Sunday, July 27, 2014

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

For Nate Foster, 13, and his best friend Libby, musical theater is everything.  So naturally, when they learn that there is an open casting call for a new Broadway musical, and that auditions are to be held on a weekend, Nathan is elated.  Who better to play Elliot in E.T. the Musical?  The only trouble is the Nate lives in western Jankburg, PA and Broadway is in NYC.

Nate and Libby put their heads together and soon hatch a plan.  Nate will take the Greyhound bus to NYC, go to the audition, snag the role of Elliot, then hop back on the bus to Jankburg so he can be home before anyone notices he's gone.  And conditions could be more ideal. Nate's parents are away for the weekend, trying to spark the dying ember of their almost dead marriage and Nate's been left in the hands of totally disinterested, "girl addicted" brother Anthony, 16, who wants him to spend the night at Libby's.

Armed with old unreliable Nokia cell phone, his mother's ATM card, and Libby's support, Nate gets on the Greyhound bus to NYC.  Easy peasy!  After all, he and Libby have rehearsed everything over and over should something go wrong.

And lots of things do go wrong, but Nate perseveres.  The bus ride could have gone better, but once Nate arrives in Manhattan, he is in love with the city despite the sudden rain storm; the guy who sells him some ill-fitting hip hop clothes so he can be dry for his audition; being told he needs a guardian if he is under 18 in order to audition; and running into Jordan Rylance, who went to the Performing Arts School in Pittsburgh with Libby; and a few more obstacles, setbacks and surprises.

And just when it feels like Nate and Libby's plan is for sure going downhill, along comes the family black sheep, Aunt Heidi, to send Nate back to Jankburg on the bus.  Maybe.

Better Nate Than Ever is narrated by Nate and he is a really wonderful, unique character.  He's a hale and hearty kid who has a dream and he's going to go for it, no matter what.  His voice is realistic, though sometimes he sounds a little older than 13.  But, Nate is shorter than most 13 year olds, has been bullied by kids at school and at home by Anthony, who calls him some not very nice homophobic names (and Nate tells us firmly that his sexuality is still undecided), and even his parents want him to be more like his jock brother and less like who he is.  These kinds of things can force a kid to grow up fast and, though, Nate relates all of this with some very tongue-in-cheek humor, but the reader knows these are serious issues for him, and no doubt, for many of them as well.

Tim Federle, no stranger to Broadway musicals and auditions, has produced a well written, realistic story, though not without a few zany moments and people.  Besides tackling some serious topics in Better Nate Than Ever, he also gives the reader a little behind the scenes look at what goes on in auditions, where everyone is talented and where stage mothers and their children are desperate to become the next big star, or at least get a foot in the stage door.  But books about musical theater can be a hard sell to middle grade boys, and I wonder if there was enough to pull them in.  I hope so.

When I was in college, I moved into an East Village 4th floor walk-up.  I was the only person in the building not in show business and the only native New Yorker, who has always loved going to the theater.  But, during my college years, I watched friends go on audition after audition and I have to admit, I could never do, but I really have to admire them and all actors for their guts and persistence.  My experience made reading about Nate really extra special for me.

GOOD NEWS: If you loved Better Nate Than Ever, you probably already know or have read the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

I really loved how Nate and Libby substituted curse words with failed Broadway shows.  So, Holy Cats ("Cats technically wasn't a flog, but Libby says it was, artistically…" pg 74) and Heavens to Carrie,  Nate really wants to go to the Applebee's he sees by Port Authority Bus Terminal and 42nd Street, a little bit of home, I guess.  But if you come to NYC, skip the Applebee's and head over to Joe Allen's for a signature burger and a look at the walls, which are decorated with posters from failed Broadway plays.  Think of all the new 'curse' words you could learn.


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


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Dimple Lala has just turned 17 and suddenly she finds herself in the midst of an identity crisis.   Both of her parents and, in fact, all of her relatives were born in India.  Her parents were the only ones who migrated to the United States, to Springfield, New Jersey, where Dimple was born.

A talented photographer, Dimple has always hidden herself behind the lens of her camera, and she has always been content to take a backseat to her blond-haired, blue-eyed, very flamboyant best friend Gwyn.  Both have always felt like outsiders - Dimple because she has always felt "not quite Indian, and not quite American." Gwyn because she is a rich girl with an alcoholic mother who's never home, and a father who left years before.

But, now Dimple's parents have arranged for her to meet a 'suitable Indian boy,' and naturally, she can't help but feel resistant.  Karsh Kapoor may be good looking, but Dimple refuses to have an interest in him.  After all, he is the son of her mother's best friend from India, a college boy going to NYU, studying to be a computer engineer, and, Dimple is pretty certain, a real nerd.

But Dimple has a lot to learn about being Indian and her cousin Kavita is just the person to begin her education.  On a visit for Dimple's birthday, she tells her all about the South Asian scene at NYU, in which she and Karsh are both active. And Kavita gives Dimple a way to define herself as an ABCD - American Born Confused Desi (Hindu for a person from South Asia).  Suddenly, knowing that there are other people out there who feel as she does about who gives Dimple a whole new perspective on things.

But when Dimple runs into Karsh at a club one night, she suddenly sees him in a different light.  Unfortunately, Gwyn also seems to sees him differently then the description that Dimple had given her, and Gwyn is on the rebound from a very public, very humiliating break up and has no inhibitions about revealing to Karsh what Dimple had said about him.  Which means that Gwyn now feels completely entitled to throw herself at him.

Suddenly, both girls have an real interest in Indian culture and traditions.  Or maybe it's a real interest in impressing Karsh with their South Asian knowledge - just as soon as they acquire some.  Unaware that Dimple's feeling about Karsh have changed, Gwyn asks her to help her win over Karsh, even going to far as to borrow the new Indian clothing Dimple had just received for her birthday.

Will Dimple be willing to continue to take a back seat to Gwyn yet again?

Born Confused lays claim to the fact that it is "the first ever South Asian American coming of age novel" and I loved it - every word on all its 500+ pages.  Tanuja Desai Hidier has a way with words that not only brings her characters to life, but can tingle all your senses - don't skip the descriptions, skimmers.  But coming of age is a journey and Dimple takes us along on her through her first person stream of consciousness thinking, which can be at times funny, self-deprecating, serious and very naive.

I loved the metaphorical use of the Dimple's camera.  She considers the camera lens to be her third eye, even naming it Chica Tikka.   Dimple uses it not just as a way to hide but also to express what she can't in words.  In fact, she has a lovely relationship with her grandfather, Dadaji, in India and since neither speaks the other's language, Dimple tells him about herself and her life through her camera lens.  Tellingly, in the beginning, everything in Dimple's world is shot in black and white, but at 17, she begins to experiment with color - with her photographs and her life.

Best friend Gwyn is quite a character, as well.  She has been the subject of Dimple's photographs for years, and nothing makes Dimple happier than seeing Gwyn happy, a situation that the very narcissistic Gwyn takes complete advantage of.  I wondered more than once why they were such good friends, since that outsider sense of themselves seems to be all they had in common.

Mr. and Mrs. Lala, Dimple's parents, have been drawn to perfection by Hidier, as is cousin Kavita, Karsh and everyone else who people this novel.   I did find I had to look up a few things I was sure of, mostly regarding things belonging to Indian culture and tradition, but not so much that it spoiled my enjoyment of Dimple's story.

Born Confused was originally published in 2003 and a few things may feel dated, but that does not detract from the novel at all.  And that was also a time before social media and cell phone cameras, so Dimple's SLR camera, film, and darkroom may baffle a few readers, but hopefully they will be curious enough to enlighten themselves (I personally still prefer an SLR for real photographs, a cell phone for snapshots).

Bottom line: at a time when #weneeddiversebooks, Born Confused should be on everyone's reading list.

GOOD NEWS: Tanuja Desai Hidier has written a sequel to Born Confused called Bombay Blues, continuing Dimple's search for self and home, and this time she heads to Bombay to visit family and it will be available August 26, 2014.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an E-ARC received from NetGalley

Monday, July 21, 2014

It's Monday! What are you reading? #9


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.

This week I hope to finish and review
1- Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier 



And I hope to read
1- The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy
2- The Life and Time of Benny Alvarez by Peter Johnson
3- Five, Six, Seven, Nate by Tim Federle

WOW, I just realized I have no picture books or nonfiction for the week.  I'll have to fix that!

Last week, I read and reviewed
1- Every Day is Malala Day by Rosemary McCarney



2- The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer


3- The Comic Book War by Jacqueline Guest



4- I Survived #4 I Survived the Bombing of Pearl Harbor by Lauren Tarshis



 I read but have not reviewed yet

1- Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle (which I loved)



2- The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynn Jones and Ursula Jones (which I did not love)


What are you reading this week?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Every Day is Malala Day by Rosemary McCarney

Most people around the world were stunned on October 9, 2012 when they heard the news that a young girl and her two friends were shot by the Taliban on their way to school in Pakistan.   For most of us, that was our introduction to 15 year of Malala Yousafzai.  With reports about the shooting, came information about Malala's fight for the right of all girls to be educated.

Malala and her two friends survived the shooting.  You would think a bullet in the head would put a stop to Malala, but that would be giving the Taliban just what they wanted.  Instead, this very brave young woman continued her fight for the right of all children to be educated around the world.  

Every Day is Malala Day is a beautiful tribute to Malala.  The book begins with a short introduction to her and her accomplishment.  This is followed by a letter, really a compendium of letters sent to Malala from young girls around the world, expressing their admiration, their friendship and support for her.  Malala is a girl that many of them could relate to and who champions a message that they know can impact and change their lives.

Each page has simple text paired with a detail, richly colored photographs of girls raising their hands in support ("We have never met before, but I feel like I know you"), laughing together ("And you are a friend"), girls in uniforms with their arms wrapped around each other as they go to school ("You spoke up for yourself and other girls too").  

While most of the pictures show strong smiling girls, they are contrasted with some that remind us that Malala's work isn't finished yet, that too many countries want girls uneducated and silent.  And this is accomplished through early marriage, maintaining poverty, discriminating against girls and of course, the kind of violence that didn't work with Malala.

The book ends with excerpts from Malala's speech given at the United Nations on July 12, 2013, her 16th birthday.

The beauty of this book is that Malala was really an ordinary girl who decided to stand up for what she believed in and didn't let anything stop her, not even a Taliban's bullet.  She is truly an inspiration to girls everywhere of what they can accomplish through education and determination - which is exactly what her message is.  As she told the UN and the world:
"One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world."
Every Day is Malala Day is done with the same beauty, eloquence and simplicity that Malala exemplifies and it is a book is would recommend to everyone.

Profits from the sale of this book go to Plan Canada, which works to end gender inequality and promote girls' rights around the world through their Because I am a Girl Fund.

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was borrowed from a friend

Watch the video that inspired the book:



This is book 6 of my 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy


Monday, July 14, 2014

The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer

Grace and her mother are nomads, moving from place to place all over California every few months, but now Grace is sure they have found a much desired permanent home.renting a small house from Mrs. Green.  Grace and Lacey Green have even become best friends.  So when her mother started showing signs of restlessness, Grace refused to move.  Then the unthinkable happened - Grace's mother accidentally drowned in the river.

Now Grace, 12, must live with her estranged grandmother, a woman she only knows one thing about - she had put her mother on a bus to Texas when she discovered her 17 year old daughter was pregnant with Grace.

At her mother's funeral, grandma seems to be the cold-hearted, uncaring person Grace always imagined she was.  Grace refused to live in the house with her, choosing to live in an old shed instead.  But Grace has a plan to sabotage her grandmother's life as much as possible and one that she is pretty sure will get her sent back to live with Mrs. Green and Lacey.  Even after grandma hands her brand new clothes and a new pair of Chucks, Grace refuses to have anything to do with her.  On the other hand, tracking mud through the house, removing all the light bulbs in the house and replacing the clothes detergent with dish washing soap doesn't elicit the reaction Grace had hoped from a disgusted, raging grandma ready to get rid of another child.

And then Grace discovers an origami crane and she is convinced her mother is reaching out from the grave to guide Grace to where she wants her to live now.  After all, her mother had always used origami cranes as part of the treasure hunts she devised for Grace each time they moved to help her get accustomed to her new home.  All Grace has to do is find all the clues her mother was sending.

But slowly Grace begins to settle in, starting school and even making new friends.  Could this possibly be the permanent home she has always craved?  But what about grandma?  Can she trust grandma not to send her away like she did her mother?   Well, sometimes, thing just aren't what they seem to be.

I have to confess, it took me two tries to get into The Secret Hum of a Daisy.  I found the beginning a little slow going, perhaps the idea of beginning a novel with a funeral wasn't appealing to me.  But once I past it, I couldn't put Grace's story down.   For the most part, the writing is beautiful - emotional and lyrical yet straightforward.  The characters are nicely developed, and as you get to know them better, Grace and grandma both begin to feel very engaging and quite full-bodied.  The setting is perfect, a very small, somewhat rural town in northern California where everyone knows everyone else, and most people knew Grace's mother and even her dad in a way that doesn't happen in big cities.

This is a coming of age novel where readers really see the transformation of Grace unfold slowly and gently, as she narrated her story (it is a first person narration).  I was a young when my dad passed away and so I could understand Grace's magical thinking when she first discovers the origami crane, since cranes played an important part in her mother's life., and convinces herself it is a sign from her mother.

All that being said, I did have some problems.  First, while Grace's mother seems somewhat selfish, not considering what her growing child needed, only what she herself wanted.  She had grown up in a stable, happy home up until she was sent to Texas, and while that may have traumatized her, it wasn't enough for me to understand the need to keep moving.  Perhaps she was haunted by her own demons, but I didn't get a sense of that, mostly because we don't find out the whole story until almost the end of the book.

There are two main themes in The Secret Hum of a Daisy.  First, there is the theme of loss.  Grace loses her mother accidentally, but even before that, she has already lost the family she never knew, the life she could have had and wanted because of her mother's wandering life.  And each move involves its own kind of loss.  But the loss theme keeps coming up.  I could handle a few origami cranes being found - maybe some kid could have made and gave them to different people around town, but instead cancer and the story of Saduko are introduced and as is a sick horse.  I felt it was too much and really interrupted the flow of Grace's own narrative about loss.

The second theme is about forgiveness.  I am a big believer in forgiveness, so naturally I kept wondering how many hoops the grandma was going to have to jump through before Grace realized she wasn't the person she had been years ago.  However, I did think it was a real positive that the grandma owned up to her mistake and took responsibility for her.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy appears to be a debut novel for author Tracy Holczer.  I thought that she has a definite writing style that is just the stuff of great middle grade stories and she can cast an image with words in a way that is enviable (much like her young protagonist does with her poetry).   When you read the book, you will see what I mean.  I think a little editing and this could have been a 5 star novel for me. And I am really looking forward to reading her next book.

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

There is an excellent Curriculum Guide for teachers to use with this book available HERE

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzley Bears in America's Own Backyard by Mary Kay Carson, photographs by Tom Uhlman

If you have ever visited one of America's national parks, you know how beautiful they truly are.  But did you know that they are also, as Mary Kay Carson writes, natural laboratories and living museums, places where you can find all sorts of interesting and unique animals, plants and other wonders of nature?

In her new book, Park Scientists, Mary Kay Carson introduces us to three very different national parks, and to the work that scientists and researcher carry on in them all year long to make sure they continue to be healthy places to visit.  Scientists study the ecosystem particular to each park, as well as measuring temperatures, tracking populations of animals and plants and devising ways to care for them, when they are sick or simply to keep them healthy.

First up is Yellowstone National Park, so large, it takes up land in three states - Montana, Wyoming and  Idaho.  Carson explains how Yellowstone's famous geysers happen, why they erupt to faithfully (hence the name of the most famous geyser in the park - Old Faithful) and why scientists study them and monitor their temperatures so closely.

Yellowstone is also home to the famous and scary grizzly bear.  Carson explains how bear scientists can now track bear populations using a special GPS collar.  Readers will also find out why it is important to sturdy these big bears so they don't disappear because of hunger and how their enemy, the grey wolf, can both hurt and help the grizzly.

Saguaro National Forest is the second park visited.  This desert park is located in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, near Tucson, and is my personal favorite.  Scientists here study the Saguaro cacti, measuring its growth and doing a census of these desert giants.  They are especially concerned with what might cause a Saguaro to die.  To date, they believe it is a serious of freezes, but they keep studying the problem.

Also found in the desert are Gila monsters.  These are the largest lizards in the US and they have been around since the age of the dinosaur.  Though not too large, they are very powerful, so watch out for them if you see one in the desert.  They are tracked like the grizzly, wearing a specially designed GPS, so they can be monitored.

From the desert, Carson takes us to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.  Here, scientists study salamanders and fireflies, trying to determine what effect climate change may have on them.  The salamander requires a moist climate, so the question is could it adapt to a warming climate.  Carson introduces us to an evolutionary researcher, who studies the adaptation of salamanders using their DNA.

Ever wonder how a firefly lights up the night?  Carson explains it all and then tells us about what firefly researchers do.  Fireflies are difficult to protect, but they are in decline.  Researcher want to find out why.  I remember when I was growing up in NYC, there were fireflies everywhere at night, then one summer they were gone.  Temperature change?  Maybe.

Carson's text is clear and concise, and is complimented with beautiful  colorful photographs by Tom Uhlman.  His close up shots provide informative pictorial detail enhancing our appreciation of the work of the scientists and researchers.  And his more panoramic views give us a bigger picture so that we can really marvel at the beauty and difference of each park.

I hope these few interesting facts from Park Scientists about what goes on in these national parks have whet your appetite for finding out more about what science does to help protect and prolong the natural wonders that are found in each.

Park Scientists is part of the Science in the Field series and is every bit a excellent and informative as all the other books in the series.  This is a welcome addition to the library of the curious reader or the budding scientist, not to mention in classrooms and for home schooling.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

There is an in-depth 7 page discussion guide perfect for teachers that can be downloaded for free from Scribd


This is book 5 of my 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy

Monday, July 7, 2014

Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes

For Joylin Johnson, 12, there is nothing better than a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a game of one on one with Jake, or hanging out with her best friend KeeLee.  It all adds up to a good day for her.  Or at least it used to until middle school came along and everything changed.

Joylin is changing - she's growing up and not happy about the changes,  inside or outside her body.  But she continues to play basketball, making the team at school and garnering all of her basketball loving father's praise.  The problem is that leaves no praise left over for little brother Caden, a talented artist in his own right, who keeps trying to get his father's attention and a little praise for himself.

Then, one Saturday, Joylin heads over to join the boys only basketball game.  When Joylin gets the ball, she suddenly realizes the guard on the other team who's shadowing her has killer green eyes.  She loses the ball and has a fight with Jake, but finds out the boy's name is Santiago.

Suddenly, Joylin is smitten and to attract Santiago's attention, she changes herself to get him to notice her.  But heels and makeup just aren't her style and besides, Santiago still doesn't notice her.  Naturally, Jake and KeeLee are quick to point out that she really just needs to be herself.

But it takes a man texting in his car to make Joylin finally stop and reassess what are the most important things in her life.

When my Kiddo was around Joylin's age, she said to me one day "Wouldn't you love to be my age again?  It's the best!"  My answer was a flat out and resounding NO!  Once was enough.  And as the realities of tween life began to make themselves felt, she told me she could totally understand why I said no.

I had forgotten about his conversation until I started reading Nikki Grimes's Planet Middle School.  Grimes has managed to capture exactly what the transition from child to adolescent is like in this short, free verse volume.  It's all there - from changing hormones to clothes to zits to confusing feelings about boys, friends and life in general.

Joylin is the first person narrator and that  combined with the free verse style results in a feeling of stream of consciousness that gives this story a sense of intimacy and immediacy.  And Joylin is a great narrator - she's sassy, at times sarcastic, but she can also be kind and understanding, especially when it comes to her little brother.  

This is an ideal book for anyone girl who has reached middle school age and who may be having some feelings of trepidation and anxiety about the changes she is facing or already experiencing.  It's always comforting to know that experiences like Joylin's happens to all girls.  I wish I had it to give to my Kiddo when she was 12.

One of the things I really loved about Planet Middle School is that the protagonist is African American but it is not about being African American per se, it is about being a girl entering a new phase of her life and that makes the story is really universal.

Planet Middle School is, on the whole. a wonderful, very readable story about family friendship and growing up.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library