Childrens book reviews by StorySnoops, judge a book by more than its cover, serving fresh scoops of new books for you every day
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Archive for the ‘Super Scoops’ Category

Super Scoop: 33 Minutes (…Until Morgan Sturtz kicks my butt) by Todd Hasak-Lowy

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Friendship is a common theme in children’s literature, and why wouldn’t it be, since it is a huge part of what kids are experiencing in their lives. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most friend-drama books are about girls (mirrors real life, eh?). Boys have friend troubles too though, and I just finished a wonderfully funny and poignant book on the topic.

33 Minutes (…Until Morgan Sturtz kicks my butt) is about two boys who used to be best buds in elementary school, Sam and Morgan. They were different even then, but those differences were fine and made things interesting. Sam has always been crazy smart (and now in seventh grade, he heads up the ArithmeTitans math team), and Morgan has always been athletic (he is now the star of the middle school football team). If asked, Sam might say that he and Morgan hadn’t been as close since middle school started, and since a new kid, who has more in common with Morgan than with Sam, moved in to their neighborhood. BUT, Sam knows they are still friends because it’s only been a couple of months since their TAMADE (The Absolutely Most Amazing Day Ever)—where they played their favorite old video game for nine hours straight, and worked together as a team like never before.  And this is why he is so confused about why Morgan so very clearly wants to kick his butt now.

The story flips back and forth between past and present, so the thirty-three minutes of same-day suspense are stretched out over snippets of what has led Sam and Morgan to this point. The reader can see Sam clinging to hope beyond unreasonable hope that there is some magical way that his friendship with Morgan can go back to what it used to be.

I won’t reveal any more about the plot except to say that this book does not have a neat and tidy, “wrapped up with a bow” kind of ending. It has a very real and poignant ending, which will be appreciated by anyone who is old enough to have grown apart from a former special friend. As adults we intellectually know that these transitions are a part of life, but as a kid, sometimes there is nothing more painful than losing a friend you weren’t ready to move on from.

This story is smart and funny and sad and hopeful all at the same time. It will work for upper elementary or middle school boys who are mature enough to understand Sam’s somewhat complicated emotions around his friendship with Morgan, as well as the bit of complexity added by the plot flipping back and forth, and the author’s sly sense of humor.  All told? Two thumbs up from this StorySnoop :-)

Happy Reading!

-Eden, StorySnoop

Super Scoop — Legend and Prodigy, by Marie Lu

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

The Legend trilogy, by Marie Lu, is my latest dystopian obsession. I recently finished the second installment, Prodigy, which may be even slightly better than the first.

In Legend, two very different fifteen-year-olds have grown up in the Republic, a plague-ridden nation that is unceasingly at war with the Colonies and led by the Elector Primo, who is in his eleventh four-year term as president. At the age of ten, each citizen must take the Trial, a test that determines the path of the rest of their life. June is the only person who has ever received a perfect Trial score and has spent the past five years being trained as an elite military leader. Day failed the test and, rather than face the labor camps, has spent the past five years living on the streets, waging his own private rebellion against the Republic. During a desperate attempt to protect his family from the plague, Day breaks into a hospital lab and June’s older brother Metias is murdered. Now June will stop at nothing to track down the infamous Day and avenge her brother’s death. But when their paths finally cross, the two begin to realize that they are not as different as they once believed. In fact, they may even share a common enemy.

In Prodigy, June and Day, the Republic’s two most wanted fugitives arrive in Vegas in search of the Patriots. This group of rebels is more than happy to repair Day’s injured leg and rescue his brother. But in return, Day and June must help assassinate the new Elector Primo, Anden, who just came into power after the unexpected death of his father. The plan is a good one but lots could go wrong, especially for June, who has to turn herself in and get close to Anden. When she does, she realizes that this new Elector wants to make changes that will actually help the Republic. Now June must decide where her loyalties lie and, ultimately, what is best for her country.

