We don't do stars...
We don't do thumbs...
We read children's books and grade them in 10 categories:
literary quality
plot
voice
originality
descriptive ability
humor (if attempted)
illustrations (if present)
believability of characters
believability of situations
overall reading enjoyment

There is no grading curve. There are no points for classroom participation. There is no extra credit.
If you disagree, come speak to us after class.

The Grading System

A+.....this means (guess what) we think it's great. So great it surprised even us.
A.....this means it's pretty darn good. A book we'd recommend to just about everyone we know.
B.....better than most. Not exactly Shakespeare for kids, though, if you get our drift.
C.....mediocre. Like the color beige, it didn't stand out.
D.....we didn't like it. There were more bad aspects than good ones.
F.....it reeked of badness. We read it over and over when we are in dire need of hysterical laughter.
F-.....We're pretty sure Dante had a circle of hell for the people who wrote these...and a lower circle for those who published them.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reporter's Review: DREAMDARK: Silksinger, by Laini Taylor

Penguin, October 2009
Overall Grade: A+


Whisper Silksinger is the last of her clan, the brave Silksingers who protected their Djinn and their city when its appointed guardians, the Mothmage, failed at their post...and her last mission is to set the Djinn once again on his throne.
Hirik is the first of a shamed clan to rise above his reputation and become a true champion...
And Magpie Windwitch is still at work, capturing devils, seeking out forgotten magic, and restoring the fraying tapestry of the world.
Evil forces work against all three...will the three of them together be able to overcome the most daunting of obstacles?

Laini Taylor is a rare find in an author: she has masterful plotting and world-building skills, she crafts every sentence with skill, fluidity, and subtlety, and her characters are unforgettable, lovable, and completely unique. Fans of epic fantasies would be more than remiss to overlook this amazing specimen; the omniscient narrative viewpoint may at times be difficult for a reader not accustomed to fantasy to follow, but it is well worth the effort it may take to "get into" the first few chapters. I can promise you that the action, intrigue, world-building and relationships will pull you into this fascinating story, whether you usually enjoy fantasy or not.


(Note: This is a sequel to DREAMDARK: Blackbringer, and will probably be more enjoyed if you have read that first book already. However, it does stand on its own as well.)


Literary Quality: A+
Plot: A
Voice: A-
Originality: A+
Descriptive Ability: A+
Humor: A
Illustrations: A
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: A+
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A

Possibly objectionable topics*: violence; demons; a fantasy world in which there are multiple "gods" (Also, there is some slight ambivalence surrounding the world's "heaven" as everyone goes there after death and can be killed--thus unmade--there...the book's only plot weakness as far as I have seen).

Author Interview: Irene Latham



Tenner Interview Number 3 today: Irene Latham, author of LEAVING GEES BEND, due out from Putnam on January 7. Welcome, Irene!


CBR: What are ten words that best describe your book?

IL: heart-touching, historical, adventure, lyrical, southern, survival, quilts, midgrade, family, love

CBR: What is one of your favorite sentences or paragraphs from your book?

IL: "Mama always said every quilt tells a story. Every piece of cloth, every stitch and every bit of cotton stuffed between the seams tells a secret about the one who made the quilt."

CBR: Michelangelo once said, "What do you despise? By this you are truly known." What are ten things (smells, sounds, situations, etc.) you just can't stand?

IL: restaurants where the music is too loud to converse, politics, predictable movies, the fact that there's not enough time to read all the books I want to read, napkin fuzz sticking to my black pants, the way ink smears for us left-handed folks, how expensive printer ink is, nubby sheets, cockroaches, the inability (so far) to time travel

CBR: If you had to spend the rest of your life on a desert island, what fictional character would you take with you?

IL: Oh my. This is quite a commitment. But I think me and Newland Archer from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence might have some fun.

CBR: Who are some authors that have inspired you?

IL: Katherine Paterson, Sharon Olds, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mary Oliver and so many others.

CBR: What book of the past ten years did you enjoy the most?

IL: Gosh. The MOST? Impossible to say. But for a real reading experience, I enjoyed Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock

CBR: When you were ten years old, what did you plan to be when you grew up?

IL: A thoroughbred horse trainer (and my sister would ride our horse to victory in the Kentucky Derby)

CBR: If you could choose anyone, living or dead, what illustrator would you choose to illustrate your book?

IL: Garth Williams (knee-jerk response -- love his work on the Little House series)

CBR: What would be your main character's theme song/some songs on the soundtrack for your book?

IL: the movie them from Forest Gump

CBR: Could you give us any hints/teasers as to what your next project might be?

IL: I've got two in the hopper: another historical fiction set during the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelee and a contemporary midgrade about a boy who lives at a zoo.

CBR: Thank you so much, Irene! For those of you who want to learn more about Irene and her books, you can visit her at www.irenelatham.com or www.irenelatham.blogspot.com or follow her on twitter @Irene_Latham.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Best Buy Geeks not really helping you...?

Here are my Christmas gift picks (with a much smaller pricetag):

For the hopeless romantic: Catching Fire; The Espressologist

For the geek: The Geek Girl's Guide to Cheerleading

For the reluctant boy reader: Bobby vs. Girls, Accidentally; Crows and Cards

For the early reader: Bobby vs Girls, Accidentally

For the adventure lover: Catching Fire; Dreamdark: Silksinger

For the fairy tale afficianado: Forest Born; Fortune's Folly; The Amaranth Enchantment

For the historical fiction buff: When the Whistle Blows; Winnie's War; A Season of Gifts; Al Capone Shines My Shoes; Carolina Harmony

For adults who think kid books aren't as great as adult books: Catching Fire; Forest Born; A Season of Gifts; When the Whistle Blows; Marcelo in the Real World

For anyone who just loves great books: Heart of a Shepherd, When the Whistle Blows; The Year the Swallows Came Early; Umbrella Summer

Any other ideas?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wisdom of the Week

I'm about halfway through (and loving) Laini Taylor's DREAMDARK: Silksinger, where I found this nugget of profundity:

"New ages don't just dawn all by themselves. They're not sunrises. If you want a new age, you don't wait for it--you make it."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Author Interview: Lindsay Eland, author of Scones and Sensibility


Today we welcome the second of our Tenner authors, Lindsay Eland, author of the middle grade title SCONES AND SENSIBILITY, due in stores December 22.

CBR:What are ten words that best describe your book?

LE: Funny, heartwarming, utterly romantic, soaring on the wings of elation, drowning in the depths of despair, bosom friends, scrumptious baking, matchmaking, books, and family dynamics

CBR: What is one of your favorite sentences or paragraphs from your book?

LE: Oh dear! One of them is in the first thirty or so pages of Scones and Sensibility, when Polly, my overdramtic, over romantic main character is meeting up with her neighbors dog on one of her first deliveries. "Jack the Nipper stared viciously at me with his blackened eyes, but I lifted my nose to him unwilling to fall under his spell of intimidation. Still, I felt it unwise to enter the gate lest my dainty ankles be punctured by his pointed blood-thirsty teeth."
CBR: Michelangelo once said, "What do you despise? By this you are truly known." What are ten things (smells, sounds, situations, etc.) you just can't stand?

LE: The smell of syrup and cold spaghetti, the sound of a banana being eaten and macaroni and cheese being stirred which are sounds that are pretty much equal on the "despise" scale, I don't like waiting though I'm quite good at it now, the smell and the sound and the situation of throw-up is always just a horrible thing, I hate icy sidewalks, and the back of my hair when it gets too long, and I don't like long lines which kind of goes along with waiting, I guess, and I can't stand high-pitched screams

CBR: If you had to spend the rest of your life on a desert island, what fictional character would you take with you?

