‘Thursdays with the Crown’ by Jessica Day George

thursdays castle.jpg

Rating: 5 stars

“Thursdays with the Crown” is the third book in the “Tuesdays at the Castle” series by Jessica Day George. Finally readers will find out how “Wednesdays in the Tower” ends. “Wednesdays at the Castle” ended with a cliffhanger — Celie, her siblings, their good friend Pogue and Prince Lulath all were stranded in a strange alternate world.

In the second book in the series, the castle, an almost-living creation, has not been behaving normally. Instead of creating new rooms on Tuesdays, other rooms are appearing not on schedule. And the holiday room, which appeared during holidays, appears with packed-up decorations and looking dusty. This makes Celie wonder just what and where those rooms are during the time they disappear.

Now Celie will get a chance to find out. The ailing castle takes them to the world where the castle originated. It’s a world filled with griffins, but it’s also a world filled with wizards at war. The new book picks up about an hour after the old book (“Wednesdays in the Tower”) ends. However, anxious readers who already read the second book will have waited a lot longer than that hour for this third one to appear — and the wait will pay off with the excitement and fascination this one generates.

In this alternate world, Celie and her siblings and friends must not only discover what is ailing the castle, but figure out how to return to their own world with their families. As in the first two books, there is action aplenty. There is also lots of magic and the new world is filled with danger.

Jessica Day George creates a plot that is thoroughly enjoyable and riveting. Through dialogue and description, she populates the story with characters who become real, who almost become friends. Celie’s sister could be any reader’s sister — she seems that alive. Readers feel a kinship to Celie and her friends and want to know how they fare. They will not want to put the book down for a minute.

The twists and turns that the group must take to evade the wicked wizards — both of whom are not all that they appear to be — will keep the reader excited. The ending does not disappoint either. While certainly not a cliffhanger, it does leave room for another sequel.

Why five stars? This is a middle grade book that will appeal to a wide audience. It’s got something for most every reader — fantasy, action, adventure, friendship. And it’s really fun to read.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Bloomsbury Press, for review purposes.

‘Ninja Red Riding Hood’ by Corey Rosen Schwartz: Fractured funny fairy tale


Rating: 5 stars

Corey Rosen Schwartz does it again — a perfectly rhyming, funny fractured fairy tale for kids to enjoy and for teachers to enjoy reading aloud. “Ninja Red Riding Hood” is the perfect sequel to “The Three Ninja Pigs.”

Not only is the rhyme fabulous and the action non-stop, parents and teachers alike will love the chance to have kids exposed to some really strong vocabulary words.

“‘And those biceps! My gosh, they look massive.
And your triceps and delts are immense.’
‘The better for hugging,’
her grandma said, shrugging.
‘Dear Red, that’s just plain common sense.'”

“Massive, “immense,” and other words like “anticipation” and “deftly” will help build strong vocabularies in younger readers. The dialogue between the wolf, Red and Grandma is liberally sprinkled with such words and with martial arts vocabulary.

And the ending? Talk about transformation! The wolf is reformed and has learned his lesson as Schwartz perfectly ends this fractured tale.

Schwartz is definitely into girl power — it’s the oldest sibling, the sister pig in “The Three Ninja Pigs” who saves the others’ “bacon.” And Red Riding Hood is no slouch in the “I can save myself” department. The wolf thinks Red and her old grandmother are easy pickings, but that’s far from the case.

The illustrations also deserve special note. Those who enjoyed Dan Santat’s illustrations in “The Three Ninja Pigs” will see great similarity in these illustrations. Some pages have panels depicting the action — and the action pages radiate movement. Other pages, appropriately, are much calmer. Throughout, there is a clever use of color and space. Santat takes advantage of every inch of each page to great effect.

An effective and entertaining activity for kids in school and out is to read them several versions of the same fairy tale, including fractured fairy tale stories, and have them compare the different stories. How are they the same? How are they different? Teaching kids at a young age to think about what they read is important and will help them significantly in school.

Fractured fairy tales are more popular than ever for a reason. Kids love hearing and reading different iterations of the same story. And when a talented writer like Schwartz adds rhyme to the mix, it’s even better!

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Putnam Juvenile, for review purposes.

