August 27, 2014

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher

by Dana Alison Levy
First sentence: "Eli sat on the wooden porch steps, crammed in with his brothers, while Pap fiddled with the camera."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy given to me by our Random House Children's rep.
Content:  The typeface is pretty big and the words are simple without being simplistic. Also, there's a hint of liking girls, but no real romance. I'd say it's pretty happy in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I've been sitting here thinking about how to pitch this one (especially in conservative Kansas), and I think I've come up with it: it's The Penderwicks, but with boys.

The similarities are there: a classic, homespun feel; a family of four siblings ranging from the cute young one (Frog, age 6, in this case) to the wise, older one (Sam, just starting 6th grade); simple, true-to-life challenges, rather than huge conflict; and a charming, whimsical feel that just makes you smile when you're done reading.

The book follows the Fletcher family -- Dad, a history teacher; Papa, who stays at home and does consulting work while the boys are at school; and their sons, Sam and Frog (who is Indian, by the way), but also Jax (age 10 and African American) and Eli (also age 10, but Jax is older by some months) -- through the course of a year. As I said, none of the conflicts are huge and overarching, (except, perhaps, their grumpy neighbor Mr. Wilson) but rather small, realistic ones. Eli deals with a starting a new school for "scholarly minded" students and realizes pretty early on that he hates it. Jax deals with a best friend who is growing up and whose interests are changing. Sam is dealing with being on the cusp of teenager hood as well as the idea that something he discovered he likes -- acting -- may not be "cool". And Frog has to deal with his family not believing him when he says he has a new friend whose name is Ladybug.

It's a charming, sweet little book, one that I think will be able to reach a number of readers. In fact, the diversity of this one is my second favorite thing about it (my first favorite being the old-fashioned feel). I loved how Levy had a hugely diverse cast and showed how everyone is just. like. me. (Duh.) But she did it in such a way that wasn't preachy. And I loved that.

In fact, I want to hand this one to all the kids and say: "You know that person who is different from you? This will help you understand them." I'm not sure that will sell this book, so I may just have to stick to "Penderwicks with boys." I just hope kids read this one.

August 25, 2014

Just Call My Name

by Holly Goldberg Sloan
First sentence:
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: I'll Be There
Content: To say that this is intense is an understatement. Violence, yes, but also psychological intensity. It's not for the faint of heart. It's in the Teen section (grades 9+) at the bookstore.

When we last left Sam and Riddle, their father was safely behind bars and they were living with Emily Bell and her family. A happily ever after, right?

Well, only Holly Goldberg Sloan would take a happily ever after and turn it into a nightmare.

First, there's the whole issue of security: Sam and Riddle (especially Riddle) were controlled and abused for so long that it's difficult for them to trust their own decisions, to get back into "real" life. They're suffering, and much of that is the residual affects from the years spent with their father. It doesn't help that Emily and her family (well, except for her brother, who's resentful) are super nice. Sam and Riddle don't know how to handle super nice.

And then their happily ever after starts unraveling. First, it's Destiney Vance, one of those girls that just screams trouble. Sam just knows it: like calls to like, and he understand's Destiny's hard life. But, she won't be gotten rid of, and sticks to Sam and Emily (and Emily's former boyfriend, Bobby) like glue.

Which is a good thing, because their dad, Clarence, finds his way out of jail and is coming for the boys. And the Bells.

Few authors have the power to completely wreck me emotionally, and yet keep me turning pages at an ever more furious pace, dying to know: WHAT NEXT? Sloan is one of those authors. She captures the inner lives of all the characters, deftly balancing between Sam, Riddle, Emily, Jared, Destiny, Robb, and Clarence. You wouldn't think it would work, but Sloan pulls it off not only well, but spectacularly. It probably would have been even more powerful if I'd read the first book right before, but even though I didn't, I was able to immerse myself in this story, my heart simultaneously aching and pounding as I read about Sam and Riddle and their not-so-happily ever after.

