The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

I am a big fan of Glee  and Chris Colfer has been one of my favorite actors on the series since the beginning.  When I read that his novel had been acquired by Little, Brown I was excited but a bit apprehensive.  See, I’m not  a fan of celebrities who “write” books.  Now, these are usually picture books or novelty gimmicks, so I was hopeful that Colfer’s book would be the real deal.  Come on, how many celebrities are sitting down to write a full-length middle grade fantasy novel?

When I attended BEA this past May, I saw that Chris Colfer would be signing copies of his ARC the morning I was scheduled to be there.  Now, anyone who knows me knows that I have very little patience.  I do not wait on lines very often.  I definitely don’t wait on what will no doubt be a ridiculous line for a celebrity.  But I made an exception for Chris Colfer.  He seems ridiculously sweet in interviews and I was intrigued by the premise of The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell.  So, I waited.  For over an hour.  (Sidenote: The publicists at the Little, Brown booth at BEA were absolute saints and handled the crowd really well!).

Finally, it was my turn.  Colfer signed my ARC and I told him I was looking forward to reading it.  I explained that I usually avoid celebrity books but that he had me convinced.  He stopped signing for a moment and looked up.  “I hope you like it!  I mean, no pressure.  You don’t have to like it. But I really hope you do enjoy it!”.  With that, I was sold. I shuffled off with my ARC and tote bag in tow, and eventually headed back home.  I finished reading The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell late last week and I really enjoyed it!

Colfer says that he started writing the book when he was ten years old.  Then he put it aside and came back to it when he felt he could do it justice.  At the ancient age of 22, he has now published The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell.  I love that the ARC is dedicated to his grandmother, who told him he shouldn’t worry about being a failed writer until he was a grown-up.  :)

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is about a pair of twelve-year old twins named Alex and Connor.  Their father , who owned a bookstore, recently died in an accident and their mother has been forced to sell their house and work extra shifts to make ends meet.  The twins are doing their best, but it’s hard to have your life yanked out from underneath you like an old rug.  Alex is an over-achiever and the teacher’s pet at school.  Connor is the kid in the back of the classroom who falls asleep or makes everyone else laugh.  But while they are different, they turn to each other for comfort while their mom is focused on taking care of the bigger picture. But everything changes when their grandmother gives Alex The Land of Stories on their birthday.  Their father and grandmother read to them from the book until his death so it is a treasured heirloom.

But then things get very weird.  Alex stops paying attention in school, she stops knowing the answer when called on, and then she falls asleep in class!  Connor becomes suspicious and spies on her late one night.   What the twins discover changes their lives forever.  The Land of Stories envelops them and they literally fall into the world they grew up hearing about.  But instead of being told stories, they are meeting the characters their father and grandmother shared with them.  From Little Red Riding Hood, to Jack, to Goldilocks, to Prince Charming, they are all alive and well in the Land of Stories.

Colfer has taken on the task of retelling classic fairy tales.  While it seems like it has been done to death, I found myself not wanting to put the book down.  Familiar fairy tale characters have continued to live in the Land of Stories and their lives are a bit soap opera-esque.  But we also learn a lot more about each character and their motivations. Cinderella is married and pregnant.  Goldilocks in experiencing the heartbreak of unrequited love.  Goldilocks is running from the law. And Snow White is trying to deal with the repercussions of the Evil Queen’s decisions.

I was pleasantly surprised by Colfer’s writing.  Alex and Connor might be some of my favorite middle grade characters because they ring so true.  Their individual personalities are spot on and their interactions with each other remind me a lot of the middle schoolers I used to teach.  Connor was my favorite and I found myself laughing out loud at him because he is such a cut-up.  But at the same time his insecurity is apparent.  The siblings are close, but not in a way that is unbelievable.  They argue, Alex is sometimes a know-it-all, and Connor tends to take things to the extreme.  Both kids grow and change throughout the story in realistic ways.  Colfer has a great grasp on characterization, so even the villains are relatable.