‘A Mom for Umande’ by Maria Faulconer: Picture book about a baby gorilla


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

In “A Mom for Umande” by Maria Faulconer, a baby gorilla’s birth mother doesn’t know what to do with him. The keepers at the zoo must act as his mom.

Twenty-four hours a day they play with little Umande and teach him to be a gorilla. Even though they try to get his mother to be a mother to him, she’s too young. She just wants to be his playmate.

Finally, Umande travels to another zoo, where he meets Lulu, an experienced mom. She knows just what to do with a baby who needs a mom.

This story is based on the true story of Umande, born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Umande ended up at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium with Lulu, the gorilla who became his mom.

This is a great story for kids of all ages because it shows that not all real moms — human or otherwise — are the birth moms. Sometimes, babies can find their moms through other means. It also shows all the hard work that the zookeepers did to raise Umande as a gorilla so he would acclimate to his new gorilla family.

Classroom libraries would be richer with this book included in the nonfiction section, and for those with adopted children, this book is a great way to start a discussion about adoption.

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

‘I Am Rosa Parks’ by Brad Meltzer: An ‘Ordinary People Change the World’ book


Rating: 5 stars

Brad Meltzer stretches his artistic talent with the newest addition to the “Ordinary People Change the World” series, “I Am Rosa Parks.”

Meltzer may be an excellent writer of adult thrillers, but he also writes excellent children’s books. Both of the previous books in the series, “I Am Abraham Lincoln” and “I Am Amelia Earhart,” are excellent biographies of seemingly ordinary people who ended up changing the world.

The story of Rosa Parks is well known, but Meltzer brings new information that manages to be both interesting and compelling.

Part of Rosa’s inner strength came from her parents, who Meltzer says taught her to respect herself and to expect respect from others. Readers see the difference in white and “colored” schools, the different drinking fountains and elevators. I never knew that Rosa had had another harsh encounter on a bus when she couldn’t get on the bus by the back door so she went through the front. The hostile white bus driver threw her off. Ironically, it was the very same white bus driver who had her arrested years later when she refused to give up her seat to a white person.

The illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulos perfectly complement the text. They are colorful but simple. Rosa has the same cartoonish large head that both Abraham Lincoln and Amelia Earhart sported in the previous biographies.

Meltzer created this series because, “… I was tired of my daughter thinking that reality TV stars and and loud-mouthed sports players were heroes. I tell my kids all the time: That’s fame. Fame is different than being a hero. I wanted my kids to see real heroes … For that reason, each book tells the story of the heroes when THEY were kids.”

Meltzer really achieves his goal. Readers see the the determination in these heroes even as kids. And each book has its own message.

It’s a book, and a series, that is indispensable for classrooms from second grade through fourth or even fifth. These books give nonfiction information in an easy-to-access manner that kids will enjoy reading. And nonfiction books that are both fascinating and inspiring are priceless.

Why five stars? There are too few nonfiction books that are fun and fascinating aimed at this age group.

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

‘Whatever After: If the Shoe Fits’: Second in the fractured fairy tale series

whatever shoe

Rating: 4 stars

Sarah Mlynowski is on to something with her “Whatever After” series. Her second book in the series, “Whatever After: If the Shoe Fits” is Cinderella. But is it really?

The Disney version and the Grimm version differ mainly in that the Grimm version has an ending that is rather more grim, pardon the pun. In both versions Cinderella and the prince live happily ever after, but in the Grimm original version, the stepsisters cut off bodily parts to enable their foot to fit in the glass slipper. In that version they also have their eyes plucked out by a bird.

Mlynowski’s series does not have the prince fall immediately in love with Cinderella (or Snow White in the first book); instead, through the plots’ twists and turns, the young female protagonists learn that it’s important to be self-sufficient rather than waiting for one’s “prince” to appear.

And isn’t that a great lesson for the young girls in today’s beauty-obsessed culture? Looks are fine, but it’s really what’s upstairs (brains) that counts in the long run.

The basis of the series is that Abby and her brother Jonah have moved into a new house. Their parents are attorneys who have started their own practice and are never home. In the basement of this new house, the two siblings find a magic mirror that sucks them into fairy tales.

In each story, Abby and Jonah mess up the actual story and then have to work to get it right again. Abbie aspires to be a judge when she grows up, and that becomes an interesting point in each plot. In each story, it’s the brains and character that win out in the end, not just the beauty.

