Early Book Review: My Hometown by Russell Griesmer and Priscilla Wong

My Hometown is a nearly wordless picturebook written by Russell Griesmer and illustrated by Priscilla Wong. It is currently scheduled for release on October 1 2015. A magical newspaper takes a young boy on a journey through the history of a beloved hometown, from the 1860s to present day. The story takes readers along to celebrate main-street Americana as the boy discovers the past and its importance.

My Hometown is a picturebook with no dialogue or story test. The only words in the books are those on signs in the background and the newspaper. This leaves it up to the reader to use their own imagination to fill in the gaps. When the young boy picks up a newspaper, magic takes over and brings him to the founding of his hometown, and through its growth and history. The periods of time are marked by the turning of the page, and the illustrations are absolutely wonderful.

My Hometown is an unique and thoughtful book. It is interesting to see history pass by like a time lapse film, but I think some of the readers will not have as much interest in the book because of this more complex thinking. Many picturebook readers are looking for fun or direct learning, rather than a rather artistic look at the passing of time. I think it just might go over the heads of some of its audience.

Historical Fiction for Middle School Students; Five Great Books to Stir Imagination

Getting the attention of middle school students is hard. They are too young to handle some of the most popular books and too old for a great deal of literature as well. They are trapped between two phases of life and their reading interests and abilities reflect that. Here are some fantastic works of historical fiction that can capture their attention and keep them thinking long after they have finished the book.

Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline Cooney is an adventure story with strong elements of mythology. Anaxndra was only six years old when she was taken from her home on an island in the Aegean Sea. She seeks help from her goddess Medusa as circumstances compel her to pose as different other people to survive. She eventually ends up as a servant traveling with Helen and Paris as they make their way to Troy and becomes part of mythology and history. This novel is exciting and compelling. It could leave your middle school student ready to explore mythology and the writings of Homer.
Shen and the Treasure Fleet by Ray Conlogue is a swashbuckling adventure tale that will appeal to the middle school age boys as well as the girls. This work of historical fiction is set in fifteenth century China as the throne changes hands. Shen is thirteen and must take care of himself and his younger sister Chang as they take refuge with a traveling circus. While the historical figure focused on in the book, Zheng He, is not well known the detail and feel for the time is fantastic. The story truly helps readers understand the turmoil of the era and how people there age lived. The story is fast pasted and exciting, so your middle school student can get lost in the book and want to learn more about the time.
The Fire of Ares by Michael Ford is another work of historical fiction that will appeal to the boys. This book is the start of the Spartan Quest series and can be read by a wide age range, from fourth graders through twelfth graders. Lysander is a twelve year old caught between the Spartan ruling class and rebelling slaves. He has a foot in both worlds all because of a chance encounter triggered by his only valuable possession, an amulet called the Fire of Ares. There are no supernatural elements in the series, but parallels can be drawn with Harry Potter and other coming of age stories that blend two worlds. There is a great deal of realism about the treatment of slaves and life in ancient times, so there is historical knowledge gleaned between exciting battle and chase scenes. 

The Bronze Bow
 by Elizabeth George Speare is a historical novel featuring characters from the bible. Daniel's father is brutally killed by Romans so he goes in search for someone to lead the Palestine people and drive the Romans out. He learns about himself, life and human nature and discovers that love
can be more powerful than weapons of hate. Jesus and his teachings are a major aspect of the book, but the challenges and issues of the era are also very vividly portrayed. While the theology of the book will not play with all audiences, the trials of young Daniel and the journey to overcome hatred in lieu of tolerance and love are well done and a great read for middle school students of both genders.
Nobody's Princess by Esther Friesner will most likely appeal more to girls. In this work of historical fiction, the reader travels with Spartan princess Helen as she disguises herself as a boy to learn to fight and has adventures to prove that she should be able to make decisions about her own life. On the surface, the novel is about a selfish, spoiled girl using her mind and status to get her own way, but larger issues of women's rights, slavery and individual destiny play their part as well. The era is well portrayed and the book is entertaining while leaving the reader looking for more. Thankfully, there is a sequel, Nobody's Prize, in which Helen manages to join the quest for the Golden Fleece on the Argo.
These are five fun and fantastic books to get your middle school student interested in historical fiction; however, it is far from a comprehensive list. There are a large number of historical fiction novels written for children, teens and those in between. If these books appeal to you and your young readers I also suggest books by Markus Zusak, Henry Aubin, Ross Collins, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Susan Fletcher, Julius Lester, Lois Lowry, Gill Harvey, and Christopher Paul Curtis. 

