November 21st, 2014
The Tree of Water by Elizabeth Haydon
Series: The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme #4
Release Date: October 28 2014
The epic voyages continue in The Tree of Water, the fourth adventure in bestselling author Elizabeth Haydon’s acclaimed fantasy series for young readers, The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme.
As Royal Reporter of the land of Serendair, it is the duty of young Charles Magnus "Ven" Polypheme to travel the world and seek out magic hiding in plain sight. But Ven needs to escape the clutches of the nefarious Thief Queen, ruler of the Gated City, whose minions are hunting for him. His friend, the merrow Amariel, has the perfect solution to his dilemma: Ven and Char will join her to explore the world beneath the sea.
As they journey through the sea, Ven finds himself surrounded by wonders greater than he could have ever imagined. But the beauty of the ocean is more than matched by the dangers lurking within its depths, and Ven and his friends soon realize that in order to save thousands of innocent lives, they may have to sacrifice their own. For everything in the ocean needs to eat…
I walked into The Tree of Water having never read the series before. I had fears that this book would not be readable as a standalone, but my fears were unfounded. Yes, you can tell that there have been past adventures, but most things that are important are explained within the story; which was mainly the relationship between the characters and the how their adventures had progressed to this point. The story itself is fully contained within the book; while I felt like I may be missing some character development, the plot was welcoming to newcomers.
The Tree of Water is an adventure from start to finish. Ven, Char, & Amariel find themselves in trouble almost at every turn. Perhaps even a little too much for my taste. While the sense of doom at the the end of each chapter is great to keep readers wanting more, it exhausted me. So much happened in a very short period of time. Just when I thought things would slow down for bit, something major happens again and again and again. While some of it was necessary, I do think there could have been a couple that could have easily been dropped. However, younger readers (5th – 7th grade) who are looking for a fun, quick ride will most likely love that aspect to it.
One of my favorite things about The Tree of Water is the ever present theme of friendship. I loved the lengths that they were all willing to go through for each other. Yes, Char and Amariel bickered a lot, but when it came down to it they had each other’s back. None of their relationships were perfect, but they were willing to go that extra mile for each other…even if it meant going to the furthest depths of the sea. That is the perfect definition of friendship to me.
I also really enjoyed Ven and his growth as a character. At the start of the journey, he’s ready to jump in both feet without thinking about the dangers that the ocean holds. There were times I thought him extremely thoughtless or selfish, but as the book progressed that happened less and less. I liked that he thought often about why he was really on this underwater adventure and if there was truly was a main goal/mission involved. I won’t spoil anything, but I did like when he finally settled on. He could have bragged about how important his role had been, but instead focused on the wonders he got to see and the overall experience. I hope that attitude continues into the next books.
Final Verdict: While there were a couple of things that didn’t work for me, overall, I did enjoy Tree of Water. It’s a perfect choice for middle schoolers looking for a fast paced novel filled with adventure and magic.
And as a special treat, I have a Tree of Water Excerpt for you to check out. Happy Reading!
November 17th, 2014
The (Almost) Perfect Guide to Imperfect Boys by Barbara Dee
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: Sept. 30, 2014
According to Finley and her BFF, Maya, middle school boys can be put into three separate categories: tadpoles, croakers, and frogs. Per their official Life Cycle of Amphibian Boys, while tadpoles are totally not developed yet (read: boys who still love fart jokes and can’t have a normal conversation with girls without making fun of them), a frog is the top of the boy food chain—evolved and mature. Sadly, not many boys have reached that elusive frog status at Staunton Middle School. Finley thought she had everyone pegged, until Zachary Mattison enters the picture. After suddenly leaving the year before, Zachary’s surprise reappearance at SMS forces Finley to see him in a new light. And when the official life cycle list falls into the wrong hands, it causes a battle between the boys and girls that turns into an all-out war—one that Finley isn’t sure anyone can really win...
I’ll admit I went into this book expecting a fluffy romance, but instead got something that was more about friendship and growing up. Finley experiences all sorts of growing pains throughout the book and her relationship with Maya is something she struggles with the most. Maya hit the boy-crazy stage before Finley, something that puts them on a slightly uneven footing. Finley hates that Maya is constantly telling her she doesn’t understand boys. Sure, she may not have had a boyfriend, but does that mean she doesn’t know anything about boys? She thinks not and it’s the source of many fights. I love how realistic their friendship felt. Relationships, even with your best friend, are rarely smooth sailing. You have fight-you make up, it’s all about being on a roller coaster and just hanging on. This is magnified even more in middle school, when emotions and hormones are all over the place, and even the smallest thing can cause an upset. I really liked how Dee perfectly captured that and how they worked through it. (Even if it did take a little nudging from her mom.)
Finley’s budding crush was captured well, too. She didn’t want to really admit she had feeling for Zachary, but it was obvious that she did. And it was equally as obvious that he felt the same. Well, maybe obvious to everyone but Finley. I couldn’t help but smile as she lamented over him calling her and talking to her whenever he could. I just wanted to pat her hand and tell her it was okay, he just like-liked her. Although, I did have a small issue with her getting mad about his CINCH acronym, especially since it wasn’t much different that what she was doing with the Life Cycle of Amphibian Boys. The only real difference was his was about how to get close to the girls he liked and hers was about weeding out who was datable and who was not. I know Finley doesn’t see the Life Cycle like this at first (if ever really), but it’s truly what it’s about. Of course, on that same note, Zachary starting the war over the Life Cycle seems just as silly. Although, I do believe he was more upset that she lied and insulted him (and the other boys) than the Life Cycle itself.
Speaking of the Life Cycle and the war, it’s hard not to cringe when Finley walks back into the room and hears two of her classmates reading the Life Cycle notes allowed. I’m sure we’ve all been there, at least on some level. That moment something personal, and maybe a little uncool, is announced to everyone. My heart totally went out for her. The war that follows is a bit silly and realistic, but works well in the book. I like that it stayed relatively innocent when it could have become something that was much meaner. How they resolved the war, felt a bit too mature/level headed, but it wasn’t too far out of the bounds of being plausible. (Mainly, I’m not used to working with teens that are that mature! Usually, it takes prodding from me for them to work out their dramas.)
Overall, if I had to use one word to describe The (Almost) Perfect Guide to Imperfect Boys it would be cute. I already know this will be included on my list of book talks when I go school visiting in May. Perfect for those tween girls, especially those looking for “clean” reads.
October 7th, 2014
Facing the Music by Jennifer Knapp
Publisher: Howard Books
Release Date: 10-07-2014
Jennifer Knapp found solace in music at a young age to escape a troubled home life. Something that wouldn’t be able to save her when she got to college. After a fall-out at home, she found herself spiraling out of control with alcohol and sex. She hit rock bottom and this time the only thing that saved her was finding God.
It wasn’t long before her two passions merged and Knapp was a full fledged Contemporary Christian Artist. A role that put her on a pedestal and expected her to be the perfect Christian. Knapp slowly began to crack under the pressure of the road and the growing realization that she was in love with a woman. This realization made her leave the music scene for years as she traveled with her new found love, trying to run away from it all.
But if music is truly in your bones, as it is with Knapp, you can’t run. Her returned to the scene meant coming out to all her fans and dealing with the aftermath. Had it not been for a few helping hands, Knapp would have never stepped foot inside a church again. Instead, she learned to reclaim her faith fully and use it to help reshape how churches view/treat those in the LGBTQ community.
I’ll admit I’ve been a fan of Jennifer Knapp since 1998 when her album, Kansas, came out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to her songs over the years, often on repeat. In fact, her stuff is currently playing on shuffle as I write this. However, my love of her music isn’t the reason why I love this book. Yes, it’s the reason I chose to read it, but I don’t think a book has affected me quite as much as Facing the Music in a long time, which is why this review will be quite different from my others. It’s hard to separate how this personally touched me as it related to my own life.
Just as she does with her songs, Knapp truly lays it all out and puts her heart into this book. The number of passages I have highlighted or the times that I wanted to scream yes were plentiful. While her journey is her own, I believe that many will be able to connect and share her sentiment in the different emotions that organized religion can cause. Or at least I did.
You don’t have to be in the spotlight to understand the pressures religion can put on you. Growing up in the church, I fully understand the need to say, do, act, and even wear the right things. It can be overwhelming and suffocating to say the least. The one scene that really encompassed this for me was when Knapp was trying to take a break from the grueling music scene. She was cracking from the fast pace of the road, but everyone told it was merely because her spiritual life was off. She was out of harmony with God and if she prayed enough and read her bible, everything would work itself out. I’m sure the words were coming from a good place, but they were words that hurt more than they healed.
I can’t even begin to express how heartbreaking to read how the Christian community treated her when she came out. The saddest story was one about a girl who sent all her CDs back to Knapp because not only did she not want them anymore she didn’t want anyone else to have them either. Knapp’s music was worthless in her eyes just because she loved differently then what is viewed as “right”. There is one quote that I keep going back to that sings so true to me She states “what I believed in had nothing to do with sexual identity or gender. I believed that no matter who we are, who we love, it is how we love that matters” (p 148). This is something I wish more people would adopt. To look beyond who people love to how they love instead. It truly hits at the heart of the LGBTQ controversy.
I love that Knapp didn’t hold back on how much she struggled to hold onto and reclaim her faith (at least in the organized religion sense.) For years, she was unable to play music let alone step into a church. She got more out of telling her stories over a drink than she did sitting through a sermon. She struggled to believe she could still be a child of God and be who she was. I applaud her for being able to hold onto and fully reclaim her faith. But most of all, I’m glad she told her story. Had I read this 10 years ago, I may be in a very different spot than I am now. I know I’m not the same girl I was in 1998 when I first picked up Kansas (nor do I want to be), but Knapp’s story hit home that you still hold onto faith and the belief that it’s okay to love who you love.
While there is much I could say about this book, I think I will simply say thank you. Thank you, Jennifer, for your music and for this book. It’s made a difference in my life more than I can ever put into words.
