‘Shadow’ by Michael Morpurgo: A dog saves an Afghan boy twice


Rating: 5 stars

“Shadow” is Michael Morpurgo’s second book about animals, the first being “War Horse,” which was made into a movie. “Shadow” is an emotionally charged, action-packed book that would make a wonderful movie as well.

Morpurgo introduces the three main characters immediately. Grandpa, Matt, and Matt’s classmate, the Afghan refugee Aman, are the voices who tell the story. We “meet” the other characters through Matt’s point of view and he sets the scene.

Grandpa is lonely because his wife died, so when Matt visits, Grandpa wants to enjoy every moment. Matt tells his Grandpa that they are about to send his best friend, Aman, back to Afghanistan and that meanwhile he is being kept in a prison which turns out to be near Grandpa’s home.

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‘The Blue House Dog’ by Deborah Blumenthal is a fabulous, touching picture book about a stray dog and a boy who needs him


Rating: 5 stars

The Blue House Dog, written by Deborah Blumenthal and illustrated by Adam Gustavson, is a picture book that will be appreciated by children aged five and older. Adults will enjoy the beautifully created illustrations and the carefully crafted prose that accompanies each picture.

The free verse is wisely and elegantly constructed to tell the story with a combination of facts, metaphor and feelings. Just as carefully created are the illustrations. They don’t just illustrate the story; they combine seamlessly with the text to create a touching, lovely package.

Bones, the stray dog, lived with an old man in a “house painted ocean blue.” He was there when the man died, and then he escaped and has been living on the streets since. “On a gray day in winter, they start to tear down the blue house, with Bone’s old life inside. Now he’ll have even less than he had before.”

The boy in the story has a loss of his own to deal with. His own beloved dog died and he misses him. “When you lose someone who’s as close as your own skin, the only place you can find him again is hidden inside your memories.

The boy and the dog, both lonely, both sad, slowly find each other and, in the end, make each other whole again. “There are no stray dogs around here now. Blue likes it that way, and so do I.

This touching story was inspired by the true story of a stray dog in Astoria, Queens (New York). The dog wandered the neighborhood, named by different people and fed by families, until finally a rescuer captured the dog, treated it for worms, and found it a permanent safe home.

The illustrator shared with me some thoughts about the book. “The Blue House Dog story was so quiet, and Deborah’s choice of language did such a great job of establishing a mood, it seemed even more befitting to zoom out here and there and make an image about the time of day, or to grab images from her text and make them metaphors for some greater theme (the daffodils that bloom, wilt, and return throughout the book, for instance).

He also said, “In the Blue House Dog paintings, I wanted the neighborhood, the elm trees, and the dappled little bits of suburban sunlight to be characters too, and being allowed to take that approach in the pictures can give the the story freedom to sort of float over everything.”

A wonderful gift for anyone aged five to adult–dog lovers of all ages will enjoy this story of love and friendship and overcoming loss. No bookshelf should be without it.

‘Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk’ by Liesl Shurtliff

jack and the

Rating: 5 stars

“JACK: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk” by Liesl Shurtliff is every bit as brilliant and well written as her first book in the series, “RUMP: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin.”

It’s about Jack, of course, who has been hearing for his whole life stories about how his “seven times great grandfather” killed the giant. But nothing prepares him for when the giants descend through the sky to pick their village clean. Literally. They take whole houses with the people inside them. And when they take Jack’s father, he decides it’s time for him to fulfill his legacy and rescue his father.

Shurtliff manages to cleverly include several other fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The cobbler and the elves? Check. The woman who lived in a shoe with her many children? Check. She also twists the much-told Jack story, and readers will love to find out about who says “Fee fie fo fum.” Oh, and Jack’s younger sister, Annabella? She is pretty capable, too. In fact, she saves Jack’s bacon more than once.

The details are fabulous, the characters winning, and the story engrossing. It’s fun, and readers who loved “RUMP” (and even readers who didn’t) will enjoy this ride into giant-land. Perfect for middle grade readers or for anyone who enjoys fractured fairy tales.

Boys will love the adventure. Girls will love the adventure and the magic. It’s great fun.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers for review purposes.


‘Magic Delivery’ by Clete Barrett Smith: Wonderful middle grade action fantasy

magic d

Rating: 5 stars

“Magic Delivery” is the second series by Clete Barrett Smith. The first is the “Aliens on Vacation” series about a Bed and Breakfast inn for visitors from other galaxies. All the books in the series are filled with humor, action and wacky aliens. They also convey some great sentiments: appreciation of diversity, loyalty, honesty, and perseverance.

“Magic Delivery” promises more of the same. The main character, Nick, is a smart middle-school kid. His parents are divorced, and his mother doesn’t earn enough to support them; his father doesn’t pay the child support he is supposed to, so Nick earns money at school “helping” other students do better on tests.

