Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Girl Who Drank the Moon - Kelly Barnhill

Title: The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: October 17, 2016
Finished: October 20, 2016

From the inside cover:

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey.

One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna's thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge - with dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Deadly birds with uncertain intentions flock nearby. A volcano, quiet for centuries, rumbles just beneath the earth's surface. And the woman with the Tiger's heart is on the prowl.

The author of the highly acclaimed award-winning novel The Witch's Boy has written an epic coming-of-age fairy tale destined to become a modern classic.

After reading Iron-Hearted Violet and The Witch's Boy and loving this author's style, picking up her new book wasn't even a question.

The Elders of the Protectorate created the idea of a witch that demands a child in sacrifice once a year to keep the citizen in line (there's an even deeper reason for this, but can't explain due to spoilers). But little do they know, the children they abandon in the woods don't die, they are rescued by Xan, a real witch (but a nice one) and adopted by loving families in the Free Cities on the other side of the forest, where the citizens of the Protectorate do not venture. We follow Antain, a young Elder-in-training who witnesses his first Day of Sacrifice, and is deeply disturbed by it. Xan rescues the baby and is entranced by her hair, eyes, and the crescent moon birthmark on her forehead (that she shares with her mother). Distracted, she feeds the baby moonlight instead of starlight, giving her incredible magic that lies dormant. So instead of delivering another one of the Star Children to the Free Cities, she adopts Luna and raises her as her granddaughter. When Luna's magic begins to awaken at age five, Xan manages to seal it away until the time Luna will turn thirteen, but at a cost: Xan will slowly deteriorate and lose her life when Luna's magic awakens again. Over the years, we see Antain grow and question the Elders and the Sisters of the Star, we see Luna's mother lose herself to grief and become imprisoned in the Tower by the Sisters. Xan tries to teach Luna all she needs to know before her thirteenth birthday, while being aided by Glerk the swamp monster and Fyrian the little dragon. And Luna grows with no idea of who she really is.

This story has the author's trademark writing style and magical realism embedded in it, making it an engrossing read that pulls you in from the first sentence. The characters are engaging and sympathetic; I simply loved little Fyrian, he's adorable in his excitability. The perspectives and plot threads all come together in the end in a satisfying way, though the plot does drag a little at the end in the act of everyone coming together. The darker undertones and themes are a bit depressing for a middle grade book, but I'd imagine young adult readers would actually appreciate that.

A wonderfully written book that is engrossing and is a must-read, especially if you are a fan of magical realism in your literature.

Thoughts on the cover:
This is so gorgeous, I'd pick it up for the cover alone. I love Luna against the moonlight with a pose we never see on cover art, and the paper birds and Fyrian are nice additions.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ms. Bixby's Last Day - John David Anderson

Title: Ms. Bixby's Last Day
Author: John David Anderson
Publisher: Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: October 11, 2016
Finished: October 12, 2016

From the inside cover:

Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The good ones. The not-so-good ones. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard. The ones you'll never remember, and the ones you'll never forget. But Ms. Bixby is none of these. She's the sort of teacher who makes you feel like the indignity of school is worthwhile. Who makes the idea of growing up less terrifying. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind.

Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she is very sick and won't be able to finish the school year, they come up with a plan. Through the three different stories they tell, we begin to understand just what Ms. Bixby means to Topher, Brand, and Steve - and what they are willing to go to such great lengths to tell her.

John David Anderson, the acclaimed author of Sidekicked, returns with a story of three kids, a very special teacher, and one day that none of them will ever forget.

I'm a teacher, I'm a sucker for inspirational teacher stories, especially since I've had moments like this from students and parents where they hit me right in the feels and my eyes tear up and I can live for weeks on the compliments they give me. This book will simultaneously rip your heart out and rebuild it, it's funny yet tragic, both sad and a testament to the human spirit. I don't necessarily think the target age group (middle-grade) will appreciate and understand the complexities of this particular story, but this is still a must-read.