And in “Whatever After: If the Shoe Fits,” Abby and Jonah offer to help Cinderella with her chores, thus acquiring some useful skills. While Abby had been banned from cooking and doing laundry because of mistakes she made, she now feels confident enough to do her own laundry. This time, she reads the directions before adding laundry detergent!

But don’t get the idea that the books are great inspirational reads for girls and nothing more. They are funny and well-written, and they feature well-drawn characters. Readers will identify with Abby and her feelings about her brother and her family and their move.

This series is perfect for middle grade readers, probably primarily girls, although some boys who are into Grimm might enjoy it (and there’s always Jonah as one of the main characters).

Another way to get fairytale lovers to read more is the have them compare Mlynowski’s series with Adam Gidwitz’s “The Grimm Conclusion.” The Cinderella story is called “Ashputtle” and it’s hysterically funny. He explains, in detail, that not only was Cinderella covered in ash, she had to clean the chamber pots. So she was also covered in something rather more smelly than ashes. Gidwitz points out that her name should really be Toilet Cleaner rather than Cinderella.

Read all the “Whatever After” books starting with “Fairest of All, ” “If the Shoe Fits,” “Sink or Swim,” “Dream On,” “Bad Hair Day,” “Cold as Ice,” “Beauty Queen,” and “Once Upon a Frog.

Please note: This review is based on the final paperback provided by the publisher, Scholastic, for review purposes.

‘Zacktastic’ by Courtney Sheinmel: Middle grade fantasy


Rating: 4 stars

Courtney Sheinmel of “Stella Batts” fame is branching out and has penned a book that both boys and girls will enjoy. “Zacktastic” is perfect for middle grade kids who are reading at a bit higher level than the girls who enjoy the “Stella Batts” series. It’s about Zack, who just turned ten, and has an itchy big toe. It turns out that the itchy big toe is proof that he is a genie.

Although Zack’s father died in a car accident, his “Uncle Max” is there to tell Zack about his heritage and help him with his newfound powers. When Zack gets zapped away on his first assignment, early and with no training, he must try his best to figure out what to do with only the most basic of advice from Uncle Max.

Zack’s life has always been made more difficult by the presence of his twin sister, the pretty and popular Quinn. In comparison, Zack has no friends and no social life. Quinn seems to do everything better than Zack, but she is no genie. When Zack accidentally frees a powerful (but evil) genie, he has some very difficult decisions to make.

Zack changes over the course of the story. At the beginning of the story, he is afraid of everything, but by the end he has learned that he is capable and can be brave. It’s a touching story that is full of adventure and fantasy.

Sheinmel’s expertise in writing books that young readers will enjoy is evident in every page. It’s the first in a series, so make sure to have this as part of your book collection, be it at home, in the classroom or in a library.

Please note: This review is based on the paperback book provided by Sleeping Bear Press for review purposes.

‘A Step Toward Falling’ by Cammie McGovern



Rating: 5 stars

Cammie McGovern takes a huge risk in her latest book for young adult audiences, “A Step Toward Falling.” She uses a dual viewpoint narrative (first person) to tell the story of a developmentally disabled teen and the two other teens who see her being molested and do nothing to stop it.

Belinda is the teen with developmental disabilities who attends high school and narrates her story. She is funny and feisty, and she has her own prejudices about others. She is quick to misunderstand situations but also fiercely loyal to those she cares about. Emily is the teen who grew up seeing Belinda in acting classes but was never close to her. When she saw Belinda being molested during a high school football game, she froze and didn’t react in time to really help Belinda.

Lucas is the football player who also saw what was happening but ran past the scene. Because Lucas’ story is told through the eyes of Emily and Belinda, it takes longer to learn his whole story — but it’s just as touching as those of Emily and Belinda.

When Emily and Lucas are required to help at a class at a center for people with disabilities, they don’t know what to expect — from the people in the class and from each other. Our stereotypes of others are often far reaching and often encompass everyone outside our own circle of friends and acquaintances. Emily’s stereotype of Lucas is just as strong — and just as wrong — as her stereotype of Belinda and the others in her group. Belinda is not in the class that Lucas and Emily “volunteer” at, but McGovern brings the story together beautifully.

