Monday, February 12, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: FAIRY MOM AND ME by Sophie Kinsella

FAIRY MOM AND ME by Sophie Kinsella (Delacorte Press, January 2018)

Sophie Kinsella is a bestselling author from Britain--if you read adult literature she has a well-known series: Shopaholic. Now she's written her first book for children, and it's a fun and frothy confection starring fairies. Once the mafiosi got past the glaring pink cover, we enjoyed it immensely.

What It's About (from jacket copy):
Ella Brook can't wait to grow up, because one day she will become a fairy and have her own sparkly wings and a teacher on Fairy Tube, just like her mom! Until then, Ella has to watch her mom in action. But sometimes spells go wrong, and Ella's mom can never seem to remember the right magic codes.

A lot of the time it's up to Ella to come to the rescue. Does she have what it takes to be a fairy one day? Or will there be more glitches than glitter?

Filled with Sophie Kinsella's sparkling humor and Marta Kissi's charming illustrations, Fairy Mom and Me is a story about a savvy girl, her imperfect mom, and a little bit of magic.

Opening Lines:
"Hi there. My name is Ella Brook, and I live in a town called Cherrywood. I have blue eyes and brown hair. My best friends at school are Tom and Lenka. My worst enemy is Zoe. She lives next door and she's my Not-Best Friend. She looks mean even when she smiles. You'll meet them all later."

My Thoughts:
This is a rollicking romp, and a great deal of fun. Mom is quite inept at her fairy magic, and every spell she tries ends up in a great big mess (literally!) I love that the modern fairy learns spells off FairyTube, and employs "Computawand V5s." (Grandma, of course, has an old-fashioned wand.)

There's not a huge amount of character development, but that's not the strength of stories like this. It's all in the crazy mayhem that ensues when fairies try to clean house, or get fed up standing in line at the grocery store. Frenemy Zoe is an out-and-out villain, and little brother Ollie is a one-man wrecking machine.

The illustrations are super, and this is a quick read which would be perfect for 2nd-4th graders. The good news: there is a book 2 in the pipeline: Fairy In Waiting! Also, in late January, Lambur Productions announced it had optioned the book for a live-action television series!!! A modern-day Bewitched, maybe?!

(P.s. I received a free copy from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.)

About the Author:
Sophie Kinsella's books for grown-ups have sold over thirty-eight million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than forty languages. They include the Shopoholic series, Can You Keep a Secret?' and The Undomestic Goddess. She is also the author of the YA novel Finding Audrey. The adventures of Ella and Fairy Mom are her first stories for children. She lives in London, England, with her husband and family. WEBSITE


Monday, February 5, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: ESPERANZA RISING by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (May, 2002)

This terrific novel is on the Oregon Battle of the Books list. Sadly, my son's team was knocked out in the third round, so we may be moving on to other reading lists. He is doing a project on it, however, in his 5th grade class, the requirement being that the project be on an honor-winning book. Esperanza Rising won the Pura Belpre award in 2002.

What It's About (from Goodreads):
Esperanza thought she'd always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico--she'd always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn't ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances--Mama's life, and her own, depend on it.

Opening Lines:
"Our land is alive, Esperanza," said Papa, taking her small hand as they walked through the gentle slopes of the vineyard. Leafy green vines draped the arbors and the grapes were ready to drop. Esperanza was six years old and loved to walk with her papa through the winding rows, gazing up at him and watching his eyes dance with love for the land."

My Thoughts:
In some ways, this is a difficult book to read, especially for the tender-hearted reader. My son has some anxiety around the subject of death, and the novel starts with a significant death. We got through that carefully, and then voyaged with Esperanza as she headed north to the United States.

Esperanza is a complicated character. She has been brought up with wealth and servants, and now finds herself working in a camp for Mexican farm workers. She comes across as spoiled and petulant initially, but the experience she undergoes opens her eyes to the concerns of others.

Esperanza Rising is deftly plotted, and the relationships between characters are skilfully drawn. 

(N.b. This novel also put the lie to the adage that boys won't read books with girl main characters. As long as a cover isn't too frou-frou, and the story is one of adventure, we're good to go.)

