SUMMER READING 2016: 5 Guest Reviews from Tweens & Teens

Summer Reading is on! We’re having a great summer at BCPL with events ranging from fitness activities to a lab with the Kentucky Science Center to awesome magic shows. But the heart of Summer Reading will always be books and reading.

And we’re so excited with the response we are receiving from the participants in our 2016 Reading Challenges. Here are just a few of the book reviews we’ve received so far; more will be posted here over the month to come. Thanks to all of our guest reviewers for sharing!

How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by Sara Nickerson
Reviewer: Tyler W., Age 10
Tyler’s Rating: 3/5 Stars
Genre: Graphic Novel/Mystery
Audience: Tween/Teen

Tyler’s Summary & Review:  A boy and his mom move into a mansion only to find out weird things keep happening. It’s ok. Kind of a long book.

Quarterback Sneak by Jake Maddox
Reviewer: Tyler W., Age 10
Tyler’s Rating: 5/5 Stars
Genre: Realistic Fiction/Sports Fiction
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween

Tyler’s Summary & Review:  A quarterbacks suddenly starts acting very strange, which puts the team in major jeopardy.I enjoyed this book, I can relate to one of the characters because he wants to help his team. I also have a passion for football.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Reviewer: Katelynn W., Age 11
Katelynn’s Rating: 5/5 Stars
Genre: Realistic Fiction/School Story
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween

Katelynn’s Summary & Review:  A boy has a facial disease and has a hard time “fitting in” at school and out of school. I am here to tell you that I really think you should read this book. First, the book makes me feel like I’m in the story experiencing what is going on. Next, the book has really good detail to make me imagine everything that is going on. Last, the book has a really good story behind that and it has a good plot. That is why you should read the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Enjoy!?

EXTRA: Tracy’s Thoughts: I couldn’t agree more with Katelynn’s rating and review! I loved this book back when I read it, hence its inclusion on our Best of 2012 book list for middle grade and tween readers and my whining over its exclusion from the 2013 Youth Media Awards. Here’s my brief overview from one of our Book Picks lists:

Ten-year-old Auggie was born with extreme facial abnormalities. When he was younger, he used to wear a space helmet all the time just to hide from the stares. Now Auggie—homeschooled all his life—is ready to come out of hiding and is set to begin fifth grade at a private Manhattan middle school. Heartbreaking, funny, and simply wonderful in every way, Wonder is a must-read for book lovers of all ages. Ages 8 and up

Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans by Gary Northfield
Reviewer: Katelynn W., Age 11
Katelynn’s Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Genre: Animal Fantasy
Audience: Middle Grade

Katelynn’s Summary & Review: A zebra and other animals get captured and have to train to be gladiators. Once they train, they have to fight to earn their freedom.

I think you should read the book Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans by Gary Northfield. First, this book has some great facts about the Romans and other things. Next, the book has really great humor. Last, the book has a lot of feeling in it. That is why I think you should read the book Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans by Gary Northfield.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Reviewer: Kaylee F., Age 12
Kaylee’s Rating: 5/5 Stars
Genre: Fantasy/Paranormal Romance
Audience: Teen/Young Adult

Kaylee’s Summary & Review: The storyline is about a girl named Bella Swan and when she moves in with her dad at the town of Forks. I thought this book was a great start to an amazing series.The story itself was great because it explained how Bella felt at all times in amazing words and vocabulary. I loved the characters a lot because they all were a big part of an amazing story. I loved the setting because when the author wrote to explain the setting she made it feel like I was actually looking at it myself. I just enjoyed this book so much I couldn’t even put it down. You should really read this book and fall in love with it just as I did.

EXTRA: Tracy’s Thoughts: As Kaylee says, this book is compulsively readable. I couldn’t put it down and read the entire book (about 500 pages) in a single night. I have a few issues with the book (Edward’s stalker tendencies, for one), but nothing that prevented me from staying up till about 6:00 in the morning until I finished!

Are you interested in submitting a guest review? Use the submission form on our website to share your thoughts (positive, negative, or in between) about your latest read. And remember: eligible BCPL patrons earn an entry in our Summer Reading Grand Prize Drawing for each review they submit!

BEST OF 2014: Favorite Middle-Grade/Tween Books

Five stunning works in verse and two unforgettable graphic memoirs are just the beginning of 2014’s wonderful offerings from middle-grade authors. My
personal favorite so far? I don’t think I can choose, although I might just love Hello, I’m Johnny Cash a tiny bit more than the others. I personally read and adored each of the books on the list except for one, which I haven’t yet read and was submitted by another staff member (thanks, Kirsten!).

So, without further ado, our favorite middle-grade titles of 2014 are:


The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Far more than “a basketball novel in verse,” The Crossover is an emotionally rich tale of  two twin brothers—middle school basketball stars—facing the first real challenge to their close relationship. As they struggle with their diverging interests and jealousy over a new girl, Josh also begins to worry about the secrets his parents may be keeping. The novel is told from the point of view of Josh, who is funny, talented, slightly immature, and wholly believable.  The Crossover is a kinetic tour de force that will leave readers cheering and probably a little teary eyed.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney
In this ninth installment in the ever-popular Wimpy Kid series, Gregg Heffley and family hit the road for a trip that promises to be wild, crazy, and laugh-out-loud funny.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage
Mo LoBeau and the crazy, loveable residents of Tupelo Landing are back, and I couldn’t be happier. The Newbery Honor–winning Three Times Lucky was one of my absolute  favorite books of 2012, and this book is a worthy follow up. Mo still has the same irrepressible charm as ever, and she and Dale have a new mystery to solve. The question is… Can the inn impulsively bought by Miss Lana really be haunted? And if so… Whose ghost is it and how can the new paranormal division of Desperado Detective Agency prove it?

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
A sixth-grader who appears to be male but who identifies with “girl” behaviors and , Grayson Sender believes it is safest to remain a friendless loner.  Grayson secretly pretends that basketball pants are a lovely flowing skirt and quietly doodles castles and princesses in class, disguising his drawings as abstract shapes only he can decode. Grayson doesn’t really know what all this means but just wants to be comfortable and quit repressing the inner feelings that are becoming increasingly persistent. Finally, with the help of a teacher and a few older classmates, Grayson finds the courage to finally be Grayson. This is an important, triumphant novel told respectfully and gracefully from Grayson’s point of view.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford
When a troop of unexpected visitors descend on the family inn, 12-year-old Milo is not pleased with the interruption to his winter holiday plans. But soon Milo and his new friend Meddy discover that the guests have secrets worth uncovering and launch a secret investigation. Woven throughout is the rich history of the inn—a haven for smugglers—and bits of folklore that may reveal more than anyone suspects. This is a rich, layered story with a bit of the fantastic. It’s a near- perfect  winter read.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
Twelve-year-old Rose is besieged by storms. There’s a literal hurricane headed her way and even with her difficulty gauging emotions, she can sense her father’s growing tension. Diagnosed with Asperger’s, Rose finds joy in prime numbers and homonyms and can talk about them endlessly. While her uncle Weldon and her dog Rain don’t seem to mind, her father and classmates easily grow tired of her obsession. But when Rain is lost in storm, Rose must step out of her comfort zone of rules and routines in order to locate her beloved dog. This is a nuanced story of devotion and bravery made memorable by a earnest, unique narrative voice.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney
In this powerful and moving novel told through poems and pictures, a young Sudanese girl has her hopes shattered by armed militants who attack her village. Heartbroken after the attack, Amira loses her ability to speak until a simple gift helps her find joy and purpose.

