Category Archives: Middle Grade

Short short reviews: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy and Cress

13206828Cress

Marissa Meyer

550 pages

Published in February 2014 by Feiwel & Friends

Source: Personal Library

Genre: YA, fantasy and science fiction

I picked up Cress after enjoying the first two books in Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series. Also in an effort to get Piper reading more chapter books (she prefers manga and graphic novels), we agreed on reading Cress together.

Instead of giving you a plot summary of the book, I rather just tell you what I thought of it. Cress is probably my favorite of the three books. The books in this series are fast paced and use elements of various fairy tales without relying on them. I found the female characters like Cress, Scarlet, and Cinder believable. This book also gives Piper and me a lot to discuss as we wait for book four to be published.

I told you this was going to be a short review. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

 

17910570Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Karen Foxlee

240 pages

Published in 2014 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Source: Public Library

Genre: Middle grade, fantasy, fairy tale retellings

A few weeks ago, I was going through a reading rut. I picked Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy up because it was on my tbr list for months.

Ophelia is a girl who doesn’t believe in magic; she believes in science. After the death of her mother, her father throws himself into his work while Ophelia’s older sister becomes selfish and mean. When an offer comes for a new job curating a museum’s collection, Ophelia’s father takes it, moving the girls to a city that never stops snowing. It’s at the museum that Ophelia finds a strange boy locked up in a room, a prisoner of the Snow Queen. His captivity sends Ophelia on adventures through the museum in search of a key that will free him. What happens next is more than the young girl thought was possible.

I found Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy to be the perfect read to get me out of my rut. The book wasn’t perfect as I often found myself preferring the story of the boy and how he became the queen’s prisoner to Ophelia’s story. I think young readers will enjoy this fairy tale retelling. My rating:  3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Zora: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

fradinZora: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

Written by Dennis Brindell Fradin and Judith Bloom Fradin

192 pages

Published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Source: Public Library

Zora: The Life of Zora Neale Hurtson follows the critically-acclaimed author and anthropologist from her birth in Notasulga, Alabama to her death in her sixties, penniless and almost forgotten. In between these years, the authors show readers what made Zora Neale Hurston special and just how much life she packed in her years.

I really enjoy reading memoirs and biographies about people who spent their lives doing what they loved. From the journals of Frida Kahlo to memoirs about Georgia O’Keefe, if a person followed their passion, I want to read a book about it. So reading a book about Zora Neale Hurston, the writer of the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, was a no-brainer.

It’s said that Zora Neale Hurston packed more lives in her sixty-nine years of life than most people ever do. From her troubled childhood after the death of her mother to having to drop out of school many times to work, Zora rushed head-on. The authors pack so many details in the book to illustrate how rich Hurston’s life was. She lied about her age so many times for different reasons like getting a job to going to school for free. Being young, black, and smart, Zora ran into problem after problem but figured out ways around or through them. This book was written for middle-grade students and up, but I think anyone who reads this will find inspiration from Hurston’s life.

I loved learning about Hurston’s friendship with Langston Hughes, her inspiration for Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her life as an anthropologist traveling throughout the south for black folklore.  Even I could picture her standing on a sidewalk in Harlem, measuring strangers’ heads to prove racists wrong about the link between intelligence and the head size.

There are so many interesting tidbits to learn about Hurston but the problem is this book is so dry. The book is less than 200 pages but it took me over a week to read. Hurston’s life isn’t the problem but the author’s writing style. It became a chore to read this. If I, a reader who was already interested in the subject, had a hard time getting through this book, I can just imagine the experience a young reader going through this book will have. I don’t think they would finish it.

