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Tag Archives: middle school

“Doll Bones” by Holly Black

GUEST REVIEW BY HANNAH L.:

The book you recommended to me was a book that seemed really cool for someone who likes creepy books. Holly Black’s Doll Bones is about three 12 year olds who play a never ending story-type game. The dolls are Lady Jayne, William, the mermaids, and the queen. The kids are Zach, Poppy, and Alice. The dolls are all free except the queen. The queen is a china doll. Bone china, in fact. She is worth a lot of money, so Poppy’s mother keeps her locked in a glass cabinet. The main goal of the game is to find a way to unlock and free the queen.

One night, the queen goes to Poppy in a dream. She tells Poppy that she is real. She died when she was a little girl. She tells Poppy that when she died, her father could not take the thought of his daughter in the ground. So, he took her body to the doll factory where he worked and cremated her. He turned her into a doll, with her bones as the doll’s and her hair as the doll’s, too. The queen told Poppy that she needed to be buried in the cemetery where her casket was, just under a willow tree in Ohio. Poppy takes the doll and shows Zach and Alice. In the doll are the girl’s ashes. They set off on the trip, but the queen is still haunting Poppy’s dreams.

I would tell you what happened next, but I got too creeped out, so I put it down. It’s not every day that I put a book down. Anyway, thank you for recommending this book to me.

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Posted by on March 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

As if being an unpopular sixth grade girl isn’t difficult enough, try adding the slowing of the Earth’s rotation — and all its cataclysmic effects — to the mix. That’s the premise of Karen Thompson Walker’s remarkable debut novel “The Age of Miracles.” While I don’t normally review books written for the adult market, “The Age of Miracles” should appeal to teens, as it is essentially a coming of age tale set against a dystopian backdrop. Although more subtle and literary than novels geared directly toward teens, its subject matter and almost cringe-worthy realism should win over many younger fans.

We meet Julia and her family on an ordinary sunny Saturday morning in California. Except, this particular morning isn’t so ordinary after all, as Julia soon learns that the Earth’s rotation has slowed overnight. The slowing will continue to increase to a point where sunlight — and darkness — will last for long days on end. As the Earth slows even more, vegetation dies, animal life is depleted, strange weather patterns emerge, sunlight becomes toxic, and people begin to suffer from “gravity sickness.” If all this sounds terribly bleak, quite surprisingly, it’s not. These events are all filtered through Julia’s sensibilities, and she presents much of the horror in a stark, matter-of-fact manner. Julia’s almost detached observations place the slowing in the background as a quiet force that is never sentimental, overpowering, or showy. The real drama, interestingly enough, occurs among the human beings.

A conflict erupts between “clock timers” (folks who adhere to the dictates of the clock, regardless of sunlight or darkness) and “real timers” (those people who follow the natural rhythms of sunrise and moonrise, regardless of when they occur). It’s a classic “us against them” struggle, with all the attendant fear outsiders can generate in a trying time. A class schism also erupts, as those with money can afford artificial lawns, personal greenhouses, steel shutters, and sunlight radiation shelters. But none of these are the central source of human tension in “The Age of Miracles.” Instead, it is the family interactions and middle school relationships that form the real heart of this novel.

Here’s what I found most amazing about “The Age of Miracles”: middle school kids can be just as horrible, careless, and insensitive as ever, even when life as they know it has been catastrophically altered. Julia is bullied at the bus stop, dropped by her best friend, used by a popular classmate, and excluded from the birthday balloon tradition at school. She pines away for Seth Moreno, the mysterious skater boy who lost his mother to cancer and is alternately warm and indifferent toward Julia. She worries about her unshaved legs and buying her first bra. She tries to mediate the cold hostility between her philandering father and controlling mother, all while seeking her own small piece of independence. Above all, much of “The Age of Miracles” is about one girl’s overwhelming loneliness, which almost trumps the fact that her entire world is, literally, falling apart around her. And you wondered why I called this a “remarkable” novel? Because it is!