Revolution by Deborah Wiles
In small-town Mississippi during the summer of 1964, 12-year-old Sunny’s life is turned upside down by “agitators” and “invaders” who are encouraging African Americans to register for the vote. Her peaceful community is suddenly full of fear and violence, and Sunny becomes a witness to events she can barely understand. Revolution is a powerful novel that gives young readers an intimate glimpse into important history, but it is personalized by the everyday struggles of Sunny as navigates relationships with her new stepfamily and copes with feelings about the mother who abandoned her. The book appears thick an intimidating, but a number of the pages offer up a series of photographs, quotes, song lyrics, and news stories which provide context and enrich the story.
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
When Felicity Juniper Pickle arrives in her mother’s hometown of Midnight Gulch, she hopes that their small family can finally stay put in one place. Her secret hope is that a trace of the magic that once made Midnight Gulch famous will finally cure her mother’s need to travel. What Felicity finds is far more than she ever hoped—her first true friend, a family larger than she knew, and the secrets that just might lead to a renewal of magic in the town  if only she can find the key. Overflowing with lovable, eccentric characters and a folksy tone reminiscent of Ingrid Law’s Savvy, A Snicker of Magic is an exuberant, heartwarming novel that is magical indeed.
The Thickety: A Path Begins by J.A. White
In a closed off community where magic is forbidden, 12-year-old Kara toils to care for her sickly brother and depressed father. Her mother was killed as a witch, and now that she has discovered that she has magic as well, Kara is terrified. And intrigued. With the discovery a magic book in the dangerous, forbidden forest, Kara turns her life—and then the village—upside down. Creepy and thrilling and a little bit scary, this is a truly engaging read about good and evil and belief in oneself. I already can’t wait for the promised sequel!
West of the Moon by Margi Preus
Gripping storytelling weaves elements of folklore and fairy tales in with the tale of two sisters in 19th century Norway who are determined to find a better life together. When 13-year-old Astri is sold by her aunt to a villainous goat farmer, she vows to escape and reunite with her younger sister Greta. Astri is a compelling, resourceful heroine willing to do anything for her sister, and she refuses to regret the morally questionable choices she is forces to make.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Through her own recollections and the scattered memories of family members, a celebrated author shares her own childhood and her path to becoming a storyteller (or liar, as her mother called her as a child) and author. This is a lucid and eloquent memoir in poems that speaks to experiences both universal and personal.

El Deafo by Cece Bell
In this funny and heartwarming memoir, the author shares her personal experiences of growing up deaf. The artwork is expressive and engaging, brilliant in concept. As a character, CeCe is irrepressible and someone readers will root for all the way. 

Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis
Brief, anecdotal poems introduce readers to the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, two thousand black New Yorkers who served as musicians and legendarily brave soldiers in World War I France. While the text is engaging and frequently poignant, it is the haunting illustrations that truly make this work shine.

Hello, I’m Johnny Cash by G, Neri
In this stirring biography, Neri (Ghetto Cowboy) presents the life story of Johnny Cash as Johnny himself might tell it. That is, if Johnny Cash were to speak in vivid, powerful free verse. Gorgeously rendered illustrations and explanatory back matter round out a truly special work.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Christian Robinson
Free-spirited verse, dynamic typography, and stunning acrylic illustrations celebrate a truly fascinating woman in this beautifully designed picture book biography.

The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
An important piece of World War II history is related in a very personal way in this story of 50 men—mostly African Americans—who refused to load more ammunition onto ships after over 200 were killed in an explosion. It’s a powerful story of injustice, told accessibly and compellingly by the author of Bomb, one of our Best of 2012 picks.

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat by Gail Jarrow
In this fascinating tale of scientific discovery, Jarrow uses engaging text and striking archival photographs to tell the story of how a fatal illness that became disconcertingly prevalent in the South during the first half of the 19th century was identified and eventually eradicated. The the black, white, and deep red layout of text and images adds visual appeal to help sustain interest.
Sisters by Raine Telgemeier
In her follow-up to Smile, Telgemeier focuses on the ups and downs of her childhood relationship with her younger sister. The two are wildly different and have frequent battles, and yet they have one very important thing in common. Though there are frequent flashbacks to key moments, the narrative centers on a family road trip to attend a family reunion. The pacing, text, and expressive art are top-notch.

The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon
David Maccauley fans and aspiring architects will rejoice to discover this comprehensive, gorgeously illustrated history of buildings. The text is informative yet conversational, engaging readers from the first line and addressing everything from historical building practices across the world to notable buildings, past and present.

Strike! by Larry Dane Brimner
Compelling text, presented along with striking images and colorful sidebars, tells story of the American labor movement and creation of the United Farm Workers (UFW). It’s a tale of bravery and determination that begins not with Cesar Chávez but with the little-known story of  Filipino-American farm workers who jumpstarted the movement.

BEST OF 2013: Middle Grade/Tween Books

From gut-busting humor to historical adventures to captivating fantasies, middle-grade authors had a lot to offer readers in 2013. My personal favorite so far? I think I’ll have to go with either Counting by 7s or Better Nate Than Ever for their strong narrative voices and unique character perspectives. I also LOVED Look Up!, although I have no interest in birdwatching. Or at least I didn’t until recently…

Of course, I might give you an entirely different list of favorites if you ask me tomorrow 😉 Each of the books listed below appealed to me for different reasons. (Also, I am still reading From Norvelt to Nowhere, the sequel to Jack Gantos’s darkly comic, Newbery winning Dead End in Norvelt… Plus there may be another wonderful title I’ve yet to discover. But don’t worry; I will update this list to add any deserving titles I may have missed this time around.)

So, without further ado, my favorite middle-grade titles of 2013 (that I’ve read so far!) are:


Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
In this hilarious romp full of Broadway references and misadventures, an eighth grader (with the encouragement of his best friend Libby) concocts a plan to run away to New York and audition for a new musical adaptation of E.T. Nate’s inner monologue and offbeat personality are laugh-out-loud funny, but the story also dexterously addresses deeper issues, such as bullying, disappointment, family, religion and sexuality. However, all of this is handled with a light touch, so that Nate is allowed to shine all on his own, without judgment or labels. Ages 9–13.

Bluffton by Matt Phelan (graphic novel)
In 1908, when a troupe of vaudevillians turn up for the summer in his sleepy Michigan town, young Henry is fascinated—particularly by a young prankster named Buster Keaton. Ages 9–13.
Read Tracy’s Review

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Willow Chance is not your usual twelve-year-old. She’s fascinated by medical ailments, is an avid gardener, and counts by sevens for fun.Most people think she’s strange, but at least she’s always had the support of her parents… until everything changes. Luckily, an odd assortment of characters—including her sad-sack school counselor and a Vietnamese family living below the poverty level—are there to help her. In turn, Willow changes their lives as well. This transformative story about loss, community, and resilience is both heartwarming and surprisingly funny. Ages 10–14.

Doll Bones by Holly Black
An eerie ghost story combines with a tale of friendship, adventure, and growing up in this wonderfully imaginative book from the co-author of The Spiderwick Chronicles Ages 10–14.

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
This story about a comic-reading cynic; a poetry-writing, superhero squirrel; and a temporarily blind boy all begins with an out-of-control vacuum cleaner. It’s a smart and sensitive tale of friendship and forgiveness, but there are plenty of laughs and adventures along the way. Ages 8–12.

The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle by Christopher Healy
In this sequel to The Hero’s Guide to saving Your Kingdom, the League of Princes (and their princesses) reunite for a new adventure in bumbling heroism. Perfect for lovers of humor and fairy tales of all ages. Ages 8 and up.

Jinx by Sage Blackwood
When he is abandoned in the deep, dark forest by his stepfather, Jinx is adopted (sort of) by a mysterious wizard who may or may not be evil. But as he grows up to learn more about the magic and the world outside of the Urwald, Jinx begins to see that life and magic are more complicated–and more dangerous!– than he thought. First of a new trilogy. Ages 9–13.

Navigating Early by Claire Vanderpool
Reality and imagination overlap in expected ways in this epic, Odyssey-like quest wherein two young teens track a bear in the wilds of Maine. Both boys have suffered recent losses, but through strange encounters with pirates (sort of), hurricanes (sort of), and buried secrets discovered along the Appalachian Trail, they come to a new understanding of one another, themselves, and the people they love. Ages 10–14.

