Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Some little boys want a family dog, some parents don’t want a family dog. Hal Fenton is one of those boys who desperately wants a dog for a birthday present, but his wealthy parents Donald and Albina do not want one. To pacify their son they rent a dog for the weekend; the Easy Pets Dog Agency in London is just the place. Myron and Mavis Carker, owners of the agency, do it for profit, not for the love of dogs. Kayley is the kind teenage caretaker of the dogs. Kayley finds a mongrel, brings it to the agency, and names him Fleck, and pronounces him a rare breed: a “Tottenham” terrier. The Fentons rent Fleck for the weekend. Fleck and Hal are inseparable, that is, until Albina returns Fleck.
Let the adventure begin! Hal and his pal kidnap the dogs at the agency and begin a journey to his grandparents home near the coast of England, all the while being pursued for the tremendous reward offered by Hal’s parents. The delightful story of Fleck, Otto, the St. Bernard, Li-Chee, the Pekinese, Francine, the poodle, Honey, the rough-haired collie, and even Queen Tilly, the Mexican hairless, is both harrowing and heart-warming. Do they make it to their destination? Read it and find out!
This is the last book written by Eva Ibbotson who passed away in October 2010 at the age of 85.
One Dog and His Boy
This book is the story of Sam Lewis and the events that unfold during the 33 Minutes until Morgan Sturtz kicks his butt at recess (and then around 60 more minutes of aftermath). The author speaks directly to his tween audience, and gets it right. The voice of middle school is heard loud and clear over food fights, fire alarms and friendships. It’s funny, fast paced, heart-warming and breaking all at once. It’s the perfect book to recommend to kids that are starting to outgrow the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. The lessons in 33 Minutes on friendship and staying true to one’s self will stick with the reader long after the worst day of Sam’s life and his middle school years have passed. I think it would be awesome to have a teacher like Ms. Z who can say: “This sucks….Wait. Be patient. You’re not going to be here forever. And in the meantime, even though you and this place don’t fit together so great all the time, be you.” Now, a sigh of relief from me that middle school has passed and that authors like Todd Hasak-Lowy are writing realistic books for tweens to read during the transition of middle school. Meet Todd at Bookbug in Kalamazoo on May 5 at 4 pm!
“The suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth,” sang Geddy Lee, lead singer of my favorite band Rush when I was a teenager growing up in a Chicago suburb. This is not the case in Shaun Tan’s book of mini-surreal masterpieces, Tales From Outer Suburbia. In these suburbs, there is a water buffalo that answers questions in an empty lot, a dugong (manatee type creature) that appears on someone’s lawn, ICBMs in everyone’s backyard, and a man wandering around in a diving suit.
I found the stories from Tales From Outer Suburbia to be a little too bizarre at first, but my compulsion to finish books that I’ve started carried me through until I slowly became enchanted. The stories feature physical manifestations of the hopes and fears of the people who live in these suburbs and they wove their way into my psyche and released strong feelings of wonder, healing, and letting go. The strange story lines somehow open you up and leave you thinking about them long after you have read them.
I especially identified with a story about two brothers who have a map of their suburb and decide to walk to where the map ends to see what is there. It reminded me of a 10 mile hike my brother and I took to complete the hiking merit badge. We weren’t going to get “out in nature” anytime soon, so we just decided to walk around our Chicago suburb (which, oddly enough, included a stop at the public library to pick up some 8mm films). The experience did have a surreal feeling and it completely changed the way I felt about where I lived. Walking gives you such an intimate connection with your surroundings and it empowered me, as I went to places I had only gone with my parents up to that point.
I was so struck by the book that I asked my son if I could read him the extremely short stories before he went to bed. He agreed and loved the stories and I got to have the nice experience of reading aloud to him that I hadn’t had in several years and to talk a little bit about what it is like to have an older brother who is always right.
