Monday, April 23, 2018

๐Ÿ“š It's Monday! What are you reading? ๐Ÿ“š

It's Monday! What are you reading? - from picture books to YA is a kid lit meme
hosted weekly by Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at
Unleasing Readers. The purpose is to recap what you have read and/or reviewed and to plan
out your reading and reviews for the upcoming week. Twitter: #IMWAYR

Read and To Be Reviewed:
Last week, I indulged my love of mysteries and read To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear. It's the 14th Maisie Dobbs mystery. It takes place in the midst of the Dunkirk Evacuation during WWII, so there was plenty of excitement plus a mystery to solve. 
We also read two books about gardening, just in case spring decides to really stick around the northeast. First we read The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, pictures by David Small. This is a perfect book for my city kids.
Then we read a book called The Ultimate Guide to Gardening: Grow Your Own Indoor Vegetable, Fairy, and Other Great Gardens by Lisa J. Amstutz. We found some really good, doable ideas in this book, which work whether you live in a city apartment or a house with a yard.
Read and Reviewed: 

Voices from the Second World War: Stories of War as Told to Children of Today - an eclectic collection of short oral histories about different experiences during WWII

Ruby in the Ruins by Shirley Hughes - now the WWII is over, young Ruby's father, a man she barely knows, returns home, and now, there are some big adjustments for her make.  

The Rizzlerunk Club Book 1: Best Buds Under Frogs by Leslie Patricelli - two girls become best friends, and have fun forming the Rizzlerunk Club, until a former best friend returns and takes over.
This book we are looking at picture book biographies

Mark of the Plague Book 2 of the Blackthorn Key Adventure) by Kevin Sands - The plague has arrived again in 1665 London, and orphan-apothecary-apprentice Christopher Rowe, 14, finds himself in the middle of a mystery concerning cures for the plague.

To be Read and Reviewed This Week:
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

We are going to be looking at picture book biographies for older readers. We haven't quite finished out list of books to read, but we are working on it. Any suggestions?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

๐Ÿธ๐ŸธBest Buds Under Frogs (Book 1 of The Rizzlerunk Club series) written and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli

There's nothing worse than being the new kid in school, especially if you are a shy, introverted kid like fourth grader Lily Lattuga. But luckily, that first day, Lily is invited to play four square with three other girls, and things go well, until she throws her lunch up in the middle of the game. She is quickly escorted to the nurse's office by another girl, who introduces herself as Darby Dorski.

Darby is as outgoing as Lily is shy and with a bit of a devil may care attitude. She seems to want to befriend Lily, but Lily wants nothing to do with her. Eventually, though, the two girls do become friends and have lots of fun, including trying to get some of the many frogs on Darby's side of the lake they both live on to settle in on Lily side, where no frogs live.

Lily is also the kind of kid who never does anything that gets her in trouble, but learns that Darby had a best friend named Jill, who always seemed to get only Darby in trouble. Jill had moved to London because of her mother's job eight months ago, and Darby is relieved she's gone. - no more getting in trouble. Soon Lily and Darby form the Rizzlerunk Club, of which they are the only two members. That is until Jill's return, complete with school uniform and British accent. Jill insists on not only joining the Rizzlerunk Club, but also being Queen of it.

Before Lily knows it, she and Darby both seem to be under Jill's spell and together they are carrying out Jill's pranks and schemes, and landing in trouble all over again, while Jill acts like she had nothing to do with any of them. Ultimately, Lily realizes the person she has become under Jill's influence is not who she really is and makes a decision that could cost her her friendship with Darby.

Patricelli, author/illustrator of those some wonderful board books, has presented a realistic portrayal of how fourth grade life, friendship and peer pressure dynamics can work in Best Buds Under Frogs. Fourth grade is a real transition year for kids, and can be particularly hard to navigate, and worse when you are the new girl and care about what people think about you, as Lily does. And Darby, for all her self-confidence when Jill isn't around, seems to be putty in her hands when she returns. It's an interesting reaction to Jill, considering that Darby's family has a somewhat loosey-goosey approach to life in general and child rearing in particular, and that they come across as a close, loving, intact family, leaving one to wonder why she needs Jill in the first place. I never felt like I found a satisfactory answer for it. Lily's family is just a close and loving, but a little stricter - for example, TV and sweets are both limited by their health-conscious mother. Both girls have siblings, but so far, their troubles are only school and friend related.

