‘I Am Albert Einstein’: Part of the ‘Ordinary People Change the World series’

albert einstain.jpg

Rating: 5 stars

Brad Meltzer’s fourth book in the “Ordinary People Who Change the World” series is “I Am Albert Einstein.” When you’ve written “I Am Abraham Lincoln,” “I Am Amelia Earhart,” and “I Am Rosa Parks,” who can follow that illustrious group? Albert Einstein is the perfect choice.

Each of his very thoughtful and very well researched books showcases something special about the subject of the biographies, a character trait that made the person heroic. Albert Einstein’s special trait, which is repeated over and over in the book, is that he never stopped asking questions.

Einstein was also different from birth. He talked late and he didn’t join other kids in their games. He preferred to think and build things. That’s another point the biography makes: “Being different doesn’t have to be a weakness; sometimes it can be your greatest strength.”

The illustrator, Christopher Eliopoulos, has a very distinctive style, perfect for this series. The characters tend to have large heads, but the character of the subject of the book has a head that looks like the cartoon head of an adult. And the head stays the same throughout the story. So Albert Einstein is born with a large head of white hair and a white mustache. That looks pretty funny with the pacifier in his mouth!

This series is superb for any child who is curious about the world. The books are engaging, fairly easy to read, and fascinating. They are filled with facts and information that will keep kids reading — adults, too! The writing flows and works perfectly with the dialogue bubbles from the characters.

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

Playing the numbers game: is Miami Dade Animal Services really no-kill?

miami numbers

“We gotta work on reducing shelter intake,” is what Alex Muñoz, director of Miami Dade Animal Services, told NBC reporter Roxanne Vargas during a recent interview touting the shelter’s “impressive” 90% save rate. They compared the statistics to the much more dismal statistics from a few years ago when 51% of the animals were being killed. But a closer look at the facts reveals some disturbing truths, and that the shelter may be tweaking numbers and facts to make the “no-kill” 90% target happen.

Terra was listed as RTO (return to owner). She was really killed at the shelter.

Terra was listed as RTO (return to owner). She was really killed at the shelter.

If one examines the chart showing the numbers from 2011 to 2014, over 1,500 fewer animals were rescued or transferred out of the shelter. The number of animals dying in the shelter (not killed, but dying in their cages or kennels), went from 290 in 2011 to 501 in 2014. Why are more animals dying in the shelter?

But perhaps the biggest misleading figures can be seen when three areas are examined: TNR (trap, neuter, release), Saved, and Killed (Euthanized). Instead of killing the stray cats that are brought to the shelter, they are now sterilized and abandoned back on the streets. The figures for TNR clearly reflect that. In 2011, there were no cats in the TNR column. By 2014, 8,259 cats, almost 10,000 cats, were simply dumped on the streets of Miami. That change serves to make the kill rate go from 13,756 in 2011 to 5,140 in 2014 (the math is easy, simply subtract the 8,259 cats dumped back on the streets instead of being killed). That also serves to make the save rate look better. The shelter is counting the cats returned to a life as a stray as being a “save.” I doubt the cats would consider themselves “saved.”

The government officials claim that the shelter is “at or above the 80% save rate” for cats. That may be true because the shelter includes in the “save” rate those cats who are sterilized and dumped back on the streets to try to survive, get killed by a roaming dog, get hit by cars, get disease and die horrible slow deaths. This is not “saving” the cats. For example, with this thinking, if the shelter sterilized all the animals they received (dogs and cats) and then just dumped them back on the streets, there would be a 100% save rate. But is that really solving the problem of dogs and cats roaming the streets hungry and abandoned? In fact, by releasing many cats, some surely tame, back on the streets, MDAS is surely condemning them to a life of struggle — they are, in fact, abandoning those cats.

