Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: Shipwreck Island

Shipwreck Island
By S.A. Bodeen
Expected publication July 29, 2014 by Feiwel & Friends

Sarah does not approve of her father's new marriage. The two of them have gotten along just fine for years. Why does he have to ruin it with a new wife? Especially one that brings two sons! Unfortunately, Sarah really doesn't get much say in the matter and before she knows it, the whole new family is off on an exotic boat trip together. But when rough weather hits, they must find a way to get along if they want to survive.

I think this is Bodeen's middle-grade debut; she has written a few successful YA novels that I've been meaning to check out. When this book came across my desk at work, I figured I'd give it a read before adding it to our giveaway books.

It's a really quick read - less than 200 pages - which is good for keeping kids interested. It's got short chapters and the adventure/survival angle is a real hook for kids who claim they don't like reading. However, I didn't really enjoy this. Sarah is an exceedingly annoying character (unfortunate - she is giving Sarahs a bad name!) and many pieces of the story just didn't work for me. That her father would book this cruise without checking reviews or getting more information just seemed like a plot convenience.

Perhaps my greatest frustration with this book is that nowhere in or on the book does it say it's book one of a series. In fact, Goodreads (where I keep track of all my books) doesn't even say it's a series, and Goodreads usually knows these things (often even before I do). It became clear to me as I read that I wasn't going to get all the answers in the limited number of pages I had left. How hard would it have been to just mention it somewhere on the back cover? So, I have no idea where Sarah and her family have shipwrecked and what it will mean for them. I'm so frustrated with this ending (which isn't even a cliffhanger; it just ends) that I don't think I'll be picking up the next book. Obviously, I can see the appeal this book will have with young readers, but it just irritated me.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Program: Program Recap Bonanza - Again!

It's time again for a roundup of program recaps from this spring!

Valentine's Tea Party: so, last year for Valentine's Day, we hosted a Fancy Nancy tea party and it was insane - we had way more people than we anticipated and it got a little hectic. This year, we decided to try to tone it down a bit by just making it a general Valentine's Day thing and also holding it on a weekday instead of a Saturday. Nice try - it was only slightly less crazy than last year. This year, we mostly focused on making different kinds of valentines to give away. We made butterflies with lollipops for bodies, general cards with a variety of hearts and shapes and doilies, and hugs. The hugs were my favorite but also the most complicated - it required tracing each child's hand and measuring their arm span with string. Then, you attached the string to the handprints and voila! Long-distance hug (I actually received this from my niece and nephew and knew we had to use it for a craft project at work). The parents really loved the idea of this, but, as I said, it required the most work, so it got pretty hectic. We set up our red carpet for tea (pink lemonade) and cookies, as a way to take a break from the crafting chaos. Our final activity was a little photo op that I had seen on Pinterest (gotta love it!). I used a big piece of white paper and wrote "I love you because..." across the top in shades of pink and purple. Then we set a dry erase board, markers, and a bandanna (for erasing) next to it and encouraged kids to write why they loved their dad or mom on it. Parents were then invited to take pictures (nearly everyone had a smartphone) to turn into nearly instant valentines. They really liked this and it was hilarious to see the reasons kids wrote down (our favorite, of course, was "you read us books")!

Nursery Rhyme Olympics: I hinted at this one in my last program recap bonanza. This is a program that I'd seen quite some time ago on a listserv and thought sounded too awesome to pass up. So, with the Winter Olympics this year, the timing was perfect. The stations I used were Three Little Kittens (matching colored pairs of paper mittens), Jack Be Nimble (jumping over three "candlesticks" of varying heights), Humpty Dumpty (a puzzle of the egg-man that had to be put together), Ring Around the Rosy (a ring toss decorated to look like rose bushes), Jack and Jill (walking up a plank to fetch a cup of "water" - blue pompoms), and Mother Goose Waddle (holding a small ball between their knees and walking through a course). Each station had a sign with the nursery rhyme written on it and all participants got a scorecard when they arrived listing the various "events." Once they completed each, they received a stamp. When they finished them all, I gave out gold medals (made from foam and ribbon). The parents really loved this program and I think the kids had a lot of fun, too. They struggled with the Mother Goose Waddle - the ball we had was too big for their tiny knees, so I tried to just encourage them to walk like a duck, with varying degrees of success. Overall, this was a relatively easy and inexpensive program that came off impressive and a lot of fun.