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
Every four years, two children—one nice child and one nasty child—are spirited away from Gavaldon by the mysterious School Master to be trained as heroes and villains, eventually graduating into fairy tales of their own. But when princess wannabe Sophie and her witchy, loner friend Agatha are selected, the girls find that their presumed destines are flipped and the school is far more dangerous than they anticipated. Ages 8–13.
Read Tracy’s Review

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata
Twelve-year-old Summer nearly died from malaria last year, her weird younger brother can’t make any friends, and just when things can’t get any worse, her parents have been called to Japan to take care of dying relatives. Which just leaves Summer, her brother, and her aging grandparents to do the family’s annual harvest work and earn enough money to make the mortgage. As they travel with the harvesting crew, Summer goes on her own journey of self-discovery, examining her feelings about life, death, her family, and who she truly is. Ages 10–14.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt
Tall tale meets ecological fable in this folksy romp full of humor and heart.When he learns their landlord plans to evict his mother and destroy his beloved swamp to build a alligator-wrestling theme park, twelve-year-old Chap is determined to save Paradise Pies Café. Meanwhile, Bingo and J’miah, two raccoon brothers guarding the swamp, must locate the ancient, sleeping Sugar Man to stop a rampaging horde of feral hogs headed their way. Ages 8–12.


Courage Has No Color by Tanya Lee Stone*
Through fascinating photos and engaging, conversational text, Stone introduces readers to the history and character of the United States’s first black paratrooper unit. Ages 10 and up.

Emancipation Proclamation by Tonya Bolden
This browsable commemorative title has the look of a scrapbook, with facsimiles of numerous period documents, drawings, and photos. Together with the accessible text—with its passionate, personal tone—this book offers a dramatic and informative portrait of abolitionism and the nation leading up to the Civil War. Ages 10 and up.

Look Up! by Annette LeBlanc Cate*
This chatty, humorous beginner’s guide to birdwatching uses hilarious, tongue-in-cheek cartoons to build enthusiasm and explain to readers how they can begin in their own backyards. Simply wonderful, from the ‘Bird Watching Do’s…and Don’t’s” on the front endpapers to the very end.

*Please note that some titles are still on order and are not yet available for checkout at BCPL.

Awesome NEWS + REVIEW: Bluffton by Matt Phelan

NEWS: Earlier today we hit a major milestone. We surpassed 50,000 page views! I would like to thank all of our readers and followers for their support. Here’s to 50,000 more views, and years more of posts and reviews at Book News and Reviews!  –Tracy


Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Historical Fiction (Graphic Novel)
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween

Summary: The year is 1908, and a vaudeville troupe has arrived in sleepy Muskegon, Michigan to summer in nearby Bluffton. Henry—bored of the everyday sameness of Muskegon and working in his father’s shop—is fascinated by the animals and performers, but mostly with a slapstick comedian his own age named Buster Keaton. Henry quickly becomes a fixture in Bluffton, palling around with Buster and another boy traveling with the troupe. He yearns to perform like Buster, but all Buster wants to do is orchestrate pranks and play baseball.

First Lines: “Life in Muskegon, Michigan, was quiet. Ordinary.”

Tracy’s Thoughts: With gentle nostalgia, humor, and perfect pacing, award–winning graphic
novelist Matt Phelan brings to life a bygone era in this compelling
fictionalized account. Watercolor washes bring the place and period to life through soft focus, and yet the characters’ actions and emotions—from Buster’s pranks to Henry’s envy—are powerfully visualized. Like the illustrations, the story is a quiet one, but dynamic just the same. There are plenty of laughs (some of Buster’s pranks will delight and inspire mischievous kids) and there are many small, though-provoking moments of note. For example, there are small subplots about child labor laws and a romantic rivalry, but moral judgements aren’t overt; instead, readers are left to examine their own beliefs and draw conclusions of their own.

Despite its historical setting, many of the events and situations of the book have a timeless feel and are perfectly relevant to today. It might be tough convincing kiddos who have no idea who Buster Keaton is to give this book a try, but then the book isn’t really about Buster. It’s about Henry, who in his summers with Buster is encouraged to think more widely about the world, but also learns to appreciate the world closer to home. It’s a coming of age story about taking the things you love and becoming the person you are meant to be in adulthood.

REVIEW: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Fantasy/Fairy Tale
Audience: Middle-Grade/Tween

Children have been disappearing from the village of Gavaldon for generations. Adults claim children simply get lost in the forest and disappear, but the children know the truth. Every four years, two children—one nice child and one nasty child—are spirited away by the mysterious School Master to be trained as heroes and villains, eventually graduating into fairy tales of their own. Sophie has always believed she will be selected for the School of Good and groomed to become a princess. And surely her witchy, loner friend Agatha is destined for the School of Evil. Only once Sophie’s dream comes true and she and Agatha are taken by the School Master, the girls find that their presumed destinies are flipped and the school is far more dangerous than they anticipated.

First Line: “Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped.”

Tracy’s Thoughts:
I adored this book, with its twisted fairy tales and imaginative world building. At first glance, The School for Good and Evil might feel a bit like a Harry Potter rip-off, with its predestined school divisions, secret corridors, magical creatures, and deadly challenges. The Rowling influence here is undeniable. And yet—for the most part—The School for Good and Evil feels fresh and new. Much of this is due to its examination of the middle ground between good and evil and the unlikely, occasionally uneasy friendship between its two heroines.

Sophie—with her princess hair, flouncy pink dresses, and daily good deeds—is the picture of a Disney princess, while Agatha—a dire, black-clad loner who prefers the companionship of her cat and a quiet cemetery—thinks villains are far more interesting. Which is why the girls are so surprised when pretty Sophie is dropped at the School for Evil and Agatha is
assigned to the School for Good. Readers may think they know the “moral of the story”—truth lies beyond appearances, blah, blah, blah. But fortunately for us, the story and its characters are more complicated than that.

The School for Good and Evil is a bit lengthier than necessary, with a somewhat repetitive series of trials and tests, but I was entertained throughout and frequently amused by the snappy dialog and moral dilemmas. Despite its flaws, the The School for Good and Evil is a clever, adventure-filled read that turns the expected clichés of fairy tales upside down. Luckily, this is only the first title of a planned trilogy. A sequel (A World Without Princes) is due out in April 2014 and a film adaptation is currently in development. But for those eager for more, check out the dedicated website and take the exam to determine which school is right for you. (My results: 66.7% Good, 33.3% Evil. Sounds about right ; ) )

REVIEW: Rump by Liesl Shurtliff

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Genre: Fantasy/Fairy Tale
Audience: Middle-grade (upper elementary & and younger middle school)

Summary: In a land where your destiny is determined by your name, Rump is out of luck. No one—not Rump and not even his beloved grandmother —knows his true name because his mother died before she could tell anyone. All she was able to get out was the first part: “Rump.” Now he spends his days dodging bullies and toiling away in the mines, digging for enough specks of gold to scrape by and appease the greedy miller and the king. Then Rump uses his mother’s old spindle and makes a magical discovery: He can spin straw into gold! Unfortunately, magic can have terrible consequences, and Rump is quickly in over his head. Now Rump must cope with pixies, trolls, and fairy tale villains on his journey to discover his true name and gain control over the magic that binds him.

First Line: “My mother named me after a cow’s rear end.”

Tracy’s Thoughts:
Rumplestiltskin has been one of my favorite fairy tales ever since I saw the 1987 film adaptation starring Amy Irving and Billy Barty. Despite his creepiness and unmitigated selfishness, I was curious about Rumplestiltskin’s motives and background. I wanted to know more. Though I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Once Upon a Time, the character of Rumple—as portrayed by the supremely talented Robert Carlyle—has succeeded in making the story of Rumplestilkskin even more intriguing to me. Somehow, this adaptation by Liesl Shrutliff creates an alternate version that includes all the key elements of the original but turns the story inside out, making Rumplestiltskin the hero.

