Author: Melissa

I am a K-8 librarian at a San Francisco independent school. I review books for the Northern California Association of Children's Librarians and lead a kids graphic novel book group. I am currently a student at San Jose pursuing a Masters in library science.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia

Jacket-6• Grade Range: 6th-adult
• Narrative nonfiction
• Author: Candace Fleming
• Title: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
• Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books
• 2014
• 292 pages.
• ISBN: 9780375867828
• Awards: Sibert Honor,YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist
• Author’s website: http://www.candacefleming.com/

 

Book trailer for The Family Romanov

Nicholas the second was born into a role of absolute power. He controlled the fate of a sixth of the world’s landmass, had 130 million subjects and was the richest man in the world.

He was a very ordinary man, lonely as a boy, fond of his family, secure in his right to rule who through his sins and omissions caused streets to run with blood, destroyed a thousand years of tradition and, arguably, caused the death of those he most loved.

Candace Fleming does a brilliant job weaving together private letters, historic documents and first person accounts to make intelligible and riveting the unbelievably tragic history of the fall of the Russian Empire. To her credit Fleming covers much more than the lurid side of the story: the lecherous monk, the massacre of innocent children, the astonishing wealth. She delves into the political and economic reasons behind the revolution and provides cultural context. Page-turning revelations about the depth of the Tsar’s anti-semitism, his catastrophic mismanagement of the war effort and the sweet banality of his domestic arrangements form a riveting and chilling whole. This is an unforgettable tour de force and a superb read for anyone age 12 to adult.

Zero Fade

Jacket• Grade Range: 7th-adult
• Humor/Coming of age
• Author: Chris L. Terry
• Title: Zero Fade
• Publisher: Curbside Splendor Publishing
• 2013
• 295 pages.
• ISBN: 9780988480438
• Awards: In the Margins top 25, Best of 2013 lists-Kirkus & Slate.com
• Author’s website: http://www.chrislterry.com/

 

It is the mid 90’s in inner city Richmond and Kevin is in 7th grade. For nine days in April so are we. It’s Saturday morning and Kevin is getting a haircut in the basement from his Mama when what he really wants is a sick fade and a chance to spend Saturday with someone fine, like orange-haired Aisha. While his dad is no longer around, Kevin has a tight family, a mom going to school and holding a job, an older sister Laura and an admired uncle Paul: his mom’s baby brother. While Kevin narrates most chapters, Paul gets a turn too. He’s gay and he knows it’s time to tell his nephew; problem is his nephew: pining to be cool, desperate to get with a girl and a fan of Eddie Murphy’s gay bashing humor, doesn’t seem ready to hear what he has to say. Add into the mix Kevin’s inability to control his smart mouth, getting grounded, a classic bully, the nastiness of his mother getting a date before he does and an ill-advised adventure with his sister, and Kevin has a full week.

There are a ton of fabulous 2014 books I plan to add to this blog, but as I peruse the best of 2014 lists I can’t forget some of my favorites from last year. Every once in awhile I come across a book I just adore that doesn’t seem to get traction in the press. In many ways those are the books I most want to feature here-genuinely fantastic books you might miss and which deserve to be widely read

In Zero Fade Terry has written a hilariously funny, honest, warm and believable YA novel that easily crosses over with adults. It is a rare book that manages to make the YouthLibraries.org In the Margins award list of “the best books for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody – or a cycle of all three” and win over a diverse range of folk on Goodreads: from self identified ‘old ladies’ to those who don’t even like YA. The novel comes across as genuine, surprising and very recognizable, which is fabulous for kids who share Kevin’s ethnicity and or background, but equally fabulous for those who don’t.  Consider this apt perspective from 13 year-old Kevin: “crying in school is like peeing yourself. It feels good to get it out, but you wind up with a bigger problem.”

