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.

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.

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.

 

Wonder Woman at Super Hero High

I’ve loved Wonder Woman since I first saw Lynda Carter spin around when I was a kid. My parents have pictures of my three-year-old self posing in my Wonder Woman Underoos. I have Wonder Woman action figures, comic books, t-shirts, and even Converse shoes. There’s a Wonder Woman display in my school library. I buy my nieces Wonder Woman stuff for birthdays, holidays, or whenever the mood strikes me. So of course I had to read Wonder Woman at Super Hero High, the first book in the DC Super Hero Girls series by Lisa Yee. I’m just embarrassed it took me so long to get around to it. (It was released nearly a year ago.)

Super Hero High is the place to be for teen super heroes…and Wonder Woman wants in. After spending her entire life on Paradise Island (also known as Themyscira) with her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Wonder Woman finally convinces her mom that she needs to be trained as a proper super hero. Off to Super Hero High she goes!

With a positive outlook and a desire to make a difference, Wonder Woman enters the hallowed halls of Super Hero High. Even though some things perplex her (like slang and sarcasm), she’s determined to be a successful student.

Almost immediately, she makes a few friends–like Bumblebee, Katana, Hawkgirl, and Harley Quinn (who’s also her roommate)–but it seems she’s also made an enemy or two. Someone keeps leaving notes for her indicating that she’s not wanted at Super Hero High. Who could dislike her so much?

With Harley Quinn videoing every move she makes and someone leaving her mean notes, Wonder Woman is feeling the pressure to be the best, especially when she factors in her desire to be on the school’s Super Triathlon team. Can she make a difference when so much is weighing on her? Can she possibly figure out who wants her gone?

Join Wonder Woman and many other familiar faces to find out if they’ve got what it takes to be true heroes!


I’ve glossed over a lot here, and that’s sort of intentional. It’s a fast, entertaining read, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. A few things I will say, though:

  • I love that Wonder Woman has kind of an Amelia Bedelia vibe in this book. She’s very literal, and it’s fun to see how someone who’s been so removed from slang and popular culture navigates through high school.
  • Speaking of high school, who knew super heroes had it just like the rest of us? Mean girls, struggling to make friends, bullies, striving to make good grades, living up to parents’ expectations. It’s all there, and it’s nice to see that even those with super powers deal with the same stuff we all do.
  • If you’re not familiar with DC comic book characters now, you soon will be. I know a lot of the characters mentioned in this book thanks to the old Adam West Batman TV series, some DC movies (some good, others not so much), and the wonderful programming on the CW. Wonder Woman at Super Hero High introduced me to some I didn’t know much about, and I look forward to reading more adventures of these super (and not-so-super) heroes as teenagers.

Wonder Woman at Super Hero High is a great fit for elementary and middle school libraries. Considering that many kids (and adults) read DC comics and collect action figures, there’s a ready-made audience just waiting for this book and those like it.

The next two books in the DC Super Hero Girls series are Supergirl at Super Hero High and Batgirl at Super Hero High. Both are already out. The fourth book, Katana at Super Hero High should be out on July 4th of this year.

If you’d like more information on Wonder Woman at Super Hero High and the series as a whole, visit author Lisa Yee’s website.

Enjoy!

Goodbye Days

There are some books that should really be packaged with a box of Kleenex. Goodbye Days is one of those books. From Jeff Zentner, author of the William C. Morris Award-winning The Serpent King, comes another novel that absolutely rips your heart out. Goodbye Days isn’t one of those books that makes you cry only at the end. No, this one elicits full-on sobbing most of the way through. This novel is at once tragic, poignant, and cathartic, and I adored every last bit of it…even though I was often reading through a veil of tears.

Thanks to NetGalley, I was able to read Goodbye Days a little early, but it’s available for the masses on March 7th. If you’re wondering if you should buy this book, you absolutely should.

Carver Briggs should be getting ready to enjoy his last year of high school with his three best friends, Mars, Blake, and Eli. Instead, he’s attending their funerals and dealing with the knowledge that he played a role in the deaths of those closest to him. How was he supposed to know that sending them a text message–like so many they’ve sent in the past–would somehow lead to the accident that destroyed everything?

Now, Carver’s life without his friends is almost more than he can bear. He’s a mess of grief, guilt, and fear. Grief over the loss of his friends; guilt over his role in this tragedy; and fear of what may happen to him if the authorities decide to bring criminal charges against him. Carver doesn’t know how to cope with everything, and he’s experiencing panic attacks for the first time in his life. Something’s got to give.

Thankfully, Carver isn’t completely alone. He’s supported by his parents (even though he doesn’t really confide in them), his wonderful sister, Georgia, and Jesmyn, Eli’s girlfriend, who shares her grief with Carver. He’s also started seeing a therapist–at his sister’s urging–and that’s helping him to explore his feelings about everything that’s happening.

Then there’s Blake’s grandmother. She, unlike some of his other friends’ family members, doesn’t blame Blake for what happened. She comes up with the idea of having a “goodbye day” for Blake, and she wants Carver to share one final day saying goodbye to her grandson. They’ll tell stories about Blake, visit his favorite spots, eat his favorite foods…basically, spend one day devoted to Blake’s memory.

At first, Carver is apprehensive about this, but he finds the experience somehow cleansing, and he wonders if it’s a good idea to have “goodbye days” with the families of his other friends. Some are willing; others are not. Not everyone forgives as readily as Blake’s grandmother. Even Carver feels that he’s somehow deserving of everything being heaped on him: the criminal investigation, the panic attacks, being a pariah at school, and the thoughts that plague him on a daily basis.