Both girls (and Jill) live on a large lake, and although they always wear life vests when in their pedal or rowboats, they are always in them without an adult, even in rainstorms. I had kind of a problem with that or am I being overly parental about it? Because then, I thought of things I did at that age, like riding the subway alone, or going to Prospect Park lake with my best friend and catching tadpoles and the occasional frog (none of which we kept) by ourselves.

For the most part, I found this book to be very funny, and I enjoyed Lily's cartoon-like illustrations that Patricelli peppered throughout the book. I thought this is a good transition book for kids ready to move on from chapter books, but not ready for middle grade stories or for students in fourth grade, and whose reading level is at a second or third grade level. I always found in my classes that books at that level didn't interest them. This would have been an ideal story for them.

I'm looking forward to reading Lily and Darby's next adventure.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Monday, April 16, 2018

Mark of the Plague (a Blackthorn Key Adventure #2) by Kevin Sands

In 2015, The Blackthorn Key, the first book in the Blackthorn Key series, not only received starred reviews, but it was also the Middle Grade Fiction Cybils winner and for good reason. It is a fascinating action-packed mystery. Christopher Rowe, 14, an orphan, is chosen to be an apprentice to apothecary Benedict Blackthorn. But when Master Benedict is murdered, Christopher sets out to discover who did it and why. It's a mystery that requires Christopher to use his knowledge of Latin, puzzles, ciphers, and codes, taught to him by Master Benedict. The action takes place over the course of six days - Thursday, May 28, 1665 to Tuesday, June 2, 1665, important dates for the story. Now, just a few months later, Christopher is faced with a new mystery in Book 2, Mark of the Plague.

Having inherited Master Benedict's home and apothecary shop doesn't help Christopher very much when the plague returns to London in early September 1665 - Christopher can't sell any possible remedies because he is an apprentice without a master or license of his own. And without any business, Christopher has no money to buy food until given some coins to tide him over by Isaac Chandler, an old friend of Master Benedict. But Isaac also gives Christopher two pieces of news - first, that there is a prophet in London who claims he can predict the course of the plague and who it will infect next, and second, that Master Benedict has left Christopher a treasure. But where or what the treasure is no one knows. It becomes another of Master Benedict's coded mysteries for Christopher to solve.

After buying some food with Isaac's money, Christopher and Tom, his best friend and the son of the baker, find themselves in the middle of a riot. A quack selling a cure for the plague is brought down by an apothecary named Galen, who claims he has also found a cure and plans on giving it out free of change if the Lord Mayor and magistrates of London accept it. In the midst of the riot, Chrisopher witnesses a young girl being beaten by two men. Recognizing her as Sally from Cripplegate, the same orphanage he had been in, Christopher and Tom take her back to the apothecary shop. And that's when Christopher notices that his jars of ingredients that are always kept in meticulous order have been moved around. But why and by whom?

On top of everything else, Christopher learns that his apothecary shop has been chosen by the magistrates for Galen to produce his plague cure along with pretty ample funding. Galen insists on choosing his own assistants, and Christopher soon finds himself barred from his own shop.

It doesn't take long for Christopher, Tom, and Sally to become suspicious of both Galen and the prophet Melchior, and soon the three friends are on a mission to solve the mystery of who they are and what they want. And after Melchior predicts that someone Christopher loves will soon die, and Tom becomes sick, his distrust of the prophet increases, especially when he finds Tom's house guarded by one of Melchior's men.

Christopher has a full plate of mysteries to figure out and it seems his circle of helpers is getting smaller and smaller as the plague is claiming more and more lived every day. But why do both Galen and Melchior light on Blackthorn's apothecary? Could Master Benedict have been working on a plague cure or perhaps they know something about his treasure?

I am happy to say that Mark of the Plague is every bit as exciting as The Blackthorn Key. Once again, Sands has set the story within a relatively short time span - Monday, August 31, 1665 to Thursday, September 10, 1665 - and gives the total death toll for each day. No coincidence in the time - the 1665 plague hit its peak in London in September.

Christopher remains the same great character we met in Book 1, and fans will be glad to see Tom is back and to meet Sally, both characters add a sense of humor to what could otherwise bee too a story for middle grade readers. Let's face it, life in the 1600s wasn't easy, particularly is you are an orphan and the plague has come to town, so having loyal best friends really does help.