I’ll give nothing else away, because Julia’s story should be savored by the reader. Walker is a beautiful storyteller who uses spare language and quiet emotion to convey Julia’s fears, pain, and small triumphs. There is not one moment here that is artificially rendered. Everything is conveyed with an almost heartbreaking honesty and stillness. Although written for adults, aside from a bit of language, minor drinking, and the themes involved, older teens should do just fine with this novel. “The Age of Miracles” is a stunning, haunting book about growing up. Please go out and read it now.

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Posted by on August 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Y’all, summer reading preparations have kept me from writing up my book reviews. But, I promise, I have been reading! Scout’s honor. :-p

Here’s a review of one of the BEST books I’ve read this year, Elizabeth Wein’s intriguing, twisty, deeply engaging World War II novel “Code Name Verity.” When was the last time a book was part history lesson, part spy game, and part emotional drama? Yeah, I thought not. How about that same book also featuring two FEMALE leads, one a British spy and one a young British pilot? That’s right. Unique concept, beautifully written … read on for more, friends.

The novel is divided into two sections with two separate narrators, and it’s up to us as readers to piece the overall story together and decide how much is truth and how much is a lie. In the first section, we have aristocratic Scot Julie (Verity) who works as a spy for the British. Julie was captured inside occupied France and is being held by the ruthless Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) as a prisoner of war in a commandeered hotel. Julie has been starved, terrorized, and tortured for information, which she is finally revealing in a confession written daily on recipe cards, prescription pads, and other leftover reminders of normal life. Julie’s confession is structured as the story of her friendship with a young British pilot named Maddie (Kittyhawk), and throughout her discourse, Julie interweaves secret details of British planes, airstrips, codes, and missions. Repeatedly, Julie laments that fact that the Gestapo have broken her and that she is now the worst kind of coward and traitor for revealing these details of the British war effort. But is she?

In the second half of the novel, we hear much of the same story from Maddie’s point of view. Maddie’s plane, carrying Julie to her mission, crash landed in occupied France, and she’s now being kept hidden by some French Resistance folks. Maddie records the story of her pilot training, her friendship with Verity, and the crash landing, as well as details of the Resistance effort to return her and other downed British pilots safely to England. Maddie figures her British superiors will want a full recounting, and the writing helps her maintain her sanity as whole days pass with her trapped in a claustrophobic barn loft. Straight off, we notice some striking differences in Maddie’s account, most tellingly her repeated conviction that Julie is the bravest, strongest, and smartest young woman she has ever met. Interesting. Even Julie’s staged meeting with an appeasing American journalist is markedly different here than in Julie’s version.

I really cannot reveal more plot details — I won’t ruin it for you! — other than to say that “Code Name Verity” ultimately becomes an absolutely heartbreaking story of friendship, honor, and sacrifice. The two lead characters, Julie and Maddie, are both believably terrified while also being believably brave, feisty, and selfless. The secondary characters are also well developed, especially the Gestapo Captain von Linden, Julie’s captor, who is strangely kind and charming while also being incredibly sadistic. I think teens will be drawn in by the spying, codebreaking, planes, secrecy, and adventure, all of which keeps the story flowing even when we’re not exactly sure what’s happening. And the big reveals at the end — when the whole truth (?) is finally revealed — are staggering. I wanted to go back and reread everything again to catch all the clues!

“Code Name Verity” is a brilliant novel that is perfect for boys and girls who are older middle schoolers. Although there is torture and violence in this story, the majority of it is very discreetly presented and entirely age appropriate. I adored this beautiful, gut-wrenching novel, which will surely be one of the best books published for teens in 2012. Please check it out.

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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Lions of Little Rock” by Kristin Levine

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

I hope that even my younger blog readers have learned about Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public education. Maybe you’ve even heard about the “Little Rock Nine,” brave students who began attending all-white Little Rock High School in Arkansas during the fall of 1957. The Little Rock Nine, despite the Supreme Court decision several years earlier, required the assistance of armed National Guard troops to protect them from violence while going to school.

But did you know what happened the next year in Little Rock, in the fall of 1958? Did you know that the Little Rock Board of Education voted to close ALL the high schools in the district to prevent further integration of black and white students? I didn’t either, not until I read Kristin Levine’s poignant new novel “The Lions of Little Rock.”