This is a great quest story for middle grade readers.  They will enjoy the familiarity of the fairy tale characters but will also be drawn into the more significant details that Colfer weaves into the narrative.  The story is a bit predictable, but I’m also an adult reader, not a middle grade reader.  I think 8-12 year olds will enjoy this a lot, and the Glee connection should help with handselling.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is a solid debut and I look forward to reading more books by Chris Colfer in the future.

*ARC courtesy of the publisher

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I’m not sure that I can say anything that hasn’t been said yet, but I feel strange not reviewing John Green’s latest masterpiece.  This will be short and sweet, and I’m not going to bother summarizing the plot because it’s been done to death.  Just know this-  The Fault in Our Stars is a book that should be required reading for young adults and adults.

Hazel is dying.  She knows this, her parents know, and her doctors know. But John Green has crafted an unforgettable, life-affirming book that will leave you laughing through your tears.  This isn’t a book about death; it’s a book about life and living it to the fullest.

I purchased three copies of The Fault in Our Stars before it was released. Other than brief appearances as they passed from hand to hand, I haven’t seen any of those books since January.  But at least half of my students, of both genders, have now read it.  And all three copies are continuing their journey from student to student through the summer.  That’s damn good for a realistic fiction book.  That’s the equivalent of five stars from my kids!

If you haven’t read this yet, I can’t recommend it enough.  The story is multi-layered and intensely literary.  While it’s published as YA, it certainly has many adult readers.

If you don’t already own all of John Green’s novels (or if you are like me, and just can’t turn this down) be sure to preorder the  John Green Limited Edition Boxed Set (autographed).  The graphics, designed by Karen Kavett, are really awesome because she and her sister attended school in my district.  My nerdfighters love that!

*purchased, all three copies, on my own

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner

Full disclosure- I’ve known Kate through Twitter and blogging for a few years now.  We finally met in person this past November, but we’ve been chatting for years.  She taught 7th grade when I taught 6th grade and I was always amazed that she could be a real writer and continue to teach.  She was a teacher-hero. :)  Now Kate is a lucky lady who gets to write full-time because her books are awesome!

Capture the Flag is the perfect middle grade mystery but it also kept this adult intrigued.  I’m a huge fan of the movie National Treasure and Capture the Flag is similar, but much more well-written!  Kate Messner has crafted a fabulous trio of kids that read like kids I know.  And the Jaguar Society? So cool!  I want to be a part of the club!  Not to mention, the history sprinkled throughout the story will keep readers interested and I think it will inspire a lot of readers to go out and do some more research on their own.

Anna, José, and Henry are brought together at the airport in Washington, DC when all flights are cancelled due to a blizzard.  They don’t know that their lives are connected until the Star-Spangled Banner is in the news after being stolen from the Smithsonian Museum.  Anna, who is certainly a leader, decides that she is going to track down the thieves, who must also be stuck in the airport because of the snow.  But it’s not that simple- accusations are lobbed at all kinds of people, the kids’ parents don’t want them wreaking havoc in the airport, and the flag is still missing!

Capture the Flag is a great mystery for middle grade readers.  Highly recommended for middle grade libraries and I think it would also make a great read aloud for a history class that is studying US history.  Kate’s writing will keep readers guessing and the history will keep them learning.  And it’s the perfect summer reading book for July!  :)

 

 

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

This is going to be a short review.  I read Salvage the Bones: A Novel because it was a National Book Award winner and I thought it might be a possibility for my senior English class.  In the end, I had a hard time finishing it.

Salvage the Bones is the story of a poor, rural, African-American family in Mississippi who survive Hurricane Katrina.  Somehow, I was not aware that the vast majority of the plot focuses on dog fighting.  The book is extremely graphic, unnecessarily so in many parts, and it made me sick to my stomach.  I finished the book, just barely, and I’m not sure how it won the National Book Award.  The prose is sparse and it’s well-written, but I have a hard time believing it was the most well-written book of the year.  The characters are unlikeable, the story is too graphic, and there was little plot development.

