Wednesday, October 18, 2017

MG Fantasy: The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

23262326The Worst Witch
Author:  Jill Murphy
Format: Ebook
Publisher: Candlewick
Number of Pages: 96
Published:  August 5th, 2014

Source:  Library
Opening Line:  "Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches stood at the top of a high mountain surrounded by a pine forest."

It's Mildred Hubble's first year at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches and trouble seems to find her wherever she goes.   The Academy is getting ready for one of its annual traditions, providing each young witch with a new kitten to train.  There's even going to be a special presentation, and Mildred is worried something will go horribly wrong, despite her having a way with animals.  Yet the only thing that happens is she receives a tabby kitten instead of the standard black kitten like the rest of the girls.  She does have some minor difficulty training her kitten to ride on a broomstick, but so does her friend Maud.  Then Mildred gets into an argument with mean bossy Ethel and out of desperation for being put on the spot when Ethel says she can't perform a spell, Mildred turns her into a pig.  Mildred receives a reprimand from Miss Hardbroom and Ethel promises to get even.  Mildred is also put on notice that there better not be any further mishaps, especially with their annual Halloween celebration approaching.  This year Millard's class has been selected to perform a broomstick formation routine and nothing can go wrong as they are representing the school in front of the witching community.  Unfortuanently, that's exactly what happens when Mildred is forced to use Ethel's spare broomstick, the one that Ethel hexes.  No one believes that it was actually Ethel's meddling with the broomstick that caused the crash and not Mildred's carelessness as usual.  That evening, Mildred decides to run away, which is how she ends up overhearing a plot of a bunch of witches in the forest to turn all the witches at Miss Cackle's Academy to frogs.   Mildred knows it is up to her to save the day.  

I really enjoy Halloween with the changing of the leaves to more rust and yellows, it's a time for spooky stories with ghosts or witches.  Anything that fits into the theme of Halloween.  My first pick was The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy, this is a series of books that I remember hearing about, but not one that I read growing up.  It was originally published in 1974.  How did I miss this book?  I'm sure that I would've enjoyed reading about a witch going to a witches school, learning potions, riding a broomstick and especially getting a kitten.  I also wasn't really into scary stories back then so this would've been perfect.  It was a fun early chapter book, not overly complicated with its plot, not creepy in the least, and there are lovely black and white illustrations.  Mildred was adorable with her fear of the dark, propensity to mishaps and I especially liked her kitten.  Although I was looking for something a bit longer, The Worst Witch would be lovely for a younger child who is just getting into wanting a Halloween story that isn't scary.  

Thursday, October 12, 2017

MG Adventure/Survival Story Review: Falcon Wild by Terry Lynn Johnson

29774947Falcon Wild
Author:  Terry Lynn Johnson
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Charlesbridge
Number of Pages: 197
Published:  September 19th, 2017

Source:   A copy of Falcon Wild was received from the author in exchange for an honest review. 
More books by Terry Lynn Johnson with links to my reviewsIce Dogs & Sled Dog School

Opening lines:  " Stark senses my fear and pulls at the jesses around her feet.  I stroke her breast feathers to calm us both."

Karma loves helping her dad at the sanctuary providing demonstrations of their birds of prey, one day she hopes to start an apprenticeship to be a Falconer.  Karma also loves Stark, a gyrfalcon which she has a special attachment with after finding her on the side of the road and helping nurse her back to health. During one of their demonstrations, Karma is inadvertently injured by Stark but blames herself for getting distracted.  Then Karma gets the shocking news that Stark's owner has been located in Canada and she has to be returned.  To try and make the terrible news easier, Karma's dad offers to drive Karma and her brother across Montana to Canada to return the bird.  Reluctantly, Karma agrees and they set out on their road trip, only stopping when Karma convinces her dad to offer a lift to a boy her age who's hitchhiking.  Cooper turns out to be elusive about his reasons for needing the ride and only stays until they reach their next turn off.  As the family continues on their way they notice their cell phone has mysteriously disappeared and then they suddenly blow a tire causing the vehicle to flip, trapping their dad and accidentally Stark is released from her cage.  Karma is devastated but realizes that without a cell phone, she has to go for help, so she starts walking down the path they were heading before the accident.  Unfortunately, she too gets trapped in a pit, until Cooper suddenly appears saying he saw Stark circling overhead and offers to help her out.  Karma reluctantly teams up with Cooper and they continue to try and locate the highway, encountering many obstacles along the way.  