LE: Why, most definitely, Anne Shirley

CBR: Who are some authors that have inspired you?

LE: Kate Dicamillo, Richard Peck, Polly Horvath, Gary Schmidt, Laura Tarshis, LM Montgomery, and so, so many more

CBR: What book of the past ten years did you enjoy the most?

LE: Only one?! I guess it would have to be The Tale of Desperaux by Kate Dicamillo...I love it so very much


CBR: When you were ten years old, what did you plan to be when you grew up?
LE: A writer, actually!

CBR: If you could choose anyone, living or dead, what illustrator would you choose to illustrate your book?

LE: I adore Marla Frazee as well as David Small and Matt Phelan!

CBR: What would be your main character's theme song/some songs on the soundtrack for your book?

LE: It would an all instrumental soundtrack with lot's of tinkling piano keys and romantic melodies that whisk you away

CBR: Could you give us any hints/teasers as to what your next project might be?

LE: I'll give you the titles of two new projects!
1. The Culinary Year of Gloria Cubbins
2. My Life As An Omelet

CBR: Thanks so much, Lindsay, and best of luck with everything!

LE: Thanks so much for having me!

To learn more about Lindsay and her books, you can visit her website at www.lindsayeland.com

Magic Under Glass Book Trailer

Check out Jaclyn Dolamore's trailer for MAGIC UNDER GLASS, in stores December 22!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFvAq2lgrZ4

Monday, November 30, 2009

Author Interview: Jaclyn Dolamore, author of Magic Under Glass

In the first of an exciting set of new author interviews from the Tenners, we welcome Jaclyn Dolamore, author of MAGIC UNDER GLASS (Bloomsbury, December 2009). She's here today to tell us a little about her book and herself--the novel is released on December 22.

CBR: What are ten words that best describe your book?

JD: Foreign dancer. Mysterious automaton. Brooding sorcerer. Fairy taxidermy. Corsets. Pianoforte.

CBR: What is one of your favorite sentences or paragraphs from your book?

JD: "I felt like I could have peeled back the stiff fingers and found living ones beneath. If I could only see the spark of life in him and draw it out. If I could only punch his back and make him breathe. I ached to see his eyes searching from his frozen face."

CBR: Michelangelo once said, "What do you despise? By this you are truly known." What are ten things (smells, sounds, situations, etc.) you just can't stand?

JD: Polyester, mayonnaise, calling someone on the phone, buying shoes for my huge feet, the lack of creative vegetable dishes at restaurants, hot weather, planned obsolescence, "adult contemporary" stations piped into retail establishments (I worked retail for 8 years...), anything medical, wearing makeup.

CBR: If you had to spend the rest of your life on a desert island, what fictional character would you take with you?

JD: How about...Aang from the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV show. He's pretty cheerful and he can command the elements, so I would trust him to be pleasant company and keep us alive.

CBR: Who are some authors that have inspired you?

JD: L. M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Piers Anthony back in the day, Lois Lowry, Maud Hart Lovelace, Charlotte Brontë, J. K. Rowling; also various graphic novels and manga, especially Thieves and Kings by Mark Oakley, Dame Darcy's Meatcake, and Ai Yazawa's manga Paradise Kiss and NANA.

CBR: What book of the past ten years did you enjoy the most?

JD: 10 years? Oh... wow. That's a pretty long stretch to remember. Maybe Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. (Note: this book is not for kids. Definite adult content. But I could NOT put it down.) However, I have read a lot of good books in 10 years, so I could go on...

CBR: When you were ten years old, what did you plan to be when you grew up?

JD: I believe that was my "acting" phase. I generally waffled between artist, actress, and writer throughout my childhood.

CBR: If you could choose anyone, living or dead, what illustrator would you choose to illustrate your book?

JD: Oh man. That is so hard. I love so many illustrators so so much. Arthur Rackham and similar artists of that period, or Trina Schart Hyman, or the aforementioned Dame Darcy. Or my sister Kate Dolamore! *pimp* http://www.pencilshavings.net *end pimp* Because she is an artist and it would be so cool to produce something together like that.

CBR: What would be your main character's theme song/some songs on the soundtrack for your book?

JD: Lizst's "Hungarian Rhapsody" and almost anything Chopin. Player pianos and Victorian music boxes. The Decemberists, Franz Ferdinand, and "Love Hurts" by the Everly Brothers, because most love in the book does hurt... I had a real playlist but I lost it in a computer switch...reconstructing it is on my "to-do" list.

CBR: Could you give us any hints/teasers as to what your next project might be?

JD: My next book is about a mermaid and a winged dude, and it's already with my editor. So that is my next published project, but no longer the next project I'm working on (until edits). I am currently poking at a pet project about a girl whose mother was once a potion maker in another world until she fled to America...but now someone from her old life has found her. It includes a magical Mafia and doll people.

CBR: Thank you so much, Jackie! It's been great getting to know you a little--and best of luck with all your release fun and excitement!

To learn more about Jackie and her book, you can visit her website: www.jaclyndolamore.com. And there's rumors that her book trailer may appear on this blog sometime in the near future, so check back!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reporter's Review: Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), by Lisa Yee, illustrated by Dan Santat


Arthur Levine Books; September 2009
Overall Grade: A

Bobby Ellis-Chan is just a normal fourth grade boy, and like all normal fourth grade boys he has realized a thing or two: one thing is that boys and girls just aren't supposed to be friends...so he can't be seen in school with his best friend Holly. And another thing is that boys are supposed to be better than girls...so when he has the chance to run for classroom representative, even though it's against Holly, he has to take it. But when Holly, in her turn, starts to act like a normal fourth grade girl (why would someone want to wear nail polish and dresses, for goodness' sake?), Bobby's not so sure that what every normal fourth grader knows is actually right.

Bobby is one of the most realistic, entertaining boy characters I've seen in the category of contemporary realistic fiction for years (which, incidentally, means that those other boys aren't so contemporary, anymore, huh?). Every child has to live through that painful time when girls are just about ready to start acting like grown-ups, while boys, on the other hand, just want to stay kids for as long as they can...and Lisa Yee has captured that tension and dynamic extremely well. The simple, yet well-crafted language and constant humor, interlaced with the perfect amount of poignancy, make Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) a story that will be accessible and enjoyable for boys, girls, and parents alike. A great start to a new series.


Literary Quality: A-
Plot: A-
Voice: A+
Originality: B
Descriptive Ability: A
Humor: A+
Illustrations: A
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: A+
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A

Possibly objectionable topics*: none

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reporter's Review: The Espressologist, by Kristina Springer

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux; October, 2009
Overall Grade: A-

Jane Turner is more than your average people-watcher; as a barista at her local "Wired Joe's" coffee shop, she's made a science out of analyzing people based upon their beverage of choice. She calls is Espressology, and it becomes the basis for a match-making endeavor that becomes the holiday promotion (tons-of-profits-earning, cool-enough-to-be-on-TV promotion) for the coffee shops. Everyone seems to be really happy--especially Jane's best friend Em (a hot chocolate) who was matched up with a cute guy from Jane's English class (a toffee nut latte). Everyone, that is, except Jane. How is it that everyone ends up with true love except for her?