Suffice it to say that I enjoyed this novel immensely. Rump’s story is set in an unnamed kingdom, a well-developed world where fairy tales intersect just the teeniest bit. Clear, energetic writing and a cheeky narrative voice help create a story to capture the interest of even the most reluctant readers. The writing is full of silly humor (fart jokes even!) and adventure, yet there is substance here as well. Rump’s quest for self-confidence and hope in an unfair world is truly touching. It also addresses—and presents possible answers to—a lot of the questions I’ve had from previous versions, such as why Rump’s true name is so important. Although the action wanes from time to time into predictability, this is an appealing fantasy filled with laughter, cleverness, and magic.

FLASH REVIEWS: YALSA’s 2013 Hub Reading Challenge, Check-In #2

Eight down… and seventeen more to go. That’s not a very encouraging statistic considering I began this challenge back in February and I now have only until 11:59 p.m. (because every minute counts!) on Saturday, June 22nd to live up to my reading pledge. But as this is Summer Reading season and I HATE to fail at anything, I still think I can do it. Maybe. Possibly. Okay, my chances aren’t great, but I refuse to give up!

Anyway, here are the three books that I have read for the challenge and haven’t yet reviewed. (Thumbs up on all three, by the way. Although one definitely stands out for me far and above the others.)

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: Fantasy/Mystery/Paranormal Romance
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
I soooo wanted to love this book. And I did like it—a lot. But for me it did not quite have the same magic and ingenuity that made The Scorpio Races so enthralling. I think part of the problem is that I missed the first-person narration that allowed me to empathize so strongly with previous Stiefvater characters. (Although switching to third-person narration does fix the tendency I’ve noticed wherein Steifvater’s dual narrators often read as too alike and not fully distinct from one another.) But ultimately The Raven Boys lacked the lyrical qualities that drew me to Shiver and (most particularly) The Scorpio Races.

That is not to say that the book isn’t well written. It is, very much so. And the premise is intriguing. Blue is an interesting, likeable character who comes from a family of clairvoyants but remains a bit of an outsider. After all, she is not clairvoyant herself, though her presence somehow acts as an amplifier for others’ gifts. Meanwhile, there are the “Raven Boys” of Aglionby Academy. Gansey is the de facto leader of a group of misfits at the prestigious boys’ school. He feels responsible for guarding his troubled friends’ well-being and is obsessed with unraveling a mystical mystery that becomes key to the book (and presumably the rest of the series). Like most of the locals, Blue wants nothing to do with the stuck-up Raven Boys, but then she meets Gansey, whose fate seems tied to Blue and a deadly curse. All the elements—mystery, heartbreak, friendship, betrayal, moral dilemmas—are there, but they only began to come together for me near the book’s end. It was well past the mid-way point that the characters and their relationships began to fully engage my interest, but once this happened I was hooked. Luckily, this is only the first book in the Raven Cycle quartet. I think now that the characters have been introduced and the tone set, The Dream Thieves (due out in September) has the potential to far surpass its predecessor.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Genre: Graphic Novel/Realistic Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

This graphic novel from the author of Smile is a quick and amusing read. I loved Callie and really enjoyed all of her
interactions with her drama club pals, particularly her friendship with Liz. However, I do feel like the book reinforces stereotypes by [POTENTIAL SPOILER: Highlight to read!] having all three of
the male performer characters turn out to be gay (or potentially gay)
and making the only female performer into a self-absorbed, melodramatic
diva. But then this title was selected as one of the Great Graphic Novels Top Ten 2013 and as a 2013 Stonewall Honor Book, so maybe it’s just me. I have yet to see any other reviews that raise the same concerns. But regardless of my quibbles, I thoroughly enjoyed this story about a perpetually lovestruck 7th grader who adores the theater and her role on the crew of the school play. This title should find particular favor with middle-school Glee fans.

The Diviners by Libba Bray
Genre: Horror/Historical/Speculative Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

As The Diviners was a 2013 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults Top Ten selection, I chose to listen to this book in audio format. It was a much better experience than my last encounter with a Libba Bray audio book. At first, the 1920s slang and historical background seemed a bit gimmicky and overdone, but I was quickly drawn into the creepy, atmospheric world Bray creates. The Diviners is shamelessly excessive—the slang, the numerous characters, the mysteries—but this perfectly reflects the sumptuous excess of the era and lends the book an epic quality that promises good things to come. Featuring disparate teen protagonists with nothing in common other that a secret special ability, a ghostly serial killer, and the vivid setting of Prohibition-era New York, this is one of the most memorable series openers I’ve read in ages. Even better, while reaching a satisfactory resolution to the main plot of this book, there are overarching mysteries that have me eagerly awaiting the second book of the planned quartet.

NEWS: 2013 Youth Media Awards—Tracy Weighs In

… Cause what ya’ll really want to know is what I think, right? Hey, humor me here.

So, the Newberys, Caldecotts, Printz Awards, and other key ALA book awards were announced yesterday, and I was rather proud of myself for having read so many of the honorees. Here’s how things played out (with a little commentary from me :)).

John Newbery Medal

Medal Winner: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
This book was unique and absorbing, bittersweet and altogether lovely. I approve 1oo%. Many of the past medal winners have skewed more toward tweens (10–14), but The One and Only Ivan is perfect for younger ages as well. Again, I approve.

Newbery Honor: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
Not long after I started reading this book, I found myself thinking This is a book that will win awards. I also thought that it was a book that might have more appeal for adults than kids, one of those books that adults really, really want kids to love, but which turn out to be right only for that small, perfect audience. Who will love it with a passion. It’s undeniably well written, but I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about it although I enjoyed it and admired it in a impersonal kind of way. But if you (or your child) always wished Oliver Twist had a bit of dark fantasy mixed in, this may be just the book for you. (Okay, that sounds really intriguing. Maybe I should give this one another go…)

Newbery Honor: Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
In my mind, this one was pretty much a shoe-in for a nod. I’m not a huge reader of juvenile nonfiction, but the storytelling here was compelling and informative. Thumbs up. Bomb was also the winner of the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award and of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.

Newbery Honor: Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
I was so excited—and the teeniest bit surprised—to see this one get an honor nod. While there is no magic in this book in the supernatural sense, it is magical nonetheless. Turnage’s storytelling—the sense of place, character, voice, and tone—here is fantastic, and Mo is an unforgettable heroine if there ever was one.

**What’s Missing: Wonder by R.J. Palacio
I adored Wonder and firmly believe it should be required reading for every upper elementary or middle school student. And then their parents and older siblings need to read it too.

Randolph Caldecott Medal

Medal Winner: This Is Not My Hat, illustrated and written by Jon Klassen
Personally, I thought Klassen was cheated out of a Caldecott last year for I Want My Hat Back. He’s a genius when it comes to providing subtle visual cues to punctuate the sly humor that makes both of his “hat” book shine.

Caldecott Honor: Creepy Carrots!, illustrated by Peter Brown and written by Arron Reynolds
This was one of my absolute favorite picture books of 2012, and I am pleasantly surprised to see it get a nod here. I loved the cinematic feel (one review I read likened it to a Hitchcock horror movie—for kids of course), and the palette of orange, black, and gray. A fascinating combo of kiddie horror and humor. Well done, Caldecott committee.

Caldecott Honor: Extra Yarn, illustrated by Jon Klassen and written by Mac Barnett
So they’re really making up for overlooking Klassen last year. Although the text/story of Extra Yarn didn’t completely do it for me, I loved Klassen’s artwork—which is what counts for the purpose of this award.

Caldecott Honor: Green, illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
This is the book I expected to win, though I am quite pleased with the final outcome. Seeger’s work here is innovative, and the wonder of Green is made abundantly clear in this book trailer.

Caldecott Honor: One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small and written by Tony Buzzeo
I liked it, but didn’t love it, which is why it didn’t make the cut for our list of the Best Children’s Picture Books of 2012. But, as with Extra Yarn, I quite liked the illustrations. So I’m totally “cool” with this one too.

