Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Judges for the Cybils announced today!!

Today's the day, judges for the Cybils were announced and  I'm very pleased to have been selected for the first round of Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction.   This will be my 5th year as a judge and I couldn't be more excited!!
 Our work starts on October 1st and runs until October 15th.  
Here's a link to information about the Cybils Awards and get your nominations ready for the opening on October 1st!   Rules for nominating are here. 

2018 ElementaryMiddle-Grade 
 Speculative Fiction Judges: 

First Round

Sherry Early

Kristen Harvey

Katy Kramp

Jenni Frencham
From the Biblio Files

Beth Mitcham 
 Library Chicken

Charlotte Taylor

Dr. Cheryl Vanatti

Brenda Tjaden

Round Two Judges

Stacy Mozer

Rosemary Kiladitis

Mark Buxton

Jennifer Naughton

Jenna Grose

Congratulations to all the judges!! 
 Looking forward to our discussions on the nominated books!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

MG Historical Fiction Review of Swallow's Dance by Wendy Orr

9781760297879.jpgSwallow's Dance by Wendy Orr
Format:  ARC Paperback 
Publisher:  Pajama Press
Number of pages:  360
Publishing:  October 1st, 2018
Source:  Publisher in exchange for an honest review
Opening Line:  "Nunu says that when the goddess belches, it means change is coming."  

One of the last books that I've read by Wendy Orr was Dragonfly Song, which is a lovely historical fantasy set in Crete during the Bronze Age and centers on a young girl who's only chance to be free is to become a bull-dancer.  Swallow's Dance takes place some 200 years before the events of Dragonfly Song and according to Orr's website, she was inspired to write Swallow's Dance after an archeological dig in Crete.   

At the beginning of Swallow's Dance, Leira and the other maidens of her village are participating in a ritual that will commence their journey to become women when a powerful earthquake strikes the village, destroying their homes and injures Leira's mother.  To search out a new place to live and healer for Leira's mother, the family flees to Crete.  Leira is from a noble-born family and her father is a renowned captain who travels around the world.  Initially, the plan is for Leira to take over her brother's duties watching over their trade deals on the island while her father continues to sail in search of goods to trade.  Shortly after their arrival, Leira is awakened by the loud sounds of a tsunami hitting the island.  Following the earthquake and resulting tsunami, food begins to dwindle and there's an increased fear of an uprising within the city.  Concerned for her safety, Leira takes her mother and Nunu (an elderly servant woman who tends to their family) and runs for the hillside.   In order to survive, Leira alters her appearance and tries to become a servant girl,  but will she be able to blend in with the rest of the refugees on the island?   

Swallow's Dance is the fictionalized story inspired by the real events of a hurricane that occurred in 1625 BCE on the island of  Thera (now known as Santorini) that resulted in a huge tsunami on Crete and the speculation of whether the people of Thera were able to flee to Crete before the city was buried.   Like Dragonfly Song, Swallow's Dance is told through a combination of prose and free verse.  It's a wonderful mix of survival and a coming of age story. 

Leira is a resilient young girl who endures so many hardships once she arrives in Crete.  One of her early concerns is that she will never be able to complete her learning to become a woman.  An idea that resurfaces throughout the story.  She's a maiden trying to trade among the sharks.  At the same time, she is trying desperately to care for a mother who has sustained a horrible head injury that has resulted in Aphasia.  At one point,  she's even forced to give up her identity and turn her back on her people.  Despite everything that she endures, she is still strong, fierce and strives to improve her living situation, to one day be free.  You can't help rooting for Leira as she vows to honor her people and claim who she is.  

One of my favorite lines from the story is when Leira takes her mother to a wise woman for healing.  It's a sad moment because Leira has just started to realize the gravity of her mother's injuries and that she doesn't know who Leira is.  The wise woman believes that an evil ghost has taken her mother's spirit away and in order to return her to who she was, they must surround her with their own memories through song to lead her spirit back to her body so she tells Leira to " Sing her life.  Sing of the life and love that only you know, the secrets that tell her spirit that she is its home."  