There were lots of codes and ciphers to solve in the first book, but not so many in this one. It's more like a straight mystery, but of course, when it comes to figuring out what and where Master Benedict's treasure is, Christoper has to put his puzzle solving skills to good use.

I did think Sands did a much better job with the historical facts in this novel. The plague brought out a lot of charlatans looking to capitalize on people's fears and Sands makes it is easy to see how they were able to pull of their scams in the face of an virulent disease that no one knew the cause of or even how it spread. One interesting fact is Sally describing Melchior as the Bird Man, because he wears a mask that looks like a bird. In fact, that is exactly what plague doctors did do:

A plague doctor wearing his 'beak mask'. This mask would have been filled with lavender or other strong smelling substances which were thought to protect him from disease
So, it you are looking for a historically accurate, exciting mystery, look no further than Mark of the Plague and the adventures of Christopher Rowe. And if you don't like series books, no problem, this works well as a stand alone novel.

The publisher, Simon & Schuster, has provided is a useful Reading Group Guide for both Books 1 & 2 that can be printed from the publisher's website

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was bought for my personal library

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary begins in July 1947, just a month before the end of British rule in India and the Partition, the division of British India along religious lines into the two separate and independent countries of India (Hindu) and Pakistan (Muslim/Sikh) between August 14-15. Twelve-year-old Nisha and her twin brother Amil live in what is to become Pakistan, but they will soon be leaving the only home they have known to live in the new India. Their father is Hindu, and their deceased mother was Muslim. And although the family is mixed and secular, they are still considered to be Hindu.

Nisha is a quiet, introverted girl who has just received a diary for her 12th birthday from Kazi, the family's Muslim cook and the one person with whom she feel most comfortable, besides her brother. She decides to write her diary to the mother she has never known in an attempt to feel closer to her. Nisha records the small events in her life, like spending time in the kitchen with Kazi and her developing interest in learning to cook like him, but she also records the way life is changing outside the home as the day of Partition draws closer.

As violent incidents increase against Hindus in their town of Mirpur Khas, it becomes evident to their father and grandmother that it is time to leave. Nisha and Amil can't walk to school safely any more, and even home proves to no longer be a safe haven. Leaving beloved Kazi is difficult, especially for Nisha. The family is forced to set out for India on foot after hearing about deadly violence erupting between Hindus and Muslims at the train station. The plan is to stop at Rashid Uncle's house, which is halfway to the new border.

The journey, a distance of 91 miles between Mirpur Khas and the Indian border, is fraught with perils and problems. Leaving home with only what they can carry, it soon becomes apparent that the trip is going to take longer than expected and now they have become unwelcome refugees in Pakistan. They soon find themselves traveling slower than hoped, walking is dangerous, and the air is hot and water is scarce, and then Amil becomes seriously ill from lack of water.

Eventually, the family arrives at Rashid Uncle's home. Nisha is very excited about being there because it was her mother's home growing up. She has so many question to ask her mother's brother, but he has a cleft palette and doesn't speak. Soon, Rashid Uncle and Nisha begin cooking together in companionable silence, much the way she had cooked with Kazi.

Nisha would like to stay at Rashid Uncle's, but he lives in what is now Pakistan, and they are forced to leave again. Eventually, they arrive at their destination, Jodhpur, India, and settle in. But one day, there is a wonderful surprise at their door that again completes them as a family. one that has finally found their true home.

The Night Diary, so called because Nisha only writes in it at night when everyone is sleeping, is a thoughtful exploration of one young girl seeking her own cohesive identity and home. Nisha's story is nicely reflected in and paralleled with the events of the country she knew and loved at the moment of partition, when it too must forge its own identity.

Written as letters to her mother, Nisha's longing to know her, fueled in part by curiosity and in part by her need for the love and guidance a mother provides a daughter as she becomes a young woman, is both poignant and understandable. And perhaps these letters have helped because as the family travels closer to the new India, Nisha begins to discover her own voice, a voice that has always been silent, as well courage, resilience, and strength within herself that surprises everyone, especially her father.