Topher, Brand, and Steve are all friends in Ms. Bixby's sixth grade class, the teacher everyone wants. She has pink streaks in her hair, puts inspirational quotes (that the boys call Bixbyisms) around the classroom, has a sarcastic sense of a humour, and actually listens to her students. With a few weeks left in the school year, she announces that she is sick with cancer and will be leaving to start treatment. With a farewell party already planned for the following week, the three boys are thrown off when Ms. Bixby enters the hospital early. They never got to say goodbye, never got to tell her things that needed to be said. When they overhear that Ms. Bixby will be transferred out of state for special treatment in a few days, they realize they may never get that chance. So the boys form a plan to skip school in order to visit Ms. Bixby in the hospital and give her the send-off she deserves, recreating what she once told them was how she would want to spend her last day on earth.

First off, the one thing that bugged me about the book. The boys don't act like they're twelve. They either act much younger (giving a scientific breakdown of cooties to a female classmate...if they're old enough to use vocabulary like that, they're too old to believe girls have cooties), or their internal monologues place them at mid to late teenage years. So that was slightly annoying, but thankfully the rest of the book manages to compensate for that early annoyance.

Ms. Bixby is positively lovely, and parts of her live on in many of my past teachers and my current co-workers. She quotes Atticus Finch to the boys and manages to figure out exactly what each one needs from her and delivers. The chapters alternate their narration from Topher to Steve to Brand (usually in that order), so we teasingly learn little tidbits along the way about exactly how important Ms. Bixby is in each boy's life. Brand is street-smart, Topher is creative, and Steve is the brainiac result of a tiger-mom type of family; Brand was my favourite, I wanted to cuddle the prickly little dude.

Everyone needs to read this, especially if you work in education. This is a touching story that will make you reach for the kleenex and restore your faith in humanity at the same time.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's cute and fitting for the story. I love how Steve's honourable mention ribbon is tacked on the corner of the door, it's a nice touch.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Beautiful Blue World - Suzanne LaFleur

Title: Beautiful Blue World
Author: Suzanne LaFleur
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (Penguin), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 210 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: October 5, 2016
Finished: October 7, 2016

From the inside cover:

Sofarende is at war. For twelve-year-old Mathilde, it means food shortages, feuding neighbours, and bombings. Even so, as long as she and her best friend, Megs, are together, they'll be all right.

But the army is recruiting children, and paying families well for their service. If Megs takes the test, Mathilde knows she will pass. Megs hopes the army is the way to save her family. Mathilde fears it might separate them forever.

This moving and suspenseful novel is a brilliant reimagining of war, where even kindness can be a weapon, and children have the power to see what adults cannot.

This seemed like a very intriguing premise, so I decided to give it a shot. This tiny novel packs a powerful punch, being a cross between a WWII story (though set in a completely imaginary realm that simply reads like WWII Europe), and a version of Ender's Game minus the science-fiction aspects.

Mathilde lives in the southern town of Lykkelig in the country of Sofarende, which has been at war with Tyssia for over a year now. Now that Tyssia has brought their aerials into the country, they have started bombing raids at night. While Mathilde fears for her father during the bombings, whose committee must be on call once the sirens start, she is even more worried about the military test that she and her other classmates are eligible to take. The military is recruiting children for service, but no one has details on what they want the children for. For families that are struggling with fathers away and food shortages, the money the military offers families of the chosen children means that some opt to take the test to keep their loved ones alive. Like Mathilde's friend Megs. Mathilde's parents decide she should take the test as a way to guarantee her safety in the uncertainty of the war. When both girls take the test, the results are surprising, as well as the jobs the children perform while in service to the Sofarende military.

The comparisons to Ender's Game were screaming in my head as soon as Mathilde started writing the aptitude test. Thankfully the comparisons are relatively shallow and this novel manages to stand well on its own as a powerful insight on war, seen through the eyes of children. It is hauntingly beautiful at times, especially when Mathilde receives her "special assignment" and the interactions relating to it. The conversation Mathilde has with her mother before she leaves is one of those life lessons that is important but often left unsaid. The ending isn't very satisfying, but there is a sequel thankfully, so the story will continue (yay!)

