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.

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality

Yesterday, I finished reading Elizabeth Eulberg’s Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality.  I suspected I would enjoy this book because I’d read two of Eulberg’s other books (Prom & Prejudice, Take a Bow), and I adored them. Thankfully, I was right (as I so often am).  In addition to a fabulous title, readers are also given a wonderful story. I think many girls–both young and old–will be able to relate to the character of Lexi, a fun, smart girl with a great personality, who is often overshadowed by what passes for beauty in the world around her.

Lexi’s always been known as a girl with a great personality.  But when she spends her weekends following her mom and seven-year-old sister, Mackenzie, on the pageant circuit, hearing about how beautiful her little sister is, Lexi gets a little tired of looks mattering so much.  She hates the artificiality of the entire pageant world, how pageants have turned her sister into a little monster, and the fact that her mom focuses all of her attention–and money–on pageants and pays little attention to her eldest daughter unless she’s considering how Lexi can help Mackenzie’s pageant prospects.

Lexi’s friends convince her that she’s great the way she is, but they admit that she could highlight some of the features that she tends to downplay.  So Lexi decides to venture into the world of makeup, hair care products, and form-fitting clothes…and the result is a little shocking to her.  For the first time, she’s the one getting noticed for her looks.  She’s being asked out and noticed by the popular crowd.  While Lexi is officially offended that people only started noticing her when she “glammed up,” a part of her is thrilled with the added attention.  Is this what keeps those pageant girls going week after week?

Pretty soon, though, the pressure gets to be too much for Lexi. Yes, she does like some of the makeup and hair stuff, but she doesn’t really feel like she’s being true to herself anymore.  Even when she snags the attention of not one but two popular guys, she questions why they really want to be with her.

Also, tensions are rising between Lexi and her mom.  No matter what Lexi does or says–or even what little Mackenzie does or says–her mom is all about the pageants, and the family is running the risk of losing everything to keep Mackenzie in these pageants. When Lexi’s mom does the unthinkable, Lexi must examine what really makes her beautiful and what she may have to do to finally open her mother’s eyes to the truth.

So how does this girl with the great personality finally get her revenge on those who think “beauty” is everything? Find out for yourself when you read this fantastic book by Elizabeth Eulberg!

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I cannot say enough good things about this book.  I loved–and identified with–Lexi’s character, her friends were awesome, and, even though I’ve never had much experience with the pageant world and its ups and downs, I felt bad for the toll it was taking on Lexi.  I appreciated how Lexi came to term with her own image and realized that the only person she needed to please was herself.

I will say, though, that I absolutely despised Lexi’s mom.  I’ve never watched an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras or Dance Moms or anything like that, but she’s what I imagine when I even think about the parents on those “reality TV” programs.  Completely out of touch with what really matters to–and what’s best for–their children. I finished this book nearly 18 hours ago, and I’m still mad at Lexi’s mom for her atrocious behavior.

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality is, I think, an excellent book for readers in middle grades on up.  It examines what we–girls, especially–really think about beauty and body image.  By the end of the book, the main character learns that being herself is the best thing she can do, and that’s a lesson that all young women–and those of us who are a bit older–could stand to learn.

For more information on this book and others by author Elizabeth Eulberg, visit http://www.elizabetheulberg.com/.

Beauty Queens

Just when I think author Libba Bray cannot outdo herself, she goes and proves me wrong.  I thought her Printz-award-winning novel, Going Bovine, was pure genius, and I thought nothing would be able to top it.  I was mistaken.  Her latest book, Beauty Queens, is absolute perfection, and it hooked me from the very first sentence.  This book is kind of Lost meets Miss Teen USA meets James Bond, and the not-so-tongue-in-cheek pop culture references are alarmingly spot on.  One of my favorite things while reading this book was trying to figure out who the “real life” people were who matched up with the book’s characters.  (More often than not, it wasn’t too difficult.)

A plane full of Miss Teen Dream pageant contestants has crash-landed on a remote island.  Not all of them make it out alive.  How are these girls to survive without drinking water, without food, without shelter, without moisturizer?  Some of the girls are convinced that help is sure to come soon, and they better be ready with their pageant faces on, their talents ready, and their interview answers prepared.  Other girls are more worried about actually, you know, surviving in the wild.

As it becomes clear that help will not be coming anytime soon, the girls, while still doing their best to be the next Miss Teen Dream, take matters into their own hands.  They build shelter, they hunt for food, they develop an irrigation system, and they learn a little about themselves and each other.  In short, they work together and learn that they really can do anything if they put their minds to it.  And that includes figuring out just what is happening on this mysterious island…

You see, things are not as they seem on this island.  Secrets abound–government conspiracies, corporate espionage, other evil villain type stuff–and the Miss Teen Dream contestants will have to face who they are and who they wish to be if they have any hope of uncovering the truth and escaping the island.  Can they become strong women willing to fight for their lives?  (Note:  This becomes even more complicated when a ship full of hot, wannabe pirates enters the picture.  Guys have been known to have an adverse effect on a girl’s brainwaves.)

Join the remaining contestants of the Miss Teen Dream pageant as they discover themselves and what they’re are truly capable of accomplishing.  They’re not just pretty faces!  Enjoy the beauty, madness, hilarity, and suspense when you read Beauty Queens by Libba Bray!

All too often, when a book is as awesome as this one, I have difficulty putting my thoughts into words, and this time is really no exception.  Beauty Queens is a stellar piece of literature that teens and adults will enjoy, and I will be extremely disappointed if this book does not win the Printz award for excellence in young adult literature.  This book, while funny, also made me think about the importance we place on beauty in this culture and how beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.  Bray also represents the LGBT community in her characters, and the book is stronger for their presence.  All in all, Beauty Queens is one of the best books I’ve read this year.  I hope you feel the same way.

For more information on Libba Bray and her wonderful books, visit http://www.libbabray.com/.