Friday, October 24, 2014

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

I loved reading Raina Telgemeier's two earlier graphic novels, Smile and Drama, so I was really looking forward to reading Sisters.  And I wasn't disappointed.

Sisters is about a family vacation, a week long road trip from San Francisco to Colorado for a family reunion, with stops in between for sightseeing.  As the girls get ready for the trip, and younger sister Amara begins to really annoy older sister Raina, she reflects on how badly she had wanted this now irritating sister.  So for spite, when Amara asks her if she has any colored pencils to take on the trip, she says no, but then packs a box of them in her suitcase.  Typical sister behaviour!

As they set off, the plan is that Mom will drive, and Dad will be joining the family in Colorado at the end of the week.  Raina occupies the middle seat of their van with her younger sister Amara directly behind her and her little brother Willy in front with Mom.  Oh, and there's no air-conditioning.

To keep her sister out of her life, Raina listens to music using headphones, but Amara being Amara knows exactly how to annoy her anyway (ah-hem, I know this to be so because I am also a middle sister).  But as the trip goes on, and the family runs into problems like torrential rain, a pet snake thought to be dead turning up in the van, older cousins that have changed and outgrown her, and a broken down van in the middle of nowhere,  Raina begins to pull up
more memories of her annoying sister and brother and sibling flashbacks turn into real family memories, like the difficulties when Dad was unemployed.  Meanwhile, Amara, living more in the present reality than Raina, sees the signs that things aren't so wonderful between their parents.

Telgemeier explores a lot of issues surrounding sibling rivalry, parents who don't get along, anticipated events that turn into disappointment, feeling of not fitting in and all the anxiety and tension of being a teen, and she is spot on in capturing the reality of it using spare but humorous text and great illustrations.

What is really nice, is that in all fairness to annoying younger sister, Telgemeier also portrays her Raina character as pretty annoying herself, certainly not the perfect person fictional Raina might have thought she was.  And Telgemeier's honesty in her portrayals of her family are exactly what makes this such a wonderfully relatable book.

Interestingly, none of the incidents in the story are over the top or off the wall, and that is the beauty of Sisters.  Everything that happens, is so ordinary and so true to life.  When Raina is hoping for a little sister,  so sure the baby her mom is carrying will be a girl, it made me remember how my sister and I prayed every night for a little brother, and how often afterwards, when he was super-annoying, we couldn't believe we had asked for him.  Of course, later we couldn't imagine not having him as a brother or for that matter, each other as a sister.  And that is pretty much how you know Sisters will also ultimately turn out.

I loved the cartoon-like illustrations that Telgemeier uses because they can be so expressive even without any text and carry the storyline along so well.  My book was an ARC so not all of the panels were colored in.  I have to admit the story was easier to follow in the colored panels, but what I did see I liked very much.  Color is done by Brayden Lamb, using soft pastel shade for the most part.

Sisters is a book for anyone with siblings, and will definitely make the reader take another look at their family and siblings and rethink their feelings towards them.  No siblings?  You may find you wish you had some.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Monday, October 20, 2014

Worst Witch Strikes Again by Jill Murphy Review and Series Giveaway

It's summer term at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches and Mildred Hubble has been allowed to return despite her unfortunate first year there.  Mildred is dreading this summer term, knowing that all sorts of mishaps could happen again, given how prone she is to accidents and messing things up.  And now, she is bound by promises to do better after the terrible report her parents had received from the school.

This term, a new girl named Enid Nightshade has joined Miss Cackle's and she has given Mildred the responsibility of showing Enid around the school for the next few days.  Mildred's teacher Miss Hardbroom is stunned by this decision, thinking her favorite student goody-two-shoes Ethel Hallow should have been chosen.  Even Mildred is a little surprised and not too happy about Miss Cackle's decision.

Neither is Mildred's best friend Maud Moonshine.  When she asks Mildred to hand Enid over to another girl and Mildred refuses, Maud walks off in a jealous huff, even though both girls think that Enid looks to be a pretty boring girl.