This would make for wonderful classroom reading, either as a read-aloud or a novel study in the older grades. Though it's a quick read and seemingly simple, the underlying messages are much more profound.

Thoughts on the cover:
I appreciate the blue colour scheme used in the image to mirror the title (which makes complete sense once you finish the book). The image of Mathilde and Megs abruptly stopped as the shadows of the aerials are seen on the ground is a powerful one, and reminds readers that this story doesn't sugar-coat the realities of war.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

As Old as Time - Liz Braswell

Title: As Old as Time
Author: Liz Braswell
Publisher: Disney Press, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 484 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: October 3, 2016
Finished: October 4, 2016

From the inside cover:

What if Belle's mother cursed the Beast?

Belle is a lot of things: smart, resourceful, restless. She longs to escape her poor provincial town for good. She wants to explore the world, despite her father's reluctance to leave their little cottage in case Belle's mother returns-a mother she barely remembers. Belle also happens to be the captive of a terrifying, angry beast. And that is her primary concern.

But when Belle touches the Beast's enchanted rose, intriguing images flood her mind-images of the mother she believed would never see again. Stranger still, she sees that her mother is none other than the beautiful Enchantress who cursed the Beast, his castle, and all its inhabitants. Shocked and confused, Belle and the Beast must work together to unravel a dark mystery about their families that is twenty-one years in the making.

I'm a huge Beauty and the Beast fan, I will read anything relating to it: classic fairy tale, Disney version, modern retelling, fan fiction, you name it. So of course, I had to read this one, especially since it is a reimagining of the Disney version, and quite a bit darker too.

This version establishes that there are magical beings in the world that are referred to as les charmantes, and though before they managed to coexist with regular humans, now tensions are beginning to appear. The story begins with Maurice meeting Belle's mother, Rosalind, one of the les charmantes; an enchantress able to change her appearance at will. As Maurice and Rosalind marry and eventually have Belle, their friends become the target of violence against the les charmantes that is encouraged by the king and queen, and their population begins to dwindle. In addition, a vast-spreading sickness breaks out all over the kingdom, which further incites violence against the les charmantes. In frustration to save her people, Rosalind curses the young, now orphaned prince of the kingdom, and suddenly disappears shortly afterwards. To protect Maurice and Belle, Rosalind arranged a spell that, if something were to happen to her, would make regular humans forget all details of the les charmantes, so Belle has no memory of her mother. The details of the Disney movie remain the same until Belle discovers the Beast's rose in the West Wing, then deviate when in this story Belle actually does touch the rose (flooding her mind with images of her mother cursing the Beast) and it disintegrates, exacting the curse immediately. Belle and the Beast then work together to try to uncover who Belle's mother actually is, and if there is a way for the curse to be lifted.

Okay first off, the plot line with magical humans living in seventeenth-century France is unrealistic, but then I remember the whole fairy tale is an exercise in suspension of disbelief, so upon reexamination it is a clever way to explain the enchantress from the original. I feel like Belle is a bit too weepy in this version and altogether not as strong of a character as she was in the film. The Beast comes around a little too quickly (granted they are under a slight bit of pressure to figure things out before the castle becomes engulfed in spider webs and traps them all), but I did appreciate the character development for Mrs. Potts (and the addition of her husband as a character). The romance between Belle and the Beast goes from comrades helping each other to affectionate kisses rather quickly, and the build-up scenes from the film that really establish their relationship aren't really present here, but instead of a substitution there isn't much build-up at all. The story becomes a bit dark towards the end involving the asylum, but not in any off-putting way. The ending is a bit contrived and lacks closure as well, which was disappointing.

If you're a fan, this deserves a read, but borrow it from the library. Sadly, there are better adaptations out there.

Thoughts on the cover:
An imposing image with a nice colour scheme, but nothing really amazing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Littlest Bigfoot - Jennifer Weiner

Title: The Littlest Bigfoot
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Publisher: Aladdin (Simon & Schuster), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy/Realistic Fiction
Started: September 29, 2016
Finished: October 4, 2016

From the inside cover:

Alice Mayfair, twelve years old, slips through the world unseen and unnoticed. Ignored by her family and shipped off to her eighth boarding school, Alice would like a friend. And when she rescues Millie Maximus from drowning in a lake on night, she finds one.