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

MG Historical Fiction/Adventure Review of Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher

38351755Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher
Format:  ARC paperback
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Number of Pages: 192 
Publishing:  October 2nd, 2018 
Source:  Publisher in exchange for an honest review

Opening Line: "In the evening, as darkness falls, I return to the fortress."

The events of the story begin in the Spring of 1252 in Bergen, Norway.  Starving and desperate for food, a young boy steals a leg of rabbit off of a plate in a pub.  When the man notices his meal is missing, he chases Arthur into the city streets where he accidentally flees into a cage housing a great polar bear.  Arthur is saved by a Doctor who recognizes that the boy seems to have a way with the polar bear.  The two come to an arrangement, Arthur will travel with the Doctor aboard the Queen Margrette and tend to the bear and in return, the Doctor will help him locate his relatives in Wales.  As they set sail, Arthur learns that the bear is to be a gift from the King of Norway to the King of England.  It isn't long before such valuable cargo draws the attention of pirates and soon they are left defending off an attack.  Their journey is further complicated when a violent storm hits the ship.  Thinking they're in danger of being submerged, Arthur jumps overboard with the polar bear.  It isn't long until the sailors are able to recapture the bear and they are forced to bring Arthur back to the ship to ensure the bear is able to stay calmly in her cage.  Once the ship arrives in Britain, the bear is transferred to the Tower of London, and Arthur is able to have a letter he's been carrying with him from his relatives translated.  Arthur finds that his father's family does not want him.  Then news comes that the bear's health has been diminishing under the care of the keeper of the King's Menagerie.  Arthur is faced with the choice of returning to Bergen or helping determine what is ailing the bear.  

Journey of the Pale Bear is a beautiful story of a real polar bear that lived in the Tower of London and the fictional boy who went on the voyage with him from Norway to his new home.  I loved how the action starts off quickly and the short chapters lend themselves to be read aloud.  There are lovely descriptions of life at sea, with all the historical details and perils that one would expect.  My favorite parts are of Arthur taking care of a 1000+ lb polar bear aboard the ship, what to feed her and how to get rid of all of the excrement.  I can only imagine.  I really liked Arthur, he has such a love and passion for making sure that the the polar bear is safe.  His fear of going into the cage is realistic and even his being conflicted about his feelings toward the Doctor seemed authentic.  Especially when he refers to Arthur as "son," meaning it more as a term of endearment.  Arthur had every right to be mad at the doctor for all of the things that he demanded of him.   Arthur said it best, "The doctor had ordered me to go on deck alone with the bear.  I could have been killed.  A man wouldn't do that to his son."   A wonderful story that reflects the bonds that animals and humans can share.   

Monday, September 3, 2018

MG Realistic Fiction Review of Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

39217633Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo
Format:  ARC Paperback
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Number of pages:  240
Publishing:  October 2nd, 2018
Source:  ARC received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Opening Lines:  "I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, my goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante?  Where did she go?  They will have an answer."  

Kate DiCamillo has written some of my favorite middle-grade books, The Tale of Despereaux,  Because of Winn Dixie, and Bink & Gollie just to name a few.  I have a particular fondness for The Tale of Despereaux mostly because of the characters and having read it aloud with my kiddo, so I was pretty excited to receive an ARC for Louisiana's Way Home.  Interestingly, Louisiana's character first appeared in another of DiCamillo's books Raymie Nightingale, a story which sadly I haven't read.  From what I can gather it didn't seem necessary to have read Raymie Nightingale first, though I do hope to get the chance to pick it up in the future.  

Late one night, Louisiana Elefante's Granny wakes her up telling her "the day of reckoning has arrived and they have a date with destiny."  At first, Louisiana isn't too overly concerned.  Granny always seems to have these fantastical ideas and middle of the night excursion's are nothing new.  As Granny takes them further and further away from Florida, Louisiana begins to question whether this is just one of their ordinary trips.  When Louisiana finally confronts Granny about when they'll be back home and who's taking care of her pets, she learns the devastating news that Granny has no plans to ever go back.  

