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.

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In the Shadows

After wrapping up my previous post on MILA 2.0, I decided to dive into yet another book-in-progress. I honestly didn’t expect to get so involved in the story that I would finish it in a matter of hours. That book is In the Shadows by Kiersten White and Jim Di Bartolo.

Now, I’ve read other works by Kiersten White before (Paranormalcy, Supernaturally, Endlessly, Mind Games, and Perfect Lies), but this one is a little different. In the Shadows is told in both text and art. White wrote the text story, and the amazingly talented Jim Di Bartolo presented another story through his illustrations. I knew the art and text stories were connected, but it didn’t become clear until the very end just how they fit together.

Cora and Minnie live in a quaint town in Maine where their mother runs the local boarding house. One day, a mysterious young man, Arthur, comes to stay with them, and life as they know it is never the same.

Arthur is a rather taciturn boy, but he looks after Cora and Minnie and vows to protect them from the past he fears may have followed him. And he’s not the only one. Two new young men have arrived at the boarding house, and they have more in common with Arthur than any of them know.

Charles and Thomas, sent away by their wealthy father, are in Maine for a while. Charles is slowly dying, and Thomas is determined to make his brother’s days as happy as possible. Part of that happiness comes in the form of Minnie, one of the girls living at the boarding house. Charles is enamored of Minnie, and, while she enjoys his company, her attention never really leaves Arthur, the brooding young man who lurks in the shadows. Thomas, on the other hand, quickly turns his attentions to Cora, and she seems to have feelings for him as well. But is love in the cards for any of these young people, or is an unknown threat just waiting to tear them apart?

It seems that Arthur, Charles, and Thomas–or their families–are somehow connected to an ages-old society, a society that will do anything to protect its secrets. These young people are in very real danger, and they will have to use their wits and every ounce of strength they have to get out of this mess alive.

Arthur knows more about this looming threat than he’s telling, but he doesn’t want to go down the road that drove his parents mad. He may not have a choice, though. When evil threatens his friends, Arthur must make a difficult choice that could impact his life and the lives of those who care about him. What could this choice mean for Arthur and his future? Only time will tell…

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If you enjoy books like Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck or others that combine text and art to create unique and memorable stories, I think you’ll be very happy with In the Shadows. Both the art and text in this book presented interesting–and often terrifying–tales, and the closer I got to the end, the clearer the connections between the two became.

I read a digital copy of this book via NetGalley, but I think this is definitely one case when a print copy would have been preferable. At the book’s conclusion, when the connections between the two stories were revealed, I would have liked to flip through the book’s artwork to see what I may have missed. That’s not so easy to do with an ebook (especially one read with Adobe Digital Editions, a less than desirable ereading option). So, take this advice: READ A PRINT COPY OF THIS BOOK! (Sorry for screaming at you, but I had to get my point across!)

I’m still debating on whether or not to purchase this book for my elementary school library. I think a lot of my students will enjoy it, but the illustrations do contain some scary imagery that elementary students may not be able to handle or even understand. I do think In the Shadows would be a very welcome addition to middle, high school, and public libraries. It’s a quick, easy read that packs a punch.

If you’re still not convinced to read In the Shadows, take a look at the eerie trailer below. It effectively captures the mood of the artwork present in this book and makes me want to read the book all over again!

Endure

A word to the wise: If you haven’t read the first three books in Carrie Jones’ Need series (Need, Captivate, and Entice), it might be a good idea to do that now.  And if it’s been about three years since you’ve read these books, a refresher might be in order before proceeding with the fourth and final book in the series, Endure. (Should have taken my own advice on that one.)

So, I’m spending part of my reading this year catching up on various series. It’s hard to keep up when most of what one reads is part of a series.  Three years ago, during a week-long snowstorm here in South Carolina, I read the first three books in the Need series by Carrie Jones.  Fast forward a little over three years, and I finally started reading the fourth book, Endure, during yet another freak snowstorm in South Carolina.  (When I say “freak” here, I’m talking like 6 inches of snow…which basically shut down the entire state.  It was a big deal, and I didn’t leave my house–or my pajamas–for days.) It seemed to fit as this series takes place in Maine, and pixies have brought on some sort of super-winter as a prelude to Ragnarok. (Don’t know what Ragnarok is? Look it up. That’s my sassy librarian answer for you.)

