Category Archives: Children’s book reviews

The Sky Inside

My current book-for-fun is Clare Dunkle’s The Sky Inside, which I first heard of when placing my monthly standing order with Listening Library two months ago (it was one of the featured new titles for that month).  I was intrigued by the book’s premise, but couldn’t find any reviews online at that time – the only resource I could locate was the novel’s first chapter on Amazon.  I was home sick that day, so I took the time to read the entire first chapter, and I was hooked.  When Nanette brought me the processed, ready to circulate book last week, there was no doubt that I would be the first patron to check it out and take it home.

I’m about halfway through The Sky Inside, and enjoying it.  Living in a frighteningly vanilla world, Martin and his friends and neighbors have no idea how molded and manipulated they are.  Everything about their lives is tightly controlled, most especially the atmosphere, since their suburb is inside a protective dome with no direct access to the outside world.  “Packets” come and go from the dome, carrying food and supplies in and the bodies of those who have died out, but no residents are allowed to leave.  Any resident who disobeys the social order ends up on televised game shows that pretend to be fun and games, but really are a means for eliminating the problem citizens.  Though most viewers don’t realize it, when contestants fail on the shows, they are killed on live television, either by lethal injection or by falling to their deaths or by being shot.  And children?  Married couples don’t have children naturally, they purchase models of children that are advertised on television. 

Martin’s younger sister (in this world, it’s very rare to have two children in a family, since each child bears a high price tag) belongs to the troubling generation of Wonder Babies.  Though initially advertised as the best things to hit the suburb, Wonder Babies turned out to be children who are devastatingly intelligent and ask so many questions that no adult will teach them in school - these children teach themselves.  Over time, the Wonder Babies begin to be known as the “freaks,” and no adult protests when a man arrives in the suburb via a packet, a rare occurrence, and offers to take all of the Wonder Babies away with him…

And that’s where I am in the story right now.  Pretty creepy.  I’m not a science fiction fan, so my thoughts on this work aren’t as educated or sophisticated as, say, my brother’s would be (Dan does know his science fiction), but at this point in my reading, I give The Sky Inside an A-.  When I’ve finished it, I’ll let you know its final grade.

The Books That Got Away

I’ve been a bit remiss in the last month and a half or so, and haven’t written my usual detailed posts on book group meetings and the kids’ reactions to the book group books.  So here’s a quick overview of some the books we’ve read and discussed lately: 

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt ~ The 5th grade group discussed this book back in March.  To facilitate our discussion, I brought in my laptop and played the first scene-and-a-bit from the recent movie that starred Sissy Spacek and William Hurt.  Prior to playing the selection from the movie, I had read aloud that first lovely, perfect chapter from the book, then we settled in to compare and contrast.  To my dismay, there were several kids who preferred the movie’s opening (and there was a competitive scramble to see who would be the lucky one to take the DVD of the movie home that day), but there were also the kids who loved the language of the book and spoke eloquently about it.  Our discussion did end up focusing on the pros and cons of eternal life, and I was very impressed by what the group had to say.  (Too bad that the distance of a month has blurred my memories of their specific comments, but suffice it to say that they’re a smart, well-spoken bunch of kids.)

A Girl, A Boy, and a Monster Cat by Gail Gauthier ~ Discussed by the 3rd grade book group just a week and a half ago, this book proved to be a disappointment to both me and the kids.  We all had the same thought: the book didn’t live up to its title, and would have been better served by a different title.  All of us had expected the Monster Cat to play a major role in the story, and when it didn’t, we all felt a bit cheated and let down.  Not that this was a bad book – it was just less than we had hoped it would be.  On a side note, it’s fun for me to observe the formation of a new book group with these third graders, to see them learning to work together as a group and to share the discussion time with each other.  I’ll miss working with the younger kids when Jennifer picks up the 3rd and 4th grade groups in the fall.

