A list of all of the titles reviewed for this project.

Picture Books:

  1. Journey by Aaron Becker
  2. Fables by Arnold Lobel
  3. Grandpa Green by Lane Smith
  4. The Spider and the Fly by Tony DiTerlizzi 
  5. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
  6. The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley
  7. Golem by David Wisniewski
  8. Marshmallow by Clare Turlay Newberry 
  9. The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
  10. The Three Questions by Jon Muth
  11. Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King by Doreen Rappaport
  12. There Is a Bird on Your Head! by Mo Willems
  13. A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant
  14. Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone
  15. Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore

 

Children’s Books:

  1. Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
  2. A Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
  3. The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery by Steve Sheinkin
  4. Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
  5. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  6. The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
  7. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
  8. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
  9. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
  10. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
  11. Hoot by Carl Hiassen
  12. The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon
  13. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  14. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
  15. Doll Bones by Holly Black

 

Young Adult Books:

  1. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson
  2. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
  3. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  4. Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aiden Chambers
  5. Repossessed by A. M. Jenkins
  6. Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler
  7. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  8. The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
  9. The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb
  10. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
  11. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  12. The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
  13. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
  14. March: Book One by John Lewis, Nate Powell, and Andrew Aydin
  15. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

  • Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Author: Robin Sloan
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Year Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 0374214913
  • List Price: $25.00
  • Page Count: 304
  • Age Range: 15+
  • Genre: magical realism
  • Award(s): Alex Award Winner

Author information: This is Sloan’s debut novel. His website is fairly sparse, but it does include a short biography, a link to information about Mr. Penumbra, a link to sign up for his email newsletter, as well as a variety of short pieces (articles, short stories, etc) that fans can read online. Mother Jones interviewd Sloan about his debut novel, and the interview discusses such topics as D&D, San Francisco, the inspiration for Neel, Clay, and The Dragonsong Chronicles, and the theme of immortality. The interview also talks about Sloan’s writing process and his use of the app, Freedom (which is an Internet blocker so that he cannot access distracting websites while he’s writing), which he credits with being able to finish his book.

Reviews: It was difficult to find reviews of this title from traditional sources. Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the title, but didn’t provide much more than a synopsis of the plot and a comment on its happy ending. Other sources, like NPR, Newsweek, and the San Francisco Chronicle, were more effusive. They all comment upon Sloan’s ability to weave a traditional quest narrative seamlessly with a modern day techno-world, incorporating elements of Google and elements of centuries old secret societies side by side. Entertainment Weekly sums Sloan’s novel up thus:  “Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age”.

Readers annotation: When Clay got a job at a bookstore, he didn’t realize he would be thrown into a world of secret societies, conspiracies, and the opportunity to discover the meaning of life.

Summary: Clay is laid off from his job, and, in a fit of desperation, takes the night shift at a shady 24-hour bookstore. He notices that most of the customers that come in are borrowing titles from the “waybacklist”, a collection of books that are not sold, but borrowed. His curiosity piqued, Clay discovers that these people are members of a secret society devoted to finding the secret of immortality. This quest takes him and his friends everywhere from the Google campus to a secret reading room in New York City. Eventually, Clay is able to decipher the original text written by Manutius, the founder of this secret sect, and he discovers that it does not contain an easy answer to the question of immortality. Rather, it suggests that the only way to become immortal is by living on through the work you do when you are alive.

