The Serpent King

Tonight, I come to you with red, puffy eyes and a slight headache from crying too much. That’s what happens when you read a book that absolutely wrecks you. Today, that book was The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being how much I cried during the movie E.T., The Serpent King probably rates a 9. I went through half a box of Kleenex, had to clean my glasses half a dozen times, and was all-out sobbing at several points. In some ways, it was cathartic, but it’s going to take me a while to get over this heart-wrenching book.

The Serpent King introduces readers to three friends, all of them outcasts in their small Tennessee town. Dill, Travis, and Lydia are in their senior year of high school, and all are facing uncertain futures. Right now, all they really have is each other and the promise of this one final year together.

Dill is the son of a snake-handling minister, Dillard Early, Sr., who was sent to prison for heinous acts–acts that he tried to blame on Dill. Even Dill’s mother, who is now working two jobs to keep the family afloat, blames her son for his father’s incarceration. And she’s not the only one. Dill is, through no fault of his own, a town pariah, and he thinks it’s his lot in life. His only escapes are music and hanging out with Lydia and Travis, his best friends. But even that will be changing soon, when Lydia goes off to college and leaves them behind. Dill doesn’t want her to go, but there’s no way he can ask her to stay.

Lydia, an up-and-coming fashion blogger, has her sights set on New York. She dreams of a career in fashion, and she’s already on her way to making it happen. On some level, she realizes that her friends, especially Dill, aren’t ready for her to leave them, but she needs to get out of this stifling town and make her mark on the world. She wishes Dill had the same ambition. She knows he has more to offer the world than he thinks. The trick is convincing him.

Travis, a big guy with a bigger imagination, finds solace in his favorite fantasy book series, Bloodfall. These books help him reach out to like-minded friends online and offer an escape from his abusive father. Thanks to Lydia and her many connections, he even gets a rare opportunity to meet his favorite author. This encounter leads him to believe that one day he could write fantastical stories that provide escape for people just like him.

Throughout this year, Dill, Lydia, and Travis maneuver through their small town as best they can. Dill and Travis begin to stand up for themselves and make plans for their futures. Lydia realizes how much she’ll miss her two best friends when she goes to college.

Just as things are starting to look up for this trio, tragedy strikes, and everything is thrown into a tailspin. What will become of these friends who mean so much to each other? Will they allow one tragic event–and their reaction to it–destroy their hope for the future? How can they hold onto hope when everything seems so bleak?

Maybe the only way to hold onto hope is to hold fast to each other.


I have to stop now before I give too much away (if I haven’t already). Let me just say that if you’re not ugly-crying at some point during this book, then you’re cold as ice. It’s a heartbreaking story of friendship, growth, grief, faith, and love, and I truly adore it…even if it did cause puffy eyes and a headache. It’s definitely one of my top books of 2016.

The Serpent King is author Jeff Zentner’s first novel, and I really hope we’ll hear more from him. He’s already being compared to John Green and Rainbow Rowell, and I think those are pretty apt comparisons. Keep that in mind when recommending The Serpent King and whatever books we see in the future from this wonderful author.

If you’d like to learn more about The Serpent King, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with Jeff Zentner on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Finally, check out the book trailer below for The Serpent King. It doesn’t give much of anything away, but it does capture the mood of the book. Enjoy!

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland

Thanks to my Amazon Prime membership (which is worth every penny I pay for it), I got to read my latest book a bit early. It was a Kindle First title for November, and I’m so glad I picked it. The book is The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland, and it will be released to the masses on December 1st.

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland is being marketed as a YA romance, but it’s so much more than that. I would even say that the romantic stuff is secondary–even tertiary–to the other happenings in the book. At its core, I think this enthralling story is about coming to terms with one’s own brokenness and learning to open up and accept help when it’s needed.

Zander Osborne does not belong at Camp Padua. She’s here because her parents signed her up–or, more accurately, don’t know what to do with her. Zander may have her own secrets and problems, but she’s definitely not as crazy as the other campers around her, especially her cabin-mate, Cassie, an abrasive girl who’s also a self-diagnosed bipolar anorexic.

As days pass, Zander continues to keep her issues to herself, but she also forms connections with some other campers. There’s Grover Cleveland (not to be confused with the president), a charming guy who fears he will one day become schizophrenic like his dad. There’s also Bek, (short for Alex Trebek), who’s an extremely likable compulsive liar. Zander even forms an unlikely, tenuous bond with Cassie, who is dealing with much more than depression and an eating disorder.

