Book Review: Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

Bigger than a Bread BoxBigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Only people who don’t know seagulls think they’re prefect and pretty – all white and soaring and dipping and everything.

Rebecca’s parents haven’t been getting along too well for a while now. Still, it’s a shock when her mother suddenly packs her and her two-year-old brother Lew into the car and takes them to Gran’s house in Atlanta. There, in the attic, Rebecca finds a bread box that has the power to grant any wish… as long as the wish is something that can fit in the box. Money, an iPod, and a Baltimore seagull are all things the box can give her. But what she really wants is to go home and be a family again.

At twelve years old, Rebecca is old enough to know that things aren’t good between her parents, but still young enough to try to wish them into happiness. Besides her ruptured home life, she also has to deal with being the new girl in school. She wants to be a good kid and do the right thing, but she is just a kid, and sometimes she messes up. Sometimes, she even makes things worse by trying to make them better.

Snyder deftly blends the all-too-familiar reality of separating parents and middle school mean girls with the fantastic bread box. Although clever readers might pick up on the problem with the box well before Rebecca does, this is a satisfying tale of magical realism for the middle grades.

Book Source: I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher for review.

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Book Review: The Secret of the Sealed Room by Bailey MacDonald


The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Ben FranklinThe Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Ben Franklin by Bailey Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In church of a Sunday when the parson preaches about the sins and failings of women, I would swear he gazes straight at me with a stern, disapproving look.

Patience Martin knows she is hardly the model of good behavior. But what incentive does she have? After her mother’s death three years ago, her father bound her as a servant to the wealthy Mrs. Worth. Then her father died in the same shipwreck that left Mrs. Worth a widow in the middle of a difficult pregnancy. She has four long years to serve a woman who never has a kind word to say to her. Of course, things are about to get much, much worse. Mrs. Worth is found dead, and her brother-in-law plans to sell Patience off with no concern for her well-being. Patience takes her chance to run away, but soon learns that she is suspected of stealing Mrs. Worth’s money, and there is a reward on her head. With the help of a smart young printer’s apprentice, she just might save herself and bring the murderer to justice.

As in Wicked Will, MacDonald sets the scene with period details.

Patience is a winning heroine – quick-witted and determined, clearly a girl ahead of her time. The young Ben Franklin is charming, depicted with just enough human faults to remind the reader that even such an American legend was once a teenage boy. Filled with humor and nods to historical events, this is a classic locked-room mystery for the younger set.

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Book Review: How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog) by Art Corriveau

How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog)How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life by Art Corriveau

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public libary

Mom says I’m way too serious for a kid my age. She says I’m like this forty-year-old man trapped in an eleven-year-old body.

Nicky is miserable. He used to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. Then, his parents divorced in dramatic fashion. Now, he and his mom share a cramped one-bedroom apartment in a grimy area. His new class is repeating work he did last year; because he knows the answers, the local toughs have started calling him “brownnoser”. His mom, who used to garden and cook, is living on take-out food and wine. And she just brought home an ex-guide dog named Reggie from the pound, expecting Nicky to take care of it. Nicky wants nothing to do with Reggie, but the dog might be just what he needs to get on with his life.

The book gets off to a bit of a rocky start. Nicky’s voice sounds off in the first chapter, way too old for an almost-twelve-year-old boy. His wry humor and determination to solve the mystery of how Reggie ended up at the pound are engaging, though. His actions are believably impulsive. As events progress, the reader can see things about Nicky’s situation that he takes much longer to recognize, and will be pulling for him as he figures things out. In the end, Nicky Flynn won me over. A realistic, contemporary novel with humor and boy-appeal, suitable for middle-grade readers.

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Book Review: The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

The Great Wall Of Lucy WuThe Great Wall Of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

Who did Regina think she was, telling me how or how not to be Chinese?

Lucy Wu is all set to have the best year of her life. Her older sister, Regina, is going off to college. Not only will Lucy get out of the shadow the Perfect Chinese Daughter, but she will also get their shared bedroom all to herself. She’s looking forward to starting sixth grade and being among the oldest kids in the school, playing basketball, and having a big joint-birthday Halloween bash with her best friend, Madison.

And then, it all falls apart. Her parents announce that Lucy is about to get a new roommate – a great-aunt from China. A new Chinese school is opening in the area, and her parents want her to go on Saturday mornings – when she has always had basketball practice. Nothing is going according to Lucy’s plans.

Shang creates an utterly believable tween in Lucy, blending all the sweetness and prickliness that come with being an eleven-year-old girl. She wants to do the right thing, but sometimes she really wants her way, too. She wants to fit in and have the boy she likes like her back. She doesn’t want to be too different from everyone else. She has been content to fade into the background everywhere but on the basketball court. When a bully makes her a target, her impulse is to hide away. When some of the popular girls spot Yi Po at the mall and make fun of her, Lucy denies being to related to her.