Caldecott Honor: Sleep Like A Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagaresnski and written by Mary Logue
Once again, I liked the book and the illustrations but it didn’t really make a strong impression on me one way or the other.

**What’s Missing: Oh, No!, illustrated by Eric Rohmann and written by Candace Fleming and Nighttime Ninja by illustrated by Ed Young and written by Barbara DaCosta, both of which I expected to make the list. And—while I always saw it as a long shot—I really, really love Ashley Wolff’s artwork in Baby Bear Sees Blue. I also think illustrator Doug Santat did some phenomenal work this year. But then, everybody can’t win 🙂

Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award
(Aka, the category that totally breaks my streak of having read the material…)

Medal Winner: Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Okay, not only does this one break my reading streak—I hadn’t even heard of this book yet. But then I already admitted that I’m not much of a juvenile nonfiction reader…

King (Author) Honor: Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
A gentle yet powerful picture book about bullying from the side of the (belatedly regretful) bully, and one of our picks for Best Children’s Picture Books of 2012

King (Author) Honor: No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by  Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
 I’ve heard fabulous things about this one, and it is currently sitting at home waiting for me to find time to read it.

Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award

King (Illustrator) Medal: I, Too, Am America, illustrated by Bryan Collier and written by Langston Hughes
I read it and loved the art. Unfortunately, the Langston Hughes text didn’t quite resonate for me (I know; awful, right?). As a result, the book wasn’t very memorable for me. But I may have to take anthor look.

King (Illustrator) Honor: H.O.R.S.E., illustrated and written by Christopher Myers
I am not familiar with this title 🙁 .

King (Illustrator) Honor: Ellen’s Broom., illustrated by Daniel minter and written by Kelly Starling Lyons
Don’t know this one either.

King (Illustrator) Honor: I Have a Dream., illustrated by Kadir Nelson and written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yay!!!! Enough said.

Michael L. Printz Award
As a side note, I must say: There was LOTS of debate yesterday and into today on librarian listservs and blogs about the recent winners of this category, some stating that the winners are often too literary to appeal to teen readers or that engaging stories are overlooked in favor of technical writing or literary experimentation. As this is an award for literary excellence, I would say the winners should be extremely well written. But in my view, literary merit depends upon that magical element of good storytelling as well as good technical writing. I’m not going to comment on how these specific qualities do or don’t apply to the specific winners and honorees (past or present) because here’s the thing: judging books—anything really—is SUBJECTIVE. Rant over.

Medal Winner: In Darkness by Nick Lake
I haven’t read this one yet and have read mixed reviews, but can’t wait to read for myself.

Printz Honor: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Just finished this last weekend and immediately it became my Printz sleeper favorite. It’s compulsively readable plus incredibly well written (but not in a showy or gimmicky way). I couldn’t be happier that Sáenz also nabbed the Pura Belpré (Author) Award and the Stonewall Book Award. I really have to read his highly praised book Last Night I Sang to the Monster ASAP.

Printz Honor: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
I know people who absolutely LOVED this book and others who found it so confusing they couldn’t finish it. Based on early buzz, I thought for sure it was going to be selected as the medal winner. It’s still sitting at home in my (rather tall and wobbly) to-be-read pile.

Printz Honor: Dodger by Terry Pratchett
Haven’t read this one, and haven’t heard too much buzz up till now. But you can never count out Terry Pratchett, and I will get to this one someday…

Printz Honor: The White Bicycle by Beverly Brenna
This one was a surprise to many; at least many of the commenters to my various listservs hadn’t yet heard of it. But then, that’s what I love about book awards: the chance to discover wonderful books that might’ve been otherwise overlooked.

**What’s Missing: Lots of people are up in arms over the exclusion of John Green’s A Fault in Their Stars, which I adored and agree to be incredibly well written. At the same time, I didn’t think it was a perfect book and am not overly disappointed. Maybe I’m just too happy about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  And A Fault in Our Stars wasn’t completely left out as it garnered the Odyssey Award for the audiobook.

Other ALA Award winners announced yesterday include:

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman,  William C. Morris Award winner
I found this to be an excellent debut novel featuring a well-developed fantasy world and an intriguing take on dragons. I can’t wait for the sequel.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
by emily m. danforth, William C. Morris Award finalist
I found this book quite engaging, but for me it begins to drag a bit in the middle. I actually had to set it aside for a while. That being said, even though I wasn’t reading it for a while, the writing and characters stayed in the back of my mind. I completely understand why the book has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye, although Cameron is a gay girl in 1980s small-town America and the book actually takes place across several years (as opposed to a few days). That being said, I was surprised that it wasn’t a Stonewall Honor Book

For a complete list of awards, winners, and honorees (if you’re not sick of awards lists by now), you can read yesterday’s ALA Press Release.

BEST OF 2012: Middle Grade/Tween Books

Sorry for the long wait between Best of 2012 posts. We’ve been frantically reading books that we somehow missed last year, books we felt needed to be considered for our Best of 2012 list. And our reading certainly paid off—otherwise, we would have missed out on the fabulous The One and Only Ivan, winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal. (But more on that tomorrow…)

So, without further ado, here are our favorite 2012 books for middle-grade readers and tweens:


The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Ascendance Trilogy #1

In the country of Carthya, a devious nobleman
engages four orphans in a brutal competition to be selected to
impersonate the king’s long-missing son in an effort to avoid a civil
war. –NoveList

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy
The four princes erroneously
dubbed Prince Charming and rudely marginalized in their respective fairy
tales form an unlikely team when a witch threatens the whole kingdom.  –Provided by publisher.

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger
At age twelve, Sophie learns that the remarkable abilities that have
always caused her to stand out identify her as an elf, and after being
brought to Eternalia to hone her skills, discovers that she has secrets
buried in her memory for which some would kill.  –NoveList

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
Seventh-grader Georges adjusts to moving from a
house to an apartment, his father’s efforts to start a new business,
his mother’s extra shifts as a nurse, being picked on at school, and
Safer, a boy who wants his help spying on another resident of their
building.  –NoveList

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
With love and determination befitting the “world’s greatest family,” twelve-year-old Deza Malone,
her older brother Jimmie, and their parents endure tough times in Gary,
Indiana, and later Flint, Michigan, during the Great Depression.  –NoveList
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pilcher
With his family still grieving over his sister’s death
in a terrorist bombing seven years earlier, twelve-year-old Jamie is far
more interested in his cat, Roger, his birthday Spiderman T-shirt, and
keeping his new Muslim friend Sunya a secret from his father. –NoveList

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
When Ivan, a gorilla who has lived for years in a
down-and-out circus-themed mall, meets Ruby, a baby elephant that has
been added to the mall, he decides that he must find her a better life.  –NoveList

The Second Life of Abigail Walker by Frances O’Roark Dowell
Bullied by two mean girls in her sixth-grade class, a lonely, plump girl
gains self-confidence and makes new friends after a mysterious fox
gently bites her.  –NoveList

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles
Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible in her family, where grumpy eighteen-year-old Sarah is working at
the family restaurant, fourteen-year-old Holden is struggling with
school bullies and his emerging homosexuality, and adorable,
three-year-old Charlie is always the center of attention, and when
tragedy strikes, the fragile bond holding the family together is
stretched almost to the breaking point.  –NoveList
Read Tracy’s Review

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker
A foster child named Angel and eleven-year-old Stella, who are living with Stella’s great-aunt Louise at the Linger Longer Cottage Colony on Cape Cod, secretly assume responsibility for the vacation rentals when Louise unexpectedly dies and the girls are afraid of being returned to the foster care system.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
Washed ashore as a baby in tiny Tupelo
Landing, North Carolina, Mo LoBeau, now eleven, and her best friend Dale
turn detective when the amnesiac Colonel, owner of a cafe and co-parent
of Mo with his cook, Miss Lana, seems implicated in a murder.