For quite some time Louisiana and her Granny have been relying on the kindness of strangers to get by, or as Louisiana calls it "imposing on."  At first, Louisiana tries to come up with a plan to distance herself from Granny and find her own way back home, but Granny is a force to be reckoned with, especially when her mind is made up.  Shortly into their trip, Louisiana's Granny takes ill with a horrible toothache, which causes them to detour to Richford, Georgia and results in an emergency dental extraction of all of Granny's teeth.  So Granny can recuperate, they plan to spend a few days at the Good Night, Sleep Tight Motel, but only if they can figure out a way to pay the owner Bernice for a room.  

Louisiana has been told many stories about her past from her Granny.  For example, that her parents were the famous trapeze artists The Flying Elefantes and that their family has been under a curse of sundering ever since Louisiana's great-grandpa the magician sawed her grandma in half and refused to put her back together again.  While in Richford, Louisiana begins to question whether the real reason for their late night travel was really to deal with the curse over their heads.  And then Granny up and leaves her at the motel with nothing but a note and Louisiana's world comes crashing down leaving her wondering who she is and where she belongs.  I must say that I really disliked Granny and her reasons for leaving.  

Louisiana reminded me of Anne of Green Gables in so many ways.  Like Anne, Louisiana is a lonely girl who would give anything to have a home and friends.  She's wily, resilient, wise and resourceful.  When she exclaims that "the situation is dire,"  I couldn't help but hear Anne's voice.  This is such a sad but hopeful story filled with many memorable characters.  My favorite hands down has to be Burke Allen and his pet crow.  Burke is a boy Louisiana's age who is probably the first person who has ever shown Louisiana kindness.  Burke offers to get her anything she wants from the vending machine of the motel and later makes Louisiana a sandwich. Oh my goodness, these two are so adorable and Burke and his family are just the sweetest things ever.  Feeling Burke is someone she can trust, Louisiana starts to share with him the story about the curse on her family.   I loved how the story is written to reflect Louisiana's account of the events with her wry sense of humor.  Especially the scene in the dentist's office where Louisiana comes up with a creative way of getting the dental hygienist to give her Granny an unscheduled emergency surgery appointment.  Like I said before, this is a sad but very hopeful story, it covers issues of loss, abandonment, and searching for one's identity.  There are humorous moments, wonderful references to Pinnochio and an ending that highlights forgiveness and leaves you hopeful for Louisiana's future.  

Monday, August 27, 2018

MG Realistic Fiction: The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

37570559The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser  
Format:  E ARC 
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers 
Number of Pages: 336 
Publishing:  September 25th, 2018 
Source:  E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Opening Line:  "This is the most boring summer in the whole history of the world, nine-year-old Oliver Vanderbeeker  announced." 

The story begins as most summer vacation's do with a bit of boredom.  Isa is away at an orchestra camp and siblings Jessie, Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney are trying hard to entertain themselves around their lovely brownstone in Harlem.  Their upstairs neighbor, Miss. Josie has been suggesting everything from reading a book to trying to get them interested in making a community garden in the unused land next to a church, but so far they haven't shown any interest.  When Mr. Jeets unexpectedly has a serious medical emergency, the children hatch a secret plan to create a beautiful garden for him as a special surprise for when he is discharged from the hospital. 

I must confess that I've never read The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall, but imagine them to be something like The Vanderbeekers.  A large tightknit family, with siblings who each have unique personalities and who despite an occasional bicker, love, and care for one another tremendously.  It's the kind of story that makes me very nostalgic about my own childhood, missing my extended family, friends, relatives, and neighbors.  It just gives you that warm feeling of family and community and is such a sweet story.  