Evaluation: I have incredibly mixed feelings about this title–moreso than I think I’ve had about any of the other books I’ve reviewed. I loved the conceit. Setting a quest narrative in modern day San Francisco and incorporating so many aspects of technology is brilliant and sure to attract readers looking for a fresh take on the fantasy novel. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore and Mr. Penumbra himself are incredibly likable and the reader is immediately drawn into their world. The storyline–that Mr. Penumbra is a foward-thinker who, with the help of Clay and friends, might be able to finally solve the mystery of Manutius if the villainous leader of the secret society weren’t trying to thwart their efforts, is compelling and readers will eagerly follow this story wherever it is going. The difficulty with this book is that the plot deteriorates from there. Clay eventually does find the way to decode Manutius’ pivotal text, but discovers that there are no secrets hidden within his story. The novel ends with the suggestion that true immortality comes from the friendships and bonds we build in this life, as well as the works we accomplish. This ending is a letdown for readers who expected a bit of a flashier ending. Although I did not expect that the characters would unlock the key to immortality, I was hoping for something less trite than “friendship is the most important thing”. I admire Sloan for the scope of this novel, but feel that at times the focus became scattered and the payoff at the end was disappointing. I do see the appeal this title would have to a teenage audience though; most of the characters are tech savvy young adventurers, which many teens will identify with.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 A fun blend of high fantasy and high tech, this novel breathes new life into the fantasy genre in light of all of our technological achievements. The premise is strong, but the narrative wanders and the ending leaves much to be desired.
  • Popularity4/5  The mixing of high fantasy and high tech, modern and ancient, digital and analog, is sure to delight readers, and one look at Penumbra’s bookstore will hook them.
  • Appeal factors: magical realism, technology, bookstores, secret societies, Google.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Magicians by Lev Grossman might be a good fit for readers who enjoyed the juxtaposition of high fantasy with an urban setting. Like Clay, Quentin Coldwater doesn’t believe in magic until he’s accepted into a magical and sinister school. Combining common tropes and ideas from childhood fantasy classics, this book is a modern-day fantasy for sophisticated readers.
  2. Readers who liked the magical realism aspect of Sloan’s novel may enjoy The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Like Sloan’s book, this title’s use of magic lets the reader decide whether or not it is real, and incorporates serious themes such as growing up, loss, and destiny.

Book talk ideas: The best way to book talk this title would be by describing Mr. Penumbra’s store. Tell potential readers to imagine that they’re going to San Francisco for the day, and after they’ve done all their shopping and sight-seeing and wandering, they discover a small, hole-in-the-wall bookstore. It claims to be open 24 hours a day, and when you walk in, the shelves are so high that you need a ladder to reach the books at the top. After describing this scene, give a bit of plot details and explain how Clay ends up working there and discovers that there’s more to the little bookstore than meets the eye, and this discovery sends him on a hunt that takes him everywhere from the Google campus to a hidden underground reading room.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Clay assigns his friends archetypes for their “quest” (wizard, rogue, etc.). Why do you think he does this?
  2. How do you think the high-tech/low-tech interplay worked in the novel? What do you think this says about the relationship of the two in real life.
  3. Do you agree with Clay’s assertion at the end of the book, that creating lasting works and relationships are the key to immortality? Why or why not?

Reason for reading: As mentioned in a previous review, I was interested in looking at Alex award winners and seeing why they were chosen as having appeal to a young adult audience. The title of this book intrigued me (what aspiring librarian isn’t immediately taken with the prospect of a hole-in-the-wall, more-than-it-seems, 24-hour bookstore?) and I decided it would be a great way to round out my reviews for this class.

Additional relevant information: Mr. Penumbra grew out of a short story that Sloan had written, and is available on his website. He also wrote a short story to coincide with the paperback release of the novel, following Ajax Penumbra and how he came to find the bookstore that he owns when Clay finds him. This story is available on a variety of platforms, but can be purchased on Amazon for $2.99.

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

  • Title: March: Book One
  • Author: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
  • Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1603093001
  • List Price: $14.95 (paperback)
  • Page Count: 128
  • Age Range: 12+
  • Genre: historical nonfiction/autobiography
  • Award(s): YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens;  Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor

Author information: John Lewis is a United States Congressman, representing Georgia’s fifth district since 1986. He has written his biography for adults, but March is his first title for a younger audience and the first in the graphic novel format. His website focuses primarily on his government work, with sections of the site devoted to legislation he has and continues to work on, his congressional district, contact information, resources, and information about professional and internship opportunities. ComicsAlliance interviewed Lewis and co-author/artist Andrew Aydin about the book. Lewis says that Aydin was the one who convinced him to do a graphic novel retelling of his biography, and he’s glad that he did it because he feels it brings his story to life and makes it more present and dynamic.

Reviews: Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus all gave this title starred reviews. They all agree that this is a powerfully told tale about our nation’s history, and that the graphic novel format helps bring John Lewis’ life story alive to a new generation. The artwork gives the book a “visual, visceral punch” (Library Journal). Former President Bill Clinton also reviewed this title, and said, “Congressman John Lewis has been a resounding moral voice in the quest for equality for more than 50 years, and I’m so pleased that he is sharing his memories of the Civil Rights Movement with America’s young leaders. In March, he brings a whole new generation with him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, from a past of clenched fists into a future of outstretched hands.”

