Cursed

As some may have noticed, May has been a slow month here at Knight Reader. This is only my fourth post this month, and I typically do much better than that. My fellow educators, though, can probably figure out why this month has been “off.” In short, May is nuts. With testing, meetings, end-of-year reports, the general craziness of both students and staff, and so much other stuff going on, I’ve barely even felt like reading, much less blogging about it. (Believe it or not, this site takes a lot of energy to maintain.)

I’m hoping, however, that things will pick up soon. You see, this is the last full week of school in my district! (*Cue dance of joy.*) I’ll still have trainings, meetings, and other school stuff to do, but I also plan to devote more time to my family, my friends, and my reading. So don’t despair, dear readers. Knight Reader isn’t going anywhere yet.


Now that that’s out of the way, let’s turn to my latest read, which brought it’s own set of aggravations. It was a good book (and it should be given that it’s a 17-18 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominee), but, like a lot of readers, I get bothered when covers and titles change. This book, Cursed by Bruce Coville, was originally published as Diary of a Mad Brownie. It’s also known as The Enchanted Files #1. The cover was also completely redesigned (see below). I get that there are reasons for this, but it is a little jarring and confusing to readers. That being said, I did like the book, and I think many upper elementary and middle grade readers will as well.


Angus Cairns is a brownie–no, not a fudgy treat or a Girl Scout. He’s a wee magical creature who likes to do a bit of mischief while keeping things neat and tidy for the family he serves. For Angus, though, there’s not exactly a choice in which family he’s tied to.

Thanks to a curse, Angus is bound to serve the McGonagall family. It hasn’t been a bad life. He’s been with Sarah McGonagall for years, and he’s loved living with her in Scotland. As Sarah gets older, however, Angus realizes that he’ll soon have to move on to another McGonagall descendant. This move will take him from his beloved Scotland to the strange and mysterious land of America…and the household of the messiest girl he’s ever encountered.

When Angus arrives at the Carhart househould, he’s not sure what to make of the situation. To be sure, things are a mess, and he’ll have his work cut out for him just keeping Alex, his new assignment, in order. Alex, for her part, doesn’t help matters. She seems to enjoy being a slob, and it drives Angus bananas! Things do eventually improve when Angus reveals himself to Alex, but a whole new set of problems arrives to upset their delicate balance.

The curse that binds Angus to the McGonagall family also has another part. It causes all of the men in the house where Angus resides to become obsessed with writing bad poetry. This has a huge impact on Alex’s dad, who quits his job to write songs, and her brother, who starts wearing all black and talks about leaving the soccer team. There’s only one thing to be done before this family loses everything–Angus must find a way to break this wretched curse.

Well, breaking a centuries-old curse may be easier said than done, but Angus and Alex are not alone. They are joined by Alex’s little sister, Destiny, her brother, and, perhaps strangest of all, Destiny’s kindergarten teacher. All of these people will work together, journey through the Enchanted Realm, and uncover some interesting secrets in their quest to break the curse that binds them. But what then? What could the end of this curse mean for Angus and Alex? Answer these questions and many more when you read Cursed by Bruce Coville.


Readers who love books in diary format will definitely enjoy this book. It’s also a good fit for fans of light fantasy. It’s funny, sometimes suspenseful, and thoroughly captivating. Many readers may relate to both Alex’s disorganized manner and Angus’ short temper. I’m hoping they’ll also see how these two sorted out their differences and became stronger as a result.

Given that Cursed is the first book in The Enchanted Files, you may be wondering about the next installment. Well, as of right now, there is one more book, Hatched. It’s already out, and it presents the tale of Gerald the Griffin. It looks fairly interesting, and I’m certain I’ll be placing it on my next school book order.

To learn more about Cursed, The Enchanted Files #1, Diary of a Mad Brownie, or whatever you want to call this book, visit author Bruce Coville’s website. You can also connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Enjoy!

See You in the Cosmos

It’s not very often that I read a book and think, “Man, I wish I’d listened to this as an audiobook.” But that’s just what happened with my latest read, See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng. The very nature of this book makes it a perfect story to listen to…providing you’ve got the right narrator(s). I haven’t experienced the audiobook, so I can’t speak to how well it’s done, but, like Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, this is a book that you probably need to hear to truly appreciate.

See You in the Cosmos is essentially a transcript of eleven-year-old Alex Petroski’s life. He’s recording the world around him on his Golden iPod–a tribute to the Golden Record launched by his hero, Carl Sagan–and everything that pops into his head goes into this record. But who is Alex making this recording for? Aliens, of course. Alex wants to show them what life on Earth is/was like and to provide them with the sounds of his home.

