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, December 13, 2017

Beyond the Bright Sea

Beyond the Bright Sea
by Lauren Wolk
From the publisher:
"From the author of the critically acclaimed Wolf Hollow comes a moving story of identity and belonging.

Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift on a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow's only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar.

Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn't until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.

Vivid and heart wrenching, Lauren Wolk's Beyond the Bright Seais a gorgeously crafted and tensely paced tale that explores questions of identity, belonging, and the true meaning of family."

I am in a huge minority about this book because it has great ratings, but I thought it was very slow until well into it, then there was a plot with jewels and thieves that seemed ludicrous, and then the whole thing just petered out with a massive amount of unanswered questions. Were there moments of beauty? Yes. Were there moments of insight? Yes. Do I see this getting checked out by middle schoolers? Not unless a librarian talks it up to them, and then I see it being returned with a bookmark still in chapter 2 or 3. 
I'm probably also in the minority in disliking how authors right now are forcing our 21st century sensibilities on people in history. I don't care how politically incorrect the Little House or Sue Barton books were, I loved them. Are the stereotypical generalities of Native Americans and NYC Italians portrayed in those books the way we look at things now? Nope. Leprosy was/is a horrible disease. It was highly contagious and there was no cure. It could also be latent in a person for years. So the actions of the people on Cuttyhunk were understandable at that time. I really appreciated it when, towards the end of the book, Crow and Osh were having a conversation about all the people who wouldn't help the lepers on Penikese:

Osh sighed. "Time to let that go now," he said.
"I can't," I said. "It's not right."
Osh turned to go into the house. "Maybe not," he said, "But I've said all I've got to say about it." He paused. "Except this: Those lepers were out there for years while we were right here, just across the water. But we never sent peaches or figs or blankets. We never stepped foot out there, either." 

So instead of being all 21st century judge-y, Osh was pointing out that they weren't any different than the other islanders. I'm glad that little conversation happened.

Mark my words, this will get at least a Newbery Honor. Whenever I'm not impressed by a book that has a lot of hype, it usually gets a Newbery nod. But please read it for yourself because a lot of people disagree with me and think it is wonderful and beautiful. 

Areas of concern:
*Some pretty intense moments with a very evil man

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 10+
School Library Journal - Grades 5-8

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Running Dream

The Running Dream
by Wendelin Van Draanen
From the publisher:
"An award-winning and inspiring novel.  When Jessica's dreams are shattered, she puts herself back together—and learns to dream bigger than ever before. 

Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?

As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don't know what to say, act like she's not there. Which she could handle better if she weren't now keenly aware that she'd done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she's missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.

With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that's not enough for her now. She doesn't just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her

Winner of the Schneider Family Book Award"

Another nearly perfect book by Wendelin Van Draanen. I loved this book! My only disappointment lay in the fact that it ended. I wanted to hear more about Jessica's future and how her parents coped. Once you begin reading this book you will be sucked in like Jessica's suction sock and it will never let go. I appreciate the massive research the author obviously did on the loss of a limb - not just the medical treatments, but the emotional and mental aspects of it. I thought the different stages Jessica went through were very realistically portrayed - the loss, the anger, the self-pity, the loss of self-worth, and on and on. And I loved that those stages didn't just end and another begin, but she had to keep battling all of them for a long time. At one point she says, 

It's disturbing how fast weeds take root in my garden of worthiness.
They're so hard to pull.
And grow back so easily. 

I was happy that Jessica had such strong support:
*From her family..... how her parents coped with nearly losing their daughter, then having to help her through the recovery, having to worry about money and medical bills - they were wonderful.
*Her best friend, Fiona...... what an amazing friend! She was ALWAYS there for Jessica. I loved this character!
*Her coach...... he didn't coddle her, he pushed her and helped her to get back to her running.
*Her teammates........ even though she tried to push them away, and succeeded pretty well, they were there for her when she was ready for them to be, and were so happy and excited to help her.
*Jessica would be upset if I didn't mention Rosa. Rosa helped her in so many ways, even though before the accident Jessica had never really "seen" Rosa. 

Another thing I love about this book is that it teaches us important truths. Here's one:

That's all anybody with a disability wants. Don't sum up the person based on what you see, or what you don't understand; get to know THEM." 