Being part of this group helps Zander in ways that no share-apy sessions ever could. She’s finally feeling and caring about something again, and she finds herself opening up, divulging her most agonizing secrets, and wanting to find some measure of happiness. And maybe, just maybe, that happiness can be found in the arms of Grover Cleveland, a boy who fears his own future while Zander is dealing with her past.

Before Zander can be truly happy, though, she’ll have to confront some painful demons, both her own and those of her new friends. Can she accept the help she needs? Can she offer help to someone who, at every turn, seems to reject the smallest kindness? And can she be truly happy with Grover when so much is weighing on both of them?

Answer these questions and many more when you read The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane.


Like I said at the beginning of this post, I think this book is much more than a YA romance, despite the somewhat light-hearted title, cover, and marketing. (Not that there’s anything wrong with YA romance.) There are moments of hilarity, sweetness, and fun, but there’s also a fair amount of grief, anger, and sadness. I’ll be perfectly honest here. I cried throughout the last quarter of the book. It hit me on nearly every emotional level.

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland tackles some serious issues. Yes, it does so in a way that is often highly entertaining, but it’s also deliberate in addressing the problems of Zander, Cassie, Grover, and Bek. All four of these characters–and the supporting cast as well–reveal what led them to Camp Padua, and they all exhibit some measure of growth. The process is not always easy–and it’s by no means finished at the book’s conclusion–but the reader gets the clear sense that things are going to get better for the characters they’ve come to care about. That, in and of itself, is an important message.

If you’re wondering if this book is suitable for middle grade readers, I’d advise you to give it a read yourself before placing it on library or classroom shelves. It does have some mature themes and language, and some tween readers may not be ready for that. Others, on the other hand, may relate to the characters in this book and find that it is exactly what they need. As always, know your readers and use your best professional judgment.

For more information on The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland and other books by Rebekah Crane, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with the author on Twitter.

Happy reading!

The Great Greene Heist

I picked up The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson in March at my school’s spring book fair. I finally decided to read it this week. (I was in the mood for something a little lighter than the other books I was reading.) I finished it earlier today, and I now want to settle in for an Ocean’s 11 movie night. That’s a good thing.

If you’re looking for a contemporary middle grade novel featuring a diverse cast of characters, The Great Green Heist is what you’re looking for. If you want to read a book about kids scheming, using their wits, and getting one over on bullies–both kids and adults–this is the book for you. And, if you’re in the mood to read a light-hearted novel that has some marked similarities to the Presidential election, you’ve once again got a winner in The Great Greene Heist. (Note: This book was published in 2014. I doubt the author meant the book to so closely resemble the 2016 election, but it does nonetheless.)

Jackson Greene was one of the greatest con artists Maplewood Middle School had ever seen. Due to fallout from his last con, however, Jackson has put his conning days behind him…or has he?

When word gets out that Keith Sinclair, a nemesis of Jackson’s, is running for Student Council President, Jackson knows he has to step in. You see, Keith is running against Gaby de la Cruz, Jackson’s former best friend. Jackson knows Gaby will be a great president and run an honest campaign. Keith, on the other hand, is sure to use every dirty trick in the book–including blackmailing the principal–to make sure he wins.

As Jackson gets more proof that Keith is up to no good, he assembles a crew to pull off the greatest election showdown in middle school history. Their mission is to make sure Gaby wins the election and expose Keith Sinclair for the rat he is. If Jackson happens to get back in Gaby’s good graces in the process…well, that’s a bonus.

Will Jackson and crew be able to pull of such a complicated con? Will everyone stick to the plan? Who will win the school election, Gaby or Keith? Find out when you read The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson.


I cannot say enough good things about this book. It was entertaining from start to finish, and there was a fair amount of geeky humor that I absolutely adored. (I’ve always wanted to learn Klingon, and this book may have given me a push toward making that happen.) All of the characters are smart in their own ways, and, in my opinion, use their intelligence for the greater good. Definitely Starfleet Academy worthy.

The book also invites discussion on the election process–be it school, local, or national–and what characteristics qualify someone to be a public servant. I definitely saw similarities between Gaby, Keith, and our two current Presidential nominees. I have a feeling other readers will as well. (Is there a real-life version of Jackson Greene behind the scenes of our national election? I guess that remains to be seen.)

