Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Imagine your mom coming home one day with a snarky 13 year old boy in tow that turns out to be your grandfather.  Well, that is just what happens to 11-going-on12 year old Ellie Cruz, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time.  Her parents are divorced, albeit amicably.  She misses 5th grade and is facing 6th grade without her best friend Brianna, who has discover volleyball and now hangs out the other girls on the team.  And she misses her miracle goldfish that has finally died after 7 years, the fish that was supposed to teach her about the cycle of life.  Now, she finds out that her mother has simple replaced her goldfish with another each time it died - 13 goldfish in all.

The last thing Ellie needs right now is a 13 year old grandfather, but that is what she gets.  It seems grandpa, Dr. Melvin  Sagarsky, 76 and with 2 PhDs to his credit, has discovered the secret to reverse aging thanks to a rare jellyfish.  Now he is stuck in middle school with Ellie and is being forced to read The Catcher in the Rye ("All this Holden kid does is whine.  He should just get a job").

So imagine how Dr. 2PhDs middle schooler Melvin Sagarsky feels when a goth kid named Raj calls him a quack while riding the school bus.  It seems that, despite his many published articles, grandpa's lifetime of research trying to find the secret to the fountain of youth isn't widely admired by the rest of the scientific community, even if he does have a fan club in Finland.

Now imagine Ellie's surprise when Raj, who, it turns out, is very much into science, shows up at her house, newly hired as Melvin's lab assistant.  Their goal: to break into the lab where Melvin used to work and steal the rare jellyfish that helped him reverse the aging process.  Natually, Ellie wants in.

Sounds easy enough, right?  Wrong!

You've probably already figured out that this book is pretty funny.  And it is, but at its heart is a rather serious question - what happens if Melvin's discovery works out and people stop aging, what does that do to the cycle of life?

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a character/action driven coming of age novel fueled by science and I really enjoyed reading it.  I liked watching Ellie grow and change, and seeing how she coped with everything going on around her.   It was particularly nice to read about a girl who learns a lot about science and the for-better-or-worse life-changing work of people like Galileo, Issac Newton, Robert Oppenheimer and Jonas Salk from her grandfather.  It's through her many conversations with Melvin that Ellie discovers she also has a real interest in science.  And a real interest in the ethical questions scientific discoveries can generate.  Oddly enough, despite regressing to a snarky 13 year old while still remaining as curmudgeony as ever, even Melvin grows as a character for the same reasons.

It was also nice to read a book that has parents that get along after divorce and a father who is still welcomed in his daughter's home.  And it was nice to see an ex-husband who got along with his wife's new, serious boyfriend.  Perhaps that is why Ellie was able to handle her own age appropriate problems so well.  For example, she and Brianna may have drifted into different interests, but they remained friends.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a fun, quirky easy to read novel about life, friendship, science and possibility.  Definitely not a novel to miss.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-ARC received from NetGalley

Monday, August 25, 2014

Catching Up


I haven't been around much for the last two weeks because I was in San Francisco visiting my Kiddo.  I stayed in a lovely and relatively inexpensive AirBandB in the Berkeley Hills, which was really great.  We traveled all around San Francisco, up to Napa and down to Carmel and Monterey.  In Carmel, we visited the old Mission there and on the door was this sign:


And I thought to myself what are the chances of that happening.  Apparently, the chances were great.  That night, which was my last night, I was staying in a hotel and when I woke up in the middle of the night because my bed was shaking, I knew that shaking meant earthquake!  Time to go home!

But my visit was fun and I loved Northern California.


While I was there, I told my Kiddo about the upcoming KidLitCon 2014 that will take place in Sacramento, CA October 10-11, 2014.  I can't go because I already spent my travel budget, but if you can make it, it looks to be a wonderful conference.  This year, attendees will be considering what we as book bloggers can do "to make a meaningful difference in increasing diversity in children's and young adult literature."

When I told my Kiddo that Zetta Elliott was going to be there, she was pretty excited.  She knows Elliott from her student days at Bard High School Early College and Mount Holyoke College, where she took Elliott's classes.  But all the guest speakers are well known and loved favorites -  Mitali Perkins will be the keynote speaker, and Shannon Hale, Mike Jung, Ian Lendler, Stephanie Kuehn, Karen Sandler, and Jewell Parker Rhodes, all authors I would love to meet.

You have until September 19, 2014 to register and can find everything you need to know plus a registration form HERE

But, wait! There's more:
It is Cybils time again and the call for judges has begun.  I was a 2nd round Middle Grade Fiction judge last year (and hope to be again this year) and I loved it.  If you would like to participate, you can find all the information you need HERE

I always love seeing my Kiddo, but now it is time to get back to the business of reading (and she'll be home for Christmas).



