A Handful of Stars

As you may know, I don’t typically read dog books by choice. If I read a book with a dog on the cover, it’s usually because that book is on an award list, I’ve gotten a review copy, or a friend has guilted me into it. (Hi, Jessie!) Well, my latest read, a book with a dog front and center on the cover, is one of those that I felt I had to read, especially if I plan to promote it to my students. I picked up this book, Cynthia Lord’s A Handful of Stars, because it’s nominated for next year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Before I give a short synopsis of A Handful of Stars, I will tell you that I enjoyed this book. Despite the dog on the cover, the dog in the story, in my opinion, was not the biggest part of the story. More than anything, he precipitated the events that led to the book’s central relationship. I can live with that.

Lily never would have thought that her blind dog and a peanut butter sandwich could lead to a remarkable friendship, but that’s exactly what happened. When her dog, Lucky, slips his leash and rushes headlong into danger, it’s Salma Santiago’s sandwich that redirects him and saves the day.

Salma is a migrant worker who travels with her family to Lily’s hometown in Maine each year to work in the blueberry fields. Before now, Lily never gave much thought to the migrant workers, but her blooming friendship with Salma is opening her eyes. While Lily stays in one place, Salma moves from place to place all year long. That makes it hard to form lasting friendships or become part of a community. Even with those differences, though, the two girls form an almost instant connection

Lily and Salma grow even closer as they paint bee houses, plan to save Lucky’s eyesight, and prepare for the Downeast Blueberry Festival. The festival marks the end of the blueberry season, and one of the highlights of the event is a pageant. Lily isn’t interested in entering the pageant, but Salma is.

Lily isn’t so sure about Salma’s plans to enter the pageant. After all, no migrant worker ever has. She helps her new friend, though, because that’s simply what friends do. Salma may not be one of the local girls, but she contributes just as much to their community as anyone else, and she deserves to be a part of this special event.

Will Salma win the title of Downeast Blueberry Queen? Will Lily and Salma find a way to save Lucky’s eyesight? What will become of this special friendship once blueberry season ends? Answer these questions and many more when you read A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord.


In my opinion, A Handful of Stars is a particularly timely book. I think it emphasizes commonalities and bonds of friendship regardless of socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds. Lily and Salma’s relationship teaches all who read this book that a friend is a friend, no matter where they’re from or what they do. Sure, there may be bumps in the road, but the most important thing is to be there for each other. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a few adults who could stand to learn this lesson.

Aside from the larger themes in this book, A Handful of Stars is also great for introducing concepts like the relationships between bees and plants, expressing oneself through art, trying new things, and even caring for dogs with special needs. All of these different things give this special book broad appeal. I know I’ll have no problem selling this book to nearly all of my 3rd-5th grade students. (FYI, I think the book is a good fit for any upper elementary or middle grade reader…even one who may have an aversion to dog books.)​

Click here for more information on this book and others by Cynthia Lord.

Hero

It’s no secret that “dog books” circulate heavily in my school library. Most of the time, all I need to do is display a book with a dog on the cover, and it doesn’t stay on the shelf very long. Well, thanks to Sarah Lean, I now have one more “dog book” to share with my students. That book is Hero, and it was released to the masses this past Tuesday.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Hero through Goodreads First Reads, but I didn’t make time to finish it until last night…and I did read the bulk of the book in a single evening. It was a quick, engaging read suitable for anyone–young or old–who has ever imagined themselves to be extraordinary, struggled with fitting in or standing up for what’s right, or had a special bond with a beloved animal. (I’m pretty sure that covers everybody.)

Hero highlights heroic actions–from both humans and canines–in everyday situations…and in circumstances that defy even the most vivid imaginations.

Leo Biggs often imagines himself as a gladiator, fighting in the Roman amphitheater and trying to win the favor of Jupiter. In real life, though, Leo is a bit of an outcast. He only has one real friend–at least, just one human friend–but Leo longs to be seen as brave, popular, and extraordinary. And one day, he thinks he has his chance…

After a rather interesting episode at school, Leo gains the notice of Warren Miller, probably the coolest guy at school. Warren invites Leo to hang out after school…but Leo has to prove himself worthy of being in Warren’s crowd. Even though Leo is hesitant about what is asked of him, he’s willing to do just about anything to be popular. Leo couldn’t know, though, that his actions would lead to more trouble than even his powerful imagination could conjure.

