Category Archives: Children’s book reviews

Currently reading

In the last few months, I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie mysteries – and I do mean a lot – in addition to my usual book group books.  I’m cooling down a wee bit on the Agatha Christie books now, partly because I have less time available for “fun” reading now that book groups are in full swing again (each group met only once over the summer, and not at all in September, which was a lovely gift of “fun” reading time for me) and partly because I seem to have exhausted the supply of Christie books at our two local bookstores.

This weekend I need to read The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for next Tuesday’s Teen Book Group meeting; I have great memories of reading the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was in highschool, and am looking forward to an adult re-reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  This reading of it will be tinged by laundry soap and dryer lint, since I need to spend a couple of hours at the laundromat today washing our comforter, but hopefully that won’t wreak the book for me.

I’m also reading The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda, a book which has happily surprised me.  I really only brought it home to read because the reviews written about the book have a wide range of reading levels – from 4th grade and up to 8th grade and up – and thus placement of the book in the library is difficult.  I placed it in our advanced reader section, which is for grades 5 & 6 and up, but now the book’s sequel is about to be published, with similarly divergent age recommendations in the reviews, so it was time for me to read the book myself and thus make a totally informed decision about placement.  It turns out that the book is well-written, engaging, full of action (which kids today demand above all else), and also gently educational as it introduces Indian mythology and culture.  I like the book enough that I may even choose it for a book group…hmmmm…

Other books in my to-be-read pile right now:

  • Atlantis Rising by T.A. Barron
  • The Outcasts by John Flanagan
  • The Royal Ranger by John Flanagan
  • Pi in the Sky by Wendy Mass
  • Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus
  • The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion
  • Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
  • Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie

And I’ve officially given up on the Megan Whalen Turner series that begins with The Thief.  I loved the first book, hated the second, and am luke-warm on the third at the half-way point.  Frankly, the character of Eugenides got on my nerves early in the second book, and it’s tough to finish a series when the main character drives you nuts.  I’ll be taking the whole series to the used book store soon, just to get it out of my house.

On that note, time to get to the laundromat and start reading The Hound of the Baskervilles

Happy September

I actually love the month of September – even though we’re busy at the library after school with kids coming over from the elementary, middle, and high schools, the mornings are lovely and quiet and I get tons done.

Sometimes my storytime regulars ask why I take a couple of weeks off from storytimes in September, and I always reply, “So I can get some ordering done after the summer!”  Summers at the library are almost relentlessly busy, and it’s difficult to focus on reading book reviews in The Horn Book Magazine and Kirkus when kids are coming up to the desk every few minutes to redeem summer prizes or ask for summer reading book suggestions.  I need these next few weeks to pay some careful attention to ordering, and to make sure our shelves are fully stocked with the latest and greatest as winter comes around the corner.

But there’s another reason I take a couple of weeks off from storytimes in September: it’s vitally important to take a little time off from them so that I get refreshed and revitalized.  Yes, I could keep plugging along at the usual stiff storytime pace that I keep up the rest of the year (five or so storytimes a week), but we all benefit from me having just a few weeks off.  I actually love that I get nervous and edgy before my first September storytime, because it means that I’m coming back to storytimes with a fresh perspective.  If I’m nervous, then I’m fully engaged, and if I’m fully engaged, then storytimes are soooo much more fun for everyone.

One of my greatest fears is getting stale in my job, which is why I’m always pushing myself to do more and to try new and different things.  And by stepping back and taking a break, I can look at my storytimes from a bit of a distance and evaluate what I’m doing well and what I need to do better.  I’ll never go so far as to film myself doing a storytime, because that would destroy my self-confidence, but I’m very capable of being objective about my own performance.  I know that I overuse certain phrases, and I’m aiming to not say those phrases coming up in September.  I know that I’m a little afraid of using parent tips in my storytimes, but I need to get over that hump and start incorporating those tips more regularly.  And I know that by the end of the summer I was a bit tired and worn out, and I’m glad to take this breather and regain my enthusiasm.

So the next few weeks will be devoted to freshening my storytime perspective, and spending some intense time doing my absolute favorite part of my job: ordering books.  Yay!  Happy September, everyone!