Book Review: Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell is a twist on Cinderella for mature middle grade readers, young adults, and adults. Nicolette learned to be an inventor at her mother’s knee. Her mom is gone now, and the Steps have turned her into a servant in her own home. On her sixteenth birthday, Nicolette discovers a secret workshop in the cellar and begins to dare to imagine a new life for herself. Could the mysterious books and tools hidden there be the key to escaping her dreary existence? With a technological exposition and royal ball on the horizon, the timing might just be perfect for Nicolette to earn her freedom at last.

Mechanica is a retelling of Cinderella with a touch or steampunk and extra fairy magic. Nicolette has lost her mother, who made magical, mechanical creations for both work and beauty. After her death Nick's father remarried and it was not long before she lost him as well. Then she was left to care for the house and the Steps herself, thankfully she had access to the machines and magic left behind to make things manageable. When she gains access to her mother's workshop on her sixteenth birthday everything gets better. She just might have found a way to escape and buy her family's home from the Steps- she can create and sell her own works. In the process she learns more about herself, her mother, and the larger world. Making friends and facing danger Nick just might have found a fairy tale ending, but is it what she really wants? I really enjoyed the dynamic of Nick and the friends she makes- although I did shh the big twist about them coming a mile away. What I found more interesting was that even though her new family is not exactly nice to Nick, there are moments when we can see each of the members as more than their cruel side. We are given glimpses that make them human and multifaceted despite their inhumane treatment of others. I also liked Nick's slow growth in understanding and worry about the work and magic she has involved herself in, and that through out everything being honest and true to herself prevails over some choices that would have made her life much nicer, at least on the surface.

Mechanica is more than a simple retelling of Cinderella. It is a coming of age story, a story about prejudice, a story about hard work, a story about determination, and a story about hope. While I could have done without a small bit of the story (love *cough* triangle) it is such a small portion of the larger story that it was easy enough to ignore. On top of it- the cover is awesome!

Some people are complaining that it sounds like a knock off of Cinder, but since I have not read Cinder (and the author sold this manuscript before Cinder was published) I cannot speak to that.

Early Book Review: Magnus by Claire Shorrock

Magnus is a picturebook by Claire Shorrock which is currently scheduled for release on October 1 2015. Magnus is a big dog. Magnus is such a big dog that no one wants to play with him, and there's no room for him at home. But when Magnus spots danger, he knows just what do to do save the day. And because he is so very BIG, his simple plan works.

Magnus is a sweet book, very reminiscent of Clifford but with a fresh look. Magnus is huge and accidentally causes trouble where ever he goes. The more he tries to help and be friendly the more awkward and troublesome he feels. When he is finally able to help, and takes note of how his difference can make him very special rather than a problem, that he finds his place in the community. I think this is a great lesson for readers of all ages. It is only in using our own talents and embracing what makes up different that we can find happiness. Magnus trying to act like the smaller animals and people only caused everyone trouble, but using his size to help others saved the day and helped him find a special role in the town. We should all be so lucky to have such an obvious lesson to make us embrace our quirks rather than trying to ignore them. The illustrations are very appealing and sweet, bring Magnus to life.

Magnus is a wonderful picturebook. It combines splendid artwork with a story that is fun and sweet while still imparting a great message to readers of all ages. 

Book Review: Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley

Boats for Papa is a picture book by Jessixa Bagley. Buckley and his Mama live in a cozy cabin by the ocean. He loves to carve boats out of the driftwood he finds on the beach nearby. He makes big boats, long boats, short boats, and tall boats. Each one is more beautiful than the last, and sends them out to sea. If they don't come back, he knows they've found their way to his papa, whom he misses very much.

Boats for Papa is a story about love and grief. Buckley is a young bear that missing his father. It is never clearly stated whether his father is dead or just gone, but it is clear that both Buckley and his mother miss having father in their lives. The boats Buckley make to send over the water to his father are varied and beautiful, and when they do not return he just knows that they have made their way to his father. Each boat carries a note to Papa, and it is writing one note that Buckley discovers a secret and how much his mother loves him.

Boats for Papa is a a story that is sweet and sad all at once. While adult books are not often able to make me cry, this kind of picturebook has me sniffling back the tears. children suffering grief will be able to relate to this book, and see that they are not alone. it could also help them see that those around them are hurting too. The illustrations are hauntingly sweet and a perfect match for the story. It will be awhile before I do not tear up just thinking about this book. 