Having just seen the movie Wonder (I read the book several years ago) and now reading this, I hope it has made me more cognizant of how to treat people who might be different than I am. 

Please read this book....... by yourself, with a friend, as a family, or in a classroom. You will not regret it.

Areas of concern:
*Loss of a limb
*Death of a teenager
*A very brief period of prescription drug dependency, but it was quickly squashed by her parents
*One brief kiss

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 12+
School Library Journal - Grades 7+
**EVERYONE should read this book!**

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Ethan I Was Before

The Ethan I Was Before
by Ali Standish
From the publisher:
"Ethan had been many things. He was always ready for adventure and always willing to accept a dare, especially from his best friend, Kacey. But that was before. Before the accident that took Kacey from him. Before his family moved from Boston to the small town of Palm Knot, Georgia.

Palm Knot may be tiny, but it’s the home of possibility and second chances. It’s also home to Coralee, a girl with a big personality and even bigger stories. Coralee may be just the friend Ethan needs, except Ethan isn’t the only one with secrets. Coralee’s are catching up with her, and what she’s hiding might be putting both their lives at risk.

I didn't like this one as much as I expected to, and I'm not sure why. The writing was lovely and I cared about poor little Ethan, but there was just some disconnect for me. Maybe it is that I wasn't completely invested in the extreme grief of 2 of the characters. Life goes on, and children in particular are incredibly resilient. For most children I have seen, the loss of someone close sometimes doesn't even compute, and if it does there are days of intense grief which fade into moments of sadness. So at the beginning I felt badly for Ethan, but that faded into "Oh my gosh, quit doing stupid things!". And I don't even want to get started on Grandpa Ike. Be a man and take care of your family! There were also way too many things going on, so it was hard to get emotionally involved in all of those story lines. 
However, it was a good, clean story with lovely writing. 

Areas of concern:
*Loss of a close friend
*Dysfunctional family issues
*Stupid choices by the main character
*Heavy grieving

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 8-12
School Library Journal - Grades 4-6

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Wild Bird

Wild Bird
 Wendelin Van Draanen
From the publisher:
"3:47 a.m. That's when they come for Wren Clemens. She's hustled out of her house and into a waiting car, then a plane, and then taken on a forced march into the desert. This is what happens to kids who've gone so far off the rails, their parents don't know what to do with them any more. This is wilderness therapy camp. 

The Wren who arrives in the Utah desert is angry and bitter, and blaming everyone but herself. But angry can't put up a tent. And bitter won't start a fire. Wren's going to have to admit she needs help if she's going to survive. 

In her most incisive and insightful book yet, beloved author Wendelin Van Draanen's offers a remarkable portrait of a girl who too a wrong turn and got lost--but who may be able to find her way back again in the vast, harsh desert."

This book touched me deeply, and I think it is an important book for teens to read. It realistically explores the importance of choices, big and small, and the consequences that come from them. The author somehow makes us care about a 14 year old girl who is completely out of control and very unlikable. But I started reading Wren's story and couldn't stop until it was over. It is a harsh, heartbreaking story of survival and redemption. Last year I read the book Connect the Stars, and was put off by the portrayal of the wilderness camp as a poorly run and dangerous thing for any parent to send their child to. But the program in Wild Bird is a well-run and life changing event. I have a feeling it is based on the Anasazi program in Utah. There were no punitive methods, it was all natural consequences. Wren refused to listen to how to build her shelter? She had a very wet and miserable night. She refused to read her handbook and try making a fire? She ate dry rice and beans for a couple of days. The camp had many caring adults, constant contact with base camp, counselors, mentors and great skill teaching. 8 weeks in this program would completely change anyone. Having been a counselor at a girl's camp for many years, I have seen the growth, the friendships, and the transformation that can happen in just one week. I can only imagine what could be accomplished in 8 weeks of extreme survival and near-solitude. There is something about testing yourself in nature that teaches you a lot about who you are. Wren slowly went from a hate-filled, angry, immature 14 year old, to a young woman who knew who she wanted to be, and it was very different from what she thought. Whether or not these changes can be maintained in the old environment is the question, but I thought the author dealt with that beautifully as well, and we can only hope it all works out for Wren. 
A couple of quotes that are worth sharing both come from a part towards the end of the wilderness program called "The Quest", where a camper (or inmate, as Wren likes to say) is taken away from the others and has to fend for themselves for 3 days. 
Solitude and nature.... an amazing combination.