Thank heavens Kevin is a winningly imperfect teen, with virtually nothing figured out. He fantasizes about being a stand up comic and wonders “[w]hat about my life would be funny later? Not getting any? No cable?” The book is packed with vernacular language, fresh observation and a complete lack of didacticism. When his uncle Paul gives him some good advice: “I mean, just keep doing your thing. There’s always gonna be someone wanna say something, so just do you.” Kevin rightly thinks “[b]ut I’ve been doing me and it ain’t working.” What teen hasn’t had this response to a well meaning adult advising them to “be yourself.”

What I love about Zero Fade is it’s strong sense of ethnicity and place. It deals with substantive issues. It is frank. It is also very, very funny, very human and very relatable. If I can get a single seventh grader to read it I am convinced I’ll get half the class. Likely this won’t be without controversy as there is occasional talk of titties and masturbation and lots of language inappropriate to school. I wonder if this is why this first novel by Terry didn’t win the Coretta Scott King John Steptoe award for new talent. Never the less I am convinced this exactly the kind of multicultural literature we need for kids, both for those who see Kevin in their reflection and for those who see Kevin in themselves on reflection.

Sons of the 613

Jacket-1• Grade Range: 7th-high school
• Humor/Coming of age
• Author: Michael Rubens
• Title: Sons of the 613
• Publisher: Clarion
• 2012
• 320 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0547612164
• Awards: selected by Kirkus, YALSA and VOYA as one of the best books of the year.
• Author’s website:http://www.michaelrubens.com

 

Sons of the 613 opens with a Bar Mitzvah-fail of epic proportions. Isaac, aghast in the audience and three weeks away from his own Bar Mitzvah, knows he’s in “terrible, terrible, terrible trouble.’ He has concealed the fact that for the past many months his Hebrew tutor has never shown up. His determination to come clean to his parents is stymied when they leave town and put his brother Josh in charge. Six foot three, 245 pounds of muscle, sporting a skull and crossbones yarmulke and a tattoo that testifies to his obedience to the 613 commandments in the Tanakh, twenty-year old Josh has his own ideas about what Isaac needs to learn to become a man. So begins an epic, hilarious and touching quest.

Isaac’s rite of passage is filled with outrageous comedy, boatloads of adolescent shame and angst, bar fights, strip clubs, double-dares and growing maturity. There is much that might offend, but Rubens, in his YA debut, uses the comic skills he employed producing the Daily Show to keep the plot moving and Isaac self-deprecatingly aware of his mistakes. Isaac’s maturation process is messy, painful, decidedly not parent-approved, occasionally too cinematic, and sure to delight teen readers. This book is rarely on the shelves of the library and it is one of the titles that frequently walks, precisely because it appeals to the kids who are not the typical, compliant library users; there in lies it’s charm and power. Kids are constantly looking for the information they know they need as they hurtle through adolescence. While there are many fabulous books in our K-8 library, there are not a lot-maybe no others- that speak so directly to the actual concerns of teen-age boys.

 

 

Doll Bones

Jacket• Grade Range: 5th-8th
• Mystery/Coming of age
• Author: Holly Black and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
• Title: Doll Bones
• Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
• 2013
• 247 pages.
• ISBN: 9781416963981
• Awards: Newbery Honor, Carnegie medal in literature nominee
• Author’s website: http://blackholly.com/

 

Zach, Alice and Poppy have been friends for years. Their imaginary adventure game has evolved as each kid contributes plot and action ideas and creates their doll or action figure’s roles. As they enter adolescence all three are aware of the strains conformist expectations place on their unconventional cross-gender friendship and make-believe play, but it is only when Zachary’s father inserts himself into the game that a rift is created. Poppy’s effort to mount one last adventure leads the three into an ambitious and eerie quest to lay to rest a troubled spirit trapped inside a spooky, and possibly malevolent, bone china doll.

