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 May, 2012

Super Scoop – Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Well, my seemingly endless hours of driving to and fro have been a whole lot more fun this week thanks to the audio book I’ve been listening to, Carter Finally Gets It, by Brent Crawford.  I found myself laughing out loud at this guffaw-inspiring story of fourteen-year-old Will Carter as he navigates freshman year of high school and makes lots of mistakes along the way.

The story begins in the summer.  Carter is on the verge of high school and–he’s positive about this–greatness. Except that he isn’t. Because high school is A LOT harder than he thought it would be. And it has nothing to do with academics. Carter’s ADD makes it really hard to concentrate, especially with all of those hot girls everywhere. He can’t seem to stay focused in class or on the football field, but when it comes to trying to lose his virginity, his focus is laser-sharp. During his freshman year he will face an angry mob of drill teamers, suffer through humiliating try-outs, run from infuriated law enforcement officers, and commit social suicide. He may even learn a thing or two along the way.

Teen boys will find a kindred spirit in Carter, who has an authentic voice and expresses feelings some boys may be uncomfortable discussing. Carter straddles childhood and adulthood, and finds this vantage point on life extremely challenging. His flaws make him endearing, and while he doesn’t always make the best choices, the reader will root for him nonetheless.

Carter is completely obsessed with girls and invests way too much of his hard-earned money on a porn DVD that is permanently stuck on fast-forward. He can’t seem to remember to hide it because, as he admits himself, “ADD and horniness are a bad combination.” Both Carter’s father and an older boy he looks up to convey the message that porn has nothing to do with a healthy sexual relationship in real life. Carter’s own love life gets off to a pretty good start but it crashes and burns after he kisses and tells way too much in the locker room.

He attends a few unchaperoned teen parties where there is lots of drunken behavior and implied teen sex but Carter is not a fan of alcohol and secretly fills his beer can with Mountain Dew instead. Although he is not exactly a stellar student, he does show drive and determination on the swim team.

While the publisher’s recommended age for this book is 11-13 year old, I’m thinking that strong language and mature content make it best for readers who are squarely in their teens.  Or forty-something moms?  Is it strange that I would enjoy this book so much?  Probably.  But I’m not going to over-analyze it.  I’m just happy to be number one in line for the library’s audio book version of the sequel, Carter’s Big Break.

-Jen, StorySnoop

Prevent the “Summer Slide” – Keep Kids Reading All Summer Long!

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Summer is just about here! Encourage kids to keep reading throughout the summer, for fun of course, but also to keep their skills sharp. It is easy for kids to slide backward and lose the progress they made over the school year. A summer reading program is a fun and easy challenge, and a great way to keep kids excited about books and reading.

Here are some reading facts you might not have known: Kids who read one million words in a year score in the top two percent on standardized tests. In a year, kids learn 4,000 to 12,000 new words by reading books. 91% of kids are more likely to finish books they choose themselves. Out-of-school reading habits of students has shown that even 15 minutes a day of independent reading can expose students to more than a million words of text in a year. The U.S. Department of Education found that, generally, the more students read for fun on their own time, the higher their reading scores.

Pretty good reasons to keep kids reading, right?

There are many great summer reading programs out there, for all ages.

Barnes and Noble, for example, has a summer reading program that requires kids to read any eight books, and write their favorite part about each book in a reading journal. When kids bring their completed reading journal to their local store, they get to choose a free book.

Scholastic.com has a summer challenge for kids – to read every day this summer. Their free online program involves logging reading minutes and earning prizes. They even have a Reading Timer app that can be downloaded for free.

Most public libraries also offer their own summer reading programs. These usually involve going to the library to sign up for their program and pick up the accompanying packet. This may include a reading log to record the books your child reads, possibly a bookmark or some suggested reading lists. There is usually a prize associated with completing the program, such as a new book, a coupon for a free ice cream, etc.

Here at StorySnoops, we don’t have a formal program, but we do have Summer Reading lists for tween girls, tween boys, teen girls and teen boys that are updated weekly. We’ve included many of our recent favorites that should give kids plenty of book ideas over the summer.

Summer reading does not have to be hard, but should be engaging and entertaining. Let your child choose a stack of books at the library, or scour your shelves at home for books that older siblings especially enjoyed. A special trip to the bookstore or a new purchase on an e-reader, are fun options as well. Books on cd or downloadable audio are also a fun way for the whole family to enjoy a story while driving on a summer vacation.

Check out our suggested Summer Reading lists to get started, and happy summer reading!

-Tiffany, StorySnoop

Ahhh…nothing like a good summer read!

