Summer of the Wolves

I’ve never been an outdoorsy kind of gal. Getting in touch with nature? Not my thing. Even as a kid, I disliked being outside, and I hated being forced to read books that had a big focus on nature. The books that stand out the most are Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, and Julie of the Wolves. I know these are great books, but they just didn’t do it for my younger self.

It should surprise no one, then, that I was rather reluctant to read my latest book, Summer of the Wolves by Polly Carlson-Voiles. Pitched as “Julie of the Wolves meets Hatchet,” I was almost immediately turned off. If this book were not a nominee for this year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award, I never would have picked it up. (I did put it off as long as I could.) When I finally started the book, it was rather slow going. I found any excuse I could think of to put the book down. Eventually, though, I made myself sit down and read, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this book. Now, I’ll never be a nature-lover, but I did appreciate this story and the main character’s quest to find her place in the world.

Twelve-year-old Nika should be used to change by now, but nothing prepares her for leaving her latest foster home in California and spending the summer in the wilderness of Northern Minnesota. Nika and her little brother are staying with an uncle they’ve never met in a place that is totally unfamiliar. Nika’s brother, Randall, seems excited about this new adventure, but Nika is anxious. She wonders why her uncle never contacted them before now, how he feels about caring for two kids all summer, and what will happen to them when the summer ends.

Something happens, though, that gives Nika a sense of purpose in her new surroundings. Nika and her uncle find an orphaned wolf pup and decide to care for him. Nika grows attached to the pup–who she names Khan–and she does whatever she can to make sure the little wolf is healthy and happy. She even entertains thoughts of keeping him for her own.

As Nika cares for Khan and learns more about wolves and the wilderness around her, this lonely girl finds herself growing closer to her uncle and making something of a life for herself in Minnesota. For the first time since her mother’s tragic death, Nika feels like she belongs somewhere.

But what will happen when Nika realizes that she and Khan can’t stay together? Will separation from the wolf pup erase everything Nika has come to love about this place? Can she accept Khan’s fate as well as her own?

Read Summer of the Wolves by Polly Carlson-Voiles to learn how one young girl’s relationship with a wolf pup helps her discover her own inner strength, her connection to nature, and what being part of a family really means.

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The synopsis above is not one of my best, and I don’t think it captures even a fraction of what occurs in Summer of the Wolves. This book, while exploring the complicated life of one girl, also highlighted the plight of wolves and other wild creatures. Where does one draw the line when it comes to studying and appreciating wild animals and leaving them alone? (Anyone familiar with the controversy surrounding SeaWorld knows this is a big issue.) Maybe this book and others like it will help young readers examine their own interactions with animals and learn more about how they can help wild animals around the world.

Summer of the Wolves could be a good novel study for upper elementary or middle grade classes. I see it supplementing science units on animal behavior and habitats. Reading this book could lead to extensive studies of wolves in the northern United States. (I do wish this book had included a “further reading” section for students who wanted to learn more about wolves. There is a little more information on the author’s website, including a Common Core teacher’s guide to this book, but something more accessible to students would be nice.)

Keeping Safe the Stars

It’s time, once again, to bring you one of the 14-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees, Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O’Connor.

While reading this book, I wished that I could turn off my adult brain for just a bit and approach the book from a child’s perspective. I think the entire experience would have been a bit different. As it was, this book left me anxious nearly the whole way through. I think any adult reading Keeping Safe the Stars will feel the same way. I look forward, though, to getting my students’ take on this book. I imagine they’ll see something in it that I didn’t.

Pride, Nightingale, and Baby Star are three kids who live in virtual seclusion with their grandfather, Old Finn. When Old Finn gets sick, however, these three kids will have to rely on their own wits to stay together…and keep everyone from knowing that they’re on their own. None of them wants to return to a shelter or group home like the one that they were in when their mother died. Keeping safe the Stars is the most important thing in the world.

Thirteen-year-old Pride (also known as Kathleen) is determined to take over until Old Finn returns. She goes to town for groceries, she cares for their elderly neighbor and her siblings, and, when she discovers that Old Finn has been moved to a hospital in the city, she devises a plan to earn money and get to her beloved grandfather.