Readers annotation: John Lewis has lived a remarkable life, from a chicken farm to the United States House of Representatives. And he has changed the course of our nation’s history.

Summary: John Lewis is well known as a key figure in the civil rights movement as well as a current United States Congressman, and this book tells the story of his life and his fight for justice and equal rights. The first in a three part series, this book covers Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama and his experiences raising chickens on his family’s farm. In high school he became very serious about his studies and his desire to make a difference, and after a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. he decided he wanted to fight to be accepted at a non-integrated university. His family was wary of this and would not give their permission, but Lewis found other ways to get involved in the civil rights movement. He was involved in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, a movement dedicated to non-violent social change. This first book is set against a modern backdrop; Lewis is talking to a mother and her children about his life right before he attends the inauguration of the first black president, Barack Obama.

Evaluation: This is a very powerful book. The use of the graphic novel format makes John Lewis’ story immediate and urgent in a way that a traditional retelling would not, and the medium also allows a younger audience to connect with Lewis and the civil rights movement in a new way. The story of Lewis’ youth is framed against his life as a U.S. Congressman about to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration, and this conceit works beautifully on many levels–it shows how far the United States as a nation has come and how far it still has to go, and it makes explicit the fact that Lewis is telling this story to a new generation who may not understand what the social and political climate was like in the 1950s and 60s. Lewis is a supremely likable protagonist, both in his modern Congressman iteration as well as when he is a naive young boy learning about racism and segregation for the first time. The story that he tells about how he joins the non-violence movement and his experience with the lunch counter sit-ins is better than any fiction retellings of these events and reminds readers that this is a real thing that happened only a few decades ago. This first installment is bound to intrigue readers and make them eager for the forthcoming books, and it brings new life to a crucial period in United States history.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The artwork is beautiful and visceral, Lewis is a compelling protagonist, and the story is riveting.
  • Popularity4/5  As reluctant as kids and teenagers often are when it comes to reading nonfiction, the graphic novel format of this title will curb many doubts and cause readers who don’t usually read nonfiction to give this title a try. Those who read it won’t be disappointed, and will eagerly await the next installments of this series.
  • Appeal factors: historical nonfiction, Civil Rights, John Lewis, graphic novels.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  Readers who are interested in exploring another graphic novel set in the Civil Rights era should check out Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse. This title looks at segregation and civil rights as well as homophobia during the 1960s, and does a good job representing the prejudices that racial and sexual minorities faced during this time.
  2. Both John Lewis and Andrew Aydin mention that Art Spiegelman’s Maus was a heavy influence on their work, and it would be a good recommendation for readers who liked March‘s nonfiction and autobiographical subject presented in graphic novel form. Like March, Maus shifts between events that happened in the past and frames them as a story told in the present, and both titles show the cruelty of humankind as well as its resilient spirit.

Book talk ideas: I would stress the fact that this a true story written by a key player in civil rights movement, who is currently a United States Congressman. It would be useful to show a portion of the artwork (maybe a page or two from the sit-ins or the preparation the protesters did for the sit-ins) to give potential readers an idea of what the artwork looks like and the visceral experience that reading this story as a graphic novel allows. It may also be interesting to ask the audience how many of them have even heard of John Lewis, to see how familiar they are with the subject.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why did the key players of the civil rights movement stress non-violence? What do you think this accomplished?
  2. John Lewis’ family didn’t want him to try to integrate a university. Do you agree with their decision? Why or why not?
  3. How does using the graphic novel form enhance the telling of Lewis’ story?

Reason for reading: I did my topical presentation about graphic novels. I love the format, and I think it provides a perfect medium to tell emotionally intense nonfiction stories (like Maus, Persepolis, Pyongyang, etc.) because it makes the narrative very immediate and visceral. This title wasn’t on my radar until I did my presentation and saw it on the YALSA Great Graphic Novels list, and that, coupled with the response to discussing the title during the actual presentation, convinced me that it was something I needed to read immediately. 