Then there is the fact that those who live in Miami and work to rescue the dogs from the shelter claim that the shelter actually lies on its documents. As one example, they point to the case of Terra, a dog who arrived at the shelter as a “stray” (according to the shelter). When this neglected dog was reported to be “returned to owner” (RTO) in the MDAS documents, volunteers became concerned that an obviously neglected dog had been returned to the neglectful owner. Questions were asked. When MDAS tried to delay (see attached emails), answers were demanded of the shelter. The final story was that the dog had been turned in by the owner and “euthanasia” was requested. Yet in their numbers, Terra is showing up as RTO, not a dog who was killed. Terra is shown as a “saved” dog. Here is the link to a video of questions being asked of Alex Muñoz.

There is also a concern that the shelter is labeling dogs as “aggressive” so that they can be killed. Read more about this issue in the article “Miami Dade Animal Services labels dogs “aggressive” and then kills them.” A dog named Dexter was labeled aggressive, and the shelter did not bother to post photographs of him so he could be networked on social media. Yet his video shows a dog whose tail wags and who is thrilled to greet people. Not an aggressive bone to be seen.

Volunteers and residents of Miami Dade County also point out another failing of the shelter. There are several rural areas in Miami Dade County, including the Redlands, the Rock Pit Quarry, and the Everglades. While as many as a hundred dogs roam those areas, the shelter never goes there to pick up strays. A group of dedicated volunteers buys food and not only feed the dogs there and give them water, but also find rescue for many of the dogs. Unfortunately, the group cannot take them all, and the very graphic photos show some of the dogs who are killed before they could be rescued. MDAS does nothing to help these animals. Nothing. The founder of the Facebook page Ready for Change at Miami Dade Animal Shelter wrote: “Sadly there is a direct correlation to these false numbers and the fact that they are doing nothing about the strays that are roaming the streets in these areas where they refuse to go.”

Another way to look at the supposed 90% save rate at the shelter is this: if you only picked up and accepted as many dogs as you knew you could adopt out, you would achieve a 100% save rate. By limiting the number of dogs they accept, by labeling some dogs as aggressive, by dumping most of the stray cats back on the streets, and by listing killed dogs as being returned to owners, is that tweaking the numbers at MDAS? Those who are fighting for change at the shelter certainly believe so.

This writer sent a few questions to the shelter about those figures. “Are the owner surrenders (with euthanasia request) entered into the system and do they become part of the shelter statistics? Which animals get numbers which are part of the total statistics? And if owners request that a healthy animal be killed, is that request filled?” It’s been almost two weeks with no response.

‘Crenshaw’ by Katherine Applegate: 5 star middle grade book


Rating: 5 stars

Katherine Applegate specializes in books that make the readers feel. “Crenshaw” is no exception; Jackson, the main character, lives with his parents, his sister, his dog, and sometimes, his imaginary cat Crenshaw. As the reader learns in the story, Crenshaw appears in times of need. Jackson doesn’t totally understand it, but Crenshaw teaches him what he needs to learn.

Jackson is upset because it appears that his family might be homeless again. He still hasn’t forgotten the last time they had no home. They had left the home they lived in and lived in their minivan until they got enough money to rent a small apartment. Now, because of his dad’s illness, multiple sclerosis, the father can’t work as a carpenter, and he can’t even work as a handyman. His mom has three part-time jobs because she lost her job teaching music. She works as a waitress at two restaurants and as a cashier at a drugstore.

Jackson explains in the story: “My parents used to be musicians. Starving musicians is what my mom calls it. After I was born, they stopped being musicians and became normal people.” As normal people, his parents can’t pay the rent. And what bothers Jackson even more than the insecurity is that his parents won’t tell him the truth. Jackson is wise beyond his years because of what he has lived through. His younger sister, Robin, is too young to share in his worry or understand what is happening to their family.

When Jackson asks his parents what the plan is for their future, they make jokes like planting a money tree or starting up their rock band and winning a Grammy Award. When his parents plan a yard sale with all their belongings, Jackson feels that living in the minivan again is inevitable.

The story doesn’t sugar coat being poor and being homeless. Jackson and his sister understand hunger. Their parents argue about money, his mother saying that asking for help is not a bad thing but his father insisting that asking for help means they’ve failed.