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

To be honest, the two most exciting things about BEA 2014 for me was meeting Jacqueline Woodson and Andrea Davis Pinkney and it a typical twist of fate, both authors were doing book signing at the same time.  What to do?  Get to the first signing early, even skipping two signings (one was favorite actor Alan Cumming) I would have liked to go to, then whip over to the second signing before it ended.  So I went home that day with two cherished ARCs - Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacueline Woodson and The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.

So, now I have finished reading Brown Girl Dreaming.  Was worth all that crowd-pushing, line-standing, time-finagling?  YES, YES AND YES.

Written in free verse, Woodson shares the people and events in her childhood during the 1960s and 1970s which helped to shape her as a person and as a writer.  Beginning with her birth in Ohio, where her father's family, the Woodsons, lived, she was the youngest of three children, a sister and brother.  Jacqueline, named for her father Jack,  was still young when her mother left her father, and returned to her home and family South Carolina.  Leaving the children with her parents, she went off to New York to try to establish herself and bring her children up there.

In the south, Jackie, her sister Dell and brother Hope experience the best of family and friends.  The children became Jehovah's Witnesses like their grandmother, but, for Jackie, it was her grandfather Gunnar Irby who was her favorite.  But in the south, she also experiences signs that say "Whites Only" and even after things changed, her grandmother refuses to sit in the front of the bus, but also refuses to shop in stores where people made her wait and wait to be helped.

Later, her mother came to get her three children to bring them to their new home to Brooklyn and to meet their new baby brother, Roman.  Living in Bushwick, attending PS 106, the teachers immediately  recognize that Dell is gifted, Hope loves science, Woodson writes her name on the board as Jackie, avoiding the q that gave her trouble.  And she finds a best friend Maria, whose mother makes the best chicken and rice.  Brooklyn in this time frame is so familiar to me, that reading most of this memoir is like going home.  I laughed out loud when I got to the poem called "John's Bargain Store."  Woodson and her friend bought 3 t-shirts, blue, yellow and pink, to dress alike (My best friend and I bought .29 cent silver friendship rings at John's Bargain Store on Flatbush Avenue, and I still have mine).

Woodson doesn't skirt issues that others might want to avoid.  She grew up in pivotal times for the country, and in places where she experienced change first hand, but also the kind of passive-aggressive racism that exists even today.   But she also writes about more personal issues - her beloved Uncle Robert, his arrest and visiting him in an upstate prison; baby brother Roman's addiction to eating lead based paint and his hospitalization, the painful death of her grandfather - it's all there.

And slowly, through it all, we see the writer Jacqueling Woodson develop, beginning with a love of words and what they could do, hinting at the person she will and has become.

When I finished reading Brown Girl Dreaming, I thought about it for a few minutes, turned to the front of the book and began reading it again.  The images that each of the poems conjure up are at times beautiful, sad, funny, poignant and at time difficult and honest, but all are beautifully rendered.  In the hands of a great wordsmith like Woodson, the sparseness of free verse can create an image that this so full-bodied, in part because it allows you to carry your own experienced/memories to what you are reading and become a part of the poem.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a book not to be missed.  A good companion to it would be Rita Williams-Garcia's books One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven, which both take place in late 1960s and 1970s.

Brown Girl Dreaming will be available on August 28, 2013, exactly 51 years years after Martin Luther King, Jr gave his "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom…something to really think about.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an E-ARC

Thursday, August 14, 2014

El Deafo by Cece Bell

When Cece is about 4 years old, doing all the fun, ordinary things kids do, she suddenly begins to feel sick.  She is diagnosed with meningitis, and must stay in the hospital while she recovers.  But then Cece begins to notice that something has changed - she isn't hearing people as well as she did before getting sick.  Then, one day, her hearing is gone.

Young Cece goes through lots of hearing tests (remember those?), and is finally fitted with a device called a Phonic Ear, a large, cumbersome receiver that must be worn around the neck, with cords that go into the ear.  Soon, it's time for Cece to begin Kindergarten, but not with the other kids.  Instead, she is sent to a school where everyone is like her and where she begins to learn regular Kindergarten stuff as well as lip reading and how to begin to navigate the world as a person with hearing loss.

The next year, Cece begins 1st grade in a regular school.  There, her teachers must wear a microphone to help Cece hear what they are saying, but, wonder of wonder, it picks up everything the teacher says and does all over the school.  The makings of the future El Deafo. Cece's superhero alter ego, have been born.