Anyway, I say I started this fourth book during Snowpocalypse 2014, but I didn’t finish it until a bit later.  It was difficult to get invested in the series again after spending so much time away from it.  To put things in perspective, it took me about three weeks to get through the first 30 pages of Endure…but I read the last 230 pages in the span of a single evening. Once I refamiliarized myself with the characters and story, I was enthralled, but it did take some time…and a mention of my favorite Norse god, Loki (who I will always and forever picture as the glorious Tom Hiddleston).

Zara White is not exactly a normal girl. Not anymore, anyway. After turning pixie to save Nick–her boyfriend and a werewolf–from Valhalla, Zara has hopes that things can return to some kind of normal.  But normal’s not really possible when you are tied to a pixie king, being hunted by another one, your grandma–a weretiger–is missing, people all over your town are being abducted, and you’re at the center of it all.

As if Zara didn’t have enough to deal with, Nick wants nothing more to do with her now that she’s a pixie–a pixie queen, as a matter of fact–and Zara’s growing feelings for Astley, the good pixie king, are more confusing than ever. It’s quite the conundrum, but Zara will have to put her love-life on the back burner for now…especially if she is to have any hope of halting the apocalypse. No pressure.

Zara is facing some tough choices. How can she train her human friends to fight evil pixies? Can she retain her humanness while taking her place as Astley’s queen?  What does that even mean, and what will Zara do when some things are completely taken out of her hands?  Will she still be a strong leader? Will she still save the world from certain destruction? How? What sacrifices will Zara have to make to protect those she loves the most…and will those sacrifices be enough? There’s only one way to find out. Jump headfirst into trouble…

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Now that I’ve finished the entire series, I must say that the first book was probably my favorite, and this last one came in a distant second. (It would have been a close second, but it just took me way to long to get re-invested. The perils of loving to read serial fiction.) The entire series turns pixie lore on its ear, and it pays homage to Norse mythology. That’s something I appreciate.

On top of all that stuff, the Need series features some very strong female characters. Yes, Zara is the protagonist and is seen as the strongest of the series’ female characters–which I think she is–but there are many other strong women and girls given time in this series, and each one has her own brand of strength. From Zara to her grandma to Issie to Cassidy and several more, the females in this book do not depend on men to do their fighting for them. These ladies go out and make things happen, and they are fully capable of stopping the end of the world on their own, thank you very much. (The guys do help some, but the action definitely centers on the girls in the group, in my opinion.)

All in all, the Need series is a great read if you’re into supernatural stuff with a bit of good, old-fashioned mythology thrown in. You may need to look up a few things if you’re unfamiliar with Norse mythology, but that’s part of the fun! (Granted, my idea of “fun” may need a bit of work.)

For more information on the Need series and author Carrie Jones, check out her website at http://www.carriejonesbooks.com/. You can find links to all of Carrie’s social media pages there.

This Is What Happy Looks Like

I love snow days. I’m not terribly fond of having to make them up later, but I’d wager most educators get just as excited as their students when the white stuff starts falling. And if you happen to be in the south, it’s a much bigger deal than almost anywhere else in the U.S. Snow has been falling here in Upstate South Carolina since yesterday morning, and estimates indicate that we could see nearly a foot before it’s over. I haven’t seen snow like this since I was eight years old, and, while I have no desire to go out and play in the snow, I am experiencing my own brand of fun while I’m out of school. That fun involves Netflix, sleeping, and, of course, lots of reading.

Yesterday, I finished reading Jennifer E. Smith’s This Is What Happy Looks Like. I had high hopes for this book after reading The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight a couple of years ago, and, to a certain extent, my expectations were met.  This is a love story that throws a few obstacles in the paths of our two main characters, Graham and Ellie. They have to overcome a great deal just to be together, and, even at the end, it’s not exactly clear that things will work out. Some situations in this book are resolved way too neatly, but the romance between Graham and Ellie still feels somewhat tenuous at the book’s conclusion. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Everything begins because of a typo. One teeny mistake, and two young people begin emailing each other, not knowing who they are really talking to. There is a certain freedom in that–a freedom to express things that are too often kept inside. But, as is often the case, this “freedom” can’t last, especially when one person decides to take things to the next level…

Graham Larkin is Hollywood’s latest teen heartthrob. He’s hounded by the paparazzi, he feels alone most of the time, and his manager wants to set him up with his latest costar. All Graham wants to do, though, is find a way to connect to the girl he’s been emailing, Ellie, and his status as a star may just help him do that. He suggests Henley, Maine, as a location for shooting his new film. What he tells no one is that Henley is where Ellie lives. Not even Ellie, a girl he’s never actually met, knows he’s coming. Will she be glad to finally meet him? Will she be awed by his celebrity status? Or will he get a different reaction altogether?

Ellie O’Neill never thought that the guy she’d been emailing could be the one and only Graham Larkin, and she’s totally unprepared when he suddenly shows up in her life. Almost immediately, he sends her entire world into a tailspin. Things aren’t as easy as they were when they were just two teenagers on opposite sides of the country. Now that Graham is in Henley and wants to pursue some kind of relationship, things are getting messy. Her best friend gets upset because Ellie’s been keeping secrets. Ellie’s mom fears the media circus that could surround them all if this relationship with Graham continues. And it seems that Ellie’s mom has good reason for her fears…

Ellie and her mom have been keeping a pretty big secret–a secret that could have a huge impact on the life they’ve built in Maine. Graham doesn’t want to do anything to make Ellie or her mom uncomfortable, but he may not have a choice in the matter.  In Graham’s world, secrets have a way of being revealed no matter what. Are Graham and Ellie strong enough to handle the fallout when their relationship–and Ellie’s secrets–go public?

In their quest for love and happiness, Graham and Ellie will have to decide what’s really important to them. Is it the glitz and glamour of Hollywood? The simplicity of a quiet life in Maine? Or is it being true to themselves and doing whatever they can to make a go of this rather unlikely relationship? I’ll leave that for you to discover…

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This Is What Happy Looks Like is a fun, light read that I think would be fine for middle grade and young adult readers alike. It might be a hard sell for male readers, but it’s an entertaining read no matter what.

Like I said before, it’s a little too neat in places, but the ending kind of leaves things open. This might be a great opportunity for someone to try his/her hand with a bit of fanfiction. How do things play out for Graham and Ellie after the novel is over? I have my own ideas about this, but I’d love to read some other possible endings.

If you’d like more information on this book or others by Jennifer E. Smith, check out the author’s website at http://www.jenniferesmith.com/. Enjoy!

Requiem

Spoilers! If you haven’t already, you simply must read Lauren Oliver’s Delirium and Pandemonium before continuing with this post. It may also be a good idea to read the Delirium novellas–Hana, Annabel, and Raven–as they give a lot of insights into the minds of some pretty major characters in this trilogy. Also, I would recommend reading Requiem, the final book in this series, in a padded room. It’s either going to drive you crazy, or you’ll want to throw the book across the room. The padding may also muffle the sounds of your cries of anguish. You’ve been warned.

For those still reading this post, I assume you’ve gathered that I just finished Requiem, the third and final book in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium series. Like Clockwork Princess a couple of weeks ago, it took me longer than anticipated to get through this book. Again, I wanted to prolong the drama, but I’d also heard from a couple of people that the ending would drive me insane, and I was trying to put that off…even when the book’s events were keeping me up at night. Well, I finally finished the book this morning, and the ending did make me go a little nuts, but it was also kind of satisfying. (I’m sure other readers out there will disagree with me on the last part of that sentence.) I feel like I’ve been through a lot with Lena, Alex, Hana, Raven, Julian, and the others, and I needed at least some measure of closure with these characters and their captivating stories. (In some cases, I got a little more closure than I would have liked.)

I don’t want to tell you too much about this book because I don’t want to spoil the reading experience for those who are just discovering this series or those who are finishing up as I was. I will say, though, that Requiem is told in two viewpoints:  Lena, on the run in the Wilds, figuring out how to balance her feelings for Julian and Alex, wondering if the cure would have provided her more freedom than her current situation, and still fighting for a better future; and Hana, facing marriage to the future mayor of Portland, a man who isn’t as great as he would appear on the surface, wondering what happened to his first wife, and trying to cope with the startling possibility that her “cure” wasn’t entirely successful. At first glance, it would seem that these two viewpoints are wildly different, but, as the story progresses, the lives of these two former friends once again converge. Both are facing war on seemingly different sides, but both of these girls long for the freedom they experienced as children. They must discover, though, just what they’re willing to sacrifice to be truly free.

I probably gave way too much away in the previous paragraph, but there’s still a lot in this book to be discovered. Lena’s journey is nothing short of heart-breaking. The same can be said for everything that Hana goes through. I haven’t even touched on what happens to Alex, Julian, Raven, Annabel, and several other important characters–some we’ve seen before, and some who are brand new in this story. This book is by no means a happy-go-lucky tale, but when we’re talking about revolution, I guess that’s to be expected. Lives are lost, love is found, and the war for freedom is coming to a head. Will the resistors be successful? Or will the establishment finally succeed in wiping them out and finally putting an end to amor deliria nervosa, the disease we would call love?

Even though I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about how Requiem ended, I do think that it’s a fitting finale to this wonderful series. The first book, Delirium, is on the 2013-2014 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award nominee list, and I hope that teen readers who take the time to read the first book see things through to the bitter end. If you’re looking for a way to get readers interested in this series, casually mention that fans of the Hunger Games or Ally Condie’s Matched series will love it. That should do the trick.

*There is a fair amount of totally justifiable cursing and violence in this book, so be careful when recommending Requiem to middle grade readers. Like any other YA book, know your readers, and be aware of who can handle mature language and situations.*

If you’ve got a first edition of Requiem, you’ll definitely want to check out a short story about Alex at the end of the book. It provides a lot of information on this fascinating character and goes a long way in explaining his past and his attitudes in this entire series.

For more information on Requiem, the entire Delirium series, and any other books by Lauren Oliver, visit her website at http://www.laurenoliverbooks.com/. This site also provides links to the author’s Facebook and Twitter pages as well as her blog. Enjoy!

After Obsession

Well, it’s been a crazy week.  (Thankfully, not as crazy as last week.)  I’m finally starting to get back to normal after last week’s home invasion.  I’m hoping my reading will pick up as soon as things are kind of on an even keel.  Right now, though, I’m lucky to finish one book per week.  (This makes me very sad.)

This week, I finished After Obsession by Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel.  I had high hopes for this book because I enjoyed Carrie Jones’ Need series.  (I still have to read the fourth book, Endure.)  Unfortunately, After Obsession didn’t really live up to my expectations.  I felt that the plot was too rushed, the ending was a bit too neat, and I didn’t quite buy the love-at-first-sight thing between the two main characters.  Also, there was a lot of woo-woo supernatural stuff in this book but very little explanation behind it.  I’m a reader who needs to know why things happen, and this book didn’t deliver on that count.  Maybe I’m being too critical.  Maybe not.  But it’s my blog, and I can do what I want.  So there.

When Aimee and Alan meet, it’s like they’ve known each other forever. There’s an instant connection, and they know they’ve seen each other in their dreams…dreams that paint a disturbing picture of the future in their small town in Maine.  Something dark and evil has taken hold in town–something that has taken lives before–and it’s up to Aimee and Alan to drive this darkness–known only as the River Man–away.

But are two teenagers strong enough to fight an evil they can’t understand?  And what will happen when the River Man makes someone dear to both of them his vessel?  Is there any hope of saving someone after an evil spirit becomes obsessed with them…and before he takes full possession?  What mayhem could result if they fail?  What will they have to sacrifice to succeed?  Read After Obsession to find out.

I realize I haven’t told you a whole lot about After Obsession, but the more I think about it, the more I dislike this book.  (That is hard for me to admit.  I don’t like being negative about books.)  It just felt too choppy, and too many things were left unexplained.  I’m all for using my imagination, but even my overactive imagination couldn’t fill in the many holes left in this story.  I liked how Native American spirituality played a part in the book, but even that wasn’t given the attention it deserved.  With most books, I can see a movie in my mind as the action unfolds.  This book was just words on a page, and I wasn’t engaged at all.  Very disappointing.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, you can find more information on After Obsession on Carrie Jones’ website (http://www.carriejonesbooks.com/), or you can check out the book trailer below.  As far as I know, this is a stand-alone book.  If there were any sequels, I doubt I would read them.  Do with that what you will.

The Romeo and Juliet Code

I freely admit that I tend to judge a book by its cover.  After all, it’s the first glimpse of a book that I get.  A good cover will tell me what genre the book falls into, what the target audience is (young readers, middle grade, YA, adult), and just a smidge about the book–without giving anything critical away.  It will also show me a little about the book’s tone.  For instance, a dystopian book with a bright pink cover is probably a bad idea.  I want the covers of these books to be as bleak as the environments depicted on the pages. 

The cover of my latest read, The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone (another nominee for the 2012-13 South Carolina Book Award), was, in my most humble opinion, a failure on all counts.  The book itself was okay, but it did not match the cover in any way.  That bothers me.  Anyway, here’s the cover:

Now, judging by the cover, and even the title to a certain degree, one would likely expect this book to be a middle-grade, contemporary–possibly geeky–romance. Well, one would be wrong. The Romeo and Juliet Code is a work of historical fiction. It takes place from May to December of 1941 in the town of Bottlebay, Maine. Is there anything about this cover that suggests historical fiction to you? If there is, please let me know!  There is a small bit of romance in this book, but certainly not enough to warrant this cover.  Maybe I should have my students design a more fitting cover for this book. 

Moving on to the story…

The Romeo and Juliet Code introduces readers to Felicity Bathburn Budwig, a young  British girl who is moving to Maine to stay with relatives for the duration of World War II.  Her parents leave her with family members she’s never met, and Felicity doesn’t really know where her parents are going or when–or if–they will return for her.  They don’t even write to her…but they do send letters to her Uncle Gideon.  Felicity is barely allowed to touch these letters.  That, of course, makes her want to know what the letters are hiding.

With the help of Derek, a boy who lives with the Bathburn family, Felicity learns that these mysterious letters are codes being sent from her parents.  But what do they say?  What is the code’s connection to Romeo and Juliet?  Do the codes have anything to do with the war that is sure to involve America at any moment?  Just what are her parents involved in?  And can Felicity and Derek figure everything out–including the mystery surrounding the turmoil in the Bathburn family–before they lose their minds?  Discover the truth when you read The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone.

While this book is a decent historical mystery with a dash of young love, it wasn’t exactly a quick read, and that–along with the misleading cover–will make this one a hard sell.  I know some of my female students will pick up the book because of the current cover, but the “bait and switch” here might turn them off once they start reading.  Most of my male students won’t pick up this book at all because the cover makes it look like a “girl book.”  Again, a redesign would help tremendously, and that may well be how I get students to read this one.  I’ll give them the opportunity to recover my library’s copies of this book with their own designs.  They’ll have to create covers that accurately depict the book without giving too much away.  Of course, they’ll have to read the book to enter the cover design contest.  Something to think about…

If you’d like more information about The Romeo and Juliet Code and other books by author Phoebe Stone, visit http://www.phoebestone.com/.