The other main character in the story is Crenshaw, the human-sized imaginary cat who gives Jackson sage advice. The most important advice that he gives Jackson is to tell the truth. And it’s by sharing the truth that Jackson gets his parents to promise that they will always tell him the truth. And they do. While Jackson’s father gets a part-time job as the assistant manager at a music store, he tells Jackson that “…Life is messy. It’s complicated.” And he shows Jackson a straight line and tells him that life is not like that. He draws a line with ups and downs, and explains that life is like that. “You just have to keep trying,” he says.

Like “The One and Only Ivan,” “Crenshaw” is about how our relationship with animals — real or imaginary — can keep us sane. Although Crenshaw isn’t really a cat (he has fingers), he is Jackson’s lifeline. And there is a bit of Applegate magic in there as well. Aretha, the family dog, does see Crenshaw. And Crenshaw tells Jackson something about his father (and Crenshaw himself) that no one else knows. So are imaginary friends real, and do they all go to the imaginary friend lounge in the sky while they wait to be needed, as Crenshaw explains to Jackson? Only Applegate knows for sure — and she isn’t telling.

This book is a wonderful, touching, and captivating story. It’s perfect for children aged eight through twelve. While the text is simple enough for younger readers, the content is mature. There are few children’s book that deal with the subject of homelessness. Applegate cleverly reverses stereotypes in the story by having Jackson’s best friend, Marisol, live a more affluent life with her salesman father and pilot mother.

This is a fabulous choice for classroom use. It’s sure to become a classic, just as “The One and Only Ivan” has.

Please note: This review is based on the reviewers personal copy of Crenshaw.


‘The Bone Labyrinth’ by James Rollins: Superb and thoughtful action thriller


Rating: 5 stars

“The Bone Labyrinth” by James Rollins is a double treat. It’s a wonderfully thrilling action book filled with cliff-hanging scenes and characters and situations that will make your heart bleed. But it’s also a thought-provoking book filled with true facts about history and biology about which most readers (including this reviewer) will be fascinated to learn.

The beginning of the story serves to intrigue the readers with first a scene from the Southern Alps 38,000 B.C., when a group of strangers is hunting for children who were born from a Neanderthal – human pairing. The story then jumps to 1669 to Rome to the museum of Father Athanasius Kircher, who was “known as the Leonardo da Vinci of the Jesuit Order.” Kircher receives a mysterious visitor.

The story then jumps to modern day Croatia and Atlanta, with a main plot converging into two adventures involving twin sisters, Lena and Maria Crandall, both geneticists with similar interests. When Lena’s party is attacked in Croatia, Sigma Force is called in and goes to the rescue. At the same time, Maria Crandall is also attacked in her research lab near Atlanta. She is kidnapped along with her research subject, Baako (a gorilla genetically engineered using information about the Neanderthal genome to be more intelligent than he otherwise might have been), and a Sigma operative who was on the scene because of his ability to sign (which is how Baako communicates).

While there is plenty of action to please those who love reading thrillers, there is also plenty of heart. Pity the reader who does not fall in love with the plucky gorilla child, Baako, for that reader has no heart. Even Kowalski, the hard-hearted Sigma operative, isn’t immune to Baako’s charm by the end of the story.

New human species are still being discovered, including after this book was finished, as reported by the BBC in “New human like species discovered in S Africa.” And another article, “Modern humans and Neanderthals ‘interbred in Europe’” adds information that Rollins uses in the plot.

Rollins bases much of the story on “The Great Leap Forward.” It’s described as a time, 50,000 years ago, when there was “an intelligence explosion that has baffled both anthropologists and geneticists.” That question is explored in this story, as is the issue of stolen research by foreign nationals who come to the US and study in our universities, getting advanced degrees and information, and thus causing a possible security problem. Are we educating students who will then return to their countries with information that may be used in unethical ways that our laws would not permit?

