Book Review: How I Became a Spy by Deborah Hopkinson

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I think it would be cool, but I’ve never had the spirit or the smarts to be a spy, so when I read the advanced reader copy of Deborah Hopkinson’s newest book, How I Became I Spy: A Mystery of WWII London (coming February 12th, 2019), I felt that I had reached a new goal while following the story of Bertie Bradshaw, a young boy living in WWII London.

Summary: Penguin Random House states, “Bertie Bradshaw never set out to become a spy. He never imagined traipsing around war-torn London, solving ciphers, practicing surveillance, and searching for a traitor to the Allied forces.” This middle grade novel practically sells itself –“historical fiction by Deborah Hopkinson,” “WWII,” “mystery,” and “solving ciphers” are the book talk keywords here. Students are going to love this one!

What I Loved: I love that Deborah Hopkinson, once again, gives us a real-life peek into history. This time it’s explanations of ciphers and codes, the appearance of actual figures, such as Leo Marks and Dwight D. Eisenhower from WWII reality, and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) that make the story engaging and believable. The SOE organization, with headquarters at 64 Baker Street, trained men and women to become secret agents. In the story, Bertie, his dog Little Roo (LR), his Jewish-refugee-friend, David, and a mysterious American girl are all caught up in the action. There’s a young girl missing — an agent — and Bertie must hide her secret notebook, translate it, and inform the right people before a double agent ruins the Allies’ plans.

Why You Should Read This: How I Became a Spy is an action-packed spy thriller for middle schoolers, or anyone who likes puzzles, Sherlock Holmes, London’s crowded streets, war stories, or doggie heroes. And…

if you ever wanted to be a spy…this book might just help get you started.

Happy reading!

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

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Darius Kellner is a teen who does not fit in at school, or really much at home. He describes himself as a Fractional Persian, with Mom born in Iran and Dad in America. Darius and his father share two things in common: a love of Star Trek, and depression. They both take their medicines every day and try to do the best they can, but sometimes life gets in the way.

When Mamou calls and tells Mom that Babou’s brain tumor is making life worse, the Kellner family packs up and travels to Iran to help. What will Darius do now? How will he cope? He’s never really been around his grandparents — only talked to them through the computer monitor. And he doesn’t speak Farsi, although his little sister, Laleh, does. He doesn’t have many friends (just the teasing bullies from school), so leaving isn’t that much of an issue for Darius, but that only makes things more uncomfortable for him. Will there be friends in Iran? Will his family treat him differently once they are in another country?

Darius narrates his own story in this wonderful tale of family and friendships, travel, and learning to appreciate family customs and origins. I loved the voice — the dialogue among characters, and also the way Darius talks directly to the reader along the way.

Darius the Great is Not Okay is a fabulous book you’ll want to think about and savor. You will fall in love with Darius and his entire family, and you’ll find that even with hardships, home is the best place to be.

Note: This title just won the 2019 William C. Morris Award for a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (YA category). Darius the Great Is Not Okay, written by Adib Khorram. The book is published by Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers, Random House.

Book Review: The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

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Caleb Franklin narrates the story of how he and his brother, Bobby Gene, met Styx Malone and got into the “biggest trouble we’ve ever gotten into in our lives.” The first page is one of those excellent leads we talk about in English class. You know when you read the first page, the story isn’t going to let you go until you finish. I love the line, “It all started the moment I broke the cardinal rule of the Franklin household: Leave well enough alone.” (p. 1)

Styx Malone lived in the woods near the Franklin house in Sutton, Indiana. He was a 16, a loner, and quite extraordinary. Caleb was drawn to Styx the moment he laid eyes on him. Caleb didn’t want to be ordinary. He spent his time dreaming of what was out there in the world, while Styx lived it. In the back woods of Indiana, one could get stuck in the ordinary of each day (like Mr. Franklin), but Caleb and Bobby Gene decided that hanging out with Styx Malone could get them places — maybe even Indianapolis, or beyond.

Styx Malone showed the brothers what it was like to live: how to talk so that you get what you want, how to act cool, how to pull off the impossible. The boys spent the summer learning about the Great Escalator Trade — a way to trade small things for bigger ones, all the way up to items that could make dreams come true. Caleb liked the stories Styx told, and being with Styx made him feel extraordinary, but it also got him grounded, and eventually changed his life — and his family’s lives — forever.

Kekla Magoon tells amazing stories, and The Season of Styx Malone is no different. The adventures, the fun, the trouble — many twists and turns in this tale of teen friendships and family issues kept me reading and wondering what would happen next. Since Ms. Magoon grew up in Indiana, I felt a connection to her and the story of small town life vs. big city dreams. I, too, once dreamed of living in a big city like Indianapolis, or Chicago, or New York City. One quote that stuck out for me, especially as a writer, was, “A happy ending depends on where you stop the story.” (p. 117) Kekla Magoon stopped this story at the perfect point — making The Season of Styx Malone an extraordinary must-read.

Published in 2018 by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books

 

 

Book Review: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

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Hey, Kiddo‘s subtitle is “How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction.” Jarrett’s brave memoir is a graphic novel commentary for our times. Jarrett is brave to share his story in this memoir, and I’m so glad he did. We book lovers say, “Books save lives,” and I’m sure this particular book will help someone going through tough times.

One thing you need to know before reading this story is that, although it’s true that there are terrible forces in the world that overshadowed his family life, Jarrett’s story is not all sad. His grandparents who raised him are funny, smart, and loyal to each other. His mother does love him, although her addiction doesn’t allow her to be there for him. His friends are the same friends you and I have (and had) — they play games, go to dances at school, learn to drive, etc. Jarrett’s teachers in school take care of their students the best they know how, and Mr. Shilale, the art teacher, encourages Jarrett to stick with (and expand) his art studies. Again, I’m so glad Jarrett did. His early creative endeavors led him to write Lunch Lady graphic novels and books in the Star Wars: Jedi Academy series that we all know and love. Once he found his father, their growing relationship helped Jarrett grow to be a stronger man, too.

