Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, Realistic Fiction, Uncategorized

Chow Mein and Potstickers brings global friends together

Chow Mein and Potstickers, by Liselotte Schippers/Illustrated by Monique van den Hout, (June 2017, Clavis Publishing), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1605373287

Recommended for readers 5-10

Chan is new to the neighborhood and wants to make some friends. The best way to go about it? Go door by door, of course! Told in the first person, we follow Chan along and meet the neighbor kids, who are from Bosnia, Indonesia, Poland, Afghanistan, Turkey, the Netherlands, Suriname, the U.K., South Africa, and Italy. Each new friend introduces Chan, and the reader, to a fun activity, food, and greetings in each language. The kids all gather together at the end for a celebration, where they share food and friendship.

Originally published in Belgium and Holland in 2015, Chow Mein and Potstickers is an initiative by Inclusive Works, a Dutch organization that promotes diversity and inclusiveness – and what better way to accomplish that than by having children serve as our example? Chan is our guide, as the new kid who wants to make friends. By playing together, Chan – and readers – learn about the ways kids all over the world have fun; we learn how to greet one another in global languages, and finally, we share food together. All great ways of promoting peace and togetherness. My son’s pre-k class had an international day where we did something similar; they sang “It’s a Small World” in 15 different languages and ate food that parents contributed from their native countries. This is a great story to read for a similar occasion; it’s a great story to read to our preschoolers and beyond to promote the global village we call our world.

Each 2-page spread features a new child Chan encounters; backgrounds are light, washed out, to bring the realistic artwork of the children to the forefront, with bright faces and clothing, surrounded by colorful toys. The vocabulary is set off with smiling icons for hello and good-bye, and a colorful sketch of each food the kids eat together.

This is a solid addition to diversity collections. It’s similar to How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea, in that it stars a character who travels the world (well, in this case, the world in a diverse neighborhood), meeting different people from different cultures, and sharing food together. Get some recipe cards together and hand them out with coloring sheets for a multicultural storytime!

Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, Realistic Fiction

Jasmine Toguchi is determined to make mochi!

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen, by Debbi Michiko Florence/Illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic, (July 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), $15.99, ISBN: 9780374304102

Recommended for readers 6-9

Jasmine Toguchi is an 8 year-old dynamo. She’s funny, smart, and loves her family, especially during the holidays, when Obaachan, her grandmother,  flies in from Japan and the family begins their mochi-tsuki ritual: mochi making!  – a Japanese rice cake, made from pounded rice. The whole family gets involved in the process – except, that is, for Jasmine, who’s still too young to help out. Her older sister, Sophie, helps the women by hand-rolling the mocha balls. Her mean, older cousin, Eddie, helps the men pound the mochi with the super cool mochi hammer. But Jasmine is not yet 10, so she has to wait. In the meantime, Sophie and her mother order her around, and Eddie mercilessly teases her. So Jasmine comes up with a plan: it’s time to break tradition! She’s going to convince her family to let her pound the mochi this year! But first, she’s got to build up her arm strength — that mochi hammer is heavy!

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen is a fun early chapter book for readers who are moving up from Easy Readers. We meet Jasmine, a spunky, Japanese-American girl who loves her family tradition of making mochi, but feels like it’s time for a change. She’s tired of her older sister getting to be the first to do everything, and she’s tired of her obnoxious cousin. She wants to make her own statement, her own mark in the family, and when she sets her mind to it, there’s no stopping her. Kids will enjoy learning about Japanese traditions and relate to the frustration that comes with being told “you’re too young”, when they feel perfectly ready and able to pitch in. An author’s note explains mochi-tsuki, and provides a microwave mochi recipe for kids and their adults to try together. Black and white illustrations bring Jasmine and her world closer to readers. There’s a second book coming in July, with  more activities at the end of the story.

Jasmine Toguchi is a good, new series to add to your intermediate collections – there’s some lovely diversity available for readalikes, including the Ruby Lu and Alvin Ho series, by Lenore Look; the Clara Lee series by Jenny Han; the Katie Woo and Pedro books by Fran Manushkin, and Ellray Jakes, by Sally Warner.

Get an early peek at the next Jasmine Toguchi titles (and covers) by navigating over to author Debbi Michiko Florence’s site, where you can also find info about author visits, with programs she conducts for each grade.

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Can our favorite Book Scavengers figure out The Unbreakable Code?