Early Book Review: Dead Boy by Laurel Gale

Dead Boy by Laurel Gale is a middle grade novel that is currently scheduled for release on September 29 2015. Crow Darlingson died in the 4th grade, but he’s still alive and growing. He can’t eat or taste anything, his body parts sometimes fall off (mom always sews them back on, though), and he’s only allowed to leave his house once per year, on Halloween. His parents are now separated, and he blames himself, and is chafing at being confined. Sneaking out at night only makes things worse, but he can’t resist the chance at a real friendship with Melody Plympton, the new girl next door, who loves mystery more than she minds the side effects of Crow being dead. Together they investigate the mysterious Meera, a monster living in the nearby park. Logic and fear tell Crow to stay away, but fuzzy memories lure him on. When Crow and Melody venture into its underground lair, Crow’s not just risking the half-life he clings to. He’s also risking the only friend he’s had in years. The importance of friendship is crystallized as Crow and Melody face tests of loyalty, courage, and honor.

Dead Boy is a dark but still fun book about a boy that is slightly dead, but still wants to live his life. He has an overprotective mother that refuses to talk about any uncomfortable topic, and a father that loves him but lives a few hours away.  After he died and came back crow has had no real life outside his home; no friends, and no outside time to speak of. when a new girl moves in next door, and just happens to be fascinated with magic and monsters, the pair become fast friends. Then things go wrong, as they often do, and friendships seem to be crumbling. Encountering the Meera during a disastrous Halloween lead Crow and Melody on a quest of tests that will put their bravery, loyalty, and more to the test. However, just when everyone things things are settled, they will discover that there is more to do in order to reach their happy ending. Everyone discovers some truth about themselves, their faults, and the importance of being honorable. 

Dead Boy is a macabre story with much more to it than it seems. There is plenty of dark humor, high action, and adventure. However there are also lessons about friendship and being a honorable, good person that are woven through the story. this is a read that will appeal to many readers, for many different reasons. I think anyone that picks it up and reads will be happy with that decision. 

Book Review: The Night Children by Sarah Tsiang, Delphine Bodet

The Night Children is a picturebook written by Sarah Tsiang and illustrated by Delphine Bodet. When the streets are empty and kids are called home for dinner and put to bed, the world becomes a magical place. The mischievous night children frolic in the twilight, rummaging for treasures and scattering surprises, stealing slices of the moon and dancing on rooftops. Only when dawn breaks do they tuck themselves away. But if you look very closely, you might just catch a glimpse of them disappearing as you wake up.

The Night Children is a beautifully illustrated picturebook that can capture the imagination. The text is lyrical, but the idea of night children, all drawn wearing monster-like hats, could either intrigue or frighten some children. the story could be an explanation for the shadows, sounds, and odd shapes that some children attribute to monsters, but I could see more adventurous children taking the story to heart and wanting to run with the elusive night children. The adventures of the night children answer many questions that children might have about the world around them, like unexpected changes in the landscape of odd sounds and movements. I think some young readers will love the flow of the story, and the splendid artwork, but I think it might be too abstract for others to really fall into and love.

The Night Children is a creative story about the unknown and imagination that some children will love completely. it just might fire up the imagination and creativity in some. However, I think some more pragmatic souls will not be quite so enraptured. 

Three Light and Laugh-Out-Loud Authors

First, what is chick lit? It is the short hand term used, both fondly and mockingly, for literature that tends to appeal mainly to women. This does not mean romance novel, though there is often a romance in the story, but more often the main storyline of the novel is more about the main character figuring out what she really wants in life. There are the tear-jerkers, the mysteries, the fun, the paranormal and some that blur all those lines. Here are some of the authors that right the chick lit books that seem to most fun, laugh educing novels that I've come across in the last few years. 

First is Janet Evanovich, particularly her Stephanie Plum series which starts with One For the Money. Evanovich's characters tend to be realistic, but slightly exaggerated. In One For the Money Stephanie is a twenty something woman who has just lost a job she wasn't too thrilled with to begin with, and searching to find something to pay the bills as well as something to make her happy. While becoming a bounty hunter for her slimy cousin wasn't exactly what she had in mind it somehow makes everything else come together. She get herself into situations which start out as something I can picture myself doing, but then quickly escalates to a laugh out loud series of events rather than the painful embarrassing moments I would expect my life to turn into. This holds true in Evanovich's stand alone novels and Motor Mouth books, although the Stephanie Plum books are by far my favorite of her works. There are two main readers for the audio books of her work, and both are great. So listening while commuting can make a rough drive so much more enjoyable.

