‘The Athena Protocol’ by Shamim Sarif is pure thriller for YA readers

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With “The Athena Protocol,” author Shamim Sarif creates a female version of James Bond, except that instead of working for British Intelligence, Jessie Archer works for a non-govermental, private, female group bent on saving women and children around the world who are in need of help, but whom the governments of the world are ignoring. At the start of the book, we watch this elite team in action while they save a group of 50 girls kidnapped by a terrorist militia and held in servitude. While they wait for night to fall, they are forced to watch what the young men and boys do to their female prisoners while they pass the time.  The leader has two hostages, and when he shoots one of them in cold blood, Jessie loses control. Before they leave with the prisoners, Ahmed, the evil leader, is dead. Jessie is kicked out of Athena.

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‘Starsight’ the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s new series is brilliant


“Starsight” is the sequel to “Skyward!” by Brandon Sanderson, an author who really understands not only about creating complex characters but also about writing a plot that boasts gripping nonstop action. At the start of this series, Spensa, the main character, is not a very likable person. She’s a teenager who has grown up determined to be a pilot like her father, and after he died in combat, allegedly running away from battle, a coward, she has had to defend his name.

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‘A Heart so Fierce and Broken’ by Brigid Kemmerer is everything YA fantasy should be

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“A Heart So Fierce and Broken” is Brigid Kemmerer’s second book, following “A Curse So Dark and Lonely,” a tale of Beauty and the Beast reimagined with lots of violence and a heartstopping ending. It was the story of Rhen, the prince cursed to turn into a beast, and Harper, the tough young girl who is determined to save Rhen and his kingdom, Emberfall. Grey is the loyal Guardsman who risks his life repeatedly to save them.

In this second story, Grey becomes the pivotal character with a new character, Lia Mara, the daughter of the cruel queen of Syhl Shallow, Karis Luran. Lia Mara is not destined to be queen; her sister is. Her sister can be cruel and harsh while Lia Mara prefers to use intellect and persuasion instead of brute strength and fear to create alliances.

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‘All the Days Past, All the Days to Come’ by Mildred D. Taylor is the culmination of her incredible body of children’s fiction about a family with integrity and grit and the history of racial discrimination in this country


“All the Days Past, All the Days to Come” is Mildred D. Taylor’s tenth book about the Logan family of Mississippi and their struggle from the 1930s on trying to protect their land and their family from the bigotry, prejudice and violence that they endured living in the Deep South. Readers who know Taylor’s body of work will be thrilled to read about what happens to the family, especially Cassie, as they grow up. New readers will get the pleasure of learning about life in the Logan family. The Logan family, really Taylor’s family, consists of a special group of people. They are raised to be people of integrity with an ingrained sense of their self-worth. Yet they are also taught to be smart in how they behave in their home in the South during times when a simple statement or wrong move could invite harsh retaliation from whites.

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‘Freeing Finch’ by Ginny Rorby is a middle grade novel about love and what makes a family

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In “Freeing Finch,” author Ginny Rorby does what she excels at — the creation of a main character who is in need of love, understanding, and a place where she feels safe. Part of Finch’s problem is that she was born Morgan, the son of two loving parents. But since she was old enough to articulate the thought, Finch has insisted that she’s a girl. Her mother didn’t mind how she dressed or wore her hair, although it was a source of tension with her father.

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‘Maybe He Just Likes You’ by Barbara Dee is a middle grade book about harassment that should be required reading

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With “Maybe He Just Likes You,” author Barbara Dee creates a plot and a main character that will cause readers to get angry. We get angry at both the situation and the main character, even though we can sympathize with her.

Mila is a seventh-grader being harassed at school. It seems to start innocently with a group hug, but then a group of boys, basketball players, all touch her, bump into her, smirk at her, and when she tells them to stop they act like they don’t know what she is talking about.

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Winter and Christmas perfect picture books for the holidays

It’s the time of year for snuggling by the fire, or just on a warm bed, and reading stories about winter, about family, about the holidays. Here are books for everyone — some are just beautiful winter tales about friendship and peace, others are about the Christmas season. Some have wonderful important messages and others are just plain funny. There’s a book for everyone in this sweet collection of picture books perfect for reading aloud.