This beautifully written story has many messages for its readers. Perhaps the most important is to understand that those with intellectual disabilities have just as much need for emotional relationships as anyone else. Sometimes, their intellectual challenges might impede the development of such relationships, but we all have the same need to be loved.

Although this story has its dark side, to be sure, it also is a story told by McGovern with much love and humor. Everyone who reads this book will be touched and forced to question her/his own stereotypes. This would be a great middle school or high school assigned reading project. Because of the mature subject matter, it is probably not a good choice for those under the age of twelve, although there is nothing graphic in the story.

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

‘Run You Down’ by Julia Dahl: Second in Rebekah Roberts series


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

In “Run You Down,” Julia Dahl takes readers back to New York and into the life of journalist Rebekah Roberts. She is the daughter of an Hasidic Jew and a Christian minister. They met in New York and ran away together to Florida. When Rebekah’s mother realized she was pregnant, she was terrified. And her terror didn’t abate when Rebekah was born. She fled Florida, Rebekah and Rebekah’s father and returned to the Hasidic Jewish community.

In this second book, Rebekah is still recovering from her first big investigation as a reporter. It involved the tight-knit Jewish community and a murder. Because the Orthodox Jews do not trust police and those who don’t know their ways, they prefer to take care of crimes in their communities by themselves. Which means that often, crimes are not investigated and people get away with murder — literally.

In this book, a member of the community approaches Rebekah because his wife died. While the community is saying that she committed suicide, the husband does not agree. Because his wife was on anti-depressants, the community shrugs the death off as having to do with drugs. The police don’t seem eager to investigate, either.

In both books, Dahl writes the stories on two levels. There is the mystery to be solved, but there is also the mystery of Rebekah’s mother. Where is she? Will Rebekah get to meet her? In this book, Rebekah gets closer and closer to meeting her mother. The mystery she is investigating is closer to home that she realizes at first. So close that Rebekah and maybe even her mother might be in danger.

Dahl’s writing style makes the story flow. Her knack for just the right amount of description and authentic dialogue keeps the reader turning page after page. The characters are likable, even if Rebekah may be younger than much of the reading audience. The glimpses the reader gets into the Hasidic Jewish community are also fascinating, if somewhat repellant (at least in this reviewer’s opinion). The lack of opportunities for women, the censorship of educational materials (references to dinosaurs, etc.), the refusal to rock the boat by stopping pedophiles because it might make it more difficult to get another child married.

The story also takes readers into the totally repugnant world of the skinheads — those who hate everyone who isn’t white and Christian, and even those who are white and Christian if they are gay.

All that and a mystery, too! The story will make more sense if the first book, “Invisible City,” is read prior to picking up this one.

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

Delightful ‘Lenore Finds a Friend: A True Story from Bedlam Farm’ by Jon Katz

lenore finds

Rating: 5 stars

“Lenore Finds a Friend” by Jon Katz continues the story about the dogs of Bedlam Farm and their relationships with those around them. In “Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm” Katz cleverly makes Lenore the subject of a mystery — what is her job?

In his newest picture book about the animals on Bedlam Farm, Katz shows how persistence can help one make friends even with those who are much different. Lenore, a black Labrador, has no friends at Bedlam Farm. All the other dogs have their own important jobs.

As in many love stories, Lenore finds love in an unexpected place and with an unexpected creature — a ram. She and Brutus become fast friends, and that experience helps Lenore make friends with Rose, the very busy border collie.

Children will love reading this story over and over. They will be able to relate to how difficult it may be sometimes to make friends. It is also an excellent book to use when discussing diversity and making friends with those who are different from us.

Great story, incredibly beautiful photographs, plenty of animals, and lots of great discussion — what more could any parent or classroom teacher ask for?

This book would be a great gift for teachers or for children aged 3 to 8.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover picture book provided by the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, a division of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, for review purposes.

‘Over in the Wetlands: A Hurricane on the Bayou Story’ by Caroline Starr Rose


Rating: 5 stars

“Over in the Wetlands: A Hurricane-on-the Bayou Story” is written by Caroline Starr Rose and illustrated by Rob Dunlavey. It’s the story, told in rhyme, of wetlands before, during and after a hurricane comes through. The verse is filled with metaphor and simile, making this a wonderful text to use with all elementary age students when working on writing skills. The hurricane comes to life as it “stirs” and “crawls,” then “grumbles” and “writhes.” At its peak, the hurricane “drenches,” “drowns,” and then the hurricane “yawns” and “rests.”