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Summer is synonymous with reading for me. I’m already squirreling away books in big piles on my desk. These books will be read in a beach chair or at the pool, and will contribute to the making of a perfect summer day.

For a few years, I have been loading books on my Kindle, loving the portability of reading whatever – whenever I wanted. But after a lovely (and expensive) day spent at the bookstore recently, I am back to preferring an actual book. I’m sure I’ll change my mind a million times, but for now I’ve fallen back in love with the bulky, new-smelling, heavy hardback. When I am holding a book, spine cracked, turning pages – it is then when I can most easily lose myself in another world. Now, I’ll be using my Kindle a lot this summer, without a doubt. Vacationing with a Kindle is a reader’s best friend. But for now, reading in a hammock in the backyard of my own house, how can you beat a real live book?

Here are some of the books for middle graders and teens in my “I’m so excited to read this summer” stack. What’s in your TBR pile for the summer?

-Shannon, StorySnoop

Super Scoop – The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Since I thoroughly enjoyed Paolo Bacigalupi’s last book, the Michael L. Printz Award Winner and National Book Award Finalist Shipbreaker, I put Drowned Cities at the top of my to-be-read pile.  While it’s billed as a companion to Shipbreaker, there’s no need to read these two books in order.

Drowned Cities tells the story of two friends, Mahlia and Mouse, who live in a future America.  After the peacekeepers gave up on bringing order to the barbaric Drowned Cities and returned to China, Mahlia and Mouse fled the decimated region ruled by sadistic warlords for the relative safety of Banyan Town in the jungle. If not for the kindness of a pacifist doctor, these two “war maggots” would have been rejected as outcasts. Instead they are begrudgingly accepted by the townspeople.

But when a platoon of ruthless soldiers in pursuit of a half-man–a bioengineered killing machine–crosses their path, Mahlia and the entire town must endure their wrath. With nowhere else to turn, Mahlia strikes a deal with the wounded half man that will lead them to safety. But when Mouse’s conscience gets the best of him and he returns to help the townspeople who once took him in, he is taken prisoner by the soldiers. Mahlia must make the impossible choice between freedom and saving the one person who once risked everything to save her.

Drowned Cities is a dark, powerful, and tragic tale of war. Ironically, the story takes place in the area around Washington D.C., which had been occupied by Chinese peacekeepers who had hoped to restore democracy and make peace among the warlords. Unsuccessful, the peacekeepers retuned to China leaving the city in control of the warlords brutally battling for territory.

Mahlia’s father was a peacekeeper and, because of this, she is hated and repudiated as a castoff. If not for her courage and her survival instinct, she would have already been killed by one of the warlord’s armies along with the other castoff children. Mahlia was only able escape the Drowned Cities because of Mouse, who rescued her from bloodthirsty soldiers. The two share a close bond, leveraging each of their respective strengths to survive as a team.

One of the book’s primary themes is “what goes around comes around,” which is demonstrated in many ways throughout the story as characters get back what they give out, both good and bad. The story also communicates a powerful message about the senselessness of war as characters are repeatedly faced with an impossible choice–either die or live as a pawn of the war. While the subject matter is disturbing at times (including descriptions of war atrocities), it raises important questions about war and human behavior.

This increasingly suspenseful and always thought-provoking read would be an excellent choice for a high school book report or book club.

-Jen, StorySnoop

It’s Teacher Tuesday–Need help stocking the class library?

Monday, May 14th, 2012

This month for Teacher Tuesday, we thought we’d share a Snoops request that came across our desk the other day.  We know two fifth grade teachers who have ended up with some extra book money at the end of the school year (lucky ladies!), and they asked us for some advice on what they should purchase to beef up their class libraries. We tried to recommend both series and stand-alone titles, hitting a variety of reading levels for both boys and girls. And of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg–let us know if you have a must-add for this list. Happy shopping!

–The Snoops

A Snoops Retrospective

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Wow!! Looking back on our first two full years in business as the StorySnoops, we have a great deal to reflect on and to be thankful for.

We have read many memorable, extraordinary and powerful books, ranging from fun and funny and light to very heavy and serious and moving. We have met characters we will never forget, enjoyed wild and fantastical plots, and expanded our literary genres. We have especially enjoyed recommending the right book to the right reader at the right time, and we cherish our collective role as “book matchmaker.”

It has been so much fun for our children to be able to ask the authors themselves specific questions about the books they have read, and meeting some of the authors in person…well, it doesn’t get much better than that!

We have had some truly thrilling moments when we have seen replies from some big time authors in our inbox, and have absolutely loved getting the opportunity to ask them questions about some beloved books. Banned Books Week, Teen Read Week, Children’s Book Week – all of these literary events have provided fantastic opportunities to celebrate books and writing and authors – all things that are near and dear to our hearts!

