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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.

 

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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.

Reviewed 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.

ocdaniel

Reviewed by Tammie Benham

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), rules Daniel’s life.  When the “zaps” hit, he gets stuck in a self-destructive pattern that can last for hours.  The zaps are particularly relentless at bedtime when he believes if he doesn’t complete his “routine,” he will die.

In this coming-of-age story, Daniel’s best friend since grade school, Max is the star quarterback for the Erie Hills Elephants.  Daniel spends most of his time as the Substitute Kicker trying not to be noticed and arranging cups of water for his team mates.

Despite his many idiosyncrasies, Daniel is a typical middle-school aged boy.  There is a girl he likes who may like him back.  Max encourages Daniel’s blossoming friendship with Raya while holding off the less-than-nonchalant advances of Clara.

Just when things between Daniel and Raya are beginning to turn into the possibility of something more, Psycho Sara, who talks to no-one at school and doesn’t even speak to her own mother, starts to talk to Daniel.  Daniel might have ignored Sara if not for her cryptic naming of him as a fellow, “Star-Child.”

Afraid that he may be just as crazy as Sara has been labeled, intrigued that Sara isn’t nearly as crazy as everyone believes her to be,  and feeling a strong sense of belonging with Sara that he doesn’t feel as strongly with Raya, Daniel is caught between what’s familiar and what might be an exciting adventure.

As the state football finals approach, Daniel is caught in another dilemma.  The starting Kicker is suddenly ill and he is placed into the spotlight.  Through a series of events, the pressure and expectations on Daniel continues to increase, along with his anxiety.  Finding it more and more difficult to hide his “zaps,” he wonders how long he can keep his craziness hidden.  The only person who seems to see the hidden Daniel is Psycho Sara.

OCDaniel is an interesting look into the world of someone suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Anyone who is not familiar with how debilitating OCD can become will have their eyes opened by this inside look.  Children wondering about their inability to control certain patterns in their behavior may see themselves.  Ultimately, this is a book for those who are feeling different and looking for a place to belong.

flyingThis anthology of short stories is edited by Ellen Oh, author and President of the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) movement.  Oh has gathered an impressive group of authors who each present a vivid and memorable voice.  Each story allows the reader to immerse herself in a different cultural experience.  A true representation of the melting pot that is the United States of America, readers may see themselves in these stories, or have the opportunity to peek into the lives of individuals who may be vastly different than their own.

 

From Kwame Alexander’s “mostly true” memoir of a young man in an Honor’s English class, to Soman Chainani’s bittersweet tale of a young boy’s journey of enlightenment, to the childhood grief of losing a parent projected so perfectly in Kelly Baptist’s chronicles, this book is full of tales that are sure to captive a wide, and hopefully diverse, audience.  The star-studded list of authors are impressive in their own right and Oh ensures their work continues to be read with the inclusion of an “About the Authors,” appendage.  The quality you’ll find inside these pages is inspiring.

 

However different the scenery in each story, some common themes emerge.  The varied experiences of children leave their mark, no matter in which culture they happen.  At the end of each story, I found myself wanting to know what happens next, always a sign of an excellent reading experience.

girlReviewed by Tammie Benham

Xan the Witch doesn’t understand why the population of The Protectorate leave a baby all alone in the forest each year.  Still, she travels to the other side of the forest to rescue each baby, finding them homes in other towns with loving families.  Yes she wonders, “What kind of people would leave a baby to fend for itself in a dangerous forest?”

The people of The Protectorate understand that for hundreds of years the baby born closest to the Day of Sacrifice must be left in the woods so that the witch who lives on the other side of the forest won’t attack and destroy them all.  Each year the (all male) members of The Council take the chosen baby from his family and form a procession that ends deep in the forest under a sycamore grove, where they leave the child.

One year, the mother of a young girl baby refuses to quietly give up her daughter. She screams and fights The Council members until they call in The Sisters, a group of all-women who live together in a tower fortress, grow things, cook, and train to be assassins. The Sisters lock up the woman in the top of their tower and feed on her sorrow as she slowly goes insane.  “Magic and madness are linked after all.”

Xan the Witch rescues the madwoman’s daughter of course, as she has all the other children.  However, this time she falls deeply in love with the dark headed girl and decides she will raise her with the help of Glerk the Swamp Monster, who was there at the beginning of time, and Fyrian, the Perfectly Tiny Dragon.

Xan runs out of goat’s milk to feed the baby on her journey back across the forest to her home which necessitates the baby being fed starlight and moonbeams.  When Xan accidentally feeds the baby too many beams from the full moon the baby becomes enmagicked and gains her name, Luna.

Xan quickly discovers that raising a baby with too much magic inside and no ability to control the magic is impossible.  And so, she gathers all the magic inside the girl and locks it up until Luna’s thirteenth birthday.  With each passing year Xan becomes weaker, finally understanding that Luna is unknowingly siphoning off her magic and when Luna’s own magic is released, the five hundred year old Xan will die.

Meanwhile, Antain, a young boy who witnessed Luna being stripped from her mother and the imprisonment of the madwoman, has been trying to come to grips with what he saw.  In the course of his angst, he discovers that things are not at all what they seem with The Sisters, the Council, and with the witch.  Will Luna and her mother ever be reunited?  Will Antain be able to stop the baby sacrifices before his own son is left in the woods?  Will Xan have to give her life when Luna’s magic is released?

This second novel from award-winning writer, Kelly Barnhill has many twists and turns.  The prose is repetitive in spots, dragging out the story.  The overall tone of the book is dark with very few light spots.  This book might be an appealing read to those who loved the last three Harry Potter books.

 

el chapoAuthor/Illustrator Cece Bell has penned a delightful semi-autobiographical graphic novel about her experiences growing up with hearing loss.  After losing her hearing as a result of a childhood illness, Cece has to learn to adjust to living in a non-hearing world.

Cece soon learns about having ear molds made and ends up with wires coming out of her ears!  Being able to hear again only mildly makes up for how different she looks compared to other children her age.  She worries about going to school and the reaction of her classmates, not realizing she will have more indignity to come in the form of the enormous, “Phonic Ear,” which must be worn under her clothes.

Having the Phonic Ear does help Cece hear everything in school which in turn helps her concentrate and improves her grades.  Suddenly school is easy for Cece.  She also learns the Phonic Ear is powerful enough to hear the bathroom habits of her teachers!

As Cece progresses through grade school, she learns to be choosy in making friends and also that her hearing loss doesn’t need to dictate her friendships.  She finds a best friend in a neighbor who treats her like she’s “normal,” meaning her friend refrains from stereotypical behaviors including speaking loudly, slowly, or using exaggerated sign language, despite knowing about Cece’s hearing aids.

When a very cute boy named Mike moves in next door, Cece is awe-struck.  Her reaction is very typically portrayed for a young girl her age, helping the reader understand she truly is just another child who happens to have lost her hearing.

One day, Cece decides to trust Mike with the knowledge she can hear their teacher everywhere she is in the building.  Mike is fascinated with the power of the Sonic Ear and decides to put the device to good use.  When the teacher leaves the room, Cece listens for the class while they engage in all the things children do when the teacher is out of the room, without and of the consequences.  Cece is suddenly the class hero.

The author’s notes provide insight into the world of non-hearing individuals and communicate some of the differences among individuals with hearing loss.  This book handles the subject matter in a fresh way, making for an enjoyable reading experience.