And then suddenly, unexpectedly, tickling me from inside, I recognize a long-lost feeling. The one I looked for whenever I got stoned or drunk. The one I tried to corner by outsmarting Anabella, my parents, Meadow. The one that kept drifting past me, promising me I would find it right....over...there.
And here, now, tickling the pit of my stomach, pinging to life in my heart, the feeling has found me? I'm filthy, alone in the desert, making food in the dirt, and somehow, against everything I've said and thought and expected, it's found me?
I laugh out loud. It's so ironic.
But there it is.
Happiness from inside. 

And later, while gazing at the stars she thinks, 

I want to be someone who remembers the stars, even in daylight.
I want to be someone who looks up. 

Please read this book! It is not a fluffy beach read, it is by turns disturbing, heart wrenching, and beautiful. You will think about it for a long time. Thank you, Wendelin Van Draanen!

Areas of concern (all dealt with as poor choices and not glorified in any way):
*Very underage drinking and smoking pot.
*A 14 year old making out with an 18 year old.
*Shoplifting and stealing from parents.
*Damaging beloved property.
*Drug running.

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade

The Secret Sheriff of
Sixth Grade
by Jordan Sonnenblick
From the publisher:
"In sixth grade, bad things can happen to good kids. Bullies will find your weakness and jump on it. Teachers will say you did something wrong when really you didn't mean to do anything wrong. The kids who joke the loudest can drown out the quieter, nicer kids.

Maverick wants to change all that. One of the last things his father left him was a toy sheriff's badge, back when Maverick was little. Now he likes to carry it around to remind him of his dad -- and also to remind him to make school a better place for everyone . . . even if that's a hard thing to do, especially when his own home life is falling apart.

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade is a story about standing up for yourself -- and being a hero at home and in the halls of your school."

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick is one of my all-time favorite middle school books. That being said, I really liked this one, but it didn't have quite the impact that DGADP had for me. There was something I just couldn't put my finger on. While there were parts I loved, there were also parts where I was just kind of, "Hmmmm". Luckily, the parts I loved far outweighed the "Hmmm" parts. 
I loved the main character, Maverick (I kept expecting a reason behind his name but never got one..... hmmmm). I felt the pain of his circumstances and his desire to rise above them. When he first started school, I was getting defensive because so many of the adults seemed mean and clueless, and I hate that in books. However, some of them came around and we found out they were very caring (although several remained completely clueless..... hmmmm). 
This book naturally made me think of my school. We have many students who are in several of the situations portrayed in this book. I like to think that we are being as proactive and concerned as possible, but what is slipping through the cracks? 

As usual in a Jordan Sonnenblick book, I need to let quotes do the selling.

One of the many times our main character winds up in the assistant principal's office (of whom he is terrified), he notices a sign on the wall that says, 
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. 
At that point Maverick realizes that the assistant principal isn't there to terrorize him, but maybe, just possibly, to help him. 

Towards the end of the story when Maverick realizes that he doesn't have any real life heroes in his life to look up to and emulate, he has this thought, 
I wasn't sure what my path would be, but I knew I didn't want to be like any of them. Each, in their own way, spent life being ruled by the exact same things they feared. 
We never find out whether he is actually able to overcome the legacy he is left, but you sure are rooting for him!

Although there is resolution at the end of the story we are left wondering about many things, but I guess that is life. I tend to like my books tied up in neat packages with a bow on top, but sometimes it is good to have to think. Jordan Sonnenblick always gives us a lot of intense topics to deal with, but his signature humor is very much a part of the story. I definitely recommend this one!

Areas of concern:
*Scenes of abuse of a parent and a child
*The sadness of a father killed in a firestorm in Afghanistan
(All of these things are very gently dealt with.)

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 10-13

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

The Autobiography of
Miss Jane Pittman
by Ernest J. Gaines
From the publisher:
""This is a novel in the guise of the tape-recorded recollections of a black woman who has lived 110 years, who has been both a slave and a witness to the black militancy of the 1960's. In this woman Ernest Gaines has created a legendary figure, a woman equipped to stand beside William Faulkner's Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury." Miss Jane Pittman, like Dilsey, has 'endured,' has seen almost everything and foretold the rest. Gaines' novel brings to mind other great works The Odyssey for the way his heroine's travels manage to summarize the American history of her race, and Huckleberry Finn for the clarity of her voice, for her rare capacity to sort through the mess of years and things to find the one true story in it all."  -- Geoffrey Wolff, Newsweek.