Why I Loved This Book: I loved that Jarrett Krosoczka opened his world and invited me in. I enjoyed getting to know him, and his family, and his story is one worth sharing. I love that this is a nonfiction graphic novel. The artwork is Jarrett’s own, and I love how he intertwined memorabilia into the pages (all the way down to his grandmother’s pineapple wallpaper). I love that this book is publishing in 2018, when so many students I know are facing hard family lives themselves, and I hope they are able to see themselves in this book.

Why You Should Read Hey, Kiddo: Read Hey, Kiddo to remember your youth. Read it to identify with the people in the book, and around you in your own life. Read the Author’s Notes in the back of the book — they will allow you to become Jarrett’s friend. Read it to enjoy the art and creativity. Read it to inspire you to share your story.

 

 

 

Book Review: A Pocketful of Poems

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I love it when Nikki Grimes shows the reader different types of poetry — She’s a master at placing words to catch your interest and attention. Pocketful of Poems (2001) features haiku. The narrator, Tiana, celebrates the seasons with words she finds in her pocket. Spring, pigeon, homer (reminds me to cheer for my baseball team), pumpkin (which reminds me of my favorite season), and gift are just some of the words Tiana invites you to use to create your own haiku poems. Exploring Javaka Steptoe’s textures and creative placement of color and objects on the page make this book even more fun to read over and over. The hand-sculpted gilded alphabet makes me want some letters for my own pocket. Celebrate the seasons with Tiana, and maybe even write something yourself.

Book Review: SWING by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess

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In another amazing collaboration from Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess, we follow Noah and his best friend, Walt through the ups and downs of high school life. Noah and Walt are NOT on the school baseball team, but Walt hits the batting cages with fierce commitment and passion, channeling his love of jazz to help him find his SWING. Noah is a faithful friend and follower, while working on his own passions, especially his love for Sam, a beautiful BFF he’s known since “forever” ago. Sam has a boyfriend, though—none other than the buff baseball star of the team, Cruz. 

When Noah finds a birthday gift for his mom at a local thrift store, he also finds his courage in the box — the words of old love letters that were left inside. Noah copies the words for his love, longing to live the life that Cruz now has. When Walt delivers one of the letters to Sam, however, the three friends’ relationships start to change.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood is dealing with bigger issues — there’s life and love, and then there’s allegiance and angst. Patriotic duty vs. empathetic obligation towards our fellow man. Kwame and Mary SWING the readers thinking around, fluctuating with hard-hitting emotion that leaves one breathless, wondering about our own lives in the midst of all that is good and evil. Our own little lives — up against the global society.

What I loved about Swing: I loved ALL the characters in Swing, right down to the grandma who is supposed to be keeping an eye on Noah while his parents are away, and Floyd, Walt’s “love doctor” cousin. Swing will remind adults of their high school days, and help current students find ways to deal with their feelings, all while helping us think about our place on this earth.

Why you should read Swing: You will laugh with, and long for, the characters. You’ll reminisce, and maybe even renew your friendships from high school. You’ll cry. You’ll think. You’ll want to be a better person after reading Swing.

IMWAYR: Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher

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It’s Monday; What are You Reading?

Last week: Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher

Chris Crutcher is a master of dialogue in this tug-of-war story of two families and the girl who stands in between them. Smart and sneaky, 17-year-old Annie manipulates her basketball team to play in the losers bracket during basketball tournaments in order to get a chance to run into her biological relatives. Her “bios” are losers, and her foster family, especially Pop, would rather see Annie earn a college scholarship than see her follow the dark path chosen by her mother and her sister. But her foster family isn’t perfect, either, and this book title reflects on not only basketball, but Annie’s life. She always seem to get involved with trouble somehow.

Annie’s therapist, book club friends, teammates, foster brother, and one unlikely ally keep her going — learning to stand up for herself while also supporting her in her efforts to be a part of the family, whichever family that is at the time. You cannot choose who you love. But Annie has to make some tough decisions, and maybe even cause a little trouble, to find the life she wants…and to write her own story.

Highly recommended for high school and up.

This week: The Third Mushroom by Jennifer L. Holm and Astronaut/Aquanaut by Jen Swanson 

I already read the Author’s Note, Recommended Resources, and “Mellie’s Gallery of Scientists” in the back of the book, The Third Mushroom. I’ve always been interested in scientists and their stories, so I want to find out how Jennifer L. Holm weaves fiction and fact together. I read The Fourteenth Goldfish a while back and liked that one, so I’m looking forward to this new title.

Highly recommended for grades 3-6.

Jennifer Swanson was kind enough to send me Astronaut/Aquanaut, which is another book I cannot wait to open (probably tonight after I write). The back cover reads, “Space and the Ocean: If you don’t think they go together, think again!” I am intrigued by the cover, and the photographs and diagrams in this colorful book will bring students and their teachers together to learn more about space and the oceans. Look for a review in the near future!

Highly recommended for upper elementary and up.

How is your reading life going? Grab a book this week and dig in!

“It’s Monday! What are you Reading?” is a meme hosted by Kathryn at Book Date. It is a great way to recap what you read and/or reviewed the previous week and to plan your reading for the upcoming week. Kellee Moye, of Unleashing Readers, and Jennifer Vincent, of Teach Mentor Texts have given IMWAYR a kidlit focus. Join in the fun! Choose a great book, read it, and share your thoughts with us!

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