Monday, September 13, 2010

Fantasy: The Grimm Legacy

When highschooler Elizabeth lands a job as a page at the New York Circulating Material Repository, she's glad of a few hours' escape from her dreary life. The Repository is a fascinating and mysterious institution that lends out rare objects to its members - everything from fondue sets to Marie Antoinette's wig. Slowly, the lonely Elizabeth starts to make friends with her fellow pages at the Repository. Because of her hard work and positive attitude, Elizabeth's co-workers begin to trust her with the true secrets of the institution.
Elizabeth finds that the Repository has secret areas that hold the rarest and most valuable items. For a girl obsessed with fairy tales, it's a dream come true to find that the Grimm Collection, hidden in a secret room in the basement, is comprised of the actual magical objects from folk and fairytales. Seven league boots, cloaks of invisibility, and many other amazing items are catalogued and filed away in a heavily secured basement.
Of course, there are sinister figures just waiting for a chance to steal these most valuable artifacts. When some of the most valuable items are discovered as fakes, Elizabeth and her fellow pages are suspected as thieves. With no clear idea about who could be to blame, Elizabeth must use her bravery and wits to uncover the true culprits. Worst of all, she must face the fact that the thief could be any one of her newfound friends.
This original novel offers up an engaging premise, and will speak to teens with an interest in fairy tales and adventure. Though the characters are a bit flat, the depiction of Elizabeth in her first job will resonate with many highschool students.
Grades 7-10
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Friday, September 10, 2010

Science Fiction: Dark Life

It's hundreds of years in the future, and humanity has been forced to settle the earth's most inhospitable places, as earthquakes and volcanoes tear much of the surface apart. Ty's family are pioneers: they've fled the crowded stack cities for the deadly cold of the Ocean floor. There they farm sea life, and eke out a living as homesteaders kilometers down.

But just like the wild west, the undersea frontier is fraught with danger and threatened by outlaws who care nothing for the hardworking families of the deep. To make matters worse, the government is threatening to abandon the whole subsea frontier experiment, and cut the Dark Life (those who life undersea) off from Topside support!

When bandits threaten his own deepsea home, Ty must use his wits and courage to save his family. Aided by Topsider Gemma (who has an agenda of her own) Ty slowly discovers that the government may not be his strongest ally: that in fact, he may have a secret ability that is the key to undersea survival.

This excellent science fiction title builds to an exciting conclusion, full of danger, betrayal, and of course a healthy dose of undersea science and technology.

Grades 6-9
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Fiction/Graphic Novel: The Popularity Papers

Graduates of the "Amelia's Notebook" series will dive into Amy Ignatow's new novel about two intrepid fifth grade girls.

Like the blockbuster series "Diary of a Wimpy Kid", The Popularity Papers is a colourful mix of art and text. The book is designed as a notebook that is passed back and forth between Lydia and Julie, two ordinary fifth grade girls who plan to become popular by observing, recording and eventually emulating the behavior of other popular girls. With such a foolproof plan, what could possibly go wrong?

Lots, obviously. In fact, it's rare to find something going right as Lydia and Julie stumble through the social minefield of fifth grade girlhood. From bad haircuts to bad crushes and everything in between, the girls record their experiences in drawings and clumsy cursive writing. The tone exactly captures the mix of eagerness and anxiety that characterizes this age, and the girls slowly find that the most important thing to them is each other's friendship.

A fun book to read, though the graphic/handwritten format of the title overshadows any plot or message that lurks underneath.

Fiction/Graphic Novel
Grades 4-6
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Adventure: Trackers

Patrick Carman's newest series starts with a police interview: the kind you never want to be in. Eighth grader Adam Henderson is a computer prodigy. He's been building and fixing computers at his dad's shop in Seattle since he was nine years old: he's so good that even Microsoft brings their machines to the Hendersons for repair.