Hurston’s life was rich with adventures and this book proves that, but I’m reluctant to recommend it. If you’re already interested in Hurston’s life, I think you should give this book a try. For readers who don’t know much about the author, I suggest picking up something else about Hurston. My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Graphic Novel Review: Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite by Barry Deutsch

Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite

Barry Deutsch

128 pages

Published in October 2012 by Abrams Books

Source: Publisher

Mirka is at it again in Barry Deutsch’s latest Hereville book, How Mirka Met a Meteorite. In the first book, Mirka wants to fight a dragon. But after many twists and turns, including a duel with a troll, it didn’t happen. Now she just wishes that she had a villain to fight. When a troll sends a meteorite to the witch’s house, Mirka saves the day (and Hereville) by warning the witch just in time. Unfortunately, the witch transformed the meteorite into Mirka’s double. The new Mirka is faster and better at just about everything than Mirka. Sharing Mirka’s life isn’t good enough. One of them has to go.  Will it be Mirka?

Mirka is definitely one of my favorite middle grade characters. In case you haven’t read the first book, Hereville is a village of Orthodox Jews. Readers see Mirka and her family celebrating the Sabbath, find out rules about non-relatives touching, and more in a way that never bogs down the story but enlightens it. Hereville fills a space in literature. Before reading the first book, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with an Orthodox Jewish girl as the main character especially not in a graphic novel. The emphasis is never on the religion but on Mirka. She’s an average girl who dreams of being of hero and doesn’t find it out of the ordinary when she finds herself talking to trolls, fighting a talking pig, or seeing magic performed by the witch who lives on the outskirts of the village. In her view, anything is better than learning how to knit.

Sometimes when you read a fantastic first book in a series, you often wonder how the next book will stand up.  How Mirka Met a Meteorite was just as good as the first book though I do have to say that I miss the talking pig. The book starts out with Mirka still being grounded after her last adventure with the troll. After getting off of punishment, Mirka’s stepmother Fruma tells her that whenever she needs to make a decision, she should imagine the person that she wants to become and ask “what would that person do?”. That advice is one of the reasons why I really love the Fruma character. She’s one of the many strong and opinionated female characters in the book.

Since I had an advance reading copy, the artwork and coloring wasn’t finished but it didn’t take away at all from the story. The story stands on its own. Not every graphic novel can say that.

How Mirka Met a Meteorite is a fantastic book with a spunky protagonist. I waited a year for this book. I hope the next story in the series comes out soon. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

You can find a preview of the book on the author’s site here.

If you’re still unsure about the series, you can find my review of the first book here.

Mini-reviews: The Year of the Beasts, A Greyhound of a Girl, and Her Mother’s Face

The Year of the Beasts

Cecil Castellucci and Nate Powell

192 pages

Published in May 2012 by Roaring Brook Press

Source: Library

I decided to read The Year of the Beasts since I loved Castellucci’s earlier book, The Plain Janes. Unfortunately, this book fell short of the magic of that previous read. The Year of the Beasts is the story of Tessa, a teen girl, and her younger sister Lulu. It’s supposed to be a great summer with the carnival in town and the chance for Tessa to snag her longtime crush. But things don’t go awry (at least to Tessa) as her crush ends up with Lulu. Her sister’s happiness brings out the worst in Tessa even when things go her way. Will Tessa ever realize that sometimes it’s a blessing when you’re dreams don’t come true?

Like I said before, this turned out to be a disappointing read. It may have been the fact that as a twenty-something, I’m not the intended audience for this. After a few chapters of reading about Tessa’s jealousy and anger toward Lulu, I was ready to either abandon the book or slap Tessa a few times and tell her to get over it. I spent most of the book tired of Tessa. Or maybe my disappointment comes from the fact that The Plain Janes left me with expectations that were too high. Castellucci and Powell take the story back and forth between that summer of change and its affect on everyone around. I do like that with this back and forth, the format changed. One chapter consisted of mostly words while the next was in graphic novel format. I thought it was a nice change that left readers wondering why Tessa’s hair is suddenly made of snakes. Too bad my curiosity wasn’t enough to change my feelings for the book. Recommended to middle-grade and teen readers only. My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

A Greyhound of a Girl

Roddy Doyle

208 pages

Published in 2012 by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams Books

Source: Publisher and public library

“She hated the hospital. She hated walking through it. She hated everything about it. Except for one thing. Her granny. She hated the hospital, but she loved her granny.”

