Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Double Crossing

The year is 1905, and eleven-year-old Raizel and her Jewish family live in the Ukraine. But life under Czarist Russia is difficult for the Jews, who are discriminated against, persecuted and sometimes even killed in the Pograms. To escape this life, Raizel accompanies her father on a journey to America, where he hopes to get a job and earn enough money to bring over the rest of the family. The journey is long and fraught with danger: an adventure that spans three continents. And even once they reach America, nothing is assured. Will Raizel and her father be allowed to enter America? Or will their long journey be in vain?

Double Crossing is a deeply moving story that explores issues of identity and religion while portraying vividly the experience that many immigrants had in coming to America. Raizel is a spunky, likeable heroine with a talent for storytelling, and her first person narrative draws the reader in and creates a connection that bridges any differences in culture and religion.

Author Eve Tal based the story on her grandfather’s immigration experience. Double Crossing would be a wonderful addition to a classroom or homeschool unit on American immigration and Ellis Island, Czarist Russia, or Jewish history. This excellent book received a well-deserved starred review from both Kirkus and Booklist.

Double Crossing is published by Cinco Puntos Press, which publishes multicultural literature, focusing especially on Mexico and the American Southwest.

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


L.O.S.T. is a fresh, original character-driven story that teens (and adults!) will love. In spite of some superficial similarities with Harry Potter and Star Wars, this is no wannabe. Everything about this book has teen appeal, from the irreverant tone, to the all too human characters (one with attention issues and the other with obsessive/compulsive tendencies), to the budding romance fraught with misunderstandings.

Seventeen-year-old Brendan, or Bren, is on a road trip to San Diego to visit a friend. In spite of his ADHD, in spite of his hyper-critical dad's conviction that Bren will screw up, Bren got permission to go on the trip on his own and borrow his mom's truck. So when Bren stops at Live Oak Springs Township to use the bathroom and comes out to find his mom's truck gone, Bren is sure that he's in big trouble. But the truck is the least of his worries. For Bren has been called to this town by sixteen-year-old Jasmina, or Jazz, the Queen of the Witches. Jazz believes (at least some of the time) that Bren is the only one who can save the witches from the Shadowmaster, an ancient evil determined to destroy them, She transports Bren away from the world he has always known, to another time and place where he must try to find his own magic before it’s too late.

The chapters alternate between the points of view of the two protagonists, and it’s in the characters that this book really shines. Brendan is an angry young man, his self-confidence destroyed by his ADHD and his perfectionist father. Jazz seems quite cocky at first, but underlying her surface confidence is self-doubt brought on by her own perfectionist parent and the stress of trying to run a kingdom and save it from evil at the young age of 16. She also blames herself for her father’s death and her mother’s capture. Brendan and Jazz connect almost immediately, but are driven apart time and again by misunderstandings and their own self-doubt. Can they overcome their personal demons and come together in time to save the Path from the Shadowmaster?

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Author Visit in a Book

This week I've been fortunate to review books by two different publishers that give kids a glimpse into the lives of their favorite authors.

The Meet the Author series, from Richard C. Owen Publishers, is a series of autobiographies by well-known authors, written for elementary-level children. Each author describes his or her life, childhood, and writing, giving children an intimate portrait of the person behind the books they love. The books are written in a friendly and accessible style that draws kids in and gets them involved in the lives of the authors. Photographs are liberally sprinkled throughout the books, including pictures of the authors as adults and as children, their homes and families, their writing space, sample manuscript pages, and their published books. These books are the next best thing to having an author school visit, and would make a great addition to an elementary school library. Currently there are 32 books in the series, each profiling a different author. Authors include Eric A. Kimmel, Laura Numeroff, Cynthia Rylant, Jane Yolen, Joseph Bruchac, Mike Thaler, and many more.

Middle-grade and young adult readers can turn to The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy to learn more about favorite fantasy authors. Leonard S. Marcus interviewed thirteen fantasy authors for this book; each interview is introduced with a short profile and accompanied by photographs of the authors as adults and as children, as well samples of their work.