But sometimes being smart can get you in trouble. Adam and his friends Finn, Emily and Lewis are developing surveillance technology that they hope to sell to the government for millions. Adam believes his tech is so advanced that he can find anyone, anywhere. When a training mission goes wrong and a secret puzzle is revealed to Adam alone, the four kids find themselves in way over their heads...with no way to back out. If they don't find the person they're seeking, the entire world's electronic systems could be compromised: and they'd be to blame.

Trackers is written in a short, interview format that includes interrogation questions and short video clips that can be accessed online using codes from the book. This unique multimedia format is fantastic for reluctant readers, and makes this title a hit with tween and teen reluctant reader book groups. The technological details and espionage themes are also hits with boys: I can't think of many other books that are as perfectly packaged for reading support, while still retaining the bones of a strong story.

The first in a planned series, Trackers will be followed by the sequel Shantorian in December 2010.

Adventure fiction
Grades 5-9
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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Memoir: Fatty Legs

It's rare to find an account from a residential school survivor that could be characterized as upbeat, but this gem of a memoir shines with positive energy.

Eight year old Olemaun Pokiak is a Inuvialuit girl living in the remote Northwest Territories of the 1950's. Despite her older sister's cautions, Olemaun's greatest desire is to attend the Catholic school in Aklavik, and learn to read like her father. After years of pleading, her parents allow Olemaun to attend the boarding school: but of course, the goal of residential schools was not to educate, but to enculturate indigenous peoples and convince them that their true place was as second-class citizens fit only for menial labour.

Renamed Margaret by the nuns, Olemaun's time at the residential school is marred by racism, bullying, and a progressive loss of her cultural identity. Despite the terrible things that befall her at school, Margaret relates her story with a matter of fact voice that emphasizes her strength and determination to survive abuse, and accomplish her goal (to learn to read).

Adults who are familiar with residential school history will read between the lines as Margaret describes the school's unfamiliar rhythms and unwelcoming staff, and see the true tragedy of the situation: kids will likely need some supplementary history to grasp the full context of Margaret's experience.

This title would be a great read-aloud for a grade 4-6 classroom: Margaret is a plucky and engaging character, and kids will identify with her unconquerable spirit. As well, elementary aged kids will keenly feel Margaret's humiliation when she is forced to wear bright red stockings that highlight the stocky build she is ashamed of. Her embarassment and anger at being singled out physically is an issue many tweens struggle with in schools today.

Older grades would be able to delve more deeply into the social ramifications of the residential schools. For grades 6-10, this title would be an excellent supplement to units on first nations people or Canadian history.

At under 100 pages, this title is a fast, engaging read with a broad appeal for pleasure readers and curriculum connections alike.

Grades 4-10
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Friday, April 16, 2010

Nonfiction: Saving the Baghdad Zoo

This book tells the heartwrenching and inspiring story of the Baghdad Zoo. Abandoned and looted during the US invasion of Iraq, the animals in the zoo are in dire straights when the US army secures the area. US Captain William Sumner took on the task of saving the animals. and this book chronicles the efforts of an international team of zoologists, vetrinarians, conservationists, and other animal lovers from around the world.

Each chapter covers a different species that was cared for in the zoo: details include the desperate conditions that they were found in, and the efforts that were made to improve their condition and surroundings. In many cases, the stories are desperately sad: lions were found wandering a ruined palace without food or drink. Camels had to be shaved to deal with systemic mite infestations. Many animals were left to die in their cages of neglect.

These stories are very difficult to read, despite their positive endings: many kids will be left wondering what will happen to these animals during another uprising or leadership change. The book does little to address the question of whether zoos are ethical in the first place, and completely avoids any position on the war in Iraq itself. Though animal lovers will be touched by the care shown to the zoo's inhabitants, they will likely be left with many questions concerning the war, and the fate of the animals in the future. Be prepared to field these questions: consider checking out some other resources on these associated topics as part of your reading.

