Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Becuase of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

Mr. Terupt is the teacher we all wish we had. For some, he’s that teacher who touched the lives of students and changed them forever. The narrative alternates between Mr. Terupt’s seven 5th grade students. Each voice adds a unique perspective on what it means to be a student, on making and keepings friends, and how to forgive.

When disaster strikes midway through the year, the students are pushed to the emotional edge. They are hard pressed to put all of Mr. Terupt’s teachings into action when life crashes down on them.

Buyea’s writing captures the student’s voices exceptionally well. Tweens will no doubt identify with one or more of the characters. Readers are given the chance to see one disastrous event through the eyes of many. Empathy is evoked as we see how one person’s perception of events can be vastly different from another’s but they are all affected. Though the story became a bit slow, there is a lot worth discussing with a group of tweens. From grief and guilt to isolation and hope, Buyea offers a lot of thinking matter in this thoughtful novel.

Publisher: Delacorte, 2010     Pages: 288  
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: Public Library

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

This was possibly the best book I’ve read in years. I rarely give a “5 Star” status but didn't even have to think about it. There were many reasons for me NOT to like this book. It’s contemporary fiction (I’m drawn to fantasy). It’s about “depressing” subjects, it’s akin to a “problem novel,” which I tend to find forced with see-through agendas taking on too many issues. But I loved this book. It wasn’t forced, it was genuine. Not depressing, but uplifting.

When children ask questions, and adults won't or can’t answer, they are left to make their own assumptions about life. Ten-year-old Jamie has a lot of questions and the first person narration captures his observations.

His older sister, Rose (a twin), died five years before the novel begins in a London terrorist attack. Jamie can hardly remember Rose, but his family has fallen apart because of the loss. His father harbors fear and hate for Muslims and holds onto his grief, forcing it onto others. His mother has checked out and left the family. His older sister, Jas, does her best to make sure Jamie knows he is cared for.

What shined was Jamie’s relationship with his classmate and best friend, Sunya, who wears a hijab to school. Though this relationship is a risk for Jamie (how furious would his father be if he knew?), it is Sunya who strengthens Jamie’s spirit when he is at his lowest. She sticks up for him, plays into his fascination with superheros and even calls Jamie out when he acts like a fair-weather friend.

Jamie’s belief that things can get better and that friendship is important carry this book. He loves his family despite their glaring problems and takes action, doing the best a 10-year-old can, to make things better. I laughed and I cried in no small part to Annabel Pitcher’s writing but also because of David Tennant’s amazing narration. Just fantastic.

The mantelpiece, the hearth, is supposed to be the center of home which conjures feelings of warmth and belonging, love and security. But in Jamie’s home, his dead sister lives on the mantelpiece and her ghostly presence looms large, scattering all positive emotions. But with help from Sunya and Jas, Jamie finds a way to make his presence known and remind a family what it means to be family. 

Though targeted at middle-grade readers, I'd recommend this book to anybody. Anybody! <3

Publisher: Findaway World, 2012     Length: 6 hours
Rating: 5 Stars     Source: Public Library

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

Mice make such endearing characters. Jack and Gus from Cinderella, Mickey Mouse, Despereaux from DiCamillo’s book. And now, enter “Mouse Minor,” a mouse with unknown origins and an affection for alliteration.

Set during Queen Victoria’s reign, Mouse Minor (lineage: unclear; stature: decidedly small) sets off on an adventure spanning the the grounds, outbuildings and buildings proper of Buckingham Palace to seek his place in life. He overcomes fears and perseveres when answers are not quickly revealed. A large cast of delightful animals helps Mouse Minor find his way. If you know a child who enjoys adventure stories with more daring than danger, more thrills and less chills, this tender-hearted read may be what you need.

Richard Peck is an established children’s author with awards under his belt. He does not disappoint with The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail. I picked this story up on a whim, looking for something a little different to read, and was not disappointed. I may have even teared up once or twice… those mice. Small characters with big things to prove! They get to me every time!