When a book isn’t what you expect it to be

This evening I finally had a chance to start reading Mr. and Mrs. Bunny – Detectives Extraordinaire! by Mrs. Bunny and translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath.  My first plan was to read The Georges and the Jewels by Jane Smiley, which I’ve been itching to read for a long time, but when I opened my library copy it looked as if someone had peed on the lower right corner of the pages.  Ick.  Guess I’ll be ordering a new copy for the library tomorrow…

At any rate, I was equally excited to read Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, and my plan was to preview it to see if it would be appropriate for the third grade book group.  Not that I personally believe that children’s literature has to be all cute and fluffy, but I have found that for the books I choose to read with my younger book groups, cute and fluffy is a good path to take, considering the variety of readers in any book group.  Mr. and Mrs. Bunny seemed like it would fit the bill.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mrs. Bunny has written a book with some bite to it – humor that appeals to me, and surely will appeal to a lot of kids who are older than third grade.  Mr. and Mrs. Bunny engage in some wonderful spousal repartee, such as their animated conversation after Mr. Bunny comes home with the news that he has bought a new hutch for them without Mrs. Bunny’s input.  Mrs. Bunny ends up with her head down on the table, then comes this lovely exchange:

“Mrs. Bunny, I am sure you are only hungry.  Once you have a little carrot stew in you, this mood of yours will pass in a trice.”

“DON’T TELL ME ABOUT MY MOODS!” began Mrs. Bunny, and that is when Mr. Bunny, in one of his few smart moves that day, pulled out the picture of the hutch and shoved it in her face.

“SEE?” said Mr. Bunny, a trifle hysterically.  “SEE?”    (pages 18 – 19)

And, of course, the hutch is beautiful and perfect and just what Mrs. Bunny would have picked herself.  And I realized that I was holding a book that is far, far better than I had expected – and I’m hooked.  It’s not for my third grade book group, but that’s ok.  I’ll use it with one of my older book groups, kids who have enough life experience to “get” the wry humor, and I’ll be sure to put it into the hands of those library kids who like the quirky and fun and unusual, with a little dash of gory (did I mention that there are foxes who kidnap and are looking to open a canned rabbit products plant?  and that the foxes like to say and write “Mwa-haha”?).  Ah, how I do love a book that’s unexpectedly much better than I thought it would be – especially when I thought it would be pretty good.

Three quick things

Thing number 1:  I really enjoyed Silverfin by Charlie Higson.  I had expected it to be purely an action story, but Higson takes the time to establish the character of James Bond at age 13.  He also gives us a good sense of what it would have been like to be a student at Eton in the 1930’s.  And then, of course, the story moves away from Eton and into some good fun Bondish action.  Definitely a good book for any of you James Bond fans.

Thing number two:  yesterday’s Book Gobblers program was interesting for me.  Usually we have fourth and fifth graders who attend this read aloud program for older kids, and they have really enjoyed hearing selections from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.  Given that past history, yesterday I decided that I would read “The Cat That Walked By Himself” to them.  But there was a little change in demographics yesterday, with mostly second graders attending.  They mostly liked the story, but they didn’t love Kipling’s language like the older kids have; the older kids have literally sat in rapt attention, almost devouring Kipling’s words as I read them.  But the younger ones looked slightly puzzled at times.  The second story I read them, though, was a huge hit:  Ghost Hands by T.A. Barron.  As you may remember, T.A. Barron spent the early years of his life in the town in which I work, so I always love sharing his books with kids at my programs.  And Ghost Hands, which provides an imagined reason for paintings of hands in a real cave in Patagonia, really grabbed their attention – total focus from the group as I read, and lots of great questions and discussion after the story was done.  I’ll definitely be reading this book to kids at the school when I do summer reading visits in June.

Thing number 3:  Last but very definitely not least, the third grade book group had an exciting and wonderful meeting on Monday as we had a Skype visit with author Sara Pennypacker.  I will be writing a full post on this visit over the weekend to do it full justice, but wanted to mention it here in brief to whet your appetite.  Ms. Pennypacker is an incredibly generous, kind, open, and engaging speaker, and I believe that this Skype visit was a really transformative moment for several of the kids in the group.  More on this visit in a day or two…and now it’s time to get ready for work!

