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lightningReviewed by Tammie Benham

At age eight, Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning.  She survived however, the strike left her genius level Math skills, an inability to cope with germs, and the ability to recite the numbers of pi to infinity.  Over the years Lucy has developed coping mechanisms to ensure the numbers of pi don’t overtake her life.  She only allows the numbers of pi to be recited to the 314th decimal point, and apping her toe three times interrupts the number invasion in her head when she’s uncomfortable.  Lucy realizes some of her behaviors may seem odd to others but her intuitive self tells her people will get used to them over time.

 

Since the lightning strike, Lucy has been mainly homeschooled by her Nana.  However, things are about to change.  When Nana decides Lucy needs to attend Middle School and enter a world of her peers, Lucy is less than thrilled.  Thinking she should be in college, not Middle School, and with the brain power to succeed in such an advanced setting, Lucy tentatively gives in to her Nana’s demands-she must join an activity, read a book that’s not a Math textbook, and make a friend.  She finds the new environment as challenging as she had anticipated.

 

With the help of a like-minded teacher, a germy dog who steals her heart, and a boy who has the knack of seeing things from a different perspective, Lucy might just be able to survive seventh grade.

 

Lucy’s experiences while making friends with Windy (NOT Wendy) and Levi, serve as the backdrop for this middle grade novel.  Lessons of trust, friendship, loyalty, and forgiveness permeate the storyline.  Lucy’s character states she is diagnosed with Acquired Savant Syndrome, which explains her behaviors and abilities.  However, the characteristics Lucy exhibits may be familiar and help children identify with the story.

When the last written page of a book concludes and you find yourself wanting more, it’s always a good thing.  Stacy McAnulty’s debut novel ends in just such a way.  Here’s hoping the story of Lucy Callahan continues.  Written for grades 3-9, the story contains some bullying.

 

 

 

 

hello universeThis is the story of Virgil, Valencia, Kaori, and Chet, and their journey to friendship.

Erin Entrada Kelly’s 2018 Newbery Medal Winner has given a very important voice to diversity while at the same time disproving stereotypes.  This character-driven novel reads like one of the fables, told by Virgil’s grandmother or Lola, interspersed throughout the book.

Virgil is an introvert in a family of extraverts and can’t quite find a way to stand up to bullies, including his own family, who call him by a nickname he despises.  Valencia is feeling the weight of parents who are overprotective, she suspects because of her hearing loss. Kaori, who is on her third life, is the reincarnation of an Egyptian and a freedom fighter from Bangladesh. Chet Bullens is the school bully who hasn’t quite figured out what he’s good at in life and so points out perceived flaws in others.

According to Kaori, and her little sister Gen, the four are in the hands of Destiny during the few days in which the story takes place.  Virgil encounters Chet while on his way to seek fortune telling advice from Kaori and fate is set into motion.  When Virgil falls down an abandoned well he learns to conquer some of his fears.  The author deeply explores the sensory experience of Virgil while in the well, bringing the reader right along into his nightmare.

Virgil’s friends, Kaori and Valencia have to “feel” their way into finding Virgil, whose cell phone fell out of his pocket and shattered during his fall.  We are treated to the eccentric Kaori consulting star charts to divine the fate of Virgil.  Will the friends rescue Virgil or will his fears be realized when his bones are found in the well, beside the bones of his guinea pig, years into the future?

The funny, feel-good tone of this book compliments the pace.  The suspense builds to a climactic, if somewhat predictable ending, which is nonetheless satisfying. What a wonderful breath of fresh air to read about children who are ability diverse as “children” without their differences defining their character.

An important read for children 3rd grade and up.  This book is extensively quotable and would make a great classroom read-aloud.  Perhaps the plot is best summarized with this quote from Valencia, “Meanness always shows on people’s faces.  Sometimes you have to look hard for it.  Sometimes it’s just a part of a person’s features.”