Boring, that is, until the next morning when Mildred discovers that instead of the permitted cat, Enid has a monkey in her room.  And that is just the beginning of accident-prone Mildred's summer term of chasing a runaway monkey, trips to Miss Cackle's office and a performance that even surprises Mildred and Enid at the end of term assembly.  There's even a good lesson on friendship for Maud.

But the biggest lesson of all is to not judge a book by its cover or the new girl at school by the way she looks.

This is the second fun book in the Worst Witch series, perfect for young readers ready to tackle chapter books, and too young for Harry Potter.

In fact, it is so much fun, that I am holding a HALLOWEEN inspired Giveaway, in which one lucky winner will receive a complete set of The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy, books 1-6, courtesy of Candlewick Press.

The Rules of this Giveaway are pretty simple:

1- It will run from today until October 31, 2014 at 11:59 PM EDST
2- Follow Randomly Reading on Bloglovin'
3- Leave a comment related to The Worst Witch and a valid email address to reach you.
4- The winner has 48 hours to respond
5- This giveaway is open to residents of the United States and Canada
6- Allow a few weeks time for delivery.
7- Because your hostess is a certified dyslexic, and she has learned to keep things relatively simple,
    there will be one winner selected by

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

It's the end of summer 1972 and, so far, life has been pretty good for 11 year old Naomi Orenstein, nicknamed Chirp because of her interest in birds.  And living on Cape Cod year round, with her psychiatrist father, her fun-loving mother who is a dancer, and  her older sister Rachel, affords Chirp lots of opportunity to bird watch in her favorite, special spot, the perfect nest for observing all kinds of birds.

But one day after school, Chirp arrives at her spot only to find an old woman there who drives her away with a stick.  A foreboding of things to come?

Not long after, Chirp's mother falls down the back steps and next thing the family knows, she has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  Dad, Rachel and Chirp try to make the best of things while Mom is laid up, but soon all the order and fun are gone from the Orenstein home.

Mom falls into a serious depression, Rachel starts hanging out at a friends house where attitudes about pot and sex are rather loosey-goosey and Chirp tries to control her spinning out of control world by wavers between good-girl thinking (if I'm good than everything will be OK and a kind of wish fulfillment thinking (anticipating what other people will think and/or do based on past experiences).  

As her mother's depression get worse, Dad decides to admit her to a private mental hospital where she is give electroconvulsive therapy.  Meanwhile, Dad doesn't seem to be able to emotionally reach his daughters to help them through these difficult family times, Rachel's relationship with everyone goes downhill, and Chirp finds a quirky friendship with Joey, a neighbor who is also in her class.  Josey has his own misery to deal with in the form of an physically and verbally abusive, controlling father.

After Chirp's mother comes home from the hospital, things seem to be almost back to normal, until tragedy strikes again and she commits suicide.  Devastated, Chirp withdraws from everyone except Joey, who seems to be as empathic towards her as an 11 year old boy with his own problems can be.  The two decide to run away to Boston, where Chirp hopes to find the Swan Boat driver who took her and her mother for a ride in the spring and who, she is sure, will remember her mother.  But will this desperate act to regain the memory of the fun-loving mother Chirp once had actually help her work through her grief?

Nest is a powerful historical fiction debut novel for Esther Ehrlich and she has done a superb job of really capturing the Orenstein family dynamic in happy times, in sad times and in tragedy, and of drawing Chirp's character about as realistically as possible.  Chirp is an endearing character. whose vulnerability is really just so poignant throughout the story, but though I felt her character had such depth, I didn't feel that way about anyone else in the novel.

Perhaps writing from Chirp's point of view is a disadvantage for developing secondary characters, but it  is a great help for keeping the dark parts of the story from overwhelming the reader and keeps their interest.  This is a midde grade novel but I don't think this is really appropriate for  younger middle grade kids (but that decision s entirely up to the parents and/or teachers).  For myself, at 9 and 10 I wouldn't have liked this book, at 11, I would have loved it.  Setting the novel in 1972 will also help readers handle the difficult content - time distanced away from the present can make all the different with young sensitive readers.

I did like all the mentions of different middle grade favorite books like Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden.  And readers may remember the Swan Boats from reading Make Way for Ducklings when they were younger.