So, as we celebrate two years of StorySnoops, we would like to extend a very special thank you to the authors that have so graciously granted us interviews, and we look forward to many more in the future!

Stephanie Barden

Dave Barry

Josh Berk

Judy Blume

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Jennifer Brown

Meg Cabot

Cassandra Clare

Emma Clayton

Chris Crutcher

Sarah Dessen

Ellen Hopkins

Ryan Jacobson

Kimberley Griffiths Little

Cynthia Lord

Lois Lowry

Wendy Mass

Sarah Mlynowski

Walter Dean Myers

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Richard Newsome

Kiersten White

Clare Vanderpool

Or to see the entire group together, visit our author interview archive page. Thanks!

-The Snoops

Children’s Book Week, Day 4–meet Rebecca Stead here at StorySnoops!

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

In celebration of Children’s Book Week, StorySnoops is once again hosting interviews with some of our friends in the literary world. Children’s Book Week is the national celebration of books and reading for youth. We hope you enjoy our special posts this week.

Today we are joined by one of our favorite authors for middle-graders, Rebecca Stead. Rebecca’s most recent book, When You Reach Me, is the winner of several prestigious awards, including the 2010 Newbery Medal, the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, and more. Destined to become a beloved modern classic, When You Reach Me is a must-read for middle graders of both genders.

Hi Rebecca! We are so happy to be featuring you today! We read that while you have always been passionate about writing, you were actually a public defender at one time. What is it about writing for children that appeals to you?

Writing for children is pretty incredible: First of all, I’m free to write about things that interest me, to dive into big questions about how life works, and more importantly, why. When the story is going well, writing is more satisfying than any other work I’ve done. Second, the community of people in this field – readers, writers, editors, publishing staff, booksellers, teachers, librarians – is unfailingly warm and wonderful.  It’s always a privilege to write for a living, I believe. But to write for children is a privilege and a joy.

Judging by the homage you pay to her in When You Reach Me, you are obviously a huge Madeleine L’Engle fan. Which other authors did you enjoy reading as a child?

So many!  To name a handful: Judy Blume, Louise Fitzhugh, Norma Klein, James Herriot, Louise Meriwether, Robert Heinlein, Paula Danziger, and Sydney Taylor. I read all kinds of books, and was, as you can probably tell, a child of the 70′s.

How has winning the Newbery Award changed your life?

The Newbery has changed my life both irrevocably and not at all. It’s higher praise than I’d ever dared to dream about, and has brought me a lot of readers and invitations to travel, both of which are incredibly wonderful. Again, the word privilege comes to mind. But an award doesn’t change the experience of writing at all (or if it does change the experience, it certainly doesn’t make it easier!).

Have your children read any of your work?

Both of my sons have read my books, including Liar & Spy, which will be out in August. They have favorites (and unfavorites), but I’m not going to disclose them.  They’re 11 and 13, and have high privacy needs.

You have many young fans out there. Do you have any advice for budding young writers?

I’m afraid I have the usual advice, because it is the truth at the deep, deep bottom of my writing life: READ.  Also, don’t question your instinct to write, and don’t ask yourself whether your writing is any good.  Raw material is raw material -protect it, treasure it, and, when you have enough of it, use it to craft your story.  (Do not expect a gorgeous, well-crafted story to simply spill out of you – that happens for no one I know, and this comforts me.)

We are excited about your new book, Liar & Spy, coming out August 2012!  Can you tell us about it?

Liar & Spy is about Georges (pronounced “George”), a seventh-grader in Brooklyn who’s having a tough year: his best friend has ditched him, his dad got laid off, and his family had to sell their beloved house and move into a neighborhood apartment building. There, he meets a kid named Safer who quickly drafts Georges to help him spy on “Mr. X” in the apartment upstairs. At the bottom of all this is a not-so-simple question: what can Georges do to live the life he wants, instead of the one he has?

Thanks for joining us today, Rebecca! If you’d like to keep up with Rebecca and her books, visit her at her website. And don’t miss Liar & Spy, coming out in August. Join us tomorrow for a special StorySnoops retrospective :-)

What makes a reluctant reader so…reluctant?

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

In honor of Children’s Book Week, StorySnoops is hosting interviews with some of our friends in the literary world, as well as some of our own fun blogs celebrating this special week. Children’s Book Week is the national celebration of books and reading for youth. We hope you enjoy our special posts this week.