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke ~ Once again, I chose to go the multi-media route for the 6th graders’ March discussion of Funke’s modern classic.  Using the surprisingly excellent and entertaining movie of the same name, I played the merry-go-round scene for the kids, then read selected parts from the book (the merry-go-round chapter of the book is quite long, and it would be tough to read all of it aloud for an even comparison, so I had to pick and choose bits to share).   Our discussion was fairly good, but with the distance of a few weeks, I can’t honestly remember what we talked about.  I’m hoping that the next two 6th grade books will inspire an animated conversation that involves all group members…

March’s teen book group discussion centered on Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, a book that I chose to appeal to the boys in the group (who, ironically, either no longer attend or attend only sporadically…).  Surprisingly, given that I chose the book based solely upon my need to find a good book that wasn’t a “girl book,” it’s one of the best books we’ve read this year.  Taut plot, great premise, heart-stopping suspense – I loved this book, and so did everyone in the group.  One boy did attend that day, having picked up a copy of Airborn on the day prior to our meeting, and he said something like, “Finally!  A book that I liked in this group!”  The girls shared their happy surprise at having thoroughly enjoyed the book, and admitted that they would have never picked up this book on their own, but were very glad that they had been steered towards it.  We all agreed that we’d like to read the sequel, and E. was the lucky one who got to take the sequel home with her that day. 

So that’s the update on the books that we’ve read since March.  Three out of the four are exceptional reads, highly recommended by me and by the book groups, and the fourth is acceptable, though not fabulous.  There are only four more book group meetings this school year, and I’ll do my best to write posts on those as the groups happen.

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

While not the best book that I’ve ever read, I did think that Wendy Mass’s Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life would prompt an interesting discussion in Tuesday’s 6th grade book group.  But I had not taken into account what it’s like to be a sixth grader half-way through the school year: the questions raised by the book were far too personal and introspective to be answered in a group setting with this age reader.  When I asked the question, “Have any of you ever thought about what the meaning of life is?  About why you’re here on earth?”, I saw flashes of acknowledgement in many eyes around the table, along with every head around the table vigorously shaking “no.”  I gave myself a mental slap on the forehead at that point, as I realized that there is no way my sixth grade self would have ever answered that question in a library book group.  Maybe I would have discussed it with my family or close friends, but not in a vulnerable setting like a book group. 

So from that point on, I steered the conversation towards more general, less personal, easily discussed things, like the characterizations of Lizzie and Jeremy, whether the plot progression was realistic and believable, and why Jeremy’s dad had arranged for this complex quest for his son.  No one in the group, me included, really liked this book, but we were able to see its value and to discuss it in a productive way.  The kids pointed out that Lizzie and Jeremy were flat characters who do not change or grow much after the first chapter; one group member stated that the lack of complexity in the characters is the main reason the book tends to be dull.  And then another kid in the group made an excellent comparison: she compared this book to Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game (which all the sixth graders have read in school this year), and commented that the characters in The Westing Game reveal themselves bit by bit, so that the reader doesn’t fully know each character until the conclusion of the novel. 

This comment got us all interested in a comparison of these two books, their plots and characters and writing style, and in the end we had quite a productive discussion about what elements make a book great rather than just good.  So the book group meeting ended up being a valuable one, though not at all for the reasons that I had thought it would be.  Once again, I am reminded of why it’s useful to go into a book group meeting with an open mind, not a set agenda and a set list of questions.  Being open makes for a better discussion, and ultimately is more rewarding for all participants.


There’s nothing like a vacation, even a vacation that’s only four days long.  In amongst many wonderful visits with family, Jim and I were good and lazy over the long weekend, reading (both of us) and playing guitar (Jim) and watching a corny movie (Knocked Up) and even cleaning the house (the cats thanked us for that).

With no book group meetings in the next two weeks, I chose a couple of books that I wanted to read, rather than had to read (even though I do have ultimate choosing authority over those book group books, there’s still a sense of them being an assignment – weird how that works).  First up was Starcross by Philip Reeve, the sequel to one of my favorite books of last year, Larklight.  Surprisingly, I didn’t like Starcross nearly as well as I did the first book.  This puzzled me, since I’ve been looking forward to it, and I’m wondering whether one problem was simply my mood when I read the book.  But that’s too simple an explanation.  The trouble with Starcross, in my opinion, is that it’s just Larklight, Round Two; where Larklight was innovative and fresh, Starcross is just a repeat with a slightly different plot line.  I don’t really know what Reeve could have done to make the sequel as interesting as the first book, since the charm of Larklight lies in its unusual conceit of Victorian-era England having dominion over most of space due to the discovery of chemical wedding that propels spacecraft in the nineteenth century. 

And I wonder whether Starcross will find an audience at my library.  When I enthusiastically presented Larklight to one of my book groups last spring, they absolutely hated it.  Hated it.  I loved it, the kids despised it.  If they despised the original model, chances are they won’t even bother taking the newly published sequel out of the library.  I’m going to keep tabs on the circulation numbers for this pair of books, and see how often they get checked out. 