Mary O’Hara wishes that her life would go back to what it once was. Her best friend has moved and her grandmother, Emer, is dying. One day on her way home, Mary meets a strange woman. The woman looks young but wears clothes from a different era. After a few more meetings, Mary finds out that this woman is the ghost of her great-grandmother, Tansey. Tansey is bidding her time until she’s able to take Emer to the afterlife. Until then, Tansey has a message for her dying daughter. . .

This story might sound a little creepy but it’s not. I found A Greyhound of a Girl to be a short and sweet read. Looking back at this book that I read just a week ago, I’m finding that I don’t have much to say about it. The strength of this book can be found in readers learning more about Tansey and the life she lived as a young woman who’s newly married and with young children before dying suddenly of the flu. As a mother, I could feel her dying worries for her children and their well-being. I also enjoyed reading about the midnight ride that Mary, her mother Scarlett, Emer, and Tansey take together from Dublin to the family’s old farm in the country. The problem with this story is that it’s not very memorable. I hate writing that but it’s true. Tansey’s life and the ride is what stand out in this tale of magic realism. One more thing that I want to note: while this book is for the middle grade crowd, Doyle has a book with a similar theme of family and love for younger kids.

Doyle’s picture book, Her Mother’s Face, was published four years before A Greyhound of a Girl and is much more memorable. Siobhᾲn is a young girl who misses her mother and it doesn’t help that her father refuses to talk about her. All of Siobhᾲn’s friends have moms but none understand the sadness that she feels. One day, a mysterious woman tells Siobhᾲn that if she wants to see her mom to look in the mirror. As she ages, she’ll see what her mother looked like at that age. Siobhᾲn’s heart gets a little lighter as she realizes that every time she looks in the mirror, her mother is right there. I first read this book years ago and found myself tearing up by the last page.

My rating for A Greyhound of a Girl: 3 out of 5 stars.

My rating for Her Mother’s Face: 5 out of 5 stars.

Review: No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

Written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, artwork by R. Gregory Christie

192 pages

Published in 2012 by Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Carolrhoda Books

Source: Public Library

I think there’s been a war on independent bookstores. It’s a crime because books are more than just books in the African American community. Literacy and education were once the hopes for getting away from slavery, out of the ghetto, into power. Bookstores have been cultural crossroads, information centers. The bookstore is where we meet, where we talk. In the sixties, in Harlem, at 125th Street and Seventh, it was Lewis Michaux’s bookstore.  –Poet Nikki Giovanni

No Crystal Stair is a celebration, a celebration of the written word and one man’s dedication to it. As avid readers, we know how life-changing and earth-shattering the affect that reading can have on our lives. In Harlem during the 1930s, Lewis Michaux asked a banker for a $500 loan but was turned down. According to the banker, “black people don’t read”. Determined, Michaux started his bookstore with five books and a cart. He would walk up and down the street, shouting about the books he was selling. Over three decades, those five books turned into more than 200,000 at Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore. The bookstore became a place for people to meet, talk, and educate themselves. Through the years, famous people were spotted browsing through the store like Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and others. Told through interviews, photos, and documents, No Crystal Stair is the fictional account of the life of Lewis Michaux.

When it comes to telling you how I feel about this book, I’m almost speechless. If it wasn’t for the author deciding to spent years writing Michaux’s story, I probably wouldn’t have ever heard of this man and his influential bookstore.