Reviewed by Tammie Benham

February ijazzbabys Black History Month.  Introducing the accomplishments of some of our descendants to children when they are very young is a good way to honor these extraordinary Americans.  I took a look at offerings from the Children’s Department at Joplin Public Library and chose some old and new favorites to consider using.

 

Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler is a rhythmic, melodic romp through a day with a baby not yet old enough to walk.  “Mama sings high.  Daddy sings low.  Snazz-jazzy Baby says, ‘Go, Man, Go!’”  The story is written almost as a lyric and captivates young audiences, which is magnified by the energy of the reader.

 

specialWhat’s Special About Me, Mama? By Kristina Evans features a young child who sees himself in the faces of his family and wants to be told what makes him special.  His questioning is answered in a loving way by his mother, who reminds him that all the little things about  him add up to the special person he is.

 

hey.jpgHey Black Child, by Useni Eugene Perkins reminds children that being who they want to be is within their reach, that perceived limits are meant to be surmounted and it is within the power of every child to make the world into a better place.

 

mayaLittle People, Big Dreams: Maya Angelou, by Lisbeth Kaiser introduces the life of Maya Angelou in straight forward age-appropriate prose.  The books touches on her accomplishments, highlighting the impact she had on the world through her perseverance and unrelenting hope.

 

jazzThis Jazz Man, by Karen Ehrhardt plays with the rhythm and sounds of jazz, translating music into sound so that read aloud, the story becomes music.  The accompanying CD for this book features performance from legendary Jazz Men, who are also featured in the end pages.

 

nightA Night Out with Mama, is written by Quvenzhane Wallis, who is written also the main character in the book.  Quevenzhane is the youngest person ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.  This multi-talented young woman wrote of her experience attending the Oscars with her mother. Her fresh, authentic voices comes roaring through in this simple story of accomplishment and celebration.

 

Want more ideas for pictures books to share during the month?  Check out Scott Woods list at his blog, “Scott Makes Lists,” at https://scottwoodsmakeslists.wordpress.com/2018/02/07/28-more-black-picture-books-that-arent-about-boycotts-buses-or-basketball-2018/

 

 

 

 

 

cycloneCyclone, by Doreen Cronin

Reviewed by Tammie Benham

Doreen Cronin author of “Click Clack, Moo! Cows That Type,” among other popular story books, has launched her debut Juvenile Fiction novel, “Cyclone.”  Set in what appears to be present day, the story revolves around a central character, Nora who is in her early teens, and Nora’s feelings of responsibility for a stroke experienced by her teenage cousin, Riley.

Nora and Riley are best friends and best cousins.  When Nora answers Riley’s phone during a summer vacation sleepover and hears an older man’s voice, her suspicions that Riley is hiding an older man as a boyfriend spark an argument.  After a tussle for the phone in which Nora is knocked to the floor, she confronts Riley, who refuses to provide any information regarding the caller.  The two quickly move forward, now with a shared secret.

The next day Nora is scheduled to ride the Cyclone at Coney Island to finish a summer homework assignment.  Riley is the only family member that will entertain the idea of riding the coaster with Nora.  When Riley gets cold feet and backs out, Nora uses the “secret boyfriend” as blackmail to ensure she doesn’t have to ride the coaster alone. Despite Riley’s increasing anxiety and obvious panic, she rides the coaster in order to keep her secret.

The two exit the ride and are taking a selfie when Riley collapses with what we later learn is a stroke due to a heart condition.  Nora carries the guilt of the incident throughout the story.  Along the way we see her growth as she contemplates her unwillingness or inability to actually listen objectively to those in her life.

With Riley now having challenges with speech, Nora struggles with what to do with her knowledge of the secret boyfriend. During the climax of the novel, we learn that things aren’t always as they appear and listening to someone deeply helps build two way communication in relationships.

To successfully portray the challenges, anxiety, and confusion of an early teenage girl going through a traumatic event such as the one portrayed, Cronin uses Nora’s summer homework assignment, in which she has to write a school paper that includes footnotes.[1]  Cronin uses the report, and the footnotes, throughout the book as a device to explain medical terminology.