Tale From Outer Suburbia
Every time I stumble across a book like Kathleen O'Dell's The Aviary, I'm amazed that more readers - of all ages - don't read middle grade. The Aviary is very Gothic in setting and tone and simultaneously bursting with colorful characters, a unique combination. There are secrets and magic, plus a good dose of realism and a lesson or two as well. It actually reminded me a bit of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
The main character, Clara, is a delightful character: headstrong, adventurous, and incurably curious. I would have enjoyed The Aviary based solely on the premise and setting, but Clara made me love it. Her curiosity was engaging and infectious, ensuring that the reader was never plagued by a dull moment or stale passage, simply because Clara herself was always plotting her next move and going off on some adventure.
Since The Aviary is in many respects a mystery, there are many great elements I feel I can't really comment on in much depth. I can, however, say that every detail in The Aviary comes together quite elegantly and I was left completely satisfied by the ending. I spent much of the novel hypothesizing about how everything fit together... I liked that the mystery wasn't ridiculously easy to solve, but all the pieces of the puzzle were there, waiting to be put together by the reader and the intrepid Clara.
The Aviary is one of wonderful titles that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. It is, plain and simple, a wonderfully written and imagined novel and didn't feel at all confined to one specific reading level. It could easily be a read for the whole family and will appeal to those who usually read young adult or adult titles.
Crows have glossy black feathers with glints of dark blue and purple. Their life span usually ranges from 9 to12 years. Like humans, they can pretty much adapt to a variety of habitats, eating just about anything that their bodies can digest. Crows are highly social and enjoy traveling in groups. They can mimic various sounds and have a highly specialized and evolved language of communication. A flock of crows is called a “murder.” Although worldwide there are 45 different crow species, the ones most commonly seen in Michigan is the American or common crow.
Crows can be noisy, nosy, and downright annoying at times. Because of their raucous tendencies, some people don’t like them very much, and most farmers tend to lump them into the pest category of animals since they are inclined to dine on their crops. On the other hand, crows have also been proven to be beneficial in farm settings since they consume many insect pests that can ruin a harvest.
I’ve always been intrigued and fascinated by these highly intelligent, comical, and mischievous birds. When my husband and I walk around KVCC’s Texas Township campus, we usually see and hear numerous crows. They tend to hang out in small mobs, idling on and around lamp posts or sauntering along the parking lots and fields; forever on the lookout for a scavenging opportunity. They don’t have to look far since college students throw away lots of fast food offerings such as fries or buns, making the entire site an ever changing smorgasbord. The garbage bins seem especially suited for quick crow take-out buffet dining, and we’ve been amused many times by crow dumpster divers in search of their next snack.
As the Crow Flies is a new children’s picture book that was published in December, 2012. It was written by Sheila Keenan and illustrated handsomely by Kevin Duggan, an experienced nature painter. It beautifully captures and celebrates crows and their world in rhyming verse:
“All day long you’re on the go.
You don’t have time to watch a crow.
But we’re here ...and here... and there.
We poke our beaks in everywhere.”
Just a few weeks ago, I also happened to watch a very well made PBS program, originally filmed in 2010, entitled A Murder of Crows, a part of their “Nature” series. It was enlightening, entertaining and made me especially aware of these birds’ high level of intelligence, as evidenced by the fact that they can manufacture and use tools to solve problems.
And since I was on this crow kick anyway, I also read the “J” non-fiction book, Crows: Strange and Wonderful by Laurence Pringle with illustrations by Bob Marshall, who are both popularly known wildlife advocates.
So the next time you are out and about, listen for the familiar “Caw, caw,, watch for streaks of black wing, and you might be fortunate enough to see crows in an entirely different, more appreciative way.
Crows and humans; we are so different, yet so alike!
As the Crow Flies
At the beginning of The Chamber in the Sky, the fourth and
final book in the Norembugan quartet, Brian and Gregory are lucky to be alive.
The Thusser horde have already colonized the minds of the inhabitants of the
Vermont subdivision where it all began after The Game of Sunken Places. Brian
and Gregory, along with their blue-blooded elfin companion Gwynyfer have to
find a travelling chamber that contains the off switch to the centuries-long
game if they hope to make it back to Vermont. M.T. Anderson is a fine
storyteller and funny. What a unique blend of laugh out loud moments along with
genuinely thrilling plot twists and turns. The four-part series will probably be
most enjoyed by 10 and ups.