So...I'm just waiting for this book to be turned into a movie, because it is perfect "chick flick" material. The plot, to be honest, isn't very complex (there's about half a subplot); this doesn't make it an astounding piece of literature, but it does make it a great, relaxing read that teenage girls will love. I found myself wishing my Christmas tree were up, so I could snuggle up in a fleece blanket with a cup of hazelnut cappuchino, and read by the tree lights--it was just that cozy. The idea is excellent, the characters are lovable and entertaining, the story is easy-to-read, sweet, and funny.

Literary Quality: B+
Plot: B-
Voice: A
Originality: A+
Descriptive Ability: A-
Humor: A
Illustrations: N/A
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: A
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A

Possibly objectionable topics*: language (fairly mild, but frequent), mild sensuality

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reporter's Review: Crows and Cards, by Joseph Helgerson


Houghton Mifflin; 2009
Overall Grade: A

Finding a trade to learn is a little difficult for Zeb Crabtree. The thought of splinters makes him queasy. Animal hair makes him sneeze. Fires are just plain scary. Having thus ruled out the occupations of cooper, livery boy, and blacksmith, Zeb’s father decides to apprentice him to a tanner and ships Zeb off on a riverboat to St. Louis. And Zeb…he does what any 1840’s boy in his position would: runs off to apprentice to a riverboat gambler, Chilly Larpenteur by name.
Chilly’s no average scalliwag, Zeb finds--he teaches the boy the noble aspects of gambling--it’s really just helping rich folks share their wealth--and Chilly even generously offers a portion of his own winnings to a woman collecting for the poor orphans. But when Zeb is asked to help Chilly cheat, his doubts are raised… and when he finds out Chilly’s generosity was a lie, he gets downright feisty. In order to get himself out of his mess (and help a beautiful Indian princess and understandably malcontent slave along the way), Zeb must face his greatest fear…
And splinters are only the start of it.
Crows and Cards is an example of historical fiction at its best. This is historical fiction that boys will love, and that no one will want to put down; Joseph Helgerson combines an intriguing story with boisterous humor, a lovable protagonist and larger-than-life crooks, and a marvelous setting. Think Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer without the hard-to-read dialect… Sam Clemens himself would have hooted along with the rest of us.

Literary Quality: A
Plot: A-
Voice: A+
Originality: A
Descriptive Ability: A
Humor: A+
Illustrations: A
Believability of Characters: A
Believability of Situations: A-
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A+

Possibly objectionable topics*: gambling, some violence, communication with a spirit.

Note: Great book for boys!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reporter's Review: Betraying Season, by Marissa Doyle (Sequel to Bewitching Season)


Henry Holt; October, 2009

Overall Grade: B


Spending her first time away from her newly-married twin sister Percy is difficult for Penelope Leland, but she is determined to take the opportunity to learn to wield magic as well as her talented twin. While visiting her old governess/magical instructor Ally in Ireland, Pen learns new magic and meets new people: a wealthy Lady with a disreputable past, a small Irish faery called a clurichaun with a taste for fairy whiskey and an affinity with young witches, a ghost, and a young gentleman with mysterious origins and a very handsome face. In Ireland, Pen's magic thrives along with an exciting new romance...until both threaten to turn Pen against all that she holds most dear.

I always find it interesting to read sequels of books I've already reviewed, to see how they compare to the first book. Overall, I found the writing/plot/and pacing of Betraying Season to show a development and growth in Marissa Doyle's writing. Also, Pen's voice was delightfully easy to follow and interesting. It was infinitely readable and entertaining, but I felt it still suffered from some of the same problems as the first book. Namely, the magic is thrown into the real world in a way that brings up far more questions than are answered; the ones that are answered are a mix between vague and detailed which leaves the reader slightly disoriented. Also, though I thought the overall plot development was well-done, unfortunately the very crux of it was highly doubtful. Without any spoilers, that's hard to explain, but basically I felt like the authors/characters were trying to fool me into believing something was far more important than it actually was. "The only way" a certain character could get what she wanted was unbelievable, as was another character's "only way" to prevent that, but other possibilities of either plot point were never even explored. And as this second "only way" involved a character doing something entirely against the nature that had been developed for him (but conveniently adding a hightened tension for the romance plot), I was quite disappointed.

On the plus side, I felt the author has really improved her ability to bring the world of Victorian Europe alive; her dialogue was excellent and appropriate to the character's time and place, though I did note a few anachronisms that both sounded modern and could have been easily avoided.


Literary Quality: A-

Plot: B+

Voice: A

Originality: B

Descriptive Ability: A

Humor: A

Illustrations: n/a

Believability of Characters: B

Believability of Situations: B-

Overall Reading Enjoyment: A

*Possibly Objectionable Topics: sensuality and several veiled (a few not so veiled) mentions of sex; one instance of crude humor; language; idolatry; witchcraft. (Because the story is set in the real, historical world, against a backdrop of an obviously Christian country, the magical elements do not feel like harmless fantasy and can be disturbing.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Switching things up a little....

Nothing to review today (though you can look forward to a review of Betraying Season by Marissa Doyle over the weekend), but I heard something funny I couldn't resist putting up:

How many science fiction writers does it take to change a light bulb?

Two, but it's actually the same person doing it. He went back in time and met himself in the doorway and then the first one sat on the other one's shoulder so that they were able to reach it. Then a major time paradox occurred and the entire room, light bulb, changer and all was blown out of existence. They co-existed in a parallel universe, though.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Books for Boys: Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett


Harper Collins, 2003
Young Tiffany Aching of Discworld has always felt different than your average girl. She knows things, feels things that others, well, they just don't. But she didn't realize that her powers made her guardian to the gates of the faery world--until an evil power tries to break in. Luckily for Tiffany (and somewhat to her annoyance), a group of renegade faeries, tiny blue imps called the Wee Free Men (or Nac Mac Feagle, in their Scots-like dialect) want very much for the gates to stay closed. And they've made Tiffany their queen.
Why Boys Will Like It: Despite it's female main character, this is definitely not a "girly" book. It has great action, adventure, and pacing that will keep boys turning pages--and, as mentioned, Tiffany is not your average girl. Her cool common sense and goal-driven personality may in fact resonate more strongly with male readers than the average female. Certainly boys will be fascinated by the feisty secondary characters, the Nac Mac Feagle, who are as full of humor and pranks and ridiculousness as any boy could wish for, and who (as the title might indicate) are prone to running away with the story from time to time.
The reading level of this book is upper middle grade/lower YA, making it ideal both for young adults and for younger boys whose reading level has jumped ahead of their maturity/experience.
And though we're showcasing this book, all Terry Pratchett's children's books are excellent. His humor is astounding. His characters are totally unique. His writing is incredible--in fact, his first book for children, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a humorous take on the Pied Piper story, was the winner of the Carnegie Medal, England's closest equivalent to the U.S.'s Newbery. (And for another famous recipient, how does the name C. S. Lewis sound?)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday's Food for Thought

"That is a good book which is opened with
expectation and closed in profit."
~ Amos Bronson Alcott

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Contest Winner!

