur must unravel a mystery of cosmic proportions.

Twelve-year-old Parker is struggling with his family’s move from England to upstate New York. Parker has a new nemesis. His inventor father has mounting job stress. Only his 10-year-old sister, Emma, seems to be acclimating. With a specialized program for the deaf at their school, friends and a new pet pig, she is thrilled. Keeping secrets in the Banks family is difficult, thanks to his father’s invention, which allows each of them to hear one another’s thoughts—but Parker’s father is hiding something from his family that could change everything if it comes to light. When Parker and Emma’s father disappears, the two siblings enlist Michael, a fellow victim of bullying and an uber-wealthy computer genius, to help them find him. Unfortunately the only people willing to lend a hand are a conspiracy theorist and a patient at a psychiatric hospital. Creative details, likable characters—Brendan, Michael’s chauffeur, stands out especially—and an X-Files–worthy mystery keep the pages turning, but it is the supportive and loving Banks family that makes this story shine. A surprise ending will encourage readers to think beyond the text and grapple with some real-world dilemmas.

Inventive, entertaining and thought-provoking."

I am going to keep my eye on this author. I really enjoyed her first book, The Ability , and now I really liked this one. I was just talking to someone the other day about how the science fiction genre so often contains no science. That is not the case in this one. Science abounds, and it is very interesting science. There was a lot of action and suspense surrounding the science, and the children in the story have to go to great lengths to uncover secrets about the firm their father worked for. 

I liked the characters of Parker, Emma and their dad. I found it refreshing to have a deaf character who was never treated like a person with a disability. Emma is tough, loyal, compassionate and fiercely devoted to animals and the environment. Parker is believable as a boy who is just trying to survive a new school and bullying. Dr. Banks is a loving father with a tremendous amount of stress and pressure on him that the children don't understand. They have no idea that everything he is doing is to keep them safe, so it is sad when they resent him and all the time he takes away from them on his work. Another character, the new friend Michael, has kind of an Artemis Fowl feel to him. Not in a bad way (I can't stand Artemis Fowl), but because he had unlimited resources, computer genius, absent parents, and servants who would do whatever he said. Add all of those characters to an interesting plot, and we have ourselves a winner. Middle school students should love this one! 

Areas of concern:
*Grief over a lost mother/wife.
*A kidnapped father leaving 2 children on their own.

Suggested Ages:
Booklist - Grades 5-8
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 8-12

Friday, October 23, 2015

Not Your Average Fairy Tale

Not Your Average Fairy Tale
by Chantele Sedgwick
From the publisher:
"Ash Summerland has it all-good looks, popularity, and the best grades at The Academy of Magical Beings. Ready to complete his last assignment in order to graduate, Ash is confident he will get the apprenticeship he wants. but when he opens the letter from the Council, he is shocked to discover he has been assigned to apprentice Lady Shenelle, Keeper of Happy Endings- aka the head fairy godmother. Ash is forced to grant three wishes to a troubled human girl named Kendall, and ultimately give her a "happy ever after." But Kendall turns out to be more than he bargained for. Still grieving over her father's death, she doesn't want anything to do with Ash. And worst of all, she doesn't believe in happy endings."

This is one I've had on the shelf for quite some time and it hardly ever gets checked out (paperbacks always sit on the shelf more than hardbacks). I'm so glad I read it and I need to really talk it up with my students, because I liked it alot. It is a fun and entertaining book with a different premise - a guy as a fairy godmother - and yet it also has a lot of heart and some good action/suspense. As soon as I finished it I ordered the next one in the series, Not Your Average Happy Ending (I sure wish I could get hardbacks of these!). This is an author to watch. I also loved her most recent book, Love, Lucas . She has a way of dealing with serious teen issues realistically, while still having the main characters keep a moral compass alive. I can't even begin to say how much I appreciate that in YA authors! I'm a firm believer in expecting greatness out of teenagers and not assuming they will all delve into bad behaviors, so I love all authors who expect greatness out of their main characters. 

The main characters in this book are very well drawn. We feel Kendall's heartache at the loss of her father and the grief that has weighed her down and changed who she is. We laugh at Ash's exploits and conceit, while loving his charm and wit. We are happy that Ellie is a loving and supportive sister, and are entertained by the bond between Sam and Ash. The romance between Kendall and Ash is sweet and believable. 