It doesn’t take long for everything to start weighing on young Pride’s shoulders. She’s told her share of lies to make sure no one discovers she and her siblings are alone, but those lies are catching up with her. Pride knows that if she can just get to Old Finn, he’ll tell her what she needs to do. He’ll show her how to keep her family safe.

When Pride, Nightingale, and Baby finally make it to Old Finn, though, they discover that their situation is more complicated than ever. This family–a group that is independent and self-reliant to a fault–is going to need help to make it through the days ahead. But who can they rely on to give them the help they need while keeping them together?

Pretty soon, Pride and her siblings will discover that the help they need is all around. All they have to do is accept it.

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Set against the backdrop of the last days of Nixon’s presidency, Keeping Safe the Stars is, in my opinion, a book about keeping a family together at all costs, being honest with oneself and others, and asking for help when it’s truly needed.

As an adult reading this book, I have to say that I was filled with anxiety with the turn of every page. The mere thought that three kids would have to take care of themselves–and worry about how to buy groceries or pay bills–left me feeling uneasy. (And no, I’m not naive enough to think that this doesn’t happen around the world every day.) I wanted to leap into the pages and smack the adults around the kids. Tell them to wake up! At the end of the book, I realized that at least a couple of people saw more than Pride wanted them to see, but I was still rather frustrated. Kids need to be free to be kids, not forced to take on the worries and responsibilities of adults.

I found it very interesting that Pride, who lied quite a bit to keep others from discovering the truth, compared herself to Nixon. She sympathized with him a bit, and wondered if he may have told so many lies to protect those around him. It was an interesting parallel, and it could lead some young readers to seek more information on the Watergate scandal and what ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation.

I’m hoping, at the very least, that Keeping Safe the Stars will encourage young readers to ask for help when they feel that their worries are too much for them to handle alone. Sometimes, we all need a bit of help to make it through.

Keeping Safe the Stars is a good addition to upper elementary and middle school library and classroom collections. I look forward to talking about the book with my own students. Like I said before, I’m betting that their view of this book will be a little different than my own!

For more information on Keeping Safe the Stars and author Sheila O’Connor, take a quick peek at the author’s website. Enjoy!

Frost

Read Stork, the first book in this series, before proceeding!  (For those who have read Stork, you might want to skim over it before starting book two, Frost.  I forgot a lot between the two books.)

Most of what I know about Norse mythology comes from old Thor comic books.  (I’m not saying this is a bad thing.)  Whenever I read something that features a fair bit of Norse myth, I have to break out my trusty reference books so that I can really understand what I’m reading.  I had to do this when I read the first book in Wendy Delsol’s Stork trilogy, and I consulted my mythology books a little when reading the second book, Frost.  I also had to look through my school library’s copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, the driving force behind this latest installment in the Stork trilogy.  I read The Snow Queen way back in eighth grade, but I had forgotten a lot of it.  The refresher—along with Thor and learning more about Norse mythology—helped me sort of understand what was going on in Frost.  I’ll admit that the main characters’ special abilities still confuse the crap out of me, but I have a better grasp of what’s going on that I would have otherwise.

Katla LeBlanc finally seems to be adjusting to life inMinnesota.  Her dad is moving to town, her mom and future stepdad are planning for a wedding and a baby, her boyfriend—the living embodiment of Jack Frost—is just dreamy, and she’s coming to terms with her role as a Stork, or soul deliverer.  A freak snow storm—brought on by Katla’s desire to have a white Christmas and Jack’s desire to please her—throws everything into chaos.  A little boy loses his life in the storm, and both Katla and Jack are inconsolable.  They know the storm was their fault, but how can they possibly fix things that have gone so wrong?

Katla calls on her Stork abilities to right her wrong, but Jack seems to withdraw from her and become deeply depressed…until a mysterious, beautiful stranger comes to town with what is seemingly the opportunity of a lifetime.

Katla hates Brigid on sight.  Brigid is tall, gorgeous, accomplished, and she catches the eye of (almost) everyone she encounters—male or female.  Brigid claims to be investigating the weather anomalies in the area, and she wants Jack’s help, even going so far as to offer him an internship at her research facility in Greenland.  Jack jumps at the chance, but Katla fears that there’s more to this trip than meets the eye.  She doesn’t know what sort of hold Brigid has on Jack, but Katla knows that she’s on the verge of losing Jack forever.  How right she is.