Alex talks about Carl Sagan and his canine namesake, his mom and her quiet days, his absent brother, and the rocket he’s built to launch his Golden iPod into space. He talks about his solo trip to SHARF (the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival) and the people he meets there. He also talks about what he’s discovered about his dad through Ancestry.com, and that’s what leads him on a journey that he never could have anticipated.

From his home in Colorado to New Mexico to Nevada to California and back again, Alex meets new people, makes friends, and finds a sense of family that will help him through some tough times ahead. And even when things get difficult, Alex keeps his sense of wonder about the world around him and his hope that things will work out. His attitude is contagious and may just help to change the lives and hearts of those around him.


Even without listening to this book, Alex’s voice shines through each page. He actually reminds me of one of my all-time favorite students. (Yes, all educators have favorites. Anyone who says different is lying.) My favorite student–or “My Boy,” as I like to call him–is inquisitive, funny, innocent, generous, very literal, and always wants to see the best in people…even when some of them don’t deserve it. That’s what I see in the character of Alex. He is all of those things I just mentioned, and he never holds a grudge against those who wrong him. It would have been all too easy, but, at least in my mind, Alex’s focus on the larger universe allows him to truly see the bigger picture.

So what age-range would I recommend See You in the Cosmos to? Well, I think some upper elementary readers may like it, but I think this book is ideally suited for a middle grade audience, particularly readers who appreciate science. It’s a fun, sometimes light-hearted, read, but it also deals with serious stuff like abandonment, mental health, family secrets, and holding onto true friends.

See You in the Cosmos isn’t like any book I’ve read in recent memory, and I’m betting anyone else who gives it a try will feel the same way. Read it, and let me know what you think. If you’ve read it as an audiobook, I’d also love to get your take on how that experience may differ from the print version.

For more information on this book and others by Jack Cheng, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Crenshaw

The lists of nominees for the 2017-18 South Carolina Book Awards were recently released, so I have a whole new reading list to take care of. I decided to read of one of the new Children’s Book Award nominees this weekend.

Most people familiar with children’s literature know Katherine Applegate for her outstanding Newbery-winning book, The One and Only Ivan. In Crenshaw, she gives readers yet another heart-warming story. This moving book takes a look at one boy’s life and the sudden reappearance of his imaginary friend, a very large cat named Crenshaw.

Jackson likes facts. He thinks there’s always a logical explanation for everything around him. So, obviously, there is some plausible reason for the presence of the surfboarding, human-sized, talking cat in front of him.

Jackson knows this cat. It’s Crenshaw, his imaginary friend from years ago, and there’s no rational explanation for his reappearance, so Jackson pretends he’s not seeing what’s right in front of his eyes. It’s just not possible. But he still has Crenshaw sightings from time to time. What’s going on here? Why is Crenshaw hanging around now, when he’s been gone for so long?

Well, it might have something to do with the stress of Jackson’s life. While Jackson’s parents are struggling to make ends meet, Jackson, his little sister, and their dog are dealing with being hungry, losing their few possessions, and possibly having to live in the family car. Jackson remembers when this happened before–and his first meeting with Crenshaw–and he doesn’t want to go through that again.

Could Crenshaw’s reappearance have something to do with Jackson’s worries? What could this strange cat–a cat only he (and maybe his dog) can see–possibly do to make things better? Crenshaw can’t take away Dad’s health problems. He can’t give Jackson’s parents the money they need for rent and all their other bills. He can’t make sure Jackson and his sister have enough to eat. So why is he here?

As hard as it is for Jackson to accept, some things simply defy logic. Maybe Crenshaw is back simply because Jackson needs him. Not to make everything better, but to be a friend when Jackson needs someone–human or feline, real or imagined–the most.


I liked Crenshaw, but I do wish it had a lot more Crenshaw in it. I feel like the book could have explored the relationship between Jackson and Crenshaw a bit more. It would have made the book stronger, meatier, and even more absorbing than it already was.

I think Crenshaw provides young readers with an accessible, easy-to-read look at what it may be like for kids who deal with homelessness or simply not having “enough.” The imaginary friend element is really secondary in this story. The primary focus of Crenshaw is how one young boy handles his family falling on hard times, and this book approaches the issue with creativity, empathy, and, hard as it is to believe in a book with an imaginary cat, realism.