When he and his best friend are riding their bikes, they are almost run over by a strange truck driven by — and they find this hard to believe — a bear. The truck swerves to avoid them and ends up at the bottom of a steep hill. The rest of the story is nonstop swashbuckling action and goofiness, with a bit of scary thrown into the mix.

It turns out that the bear is a guy in a magic costume who is delivering the costumes for a witch — and it’s supposed to be top secret. Suffice to say that the magical costumes do not remain hidden, the delivery does not go smoothly, and Nick and his friend Burger are mixed up with it and happy about that (could this be Nick’s chance to make some real money?).

Smith creates a world filled with magic, and his genius is that it seems totally believable. His characters are likeable because they are not perfect — they have their weaknesses. Readers will be able to identify with not only the characters but some of the situations — being bullied, for example.

It’s all great fun and it leaves room for sequels, so one can hope it’s the start of a new funny and fabulous series.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Disney – Hyperion, for review purposes.

‘I Don’t Want to Be a Frog’ by Dev Petty: Picture book about an identity crisis


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“I Don’t Want to Be a Frog,” shouts the main kid frog character on the cover of this delightful picture book written by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt. His open and very funny mouth, which covers at least two-thirds of his large and very funny face, stays just that way for most of this little and very funny book. And the book proves conclusively and entertainingly that the grass is, indeed, always greener on the other side of the fence. At least it looks that green — as green as his very own skin — to this unhappy (and very spoiled) kiddie frog.

His intellectual daddy knows better, of course:

“I want to be a CAT.
You can’t be a CAT.
Why not?
Because you’re a FROG.
I don’t like being a frog. It’s too WET.
Well, you can’t be a cat.”

(The text and the pictures are equally silly and adorable.)

Froggy goes on to scream that he wants to be a rabbit, a pig, or an owl. And in each case he explains exactly why he hates being a frog and why he really wants to be every other animal. He’s a terrific spoiled-child character. Then comes the big climax and the big twist, all starting with the sudden appearance of a scary-looking, leering, sneering wolf — who also happens to be surprisingly wise and incredibly kind — to Froggy, anyway. Not so much to those other unlucky guys who happen not to be frogs.

You and the kids will get a huge kick out of this one. (JK)

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Doubleday Books for Young Readers, for review purposes.

‘The Lost Hero’ by Rick Riordan


(Please note: This is a reprint of an earlier review — Percy Jackson is alive and well in the continuing series by Rick Riordan, including the newest, “The Trials of Apollo.”

Rating: 5 stars

The Lost Hero, by Rick Riordan, is book one in a new series, The Heroes of Olympus, based on the original series about Percy Jackson. It is still based at Camp Half Blood, but instead of two heroes, Percy and Annabeth, there are three.

The three new heroes are Jason, the demi-god son of Jupiter (also known as Zeus, which is explained in the book); Piper, the demi-god daughter of Aphrodite; and Leo, the demi-god son of Hephaestus.

While Annabeth goes on a quest to find the missing Percy, the new heroes — Jason, Piper and Leo — go on a quest to find Hera (also known as Juno) who is being held prisoner by a mysterious force whose identity is not revealed until near the end of the novel.

The mysterious force’s minions include the giants of mythology whose potential power is even greater and more horrific than that of the Titans, whom Percy Jackson ultimately defeated in the last series.

Like the original series, the novel is filled with wonderful teenage humor. The characters are well-drawn and entertaining. The plot is well-executed and keeps the reader’s interest.

Of course, like the first series, there is a never-ending flow of fascinating information about the Greek (and this time, Roman) gods. Rick Riordan has done his research carefully, and one of the benefits of young adults reading these books is the knowledge that they acquire without studying! It’s a fun and painless way to learn all about mythology.

As always, the heroes, the villains, the gods, and the humans are all courageous but flawed — selfish (sometimes) but strong and daring. It’s a great read.

Visit Rick Riordan’s website for more information. There is also a special website for the Percy Jackson series.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher.

‘Poor Doreen: A Fishy Tale’: One of the best picture books ever



One of the best picture books you will ever read

Rating: 5 stars

“Poor Doreen (A Fishy Tale)” by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger is a charming and humorous picture book that just begs to be read aloud.

There are two (perhaps three) simultaneous stories going on in this clever story.

There is the narrator who tells the story of the fish, Doreen (an extremely rare Southern Belle Ample Roundy Fish whose full name is Miss Doreen Randolph-Potts), who is on her way to visit her second cousin twice removed, who just had 157 babies. The narrator explains that Doreen is being stalked by both a fisherman and a great blue heron.

