Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Endangered won’t be released until October 1st, but I am publishing this early so that you can place your pre-orders now.  Endangered was hands-down the best book I read this summer.  I read it straight through, in the middle of the night, because I could not put it down.  The book made it’s way to the top of my TBR pile after I tweeted a request for realistic YA with a focus on science.  When a few Twitter pals recommended Eliot Schrefer’s upcoming book I remembered seeing a few mentions of the book at BEA back in May.  The ARC quickly climbed to the top of my TBR pile and I am very glad it did.  Like I said, it was my favorite book of the summer!

For those of you who don’t know me in real life, I am a science girl.  I went to a pre-engineering and science high school and spent my first year of college struggling to decide between English and biology as a major.  I was a part of Project SUPER during my freshman year in college, which “is an enrichment program for undergraduate women interested in pursuing the sciences, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.”  We visited labs all over campus, met with mentors, and participated in research.  In the end, I became an education major with a double major in English.  However, I am still a science girl at heart.  All you have to do is look at my involvement with the Monarch Teacher Network to know that!

Back on the subject of Endangered.  Books about animals, with a focus on biology or conservation, are my bread and butter.  For some reason, there is a severe lack of these books in YA.  (Other than dystopian, science fiction books).  But Endangered is the book to beat all books in the genre!  It’s real, it’s gritty, and it will break your heart.  But the best part is the science is all real and the desperate need for conservation is all too real in a part of the world that often can’t feed it’s people, let along focus on the innocent creatures surrounding them.

Endangered is the truly exceptional story of Sophie, a teenage girl whose mother runs a bonobo sanctuary in Congo.  Bonobos are our closest relatives (we share 98% of our DNA, more than chimps) and they are surprisingly human-like.  However, they live in the war-torn Congo and are in danger of becoming the first great apes to become extinct under our watch.  Sophie’s mother works alongside the government to raise orphaned bonobos in order to release them into the wild later in life.  But when Sophie personally rescues Otto, an orphaned bonobo, she becomes attached to him.

But Sophie and Otto’s lives are in danger when a coup threatens the stability of the country.  Sophie and Otto are forced to flee into the jungle in order to survive and they must make their way to safety.  Together, alongside some of the surviving bonobos from the sanctuary, they must fight to stay alive amidst revolution and chaos.

I can not recommend this book enough.  However, be aware that it is a war story, and thus I would recommend it for high school readers and not those in middle school.  It’s also full of facts that are woven seamlessly into the narrative.  I’d love to have my students read this as we study imperialism in Africa.  It’s a natural ladder to (and even from) Achebe and Adichi’s works.  Endangered is a tale of survival amid violence and Schrefer doesn’t shy away from the gory details at times.  And because those details sometimes involve mistreated animals, I found it hard to read at times.  However, I also could not stop reading.  And that’s the magic of Endangered.

I finished the book a few weeks ago and it’s still on my mind.  I immediately passed it on to my co-worker who teaches biology.  I plan to place it on my list of recommended summer reads next year.  And I can’t wait to booktalk to my students.  It’s the perfect mix of humanity, history, biology, conservation, compassion, the human condition, and current events.  I find myself still researching bonobos as I type this!

Highly, highly recommended.  And I fully expect to hear this title brought up in many awards conversations.

(Eliot Schrefer will be presenting at NCTE in November.  I know I can’t wait to be a part of that audience!)

 

*ARC courtesy of the publisher

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

When I attended BEA in May, a publicist at Bloomsbury and Walker Books handsold me an ARC of Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. She won me over with her description of a kick-butt heroine and the comparisons to Game of Thrones.  A lot of my students are big fans of Game of Thrones so I am always on the lookout for more readalikes.  Later, I read blurbs that compared Maas’ story to Megan Whalen Turner, who is a veritable genius of the fantasy genre.

Throne of Glass began it’s life on the website FictionPress a few years ago and amassed a huge following.  There are many, many reviews of the original online.  However, the original is no longer available and it sounds like I might have enjoyed that version more.  Not that there is anything wrong with the published version.  I think it will have many fans and I know a lot of my students will really enjoy it.  I was just hoping for less of a love story, and apparently the love triangle was an addition made in the move from FictionPress to publication.  But don’t get me wrong- this is a book that I think the intended audience will love and I highly recommend it for high school classroom libraries.

Adarlan’s Assassin has been imprisoned in the salt mines doing hard labor since she was seventeen.  But after being enslaved for the past year she is suddenly chosen to meet with the Prince.  He has chosen her as his champion in a twisted competition being run by the king.  Should Celaena win the competition she will become the King’s Assassin and eventually earn her freedom.

I enjoyed the story a lot, but it wasn’t exactly what I was promised.  I wanted an epic story, high fantasy, and a story I could not put down.  The sword fights were great and I loved some of the characters.  But it was not an epic story and there were very few similarities to Megan Whalen Turner or Game of Thrones.  However, I do think the target audience will enjoy it so I recommend it for classroom libraries.

Now, can I just take a second to tell all publishers that it’s ridiculous to blurb a book as the ” _______ (fill in the blank- Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Lord of the Rings) for girls”.  Can we stop this weird need to create books for boys and books for girls?  Because you know who reads Game of Thrones in my classes?  Girls!  Imagine that!  So stop marketing books long gender lines.  Totally unnecessary.

 

*ARC courtesy of the publisher

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

I love, love, love Rebecca Stead.  I reviewed her debut, First Light, in one of my first blog posts ever.  And I have very fond memories of sharing When You Reach Me as a read aloud in my sixth grade classes. I’ve been waiting for her newest novel for what seems like ages!

Liar & Spy does not disappoint. Rebecca Stead is the queen of setting.  Her New York City stories are utter perfection; I feel like I am walking the streets with her characters, listening to the traffic, and in this case, watching the parrots.  But her characters don’t suffer for this.  Georges (yes, with a silent ) is a middle schooler dealing with a load of issues.  His parents recently had to sell their beautiful home and move the family to a small apartment.  His father lost his job and is trying to build his own business now.  Mom is always at the hospital, where she works as a nurse.  Georges’ best friend is suddenly a “cool” kid and can’t give him the time of day.  So when Georges meets Safer, a pretty weird kid who lives in the new building, they form a strange friendship.  It’s strange because Safer is obsessed with spying on his neighbors.  Think Harriet the Spy, but slightly more modern.

Ahh, but things aren’t as they seem. At least not at first glance.  Stead is a master of plot twists and it continues to be true in Liar & Spy.  I won’t spoil it here, but it’s not a sci-fi twist like Stead’s last novel.  However, it’s just as masterfully crafted.  Upon finishing the book, and upon finishing it as a read aloud, I wanted to turn back to first page and reread it.  There were clues I missed along the way and I wanted to go back and catch them.  And my campers felt the same way.  One of them emailed me to say that she went out and purchased her own copy to read because she enjoyed it so much!

Highly recommended.  Great for middle school and high school readers, and even upper elementary!

*review copy courtesy of the publisher

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.

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