‘Separate Is Never Equal’ by Duncan Tonatiuh: Picture book about desegregation

separate

Rating: 5 stars

In the picture book “Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation,” Duncan Tonatiuh tells a story that predates “Brown v Board of Education.”

In California, children of Mexican descent were not allowed to attend the regular public schools. Instead, they were forced to attend the “Mexican” school if they wanted an education. This infuriated Sylvia Mendez’s father. As is told in the story, when her aunt went to register Sylvia and her two brothers, and the aunt’s two daughters, the school told her that while her daughters might attend (they had light skin and a last name that was not Hispanic), Sylvia and her two brothers needed to go to the “Mexican” school.

Unlike the beautiful public school with a lovely playground and immaculate rooms, the Mexican school was surrounded by pasture, cows and dirt. There was no playground and no caring staff, and children were treated as if they would surely all drop out of school by eighth grade.

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‘The Forbidden Wish’ by Jessica Khoury: YA story of Aladdin and the lamp

forbidden

Rating: 4 stars

Jessica Khoury brings the story of Aladdin to life in “The Forbidden Wish.” Aladdin is still the handsome, impetuous thief who steals the lamp from an abandoned cave. But the genie is Zahra, a beautiful entity trapped for a thousand years in the lamp. She has been punished for an unknown crime.

The story is beautifully told as is the romance between the genie and Aladdin. The only genies left in the world are a few extremely evil genies, and the humans shun genies and magic. They have charmers who capture the magical creatures and shut them in bottles to remain there forever.

Aladdin’s parents were killed by the brother of the cruel ruler of the land, and he has long wanted revenge. He wants to marry the princess and avenge his parents’ deaths. But is that what will make him happy?

Khoury creates two very real characters in Aladdin and Zahra — two characters with deep passions and moral dilemmas. Does Zahra help her kind or does she follow her heart? And what, exactly, is “her kind”? Fairy tale lovers will really enjoy this fairy tale retelling. Perfect for readers from 11 years old and older.

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

‘Sad, the Dog’ by Sandy Fussell and illustrated by Tull Suwannakit

sad the dog

Rating: 5 stars

“Sad, the Dog” by Sandy Fussell and illustrated by Tull Suwannakit is a book that will touch the heart of even the most jaded reader. This is the story that those who rescue unwanted animals hear daily — the story of an unwanted dog (“an unwanted Christmas present from a friend”) who lives a life of loneliness. The poor dog doesn’t even have a name until he names himself Sad. And sad he is. When his owners yell at him for singing, for digging, for living. When they call him “Hey, you!” and “Dog.” And no one loves him, no one pets him, no one interacts with him. He lives alone in the yard until the day they move out with all their belongings — except for Sad.

He is alone in the yard with no one to feed him or give him water. Unlike real-life tragic stories, he doesn’t have to wait weeks, slowly starving to death, until someone finds him. A new family moves in the next day. In the family is a young boy named Jack.

Here the author does something quite wonderful and quite realistic. She doesn’t have Jack befriend the dog immediately, but rather slowly. Sad is afraid and wary. He hides behind the trash can. And wisely, Jack give him time to adjust to the new family. He gives the dog fresh water and dog treats and a soft bed on the porch. And over a special treat of a breakfast sausage, they become friends. And Sad gets a new name. A very appropriate new name. The best name of all: Lucky. If you don’t get a tear in your eye at the ending of this story — you don’t have a heart.

The illustrations are worth a special mention. They are beautifully rendered in watercolor, and the nasty visages of the cruel owners contrast beautifully with the joy in Jack’s face when he and Lucky are together. Suwannakit also manages to create a dog that is no particular breed, but vaguely reminiscent of a pit bull – the most abandoned and abused breed of dogs. He creates a dog whose simple rendering evokes the misery he experiences at the start of the book and the happiness at the end.

This book is a must for any dog lover and every library. The worst part? Trying to read it to children without getting choked up at the end.

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

‘Half Lost’ by Sally Green; last in ‘Half Bad’ YA trilogy

halflost

Rating: 5 stars

“Half Lost” by Sally Green is the very violent but also incredibly touching conclusion to the trilogy that began with “Half Bad” and continued with “Half Wild.” The books should be confusing with all the different characters and changes to characters who aren’t really who they seemed to be. But the basis of the story — that one isn’t defined by identification with any label (White Witch or Black Witch) — is a theme that is universal.