We are in a time where indie bookstores are closing all over the country and it’s becoming harder to find a neighborhood bookish spot to patron. It was a similar atmosphere in 1930s Harlem when Michaux got the idea of starting his bookstore. Though at the time, there was a huge population in Harlem, there wasn’t a bookstore (or any mention of one in the book). Michaux believed that for people to understand the world around them, reading was the answer. He went up against so many people who didn’t believe in the power of reading or that Michaux would make any money. And at first, they were right. For the first several years, he didn’t make any money. He washed windows and did odd jobs around the neighborhood.

Finally, business finally picked up and people came in droves to buy books. If customers couldn’t afford a book, they were free to read it in the back. To Michaux, knowledge was power and it was important for everyone to have the opportunity to read books by and about people that looked just like them.

There are details missing about Michaux’s beginnings like what year he was born in or exactly when was his bookstore started, so Nelson turned this biography into a fictional account. But she did give readers photos and newspaper clippings from that time along with transcripts from interviews with people who knew Michaux best.

I’m so grateful that Nelson, who is the great-niece of Michaux, decided to write her great-uncle’s story.  I’m also grateful to the publisher, Carolrhoda Lab, for taking a chance on this subject and publishing No Crystal Stair. If you like reading about books, or always dreamed of owning your own bookstore, this is the book for you. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Spring Reading Thing 2012

March 20, 2012 – June 20, 2012

Hosted at Callapidder Days

If you didn’t know that today was the first day of spring, you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking out my window. It’s nice and cold outside, perfect winter weather. So it seems a little funny to be making a list of books I want to read for spring. I missed last year’s Spring Reading Thing, a seasonal “challenge”, and I refuse to miss it again this year.

I decided to dedicate this year’s SRT to my many stacks of unread books. This idea came to me yesterday after “finding” an under-bed shoe storage filled with books. I think that’s one of the great things about Spring Reading Thing is that participants are encouraged to make goals. It’s not just the amount of books to read but anything else you can think of.

One of my goals is to read at least fifteen of my own books within the next three months. It doesn’t have to be the fifteen books on this list but it needs to be fifteen. I’ve own The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot since its publication in 2009. I even pre-ordered it and still haven’t read it. If I don’t read it by the end of this challenge, I’m going to give it away to my local public library. Which leads me to my second goal:

  • Give away at least ten books by June 20th. If I don’t miss the 30+ books under my bed, I won’t miss the ten that I plan on giving away. I’m thinking of this as my own bookish spring cleaning.

Last but not least is to have at least one read-along with my daughter. She’s ten and hasn’t read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett yet. It’s been a reading tradition of mine to read it every spring. I already bought her the book and movie version. Now it’s time to read it to her. Maybe I’ll give her a package of seeds to go with it. I think she’ll like that. If the read-along is a success, we can add Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting in June. It’s one of my favorite summer reads.

My pool of books:

  1. Head Off and Split by Nikki Finney (poetry)
  2. Land to Light On by Dionne Brand (poetry)
  3. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (non-fiction)
  4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (non-fiction)
  5. Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (middle grade)
  6. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
  7. A Mercy by Toni Morrison
  8. Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech (poetry)
  9. The Humming Room by Ellen Potter (middle grade)
  10. Sula by Toni Morrison
  11. Alcestis by Katharine Beutner
  12. What Looks Like Crazy on An Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
  13. No Regrets Parenting by Harley A. Rotbart (non-fiction)
  14. The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman
  15. Among Others by Jo Walton (young adult)
  16. The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
  17. Wonder by R.J. Pollacio (middle grade)
  18. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (young adult)
  19. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (middle grade)
  20. Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (middle grade)
  21. The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon (middle grade)
  22. Cousins by Virginia Hamilton (middle grade)
  23. An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor (non-fiction)

So that’s what I’m planning this spring. Have you started thinking about your spring reading? Are you joining Spring Reading Thing this year?