“One Snowy Morning” by Kevin Tseng is an amusing peek into a snowman from the one snowy morningpoint of view of two wild animal friends. While the two friends are never named, bright youngsters will realize that one is a chipmunk and the other a squirrel. They are joined by an adorable opossum, pink nose, feet and tail. Instead of a man made of snow with a hat, nose, buttons, arms, and a scarf, they see other things. What else could a black hat be? Consider a tall rowboat with a gold anchor. What else will they make out of the items? They use them all very creatively for a woodland animal party! And what they do after the party is a lesson for all readers. This lovely, gentle story encourages looking at things from different points of view. Teachers will love asking young students what else they might think of when they look at the snowman. (Dial)

“Roly Poly” by Mem Fox and Jane Dyer shows an adorable polar bear family with their only child, Roly Poly, happy to be the only polar bear offspring in the family. He is surprised roly polyone morning when there’s a smaller polar bear in his bed. His parents explain that he now has a young brother, Monty. Roly Poly is NOT happy to have to share his time and things with his younger brother, who is mischievous and playful. But when Monty is in danger, Roly Poly’s true feelings come out. The illustrations’ polar bears are created with wool from the author’s own sheep, using a technique called needle felting. This lovely book could kick start a class discussion or family talk about how sometimes what we say isn’t what we are really feeling, and that while our emotions and feelings can run deep, we don’t always show them. Many children can relate to that whether they have siblings or not and whether they are the oldest, the youngest or in between. (Beach Lane Books)

snowglobewishes“Snow Globe Wishes” by Erin Dealey and Claire Shorrock is a sweet winter tale of a night and the next day when the power goes out. We see a family eating dinner before a warm fire, the mom, dad, two children, and a dog and cat. We see one of the children holding a snow globe and making a wish, and everyone sleeping together in front of the fire. The next day, the family goes out in the snow to play with others in their town. And everyone in the town comes together in a circle, holding hands and wishing everyone “Peace on earth. Right now. Right here. Peace for all throughout the year!” This delightful and gentle story is told in rhyme, and the illustrations are simple and joyful. The skin colors of the family members are different as are those of the villagers who join in the celebration of peace. A perfect winter’s tale and a perfect winter’s wish. (Sleeping Bear Press)

“Swan Lake” is a picture book based on the New York City Ballet’s production of the swan lakeballet, and it’s illustrated by Valeria Docampo with an artistic use of color as well as light and dark to illustrate not only the changing scenes from the castle to the lake, but also the emotions of the Prince and Odette, the beautiful enchanted princess/swan. The story is the retelling of the beloved ballet with music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. While the story itself might not fascinate young readers, playing music from the ballet while reading it will certainly enable all readers to fall in love with the beautiful melodic passages. The ballet features iconic, gorgeous melodies, and every time children hear them, many will know the story behind the music and think of the story Swan Lake. (Little Simon)

“If I Could Give You Christmas” is a book about giving experiences, instead of things, for if i could give youChristmas. Author Lynn Plourde uses the five senses to create wonderful images for readers to share: “…it would smell like wafts and whiffs of gingerbread and cocoa.” What would Christmas taste like? “The first falling snowflake.” All the senses are utilized, and the emotions the text evokes are beautiful and gentle. The illustrations by Jennifer L. Meyer are certainly worthy of note; they are stunningly beautiful. The woodland animals are the characters who share the Christmas feelings with us, and her illustrations of deer, bear, fluffy chubby-cheeked birds, foxes and more are adorable. But what makes the illustrations really brilliant is her use of color to make the pictures seem to glow. Each illustration has a light source, and Meyer uses shadows in shades of cobalt blue, lavender, and even pink to frame the light and the animals. The animals are drawn with care, lovely expressions, and fluffy, luxuriant fur (or feathers). Hidden on almost every page are other animals, penciled in, for sharp-eyed readers to discover. The drawings are as touching as the sentiment in this beautiful holiday picture book. (Disney-Hyperion)