This is one of the most interesting and inspirational books that I've read in a long time. Through the interviews and profiles, Marcus' masterfully brings out the best in each author, providing a fascinating look at some of the leading authors in the fantasy genre. Find out how Lloyd Alexander's experiences in the military during World War II influenced his writing, or how Diana Wynne Jones kept Tolkien from finishing The Lord of the Rings! It's inspiring to read about how authors are regular people who faced the same kinds of problems in childhood as everyone else: problems in school, problems with parents, problems with other kids. One even had dyslexia. Taken together it presents a powerful and inspirational message that anyone can be a writer, that anyone can overcome their personal obstacles to achieve their dreams. Each author also gives advice for young, aspiring writers.

The authors interviewed in this book are: Lloyd Alexander, Franny Billingsley, Susan Cooper, Nancy Farmer, Brian Jacques, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Garth Nix, Tamora Pierce, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, and Jane Yolen. The Wand in the Word is published by Candlewick Press, one of my favorite publishers.

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Series of Unfortunate Events: Book 13

It's official: according to HarperCollins, Book the Thirteenth of The Series of Unfortunate Events will be released on October 13, 2006. A friday the thirteenth! Thanks to Elizabeth Kennedy of About Children's Books for the news!

Saving DaVinci

It's difficult for me, born almost 20 years after World War II ended, to imagine what it must have been like to live through the war. How much more difficult it must be for today's young adults, some of whom may not even know anyone living who experienced the war first hand. Saving Da Vinci paints a vivid portrait of what life was like in Nazi-occupied Italy.

Saving Da Vinci is an exciting story about the Partisan groups that resisted the Nazi occupation in Italy. Sixteen-year old Stefano and his girlfriend Lina are members of a Partisan group, and they risk their lives to rescue downed allied airmen, save Italian artwork from the Nazis, and do whatever they can to help the people of Italy. The story pulses with real danger and suspense yet the story is written in a way that is entirely appropriate for a middle grade audience. The horrors perpetrated by the Nazis are depicted realistically — Partisans are captured and tortured and innocent people are massacred &mdash but author Annie Laura Smith manages to do it in a way that isn't overwhelmingly frightening or horrifying.

Saving Da Vinci is an exciting story that will grip middle-grade readers and hold their interest, while helping them to understand a terrible period in our history. It would be a great literature connection for a unit on World War II. Other books in the series are The Legacy of Bletchley Park, about the Bletchley Park decoders who translated coded German messages, and Will Paris Burn?, about the German occupation of France. The books are available from OnStage Publishing

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Aquanauts

Good new science YA science fiction is hard to come by, and The Aquanauts fills the void nicely. Interesting and well-developed characters, an exciting adventure, and a whirlwind trip through time make this a great read.

Sixteen-year-old Greta Kovachi has no idea what she is getting into when she takes a summer job helping out in the undersea lab where her scientist father works. But things go badly almost right away. To start with, Greta, a self-styled goth girl and rebel, doesn't hit it off with the other young people in the habitat: Jules, a by-the-book miltary school student; Marco, a scientific prodigy; and young Nicky, who is likeable but a bit of a pest. Then, an accident happens in the secret lab, and the four young people are thrust into an adventure involving time travel, a black hole, and a mad scientist. The teens must learn to work together to try to save themselves, their parents, and the habitat. In the process they find that they have a lot in common, forge a bond of friendship that will last a lifetime, and learn that together they can accomplish anything.

The Aquanauts is an fun adventure and a satisfying science fiction story. Teens will identify with the young people in the book, each coping with the pressures of growing up in his or her own way. This is no cartoon adventure; the four young people are real, fleshed out characters that ring true, and the pain and challenges they experience feel real as well.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Spirit Walker

In Spirit Walker, the sequel to Wolf Brother, the bear is gone and Torak is living with the Raven Clan. The Ravens are good to Torak, but Torak, used to living alone, never quite feels at home in the Raven camp, and he misses Wolf terribly. Now, a horrible sickness is spreading through the clans, a sickness that may have been caused by the Soul-Eaters. Torak leaves Raven clan to find a cure for the sickness, a journey that will take him to new lands and challenge him with new dangers. Along the way, Torak finds friendship and learns a little more about himself.