And poor ignorant, naive Doreen tells her story through dialogue. She is having the adventure of her life — not realizing that her life is in extreme danger.

And lastly, there are the narrator comments, in second person — as if talking to Doreen — explaining that she’s not lucky at all. It sounds a bit confusing. Don’t worry. It’s not.

So when she bites on the fisherman’s hook, thinking it’s a dragonfly, and she’s flying through the air, she says, “Whee!” and “What a REMARKABLE swimmer I am! I’ll be with my cousin in no time!”

And the narrator replies, “Oh dear, Doreen. No. You’re not.”

Doreen’s tale twists and turns as much as a fish swimming through rapids. And as she is flying off in the mouth of the great blue heron (doomed, for sure, right?), Doreen manages to cleverly escape.

Is Doreen really clever? Or is she just incredibly lucky? That’s something the readers will be arguing about and discussing for a while.

The illustrations are also wonderfully clever and just right for the story. Alexandra Boiger chose blues and yellows and greens for most of the art, which serve to make the bright red of the fisherman’s boat and Doreen’s scarf and umbrella pop out.

The watercolors, combined with colored pencil and pencil, evoke the watery environment, the blue sky and the characters. The crimson color of Doreen’s scarf and umbrella (and the fisherman’s rowboat) perfectly contrast with the other colors. Boiger’s brush strokes are masterful at defining Doreen’s expressions as well as the expressions on the faces of the others, including other fish and the fisherman.

Boiger shared, “When I read the manuscript for the very first time I immediately fell in love with her character. I kept on thinking: Life is like a stroll in the park for her, which made me think of a lady somewhere in the English countryside walking through the grass. And there I saw the scarf and umbrella already in my mind. I also wanted to give her as much personality as possible, to really capture her psychological mindset, and to set her apart from all the other fish in her world.”

Boiger was kind enough to share some of the sketches and paintings she created while working on the book. The final result shows her careful planning and talented painting.

Yes, poor Doreen wears a bright red scarf on her head and carries a bright red umbrella. For Doreen is not just any fish, she’s a Southern Belle Ample Roundy Fish named Miss Doreen Randolph-Potts. She’s special, indeed.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Schwartz & Wade Books for review purposes.

‘Half Bad’ by Sally Green: First in a fabulous YA debut series


Rating: 5 stars

“Half Bad” by Sally Green isn’t half bad — it’s totally wonderful. The story is fast-moving, the action and dialogue keep the reader’s interest, and the characters are believable and compelling.

Green gives Part One the title of “The Trick,” and she uses a trick with the setting. Part One is actually more the middle of the story in this first book. Green also plays a bit with the narration — throwing a bit of second person narration in this first part — which doesn’t appear in the later parts of the story.

It’s about an England with witches. White witches, obviously, are the good witches, and black witches are the bad ones. However, that dichotomy is really not all that accurate when white witches torture and kill those who aren’t on their side.

But Green cleverly doesn’t make the story about black versus white. There are some white witches who are happy to act like black witches, and there are black witches with souls like white witches. It’s all mixed up — just like the real world.

Interestingly, Green’s protagonist is unable to read. Although Nathan is quite competent with maps, letters word formations are practically impossible for him to decipher.

He’s locked in a cage in the first part of the book. If he doesn’t escape and get the traditional three gifts that all witches must get on their 17th birthday, he might die. His father, the baddest black witch of all, has never tried to find him. Perhaps that’s because one witch had a vision that Nathan would kill his father with a famous sword, the Fairborn.

In spite of the darkness of parts of the story (black witches killing any and all — including their own relatives), Green writes with humor. For example:

“‘The way you go all…there’s an English word — mopey? Yes, I think that’s it. You are mopey sometimes.’
‘I think you’ve got the wrong word. Thoughtful is more like it.’
‘No, I think the right word is mopey.'”

For readers tired of dystopian young adult novels and vampire novels, this series — full of magic and adventure (and a bit of humor) — is sure to please. Even reluctant readers will find themselves turning page after page to find out what happens.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Viking for review purposes.

Getting to know Maureen Johnson and Robin Wasserman


Maureen Johnson and Robin Wasserman

Most of those attending LeakyCon would give their right arm to have breakfast with either Maureen Johnson, author of “ Name of the Star,” “Suite Scarlett,” and “13 Little Blue Envelopes,” or Robin Wasserman, author of “The Cold Awakening” trilogy, “Hatching Harvard,” and her most recent, “The Book of Blood and Shadow.” Watch the video here.

Breakfast with both ladies was a treat. The community of authors, especially young adult authors, is a small one and Maureen and Robin have been friends for years. They were both in Chicago for the LeakyConconference. Both are on the staff of LeakyCon.

