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

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

My first attempt to read Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was unsuccessful. I saw it advertised last year as a woman’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and quickly put the book on hold at my library. I read a few pages and quit.

A year later, I decided to give Wild another shot. The author, Cheryl Strayed, was coming to speak at my library and I thought I would go. This time, I listened to the audio version read by Bernadette Dunne.

My overall impression of the book is disappointment that the story is not about Strayed hiking the PCT. The memoir jumps fully into Strayed’s grief over her mother’s death and explores its impact on her life. Her marriage disintegrates and she makes one poor choice after another. These chapters lagged for me but I stuck with it.

When Strayed does discuss hiking the PCT the memoir is a fun read. She writes with humor in these sections which offer relief to the heavy overarching themes of loss, grief and self-searching.

I had a difficult time relating to Strayed which made it a struggle for me to get through the book. We were both married and divorced at about the same age. We’re both Midwestern, too. But while I have things in common with Strayed I simply could not relate. Frequently, I found myself thinking “This is moment! She’s finally gonna get some cojones, take charge and stop depending on other people.” But alas, that moment was constantly postponed. Example: The horse scene, which many found disturbing, I found infuriating. I so wanted her to take the gun and do what needed to be done. But she passed the responsibility to another. I found myself frustrated with her attitude and dependency. I didn’t walk in her shoes so I wouldn’t judge her but it became tortuous for me to read about her mistakes as a young woman. She does begin to understand herself better after she hikes the PCT. She learns that while people need other people, there will be times when you need enough inner strength to carry on without them.

Strayed’s writing and her memories evoked strong emotions in me. If I’d had the physical book in hand I’ve no doubt I’d have thrown it several times. And I truly enjoyed the segments about her hiking experience as I recall laughing out loud. I did listen to Strayed speak at my library and she asked for hands of everyone who cried. The room was packed to standing room only, perhaps 250 people, and ¾ of them lifted their hands. I didn’t cry. I was too frustrated with Strayed to cry.

Oddly enough, I still enjoyed the book. For a journey about self-discovery and the search for inner strength, Wild delivers. Strayed is a successful, centered and strong woman so there is a positive resolution. But it was no easy journey to get there. And she certainly has cojones to write honestly about her shortcomings. But for a story about long distance hiking, I would look to other narratives.

Publisher: Random House Audio, 2012     Length: 13 hours, 6 minutes
Rating: 3 Stars     Source: Purchased on Audible

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: Kill Switch by Chris Lynch

Daniel’s grandpa suffers from short term memory loss and awkward moments of lucidity and insanity. The old man begins sharing violent stories from his “work” as old co workers begin popping up to “check on” him. Daniel realizes there is more to gramps’ unsettling stories than he’d like to believe and more to the thinly veiled threats from the creepy co workers.

Kill Switch is a short book I hoped would be an entertaining reprieve for my teen book discussion. The plot was promising, the concept interesting. And the first half delivered a satisfying combination of mystery and humor (the car scene! The car scene!).

Then along came the “kill switch,” when Daniel abruptly and illogically becomes violent as he guards his grandfather. The moments of violence made no sense to me and my teen readers. We were like, “Huh? What was that violent act for?” The ending was untirely unsatisfying and rather unbelievable. We spent most of discussion poking holes in the plot.

So, not the best read. Not my favorite. Not terrible either and it was fast. You can’t love every book but at least we had fun laughing about the ridiculous plot discrepancies during discussion!

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2012    Pages: 176
Rating: 2 stars     Source: Public Library

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan by Rick Bowers

Rick Bowers weaves two seemingly disconnected histories, the creation and immense popularity of Superman with the long and disturbing history of the Ku Klux Klan, to produce a surprising story of how the entertainment industry promoted social justice. The two narratives are brought together when the the Adventures of Superman radio show uses its national popularity to combat the pervasive influence of the KKK in its 1946 “Clan of the Fiery Cross” episodes. 

Bowers provides a brief but insightful history of the KKK, its beginning after the Civil War, and cycle of influence in the U.S. Alternating chapters discuss the modest beginnings of Superman and his rise from comic book to radio show to T.V. and the silver screen. Though not a deep exploration of either subject I learned a lot about both. And so did the teens who read this book in my discussion group.