"Stunning. I know of no black novel about the South that exudes quite the same refreshing mix of wit and wrath, imagination and indignation, misery and poetry. And I can recall no more memorable female character in Southern fiction since Lena of Faulkner's Light in August than Miss Jane Pittman." -- Josh Greenfeld,  Life ."

It is hard to rate or review a book like this. Did I like it? That is difficult to say. Did it have an impact on my life? Yes. I know it is a work of fiction and not an autobiography at all, but it has the feel of real life, and much of it is real life from a fictional viewpoint. So I'll ask myself the same questions I ask my students when they read autobiographies. 
"Did you learn something from reading it?" Yes, definitely - so many things. One small thing is that I never realized the importance placed in changing from a slave name after the abolition of slavery, but that would have been the first thing I did, too. 
"Did it make you think about your life and how it differs from the person/people you were reading about?" Totally and completely. When you are raised in oppression and have watched many people, including your mother, be killed and never knew your father (possibly a breeder from another plantation?), and witnessed all kinds of vice, your sensitivities are dulled and it is hard to know right from wrong. Several other reviewers have mentioned that they couldn't relate to Jane and that she was emotionless, but I think that is part of the story. Others have complained about the religious aspects towards the end, but that is also very plain to me. 
"What kind of character traits and attributes did you notice in the person/people that made it so they could overcome their difficulties?" She was obstinate, she was tough, she persevered. 

I'm glad I read this, it was a very gripping read. I didn't like the ending at all, but I guess this isn't the type of book to have a neat, wrapped up ending. 

Areas of concern:
*The "n" word proliferates in this book for obvious reasons. 
*This is a part of our 8th graders banned and challenged book unit. Here is what Marshall University said on their website, 
"Challenged as an eighth-grade district-wide reading assignment in the Puyallup (WA) schools because "racial slurs and stereotyping are used through the book, as well as scenes of sex, rape, and implied incest. The Puyallup School Board voted to uphold an earlier decision by a district committee requiring eighth-graders read the novel."

Suggested Ages:
Because this is an older book, the only suggested age I could find was "Upper Grades".

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious
Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart
From the publisher:
""Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" 

Dozens of children respond to this peculiar ad in the newspaper and are then put through a series of mind-bending tests, which readers take along with them. Only four children-two boys and two girls-succeed. Their challenge: to go on a secret mission that only the most intelligent and inventive children could complete. To accomplish it they will have to go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where the only rule is that there are no rules. But what they'll find in the hidden underground tunnels of the school is more than your average school supplies. So, if you're gifted, creative, or happen to know Morse Code, they could probably use your help."

I finally got around to reading this one after several students told me how wonderful it is. I'm glad some of my students love it, but I can't see all of my students loving it. I had to force myself to read it clear up until about 65% of the way through. And, oh my goodness, the suspension of disbelief that has to go on to read this! (Minor spoilers ahead.) Men from L.I.V.E. come to kidnap these children and take them to the school, and then a couple of days later the children are driven there and dropped off and no one notices? They even use their real names and no one bats an eyelash. And then they communicate by nighttime Morse Code transmissions from their bedroom window and no one notices? It is supposed to be a super secure place and they just flash lights out their window and then watch the mainland for signals back, which no one notices either. *Sigh* 

This book seems like it is trying to be like A Series of Unfortunate Events, but without the tongue-in-cheek wit and wonderful weirdness of those books. And about 3 times the length of one of them. However, once again I have several students who love this series, so it doesn't matter what I think. For middle schoolers this is a fun, semi-exciting start to a series. For adults, maybe not so much.

Areas of concern:
*Children being stolen and used for nefarious purposes.
*Children being punished severely for minor or no infractions.

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 11-13
School Library Journal - Grades 5-9

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Forgetting

The Forgetting
by Sharon Cameron
From the publisher:
"What isn't written, isn't remembered. Even your crimes.