The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds
Luc, a youth born with one ear and raised by a
drunken father in fifteenth-century France, finds a better home with
fisherman Pons, his sister Mattie, and their ward Beatrice, the daughter
of a disgraced knight, and even after being kidnapped and sold into
slavery in Africa, he remains remarkably fortunate.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Ten-year-old Auggie Pullman, who was born with extreme facial
abnormalities and was not expected to survive, goes from being
home-schooled to entering fifth grade at a private middle school in
Manhattan, which entails enduring the taunting and fear of his
classmates as he struggles to be seen as just another student.


Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
Recounts the scientific discoveries that
enabled atom splitting, the military intelligence operations that
occurred in rival countries, and the work of brilliant scientists hidden
at Los Alamos.

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Y. Levinson
Discusses the events of the 4,000 African American students who marched to jail to secure their freedom in May 1963

REVIEW: See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Tween/Teen (11 and up)

Summary: Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible in her family. Her dad is obsessed with the family restaurant and hardly ever comes home for dinner anymore; her mother is constantly escaping to her special room to meditate; and her perpetually critical sister Sara is miserable to be stuck at working at the family diner while her friends are all away at college. Fern has always had a special bond with her older brother Holden, but now that he’s started high school he’s busy coping with school bullies and his own emerging sexuality. And then there’s adorable, irrepressible three-year-old Charlie, the constant center of attention within the family.
The only person keeping Fern sane is her eternally calm and optimistic
best friend Ran, who almost makes her believe that “all
will be well.” But then tragedy strikes and even Ran can’t see how things will ever be okay again.

 First Line: “The very best day of my life, I threw up four times and had a fever of 103 degrees.”

Tracy’s Thoughts:
This is a book that will make you laugh, break your heart, and then somehow, against all odds, make you smile again. Knowles’s characters are fully developed, with authentic emotions and flaws. Quiet, introspective Fern makes a wonderful narrator, and though the lens through which she sees each of her family members is necessarily skewed by her own perspective, readers are able sympathize with each of the characters. Fern’s voice is distinct and engaging, often with shades of unintentional humor. This is especially true when she talks about her family:

Holden is always running off in a huff, and I am always the one searching for him and bringing him home. Holden’s named after the main character in The Catcher in the Rye. I wasn’t supposed to read it until I’m older, but I snuck my mom’s paperback copy out of her room last year. The pages were all soft from her reading it so many times. The book is about this boy who’s depressed because he thinks everyone he knows is a phony, so he runs away. I understand why my mom liked the book and all, but I personally think is was a big mistake to name your kid after a boy who tries to kill himself, even if he is thoughtful and brilliant. My favorite parts in the book are when the main characters talks about his little sister, Phoebe. Sometimes I think I’m a little like Phoebe to our Holden. Because in the book she’s the one he goes back for. And that’s sort of like me. Only I have to go looking for him first. (25–26)

The first third of the book introduces the quirk-filled family, from
Fern’s goodhearted, embarrassing father to demanding, loveable Charlie.
But then everything—the simple coming-of-age story you thought you were
reading—comes to a devastating halt as tragedy strikes. The emotions
become even more palpable, and the characters more real.

Relationships shine in this book, particularly the bond between
Holden and Fern—and later, when she steps up after the tragedy, Sara.
Fern’s friendship with Ran and Cassie—which also adds a minor love triangle to
the mix—rings equally true and enjoyable. I don’t want to spoil the “tragedy” that shifts the direction of the
narrative, so there is not much more I can say about this gripping
story. Characters must cope with guilt, grief, and other complex emotions, but the story never becomes maudlin or melodramatic. But there are hints of brightness amidst the darkness that comes. This is a simply but incredibly well-written story, full of humor, compassion, heartwrenching tragedy, and, eventually, healing.

GUEST REVIEW: Gentle’s Holler by Kerry Madden

Allison, our teen and adult programmer here at BCPL, has a new guest review for you! 

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Younger Teens/Tweens (middle school)
Series: Maggie Valley #1

Summary: Livy Two Weems is a young girl in North Carolina, who dreams of being a songwriter but is always brought out of her dreams by her nine younger siblings.  Her father is an aspiring banjo player, her mother is constantly the rock of the family.  Livy Two is growing up poor and only wants to make things better for her poverty stricken family, especially her younger sister Gentle, who is blind.  Tragedy strikes, and Gentle is trying to come to grips with it, and help her family survive the turmoil in its wake.

Allison’s Review:
When I was younger I read The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings, and when I picked up Gentle’s Holler I was not expecting to find the same story. The blurb on the inside cover made me want to read about Livy Two, whose twin sister Olivia died at birth and to whom she sometimes prayed. I wanted to read about the poverty-stricken family and Livy Two’s sibling who was blind. I wanted something new. If I hadn’t already read The Yearling, I may have really enjoyed the story.  However, Gentle’s Holler seemed more like an endeavor to retell Rawlings’s classic tale.

There are some really touching parts of the story, like Livy Two’s dedication to finding something to help her younger sister Gentle function as normal without her sight. When Livy’s older brother Emmet leaves the family, we are drawn in to her heartbreak. When Grandma Horace arrives to help the family out of despair, the reader can genuinely feel the tension between family members.  And, when Livy’s father is desperately hanging onto life, I could identify with her fears and emotional state. 

I’m not sorry I took the time to read the book, but I wish that the writer would give us something a little more original to ponder.

REVIEW: Lost & Found by Shaun Tan

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre:  Picture Book, Short Stories
Audience: All Ages (9 and up)

Summary: Three (very) short stories, each beautifully illustrated, are collected in this fantastical volume. The first two stories, “The Red Tree” and “The Lost Thing,” were written by Tan while the third, “The Rabbits,” was written by his fellow Aussie, John Marsden (Tomorrow When the War Began). Each story deals with varying themes of emotional disconnection and physical displacement.

First Line: “Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to…” (from “The Red Tree”)

Tracy’s Thoughts:
The key to all three of these stories lies in Tan’s moody, evocative paintings. The paintings are immensely detailed and often offer hidden treasures to observant readers. Some of the images are truly stunning, especially juxtaposed with the simple, lyrical text. In my favorite story, “The Red Tree,” a young girl wakes up and moves though her not-very-good day, her feelings shifting from disappointment to alienation and depression. And yet all along, there are tiny glimpses of hope to find in Tan’s artwork. “The Lost Thing” is
a more upbeat tale of a boy who discovers a strange, lost creature in a chaotic and highly industrialized world. Both of these stories feel very intimate, but the final story has a wider scope. It is both an allegory about imperialism—specifically the invasion of Europeans in North America and Australia—and also touches on environmental concerns. Both of Tan’s stories feel more personal—and, for me, more powerful—but each of the three stories calls to the reader’s imagination and is strong enough to stand alone.

You might also be interested to learn that Tan adapted the second story in this volume into an Oscar-winning animated short. Here’s a peek at the trailer:

REVIEW: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Tracy’s Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Humor
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween

Summary: Jack Gantos can’t seem to stay out of trouble. It’s the summer of 1962 and, after an incident with his dad’s collectible WWII sniper rifle and getting caught in the middle of a parental feud, Jack is “grounded for life”! Now he’s only allowed out of the house to help his dad dig a giant hole in the yard and to type up the obituaries for his elderly neighbor, whose arthritic hands won’t allow her to use the typewriter. But somehow what promised to be a deadly-dull summer turns into one of the most memorable summers ever, filled with bloody noses, underage driving, Hells Angels, and a suspicious number of dead people.

First Line: “School was finally out and I was standing on a picnic table in our backyard getting ready for a great summer vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined it.”