My respect for Ms. Cronin’s picture book talent led me to pick up this book.  The characters are believable and their voice becomes stronger as the novel progresses.  However, the use of footnotes to explain the medical terminology feels a bit patronizing and there are times when the characters seem overly emotional.  This book may appeal to those who are experiencing a medical situation or those curious about the medical field.

[1] Footnotes are an extra bit of information about something typically printed at the bottom of the page-like this footnote.

Reviewed by Tammie Benham

The intensifying pace of the first book in National Book Award finalist and Printz Award winner Laura Ruby’s new series, York.  Book One: The Shadow Cipher, left me anticipating the next installment.  The setting for this middle grade novel (3rd to 7th yorkgrade) is a familiar but altered version of New York City.  Some landmarks are recognizable, some are slightly different, others are invented.  All are captivating.

Twins Theo and Tess Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in one of the five original Morningstarr buildings in New York City, 354 W 73re Street.  Designed by extraordinarily brilliant twins, Theodore and Teresa Morningstarr and left to their best friend and heir when they disappeared in 1855, Theo, Tess, and Jaime, along with a diverse set of characters, now inhabit the building.  They love the temperamental and eccentric electromagnetic elevator that conveys them to their chosen floor via randomly selected horizontal and vertical patterns, taking a different route each trip. They love the Morningstarr seals placed in the windows.  They love their view of the Hudson River.  They also realize if not for this building they couldn’t afford to live in the City and would likely end up in some remote location, like Hoboken, or Idaho.

When nefarious real estate developer Darnell Slant, who is known for gobbling up Morningstarr buildings, sets his sites on their building, Tess and Theo decide the only way to save their home is to solve the Old York Cipher left behind by the Morningstarr twins.  The Cipher promises treasure to anyone who can solve it and has encouraged many to search.  The twin’s Grandfather is himself a member of the Old Cipher Society. Tess and Theo have been solving puzzles their entire lives and now have the motivation of saving their home to help them solve the greatest puzzle of all: the solution to the Old World Cipher.

As with any good adventure, things don’t always go as planned.  Finding what they believe to be an alternate set of clues leads the twins and Jaime, accompanied by Tess’s cat, “Nine,” who is a mix of serval, Siamese, and “who knows what else…a sprinkling of wolf maybe,” on a journey through the magnificent city created by the Morningstarr twins. Dodging the henchmen of Darnell Slant, the threesome travels through a world where trolleys run by a mysterious secret guild wind above, around, and under buildings, and the river.  Giant mechanical insects eat dirt and sometimes humans. Towering skyskrapers have eccentric elevators.  The machines left behind by the Morningstarrs seem to be watching them, and possibly leading them.  At times the threesome wonder why solving the new set of clues is so easy when others have struggled for a century to solve clues.  Are they solving the cipher, or is the cipher solving them?

Driven by believable characters, the reader discovers Tess struggles with anxiety, which her family has dubbed “catastrophizing,” imagining the disastrous consequences that could occur at any time. Nine serves as her therapy animal.  Theo has the makings of a brilliant architect but is overcoming having been bullied regarding his eccentricities.  Jaime has lost his mother, has a father who constantly travels, and lives with this Grandmother, whom he calls Mima.  He is a budding artist and his talents help the trio of would-be sleuths see clues in a different way.  There is some feel-good humor and a few laugh-out-loud situations interspersed in the drama.

The secondary characters are equally endearing, especially the mysterious Aunt Esther who may be helping the twins solve the clues or may hold part of the cipher.  Jaime’s Mima keeps the trio fed, but also is portrayed as someone who will not be left in the dark.  Flashbacks give some hints to the origins of our hero and heroines and everything seems to be hinting at something further.  This very engaging first installment in a planned trilogy will leave you breathless and wanting more.