Reading, reading, reading

On my weekends lately, I’ve been doing a LOT of reading, mostly for book groups, but also for fun (not that book group reading isn’t fun, because it is), and I’ve also been creating a lot of new storytime lesson plans.  I’ll talk about the storytime lesson plans in an upcoming post, but meanwhile, here is an update on the books that I’ve read this fall for the various book groups at the library:

  • For the 3rd grade book group:  Dying to Meet You by Kate Klise, The Talented Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, and The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin.  All great books for this age group, and all were quite successful with the 3rd graders in the group.  I love each of these books, and for quite different reasons.  The Klise book is approachable and funny; the Pennypacker book has a wonderful, true-to-life main character, and the Lin book is poignant and lovely.
  • For the 4th grade group:  Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief by Wendelin van Draanen, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, and Dominic by William Steig.  DiCamillo’s book remains one of my all-time favorites, but I very much enjoyed the Sammy Keyes book and was glad to have finally read Dominic, though I’m not sure that I’d want to use Dominic again for a book group (the kids were a bit baffled by it, and it didn’t make for the best discussion we’ve ever had, despite this being a group of Readers who love to Discuss).
  • For the 5th grade group:  White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages, The White Giraffe by Lauren St. John, and Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator by Jennifer Allison.  I enjoyed The Green Glass Sea much more than its sequel, which disappointed me, and I was a bit taken aback by the Gilda Joyce book, having expected it to be more juvenile than it was.  And I enjoyed my re-reading of The White Giraffe, of course, a book that is unique today in its brevity, considering its intended audience of upper grade readers.
  • For the 6th grade group:  Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson, The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, and The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen by M.T. Anderson.  After having connected with M.T. Anderson at the Simmons College Children’s Literature Summer Institute this year (see my posts on the Institute here, here, here, and here), I was delighted to be able to bring two of his books to the 6th grade book group this fall.  I’ve also been reading The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (Volume I – The Pox Party) in my free time – it’s a terrific book, one of the best I’ve read in a long time.
  • For the Teen Book Group: Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin, Uglies by Michael Scott, and The Alchemyst by Michael Scott.  This group is still quite large, which means that we can’t read the hottest new young adult books, since we wouldn’t be able to get enough copies of the books for everyone in the group.  But I presented the group with one of my favorite books, Elsewhere, and they all loved it (and none of them had yet read it, even better), and with a book that had been a success with this group in past years, Uglies.   Surprisingly, none of the group members had read Uglies yet, and it too was a huge hit.  As for The Alchemyst – I had very high hopes for this book, and it didn’t quite live up to those hopes.  But, once again, none of the teens had read the book, and many of them have gone on to read the rest of the series (or, at least, what’s been published so far in the series).

It’s been a good fall and early winter for reading, and I’m now looking forward to the next batch of book group books that are sitting next to me, waiting to be read:  Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins (3rd grade), The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley (4th grade), Spy Mice: The Black Paw by Heather Vogel Frederick (5th grade), Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng (6th grade), and The Prophecy of the Stones by Flavia Bujor (teen book group).  The last three of these books were all chosen by kids in the book groups, which makes the whole process – reading and discussion – that much more fun.  Happy reading to me!!

Reading…ah…

With all of this blasted snow that’s been falling (and needing to be shovelled) lately, with trying to “start up” my new “business” (it’s all a joke, really, who am I kidding?), with the messiness of the bathroom renovation – with all of that taking up my days and energy, I haven’t had much time to read.  And reading is my favorite winter activity, sitting all warm and snuggly and carefree by the woodstove.

So this morning I decided to get a million things done before breakfast: pay the bills, go to the bank, mail the bills (necessarily in that order), go to Idylwilde for food supplies before the pre-storm crazy people get there, come home and refill the three suet feeders and the three bird feeders, dig out an exhaust tunnel for the furnace vent pipe (again), and bring in a big load of firewood.  And then, start the fire, vacuum up the mess of detritus in front of the woodstove, make a lovely pot of Cheericup tea, eat breakfast standing up because I’m so famished, check in on my Etsy store to see if I’ve made any sales (of course not), and write this blog post.

Guess what comes next?  Reading!!!  Since Ellen Potter is Skyping with the 5th grade book group on Tuesday, I’ve decided to settle in and have an Ellen Potter marathon.  First up is the rest of the Olivia Kidney series [note that there are three separate links to the three sequels], then Pish Posh, then The Kneebone Boy.  I’m really enjoying Potter’s style of writing and quirky take on the world, and I’m really looking forward to Tuesday’s Skype visit.  The only unfortunate thing about a book group Skype visit is that I doubt I’ll have much time to chat with the author – this visit is about the kids, not me, and I’m guessing they’re going to be exploding with questions for Ms. Potter.  And I’ll be busy moderating and trying to aim the webcam at each speaker.  But it will still be exciting and new and different, and it’s inspiring me to read a bunch of books that I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while.

And on that note, I think I’ll get to it.  Happy reading to me!!