Tomorrow I’ll write about the other book I read over the weekend, Duchessina by Carolyn Meyer, a piece of historical fiction about Catherine de’ Medici.

The Fairy-Tale Detectives, part II

The 5th grade book group has completed its evolution, and it’s fantastic.  Yesterday we had eight kids (the ninth got the week wrong, and was sad to have missed the group), all of whom were bursting with enthusiasm and totally anxious to discuss The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley.  I had come to the group armed with a variety of things to discuss about the book, but in the end my role was simply moderator.  And that is how it should be, what I’ve been aiming for all along with these book groups.  There was a moment half-way through the group yesterday, as I was looking at five kids with their hands eagerly raised, and I realized that this particular group of kids has become a true Book Group.  They read the book, think about it, come to the group meeting with things they want to discuss about it, and even bring questions about the book to pose to the rest of the group members.  They stay on topic for the whole meeting, are courteous listeners when someone else is speaking, and, most of all, they make really intelligent comments.  Our only challenge yesterday was making sure that I did a good job calling on people – that everyone got equal opportunity to speak.  Sometime, in the not so distant future, I’m expecting that the kids will be able to take control of the group moderation themselves, and that I’ll just get to sit back and appreciate the discussion. 

And, for the record, they LOVED the book, boys and girls alike.  Absolutely, unequivocably, totally LOVED it.  Most of the kids in the group have moved on to read at least one of the sequels, and all were thrilled to learn that there are going to be eight books in the series. 

Next month’s book is the classic Five Children and It by E. Nesbit.  I can’t wait to hear their comments on it!

The Fairy-Tale Detectives

This week’s book group book is The Fairy-Tale Detectives, first in the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley.  I brought this series into the library after hearing about it from a very well-read young lady who raved to me about how much she loved the series (and she still keeps me up to date on when the next book is coming out, for which I’m eternally appreciative).  So I chose the first book for this month’s 5th Grade book group meeting, and I’m quite happy with the choice.

Not that it’s the best book that I’ve ever read, but it’s a quick, fun, invigorating story with strong characters and an interesting premise.  To think that the Grimm brothers were writing down true stories, and to think that all of those fictional characters are actually alive and living in one special town in New York – this clever plot will surely open up many avenues for discussion.  And I’m certain that the kids in the group will appreciate having a book that’s shorter and more manageable than some we’ve read lately, especially in December, the season of multiple school projects and family events.

And I did enjoy the book enough that I’m considering reading some or all of the sequels, as well.  In all my free time, that is…


Oh dear.  Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

I’ve been recommending Clementine by Sara Pennypacker (illustrations by Marla Frazee) to coworkers, patrons, and friends for quite a while now.  Of course, I hadn’t actually read it, but I’d read all of the reviews, listened to a third grader who loved it, and been dazzled by the cute cover.  So I chose it as the first book for my newly formed third grade book group, and sat down Friday night eager to finally read it.

But – you guessed it.  Overly cynical, highly critical Abby didn’t like the book.  Hated it, more like.  How can that be??  Here’s how: I’ve known a LOT of third graders, kids I taught at the elementary school, kids that I tutor in my off-library hours, and kids who come in to the library.  And not one of those third graders has ever been as cluelessly, annoyingly, cloyingly CUTE as Clementine.  Blech.  Ptooey.  Ptooey. Blech blech blech.  Take a little syrup, add some sugar, molasses, and saccharine, and you’ve got Clementine.  She’s an adult’s idealistic vision of what a third grader should be, and about as far away from Sendak’s Max as possible.  Like Sendak, I’d like the characters in children’s books to reflect real children, with their lumps and bumps and streaks of meanness and startling insights and un-cute moments. 

I won’t be talking with the third grade book group about my feelings about Clementine, since it’s our first meeting and I haven’t even met some of the kids yet.  I know that I tend to be a harsh, harsh critic, and I don’t want to burden our very first meeting with that baggage.  Unless, of course, the kids bring up Clementine’s character, and they want to discuss her.  It will be really interesting to see what they think of her. 

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The 6th Grade book group discussed Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce a week ago Tuesday, and they were very firm in their low opinion of the book, which didn’t surprise me.