“Lions” is narrated by twelve year-old Marlee, a painfully shy, largely silent girl who excels at math but is rendered mute with fear when called upon in class. Marlee has a few friends, bossy Sally and her follower Nora, but barely speaks to either of them. Thankfully, Marlee is much more comfortable at home talking to her school teacher parents and older sister Judy. When her folks decide to send Judy away so she can start attending high school again, Marlee is left more alone than ever.

Enter new classmate Liz, a brash, outspoken girl who immediately befriends Marlee. Liz is a smart girl herself, and she recognizes a kindred spirit in Marlee. The two join up for an oral presentation on Native American history, with Liz offering Marlee a magic square math book — the holy grail! — if Marlee promises to speak during the presentation. Liz patiently works with Marlee to overcome her fear of speaking in a pretty ingenious manner, bringing her to the Little Rock Zoo to talk to all the animals.

Marlee blossoms in believable ways through Liz’s friendship and encouragement, and it’s just lovely to see this self-doubting girl begin to recognize her own courage. Except, on the day of the big class presentation, Marlee arrives at school to find Liz gone. [Awesome note: Marlee does the entire presentation herself anyway.] The real shocker? Liz isn’t coming back. Ever. Turns out Liz is a black girl whose light skin allowed her to “pass” as a white student and attend Marlee’s still all-white middle school. Classmates and parents are outraged at Liz’s “deception,” which adds another undercurrent of danger and unrest to an already volatile situation in Little Rock.

Marlee and Liz try to maintain a clandestine friendship, despite the pervasive threat of violence and against the expressed wishes of their respective families. But there is real danger lurking in Little Rock, especially now that Red, a total loose cannon and older brother of Marlee’s classmate JT, has made it his goal to punish Liz. Red has already threatened and terrified Marlee. Now he’s stolen some dynamite, hidden it in his trunk, and seems to be waiting for the right moment to strike.

Instead of accepting racial segregation and fear, Marlee instead uses her newly discovered voice to join a women’s education committee (!), speak out to her classmates, canvass her neighborhood, and help prepare for a crucial Board of Education vote. I won’t reveal any further details, but, trust me, “Lions” is a beautiful, touching exploration of Marlee’s growing bravery, which unfolds in a gradual, authentic manner. It’s also completely age appropriate for a middle school audience, as even scary or complex events are presented with a gentle hand.

As much as I loved Marlee, the other characters are wonderfully developed as well. Marlee’s seemingly stoic, cold mother is painstakingly revealed to be a far more warm and layered woman nursing her own doubts. Popular JT, who bullies Marlee into doing his math homework, is later shown to have his own fears about Red’s potential for violence. Even some members of an anti-integration group are not depicted as cardboard villains, but rather as basically decent people who are too afraid or ill-informed to do what is right.

“The Lions of Little Rock” is a masterful piece of historical fiction that melds drama, actual events from the civil rights movement, friendship, and family. It is an absolute gem of a novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. So, yeah, I loved it. Please go out and read it now. 🙂

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Summer I Learned to Fly” by Dana Reinhardt

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Dana Reinhardt's "The Summer I Learned to Fly" is a quiet, charming novel about the summer of 1986, a pivotal moment in Robin Drew "Birdie" Solo's life. Birdie, fresh out of school, is helping her widowed mom run her new business, the local cheese shop. Each sunny California day at the shop, Birdie makes pasta with handsome surfer Nick, chats with lovable Swoozie, and does her best to keep her treasured rat, Humboldt Fog, out of mom's sights and safely hidden in her backpack. When Birdie discovers leftover cheese is continually being removed from the alley trash, she stumbles upon Emmett Crane, a quirky teen boy with a shady past and a penchant for making paper cranes. Emmett becomes Birdie's first true friend, leading her through a summer of heartache and discovery that concludes with an unexpected adventure far from home.