We have a joke in our library, especially when weeding, that ‘destined to be a classic’ means ‘never will be read.’ Doll Bones with its strong writing, appealing characters and astute feel for the pain and anger engendered by letting go of childhood, may be the exception that proves the rule. Like all great thrillers it magnifies the psychological pull of ordinary feelings and exposes just what we hope never to openly acknowledge. Zach’s growth, sports prowess and meddling dad push him unwillingly into tweendom. His impotent anger at being forced to let go of something that still matters to him causes him to imitate the dad whose behavior he so despises; he buries his feelings and flees, convincing himself that “growing up means most stories turn out to be lies.” The friends’ struggle-to keep some honesty alive in their relationship, combined with the ghost doll’s creepy influence, push Zach, Alice and Poppy past childlike dependence into an awareness of the freedom that comes from taking responsibility for their beliefs.

While many reviews and most trailers, including mine, focus on the spooky elements, the book’s strength and heart are really about friendship and growing up. This is a smart, timeless story.

Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein

Jacket-4• Grade Range: 6th-adult
• Horror/Graphic Novel
• Author: Mary Shelley-edited and illustrated by Gris Grimly
• Title: Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein
• Publisher: Balzar + Bray
• 2013
• 208 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0061862977
• Awards: None known.
• Author’s website & blogs: http://www.madcreator.com http://grisgrimlysfrankenstein.blogspot.com/ http://grisgrimly.blogspot.com/

 

 

A philosopher’s stone, an elixir of life, visions of immortality and power: Victor Frankenstein had wildly unrealistic dreams. When studying at University he acquires the tools to penetrate the mysteries of the human body and becomes obsessed. Toiling among the unhallowed damps of the grave he attempts to create a living being: a filthy creation spawned by the charnel house and the dissecting room. His success plunges him into a nightmare of sublime torment and tragedy he struggles to escape.

Gris Grimly’s witty, dark, romantic, illustrations create a gateway into Marry Shelley’s odd tale, which she wrote at eighteen, on a bet, almost two hundred years ago. Grimly has always felt that monster fans are divided into two teams: Team Dracula and Team Frankenstein. Grimly, rebellious and misunderstood has always been on Team Frankenstein.

The ink and watercolor illustrations, in a dour and subtle palette, channel a Gothic sensibility. Grimly’s characteristic style combines both steam-punk and organic monstrosities, resulting in images that are horrifying, humorous and beautiful. His renderings imbue Frankenstein-never a sympathetic character-with a quirky pathos. Grimly has abridged Shelley’s text but preserved her original language. His graphic novel adaptation re-envisions Frankenstein, making it accessible to a new generation.

A graphic novel book group I teach read Grimly’s Frankenstein last year. The illustrations were admired, but it was only this year that the story really seemed to grab them. Several of the boys, now in eighth grade, have read and re-read it and two went so far as to create an excellent book trailer-see above. I continue to be impressed with how excellent illustrations can leverage the power of text, propelling a book from good to great and allowing readers to connect to ideas on multiple levels.

 

West of the Moon

Jacket-3• Historical folk/fantasy fiction
• Age Range: Grades 5-9
• Author: Margi Preus
• Title: West of the Moon
• Publisher: New York: Amulet
• 04/2014
• 288 pages.
• ISBN: 978-1-4197-0896-1
• Awards: None yet, though this is my pick for the Newbery.

When thirteen year-old Astri’s Aunt trades her to an old humpbacked goat herder for two silver pieces and a goat haunch, Astri vows to be stronger and meaner than he is, so that she can survive her servitude, rescue her younger sister Greta from her aunt and emigrate to America to reunite with their father.

Preus’s masterful novel weaves together Norwegian folktales and a powerful story of a young girl’s heroic determination to do more than survive. Astri is a storyteller in a culture rife with superstition; chapters often begin with legends that parallel and inform the action. Equally as successful as Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little Brown, 2009), this tale is darker and more mature.

Though Astri tells stories of rescue and transformation to comfort herself and others, she is very aware that if anyone is going to do any rescuing, it is going to have to be her. The decisions she makes to survive come to haunt her and she struggles to reconcile herself to desperate actions. Fast paced, vibrant, and gripping: Preus has created an enthralling, unflinching and unforgettable story inspired by a passage from her great-great grandmother’s diary. Reviewed from an ARC.