African American Read-In and Discussion

Welcome to today’s read-in. I’m one of three bloggers co-hosting this event along with Doret from The Happy Nappy Bookseller and Edi from Crazy Quilts. This year’s read-in book is The Ninth Ward by Jewell Park Rhodes. It’s the story of a young girl living in New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina. Since the book’s publication in 2010, it’s been nominated and listed as a best book by several organizations including Goodreads, School Library Journal, and 2011-2012 The Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award.

Instead of discussing the book just one day, Doret, Edi, and I decided to discuss The Ninth Ward all week long and give readers a chance to still read it if they didn’t have time before. Wednesday’s discussion questions will be on Doret’s blog and Friday’s questions on Edi’s.

From the book:

They say I was born with a caul, a skin netting covering my face like a glove. My mother died birthing me. I would’ve died, too, if Mama Ya-Ya hadn’t sliced the bloody membrane from my face. I let out a wail when she parted the caul, letting in first air, first light.

Here are my questions for you:

  1. The Ninth Ward is one of the newest additions to the magic realism genre. As you read Lanesha’s story, how did you feel about the fantastical elements such as Mama Ya-Ya’s visions or the ghosts that lingered throughout the neighborhood?
  2. This was the first book I’ve read that dealt with Hurricane Katrina and some of the issues surrounding it like Mama Ya-Ya and Lanesha being too poor to evacuate before the storm. Have you read a book that dealt with this hurricane before? Whether or not you have, how did the storm’s role in the book feel to you? Could you imagine it and its aftermath as you were reading or was it vague?
  3. Last but not least, what did you think of Lanesha?

 

Be sure to check out Doret’s and Edi’s questions on Wednesday and Friday. Thank you joining this year’s read-in.

Review: War and Watermelon by Rich Wallace

War and Watermelon

Rich Wallace

184 pages

Publication Year: 2010

Publisher: Viking Juvenile

Source: Publisher

I look across the pond and see Patty Moriarity and Janet DeMaria hanging out by the refreshment stand. They’re in two-piece bathing suits, but not bikinis. They’re the type of girls that are over our heads. Not at the top of the list of coolest girls, but close to it. We’re pretty much near the bottom of the guys; low-middle at best.

It’s the summer of 1969 and Brody Winslow feels a change in the air. It might be because seventh grade means going to a new school where he’ll only know half the kids there and trying out for the school football team. Those are small changes compared to what his older brother, Ryan, is going through. Ryan will be turning eighteen in a little more than a month which means he’s eligible for the draft. Ryan knows that he doesn’t want to fight in the war that’s going on in Vietnam but he’ll feel like a coward if he takes the easy road and go to college though he’s not ready for it.

When I first start a book, I’m curious to see how the author lays out things like the plot, characters, and language. I wonder if the plot will do something different and/or exciting. I want to see whether the language of the story is interesting and beautiful enough for me to underline passages or dog-ear a page. I’m always hoping the characters are interesting enough to follow. Sadly, War and Watermelon disappointed me with almost all three aspects.

One of the problems with W&W is that it’s written for a pretty specific audience. Brody ends up on the football team of his junior high so there’s a ton of talk about football – a sport that I don’t follow at all. I understand sections of the book have to include the team and games but I found some of those sections uninteresting. I just waited for those parts to be over. I think any reader who doesn’t follow the sport might think so too.

Another thing that I had a problem with is the heavy inclusion of top 10 songs from that time. When done well it’s interesting to know what the protagonist is listening to at the time and makes the reader get to know the time period and characters better. But as someone who wasn’t born until almost twenty years later, I have no idea what any of these songs sound like and I wasn’t curious enough to find out. Towards the end of the book, I just skipped those sections. If I didn’t bother with those sections at the end, would a regular MG reader (ages 10-13) care about those sections?

Those two things would be minor complaints if the book was interesting enough but I found myself wishing I could quit reading after the first ten pages. If this was a book that I picked up at the library or bought it myself, I would have. There wasn’t enough going on to keep me interested in the characters – most of whom show little growth except Ryan. Even though I’m a heavy MG reader, I would have loved it if this book was YA and from the perspective of Ryan who had to figure out what he wanted at such a young age of seventeen.