The story also points out strange anomalies regarding the moon. For example, “….the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, while also sitting 1/400th distance between the earth and the sun. No other planetary moon in our solar system matches this symmetry, not even close. Isaac Asimov described this odd alignment as ‘the most unlikely coincidence imaginable.'”

There are stories of underground caverns in Ecuador with ancient treasures and proof of advanced ancient civilizations. Why did astronaut Neil Armstrong join a group looking for those lost caverns? What was found — or not — and what was covered up? There are still questions about findings that may or may not have been hidden by the Vatican, findings that would threaten our view of our history.

Science, animals, adventure, espionage, murder and mayhem — this book contains it all. And it will keep you thinking for days about the questions — or rather mysteries — that it raises. Rollins has outdone himself with this thrilling adventure.

Please note: This review is based on the hardcover book received from the publisher, William Morrow, for review purposes.

‘Here Comes Valentine Cat’ by Deborah Underwood: Love-ly picture book


Lovely and clever picture book

Rating: 5 stars

First there was “Here Comes the Easter Cat,” and then “Here Comes Santa Cat,” followed by “Here Comes the Tooth Fairy Cat” and now, “Here Comes the Valentine Cat” by Deborah Underwood with clever illustrations (very clever) by Claudia Rueda — just in time for Valentine’s Day.

To those who know Cat, it will come as no surprise that he is boycotting Valentine’s Day. Cat tends to be grumpy and this is no exception. He has no friends and is angry about the dog who has moved in next door. The whole story is told by clever signs the cat holds up with the narrator interpreting the signs.

When the narrator suggests that Cat make Dog a valentine to welcome him to the neighborhood, he doesn’t like that idea. Then a bone comes over the fence and hits cat on the head. Cat signals that Dog has thrown many bones over the fence. Finally when Dog throws a ball over the fence, it’s the last straw for Cat who then tries to think of all the ways he can get rid of Dog.

Like all the other books, Cat realizes his mistakes. And the ending will make any cat and dog lover get just a bit teary-eyed. Just a bit, mind you! These books are all great at teaching young children about right and wrong and how we can learn from our mistakes. And in this special book, perhaps children might learn that first appearances aren’t always correct and gestures can be easily misinterpreted.

And to make it a very special Valentine’s Day gift, buy “Here Comes the Tooth Fairy” as an additional gift. Together, they make a fabulous present. And with all that Valentine’s Day candy, the tooth fairy just might be paying a visit to young readers…

This is a series that should be in every primary classroom — kids love them!

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

‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys: Young adult historical fiction

salt to the sea

Rating: 5 stars

“Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys is the beautifully told story of four young people whose lives are heading toward the same destiny — a trip on the German ship the Wilhelm Gustloff. The story is told from the alternating first person narratives of the main characters. Joana, a young woman from Lithuania who was trained in Germany as a medical assistant carries with her a huge feeling of guilt from an action that is divulged late in the story. Florian is from Prussia, but worked for Hitler’s archivist taking in all the stolen art from across Europe. He carries his own secrets, and they are deadly ones.

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‘Orphan X’ by Gregg Hurwitz: The best and worst of all assassins


Rating: 5 stars

Gregg Hurwitz is an accomplished and well-known mystery writer, but his eponymous hero in this new novel, “Orphan X,” is a brand new character — strong, brilliant, tortured, disciplined. Of course, many heroes of the genre share those traits. Yet Orphan X is unique. His background and his talents are quite unlike other superficially similar characters.

His real name is Evan Smoak, as in the stuff that comes out of a recently fired gun, just spelled differently. At the age of twelve, Evan is snatched from the grounds of his orphanage by a mysterious man. That man becomes his trainer. And Evan becomes a highly-trained assassin who works for a government agency in a completely deniable role that goes along with a completely deniable existence. No one except his trainer knows who he is or what he does. He is the perfect product of the Orphan Program, one of several similarly trained assassins. But he is the best.