This is the second book in the series, and it could be read as a stand-alone but I certainly would encourage you to start with the first book.  I really enjoyed how the book is formatted with short chapters consisting of mini outings where the children are planning and preparing their garden while also dealing with the challenges and obstacles that come up along the way.  Realistic problems like where to come up with the money to buy the plants and what to do when they find out that the land might be sold.  The illustrations are charming and the story would work really well as a read aloud.  There is some sadness when Mr. Jeets has his second stroke and has to go to the hospital, you can see how much the children care and worry about him.  However, Yan Glaser handles the subject with such care and sensitivity, even interjecting humor at just the right moment keeping things light.  

Oh, and The Vanderbeeker children, it's so difficult to come up with a favorite.  I think this time around I really enjoyed Hyacinth, how she seems to see the good in people.  Even recognizing that Herman Huxley has some wonderful qualities that her brother Oliver doesn't see.  Or maybe it's just because they both seem to bond over a shared enjoyment in knitting.  And who couldn't love Laney and her pet bunny Paganini?  Despite being the youngest, she's quite clever and has the biggest heart.   There's one particular moment of mischievousness that had me laughing out loud.   A truly cozy story with memorable characters and a classic feel that I won't soon forget.  Can't wait to read the next installment in The Vanderbeekers series, I'm hoping for something with a holiday theme.  

Monday, August 13, 2018

MG Mystery: Otherwood by Pete Hautman

38256488Otherwood by Pete Hautman
Format:  ARC 
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Number of pages:  320
Publishing:  September 11th, 2018
Source:  Publisher in exchange for an honest review

Opening Lines:  
"Years later, people still talked about it. 
It came out of nowhere, they said.
Middle of the day.
Black as night.
Sideways rain.
Trees bent and twisted like blades of grass."

The last book of Pete Hautman's I've read and enjoyed was Slider, it's a book about a boy who enters a competitive eating contest to pay off an online auction he entered but couldn't afford.  Not only was it a humorous story, I really liked the way that 
David's relationship with his younger brother Mal, who has autism was so realistically portrayed.   So, when I read the premise of how Otherwood is a "book about memory and loss and the destructive nature of secrets, but also about the way friendship, truth, and perseverance have the ability to knit a torn-apart world back together." Yep, I jumped at the chance to read it.  

When Stuey was eight years old, a terrible storm came through his town.  While Stuey and his mom went and hid in the cellar, Stuey's grandfather decided to wait it out in his cottage guarding a book he had been writing.  After the storm subsided, Stuey found the pages of his grandfather's book strewed around the room and that his beloved grandfather had passed away.  Since then, Stuey likes to explore the families orchard, wander through the meadow and spend time in his favorite spot within the poplar grove where nestled among the trees he found the remnants of a golf course, originally built by his great-grandfather.  Hidden even further in is also a deadfall or a group of five entangled trees creating a spot where just the right size kid can crawl inside.  A secret fort.   
Stuey is a slightly shy and lonely boy, until the summer he meets Elly Rose.  Elly lives on the other side of the woods and shares the same birthday as Stuey.  They both have quite the imagination.  At first, Stuey doesn't know what to think of Elly Rose, especially after she says they're to become "soul mates" and starts talking about a magical kingdom within the woods.  However, Elly's stories about Castle Rose win him over.  Not only does Stuey share his special spot with Elly the two quickly bond and become the best of friends.  Then one day while playing in the woods, Elly vanishes before Stuey's eyes. 

As the story progresses, we learn of a feud that existed between Elly and Stuey's family dating back to their great-grandfathers.  Stuey's great-grandfather was a bootlegger who tried to go legit by building a country club and golf course.  However, he had horribly discriminatory practices in his admissions to the club.  Elly's great-grandfather was a district attorney and sought to put Stuey's in jail.  In the end, both of them went missing following a horrible disagreement.  Thus, setting up the mystery surrounding what exactly happened to the two of them. 