Nadia lives in the city of Canaan, where life is safe and structured, hemmed in by white stone walls and no memory of what came before. But every twelve years the city descends into the bloody chaos of the Forgetting, a day of no remorse, when each person's memories – of parents, children, love, life, and self – are lost. Unless they have been written.

In Canaan, your book is your truth and your identity, and Nadia knows exactly who hasn't written the truth. Because Nadia is the only person in Canaan who has never forgotten.

But when Nadia begins to use her memories to solve the mysteries of Canaan, she discovers truths about herself and Gray, the handsome glassblower, that will change her world forever. As the anarchy of the Forgetting approaches, Nadia and Gray must stop an unseen enemy that threatens both their city and their own existence – before the people can forget the truth. And before Gray can forget her."

There I was, calmly reading what I thought was a normal, run-of-the-mill, YA dystopian novel, when all of a sudden a twist hit that I was totally unprepared for. What?! So, while I enjoyed the beginning, it wasn't anything that I hadn't read a hundred times. But then, BAM, and all my perceptions were changed. 
This book pretty much has it all. Corrupt government, evil rulers, intense situations, sweet romance (with some pretty steamy kissing), strong heroine and funny, handsome hero, strong supporting characters and a surprising twist in the plot. I read and loved this author's book Rook , but didn't ever finish The Dark Unwinding . I think you just have to have patience at the beginning of her books, because they all seem to start very slowly. But believe me, they pack a punch later on. The premise in this one is so interesting and has so many facets. I was worried when I heard that there was another book in the series because I wanted resolution and ANSWERS in this one. Luckily the next book is just a companion book and not a sequel, so you don't have to worry about a big cliff hanger. 

Areas of concern:
*A scene of torture which is intense but not graphic.
*A pretty gruesome stabbing.
*An attempted suicide.
*Talk of floggings and a war in the past.
*A character witnessed some horrible events in the past and tries to describe some of it.
*Attempted mass murder.
*The afore-mentioned steamy kissing.
(All of that together sounds pretty terrible, but it was nothing worse than many other dystopian/science fiction books out there. They can get pretty violent.)

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

One for the Murphys

One for the Murphys
by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
From the publisher:
"Twelve-year-old Carley Connors can take a lot. Growing up in Las Vegas with her fun-loving mother, she's learned to be tough. But she never expected a betrayal that would land her in a foster care. When she's placed with the Murphys, a lively family with three boys, she's blindsided. Do happy families really exist? Carley knows she could never belong in their world, so she keeps her distance.

It's easy to stay suspicious of Daniel, the brother who is almost her age and is resentful she's there. But Mrs. Murphy makes her feel heard and seen for the first time, and the two younger boys seem determinded to work their way into her heart. Before she knows it, Carley is protected the boys from a neighbourhood bullly and even teaching Daniel how to play basketball. Then just when she's feeling like she could truly be one of the Murphys, news from her mother shakes her world."

I read this book in one sitting and really enjoyed most of it. Some things didn't ring true for me, but I am not familiar with the foster care system (unless you count TV shows), so maybe some of the things that bothered me really could happen. 
To begin with, this book is extremely popular in our middle school library, and believe me, I would rather have 6th - 8th graders reading this over A Child Called It . It is a kinder, gentler look at abuse and the foster care system. Middle school students do love reading these kinds of books. I hope it teaches them empathy and compassion for other students who might be in this situation. 
I thought the main character, Carley, was very believable in her feelings and the walls she had around herself. I cared about her immensely, and had teary eyes several times throughout the story. I was happy to see a foster family that was so functional and normal. I loved Mrs. Murphy and the whole family of Murphys. And I was thrilled to see a best friend who was a Musical Theatre Nerd! That was an un-looked for bonus. I loved the reference to track 18 on the WickedCD, which is the song For Good . However, I thought it would have been better to mention some of the words from it that make it so meaningful to Toni and Carley's situation. Practically every word in the lyrics fits their friendship.

The things that bothered me:
*The police officer who came to the house and pretty much bullied her. I have a feeling that would never happen in real life with an unrepresented minor - at least I hope so.
*The nearly absent social worker. Aren't they supposed to check up on them quite frequently? Especially right after being placed with a new family? 
*I definitely didn't like the ending and would have loved an epilogue 10+ years later.