These two books are sure to captivate both teen boys and girls, especially those who are already fans of the dystopian genre. In both cases, chapters alternate between June’s and Day’s perspectives, adding tension to the story. An unlikely team–one a military prodigy and one a fugitive rebel–the two find themselves allied romantically and by their principles. Readers will root for these intelligent, capable, and extremely likable characters as they fight for their beliefs. The combination of action, suspense, and romance give this series broad appeal. It would also be a good choice for tweens who like to “read up” as the content is not overly mature. A surprising revelation at the end of the Prodigy will leave readers eager to get their hands on the final installment in the trilogy, and disappointed that they have a long wait ahead.
Happy reading!
- Jen, StorySnoop

Super Scoop: Drama by Raina Telgemeier–What’s the big deal?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

You gotta love those well-written graphic novels for middle schoolers. They are crowd-pleasers: attractive to those who don’t love to read, and gobbled up in one sitting by those who do.

Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, about growing up as an awkward adolescent with braces, was well-received by critics and readers alike. She now has a new book out called Drama, which also depicts the very real ups and downs of middle school. Like Smile, the writing is good, and it’s a darn good book.

However, I am disappointed in what I have been reading about it. Critics seem to like it (well, it IS a good book!), but others are not so open-minded. Bloggers and other reviewers have condemned this book because there is a gay character who is open about his orientation. No one in the fictional school has a problem with it. There are a few gay characters in the book’s theater production, but honestly – can you tell me a theater production that does not? Or for that matter, can you name a middle school that does not have gay students? This book is not about sex, it’s about young teens (gay and straight alike) figuring themselves out and accepting who they are. More importantly, it is about others accepting them (which is not a problem in this book as everyone is open and being gay is not a problem).

My daughter, also a seventh grade theater chick, read this book and really enjoyed it. We talked about the characters, gay, straight, bi – whatever. It was not shocking to her. She told me that it very accurately depicted her middle school life.  I applaud the middle school kids of today, really. They can read a book and say, “He’s gay, lots of kids are. So what?” Not so for many parents and other critics of this book. Why is that?

Let’s just stay focused on the positive. Finally we have a book that is perfect – PERFECT – for the young theater crowd. Those kids, male and female, who know all of the words to Les Miz, and say things like “Break A Leg!”, and “The Show Must Go On!”: here is a book just for you.

Happy Reading!

-Shannon, StorySnoop

Super Scoop–Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Monday, January 21st, 2013

One day that changes the course of your life. Paris. Romance. Self-discovery. Adventure.

I could not put Just One Day by Gayle Forman down, and now I want to go to Paris. And re-read some Shakespeare. And go back in time and be 18 again. Sigh…

This compelling and engaging story is a true quality read. Teen girls may see plenty of themselves in main character, Allyson, though even if they are nothing like her, they will certainly enjoy her story. Sheltered by her extremely controlling, “helicopter” mother, and always the quintessential “good girl,” Allyson shakes things up on a whim while on her high school graduation trip in Europe.

She meets free-spirited, adventurous and handsome Shakespearean actor, Willem, in London and spontaneously decides to leave her tour and go with him to Paris. Completely out of character for her, and out of her comfort zone, she becomes a different person with Willem, and falls in love with him over the course of their whirlwind, perfect day. When he disappears, her heart is broken, and she spends the next year depressed, floundering in school, trying to figure out who she is and how to re-capture how she felt in Paris.

I loved this story for the journey, both the physical one, and the internal one that Allyson experiences. She finally comes into her own, figures out what she loves, who she wants to be, and learns how to speak up for herself. Supporting characters are equally as fabulous.

I was dreading reaching the end of the book, and was delighted to see that there will be a sequel, which cannot be published soon enough for me! Until then, I might have to give this one a re-read. Put this one in the hands of the teen girls in your lives, or pick it up to read on your own. Be ready to yearn for adventure and youth and macarons.

-Tiffany, StorySnoop

Super Scoop — The Girl of Fire and Thorns and The Crown of Embers, by Rae Carson

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

I seem to have a knack for picking up books that turn out to be the first installment in a series. After spending lots of time reading children’s books, this talent is not something I am particularly happy about.  When a series is good, there is nothing like longing to get your hands on the next book because you can’t wait to find out what happens or reunite with beloved characters. But when a series isn’t so good, well, the next book is often accompanied by dread!