As Kat deals with her Stork duties (which are becoming more complicated by the minute), a distant boyfriend, performing in the school production of The Snow Queen, her mother being placed on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy, and accompanying her grandfather on a trip to Iceland, she’s beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed.  And when Jack and Brigid go missing in the Arctic, yet another weight is added to Kat’s shoulders.  For she knows she’s the only one who can bring Jack back.  Kat will cross realms and face mysteries she never expected—some helpful, some not-so-much—to save the boy who holds her heart.  Will it be enough?  Or will Jack—and the world as Kat knows it—be lost forever in the cold?

Katla’s world in Frost delves deeply into Icelandic and Norse myth, and it is also a bit of a retelling of The Snow Queen.  I enjoyed how Kat was participating in a school production of The Snow Queen while she was preparing for an eventual battle with the real thing.  (The author presents a great argument for reading a prologue.  If Kat had done that for The Snow Queen, she might have figured out what she was up against a lot sooner.)  Like with Stork, I would have liked a pronunciation guide for the Scandinavian words in this book.  If I’d been reading it aloud, I’m afraid I would have butchered each new word I encountered.

Even though Frost ended on an upswing, things are far from over.  Katla must deal with decisions she made in her quest to save Jack, and those decisions may have consequences that are too horrible to bear.  Look for more of Katla’s story in the third and final installment in the Stork trilogy, Flock, on September 11, 2012.

For more information about author Wendy Delsol and the Stork trilogy, visit http://www.wendydelsol.com/.  You can also follow the author on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Dead to You

Last night, I finished reading Lisa McMann’s latest novel, Dead to You, and proceeded to spend the rest of the night thinking about the book.  (I didn’t sleep much.)  Dead to You, like McMann’s other YA novels (Wake, Fade, Gone, and Cryer’s Cross) kept my interest from the very beginning and kept me thinking long after I finished the book.  (I’m still processing how it ended.)  It was gripping, tense, and made me eager to turn the page.  Dead to You was a quick read with a sympathetic male protagonist, and is a perfect pick for reluctant male readers.  (There is some bad language in the book and a couple of rather frank depictions of, shall we say, what goes on in the mind of an adolescent male when confronted with an attractive female, so I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone under the age of fourteen.)  Anyone who reads this book will be intrigued by the premise—a boy kidnapped when he was seven and returned to his family nine years later—and eager to see how this story plays out…

Ethan De Wilde went missing when he was seven years old.  No one had any clue about his whereabouts…until now.  Sixteen-year-old Ethan has returned to his family after nine years, and he’s totally unprepared for what his miraculous appearance truly means, especially since he can’t remember anything before his abduction.  His little brother Blake, though, remembers everything.  He remembers seeing Ethan get into a black car with two strange men.  Ethan has no recollection of that, but he does know that he lived with a woman named Ellen until she abandoned him at a group home a year ago.  After he left the group home, Ethan found out where he truly belonged and made his way back to his long-lost family.

Ethan is trying to recall memories of his first seven years, but he’s overwhelmed with all his return means.  His family—which moved on without him—is readjusting to having Ethan home.  His mom and dad are constantly fighting, Blake seems to be jealous of all the attention Ethan is getting, and little Gracie—the “replacement child”—doesn’t really know what’s going on.  Ethan is struggling with lost memories, going to school, feelings for the girl next door, and controlling his urge to run away from the madness his life has become.

Just when Ethan finally begins to feel safe and at home, something happens that throws his life into a tailspin once again.  Ethan doesn’t know what to do, how he can get past this, or what it means for his future.  But he does know one thing.  Unlocking the memories of Ethan’s first seven years will change everything, and no one will be prepared for the fallout.  Read Dead to You by Lisa McMann to learn what happens when things long-buried—memories, secrets, lies, resentments—rise to the surface and threaten to destroy everything.

I predict that Dead to You will be an easy sell in high school libraries everywhere.  The book’s length is not intimidating to reluctant readers, teen readers across the board will find something to identify with, and the story itself is so fascinating that all readers—teen and adult—will be riveted until the very end.  Also, the discussions that the ending will generate will be quite interesting.  (It almost makes me wish I still worked in a high school so that I could talk to teens about this book.)  Dead to You provides great opportunities for students to take the story and write their own endings.  What happens next?  I’m sure the answers would be as varied as the young adults who read this book.