Areas of concern:
*This is a book about a girl placed in a foster home because of violent abuse at home, so there is talk of the abuse and the damage it has had on the main character.
*Bullying at school.

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 10+
School Library Journal - Grades 5-8

Monday, September 18, 2017

A Shadow Bright and Burning

A Shadow Bright 
and Burning
by Jessica Cluess
From the publisher:
"I am Henrietta Howel. The first female sorcerer. The prophesied one. Or am I?

Henrietta Howel can burst into flames. When she is brought to London to train with Her Majesty's sorcerers, she meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, young men eager to test her powers and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her. As Henrietta discovers the secrets hiding behind the glamour of sorcerer life, she begins to doubt that she's the true prophesied one. With battle looming, how much will she risk to save the city--and the one she loves?"

Well, here's an exciting book for you.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I love the relationship that we see right away between Henrietta and Rook, although more is revealed later on, it is nice to see their practically symbiotic relationship. They need each other. But it is also fun to see Henrietta have new experiences. I loved all of the characters! "The boys" are awesome, but I felt like it was Magnus, Blackwood, and then all the others that we didn't get to know as well until quite a bit farther into it. I'm sure they will all have major roles in the next book. On the description from the publisher it says, "One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her." I really thought I knew which one it was that was going to betray her, so I was nervous throughout because I really like the one I suspected, but so far, so good on that head. Ugh, it is so hard to write reviews without spoilers!! But regardless, the characters were all so important in their different ways, from sorcerers to magicians to we-thought-you-were-dead people. And everyone's backstories were also very crucial to the story as a whole.
The setting of Victorian England almost put me off of this book because I hate steampunk, but there was no steampunk here, just magic. It was so interesting to see the alternate, magical, warding-off-demons Victorian London and the queen herself. 
All in all, I was very impressed with this book. I believe it is a debut novel by a new author and I very much look forward to what she brings in the future. There is action, magic, horror, fear, possible romance (from several different places), humor and all sorts of twists. I think I see where several things are going in the next book, but I have no idea how we're going to get there. All of that was done in a way that still kept it appropriate for a middle school audience. Well done, Jessica Cluess, you are on my radar.

Areas of concern:
*I only noticed one use of the *d* word and no other bad language.
*Terrifying monsters that attack. 
*Intense situations
*Mild sexual harassment at the very beginning of the book, but the character escapes from that environment.
*There is one quite big make-out scene and mention is made of a hand going up a leg, but that is as far as it goes.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Serafina and the Black Cloak

Serafina and the
Black Cloak
by Robert Beatty
From the publisher:
"“Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul.”

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of the Biltmore estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity . . . before all of the children vanish one by one.

Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past."

I'm just going to start this by putting it out there that this book is quite scary and eerie. It starts out with a lot of discussion about rats. I have (luckily) never had a run-in with a rat, but since I am scared witless by mice, I was very disturbed by all of the rat talk. But that is just me, there is a lot more than rats here to terrify middle schoolers. I have a couple of students who LOVE the Lockwood and Co. books, and to tide them over between those books I think I'll steer them towards Serafina. There is definitely no lack of action and atmospheric creepiness. A black-cloaked, zombie-like monster who steals children, a creepy forest with an abandoned village and a mysterious and scary cemetery. Who can you trust? There are many people who could be suspect. 
The setting of the Biltmore estate was a fun part, and now I want to go visit it.... but NOT live in the rat-infested basement. 
I like the character of Serafina, she is brave and good and strong, but let's face it, sometimes pretty foolish. I felt sorry for her poor pa, who loved her and was always worried about her as she went off and left without telling him. I also liked Braeden and had a lot of compassion for his story. While I figured out some things quite easily, the way the author got around to explaining them was gripping. I really enjoyed this book, but it is not for the faint of heart. 

Areas of concern:
*Children disappearing in a very scary way.
*Atmospheric tension
*Blood and gore play a small part.
*Animal attacks
*Very little parental supervision
*Rats! Creeping, crawling, being caught, being killed.

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 8-12 (Wow!  8 years old?  Really?  Way too young, in my opinion.)
School Library Journal - Grades 5-7

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Six

The Six
by Mark Alpert
From the publisher:
Adam's muscular dystrophy has stolen his mobility, his friends, and in a few short years, it will take his life. Virtual reality games are Adam's only escape from his wheelchair. In his alternate world, he can defeat anyone. Running, jumping, scoring touchdowns: Adam is always the hero.