Originally, I was going to try to replicate the kids’ comments on the book, but now so much time has elapsed that I don’t think I’ll be able to.  Suffice it to say that not one kid in the group liked the book much, they weren’t engaged by the characters, they couldn’t relate to the lifestyle and culture of the Welsh town in which Framed takes place, and they really didn’t see much humor in the book.  And surprisingly, not one of the kids attending the group that day had been intrigued enough by the paintings cited in the text to follow the link to the National Gallery and look at the paintings online.

Thank goodness that I had thought to bring in my laptop that day, and that I had created links to each painting on my favorites list.  Without question, the best part of our meeting that day was the time we spent looking at the paintings and discussing the paintings.  I even found a short narrated guided tour of the Mona Lisa which allows you to see the back of the painting and the repairs that have been made to the Mona Lisa over the years.  The kids were most engaged and interested while they were viewing the artwork, and I do think that seeing the art added immeasurably to their understanding of the book.  Had I been teaching this book in a school reading group, I would have been sure to introduce the art first and have those images in the minds of the readers as they read the story.

And my opinion of Framed?  I’d like to say that I loved the book.  It’s witty, subtle, totally unique, and laugh-out-loud funny at times.  But as I was reading the book, I had a sneaking suspicion that the kids would not like it.  Much of the humor is very British, and very grown-up.  Things that made me laugh flew over the heads of the kids in my group.  I’d love to know how British and Welsh kids react to this book; was my group’s lack of appreciation due to cultural differences, or to the humor being too sophisticated? 

So once again, I brought a very well-reviewed, highly regarded children’s book to my book group, and it fell flat for them.  Once again, the question arises:  how problematic is it that children’s literature is written by, published by, marketed by, and bought by adults?  I, for one, will never have an answer to that question.

Crispin: Cross of Lead

The 5th grade book group met last Tuesday afternoon to discuss Crispin: Cross of Lead by Avi, and the result was an example of how a great book can generate a great discussion.

Crispin has inspired an incredible fan base in this book group, and two of the girls have been so enthusiastic and effusive in their praise of the book that they have led many of their classmates (kids who do not belong to the book group) to find and read the book and its sequel.  As a fantasy-weary adult, I am thrilled to see so many young readers excited about a work of historical fiction, and I decided that it would be fun to steer a chunk of our discussion towards the historical core of the book.

But before we discussed the history behind the fiction, the group first shared their favorite parts of the book with each other.  The character of Bear topped the list of favorites, and we talked a bit about his personality and how lucky Crispin was to find/be found by Bear.  And it became clear from our discussion that one major strong point of this novel is the contrast between Bear and John Aycliffe, and the way that contrast creates a dynamic tension in the story.  The group members loved the forward-moving action of the story, but also appreciated the way that the slower moments of the book build Crispin’s back story and help readers better understand his character (for example, some kids mentioned at first that they were a bit bored by the start of the story, but as we talked, we came to a consensus that Crispin’s character would be difficult to appreciate if we didn’t have a sense for what a non-entity he had been his entire life).

After a bit, I transitioned the discussion over to an examination of the historical aspects of the book.  Some of the kids were not entirely sure what “historical fiction” means and how it differs from “realistic fiction,” so we spent some time puzzling out a working definition of the term historical fiction.  Once that was under our belt, we talked about which aspects of the story were based upon actual history, and which parts were fiction.  Though this discussion won’t translate well to this blog post, it was incredibly productive and enlightening for most (if not all) of the group members, me included. 

The meeting ended on an enthusiastic upbeat; and the very best part, for me, was that there was not a single mention of Harry Potter for that 45 minutes.  Blissful.

Still catching up…

Just a quick post today; I’m still catching up on those reviews that got backlogged during our move and transition to the new library, which is putting a serious damper on my ability to write blog posts (unfortunately, there’s only so much time in a day).

Last night I was actually feeling pretty good about where I stand with those reviews, after I polished off the seventh issue of Publisher’s Weekly for the day.  And then Mary, my boss, who has also fallen behind in this review-reading process, came into my room with a stack of about TWELVE PW‘s that she had just finished, and passed on to me for my turn with them.  Whooops – negative balance.

Let me just say one thing before I immerse myself once again in those reviews:  I’m looking forward to authors writing books that are NOT part of a series.  We have so many different series now in the children’s room that it’s a lot of work to keep track of them all.  And there’s also the burning question of whether buying the first book in a series means that you must buy all the rest of the books in that series (especially if the first book doesn’t circulate much). 

And now back to catching up…