Adventure Club: this is a program we've been running for two school years now, alternating it with American Girl Club. We've struggled with this one - we have a much harder time choosing a theme for each program and attendance is very hit or miss with this one. This spring, we had two Adventure Club programs, Captain Underpants and Big Nate. Considering the popularity of both of these book series, we expected successful programs. We were disappointed with both. For Captain Underpants, we had a toilet toss (tossing Tootsie Rolls into a fake toilet), underpants fling (exactly what it sounds like - we competed for distance), underpants decorating (we made giant underpants for the kids to decorate), draw Captain Underpants, and discover your underpants name. Attendance was extremely low for this program, a huge disappointment to us. A couple months later, we hosted a Big Nate version. For that program, we had creating your own comics, making fortune cookies (out of paper), an obstacle course (where they had to avoid the cats and collect the trophy), and a cheese doodle chopstick race (how many could they pick up with chopsticks in one minute). Once again, for a book series so popular, our attendance was very low. Unfortunately, I don't think we'll be continuing this program next school year.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: The Nazi Hunters

The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi
By Neal Bascomb
Published 2013 by Arthur A. Levine Books

It sounds unbelievable - a notorious Nazi simply disappeared one day, and everyone believed he was in hiding somewhere. A determined group of men, including Israeli spies and survivors of World War II, would stop at nothing to track him down and bring him to justice. But it happened in real life and this thrilling book is going to tell you how it all went down.

I waited, very impatiently I'll admit, for this book to arrive at our library just prior to the Youth Media Awards announcement. I really wanted to read all the Morris and Nonfiction Award shortlist titles prior to the announcement. I was thrilled when it finally showed up and even more excited once I started reading it.

This book is perfect for non-fiction readers, readers fascinated with history (particularly during wartime), and those who think they don't like reading chapter books. I'm impressed with Bascomb's ability to create a pitch-perfect level of tension surrounding events that have already occurred. Though I don't think many kids will have heard this story before, it still can be difficult to create suspense around a plot when the outcome is already known. Bascomb does a terrific job of this. This book reads like a thriller novel and I can definitely see myself handing this to kids who love non-fiction but are being encouraged to seek out longer reads (like most children's departments, our non-fiction section is chockful of extremely thin volumes). This book does a great job including archival photographs and has good back matter. My only problem was keeping the many people involved in Eichmann's capture straight in my head - there were quite a few of them. In terms of audience, I'd probably recommend this for 5th grade and up. Very well done, and deserving of its award win.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review: A Tale of Two Castles

A Tale of Two Castles
By Gail Carson Levine
Published 2011 by HarperTeen

Elodie longs to be a mansioner (an actress) but it seems like this dream will be near impossible to realize. She is saved by the dragon Meenore, who then sends her on a dangerous mission in the ogre's castle. Soon, Elodie finds herself in the thick of a complicated and mysterious plot.

This is, I think, only the second Levine novel I've read, after Fairest. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with that title, leading me to pick up this one in the fall. Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy this one nearly as much as the other title I'd read. I had a hard time connecting with Elodie. She was likable enough, but a bit dull. I mean, she wants to be an actress but other than that, I don't feel like I know terribly much about her. Additionally, a lot of the plot felt overly complicated and convoluted. There are a lot of things going on here but I didn't feel like any of them were handled particularly successfully. It felt like Levine had a lot of stories she wanted to tell in this world and crammed them all into this book, though, allegedly, this is the first book in a series (book two may be coming out this year, I hear). It just felt like too much for me. Finally, the writing seemed a bit simplistic. I don't need every book I read to be drenched in lovely prose, but this just felt pedestrian.

I really wanted to like this book because it looked like a fun story, but I was mostly disappointed. That being said, I think it will be a fun story for some fantasy readers, just not me.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: The Beast Within

The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince
By Serena Valentino
Expected publication July 22, 2014 by Disney Press

You may think you know the story, but how did a handsome prince become the beast he is today? And is there any hope that he can change his fate?