Publisher: Dial, 2013     Pages: 224
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder was one of my favorite reads for 2013 and hit with my teen book club. The book was a surprising treat. Meyer stays close to the original Cinderella fairy tale in that several characters and the story arch are all similar. But she weaves in a science fiction aspect with skill. Cinder(ella) as a cyborg? Yes!

Cinder is a heroine with spunk, grit and serious determination. Unlike the Cinderella most of us know, Cinder’s goal in life isn’t to get hitched to the prince. Rather she spends her days learning her craft -- expert mechanic. And it is her skill which puts her in the Prince’s sights.

Humans have colonized the Earth and morphed into hybrids called Lunars. They threaten Earth while it is succumbing to a mysterious plague. Cinder finds herself caught up in dubious research for a cure in a political landscape that is quickly changing. An evil stepmother, an android fairy godmother, a coach of Cinder’s making and a race to the ball that is sure to bring laughter… Cinder is a clever YA novel with a lot to discuss, and many comparisons for those who have read various versions of the fairy tale.

The sequel, Scarlet, is already out and the third book, Cress, is out February 2014. Teen guys and girls alike enjoyed this novel in my book discussion. Definitely a thumbs up!

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends, 2012.     Pages: 390
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review: The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

Allison lives in the outermost circle of a walled-in city. Inside, humans are herded like cattle for vampires. Outside the walls live another blood-thirsty terror -- rabids. “Registered” humans give blood annually to vampires in exchange for food and clothing. Unregistered, like Allison, do not give their blood willing and are forced to scavenge. An unfortunate run-in on a scavenging raid forces Allison to become what she hates most.

The premise of The Immortal Rules caught my attention quickly and I enjoyed the overall storyline. Kagawa complicates the the zombie theme by introducing vampires into their origins. I enjoyed how the story unfolded, learning as Allison discovers how the vampire hierarchy has created a ruling elite across the country.

Allison is a survivor. She does what she must to live another day. She takes risks which lead to steep consequences. She also struggles to keep her new bloodlust in check so that she might protect herself and others. There is a seemingly doomed romance and plenty of action to keep teen readers turning pages.

Those who can’t get enough vampires stories will want to put The Immortal Rules on the their list. It is the first in a trilogy so get ready for an open ending. 

I'm really mixed on this book; I liked it but didn't love it. The action scenes were good, the vampire history and relationships interesting, the rabids fierce, the human nomads strangely rustic. But for me, the first person narration and obligatory-but-nothing-special romance detracted from an intriguing  premise. I’ve added the second book, The Eternity Cure, to my reading list but it may wait for some time.

Publisher: Harlequin Teens, 2012     Pages: 485
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: Public Library

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hosting Teen Book Discussions

This post will explore how librarians can host teen book discussions. Anne of My Head Is Full of Books recently asked me how I go about my discussions, where I get the books, etc. so, I decided to write a post in response!

First, I briefly give my background. Then, I consider ways to get the program going. Then I share how I have conducted teen book discussions.

My experience is that of a public youth librarian. My educational background is an English major undergraduate and a Library and Information Science masters student with an emphasis on youth services. I host a teen program once a week and once a month the activity is a book discussion.

Book Acquisition. My library budgets for the books. We cut other things so the teen book discussion can happen. My strength is literature. It would be a waste not to use my ability. I am a part of a branch library system. We share our book discussion kits between the branches. Nearly all do a discussion each month. Each book set begins with 12-13 copies. We try to get paperbacks to keep costs down. We number the books, stick some library labels on them (no cataloging) and keep a spreadsheet to track internal circulation by youth personnel who use the set.

