Where I Belong

When I first became an elementary school librarian, I figured out pretty quickly that Mary Downing Hahn was the go-to author for scary stories. I guess that’s why the book I finished last night surprised me a bit. While parts of Where I Belong are horrific, it’s not the scary book I typically expect from this author. Oddly enough, some of my students who have no problem with ghosts, gore, or stuff like that find a few of the situations in this book a little too disturbing. It kind of makes me evaluate what really frightens people.

Brendan Doyle expects people to be mean to him. It’s pretty much all he’s known. Abandoned by his mother when he was little, Brendan has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. His current foster mom, Mrs. Clancy, doesn’t know what to do with him, and his teachers seem to feel the same way. Brendan doesn’t care much about school, so he doesn’t see why he should even try to pass the sixth grade. He doesn’t want to go to middle school anyway.

As for relating to other kids, he doesn’t. Brendan hasn’t a friend in the world, and he spends much of his time alone. He’s bullied by other kids and by a trio of ruffians who delight in terrorizing everyone they meet.

Brendan finds some measure of peace in his books, art, and visiting the forest nearby (which he’s sure is enchanted). One day, after building a private treehouse in the woods, Brendan meets an old man. He’s convinced this guy is the Green Man, the protector of the forest. Brendan looks to the Green Man as an ideal, someone to aspire to. Maybe he can escape real life and live in the forest someday, too.

Back in the real world, sixth grade is over, and Brendan is now attending summer school. He’s not enthused, even with a decent teacher and a possible friend, a girl named Shea. Shea follows him around–even when he tells her to get lost–and just will not allow him to ignore her. Almost against his will, the two become friends, and they find common ground in their love of fantasy, the forest, and family lives that aren’t so great. Shea even convinces Brendan to try a little harder at school so that she’ll have a friend in middle school. Maybe things are beginning to up for Brendan.

Unfortunately, things don’t stay so great for long. Once again, Brendan becomes the victim of the three hooligans who have given him a hard time before. This time, though, they take things a step or two further. Brendan wonders why the Green Man, guardian of the forest, doesn’t come to help him. He feels lost, broken, and alone, and he doesn’t know what to do.

But Brendan is not alone. He has Shea. He has the Green Man (who has a story all his own). He has his summer school teacher. He even has Mrs. Clancy. With their help, maybe he can find some hope. He may even find the courage to stand up to his tormentors and see justice done.

Soon, Brendan will discover that hope and friendship can overcome even the darkest times, and he’ll finally find out where he belongs.


I think I’ve made this book sound pretty good (not to pat myself on the back or anything). It is good, but I didn’t like as much as I wanted to–as much as I usually like Mary Downing Hahn books. I did cry at the end, so I was invested emotionally. I guess that’s something, but I much prefer Hahn’s spooky stories. I’m betting my students will feel the same.

Some of the situations Brendan finds himself in are, in my view, a bit too gritty for most elementary school kids. I’m thinking specifically of his run-ins with the three ruffians mentioned in my synopsis above. I think the book as a whole is fine for mature 4th/5th graders or middle school students, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a lot of my younger or less mature students. I just don’t think they’re developmentally ready for some of what Brendan encounters. (Feel free to disagree in the comments.)

For more information on Where I Belong and other books by Mary Downing Hahn, visit the author’s website.

 

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What Child Is This?

Many of my friends would probably say that I’m something of a Grinch when it comes to Christmas. I don’t decorate my house (not even a Christmas tree), I’m not much of a fan of holiday music, the idea of watching Hallmark Christmas movies makes me want to retch, and I absolutely loathe crowds, parties, and shopping (unless it’s online).

I do, however, like searching for the perfect gifts for my loved ones, enjoying a nice, quiet meal with friends and family, watching a few select holiday movies (A Christmas Story, Elf, Love, Actually, While You Were SleepingDie Hard, etc.), and reading holiday-themed books. I’ll even admit to crying my eyes out over some of them. That includes my latest read, What Child Is This? by Caroline B. Cooney.

I picked up What Child Is This? because my school’s faculty book club (made up of the most awesome teachers in the building) decided to read holiday-themed books for our December meeting. I had a lot of titles to choose from, but I landed on this one primarily because it was available through Overdrive, and I had not read it before. Whatever the reason, I’m happy I selected this book, and it’s gone a long way in getting me in the Christmas spirit.

What Child Is This? tells a Christmas story from several different perspectives.

Liz is a teen girl who seemingly has it all. Her parents give her everything she wants or needs, and they pour lots of time and money into decorating for Christmas. Unfortunately, the true meaning of the holiday escapes them, and Liz doesn’t know if there’s anything she can do about it.