“There’s an Elf in Your Book” is by Tom Fletcher and illustrated by Greg Abbott, who an elf in the booktogether created “There’s a Monster in Your Book” and “There’s a Dragon in Your Book.” This entry features an elf who just looks as if he’s ready to be naughty. It starts with the elf doing a “nice test” with the reader to see if Santa should bring any gifts for Christmas. The test begins with some easy tasks, but then it gets trickier. Saying “I’m a wisenheimer sparkle butt!” is a trick, so readers are advised NOT to say it! But when readers are tricked into doing something not-so-nice, does that mean that they failed? Read the whole book to find out! (Random House Books for Young Readers)

how to trick“How to Trick a Christmas Elf” by Sue Fliess and Simona Sanfilippo is another elf book about how to convince (or trick) an elf into putting you on the “nice” list for Santa’s gift-giving. In this clever tale, if you distract the elf, you might just be able to sneak a peek at the list. And by giving the elf a wonderful distraction, a sleigh just the right size for a small elf, you are not only distracting the elf, you are being “nice” instead of “naughty.” The story emphasizes the joy of giving and being kind. There are guides for making the elf sleigh, and kids will enjoy making their own little elfin sleigh while waiting for Christmas morning. (Sky Pony Press)

“Santa’s Secret” by Denise Brennan-Nelson is the perfect book for any child who wonderssantas secret why there are Santas at every corner this time of year. They can’t all be the Santa Claus.  Are any of them real? The main character tells of her investigation in first person rhyming narrative, and like any good sleuth, she takes notes, and asks important, probing questions. Throughout the story, her cute little brown and white dog accompanies her. Adults reading this with children should be sure to discuss her investigative technique and ask what else she could do to question the different Santas. And what about the mysterious man at the coffee shop at the end of the story? Could he be the real Santa? Kids will want to read this little book at least twice to go over clues and make their own conclusions. The illustrations by Deborah Melmon are bright, and color fills the pages. Each one is a joyful celebration of the holiday season. (Sleeping Bear Press)

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

‘Call It What You Want’ by Brigid Kemmerer is a compelling story of teenagers grappling with the fallout from mistakes that may or may not be their doing

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“Call It What You Want” is another example of fine writing by Brigid Kemmerer, author of “A Curse So Dark and Lonely.” One of her talents is writing about people by using such effective dialogue and narrative style and technique that her characters become extremely realistic and worthy of compassion. Her two main characters in this novel are both flawed teenagers, but in spite of — or perhaps because of — those shortcomings, they grow insightful and compassionate, and they help right wrongs. The story is told in alternating first person narratives, a strategy which works well to make readers feel that they understand each character’s feelings and motivations.

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‘Stay’ by Bobbie Pyron is a middle grade story about how dogs make us human and how a dog can — almost — save a person’s sanity


In “Stay,” author Bobbie Pyron creates a story that will grab readers by the heartstrings as they root for practically everyone in this tale of homelessness, pride, friendship, mental illness, and above all — dogs. For in this middle grade novel, the dogs are important parts of the story and important — vitally — to those with whom they live.

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7 Picture books with surprisingly sweet messages


Read to children, as much as possible, and repeat. Often. The secret to raising book- loving youngsters is to read fabulous books to them from infanthood and never stop until they go to college. Or maybe high school. But even older children often love reading with parents. Here are some clever and humorous picture books that also have clever and important messages for young readers. Continue reading

‘I Can Make this Promise’ by Christine Day is touching and diverse middle grade realistic fiction

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“I Can Make this Promise” by Christine Day explores the emotional impact of finding out about one’s own heritage and culture, and at the same time shares a part of our history that is both shocking and horrifying. This book would be an excellent companion choice to Joseph Bruchac’s “Two Roads,” about Native Americans sent to “Indian School” and the discrimination suffered by Native Americans a century ago.

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‘The Paris Project’ by Donna Gephart is wonderful middle grade fiction about love and loss and betrayal

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“The Paris Project” by Donna Gephart is an impactful story about the fact that children are not their parents, and that no one should be ashamed of their family because our families do not define who we are.  Gephart’s novels, including “Lily and Dunkin,” and “In Your Shoes,” are about kids who are different and who may be imperfect on the outside, but are perfectly wonderful on the inside. Continue reading