The Orenstein family is the only Jewish family in their small Cape Cod town (the name of which is never mentioned, but is near Hyannis Post).  Ehrlich portrays the dilemmas faced by Jewish school children living in a basically Christian setting, describing some Jewish traditions like sitting shiva when there is a death and some anti-Semitic sentiments from the other kids, like Joey when he gets mad at Chirp.  I thought these added to the story without overwhelming it and making it feel even more realistic.

I would have liked to learn more about Joey and his germ phobia, his mild OCD and his family dynamic, but Ehrlich gives us only what we need to understand how he could go from being a bully to being a such a good friend to Chirp.Our homes are our nests, in a way, and Ehrlich has given us food for thought as we watch Chirp's nest fall apart and her attempts to rebuild it.

Nest may sound like a difficult read, and it is to some degree, but it is also a story of hope, love, family, and friendship and like her predecessors,  Harriet Welsch, Claudia Kincaid, Mary Lenox and Sarah Crewe, Chirp Orenstein is a character you won't soon forget.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

An Educator's Guide for Nest is available to download HERE

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday Roundup #2: Other Books I Read, Rated But Didn't Review This Week

The Itty Bitty Kitty Committee by Laura Cinotto
Roaring Brook Press, 2014, 128 pages
If you have even wondered about the life of kitty cat, this is the book for you.  Lots of 
interesting facts, information and melt your heart photographs of kittens being cute.

I'd Know You Anywhere, My Love by Nancy Tillman
Feiwel & Friends, 2013, 32 pages
Short rhyming poems reminding young children how special they are to the parents, with 
beautiful digitally produced illustrations.  A very nice bedtime read-aloud
 to send children off to dreamland knowing they are special to their parents.  

A Single Pebble by Bonnie Christensen
Roaring Brook Press, 2013, 40 pages
Using text and beautiful watercolor illustrations, the story of the Silk Road is told through the
 journey of a single jade pebble as it travels from the beginning of the route in 
China to the end of the route in Venice.

Rabbi Benjamin's Buttons by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt
Charlesbridge, 2014, 32 pages

Given a beautiful vest with 4 silver buttons at Rosh Hashanah by his appreciative congregation, Rabbi Benjamin wears it all year as he celebrates Jewish holidays.  By the end of the year, Rabbi Benjamin has popped all 4 buttons.  It's Rosh Hashanah again and what is Rabbi Benjamin to do about his missing buttons?  A fun way to learn about Jewish holidays and there are some yummy
recipes at the end of the story for parents and kids to make together.

And now for a walk down memory lane:

Everything I Need to Know About Christmas I Learned from a Little Golden Book by Diane Muldrow
Golden Books, 2014, 96 pages

A sequel to her first book Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book,
Muldrow has culled lots of Christmas wisdom from everyone's favorite childhood
Golden Book and put it together in this nostalgia piece.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle

Nate Foster, 13, is back and now, he's in a Broadway show.  As you may or may not remember, in Better Nate Than Ever, Nate from Jankburg PA took a Greyhound bus to New York City one night, unbeknownst to his parents, and auditioned for a part in E.T., the Musical.  Well, everything that could go wrong did go wrong but in the end Nate manages to land himself an small part playing Alien #7, but he's also the understudy for the part of ET.  Now,  he's living in Queens with his Aunt Heidi and the two are commuting on the #7 subway to rehearsals everyday.

When Five, Six, Seven, Nate! begins, it is only 5 weeks to the first preview of E.T., the Musical.  Right off the bat, on the first day of rehearsals, Nate realizes he is not quite the polished, professionally trained actor his fellow cast-mates are and it doesn't help that the director, a former video game director, keeps calling him Jake.

Or that his hometown rival, Jordan Rylance who plays Elliot, snarkily grunts at him…And this is also when Nate discovers that he is actually the understudy's understudy for the role of E.T.

Not only that, but as rehearsals get underway, it also becomes clear that some of the complicated dance moves are a little much for short, somewhat pudgy Nate, who must now come in ever earlier for extra sessions with the play's choreographer.