Ellen Potter visit

It’s official – Ellen Potter will be joining the 5th grade book group via Skype on February 8 for discussion of her book Olivia Kidney!! 

As I said to Ellen in my most recent email to her, I had not yet read Olivia Kidney when Ellen first contacted me – the book had been enthusiastically proposed for discussion by a book group member, and I was happy that I had a reason to finally read this book.  And guess what?  I LOVE this book!  It’s quirky, well-written, unexpected, funky, and insightful.  To give the book and its author the best compliment I can think of, I’d say that Olivia Kidney is akin to the best of E.L. Konigsburg’s books. 

So I’m thrilled that we’ll be able to chat with Ellen Potter during the book group meeting.  I’ll be sending out an email to all the group members telling them this exciting news, and maybe they can prepare a bit for “meeting” the author – jot down a few questions they’d like to ask her, and maybe even read the book a second time if they are able.  It will be fun!!  And the most fun part?  The book group member who suggested the book, and who advocated so strongly for it, will be celebrating a birthday on the day of the book group.  What a cool way to spend your birthday, chatting with an author you admire!

The Seems

Oh, dear.  It’s happened again.  The book for today’s book group is almost as annoying and self-consciously clever as Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians.  For today’s book group, the sixth graders almost unanimously chose The Seems: The Glitch in Sleep by John Hulme and Michael Wexler, the first in a series that has been moderately popular at my library.  I was looking forward to reading this book…and then I started it.  Ick.  That’s really the only word I can use to describe it – ick.  The authors have created a fantasy about The World (that would be where you and I live) and The Seems, where the crew that keeps The World running live and work.  There are people working in the Department of Sleep and the Department of Weather, there are Fixers and Case Workers, and there is a connection between The World and The Seems that involves The Door and the Transport Tube (and don’t forget to wear your Transport GogglesTM while in the Transport Tube).  And all of those capital letters are not my invention – the authors did that.  The name of almost every object begins with a capital letter, and many things are trademarked (like the Transport Goggles) or have annoying footnotes explaining them.

I know I’m not the target audience, and that if I were younger I might have a different perspective on this book.  But I also know that I talked to the mom of one of the kids in the book group, and she told me that her child would not be attending today’s group because her child hated the book so much.  So my harsh judgement of this book may be echoed by the kids in today’s discussion.  Even if the kids don’t all agree with me, though, I really do think I’m justified in criticizing this book for trying too darn hard to be cute and clever.  I repeat:  ICK.

Regarding the Fountain, the discussion

It’s been a loooong week, as I’ve been battling laryngitis all week – it is NO fun running storytimes when you can hardly speak, and definitely can’t sing.  But there was one really big highlight of the week: the 5th grade book group discussion of Regarding the Fountain, written by Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise.

One reason that this was such a highlight is that this particular group of kids is fantastic.  Jennifer had this book group for the last two years, and she told me last May that she was really sad that they were moving up and becoming my group, because she had so enjoyed their conversations about books.  I totally agree with her – every one of the kids in this group is there because he or she loves reading, and they are sweet and intelligent and thoughtful and fun.

The other reason that this month’s meeting was so good is the book activity guide that I found on the Klise sisters’ website.  I usually take a look at discussion and activity guides that I find online, but I don’t often follow their suggestions to the letter.  In this case, though, the activities sounded engaging, so I pulled out the pad of chart paper and the markers and went for it.  We didn’t have time to do everything that is suggested on page 2 of the discussion guide, but we did brainstorm about modes of communication, both current and outdated; structural changes the kids would like to see happen at their school; idioms from the book and what they mean; and the names of characters in the book and the “translation” of those names.  We also spent about ten minutes doing a more traditional discussion about the book – what they liked, didn’t like, favorite parts, characters, etc.  I had hoped to also have them design their own stationery, but we simply ran out of time and didn’t get to do that.

Not every book lends itself to this type of interactive brainstorming session, but it fit the bill for Regarding the Fountain, and I highly recommend using the “official” discussion guide for this book.  And the best part about this group meeting was at the end, when I remembered to tell something to Joan, the girl who had nominated the book for us to read in the first place.  “Oh, Joan!” I said, “Did you know this???”  And I held up the first page of the discussion guide, the page that shows the four sequels to Regarding the Fountain.  She gasped with absolute delight – she didn’t know there were sequels to this book she loves – and I gave her the printout that lists all of them so that she could request the books for herself.  And I promised that our library would be adding them to our collection as soon as I put my next book order through…