The White Witches are the “good” witches, and the Black Witches are the “evil” witches. Nathan, the main character, is a half-breed. His father was a very evil Black Witch, and his mother was a very powerful White Witch. In the first book, he lives in a cage and is tortured and beaten. He hates his captor, Celia, a White Witch. He yearns for the day he can kill her.

In the second book, Nathan is free from his cage, he has met his notorious — and very deadly — father, Marcus, and he has gotten the family knife, the Fairborn, back from the White Witch who had it. It’s a deadly knife that craves blood, and it was foretold that Nathan would use it to kill his father. The reader learns more about what horrible machinations Wallend — the master creator of powerful witch tools — is up to. He is pure evil and he experiments on imprisoned witches — both black and white.

In this last book, Nathan and the Alliance are fighting for equality among witches and to overthrow the Council of White Witches which seeks to kill all the Black Witches or outlaw them. Will Nathan become a killing machine like his father was or will he retain his humanity courtesy of his White Witch blood from his mother? What about Annalise, the White Witch he loved and Gabriel, the Black Witch he loves? Did Annalise betray him? What is his future with Gabriel?

Green keeps the action and the emotion strong throughout the book but at the end, she really shows her writing chops. The ending will leave even the most stoic reader with tears. It’s beautifully conceived and beautifully written and absolutely heartrending. In a beautiful way.

This is an easy trilogy to recommend to mature readers. To try not to have spoilers here — suffice to say that Nathan explores his relationship with Gabriel in this book as much as he explored his relationship with Annalise in the second book. Nathan’s relationship with Gabriel is lovely and comes about very naturally through their love for each other. But this is probably not a book for middle grade readers because of that content.

It’s a series with everything to offer — action, morality, romance, heartbreak, fabulous characters, a wonderful plot, and beautiful writing.

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

‘Rise of the Wolf’ by Jennifer Nielsen: Second in YA ‘Mark of the Thief’ series

rise of the worl

Rating: 4 stars

“Rise of the Wolf” ably continues the story of Nic, a Roman slave who enters an ancient cave in search of treasure and flies away with a magic amulet and a griffin. Those who would have the powerful amulet pursue him, and it’s difficult to know who the bad guys are – at least for Nic.

At the end of “Mark of the Thief,” the first book, Nic finds out that one of the bad guys pursuing him is really his grandfather. Since the guy had tried to kill him a few times, this is pretty shocking. Nielsen works on this relationship in the second book, and while Radulf, his grandfather, is never a good guy, she works to make him a character with depth. He’s not all black or white — definitely shades of gray.

Nic must deal with trying to protect his sister, his mother, and the fact that his good friend Aurelia has problems of her own. There is nonstop action and many twists and turns. And be forewarned — there is a huge cliffhanger ending!

As with all her novels, this one reads true with first person dialogue that seems authentic, a fast-paced plot, and character development that continues and builds on the first book. This series is a great choice for reluctant readers, readers who enjoy Roman mythology, and those who like historical fiction.

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

‘Voyagers 2: Game of Flames’ by Robin Wasserman

voyagers2

Rating: 4 stars

This “Voyagers” book, the second, is written by Robin Wasserman, who does a masterful job following up on “Project Alpha,” D. J. MacHale’s first book in the series (and he’s a tough act to follow). The series is about four pre-teens who are chosen through a rigorous competition to be the astronauts who head out light years into space to save Earth. In the first book, all eight competitors are introduced. In “Game of Flames,” the crew of the four winning kids heads for the second planet, from which they need to extract something that will eventually lead to a formula to save Earth.

At first, they don’t know that the four kids who were not selected are following them on another spaceship from Earth, but in this story the kids learn many surprising facts — about their mission, their mysterious fellow crew member Chris, and about the four failed contestants. Wasserman continues to build the characters but, Dash remains the protagonist and the person the reader gets to know the best.

Wasserman grabs the chance to do some character development in this book. She does a masterful job of showing that people — even kids — are sometimes much more complex than they might appear to be. Are all “bad guys” really bad? Not necessarily. In this second book in the series, all the characters gain depth and strengths and vulnerabilities that they didn’t show in the first book.