Secrets of the Ancient Gods

       Jacket         Jacket-1

  • History related title
  • Age Range: Grades 4th-6th
  • Author: Vicky Alvear Schecter
  • Series Title: Secrets of the Ancient Gods
  • Publisher: Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press 
  • 10/2013 & 9/2014
  • 116 and 128 pages respectively.
  • ISBNs: 978-1-59078-995-7 & 978-1-62091-598-1
  • Awards: Anubis Speaks was a Cybils finalist.

Anubis clearly loves his job; being worshiped and getting to toss still beating hearts to the crocodile-headed Amut the Destroyer, what could be better? In this chatty, behind-the-scenes tour, the jackal-headed god of the underworld guides readers through an epic nightly battle, as Egyptian Gods fight against the forces of darkness and evil to ensure the sun god Ra is reborn: rising anew with the dawn.

Schecter does a remarkable job of making the complicated iconography of Egyptian mythology both clear and memorable, without dumbing-it-down. Convivial, yet menacing, Anubis orients readers with the Egyptian creation myth and then gets down to the really gross stuff. In between the blood, guts and snakes he manages to convey lots of accurate, precise, nuanced and compelling information about Egyptian practices and beliefs, making Anubis Speaks both an excellent curricular resource and a fun recreational read. Cleverly, a caution at the beginning warns of alarming content while simultaneously functioning as a source-note. An index, glossary, guide to Gods and Demons encountered, and an extensive list of sources, establish nonfiction bona fides – making this an auspicious beginning to the new Secrets of the Ancient Gods series.

Schecter follows her excellent Anubis Speaks (BMP, 2013) with a tour of the Greek and Roman underworld designed to creep you out. Long before Voldemort there was an original ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’: Hades. And, if you dare, he is here to take you on a personal tour of his dark realm.  Hades may have a chip on his shoulder about being the least known and worshiped of his brothers: Zeus and Poseidon, but he definitely has the best stories to tell, and as Larson’s pen and ink illustrations show, a personal-style rock stars would die for.

Readers will be both entertained and come away with a smattering of knowledge about the greats of the Greek and Roman world. And to balance out the Plato and Aristotle, who can resist knowing which hero left half his rear-end stuck to the Throne of Forgetfulness? A Guide to Gods and Heroes, an extensive glossary, a thorough bibliography that includes web sources, and an index establish the scholarly bona fides. Sure to please reluctant readers and fans of Percy Jackson.

 

The Tarantula Scientist

Jacket• Grade Range: 5th-10th
• Science related title
• Author: Sy Montgomery, Photographs by Nic Bishop
• Title: The Tarantula Scientist
• Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.
• 2004
• 80 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-618-14799-3
Awards: 2005 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book~2004 School Library Journal, Best Books of the Year~2005 Texas Bluebonnet Award~2004 John Burroughs Honor List of Nature Books for Children~2005 National Science Teachers Association and Children’s Book Council~Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children. The book received the further distinction of being noted as a “Selector’s Choice” among these outstanding works for children.~2005 Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts~2005 Voice of Youth Advocates Nonfiction Honor List consider the top books of the year.
• Author’s website: http://symontgomery.com

In another excellent offering in the Scientist in the Field series, Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop team up and follow arachnologist Sam Marshall into the rainforest of French Guiana to discover more about tarantulas. The largest of spiders, with a life span of over 30 years, the tarantula is a lot less scary and a lot stranger than you might imagine. They smell with their feet, taste with the hairs on their legs and have their stomach in their head. Tarantulas are the dinosaurs of the spider clan and have been around since before the super-continent Gondwanaland broke up.