Additional relevant information: The ComicsAlliance interview with Lewis and Aydin is wonderful, and would be a great tool for teachers or librarians who plan to feature this title in programming or the classroom. In the interview, they talk about collaborating on the book, how it came to be, and also talk about specific scenes, such as the one where Lewis and his friends prepare each other for the abuse they might face during the course of the movement. This gives great insight into some of the artistic and creative decisions that were made with the book. The interview also discusses the decision to frame this book as a story told on Inauguration Day, which both writers felt was important because “generations from now people will forget what that meant. They’ll be raised not remembering what it was like before we had our first black president. So hopefully this will in some way not just help people look forward, but help those in the future be able to look backward, and remember where we were then and how long that took, how much that took, and what the opportunities we have today mean and they open up for all of us.”

Doll Bones by Holly Black

  • Title: Doll Bones
  • Author: Holly Black
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1416963987
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: horror/speculative fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; Carnegie Medal Nominee for Young Adult

Author information: Holly Black has written a number of novels for both young adults and children, as well as some in a graphic novel format. Her website includes contact information, biographical information, appearance information, FAQs, as well as information about and links to all of her titles. She also includes links to her livejournal and blog, which discuss items of relevance in Black’s day-to-day life. She also has a section on her website discussing writing tips and techniques, complete with links and suggestions of other materials that might help an aspiring young writer.

Reviews: School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly all gave this title starred reviews. All of these reviews discuss the fact that Black does a great job creating characters that readers will care about, placing them on the precipice of leaving childhood behind. She portrays her characters realistically and readers will sympathize with their struggles. School Library Journal also articulates the fact that this book blends a wide variety of different genres and styles into one cohesive narrative, saying “this novel is a chilling ghost story, a gripping adventure, and a heartwarming look at the often-painful pull of adulthood”.

Readers annotation: Eleanor’s ghost wants to be laid to rest. And Zach, Poppy, and Alice must help her.

Summary: Zach has grown up with his two best friends, Poppy and Alice, and the three of them play elaborate fantasy game involving figurines, dolls, and action figures for years. Zach’s dad decides Zach is too old to be playing these games, so he throws out all of his game characters, which causes him to quit the game without explanation to Poppy or Alice. Although their game playing days might be over, Poppy confesses that she’s been having strange nightmares about the old china doll in her house, and she convinces Zach and Alice to accompany her on a real-life journey to put the ghost of the girl in the doll to rest. Nothing goes according to plan and the ghost becomes more sinister as the quest goes on, but eventually they are able to learn more about her past and locate the graveyard where she belongs and inter her remains. Along the way, they learn a lot about each other, growing up and leaving behind the innocence of childhood, and Zach reconciles with his father.

Evaluation: This novel defies easy categorization. It has elements of quest narratives, coming-of-age stories, horror, fantasy, and realistic fiction, all of which come together for a gripping and entertaining read. Zach’s struggles with growing up will resonate with all young readers who are trying to learn to navigate a new world in which they have more responsibilities, more freedom, and more anxieties about fitting in and being part of a larger social sphere. The relationship between Zach and his father is especially well crafted; the difficulties they have communicating and the confusion and resentment they both feel towards one another is believable, and the ending, in which they forgive each other and vow to work harder at their relationship, is an honest and not overly easy happy ending.  These struggles play out against an eerie backdrop of ghosts and late-night journeys that build suspense and keep the reader intrigued and wanting to read more. The ghost in the doll is truly creepy, and the way that the author refuses to decide for the reader whether the ghost and haunting the children experience is real or not leaves the story ambiguous enough that readers can come to their own conclusions.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5 The themes explored in this book are important and relevant to many children, the plot is entertaining with a perfect amount of spine-tingling scares, and the characters and their relationships are honest and believable.
  • Popularity4/5  The creepiness of this book may deter some readers who scare easily, but those who enjoy some horror and darkness in their novels will love this book. The pacing, characterization, and plot are sure to find many fans.
  • Appeal factors: horror, speculative fiction, growing up, troubled parent-child relationships, creepy dolls.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is a natural recommendation for readers who love a dose of spooky in their fiction. Nobody Owens, the protagonist, grows up in a graveyard raised by ghosts, and has to confront the man who murdered his family. Like Doll Bones, this novel emphasizes the relationships between characters and the idea of growing up.
  2. Fans of the undercurrent of menace and urgency in Doll Bones would likely enjoy Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. Based on the fairy tale of the Snow Queen, this title highlights themes like friendship, courage, and perseverance.