But as rehersals continue, and the part of Alien #7 is cut more and more, Nate begins makes friends with most of the other kids, even going to lunch with them (something that never happened back home).  Then, he overhears a conversation from a bathroom stall that begins to put a crack in the perfect picture Nate had always imagined was Jordan Rylance's life.  But, soon Nate even discovers he has a secret admirer who keeps leaving little things for him, and who he decides is Genna, the girl playing Gertie.  Let's just say, Nate is in for a big surprise here.

But his best on-set friend ends up being Ascella, a very short, very outspoken older woman with whom Nate shares mani/pedis in return for reading lines with her, which results in Nate pretty much memorizing the entire play.

But, throughout rehearsals, with all kinds of problems cropping up, the Broadway buzz is that E.T, the Musical is in jeopardy of never happening.  Will circumstances beyond Nate's control bring his dream to a crashing end?

Meanwhile, his best-back-in-Jankburg friend and coach Libby is still taking care of her mother, who has been battling cancer for quite a while.  Now, with Nate in NYC involved in their shared dream of a Broadway show, Libby seems to be drifting away from Nate.  Could that really be possible, after all they've been through together?

I loved Better Nate Than Ever! and was really looking forward to the sequel.  And Five, Six, Seven, Nate! doesn't disappoint.  Nate is still the same somewhat clumsy, insecure, witty kid he was in the first novel.  He is even still substituting Broadway flops for curse words, though not as much as in the first book.

If Better Nate Than Ever! and Five, Six, Seven, Nate! were real Broadway shows, I would give Tim Federle a standing ovation.  First, I love going to the theater, but really don't know much about the behind the scenes life of a play.  The casting, the rehearsal, the artistic clashes, the EGOS, none of that is seen onstage, so Federle has given his readers a little inside look at how things happen.  Sure, there are exaggerations for the sake of humor/drama, but, I am told, he isn't too far off the mark.

Second, Federle gives us a less than perfect protagonist, someone that readers, even if they couldn't care less about the theater,  can identify with and root for.  Nate is short, a little overweight, not a professionally trained child actor, a theater geek who was bullied for it in Jankburg, but a loyal friend who finds a sort of home on Broadway and begins to come into his own.

But the two things that are addressed somewhat in both Nate novels are the parents lack of interest in their son and Nate's sexual identity.  Nate's parents just are not there for him.  When he calls his mom's flower shop to send flowers to Libby, his father makes him pay for them out of his first paycheck.  And, as Nate points out, his father may never miss one of his brother's sporting events, but neither of Nate's parents are there for opening night.  Sadly, I remember from my classroom teaching days that there are kids with parents who are just as disinterested or too busy with other things to be involved in the lives of their children.

In Better Nate Than Ever!, Federle introduced Nate beginning to think about his sexuality.  The implication is the Nate is probably gay.  Nate's sexuality is explored more in this novel, but it is done very very much the way things are at 13 - more crushy than anything.  Kids who are thinking they may be gay will relate to some of what happens, kids who are thinking they are straight, will surprisingly find they can also relate to some of it.  In other words, a crush is a crush and Federle handles it beautifully.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was a review copy from the publisher

Monday, October 6, 2014

My Name is Blessing and Hope Springs both by Eric Walters, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

 My Name is Blessing is the story of Muthini, a young Kenyan boy living with his grandmother and her eight other grandchildren.  And, though they are poor and often hungry, there is a lot of love in Muthini's home.

The youngest of the cousins, Muthini had been born with no fingers on his left hand and only two on his right hand, and so his mother had given him a name that meant suffering.

One day, his grandmother took Muthini on a long walk to a place where he could hear children laughing and playing behind a gate.  Inside were happy, healthy, well-dressed children, boys and girls.  Muthini became self-conscious of his tattered clothing, his bare feet and his hands.

Here was a home for kids, and although it was very painful for his grandmother to do so, she asked if there might be a place for Muthini, she was just too old and poor to give him much now.  Gabriel, whose home it was, welcomed them, and asked to see Muthini's hands.  Then he told there there was no place in his home, "not as Muthini, not as suffering, but as Baraka, as a blessing" there is definitely a place.

Which pleased his grandmother, who had always seen Muthini as a blessing anyway and she can visit him as often as possible.