Words from my son:
I thought the book was touching. I learned that you have to adjust to other people. My favorite quote was "Don't be afraid to start over."

About the Author:
Pam Muñoz Ryan is the author of the New York Times Best Seller, ECHO, a 2016 Newbery Honor Book, and winner of the Kirkus Prize. She has written over forty books for young people—picture books, early readers, and middle grade and young adult novels. She the author recipient of the NEA's Human and Civil Rights Award, the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, the Willa Cather Award, the Pura Belpré medal, the PEN USA award, and many others. Her novels include Esperanza Rising, Riding Freedom, Becoming Naomi León, Paint the Wind, The Dreamer, and Echo. She was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, holds a bachelor's and master's degree from San Diego State University and lives in north San Diego county with her family. WEBSITE


Monday, January 29, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)


Ursula K. Le Guin died on January the 21st.

The funny thing is, when I first arrived in Portland Oregon in 1990, I neither thought she lived in Oregon or that she was even alive.

Why? Chalk it down to a youthful bias that all writers worth reading were no longer with us. (Don't ask me where I got this silly notion. I was an unsophisticated child.) I had, however, picked up a copy of Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea in the school library in my British boarding school. I think it was one of the first books that made me want to be a writer.

I think this was the cover art on the edition I read as a child...
I was entranced by that story. I fancied myself Ged, the apprentice wizard. The scene where Ged makes a tremendous mistake because of arrogance and envy, costing the life of the Arch-Mage, shook me to my core. It is a scene I have never been able to shake.

Fast forward twenty years. I had moved to a new country and was enjoying the bookish life of Portland. My wife and I attended a fundraiser for the local public radio station and who was one of the presenters? No other than the legendary Le Guin, very much alive. I was too shocked and too shy to speak with her.

I reread the Wizard of Earthsea a number of years ago. It has lost none of its magic.

A few weeks ago, I came across Le Guin's latest, a collection of her blog posts, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. I started to read it, once again thrilled by the tautness of her prose and the expansiveness of her mind. "I'd love to meet her," I told my friend Jared over tea. "Come to my neighborhood," he replied. "She lives there. In fact, I could hit her house with a frisbee."

I never got to visit, or to throw a frisbee at Ursula Le Guin's house. Three days later, while I was reading her reflections on aging, the news came that she was dead at the age of 88.



Here is a piece from the essay 'In Your Spare Time':

"The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.
 An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: I SURVIVED: THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT. ST. HELENS, 1980 by Lauren Tarshis

I SURVIVED THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT ST. HELENS, 1980 by Lauren Tarshis

I've never read any of the "I Survived" series before, but this one is listed for the 3rd-5th grade Oregon Battle of the Books, so my 5th-grader and I read it together. It was great!

What It's About:
The mountain exploded with the power of ten million tons of dynamite...

Eleven-year-old Jessie Marlowe has grown up with the beautiful Mount St. Helens always in the background.  She's hiked its winding trails, dived into its cold lakes, and fished for trout in its streams.  Just looking at Mount St. Helens out her window made Jess feel calm, like it was watching over her somehow.  Of course, she knew the mountain was a volcano... but not the active kind, not a volcano that could destroy and kill!


Then Mount St. Helens explodes with unimaginable fury.  Jess suddenly finds herself in the middle of the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history.  Ash and rock are spewing everywhere.  Can Jess escape in time?

Opening Lines:
"For more than 100 years, Mount St. Helens had been quiet, a beautiful mountain surrounded by forests. Hikers climbed its winding trails. Skiers raced down its snowy slopes. Children splashed in its crystal clear lakes.
Except this peaceful mountain was not a mountain.
It was a dangerous volcano..."
What I Liked:
This is a short and gripping tale. Jessie and her two best friends, twins Eddie and Sam, are like a trio of musketeers--"all for one and one for all." Jess's dad died in a car crash 2 years before, and the twins have been lifesavers for her.

They live near Mt. St. Helens (only 50 miles from where I live) and have a great time in the forest. But the mountain starts to show signs of eruption, and the three of them are caught in the blast.

Tarshis writes really great adventure tales. Short sentences and visual details spur the story along, and I admit I got a bit misty-eyed wondering if the trio would actually survive.