Congratulations to Catherine Brandolini, winner of our first ever contest! We'll be contacting you shortly for your prize preferences.
The rest of you will just have to wait for the next contest... :)

10 Books of '10 that I wish I didn't have to wait for...

Have you checked out the Tenners yet? They're a group of writers all set to debut in 2010...and if you're not looking for more books to covet, you shouldn't check out their site. If you are, though...just be prepared for sudden bouts of wishing 2010 would come more quickly!
Here are the 10 of Winter and Spring (because it would have been impossible to choose just ten from the entire list) that I most look forward to reading, based on their synopses:

Brightly Woven, by Alexandra Bracken

A Most Improper Magick, by Stephanie Burgis

The Cinderella Society, by Kay Cassidy

Magic Under Glass, by Jaclyn Dolamore

Scones and Sensibility, by Lindsay Eland

Harmonic Feedback, by Tara Kelly

Princess for Hire, by Lindsey Leavitt

Escaping the Tiger, by Laura Manivong

The Mark, by Jen Nadol

Birthmarked, by Caragh O'Brien

If the covers alone don't make you drool, I'm surprised.

Reporter's Review: A Season of Gifts, By Richard Peck


Dial, October 2009
Overall Grade: A

Mrs. Dowdel (of A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago fame) is back, seen this time from the viewpoint of a preacher's son who has just moved into the house next door. As he and his family try to adjust and survive, they receive more than a little help from their crafty, indomitable next-door neighbor...though all given in her own, unique way.
Richard Peck's writing in A Season of Gifts is as wonderful as ever...if not more so. Every sentence is perfectly crafted, and there are some so perfect, so unique, that they left me gaping. He writes a town you can see and smell and people you could touch (or maybe smack or maybe hug!). The plot is not his strongest...but with writing this crazy good, who cares?
On second thought...we do. Because with this kind of character development, this remarkable crafting, this extraordinary pacing--imagine what a plot with more depth would do. Quite honestly, it would take this from one of the best children's books written this year to one of the best children's books written ever.
And if you're looking for a great Christmas gift for someone with good taste in books...you found it.

Literary Quality: A+
Plot: B
Voice: A
Originality: A
Descriptive Ability: A+
Humor: A+
Illustrations: A
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: A+
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A+

Possibly objectionable topics*: various mentions of children born out of wedlock; mildly crude humor; underage drinking (viewed as dangerous)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reporter's Review: Al Capone Shines My Shoes, by Gennifer Choldenko


Dial, 2009
Overall Grade: A-/A

Moose Flanagan is still the nice boy of the kids living on Alcatraz Island. Their parents are guards—but even they can’t quite keep the incorrigible group of youngsters from getting involved where they shouldn’t. And getting involved with notorious gangster Al Capone tops the list. When Scarface Al asks Moose for a favor in return for helping Moose’s autistic (though that word is never used) sister Natalie into a good school, Moose doesn’t know what to do…and the other kids’ plans have a way of making the right choice even more difficult to find.
Al Capone Shines My Shoes falls into the category of very well-done sequels. Gennifer Choldenko created a unique, stand-alone plot for the second Alcatraz book, while nicely carrying through the elements that she set up in the first. In fact, the plot was masterfully structured; while being filled with action and suspense, each plot point clearly and logically arose from the characters’ actions and decisions. Some of the minor secondary characters didn’t always ring true, but the main characters were excellent and the interpersonal relationships were well developed.

Beyond that, despite its unique and seemingly “hard” setting, Al Capone Shines My Shoes was a beautiful story. I’ve read very few (though some excellent ones have been reviewed here) novels containing a character “on the autism spectrum,” to be specific, that was so authentic and genuine—and just as important, in terms of story, in which this character’s condition was so intrinsic to the plot. Moose and Natalie have a touching (while still honest and believable) relationship which dramatically demonstrates the immeasurable value of every human being, no matter how society might view them.
Now for one “pet peeve”, falling under the categories of both literary quality and overall enjoyment… Remember the post on “Yolenisms”? To briefly sum up, that’s the term we coined for melodramatic repeated phrases, often used at chapter and section ends (but very seldom in real life) to create a sense of drama and completion and/or suspense. It’s a pitfall for even some of the best writers, as evidenced here: we counted 17 altogether, which comes to more than one per every 15 pages. Here’s just a few, as examples:
p. 38: “Close enough, Moose. Close enough.”
p. 48: “You bet, doll. You bet.”
p. 133: “Jeepers, Moose. Jeepers.”
p. 193: “I dunno, Moose,” she says without turning back. “I really don’t know.”
(If you’re curious, you can find the others on pages 49, 58, 81, 110, 124, 142, 158, 176, 178, 185, 203, 209, and 222, respectively.)
After that, we thought of changing the term to “Choldenko-isms”… but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Why bring it up? Truth is, we see this a lot…but it’s so much funnier when an excellent author falls into it.

Literary Quality: B
Plot: A+
Voice: A-
Originality: A+
Descriptive Ability: A
Humor: A
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: B+
Believability of Situations: A-
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A

*Possibly Objectionable Topics: some mildly crude humor and scary moments

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Food for thought

"The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

...and, on a random note, remember to enter our contest to win a signed copy of Shannon Hale's FOREST BORN, or other cool writing- and reading-related things! http://thechildrensbookreporter.blogspot.com/2009/09/another-contest-to-win-free-stuff.html

Author Interview: Fran Cannon Slayton




A hearty welcome to Fran Cannon Slayton, author of When the Whistle Blows; the story follows a boy named Jimmy Cannon through several All Hallows' Eves of his life in West Virginia, as he grows up and his world changes. (Read my original (raving) review here: http://thechildrensbookreporter.blogspot.com/2009/09/reporters-review-when-whistle-blows-by.html)

CBR: Why did you choose All Hallows’ Eve as the day in which your stories are set? Does that day have a special significance for you?

FCS: Legend in our family has it that my grandfather was born and buried on Halloween. I always thought that was a pretty cool fact and it made me think about how the circle of life is made clear when a person dies on the same day that he was born. The beginning is the end, the end is the beginning – all whole; all complete; all one. And in some ways that is what my book is all about: that death – whether it is of a person, or a time, or a place, or a state of being – is not necessarily the “end.” It’s a part.

CBR: In your foreword you mentioned that much of WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS was inspired by stories your father told you growing up… Was it challenging for you to fictionalize these real-life events for the sake of the overall quality of the novel?
FCS: No, it was not hard to fictionalize the real events. I think the reason for this is because they were not events that I myself had lived through. My father had lived through them and knew them firsthand. But I only knew the stories through him – so even as he was telling me these stories when I was a child, I had to create my own visuals. When you create your own vision of an event it is already fictionalized to a certain extent. And because the events were not my own, I think it was easier for me to nip and tuck and let go of some of the realities in order to serve the narrative.
CBR: Would you want to live in 1940’s Rowlesburg if you (magically!) had the chance?
FCS: Not permanently, but I certainly would like to spend a month or so there. I’d love to see (and ride!) the steam engines, watch the railroaders work in the pits and in the shop; watch the ladies sweep the cinders off their porches; swim in the old swimming hole; walk along the old train bridge; meet my grandfather and eat some of my grandmother’s cooking. Sigh.
CBR: Where do you get your best thinking done? Best writing?
FCS:I can think pretty much anywhere as long as it is quiet. Thinking is one of my favorite parts of writing; I suppose my favorite place for it is in front of the fireplace.
In terms of writing, I really like writing late at night until the wee hours of the morning, but it doesn’t suit my family’s schedule very well. So most of my writing I do sometime between 8am and 3pm. I usually like writing best at home or in a coffee shop.
CBR: How do you push through those times when writing is difficult?
FCS: I’ll often revert to thinking about it. Things come in their due time, and I try not to worry about it and give myself space. Sometimes I’ll start working on another project, and let my subconscious percolate for a while. Other times I’ll just try to write through the issue, or approach it from another angle.
CBR: Thank you so much, Fran! Your book was delightful...and we look forward to seeing it come up often during "award season"--it's one of our picks for Newbery hopefuls!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Author Interview: Jenny Moss

Today we welcome Jenny Moss, author of Winnie's War, the story of a young girl struggling to keep her family safe and together through the outbreak of war and epidemic in her little Texas town.