I felt like the build-up to the conflict in the story was a little slow. It was apparent that Dax hated Ash, but someone who hates you because you are popular and get the best grades doesn't seem too threatening (even if he does have magical powers). However, when the conflict reached it's zenith I did get a little nervous for the main characters. It looks like the next book in the series is going to have some much more serious conflicts, so it will be interesting to see how that pans out. 

All in all, Not Your Average Fairy Tale ticks all the boxes for a contemporary/fantasy/romance YA novel. I definitely recommend it.

Areas of concern:
*A smarmy, arrogant high school boy who is trying to hook up with Kendall.
Actually a very clean read (without being cheesy).

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I'll Be There

I'll Be There
by Holly Goldberg Sloan
From the publisher:
"Emily Bell believes in destiny. To her, being forced to sing a solo in the church choir--despite her average voice--is fate: because it's while she's singing that she first sees Sam. At first sight, they are connected.

Sam Border wishes he could escape, but there's nowhere for him to run. He and his little brother, Riddle, have spent their entire lives constantly uprooted by their unstable father. That is, until Sam sees Emily. That's when everything changes.

As Sam and Riddle are welcomed into the Bells' lives, they witness the warmth and protection of a family for the first time. But when tragedy strikes, they're left fighting for survival in the desolate wilderness, and wondering if they'll ever find a place where they can belong. Beautifully written and emotionally profound, I'll Be There is a gripping story that explores the complexities of teenage passions, friendships, and loyalties."

I was obsessed with this book once I got into it and could not put it down. The writing seemed a little bit off at the beginning, but once I got sucked into the story I didn't care, and now I can't even remember why the writing bothered me at the beginning. And, I might add, I have had the song I'll Be There stuck in my head for 2 days now. Luckily it's a great song! I think it is very cool that it plays an integral part in the story and wasn't just a random title for the book.

This is one of those books that has it all. Pathos, romance, humor, wilderness survival, high school drama and spine-tingling suspense. My feelings were all over the place with this one. My heart broke for Sam and Riddle on just about every page. I was so furious with their father that I desperately wanted a fatal accident to befall him. I wanted to hug Tom and Debbie Bell for their kind and wise parenting. I was very nervous about the oily Bobby Ellis, yet he made me laugh over and over again. (Kind of envisioning a Carrieprom king scene for a brief moment.) 

One thing I loved about this book is that it begins with a story about how everything is connected and how minor incidents can change the course of major life events. Then the book ends with different paragraphs about very secondary characters and how their lives were changed by the minor interactions they had with our main characters. That was really interesting. It makes you think about what minor incidents have changed the course of your own life. 

My one drawback was that there were very few instances where we were able to see Sam and Emily's connection. We were told there was a deep connection, but had very little to go on to see that for ourselves. However, that was a minor quibble. I definitely recommend this book and I think it will have a huge readership at our library. 

Areas of concern: (This was a really clean read for a young adult novel with intense situations. I was impressed.)
*About 4 or 5 uses of the *d* word. 
*An incredibly abusive and neglectful father.
*Intense survival scenes.
*Talk of going to the Motel 6 after prom, but the main character leaves after this is mentioned.
*A few mild kisses.
*A best friend tells the main character that she needs to hook up with a guy.
*A stalker who ingratiates himself into the main character's life.

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 12+
School Library Journal - Grades 7+
(Booklist puts this one at grades 9-12.  There are definitely intense situations, so sensitive middle schoolers may need to stay away from it.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Nearer Moon

A Nearer Moon
by Melanie Crowder
From the publisher:
"In a small river village where the water is cursed, a girl’s bravery—and the existence of magic—could mean the difference between life and death in this elegant, luminous tale from the author of Parched and Audacity.

Along a lively river, in a village raised on stilts, lives a girl named Luna. All her life she has heard tales of the time before the dam appeared, when sprites danced in the currents and no one got the mysterious wasting illness from a mouthful of river water. These are just stories, though—no sensible person would believe in such things.

Beneath the waves is someone who might disagree. Perdita is a young water sprite, delighting in the wet splash and sparkle, and sad about the day her people will finally finish building their door to another world, in search of a place that humans have not yet discovered.

But when Luna’s little sister falls ill with the river sickness, everyone knows she has only three weeks to live. Luna is determined to find a cure for her beloved sister, no matter what it takes. Even if that means believing in magic…"

This is a book that tries very hard to be mystical and lyrical, but for me it was more illogical and confusing. I'm not sure the target audience will be willing to stick with it. I didn't understand the world of the sprites, and couldn't picture what they looked like. I also couldn't understand why people stayed living on the sour swamp that killed them. Just move, for heaven's sake! I did like the sisterly love in the dual stories, but couldn't stand the unloveable mother. I think we needed more back story on her to be able to feel anything for her besides contempt for how she neglected her children. I know the whole thing is meant to be allegorical, and it was mildly enjoyable, but I don't see this one getting checked out very often.