The Chamber in the Sky
The summer of 1962 in a small town Norvelt, PA is off to an iffy start for 11 year old Jack in Dead End in Norvelt. He accidentally fires off his father’s World War II Japanese rifle, and, Jack’s mother “grounds him for life” (or at least the summer.) The one exception to his not leaving the house is to help Miss Volker, whose arthritic hands make it impossible for her to type the newspaper obituaries. She can’t drive, either, so she gives Jack driving lessons and with Jack at the wheel, they careen around town trying to discover if a Hell’s Angel really put a curse on the town, or if the Girl Scout cookies are laced with rat poison. Eccentric and colorful characters abound in this book. It also provides a glimpse into actual historical events, an added plus. (There really was a town called Norvelt, created by Eleanor Roosevelt, and based on communal land ownership.)
A wonderfully readable book with non-stop action for older children, Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Award for 2012. It joins a long list of other great titles by popular author Jack Gantos, including the Joey Pigza chapter book series and the Rotten Ralph picture books.
Dead End in Norvelt
Drumming, by Ian Adams, is a good introduction to playing drum set. This new nonfiction title for beginning drummers shows the different kinds of equipment used to get started playing the drums along with good advice on safe drumming (ear plugs) and finding a teacher. An explanation of musical notation specific to drums, grooves and styles, inspiring highlights on influential rhythmic creators like Stewart Copeland, Cindy Blackman, and DJ Afrika Bambaataa plus great images of drummers from a wide variety of musical genres make this a great read for upper elementary, middle school, and teen readers.
Most of the time I’m waiting for one book or another to come out. Knowing forthcoming publication dates is part of this profession but I think I’d be this way regardless. Most of the time, I think the anticipation is fun and I even add reminders to my online calendar so that I don’t forget to put the book on hold.
The hardest part of reading a good series is waiting for the next book. Sometimes I’m so anxious to read it, I have to work hard to distract myself with other good books. Other times I forget about a series for awhile and then am pleasantly surprised when a new book comes out. A few times in my life, I’ve purposely waited until the whole series was available before reading because I just new it would be so good that I’d want to read it all at once. It’s hard to avoid spoilers but it’s pretty great to not have to wait for the next book. I read the Harry Potter series this way, start to finish. That was a great two weeks!
Early 2012 seemed to be a busy reading time for me with new additions to some of my favorite series for children and teens coming out. I really enjoyed Trenton Lee Stewart’s new book, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, a companion to his Mysterious Benedict Society series. This series is great for elementary aged kids but I know a fair number of adults who like it too. I think it’d be great for reading as a family or listening to on a road trip. Suspenseful and touching with lots of mystery and problem-solving. Funny, engaging characters. This latest book was easily my favorite of all four.
Now I’m moving on to Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore. It’s a companion book to “Graceling” and “Fire” and I’m hoping it’s just as wonderful. I've been waiting a long time to read more about Bitterblue, Po, and Katsa!
So what books are you marking your calendar for? Anything I should be looking out for too?
Sally May Harrison is a slave. Pa learns that Master is planning to sell her and her brother, Abraham, so Pa plans for the whole family to run away from the plantation. They encounter many terrors and tragedy en route. Ultimately, Sally’s family finds and lives with a tribe of Seminole people.
I was moved by the poetry at the beginning of each chapter of My Name is Sally Little Song, by Brenda Woods. Sally makes up songs, like her Mama taught her to do. With very few words, her songs capture the essence of what she and her family experience.
Pa tells the family they are leaving “day after t’morrow afore sunrise,” and to keep it a secret…”send no one a farewell look with your eyes.” The following chapter starts with:
“Gotta look down
Into the dirt all day
Or my brown eyes
Is sure to give us away”
Sally’s family travels at night, in hopes of escaping notice. When they get to swampland, her poem both describes the feeling in the swamp and foreshadows danger:
Beneath my feet
Night bugs fly
Woods is the author of a 2003 Coretta Scott King Honor book, The Red Rose Box.
My Name is Sally Little Song