CBR: What drew you to the time period and setting for WINNIE’S WAR?

JM: I live in the Houston/Galveston area and wanted very much to write about this part of the country. I chose the time period because of my interest in the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. It actually wasn’t until I did research for the book that I realized what a fascinating time period it was, on the technological cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

CBR: Have you ever wanted to live in a different era? Would it be similar to Winnie’s world (minus the flu and the war!) or some other place and time entirely?

JM: Great question! I’m interested in many other time periods, including Elizabethan and medieval England, the time of the flappers in the US, the New York theater crowd in the 1950s, the world in 1969, so much! Which is what’s great about being a writer: You’re able to “visit” these amazing places.

CBR: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of writing historical fiction?

JM: Historical fiction is a lot of work, but well worth it. I’m into research. I like learning obscure facts about bygone days. My least favorite part is when I feel rushed, when I can’t linger over the details. But writing historical fiction requires finding the right balance between writing and researching. Researching more means writing less; you may never finish the book if you don’t find that balance!

CBR: Are there any authors you loved as a child (or an adult) which influenced your writing or your decision to become a writer?
JM: I don’t remember deciding to become a writer. I liked reading and writing stories. I kept doing it and finally was a writer, I think. I’ve admired many authors over the years and thought it would be wonderful to be as gifted as they were, writers like “Carolyn Keene” (during my Nancy Drew phase), Victoria Holt (during my gothic novel reading), and later, Toni Morrison, F Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, Markus Zusak, Billy Collins, Megan Whalen Turner, Shakespeare, Geraldine Brooks, and on and on.

CBR: Are there any questions you’ve always wanted to be asked that you’d like to answer here?

JM: Are there any other members of your family who write?
Why, yes. :) My brother and daughter are both gifted writers. I like to think my mother started it all, tapping away at her typewriter when her kids were small.
Thanks so much for the interview!

CBR: Thank you, Jenny! Your book was great, and we very much appreciate your taking this time to talk to us!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Special Topic: Books for Boys

I've recently noticed a trend in the emails and feedback I've received from this blog's viewers: a large number of parents and teachers are reading it for a particular reason. To quote: "I want to find books for my boy(s) to read!" Sadly, while there are hundreds of great books out there for boys, many adults don't know where to look once they're off the NYT best seller list (and even if they're on the list, who's to say they're good?).

So.... I'm initiating a new feature of The Book Report: a monthly feature entitled "Books for Boys".
In the future I will be highlighting older (that is, not published this year, or not currently bestsellers) books, but today I'm going to briefly run through some books your boys may have already read and let you know what I think of them.

1) HARRY POTTER

Controversy regarding witchcraft aside, this is obviously the most popular book ever written for children of either gender. The plot is one of the most well-thought-out I've ever encountered in either children's or adult's literature, and the characters are well-developed and unforgettable. Long sentences make it difficult to read aloud, but older readers will read it quickly and enthusiastically. However, due to the aforementioned controversy, parents should do their research and read it first. Being involved in your children's reading means being involved in their life...that's just good parenting.
Why boys like it: Action. Drama. Plot. Characters. The enticement of another world, another reality from what they know. Humor. With an emphasis on humor.

2)PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS

There's some controversy surrounding these books, as well, due to their content of ancient gods--so again, do your research. However, they are easy to read, filled with action, and very exciting. I would argue that character development suffers as a result of constant action, but... apparently millions of boys don't mind that.
Why boys like it: Action. (Some) humor. Fantasy. Quick pacing and readability.

3) ARTEMIS FOWL

Boy genius meets the fairy realm. One character can be a little crude, and a later book in the series turns demons into a possibly objectionable fantasy element, but the plot is excellent, surprisingly touching, and overflowing with clever humor.
Why boys like it: Humor. Action. Kick-butt fairies that are anything but girly.


4) THE INHERITANCE TRILOGY (OOPS, I MEAN, CYCLE)--A.K.A. ERAGON
These books seem to appeal to the younger fans of Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS. They're decently fast-paced, very action-packed, and filled with other-worldliness and excitement. Personally, I think the writing is amateurish and the plot and characters almost define cliche. Boys like it...but I would recommend they stick to Tolkien, Lewis, maybe MacDonald, or venture into the works of Robert Louis Stevenson if they're smart enough to tackle books with that kind of length and vocabulary.
Why boys like it: Fast-paced action. Fantasy elements reminiscent of (or stolen from) The Lord of the Rings. Plot reminiscent of (or stolen from) Star Wars.

And, still bestsellers for boys though it's been years since their publication:
5) THE LORD OF THE RINGS
and 6) THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA.







It's great what a blockbuster movie will do to rejuvenate old classics. #5 is great for advanced readers who want to tackle it, and #6 is excellent for readers of any level, simple language yet profound story.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Food for Thought...and don't forget to enter contest to win real food (a.k.a. chocolate) and a signed copy of Shannon Hale's latest!

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
-Albert Einstein

And speaking of imagination... I met Shannon Hale at a book signing Friday and she signed the copy of FOREST BORN for our contest. (Remember to enter here: http://thechildrensbookreporter.blogspot.com/2009/09/another-contest-to-win-free-stuff.html)
She has a seriously crazy imagination, and her chat/signing was a blast. If you haven't read any of her books, do so. Really.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Another contest to win free stuff--really cool free stuff, like a SIGNED copy of FOREST BORN and hot cocoa with those cute little marshmallows

I recently added the "followers" thingummy (that's the technical term, you know! ;) on my sidebar, and have decided to have a contest to actually get people to notice it... It hides in there so cozily at the moment.
First of all, the prizes:
The winner has a choice of two prizes. The first shall henceforth be known as "THE READER'S JOY" and shall contain: one copy of our most recent A+ graded book, Shannon Hale's Forest Born, signed by the author; a bookmark; gummy bears; a box of hot chocolate--with those cute little marshmallows. The second shall be called "THE WRITER'S SURVIVAL KIT" and shall contain: a leatherbound notebook; pens in fun colors; a mug; coffee or tea; chocolate candy bar.
How to Enter:
-Become a follower, and post a comment here letting us know. (1 entry)
-Post an entry on your blog linking to this contest, and post a comment here letting us know. (for a second entry)
-Place a link to this blog on your blog or website, and post a comment here etc. (for a third entry)
Per the usual procedure, one winner will be chosen at random; make sure we have your email address so we can contact you. The contest will be open for entries through October 31, 2009.
Good luck!

Special Topic: If at first you don't succeed...

I recently came across a book by one of my favorite authors—and I hated it. The story was so cloying and poorly written that I often found myself convulsed in laughter. The characters are terribly unbelievable and too perfect to be likable; the events are hilariously cliché; the plot is unoriginal and dreadfully predictable. Here’s a sample of dialogue:

…he stood beside her and held his hat above her head, saying, “Will you accept the only shelter I can give? The damp drops falling on your hair will chill you.” (NOTE: Aren’t all drops damp??)