In this case, picking up The Girl of Fire and Thorns was a happy accident because I enjoyed the second installment in the series, The Crown of Embers, even more than the first!

In The Girl of  Fire and Thorns (winner of YALSA’s Top 10 Best Fiction for Young Adults Award), we meet Elisa.  She, as bearer of the godstone, is the one person selected during the century whose destiny is to perform an act of great service. But as the younger of two princesses, Elisa doesn’t feel particularly worthy of her destiny. Her sixteenth birthday is also her wedding day, after which she leaves her home with the handsome young king she has never met to become the queen of his troubled desert country. Elisa may not feel useful, but a group of rebels thinks that, as bearer of the godstone, she could be their salvation.

Picking up where The Girl of Fire and Thorns left off, The Crown of Embers finds Elisa buoyed by her victory over her enemy, but struggling to overcome her inexperience as a ruler. The only way to bring stability to her ailing country is to harness the power of a mysterious magical force called the zafira. But first she must find it. To do so, she’ll have to elude many more enemies, even one from within her own court. She may return to lead as a stronger queen, but not without a price.

This series is a good choice for teen girls who enjoy a mix of fantasy, adventure, and romance. Much of the enjoyment comes from main character Elisa’s transformation. Initially, she has very little confidence, but as the story progresses, she evolves from a pampered princess into a strong, self-sufficient strategist and leader. She is loyal to her friends and family, and strives live up to the honor of the godstone. Elisa’s evolution continues in the second book, where she learns valuable lessons about relying on the power that is already within her and being guided by her own moral compass.

Each of these books also features an endearing love interest.  Romance, combined with an imperfect but likable heroine, a bit of suspense, and royal intrigue make these books a safe bet for teen girls.  And there’s a third book in the trilogy to look forward to.

Happy reading!

-Jen, StorySnoop

Super Scoop–Capture the Flag by Kate Messner

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Attention teachers and librarians! Looking for great addition to your elementary school library? Well, I have a fun recommendation for you.

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner is a smartly-written and really fun mystery/action/adventure book. The premise of the book is that four seventh graders, who have never previously met, are snowed in together at an airport in Washington D.C. When news comes that the actual famous flag that inspired the song “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been stolen, the kids have a sneaking suspicion that the culprits are right there in the airport, snowed in with them. So begins a fun, action-packed, mystery that will keep those pages turning to find out just whodunit!

Capture The Flag is wholesome while still being exciting. The characters are both male and female, and this book will appeal equally to either gender. This crowd-pleaser would be a fun read-aloud, addition to a classroom library, or just a great book to check out for 3rd-7th graders, depending on his or her reading level.

Happy Reading!

–Shannon, StorySnoop

P.S. Here are two other great middle grade titles by Kate Messner that we loved.

Best of Banned Books Week: Forever, by Judy Blume

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

In the spirit of Banned Books Week, StorySnoops is hosting a retrospective of some of our favorite “frequently-challenged” author interviews and book reviews. BBW is the American Library Association’s annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. It highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States. Check out this ALA timeline, showing significant banned and challenged books over the past 30 years. These are some of our all-time favorites—can you imagine someone denying you access to these books?

I don’t know about you, but when I was in middle school, I thought I was getting away with murder when I read Forever, by Judy Blume.  Did my mother even know what this book was about?  There, in black and white, was a description of the forbidden act that everyone was talking about.  The teens in this book were doing it and I got read about it in minute detail.  It was romantic.  It was steamy.  It was forbidden.  Or so I thought.

Now that I have re-read the book as a parent, I see the story from a whole new perspective.  First of all, Judy Blume is an absolute genius.  We all thought this was the sex book.  Nope.  It’s really the wait-for-the-right-boy-and-use-birth-control book.  That is the genius part.  The story is crafted in such a way that girls want to read positive messages that they may not want to hear from their parents.  So for the price of exposing your daughter to some pretty explicit love scenes (and wouldn’t you rather she know what she’s getting herself into anyway?), you get wonderful messages about waiting for the right person, and the importance of talking to your family, and acting responsibly.

Yes, it’s still pretty steamy.  Yes, the boy names his male equipment “Ralph.”  But the themes in this classic are still relevant today, even thirty-seven years after it was written.

-Jen, StorySnoop

You can find the rest of our Best of Banned Books Week series here, with entries being added all week. Come back tomorrow for the StorySnoops interview with Forever author Judy Blume–it’s not to be missed!

There’s Not Just One Way to Come of Age

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Some books just need to be written.  I’m not sure how many coming of age books feature a lesbian protagonist, but any adolescent who is questioning their identity, sexual or otherwise, needs to get their hands on The Miseducation of Cameron Post.  I first became aware of this book when I heard the author, Emily M. Danforth, speaking on NPR about her own early model for lesbianism, the main character in Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle.  Ms. Danforth’s insights had me rushing to the bookstore.

After twelve-year-old Cameron Post’s parents die in a car crash, she is completely convinced that she caused the accident, even though she was hundreds of miles away. Their deaths can only be punishment for Cam’s behavior, because on the day of the crash, she was busy kissing her best friend Irene. Knowing she cannot possibly be Irene’s friend any longer, Cam becomes withdrawn, numbing herself with an endless marathon of movies she watches while hiding out in her room; hiding from her ultra-religious aunt Ruth, who has moved in with Cam and her very conventional grandmother. If there’s one thing Cam knows, it’s that she has to do whatever it takes to bury her feelings about other girls, especially since the church she attends with Aunt Ruth makes it crystal clear that homosexuality will not be tolerated.

Denial works for a while but becomes increasingly difficult in high school, when Cam becomes friends with a girl from church–the ultra-popular Coley Taylor. Cam cannot help but fall in love this beautiful cowgirl who is virtually inseparable from her boyfriend. As Cam and Coley’s friendship grows, it unexpectedly evolves into something more. That is until Aunt Ruth, horrified by Cameron’s sinful ways, sends her to a special Christian school to be “cured” of her deviant impulses. In a place that is intended to strip its students of their very nature and identity, Cam finally realizes the importance of being true to herself, no matter who she finally discovers that is.

While Cameron’s story is obviously unique, she provides an excellent guide for readers who identify with her feelings and struggles, especially those who are surrounded by people who are intolerant of alternative lifestyles.  As a parent of two teenagers, I can’t help but feel for this character that is truly adrift.  Being a teen is hard enough–facing constant scrutiny and judgment.  But Cam is also bombarded with messages from society and those she loves that there is something fundamentally wrong with who she is as a person.

After Cam confesses her feelings to Coley, they begin to experiment sexually and eventually, the two mutually and consensually consummate their relationship. But Coley has a crisis of conscience and exposes the truth about Cam, claiming to be the victim of her “perversion.” Cam is ostracized by her beloved grandmother, who agrees with her aunt that the best course of action is to send Cam to a Christian school founded to save teens’ souls from a lifetime of sexual deviance.

The author quite effectively uses this setting to point out the absurdity of the belief that homosexuality is an unnatural choice; one that can and must be “fixed.” In spite of the staff’s best efforts to instill these beliefs, Cam finally realizes that what they are trying change is not in fact changeable. and becomes determined to fight for herself.

Hopefully, The Miseducation of Cameron Post will find it’s way into the right hands–the hands of any teen who feels that there is something wrong with them based solely on the misguided belief system of others.

-Jen, StorySnoop

Super Scoop: Is Bitterblue on your summer reading list?

Monday, June 18th, 2012

We Snoops pride ourselves on helping to match up readers with the best children’s books for every age. If you happen to be looking for a great summer read for your teen girl, look no further. I recently finished Bitterblue, the sequel to Graceling (2008) and its companion book, Fire (2009). For those who have already read the first two books, Bitterblue is a long-awaited and satisfying sequel. And for those who have become teens since the first books were released, it’s worth starting this series from the beginning as it offers a whole summer’s worth of page-turning pleasure.

Graceling is the story the fiercely independent and self-reliant Katsa, who at the age of eight learned that she had a special talent — or “Grace” — for killing. Since then, her uncle, King Randa, has exploited that talent by using Katsa, now in her late teens, to punish people at his whim. Despising her Grace, Katsa forms the Council, whose secret mission is to right injustices inflicted by the kings of the seven kingdoms. On one of these missions, Katsa meets Prince Po, and the two form an unlikely alliance to uncover the truth about his grandfather’s kidnapping.

Fire and its main character share the same name. She is the last remaining human monster in the kingdom of the Dells. Irresistibly beautiful, Fire has the unique ability to control people’s minds and actions. Determined not to become the treacherous monster her father was, Fire has vowed to use her power only in self-defense. When called to King City by the royal family, Fire must decide if she will make an exception and help defeat the rebel armies planning to overthrow King Nash.

Bitterblue and its main character also share the same name. The story begins eight years after Graceling, and eighteen-year-old Bitterblue is queen of Monsea. It isn’t easy to lead a kingdom that is recovering from the thirty-five-year reign of her father Leck, a sadistic maniac with the ability to alter people’s perceptions of reality. Stuck in her castle tower signing papers all day, she can’t help but feel removed from the kingdom she is supposed to rule. So Bitterblue begins to sneak out of the castle at night–anonymously–to intermingle with her subjects, learn about their lives, and become a more effective queen. On the streets of the city, she discovers that her kingdom is not as peaceful as her closest advisors have led her to believe after she befriends a group of people trying to expose the truth about what happened during Leck’s reign and set things right. When her friends become the target of those who intend to silence the truth, Bitterblue decides that she cannot rest until she understands exactly what Leck did that left her kingdom so damaged. Only then can she help her kingdom heal from the truth of those atrocities.

These three books are immensely readable and feature protagonists that are both dauntless and likable. Readers can’t help but root for Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue as they take on new challenges and fight for their beliefs. Those who enjoy a good love story won’t be disappointed either because each of these heroines has an intriguing love interest. And who doesn’t enjoy a good summer romance?

Happy reading!

–Jen, StorySnoop

Super Scoop–Code Name Verity

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Love the smart spy stuff? Love the semi-recent historical stuff?  Even if you are only a fan of one or the other, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is a super find that will appeal to teens and adults who enjoy an intellectual, fabulously plotted story.

The book opens with young British special operations officer Queenie (not her real name) having been captured by the Gestapo in German-occupied France. She has been through rounds of interrogation and torture, and knows that death awaits her at the end of this horrifying imprisonment. That is what the British would do to the spies they catch, after all. In exchange for a stay of execution and lesser torture, Queenie agrees to write a full confession of her knowledge of Britain’s war efforts. She decides to give her confession in the form of the story of Maddie, her best friend and the pilot who flew her to France in the first place, just before their mission went horribly wrong.

What follows is the story of a remarkable friendship between two young women whose paths never would have crossed had they not met in wartime. Queenie is a Scottish aristocrat, fluent in French and German, and Maddie is the scrappy granddaughter of a Jewish motorcycle salesman, who only wants to fly planes. Queenie’s “confession” is of course more than it seems, but not in an obvious way.  The reader suspects this, but will be hard-pressed to put a finger on exactly what she is up to.

This book is richly layered, and will appeal on many levels. The historical details are accurate and the plot just plausible enough that the reader will find herself hoping beyond hope to find out at the end that it has indeed been a true story after all. Queenie has a complex relationship with her captor and chief interrogator, Hauptsturmfuhrer Von Linden. He is at the outset a cold Orwellian character, but he and Queenie find an intellectual common ground that gives depth to his character that the reader might not expect.

The last third of the book switches points of view, which I can’t elaborate on without giving away important plot spoilers, so suffice it to say that as with any good spy thriller, just when you think you have it all figured out…you don’t! Younger readers, or those who are not familiar with WWII from the British point of view may struggle with the dense details of Queenie’s narrative–the acronyms, titles and details of the British war effort are confusing (even for this adult). There are also many literary references (“A Thousand and One Nights” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”) that will go over a young reader’s head, but there are just as many shout outs to the story of Peter Pan which will not.

So many reasons to pick this one up, under the guise (or not!) of previewing it for your teen. Beautiful friendship. Unparalleled bravery. Smart plot. Resistance fighters. Spies. Villains. Suspense. Tragedy. Girl power. Tears. Love.

Read it now. Then read it again.

-Eden, StorySnoop