But as the reader follows Cece through elementary school, the difficulties that come with being a deaf person become clearer and clearer.  There are girls who manage to break through the bubble of isolation Cece feels, but they are kids who don't always understand that turning the volume up on the radio up doesn't help Cece hear if she can see the singers lips. There is the insensitive PE teacher who never takes into consideration that not being a good kickball player may be because Cece can't hear what people are saying to her, since she read lips and can't see them.

Life is hard, but Cece can be a bit of a brat when she wants to be, as well.  When her mother tries to get her to learn sign language, she refuses to participate in the class they take together.  She rejects signing because she is afraid it will make people stare at her, and make her feeler even weirder than she already does.  In the end, she manages to cut off her nose to spite her face.

All Cece AKA El Deafo really wants is a sidekick/best friend who just accepts her and likes her for who she is, and not what she is.  But just when she finds that friend, she loses her.  Will she ever get her sidekick/best friend.

Although this is a graphic novel, Cece Bell has more or less drawn on her own life and experience as a deaf child in a hearing world to create El Deafo.  Using humor and a light touch, Bell shows the reader the kinds of humiliation and indignities experienced by people with disabilities by both insensitive and well-meaning people.  But we also see how Cece used her imagination to cope with situations that were particularly stressful and which were probably the beginnings of her career as a writer/illustrator.

Bell has very poignantly and palpably portrayed the feelings isolation and self consciousness that she must have felt through her fictional character Cece.  Being a kid is hard enough, but being a kid with something that sets you apart can sometimes feel almost unbearable.

But before you think this graphic novel is going to be a real downer, it isn't.  It is about a girl who often uses honesty to narrate her story and shows a remarkable amount of resilience and yes, the book ends on a real note of hope.  This is now one of my favorite graphic novels and I only read the black and white ARC, I can't wait to see the full color edition, which was colored by David Lasky
From my ARC - (L) Cece with her Phonic Ear and (R) with her sidekick/friend
This is not your ordinary superhero graphic novel, but it is surely one of the best for all readers, young and old.

El Deafo will be available on September 2, 2014.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book is an ARC from the publisher

Monday, August 11, 2014

It's Monday! What are you reading? #10

It's Monday! What are you reading? is the original weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.  It's Monday! What are you reading? - from Picture Books to YA is a kidlit focused meme just like the original and is hosted weekly by Teach Mentor Texts.  The purpose is the same: to recap what you have read and/or reviewed and to plan out your reading and reviews for the upcoming week.

Last week, I read:

1- The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy - the ups and downs of a family through one school year.  The is a 5-star middle grade novel, not to be missed.

2- The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy - the adventures of Margaret Hubble, 12, as she begins Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches.  An old favorite from 1974 that's being reissued, also for middle grade readers.

3- El Deafo by Cece Bell - the story of a girl who loses her hearing at the age of 4, it is a graphic novel for middle school readers based on the author's actual experiences.

4- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.  In this autobiography told in a series of free verse poems the author tells about growing up in the 1960s and 1970s as an African American living in South Carolina and Brooklyn.

I also read:

1- The Winter Hoses by Philip Kerr - a 15 year old Jewish girl in the Ukraine tries to save the only two horses of a rare breed from being killed by the Nazis, exciting and suspenseful.

2- The Light in the Cellar by Sarah Masters Buckey - an American Girl mystery from 1944.  Molly and her friends try to solve the mystery of who is stealing the precious, rationed sugar from the Red Cross and other places.  Well-researched back matter tells what life was like for kids in 1944.  
3- Christmas Truce by Arron Shepard - tells what really happened during the WW I Christmas Truce of 1914 in a fictional letter from a soldier to his sister, based on actual letters and other documents.

This week, I am going to have much chance to read because I am getting ready to go on vacation to San Francisco, but I am hoping to read the following:




That's my reading week, what are you reading?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Mildred Hubble, 12, is a first year student at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches.  Though well-meaning and well liked by most of the other girls, Mildred always seems to be in trouble for something: "You could rely on Mildred to have her hat on back-to-front, or her bootlaces trailing along the floor.  She couldn't walk from one end of the corridor to the other without someone yelling at her, and nearly every night, she was writing lines or being kept in…(pg 3)  Mildred does have a best friend, Maud Moonshine, and a class enemy, Ethel Hallow.

This first book in the series begins with a very important event at Miss Cackle's Academy.  All the girls are about to receive their black kittens, an exciting tradition for first year students, and the girls are expected to train their kittens to sit on their broomsticks.  Mildred is the last to receive her kitten, but by then they have run out of black kitties and she receives a tabby instead.  

Naturally, Tabby is hard to train and Miss Hardbroom gives Mildred a hard time about it.  Ethel, overhearing this, can't resist saying something to Mildred, who gets mad and turns Ethel into a pig.  Turned back to a girl by Miss Hardbroom, Ethel tells Mildred she will be sorry for what she did.

Sure enough, a Halloween program is planned and Mildred's class is to present a program showing what they can do with their broomsticks.  But the day before Halloween, Miss Hardbroom notices that Mildred's broom is held together by scotch tape and tells Ethel to lend her her spare broom.  Ethel willingly does this, but not before she puts a spell on the broom.

The presentation is ruined by Mildred's wonky broom and Miss Cackle is beside herself.  That night, Mildred decides to take Tabby and run away.  She doesn't get far before she runs into a group of witches in the forest surround the school, and one of whom looks just like Miss Cackle.  Keeping out of sight, Mildred hears their plan to take over Miss Cackle's Academy.  

Mildred can't let that happen, but what to do?  Everyone is still so mad at her.
   
I first became aware of Mildred and Miss Cackle's Academy when my Kiddo was young.  The British TV show was one of our cable stations and my Kiddo was hooked immediately.  So, we found some second hand copies of the books and she read (devoured) them all.  The TV show pretty much stuck to the stories in the books, which for a young reader is nice.

The Worst Witch is being reprinted now, forty years after it first appeared in 1974 and I was curious to read it again, to see if it still holds up in the age of Harry Potter.  And, I am pleased to say it does.  It's also a British book, but aside from Miss Hardbroom being a form teacher, I don't think anything in the book will be confusing to American readers.  I am also happy to say that the original black and white illustrations done by author Jill Murphy that occur throughout the book, have been included, adding to the readers enjoyment of the story 

What is nice about The Worst Witch is that Mildred's woes are not so terrible, there is no dark lord to scare young readers, she is and remains just a nice girl and she always manages to unwittingly save the day.

The Worst Witch series are wonderfully fun chapter books for girls (I don't think boys would really be interested in it) who are chomping on the bit to read Harry Potter but are just not ready for it for whatever reason.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was an E-ARC received from NetGalley

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

In her Goodreads "review" of her book, Dana Levy wrote: "I'll be honest…I'm a sucker for 'comfort food' books." I'll be honest, so am I and The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is a top notch comfort food book…and it's fun, too.

Meet the Fletchers - one dad, one papa, 4 sons, all adopted.  Sam is 12 and a star soccer player, champion eater, and nice guy.  Next comes Jax, 10,  African American, and about to begin 4th grade without his brother Eli, also 10 (no, they aren't twins) and who is starting a new school for gifted children.  And lastly, Frog, 6, (not his real name), adopted from India and ready to start kindergarten with his invisible cheetah, Flare.   Into this mix comes favorite Aunt Lucy, who bakes cupcakes for a living, and one very grouchy new neighbor, Mr. Nelson, who doesn't appreciate anything about the Fletchers (mixed races, mixed religions, two dads doesn't seem to faze him in the least, however, unlike soccer balls in his rose bushes, or skunks on his porch).

The book runs from the beginning of one school year to the beginning of the next one, and the chapters are almost like a series of vignettes.  At the beginning of each, there is a note from one family member to another which serves the purpose of moving time along, setting up the action to follow and providing information without a lot of explanation.

Each son has to deal with his own set of difficulties throughout the year which takes them way out of their comfort zones.  Sam lives and breathes soccer until tryouts for the school play are held and he gets bitten by the acting bug.  And his friends are not exactly supportive.

Jax has an assignment to interview a veteran and Mr. Nelson seems like the best choice, except he wants no part of the Fletchers.

Eli begged to go to the Pinnacle School where every kid is the smart kid, and though he likes the work, he can't stand everything else about it.

Frog and imaginary cheetah Flare love kindergarten, and they've made a new friend named Ladybug Li who has three sisters and two moms - but the question is are they real or imagined?

Everyone I know who has read Dana Levy's The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher agrees that the beginning is a little slow, but if you keep going, you will find yourself engrossed with this charming family.  There is really no big drama here, just everyday family life and the challenges and rewards it brings.  And there is lots of humor, love and support.  Interestingly enough, the diversity of the family isn't really an issue in the story.  No one is shocked, dismayed, angry, or judgmental that the family is headed by two men, or that the children come from different ethnicities.

Perhaps it is because the Fletchers are, simply, an American family, not so very different from the one I grew up in, just more diverse.

If you want to spend a most delightful school year, do read The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher then pass it on to your middle grade kids to read.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was obtained from the publisher

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a weekly event hosted by Shannon Messenger at Book Ramblings, and Plenty of Shenanigans