Like the first book, there is plenty of danger, plenty of need for the kids to problem solve, and some humor. This is a great suggestion for reluctant readers, and because the vocabulary isn’t complex, a wide range of readers would find this enjoyable — from fourth grade through seventh or even eighth grade. The next book in the series is “Omega Rising” by Patrick Carman, and it will be available in January, 2016.

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

‘Sophomores and Other Oxymorons’ by David Lubar: YA humorous fiction

sophomores

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

While “Sophomores and Other Oxymorons” is the sequel to David Lubar’s “Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie,” it also works as a stand alone read. Lubar ably includes enough information (without making it seem awkward) that the reader knows enough about Scott Hudson’s freshman year to understand the humor and action in this story.

Scott Hudson’s freshman year was challenging. But he made it through, and he and his best friend Lee are ready to start their sophomore year at high school. Lee is quite different from Scott — she wears dark clothing, usually horror-related tee shirts, and has brightly dyed hair. Scott comments about her appearance and says, “…she had so many piercings, I was surprised her spine hadn’t snapped under the weight of all the metal.”

Scott also has a former best friend, Wesley, and an infant brother named Sean. His father lost his job as a mechanic and his mother is thinking of going back to work. But Scott is thrilled that finally he won’t be the lowest guy on the totem pole — a freshman. His thinking is that being a sophomore, he’ll have it made.

The book is filled with Scott’s ups and down — all cleverly documented with both humor and touching prose as only Lubar can do. While some may claim that no sophomore on earth would talk the way Scott does as he narrates the events in the story, Scott is a writer. He loves to study words and word play. He says things like, “From what I’d seen, a baby’s digestive tract is a sort of specialized ecosystem that serves merely to turn money into crap.”

Grammar nerds will love sections like the one in which the narrator, Scott, is corrected by Jeremy, his freshman sidekick. Scott begins the exchange: ‘”Everyone would want to see the next issue to find out if they’d guessed right, or to learn the answer if they couldn’t figure it out.” “If he or she had guessed right,” Jeremy said. “What?” “Everyoneis singular,” Jeremy said.’ (Only grammar nerds will even understand that exchange.)

The story also includes Scott’s diary entries to his baby brother. He is writing so that his wisdom will be imparted to his younger sibling someday. In fact, when Jeremy is assaulted on his first day of high school, Scott offers to sell to Jeremy his “manual” on how to make it through freshman year. Jeremy not only buys it; he has many friends buy the “manual,” which really consists of many pages printed out on a copier.

The book is filled with the twists and turns of Scott’s life and his relationship with Lee. What comes through is Scott’s intelligence, his brashness, his insecurity (especially with Lee), and his sense of honor. Lubar creates a really likable character, and he’s all the more likable when he becomes arrogant or boastful and then suffers because of it. There is a scene toward the beginning of the novel when Scott butts head with his English teacher.

He hadn’t bothered to reread the novel for summer reading because he had read it twice before. But the quiz on the first day was about specifics from the novel that he didn’t remember. So he didn’t do well on it. But when he asks the teacher if there is something he can do to make up the points, she tells him to write an essay on arrogance. He responds “Great. I’m really good at it.” The teacher replies, “Perhapsirony would be a better topic for you.” Scott doesn’t understand at that moment that she’s aiming her irony at him. When he confidently assures her that he can write 500 words “with my eyes closed” she ups the word count to 1000. His unwittingly arrogant response is “Piece of cake.” She ups the ante to 2000. At that point he wisely keeps his mouth shut.

There is more, much more of that kind of subtle and sophisticated humor, all beautifully written and extremely clever. The book is more than just a cleverly written novel, though. There is plenty of action, and there are many paths that Scott might take. And his choices effectively illustrate the “law” that choices determine consequences we must live with — for better or for worse. Scott does mature over the course of his sophomore year while still enjoying his adventures — most of the time. Best of all, he and his friends end up becoming heroes.

Clever, touching, educational (I still don’t know what bdelgymia is), and humorous — this is a young adult book that’s fun to read and fun to share.

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

‘Mother Bruce’ by Ryan T. Higgins: Picture book kids and adults will adore

motherbruce

Rating: 5 stars

“Mother (Goose) Bruce,” written and illustrated by Ryan T. Higgins, is an absolutely adorable, terrifically funny, and totally enjoyable peek into the life of one Bruce the Grumpy Bear, who is hilariously trapped on the rollercoaster ride that is parenting.

