Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Three Times Lucky

Title: Three Times Lucky
Author: Sheila Turnage
Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic, Mystery

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone's business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she's been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her "upstream mother," she's found a home with the Colonel--a café owner with a forgotten past of his own--and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.

My Review:
Mo LaBeau might be the funniest MG character I’ve read about in a long time. Her Southern know-it-all, talk first–think later, point of view will give you a side ache from laughing so hard: 
“They found Mr. Jesse in a boat?" I asked. "I'm wondering if maybe he just up and died. Maybe there ain't no murder. Like the fish weren't biting and he died of boredom. It happens. Boredom kills. I've had close brushes myself, during math.”
Turnage takes a few pages from Mark Twain while writing this utterly hilarious MG mystery. There is certainly something of the Huckleberry Finn voice that comes through Mo’s view of the world and the many characters of Tupelo Landing. 
The reader is plopped right down in the middle of  a full cast of eclectic, small-town characters, each as nosy and opinionated as the next, and none less than Mo. Mo’s opinions about her eccentric guardians–– The Colonel and Miss Lana, best friend Dale, crush Lavender, and Sworn Enemy for Life–– Anna Celeste, kept me in stitches:
“Yes ma'am," I said, "Anna Celeste's party is Saturday, but I don't need a ride.... No ma'am. It's because Anna Celeste is my Sworn Enemy for Life and I'd rather go face-down in a plate of raw chicken entrails than go to her party. Plus I'm not invited…."

Overall: Five stars. I loved this book! The writing, humor, plot and pace, make it an all around exceptional piece. Mo LaBeau has a voice as strong as Anne Shirley, Huckleberry Finn or any other famous fictional character!

Can’t Wait to Read: 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: The School for Good and Evil

Title: The School for Good and Evil
Author: Soman Chainani
Genre: Middle Grade / YA

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):

“The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.”

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?

My Review:
This story is told through the alternating perspectives of Agatha and Sophie. I think this was a great choice, and gives the book fantastic pace; what starts out as hilarious, quickly turns dark (I wouldn’t give this book to a kid under the age of 10) and sometimes gruesome. Sophie morphs from being shallow to truly horrible and then full on evil, while Agatha more-or-less stays true to herself. You might have a little trouble convincing yourself they really are friends. The idea that their friendship is real, is what concludes the story, but the entire book, well … shows you the opposite. Problem? Yes it is.

The set up is brilliant, just like one might assume by reading the blurb. The schools, teachers, classes, and rules are both amusing and clever (Chainani takes a lot from Hogworts, but it’s done well so you won’t mind). The names of the classes are especially hilarious, and the book pokes fun at all the things you expect it would:

“The boys went off to fight with swords while girls had to learn dog barks and owl hoots. No wonder princesses were so impotent in fairy tales, she thought. If all they could do was smile, stand straight, and speak to squirrels, then what choice did they have but to wait for a boy to rescue them?”

Yes, there are a lot of good lessons to be learned about shallowness and self-esteem and of course the most obvious: a pretty face doesn’t mean a pretty heart, but overall this book has no idea where it is going or what it is trying to say.

Overall: Three stars. Although I loved the set up and the humor, the plot is too loosely woven, and I didn’t find the characters to be entirely convincing. Sophie is so awful, that her sudden spark of goodness––which comes right at the end, is hardly believable. Also, the meandering pace is highly frustrating. This book could easily have lost a hundred+ pages and no one would have missed it. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Book Review: Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid

Title: Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid
Author: Megan McDonald
Illustrator: Peter H. Reynolds
Genre: Children’s Chapter Book

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Shrink, shrank, shrunk!

Every morning, Judy Moody measures Stink and it's always the same: three feet, eight inches tall. Stink feels like even the class newt is growing faster than he is. Then, one day, the ruler reads -- can it be? -- three feet, seven and three quarters inches! Is Stink shrinking? He tries everything to look like he’s growing, but wearing up-and-down stripes and spiking his hair aren't fooling anyone into thinking he's taller. If only he could ask James Madison -- Stink's hero, and the shortest person ever to serve as President of the United States.