Other book acquisition ideas:
  • Request free or greatly discounted copies from the publishers. You’ve nothing to lose.
  • Fundraise. It is often easier to get money for the purchase of books than a money gift. Request a specific title which patrons/donors can donate to the set.
  • Thrift shop. Hit the Half Price Books Educator Appreciation week. Bargain hunt at Goodwill and By definition, library users share books. They won’t be offended if they are not brand new copies.
  • Supplement your book set with copies the library already owns for circulation.
  • Remember out-of-copyright classics are mostly free to access online.
  • Start small. Maybe you will only need to purchase 4 copies and use 2 the library already owns.
  • Get the program going and make your case for more funding!

Selecting Titles. As a public librarian, I DO NOT have a captive audience. So, I choose books they will enjoy! Think fun, popular. But use your librarian skills to find decently written fun books. Be wary of literature which teens might associate with homework. I mix it up now and then with a “challenging” book but don’t beat them over the head with them. Choose age appropriate titles. Do you expect young teens? Older teens? Will you allow 11 year olds to join? Will a 12th grader enjoy the books an 11 year old will? Just keep age in mind when selecting titles.

Advertising. As with any program, advertise! Make signs, posters, flyers. Mention the book club when giving book talks. Tell parents and teens, tell leaders of teen groups like Boys and Girls clubs. Contact homeschooling groups! Tell everyone!

Incentive. I offer pizza and off-brand Crystal Light to those who read the book and engage in discussion. Perhaps pizza isn’t an option...what is? Popcorn? A drawing for a free withdrawn book or a coupon for a free pretzel (perhaps provided by a local business?). How about a late fee forgiveness coupon? Are you a school librarian… is extra credit an option? Be creative! But don’t underestimate the power of good food with teenagers. =)

Check Out. Our discussion books are not cataloged so they do not “check out.” We take a name, grade and phone number. Returning is on the honor system. Those who don’t return books get a reminder call and a note in their library record regarding the missing book (though they are not charged) in hopes the teen will eventually return it. Most teens will bring the books back. Those who do not cannot participate in future discussions. I know of other libraries who actually give the books to the kids for keeps. That is generous but would not work with my library’s budget as the branches share the sets to get the most bang for our buck.    

Hosting discussion. Don’t worry. This is the fun part. I’ve had as few as one teen and as many as seven. Even with just one participant, I’ve had engaging discussions. We take one hour for discussion.

Prepare questions and activities. They can be simple activities and should be open ended questions. Take notes while reading about intriguing points. I like to check the publisher’s website for a discussion guide. I don’t always use their questions. But it’s a good starting point which gives me ideas. I poke around the author’s website and look up information about people, places or things discussed in the books.

Let book chatter continue largely uninterrupted. If it’s about the book we read, let ‘em talk! Start with easy questions: Did you like the book? Dislike it? As leader, play Devil’s advocate and don’t let any one teen feel they are being “picked on” for liking or disliking a character or book. Make sure your teens understand the setting -- time and place. Often this is missed by my young readers. Be prepared to fill in details like when a certain war took place or where a country is located. Then move into more philosophical questions.

For activities, we’ve done knot tying, drawing “vocabulary” words (great laughs) and compared international covers. We’ve played card games mentioned in one book and traced a character’s journey on the map from another story. We’ve listened to youtube videos of old radio broadcasts. Everything we do is low key. There’s no grade. No pressure. Just talk and try something new.

Discarding sets. When copies get ratty, we either replace the copy or weed the entire set (i.e. books go into the library sale). Sets which are in decent shape but are no longer being used by youth personnel may end up in our circulating book discussion sets for the public to check out.

How will you start your Teen Book Club? Maybe my library’s method won’t work for you. Maybe you can only host a discussion every other month or only in the summer. Advocate for the programming you want. Book groups are a lot of fun and certainly support literacy. It’s great to watch teens get excited about reading!

Do you have any tips on getting a book club started at a library? Do you have a great discussion activity? Leave a comment below!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

Holly Thompson’s The Language Inside did everything I’ve been looking for in a novel in verse. Thompson is clearly a poet not just a writer. The words are deliberately chosen for their meaning and beauty, and their ability to evoke a thoughtful response in the reader.