Today, we are featuring an interview with a reluctant reader to see what makes him tick.  This son of a StorySnoop volunteered himself for the job when we did a poll of our kids’ favorite reads and he scornfully said, “Mom, I don’t like to read.”  Duh.  So here’s a look inside the mind of one thirteen-year-old reluctant reader and what he is willing to read.  We hope it will give you some insights about your own reluctant reader.

What do you think makes you a reluctant reader?

If I feel like if there’s no suspense in a story or something I can relate to, I get immediately bored, which makes me want to read less.

I know you don’t enjoy reading but you do have to read for school.  So what do you look for in a book when you have to choose one?

The only books I like are books with suspense, books about surviving in the wilderness, and biographies or autobiographies.

What is it you like about each of these genres?

Suspense keeps me interested enough to keep reading.  With a story about survival, I can put myself in that position and see what it would be like.  I always read biographies or autobiographies about people I can relate to because I like to understand what they go through.

Is there something that a book has to do from the beginning to catch your attention?

Not necessarily.  What helps is if I’ve heard from others that don’t like to read very much that a book is good.

And it doesn’t help if your mom says it’s a good book?

Not at all because it’s usually not. (Ugh!)

What about graphic novels?  Do they appeal to you at all?

Not really because they usually don’t have the kind of plot that intensifies and keeps you hooked.

Do you care if a book is about a boy or a girl?

No.

If you had three books in front of you that you’ve heard nothing about, how do you choose between them?

I would first look at the title.  Then I would look at the blurb.  If the description matches what I look for in terms of the genre or topics, I flip it open to see how many pages it is and how big the lettering is.

So you wouldn’t just choose the shortest one?

No.  That’s just one factor in my decision.  I don’t really like it when there is a long exposition because the climax gets too long and then it gets boring.  It might enrich the story but the action and the telling of the main events is what holds my attention.

Since you say that you like to get recommendations from readers like you, what books would you recommend to other reluctant readers?

For people who enjoy suspense, I recommend The Hunger Games.  If you like survival stories, my favorite is My Side of the Mountain.  And if you’re into skateboarding, Dropping in with Andy Mac: The Life of a Pro Skateboarder is really good.

Thanks for joining us today! Come back tomorrow to read our interview with award-winning author Rebecca Stead, author of When You Reach Me.

Children’s Book Week, Day 2–meet Anne Ursu here at StorySnoops!

Monday, May 7th, 2012

In celebration of Children’s Book Week, StorySnoops is once again hosting interviews with some of our friends in the literary world. Children’s Book Week is the national celebration of books and reading for youth. We hope you enjoy our special posts this week.

Anne Ursu is the award-winning author of Breadcrumbs, a contemporary retelling of  The Snow Queen, and the three books in The Cronus Chronicles series—The Shadow Thieves, The Siren Song, and The Immortal Fire. She has also written two books for adult readers. Anne teaches at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children, and lives in Minneapolis with her young son.

Hi Anne, and thanks for joining us today.

We have heard a critic call your Breadcrumbs “hypnotizing”, and we can’t think of a better adjective to describe it. Did growing up in Minnesota help you paint such a dream-like and magical snowy world?

Thank you! I certainly did call on my childhood memories writing this book. I remember the feeling of waiting for the school bus standing in snow that rose above your boots. There’s so much character to winter in Minnesota—sometimes you have big fairy flakes, sometimes it’s ice pellets that assault your skin. I vividly remember walking around with my family after an ice storm and it was like the entire world had been encased in ice—perfectly frozen, perfectly still, like it was always going to be that way. So the whole book really is filled with the texture of those memories.

Of all the fairy tales written, what was it about The Snow Queen that made you want to write an updated version of it?

As soon as I read The Snow Queen I was struck by the story of the friendship that was torn apart overnight. It seemed to me to be about how growing up changes and ends friendships, and I immediately wanted to write about that, using contemporary kids but keeping the skeleton and flavor of the fairy tale.

Many characters in this story are attempting to avoid pain by escaping reality –  but they can’t feel happiness either. What inspired/prompted you to write about this theme?

That’s a very interesting question. At first, the story was about Hazel and her escapes—in her games with Jack, in her books. She’s struggling with reality and retreats into fantasy. And as she got into the woods, I found the people she encountered were all doing something similar—they choose escape, but suffer greatly as a result. I think it was important for Hazel to see that, to learn how to live in the world she has—and also for her to understand she can make a choice: numbness or reality and the joy and pain that comes with it. She figures out the real world is better—then it becomes her job to convince Jack.

Sometimes, you figure out what a book is about by writing it. I didn’t really set out to write about this theme; it just kept happening, and eventually I figured out how important it was to the story. So these ideas were ones I tried to bring out in revision.

This is a coming of age story about the inevitable pains that accompany growing up. What message do you want to convey about growing up?

