Tag Archives: 4th

Doll Bones

dollbonesby Holly Black

I was pleased that Holly Black decided to maintain the mystery and the suspense over the paranormal scenario of the story all the way to the very very end.  To me, that’s the best part of the whole book.  Some other aspects, however, did not speak to me that much.  I was told the three main characters’ personalities, a bit of their back stories, and about the fact that they had been best friends with such amazing bonds as telling those fantastical stories…. but, as a reader, I never quite “felt” any of these facts.  Partly because on their “quest,” most I saw was their bickering and distrust of each other.

For example, when Zach worried about the two girls’ talking about him behind his back, his thoughts are whether they talked about he smelled bad or that he’s stupid.  I would hope, that after being close friends with each other for years, there might have been some darker, deeper secrets or concerns that made Zach squirm.

There are also just so many details that do not advance the plot or our understanding of the characters.  A list of 27 flavors of donuts that do not carry overt or hidden meanings baffled me.

I was also puzzled by each character’s ability to succinctly explain why have been acting in such a way toward their friends, sounding like what a therapist might present, after listening to 12/13 year olds relating the events and their feelings.  Alice revealed that the reason why she couldn’t believe in Eleanor’s ghost was that “There can’t be a ghost, a real ghost.  Because if there is, then some random dead girl wants to haunt Poppy, but my own dead parents can’t be bothered to come back and haunt me.”   And Poppy’s confession, “I thought that we could do this thing, and when it was over we’d have something that no one else had — an experience that would keep us together.”  Even Zach’s father confessed, “But I’ve been thinking that protecting somebody by hurting them before someone else gets the chance isn’t the kind of protecting that anyone wants.”

Don’t get me wrong — I believe in the validity of all of these statements and those are at the heart of this story — that we act certain ways because there are some additional, underlying emotional reasons which are seldom on the surface for others to interpret quickly or easily.  I just have a bit of trouble with how all of these ideas are delivered as “statements” by these characters.  I wish that readers had chances to perhaps sort some of these out by ourselves.  For example, perhaps in one of the shouting matches, Alice could have said something like, “There are NO GHOSTS!  If there are, WHY WOULDN’T MY PARENTS TALK O ME???!!!”  (haha.. much exaggerated)

I also was not creeped out enough by the book — and I wish I had been — the cover gave me so much hope!

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The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit (Ninja Detective #1)

NinjaDetective1by Octavia Spencer

I usually approach books written by celebrities with a bit of trepidation. More often than not, I don’t even bother reading them — just waiting for others’ reactions. But for some reason, I got a positive vibe from the galley. Perhaps because its multi-ethnicity cast portrayed and neatly presented on the cover? My gut feelings proved to be not that wrong. Much like what Spencer enjoyed reading as a child (Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown,) the story is just complex enough to keep the readers’ interest without too many confusing layers and the solutions are somewhat on the easy and happy side — which are thoroughly appropriate for its intended middle grade readership: both entertaining and comforting.

Do I sense that Spencer tried too hard to “balance” the cast with the inclusion of a hearing-impaired Hispanic kid, a black kid, and a Chinese house-keeper/friend? Yup. I sense that. But I’m ok with it because she actually created solid characters whose identities and friendships ring true and whose ethnicities are not the focal point or the plot driving elements. For the most part, the ethnical references are cringe-free. (Except for when Mei-Ling says, “Ni Hao” for a quick morning greeting to those she knows well… instead of the more appropriate “Zao” – for early/morning.) I will have no problem recommending this book to my students and hopefully they will enjoy this mystery with its positive message of community building.

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Sisters Grimm #1: The Fairy-Tale Detectives

sistersgrimm by Michael Buckley

I read this series not in order but it didn’t hurt the enjoyment since each story has its central conflict to resolve and there’s a nicely tied up ending for each one. This first story sets up the backdrop quite nicely, explaining how the fairy tale creatures (the Everafters) got to Ferryport Landing and how the sisters came to assist their grandmother in playing the detectives to capture the culprits in magical crimes. It’s all very clean, imaginative fun and beloved by many of my young readers.

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Fairy's Return and Other Princess Tales

fairysreturnby Gail Carson Levine, a collection of six Princess Tales

I enjoyed pretty much every single story in this collection.  Each one is inventive and fresh, with a lot of humor and just the right kind of twists from the original tales to maintain a high level of interest — even from this veteran fractured fairy tale reader.  I only wish that the design and the title are not so incredibly girly because I believe like all Grimm tales, these stories can be equally appreciated by both genders, even if the focus on the tales is the yearning and seeking of that one and perfect match.  The way Levine presents the relationships of the main characters stresses more on personalities and character compatibilities than some external or shallow physical attraction makes these tales solid choices for young readers.