MaryJanice Davivdson is another funny favorite. She has several series, and even some young adult novels, but she is best known for her Undead series, which is what she calls it but my friends and I often call it the Queen Betsy series. This series begins with Undead and Unwed, where we see Elizabeth Taylor (but never call her), better known as Betsy, becomes a vampire through unusual means and continue to defy convention and expectations from there. Including those of other vampires, she breaks every mold except that of a prophesy that declares her queen of the vampires. This shoe obsessed vampire has the requisite dysfunctional family and endless determination. Mix in an uptight hunk and a variety of fantastic supporting characters and hilarity ensues.

My third suggestion is not as widely known as the first two, but I think finding a new author is a great feeling, although she won't be unknown very long because there is already talk of a movie based on Shanna Swendson's novel Enchanted, Inc. The book starts with a well used theme, small town girl feeling lost and overwhelmed as she struggles to make a place for herself in New York City. Things take a strange turn when Katie is offered a new job and things just get stranger from there with magic, gargoyles and quirky coworkers. It is a fun, charming read with romance only in the very background. The story is more about Kate's search for a satisfying place in the world and trying to make sense of what is real.. There are currently four books in this series, and the charm does not fade as the series progresses, which is always a danger.

Already know and love these authors or just want some more suggestions? Well if you like Janet Evanovich then I suggest trying Nancy Bartholomew, Sarah Strohmeyer and Jennifer Crusie all of whom I've also read and loved. MaryJanice Davidson fans might want to read Katie Macalister, Vicki Lewis Thompson, and Lynsay Sands. Finally, if Shanna Swendson has caught your fancy you might want to try Candace Havens and Dakota Cassidy. I recommend all of these authors to anyone that likes some laughter from their books.

Early Book Review: Graffiti Murals Exploring the Impacts of Street Art by Patrick Verel

Graffiti Murals Exploring the Impacts of Street Art by Patrick Verel is a non fiction book that is to be released on August 28 2015. This visually appealing book includes six case studies conducted in New York City, Trenton, and Jersey City. It explores how graffiti murals are created and what role they play in a city where buffing illegal graffiti is a lucrative business. The author interviewed people affected on a daily basis by the murals at sites around the metropolitan area, as well as property owners who have allowed muralists to paint their property in hopes the graffiti murals would serve as a deterrent to vandalism, and provide a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to buffing. An analysis informed by cultural Marxism and supported by street photography suggests a radical departure from traditional New York City policy: instead of spending money exclusively on the elimination of illegal graffiti, resources should also be devoted to the creation of graffiti murals. In the end, graffiti removal teams and mural promoters are pursuing the same goal: making the city a more visually appealing place.

Graffiti Murals Exploring the Impacts of Street Art is a very interesting study of graffiti, both legal and illegal. The interviews and impressions from a variety of people gives readers a good understanding of the role all graffiti can play in cities, and for individuals. The balance between decoration and vandalism can be extremely fine, but the policies and public sentiment do not always agree. I will admit that while the text was informative and well written, it was the collection of photographs included that initially caught my eye, and had me eager to see what else the book held. The artistic talent that is evident in some of that artwork is simply astounding. Regardless of if you appreciate sanctioned, or unsanctioned, graffiti and murals you will be amazed at some of the color and craftsmanship of the works displayed by a variety of artists.

Graffiti Murals Exploring the Impacts of Street Art had me hook with the image on the cover and the research that went into crafting this book. honestly, while the information was intriguing and well organized, I think the book is worth the time and money to just look at the included photographs. 

Book Review: Walk on the Wild Side by Nicholas Oldland

Walk on the Wild Side is a picturebook by Nicholas Oldland.  One day a bear, a moose and a beaver set off to climb a mountain together. But on the way there, they decide to make it more exciting by turning the climb into a race to the top. It's only after being sidelined by a series of mishaps -- a boulder tumbling down the path, the moose hanging off the side of the cliff, the bear hanging off the moose hanging off the side of the cliff, that the three friends realize competitions don't always make for a good time.

Walk on the Wild Side is part of Oldland's life in the Wild series. In typical fashion of the series, we see our wild friends spending their day together having an adventure and getting themselves into trouble. Competing over every little thing gets the trio into some perilous situations, but they come together and figure out that friendship does not require constant competition. So, fans of the series will know right away what to expect from Oldland's work. For new comers, the style of the artwork is a little messy and childish for my taste, but adds a little wildness and some relatability for the younger readers.

Walk on the Wild Side is a fable that offers comedy and misadventure. The illustrations are simple and offer a good visual of the action. not my favorite picturebook, but it could be used in storytimes or to start discussions about animals, hiking, outdoor safety, friendship, and healthy competition.