The overall plot is slowly revealed with a huge twist somewhere around the middle that I never saw coming.  It totally blew me away with how the direction of the story changed from not just being a mystery about the past.  I really don't want to say too much more about it, cause spoilers, but wow Hautman had me guessing as to how things were going to resolve.  Otherwood's a much deeper read than I was expecting.  At first, I thought it was going to be along the lines of something like Bridge to Terabithia, a fantastical tale of kids creating a hidden world in the forest.  Which is a very small part of this story, but there are also ghosts, themes of the loss of a grandparent, discrimination, grief of a missing friend, mans impact on the environment, reality, perception, memory, secrets and holding onto a friendship.   Hautman's afterword where he states how the book was a "eulogy to the woods that live now only in my memory" leaves you with a lot to think about. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Historical Fiction Review: Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground (Zora and Me #2) by T.R. Simon

38256472Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground (Zora and Me #2) by T.R. Simon
Format:  ARC Paperback
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Number of pages:  272
Publishing:  September 11th, 2018
Source:  ARC received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Favorite Lines:  "There are two kinds of memory.  One is the ordinary kind, rooted in things that happened, people you knew, and places you went...   The second kind of memory is rooted in the things you live with, the land you live on, the history of where you belong."  

The Cursed Ground is the second book in the Zora &  Me series.  Unfortunately, I missed out on the first book, but both appear to be the historical fictionalized accounts of author Zora Neale Hurston's early childhood.   The story is initially narrated by Carrie and set in 1903 in Eatonville, Florida.   Late one night while sleeping over at her friend Zora's house, Carrie hears horses running wild outside the bedroom window.  She suspects that they belong to Mr. Polk's farm.  Zora immediately wants to investigate and convinces Carrie to come with.  Upon reaching the farm, they find Mr. Polk with a long gash on his arm.  Shortly after, Old Lady Bronson, the local healer or seer shows up and tends to his wound.  When Lady Bronson and Mr. Polk communicate in a language the girls don't understand, they're flabbergasted as Mr. Polk is well known for being mute.  Mrs. Bronson makes a deal with the girls, she'll tell them a story in exchange for their silence about Mr. Polk being able to speak.  

From there the story shifts back in time to 1855 where our second narrator,  Lucia, an orphan serving girl and Prisca, the daughter to the gentleman Don Federico have just found out that Prisca's father has taken a new wife and they will be leaving the Dominican Republic to travel to their new home in Westin, Florida.   Lucia has been a companion for Prisca for most of her life, the two are the best of friends, spending almost every waking moment in each others company.  Yet, following the move to Florida, Lucia becomes a slave within the household.  No longer can the two friends play together, now Lucia has chores and punishments if she doesn't perform her duties.  Lucia tries to adapt to her new life, learning to survive by keeping her emotions and feelings in check but also lives in fear of angering those around her and having the atrocities she witnesses befall her.  She tries very hard not to jeopardize the other slaves around her by not drawing attention to herself.  

Zora & Me is really a story within a story that spans two time periods.  In 1903, we find out the events that led to the attack on Mr. Polk and in 1855 learn about Lucia's life and struggles in Florida.  I found Lucia's story to be the most impactful because of how accurately it portrayed the brutality of slavery, the emotions, feelings, and pain.   The story makes slavery not just something that happened in the past, somewhere else, but something tangible.  Images and characters that you won't forget.  Some parts are sad, heartwrenching and difficult to read, but it is a very important story.  I especially enjoyed the strong theme that "history is a living history, not something you just read in a book, that it is everything your life stood on."  That even in 1903, the girls are facing events that occurred from the past, how they begin to see that the history of slavery is one based on a"hate and desire to have control or power over something seen as inferior."  There are so many powerful messages within Zora & Me making this a valuable teaching tool.   

The ending came together rather quickly for me, partially because I was so engrossed in Lucia's story, but it was important for the reader to be brought up to speed with the historical details of the Jim Crow Laws and Reconstruction to ensure they had the context to be able to follow the events occurring in Zora's hometown.  I read this book in one sitting, it has such a riveting plot and I loved how Lucia's and Carrie's stories intertwined. 

 "History ain't in a book, especially when it comes to folks like us. History is in the lives we lived and the stories we tell each other about those lives."