This would be a great book for the so-called "reluctant reader," and Lauren Tarshis admits that the fact that her three sons were not great readers was the impulse to beginning the series in the first place. She thought she'd write three books, and this one is #14!

Thoughts from the 5th-grader:
It was a very entertaining book. However, sometimes things happened which were "convenient" for the characters. For example, they just happen to run into this volcano expert, and Jess just happens to see a helicopter after the eruption and saves her friends. (This didn't bother the Mafioso. I guess I am just better able to suspend disbelief.)

About the Author (in her own words):
"I live in Connecticut with my husband and four children.  My parents, mother-in-law, my brother and sister-in-law and three nieces all live right around us. This makes me very happy.

When I’m not with my family, or working on Storyworks, a great magazine for kids, or writing, I like to be with my friends. I met my two best friends when I was 11 years old, and I still talk to one or the other almost every single day.

As I get older, I try harder and harder to learn new things. Learning to write a novel for young people was a process that took many, many years. This year I learned how to create this web site (which was really fun). I also learned to bake perfect chocolate chip cookies (the secret: put the dough in the fridge for an hour or so before you bake them). And I learned how to hike in the wildneress. My first time, my friend and I got lost and a mysterious old man appeared from nowhere to help us. Otherwise we might still be there. We learned our lesson (bring a compass and good maps.)


I’m still thinking about what to learn next year."  WEBSITE


It's so great to be back in the blogging swing of things. I have been reading nonfiction and adult fiction recently, but my 5th-grader and I are still reading for OBOB, so stay tuned for more middle grade in the year to come. Happy 2018, everyone.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THIS IS OUR CONSTITUTION by Khizr Khan

THIS IS OUR CONSTITUTION: Discover America with a Gold Star Father by Khizr Khan (Knopf 2017)

Khizr Khan burst onto the national stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. With his wife Ghazala standing next to him, he told the story of their son, Captain Humayun Khan, who died at age 27 in Iraq in 2004. Captain Khan took the brunt of a suicide bomber and saved his men by doing so. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star medal and a Purple Heart.

During his speech, Mr. Khan drew a copy of the US Constitution from his jacket pocket and addressing the Republican party's presidential nominee famously asked. “Have you even read the United States Constitution?" To rousing applause, he concluded: "I will gladly lend you my copy.”

(Sales of the pocket constitution spiked after this speech.)

Mr. Khan is a lawyer. As a young man, he and his family immigrated to the US from Pakistan. He marveled at the freedoms and the system of government of his new home. Now, in this book, which in my opinion should be required reading for every citizen, he explains the history behind the Constitution  and details all the parts of it. He also visits important legal cases. At the end of the book, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the other amendments are printed in full.

Opening Lines:
Our nation has always looked toward the future. History matters, of course, but the founding documents of the United States are more than history lessons. They point the way forward to a more free, more peaceful, and more just nation. They challenge each generation to build a better United States.

My Thoughts:
I became a citizen in 2008, and wish I had read this book while studying for my citizenship test. (If truth be told, because I had to study for that test, I seem to know a lot more about civics and government than my natural born American friends.)

The book is very well-organized. It's target audience is middle schoolers, and it does a great job of keeping them interested in what, potentially, could be a dry subject. Along with the easy to comprehend text, there are illustrations, photographs, and many speech bubbles throughout the pages, where Mr. Khan often contrasts the United States and the rule of law with his experiences growing up in an undemocratic Pakistan.

I will definitely share this book with my current 5th grader. Democracy flourishes only when there is an educated and engaged citizenry.

About the Author:
Khizr Khan was born in 1950, the eldest of ten children in rural Pakistan. He moved to the United States, with his wife Ghazala, in 1980. The couple became United States citizens and raised their three sons in Silver Springs, Maryland. Mr. Khan holds an LLM from Harvard Law School. He and his wife now live in Charottesville, Virginia.


This will be my last post for 2017. The Don and I wish all our readers a happy holiday season, and look forward to reviewing many more wonderful middle grade books in 2018. Buon Natale!

Monday, December 11, 2017

CHILDREN OF REFUGE by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, September, 2017)

What It's About, via Goodreads: 
After Edwy is smuggled off to Refuge City to stay with his brother and sister, Rosi, Bobo, and Cana are stuck alone—and in danger—in Cursed Town in the thrilling follow-up to Children of Exile from New York Times bestselling author, Margaret Peterson Haddix.