Not for me.  There are plenty of 5-star reviews out there, but there are also a lot of one-star reviews and abandoned reviews.  This book was not for me.

Appropriate for upper YA, possibly some crossover appeal.  Not for younger YA readers.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

I have no idea how to review Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity without giving away all the twists and turns of the plot.  So, I won’t be summarizing the book much, that’s for sure.

I avoided reading Code Name Verity for a few months, even though I had purchased a copy, because it was receiving so much praise. (Sometimes, I can be quite contrary).  When I taught 6th grade, we studied WWII and the Holocaust in literature, and it played a large part in our curriculum.  Because of this, I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction aimed at middle grade and young adult readers.  I’m pretty picky when it comes to books set during the time period because there are so many choices.   But I finally sat down to read Wein’s book a few weeks ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I closed the cover.

I started the book and read a few pages here and there for about a week.  Be forewarned- this one starts slow.  So slow, that I considered abandoning it.  But when I did sit down and give it my full attention, I found that I was fascinated, even if it did move very slowly.  It took about 100 pages before I was completely sucked in. But at that point, I couldn’t stop reading.  I stayed up way past my bedtime, on a school night, and read the rest straight through.

Maggie Stiefvater said in her review that this book is unlike anything else she has read before.  I have to agree.  The book defies categorization.  It’s historical fiction but it’s immensely personal and internal.  It’s about WWII but it’s not really about the war.  Instead, it’s about two girls who join the war effort because it allows them to do what they love- fly, flirt, and gain power in some relationships.  It’s about friendship; true, never-dying, I’ll do anything for you friendship.  It’s about once-in-a-lifetime friendship and love.  It’s a haunting book that you will want to reread.

Code Name Verity isn’t perfect, but I expect to see it on many mock Printz lists at the end of the year.  It’s a slow book, and it’s not a typical YA.  I think it will appeal to adult readers and I plan to recommend it to some of my colleagues.  I also think my STEM students will love this one, because of the intense focus on pilots, engineering, planes, and and radios.  It would make a fabulous cross-curricular read, and I am thinking about ways to use it with my seniors during their 21st Century Human Condition unit.

Highly recommended for YA and adult readers.

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

One for the Murphys was recommended to me by many of my Twitter friends.  A lot of my middle grade reading had to take a backseat for last few months, as I finished my National Board work and tried to keep up with the reading my students were doing.  I finally had a chance to sit down and read Hunt’s debut novel and I’m so glad that I did.

Carley is placed in temporary foster care after her mother’s boyfriend almost beats the two of them to death.  While her (neglectful and abusive) mother is in a coma, Carley is sent to live with the Murphy family.  What I loved about this book is that Hunt doesn’t place Carley in the family and then turn this into a happy, everyone-loves-each-other story.  It’s realistic, which means you will want to keep your tissues close.  Carley is angry, hurt, and lost when she arrives at the Murphy’s house and she has a lot to process.  The Murphy boys also have to learn to deal with this new “sister” who has temporarily invaded their lives, taking their mother’s attention and time from them.  And Mr. Murphy isn’t all that sure that they are doing the right thing, either.

But this isn’t just a book that will make you cry.  Hunt’s lyrical prose will also have you laughing out loud, sometimes while tears are running down your face.  Carley is a pip, and her attitude will remind you of many tweens in your own life.  She has an attitude, but she is also vulnerable.  She thinks she knows everything, but she’s also lost.  In other words, she is a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager but she has been forced to grow up too fast.

One for the Murphys was nothing like I expected it to be.  It’s not just another middle grade novel to hand off to girls who like contemporary tales.  I would not hesitate to give this to my freshman, because I think they could get a lot out of it.  Readers are almost forced to empathize with Carley and to contemplate the importance of giving people the benefit of the doubt.  We can never know what another person is going through, so it’s important to be understanding and compassionate.  At the same time, Carley shows the reader how important it is to let your guard down sometimes and let the world (or at least one person) in.

 

Highly recommended.  I also think this would make a fabulous read aloud in middle school classrooms.