So, a few years ago, I remember seeing Valentino's other Disney retelling, Fairest of Them All. Being a huge fan of retellings, it definitely caught my eye. I never got around to that one, but when I saw this newest title as a galley at ALA Midwinter, I was happy to take one home.

Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be going back to check out Fairest of Them All. While I liked some of the ideas in this book (most notably, that Gaston and the Beast were best friends in childhood), I had many more problems. The writing is very simplistic and boring. The book relies almost exclusively on telling and not showing what is happening. In addition, I felt like Valentino was writing down to the audience, something I find quite insulting. This is supposed to be a book for teens, but it seemed like Valentino didn't believe teens could understand anything more complex than a simple sentence. There is a lack of characterization - I never cared enough about the Beast to actually care about the curse. I thought this book was supposed to give us the Beast's perspective, make him a more sympathetic character, but it just didn't work out that way. The development of Beauty and the Beast's relationship is completely out of left field and really seems unbelievable here.

I realize that this is being published by Disney, but I still wasn't expecting it to rely solely on the Disney version of the classic fairy tale. That was definitely another let-down for me. Like I said, I'm a big fan of retellings, but this one just didn't work for me.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Picture Book Saturday

Here Comes the Easter Cat
By Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda
Published 2014 by Dial Books for Young Readers
This book is awesome. I mean, I know that's kind of a cop-out review, but it's also true. I loved this book and I think kids are going to love it, too. It's so much fun and also adorable and it's about a cat, so really, what's not to love? I love that the illustrations in this book are so expressive that you almost don't need the words to understand the story. I love how hard Cat tries to be fun and lovable - but he is a cat, after all. I love that there is going to be another one! Just love this book!

By Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans
Published 2014 by Schwartz & Wade
Okay, sloths are a pretty big deal right now, so this book only makes sense. I mean, who doesn't want a sloth for a pet? They are adorable and they live in a tree and they make the cutest noises ever. This book is really cute, and is great to teach kids that sometimes a pet isn't exactly the way you want it to be. But sometimes a pet can also be a surprise. Obviously, we can't encourage children to want sloths for pets, but it may make them interested in learning about the wide variety of animals out there. Plus, I mean, SLOTHS. Just so stinking cute.

Lost for Words
By Natalie Russell
Published 2014 by Peachtree Publishers
This is a cute story that shows we all have different strengths. Tapir is excited about his brand new notebook and can't wait to fill it with words - but the words are lost! So, he asks his friends for help and soon discovers that maybe he should be filling his notebook with things other than words. A sweet story and I appreciate that Tapir is the main character (quick - name another book about a tapir!). This would be a good one for early elementary readers learning about different kinds of writing and artistic expression.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: Rebel Fire

Rebel Fire (Young Sherlock Holmes, book two)
By Andrew Lane
Published 2012 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Read my review of book one here.
Young Sherlock Holmes knows that his American tutor's past is a mystery to him, but even he is surprised to find Amyus Crowe mixed up in a plot that also involves John Wilkes Booth. Being who he is, Sherlock sets out to find some answers.
I downloaded the audio version of book one on a whim, but I liked it well enough to pick up book two a couple of months later. I switched formats this time, picking up a physical copy of book two instead of listening. I don't think it really impacted how I felt about the book.
So far, I think this series is a great one to recommend to fans of adventure stories. The action is pretty much non-stop once it gets started, as Sherlock seems to find himself in sticky situations quite frequently. As I admitted in my review of the first, my exposure to Sherlock Holmes is extremely limited, so I'm still not sure how the character Lane has developed fits with the character that Holmes created. From what I know of Sherlock, so far his teenaged version doesn't seem quite as peculiar as the grown-up version. He seems to socialize fine with others and doesn't seem to have that savant level of case-solving that likely develops over time. I enjoy Amyus Crowe as a character, as well as his daughter, though Lane has started to develop a bit of a romantic entanglement for Virginia and Sherlock that I'm not sure I believe. I think my favorite character is Matty - he's just fun so far.
I found the plot of this one a bit more intriguing than the first - the idea of a conspiracy that spirited John Wilkes Booth away to save him for another purpose is pretty fascinating. I'm not sure it historically makes a lot of sense, but it's interesting.

I'll be interested to see how this series continues and I'll be recommending it to readers looking for some action and adventure or mystery.