As she looked up to thank him, she saw blood upon his hand. “You have wounded yourself. How did it happen?” she asked.

“It is nothing but a scratch from the rough stones, and won in a good cause,” he answered, smiling.

“But it was gained in moving them for me. It must be painful. Let me bind it with my handkerchief,” she asked timidly.

“If you please, but ‘tis not worth the trouble.”

And as Edith stooped to place it on his hand, Amy saw a strange, bright smile rest upon his face as he looked upon her head, bent before him with the raindrops shining in her dark, disordered hair, which fell upon her shoulder…

I should have clarified: this is a RANDOM example of dialogue. There are worse.

When you’re done gagging, consider this: the excerpt above is from the book The Inheritance, the first novel completed by Louisa May Alcott, when she was seventeen years old. It wasn’t published then. It probably shouldn’t be now, except to serve as an example to all of us of a few things:

1) It’s a rare teenager who can get past the passions and inexperience of adolescence to write a book worthy of publishing. Even the author of Little Women couldn’t manage it.

2) Perfect characters are muy boring.

3) Don’t let rejection stop you. Just because an editor hates your book (or just because I hate your book!) doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes to become a great author. You have to have a hide of steel and a lot of perseverance; you also have to have an ear for honest constructive criticism. Louisa May Alcott was lucky enough to have editors, friends, and family members who were willing to point out her flaws in writing. She fixed (most of) them. She kept writing. She became one of the most beloved authors of all time. And if she was alive now, she would be rolling in what she made from the movie deal.

I address this in particular to the many young writers out there: By all means, don’t stop writing when you recognize flaws in your writing, or when finishing a story is harder than you anticipated, or when even your mom thinks your book stinks. Keep writing. Keep living. Keep gaining maturity and experience and keep piling up criticism and rejections (though I wouldn’t recommend actually submitting anything to a publisher until someone other than you and your mom love it—try contests for young writers instead). Remember that drops are always damp.

Try, try again.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reporter's Review: Forest Born (Book 4 in the Books of Bayern), by Shannon Hale


Bloomsbury; September, 2009
Overall Grade: A+

Rin has had a happy childhood in the Forest of Bayern. But as she grows older, she realizes that she doesn’t know who she is, what she is supposed to be--or if she even likes what she might become. To discover herself, she leaves the forest, her beloved trees and even more beloved family, to become a handmaid to Isi, her brother Razo’s friend--who also happens to be the Queen of Bayern. War has only just ended, but a new, mysterious threat faces the monarchs. Rin joins Isi, Enna, and Dasha (the three mysterious “fire sisters” who can speak the languages of wind, fire, and water) on a mission to save Bayern and the queen’s own son. Rin soon realizes that in order to be truly helpful, she must find her own self (and maybe her own language) along the way.
Those of you who regularly follow this blog (or just look at my lists) already know that Shannon Hale is, in my opinion, one of the best contemporary authors, so you’ll know it means a lot when I say that Forest Born is one of my favorites of her books, and that Rin is my favorite character. Upon beginning the book, I felt a little disappointed with Rin, feeling that her character wasn’t as well developed or interesting as Bayern’s other heroines--but then I was knocked over with Shannon Hale’s ability to use a seeming flaw as a crucial element to the plot. I hate spoilers, so I won’t give anything away…but Rin’s struggles and victories make her arguably the strongest Hale character yet. For those of you who follow Shannon Hale’s work religiously, I felt that Forest Born’s plot was not as heart-stopping as Enna Burning’s or as well-paced as Princess Academy’s, and that the humor was not quite up to the level of River Secrets. (But they’re still very good.) On the other hand, her descriptions and metaphors are better than ever, and…the characters! Every book has its own particular strength and Forest Born’s is the characters. Rin is inspirational, and you’ll be pleased to see the old cast of friends come back into play.
Readers will love Forest Born, but I should add that writers could use it as a lesson in creating a story that can simultaneously follow a protagonist’s growth, learning and development as well as an intriguing action plot. These elements, to me, are what made Forest Born one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve read this year.

Literary Quality: A+
Plot: A-
Voice: A
Originality: A+
Descriptive Ability: A+
Humor: A-
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: A
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A
Possibly objectionable topics*: war; violence

Reporter's Review: Road to Tater Hill, by Edith Hemingway


Delacorte; September, 2009
Overall Grade: B+/A-

Annie has spent every summer with her grandparents in North Carolina, but in the summer of 1963, she expects things to be different: her military father is overseas in Germany and her mother is expecting a baby, Annie’s first sibling. But things turn out more different than she could have imagined: the baby, Mary Kate, dies shortly after a premature birth, Annie’s mother is caught in a cruel state of depression, and Annie meets a strange woman…who just might be a murderer, if the town gossips are right--or who just might be the only person who can understand Annie and help her overcome her grief.
Edith Hemingway crafts Road to Tater Hill with considerable literary skill. The plot is slightly slow and not particularly original, but don’t let the slow beginning keep you from getting to the heart of the story. Annie’s voice is fresh and genuine, showcasing a clear understanding of the mind and heart of a 10-year-old girl. Some lovely descriptions very successfully bring to life the time period and setting; the little North Carolina town has a personality all its own, nearly as vibrant as the characters who occupy it.

Literary Quality: A
Plot: B-
Voice: A
Originality: B
Descriptive Ability: A
Humor: n/a
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: A
Believability of Situations: B+
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A

Possibly objectionable topics*: death; depression; story told involving violence between spouses

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reporter's Review: When the Whistle Blows, by Fran Cannon Slayton


Philomel; June 2009
Overall Grade: A+

Growing up in the 1940’s railroad town of Rowlesburg, West Virginia, Jimmy Cannon just wants to grow up and work on the steam engines like his family has for generations. Oh, and keep his no-nonsense father from finding out about his antics. And stick up for his friends. And win the championship football game for his high school. And grow up to become a man…maybe more like his father than he would have ever guessed.
When the Whistle Blows is an example of an excellently-written story teamed with a tangible, charming setting, a cast of believable, lovable characters and a touching plot. I could go on for a long time about everything I love about this novel, but I’ll limit myself to only a few: 1) Voice. Fran Cannon Slayton uses the first person voice of her narrator with incredible skill, adroitly expressing setting and time period not so much by what is said as by how it is said…and that also serves to make this an excellent read-aloud. 2) Style. Each chapter is presented vignette-style, presenting several consecutive All Hallows’ Eves, each with its own story…which leads to 3) Plot. Although each chapter is a vignette, each perfectly advances the overall plot, which is beautifully wrapped-up in the final chapter, while still leaving the reader with plenty to reflect upon.
Very highly recommended.