Tracy’s Thoughts:
I listened to the audio book in my car, and there were moments that I laughed hard enough to become a potential traffic hazard. This is a book with Personality, from the irrepressibly curious Jack to his loving, bickering parents. Then there are all the other zany characters that inhabit Norvelt: Bunny Huffer, Jack’s best friend and daughter of the local funeral parlor owner, who gleefully entertains Jack with nosebleed-inducing tales of gore; Jack’s uncle, who paints his horse’s mane in bold colors for effect; and of course the feisty, history-spouting Miss Volker, who tells it like she sees it and revels in a good argument. Possibly my favorite character was Mr. Spizz, a crochety old man who rides around town on a giant TRICYCLE, handing out citations and offering chocolates in his decades’ long mission to woo a resistant Miss Volker. I particularly enjoyed Gantos’s narration of Spizz’s character in the audio version; every time he called Jack “Gantos boy” in Spizz’s wheezy, condescending way, I couldn’t help but grin.

Dead End in Norvelt is a great mix of history, humor, and realistic fiction. It is richly layered, but for readers who prefer action and laughs over deep thoughts, the history and life lessons aren’t overly intrusive. Like most of Gantos’s books, it is loosely autobiographical. Perhaps that is why the book is imbued with so much energy and believability, despite the occasionally far-out scenarios. I very much enjoyed the dark humor, slightly off-kilter (often hilarious!) descriptions, and eccentric characters. Those with an interest in history (particularly admirers of Eleanor Roosevelt) will be especially pleased.

Here’s a look at the book trailer:

And here is a brief interview with Jack Gantos after Dead End in Norvelt was selected as the 2012 Newbery Medal winner:

Best of 2011: Middle Grade/Tween Books

Here are our favorite 2011 books for middle-grade readers and tweens! A few of the titles skew a little older (10/11+).

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
It’s 1952, and fourteen-year-old Janie isn’t happy when her family moves from sunny Los Angeles to dreary London. Then she meets Ben and his father—an apothecary with a secret book of “scientific magic”—and becomes involved in a mission to save the world from nuclear war. This is a fast-paced historical fantasy/adventure.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Fifth-graders Hazel and Jack are best friends. Together, they prefer imagination and fantasy over reality. So when Jack suddenly stops talking to her, Hazel becomes convinced that something magical is at work and embarks on a quest into the woods to rescue her friend from an evil Snow Queen.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing
Authors Tell the Tales
by Chris Van Allsburg
An inspired collection of short stories by an all-star cast of best-selling storytellers based on the thought-provoking illustrations in Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
Lucinda’s Review.

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
Three siblings who were separated from their parents under mysterious circumstances a decade ago discover a magical book in their new orphanage. When the book transports them into the recent past—where an evil witch holds an entire town captive in search of the very book they hold—they must find a way to save the town and keep their family together.

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri
Twelve-year-old Cole is dumbfounded when his mother dumps him on the doorstep of the father he’s never met. Even worse, his father thinks that he’s a cowboy—in the middle of the Philadelphia ghetto!—and expects Cole to learn the “cowboy way.”

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This novel in free verse follows a year in the life on ten-year-old Hà and her family, from their life in Saigon, to their flight from their home in the wake of the Vietnam War, through the difficult transition to life in America. This is a quick and surprisingly lighthearted read, filled with perception and humor.

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Everyone at Montecello knows that Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston are the children of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, though it can never be spoken of. But what does it mean when the man who wrote “all men are created equal” is your father—and also your slave master?

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Conor is plagued by a recurring nightmare, but when a real monster appears in his room one night, he isn’t afraid—until the monster demands to know the secrets of Conor’s dream. This is a powerful, timeless book full of sharp humor, insight, and a dark eeriness that is echoed perfectly in nightmarish pen and ink drawings.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmid
In this companion book to the award-wining The Wednesday Wars, Doug Swieteck is bummed when his blowhard dad loses his job and the family has to move from Brooklyn to small-town Marysville, NY. It is obvious that the town sees Doug as a criminal-in-training, but after discovering drawing and making a friend, Doug begins to feel okay—for now.

Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Booraem
As a child, Mellie’s best friend was a Small Person with Wings (not a fairy!) named Fidius. After years of ridicule from her classmates, she stopped believing in their existence. That is until her family inherits her grandfather’s run-down inn—overrun with bickering, demanding Parvi Pennati (aka Small Persons with Wings)— and she is pulled into a series of magical misadventures in search of a magical ring that has linked her family to the Parvi for centuries.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
In 1977, shortly after his mother’s death, 12-year-old Ben runs away from his Minnesota home to seek the father he never knew in New York City. Fifty years earlier, in 1927, a young deaf girl named Rose runs away from her father’s New Jersey mansion to track down her favorite silent film star. Ben’s story is told in words; Rose’s is revealed through a series of richly detailed pencil drawings.

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann
In a society where creativity is a crime, thirteen-year-old Alex is separated from his twin brother and sent for Elimination. Instead, he finds himself in a wondrous place where the “Unwanteds” hone their artistic abilities, learn magic, and prepare for an inevitable battle.

Late additions:

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

REVIEW: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Rating: 5/5 Stars
Audience: Middle School/Ages 10 and up
Genre: Supernatural Short Stories

An inspired collection of short stories by an all-star cast of best-selling storytellers based on the thought-provoking illustrations in Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

For more than twenty-five years, the illustrations in the extraordinary Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg have intrigued and entertained readers of all ages. Thousands of children have been inspired to weave their own stories to go with these enigmatic pictures. Now we’ve asked some of our very best storytellers to spin the tales. Enter The Chronicles of Harris Burdick to gather this incredible compendium of stories: mysterious, funny, creepy, poignant, these are tales you won’t soon forget.

This inspired collection of short stories features many remarkable, best-selling authors in the worlds of both adult and children’s literature: Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, Lemony Snicket, and Chris Van Allsburg himself.

Here is a book trailer:

Lucinda’s Thoughts:  I have always been a Chris Van Allsburg fan and the Mysteries of Harris Burrdick has always intrigued me.  The mysterious drawings have always provoked many “What ifs?” and this collection of tales seems to be the answer to that question.   The stories are all well-written and made me think to myself “Would I have gotten this tale from that picture?”  Many of the stories are definitely “out of the box” and the characters are unexpected and original.  The stories will keep a reader’s interest right up to the last page and leave them asking for more.  For example, M.T. Anderson’s Just Dessert was so well constructed that after I read the story I wondered about the nature of reality and its malleability.  Stephen King’s The house on Maple Street is very reminiscent of his early work and John Scieszka’s Under the Rug could have been an Edgar Allen Poe work.  If you like dark mysteries and enjoy stories that are just a little bit west of sideways, this is the work for you.  I give it two thumbs up!

REVIEW: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween
Genre: Historical Fiction/Novel in Verse

Summary: It’s 1975 and, as the Vietnam War rages, the fall of Saigon is imminent. Until now, ten-year-old Hà’s life has been been somewhat ordinary: she goes to school, fights with her older brothers, plays pranks on her friends. Of course, her father has also been missing in action for nine years and now her friends are beginning to move away from the threat of the Communist invasion. When her mother makes the difficult decision to flee their homeland, the family must leave behind everything familiar. The novel is written in free verse and takes place over the course of a year, beginning on Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, relating Hà’s experiences and impressions from her life in Saigon, through the family’s escape and difficult boat journey, to the even more difficult transition to life in America.

Tracy’s Thoughts:
First off, I usually avoid novels in verse. I am always skeptical that they can deliver the same level of plot detail and character development as a prose novel. Thanhha Lai proved me wrong. There is precisely the right amount of detail in this sparse novel. Hà’s world is elegantly and succinctly crafted and the format in no way detracts from the fullness of the story. Hà, her mother, and each of her three brothers emerge as distinct, empathetic characters. There is the scholarly engineering student, Brother Quang, who must take on work as an apprentice mechanic; gentle Brother Khôi, lover of animals; fierce, loyal Brother Vu, obsessed with Bruce Lee; and their mother, a loving woman strong enough to do whatever is needed for her family. Hà herself is eager, perceptive, stubborn, and prone to tempers. She’s determined to feel smart again, though quite sure that “Whoever invented English/should be bitten/by a snake.”