After reading the summary I was skeptical. There were so many different issues the novel takes up. Emma is a teen raised in Japan. When she moves back to the U.S. because her mother has breast cancer, Emma volunteers at a long-term care center. There, Emma helps Zena, a patient with locked-in syndrome, write poems. She also meets Cambodian refugees and makes new friends all the while suffering from migraines. Eventually she must choose: stay in the U.S. or return to Japan. So, ya, a lot going on! But Thompson weaves the story seamlessly and believably. Having recently read Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down I was happy to stumble upon more that would give me a glimpse about the Khmer Rouge.

I liked Emma and her story but I enjoyed the poetic form. It wasn’t a gimmick to snag “reluctant readers” (though I would still recommend this book to one). This is a story not only made of poems but also about poetry as Zena and Emma write together. I’ve been on the hunt for high-quality novels in verse and am happy to add The Language Inside to my list.

Publisher: Delacorte, 2013     Pages: 528
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Shadow and Bone was a big hit with my teen book discussion group. There was a lot of animated talk and excitement about this new series. Leigh Bardugo weaves Russian culture with high fantasy adding just enough suspense and romance to keep readers intrigued and happily turning pages. Both the heroine and her antagonist are multidimensional characters, too, with strange pasts and questionable futures.

Alina is a teen orphan who discovers much later than usual that she is not just a commoner but a Grisha, one of the few born with a magical gift. And not just any Grisha, Alina has a special talent that could change the fate of her country. Bardugo uses first person narration and I think the third person would have been stronger. I felt Alina’s viewpoint limited the potential for world building. Shadow and Bone focuses on Alina’s transformation and coming of age while she comes into her new power. She struggles to decipher who her true friends are. Teenagers will relate to her anxiety and feelings of awkwardness as she discovers her new place in an adult world.

Fans of fantasy with a bit of romance will enjoy this well conceived and written debut novel. Alina is an imperfect character which is why I like her. While teens will be drawn to the love-triangle it does not completely dominate the story. Bardugo offers an interesting backdrop for the action which picks up considerably as characters race to control a destructive power. Readers will be left wanting to grab the second book, Siege and Storm. I  know my teen readers couldn’t wait!

While dystopias are all the rage right now, and I am a fan of them, Shadow and Bone is a nice retreat back to classic fantasy. If you're looking to diversify your teen's reading I would highly recommend this book! The Russian flavor to the story is a nice treat and sparked an interest in Russian culture during my teen book discussion.

Publisher: Henry Holt, 2012     Pages: 359
Rating: 3.5 Stars     Source: Public Library

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: Stag's Leap: Poems by Sharon Olds

Olds won the Pulitzer for poetry (2013) with Stag's Leap. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, recommended this book of verse when I heard her speak in April. I knew nothing else about it when I reserved a copy at my library so I didn't know what to expect.

I kinda like that... not knowing what to expect but just diving into a book blindly.

Quickly, I found the poems were telling a story, a rather melancholy one, about a women who was left by her husband. The poems were so raw and real that I assumed, correctly, that Olds is sharing about her own experience. The poems are from the perspective of the lover who has been left for another after 30 years of marriage. 

I found the perspective intriguing. Many people experience the same life events: death, marriage, children, relocation, reunions, etc. But we experience them in vastly different ways. As a divorcée, my experience was different than Olds', but I identified with many of the phases, with their accompanying emotions, that the book explores. Fear, confusion, disgust, self-loathing, longing, nostalgia, anxiety: some of the emotions I experienced during what felt like the turn of a large wheel that was slowly, sometimes grindingly, taking me to a new frontier of my life.

Perhaps it was the right book at the right time of my life but I found Olds' poems to be exceptional. I was often frustrated with her as a "character" but overall I enjoyed the book as a story and as poetry.

Publisher: Knopf, 2012     Pages: 112
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library