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.)

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Bad Magic

Thanks to NetGalley, I’ve been introduced to the first book in what is sure to be a fantastic series for middle grade readers. This book is Bad Magic by Pseudonymous Bosch, and it’s due for a September 16th release.

Bad Magic is full of snark and humor, and it also parallels one of my favorite plays, The Tempest by William Shakespeare. All in all, I’d say this book is a must-purchase for libraries that serve middle grade readers.

Clay hates magic. One day, he writes his feelings for magic in his journal, and his words–Magic Sucks!–mysteriously (or magically) appear on the side of a building at school. Of course, all fingers point to Clay, and even though he knows he’s innocent, he’s sent away to Earth Ranch, a wilderness camp for troubled youth.

Almost immediately, Clay realizes that things are kind of weird at Earth Ranch, which is located perilously close to an active volcano. There’s the llama that only responds to Spanish, the swarms of bees that simply don’t behave like they should, and the vog (volcanic smog) that makes everything just a little spookier.

Things get even stranger when Clay learns of the seemingly haunted–and off-limits–library that has all but been abandoned. Of course, like any curious kid presented with a mystery, Clay has to investigate this library, and his quest for answers leads him on a journey that makes him question everything around him…including the reason he was sent to Earth Ranch.

What is really going on at Earth Ranch? Is anyone who they seem to be? Why is this camp so much like a play he was reading in school? Is Clay just imagining the connections, or is he really living out a Shakespearean play? Is that crazy, or is someone trying to get Clay to believe in magic once again? If so, who?

Nothing makes sense for Clay, and his search for the truth will only give him more questions. Can you figure out what’s really going on before Clay does? Jump into Bad Magic to find out!

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I had hoped to add Bad Magic to my elementary library collection, but I think some of the humor is just a little too mature for my students. Middle grade readers, though, will eat up all of the sarcasm and gross humor in this book. (I’ve taught middle school before, so I know snark and potty humor is the first language of most 6th-8th graders.)

I don’t know why, but I tend to enjoy novels with funny, informative footnotes. I got those in Bad Magic. These footnotes added to the humor in this novel, but they also provided readers with information on things they may not be totally familiar with…like popular 70s TV shows, for example. I don’t know how it will look in the print version of the novel, but my digital galley had each of these asterisks as links to the footnotes. (Click on the asterisk, and move to the footnote. Click on the asterisk next to the footnote, and move back to the text. Easy-peasy.) I’m hoping that the print version will have the footnotes at the bottom of each page so that reading this added info isn’t too jarring.

As a fan of Shakespeare, particularly The Tempest, I really appreciated Bad Magic‘s connections to this too-often-forgotten play. Those familiar with the play may be able to figure out what’s going on with Clay much sooner than he does. Bad Magic could also be a fun follow-up to studies of The Tempest. I think students (and teachers) could enjoy comparing the two stories and using what happened in The Tempest to predict what will happen in Bad Magic.

Like I said previously, Bad Magic is a must-have book in middle school libraries, and this book can be purchased on September 16th. If you’d like to learn more about this book and others by author Pseudonymous Bosch, definitely do not go to this website.

The Girls of No Return

Truth time. I only picked up my latest read because it’s nominated for next year’s South Carolina Young Adult Book Award. The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin is definitely not my normal fare. In all honesty, the minute I realized that much of the story took place in the wilderness, I lost a little bit of interest. (I’m not an outdoorsy kind of gal…and that may be the understatement of the year.) That didn’t really change through much of the book. Normally, it takes me just a few days to finish a book. This one took me two weeks. (I will confess, though, that I read the last half of the book in about a day. If you can get through the first part, the latter half goes pretty fast.)

In The Girls of No Return, readers are introduced to Lida, a troubled girl who is being sent to the Alice Marshall School for Girls, a place for girls with issues to come to terms with themselves and the mistakes they’ve made in the past.

This school is located in the wilderness of Idaho (in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area…hence the name of the book), and Lida is sure she’s going to experience more of the misery she’s come to expect in her life. And she’s not totally wrong. Each girl at the school has her Thing, the reason she was sent to AMS in the first place. The school encourages the girls to talk about their issues, but Lida isn’t sure she can really do that. Some things are just too personal.

Lida is in a cabin with other sixteen-year-olds, but she does her best to keep to her self. A couple of her cabin-mates, though, seem determined to bring Lida out of her shell. One of those is Jules, a girl who is full of life and appears thrilled with her place at Alice Marshall. The other is Boone, a kind of scary, tough girl who, after cutting Lida’s hair on her first night at AMS, seems to consider Lida something close to a friend.

Things change for Lida, however, with the arrival of a mysterious new girl at the school. Gia is immediately the most popular girl at AMS. Everyone wants to know more about this beautiful, glamorous girl and why she was sent to this school, but Gia seems to have set her sights on Lida. She seeks Lida out, asks questions about her life, and bestows small nuggets of kindness, things that Lida never experienced in her old life. Lida is quickly growing dependent on Gia’s attention, and that’s about to lead to trouble…

It becomes obvious very quickly that Boone, the school’s resident tough girl, absolutely loathes Gia. How, then, can Lida continue being friends with the popular girl while keeping the peace with Boone? The answer: She really can’t. Lida resorts to lies to maintain the status quo, but those lies are catching up with her.

As Lida prepares for her solo wilderness trek, things are about to come to a boiling point. Boone and Gia are on a collision course, and Lida is stuck in the middle. All of her deceptions are about to be revealed, and she’ll have to decide which girl means more to her…a decision that could have disastrous consequences.

Will Lida come to terms with her Thing? Will she finally confront her demons at Alice Marshall? Or will her experiences there give her even more inner demons to battle?

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Okay, so I think I’ve managed to make this book sound pretty good above…and at times, I really enjoyed it (especially at the end). All in all, though, this was not one of my favorite books, and it could be a hard sell to many teens. If they can get past the first half of the book, however, I think readers will be very invested in what happens to Lida, Boone, and Gia. I, for one, am totally on Team Boone. I also hated Gia from the minute she entered the book, and I was certain she would be bad news for Lida. Spoilers! I do so love it when I’m right.

I do think this book should be targeted to high school readers. Middle school readers may not be quite mature enough for some of the content, and, as one can imagine in a book about troubled teen girls, there is a fair amount of language. There’s also mention of smoking, drugs, alchohol, and sex, so proceed with caution when recommending this to younger teens.

If you know of a teen reader who thrives in the wilderness, has an interest in camping/roughing it, or who may have his/her own difficult issues to work through, The Girls of No Return might be a good fit. It wasn’t totally my cup of tea, but another reader might bring a whole new set of experiences to this book and really find what he or she is looking for.

The Girls of No Return is the debut YA novel from author Erin Saldin. To learn more about this book and the author, click here.