 

*review copy courtesy of the publisher

 

Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner

It’s appropriate that I am publishing this review today, as I watch severe weather warnings scroll across the bottom of my TV.  Kate Messner’s Eye of the Storm is a science novel (a term coined by Betsy Bird) about a dark future where storms have taken over the weather pattern and have pushed people out of their homes and into planned communities.

I loved this novel.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have a weak spot for the post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre.  But I am also a huge science geek.  I struggled to choose a major in college, because I loved biology and English.  I went to a pre-engineering academy for high school.  And even today, I still raise monarch butterflies and subscribe to too many science blogs to list.  I was excited when I read that Kate was writing a book heavily based on meteorological science and I begged an ARC off the publicist at NCTE.

Jaden’s dad is a meteorological engineer and he invites her to the middle of storm country to attend a camp for gifted and talented middle schoolers.  She is happy to spend time with her father and his family and as a science geek, she looks forward to camp.  But when she gets to Oklahoma, she realizes that everything is not as it seems.  Her father’s planned, engineered stormsafe community seems to be going above and beyond in order to keep the residents safe from harm. But by avoiding the storms, they may be putting those outside the community in danger.  Once Jaden starts camp, she befriends some of the farm kids from outside the community and they all begin to dig a bit deeper into the storms.

Eye of the Storm  is recommended for middle graders, but I think it will appeal to high school readers, too.  Jaden is a great heroine who is smart, geeky, and fun.  The science in the book is top-notch and Messner keeps you on the edge of your seat.  The teens/tweens read as real kids and as a teacher of gifted students, I recognized a lot of my own students in her characters.  One warning: Be sure to have some meteorology books on hand because when kids finish this one they are going to want to read a lot about storm systems!

Highly recommended for middle school and high school libraries.  A great read for upper elementary students, too!

*ARC courtesy of the publisher at NCTE

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Grab a box of tissues, find a comfy chair, turn off the cell phone and the computer, and settle down to read Jo Knowles’ See You at Harry’s. When Kate Messner advised me to search for an ARC at NCTE, she warned me that the book would make me cry.  I was thrilled to

get an ARC and when I sat down to read, I figured it would be sad but that I wouldn’t cry because it was probably just another sad middle grade book.

This is not a book that’s about what you think it will be about.  It is a book, though, that will take your heart and run it through the equivalent of a paper shredder over and over again.  You will find yourself stifling gasping sobs and weeping on the pages in front of you.  This book will break your heart but you will love it anyway.Oh readers.  How wrong I was.

 

See You at Harry’s is a conversation book.  You will need to talk about it when you are finished.  I passed my ARC to a student reader who came to me the next day raving about how unpredictable the book was.  Today she told me she is going out to buy her own finished copy because even though she already read it, she needs to own her own copy.  It’s just that good.

Highly, highly recommended for middle grade and high school readers.  This one crosses the fence, folks.  Pass it on to the readers in your life and they will be grateful.

 

 

*ARC courtesy of publisher, via NCTE Annual

Thumped by Megan McCafferty

Last November, while at NCTE, I was ecstatic when I checked the program and realized I would have the opportunity to meet Megan McCafferty. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I read Sloppy Firsts (Jessica Darling, Book 1).  Jessica and I are kindred spirits.  I also read and reviewed Bumped when it was released. Megan doesn’t live to far from me but I’ve never been able to make it to any of her local signings.  Needless to say, I was very happy that I would get a chance to meet her, even if it was in Chicago instead of NJ!

I waited on the long line for Megan (one of the only lines I waited on at NCTE!) and I was looking forward to getting a copy of Bumped signed (which I reviewed here).  When I got closer to the table where they were selling the paperbacks, I almost fainted.  They had ARCs of Thumped on the table! Thumped was scheduled for an April release, so I was not expecting to see ARCs at NCTE, in November. My day was pretty much made. The only thing that made it better was getting my ARC signed by Megan, who was a complete sweetheart. She even recognized me from blogging and Twitter. :)

I read Thumped as soon as I got home because I had a waiting list for it. My colleague, who teaches Biology, had really enjoyed the first book in the series, so I wanted to pass it on to him. I read Thumped in one sitting and absolutely loved it.