This is a powerful novel about the immigrant experience, and one to savor slowly. Despite what many will consider weighty subject matter, this is a fairly light read with a good deal of humor. I found myself grinning and laughing out loud more than once at Hà fresh take on American culture, such as her insistence that the “The Cowboy,” as she calls her family’s Stetson-sporting American sponsor, should have a proper horse and teach her to ride. Inside Out & Back Again is also the perfect novel to give to any middle school student who has been bullied or felt out of place.

REVIEW: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween
Genre: Realistic Fiction

Summary: When their weird classmate Dwight begins to wear an origami finger puppet and claims that Origami Yoda can predict the future, sixth-grader Tommy and his friends decide to keep a case book of their encounters with Dwight’s puppet so that they can determine whether the predictions are accurate. This book includes instructions for constructing your own Origami Yoda.

Tracy’s Thoughts: 

First, a confession: I am not much of a Star Wars fan. I mean, I’ve seen the original movie (now dubbed “Episode IV”) and the even the second (i.e., Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back). It was at Governor’s Scholars in 1996 a long time ago, and I really don’t remember much beyond the most iconic moments that are probably familiar more from various spoofs than from the actual films. I do remember finding Yoda rather annoying. So, despite all the glowing reviews, I approached Tom Angleberger’s book with (I think) understandable hesitation. And found it adorable and really, really funny.

Despite the title, you don’t have to be familiar with the Star Wars universe to enjoy this book, though a love of all things Jedi and Yoda-like philosophy will certainly heighten its appeal. The format, with various characters’ first-person accounts and its humorous drawings, is sure to attract Dairy of a Wimpy Kid fans. There is also a similar humor and camaraderie reminiscent of Kinney’s uber-popular series. And yet Angleberger’s characters and stories have a distinctive flavor of their own.

Dwight is an awkward, loner-type nerd who uses a finger puppet to communicate with his classmates. His Yoda impression isn’t the best, but the advice and predictions made by Origami Yoda are downright uncanny. Soon the whole sixth-grade class is vying for Dwight’s attention and debating the power of Origami Yoda. The main narrator, Tommy, is a likable, relatable character who isn’t sure what to believe while his best friend Harvey is staunchly cynical about the whole thing. The interactions between the characters and their willingness to follow the cryptic advice of a paper finger puppet are somehow believable and hilarious. All in all, this is a fun, quick read with wide appeal—whether you are a Star Wars fan or not.

REVIEW: Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween
Genres: Magical Realism


Ten-year-old Keeper believes in wishes and magic, and truly thinks her long-lost mother is a mermaid. She’s safe and happy living in a small, close-knit Gulf Coast community with her guardian Signe and an extended family made up of eccentric neighbors and pets. But on the day of the blue moon, everything goes wrong. Keeper makes a series of mistakes that angers everyone she loves and the only solution she can think of is to find her magical mother to ask for help. Setting off alone to find a mermaid could be dangerous, but Keeper has a plan and her dog BD and Captain the seagull for company. Unfortunately, not everything goes as planned. 
Tracy’s Thoughts:
It has been months since I first read this book, and yet thinking of this charming tale still puts a smile on my face. The setting is beautifully and evocatively drawn, and a hint of magic runs throughout. It’s not a fairy tale, but there is a dreamy, nostalgic quality to Appelt’s writing that is similar. From the beginning, I doubted Keeper’s belief in magic and mermaids, but her faith had me constantly thinking “what if?” Between Keeper’s rich imagination and Appelt’s lyric writing style, even the most common things are lent a measure of magic. 
Keeper is a clever, loveable girl with a unique personality. In fact, all of Appelt’s characters in this wonderfully written book have a distinct personality and history—even BD and Captain! Keeper contains several flashbacks and is narrated from multiple perspectives, which may challenge some younger readers, but the payoff is definitely worth it. There are actually several storylines woven together here, though Keeper’s adventure remains central. One set of flashbacks involves Keeper and Signe’s neighbor and good friend Mr. Beauchamps, an older gentleman with regrets about a youthful romance and missed chances. His relationship with another young man is mostly implied and contains nothing objectionable for young readers, but some readers/parents might want to be aware of this small piece of the overall storyline.
This is a very quiet book. The action builds slowly, only gradually reaching a point where the tension is so high that I actually, literally, held my breath as I turned the pages. I was genuinely worried about the characters, as if they were real people that I knew. Going into too much detail would ruin this enchanting story of family, love, and secrets—but if you enjoy vivid settings, a touch of nerve-wracking adventure, and colorful characters, this book is a rewarding, unforgettable read. It is especially good for thoughtful tweens who consider most middle grade fiction too childish.
Keeper is one of the featured titles in our Fall Giveaway Event!

REVIEW: Crunch by Leslie Connor

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween
Genres: Realistic Fiction, Mystery, Humor

Summary: With his parents stranded on the highway by a gas shortage, it is up to 14-year-old Dewey to keep the family bike repair business under control. But with cars out of commission and an influx of damaged bicycles, things get a little out of hand. Especially when items begin to mysteriously disappear from the shop. Plus, Dewey has to help his older sister and younger-by-a-year brother with the 5-year-old twins and keep the farm chores tended to. All five siblings must find a way to work together while their parents are detained and decide which of their friends and neighbors they can rely on. 

Tracy’s Thoughts:
This is a lovely, humorous book about balancing fun and responsibility, with a bit of a mystery thrown in for good measure. Connor’s dialog is light and amusing, and her characters engaging. The Mariss siblings live in a charming world, and each has his or her own distinct, quirky personality. Plus there is a sneaky, crotchety old neighbor that had me snickering and numerous mini-adventures to keep the pages turning. There is also a message of eco-friendliness and sustainability that will appeal to certain readers.

REVIEW: Griff Carver, Hallway Patrol by Jim Krieg

Rating: 4.5/5
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween
Genre: Mystery

Summary: Griff Carver is a safety patrol legend, but after going too far in the name of justice he was expelled from his old school. Now he’s at Rampart Middle School and determined to sniff out the corruption lurking beneath the squeaky-clean surface. Unfortunately, Griff makes an immediate enemy of the school principal after calling him out for littering, and his new partner is an overly chatty Camp Scout who is blind to the fishy goings-on at Rampart.

Tracy’s Thoughts:
This is one of the best middle-grade novels I’ve read in ages—perhaps ever. Television writer Jim Krieg has cleverly taken the tone of a 40s’ noir film and applied it to a modern-day middle school. Griff is a hard-nosed, dedicated hall cop with an uncanny instinct for crime-solving. He’s suspicious of everyone and quickly catches on to a fake hall pass scheme. Along the way, he makes unlikely allies in his naive by-the-books partner, the school’s ambitious girl reporter, and a wise but mysterious janitor. Plus, an arch villain emerges who is sure to butt heads with Griff in future books. (Are you listening, Mr. Krieg? We want sequels, and lots of ’em!)

The narrative is actually a blend of first person accounts, most of them made up of guidance counselor interview transcripts from Griff’s perspective and incident reports from his super-conscientious partner Tommy. There are also a handful of snark-filled diary journal entries from ace reporter Verity King. I think this style allows each of the characters’ personalities to shine, and will likely appeal to Diary of a Wimpy Kid fans ready for a slightly more challenging read without the cartoons. There are a few words that will challenge younger readers, but Krieg’s easy, relaxed writing style will keep them eagerly turning the pages.

Overall, this is a smart, laugh-out-loud whodunit with style. Krieg creates a slightly skewed yet wonderfully realistic version of middle school, and his characters are engaging and likeable. Griff’s dedication is so intense it is comical, and his pithy remarks are often startlingly funny. Tommy’s bumbling earnestness is equally endearing. Griff Carver is a clever, fast-paced read, with kid-friendly humor and a vivid setting and characters. As I said earlier, I am really hoping for sequels so that I can visit again.