Johnson is wonderful at writing riveting survival stories, the kind of stories that instantly grab your attention with characters that you can't help but root for.   I also love her settings with previous books being in Alaska and Falcon Wild set in the backcountry of Montana with all the hardships that nature can possibly throw in your way to overcome.  Everything from hunger, wild bears, harsh terrain and unpredictable weather to an infection that is getting steadily worse.  Always with this sense of urgency.  Johnson also brings her passion for animal conservation and personal knowledge to the story through the details Karma shares with Cooper about her work raising and caring for birds of prey, falconry and her love for Stark.  It's immensely interesting and educational, not overly done and highlights the sort of bond that can exist between humans and animals.  At first, I didn't like Cooper as he's the one suspected in stealing the cell phone, but as he gets to know Karma and starts to share his own backstory, he also started to grow on me and their budding friendship was pretty sweet.  Karma and Stark are definitely the stars and I'm happy they were able to stay together.   Overall, this is another excellent survival story from Terry Lynn Johnson and now I'm looking forward to checking out her Survivor Diaries series as well.         

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

MG Mystery/Adventure The Great Hibernation by Tara Dairman

29847480The Great Hibernation
Author:  Tara Dairman
Format: Hardback
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Number of Pages: 272
Published:  September 12th, 2017

Source:   Purchased 
Opening Line:  "The bear was dead."

In 1674,  Captain Polonius and his crew close to starvation came to what is now known as St. Polonius on the Fjord.  Suddenly they came upon a bear and after having killed and consumed its liver they went into a state of hibernation, waking again in the Spring having survived the Winter.  This event has come to be known as Founders Day, or a day to revere the saints by participating in the annual tradition of taking a bite of a bear liver.  Everyone who is at least twelve years, four months and six days old must take part and today it so happens to be Jean Huddy's turn.  Jean tries to uphold the tradition but is unable to keep the liver down, resulting in her and her parents hiding the "evidence" and playing off her failure as nerves.  Upon returning to their farm to continue the celebration, Jean's parents suddenly fall into a deep sleep.  While back in town the same thing is happening to all of the parents leaving the children to fend for themselves.  Magnus, the son of the mayor then takes charge and orders the children to run their families businesses, do the same jobs they did and uphold their parents "civic duties" until they wake up.  Jean doesn't trust Magnus and his explanations for what has happened, especially when it seems like Magnus is trying to hold a special vote on a resolution to start a thistleberry plant in town.  So, Jean investigates on her own and finds a note in the lab coat of Dr. Fields, a prominent biochemist from town.  Suddenly, Jean might have a motive but she still needs to figure out a cure that can raise all of the parents from their slumber.  

One of the things that I so enjoy about Dairman's books is her descriptions of food.  All Four Stars is one of my favorite books.  The main character, Gladys Gatsby's desire was to become a food critic and so she traveled around New York sampling some of the most delicious sounding cuisines and oh what a variety of foods she chose.  Dairman's food descriptions always make me hungry, just look at this one from The Great Hibernation, 

"In the kitchen, the aroma of the roast mingled with scents of honey baked root vegetables, garlicky mustard greens, buckwheat biscuits, and the condiment that graced every table in St. Polonius, sweet thistleberry relish." 