Literary Quality: A+
Plot: A
Voice: A+
Originality: A-
Descriptive Ability: A
Humor: n/a
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: A+
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A+

Possibly objectionable topics*: small amounts of violence; death

Reporter's Review: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins


Scholastic; September 2009
Overall Grade: A+

Katniss Everdeen, recent winner of the cruel Hunger Games imposed by her tyrannical government, is back home, “enjoying” the spoils of victory and trying to help her starving neighbors—until the president of the country himself turns up and blames her for sparking a revolt. As he threatens her more and more in several malicious twists, Katniss must decide what is more important: protecting her family and herself, or giving her countrymen a chance for a free life.
Considering that Catching Fire (along with its prequel, The Hunger Games) is currently at the top of the children’s bestseller list, it hardly needs my recommendation—but it was so well-written it more than deserves my praise. Anyone of the thousands of people who read The Hunger Games can attest to Suzanne Collins’ “mad skills” in plotting, but what amazed me in the sequel was her ability to pace her plot so perfectly. I’ve read stories with great plots that fall short because of pacing alone; Suzanne Collins is the exact opposite. Her sense of timing within the telling of her story is so perfect that it immediately sets her book apart. She makes an art out of the “I-can’t-put-this-book-down” factor.
On top of that, Catching Fire is a perfect sequel. There’s no awkwardness or forcing of back story, but the plot of Hunger Games is made clear while allowing the story of this book to stand completely on its own.
Lastly (not really, but the last thing I’ll mention), the characters are amazing. Katniss may be the most realistic non-girly girl I’ve ever read. The secondary characters are so real, you worry about them as much as Katniss does. Even the minor characters are three-dimensional and believable; you could imagine any one of them suddenly becoming a major player in Book Three.
(One proviso: if you usually skip over the “possibly objectionable topics”, they’re worth taking a look at this time. Catching Fire is very violent; consider that the central event of the trilogy is a gladiator-type “game” where the players fight to the death. If you have a weak stomach, you may wish to avoid this novel. Obviously all readers have different levels of tolerance, but I would recommend this book to mature readers only.)

Literary Quality: A-
Plot: A+
Voice: A+
Originality: A+
Descriptive Ability: B (but as the story is told in first person, the descriptions are appropriate to the narrator)
Humor: n/a
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: A
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A+

Possibly objectionable topics*: graphic violence; extremely intense situations; many secondary or tertiary characters live amoral lifestlyes, so there is some mention of drugs and sex, and frequent mention of alcohol

Reporter's Review: Sliding on the Edge, by C. Lee McKenzie


West Side Books, April 2009
Overall Grade: A-

When her mother leaves her in a Las Vegas slum apartment with nothing but a name and a phone number of the grandmother she’s never met, Shawna decides it’s worth facing the unknown…considering how dire the known is looking. She ends up in Sweet River, California, on her grandmother Kay’s horse farm—and finds, to her dismay, that “the unknown” involves lots of chores, lots of rules, lots of beat-up trucks and plaid and denim and boring country living. It’s an easier life than Vegas, but will a wholesome lifestyle and the friendship of a hurt, neglected horse be able to help her fight the problems she brought with her?
Despite its many serious topics, not-super-original plot and often melancholic back story, Sliding on the Edge is a surprisingly gripping and uplifting novel. C. Lee McKenzie’s writing skill is significant; not a single metaphor is overused or cliché, and her characterization, particularly of Kay, is impressive. It was particularly refreshing to see a book which could so easily have fallen into the “issue” category yet managed to keep its story firmly focused on the characters themselves instead of over-emphasizing their problems alone.

Literary Quality: B+
Plot: B-
Voice: A-
Originality: B-
Descriptive Ability: A+
Humor: n/a
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: A
Believability of Situations: A
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A


Possibly objectionable topics*: broken family; child abuse and neglect; crude language; some sensuality; psychological issues involving cutting one’s self and attempted suicide

Reporter's Review: Prophecy of the Sisters, by Michelle Zink


Little, Brown; August 2009
Overall Grade: B+

There are so many things in her life that Lia can’t explain: the unaccountable, unexpected deaths of both her parents, her twin sister Alice’s distance and strange behavior, a mysterious scar-like mark that appears on her own wrist, the discovery that her two new friends bear similar marks. When she discovers her role in an ancient prophecy, a prophecy that for thousands of years has turned sisters against each other in an age-old battle against evil, she finds some answers…but the questions of what she must do become more and more confusing.
Prophecy of the Sisters contains arguably some of the best writing I’ve encountered this year. Michelle Zink has created a unique dilemma and unique characters to face it; I loved the way she gave the protagonist a very complex personality and allowed her the opportunity to use her free will to fight what seems to be her fate. However, I found the plot somewhat bothersome. While the events were dramatic and story-worthy, I thought the overall situation was lacking an element crucial to the kind of epic-style fantasy the story implies. Namely, while the evil power is very clear in this story, there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent good power. Particularly in a story set in our own world, against the backdrop of real world religions, this lack of good was disorienting. It brought up many unanswered questions: Who made the prophecy in the first place? Who or what are the good characters working for? If it is simply a lack of evil, it diminishes the story’s significance and makes a happy outcome seem less complete.
This issue is complex enough that I believe I shall have to address it further in a “special topic” handling epic fantasy plot in general; for now, let’s hope that Ms Zink has plans to answer these questions in Prophecy’s sequel and bring the story to a satisfying end.

Literary Quality: A
Plot: C+
Voice: A
Originality: A
Descriptive Ability: B
Humor: n/a
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: A
Believability of Situations: A-
Overall Reading Enjoyment: B

Possibly objectionable topics*: demons, violence, murder, suicide, spellcasting, contact with the dead through a spiritualist, indication of plurality of gods

Author(s) Interview: Charity Tahmaseb and Darcy Vance


Please give a warm welcome to...Charity Tahmaseb and Darcy Vance, co-authors of A Geek Girl's Guide to Cheerleading, the story of Bethany and Mona, two self-proclaimed geeks who challenge stereotypes when they try out for their high school's varsity cheerleading squad. (And, while they may be geeky, their story is really cool. Read my original review here: http://thechildrensbookreporter.blogspot.com/2009/07/reporters-review-geek-girls-guide-to.html)


CBR: The characters in A Geek Girl's Guide to Cheerleading are comprised of many types of people, all faithfully represented: geeks, cheerleaders, etc. What category do you find yourselves in, or do you fit into more than one? If only one, how did you research "life on the other side"?

C: In high school, I really felt like I fell into the geek category. And since I work for a software company as a technical writer, I’m still pretty geeky. That being said, both Darcy and I have known a lot of different types of people thanks to various life experiences. One thing I think is important is any character (the antagonist, a secondary character, a bit player) is the hero of his/her own story. Even if they don’t have a point of view in the story, keeping that in mind can help you write more well-rounded characters.

D: When I was a teenager I moved in and out of a lot of different groups: the geeks, the free spirits, the strivers, the jocks, the slackers; I had friends (and enemies) (and frenemies, come to think of it) in each of them. These days, I manage an amazing bunch of high school and college volunteers. Some of them are misfits, some are prom queens. As an adult it is so much easier to see that the differences between these kids are really so slight compared to all they have in common.

CBR: Did you ever take a risk similar to Bethany and Moni's when you were a kid? If so, how did it turn out? If not, what do you wish you'd done?

C: Well, the premise for The Geek Girls Guide to Cheerleading is based on real life, sort of. A friend convinced me to try out for cheerleading, although she wasn’t as serious about it as Moni is in the story. We both made the squad, but the similarities (mostly) end there. I don’t know if I took risks so much as stuck with things. I stayed with Girls Scouts all through high school, which was a terribly geeky thing to do. But! We ended up going to France and England between junior and senior year of high school. And that was undeniably cool.

D: When I was 16, we moved to the same small town where my mom had gone to high school. She pushed me to be more involved in school activities there, and I did. I told myself I was just doing it to make her happy – but the truth is – I really liked it. I wrote for the school newspaper, went to all the football and basketball games, helped out with the prom committee and had an amazing time that entire year (while pretending to my city friends that I was really too cool for all of it). My senior year I went back to my old school and back to being too cool. I did continue to write for the school paper but I wish I’d had the courage to stay involved. I probably would have had more fun.

CBR: What was it like for you both co-authoring a book? What were your biggest surprises and challenges and what did you like best about it?

C: It was fun, hard, challenging, and fun. Did I say fun? I think that may have been the biggest surprise. I have this hazy memory of having both the master copy of our manuscript plus the marked up copy from Darcy on my computer screen (fortunately, I have a wide screen) and the marked up pages from our editor on a document holder, to one side, and Darcy in IM on the other. It was crazy--clearly. We really only had one big argument over a plot point, but it all worked out in the end (both the plot point and our partnership).

D: Co-authoring with Charity has been one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve never had a sister, but I imagine writing a book with someone feels a lot like that. You share so much. Some of it is hard, but all of it is amazing.

CBR: What is one writing tool (a special chair, notebook, pen, mug, etc.) that you couldn't do without?

C: When I write longhand, I really like using the Uni-ball vision pens and I like writing on notepads instead of in notebooks. Of course, I leave a couple of blanks pages on top so no one can see all the secrets I’m writing.

D: I’m partial to Mirado Black pencils when I’m trying to pull the knots out of a scene, but other than that, I’m pretty flexible.

CBR: As a geek myself, I just have to ask... Star Wars or Star Trek???

C: Oh, this is a toughie. Star Wars was my first love. I was very young when Star Trek first aired—and people kept dying; I didn’t like that. (I was too young to get the concept of the “red shirt.”) But, while in college, I had this ancient black and white TV that only picked up one channel. That one channel aired Star Trek: TNG along with the original series. It was a steady diet, kind of like the mac and cheese in the hot pot. Still, I saw the original Star Wars in the theater fifteen times. I’m thinking I have to call this one a draw.

D: Star Wars! Although I loves me some vintage Trek (especially TNG) I was actually too busy last spring to catch the Star Trek movie while it was in theaters. I cannot imagine a set of circumstances that would cause me to miss a Star Wars movie on the big screen. Even if the world was coming to an end and I had the only secret *whatever* that could save us all, I’d still probably be all – Hold on, I’ll be there after the 7 o’clock show!

CBR: You have another book coming out next year... Anything you'd like to share about that?

C: Actually, we don’t have a book coming out next year (but we wish we did!). We are working on several projects, in various stages of completion.

D: I wish we had another book coming out next year too. We do have a few things we’re working on, both solo and together. Right now I’m at the beginning stages of a non-fiction book for middle graders that I’m pretty excited about and trying to lure Charity into helping me with. We’ve also got a couple of geek girl style stories in the works that are a lot of fun.

CBR: Finally, you have the chance here to answer any question you've always wished to be asked... or just spout random interesting facts. We like that, too.

D: I’m all about the random interesting facts. Remember that non-fiction book I mentioned? It’s about the national anthems of North America -- which sounds like a pretty dull topic, but No! Did you know that Canada’s national anthem took 100 years to write? Or that the Cayman Islands anthem discusses rare juices? Or that the lyricist for the Cuban anthem shouted the words to his song as he faced a firing squad?
CBR: No...I didn't! But thanks--I love learning random facts... And thank you both so much for this interview!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reporter's Review: Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate, by Donna St. Cyr


CBAY Books, August 2009
Overall Grade: B+/A-

Robert Montasio didn’t have the most normal of lives; his father, after all had disappeared a few years ago with no warning or explanation…and his little sister Janine had to be more annoying than the average. But nothing could have prepared him for the day when she would drink a strange elixir and shrink to bug-size. In order to get her back to normal, Robert discovers he must take his place in an age-old society: The Cheese Syndicate, of which his father was a member and for whose mission he disappeared. Robert must complete the mission and find an ancient, magical cheese if he ever wants to see his dad and a normal-sized Janine again.
Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate has a lot going for it: fast-paced action, very believable relationships, good humor which makes the story remarkably readable. Fans of Percy Jackson will doubtless enjoy the references to mythology and the non-stop action plot, though it could be argued (of both books, it must be admitted) that the amount of action at times clouds the character development the reader hopes for with such a funny, likeable protagonist. Additionally, some of the magical elements seemed to be too random, weakening the overall effect of the plot. I was never sure, for example, exactly why the magical cheeses were so important to the world as to necessitate a secret society for their protection. Or why a magical dog could appear out of the blue three times to save Robert—but only three times, as he failed to mention until his last visit. But as the book ended with the perfect set-up for a sequel, perhaps these are questions Donna St. Cyr is planning on giving us answers to later. She certainly has the makings of a good storyteller; as this is her first published work, it can only be assumed that her later novels (like the best cheeses, as she would say) will get better and better with age.

Literary Quality: A-
Plot: B
Voice: A-
Originality: A-
Descriptive Ability: B
Humor: A
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: C
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A-

Possibly objectionable topics*: mild violence

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Reporter's Review: Mudshark, by Gary Paulsen


Wendy Lamb Books, 2009
Overall Grade: A

Mudshark is cool. He’s athletic, he’s friendly, and he’s smart. Really, really smart. He can remember everything, and reigns supreme as item-finder and mystery-solver at his middle school…until a strange, “telepathic” parrot takes up residence in the library, just as things around his school are beginning to get very strange.
Mudshark (I mean the book this time) is clever and very, very funny. Because it is clearly early middle grade, the plot is small; I would argue that even as a middle grade book, it could have been slightly better developed… In particular, I would have been more satisfied if the reader had more insight/emotional involvement in the solving of the mystery, as the outcome seemed rather sudden. However, the characters were lovable and unique, the narrative voice was excellent, and the humor was superb. Highly recommended to readers ages 8-10 in particular.

Literary Quality: B
Plot: B
Voice: A+
Originality: A-
Descriptive Ability: A-
Humor: A+
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: A+ (although the development is minimal in such a short book, it is very accurate)
Believability of Situations: A-
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A

Possibly objectionable topics*: none

Reporter's Review: Here's How I See It; Here's How It Is, by Heather Hensen


Simon & Schuster 2009
Overall Grade: B+

Junebug lives in a dream world for an aspiring actress: her family owns a summer stock theatre, her father is an actor, director, and playwright—she practically gets to live in the theatre all summer long. Unfortunately, she also lives in her own dream world sometimes, imagining up her world as it should be, and is often disappointed by the way it really is. She’s not a starring actress; she’s a gofer. She doesn’t have hordes of devoted fans; she’s ignored unless someone needs a chore done. She doesn’t have a devoted family; she’s left confused and lonely when her parents decide to split up for the summer. And when a boy named Trace comes along to “help out” for the summer, Junebug feels more displaced and confused than ever as she tries to adjust to his strange ways.
Here’s How I See It; Here’s How It Is used a unique setting and format to tell a touching story, making an otherwise fair plot still intriguing. Junebug’s character and her relationship with her family was very well-crafted, although some of the secondary characters seemed cliché. (But, then, some actors seem cliché in real life…) Also, Junebug’s relationship with Trace and Trace’s own difficulties could have been developed further; I felt these elements were secondary to, instead of intrinsic in, the overall story. However, I will be forever grateful to Heather Hensen for bravely setting forth a happy ending, despite popular trends, which was completely real and unforced without the slightest bit of melodrama.

Literary Quality: B
Plot: B
Voice: A
Originality: A-
Descriptive Ability: A-
Humor: A-
Illustrations: n/a
Believability of Characters: B
Believability of Situations: A
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A-


Possibly objectionable topics*: broken family