Then an artificial intelligence program, Sigma, hacks into Adam's game. Created by Adam's computer-genius father, Sigma has gone rogue, threatening Adam's life-and world domination. Their one chance to stop Sigma is using technology Adam's dad developed to digitally preserve the mind of his dying son.

Along with a select group of other terminally ill teens, Adam becomes one of the Six who have forfeited their bodies to inhabit weaponized robots. But with time running short, the Six must learn to manipulate their new mechanical forms and work together to train for epic combat...before Sigma destroys humanity."

Sometimes science fiction books are chilling and un-nerving because they show things that could actually happen in our world. I felt like that with this book. Technology is increasing so quickly, and who knows what things are being worked on that we know nothing about? I'm pretty sure there is a lot of work going on in the Artificial Intelligence area that I am unaware of. This book is science fiction in the truest sense of the genre. It isn't dystopian, it isn't time travel, it is science. I loved that it made you think of all the ethical questions that would arise in these circumstances. 
Aside from all of the science, this was a gripping, exciting book. There is a ton of action and conflict. 
I cared about the characters - robot or not - and the plot was believable and intriguing. As a parent, I can only imagine the roads I would be willing to go to save my child, so I definitely had a lot of empathy for Adam's dad. I am ordering books 2 and 3 for our library.

Areas of concern:
*The whole premise of the book is that the teenagers all have terminal diseases and will die in 6 months or less.
*The moral and ethical questions that arise from the decisions that need to be made.
*There is fighting and violence.

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 12-16
School Library Journal - Grades 8+

Circus Mirandus

Circus Mirandus
by Cassie Beasley
From the publisher:
Fans of Big FishPeter Pan, and Roald Dahl will fall in love with Circus Mirandus, which celebrates the power of seeing magic in world.Do you believe in magic? Micah Tuttle does.Even though his awful Great-Aunt Gertrudis doesn’t approve, Micah believes in the stories his dying Grandpa Ephraim tells him of the magical Circus Mirandus: the invisible tiger guarding the gates, the beautiful flying birdwoman, and the magician more powerful than any other—the Man Who Bends Light. Finally, Grandpa Ephraim offers proof. The Circus is real. And the Lightbender owes Ephraim a miracle. With his friend Jenny Mendoza in tow, Micah sets out to find the Circus and the man he believes will save his grandfather.The only problem is, the Lightbender doesn't want to keep his promise. And now it's up to Micah to get the miracle he came for."

After all the hype and the good ratings for this book, I was definitely disappointed. It took me over half of the book to really get into it, and believe me, middle schoolers will not keep reading that long to get into a story. I was expecting a more magical feel, but it just wasn't working for me. It was a sweet, sad story and by the end I enjoyed it, although I felt like it left too many things up in the air. It would probably work better as a read-aloud for middle grade. I think there are probably students who would like this book, but so far it has just spent a lot of time sitting face-out on the shelf in our library. This may be one of those books that adults like better than kids like.
There are no real areas of concern, except for the death of a character and a very mean relative.

Suggested Ages:
Booklist - Grades 4-7
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 9-12

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Blackthorn Key

The Blackthorn Key
by Kevin Sands
From the publisher:
"“Tell no one what I’ve given you.”

Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.

But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart."

Wow! This was a never-ending thrill ride of a read. I was almost late for work one day because I started reading and lost track of time. Another reviewer described it as a cross between The Da Vinci Code andThe Alchemyst and I definitely agree about The Da Vinci Code . Codes and secret caverns and Knight's Templar..... oh so good! I'm so glad I purchased this for our library because I almost missed it. I also have the 2nd one and will definitely get the 3rd one when it comes out in September. Sometimes I get a little jaded when it comes to middle grade/YA books, so I took quite a break over the summer and this was a perfect one to start back with. It IS intense and there are some gruesome murders going on which happen kind of off screen. I wouldn't suggest it to the sensitive reader. But, wow, it was exciting. And I loved that it had an ending and resolution.
I was very drawn to the characters. There is nothing as good as an incredibly loyal sidekick. The London descriptions of the 1600's were really interesting. It is kind of genre-bending because it FEELS like a fantasy, but isn't really. I won't give too much away, because I was very surprised at some things. But I will be recommending this to my 7th and 8th graders for sure.