It’s been barely a day since Edwy left Fredtown to be with his parents and, already, he is being sent away. He’s smuggled off to boarding school in Refuge City, where he will be with his brother and sister, who don’t even like him very much. The boarding school is nothing like the school that he knew, there’s no one around looking up to him now, and he’s still not allowed to ask questions!


Alone and confused, Edwy seeks out other children brought back from Fredtown and soon discovers that Rosi and the others—still stuck in Cursed Town—might be in danger. Can Edwy find his way back to his friends before it’s too late?

Opening Lines:
Nobody had told me that my parents’ neighborhood was built on top of a secret tunnel up from the creek. So when the man dragged me into an innocuous-looking hole—and kept going and going and going—I instantly wanted to know more. We passed sputtering torches that seemed to throw off more shadows than light. The stench of the man’s hand seemed to grow nastier and nastier. But we were deep underground before he finally eased his hand off my mouth and nose and jaw and I could manage more than grunts.

My Thoughts:
This moves at a cracking pace. Haddix is a master of chapter endings, which propel the reader into the next chapter, and the next.

I was unaware, when I started reading, that this was book 2 of a trilogy, but found that it stood well on its own. Haddix creates an unsympathetic trio in the Watanaboneset siblings, but as the novel progresses we begin to understand the reasons why they behave like they do. Edwy, the youngest, has a bad attitude, but is redeemed by his desire to help his friend, Rosi.

The novel ends with a cliffhanger, and I am definitely primed for book three. (But first, I really should read book 1!) A good, quick read for those who like dystopian novels, with a flavor of sci-fi.

About the Author (from Amazon):
Margaret Peterson Haddix is the author of many critically and popularly acclaimed YA and middle grade novels, including the Children of Exile series, The Missing series, the Under Their Skin series, and the Shadow Children series. A graduate of Miami University (of Ohio), she worked for several years as a reporter for The Indianapolis News. She also taught at the Danville (Illinois) Area Community College. She lives with her family in Columbus, Ohio. Visit her at HaddixBooks.com. 


Monday, November 20, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LUCY AND ANDY NEANDERTHAL:THE STONE COLD AGE by Jeffrey Brown

LUCY AND ANDY NEANDERTHAL:THE STONE COLD AGE by Jeffrey Brown (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017)

What It's About (from Goodreads):
Neanderthal siblings Lucy and Andy are back to their paleo pranks. This time, they have to put up with more than just each other the cave is feeling awfully cramped since the humans moved in. They re in the Ice Age, and legroom comes at a real premium!

Jeffrey Brown skillfully blends humor and history with paleontologist sections: Timeline of Key Discoveries, Ice Age Fact vs. Fiction, Silly Cavemen Myths, and more.

My Thoughts:
One of the things I have started doing this year is being a Reading Friend at the local elementary school, where my son is in 5th grade. I have two 4th grade reading buddies. My job is to be just that-- a friend to kids who, for whatever reason, struggle with reading. One of my buddies likes The Magic Tree House series, and the other one is a big fan of graphic novels. (We read and guffawed at Dav Pilkey's Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties.)

The mafioso, father of three boys, has read his share of Magic Tree House, as well as Captain Underpants and Wimpy Kid--but my kids have now outgrown the newer graphic novels series, such as Lucy and Andy Neanderthal and Jedi Academy (also by Jeffrey Brown). But my graphic novel-loving reading friend is also into dinosaurs, so maybe he can be persuaded to take on Lucy and Andy Neanderthal after we're done with Dog Man. I'll keep you posted.

The Stone Cold Age is the second book in the Lucy and Andy Neanderthal series, and it was a ton of fun. Andy, despite being a neanderthal, often acts like a modern kid with attitude. The humans and the neanderthals get on like a couple of sitcom families, and the book is a real page turner. My favorite part, because I'm a swot, was all the facts about neanderthals and ice ages and fossils sprinkled through the pages. It was a fun way to learn about life 40,000 years ago!

About the Author:
Jeffrey Brown lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. WEBSITE