Sam Marshall’s infectious fascination with these intriguing creatures comes through clearly. As in the others in the series we learn of break-through discoveries he has made and are introduced to two of his young students back at Hiram College in Ohio, doing their own research in the spider-lab. Marshall and Montgomery make clear science isn’t a body of knowledge, it is a process: as simple as asking a question and then answering it and there are plenty of questions to ask. Very little is known about even glamorous species, such as the Goliath birdeater much less the estimated 70-100 thousand spiders science hasn’t even named yet. This is an excellent offering that reveals how close and accessible the frontier of science really is.

Front matter includes a map of the South American area of study. Back matter updates Sam Marshall’s whereabouts, advises how to handle-or better yet avoid handling tarantulas, guides those who think they might want a tarantula as a pet, offers intriguing spider stats, provides a glossary, a selected bibliography and web resources, discusses research methodology and acknowledges help, and provides contact information for the lodge in French Guiana.

Journey Into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Creatures

Jacket-9• Grade Range: 5th-8th
• Science related title
• Rebecca L. Johnson
• Title: Journey Into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Creatures
• Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press
• 2011
• 64 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-7613-4148-2
• Awards: Benjamin Franklin Award~Orbis Pictus Award~Junior Library Guild Selection~Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books~Society of School Librarians International Book Award~Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year~VOYA Nonfiction Honor List~National Science Teachers Association Recommended
• Author’s website: http://www.rebeccajohnsonbooks.com

In 2000 scientists from around the world set out on the largest ocean exploration in history: a ten-year quest to systematically learn more about the ocean and everything that lives in it. Johnson takes the reader along on the Census of Marine Life, as scientists explore all areas of the sea and find thousands of remarkable animals never seen before.

Amazing, jaw-dropping photographs grab attention and are backed up by engaging lucid text that describes the science behind the survey and tells some of what was learned. The book is very well designed, with sidebars, boxed inserts, charts and hundreds of photographs breaking up the text into digestible chunks. Johnson writes in the second person so the reader is placed at the center of the exploration: scrunched inside a submersible or helping to sift through the dredged muck for creatures new to science.

The book is divided into chapters based on the area of the ocean explored: abyssal plains, ridges and vents, shallow edges, etc. The chapters open with a clear graphics that place the survey on the globe and show at what depth we are exploring. Johnson provides clear context: we know what questions we are trying to answer and share the excitement as she describes, blow by blow, the thrill of discovery. Quotes from scientists provide insight and contribute to the reader’s sense of being along on the exploration. However, it is the animals that steal the show. Just the names of the new creatures inspire interest: ping pong tree sponge, sea butterfly, zombie worms, bubblegum coral, Dumbo octopus: that can turn inside out, spiral poo worm, Venus flytrap anemone: that excretes bioluminescent slime, Yeti crab, and the barreleye fish: that has a see-through head.

The final chapter reemphasizes the fragility of the sea and the threats against it: pollution, trawling and climate change. Simple steps to help protect the world’s oceans are offered.

Children love knowing things adults don’t, and this book is full of astonishing animals and facts that are new. Not so long ago we assumed light and warmth were necessary for life. That idea is put paid by pink sea slugs, 2000 feet below the surface, eating bacteria that feed on frozen orangesicle-colored methane gas. We now know there are rubbery, un-crushable fish that live in the deepest trenches: nearly seven miles below the surface. In previous centuries it was understood that the ocean was the real frontier. With an estimated 10-50 million more species waiting to be discovered and only five percent of the ocean explored, Johnson encourages us to, once again, recognize that the greatest area for exploration in the universe is in our ocean.

Front Matter: Includes Acknowledgments and Contents. A Foreword establishes the diversity and unexplored nature of the sea. A Prologue introduces us to a massive, meaty jellyfish “wide as a doorway and the color of a bad bruise” and goes on to outline the methodology and objectives of the census. A side bar explains scientific classification.