Like the first book, this is an exciting adventure that holds your attention from the very first page. There are plenty of surprises along the way, and the mysteries unfold as Torak's journey progresses. Michelle Paver has done extensive research, and the many details of hunter-gatherer life enrich the story. Spirit Walker is a little darker than the first book; the Soul-Eaters do some pretty horrible things. It's not a book for sensitive readers, but most pre-teens and teens, especially fans of the first book, will love it.

The Witch from the Sea

The Witch from the Sea is a historical adventure/romance so vivid that you can smell the sea air and feel the spray on your face. Faced with a life as a governess, Victoria MacKenzie flees Boston's Worthen Academy for Women in search of freedom. She doesn't know what she will find, but fate takes her to the deck of a pirate ship, where Victoria MacKenzie becomes the pirate Tory Lightfoot.

What sets The Witch from the Sea apart from other pirate stories is the characters - heroine Tory Lightfoot burns so brightly that you can't help longing to be her - and the realistic portrayal of life on a pirate ship. As Tory discovers, the life of a pirate is difficult; it's hard work and constant danger. But Tory is independent-minded and determined to make her own way in the world, whatever it takes. Along the way she finds plenty of adventure, and yes, even love.

This is not a book for children; there are several scenes that are pretty steamy. It's really an adult book with crossover appeal to an older YA audience. As a strong and independent woman, Tory sets a good example for young women just at the age when many teen girls succumb to peer pressure to conform to stereotypes of how a girl is "supposed" to act. Tory shows that a young woman can be true to herself and still find happiness.

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Robin: The Lovable Morgan Horse

Like many pre-teens, I was horse-crazy as an adolescent. I loved horses, wanted a horse, and read every horse book I could find: Marguerite Henry, Black Beauty, and the Black Stallion books. I wish that Ellen Feld's Morgan Horse series had been available back then; I would have loved them. And judging by the fact that the series has twice won the prestigious Children's Choices award, lots of children do love them.

The newest book in the series is Robin: The Lovable Morgan Horse. In Robin, novice rider Karen Greene is goaded by other kids into riding a spirited horse that she can't handle. A terrible riding accident occurs, and after months of recovery Karen still has nightmares about it. She is afraid to ride again, but with the help of her gentle Morgan horse Robin, and the encouragement of Heather and other characters from the earlier books, Karen gradually overcomes her fears and faces challenges that test her courage and determination.

Ellen Feld's love of horses comes through on every page, drawing the reader into the world of horse ownership. The horses are real horses, with real personalities — each one different — and horse-loving tweens will fall for them in a big way. The story has just enough excitement to keep it interesting, without being overly frightening or suspenseful. The Morgan Horse Series would be a great addition to a school library.

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Secret Weakness of Dragons

The four stories in The Secret Weakness of Dragons may be billed as fairy tales, but they have more in common with O. Henry than with the brothers Grimm. Although couched in the language of fairy tales, the stories are surprisingly sophisticated and each one contains an unexpected twist or surprise ending.

It's hard to describe the stories without giving away too much about them. They're best appreciated like presents to be unwrapped, savoring the surprise inside. Each story is unique, and even the writing style varies to fit the story. One reads like a traditional fairy tale, one is written in the form of a diary, and the last story, "Moblos Tells the Tale of How Our World Came To Be," is reminiscent of Kipling's Just So Stories.

The Secret Weakness of Dragons will probably be best enjoyed by middle-grade children, who can appreciate the irony and humor in the stories, yet these children may shy away from reading the book thinking that they are too sophisticated for "fairy tales." An astute teacher or librarian might introduce these stories by reading them aloud to a class.

Younger children will probably also enjoy these stories as read-alouds, although they might not get all the nuances, and the third story, "The Diary of Uno Duo," may need to be explained to them. Also, there is one part of "A True Love Manifest" that may be upsetting to younger children, at least until the end.