War and Watermelon isn’t a bad book but it’s a “meh” kind of book, so my Goodreads rating for it is three stars out of five.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to review War and Watermelon.

A Very Short Post

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is a book that’s been receiving a lot of positive buzz lately. It’s in my tbr pile and on my daughter’s summer reading list. I’ve read a little of the book so far, and the imagery is just so beautiful and different like the golem made of lye or the three witches who can see the future.

I don’t watch many book trailers but when I saw this one, I thought it was excellent. I know there’s going to be more songs to go with this book and I can’t wait to listen to the rest of them. Have you read this book yet? If you haven’t, any plans to read it?

Review: Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon

Zora and Me

  • Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
  • 192 pages
  • Publication Date: October 12, 2010
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • Source: Personal Library

Young Zora Neale Hurston can spin a story in a way that no one else can. Whether she’s talking about the pine tree that she loves so much or about gators that can turn into men, once you hear Zora’s stories the world looks different. Zora has a passion for storytelling and a curiosity to know all that she can. With best friends Carrie and Teddy, Zora explores their hometown of Eatonville, Florida which is the first all-black town to be incorporated. Things take a sinister turn when a body is found on the railroad tracks beheaded. Zora thinks she knows who committed the murder but what adult will believe her story of shape-shifting men?

What I really liked about this book is that the many storylines that are introduced in various parts of the story feel so authentic and blend together easily. There’s Zora and her stories, her best friend Carrie and her grief at the father who has abandoned his family, the murder of a drifter, the issues of passing and racism, along with figuring out who you really are in a world that wants you to stay in your place.

Zora’s curiosity about the world outside of Eatonville is something her mother understands. Her father wants her to stay in her “place” as a girl and an African-American. He thinks because she isn’t white, she doesn’t have a right to want the things that she desires. But Zora isn’t happy with that and in a suspenseful moment, she sticks up for herself even when the consequences could be painful.

Walking home later, I thought about the difference between a mama’s girl and a daddy’s girl. I decided that a daughter who belongs to her daddy expects gifts, while a daughter who belongs to her mama expects a lot more. Not from her mama. From herself.

My only complaint about this book is that it wasn’t enough description for me. I wanted to know exactly what Eatonville and the characters looked like. Other than that, I found Zora and Me to be a great read. Highly recommended.

Other reviews:

Banned Book Review: Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret

Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret
Judy Blume
140 pages
Publication Year: 1970
Publisher: Yearling

Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. We’re moving today. I’m so scared God. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.

A few days ago I was at the library and saw this book on the banned books display. I hadn’t read this since I was a pre-teen and seeing the title brought back so many memories of my life then, I had to check this out again.

For those of you who don’t know, the protagonist of the story is Margaret, an twelve year-old girl who has just moved to New Jersey from New York with her parents. She has the same worries that most kids that age have like fitting in, making new friends, and having crushes. She has a relationship with God, who she’s always talking to but worries about her non-religious status because her mom was born a Christian and her dad a Jew. She sees the way that religious differences can divide a family, sometimes forever. What makes this book a classic though is how realistic Blume makes Margaret’s growing pains. Margaret is at that ripe age where she starts to worry (and hope) over getting her period soon and her growing body. Blume doesn’t talk down to tweens and teens but talks to them with this book.

I have no idea why this book has been banned. Is it because Margaret has an open but non-religious relationship with God? Or the fact that she explores religion by visiting different places of worship? Is it all the talk about menstrual cycles and pads? No matter what the reason is, it’s not good enough to ban this book. Instead of being banned, this book needs to be given out to kids. Parents can use it as a starting point in discussions about crushes, religion, God, and more.  I plan on giving this book to my little sisters and daughter.

Have you read this before? What are your thoughts? What Judy Blume book is your favorite?