Tack is a guy with a great, supportive family. They all pitch in at the family restaurant, where they set up a Christmas tree featuring paper bells. These bells have the names and Christmas wishes–often the simplest of things–of kids who would otherwise go without on Christmas morning.

Allison, Liz’s older sister, is mourning the loss of someone truly precious to her. She doesn’t know how she can possibly celebrate the holiday this year, but she’s making an effort for her husband and her little sister.

Matt has been in the foster system for years. He’s currently living with the Rowens, an older couple who likes things quiet. Matt works hard so that he doesn’t disappoint them. He knows that, if this foster home doesn’t work out, his next stop is a group home. Things are okay with the Rowens, but Matt is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. After all, nothing good ever lasts for him.

Katie is an eight-year-old girl who has hope that she’ll get a family for Christmas. Matt’s foster parents reluctantly took her in a while back, but they don’t have the energy or desire to meet the needs of a young girl. Katie holds onto hope that a real family is out there somewhere just waiting for her, and a Christmas miracle–or a wish on a paper bell–will finally bring them together.

All of these stories are about to collide, and, when all is said and done, everyone will see and feel the true spirit of Christmas.


What Child Is This? is a super-fast read, but it packs an emotional punch. I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed quite a few tears while reading. It was a moving, inspirational read that made my Grinch-like heart grow a few sizes. (I’m still not going to decorate, though.)

This book has been around for a while (since 1997), but I urge you to give it a read if you haven’t already. I think it’s perfect for middle grades on up. There may even be a few upper elementary students who would like it. Nothing felt too dated in the book–save for one mention of occurring in the 20th century and a couple of references to radios with cassette tapes–so I think it’s totally accessible nearly 20 years after its initial publication.

For more information on this book and many others by Caroline B. Cooney, check out the author’s website, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Mountain Dog

Last night, I made myself sit down and finish Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle, another of this year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees. Those who regularly follow me here or on Twitter can probably figure out why I put off reading this book for so long. If the title didn’t clue you in, take a gander at the cover.

That’s right. There’s a dog on the cover. Despite my status as an elementary librarian, I tend to shy away from animal books. (Like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I blame Old Yeller.) Well, I knew I had to read Mountain Dog so that I could talk to my students about it, so I jumped into the story this weekend. I’m happy to report that I rather enjoyed it. (Yeah, it surprised me, too.)

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In Mountain Dog, readers are introduced to Tony, a boy who has grown up in a rough environment. His mother is being sent to prison for dogfighting, and Tony is going to live in the mountains with an uncle he’s never met. Tony doesn’t know what to expect, and he’s plagued by nightmares of yelling, claws, biting…and math. Can life with an unknown uncle be better than what he’s known? Tony dares to hope so.

When Tony moves to his uncle’s home in the mountains, he’s met by Gabe, a happy, lovable dog who helps Tony’s uncle on search-and-rescue missions. Gabe, along with Tony’s uncle and a few other people, help Tony to understand life in this wild new environment, how to survive in the wilderness, and everything that happens during SAR missions.

Tony gradually begins to thrive–and even feel at home–in the mountains. He’s making friends (both human and canine), he’s writing for the school paper and his own blog, and he’s becoming more comfortable with the numbers that used to worry him so much. He can’t imagine life without his uncle and Gabe…and he doesn’t want to. Tony feels truly loved for the first time in his life, and going back to the way things were with his mom is unbearable.

How will Tony handle his uncertain future? Will he find a forever home with his uncle and Gabe, or will he be forced to leave the life he’s come to love? Learn the answers to these questions and many more when you read Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle.

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Mountain Dog is told in free verse and is a quick read that will appeal to readers in elementary and middle grades (not to mention many older animal lovers). The story is presented in both Tony’s voice and Gabe’s, and it’s interesting to see how both boy and dog view what’s going on around them. Peppered with illustrations by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov, this moving book highlights the bond between man and nature. Mountain Dog shows readers that families come in many forms…and species.

If Mountain Dog seems like the book for you, you may want to connect with author Margarita Engle on her website to learn more about her other books. Also, take a peek at the short Mountain Dog book trailer below. Enjoy!

Summer of the Gypsy Moths

My latest read, Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker, is another nominee for the 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that enthused about reading this book. I didn’t want to read one more book where kids take on too much responsibility because the adults in their lives have–in one way or another–abandoned them. (I kind of got my fill of that when I read Keeping Safe the Stars, another SCCBA nominee.) But, since I do promote all twenty SCCBA nominees, I plowed through, and, while Summer of the Gypsy Moths is not exactly my favorite book on the nominee list, I can say it was a good book, and I know many young readers will enjoy it.