Grades 5-9
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Nonfiction: Steve Backshall's Deadly 60

This engaging animal book takes a look at the top 60 deadliest animals in the world. Each animal has a rating for size, speed, weapons, and general deadliness: the clear photographs are bright and interesting, while the two pages of text covers the animal's most dangerous features.

This book is perfect for boys who prefer to read in groups (there's great material here for oohing and aaahing over danger ratings), and its short chunks of text would be great for reluctant readers in grades 4-7. The combination of danger and a universally interesting subject matter make this title a surefire hit.

Grades 4-8
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Nonfiction: Watch This Space

This book is all about the so-called "third space": public places that are neither your home, nor your work/school. Public spaces provide us with places to socialize, rest, recreate, and just hang out. They're open to all people, young or old, rich or poor.

This book helps kids discover what makes a great public space, and what kinds of things you can do there. It encourages kids to get involved with their city or town in designing effective and safe public spaces that encourage community living.

This would be a great title for socially minded kids, or teachers who are doing a unit on community life.

Grades 4-7
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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fiction: The Schwa Was Here

Imagine if you could be invisible. What would it be like to move unseen amongst your teachers and classmates? Eighth-grader Calvin Schwa knows exactly what it feels like, because he has a nearly supernatural ability to fly beneath the social radar. People just don’t notice him, even when he's doing outrageous things underneath their very noses!

Anthony “Antsy” Bonano has the opposite gift: He’s a one-kid comedy show — and Calvin is perfect for his next prank. Antsy takes bets on what the Schwa can get away with and the boys try a series of increasingly daring stunts before getting nabbed by town grump (and millionaire) Mr. Crawley. Their punishment is... perfect.

Though they start out walking Mr. Crawley's 14 (yes, 14) Afghan Hounds, they end up being hired as companions to Mr. Crawley's disturbingly pretty and insightful granddaughter, Lexie. When the Schwa and Antsy both start to like Lexie as more than a friend, the Schwa's invisibility suddenly becomes too much for him to live with. So what happens when someone invisible decides to get noticed?

In The Schwa Was Here, author Neal Schusterman has written a hilarious, complicated and touching story about boys, friendship and the importance of being noticed and included.

Grades 5-9
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Fiction: The Crazy Man

The Crazy Man is a beautiful book about love, loss and acceptance. Eleven-year-old Emaline’s world shatters when a horrible farm accident mangles her leg and leads to her father’s abandonment. At the end of her rope, Emaline’s mother hires a patient from the mental hospital down the road to help out on the farm.

Despite her own misgivings and the cruel attitudes of the townsfolk, Emaline finds solace in Angus’ steadfast kindness. Emaline learns to stand by someone she knows is good at heart, even in the face of prejudice.

This book is set in Saskatchewan in the 1960s and author Pamela Porter tackles the topics of prejudice, ability and healing head on. The author unflinchingly explores the community's harsh views on mental illness, disabilities and differences: kids who consider how different mainstream views are today from the 1960's may also think about current biases, and how they may change in the future. A powerful and inspiring novel.

Grades 4-7
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Fiction: The Garbage King

The Garbage King, by Elizabeth Laird, plunges the reader into the heat and dust of modern Ethiopia. Set in the streets of Addis Ababa, this story follows the fates of two very different boys.

Mamo’s family is impoverished and he is left to fend for himself after his mother dies. He becomes a victim of child slavery but he uses his sharp wits to escape and find a place for himself on the streets.

Dani comes from a wealthy background but he flees his tyrannical father and becomes fast friends with Mamo when they meet on the streets. Together, the boys join a street gang and find friendship, loyalty and dignity despite their desperate circumstances.

Laird shines a harsh light on child poverty in Africa while spinning a wonderful tale of friendship, loyalty and trust. This story would definitely appeal to readers who are looking for an adventure story: it will give them plenty of action, and surprise them with a strong social message, and an understanding of the power of hope, even in desperate circumstances.

Grades 5-9
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Fiction: Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, by Lauren Tarshis, is a lovely and insightful book about what it’s like to be different.