To learn more about this book and author Katherine Applegate, check out this Crenshaw website. You may also like this book trailer produced by Macmillan Children’s Publishing. Enjoy!

The Seventh Wish

What do you get when you combine a wish-giving fish, Irish dancing, and drug addiction? You get The Seventh Wish, Kate Messner’s newest book. This book is weird, moving, and magical. It will be released this Tuesday, and it is at once fun and serious. Yes, there is a fantastical element to it, and it’s often entertaining to see how that plays out, but the book also deals with some difficult situations. Those situations are handled in a very real, accessible way, and it’s interesting to see how serious issues may be viewed through a child’s eyes.

Charlie doesn’t expect much from her ice fishing adventures with her friend and his grandmother. But when she comes across a fish that agrees to grant a wish in exchange for its freedom, Charlie reevaluates things. Maybe this fish can help Charlie, her friends, and her family get everything they’ve been hoping for.

As one could imagine, a girl isn’t going to let a wish-granting fish go to waste, so she puts it to good use. Charlie wishes for her mom to get a new job, for one friend to pass her English exam, for another to make the basketball team, and for a boy she likes to fall in love with her. Unfortunately, Charlie learns rather quickly that one must be extremely specific when speaking to a wish fish. Her wishes, however well-intended, are not turning out as she would have hoped.

Even with all of this wishing and fishing going on, Charlie still has to find time to work on her science project and practice her Irish dancing. A big dance competition is coming up, and she could have the opportunity to move up into a higher class. It’s a big deal, and Charlie has been psyching herself up for a while. She won’t let anything get in her way.

Sadly, something does happen that derails Charlie’s plans as well as everything she ever believed about her big sister. When it’s revealed that her sister, who’s been away at college, is having problems with heroin addiction, Charlie’s family–her whole world, really–changes. Everyone drops everything to help Charlie’s sister, and, while Charlie understands why, she’s also angry that she’s having to give up so much. Her dance competition, time with friends to work on their science project, and nearly everything else. Isn’t she important, too?

Charlie wonders if her wish fish could somehow help to make her sister and this horrible situation better. If she’s very careful with her words, maybe it could. Maybe her sister could come home and be the girl that Charlie always looked up to. It couldn’t hurt, right?

For a while, everything is going okay, but then something happens that shakes Charlie’s world once again, and Charlie knows that her wish fish can’t help with this one. Some things are just to big too let a little fish handle.


This book brings to mind the saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” Charlie’s wishes definitely get away from her, and she learns quickly that words have power. Some of the situations she found herself in were kind of funny. Others, as you’ve no doubt gathered, were heart-breaking.

Some adults may hesitate to put this book in elementary or middle school libraries because it deals with the topic of heroin addiction. Nothing is sugar-coated here, but I do think the topic is handled with care and empathy. Like it or not, some of our younger students deal with addiction as a daily part of their lives, and they need stories that show them that they’re not alone. I think The Seventh Wish is a book that speaks to students who’ve had siblings, parents, or friends suffering from addiction. I also think it might enlighten those who haven’t dealt with such a serious issue.

Will I be placing this book in my elementary school library? Yes, I will.

If you’d like to learn more about The Seventh Wish so that you can decide if it has a place in your school, classroom, public, or personal library, visit author Kate Messner’s website.

Many thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this wonderful book a little early.

Saving Kabul Corner

Last night, I finished yet another of the 16-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees. The book was Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai. This book is a companion novel to Shooting Kabul, but you definitely don’t need to read the first book to appreciate the second. The two stories stand on their own. (I haven’t read the first book, but I may change that after reading Saving Kabul Corner. I liked it more than anticipated.)

Before I give a synopsis of Saving Kabul Corner, let me say that I love that this book is on the SCCBA list for next year. It gives readers the opportunity to look at a realistic representation of Afghan-American culture, something that some of them only see portrayed negatively–whether on the news or in conversations they hear. Maybe it will help them to be more empathetic. At the very least, I hope this book will start some conversations, and I am thrilled to bring it to the attention of students, parents, and my fellow educators.

Life was going great for twelve-year-old Ariana until her perfect cousin Laila moved in. Where Ariana is kind of a tomboy who loves television and origami, Laila is the perfect Afghan girl. She speaks Farsi, Pukhto, and English, she cooks, she helps out at the family grocery store, and she has impeccable manners. Ariana doesn’t see how she can possibly measure up, and she’s not too happy that she has to share her room, her school, and now her friends with Laila.