While Stella’s flighty mother is drifting from one town to the next, Stella is sent to live with her Great Aunt Louise on Cape Cod. Even though Louise is kind of grumpy sometimes, Stella likes living with her. Louise keeps things nice, neat, and orderly, something Stella’s mom never did. Stella has high hopes that her mom will eventually settle in Cape Cod with her and Louise, and they’ll be a happy family.

One obstacle to that “happy family” scenario–along with Stella’s mom’s lack of reliability–may be Angel, a foster kid who’s also living with Louise. Angel and Stella are like oil and water, and they seem to work best when they stay far away from each other. Fate, however, seems to have other ideas.

When the girls discover that Louise has suddenly passed away, they must work together to decide what to do. Neither girl wants to go into group homes or anything like that, so they do the only thing they can think of. They keep Louise’s death a secret. They make up plausible excuses for Louise’s absence. They take care of the vacation cottages that Louise was responsible for. Stella takes comfort in cleaning, gardening, and keeping Louise’s prize blueberries alive. Both girls do what they must to survive as long as they can. It’s not easy, but Stella and Angel think they have no other choice. They must learn to rely on each other.

Both Stella and Angel have taken on more than any two kids should, but their predicament is bringing them closer together. They’re communicating, working together, and learning more about each other. They each have their own ways of coping with this horrible situation, and they’re doing the best they can.

But what happens when the secrecy finally becomes too much? When the truth is revealed, what will it mean for Stella, Angel, and their future? Will they find the sense of family and home they so desperately need? Will someone finally take care of them? Find out when you read Summer of the Gypsy Moths, a 14-15 South Carolina Book Award nominee by Sara Pennypacker!

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I think many of my students will draw parallels between Summer of the Gypsy Moths and Keeping Safe the Stars, and that’s a good thing. The two books have different settings and circumstances, but the struggles that the characters experience in each book are very similar. In both books, young children take on way too much in order to avoid being taken away from their homes. I look forward to conversations about the similarities and differences in how each character handles certain situations and what young readers may have done differently.

That being said…

*Spoilers ahead!*

One big issue I had with this book was the neatness of the ending–and how long the main characters got away with deceiving everyone around them. I mean, two girls hide a dead body, bury it in the backyard, and live on their own for nearly two months, and everything essentially works out fine for them! I know it’s fiction, and one can expect a fairly happy ending in a book written for upper elementary and middle grade readers, but this seemed very unrealistic to me. Like many other books I’ve read this summer, the responsible adult in me (don’t laugh) cringes at the entire premise of this book. I’m sure many of my students will be intrigued by the plot–and I know they are the target audience–but Summer of the Gypsy Moths just wasn’t for me.

If you’d like more information about this book and acclaimed author Sara Pennypacker, visit her website. And let me know if you have a different take on Summer of the Gypsy Moths. Maybe you’re seeing something that I missed!

Almost Home

Confession time. I’ve only managed to read six of the twenty nominees for the 14-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award this summer. I have about a month to finish the other fourteen books…along with all of the other books I’d like to read this summer. It’s not looking good. I can do it, but I’m going to have to really push myself. Will power, especially during the summer, is not exactly my strong suit.

All that being said, I did manage to finish one of the SCCBA nominees this morning, and it packed one heck of an emotional punch. The book was Almost Home by Joan Bauer. I was a little nervous when I first picked up this book. Books with dogs on the cover always make me kind of anxious. (I blame Old Yeller.) In this case, however, the dog was sort of the bright spot in the book, and that little bundle of fur helped to bring light into the life of a girl who was dealing with way too much.

It takes a lot to bring Sugar Mae Cole down. This twelve-year-old tries to always look on the bright side of life, even when things are looking rather dim. And things are about to get pretty dark for Sugar and her mom, Reba. Sugar’s absent dad has gambled away all of their money, and Sugar and her mom are being forced out of their home. Sugar doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but she’s determined to keep her spirits up and be strong for both herself and her mother.

Sugar has a little help along the way. Even when Sugar has to move to Chicago, she keeps in touch with Mr. Bennett, a teacher who encourages Sugar to express herself through writing and to be her best self. Sugar also has Shush, a rescue dog with trust issues of his own. It’s not easy living on the streets or moving from shelter to shelter with a dog in tow, but Sugar is determined to be there for little Shush…the way she wishes someone would be there for her.

When Sugar’s mom shuts down from the stress of everything that has happened, Sugar knows she has to be stronger than ever. Luckily, she’s got Shush…and a chance at a real home when she’s placed with a loving foster family. She’s doing well in her new environment, but the worry about her mother–and her mother’s dependence on Sugar’s no-good father–continues to eat at Sugar’s happiness. Sugar wishes she could do something to open her mother’s eyes, but she knows that Reba must confront the reality of her situation herself.