Will Carver ever be able to forgive himself for his role in this horrible tragedy? Will others be able to forgive him? Can a series of “goodbye days” help Carver and his friends’ families make some sort of peace with their loss? Will a cloud of grief hover over Carver forever, or will he be able to find a “new normal” with a little help?


I don’t know what more I can say about this book without telling everything that happens. It wrecked me, maybe more than The Serpent King did…and that’s saying a lot.

I think Goodbye Days is a great read for fans of John Green, Rainbow Rowell, and Gayle Forman. Basically, if you like books that tear your heart out, this is the book for you.

In my opinion, Goodbye Days is more suited to a YA audience than a tween crowd. If you plan to market this book to a middle grade audience, read it first. The book is written from a teen guy’s perspective, so there is some language and frank talk of “personal growth.” (I don’t think I need to explain that, do I?) Know your readers, and plan accordingly.

For more information on Goodbye Days and Jeff Zentner (who is now one of my go-to authors for contemporary YA), visit the author’s website. You can also connect with Jeff Zentner on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Dumplin’

Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ had been on my to-read list for a while. I finally decided to read it when it was placed on the nominee list for next year’s South Carolina Young Adult Book Award. I finished the book a couple of days ago, and I found it to be extremely relatable, especially if you’re a big girl living in the South (or anywhere, really). I, for one, saw some of my own high school experiences reflected in the life of one Willowdean “Dumplin'” Dickson. Maybe you will too.

Willowdean Dickson is a fat girl. She knows it; she owns it. What does it really matter anyway? She’s relatively happy. She’s got a wonderful best friend, Ellen, who’s as close as a sister and shares her love of Dolly Parton. She’s got a decent job at a local fast food joint where she gets to ogle Bo, a guy who, oddly enough, seems to like her as much as she likes him. Everything’s just peachy, right?

Well, not really.

Soon, Will’s insecurities about her size start to interfere with her life, much like they did for her beloved Aunt Lucy, who recently passed away. Will is increasingly frustrated with Ellen, who doesn’t really get what it’s like to live in a large body. Will feels Ellen drawing away from her and toward Callie, a girl who makes her disdain for Will pretty obvious. Will also doesn’t quite trust Bo’s feelings for her. She freezes when he gets too familiar with her body, and she doesn’t understand why a guy like him would want to be with a big girl. On top of all this, her mother, who Will doesn’t really connect with, is gearing up for her long-time obsession, the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant.

The Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant is everything to many of the girls in Will’s town. Will’s mother was a former pageant winner, and she never lets anyone forget it. When going through her aunt’s old papers one day, Will discovers that Lucy, who always struggled with her weight, also wanted to enter the pageant, but she never took that risk. Will, in the blink of an eye, decides to step out on that ledge and do what her aunt wouldn’t. She enters the pageant…and her world turns upside down.

Suddenly, a bunch of other girls–girls who wouldn’t normally enter a beauty pageant–are following in Will’s lead. Will doesn’t want to start a whole movement or anything, but that may not be up to her anymore. Ellen has also entered the pageant, and that puts a strain on her relationship with Will, especially considering that Ellen actually has a shot of winning.

Will’s mom doesn’t think her daughter is taking the pageant seriously, and that adds a whole other level of drama to what is quickly becoming more chaos than Will can handle. And when she’s already dealing with boy issues, Will is wondering if she’s bitten off more than she can chew.

There’s only one question Will needs to answer at this point: What would Dolly do?

As Will begins to more fully embrace who she is, she comes to value the new friends she’s made during this pageant madness, but she also looks to repair the damaged relationships in her life. Those between her and her mom, Ellen, and Bo. She’s not going to let anything–including her own issues and insecurities–come between her and what she wants anymore.


I’ve spent my entire life as the fat best friend, so I 100% related to much of what Will experienced in Dumplin’. I still have major anxiety about eating in front of other people, showing any part of my body, and a bunch of other issues that I won’t get into here. It was not at all difficult for me to place myself in the main character’s shoes (or in her late aunt’s, for that matter). I’ve had fights with friends (mostly thin girls) who simply didn’t understand that my experiences were different from theirs. They didn’t worry about getting made fun of every time they walked down the hall, got up in front of a class, or stepped out of their comfort zone. So, yeah, I get Willowdean.

Having said all that, I will say that some of her experiences were beyond me. I am not now nor have I ever been a pageant girl. I’ve never understood the appeal. (Apologies to my friends and family members who are all about this stuff.) I’ve also never had to worry about attracting the attention of a “hot guy,” unless it was negative attention, mostly bullying.

While I do relate to Will in this book, I also think parts of it, especially the ending, are a little too neat. Everything kind of wraps up in a nice, neat little bow, and that’s just not how things work in the real world. I also think that Will could have done a bit more self-reflection, examining her somewhat hypocritical views on the girls around her, particularly those also competing in the pageant.

Even with a couple of things that gave me pause, I do think Dumplin’ is a great book. There’s none of that “fat girl only becomes happy when she loses weight” nonsense, which is a major plus. I look forward to seeing more of Willowdean and company in future books. (There’s supposed to be a sequel to Dumplin’ sometime next year.)

Given that there’s some salty language and pretty frank talk of sexy times, I do think Dumplin’ is suited to a teen/high school audience. I probably wouldn’t place it in a middle school library.

To learn more about Dumplin’ and Julie Murphy, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with her on Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and YouTube.

Finally, if you like Dumplin’, you might want to read Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg.

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!