Amazing.

August 24, 2014

We Need YOU!

My favorite thing (and one of the reasons I keep my blog going after nearly 10 years) is participating in the Cybils. It's a lot of work, yes, but it's a fantastic thing to be a part of something larger than oneself. You find new favorite books (and yes, lots of duds as well), and you get to talk books with other people who are just as passionate about them as you.

And, on top of that, you're helping create a list of  books that are both terrific but also kid-friendly. I've recommended the Cybils finalist lists to people as a resource for great books for years.

But, this award doesn't give itself. We need judges (in all categories). And that's where YOU come in. Go here, and fill out an application. (It's easy. Promise.) And be a part of the fun!


August 22, 2014

Life of Zarf: The Trouble with Weasels

by Rob Harrell
First sentence: "Zarf."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy downloaded from Edelweiss.
Release date: September 2, 2014
Content: It's pretty basic, and there are a lot of pictures. I'll probably shelve it in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though it'd work for an advanced 1st or second grader. There's nothing objectionable.

Zarf is a troll. That means, at this middle school of his, that he is the bottom of the bottom on the social ladder. Even his friends Kevin (of Littlepig fame) and Chester (the Jester) are higher up the social ladder than he is. But then, what do you expect when your the kid and grandkid of the trolls who bugged the billy goats?

Zarf's pretty okay with his social nothingness. That is, until King Cheznott goes missing, presumably dead, killed (or kidnapped) by huge Snuffweasels. And his bully son (at least bully to Zarf), Roquefort, takes over. And throws Zarf  in the dungeon. Where he (somewhat inadvertently) finds himself on a rescue mission. And, of course, hilarity ensues.

Actually the plot is really secondary in this book. It's mostly just about silliness. Serious silliness. Like:

"How can I explain that voice? It was so deep, it sounded like a cross between Darth Vader's voice and someone farting through a tuba."

or odd creatures, like attack pears!

Or Chester's really jokes ("How many wobble gnomes does it take to massage a swampfrog?" We never do find out the punchline to that one.)

Or the clever asides:

As you can tell, this slim book is liberally scattered with pictures. Making it perfect for the reluctant reader. And it's hilarious, which makes the appeal that much greater. At any rate, I laughed quite a bit and read it all in one sitting. Perfect, silly, stupid fun.

August 20, 2014

Isla and the Happily Ever After

by Stephanie Perkins
First sentence: "It's midnight, it's sweltering, and I might be high on Vicodin, but that guy -- that guy right over there -- that's him."
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series (you don't have to read first, but you might want to): Anna and the French Kiss, Lola and the Boy Next Door
Review copy snagged out of the ARC box our Penguin rep sent the store.
Content: There's a half-dozen (or more) f-bombs, and several instances of tasteful (and protected!) sex. Plus, it felt more mature than your usual romance. It's in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Isla has had a crush on Josh ever since their freshman year at the School of America in Paris. A super major crush, one of those ones that makes her go all gooey when he's around. But he's unattainable, with his super-cool friends (St. Clair!) and his gorgeous girlfriend. Isla (pronounced EYE-la) just figures her crush will stay just that: a crush.

But then, their senior year starts, and Josh is unmoored, and it turns out that he's kind of had a crush on her all these years. After an awkward start, they fall into a full-blown romance, escaping one weekend to Barcelona to be alone. Which, unfortunately, sets off a chain of events that threatens their relationship.

It's a charming book, a sweet and tender look at first real love. Perkins captures that sense of falling for someone, that first blush of new love. I think I like Anna and Lola better than Isla as characters; Islais so insecure and somewhat needy, but that's something that adds to the whole plot arc, so even though it bothered me on and off, I ended up touched by Isla's growth. I also loved the art that ran through the book; one of the sexier moments (it was a really sexy book!) was when Josh drew all over Isla's body.

It's a worthy addition to a wonderful little collection of books.