The reviewers’ cliche that “adults will love it as much as children” is almost applicable here, but in this case, though children will eat it up, their parents will find it even more delicious. It’s such an accurate representation of what the author might laughingly refer to as the “joys” of parenting that most adults will say, “Oh, I remember that age. Unfortunately.”

Bruce is an ill-tempered guy whose only love in life is preparing and eating eggs. And he prepares them in every single variety of fanciness that he can find or dream up. But he must find all his eggs himself, wherever he can.

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‘Calamity’ by Brandon Sanderson: Third in ‘The Reckoners’ series

calamity

Rating: 5 stars

Brandon Sanderson’s “The Reckoners” series, which began with “Steelheart” and continued with “Firefight,” concluded with the recently released final book in the trilogy, “Calamity.” The main character, David Charleston, tells the story in fabulous first person narrative.

Sanderson manages to create a narration that is brilliant — both humorous and exciting at the same time. David has a few issues, the biggest being that after his father was killed by an Epic being, a human imbued with superpowers, he wants to hunt them and kill them.

Slowly, over the course of the three books, he changes his mind and tries, instead of killing the Epics, to get them to face their fears so they lose the evil nature that most Epics have. He also learns that if Epics don’t use their superpowers, they lose their desire to do evil. David’s own girlfriend Megan is an Epic, and she has an alter-ego from another dimension called Firefight.

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‘Little Roja Riding Hood’ by Susan Middleton Elya: Familiar fairy tale con salsa

little roja

Rating: 5 stars

“Little Roja Riding Hood” by Susan Littleton Elya is a familiar fairy tale that has been spiced up with a Latin point of view. Here, Granny is “Abuela,” and the wolf is “el lobo.”

Kids who know the story of Little Red Riding Hood love this retelling. While all kids enjoy this version, it’s especially perfect for Hispanic children, who will love the inclusion of the mama watching “telenovelas” and the “sopa caliente” that Red uses to chase the wolf away.

Susan Guevara, the illustrator, does a wonderful job of keeping the pictures authentic. They are colorful, and there are details that kids will love looking at over and over. Three little blind mice adorn some of the pages, and there are elves in others. The grandma’s house is decorated with crosses and other Latino effects — all of it colorful and filled with joy.

Brilliant rhymes, bright and bold illustrations, un poquito español — what more could any bilingual classroom teacher want? But even if you are not bilingual, get it anyway. All kids benefit from learning a bit of Spanish.

Why 5-stars? Kids love the combination of Spanish and English and they enjoy the rhyming text. The detailed illustrations help, too.

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

‘Things You Won’t Say’ by Sarah Pekkanen: Extremely thoughtful and timely

thingsyouwont

Rating: 5 stars

Sarah Pekkanen’s newest book, “Things You Won’t Say,” is not just a book about a cop who shoots a teenager who happens to be a member of a minority. It’s about family, trust, and above all — making mistakes. We all make mistakes. When a cop shoots someone — if it’s a mistake or not — it’s a horrible thing. For the cop, his family, his friends, and, of course, for the victim’s family.

Pekkanen carefully crafts the story so that the reader doesn’t know whether or not Mike, the husband of the main third person narrator, Jamie, shot at a kid with a gun or just shot a kid who he thought had a gun. And while that was an important point in the career and life of Mike the cop, the story is about so much more.

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‘The Big Dark’ by Rodman Philbrick: Middle grade scifi/survival story

bigdark

Rating: 4 stars

“The Big Dark” by Rodman Philbrick is a scary story because it could come true. Rodman Philbrick explains how something very like the total power failure that he writes about could really happen. In the story, a solar flare knocks out the power grid all over the country, and those in the remote New Hampshire town where Charlie lives must try to survive. Charlie and his family have a wood stove, so as long as the wood holds out, they will not freeze to death.

But there are other dangers — not just hunger but danger on two legs. In the midst of this chaos, Charlie realizes that he needs to go on a journey to get medication to save his mother. How will he travel in the middle of the harshest winter? What will happen to his family while he is gone?

Philbrick’s writing makes the story difficult to put down. He creates characters who are real — with their faults and heroism. He also creates a really evil bad guy. One who is scary because we have all heard about his kind. They are real.
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