 I also love how Dairman's books are so wonderfully diverse not only with the foods she includes but also with her characters like Isra, a Thai boy who is put in charge of making all the meals for the children at his families Thai restaurant.  Isra is very focused on making his parents proud and having the business flourish.  He also illustrates the challenges of coming to a new country and being accepted into the community.  And Isra also cooks these mouthwatering sounding Thai foods, mmm.  There's even a recipe for Rice Paper Rolls with Pork at the beginning of one of the chapters.   Just love it.   The Great Hibernation is also an exploration of traditions, a right of passage that only happens when you get to a certain age with a particularly amusing result.  In this case, all the teens and their parents fall fast asleep and the younger children take charge performing their parent's job responsibilities.  Jean's best friend takes over her mother's beauty parlor cutting hair and one little girl is put in charge as the court-appointed lawyer and I just love when she suggests her client take a "please" bargain, so cute.   Even eight-year-old Alex, who drives his dad's snowplow made me chuckle as I was trying to picture his little feet trying to reach the peddles to make it run.  Then there's Magnus, who took his role as the son of the mayor overly serious and although he says he's following the charter as it's written, he also bends the rules the way that he wants.  He's pretty bossy and his sidekick police enforcers aren't any better pushing around the younger kids and locking up others to hide what's going on.   I was just waiting for them to get what was coming to them.  The Great Hibernation is part mystery, part exploration of the advancement of science and how building a thistleberry plant would impact everyone in town, glorious food, and Jean who with the help of her friends set's out to save their parents.    

*The Great Hibernation  has been nominated for the Cybils award and my review reflects my personal opinion, not the opinion of the Cybils committee.*

Monday, October 9, 2017

MG Adventure Review: Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eagar

33799086Race to the Bottom of the Sea
Author: Lindsay Eagar
Format: ARC Paperback
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Number of Pages: 432
Publishing:  October 10th, 2017

Source:   Giveaway sponsored by ArmChair Book Expo and book provided by Candlewick Press

Opening lines:  "Two scoops of mashed fish guts.  Four gallons of blood.  Mix together in a barrel then pour into the ocean."

Fidelia Quail loves four things, her parents, the ocean, sharks and inventing new things.  One day she hopes that her inventions make it past the clerks in the patent office, the same ones who can't seem to take an 11-year-old seriously no matter how remarkable her inventions are.  Today Fidelia's parents are in her research submarine, the Egg, while above a nasty storm called the Under Tow is creeping closer.  It's the kind of storm that landlocks everyone until it passes and this is the last chance for the Quail's to tag any of the sharks in the area before they migrate.  Fidelia also really has her heart set on finding out who's responsible for diminishing the halibut supply.  When Fidelia's parents are killed during the storm, she blames herself and her inventions.  Her only comfort is her Aunt Julia, the local librarian who takes her in.  Aunt Julia thinks it would be better for the both of them if they weren't surrounded by all of their memories of Fidelia's parents in Arborley, and she makes plans to move them to the city.  Fidelia decides to take one last look at her old house before leaving and is kidnapped by Captain Merrick the Monstrous and his crew, Cheapshot Charlie and Bloody Elle.  Captain Merrick was looking for her parents, but being the kid of two of the most famous marine scientists must mean she has some knowledge about the sea, especially how to safely get to the bottom of it and recover his treasure.  Fidelia is at the mercy of pirates, and Captain Merrick plans to hold her parent's prized journals hostage until she agrees to help.

There are a lot of interesting elements going on in Race to the Bottom of the Sea that I didn't expect.  For one, it's a pirate story filled with high sea adventure, cannons,  and a corrupt Navy Admiral in pursuit of Captain Merrick, his crew, and the treasure they have hidden.  There are lovely descriptions of life on the Jewel, hoisting masts, and removing barnacles.  Trying to evade the Admiral and rival pirates too.  While Fidelia brings all the wonder and knowledge of marine life to the story. Everything from the sharks that she encounters to her first glimpse of jellyfish.   She's bright and creative and knowledgeable and this gives her the perfect opportunity to show what she knows.  Interspersed within the chapters are passages from Fidelia's parent's book,  Exploring an Underwater Fairyland and pages from her parent's journals on their previous explorations which she uses to help her come up with a solution on how to breathe underwater.   Captain Merrick was a very complex character who I ended up liking more than I thought I would.  His story is told through flashbacks to events from his past, giving context for many of his actions and helping fill in the blanks for how the treasure ended up at the bottom of the sea and why it is so important to him to retrieve.   Merrick doesn't turn out to be as entirely ruthless as I initially thought, and his motivations make more sense as more of his history is revealed.  At 423 pages this was on the longer side, I did however become so engrossed in the story that it seemed to fly by. Overall, I enjoyed this pirate adventure with its determined and knowledgeable main character.  