This is a simple, straightforward story,  There is not one indication in the portrayal of the grandmother that giving up her youngest grandchild isn't one of the most painful decisions she has ever had to make, but loving him like she does, she knows it is for the best.  Her resources are so severely limited.

But this is also a story about hope and the future, and about how a disability and the child's shameful attitude towards it can be changed under the right circumstances.  Muthini had always hidden his hands out of habit, but the idea that this will be different in the future, is quite clear.

The wonderful expressive illustrations by artist Eugenie Fernandes are done in a earth-tone palette of acrylics, with soft yellows, blues, browns and greens throughout, evocative of the African Savannah, where Kenya is located.   Fernandes also captures the full range of feelings and emotions experienced by Muthini, his grandmother and Gabriel.

There are five pages of back matter about the real Baraka and his grandmother, giving information about which tribe they belong to, the conditions of their home and what life is like for the children who come to live the home (called Creation of Hope) founded with the purpose of creating a better future for the children Mbooni region of Kenya (where Baraka comes from).  The home/school that is the Creation of Hope is a project that author Eric Walters is very involved in (you can find out more by clicking the link).

In Hope Springs, returns to Kenya to tell the story of Boniface.  Boniface live in an orphanage with many other children, and each child has certain chores to do everyday.  Boniface's chore to to go down the mountain with other children and collect water in containers at a little spring some distance away.

But there has been a drought in Kenya and the other people at the spring don't want to share the water with the orphanage, tossing their water containers aside.

Luckily, a well was being dug for the orphanage, but sadly, it was taking a long time.  Each day after school, Boniface raced over to see how the well was coming along.  Finally, one day, the well was deep enough and water starts gushing into it.  The orphanage would at last have all the water they needed.

But Boniface wasn't satisfied.  He went to the orphanage's houseparents, Henry and Ruth, and asked if it would be possible to dig another well by the little spring with the leftover materials.  And so with everyone helping, a second well was dug, providing enough water for the very same people that had refused to share with Boniface.

Both Walters and Fernandes return to the successful format of their book, My Name is Blessing in this wonderful story of kindness, sharing and community.  Boniface lives also lives in a Creation of Hope orphanage similar to the one Muthini was taken to by his grandmother.  Like Muthini's story, Hope Springs is also based on a true story.

Walters manages to tell the story of the wells in an entertaining way.  It is a feat of good writing to be able to tell a story in an entertaining manner while, at the same time, educating the reader about the importance of water where is it scarce and showing how an act of kindness can change a community's life and attitude without sounding preachy or making it didactic.

Fernandes returns to her earth-tone palette of browns, blues, greens and yellows in her lovely acrylic illustrations.

At the back of the Hope Springs, are a number of pages about the real Boniface, the problem of drought and the lack of water in Kenya and the work being done to help alleviate this situation.

Hope Springs and My Name is Blessing are excellent companion books and make thoughtful, inspiring read alouds, though given the subject matter they are really picture books for older readers.

Eric Walters has written over 92 books, including novels for kids of all ages and topics, yet he still finds  time to remain active in the Creation of Hope project.

My Name is Blessing and Hope Springs are recommended for readers age 7+
My Name is Blessing was borrowed from the NYPL
Hope Springs was an EARC received from NetGalley

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Saturday Roundup #1: Other Books I Read, Rated But Didn't Review This Week

I read a lot of books each week for this blog, for my other blog The Children's War, which specialized in books written for kids and teens about World War II and for a book committee I am on, so I thought I would share some of the books I read and rated, but haven't reviewed here on Saturdays.

This week's books are

Penguin and Pumpkin by Salina Yoon
A book about fall, but too complicated for the young readers it is meant for.

Frederick by Leo Lionni    A Step 3 Step into Reading Book
Winter is coming and all the mice are preparing for it except Frederick.
Or is he?

I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abiracmed
In this powerful graphic novel, the author recalls what life was like growing up in
Beirut during war between the Christians and the Muslims in the 1980s.

Jack by Tomie DePaola
A lovely story and somewhere on each page is a 
wonderful homage to nursery rhymes and fairy tales.
See how many you can find!