Book talk ideas: The trailer for this book is delightfully creepy and would be a perfect introduction to a book talk about this book because it would let children know right away if the book will be too scary for them. If they love the trailer, the book will be a great fit for them, but if they thought it was too creepy, then it’s probably a good indicator that they shouldn’t check it out. After the trailer, talk about the friendship between the three main characters and how they decide to go on a modern day journey to put a ghost girl’s remains to rest. On the way, they learn a lot about themselves, each other, and growing up and leaving childhood behind.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you think that Eleanor’s ghost was real? Why or why not?
  2. How do you think each of the characters change over the course of their quest? Who changed the most?
  3. Why do you think Zach’s relationship with his father is so strained?
  4. In your opinion, what is the hardest part of growing up? What are Zach, Poppy, and Alice afraid to lose by growing up?

Reason for reading: This book has been getting a lot of attention recently (not only did it win a Newbery Honor, but a lot of blogs have been talking about it, and it shows up on a ton of lists of “best children’s books of 2013) and I wanted to know what all the buzz was about. I also wanted to read something that was a little scarier, because I feel like I don’t have a lot of good recommendations for books when it comes to young readers who like reading books that will scare them a little. I felt this book would definitely fall into that category, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Additional relevant information: Holly Black also recently published a YA vampire book that has received positive reviews. Publisher’s Weekly interviewed her about this title, and she talks about why she decided to write a vampire book as well as her inspirations and writing process.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

  • Title: The Scorpio Races
  • Author: Maggie Stiefvater
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 054522490X
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 416
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: fantasy
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Maggie Stiefvater is a young adult author who has written numerous books for teenagers. Her website includes posts from her blogs, which focus on what is currently going on in her life (such as travel, new books she’s working on, and videos and articles she finds interesting) as well as a link to her Twitter feed. Her website also has a tab that includes information and purchase links to all of her books. It also includes appearance information and a short biography about Stiefvater. Publisher’s Weekly interviewed Stiefvater about The Scorpio Races, and she talked about her inspiration for the book (she wrote a short story on the topic of water horses and always wanted to expand on it) as well as the likelihood of a sequel (not likely, although she’s often asked). The interview also covers her relationships with her family and her love of music and the influence music has had on her life.

Reviews: Horn Book, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal all gave this title starred reviews. Many of the reviews mention the uniqueness of the title and the fact that it has cross-over appeal to a wide variety of readers (those who like romance, horses, action, etc.). Some of the reviews also mention the compelling character and world building that occurs, which is sure to attract and delight readers. Booklist says, “this seems to have a shot at being a YA blockbuster”, and all of the reviews are in agreement that this is a book worth reading.

Readers annotation: When the races begin, somebody will die.

Summary: Sean Kendrick participates in the Scorpio Races every year, and has won for the past four. Puck Connolly has never ridden in the races, but decides to do so for the first time in order to save her family’s home and delay her brother’s departure to the mainland. Each year, people die during the race, victims of the vicious water horses that they capture and ride Puck decides to ride her own horse, Dove, instead of a water horse, but many participants are angry that she is doing so, and angry at the fact that, as a girl, she is riding at all. She trains Dove in spite of this backlash, befriending Sean Kendrick along the way. Sean is the only rider who sticks up for her and takes her seriously, and a romance blossoms. On the day of the race, Sean’s employer’s son, who is viciously jealous of Sean, has his water horse attack Puck and Dove. Sean intervenes to save them, and Puck ends up winning the race. She uses her winnings to save her home and buy Corr, Sean’s water horse, for Sean.