Good friends they may be, but Maureen and Robin are very different in many ways. While Maureen loves to read on her Kindle and iPad, Robin prefers a real book in her hand when she reads. Both love to read young adult, and they both read a lot of nonfiction when researching for their books.

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‘The Boy Who Cried Ninja’ by Alex Latimer is a great ‘wolf’ story with a twist

boy who cried

Rating: 5 stars

“The Boy Who Cried Ninja” by Alex Latimer is not your typical “Boy Who Cried Wolf” story. Not at all. Not even a little bit.

It’s a clever and touching story of a boy who tells the truth, but who is never believed. His mother asks him what happened to the last slice of cake. Tim, the main character, responds, “It was a ninja.” And he describes how “First, the ninja crept into the house…then he kicked it into the air and ate it in one bite.”

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Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog


Rating: 5 stars

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, by Hal Herzog, is a study of the relationships between man and animal. Hal Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, is a prolific researcher and writer about the complex relationship between animals and humans–the many conflicting ways we think about animals and the ways we act upon our thoughts (and more often, emotions).

The book explains the obscure field of anthrozoology: human-animal studies. Even in this relatively small area of study, there are widely (and wildly) divergent attitudes on human-animal moral issues. This book explores the many, many thorny issues that arise in the way humans relate to, consume, test on, fight, and otherwise interact with animals of all species.

One of the thorny questions Herzog asks is whether he would rather be a fighting rooster (as in cock fighting) or a commercial broiler (as in the chicken which is purchased frozen from most supermarkets). The answer is surprising–the commercial chicken does not win.

The modern chicken, the reader learns, lives its short life (six or seven weeks) lying down (because it has been bred to become so breast-heavy that it cannot stand for long) in litter contaminated with excrement. Because of these pitiable conditions, the chickens develop breast blisters, hock burns and sores on their feet. “The air they breathe is ammonia-filled from the accumulated urine and excrement of tens of thousands of birds in one barn. The gas burns the lungs, inflames the eyes, and causes chronic respiratory disease.

The death of the commercial broiler chicken is no less horrifying than its life–frightening and painful, with the occasional (or not so occasional) chicken scalded alive when previous killing methods fail.

By contrast, the life of game cocks is almost idyllic. They are not fought until they are two-year-olds, and their first years of life are fairly pampered. For almost the first year, they are free to roam the chicken yard, playing and scratching as chickens like to do. When they reach puberty, they need to be separated from each other, but because the breeders want them to get exercise, they are given plenty of space to run. They are fed well and exercised as they get closer to their fight times.

Unfortunately, the roosters only have a 50% chance of living through their first fight. But death is fairly quick (from 10 seconds to almost an hour). I think I, also, would choose to be a game rooster.

Other chapters discuss pets, hunting, meat, animal testing, and almost every aspect of our interactions with animals that one might consider worthy of reflection. Herzog questions instead of moralizing and leaves it to the reader to draw final conclusions.

This book would make a great holiday gift for the animal-lover on your shopping list. It’s a book that inspires thought and reflection–a perfect book for making anyone involved with animals think about them–and our relationships with them–in a new light.

‘The Copper Gauntlet: Magisterium Book Two’ by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

copper guantlet

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

What do you get when you mix two bestselling authors and a middle grade fantasy setting? A series of books that lovers of Harry Potter will adore. The series is called “Magisterium,” and Book One was “Iron Trial” and now we have Book Two, “The Copper Gauntlet.”

There are definite similarities to the Harry Potter series. The protagonist is Callum Hunt, who is made to attend a school for mages (those who wield magic). His father has renounced magic and everything to do with it. The reader learns that Callum, or Call for short, may not really be who he appears to be. When the magic war killed many of the “good” mages, the “Enemy of Death,” the super-bad guy, was dying. He managed to insert his being into the body of a child. That child was Callum Hunt.

So is Call the Enemy of Death? The third person narrator manages to deliver Call’s thoughts and feelings with clarity. Call doesn’t feel like a super villain. In fact, part of the humor in the book comes from his thinking about his actions as making him less “super-villainy” or more “super-villainy.” He’s struggling to come to terms with the fact that he might be the reincarnation — in a sense — of a really, really bad guy.

This story has action to spare and a plot that twists and turns like a huge roller-coaster. Callum’s group of friends expands by one surprising addition in the book, but it’s a good addition. Those who have fallen in love with Havoc, Call’s chaos-ridden wolf pup, can rest easy. The dog lives through this book. And if Black and Clare know what’s good for them, they will make sure to keep Havoc alive through the whole series.

Great choice for fantasy lovers from fourth grade up. This would be a wonderful classroom library addition, too.

Please note: This review was based on the final hardcover book provided by Scholastic Press for review purposes.