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Grimm Legacy

grimmlegacyby Polly Shulman

For a librarian, someone who has worked for the New York Public Library system and toured the underground (deeply underground) stacks of books and objects, and a huge fan of fairytale reinventions, this book is a perfect match.  I thoroughly enjoyed the capers and the many magical aspects of the storyline.  This is another one that I can easily recommend to readers who want fantasy stories firmly inserted into their real world experiences.  The clean high school romances, the school basketball games, and the use of electronic devices will speak to contemporary twin readers.  The threads of the mystery are intriguing the first 2/3 of the story.  The last 1/3 becomes a little less skillfully laid out: once all the red herrings are eliminated and the true villain is identified, the story loses a little bit of momentum.  But thanks to the few super fun elements (Elizabeth’s losing her sense of direction, the bottomless box, and the whole idea of all those people turned into figurines for centuries, for example,) I was not bored.  It is, however, a little of a let down to see that the author could not seem to come up with a better or really clever way to get rid of the villain and had to employ a deus ex machina in the form of one of the minor characters and a realm that was never introduced previously in the story.  Nonetheless, I am still excited about the companion book that is to be released this June, The Wells Bequest. I can’t wait to go back to this fantastic library and see what the imaginative mind of Polly Shulman has concocted for the readers.

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Tales from Brothers Grimm and Sisters Weird

talesfrombrothersgrimmby Vivian Vande Velde

The short fractured fairy tales in this collection are lightly inventive, and I found the retelling of Hansel and Gratel truly successful: Vande Velde turns the traditionally sympathetic siblings into cold-blooded, calculating murderers.  The few fairy tale poems seem to be merely fillers.

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Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby

I always wanted to read this book — and more than one teachers at school urged me to read it. Since I can’t really read it this year – I downloaded the audio book read skillfully by Marc Thompson. Thompson definitely did the story justice with expertly designed and executed voices for the many characters in the tale. The story itself satisfied: a wonderful blend of life-or-death/survival scenarios and the warmth of friendship and inter-generational support. Although there are some really despicable adults in the tale, there are also so many caring ones that eventually made the three children’s lives better.

I anticipated a lot more “magic” due to the title and the cover design and felt slightly disappointed when I realized that it’s mostly a tale of young immigrants and their struggles finding their places in the world and supporting their families. All three protagonists’ stories are definitely compelling. Kirby then introduced some magical elements in the form of the golems and the golem’s “heart” for the clockwork man. Being a picky and sometimes narrow-minded genre-purist, I found this mixture a bit disconcerting — although it was quite satisfying to read those fantasy bits. I don’t think any child reader will be bothered by this mixture of historical/realistic story telling and elements of magic.

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11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass

I listened to this one. Ever since my daughter read and really liked this book, I wanted to fit it in my reading schedule. Time passed, and I never got around to do that — until I downloaded it on my Android phone from the New York Public Library and had the chance to have some fun with it nightly when I wash dishes! And what fun I had!

This has been a steadily popular book in my middle school library with 4th and 5th grade girls for the past 2 or 3 years and it has good reasons to be so. The ingredients are delicious: an old family feud, an enchantment placed on the two friends, the re-living of the same day with variations depending on one’s choices (which include some REALLY poor but thrilling ones,) and the reforge of a lost friendship. What not to love? I am also grateful that the narrator has a pleasant voice. A delightful ride, for sure.

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Pieby Sarah Weeks

This is a short and charming caper story with some not-quite-so-believable reconciliations — especially the incredibly fast and easy resolution of the mother-daughter relationship which was so extremely strained. I did enjoy the notion of aunt Polly being such a generous soul and that her legacy was felt and practiced throughout the town by those who truly loved her. I think many young readers will find great satisfaction in reading this story but those who came to PIE because they loved So B. It! should be told before hand to not expect the same kind of intensity, originality, and affecting ending as that previous most-beloved tale.

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Wonderstruckby Brian Selznick

I adored The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian’s Caldecott winning, form-innovating, ground-breaking novel told in text and pictures. I have been waiting for Wonderstruck with both happy anticipation and a slight dosage of anxiety: what IF it is not as good? What if it feels like the author has set a trap for himself and cannot top his last achievement? Would I be as taken by this story as the mysterious tale of Hugo? Would I feel that it is merely a repeat of what he already did once and since it is such a singular and unique format, it might not bear the weight of a second attempt…

I am so pleased that the book is not at all these What Ifs… Instead, it tells a fascinating and moving story succinctly and attractively with text and pictures. And instead of a novelty, it might start a different kind of storytelling form for others who are similarly minded and have suitable tales to present in this way.

I did so want to SEE Ben’s story, though. I was craving pictures for his part of the tale! That, to me, is a strength of the book: I can see how young people can be compelled to “illustrate” parts of the text. Others might be inspired to curate a personal “Cabinet of Wonder” (a personal museum.) And all of us will learn to appreciate all the connections that we make throughout our lives with others.

The release date of the book is September 13th, a day after the start of the year at my school, and I can’t wait to have it on display to herald a year of reading with a wonderful new book for all my students! Let’s shout HURRAY together for another tour de force by Brian Selznick!