But Millie is a Bigfoot, part of a clan who dwells deep in the woods. Most Bigfoots believe that people-No-Furs, as they call them-are dangerous, yet Millie is fascinated by the No-Fur world. She is convinced that humans will appreciate all the things about her that her Bigfoot tribe does not: her fearless nature, her lovely singing voice, and her desire to be a star.

Alice swears to protect Millie's secret. But a league of Bigfoot hunters is on their trail, led by a lonely kid named Jeremy. And in order to survive, Alice and Millie have to put their trust in each other-and have faith in themselves-above all else.

Brimming with equal parts humour and heartbreak, The Littlest Bigfoot is an irresistible adventure about friendship, furry creatures, and finding the place where you belong.

This book has been getting a fair bit of hype, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Plus, how can you turn down a book about Bigfoot?

Alice is an outcast, ignored by her parents and shipped off to countless boarding schools in and around her home in New York City, and bullied by her classmates at nearly every school she's been to. For grade seven, her parents hope that The Experimental Center for Love and Learning in upstate New York will be different, that Alice will magically become less clumsy, lose weight, make friends, and be a daughter they can be proud of. Although Alice would love to be smaller and make her hair less wild, she really just wants a friend. Millie is the smallest Bigfoot in her Yare tribe, living deep in the woods across the lake from Alice's school. She has straight, silver fur when everyone else's is dark and curly, loves to sing, and isn't afraid of the No-Furs like she should be. Both girls are unappreciated by their families and communities, and yearn to find a place where they can be accepted as themselves. When Alice and Millie unexpectedly meet one night, both girls get the friend they long for that accepts them for who they are, but when the Yare tribe is threatened with exposure, both girls come together to preserve Millie's community.

The book alternates perspectives from one chapter to the next, switching from Alice to Millie, and occasionally including Jeremy, the boy who accidentally exposes the Yare tribe in his quest to uncover the truth about Bigfoot. Adding Jeremy was an interesting addition, but there's only a couple chapters from his perspective, so it's a little jarring hearing from Alice and Millie and randomly hearing from Jeremy. I feel the author either needed to leave Jeremy out completely or add more narrative from his perspective. The plot is slightly scattered due to the alternating perspectives, but doesn't retract from the overall readability of the story.

This book was incredibly cute, I'll give the author that. Alice and Millie are incredibly sympathetic characters both separately and apart, and the message of acceptance both characters convey is a sweet one (although it does get a touch pushy and unrealistic towards the end). The two girls don't even meet until over 150 pages in, so the conflict regarding the exposure of the Yare and the resolution happen really fast, to the point where it feels quite rushed. The "twist" at the end obviously indicates there will be a sequel, which though the twist itself is predictable, the cliffhanger leaves one feeling unsettled since there's no indication that this is anything other than a one-shot story.

Though this book has its issues, it does convey a much-needed message which middle-grade readers will appreciate.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the night scene with the abundance of blues. It's subtle, but Millie's reflection in the lake is quite fitting and a nice touch.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Wolf Hollow - Lauren Wolk

Title: Wolf Hollow
Author: Lauren Wolk
Publisher: Dutton Children's Books (Penguin), 2016
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: September 25, 2016
Finished: September 28, 2016

From the inside cover:

Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby's strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. Soon, she will need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl's resilience and strength help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.

This book has received quite the hype, even likening it to To Kill a Mockingbird, and it is completely

Annabelle lives with her parents, brothers, and members of her extended family on a farm in a rural town in 1943. When their neighbours' granddaughter arrives from the city to live with them, everything begins to change. Betty targets Annabelle right from the beginning, demainding money and valuables from her and threatening her younger brothers if she doesn't comply. When Toby, the reclusive veteran who has always been kind to Annabelle, witnesses Betty hitting her, he then becomes a target. This fuels the town's existing wariness and thinly veiled hostility towards Toby when he is blamed for a horrible incident perpetrated by Betty. When Betty injures her youngest brother, Annabelle finally goes to her parents, which only leads to more blame directed at Toby. When both Betty and Toby suddenly disappear, even those sympathetic towards Toby like Annabelle's parents begin to suspect him. Annabelle knows that Toby is innocent and begins to take things into her own hands to clear his name.