Thumped is awesome.  Absolutely awesome.  I recommend the series to upper-YA readers and adults.  In a culture where millions of people watch sixteen-year old girls give birth and raise their babies on TV, McCafferty has crafted a speculative dystopian world that resembles our own a little too much.  You know the saying “too close for comfort”? That’s what McCafferty has crafted in these books.
Thumped picks up about eight months after the first volume left off. Harmony is back with her church family and Melody is the pregnant girl.  Think Beyonce’s pregnancy times a million.  Her every move is calculated and tracked by her fans.  Both girls are about to give birth, but it’s not as simple as it seems.  Before either girl gives birth, they are brought together once again and some tough decisions are made.  I can’t tell you much more because it will give it away.  Just know that this is a book you won’t be able to put down once you start it.

The best part of McCafferty’s writing in these books is the world building.  The slang she uses is intense but you quickly slip into the world she has created and the language becomes your language.   I know the word choice made it difficult for some readers to get through the first volume, but it’s really the best part of the book for me.

And you know what else I love?  The sarcasm in these books.  People, I am sarcastic. Seriously. All. the.time.  It’s a problem.  And I know that there were some people who took issue with the premise of these books and seemed to miss the whole point- it’s a satire.  But it’s the best kind of satire; the type that makes the reader really think.  You will close this book and you will wonder how we can ensure this doesn’t happen in our world.  I think teens will read this pair of books and think about the repercussions of having babies when they are still a child themselves. These aren’t books you can finish and file away in the back of your mind.  These books are intended to make you think and think you will!

Highly recommended for mature readers.  As with the first volume, I’d recommend reading it yourself before placing it in a classroom library, but I think it is a valuable addition to any library.  Definitely a high school book (and even college!), but I wouldn’t recommend it for middle school readers.

Final Four by Paul Volponi

Despite working on my National Board portfolio almost non-stop during March, I did make time to read a few books and watch March Madness.  March Madness is my favorite time of year and I love rooting for the Cinderella teams, the underdogs, the surprises.  When I received a copy of Paul Volponi’s The Final Four from the publisher, I made sure that I put on top of my TBR pile.  I read it between the second and third rounds and it was better than any game I watched on TV.  This is a fantastic book and one I highly recommend for high school libraries.  I also think it will appeal to middle school readers.

The book is told over the course of overtime in a single Final Four game.  The reader sees the game through the eyes of four individual players, with snippets shared from the announcers and newspaper articles.  Malcolm is a boy from the inner city whose sister was killed in a drive-by shooting. He is only interested in looking out for himself and he is a one-and-done player, leaving for the NBA as soon as the season ends. MJ, Michael Jordan (the most unfortunate name for a boy who likes basketbal, who is trying to do well in school and make a better life for himself. Roko, a Croatian teen whose uncle was killed by the mafia in his home country, is trying to honor his uncle’s memory. Crispin is from Louisiana and is engaged to the head cheerleader, but suddenly isn’t sure it’s what either of them should be doing.  All four players come with baggage and they all have to contribute in the final moments of the most important game of their life.

The set-up is spot-on.  I felt like I was watching the game and I was on the edge of my seat throughout the book.  All four players ring true and the background information is great.  And this isn’t just an action-packed story about a basketball game.  Volponi forces the reader to think about the money and prestige that come along with NCAA basketball.  Is it enough to “pay” college athletes with a free education when their school is potentially making millions off of their work on the court? Should college players be allowed to play a single season and then move into the NBA at 18 or 19 years old?

Volponi is a great realistic fiction writer and all of his novels are must-haves for high school libraries.  The Final Four is another slam dunk from Volponi and I can’t recommend it enough.  Even those who don’t particularly like basketball will find themselves pulled into the world that is NCAA March Madness.

 

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