Areas of concern:
Not really anything. If I had to stretch to find something, there is a swamp "monster" that makes the swamp sour and lethal if you swallow the water.

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 9-12
School Library Journal - Grades 5-8

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Cloak Society

The Cloak Society
by Jeramey Kraatz
From the publisher:
"The first in a thrilling, action-packed middle grade trilogy, which School Library Journal declared "will likely find the same wide appeal as Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books.

The Cloak Society: An elite organization of supervillains graced with extraordinary powers. Ten years ago the Cloak Society was defeated by Sterling City's superheroes, the Rangers of Justice, and vanished without a trace. But the villains have been waiting for the perfect moment to resurface. . . .

Twelve-year-old Alex Knight is a dedicated junior member of Cloak who has spent years mastering his telekinetic superpowers and preparing for the day when Cloak will rise to power again. Cloak is everything he believes in.

But during his debut mission, Alex does the unthinkable: He saves the life of a Junior Ranger of Justice. Even worse . . . she becomes his friend. And the more time he spends with her, the more Alex wonders what, exactly, he's been fighting for.

This is an awesome start to a middle grade series about young supervillains and superheroes. I read it because some of my students are crazy about this series, and I can see why. I bet the second and third books of the trilogy are even better because you would know the characters and what was happening. There is quite a bit of set-up, but it is necessary to understand both worlds and what the two sides are fighting for. Our main character was raised to become the greatest supervillain of all time and to eventually rule the world. Early on he buys into that, but after being part of a bank robbery where he saves the life of one of the young superheroes, he begins to question The Cloak Society and what they stand for. Central to that are his parents - both supervillains and part of The Cloak Society's High Council. This book had fun characters, a very cool plot, and a lot of action. Middle school kids should eat this up!

Areas of concern:
*A very evil mother - I kind of hate that.
*Superhero violence...however, the characters don't necessarily get killed, they get thrust into something called "The Gloom", which is a darkness just outside of the world.

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 11-13
School Library Journal - Grades 5-8

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
From the publisher:
"A profoundly moving novel, and an honest and true one. It cuts right to the heart of life ... If you miss A Tree Grows in Brooklyn you will deny yourself a rich experience ... It is a poignant and deeply understanding story of childhood and family relationships. The Nolans lived in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn from 1902 until 1919 ... Their daughter Francie and their son Neeley knew more than their fair share of the privations and sufferings that are the lot of a great city's poor. Primarily this is Francie's book. She is a superb feat of characterization, an imaginative, alert, resourceful child. And Francie's growing up and beginnings of wisdom are the substance of  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. "

This book was amazing, yet I didn't really enjoy reading it.  It made me think, I learned from it, I went through a gamut of emotions while reading it. Actually, no, I didn't go through a gamut of emotions, I experienced pretty much just one emotion - sadness and depression (oops, that is 2 emotions). I don't like 400+ pages of sadness and depression, so I really didn't like reading this book. Does that mean it is not amazing? No. It proves the author's stunning ability to make me feel the pain that the characters were feeling. Many people have compared this book to  Little Women , but that is like comparing apples to oranges. There was always hope and love and laughter in  Little Women , even through their hard times. Here there was starvation, squalor, loss and burned dreams. Oh, if only Francie could have had a Marmee! But Katie could never have been a Marmee, even if she had loved Francie as much as she loved Neeley, because her life was one big never-ending cycle of drudgery and disappointment. How did those people living in the tenements survive? And yet, they were tenacious, hard-working, tough as nails and full of pride. I couldn't help but think of how our welfare system seems to have killed those traits in people. Francie and her family would have rather starved than accept "charity" for work they didn't do. One of the parts of the book that stuck with me the most was Francie describing standing in line to buy stale bread. 6 loaves of stale bread fed the family for a week, and "what amazing things Katie could make from it!". There is a page and a half describing the suppers made from the loaves of stale bread.

Another section that resonated with me was Francie's visit to the library. She read a book a day and was determined to read every book in the library, so she started with author's whose last name began with A, and was up to "Brown". On Saturdays Francie would get her alphabetical book, but then treat herself with another book. She would always ask the librarian to suggest a good book for a girl. Without bothering to look up, the librarian would ask the age of the girl and Francie would say her age, which was 11 at the time. 

Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child's face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and a friendly comment would have made her so happy. She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind. She hated children anyhow. 

The librarian would then hand her one of two books as the only ones she would recommend for this poor, starved little piece of humanity. When Francie went back many years later and asked for a recommendation for an 11 year old girl, the same woman handed her one of the same books. As a middle school librarian who loves books and who loves my students, this woman's behavior was horrific to me. What a difference she could have made in that little girl's life! In case someone thinks I have forgotten that this is a work of fiction, I have not. However, I think that the librarian was portrayed accurately for that time and that location. 

I read this book because I had just had some 6th grade classes in the library discussing "classics", and this was one of the books on my children's classics list that I had never read. I'm not quite sure why this would be classified as a "children's" classic when it deals with many and varied adult issues. As a parent, I would never have let my 6th grader read this book. High school - yes, but it is pretty gritty for middle schoolers. 

While I can't say I enjoyed this book, I will say that it made a huge impression on me and made me very appreciative of the things I have and the ease of my life. There is a Tenement Museum in NYC that I would like to visit now that I have read about life in them.

Areas of concern:
*The sexual content is quite high. There is an aunt who is a "bad" girl and sleeps around with all sorts of men. There is a child sexual predator on the loose and there is a pretty graphic description when he gets his hands on the main character. Childbirth and breastfeeding are thoroughly discussed. There are some crude and vulgar references towards body parts and sex.
*Oh, so politically incorrect! There are slang terms and slurs against Jews, Italians, Irish... It is a true representation of the time and location, but it could be offensive to some. 
*A handful of cuss words.
*The sadness and complete depressive tone of the whole book, with really very little sense of hope or redemption, could be disturbing for many (including me).

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Magic Marks the Spot

Magic Marks the Spot
by Caroline Carlson
From the publisher:
"Pirates! Magic! Treasure! A gargoyle? Caroline Carlson's hilarious tween novel The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1: Magic Marks the Spot is perfect for fans of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and Trenton Lee Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society.

Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors, and she already owns a rather pointy sword.

There's only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags.

But Hilary is not the kind of girl to take no for answer. To escape a life of petticoats and politeness at her stuffy finishing school, Hilary sets out in search of her own seaworthy adventure, where she gets swept up in a madcap quest involving a map without an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn't exist, a talking gargoyle, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas.

Written with uproarious wit and an inviting storyteller tone, the first book in Caroline Carlson's quirky seafaring series is a piratical tale like no other."

While I didn't necessarily want to hug this book when I finished, it had some really delightful things about it. I had the opportunity to listen in a couple of nights this weekend to my daughter reading aloud to her children from the book The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom , and it was so fun to hear it read out loud with different voices for the different characters. I'm going to suggest this book to her for her next read-aloud with her kids. It would also make a great classroom read-aloud. I imagine the audio version of this book is pretty fun as well, so get it for your next road trip. 

Things I Liked :
*The beginning of the book was adorable with the letters to and from Hillary (our main character) and the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates. You knew from the first line of the book that this was going to be a fun (and swashbuckling!) read. 
*The Gargoyle! I loved everything about him and couldn't wait for his next appearance. 
*The lighthearted tone of the whole book. Even the big fight on board was hysterical. The worst injury was someone being clocked on the head with a can of beets, everyone else just jumped overboard when they decided to give up on the fight. (This is explained later.)
*I really loved so many of the characters. Miss Greyson, the governess was a delight from the very beginning. She kept her composure and finishing school etiquette even while living on a pirate ship. Jasper, the Terror of the Southlands, was entertaining and endearing (for a pirate :) ). Charlie, Claire, Miss Pimm, all of the different pirates - there were so many engaging characters. 

Things I Didn't Like :
*Every chapter ended with either letters, parts of textbooks, forms filled out, newspaper articles... While some of these were hilarious, some just brought the flow of the book to a complete halt. I'm also concerned that some of the fonts for the letters/correspondence are in cursive, and middle school students (regrettably) can't read cursive anymore. Adults will find these chapter endings charming, but I am betting that most middle school students will just skip right over them.
*Hillary comes from a horrible family and her father is quite evil.

Areas of concern:
*The pirates lust for vengeance, treasure, and overall bloodthirstiness is glorified. 
*Some bullying behavior at finishing school.
*Pirates drinking grog around children.
*Rather silly violence.
(As you can tell, there really aren't too many things to be concerned about in this one.)

Suggested Ages:
Booklist - Grades 4-7
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 10-13