I would highly recommend The Great Greene Heist to readers in 4th or 5th grade on up. Some of the humor–particularly the nerdier stuff–may not resonate with younger readers, but they’ll still find much to enjoy in the antics of Jackson and his crew.

For those who think this book is their cup of tea, there’s more to love. The second book in the series, To Catch a Cheat, is already out. Perhaps I’ll buy this one at my next book fair (which is coming up in November).

If you’d like more information on The Great Greene Heist, visit author Varian Johnson’s website. You can also connect with him on Twitter.

The Bronze Key

A word of warning: Proceed with caution if you haven’t read both The Iron Trial and The Copper Gauntlet, the first two books in the Magisterium series by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This post might be a little spoilery if you’re not totally caught up.

This may not be my standard post. I’ve been awake since 3am, and I’m having a little trouble keeping my eyes open, much less stringing sentences together. I’ll do the best I can.

Yesterday, I finished reading The Bronze Key, book three in the Magisterium series by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This book continues the story of Call, Aaron, and Tamara, three young mages trying to figure out this whole magic thing. They are students at the Magisterium, and Call and Aaron are both Makars, or mages with an affinity for chaos magic.

As The Bronze Key begins, Call, Aaron, Tamara, and their frenemy Jasper are being honored for their action against Constantine Madden, known as the Enemy of Death, and his minions. What most people don’t know is that the soul of the Enemy of Death is very much alive…and residing within Call.

Call worries that he’ll become an evil overlord one day, but that’s only part of his problem at the moment. At the party honoring Call and his friends, one of the Magisterium students is mysteriously killed and another attempt is made on Call’s life. It’s clear that someone is out to get him, but why? Does someone know his secret, or has he outlived his usefulness as a Makar?

Soon enough, Call and company are back at the Magisterium, and the mystery deepens. There is a spy in their midst, and it could be anyone. Call doesn’t know who to trust, and he even looks at his best friends with a certain degree of suspicion. He’ll have to figure out what’s going on fast before he–or someone else–meets a rather sticky end.


I’m going to stop there before I give too much away. It’s enough to tell you that some bad stuff goes down in this book, and it wallops you in the heart before all is said and done. I, for one, wish I could dive into book four, The Silver Mask, right now so that I could see where things go from here. Sadly, that is not going to happen.

Speaking of The Silver Mask, it is set to be released sometime in 2017, but I’m not sure exactly when. My guess is early fall.  The fifth and final book, The Enemy of Death, will follow in 2018.

For more information on The Iron Trial, The Copper Gauntlet, The Bronze Key and the rest of the Magisterium series, visit the official website. It’s got lots of interactive goodies that you may enjoy.

Note: The Iron Trial is a nominee for this year’s South Carolina Children’s and Junior Book Awards. In my opinion, the entire series is a good fit for fantasy lovers in upper elementary grades and up.

Leave Me

Note: Leave Me is not a book for kids or teens. This one is for the grown-ups.

I’ve been reading almost nothing but children’s books for the past month, so I decided to change things up a bit. Thanks to NetGalley, I was able to do that with Leave Me, the first adult novel by Gayle Forman.

Like me, you may know Gayle Forman from her outstanding YA novels–If I Stay, Where She Went, Just One Day, Just One Year, and I Was Here–but she’s writing for an older audience in her latest book. Leave Me, which will be released on September 6th, is a great read for anyone who has ever been overwhelmed by the worries and responsibilities that come with being an adult. For those who’ve thought about escaping and leaving it all behind. For those who’ve wanted to just think of themselves, even for a little while.

In Leave Me, readers meet Maribeth Klein. Maribeth knows what it is to be busy, to have every part of her day claimed by her job, her husband, her children, and all of the other things that come with being a working mother. Maribeth is so busy, in fact, that she scarcely has time to notice that she’s having a heart attack.

When Maribeth realizes what’s happening, she’s justifiably terrified, but she really doesn’t have time for this. Who will get the kids where they need to be? Who will ensure that the taxes are paid on time? Who will take care of her deadlines at work? Who will make sure things are running smoothly? This heart attack is inconvenient…for everyone, it seems.

After Maribeth is finally released from the hospital, she feels like those around her expect her to bounce back immediately. They want her to go back to being the same old Maribeth, the woman who takes care of everything. Her husband is eager to go back to work and leave the kids with Maribeth. Her kids want their mom to be able to read them stories, take them to school, and be just as involved as she was before. Even Maribeth’s mother, who has moved it to “help” while Maribeth recuperates, doesn’t understand that Maribeth can’t yet do the things she once did.

Maribeth feels overwhelmed by her frustrated attempts to recuperate and her family’s demands on her, not to mention the fact that she’s been essentially replaced at work, so she does something that, even in her own eyes, is inconceivable. She leaves. She leaves her home, her husband, her kids…everything. For the first time in a long time, Maribeth needs to focus on herself, and leaving it all behind is the only way she sees to make that happen.

While she’s away, Maribeth, now using a new name, reflects on her life and what led her to this point. She recalls both the good and bad times. She thinks about how much she still loves her kids, her husband, and her best friend. With the help of a new, enigmatic doctor, she finally begins to heal. She enjoys some unlikely friendships. And she finally begins to get answers to several questions that have plagued her for years.

As Maribeth gets better, both physically, mentally, and emotionally, she wonders about the life and people she left behind at home. How are they faring? Do they miss her? Do they hate her? Do they want her to come home? Is she even ready for that?

Soon enough, Maribeth will get the answers to some of those questions, and those answers may just make it possible for her to return home. Discover how leaving everything behind helps Maribeth find her way home when you read Leave Me by Gayle Forman.


I feel like I’ve given way too much away here, and I apologize for that. Sometimes I don’t know when to stop. Even so, I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for this book, and I hope you find it as enjoyable and thought-provoking as I did.

Even though I don’t know what it’s like to be a working wife and mother, I do sympathize a little with the character of Maribeth. Being an adult–at least a responsible, semi-functioning adult–is often overwhelming. The responsibilities and worries get to you, and escaping it all is the stuff of fantasies. I can only imagine how much more pressure a spouse and children can add to that. (Actually, I don’t want to imagine that. I can barely handle taking care of myself.)

Leaving like Maribeth did, an action many readers–myself included–will view as unthinkable, is also understandable, especially given the circumstances. How would you react in the same situation? Reading this book may make you think about that.

If Leave Me sounds like a book you would enjoy, I encourage you to pick it up on September 6th. For more information on this book and others by Gayle Forman, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with the author on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Wish

I’m usually not one to go for books with dogs on the covers (as I believe I’ve mentioned here before). I threw that out the window, though, when NetGalley gave me the chance to read an early copy of Wish by Barbara O’Connor.

I was first introduced to this author’s work when I became an elementary librarian back in 2010. Since then, I’ve come to rely on O’Connor to provide both me and my students with heart-warming, relatable characters and charming, well-written stories. Wish, which will be released on August 30th, delivers on all counts.

In Wish, readers are introduced to eleven-year-old Charlie Reese. Charlie believes in the power of wishes. She’s been making the same wish for a long time, and she’s convinced that it will come true one of these days. She is ever hopeful.

Due to several issues with her parents, Charlie has been uprooted from her home in Raleigh and sent to live with her Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus–people she’s never met–in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Charlie is not happy about this situation, and she makes her displeasure known to nearly everyone. She can’t wait to leave these hillbilly kids behind and get back to where she belongs.

Well, not everyone takes Charlie’s attitude at face-value. Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus are thrilled to have Charlie in their home. They treat Charlie like their own child and do whatever they can to make her feel welcome. There’s also Howard, a young boy who never lets anything bother him. He’s assigned to be Charlie’s Backpack Buddy on her first day in a new school, but he takes it few steps further and tries to become Charlie’s friend.

Charlie doesn’t quite know what to make of these people being so nice to her, and she lashes out at them quite a bit. She eventually comes to realize, though, that they’ll still be there no matter how mean she is to them. Maybe this place and the people here aren’t so bad after all.

As Charlie begins to adapt to her new surroundings, she also crosses paths with a stray dog. Charlie feels a kinship with this dog–who she names Wishbone–and she’s determined to give him a great home. Charlie knows that Wishbone longs for a family and a place to belong just like she does.

Days and weeks pass, and Charlie grows more and more comfortable with her new life with Bertha, Gus, Howard, and Wishbone. What will happen, though, when it comes time for her to return to Raleigh? Will she have to leave behind the family and friends she’s found in the mountains? Is returning home to her parents really what’s best for her now?

Charlie doesn’t know which way to turn, but maybe all that wishing she’s done–with an assist from those who really love her–will help everything to turn out for the best. Find out how one girl’s special wish comes true–but maybe not in the way she expected–when you read Wish by Barbara O’Connor.


I cannot say enough good things about this book. I laughed, I cried, and I reflected on my own childhood. Like Charlie, I spent my summers weeding the garden, picking vegetables, and going to Vacation Bible School. Those are experiences my students continue to have.

Then there’s the food. Aunt Bertha’s cooking in Wish makes me think of my mom’s cooking. Fried green tomatoes, cobbler, potato salad, biscuits, etc. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. (Seriously, there’s nothing like good ol’ Southern food.) I’m betting many readers will feel the same way.

Aside from summer life and food, Wish also addresses things like friendships (with both humans and canines), dealing with anger, and what home and family really mean. Charlie has to come to terms with all of these things, and she does so in her own special way. Those around Charlie help her to see that things may not always turn out like she expects, but that doesn’t mean that her life is lacking in any way. With friends and family who love her, she gets everything she ever wished for.

I can hardly wait to share this wonderful book with my students and teachers (which I guess is good since I go back to school tomorrow). I’m now even more excited that Barbara O’Connor is visiting my school in October, and I hope my excitement is shared by everyone in my school. I plan to buy a copy of Wish for all of my 3rd-5th grade teachers so that we can all share the love prior to this special visit. I’m confident that everyone who reads it will adore Wish as much as I do.

To learn more about Wish and other books by Barbara O’Connor, visit the author’s website.

Happy reading!

 

Anybody Shining

As another school year draws near, I’m once again scrambling to finish all of the current nominees for the South Carolina Children’s Book Award. As of today, I’ve managed to read 17 of the 20 titles, and I started number 18. Can I finish the rest before next Tuesday? We’ll see.

Anyhoo, I finished reading Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell, one of this year’s SCCBA nominees, this afternoon. Historical fiction is not typically my go-to genre, but I found this book to be a quick, moving read that I think many of my students will enjoy.

Anybody Shining takes place in the mountains of western North Carolina in the 1920s, and the language used definitely reflects the setting. To be perfectly honest, I felt like I was reading something that one of my older relatives could have written. I still hear some of the same vocabulary encountered in this book, and I’m willing to bet that many readers, particularly those who’ve grown up in the South, will be able to relate.

Arie Mae Sparks wants just one friend to call her own. She’s hopeful that her cousin Caroline, who lives all the way in Raleigh, will respond to her letters one of these days–and be the friend she’s always wanted–but it’s not looking good at the moment. Still…Arie Mae keeps on writing, telling her cousin about everything happening in Bone Gap, North Carolina.

Though Arie Mae despairs of ever finding one true friend, newcomers in her little town may provide some hope. These new folks–who’ve arrived all the way from Baltimore, Maryland–have come to the mountains to learn about the nearby settlement school. Almost immediately, Arie Mae sees the potential for friendship in Tom, a boy who has a special shine about him.

Even though Tom has a bad leg and can’t do everything the other kids can, he and Arie Mae form a fast friendship. He doesn’t care at all that Arie Mae is not as fancy as his sisters or that her family doesn’t have as much as his. He simply wants to hear her stories and go on adventures with her.

Arie Mae is all for seeking adventure, but she soon learns that Tom has more difficulties than just a bad leg. His mother warns Arie Mae that her new friend has a weak heart and shouldn’t exert himself too much. Arie Mae worries about this, but Tom is determined to do just what he wants. What’s a friend to do?

Through her continuing letters to her cousin, Arie Mae reflects on her friendship with Tom, her feelings about his condition, her family and their life on the mountain, and all sorts of other things. She thinks about what makes her world so odd to some and so special to others. Can people be true friends when they see the world so differently?

Learn more about the power of friendship, reaching out, and overcoming differences when you read Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell.


Like some of the other SCCBA nominees this year, Anybody Shining is an excellent book for exploring the concept of voice. Arie Mae’s voice, in both her letters and the book’s narrative, shines through, and I think readers will delight in how she views the world around her. I’m hoping they’ll even follow her example and write their own friendly letters, allowing their own distinct voices to shine.

To learn more about Anybody Shining and other books by Frances O’Roark Dowell, visit the author’s website.

I’m hoping to have a book trailer up for this book soon. You can check my school YouTube channel for that in the near future.