As the weeks pass, and Lucy gets to know Yi Po, she also starts to figure out how to bring together and accept the various parts of her own identity, and how important it is to stand up for herself. Her realistic responses to frustrating situations will have readers cringing and laughing right along with her.

Highly recommended for grades 4-6, this is a stand-out debut novel.

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Book Review: No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko

No Passengers Beyond This PointNo Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

You have to wait for good things to happen – wait and wait and work so hard – but bad things occur out of the blue, like fire alarms triggered in the dead of night, blaring randomly, a shock of sound, a chatter of current from which there is no turning back.

The three Tompkins siblings – dramatic charmer India, level-headed worrier Finn, and peculiarly clever Mouse – are unhappy passengers on a flight bound for Colorado. Back home in California, their mother has just told them that their house is about to be repossessed, and they will be living with their Uncle Red while Mom stays behind to tie up loose ends. India is furious about having to leave her best friend behind. Finn is concerned about how their family will move forward. Mouse is confused by the whole situation, but her invisible friend Bing is always there to reassure her. Even when the plane lands in a place called Falling Bird, where they are welcomed warmly and each given a dream home to live in. It will take all three of them to get back home, but do they all want to go?

This is a weird book, and I mean that in the best possible way. A Phantom Tollbooth kind of way. It starts off like a realistic novel: three (mostly) normal kids are hit with the horrible news that they are about to lose their home. And then it takes a sharp turn into fantasy, while all three kids keep trying to make logical sense of things. The narrative shifts between each siblings’ first-person perspective in alternating chapters, and Choldenko’s creation of three distinct voices is spot-on. (Little Mouse is particularly delightful.) While the time pressure the children face is keenly felt, the quick-paced action is never rushed. There is family drama at the heart of this story, wrapped in a satisfying blend of mystery and fantasy.

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Book Review: Junonia by Kevin Henkes

When I was a brand-new Children’s Librarian, I read Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum, and I fell in love with his picture books. He so perfectly captured the slights – large and small – that can cause a kid so much pain. (The fact that I was teased throughout elementary school for my own name may have had something to do with my particular sympathy for the little mouse.) And the drawings, of course, were adorable. I was thrilled to see that NetGalley had his forthcoming children’s novel on offer as an e-ARC, and I was not disappointed. In fact, my only complaint is that since I don’t have it as a hard copy, I can’t pass it on to my fourth-grade niece to read. I’ll just have to wait for May, I guess.

JunoniaJunonia by Kevin Henkes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alice concentrated entirely on the pelican. The bird was so odd and silly looking, a mysterious, mesmerizing wonder. Alice reached out, pressing her palms flat against the half-opened window. She’d seen pelicans before, every year that she had been here, but when you see something only once a year it’s always new, as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Everything is new here, she thought. New and exciting.

Every year, in early February, the Rice family travels from wintry Wisconsin to the sandy shore of Sanibel Island, Florida. The week coincides with Alice’s birthday, and this year is a big one: 10 years old. Double-digits. Alice looks forward to seeing the same people in the same cottages, doing the same things, as every year before. But this year is different. Mr. and Mrs. Wishmeier are there, but their three grandchildren have too much schoolwork this year and have stayed at home. Single, sophisticated Helen Blair is snowed in back in New York. Mrs. Rice’s college friend – Aunt Kate to Alice – is not staying with them this year. Instead, she has rented Helen Blair’s cottage and is bringing her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s six-year-old daughter, Mallory. All these changes have Alice off-balance, and the more she struggles to preserve her perfect vacation, the more things seem to fall apart around her.

Small illustrations at the beginning of each chapter complement the narrative, and Henkes includes a beautiful drawing of the various Florida shells that Alice collects.

Henkes brings Alice to life in simple, lovely prose. She is a quiet girl, comfortable spending time with adults. She is a girl on the edge of leaving childhood behind. She is caught between embracing the new adventures that changes bring and trying to find a way back to the security of the familiar. She is perfectly ten years old, and her complicated feelings are rendered with great skill. Recommend this sweet, wholesome coming of age story to 3rd to 5th grade.

On shelves May 2011

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request

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Book Review: Invisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins

Invisible InklingInvisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I imagine airplanes that argue with their pilots, drinks that change the color of your skin, and aliens who study human beings in science labs — all when I’m supposed to be doing something else.

Fourth-grader Hank Wolowitz is the first person to admit he has an “overbusy” imagination. But he knows he isn’t imagining the small, furry, invisible animal that was hiding under the sink in his parents’ Brooklyn ice-cream shop. The animal that he rescued from the neighbor’s dog. The animal that calls itself Inkling, says that it’s an endangered bandapat, and that it is not leaving until it repays the debt it now owes him. Hank can certainly use a friend; his best friend just moved to Iowa City over the summer. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hank quickly becomes the fourth-grade bully’s favorite target. Since Hank can’t get any help from the ambivalent lunchroom aides, his oblivious teacher, or his pacifist parents, Inkling is determined to solve the problem for him.