Then the Program is suddenly discontinued, and all the Orphans, adults now, are left to fend for themselves. Evan decides to use all his skills to save people who are desperate for help, victims of cruel and powerful people who seem unstoppable — until they are confronted by Orphan X. His most important rule in his new “job” is that he must work with only one victim at a time. He accomplishes this end by having the person he has just saved find one and only one new desperate person, who is given Evan’s contact number. When someone breaks that rule, Orphan X is in trouble.

As the plot unfolds, Evan first helps a seventeen-year-old girl who has been virtually enslaved by a crooked cop. Evan does his business (as only he can) to rescue her. But it is with the next victim that the problems begin — a twisting, tortuous, potentially deadly series of events which includes betrayals, murders, and a stubborn and cleverly planned pursuit of Orphan X himself. Someone, someone as brilliant as Evan, wants to kill him.

Evan is a marvelously complex character. He has all the social skills of a slab of wood. He has no real notion of what love is. He’s never learned how to function in the world that people inhabit. And he does not really exist at all as a member of any society. He’s a lost soul with a huge heart. And he’s a compelling and complex character.

Hurwitz is a superb mystery author. All the characters in this novel come across as authentic — several lovable, several hateful, several very funny. And the detail on every page could serve as an object lesson for students of writing. Hurwitz continually draws scenes with cinematic clarity. As a matter of fact, “Orphan X” is a good movie waiting to happen. (JK)

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

‘Theodore Boone: The Fugitive’ by John Grisham


Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“Theodore Boone: The Fugitive” is the fifth book in this series by John Grisham aimed at middle grade readers. True to Grisham’s background, the young protagonist is destined to be an attorney and even a judge. In fact, he has learned a lot from his lawyer-parents and has his own “office” in an extra room at their law office.

In this case — er, book — Theo has discovered a fugitive from justice during a class trip to Washington, D.C. He recognized the escaped person as someone he has seen before because Theo was instrumental in causing that person to be charged with murder. That was a few books ago in the series. But then he recognizes the man as Pete Duffy, who is accused of killing his wife.

The FBI gets involved and Theo is excited to help. The story moves along at a quick pace, and the narrative is interesting enough to keep the attention of its young readers. The narrative also effectively captures a kid’s way of thinking about school. parents, and other important matters. Theo is quirky, but he’s still someone with whom kids will be able to connect.

Because of the nature of the other books in this series and how they are all related, this book should probably be read after those others.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Dutton Children’s Books for review purposes.


‘Soar’ by Joan Bauer: Another home run for middle grade readers


Rating: 5 stars (or more)

One always has very high expectations for any book by author Joan Bauer. “Soar” will not disappoint. In fact, it might be one of her most touching and uplifting books yet. The main character is Jeremiah, a twelve-year-old (more or less) boy who has had several close calls in his life.

First, he was abandoned at nine months in the coffee room of the company where the man who was to be his adoptive father worked. Walt, his father-to-be, found him there. After taking classes and becoming licensed by the state, Walt was able to adopt him. It’s always been Walt and Jer, together. Walt has been a fabulous father, and the two of them have lived for baseball.

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‘The Wrong Side of Right’ by Jenn Marie Thorne: Young adult fiction

wrongsideof right

Rating: 4 stars

“The Wrong Side of Right” by Jenn Marie Thorne is one of those books that sucks the reader in to the point that the reader really wants to know what happens next. Not because it’s a thriller or a mystery, but because the main character is likable and realistic and just someone you want to know.

Kate Quinn is blindsided when her young mother is killed in an accident. She travels across the country to live with an uncle and aunt she barely knows. But her life is upended again when a famous senator, one who is running for president, shows up after the news breaks that he is her father.

Apparently, her mother had a brief affair with the senator during college which resulted in Kate’s existence. Kate never knew who her father was, and he never knew about her. But her father decides to bring her into the family, and Kate meets her stepmother and two siblings.

The story is really two, or even three, stories. It’s about Kate and her feelings as she tries to integrate into this new and very different lifestyle. How do her siblings feel about her? Is her father glad to have her in his life? What will happen with the election is over? Can she ever really fit in this new environment? Can she submerge her own thoughts and ideas to please her father?