My Review:
Kids will get a mini history lesson it this comic filled book about Stink (real name: James Moody). Stink is a smart, nice kid who is seriously insecure about his height.
Stink and his sister, Judy Moody, sound and act like real kids––not at all idealized, special, or freakishly intelligent. They argue, make fun of each other, and get in trouble. I think a lot of kids will be able to identify with stink and his mini adventures. 

Overall: Three stars. Not all parents will enjoy reading these books to their kids, for an adult they come across as pretty silly, and a bit plotless. However, this series is great for kids who are transitioning from picture books to chapter books. It is an easy read, with wonderful little illustrations, and hilarious comics drawn by Stink.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: Marty Mcguire

Title: Marty Mcguire
Author: Kate Messner
Illustrator: Brian Floca
Genre: Children’s Chapter Book

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Marty McGuire would rather spend recess catching frogs in the pond than playing dress-up with the other girls in third grade. So when her teacher casts Marty as the princess in the class play, Marty's absolutely, positively sure that there's been a huge mistake. But after a special lesson in the art of improvisation, Marty comes up with her OWN plan to IMPROVE the play: Why use stuffed-animal frog onstage when a live one would be so much better? In the end, Marty's one-of-a-kind performance makes for an unforgettable show. Maybe a tomboy princess CAN live happily ever after, after all!

My Review:
As a child I loved Ramona Quimby, and I am sure I would have loved Marty Mcguire even more! Marty Mcguire is not about poofy dresses, dancing, or playing princess, but she is all about pond scum, slimy frogs, and playing Jane Goodall. I find this incredibly refreshing as the whole princess phenomenon makes me a bit a gaggy at times. Also, it seems like it’s been a long time since children’s literature has openly embraced a tomboy.

Messner writes for this age group with such clarity and ease. The voice is perfect! And anyone who is on the lookout for early chapter books, will instantly know what a rare find this is. The book is written in first person, and Marty’s spunky personality rolls out within the first few sentences.

Every aspect of the story is firmly established in the everyday events of 3rd grade. The ups and downs of friendship and family make this a positive read. Also, unlike, say Judy B. Jones, parents won’t have to worry about Marty saying rude things and calling everything “stupid.” I personally love the Judy B. Jones books, but must admit reading them aloud to kids, requires a series of stops and explanations. “This is funny kids, but should Judy have…” (These clarifications come across less credible after you keep bursting into laughter!) No such worries here, Marty makes mistakes like any child, and gets in trouble (what would the book be about if she didn’t) but the problems are solved, and lessons learned throughout the course of the story (parental guidance unnecessary).

Overall: Five stars. This is a great book for 2nd and 3rd graders who ready for chapter books and a fun read-to for first graders. Funny, and fresh, with a real plot, this is an early reader must!

More great chapter books for young readers:


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Review: The Whipping Boy

Title: The Whipping Boy
Author: Sid Fleischman
Genre: Middle Grade, Medieval, but not exactly Historical Fiction. 

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
A shout comes echoing up the stairway "Fetch the whipping boy!"
A young orphan named Jemmy rouses from his sleep. "Ain't I already been whipped twice today? Gaw! What's the prince done now? It was forbidden to spank, thrash, or whack the heir to the throne. Jemmy had been plucked from the streets to serve as whipping boy to the arrogant and spiteful Prince Brat.
Dreaming of running away, Jemmy finds himself trapped in Prince Brat's own dream, at once brash and perilous.
In this briskly told tale of high adventure, taut with suspense and rich with colorful characters, the whipping boy and Prince Brat must at last confront each other.
Award-winning author Sid Fleischman again blends the broadly comic with the deeply compassionate in this memorable novel.

1987 Newbery Medal Winner

My Review:
There are a lot of big words, old words, and old British slang that will make this a difficult read for some middle graders. Example: “Your Pa ‘ll scrag me with his bare hands! So I’ll be obliged if you’d help me nip out o’ here.” For this reason, the book works best as a “Read to.” I recently read it aloud to a group of 2nd-3rd graders and they loved it, but we had to stop repeatedly and clarify what the characters were saying and the meanings of  some of the more uncommon words.

Despite the difficulties of language, this is such a fun story, full of adventure and escapes. Plot-wise it is pretty simple to follow,  though the twists are not at all predictable for younger children, and they did great trying to guess what Jemmy’s schemes and escape plans might be. 