Back Matter: Thumbnail photos and brief biographies put faces and qualifications to Scientists quoted in the book. A Glossary defines scientific terms and equipment. Source Notes identify quotes. A Selected Bibliography includes a few books and ten websites. A Learn More page offers more annotated websites, books, videos and DVDs for further research. An Index and Photo Acknowledgments conclude the book.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

Jacket-5• Grade Range: 6th-adult
• Adventure related title
• Author: Jennifer Armstrong
• Title: Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World
• Publisher: New York, Crown
• 1998
• 134 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-375-40403-1
• Awards: 1999 Orbis Pictus winner ~1999 Boston Globe Horn Book Honor in nonfiction~ALA Best Book for YAs~1999 Riverbank Review Children’s Books of Distinction
• Author’s website: http://www.jennifer-armstrong.com/

In 1914, at the dawn of World War I, Ernest Shackleton was one of the most famous and most famously disappointed explores in the world. He had just missed being the first to reach the South Pole. Three years after that historic event he and twenty-seven men set sail for Antarctica, intent on being the first to cross the continent. An unusually cold Antarctic summer thwarted their hopes and tested their endurance, ingenuity and bravery beyond the bounds of human imagination.

Armstrong frames this remarkable story with appropriate and relevant historic, factual and scientific information. In a few economic paragraphs readers learn structurally why Antarctica is the most hostile place on earth and why it is also one of the most fertile ecosystems in the world. Armstrong incorporates a multitude of quotes, primary documents and stunning archival photographs, painting a vivid picture of a truly astonishing adventure. From the point at which the ice crushes Shackleton’s ship the story becomes extremely gripping. The pace of disasters and escapes surpasses the best of Indiana Jones or the Die Hard franchise and the reader can’t turn the pages fast enough.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World is more suitable to a slightly younger reader than the previously reviewed The Endurance. Armstrong doesn’t rely as heavily on journal entries and summarizes points Alexander makes through multiple examples. Armstrong focuses on the dramatic moments, and there are many, and her writing is slightly more lyrical in her descriptions of wildlife. She doesn’t focus as much on the personal relationships among the crew: avoiding their dislikes, making this book better suited for a reader who wants the facts, the adventure and the hardships without as much in-depth information on the characters. In both books Shackleton’s leadership comes through and the reader is left amazed at what humans can endure and overcome. Particularly intriguing is the moment where the normally cautious Shackleton risks all on a slide down a mountain into the unknown. Using dialogue, Armstrong lets readers watch as the unthinkable becomes the only possible choice.

There are two other topics missing from Armstrong’s book that are included by Alexander: Hurley’s fudged photograph-Saved and the singular unhelpfulness of the British in the final rescue effort. We learn in Alexander’s book that Hurley deliberately removed The James Caird: the boat the six men sailed to South Georgia island in, from an image taken as the men wave good luck to the departing rescuers. On the lecture circuit Hurley and Shackleton represented the doctored photo as capturing the moment the men see a boat returning to rescue them, duplicitously titling the image Saved. Armstrong includes the photo with its misleading title as if it actually did show the rescue. Armstrong also avoids going into detail about Shakleton’s struggles to find a boat and return to his marooned men. In the midst of a war the British were indifferent to their plight and Shackleton had to rely on Chileans and Argentines to effect a rescue. Both omissions simplify the ending.

Front matter: A photograph of the Endurance stuck in the ice is on the title page. A Contents page is followed by a labeled photograph of most of the crew at the outset of the journey. All the members of the team: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, are listed on the facing page. Two pages of original drawings and plans of the Endurance are included as is a map of Antarctica and a close up map of Shackleton’s journey. Perhaps the best epigram of all time wraps up the front matter: “For scientific discovery, give me Scott. For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” Apsley Cherry-Garrand, polar explorer, 1922.

Back Matter: A brief Epilogue mentions that most of the men joined the war after their return and some were killed in action. Shackleton’s time during the war and final journey to South Georgia Island are discussed and his death and burial on the island is briefly described. A verse from one of Shackleton’s favorite school songs ends the Epilogue. Acknowledgements note the most useful materials and assistance in the writing of the book. A bibliography is divided roughly by topic: Antarctica, Shackleton, and Periodicals. An index and brief author biography conclude the book.