One day, Warren and his crew try to convince Leo to have a little “fun” with Jack Pepper, his neighbor’s dog. Leo knows what’s going on is wrong, and he doesn’t really want to participate. What happens next changes everything Leo feels about himself and what the people in town think of him. Leo takes credit for saving Jack Pepper’s life (even though it was really the other way around), and now everyone thinks he’s some kind of hero. Only Leo, Warren and friends, and little Jack Pepper know the truth…but none of them are talking.

Leo is enjoying his new status as a town hero, but part of him knows that he’s living a lie. One day, however, something happens that puts Leo’s vision of himself as a hero to the test. A catastrophic event hits the town, and Jack Pepper is put in real danger. Leo knows it’s up to him to save this little dog, but what can one boy do in a truly perilous situation?

Will Leo finally step up and be the hero that Jack Pepper needs? Will Leo–or anyone else–ever reveal what actually happened when he “saved” Jack Pepper to begin with? And will Leo ever discover what it really means to be a hero? Answer these questions and many more when you read Hero by Sarah Lean.

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Hero is a good book for illustrating the importance of being true to oneself and standing up for what’s right…even when it’s not easy. This book also emphasizes the value of all types of friendships–those with kids, adults, and even animals. As the story progresses, Leo begins to realize that real friends are loyal, even when he doesn’t deserve it, and he needs to do whatever is necessary to prove his loyalty as well. Sometimes, that simply means being upfront and honest about his mistakes and doing whatever he can to make things right.

I think Hero is a good fit for most elementary and middle grade readers. It deals with issues like bullying, honesty, popularity, imagination, bravery, friendship, and, of course, caring for animals. I’m sure this book will be a big hit in my own school library.

For more information about Hero and other books by Sarah Lean, check out her website. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahLean1.

 

 

Insurgent

Warning!  Read Divergent by Veronica Roth before continuing!  (And, honestly, if you haven’t already read Divergent, I’m silently judging you.  Just kidding…but not really.)

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that Veronica Roth’s Divergent was picked as my top read of 2011.  Well, it looks like the sequel, Insurgent, is in the running for the top book of 2012.  (The jury is still out on which book is better.  I’m still trying to decide.)  I finished reading Insurgent yesterday morning, and I was totally blown away.  The ending alone made me utter a few choice words, and I’m still processing a lot of what happened and what it could mean for book three.  This post will likely be a short one—for me, anyway—because I don’t want to spoil things too much for you guys, but I also don’t quite know how to put my feelings on this book into words…but I’ll try.

Insurgent picks up almost immediately where Divergent concluded.  (It might behoove you to reread the final chapter of Divergent before starting Insurgent, or just check out this link to Veronica Roth’s blog for a handy-dandy “guide to remembering stuff before you read Insurgent,” http://veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com/2012/04/but-i-read-divergent-year-ago-your.html.)

  
Tris, Tobias (also known as Four), and company are on the run after the Erudite attack on Abnegation (including the simulation that turned many Dauntless members into assassins).  Tris trusts Tobias with her life and her heart, but she knows that even he is keeping secrets from her.  Tris is crumbling from the inside out, overcome with grief and guilt over the deaths of her parents and the actions that led her to this point.  She wants to confide all to Tobias, but how can she when she doesn’t know how he’ll react to the heavy burden she’s carrying?  Especially since he’s got his own demons to overcome.

As Tris and Tobias are trying to figure out where they stand with each other—and with the remaining members of their factions/families—they must also worry about the war being waged all around them.  Who can they trust with the truth of their Divergence (aptitude for more than one faction)?  How can they combat the Dauntless traitors who have allied with the Erudite?  Can they convince Candor, Amity, the remaining Abnegation, and the factionless to join in their quest to overthrow the Erudite who wish to control everyone and everything?  What if these groups have their own agendas?

War has broken out between the factions, and no one knows who can truly be trusted.  Friends (and family) become enemies.  Enemies become allies.  And secrets are revealed that shake what little foundation is left in Tris’ world.  What does it really mean to be Divergent in this war-torn society, and why is the Erudite leader—and all-around evil genius—Jeanine so determined to wipe them out?  What is Jeanine trying to hide, and can Tris find out before everything she has left is destroyed?  The truth is out there, and it’s up to Tris to bring it to light…no matter what the cost.

I’ve tried not to give too much away here, and I’m pretty sure I’ve succeeded.  This is one book you really need to read for yourself.  Like I said before, the ending alone was enough to send me into a cursing frenzy.  (I just reread it a few minutes ago, and it managed to shock me all over again.)  Totally didn’t see that coming.  In my everyday life, I hate surprises, but I love it when a book manages to surprise me.  It doesn’t happen often enough.  If you can’t tell, I thoroughly enjoyed Insurgent, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this epic journey will end.  Now, the countdown is on to book three!  The title and cover are still TBA, and I’m assuming we can expect the book to be released sometime in May of 2013.

If you want to learn more about the Divergent trilogy and author Veronica Roth, visit http://veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com/, http://thedivergenttrilogy.com/, check out the Facebook pages at http://www.facebook.com/#!/DivergentSeries and http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Veronica-Roth/108433975887375, and follow the author on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/VeronicaRoth. You may also like this book trailer from Harper Teen (that gives absolutely nothing away).

I would like to add that, even though the majority of them were the bad guys in this book, I still consider myself a member of the Erudite faction (as I’m sure most other librarians would).  I spend most of my life in the pursuit of knowledge, and I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others…sometimes even when they prefer me to shut up.  If you are a proud Erudite member, you may want to check out the Erudite Faction tumblr site at http://eruditefactionnews.tumblr.com/.

Divergent

After finishing my lastest read, Divergent by Veronica Roth, I don’t know how I can possibly write a post that will do this book justice.  Yes, it was that good.  We’re talking Hunger Games good here.  I was utterly enthralled by this story, particularly having to choose your entire future at the age of sixteen.  (I can’t even remember what I wanted to be when I was sixteen, and I changed my major four times in college–and still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up when I graduated.  Luckily, I eventually figured it out.)  The choices aren’t always clear, and they lead our main character, Tris, into a very uncertain future…

In the not-too-distant future, society is split up into five factions based on particular virtues:  Candor (honest), Amity (peaceful), Erudite (intelligent), Dauntless (brave), and Abnegation (selfless).  Every year, sixteen-year-olds must choose which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives.  They can stay with their families’ factions, or they can leave everything behind and choose a different faction.  Beatrice Prior, who grew up in Abnegation, doesn’t know what to do.  Her aptitude test doesn’t help her situation, either, as her results were inconclusive (not an entirely normal situation).  Beatrice is told that she’s Divergent, but she must not let anyone know about it.  She’s not entirely sure what this means, but she realizes that keeping her secret could be a matter of life and death.

Beatrice is torn between the family she loves and her own desires.  Can she leave her life of selflessness behind and look to a future without the support of her family?  Beatrice makes a choice that surprises everyone around her.  She leaves her old life behind, renames herself Tris, and works to be the best initiate her new faction has ever seen.  It’s not exactly easy.  Some of the other initiates look down on her because she’s from Abnegation, she’s small, and she’s, quite frankly, making them look bad.  Tris is bullied unmercifully, and an attempt is even made on her life, but Tris remains strong.  She makes some friends and gains the notice of one of her instructors, an eighteen-year-old with the odd nickname of Four.  But Four is not the only one who has noticed Tris…

As Tris and Four grow closer, Tris wonders if she’s found someone like her–a Divergent–someone whose test results were unclear, someone who could belong in almost any faction, someone who would be killed if the secret were discovered.  Can she trust Four with her secret?  And can Tris figure out why divergence is so bad?   What is so dangerous about being Divergent, and why will the faction leaders do everything they can to find and eliminate these threats?  A couple of these leaders suspect the truth about Tris, and they are watching her constantly for signs that she might pose a threat.  But a threat to what?

As Tris learns more about her self, she also learns more about her perfect society.  She discovers that tensions are running high among the factions, and some of those in power are preparing for war.  Tris knows she has to do something, but what?  With everything unraveling around her, what can she possibly do to prevent a massacre of her former faction, Abnegation?  Can Tris use her status as Divergent to save those she loves, or will it cause her to lose everything?  Read Divergent by Veronica Roth to learn how one choice has the power to change a life forever.

I hope this post has whetted your appetite for this book.  It is truly outstanding, and I think it will be very popular with both male and female readers.  It might also be interesting to think about which faction you would choose to be in if you were a part of this society.  I know I couldn’t be in Dauntless (I’m a wuss) or Candor (I lie remarkably well), and I think I’m much too selfish to be in Abnegation.  I could probably fit okay into Amity because I’m kind of a pacifist, but I believe I would be best suited for Erudite.  I love to learn, and a lifetime spent on academic pursuits definitely appeals to me.  (If you read this book, though, please don’t judge me by the Erudite faction members you encounter.  Some of them are just scary.)

If you’ve enjoyed books like The Hunger Games, Matched, The Maze Runner, Delirium, My Beginning, Birthmarked, or The Silenced, I think you will find another winner in Divergent.  The second book in the Divergent series, Insurgent, is scheduled for a 2012 release, and the third book, currently untitled, should be out sometime in 2013.  For more information on this exciting new series and author Veronica Roth, please visit http://veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com/.