The Unbreakable Code (Book Scavenger #2), by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, (April 2017, Henry Holt & Co. BYR), $16.99, ISBN: 9781627791168

Recommended for readers 8-12

The sequel to Book Scavenger (2015) continues the adventures of friends, code breakers, and bookworms Emily and James. Emily’s parents have put a hold on their state-hopping, giving Emily a feeling of permanence she missed terribly. She and James find themselves in the middle of another mystery when they notice their teacher, Mr. Quisling, acting strangely; they follow a trail of encrypted messages in Book Scavenger-laid Mark Twain books. The messages are an attempt to break a legendary, historic puzzle known as the Unbreakable Code, which leads to either a treasure or a curse. As mysterious and suspicious fires pop up around them, Emily and James are worried that Mr. Quisling is the arsonist – unless they can figure out who his mysterious Book Scavenger messenger is.

The Unbreakable Code is loaded with the adventure, mystery, and code-breaking fun that made the first book so enjoyable. There are mysteries within mysteries, and a real sense of urgency as the tweens try to get to the bottom of the arsonist on their trail. There’s a very good subplot about the history of Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush that shines a light on a part of history that doesn’t get as much discussion as it should. Ms. Chambliss also presents a very different Mr. Griswold, changed by the events in Book Scavenger. He’s withdrawn, hesitant, apprehensive; his buoyant style is toned down, and he surrounds himself with his assistant, Jack, and the company of dogs to guard him. Emily and James’ secondary mission is to nudge Mr. Griswold back to his former self.

A fun follow-up and a fun accompaniment to coding and spy programs. Introduce kids to coding with Book Scavenger and Gene Luen Yang’s Secret Coders! Kids can play their own game of Book Scavenger at the Book Scavenger website and sign up for the newsletter.

Posted in Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Four Weeks, Five People: Troubled teens learn about themselves

Four Weeks, Five People, by Jennifer Yu, (May 2017, Harlequin Teen), $18.99, ISBN: 9780373212309

Recommended for readers 14+

Five teens meet at a wilderness camp to work on the challenges in their lives. Clarissa suffers from OCD and anxiety; Ben disassociates from reality, preferring to live through movies or television shows; Andrew is the singer of a band, suffering from the anorexia he believes will make him look like the type of rock star fans want to see; Stella suffers from depression, and Mason’s narcissistic personality disorder shows through as an overconfidence and arrogance that puts other people far below his estimation.

Told in separate, first-person narratives, each teen tells a bit of their story – what brought them to wilderness camp – and their point of view experience of the four week program. We read about their daily struggles, clashes with other campers, and staff. The five come together, but don’t really accomplish much over the course of the novel. Most of the time, the characters bicker with the counselors or among themselves, but there is time for a brief romance and the beginnings of some friendships. As in real life, four weeks is not a realistic amount of time to expect the characters to be cured; this is a snapshot of a moment in their therapies.

Four Weeks, Five People is a read that draws you in and progresses quickly. It’s an interesting way to start a dialogue about mental illness, but if you’re looking for a deeper read, I suggest Christina Kilbourne’s Detached, Jo Knowles’ Still a Work in Progress, or J.J. Johnson’s Believarexic.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade

Magic, madness, and a cow-ostrich romance!

The Emperor’s Ostrich, by Julie Berry, (June 2017, Roaring Brook Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781596439580

Recommended for readers 8-12

A zany fantasy romp with a dairy maid in search of her lost cow puts readers on the path to an adventure that will introduce them to a self-described romantic hero, a spoiled emperor on the run, and his ostrich, who forms a bond with the runaway cow. Begonia, the dairy maid, is a responsible young woman who helps her mother care for the family farm and her younger sister; when her cow, Alfalfa, meanders away, Begonia sets out to find her and ends up on a magical quest that will put the responsibility for saving the emperor and the kingdom squarely on her shoulders. Thank goodness she has help from Key, a wandering young man who describes himself as a romantic hero; and two magical beings, who oversee the adventure from a distance.

The story is a fun fantasy adventure with nods to magic, corruption, feminism, and commentary on overindulged wealth. Readers will enjoy the lovestruck cow and ostrich, the banter between Key and Begonia, and the host of characters they encounter on their adventure. Booktalk this with Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy novels: author Julie Berry calls The Emperor’s Ostrich her love letter to his books.

Julie Berry’s book, The Passion of Dolssa, is a 2017 Printz Honor title. The Emperor’s Ostrich received starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal.