Through everything that Sugar encounters, she holds onto the dream of home. A home where she, her mother, and Shush can be safe, happy, and together. A home where she doesn’t have to worry that she’ll be kicked out one day. A home where she can shine, thrive, and help others who are going through hard times. A home where she can simply be a kid without so many adult worries. She’s almost there. Sugar Mae Cole is almost home.

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In this post, I’ve tried to capture just how optimistic Almost Home‘s main character really is. I hope I’ve succeeded. Sugar is definitely a character to be admired. I’m confident that I would not fare so well if I were in her shoes. Even when things were at their worst, Sugar maintained hope that things would get better one day. That’s not to say that she was blind to the realities around her. No, she knew that things were bleak, but she didn’t let that get her down for long. She always found a way to be thankful for the little things, and that’s an example all of us could stand to follow.

I also liked how Sugar explored her situation through her writing. She wrote poems and letters that really highlighted what she was going through. Sometimes it’s easier to write the hard stuff down rather than saying the words out loud. (I know that’s true for me. Why do you think I devote so much time to this blog?) Through poetry, Sugar was able to express how she was feeling. She didn’t always share her words with those around her, but, when she did, they had an impact…especially with the teacher who meant so much to her.

(I’m not even going to get started on Sugar’s connection with her former teacher, Mr. Bennett. If I do, I’ll get all emotional about how teachers don’t do their often thankless jobs for the money. We’ll seriously be here all day if I get on that particular soapbox. Just read between the lines a bit.)

I find it rather odd that two of the books on this years SCCBA nominee list deal with characters named Sugar. What’s really striking is that both books show these girls–in different time periods and with different backgrounds–being forced to act beyond their years. In Almost Home, Sugar faces homelessness and all that entails. In Sugar, our main character is a former slave working on a plantation during Reconstruction. Both girls have to take on adult responsibilities, and both girls do so with spirit and a sense of hope for a brighter future. I think it would be interesting to have a book club or small classroom group read both of these books and draw parallels between these two characters. Yes, they have some pretty noticeable differences, but their similarities, in my opinion, are even more apparent. Something to think about there.

Almost Home is an excellent book for elementary and middle school audiences (and older readers, of course). I’m going to recommend this book to my guidance counselor as well. She knows better than I which of our students are dealing with homelessness, and my hope is that this book could offer those kids a bit of hope when things probably seem hopeless.

Oblivion

Last night, I finally finished reading another book that came to me through NetGalley. This book, Oblivion by Sasha Dawn, came out on May 27th, and I honestly should have finished reading it before the release date, but I just couldn’t do it. It took me three weeks to get through this book, and that is rare. The premise of the book was interesting, but the book itself just didn’t hold my interest. It was very easy to put down.

Callie has been plagued by graphomania (an extreme need to write) for the past year, ever since her father, Reverend Palmer Prescott of the Church of the Holy Promise (a very cult-like “church”), disappeared with Hannah, a young girl from the church. Authorities–and even Callie herself–think Callie knows more about the supposed abduction than she’s told them. Buried somewhere in her memories are clues to what really happened. All Callie really knows is that she was found after the disappearance with the words “I killed him” scrawled on the walls of a shabby apartment. What really happened that night? And does Callie hold the keys to unlocking the truth of a young girl’s whereabouts?

The anniversary of this terrible event is fast approaching, and Callie’s graphomania is taking on a life of its own. The words are pouring out of her, but what do they mean? Callie seeks answers from her mentally disturbed mother, but it’s often difficult to separate lucidity from insanity with her mom.

A guy at school, though, may be able to help Callie. John has followed this case–and another related one–and he seems to be triggering some latent memories in Callie’s fragile mind. He’s helping her make sense of the words plaguing her, and Callie is growing closer to the truth of what really happened.

Is Callie ready for what the truth will reveal? What will it mean for her life now? And what will happen when it becomes clear that someone is willing to do anything to keep some secrets buried forever?

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Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of this book, I did like a couple of things about it. I found the entire concept of graphomania to be intriguing. It’s not a condition I’d ever heard of before, and I now find myself wanting to know more about it. Trying to decipher what Callie’s words really meant was both frustrating and engaging, and when things finally coalesced at the end, those words made a strange sort of sense.

Watching Callie and John work together to uncover the mystery surrounding Palmer and Hannah was interesting at times. They had a few setbacks, and Callie’s words led them on some wild chases for answers, but they persevered and eventually found the truth. Were they the answers the duo expected? Not always, but I think their relationship was strengthened by the journey together.