Favorite quote:  "Knowledge is a vessel deeper than the sea.  A fool splashes in a pond and thinks he has the answers, but a wise man knows the only way to reach its depths is to ask questions."

*Race to the Bottom  has been nominated for the Cybils award and my review reflects my personal opinion, not the opinion of the Cybils committee.*

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Audiobook Review: The Case of the Cursed Dodo by Jake G. Panda Produced and Directed by Roger Rittner

The Case of the Cursed Dodo
Book 1 The Endangered Files
Written by: Jake G. Panda

Unabridged Audiobook
Narrated by:  Michael McConnohie
Produced and Directed by: Roger Rittner
Voice Actors:
Length: 2 hrs and 34 mins 
Release Date: October, 3rd, 2017

The Endangered Files follows Jake, the hard-boiled panda detective, and an unusual cast of endangered creatures on a wild and woolly globe-trotting adventure involving a lost suitcase, a green bird, and a bunch of double-crossing critters all hot on the trail of The Last Dodo.

Opening Line:  "We fade in on a holding pen deep in the Moroccan forest." 

The Case of The Cursed Dodo begins at the Last Resort, a wildlife hideout for endangered species and home to resident detective, Jake G. Panda.  Jake's job is to keep the guests of the Last Resort safe and outta trouble.  Jake receives an unexpected call from his friend the Professor who 's in Morroco and tells him about a suitcase he found in the middle of the Sahara desert, as the two are talking the line suddenly goes dead.  Sensing trouble, Jake heads to Marrakesh to rescue his friend.  While searching for the Professor, Jake get's captured by a group of poacher's and lands in a prison where he finds the professor.  After the two attempt an escape, they fall into a hole housing the underground hideout of renegades.  Jake and the Professor eventually make another escape and find the suitcase.  Inside the suitcase is a map and small green carving of a dodo, as well as many unanswered questions.    Eventually, Jake is able to put together the clues to determine who the suitcase belongs to, what they want and the mystery of the statue of the dodo.  

Prior to listening to the audiobook, I was familiar with The Case of The Cursed Dodo having read the book that this audiobook is based on several years ago.  Although I don't listen to audiobooks very often, I really wanted to see how The Case of The Cursed Dodo translated to audio.  One of the things that I recall enjoying about the story was that it seemed to have this visual component to it and a very classic detective novel style.  Each chapter of the story runs about eight to ten minutes in length and gives a very nice recap of events that occurred in the previous chapter.  With short chapters, you can stop,  pick it back up and be right back on track.  It's also 2 1/2 hours long, so great for a short car trip.  There are all kinds of animal sounds, singing,  sound effects like trains whistling and lovely music that accompanies the narration.  The sounds and music are wonderful, it's like a classic movie for your ears.  This was a wonderful audiobook, lots of action and exciting storytelling with multiple voice actors and the narration by Michael McConnohie was excellent.  It kinda reminds me of Chet Gecko (by Bruce Hale) and an old-time radio detective story, but with endangered animals and lots more characters. The sample below should give you a good idea of the authors writing style and the narration.   The audiobook is available as a 3 CD set or instant download via  and Amazon A huge thank you to the author for sharing it with me.      

Category Description and A Few Possible Suggestions for Elem/MG Spec. Fiction Nominations for Cybils

Fall is in the air, well at least it feels like it today with our temperature being 30 degrees, brrr.  Fall's also one of my favorite time's of the year because it means that Cybils book nominations opened last week and I love seeing all the books that get nominated.   I hope you'll consider nominating your favorites in children and YA published in the U.S. or Canada between October 15, 2016, to October 15th, 2017 (one book nomination per Category per person).  Nominations will only stay open until October 15th, so don't delay.     