Evaluation: This book has a fresh concept and builds upon mythology and folkloric tradition, the water horse myth, that is not often explored in literature. This premise will attract readers, and the gripping first pages of the novel, in which Stiefvater introduces how deadly the water horses can be, will intrigue them enough to continue reading. Unfortunately, the majority of the book does not live up to the dramatic and sinister promise of the first pages of the book. Although there is plenty of action and the water horses fulfill their promise of grisly killing, the pacing of the book overall is slower than one would expect from a book about horse racing. Stiefvater spends quite a bit of time developing her characters and fleshing out the world of Thisby, but this comes at the expense of keeping the plot moving forward. On a personal note, this title took me over a month to read, because I kept getting distracted by other books and was not invested enough in the narrative to focus my attention on this title for long periods of time. The world and character building is impressive, and will engage readers who prioritize this over pacing and action, but readers who pick this up expecting a lightning-fast read full of mythological beasts, killings, and racing, as promised by the book description and first chapter, will be disappointed. Readers who stick with the book to the end will find satisfaction, as Stiefvater wraps up the plot in a way in which all of her carefully crafted characters get what they deserve.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  Stiefvater shows mastery in creating a realistic world and sympathetic characters. The way the novel is presented in regards to its back cover description, first chapter, and front cover are slightly misleading. The plot is slow-paced but believable and the ending is satisfying.
  • Popularity: 3/5 Many readers who are initially attracted to this title might not make it past the first few chapters. Readers looking for high action or a deep mythological basis will likely be disappointed; readers who like strong characters and an expansive and well-crafted world will find much to enjoy.
  • Appeal factors: horses, character and world building, happy endings, mythology.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who are looking for another title based in obscure mythology may enjoy Karen Healey’s The Guardian of the Dead. This title is based in Maori mythology, and, like Stiefvater’s title, is dark and full of murderous mythological creatures. Also, like The Scorpio Races, this book has a strong female protagonist that will remind readers in many ways of Puck.

Book talk ideas: Stiefvater and her publishers came up with the best book talk and most compelling way to get teenagers to read her book. It is the first sentence of the novel and is prominently featured on the cover of the book: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die”. This immediately sets up the urgency of the story and gets readers’ attention and makes them want to learn more. Start the book talk with that, and then describe the island of Thisby and how it is populated with murderous, beautiful, terrifying water horses, who locals race each year in a contest that causes many riders their lives. Explain that both Puck and Sean have their reasons for riding in the race and need to win in order to get their happy endings, but only one of them can be the victor.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What does the relationship between the humans and the water horses say about humankind’s relationship to nature?
  2. Do the characters in the novel all get happy endings? Why or why not?
  3. The novel alternates between Sean and Puck’s points of view. How does this enhance the narrative?

Reason for reading: This book has been on my to-read list for awhile. I knew that it incorporated elements of mythology (water horses) into the narrative, and I’m a sucker for any books that are based in mythology or folklore and I wasn’t familiar with many water horse myths and thought it would be an interesting read. I’d also heard good things about Stiefvater’s books and was interested in reading some for myself.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

  • Title: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
  • Author: Grace Lin
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN: 0521021960
  • List Price: $17.00
  • Page Count: 288
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: fantasy/mythology
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Grace Lin has authored and illustrated books for a wide age range of children. Her website includes biographical information, contact information, and tour and event dates. It also includes a link to her blog, which focuses on activities and events that are releavnt to Lin’s life and work, such as a recent play production of one of her books and her advocacy for diversity in children’s books. Her webpage also includes links to all of her titles, as well as supplementary materials for parents and teachers such as craft ideas, discussion questions, and lesson suggestions.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Booklist both gave this title starred reviews. Both reviews comment upon the beauty of the illustrations as well as the use of Chinese folklore to further the plot and add texture and depth to Minli’s world. Booklist and SLJ agree that Minli is resourceful, smart., and an engaging protagonist, and that readers will be rooting for her. In regards to the novel as a whole, Booklist had this to say: “Children will embrace this accessible, timeless story about the evil of greed and the joy of gratitude”.

Readers annotation: Minli wants to change her fortune, but will the Old Man of the Moon tell her how?

Summary: Minli is a young girl who lives in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain and works the fields with her parents. Her family is poor, and her mother often laments their lot in life, while her father tells her fantastic stories about dragons and adventures. Minli decides to change her family’s fortunes, and so she goes off in search of the Old Man of the Moon to ask him how to do so. On the way, she befriends a dragon, meets a prince, and spends time with a family that seems to have discovered the secret of happiness. When she gets the the Old Man of the Moon, he tells her she may only ask one question, so she sacrifices her answer about how to change her fortune in order to ask him why her dragon friend can’t fly. This decision turns out to answer her own question as well; when the dragon flies to the Fruitless Mountain, it becomes bountiful and her family prospers. Although her family becomes financially rich, Minli’s adventures taught them all that happiness with loved ones is the most important treasure of all.