I hesitate to provide more details about the plot, because part of the joy of reading "The Summer I Learned to Fly" lies in its slow, careful revelation of Emmett's secrets. So let me simply tell you why I enjoyed this book so much; then you can learn all the details when you go out and read it yourself. :-p

Though set in the mid-80s, Birdie's story has a timeless quality to it. This book is most definitely not the kind that gets bogged down in the the latest fashions or the coolest gadgets. This book is, instead, a rich, layered story about human relationships. Reinhardt beautifully depicts Birdie and Emmett's shy friendship, in which Birdie finally discovers how much of the world opens up when you have a true friend by your side. Reinhardt also provides other relationships to cherish, including Birdie and Nick's so much more than a summer crush friendship, in which Birdie gracefully accepts Nick's girlfriend, and a mother-daughter bond that is frayed, challenged, and somehow strengthened as Birdie grows up and mom tries to move past her grief.

"The Summer I Learned to Fly" is a lyrical, subtle story about real people, in which all aspects of real life — joy, pain, sorrow, exuberance, fear, growth — are conveyed with depth, warmth, and genuine emotion. I had read one of Reinhardt's books in the past ("How to Build a House") and wasn't nearly as bowled over as I was here. There are so many perfect, authentic touches here, such as Birdie's guilt in reading her deceased dad's journal-like "Book of Lists"; Emmett's well-crafted crane messages, full of sorrow and hope; and the love and beauty that can be poured into pasta making. Perhaps those moments are what made this is a truly incandescent read for me. Regardless of why, I can tell you I found "The Summer I Learned to Fly" to be a wonderful, heartfelt story about a final, glorious summer of childhood innocence. I highly recommend it to boys and girls in early middle school and higher.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Icefall” by Matthew J. Kirby

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I never would've read Matthew Kirby's Nordic adventure "Icefall" were it not on the discussion list for my Book Fest Sleepers group. I don't do fantasy, which is immediately how I pegged "Icefall," based on its glowing glacier / magic hammer cover. My bad, Scholastic. My bad. "Icefall" is a rousing, action-packed tale of — get this! — historical fiction set in Viking times. This is not a fantasy story. At all. And before you run screaming in the opposite direction, please let me add that historical fiction is not one of my faves, either. But "Icefall" works in a genre-busting, hey, this is just a great story kind of way.

Plain middle sister Solveig, younger brother Harald, and gorgeous older sister Asa are sent by their father, the King, to a frozen fjord for the winter. The King hopes to keep his heir, Harald, and his other children hidden and safe from a rampaging foe, Gunnlaug. A trusted young soldier, Per, accompanies them on the trip, as does long-time slave Ole and household servants (and mother and son) Bera and Raudi. Before the inlet freezes completely, a warship full of berserkers — think giant, fierce warriors in bearskins! — arrives, sent by the King in a last gasp effort to defend his children against Gunnlaug's forces.

As winter surrounds and covers them, Solveig and her siblings adjust to their icy, isolated home. Brokenhearted Asa mostly stays in bed and steals furtive glances at Per, while young Harald bravely tries to buck up and grow into the man everyone demands he become. Solveig becomes a sort of apprentice to Alric, the skald (storyteller) who accompanied the berserkers to the fjord. Alric teaches Solveig the power of mythmaking, and observant, sensitive Solveig — long overlooked by her father for these very traits — displays a natural talent for weaving tales around the evening hearth fire.

When a traitor emerges in the group (the few cows are slaughtered, berserkers are poisoned and killed), the hungry, frightened occupants of this far-removed world begin to turn against each other. I loved how the claustrophobic setting and thickening suspicion heighten the suspense as the story progresses. Very well done! When Gunnlaug's marauders arrive in early spring, the survivors have been weakened by fear and illness, making them easy prey. Solveig then must use every bit of her ingenuity and skill to keep her clan together and find a means of escaping Gunnlaug's clutches.

Along the way, we learn much about ancient Norse belief systems, including death rituals, runes, ravens, and such gods as Odin and Thor, whose hammer figures prominently in the story (and on the book's cover!). We are also treated to the complex, touching relationship that develops between Solveig and Hake, the fearsome leader of the berserkers, in which love, loyalty, and sacrifice are all richly presented. And while the climactic scene is telegraphed long in advance — again, the book cover! — it does nothing to undermine its dramatic heft.