Librarian note: I do believe this book has high teen appeal. I would easily book talk this to teens in GSA groups. I know many teens have a hard time coming to terms with accepting themselves and holding onto God. Knapp speaks a lot about all the questioning and reconciling she had to go through to land where she did. Her words may just make the process for them, and loved ones, that much easier.
September 16th, 2014
Today I have Amy Herrick, author of The Time Fetch, talking about what inspires her.
Being often (and currently) a fantasy writer, a seeker after the world-in-back-of-the-world, there is a particular and long list of things I turn to again and again for inspiration. Inspiration being for me not necessarily what the story is going to be about, but the way to get into it. I often picture myself deep in the woods walking around and around a small house, its windows shuttered, its doors either locked or not visible to the naked eye. Getting in is the trick. Sometimes one is admitted. Sometimes it’s a break-in. Generally, it must be done over and over again each day. Some days are quite easy. Some require human sacrifice. The inside, of course, is much bigger than the outside. This, as Dr. Who and anybody who thinks about it ought to know, is one of the key secrets to everything.
First, and most stomach-acid producing, is coffee.
I drink it in small, extremely well-regulated amounts. A half a cup is sometimes enough to lead me to believe that I can see into the future or walk through walls.
Second are my favorite books.
I have a stack that I keep near my desk. The stack changes with my internal seasons, but there are certain books I reach for again and again, just for pleasure, just to procrastinate, but always in the secret hope that they will unlock a door for me. Most frequently reached for in recent weeks: E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, Edward Gory’s The Haunted Looking Glass, Virginia Woolf’sTo the Lighthouse, Garrison Keillor’s collection: Good Poems for Hard Times.
Third, and most important, is my morning walk with the dog in Prospect Park.
Each day when we pass through the gate and no one stops us we’re a little amazed at our luck. Really? No Gatekeeper? No Fee? No Three Questions? We let ourselves off the leash and head for the lake and the trees and the birds and the rolling green. There is never a morning that we return the same as we went in. Prospect Park is partly open landscaped garden, partly urban picnic-ground, partly wilderness. It delights, horrifies and humbles us. My dog is lame and no longer youthful, so we must walk very slowly. We must smell every smell, foul, fair or funky. We must look at every leaf and insect and cloud with meticulous attention:
A delicate and glittering web strung wide between a tree branch and a lamppost, with a teensy bright green spider waiting patiently for her breakfast.
A cicada killer wasp lugging its paralyzed booty down into its dark hole to feed its children.
A beautifully colored rock at the side of the road which turns out to be a turtle gauging the traffic.
It’s hard not to walk back out without some sort of comical new tale: The League of Three-Legged Dogs, The Magically Appearing Boulder, A Proposal by Ambush Under the Bridge, The Return of the Birthday Ribbon Nest.
We watch how the storms and wind change the landscape, how the seasons do their slow inevitable work, the rotting and renewal. We are always reminded that time and place are inextricably woven together and that each morning we enter a park that is not the same park as yesterday.
The closer you look, the more you see. The inside is always bigger than the outside. The door is right in front of our eyes.
Amy Herrick is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Every morning, she and her dog take a long walk in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, looking for adventure. They’ve seen and heard many wondrous things there, some of which have served as inspiration for this story. The Time Fetch is her first book for young readers.
You might also like to link to Amy’s website: http://amyherrick.com/
Or her Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Amy-Herrick-Author/250857638350721
Or Twitter: https://twitter.com/AmyEHerrick
September 16th, 2014
Today I wanted to do a quick spotlight on Fantasy League by Mike Lupica. I’m always on the look out for good sport books and this one seems to fit the bill.
Twelve-year-old Charlie is a fantasy football guru. He may be just a bench warmer for his school’s football team, but when it comes to knowing and loving the game, he’s first-string. He even becomes a celebrity when his podcast gets noticed by a sports radio host, who plays Charlie’s fantasy picks for all of Los Angeles to hear. Soon Charlie befriends the elderly owner of the L.A. Bulldogs — a fictional NFL team — and convinces him to take a chance on an aging quarterback. After that, watch out . . . it’s press conferences and national fame as Charlie becomes a media curiosity and source of conflict for the Bulldogs general manager, whose job Charlie seems to have taken. It’s all a bit much for a kid just trying to stay on top of his grades and maintain his friendship with his verbal sparring partner, Anna.
I especially like the fact that while Charlie is a football guru, he’s not a player. I think that’s something a lot of kids can relate to. This one is for sure going on my TBR list as a possible book talk for my Dinner with Books program and May school visits.
Have you read Fantasy League? If so, be sure to leave a comment and tell me what you thought!
About MIKE LUPICA
Mike Lupica has been called “the greatest sports writer for middle school readers.” He is the author of multiple bestselling books, including Heat, Travel Team, Million-Dollar Throw, and The Underdogs. As a sports columnist for New York’s Daily News, a host of his own show on ESPN Radio, and a weekly member of ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, which is televised nationally, he has proven that he can write for and speak to sports fans of all ages and stripes. Mr. Lupica lives in Connecticut with his wife and four children.