I think my biggest issues with this book had to do with pacing and characters. The story seemed to drag on and on until the big conclusion, when everything went at a frantic pace. The ending actually took me by surprise because it came on so suddenly. I was expecting a little more of a build-up, especially considering how slowly the rest of the book went. So, although I found the end to be exciting, disturbing, and fitting, I also found it to be rather abrupt.

As for the characters, I must say that I didn’t particularly like any of them. Even Callie, our protagonist, was kind of hard to like sometimes. Yes, I rooted for her and wanted her to uncover the truth, but I didn’t think she was very relatable, and she made some pretty bone-headed choices (which I know would be expected for someone in her situation, but a little common sense would have been nice). The character I disliked the most was probably Lindsay, Callie’s foster sister. That girl was horrible! I’m still trying to figure out why Callie put up with Lindsay’s wide array of crap (bullying, drug use, lying, etc.). There were a few other major characters in this book, and I’m sad to say that I found none of them–save maybe Hannah–to be especially sympathetic.

I read an uncorrected proof of Oblivion, so it’s possible that some changes were made to make the book a bit better before final publication. If you happen to read a final copy, please let me know what you think! I feel that this book had so much potential to be great, but, in my opinion, it just fell short.

Don’t Turn Around

My latest read, Don’t Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon, is one of the 14-15 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award nominees. Even though I’m an elementary school librarian now, I still try to read as many of these nominees as possible. With Don’t Turn Around, I’ve now read three of the SCYABA nominees–with I Hunt Killers and The Opposite of Hallelujah being the other two. (Only seventeen more to go!)

Anyway, I finished Don’t Turn Around last night, and let me just say that this book was a thrill ride from start to finish! Combine runaway teens, computer hackers, government/corporate espionage, a mysterious disease, experimenting on humans, and spies, and you’ve got this book covered. It was a pretty intense read and totally believable…especially if you’re kind of paranoid to begin with. (Some may classify this book as science fiction–and it is–but I’d also call it realistic fiction. Some of the stuff in this book is entirely plausible and, loathe as I am to even think of it, could be happening right now.)

When sixteen-year-old Noa wakes up on an operating table, she’s not exactly sure where she is or why she’s there. All she knows is that she has to get away…but that’s not exactly easy when all she’s wearing is a hospital gown, armed thugs are chasing her, she doesn’t know where she’s been held, and she’s in pain from whatever procedure has been done to her. Eventually, though, Noa makes her escape…but what now? She’s an orphan on the run, and it’s becoming crystal clear that she’s being hunted by some bad guys. Just who can she trust?

Enter Peter. Peter, a teen hacktivist, has also found himself on the receiving end of some odd threats. After digging into some of his father’s business dealings with something called AMRF, armed men break into his house, steal his computer, and threaten his life. Peter, who’s scared but determined to find out what’s going on, calls on a fellow hacker to discover just what his family is mixed up in.  That hacker goes by the name of Rain…but we know her as Noa.

Soon, Noa and Peter learn that they are entangled in something much bigger than either of them realized. They have become targets in a conspiracy so huge that it seems insurmountable. With some help from their hacker alliance, however, Noa and Peter may have found a way to uncover the truth and take their enemies by surprise. But will it be enough to expose all the lies? Just what is AMRF, and why is Noa so important to them? What will these two resourceful teens uncover, and what will their opposition do to silence them? Watch your back as you dive into the conspiracy in Don’t Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon!

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I couldn’t possibly highlight all of the twists and turns in this book without giving too much away. Read it for yourself, and I’m sure you’ll be taken on the same ride that I was. Don’t Turn Around featured almost nonstop action and intrigue, and I was riveted the entire way through.

Readers who enjoy suspense will definitely find a winner with this book…especially if they like their suspense with a heavy dose of computer hacking, spies, and bio-medical ethics (or lack thereof). Don’t Turn Around could also lead to some interesting discussions. *Mild spoiler* When it comes to experimenting on humans, how far is too far when the results could potentially save lives? (This could even lead to discussions about the experiments done by Nazi scientists and how that relates to medical ethics today. Intense stuff.)

Be on the lookout for the second book in this exciting new series, Don’t Look Now, which is in stores now! There’s also a prequel novella, No Escape, which you might want to check out. (I’m planning to as soon as I finish this post.) Book three, Don’t Let Go, should be released in late summer.

If you want to learn more about Don’t Turn Around, the first YA novel by Michelle Gagnon, check out her website, Facebook page, or Twitter feed. You may also like the book trailer below. (I know I did!)