If you’d like more information about Dead to You and other books my Lisa McMann, visit http://lisamcmann.com/index.html.  You can also follow the author on Facebook, Twitter, and even Pinterest.

For even more, check out this video from Simon and Schuster with Lisa McMann talking about Dead to You and what her readers can expect next!

Stork

It’s below freezing here in South Carolina, and I just finished a book about a girl who has a pathological hatred of the cold.  Fitting.  I’m not very fond of it myself at the moment.

Stork by Wendy Delsol revolves around Katla LeBlanc, who just moved from sunny Los Angeles to a small town in Minnesota.  Almost immediately upon arriving, Kat discovers that she is part of an ancient society–the Icelandic Stork Society.  She and her “sisters” are responsible for placing the souls of infants into chosen vessels.  If that were not enough, Katla is the youngest member of this society and their new second-in-command.  A few of these old birds are not happy.

So, Katla has all of this wonderful Stork stuff going on, but she also has to deal with her newly divorced parents, a new high school, a town where everything seems a bit backward, and two guys vying for her affections.  Actually, the guy part of the equation is an easy one to solve.  Wade, the popular, arrogant guy, is a jerk, and, after a messy encounter during the summer, Kat wants nothing to do with him.  (Of course, he has other ideas.)  The other guy, Jack, is swoon-worthy.  Well, he becomes swoon-worthy once he and Kat can be in the same room without arguing.  And it seems he has some mystical secrets of his own.  (What is up with this town?  Does everyone have magical powers?  We’ll just have to see…)

It soon becomes evident that things are not exactly what they seem in the small Minnesota town of Norse Falls.  Strange things are afoot, and Kat is in the middle of all of them.  How will this young girl fulfill her duties as a Stork?  What kind of history does she have with the enigmatic Jack?  What is so special about them?  Read Stork by Wendy Delsol to discover the fascinating truth.

I really enjoyed this book, even though I had a few problems with pronouncing some of the Scandinavian words scattered throughout.  That’s okay, though.  The story was great and made some interesting connections to Norse myth and Scandinavian folk tales.  It was pretty cool.  I look forward to reading the second book, Frost, next fall.

For more information on Stork and author Wendy Delsol, visit http://www.wendydelsol.com/.  Stay warm out there!

Twelve Long Months

“Just a small town girl livin’ in a lonely world…”

Those immortal words from one of the world’s greatest songs make a great introduction to Brian Malloy’s Twelve Long Months.  (And if you don’t agree with me that Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ is a great song, you’re in denial.  You know you sing along whenever you hear it.)  Molly Swain is your basic smart-girl outcast.  She lives in a small Minnesota town, is in love with her lab partner, Mark, has no friends, and dreams of being a physicist.  After graduating from high school, Molly moves to New York where she attends Columbia University.  Mark is moving to New Jersey, so Molly thinks she finally has her chance to get him to really notice her.  Well, fate is not without it’s own sense of irony.

Soon after Molly and Mark meet up in New York, Mark reveals that he is gay.  Molly, understandably, is crushed, but she puts on a brave face for Mark and helps him to accept who he really is.  She also enters into her first serious relationship with fellow physics major Simon.  Molly feels like she’s finally getting the life she’s always wanted:  She has two awesome friends, a great boyfriend, she’s living in one of the most exciting cities on the planet, and she remains friends with Mark.

Well, this wouldn’t be a young adult novel without emotional turmoil, and Molly gets a lot more of it in spades near the end of this novel.  I won’t tell you what happens, but you’ll see it coming a mile away, but you’ll wish you didn’t.  I found myself praying, “Please don’t let it happen, please don’t let it happen.”  It happened, and I felt as lousy as Molly did.  (Well, probably not, but I did empathize with her.)  Even though I predicted what would happen, I found this book to be an engrossing read that I did not want to put down.

Although Twelve Long Months will be a hard sell for most guys, many female readers will enjoy it.  They’ll see that the book is about love at its core…maybe not the love envisioned at the beginning but something that grows into an unbreakable friendship at the end.