I think as adults we have a tendency to want to protect our kids from any pain, to keep hard things from them, to pretend everything is always going to work out. Except growing up is tough, and part of growing up is becoming aware of the world and how hard it can be. And if we are so busy protecting our kids that we forget to keep them company in the pain and the hardship, we’re leaving them to go through it alone. And I think for Hazel, the book is about realizing how hard growing up can be, but also realizing that she’s up to it, and that these pains bring joys with them as well.

What do you have in the works? What can we look forward to reading from you next?

I have a short story coming out in the next Guys Read collection—Guys Read: The Sports Pages—and I’m just working on beginning a new book now. I’ve found that, after writing a book, it takes me a long time to get over it—I have the world and story and characters so much in my head I can’t even conceive of writing something else.

And from the girls of StorySnoops’ resident book club, the Green Oompa Loompas:

Hi Ms. Ursu! We thought your book was fantastic! It was suspenseful. We’re sure a lot of boys AND girls can relate to this book. We loved how you wrote realistic fiction at the beginning, and then put a whole bunch of fantasy the rest of the way. You described everything really well. We could seriously imagine everything you wrote about. This book is a work of art and we hope to read a lot more of your writing! Thank you for this story!

Thank you! I’m so happy you guys liked it.

We are exactly Hazel’s age and can relate to the changing and growing apart of friends, especially between boys and girls. Do you remember this happening to you when you were our age?

I do. My two best friends for much of elementary school were from the neighborhood, and one was a boy. But by fifth grade, I’d grown apart from both of them. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, like in the book, but so slowly you don’t really even notice until it’s happened. From fifth grade all through middle school my friendships shifted a lot—some of them did end overnight. And some of them were really painful.

In addition to The Snow Queen, we counted many other stories that are referenced in this book such as A Wrinkle In Time, The Little Match Girl, Harry Potter, When You Reach Me, The Golden Compass and many more.  Was this meant as a special treat for those of us who love children’s books?

Yes, that was certainly part of it. I really wanted kids who’d read these books to have that fun moment of recognition when they ran across the references, and I also wanted them to have that moment of connection with Hazel. But it was also really important to me that Hazel was a reader, especially of fantasy—that that’s really how she’d connect to and understand the world. Fantasy means escape for her—until she finds herself in one, that is.

Did the wolves symbolize anything? They kept popping up. Were they watching over Hazel? (We are dying to know!!)

Oh, the wolves! In the first draft of the book, they were there as menacing creatures, threats to Hazel, just like in a fairy tale. But as I rewrote the book, they changed, and became a watchful, even protective presence. Hazel goes into the woods thinking she can trust woodsmen and has to fear wolves, and learns that it’s quite the opposite. So they really symbolized the wildness and lawlessness of the world Hazel found herself in, that you can’t take anything at face value or believe anything you’ve told. I like to think that the wolves try to protect the kids who find themselves in there—they keep Hazel from the woodsman, try to keep her out of the village, and guide her to the Little Match Girl.

Once a young reader told me she thought the wolves were sent by Adelaide and Uncle Martin to watch over Hazel. I loved that.

Thank you so much for your time Ms. Ursu!  If you’d like to keep up with Anne and her latest work, you can visit her on her website. Tomorrow, please join us at StorySnoops.com for an exposé with every literary-minded adult’s favorite challenge: The Reluctant Reader!

It’s Children’s Book Week–we kick it off with our kids’ favorite reads

Monday, May 7th, 2012

In honor of Children’s Book Week, StorySnoops is hosting interviews with some of our friends in the literary world, as well as some of our own fun blogs celebrating this special week. Children’s Book Week is the national celebration of books and reading for youth. We hope you enjoy our special posts this week.

We come up with lists of our favorite books all the time, but we thought we’d switch it up this time and ask the kids. As our regular readers may know, the StorySnoops gang has nine kids between us, ranging in age from 9-16, all of whom fall at different places on the “love to read (or not!)” spectrum. It was a fun exercise, and we got several different types of responses, along with the obligatory eye rolls required of any good teenager. As expected, some answered quickly, no pondering or debating required. Others had trouble narrowing it down, and had to be encouraged to just pick two. Best answer? “I don’t like books.” Ha! Come back on Wednesday to hear more from that Reluctant Reader :-)

But moving right along, here are the books that rate the highest with our gang. In the case of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, the kids who picked those liked the entire series. What about your gang? What are their favorites?

Thanks for joining us today. Hope you’ll come back this week for interviews with two authors we love, Anne Ursu and Rebecca Stead, as well as a grand exposé on that not-so-rare creature we all know: The Reluctant Reader!

-The Snoops