Book reviews of YA lit and more

As a middle school librarian and hopeful reader of Missouri's high school award books (Gateway nominees), I am reading and reviewing as many young adult and middle grade novels as I can while working on my own writing for this age group.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Cupcake Queen- Heather Hepler

This is a fairly simple plot- Penny's parents are separated so she and her mother move out of New York City to the small town where her mother grew up and her grandmother still lives, Hog's Hollow.  Her mother opens a bakery.  Penny is not accepted at first in her new town and school, but she soon finds not only a best friend, but a boy as well.  This is definitely a girly book.  Think fans of Sarah Dessen.  I'm not a huge romance fan; however,  I loved the setting.  There were many side characters that are fun, and Hog's Hollow is an enjoyable place to read about.

Monday, June 27, 2011

We Were Here- Matt De La Pena

This book opens with Miguel in trouble.  He is a half white/ half Mexican boy from California that has landed himself in "juvie".  From there he moves to a group home, where he is to serve his time of one year.  It is in juvie and the group home that he meets Rondell, a very large African-American boy that has bounced from foster home to foster home, and Mong, a Chinese kid that is a wild card.  These three unlikely friends decide to escape the group home and travel south to Mexico and start a new life.  The book is written as Miguel's journal as they travel.  They have some interesting adventures and learn a lot about life, themselves, forgiveness, and facing their demons as they travel.  None of them are the same by the time they reach the border.  This book would work well for high school boys, but I could see girls liking it also.  It is difficult to read about the boys' lives at times, so it wouldn't work for kids that are sensitive.  It makes you look at troubled kids much differently after you read what these boys have been through.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have- Allen Zadoff

Here is another book about a high school student with weight issues.  Do I detect a trend here?  Is childhood obesity becoming so rampant that there are this many book out about kids being overweight?  This was from a boy's point of view, which makes it a little different.  Andrew weighs in over 300 pounds and has never been one of the popular kids.  The only club he has ever participated in is the model UN, where this year he and his best friend are going to be Estonia.  All this changes as the result of a girl.  Andrew ends up going out for football, where his size is put to good use.  In the end he realizes being popular isn't exactly all it's cracked up to be.  This book isn't anything amazing, but it is fun.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

If the Witness Lied- Caroline B. Cooney

I was introduced to this author when I read The Face on the Milk Carton.  In this current book, as in the first on I read, you meet young characters that are faced with tough decisions.  I liked both books for similar reasons.  These kids (in this case a group of 4 brothers and sisters) are facing something awful (death of both parents), and they have to make quick decisions about what to do and how to solve the mystery of their father's supposed accidental death.  I love to live vicariously through the characters.  This is a fast, short read, so it would be perfect for reluctant readers.  The story is told from the older brother and both sisters' points of view, which makes it a good choice for girls or boys.  It also would be a great fit for middle school kids.  Not a lot of real depth, but an enjoyable read.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fat Cat- Robin Brande

Seems like the theme for reading the weekend was eating and food.  This book was much lighter than Wintergirls; however, it had a main character who also felt she was overweight.  "Cat" is a brain, but hasn't cared much about how she takes care of her body.  Through a research project in one of her high school classes she decides to live the next 7 months like a early hominin (even more ancient than a Neanderthal).  This means no modern technology, walking every where (within reason), and eating a diet that consists of fruits, vegetables and grains, which is a huge change from Cat's normal diet of junk food.  This vegetarian diet and constant exercise has some interesting effects on Cat's personal life.  She has some boy problems to resolve as she deals with her body image issues.  This is a fun book, that actually made me more interesting in researching a vegetarian diet.  Definitely a chick book, but a light, fun one.

Wintergirls- Laurie Halse Anderson

I'm not sure what I expected when I began this book.  All I really knew was I have always loved the author from the first time I read Speak.  She has an amazing way of portraying what is really happening with teenage girls, despite the fact that some adults don't want to face it and have therefore banned her books.  This particular one is about two girls that have severe eating disorders, and one has recently died.  Anderson's writing from Lia's point of view is so powerful.  Working with middle school girls I see my share of suspected eating disorders and many girls who have such a distorted sense of body image.  This book takes you spirally down with Lia as she eats less and less, exercises compulsively, and cuts herself to stop the pain of losing her best friend.  It does end with her beginning to get well, so it would give hope to girls going through similar situations.  It is a heavy book, and not one I would recommend to every teenage girl, but it definitely needed to be written, if only to offer hope to some girls and give understanding to the adults working with them.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Linger- Maggie Stiefvater

I've already reviewed the first book in this trilogy, but I had to go ahead and say that I've read the second and enjoyed it as much as the first.  This book had Sam basically cured, but now Grace is having problems.  It leaves readers very set up for the final book, Forever.  These books again are beautiful, even the font in this one is green (Shiver was blue).  Everything coordinates with the seasons, the music, the cover.  Really they are amazing.  I have to admit I didn't want to love these, but I can't wait to read Forever!