I was truly blown away by how much I enjoyed "Icefall." It's a perfect novel for middle grade readers (boys *and* girls) who are looking for an exciting story full of intrigue, action, and even mythology from a long-ago era. Its icy setting, amazingly dimensional characters, and well-integrated themes of courage and faith only enrich the experience. While the book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, enough plot threads are resolved to provide a satisfying conclusion.

PS – I can't leave this review without mentioning author Kirby's technique of inserting snippets from one of Solveig's stories throughout the novel. When we finally realize why Solveig is reciting this particular story to her surviving clan members, her actions resonate more powerfully. It's a wonderful device to introduce portions of each character's history, and, as importantly, to fully capture the emotional bonds Solveig has forged with each of them. Brilliant.

PPS – "Icefall" is out now. READ IT!

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Close to Famous” by Joan Bauer

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Thanks as always to the brilliant folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers, who can always be relied upon for truly excellent swag. (And I read today they are joining Net Galley; yay!). I loved my advanced copy of Newbery Honor author Joan Bauer's latest middle grade novel, "Close to Famous." In fact, I read it in one sitting!

When we meet 12 year old Foster McFee, she and her mom are fleeing Memphis and mom's abusive, Elvis impersonator boyfriend. The pair end up in the small town of Culpepper, West Virginia, home to a mammoth prison, a dying downtown, and a host of eccentric residents. Foster and her mom find free lodging in an airstream trailer owned by a kind older couple. In short order, mom has a job at the local hardware store while spunky Foster has negotiated a deal with diner owner Angry Wayne (ha!) to supply a daily order of home baked goods. See, Foster is a Food Network superfan — her idol is a fictitious ex-military food host named Sonny Kroll — and she loves nothing more than practicing her own kitchen cooking show while perfecting her already scrumptious cupcake and muffin recipes. When Foster meets local legend Charleena Hendley, once a famous Hollywood star but now a bossy recluse, her most closely guarded secret is revealed. Seems that underneath her optimism and seemingly boundless spirit, Foster views herself as a stupid, hopeless loser. She has accepted a cruel teacher's label of being "limited." Why? Because, as only her mom knows, Foster cannot read.

If you think a story about illiteracy and cupcakes seems either tedious or manipulative, I can assure you, it's not. Foster sees baking as a way to spread love and kindness, and that warm spirit envelops the whole story. Indeed, this novel has a homey, comforting tone even when dealing with potentially gritty issues like domestic violence, poverty, and grief. There is also plenty of humor, much of it provided by the over the top Charleena and Foster's new best friend, a short, controlling filmmaker named Macon. Yes, many of these supporting characters are outsized personalities, but in the scope of the story, it works. Because Foster is so realistically portrayed — she is very middle school, alternating between shy, engaging, funny, sullen, hopeful, impatient, etc. — she grounds the story, allowing the bigger personalities to shine without becoming irritating.

All the lessons here about believing in yourself and your potential, persevering through hardship (one character is even named Perseverance Wilson), and opening yourself up to life's possibilities are gently delivered. They seem to spring organically from the story itself, so it never feels like the narrative is being interrupted. And for a novel directed primarily at younger readers, there are some truly lovely, nuanced scenes — in particular, I'm thinking of Foster's "re-graduation" ceremony after learning to read and her final pretend cooking show — that deliver quite an emotional punch.

"Close to Famous" is a charming, heartfelt story with a delightful main character, plenty of heart and humor, some easily conveyed life lessons, and enough mouth watering descriptions of food and cooking to make you hungry. I don't see how you can miss with that combination! I'm sure "Close to Famous" will be as beloved by middle schoolers as all of Joan's previous novels. "Close to Famous" is out now. My recommendation: read it. 🙂

PS – I was so pleasantly surprised to see that the cover image, which is meant to depict Foster, is that of a girl with light brown skin. Foster is multiracial, so it was refreshing to see that accurately reflected on the cover. Well done.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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