My book group teens were surprised by the long history and real power the KKK exercised. They also enjoyed the chapters about Superman and how a couple of teenagers were responsible for his creation. In book discussion, we listened to the first episode of the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” (below) and laughed at the Kellogg’s cereal commercials as well as the out-of-date insults used by the teens. They found it hard to believe that millions of kids tuned into this show just because it sounds so cheesy to us today.

Many reviews I’ve read recommend this book for late elementary and middle school readers. Both my teens and I strongly disagreed. This is a great book for high school students and I recommend it for a history class. Bowers shows the significance of using primary sources when doing research as he debunks myths about the broadcast’s use of KKK code words (which Wikipedia still says is true!). The text is dry. I wanted to learn about the subject but it was often simply boring. The original photographs opening each chapter offered little relief. When I asked my teens who would enjoy this book they said: Anyone really interested in Superman or general U.S. history. When asked what age it was for they said: high school students and adults. They were shocked anyone would recommend this to younger students or to reluctant readers. I would add that this is a good choice for a teen who doesn’t care for fiction.

Overall, this is a thumbs up. I learned a lot. My book group teens did, too. We had a great discussion about primary versus secondary sources. We also made a pro con list of who was the better superhero: Superman or Batman. It was an enthusiastic debate.

Publisher: National Geographic Society, 2012     Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 Stars     Source: Public Library
Full Title: Superman Versus The Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Midwest: God's Gift to Planet Earth by Mike Draper

The Midwest, the heartland, fly-over country: this is my home.

“Like most foreign countries, outsiders have heard of it, but the details of what goes on inside are pretty hazy” (19). So says Mike Draper, narrator of The Midwest: God’s Gift to Planet Earth!

The Midwest gets overlooked. People really don’t seem to know what we do here and so assume that we don’t do much of anything but grow corn. Well, there’s quite a bit that goes on here, let me tell ya!

With the zippy wit and humor a t-shirt shop owner (yes, he really does run a t-shirt shop in Des Moines), Draper enlightens readers of the glory of the Midwest. It really is a surprising place. Sure, there’s stuff to complain about but every region of the U.S. has its baggage. Draper focuses on the positive, though, he does poke fun at Midwestern stereotypes. From famous people and inventions to geography and the weather, this book gives a brief and biased overview of the 12-state region.

Midwesterners will get a kick out of reading this book. But for those who’ve never spent time in the Midwest, if you are guilty of overlooking the heartland (gasp!), and are looking for a fun read, then I recommend this “Illustrated Guide to the History and Culture of the Galaxy’s Most Important Region.” 

Publisher: RAYGUN, 2012     Pages: 239
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: Public Library

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Imagine you are peacefully reading in your bed on a hot summer night when someone shouts your name through the open window next to you. Charlie is greeted by Jasper Jones, a fellow classmate and known troublemaker, in such a manner. Jasper pleads with Charlie for his help with a terrible situation, an experience which plunges Charlie from childhood to adulthood.

It took me awhile to realize the novel was not set in present times. I used the novel for a book discussion with teens and none of them quite realized that Jasper Jones is set during the Vietnam War. The war is mostly in the background but it ignites the already smoldering racism in Charlie's town.

Silvey vividly describes of the Australian bush as Charlie and Jasper romp around looking for answers. Everything in the novel felt intense. The opening scene (whoa!), the summer heat, the abundant growth -- Silvey writes with an intensity that reflects what being a teenager is like as they experience their “first” this and that.

The allusions to classic literature were fun but totally lost on my teen readers. Being a fan of both the movie and book versions of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I enjoyed Eliza’s character who mimics Holly Golightly by frequently quoting her. There are great references to To  Kill a Mockingbird and other texts which might be considered “southern gothic” which is the feel of Jasper Jones.

Silvey’s writing is definitely literary, taking its time to develop the characters, and the plot moved at what felt like a snails pace. The novel was a hundred pages too long and many of my teens just couldn’t finish it even though they liked the story. This is definitely a thumbs up and a good read but be prepared for less of a suspenseful thriller (as the opening scene suggests) and more of a contemplation of growing up and becoming an adult.

Publisher: Ember, 2012    Pages: 320
Rating: 3 Stars        Source: purchased copy