Areas of concern:
*Gruesome murders involving torture being committed. (It didn't feel like very graphic descriptions.)
*A torture scene with the main character.
*Intense situations
*Abusive father
*Death of a loved one
*All of the above sounds pretty gruesome, but it didn't really seem that bad. Like I said, I would not steer sensitive students towards it, but others will LOVE it!!

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 10-14
School Library Journal - Grades 4-6
(*Mrs. Duke seriously disagrees with School Library Journal.  The main character is 14 and the book has some very intense parts.  7th and 8th grade for sure, possibly 6th grade, but 4th?!  Disagree.)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Ever the Hunted

Ever the Hunted
by Erin Summerill
From the publisher:
"Seventeen year-old Britta Flannery is at ease only in the woods with her dagger and bow. She spends her days tracking criminals alongside her father, the legendary bounty hunter for the King of Malam—that is, until her father is murdered. Now outcast and alone and having no rights to her father’s land or inheritance, she seeks refuge where she feels most safe: the Ever Woods. When Britta is caught poaching by the royal guard, instead of facing the noose she is offered a deal: her freedom in exchange for her father’s killer.

However, it’s not so simple.

The alleged killer is none other than Cohen McKay, her father’s former apprentice. The only friend she’s ever known. The boy she once loved who broke her heart. She must go on a dangerous quest in a world of warring kingdoms, mad kings, and dark magic to find the real killer. But Britta wields more power than she knows. And soon she will learn what has always made her different will make her a daunting and dangerous force."

When I read this with my middle school librarian eyes, I really like it. It has a great story, beautiful cover, exciting action, sweet romance, and good characters. I think middle school students will love it, and I love it for them because there is no bad language or other things of concern, with the exception of some violence and suspense. The sequel will come out in December of 2017, and I will be buying it for our library. I will definitely be talking this one up to our students.

When I read this with my I'm-an-adult-who-reads-too-much-young-adult-literature, then I see the poor world building, the cliched heroine, the beautiful, muscled hero, and the world about to erupt into chaos which is the general rule of thumb for young adult lit. But I'm not concerned about any of that because it is just the thing that will appeal to my students. And it was a fun, clean read.

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo)

The Hidden Oracle
by Rick Riordan

From the publisher:

"How do you punish an immortal?

By making him human.

After angering his father Zeus, the god Apollo is cast down from Olympus. Weak and disorientated, he lands in New York City as a regular teenage boy. Now, without his godly powers, the four-thousand-year-old deity must learn to survive in the modern world until he can somehow find a way to regain Zeus's favour.

But Apollo has many enemies—gods, monsters and mortals who would love to see the former Olympian permanently destroyed. Apollo needs help, and he can think of only one place to go... an enclave of modern demigods known as Camp Half-Blood."

I know this is a blasphemous statement to a lot of people, but I'm not a Rick Riordan fan. I read Percy Jackson and thought it was "meh", so I never read any more of his books. However, one of my students promised this one was amazing, so I tackled it. I ended up annoyed with the constant need to be cute and witty. It seemed way over the top. And it seems like the humor is aimed at the wrong audience. There are so many of the quips and one-liners that will go way over the heads of the target readers. Granted, I chuckled at some of them. "A penguin and a nun walk into a Shake Shack"...... come on, that's amusing. However, my middle school students would have no idea what that even means. 
It probably didn't help that I haven't read the entire Percy Jackson collection and didn't know or couldn't remember who most of the people were. 
I really didn't like Apollo, and when the main character annoys the heck out of you, it is hard to enjoy the book. I thought his constant talk of his past lovers (male and female) was totally inappropriate for this age group as well. 
So now that I have made the attempt twice, may I please be released from reading any more of this author? I will leave that to my students, who can't get enough or Rick Riordan no matter how prolific of a writer he is. Middle school students - enjoy! Adults - take a pass. No, wait, I know a lot of adults who love Rick Riordan, so if that is you - definitely read it.

Areas of concern:
*Above mentioned talk of Apollo's past lovers, both heterosexual and homosexual.
*Teenage love stories abound - both heterosexual and homosexual.

Suggested Ages:
Booklist - Grades 5-8
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 12-17