The book is small, but has a classy feel to it. It's attractively designed, illustrated with pen and ink drawings, and printed on a nice linen paper.

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Monday, March 06, 2006

Wolf Brother

Torak's journey begins when his father is killed by a bear - but not just any bear. This bear is huge, horrifying, and possessed by a demon. Before dying, Torak's father makes him promise to travel to the Mountain of the World Spirit, or die trying. Accompanied by an orphaned wolf cub that he befriended, Torak begins an incredible journey to save his world from evil.

Wolf Brother is a fast-paced, exciting book and a moving tale of friendship. Torak and Wolf are two of a kind - both loyal and true and brave - and the special bond they share draws the reader in. The setting is unique and the author paints a fascinating portrait of what life might have been like in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies of northern Europe. A great adventure story told in a straightforward style, this book should appeal to reluctant readers, animal lovers, and anyone who likes a good adventure. Sensitive readers may have trouble with the father's death and the hunting aspects.

Small Press Month Blogfest Clarification

Earlier I posted that I will be highlighting books from small and independent publishers throughout the month of March, in honor of Small Press Month. I just wanted to clarify that I'll be continuing to post on other topics and books as well. It's just that I plan to put a greater emphasis on the books from the "indies" throughout March. The Small Press Month Blogfest posts will be identified with the following:

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Carnival of Children’s Literature, No. 2

Wheee! The fun has begun. Head on over to Chicken Spaghetti for the second Carnival of Children's Literature. There's even whirling teacups - and a lot of great blog links about children's literature. Have fun!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Riddle in the Mountain

Kathy Henley is scared of noises in the night that no one else can hear. Sure, she and her family just moved to Boulder, Colorado, and everything is strange and different, but Kathy is sure she isn't imagining the noises. But when her brother David and his new friend Frank dare her to go ghost hunting with them, all three children encounter a strange little man who burns a riddle into their minds and sends them back in time to 1879. The little man tells them that they must find "the key" and return it to its rightful place. Each of the three children has one part of the riddle, and they must work together to solve the mystery and find the key so that they can return to their own time.

Riddle in the Mountain is a fast-paced, fun story which combines mystery and fantasy with the Old West and a bit of Cornish mining folklore. Whether you like mystery, fantasy, or your tastes run towards historical fiction, there's something here for everyone. The Old West mining town is vividly drawn, and the characters are interesting. There's a few surprises along the way which add to the fun. A pleasure to read! An appendix at the end contains historical notes on Colorado history, the Cornish in America, and mining folklore. Riddle in the Mountain would tie in well with curriculum units on the history of the Old West in general and Colorado history specifically. It also touches on aspects of immigration in America and Cornish folklore.

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Saviors of the Bugle

I have to confess - I wasn't sure that I'd enjoy this book. After all, it doesn't have fairies, wizards, or dragons - none of the things I normally enjoy in a book. But I'd agreed to review it, so I started reading. And kept on reading right through to the end. What I discovered was an exciting, compelling story with depth and meaning.

The publisher describes this book as being about three children trying to save their small town's newspaper, which it is, but it's also much more than that. It's about the responsibility of ordinary citizens to stand up for what they believe in, and the need for communities to protect their citizens. It's about the rights and responsibilities of the free press in a democratic society. It's also about ordinary kids coming of age and finding themselves.

And that's really what makes this book so compelling - the ordinary kids. These aren't superhuman, Nancy Drew types who can do no wrong. They make mistakes, they get tongue tied, and they don't always make the right choices. But they do the best they can with what they have, they stand up for what they believe in, and in the process, learn a little bit about themselves.

There are subplots about the tensions and misunderstandings between adolescents and their parents, about child and animal abuse, and about the difficulties faced by small town businesses. The author weaves the various threads together with skill. The book is very well written (although there are a couple of typos).

Saviors of the Bugle would be an excellent addition to a middle-grade civics class or unit.

Buy Saviors of the Bugle from

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest