Friday, January 31, 2014

Elvis and the Underdogs by Jenny Lee

Benji is a sickly kind of kid, he's 10 years old and has been in and out of hospital his whole life. He has allergies, faints when he gets stressed and now he's started having seizures. His doctor suggests he get a service dog, a well trained canine friend who can go get help if Benji has another seizure. This sounds like a great idea, but when the dog arrives he is a 400 lb Newfoundland called Elvis, who is so clever he can talk, or at least Benji can hear him talk. Benji's Mom is not happy about Elvis' assignment and neither is Elvis who is convinced he should be at the White House.

Elvis helps Benji find his own pack, understand the school bully and saves his life. Benji helps Elvis to stop being so serious and helps him make friends of his own.

What a great story, action, adventure, humor, pathos and heart. The book also has a fantastic ending which is moving without being trite. My favorite part is the idea that only Benji can hear Elvis speaking English, maybe it's the brain tumor that's also causing the seizures, or maybe Elvis really is that clever. 

Ages 8-10

Published May 14, 2013 by Harper Collins. (Published in paperback February 4th, 2014) 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Jungle of Bones by Ben Mikaelsen

Dylan is, by his own admission “a screw up”. He switched off after his Dad died reporting on some foreign war and it's easier for Dylan to stay angry. 

He steals a car and drives donuts through a local farmer's field, then ends up in a jail cell overnight. It seems as though his Mom has given up on him and he's packed off to Uncle Todd's house. Todd is an ex-Marine, so Dylan's Summer becomes a series of training regimens and bad cooking. But Uncle Todd has big plans, he's taking Dylan to the jungles of Papua New Guinea to search for the crash site of Dylan's grandfather's WWII fighter plane. Dylan is a tough kid, he thinks he can handle the jungle, but what he can't handle is being told what to do and that just might kill him.

It is difficult to write a review of this book without giving away the plot and there is so much more to this plot than just a screw up kid finding himself in the jungle. Ben Mikaelsen is also the author of Touching Spirit Bear, so it's not surprising to find some mystical content, what is surprising is the direction it comes from. Jungle of Bones is also about war and how life and death circumstances change all perspectives. 

The writing is breathtaking, there are incredible descriptions of the jungle, the complex character of Uncle Todd is written in the negative spaces of what is left unsaid and Dylan is utterly believable in his knowing stupidity.

An adventure story, a travelogue, a work of anthropology, history and humanity. Stunning.

Ages 12+

Published January 28, 2014 by Scholastic

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

It's 1986 and although the technology is different all the other High School nightmares are just the same. 

Park is a half Korean boy trying to stay out of trouble and unnoticed at a white suburban school. He's found that the best way to do this is to plug himself into his Walkman. Eleanor is already in trouble in a house which will never feel like home and a town she doesn't know. Eventually they will become champions for one another. But first, they will fall in love.

The book is told alternately in the voices of Eleanor or Park. It's immediately apparent that there are key differences between these two people's perceptions of the same thing. A reoccurring theme in young adult novels, perhaps because it is such a fundamental lesson for us all.

Using two narrative voices also gives us access to both our protagonists' home lives. And that's where it gets darker, because although Park has an unconventional family, Eleanor's circumstances are downright ugly and getting worse every day.

Happily, the story is redemptive, but not because teen love saves the day, because these young people save themselves, together.

This is a truly extraordinary book, written so true to life, that all the humor, fear, anger and confusion make perfect sense. I love the music references, I love the characters and I love the author's blog.

If you are a teenager or have ever been a teenager, read this book. If you have ever been in love, read this book. If you have ever been afraid, read this book. 

I hope I'm making my point strongly enough.

Age 13 +

Published February 26, 2013 by St Martin's Griffin

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Princess Super Kitty by Antoinette Portis

Maggie likes dressing up and today she will be a kitty. Or maybe a superhero. Or a princess. Or a hula porpoise.

This is not a new book, but I just discovered it and liked it too much not to share. Princess books are always popular with girls under five years old so it's great to find a princess book about self expression (especially as it has no prince in it).

Princess Super Kitty is funny, Maggie has a great energy and a whip smart imagination. It's also clever, which is unsurprising as it was written by Antoinette Portis who wrote the seminal picture book This is Not a Box. 

Every time Maggie adds a layer to her dressing up, she adds a layer to her personality, Kitty likes to play, but Super Kitty likes to run fast and be helpful. Princess Super Kitty would like you to obey her and she needs to be the center of attention. One little girl can be all this and more, just like in real life.

For princesses, kitties or superheroes aged 2-5

Published October 18, 2011 by Harper Collins

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

Billy Miller is seven years old and about to start second grade. Billy's worried that he may not be smart enough, his three year old sister is annoying, there may be a girl in his class called Hamster and sometimes running is the only thing that makes sense. 

An extraordinary book which taps into the feelings and experiences of junior readers. There's no toilet humor and no mutant teachers, just real situations and Billy's responses to them. Read this book to your first grader or have your second grader read it to you, but if you know someone who is seven, you should read it. 

Published September 17, 2013 by Greenwillow Books

More Than This by Patrick Ness

More Than This begins with the death of its teenage protagonist and gets stranger from there. The book is set in a seemingly abandoned and desperately creepy landscape, as detailed as it is desolate. But this is so much more than just another dystopian adventure. Excellent pacing and realistic relationships counterweight the inherent paranoia in this perception jolting and genre busting novel. 

Hands down my favorite young adult book of 2013, not just for the writing, but also for the no holds barred approach to content.

Great for teens and grown-ups who enjoy psychological thrillers and sci-fi.

Published September 10, 2013 by Candlewick

Goblins by Philip Reeve

A twisted fairy tale, where the hero is a goblin, dragons are small, the princess doesn't need saving and the giant really isn't that bad. 

Goblins is a well written and funny fantasy adventure. Reeve (author of the glorious Mortal Engines series), is a master storyteller and he builds the Goblins world with some deep mythology and history. I'm particularly impressed with the descriptions of place in this book, it all seems so real.

A very satisfying read for 10-14 year old fans of fun magical stories.

Published August 27, 2013 by Scholastic (published a year earlier in the UK).

The True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

The Sugar Man Swamp is about to be developed into an Alligator Wrestling theme park, there are wild hogs on the way through town and 11 year old Chap Braeburn is about to lose his home and his heritage. In short, the swamp is under attack and it's up to the Sugar Man Scouts (who are all raccoons) to alert the Sugar Man, so he can put it right. 

Several story lines are woven together in this funny and exciting book, it doesn't seem possible that it will all work out OK in the end, even if the mythical Sugar Man ever does wake up. A great book to read aloud to elementary aged children, with enough content and good words to keep middle school kids interested too.

Published July 23, 2013 by Atheneum Books (in paperback April 2014)

Doctor Who: The Vault: Treasures from the First 50 Years By Marcus Hearn

(I'm probably going to pick up some criticism for including this book in a children's book review blog. After all, there are plenty of adult Doctor Who fans and this is an expensive coffee table book. However, the more middle grade and young adult fiction I read, the more Doctor Who references I find. From The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider to The Hocus Pocus Hotel by Michael Dahl it seems that authors can't help slipping in a reference to the weeping angels or how bow ties are cool. I can only add to the weight of my argument with my own experiences. When I was 11 years old, I started to write a book just like this. I didn't get far and my picture of K9 didn't look quite right. If I had seen this book then, I would have begged for it until I was TARDIS blue in the face.)

I first saw this book across a crowded trade floor, the TARDIS blue caught my eye and the large square padded format guided me in. Then I opened the book and fell in love.

The BBC is currently celebrating the 50 years since the first episode of Doctor Who was aired. There are many introductory books out there now for those of you who have seen a few episodes and want to know a bit more, but this is not one of them. Doctor Who: The Vault is an official guide, making full use of the BBC archives and most importantly, it's a book for Doctor Who fans.

The book is arranged year by year, with hundreds of high quality color production photographs, concept drawings, design sketches, models and close ups of props and memorabilia. I have been watching Doctor Who for 30 years and there was plenty in this book I'd never seen before. There is also plenty to read, lots of interviews and stories that span even the years when no tv episodes were made.

I'm not saying you need to have seen all the episodes (actually you can't watch all of them, many of the original recordings are lost or badly degraded), but if you get excited when there's a new episode, you know your Zygons from your Autons and you have a healthy respect for the show's incredible history, then this is what you want for your Birthday.

Published October 1, 2013 by Harper Design

Review first published in Stalks from DIESEL, a bookstore December 2013

The Little Mermaid Pop-Up Book by Robert Sabuda

Princesses are difficult to buy for. not only does every gift need to have drama and romance, it also has to pass a parental inspection. 

This book solves the princess gift problem with ease. Although it is neither pink nor sparkly, it is incredibly beautiful and very dramatic. The text is a slightly abridged version of the Hans Christian Andersen original, but it's the pop-ups that make this book so noteworthy. Robert Sabuda is a pop-up genius; his previous books include Encyclopedia Prehistorica and other classics like Beauty & the Beast

Just like those previous bestsellers, The Little Mermaid pushes pop-up engineering to the limits. There is an enormous pop-up of a ship, including rigging, while on another page the paper flips inside out to create a magnificent wedding arch, which should satisfy any princess. Each page contains many other inner pages, with pop-ups of their own. 

An awe inspiring book, perfect for royalty of all ages. 

Publish October 1st by Little Simon

Review first published in Stalks from DIESEL, a bookstore, December 2013

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

Ghost Hawk is a historical novel that marries two cultural perspectives long considered to be radically different. It's also a touching and personal story about growing up.

It begins with Little Hawk, an 11-year-old Native American boy, who comes back to his village from his spirit walk into manhood to find almost everyone he knows dead from scarlet fever. The second half of the book follows John, a European boy who considers the ghost of Little Hawk to be his friend and teacher. As John grows to manhood he quietly challenges the attitudes of those around him. The book ends with the outbreak of King Phillip's War.

What struck me about this book is how well it presents the human desire for stability. We are often unaware that history is happening all around us: major events may take place, they may even be close to home, but most of us are focused on our home, family, and friends. There are minor characters in the book who make bloodthirsty calls for war and posture with both loaded words and weapons. But they are nothing but a vocal minority. The heroes and heroines of Ghost Hawk, who we see on both sides of the cultural divide, are those who recognize trade and communication as valuable tools for stability as a means to keep their homes and families safe. The domestic nature of Susan Cooper's sympathies alleviates some of the horror of the history which she relates.

The result is a truly brilliant book in which a difficult subject is approached with humanity and tenderness. I believe Ghost Hawk will be a popular book in middle school for many years to come.

Published August 27, 2013 by Margaret K. McElderry Books

Review first published in Stalks from DIESEL, a bookstore in September 2013

Journey by Aaron Becker

The young heroine in this picture book is bored. She has asked her whole family if they will play with her, but they're all too busy, so she stomps up to her room for a good sulk. In her room she spots a bright red crayon on the floor. The crayon is her ticket to adventure, as she uses it to draw a door, a boat, a balloon, a key, and finally a wheel.

Picture book fans will recognize the concept from Harold and the Purple Crayon, but Journey has a more complex story, with a happier ending.

Journey is a wordless picture book. That means that the illustrations need to tell the story. It's no surprise then that the artwork is incredibly rich. Most of the pages are a riot of detail, from the distant waving guards in a city of towers to the cogs and gears inside a sky-borne paddle steamer. When a central plot point occurs, the background is suddenly white and we focus on our heroine. Meanwhile, that red crayon shines like a beacon on every page.

Journey is an exceptionally beautiful treasure of a book for anyone aged 3-5.

Published August 6, 2013 by Candlewick

Review originally published in Stalks from DIESEL, a bookstore, November 2013

Buddy and the Bunnies in: Don't Play With Your Food by Bob Shea

Buddy is a monster. He likes to do the stuff that monsters do, like yelling, being grumpy and eating innocent creatures.

He finds a small group of bunnies and announces his horrific intentions. He will eat the bunnies. Luckily the bunnies are too clever to be eaten and they feed Buddy cupcakes until he's too full for bunny eating. Every day Buddy tries to give in to his monster instincts and every day the bunnies escape whilst Buddy has a pretty good time.

Can the bunnies stay uneaten? Will Buddy ever stop playing with his food?

This is another monster hit in the making from the author and illustrator of Dinosaur vs Bedtime, Bob Shea. Buddy is an impressively clueless monster, which means he's not really that scary. The bunnies are clever, friendly and slowly multiplying every day.

The art work is dynamic, simple and colorful with a slight 50s feel which gives the impression that Buddy the monster has wandered into a much nicer picture book than he's used to.

And here's the hidden message folks. Bullies are often just people who don't fit in, they want friends, they just don't know how to play with them (without eating them). However, these unfortunate circumstances can be turned around by consistent and brave offers of friendship.

Funny, clever and touching. For ages 4-8.

Published January 7, 2014 by Disney Hyperion.

Gadgets and Gears Book 1: The Mesmer Menace by Kersten Hamilton

Welcome to the Amazing Automated Inn, home of twelve-year-old inventor Wally Kennewickett, his genius scientist parents, and his dashing dog, Noodles. From the lightning harvester on the roof to the labs full of experiments in the dungeon, the inn is a wonderful place for a curious boy and his loyal dog to live. That is, until President Theodore Roosevelt himself calls the elder Kennewicketts away, leaving Wally and Noodles to face the evil mesmers, horrible hypnotists bent on controlling the minds of powerful people. It seems the inn is their first stop on the way to world domination . . . and only an ingenious boy, a staff of automatons, and a brave dachshund stand in their way!

Book Published November 19, 2013 by Clarion Books

Review originally published in Kids Indie Next Winter 2013-14