The Morgue and Me- John C. Ford

This is another book where photography plays a large role.  That must be something this year in publishing because this is the third book this month where photography has been key to the plot.  This book is a murder mystery told from a high school boy's point of view.  I do appreciate that so many of the books on our state nominee list this year are geared to boys because that is a change from how it has been.  Christopher is 18 and has decided to get a job in his small town's morgue.  Sounds weird, but he is obsessed with spy novels and wants to become a spy, so it is a good fit.  Especially when a body comes in that he discovers is not a suicide, but a covered up murder.  He befriends a hot, young, rebellious reporter who wants to find the truth and break the story to further her journalism career.  This book is a fairly typical, and somewhat predictable, murder mystery, but still a fun read.  It would definitely be a light read again for a reluctant boy reader.  High school is the most suitable age, but it could probably work with middle school as well.  There is no explicit sexual content and not much language.

Flash Burnout- L.K.Madigan

This book was actually much better than I thought it would be.  Blake's character definitely gave me insight into the high school boy's mind, which might have been helpful during my high school year's.  However, sometimes ignorance is bliss.  Blake is basically a good guy torn between two girls- Shannon, his beautiful girlfriend and Marissa, his friend and fellow classmate in his favorite photography class.  He really does try to do good by both of them.  He does his best to understand Shannon and all of her girl strangeness, and in the meantime gets pulled into Marissa's dysfunctional home life through a picture her inadvertently takes of Marissa's mom.  In trying to be too much to too many people, Blake gets completely misunderstood, and although it does not have a perfectly happy ending, he does learn a lot about himself and life in general.  This is again definitely a high school book due to the sexual content.  This would be a good book to recommend to boys that don't tend to read much.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hold Still- Nina LaCour

Caitlin and Ingrid have been best friends since the beginning of high school.  When Ingrid commits suicide, Caitlin is devastated.  Caitlin finds Ingrid's journal under her bed where Ingrid has left it for Caitlin to find.  This book takes you through the grief process with Caitlin, and thankfully she makes it through the other side.  The author does a great job of making Caitlin's character completely believable.  I was hurting for her.  I do have to say that reading this fairly quickly after 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher was unfair to this novel.  Asher's book handles suicide in such a unique manner that it sets the standard pretty high.  I did enjoy the journal entries as a way to peek into Ingrid's mind.  Suicide is always a difficult subject to write about, and this novel handles it beautifully.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Playing with Matches- Brian Katcher

I met Brian Katcher at the recent MASL conference in Tan-Tar-A (a conference for Missouri librarians).  I attended his session on becoming an author, so it was enjoyable to read his first book that made it to the publishing world.  It was a great first novel- even ended up on Missouri's Gateway nominee list last year (only to lose to The Hunger Games- go figure).  What struck me about this book was the voice.  Brian captures a high school boys voice perfectly.  I learned a lot about what guys must have been thinking back in high school (and perhaps it's better that I didn't know back then).  Leon is a very likable character even when he is trying too hard.  When he befriends Melody, a beautiful girl whose face was disfigured in a fire accident when she was four, I was so happy that he was acting so mature.  But true to most (or all) guys his age he chooses the hot girl over Melody when the situation presents itself.  The ending wasn't fairy tale, but it wasn't depressing either.  He learns his lesson with some definite consequences, but it only made me like him more.  I'm looking forward to reading Brian's next book (Almost Perfect).  He is certainly an author to watch, and I enjoyed meeting him this spring.  I hope to join his ranks as a published author someday!

The Reading Promise

OK, so I've decided to be more myself in these posts and not such a dry reviewer of books.  If it looks like I've read an incredible amount of books this weeks it's because school has just ended and my children are on vacation with my parents.  One of the books I've read this week is actually a Father's Day gift for my dad (yes, I often read books first before I give them as gifts- I'm very careful with the pages.  Surely no one has ever suspected).  It is the most inspiring story as both a parent, daughter and librarian.

Alice Ozma writes the book as a memoir about "the streak" that her and her father started when she was around 9 years old.  Basically it was them trying to read aloud together every night for 100 nights, which then turned into 1,000 nights and beyond.  It ended the night he took her to college and they read one last time in the stairwell of her dorm.  I was teary by that point.  Teary because I was remembering how my own dad and I have shared a love of books (hence the father's day gift idea) and because I want that with my own three kids.  I plan to start our own "streak" at our house this summer.  Conveniently my oldest is 9- obviously the perfect time to start making the read aloud commitment.  The website to check out is

If I Grow Up- Todd Strasser

DeShawn is growing up in the Frederick Douglass Project- land of drug dealers, nightly gun shots causalities, and gangs.  He is a smart kid that does well in school, and he tries to rise above the temptation of joining the gang in his neighborhood- Douglass Disciples.  This works until the day he has a realization that while his grandma, sister, and her new twins are starving at the end of every month when the welfare check has run out, while his friend Terrell is newly inducted into the gang and has a new flat screen tv, new shoes, new clothes, and enough cash to take care of his family.  He makes the decision to save his family the only way he knows how, and that decision ultimately becomes his downfall.  If you are looking for an uplifting story with a happy ending, this book is not for you.  Strasser does an excellent job of telling it exactly how it is.  It is heart wrenching to see the conditions kids are growing up in that live in these projects.  And the ending is realistic for how it must end for most of these kids.  This is definitely more for high school kids than middle school, and it would make for interesting discussion, especially for kids that think the gang life is cool or admirable.