I can recommend this book as a classroom read, but not necessarily as a Historical Fiction as it is often labeled. It reads more like “The Prince and the Pauper” as it is set in a Medieval-ish era. Neither the events nor the ending are believable enough to label it historical fiction.

Overall: Five stars. For such a short book, quite a lot happens, and despite the difficult words, I have found most children really enjoy the story. There is a moral, but it is not overly “moralistic” nor does it talk down to the reader. The “lesson” is buried deep in the adventure, and although the ending is not particularly believable, it ends well.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Book Review: My Brother's Shadow

Title: My Brother’s Shadow
Author: Tom Avery
Genre: Middle Grade, Realism

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Fans of David Almond’s Skellig and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls will embrace this deeply affecting middle grade novel in which a girl suffering from terrible grief befriends a mysterious wild boy.

When I saw him that first time I screamed—a small and silent scream, all inside, in my gut. Eleven-year-old Kaia, who has felt isolated since her older brother committed suicide more than a year before, befriends a wild boy who mysteriously appears at her London school. Though the boy is mute and can only communicate with a flash of his gray eyes, he might be the friend Kaia needs to bring her through her grief. 

Here’s a fascinating story, which offers a fresh and completely original portrayal of loss and renewal.

My Review:
I knew this book was going to be sad, but I wanted to read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. Kaia describes herself as being frozen, frozen ever since she found her brother’s body. She can’t move forward. She’s lost her friends, her mother’s a mess, and Kaia is completely isolated in her grief. That is until the Wild Boy appears at school.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say this is a story about Kaia forming an unusual bond, letting go, and getting her smile back.

I like almost everything about this story (even if it is sad). The Wild boy, however, is a bit of an enigma. I guess I wanted something more from him … or about him. It seems unfair to make his character nothing but a prop in Kaia’s story; he needs to be fleshed out, to be believable.

Overall: Four Stars. I think this story is brilliantly told. It deals with grief, loss, and isolation in a way most young readers can understand. That said, I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. I don’t think reading sad stories is a necessity of childhood. There will be enough sadness coming along shortly. I might, however, recommend it to a child who has already suffered a loss, or as a classroom read to promote discussion.

Other books dealing with grief and isolation: Olive’s Ocean, Walk Two Moons, Kira Kira, and The Spotted Dog Last Seen.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe

Title: The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe; The Tell-Tale Start
Author: Gordon McAlpine
Genre: Middle Grade, Humor, Mystery

About the book (Taken from Goodreads):
Meet Edgar and Allan Poe -- twelve-year-old identical twins, and the great-great-great-great-grandnephews of Edgar Allan Poe. They look and act so much alike that they're almost one mischievous, prank-playing boy in two bodies. When their beloved black cat, Roderick Usher, is kidnapped and transported to the Midwest, Edgar and Allan convince their guardians that it's time for a road trip. Along the way, mayhem and mystery ensue, as well as deeper questions: What is the boys' telepathic connection? Is Edgar Allan Poe himself reaching out to them from the Great Beyond? And why has a mad scientist been spying on the Poe family for years?

My Review:
Combine a witty narrative, with fantastic illustrations, and pages of notes, secret messages, letters, and e-mails (most beneath the disclaimer: “WHAT THE POE TWINS DID NOT KNOW…”) and you have this hilarious, fun, little book.

Allan and Edgar are very amusing characters, and their adventure is both fun and funny. However my favorite parts of the book are where the reader gets to visit their Great-Great-Great-Great-GrandUncle Mr. Edgar Allen Poe in the “great beyond.” Here, the famous author attempts to communicate with Allen and Edgar through his desk job of writing fortune cookies. Hilariously, his plans are often interrupted by his boss, Mr. William Shakespeare, and the dialogue between the two is truly amusing.

Overall: Four Stars. I like the characters and their adventure. I liked their cat. I liked the incorporation of some scientific and literary concepts. And of course, I liked the “real” Edgar Allen Poe from beyond the grave. The only reason I am giving the book four stars instead of five is because all the characters are absolutely one-dimensional. I know this is a “cartoony” book and fully dynamic characters are not necessary, but still, it made the story fall a bit flat.

End Note: If you enjoy this book, you might also like: The Templeton Twins, A Series of Unfortunate Events, or the Time Warp Trio.