 There are lots of different categories to choose from and you can get more information here.  I'd especially love to see more nominations in the elementary/mg speculative fiction category!   And here's the category description from Charlotte Taylor:

"This past year has seen another excellent crop of wonderfully inventive speculative fiction books for kids! Along with the expected spells and space rockets and aliens, this is the category for books with talking animals, time-travel, ghosts, and paranormal abilities, and all the other books that might not have obvious magic on every page, and which are set here on Earth, but which push past the boundaries of daily life into what is almost certainly impossible.

The two main criteria of the Cybils are excellent writing and kid appeal, and these come first and foremost when we assemble our shortlist. These books will be ones whose creativity, world-building, and characters fly off the rapidly turning pages and into our hearts and minds.
This category is for both Elementary and Middle-Grade books; that is, books written for eight- to twelve-year-olds. Some will be just a small step up from easy chapter books, perfect for the younger end, and others will fall into the “tween” category of books perfect for middle school kids not yet interested in full-blown YA books."
Might a suggest a possible few? Or twenty, okay twenty, but I have to stop there.  Some I've read and others I would like to read.  I hope I'm right on them all being in the correct nominations range, and I'm sure I've missed a bunch published after October 15th, 2016 but I still hope you'll nominate your favorites!   

Middle-Grade Spec. Fiction



Monday, October 2, 2017

MG Realistic Fiction Review: Sled Dog School by Terry Lynn Johnson

29736688Sled Dog School
Author: Terry Lynn Johnson
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Number of Pages: 198
Published:  October 3rd, 2017
Source:  Author in exchange for an honest review.

11-year-old Matt's family lives the simpler life, "off the grid." They have an outhouse, don't use gas or electricity, and the only phone is a landline for emergencies.  Matt is pretty responsible for his age, helping take care of his younger sister, while his father sells his pottery and his mom is doing research.  The family also raises and runs sled dogs, which Matt is pretty adept at.   Recently, Matt has been having difficulties with his math at school and with Jacob, a kid who's been bullying him and calling him "smoky" because of his families lifestyle.  He's also been reluctant to ask for help from his parents or his teacher and dreads the idea that he might be placed in remedial math.  When Matt's teacher, Mr. Moffat assigns an extra-credit project to design a business plan and run it, Matt knows that it's his only hope of raising his grade. From this, the Sled Dog School is born. The first step, advertising the lessons to find at least three customers.  The first to apply is Tubbs, who was hoping Matt could train his willy dog Flute to behave like the sled dogs.  Then there is Alex, who on her first day exudes confidence but with the skills to back it up.  Business seems to be getting off to a great start, now if Matt could only figure out how to keep track of his operating costs, use formulas to show salaries and keep things running for at least six weeks, he just might pass his math class.  

The last story I read by Terry Lynn Johnson was Ice Dogs, it was a wonderful action-packed adventure story set during the harsh winter conditions of Alaska where a girl gets lost while out dog sledding and then stumbles upon an injured boy who she tries to rescue,  a riveting story you shouldn't miss this one either.  In Sled Dog School, Johnson continues to draw from her experiences of running Alaskan huskies and writes a story geared this time toward younger children.  There's plenty of action alternating with chapters of Matt's and his classmate's progress on their assignment at school.  The dangers the kids face while learning to dog sled seemed to match the age of the intended audience while keeping the action moving, being informative and adding just the right amount of humor.  There are these funny scenes where Tubbs is trying to avoid the "poop spray" and Alex is flying through the air when she gets thrown from the sled.   Children can easily relate to Matt's struggles over asking for help from his parents or teachers and that in the end, it takes courage to ask for help.   Matt also learned how to be a better sled dog teacher and that there is a big difference between doing something he loves like dog sledding using his rote memory skills and needing to break things down into steps in order to be able to teach it to Tubbs and Alex.  Matt's parents were also wonderful, I really enjoyed how Matt's mom emphasized with him that it wasn't the grade on his schoolwork that she was most worried about, but what he learned from it.  That "education is about much more than going to school.  It's about learning from experiences."  Included at the back of the book are a glossary of terms, and a detailed picture identifying the different parts of the sled and positioning of the sled dog team.  With themes of friendship and overcoming struggles at school, I would recommend Sled Dog School to kids who enjoy animal stories, reading about sled dogs and mushing.