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

Latasha and the Little Red Tornado

When Michael Scotto emailed me to ask if I would be interested in reading a review copy of his novel, Latasha and the Little Red Tornado, I wasn’t sure if it was for me. I try to focus on YA titles these days, because those are the books my students are reading. It takes a special middle grade book (especially if it’s on the younger end of the spectrum!) to get my attention. But Michael hooked me when he mentioned that one aspect of the plot dealt with the main character trying to train her puppy. Been there, done that! I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give the book a shot.

When the book came, I placed it on my TBR pile which was taking over my life. I was in the middle of reading for the Cybils and didn’t have a lot of time to read anything else. I finally got a chance to read Latasha and the Little Red Tornado a few weeks ago and I loved it!

Latasha is adorable. She is intelligent, well-meaning, and wants to be grown up more than anything in the world. Her best friend is her puppy, Ella Fitzgerald. But Latasha struggles to deal with her mother’s new job and the fact that her landlady is now her babysitter. Plus, Ella just won’t listen and the landlady is not a fan of disobedient dogs. So Ella decides she will train Ella to be the perfect tenant.

This book is adorable! I can’t wait to pass it on to some of my younger cousins. Latasha is easy to like and easy to relate to. The dog training aspect of the story is well-done and realistic and you can’t help but love Ella. She is just so cute! But the plot is anything but predictable- brace yourself because you won’t see the ending coming!

Highly recommended for middle grade readers, particularly in 4th/5th grade!

Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood by Jame Richards

This marking period my seniors are focusing on environmental and engineering disasters.  We just read Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and our next book is David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood. When I received a review copy of Jame Richards’ Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood over the summer, I knew I would want to read it closer to when we were focusing on the Johnstown Flood disaster.  Over the holiday weekend I finished the book and I can not wait to share it with my seniors.  I plan to make it our read-aloud this marking period because it will be such a great companion piece for McCullough’s book, especially as Richards was inspired by McCullough’s book to write Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood.

Told in verse, from five different perspectives, Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood does not overly focus on the disaster itself.  Instead, it takes the history and helps the reader imagine what life was like for the people who experienced the dam burst and subsequent flood.  For the most part, the reader follows Celestia, an upper-class girl who falls in love with a local boy, Peter.  Maura is a young mother struggling to raise four children while her husband, Joseph, works on the railroad. Her struggle to escape the deluge with her children is awe-inspiring and tear-inducing. I really liked Kate, a tough nurse (who has lost her childhood love to drowin),  who meets up with all the other characters at some point and even saves their lives.  The verse captures each characters emotions perfectly and the varied perspectives allow the reader to see the disaster from different viewpoints.

The Johnstown flood killed 2200 people, but I have never read any YA historical fiction about this horrible engineering disaster.  However, I also think this historical fiction novel will appeal to readers who shy away from historical fiction, because it is light on facts and heavy on story.  The events of the flood are woven into the fabric of the characters’ lives and you never feel like you are reading a historical account.  Instead, you feel like you know each character and are just hearing their story.  Teens and MG readers will readily point out the similarities to Hurricane Katrina (unidentified bodies, sickness spreading, the flood itself, the upper-class reaction) and Three Rivers Rising would be a fabulous read aloud or literature circle book.  I imagine that the conversations that would stem from this book would be stellar.  I plan to find out when I begin reading it with my seniors tomorrow!

*review copy courtesy of publisher

Eighth Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

On the first day of  eighth grade, Reggie lived every student’s worst nightmare- he puked.  On stage.  Practically on the principal.  In front of everyone.  Now, his classmates only refer to him as Pukey.  Along with his out-of-work father, his annoying older sister (and her drama), and his issues at school, Reggie has a lot on his plate.  In other words, he is your typical young teen.  His greatest escape is his greatest creation- Nightman.  With his best friend, Joe C., drawing the illustrations and Reggie writing the story, his comic allows him to be the superhero he wishes he really was.

When his youth group gets involved at the local homeless shelter, Reggie’s eyes are opened to some of the problems in his own neighborhood.  His best friend, Ruthie, always looking globally and acting locally, is thrilled at the prospect of him taking on more of the world’s issues.  His other best friend, Joe C., is a little more uncomfortable with the whole thing.  Then Reggies learns that his “Little Buddy”, kindergartner Charlie, is a resident at the shelter.  But no one is more surprised than Reggie when he suddenly leaps on a table during lunch and declares his candidacy for 8th grade class president.

Really?  Can a kid everyone calls “Pukey” really become president?  And can anyone win a middle school election by talking about real issues, instead of running on a platform of popularity?

I was thrilled with this debut novel.  Longer than a typical middle grade novel, it fits that older-middle-grade niche perfectly.  I have a lot of 6th graders who are too old for many middle grade books but not really ready for YA.  Reggie is an eighth grader dealing with the day-to-day problems of being in middle school.  There are girl issues, family issues, popularity issues, faith issues,  and even global issues.  While it may sound like a kid volunteering at a homeless shelter is a little preachy (or unrealistic), Rhuday-Perkovich writes it perfectly.  Reggie is uncomfortable and unsure of himself for the first few visits, but he grows and develops as a person with each subsequent visit to the shelter.

Make no assumptions- Reggie isn’t perfect.  He isn’t a goody-two-shoes or unbelievable as a teen.  He struggles with making decisions and he doesn’t always make the right ones.  In fact, he makes the wrong decisions an awful lot.  Just like a real kid.

This is a don’t midd debut from an author I expect to hear great things from.  It wouldn’t surprise me to hear about Eighth-Grade Superzero come next year’s award season. This is a superbly written book about growing up in today’s world.

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