Posted in Adventure, Espionage, Middle School, Tween Reads

Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series: a good series for Alex Rider fans

As pop culture phenomenons get younger, the need for these teens can only increase. From pop stars and young stars and starlets to trust fund kids and scions of political powerhouses, everyone is a potential target. Now, imagine if there were an elite team of teens that receive Special Forces training to be that next line in defense. They’re trained to blend in with the crowd, to be a member of an entourage; they’re trained to protect. The teens of Guardian are a private, elite force, and Connor Reeves is their newest member.

Bodyguard is an interesting series. Part Alex Rider, part Jack Bauer from 24, it’s the story of 14 year-old Connor Reeves, a new recruit to the Guardian organization. Most of the first book chronicles Connor’s recruitment and training, with an interesting subplot that frames the series on a larger level. There’s a big terror plot afoot, and a Yemeni group is behind it, creating havoc on each of Connor’s missions as they progress toward their as-yet unknown greater goal. The first four books chronicle Connor’s first two missions; each mission spans two novels. In the first two books, Recruit and Hostage, Connor is sent to protect the US President’s headstrong, rebellious daughter; in Hijack and Ransom, he and a fellow Guardian protect an Aussie media mogul’s daughters as they vacation on their luxury yacht.

   

The writing is fast-paced and action-packed, with interesting characters and the potential for an exciting conclusion to this building subplot. I had some issues with the author’s initial descriptions of the terrorists, though: it’s a bit discomfiting, especially for someone like me, who works in one of the most diverse library systems in the country. Happily, Bradford puts more emphasis on plot development as the novels progress. Connor tends to come across as a white knight, and Bradford needs to let his female characters breathe a little more, but overall, this is a good middle school-level series for kids who wants to read a series similar to Alex Rider.

Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series was originally released in the UK; the first four books are available in the States now, with three more to come. The Bodyguard series webpage offers a rundown on the books, plus audio excerpts; bodyguard training tips, and a teacher’s guide for the series.

Want a shot at winning your own BODYGUARD set? Enter my raffle by filling out this Google Form! Good luck!

Bodyguard: Recruit, by Chris Bradford, (May 2017, Philomel), $8.99, ISBN: 9781524736972
Bodyguard: Hostage, by Chris Bradford, (May 2017, Philomel), $8.99, ISBN: 9781524736996
Bodyguard: Hijack, by Chris Bradford, (May 2017, Philomel), $8.99, ISBN: 9781524737016
Bodyguard: Ransom, by Chris Bradford, (May 2017, Philomel), $8.99, ISBN: 9781524737030

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Call Me Sunflower explores alternative families

Call Me Sunflower, by Miriam Spitzer Franklin, (May 2017, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9781510711792

Recommended for ages 9-13

Sunflower Beringer can’t stand her first name, so she has everyone call her Sunny. And she really can’t stand that her mother uprooted her and her sister, and left their dad, Scott, back in New Jersey to run his bookstore while she attends grad school in North Carolina. Now they’re living with a grandmother they barely know, and she’s the new kid in school. Ugh. Sunny has to do something, so she creates Sunny Beringer’s Totally Awesome Plan for Romance”: a can’t-miss list of ways to bring her mom and Scott back together, including making playlists of Scott’s favorite songs and getting her mother a makeover. While she works on a family album that will remind Scott and Mom of when they were in love all over again, though, she discovers a picture that changes everything. A strong subplot involving animal rights activism and Sunny’s relationship with her grandmother really gives Call Me Sunflower depth.

I’m becoming a Miriam Spitzer Franklin fangirl. I loved Extraordinary (2015); in Sunny, I found many similiaries to Pansy, Extraordinary‘s protagonist. Both stories are realistic fiction, told in the first person, about girls dealing with big life changes. They have complicated friendships and they have both There are humorous moments, and each has a unique voice, a unique point of view; Ms. Franklin captures the frustrations, the fears, and the unique experience of being a tween in a relatable voice that readers will gravitate to. I love that she created an alternative family structure with an adoptive family outside the traditional husband-wife setting and gave us a family unit that is working it all out. I admit to being a little confused with Sunny’s birth story – she is adopted, but has pictures of her mother holding her at the hospital – but that’s likely because my own adoption experience happened differently. All in all, a bittersweet, tender look at families. Pair with realistic fiction like Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart, Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm, and Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand.