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 December, 2011

Best of 2011, Part 4!

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

As much as I’d like to deny it, 2012 is right around the corner, which means it’s time to reflect back on another year of reading. This is not an easy task, but a fun one because for once, we Snoops don’t have to be even the least bit objective. After narrowing down my favorite books of 2012, I noticed an overriding theme–four out of five are Dystopian Fiction. And the fifth is Fantasy. Pretty odd for a sworn realistic fiction freak, huh?  Drum roll please…

I was hooked by Divergent‘s perfect balance of compelling plot, action, and (yes, I’ll admit it) romance. It is the story of Tris, who lives in a future Chicago where society has been divided into factions in order to extinguish undesirable human traits that lead to a world at war. Tris has just selected the faction she will align herself with for the rest for her life–and it’s not the one the rest of her family belongs to. Despite the dystopian setting, her struggle is one that teen readers will relate to, as she is torn between being true to herself and what she thinks her family wants her to be. The story also raises interesting questions about the inherent danger of valuing just one virtue over all others when there is merit in each of the virtues represented by the factions.

If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games like me (and who isn’t?), look no further. Enclave is the first installment in a new dystopian series that is sure to please. This engrossing and quick read features a highly likable and strong female character named Deuce, lots of action, and even some romance (Hmmm… perhaps another theme is emerging from my book selections). Deuce–who lives in one of the underground enclaves established after New York City was destroyed by war and plague–is compelled to become the best huntress that she can be to make her trainer and the members of her enclave proud. But as the story progresses, she slowly begins to question the authority and intentions of the enclave’s leaders. When she is exiled Topside with her partner Fade, the two face obstacles that even their hunter training could not prepare them for.

It’s pretty obvious that I’m a sucker for a strong female character in a dystopian setting and Saba, in Blood Red Road, is just that. She and her twin brother Lugh have lived all of their lives in Silverlake with their parents and their little sister Emmi–their closest neighbor twelve miles away. Lugh thinks it’s time to leave this wasteland but Saba is conflicted. Then one day, the choice is made for them when four horsemen in long black robes appear on the tail end of a dust storm. This is one of those books where it takes a bit of time to adjust to the rhythm of the story, but it’s worth putting the time in. With each passing chapter, the book becomes increasingly difficult to put down. Packed with action and danger, the story is also about friendship and love. The sequel, Dust Lands, is first on my list for 2012.

I loved every book in The Maze Runner dystopian trilogy and the final installment, The Death Cure, is no exception. Its fast-paced writing style propelled me from one chapter to the next and I couldn’t wait to see what would happen to the cast of characters I have grown so fond of because of their gritty determination to survive and fierce loyalty to one another. And just when I thought I would have to suffer through Maze Runner withdrawal, it was announced that a series prequel, The Kill Order, will be released in August 2012. Yipee!!!

The plot of Red Glove is as spirited and intelligent as is its protagonist, Cassel Sharpe, who offers just the right mix of irreverence, street smarts, and sarcasm. I first met Cassel in White Cat and was hooked by his character and the trilogy’s imaginative premise–a family of con artists with abilities to work magical curses butts heads with a crime boss. Cassel used to think he was one of the best con artists around but everything changed when his own brothers made him the mark in a con of their own. To make matter worse, his brother’s old boss–the head of a crime family–wants Cassel to work for him. With each side staking their claim, you can’t help but root for Cassel to pull off the ultimate con and outsmart them all.

For me, 2011 was a great year for interesting characters placed in unique and challenging situations that kept the pages turning. I can’t wait to see what 2012 has in store.

-Jen, StorySnoop

Best of 2011, Part 3

Monday, December 26th, 2011

It’s time for the annual StorySnoops wrap-up on our five favorite books of the year! As the other Snoops have mentioned in their posts, this is no easy task.

I could make my choice based on popularity of the book, or even by the awards the books have received. But I think I will just choose the books that stuck with me and moved me somehow for whatever reason. You will notice that the genre is pretty much the same for all of these books, but hey, it’s my list, and I happen to like coming of age stories! So here it is… my favorite books of 2011.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt – Written by a two-time Newbery Honor-winning author, Okay for Now is one of those books that teens will find compulsively readable, but is also exceptional in the literary sense. The main character is not only likeable, but also downright admirable. While the circumstances of his upbringing are not ideal, Doug finds a way to absolutely thrive, and his upbeat and optimistic personality is inspiring.  I loved that art touched his life, and that the themes of hope, perseverance, self-discovery, and community came through without ever being too corny. I have bought this as a gift for a few boys this Christmas.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai – This will be showing up on a lot of “Best of 2011” lists as it has already won the National Book Award. This novel in verse is the partly autobiographical account of the author’s own story of immigrating to America. Divided into three parts–Vietnam, the boat ride to America, and her new home in Alabama–it’s a fast paced and engaging read for middle graders featuring an admirable heroine (hmmm, I see a pattern here!). After leaving Vietnam Ha and her family find themselves of Alabama, where they experience a huge language barrier, culture shock, and racism. I like books that enlighten us and really encourage us to become more empathetic. This book will make kids look at immigrants with more understanding and a kinder heart. And it was so beautifully written.

Happyface by Stephen Emond – I love this book for reluctant teen boy readers! Actually, this book is so engaging and poignant that a reader of any level or gender would very much like it. The engaging graphic book format (ala Diary of a Wimpy Kid) encourages a child to get sucked into the story as soon as they pick this book. However, what makes it a gem is that although it is funny, there is also a lot of depth. Again, it has those themes that I am a sucker for: perseverance, being yourself, and thriving under any circumstance. Of all my picks, this read will definitely appeal to the broadest audience.

Paintings from the Cave by Gary Paulsen – This is one of those books (three novellas, actually) that stuck with me for a long time. You know the kind of book where the characters stick with you for a while after you’ve finished it and you’re not quite ready to pick up another book just yet? It’s one of those. Written by beloved author Gary Paulsen, it is inspired by his own difficult childhood. The three stories share a common theme of not just surviving bad circumstances, but THRIVING. (Another pattern here!) These characters had me wrapped around their little finger and their individual adversities really, really moved me. I like this book for a high school student of any level or gender and it is just edgy enough to hook them. This book still lives inside my heart. I had better stop here because I’m getting all mushy.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu – What a beautiful book! The author does an amazing job with imagery and symbolism, and truly paints a vivid picture with her words. I wouldn’t necessarily call this book a fantasy, but there is plenty of magic in it. While the narrator, Hazel, is a girl and the book could be described as a fairy tale, I’m convinced boys would like this story, too. Hazel is a tomboy and her best friend is a boy. The premise of the story is that she goes into the woods to find and save her best friend from the Snow Queen. I would bet that if a teacher read this aloud in a classroom, the boys would be just as hooked as the girls. Both genders will appreciate the flawed but lovable outcast of a heroine that Hazel is. I was worried that it might be one of those children’s books that adults adore but kids are lukewarm about. However, I’ve heard from several eleven year-old girls who have just finished this book and they give it two thumbs up. Did I say that this book was just lovely? It really was.

So, there you have it–my super-biased picks of the year. Do any of you out there share my enthusiasm for these books? Or have any books of your own to add? We would love to hear your thoughts!

-Shannon, StorySnoop

Best of 2011, Part 2

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

This might be one of the most difficult things I do all year! I was fortunate enough to have read so many truly great books this year that singling out 5 is unbelievably challenging. I had to leave off some gems, and it pained me to do so, but I finally chose my 5 favorites and here they are, in no particular order.

This was the most recent book I read for the site and it knocked my socks off. A debut novel from Mary O’Connell, The Sharp Time is brilliant. I am a sucker for an edgy teen girl book, and this definitely falls into that category. Sandinista Jones is an unforgettable and truly unique main character, and I was enchanted by her and empathized with her from page one. This story of grief, aching loneliness and defiant anger is moving and beautiful and the writing is extraordinary.

I had Liesl and Po on my list to read because I have read Lauren Oliver’s other books, and for some reason, I kept putting off reading this one. This book turned out to be so much more than I expected it to be. I was captivated by this little gem that is equal parts fairy-tale and ghost story.  Liesl and Po tells a tale of generosity conquering greed, of good triumphing over evil, and of a journey to restore color and vibrance to a cold and gray world. It is evident that a great deal of love and care was taken in the writing of this book, and I folded down many pages of outstanding passages and quotable quotes. Lauren Oliver’s powerful and touching message comes across loud and clear – out of the ash, flowers will grow.

Beauty Queens wins my own personal award for most original story of 2011. I literally laughed out loud while reading this, and I think Libba Bray is a satirical genius. The premise of beauty queens stranded on a desert island is fantastic in and of itself, and Libba uses it to take on pageant culture, the beauty industry, reality television, consumerism and politics to name a few. This over-the-top and high-concept story uses irony to perfection and I truly enjoyed every moment. AND, I am lucky enough to have a SIGNED copy of my very own! (Thank you Eden!)

I had to get one boy book on this list and it was an easy choice for me. While Adios, Nirvana was published in 2010, I read it in 2011 and an including it as one of my favorites of the year. Perhaps it is because I am the mother of a guitar player, lyricist and poet that this book struck a particular chord (no pun intended!) with me. Main character Jonathan is floundering in school, and in life, since the death of his twin brother. Faced with only one choice to salvage his academic year, Jonathan must accept a special writing assignment, and at the request of the school principal, he is tasked with performing an extremely cheesy song. Relationships, playing music from your heart and finding your voice are the main messages in this compelling and memorable read.

Lastly, I chose Finding Somewhere by Joseph Monninger. This book moved me to tears numerous times, and I was truly impressed with the exceptional writing, and the authenticity with which male author Monninger captures the teenage girl voice. This book is about so much more than a girl and her horse. Two teen best friends set off on an epic road trip to find rangeland on which wise, old Speed – a horse at the end of his life – can spend his last days just “being a horse. “ Full of moments they will never forget, the trip involves some serious bonding and soul searching, and one really cute cowboy. The bittersweet end of this story involved several Kleenex, but it was so worth it as part of the experience of this rich and enchanting story.

So, that wraps it up! What a great year in books 2011 was! I look forward to more fantastic stories, some much anticipated sequels and some great new voices in 2012!

-Tiffany, StorySnoop

Best Books of 2011, Part 1

Monday, December 19th, 2011

2012 is right around the corner, which means it’s time for the 2011 wrap up. The Snoops assignment this last week was to come up with our five outright favorite books that we read this year, and as I write this little intro, I’m really just stalling. I have eight on my list, and maybe I’m hoping that by the time I finish writing this, I will have decided which five to write about.  Here goes!

Anna & the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Who would have thought an adult could get so caught up in a teen romance?  Let’s just say the day that I read this book, the laundry went unfolded at my house. Anna is studying abroad at an American high school in Paris when she meets Etienne. They are immediately drawn to one another, but each is otherwise involved. Though the ending may seem inevitable, their journey towards it is unpredictable and delightful. The Parisian setting and Anna’s fascination with classic films give this book a romantic backdrop that can’t be ignored.  Warm and entertaining.

Tighter by Adele Griffin. Wow! A taut, well-crafted thriller with a surprise ending that made me want to go back and read again for clues that I’d missed.  What more could I ask for? Tighter is a modern retelling of the Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw (which I have still not read, but I enjoyed this book immensely nevertheless). Jamie is a 17-year old au pair on a New England island for the summer, who may or may not be seeing ghosts. She has self-medicated into a druggy haze, which adds to the tension as the reader has no more idea of what is real than Jamie does.  There are great observations about division of social classes, drug use, mental illness and contemplation of one’s destiny.  Smart and riveting.

Flyaway by Lucy Christopher.  This moving story deals with family relationships, hope and friendship. Thirteen-year-old Isla has a special bond with her father over their mutual fascination with swans and their annual migration. When Isla’s father suffers a heart attack, a worried Isla is desperate to do anything she can to help him get better. Along with a boy she meets in the hospital (who is suffering from leukemia), she channels her desire to support her father into helping an injured young swan learn to fly again. I was moved by the relationships in this book, and being an animal lover, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the swan that Isla befriends. There were definitely tears along the way, but ultimately an upbeat and hopeful ending. Heartwarming and lovely.

Trapped by Michael Northrop. Another book to which the word “taut” applies! Seven teens are trapped in their high school during a “storm of the century” blizzard that lasts nearly a week. This page-turner has humor, tension, danger and despair. Author Michael Northrop does a great job creating a claustrophobic backdrop to the story as the snow climbs higher and higher around the school. One student makes the ultimate sacrifice and another emerges as an unlikely hero. There isn’t likely to be a blizzard of any size where I live, but boy, for several days after reading this book, I had to stop and remind myself exactly where my children were.  Gripping and moving.

Dirt Road Home by Watt Key.  Considering that the subject matter is primarily teen boys in the juvenile detention system, imagine my surprise that this was one of my favorite books of the year! Fourteen-year-old Hal hasn’t had a good start in life and seems destined to become a victim of a corrupt and seemingly inescapable juvenile justice system. But his rekindled relationship with his recovering-alcoholic father has given him the courage to stand up to the worst the system can throw at him. When forced to choose between the two powerful gangs in his facility, Hal has the moral fiber to refuse to join either, even though he knows he’ll suffer for his decision. Hal’s fortitude comes simply from his determination to be with his father, and though his journey is not predictable or easy, the message here is wonderfully uplifting. With courage and conviction, we can indeed change our destiny, though sometimes not in the ways we expect.  Gritty and hopeful.

All told, 2011 was a great year on my bookshelf—variety, entertainment, humor, tension, tears, imagination…2012 has a tough act to follow :-)

Which books did you like best  in 2011?

-Eden, StorySnoop


Read-Alouds for Teachers

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

I have a lot of teacher friends who are always in search of that perfect book to read aloud to their classroom. This is tricky. A parent can choose books for reading aloud based on their family values and what they feel is right for their child (and a little help from StorySnoops!).

But a teacher…..a teacher must try and guess the family values of every child in that classroom, erring on the side of caution. A fourth grade teacher can’t choose a book with language in it. Imagine what the parents would say! A book can’t be too religious, too violent, too political, too feminine, or too masculine. That said, teachers do want to read a book with some substance. A GOOD book that is well-written, has depth, meaning, and a story that will suck the students right in. This is a tall order.

Here are some books that I have recommended to teachers (from third grade to middle school) that have met those requirements – and received positive reviews from both the teachers and the students.

Teachers, remember to read the StorySnoop “scoop” to make sure you choose the book that best fits your students.  All in all, these are fantastic books you and your students are sure to enjoy.

Let the StorySnoops Holiday Gift Guide help you out this year!

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Now that it is mid-December, you are undoubtedly either fully engaged in holiday shopping or at the very least, thinking about being fully engaged in holiday shopping!  In either case, let us take the guess work out of it with some ideas for the young readers on your list. We’ve organized our holiday list by age and gender, with books we loved this year.  We define Tweens as kids aged roughly 9-12, and Teens are 12 and up. There is obviously a lot of grey area in the 11-14 age range though, depending on the individual child and their maturity level, so be sure to click on the titles so that you can see exactly what we had to say about each book.  We know you’ve got a lot to do, so let’s get right down to business…drum roll please…

For the Tween Boys, an age group with a disproportionately-high percentage of reluctant readers—check these titles out:

Also consider:

The Bridge to Never Land by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable by Dan Gutman

Diary of a Wimpy Kid #6: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney

Cahills vs. Vespers Book 1: The Medusa Plot by Gordon Korman

The Black (Morpheus Road #2) by D. J. MacHale

Big Nate on a Roll by Lincoln Peirce

The Son of Neptune (The Heroes of Olympus #2) by Rick Riordan

The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

For the Tween Girls, we’ve got beautiful fiction, adventure, fantasy, you name it:

Also consider:

Cinderella Smith by Stephanie Barden

The Bridge to Never Land by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

Flyaway by Lucy Christopher

Notes from an Accidental Band Geek by Erin Dionne

Fashion Kitty and the B.O.Y.S. (Ball of Yellow String) by Cherise Mericle Harper

Addie on the Inside by James Howe

Diary of a Wimpy Kid #6: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney

Leisl and Po by Lauren Oliver

The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt

The Son of Neptune (The Heroes of Olympus #2) by Rick Riordan

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

Water Balloon by Audrey Vernick

For the Teen Guys, there is stark realism, humor, adventure, dystopian lit, sports fiction and more:

Also consider:

Red Glove (Curse Workers Book 2) by Holly Black

The Slayer Chronicles: First Kill by Heather Brewer

The Death Cure (Maze Runner Trilogy #3) by James Dashner

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans

You Don’t Know About Me by Brian Meehl

Kick by Walter Dean Myers and Ross Workman

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel

Paintings from the Cave: Three Novellas by Gary Paulsen

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

And finally for the Teen Girls, take your pick—there is truly something for every taste:

Also consider:

Enclave by Ann Aguirre

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

My Life Undecided by Jessica Brody

Uncommon Criminals (Heist Society #2) by Ally Carter

The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle

City of Fallen Angels (Mortal Instruments #4) by Cassandra Clare

Crossed (Matched #2) by Ally Condie

The Lost Songs by Caroline B. Cooney

Happyface by Stephen Emond

You Have Seven Messages by Stewart Lewis

Finding Somewhere by Joseph Monninger

Paintings from the Cave: Three Novellas by Gary Paulsen

The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder

Supernaturally (Paranormalcy #2) by Kiersten White

How to Save a Life by Sarah Zarr

We love all of these books and hope that you’ll find just the right book at just the right reading level for your child.

Happy Holidays!

-The Snoops

No really, Jessica Brody, thank YOU!

Monday, December 5th, 2011

As I was finishing reading The Karma Club, which proved to be a very entertaining book with an excellent message, I read through the acknowledgements and was struck by something. Jessica Brody wrote, “And last but not least, thank you to you. Yes, you, the one holding this book. Writers’ dreams come true every day because of you.”

I guess I never really thought of it this way, because I, as a reader, feel an overwhelming desire to thank my favorite writers for creating something that I enjoyed so much, or was particularly moved by. I should have realized that the writer is just as thankful for the reader who purchases and appreciates his/her work. It really is a two-way street, this affection and gratitude between readers and writers.

So, Jessica, since you thanked me, your reader, I am going to thank you for a few things. I want to thank you for spreading a positive message about karma that is so valuable for high school age girls to think about – that they should be careful and cognizant of what they put out there, good or bad, as it will come back to them. I want to thank you for the message you conveyed about reserving judgment without really knowing someone. I loved this little piece of wisdom, “And if we judged everyone by who they were and not who they’ve learned to become, well then, I guess none of us would have any friends. Including me.” We should all pause for a moment and remember this, don’t you think?

So, thank you Jessica Brody, and thank you to all the other YA authors who know their audience so well, who convey positive and important messages, and who not only impart wisdom, but entertain – thank you!!

-Tiffany, StorySnoop