Evaluation: This is an utterly charming book. Lin weaves the narrative of Minli and her family with short fables and folktales that turn out to be significant to Minli’s adventure, layering different types of storytelling and myths into one cohesive story. The use of different colors to differentiate between Minli’s story and the folktales is eye-catching and makes the narrative easy to follow and keeps the reader aware of what part of the book she is currently reading. Minli is an enjoyable protagonist and the reader wants her to succeed in her quest, and secondary characters, like the father and the dragon, are nice complements to Minli’s story. Minli’s mother is one of the more interesting secondary characters due to her harshness at the beginning of the novel and her transformation as she realizes what is truly important to her, which is her family. Lin presents a good moral message as well as uses themes like friendship, family, and the meaning of happiness throughout the novel, which gives the reader much to think about. The ending, which provides happiness for all of the characters, is welcome and sure to put a smile on any reader’s face. The artwork is stunning and richly detailed, and provides a wonderful complement to this delightful book.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  The use of storytelling within the greater narrative works well and enriches the novel as a whole. The characters are sympathetic and the happy ending is well-deserved.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Readers will enjoy the miniature stories within Minli’s tale, which break up the narrative into easily digestible pieces and factor into Minli’s story later on. The fantasy and mythology aspects of the novel will appeal to many readers, especially as it stems from a tradition (Chinese) that isn’t as prevalent in writing for this age group.
  • Appeal factors: mythology and folklore, dragons, families, happy endings, stories within stories.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who want to delve deeper into stories told against a mythological backdrop may enjoy Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. This series follows Percy, a modern day kid, who discovers that not only are Greek gods real, but that one of them is his father.
  2. For readers who enjoyed Lin’s fantastic story of Minli uses Chinese folklore as a backdrop, her book Starry River of the Sky would be a good fit. Like Mountain, Starry River follows a young protagonist and interweaves Chinese myths into the main narrative.

Book talk ideas: One way to approach this book talk would be to read one of the folklore stories out loud to potential readers, to give them an idea of how the book works. After doing that, tell readers that this novel follows Minli’s journey to change her destiny, and that stories like the one they just heard pepper the novel and influence Minli’s destiny. Also, possibly ask the audience if any of them have read other popular mythology/folklore stories, such as the Percy Jackson series, and suggest that this is a similar type of book but that it focuses on a different folkloric tradition: that of China rather than the more familiar Greek.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does the author choose to tell stories within the main narrative? What effect does this have?
  2. Describe Minli’s relationship with her parents? Why is her relationship with her father so different from the one she has with her mother?
  3. What is the most important lesson that Minli learns on her journey?

Reason for reading: I wanted to diversifying the types of books I was reading for this project, and try to include other cultures whenever possible. I found this title on a list of Newbery books (possibly on Goodreads, but I don’t remember for certain) and was intrigued by reading a book with roots in Chinese folklore, and this book did not disappoint. Before requesting it from the library, I really knew nothing about the plot other than what I gleaned from the cover, so it was a pleasant surprise.

Additional information: Grace Lin has been very active in the We Need Diverse Books campaign. This campaign (which just occurred last week, May 1-3, 2014) was a social media call to action in support of diversity in children’s literature. It asked for people to photograph themselves with a sign expressing the importance of diversity in children’s books and then upload it to Twitter, followed by Twitter chat and push to encourage diversity in libraries and bookstores. Since this is a very recent campaign, I look forward to learning more about it and its impact over the coming months.

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore

  • Title: Parrots Over Puerto Rico
  • Author: Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore
  • Publisher: Lee & Low Books
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN:1620140047
  • List Price: $19.95
  • Page Count: 416
  • Age Range: 6-11
  • Genre: scientific nonfiction
  • Award(s): Sibert Medal Winner

Author information: Cindy Trumbore is an author of children’s books as well as an accomplished editor. Her website includes biographical information, links to information about each of her titles, information about writing workshops the author has given, and information about her editing services and the publishing industry.

Susan L. Roth has illustrated and co-written a number of children’s titles. Her website, as befitting an artist, is full of pictures and color. Her site includes biographical information and contact information as well as links to all of her books. Her website also includes information about her artwork, such as how she got interested in collaging, how a beginner could use this technique, what kind of tools she uses, and some fun getting started exercises. She also includes a brief Q & A section as well as a section about the research she has done for her books.

Reviews: Booklist gave this title a starred review. It mentions the fact that the scope of this book–focusing on over 7000 years of history–was a daunting choice and one that is difficult to pull off well, but this title manages flawlessly. It lauds the multi-faceted artwork and says that it enhances and complements the narrative. Finally, Booklist says that this book is “a triumphant reminder of the inescapable connection between people’s actions and the animals in the wild”. Horn Book and Kirkus also give this title starred reviews and say similar positive things about the book: it has an ambitious scope, important message, and wonderful artwork.

Readers annotation: Parrots lived in Puerto Rico for millions of years, and then, because of humans, they almost vanished.

Summary: Parrots lived on the island of Puerto Rico long before humans did. In 5000 BC, humans started settling there, and in 1493 Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain. People kept migrating to Puerto Rico and building on the island, cutting down the forests in which the parrots lived. Then, another bird species started stealing the parrots’ homes and food, making the parrot population diminish further. By 1967, only twenty four parrots remained. In order to save the parrots, Puerto Rico and the United States worked together to rebuild habitat and incubate parrots in captivity, and the parrot population is slowly rising.

Evaluation: This is probably my favorite picture book that I’ve read for the class, which is why I chose to review it last. The artwork is stunning. The cover, which is completely wordless, features three large collaged parrots against a bright blue background, and the combination of colors and wordlessness immediately captures the readers’ attention and makes them want to open the book. The book itself is skewed so that readers flip the pages up instead of from the right, an artistic decision that makes the parrots seem like they are taking over the sky and gives the artwork a scope and depth it would lack in a traditional format. The collages capture color and movement exquisitely, from the wind of a hurricane to the rushing of a waterfall. The pictures are a visual delight and will cause readers to linger over each page, marveling at textures and noticing details in each scene. The narrative matches the strength of the artwork. It takes the readers through the story of the Puerto Rican parrots, from their life before humans reached the island, to their decline from deforestation and competitive species, to the successful attempts at reviving this species. Although the story ends on a hopeful note, it also provides a strong cautionary tale about the impact that humans can have on the environment and how humans can easily destroy an entire species. The book concludes with an afterword that has photographs of the parrots and scientists and gives more background information about the recovery process, driving home the point that this is a true story and scientists are still working on the preservation of this species today.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  5/5  The collages are gorgeous and the message of this book is well-delivered and crucial in today’s world.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Some readers may find this story to be a bit slow, considering there is no defined protagonist or single character to root for, but the majority of readers will find much to love in this title. The artwork is captivating and readers will be drawn in by the plight of the parrots and the efforts to protect them, made all the more urgent and compelling because it is a true story.
  • Appeal factors: collage artwork, animals, wildlife conservation, scientific nonfiction, happy ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  Bird lovers may also enjoy Sibert Honor book, Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate. Although this book lacks the stunning illustrations and moral message of Parrots, it would be a great fit for readers who are intrigued by Parrots but want to be able to learn about nature more locally and interact with it on a more personal level.

Book talk ideas: Start by showing the kids the cover of the book.  If that doesn’t get their attention, nothing will. Ask them to call out ways in which humans can negatively affect the environment (pollution, building, killing animals, etc). Then explain that this book is the true (yes, true) story of how a species almost went extinct because of humans, but then humans helped to save and protect it. Show a few of the collage pictures of the book to really stimulate interest in reading this book.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. How does this book make you feel?
  2. In the book, we learn how humans have hurt the environment and the animals around us. What other examples can you give of this happening?
  3. In the end, humans help the parrots survive. What are some ways that you can help the environment?

Reason for reading: This was one of the first picture book titles I read this semester and it remains one of my favorites. I was interested in looking at some nonfiction titles for this project and this title immediately caught my eye. I volunteer at the California Academy of Sciences and am very interested in nature and environmental conservation, and I’ve previously read other nonfiction titles in this same genre (Moonbird by Phillip Hoose). Of course, the cover of the book and the quality of the artwork captured my attention as well.

Additional information: This semester, I read all of the Caldecott Winner and Honor Books for 2013, as well as a number of books that were considered Caldecott “hopefuls”, such as Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and The Dark. I enjoyed most of the books that were honored this year, but I do think that Parrots Over Puerto Rico was at least as worthy, if not more, of receiving an Honor. Many blogs, such as Wonders in the Dark, also pegged this book as a likely Caldecott candidate. I wonder to what extent this title’s win of the Sibert medal influenced its consideration for a Caldecott, if at all, considering the Caldecott winner, Locomotive, was a Sibert Honor book.