The lyrical style the author employs to describe the wetlands is lovely. The language is rich, and even the verbs are robust. “Bulrushes dance” and “babies skitter.” “Black bear shambles” and “the cypress salted.” Students and teachers will enjoy studying the various literary devices Rose uses throughout the story. There is a study guide available on her website.

While the book is described as appropriate for preschool through third grade, it would also be appropriate to use for older grades when studying author craft and language usage. This book would definitely be a great addition to any elementary teacher’s classroom.

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

‘Time Flies’ by Claire Cook: A perfect beach read


Rating: 5 stars

A summer book list isn’t complete without a Claire Cook book on it. Her newest, “Time Flies,” will please her fans and garner her new ones. It’s about Melanie, a woman of a certain age, whose husband has just left her for another woman.

In Cook’s books, there is always a catalyst — something that galvanizes the protagonist into action. In “Time Flies,” the catalyst is whether Melanie will attend her high school reunion with her best friend, BJ. It’s just after the separation, and not only is Melanie feeling unwanted, but she is also suffering from a new phobia: driving on a highway.

Claire did her homework when writing this book, and when Melanie talks about her passion — metalwork sculpture — it feels real. It also feels fascinating. I’d love to know what Cook did to sound so authentic. Did she actually attend metalworking classes?

Of course, Melanie decides to go to the reunion. She travels back to New England, where she grew up and where her estranged sister still lives. Before she leaves Atlanta, where she moved when her soon-to-be-former husband got a new job, she meets the owner of a local restaurant. He calls because the sculpture he purchased from Melanie sprang a leak during the dinner rush hour. She not only fixes the leak but manages to intrigue the owner.

Then, to complicate matters, a former beau from high school (whom she can barely remember at first) emails her. They begin an online flirtation, and she grows excited about meeting him again at the reunion.

But before she can attend the reunion, she must face her phobias, talk to her sister, deal with the impending divorce, and re-live some wild times with her best friend.

It’s fun and games, but it’s also what Claire Cook excels at: delivering a message. And this message is spelled out in the title, “Time Flies.” What Melanie realizes by the end of the story (no spoilers) is that “Time flies. Time flies faster every year. Time flies whether you’re having fun or not, whether you’re living your life big or small, whether you surround yourself with fear or with laughter.”

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Touchstone (a division of Simon & Schuster), for review purposes.

‘I Am Jackie Robinson’ by Brad Meltzer: Great nonfiction picture book


Rating: 5 stars

What a piece of work is…Jackie Robinson. And we can proclaim the same about this wonderful kids’ book which traces his life and career: “I Am Jackie Robinson.”

Author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Christopher Eliopoulas have come up with a minor masterpiece in a major league biography. In simple. straightforward language and pictures, they recount the terrific struggle against life-long long odds and the almost unimaginable triumph — and courage — of a man who became an icon and a symbol for his people. Jackie’s whole life, and the major theme of this bio, is simply “You, too, can make it, and you, too can lead the way.”

The author has really done his homework. He recounts stories that even long-time Robinson fans have probably not heard — stories about his hard-scrabble childhood, the strength and goodness of his mother, the constant struggle against bigotry, racism, and undiluted hatred — all because he was different. He was black in a white man’s world.

Many of his accomplishments are near-incredible, literally hard to believe. He was a star in every sport in which he participated, at every level; as the first black man in professional and major league baseball, he approached each game with a spirit of derring-do, no-holds-barred confidence and other-worldly skill. And his success was achieved in the face of the same hatred and spite — even among his own teammates — that had characterized his whole life’s struggle.

And courage! The courage to refuse to physically fight back, the self-discipline to use as a weapon the only one available to him — his surpassing talent.

All of this is boldly, excitingly, and entertainingly recounted in “I Am Jackie Robinson.” Apologies for the cliche, but it applies here if it has ever applied anywhere: Meltzer and Eliopoulos have hit a home run. A grand slam.

Other books in the “Ordinary People Change the World” series include: “I Am Amelia Earhart,” “I Am Albert Einstein,” “I Am Rosa Parks,” and “I Am Abraham Lincoln.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Dial Books for Young Readers for review purposes. (JK)