There is also the story about the lives of those who are running for high office and their families. What they go through. How the frenetic pace affects them. All the behind-the-scenes stuff that really is fascinating. And while Kate’s father is the Republican candidate, she has many friends from her Los Angeles neighborhood who are undocumented immigrants. How can she pretend to agree with her father’s hard stance on immigration? How can she help to change his ideas? And is the title a clever play on the politics of the right?

When Kate meets and falls for Andy, the current President’s son, things get tricky. Andy’s father is the Democratic nominee for President. Can they date without causing a national uproar?

The story is well written and beautifully told. It’s thoughtful but also a quick read. It will certainly garner Jenn Marie Thorne a body of fans for her future books.

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

‘My Pet Human’ by Yasmine Surovec: Clever book for middle grade readers


Rating: 4 stars

“My Pet Human” by Yasmine Surovec isn’t exactly a graphic novel even through every page is filled with drawings. But it’s also not a typical chapter book with lots of text and few illustrations. It’s truly a combination, and it’s a story (and format) that will appeal to young readers and even older readers who love cats.

The story is clever, and very cat-ish. The first person narrator introduces himself by saying, “I’m a lucky cat. I live a carefree life.” And he explains that he isn’t tied down like other cats, and he loves it that way. He has rules to follow, like knowing the good places to eat in town. He also has a good hiding spot from the dog (and cat) catcher. It’s a tree across from an empty house on the corner. He also has trustworthy friends, including a dog, another cat and even a small mouse named George.

The cat explains to his friends why it’s so hard to find a pet human. He’s very picky and any pet human must: give him lots of treats, give him back rubs, have plenty of boxes to play with, be lots of fun, and a few more. He doesn’t believe the perfect human exists.

When a family moves into the empty house across from his tree, the cat decides to investigate — especially after he smells tuna through the conveniently open window. What ensues will charm even the most curmudgeonly reader. Of course, there is a happy ending but not before a bit of drama.

This is a book that cat lovers will enjoy, and it might just turn a few dog lovers into cat lovers (or at least cat-appreciators). It’s a wonderful combination of text and drawings. “My Pet Human” is also a great classroom addition and would be a wonderful read aloud.

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

‘Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer’ by Kelly Jones

unusual chickent

Rating: 5 stars

“Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer” is a long-winded title for debut author Kelly Jones’ new middle grade fiction (with a touch of magic). She cleverly manages to tell the whole story through a series of letters written by Sophie Brown, a girl who has moved to her great-uncle’s abandoned farm after he died and left it to her parents.

Used to living in an apartment in Los Angeles, Sophie and her family know nothing about farm life. While her father is the one whose uncle left them the farm, Sophie’s mother is the one who grew up working on farms. Sophie’s grandmother was from Mexico, and the family traditions (like making migas) are an important part of the story.

When chickens begin to appear at the farm, Sophie starts to write to a local poultry expert for advice. She is also writing to her (deceased) great uncle Jim and to her (deceased) grandmother. The chickens that Sophie inherits from her uncle are very unusual indeed. One chicken can open locks and lays glass eggs. Another hatches chicks that can turn things to stone. That is why Agnes, the poultry expert, gives Sophie specific instructions about how long to refrigerate the eggs to make sure that they won’t hatch.

This is a great story for those who want to include books with diversity in a reading program. Sophie mentions her brown skin and describes people as “the white lady.” Skin color is important because at the beginning of their stay at the farm, someone assumes that Sophie and her mother are migrant workers there. Sophie’s father is “white,” but Sophie looks like her mother. It’s a good vehicle to have an open discussion with children about skin color and the assumptions that people make.

The illustrations by Katie Kath need to be mentioned. While this is a middle grade book and not a graphic novel or a beginning chapter book, the illustrations really add to the story. They are humorous yet very simple.

Perfect for children from fourth grade through middle school, this would also be a great read aloud in a classroom. Sophie is a great character with pluck, intelligence, compassion and ingenuity.

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