Middle school can be a tough place and Emma-Jean definitely marches to her own beat. Unlike the rest of her seventh-grade classmates, Emma-Jean uses reason to guide her actions. Her incredibly logical brain helps her to stand apart from the social turmoil that upsets and excites her classmates and avoid the emotional confusion of 12-year-old friendships and enmities. But Emma-Jean’s detachment is broken when she uses her keen intelligence to extract classmate Colleen from a sticky social situation. Once Emma-Jean sees how her logical solution can “solve” an emotional problem, she can’t resist meddling again. Soon, all her chickens come home to roost and Emma-Jean must realize that logic just can’t solve matters of the heart.

This book would be a perfect read for later elementary or middle school girls: it takes a realistic but detached view of the all-consuming social jostling that takes place during this period of childhood. With a clear message about standing up for what's right, and a charming plot that moves along briskly, most girls will find lots to like about this title.

Grades 4-7
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Thriller: Half-Minute Horrors

Those with strong stomachs and short attention spans will be captivated by this collection of instant frights, courtesy of over 50 of the hottest authors in children's literature. From Lemony Snicket to Kenneth Oppel, from James Patterson to Avi, these pages are bursting with thrilling contributions from top notch writers.

Each story is less than three pages long, with the vast majority being under a page. Ranging from silly to downright disturbing, these tales are best for kids in later elementary through middle school. This book is the perfect springboard into a writing exercise: have kids see how horrible a story they can create in under one page!

Grades 4-7
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Monday, March 08, 2010

Fantasy: Enchanted Glass

Diana Wynne Jones is a master storyteller whose characters are always likeable, unique, and powerfully magical. In this latest tale, scholar Andrew Hope's aged grandfather dies and leaves him an old and enchanted family estate. Andrew knows there is something special about the house and grounds, but he can't seem to pull himself away from the scholarly book he wants to write in order to think about it.

It takes one desperate twelve year old boy to pull Andrew out of his academic stupor. When Aidan Gain turns up on Andrew's doorstep, there's nothing to do but take the boy in. After all, he has some fairly nasty faerie haunts chasing him! Throw in one ill tempered housekeeper and a crotchety gardener, and things start getting tricky. All of a sudden, Andrew is managing his rebellious household staff (who are also strongly magical) while trying to find out who or what is chasing down Aidan. Add in an ancient and maelevolent faerie lord and his several ex wives (Titania and Queen Mab!) and you've got a hilariously chaotic scramble for power.

Somehow the complicated threads of this tale come together in a satisfying conclusion, where the evildoers receive a richly deserved compeuppance, and the heroes end up living in magical harmony. (sort of!) Kids who like fantasy with a dash of humour will enjoy this rollicking tale.
Ages 11-14
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Friday, March 05, 2010

Science Fiction: Claim to Fame

Bestselling author Margaret Peterson Haddix has written another fast paced Science Fiction mystery.

Five years ago, Lindsay Scott was the child star of a hit TV sitcom. Then, without warning, she disappeared from the public eye. Of course people gossiped, and when a tabloid publishes a story about how Lindsay is being held hostage by her dad in a Hicksville small town, a couple of well-meaning teenage boys decide to rescue her.

But the real story is much more complicated. When Lindsay turned 12, she began hearing voices. And not just a few: Lindsay could hear anything that anyone said about her, anywhere in the world. It was more of a curse than a talent, and Lindsay's college professor dad relocated them to a small town where, miraculously, they found a house that blocked out the voices. Since then, Lindsay has rarely gone outside the safety of the house's yard. So when the boys say that they know she's a prisoner, in many ways they're right.

After the rescue attempt, Lindsay finds that she can't ignore what's happening to her anymore. She's tired of hiding from her talent, and it seems that there are others in her small town who know more about her family than she does. Could it be that others have the same gift? How much will Lindsay risk to find out the truth?

Science Fiction
Grades 5-9
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