With a quick pace and an engaging narrator, this sweetly funny book is sure to please. Aside from the invisible bandapat, the story feels utterly realistic without being grim. Kids will find it easy to identify with Hank, who just wants to get through a day without having half his lunch stolen. Harry Bliss’ signature illustrations are the perfect complement to Jenkins’ quirky story. Recommend especially to readers outgrowing Roscoe Riley and Clementine.

Book Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request

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Book Review: Firestorm! by Joan Hiatt Harlow

Firestorm!Firestorm! by Joan Hiatt Harlow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Source: Checked out from the public library

The ground in Chicago was always damp, so the city officials had decided to raise the level of the streets. Old buildings and foundations, which couldn’t be lifted, were empty. It wasn’t long before a man named Roger Plant and his wife claimed ownership of the deserted foundations along Wells Street and rented out the vacant cellar rooms to all sorts of criminals and tramps.

When 12-year-old Poppy wakes up coughing in the early hours of September 30th, 1871, all she sees before her is a grim future in Chicago’s “underworld”. Abandoned by her mother years before, she was taken in by Ma Brennan and her “School for Girls” to learn the fine art of picking pockets. But later that day, a chance meeting with the son of a jeweler marks the beginning of some major changes for Poppy.

Justin Butterworth is sick of living in the shadow of his older brother, Charlie, and desperate to prove himself responsible enough to do more in the family jewelry shop than just sweep the floors. Poppy isn’t like any girl he’s ever known, but when she runs into him (literally), it’s the start of a friendship.

Over the next week, both Poppy and Justin deal with challenges, but all the day-to-day matters fade in importance when fire runs through the city.

In alternating chapters, Harlow describes events from Poppy’s and Justin’s point of view. Usually, these accounts overlap, so when the reader reaches the end of one chapter, the beginning of the next chapter jumps back a few hours. This drags out the narrative a bit, especially in the early chapters, when the very different lives of the two characters are revealed; impatient readers may wonder just when the big fire is actually going to start. The drama and suspense of the interwoven stories pulls the reader along, though. A comforting epilogue lets the reader know how things turn out, and an Afterword by the author notes which of the characters are entirely fictional and which are based on historical figures. Recommend to third- to sixth-grade historical fiction fans.

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Book Review: Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Bird in a BoxBird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request

The only thing folks are talking about is that this will be the fight to end all fights. And nobody seems to care about the tough times we’re in, either. People are putting down their last little bit of money, betting on Joe Louis.

In this moving historical novel, Pinkney introduces three young African-Americans in Depression-era Elmira, New York. Hibernia is a 12-year-old preacher’s daughter with dreams of becoming a famous jazz singer. Otis is trying to keep his memories of his father and mother alive by retelling the riddles his father loved to tell. Willie had dreams of becoming a champion boxer, until his abusive father put an end to them.

The novel opens as Louis is about to take on Braddock in a much-hyped fight for the Heavyweight World Champion title, then jumps back a year to recount how the three main characters’ lives have intertwined. Pinkney presents a coherent, flowing narrative while rotating perspective between three distinct voices. She seamlessly blends real historical figures and events with her fictional characters to create vibrantly realistic scenes. An author’s note provides biographical information about Joe Louis and the members of the author’s own family that she used as models for some characters.

With lively, engaging characters and a skillful evocation of time and place, this is an excellent choice for young readers, even those who might not normally be drawn to historical fiction. Consider introducing de la Peña and Nelson’s A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis to readers interesting in learning more about Louis himself.

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Book Review: Bink & Gollie

Bink and GollieBink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from the library

Bink and Gollie are the best of friends. They love roller-skating (on quad skates, not in-line blades) and pancakes (Gollie cooks them, Bink eats them). They don’t always agree on everything, but they find ways to compromise. DiCamillo and McGhee tell these three short stories completely in dialogue between Bink and Gollie. The actions and scene-setting are left to illustrator Tony Fucile, whose cartoon panels are utterly charming. The scenery around the characters is drawn in black-and-white, while Bink, Gollie, and the occasional guest adult, fish, or outrageous sock shine in full color. So much of the story is told through the illustrations, in fact, that it would be possible for a non-reader to understand and enjoy it without the text, but missing the playful banter would be a shame. There is some advanced vocabulary (“‘The problem with Bink,’ said Gollie, ‘is her unwillingness to compromise'”) for beginning chapter-book readers; this would be a good choice to read aloud to younger readers, although a motivated young reader might take the opportunity to learn the words in context.

The girls have been compared to Frog & Toad and George & Martha. I see a little bit of Ramona and Beezus in them. Gollie is the responsible one, sometimes exasperated with little Bink, but steadfastly loyal to her all the same. I sincerely hope that this is only the first volume of their adventures.

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