First off, the story has this incredible prologue that sends shivers down your spine (the majority of which is the text you see on the front cover). I can see the first line as the type to be included in those lists of famous opening lines of books that cultured people love to quote.

The story really does read like a children's version of Mockingbird, just minus the racial issues. Annabelle is an older Scout, Toby is our Boo Radley, Betty is our Bob/Mayella Ewell mashup, Annabelle's parents both serve as Atticus (yay for showing both parents as equally involved even in 1943), and the townspeople resemble Maycomb's. There's a clear disgust towards the unjust accusations and mob mentality employed by the others towards Toby, and the animal imagery of the wolves replaces the mockingbirds with similar symbolism. While Annabelle has more agency than her Mockingbird counterpart, and does affect change, there isn't a happy ending with unicorns and rainbows, she does come the the realization that life sucks and is unfair sometimes, but still learns that one person can make a difference.

I liked how cruel the author made Betty, some might say it's a bit unrealistic but then I'd say those people never taught children. Betty is a psychotic, sadistic, fourteen-year-old; and while rare they aren't non-existent. The friendship between Annabelle and Toby is well-crafted, it's believable without coming off as creepy or inappropriate. Annabelle is narrating the book as an adult looking back on her youth, so while the character is eleven turning twelve, the voice is much older and sophisticated. The maturity in the voice is believable, but I'm not sure if children reading this book would really grasp the intricacies of the book itself; a teenager would, and a mature twelve year old might, but any younger and it might just go right over their heads.

Every classroom needs this book, this needs to be required reading for older children/teens, not just for how beautiful the writing is, but because of the themes and the messages delivered to readers.

Thoughts on the cover:
Beautiful. It's hard to tell from the picture, but the text and the trees surrounding the silhouette of Annabelle is embossed and shines a nice copper colour.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Seven-Letter Word - Kim Slater

Title: A Seven-Letter Word
Author: Kim Slater
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 298 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: September 19, 2016
Finished: September 24, 2016

From the inside cover:

Stutter. That's one seven-letter word I wish didn't exist. Fifty points extra or not.

Scrabble genius Finlay McIntosh is a different lad to the one his mother left behind. One day she was there, the next she was gone. And his dad won't even mention her name. All Finlay has to remember her by is a bag of letter tiles and an empty journal.

Then a chance remark by a mysterious new player he meets online changes everything. Has he stumbled on to a major clue that could help him find his missing mother? Finlay will do whatever it takes to find out the truth. But can he find his voice...before it's too late?

Finlay is fourteen and its been two years since his mother left. His father moved the family to Nottingham and Finlay has to deal with a new school, just as his stuttering has worsened. He is bullied by Oliver at school during the day and copes by playing Scrabble online in the evenings while his dad is working. When a new online player named Alex mentions a stepmother that left her family, Finlay suspects that his mother could be connected. When he is asked by a teacher to join the school Scrabble club and potentially represent the school during a competition, Finlay thinks its another way to somehow make himself known to his mother.

This was really intriguing story with a sympathetic set of characters. Finlay is a kid who really can't catch a break: his mother left, his dad is trying his best but isn't coping well,  and he gets picked on for stuttering. Maryam is probably the best aspect of the whole book, a Muslim girl at Finlay's school who helps him with his Scrabble skills. She is bullied for wearing a hijab and for being a foreigner in Britain, so not only do we have a diverse character (something we need more of in children's books), but we actually get to see an unfortunately common occurence that their real-life counterparts experience.

This was a relatively quick read and the plot twist involving the mother was relatively easy to ascertain, but still worth the read.

An intriguing read with some amazing characters.

Thoughts on the cover:
I appreciate how the Scrabble elements were added to the cover, it makes for a nice touch.