I've read a number of novels about the 1947 Partition, and this ranks up there with the best of them. Veera Hiranandani based Nisha's story loosely on her father's family and their journey from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur, giving this novel a wonderful feeling of authenticity, so important in historical fiction. I loved the way Nisha's diary captures the sights, sounds of what is going on around her, and especially the smells and tastes from Kazi and Rashid's kitchens that she loved so much. At the same time, Nisha also captures the disintegration of different people who previously had been living in relative harmony and who become hateful and violent once the borders are drawn. As Hiranandani writes in her Author's Note, more than 14 million people crossed the border and at least one million died or were killed.

The Night Diary is a wonderful coming of age story that should not be missed, presented with honesty (there are some violent scenes) and intelligence and an objectivity that doesn't allow the reader to take sides for or against either Muslims or Hindus.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher

This map shows India before and after Partition

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert-Murdock, illustrations by Ian Schoenherr

When I was in grad school, I had a passion for the medieval period. Unfortunately, I was in a small German department that didn't have its own medievalist, though we did have some wonderful visiting professors. Still, it meant I couldn't write my first choice dissertation. Nevertheless, I continue to have a soft spot for books set during this time period, which is why I was drawn to The Book of Boy.

The story begins in France in 1350, shortly after the plague* had swept through. Boy is tending the goats at the manor of Sir Jacques, a knight with a traumatic brain injury from a joust and who can no longer speak or move. Boy is an excellent jumper and climber despite the large hump on his back, and also has the unique ability to understand what animals are thinking.

One day, a pilgrim named Secundus arrives at the manor, sees Boy's climbing ability, and convinces the cook, now the wife of Sir Jacques, to let him take Boy on his pilgrimage. Secundus is collecting seven relics of St. Peter, which are to be found throughout France and Rome. Secundus, who is quite ill, believes that if he can collect all seven relics, he will be allowed to enter Paradise when he dies, and be reunited with his wife and child, both of whom died from the plague. Needless to say, Secundus didn't exactly lead a good, honest life, which is why he needs the relics.

As the two travel, it soon becomes clear to Boy that their journey isn't the honest quest he believed it would be. Instead, Secundus drags Boy into some pretty shady situations, stealing, fighting, and getting in all kinds of dangerous situations. Even though Boy knows what they are doing is wrong, he stays with Secundus for his own reasons - maybe, just maybe, if they make it to Rome, he will get his wish to be a "real boy."

Boy has always been picked on and bullied because of his hump. He had been told never to reveal himself to anyone by Father Petrus, who had cared for Boy until he too died from the plague, and Boy always thought it was because of his hump. But, as the story moves along, Boy becomes more and more aware of who he is. And it is definitely not who he thought he was (and, given this twist, he was not who I thought he was, either).

The Book of Boy is narrated by Boy, who gives the readers a wonderfully informative window into life during the medieval period, particularly what happened during the height of the plague in France, and the fears of its return. He is a wonderful character, a really sweet innocent, despite being an outcast who has been bullied, ridiculed, and physically attacked all his life. At first, I was a little turned off by his ability to understand what animals were thinking, but as the story progressed, I found it to be more and more interesting, a unique way of providing the reader with necessary information. Consequently, for that reason and others, this book becomes a nice mix of realistic and fantastic fiction.

Secundus, who always smells like brimstone to Boy, is as mysterious a character as Boy. A scoundrel and a thief, his story is slowly revealed along with Boy's and by the time the novel ends, readers will surely realize that sometimes people just aren't who they appear to be. But getting to that point is quite a journey.

The Book of Boy is fast, informative, at times cruel, and at other times, fun, particularly some of the conversations between Boy and various animals. I sat down to read it one evening and didn't get up until I finished. And I spent lots of time studying the wonderful woodcut-style illustrations by Ian Schoenherr. Pay attention to the cover - it traces the quest of Secundus and Boy in a most interesting way.

The Book of Boy satisfied my medieval cravings like no book has recently. It is an interesting quest into what is good and what is evil, and why, and hopefully, Boy's story will serve as a nice addition to books for young readers about this underrepresented time period.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

*The plague referred to in this book is often called the Black Death. It swept across Europe and Britain between 1347 to 1353, and it is believed that 75 to 200 million people died from it. At the time, no one knew what cause the plague, only that it spread rapidly. Below is a map that shows the spread of the plague:
Source: Wikipedia: Spread of the Black Death in Europe and the Near East

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