Things go from bad to worse for Ariana (and the rest of her family) when another Afghan grocery store moves into their shopping center. The adults are tense due to this competing store, and there’s talk of a family feud that goes all the way back to Afghanistan. That talk only intensifies when both stores are vandalized. Neither family claims responsibility for these actions. What could possibly be going on?

Ariana, curious by nature, begins to gather clues as to what’s happening with the rival stores, and she eventually enlists the help of cousin Laila (who’s not as bad as Ariana first thought), her best friend Mariam, and Wali, the son of the other grocery store’s owner. These four kids investigate who could have something to gain by destroying the two stores. What they find will surprise everyone.

Can Ariana and company solve this mystery, save their family businesses, and somehow restore peace to their families? Find out when you read Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai.


I think Saving Kabul Corner could shine a light on a culture that many American readers may not be familiar with. I admit that I knew very little about Afghan culture before reading this book. Now, however, I want to know more. I’m hoping that my students feel the same way. This book could serve as a tool for understanding and appreciating differences–and similarities–instead of allowing preconceived notions or fear color how people are treated.

Not only does Saving Kabul Corner educate readers about Afghan culture, it also highlights the political climate in Afghanistan, now and in the past. This book does not shy away from talking about how women are treated in Afghanistan, how the Taliban came to power, and the current circumstances in the country. Many who read this book may just want to do further research about Afghanistan, its volatile history, and how America has impacted the country and its people, both positively and negatively. (An author’s note at the end of the book provides further information.)

Aside from all of the cultural and political stuff, Saving Kabul Corner is a good mystery reminiscent of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and even Scooby-Doo. (There are no dogs in this book, though. That’s a good thing, in my opinion,) I recommended this book to several of my mystery-loving students today, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy putting the puzzle pieces together as much as I did.

If you’d like more information on Saving Kabul Corner and other books by N.H. Senzai, visit her website or Twitter. As for me, I think I’ll now add Shooting Kabul to my staggering TBR pile.

Happy reading!

 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School

As of last Tuesday, we now have ten books in the wildly popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. This weekend, I devoted a little time to reading the 10th book, Old School.

In this latest installment, Greg Heffley is wondering if life was really better in the old days. He always hears his parents and his grandfather talking about the “good old days,” but he doesn’t see what’s so good about them. No decent electronics, little privacy…and no baby wipes. It all sounds pretty awful to Greg.

This year, Greg is getting a little taste of the “good old days.” For one thing, his grandfather has moved in. This causes a bit of a shuffle in the Heffley house, which means Greg now shares a room with his little brother. There’s also some added stress because Greg’s dad realizes just how much his kids don’t know how to do themselves. This leads to even more changes, like Greg taking more responsibility for himself…and older brother Rodrick getting a job.

Greg’s mom is also getting into the whole “old school” thing. She’s organizing a city-wide weekend with no electronics. This means no TV, phones, gaming systems…nothing. She wants neighbors to get outside and reconnect with each other. Greg isn’t nearly as enthused as his mother. This can only end badly for him.

And finally, there’s the big field trip his class is taking. One whole week roughing it at Hardscrabble Farms. Greg learns fairly quickly that he’s just not cut out for doing things the “old school” way. He’s a kid that enjoys his modern conveniences…and he’s not the only one.

Join Greg as he attempts to try things the old-fashioned way…and realizes that, though people in the past may have been tougher, being a wimpy kid in the present isn’t exactly a walk in the park.

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While this probably wasn’t my favorite Wimpy Kid book, I strongly related to Greg in Old School. I admit that I am spoiled, and I wouldn’t last a day without many modern conveniences (especially air conditioning). I also LOATHE camping and have little to no interest in actually going outside and talking to people. (Basically, I want to be a hermit with WiFi.)

I predict that many of my students will also relate to Greg in this book, but there will be others who think he’s crazy. They would rather be out in nature–hunting, fishing, camping–than anywhere else. But even with their differing perspectives, every kid will be able to identify with Greg in some way. Whether it’s his frustrations with his family, his attempts to make a quick buck, trying to find short-cuts around hard work, or letting situations get away from him, Greg is a thoroughly relatable character for anyone who’s ever been a kid…wimpy or not.

Now, I’m going to check the copy of Old School I borrowed back into the library and watch the kids argue over who gets to borrow it. (The nine other copies I purchased went very fast.)

If you’d like more information on Jeff Kinney and the entire Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, click here. Also, check out more about Old School in the video below.

Saint Anything

This next statement may shock some of you. Until a few days ago, I had never read a Sarah Dessen book. I know, I know. It’s a true scandal for someone who loves YA literature as much as I do. The good news is that I have remedied that situation, and I’m now prepared to read everything that Dessen has ever written. Her newest book, Saint Anything, is outstanding, and if her other books are in any way comparable, I’m already hooked.

In Saint Anything, we meet Sydney, a girl dealing with the fallout of her brother Peyton’s mistakes. Several months ago, Peyton, after claiming that he was finally going to get his act together, had a few drinks at a party and proceeded to get behind the wheel of a car. On his way home, Peyton hit a kid named David Ibarra, paralyzing him for life.

Now, Peyton is in prison, and Sydney is left to deal with her guilt and shame over her brother’s actions. And with all of her parents’ focus on Peyton and his issues, Sydney wonders if they really see her. Even her decision to transfer to public school doesn’t seem to faze them. (They don’t appear to realize that Sydney’s decision was based partly on the financial burdens created by Peyton’s actions.) She’s invisible in her own home.

At first, Sydney feels invisible at her new school as well, but that changes rather quickly. When Sydney encounters the Chatham family, she feels like she’s finally seen.

The Chathams are a close-knit family with their own share of issues. The family owns a local pizza parlor, and, almost immediately, they treat Sydney as one of their own. Layla soon becomes Sydney’s closest friend. Layla has no luck with guys, but she’s always searching for the one who will be true to her. (Also, she has a weird obsession with fries.) Then there’s Rosie, a recovering addict who is trying to get her figure skating career back on track. Mr. Chatham runs the pizza parlor and plays in a bluegrass band in his spare time. Mrs. Chatham struggles with multiple sclerosis, but that doesn’t stop her from keeping her entire family in line. And then there’s Mac…

Mac is Layla’s older brother, and Sydney is drawn to his quiet, protective nature. Even though she knows it could damage her friendship with Layla, Sydney can’t seem to help growing closer to Mac…and he feels the same way. Sydney finally feels like there’s someone who really gets her, and she won’t let go of that without a fight.

After an argument with Peyton and discovering Sydney breaking a couple of rules, Sydney’s parents finally turn their attention to their daughter. (I say “they,” but I really mean “her mother.” She leads, and Sydney’s dad sort of follows along.) They don’t want her to go down the same path that Peyton did, and they seem to think that the Chathams have something to do with what they perceive as changes in their daughter’s behavior. (They don’t see their own lack of attention as a problem, in my opinion.) They tighten the reins on Sydney, talk about transferring schools, and basically try to keep Sydney away from anything that could be a “bad influence.” What they don’t realize is that the true danger to their daughter has been right under their noses all along.

Sydney knows her parents are being unreasonable, but she doesn’t know how to convince them that a couple of mistakes do not mean she’s headed for trouble. She’s tired of being punished for Peyton’s actions, and she’s unwilling to let go of the relationships that have come to mean so much to her. What can she do to make her parents finally see her? Can Sydney reconcile her own feelings about her brother while helping her parents to see her for herself? And how will her closeness with the Chatham family help–or hinder–her efforts? Discover the answers to these questions and many more when you read Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen.

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I adored this book. The characters were wholly relatable, and I honestly felt like the Chathams made me a member of their family as I was reading. I was charmed by that entire family, particularly Layla, Mac, and Mrs. Chatham. This family was a beautiful example of how a family should come together in tough times. That provided a perfect counterpoint to Sydney’s own family.

Sydney’s parents, blinded by the experiences with their son, were exasperating. At several points during the book, I wanted to reach through the pages and smack Sydney’s mom. (I’m sure I’m not alone in this.) I know she was dealing with a hard situation the only way she knew how, but it was still frustrating to read, and Sydney’s dad didn’t really help matters. When he was around, he meekly followed along with whatever his wife wanted, even though it was clear that he often disagreed with her. Neither of them paid enough attention to their daughter…until something happened that forced them to.

Saint Anything, which I think is suitable for both middle grade and teen readers, is a wonderful book about a girl discovering herself and what it truly means to be part of a family. The Chathams provide her with the love and attention she’s craved, but they also show her that every family experiences difficulties. Those connections help Sydney cope with what is happening at home. In her own family, Sydney comes to realize that her perceptions, of her brother and her parents, may not always reflect what’s really going on.

I hope you enjoy Saint Anything as much as I did. If you’d like to learn more about it and author Sarah Dessen, click here. You may also want to connect with the lovely Ms. Dessen on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

As for me, I’m now going to add every other Sarah Dessen book to my already staggering TBR pile. Wish me luck!