 

tookReviewed by Tammie Benham

Continuing my quest to finish all books nominated for this year’s Mark Twain award, and realizing my opportunity to write a book review was due the week after Summer Reading Club ended, I closed my eyes picked one of the two books I had yet to read.  I ended up with “Took,” by Mary Downing Hahn in my hands.

 

Let me begin by admitting I am not a fan of horror.  So reading “Took,” took some effort.  This book is scary, creepy, icky, and all other words associated with this genre.  The book is also a good read and appropriate for children in third grade to sixth grade who love the Goosebumps books and are looking for something else to scare them late at night.

 

When Daniel and Erica move to West Virginia with their well-meaning parents who are looking to start over, they immediately sense danger.  Children bully them at school and on the school bus.  Their parents become more and more withdrawn, arguing and ignoring their children.

 

When Erica starts telling Daniel about the voices she hears, he doesn’t believe her.  Alone and fueled by the whisperings of “Old Auntie,” the ghostly witch who lives in the woods with her mutilated hog, “Bloody Bones,” Erica turns more and more to her doll for company until one day, Erica disappears.

 

When Daniel’s mother withdraws to her bed the day his sister turns up missing, while Daniel’s dad disappears into his office to immerse himself in videogames. Daniel takes it upon himself to use local lore and the few clues he has to find his little sister.  Will Daniel rescue her in time?  Or will Erica stay “Took” forever?

 

Well crafted, this offering from Ms. Hahn keeps suspense alive as the story moves through darkest night and deepest glen.  The characters are scary in the way the witch from Hansel and Gretel is frightening.  There is no specific gore and no actual violence.  Lots of spine-tingling suspense followed up with extraordinary bravery.  A great read for a dark night.

 

The drawbacks of this book, and possibly the most dangerous parts, are the lack of adult intervention when Daniel and Erica are bullied and the cavalier way in which Daniel’s parents dismiss and ignore him after his sister’s disappearance.  These two elements help to move the story along but in a time when bullying and violence appear too often in the news, finding them so easily accepted in a book intended for children is enough to give me nightmares.  Read, but make sure to discuss these situations.

warReviewed by Tammie Benham

I’ve been reading my way through the Mark Twain nominees.  There are several excellent selections this year.  The book that has made the biggest impression so far has been, The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

This story of human resilience in the face of the adversity demonstrates what that determination can change the course of a human life.

Ada cannot remember ever leaving the one-bedroom apartment where she lives with her younger brother, Jamie and her mother.  She isn’t sure of her age and her mother refuses to tell her.  Her best guess is she’s less than ten years old.

Crippled with a club foot and her mother’s shame, Ada’s life consists of constant emotional and physical abuse and neglect until one day when news of the evacuation of children from London reaches her.  Although her fear is more of a life lived from a chair beside a window than impending bombing, Ada uses this opportunity to escape the only life she’s known.

When the children arrive in the country they find themselves being selected by families to be fostered.  Ada is so filthy that she doesn’t recognize herself when she looks into a bathroom mirror and Jamie is no better. They are left out of the selection process.  However, the local gentry organizing foster families refuses to give up on Ada and Jamie, taking them to a house in the country where Ada falls in love with a horse at first sight.

The woman who grudgingly takes in the children is named Susan and she is grieving a great loss.  She is bullied into doing her duty to take care of the children and shows them what she believes to be a minimal amount of attention.  Having been neglected for so long, the children flourish in the little attention they receive.

Susan glimpses the past lives of the children in some of their odd behavior but understands she cannot get Ada the operation she needs on her club foot without the permission of Ada’s mother.  However, her letters to the children’s mother go unanswered and war comes to the village.

When Ada’s mother finally shows up at Susan’s house she is quick to point out the only reason she’s there is because she’s being forced to pay for the upkeep of her children if they stay in the country.  How will Ada and Jamie ever go back to living the life they once escaped?

Based on actual events during WWII, this work of historical fiction is a 2016 Newbery Honor Book and a 2016 Schneider Family Book Award Winner.