Friday, May 8, 2015

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefThe setting is in Germany, during World War II. Liesl's brother dies on a train, as their mother delivers them to a foster home. Life is hard for Liesl, but she leans on her foster father, Hans, for comfort and support. He reads with her every night, as she wakes up with nightmares, and Liesl finds comfort in books. She receives a few as gifts, she steals a few more, but her most special book is "The Gravedigger's Handbook". She found it on the ground when her brother was buried. As the months and years go by, Liesl becomes friends with Rudy. They play together, go to school together, and steal together. Liesl's step parents do their best to keep food on the table, as work and money become scarce. Then, their lives take a dangerous turn when the family hides a Jew in the basement. The only thing worse than a Jew in your basement, living among Nazis, during World War II, is a dead Jew in your basement.

Although he never identifies himself, the Grim Reaper is the narrator of the story. As you can imagine, he provides a different point of view to German life during a huge war. Liesl has an admirable obsession with books, and she has strong compassion for others. She truly loves her new papa and worries constantly about the sick Jew in the basement. She even cares about her grumpy, grouchy, insulting mama. The book shares the story of German citizens during the war, and not all citizens are pro-Hitler Nazis. Liesl's papa is one person who did not join the Nazi party right away, and his family suffered because of that decision. The author paints a descriptive picture of Liesl's life growing up, and contrasts that with the life and death reality of a war-torn country.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John

The Terrible TwoMiles Murphy is depressed. He's forced to leave his friends and the ocean behind, because his mom is moving to Yawney Valley, a city that's proud of its cows. He's determined to establish his reputation as the greatest prankster at his new school, but he's surprised by what he finds on his first day. Someone has moved the principal's car to the top of the stairs, blocking the front entrance to the building. No one knows how it got there, but the principal blames Miles. Miles is impressed by this prank by an unknown student, so he starts making his own plan that will make everyone realize he is the top prankster. He manages to get hundreds of people, including the principal, to attend a huge birthday party for a student who doesn't exist, but things don't turn out the way he expected. The unknown student asks Miles to team up with him, but Miles declares a prank war instead!

I'm guessing most readers will enjoy the pranks. It's funny how all of Mile's plans get messed up, and the other student always bests him. The principal is a funny character. He's a fifth-generation principal at the school, and his son is a bully. The principal is obsessed with rules and cows. He even gives Miles a book full of cow facts that's important to the climax of the book. There aren't any deep messages about life, but it's a fun story.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Almost Home by Joan Bauer

Almost HomeSugar is an intelligent and kind young girl, but her mother can't pay the mortgage on the house. Her absent father is addicted to gambling and racked up debts that cause the bank to take their home away. A stranger gives Sugar a puppy, she calls him Shush, even though Sugar's family doesn't have money to care for it. Sugar's mom takes them to Chicago where she hopes to get a cleaning job and temporary housing with a cousin. The job and housing fall through, Sugar's mom is sent to a mental hospital, and Sugar is sent to a foster home. The foster home is wonderful for Sugar, and her mom is slowly getting better. Things seem to be looking up until her dad comes back into the picture. Sugar's mom thinks the father will solve all of their problems, but their future is very uncertain.

This book addresses the topics of homelessness, foster care, and divorce. The plot shows how complicated these matters can be and how they can harm good people. Sugar's character is very sweet and kind. She is strong-willed, but her mother's issues test her limits. Foster care doesn't always get a good rap, so it was nice to see Sugar end up in a loving home. Sugar's mother was pushed to the point of a breakdown, and her faith in her husband let her down. Be careful what you wish for.

Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 by Sally M. Walker

Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917World War I is happening in Europe, but its effects are still felt in North America. A large ship, the Mont-Blanc, is modified so sparks won't set off the tons and tons of explosives stored inside. The ship travels to Nova Scotia, hoping to find an escort across the Atlantic Ocean. The entrance to the harbor is narrow, so special pilots are needed to lead ships in and out. On December 6, 1917, terrible mistakes are made. Another ship collides with the Mont-Blanc and starts a fire. The crew is able to escape in time, but the fire detonates the second largest man-made explosion of all time. The devastation didn't stop there.

This book is non-fiction. It contains many facts and truthful accounts of the catastrophe, but the author includes information about real people to humanize the topic. Some of these people survive the explosion, but others do not. It always amazes me to read about disasters that are caused by real people making stupid decisions. Safety precautions were in place, but two other ships not following the rules started the fateful chain of events.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Notes From the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonnenblick

Notes from the Midnight DriverAlex takes his mom's car one night and crashes into a yard gnome down the street. The judge sentences him to one hundred hours of community service, and he is sent to a retirement home and paired with a man named Sol. Sol has trouble breathing, but he's healthy enough to tease, insult, and play pranks on Alex. Alex regularly writes letters to the judge, and he asks her to let him switch to someone else. However, as time goes on, he learns to enjoy his time with Sol and asks the judge to let him continue volunteering after his time is up. Sol is pleased when Alex brings his best friend, Laurie, for a visit, but Alex's life changes after his benefit concert at the home. His relationships with Sol, Laurie, and his parents will never be the same.

The highlights of the story can be found in Sol and Alex's characters. Sol is a mischievous, old man, but his humor masks the pain he feels from not seeing his grown daughter. He realizes his life has some important similarities with Alex's life which may be why they get along. Alex starts the book with a lot of anger and learns to change during his time with Sol. The plot addresses a wide range of emotions, and readers can learn lessons in caring and forgiveness.

The Battle of Jericho by Sharon Draper

The Battle of Jericho (Jericho, #1)Jericho and his cousin, Josh, are invited to become members of the Warriors of Distinction. The Warriors are an exclusive, secret club, and they are admired for their charity work. Members of the club form special bonds and enjoy privileges and benefits into adulthood. However, the group demands total loyalty and obedience from its members, and Jericho must prove he has these qualities. Hazing is illegal in Ohio, but the kids take a pledge of silence and cannot talk about the initiation activities. Alex becomes uncomfortable and concerned with the activities, especially when the first female pledge ever is targeted and abused by one of the Warriors. Alex and Josh must make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives, but will it be too late?

A warning, this book is for a more mature reader than most of my other posts. It's not that anything is overly inappropriate, but the characters are all high school students dealing with a pretty serious topic. Hazing is illegal for good reasons, and this book teaches a valuable lesson about peer pressure. Some of the activities are disgusting, but the author shares them to make a point. Most people are forced to make decisions that test their values and common sense, but hazing takes it to the extreme. Hopefully, this book will help readers think before doing anything stupid and possibly save some lives.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

2014 Cybils Middle Grade Fiction Winner!!!

Cybils


The winner of the 2014 Cybils Award in middle grade fiction is... Nickel Bay Nick!!! 

Remember, we really considered if kids will like these books when choosing the finalists, unlike some other book awards. You can find my reviews for all of the finalists by clicking on the titles below:

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern at Sovern's website

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj at Bajaj's website

Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson at Johnson's website

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander at Alexander's Facebook page

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman at Dairman's website

Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart at Gephart's website

Nickel Bay Nick by Dean Pitchford at Pitchford's website

To see finalists in all categories, click on the following link:
2014 Cyblis Finalists