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Drawing from Memory

Drawing From Memoryby Allen Say (from galley)

I’m not sure that this is “graphic novel” treatment of Say’s personal life as many have categorized it.  It has text and it has graphics but it feels more like a scrapbook with clippings of thoughts and images (both photographs and drawings).  I probably would call this a picture book memoir.  It is brutally honest: I felt pained by the lack of tenderness and affection from family members that Say received as a child and a youth. But it also shows how one can make one’s own family from those who appreciate and spiritually and emotionally adopt one as a child or a sibling. I hope by making this book, Allen Say has made and found peace with his unhappy past.  This is definitely a title worth sharing with many.

One question though: how would a young reader (say, in 2nd or 3rd grade) perceive the Japan-America conflict of War World II by reading these lines:

page 10: Then a war began in 1941. When bombs started to fall on our city, Mother took us and fled to a village named Tabuse between Hiroshima and Iwakuni.

page 12: When the war ended four years later, everything was broken.

page 13: The American forces occupied Japan on my eighth birthday, August 28, 1945. Our house in Yokohama had been destroyed. Father went to the south island of Kyushu and found work in the city of Sasebo.

I must admit that as a Chinese person who grew up in Taiwan (which was a Chinese province colonized and occupied by Japan for 50 or so years until the conclusion of WWII) and whose mother lost her entire family due to the Japanese occupation of North Eastern China, when I read a Japanese author’s personal perspectives on these events or the time period, I had to forcefully remind myself that: this is a person who happened to have grown up in a country that invaded my own country and that Allen Say was not personally responsible for the atrocity (and yes, it IS an atrocity) that his mother land caused in my mother land way before I was born. And yet, I still wonder if there could have been other ways to make those statements that show clearly to any young reader that War did not come to Japan without Japan’s bringing it on to itself AND that instead of using the word “occupied,” although accurate, Say and his editor could have found a different word to describe the American Forces’ presence in Japan post WWII – especially since the young readers encountering this book most likely wouldn’t have had much background knowledge of the whole sequence of events that led to such occupation.

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The Name of This Book is Secret

The Name of This Book Is Secretby Pseudonymous Bosch

I really should have heeded the recommendations, enthusiastic and spirited, from many different readers in several grades for the last few years. Why I felt reluctant to read this title for so long, I have no idea. Reading this book was absolutely a fun experience! Although some more experienced readers might find the meta-fiction aspect a bit heavy handed or derivative (ala Snicket or Scieszka & Lane,) I think young readers who encounter this type of storytelling format for the first will definitely eat it up with gusto! At the same time, I don’t find myself propelled to read on the rest of the series. What is lacking? Perhaps certain genuine emotional bond between this reader and the characters who serve as pieces on a game board and don’t quite come through as “real” people.

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My Life in Pink and Green

My Life in Pink and Greenby Lisa Greenwald

I can see why 4th grade girls like this book: it’s about 7th/8th grade kids with a little bit of “grown-up” stuff like first crushes and family financial problems; and it is also SO much about “beauty tips” that are just like reading a clean teen magazine. I find nothing wrong with this book that has some tension to keep the readers going and will recommend it for a light, enjoyable read that also encourages, somewhat realistically, activism by young people.

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The Lost Hero

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)by Rick Riordan

Of course, my view on this book is heavily influenced by my students’ reactions: a LOT of enthusiasm from the 4th – 7th grade crowd. Many of them have been waiting impatiently for the launching of this series for a LONG time. (Yes, it’s only a year and a half — but to the current sixth graders, the Last Olympian came out when they were mere babies: in 4th grade!) (And, for my 9th grade students, they read the last of the Percy Jackson when they were, *gasp,* still in 7th grade!)

Like these young readers, I really enjoyed the book. Many of them think that it is the strongest first book by Riordan; and although some of them are a bit sad that the book is not as humorous (what, no funny chapter headings?) as The Lightning Thief, they feel that the sheer inventiveness and the coolness of the heroes and the battle scenes more than made up for the slight lack of levity.

We all agree that Leo is the most interesting and cool character to read about and can’t wait to see their next adventures: where traditional and Riordan-made story lines, characters old and new, and the worlds of Gods and Humans will all converge.

Are there some flaws in this book? Sure. It would have been great to me if Riordan does not repeat the same information more than once in several places and did a bit self-editing to tighten up the pacing a bit. (So instead of more than 550 pages, perhaps a 400+ pages would have made the book better… for me.) However, for the eager young readers who wanted so badly to read more adventures inspired by Greek and Roman Myths, I imagine, the MORE stuff the better! So, in the end, I say, Bravo, Mr. Riordan, for staying true to what you set out to do: writing fun and gripping adventurous stories for young readers and making the publication and reading of your books a huge excitement in their life.

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The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel

The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novelby Jonathan Stroud

I am giving it Five Stars because:

A. It gave me so much pleasure to re-acquaint with an old favorite, namely, the witty, boastful, and oftentimes powerful, but also self-deprecating and silly Bartimaeus. (A bit like Bruce Willies in Fifth Element.)
B. Stroud manages to present several different angles of the plot line and bring everything together in thrilling culminating sequences.
C. The three main characters: Barti, King Solomon, and Asmira, the young royal guard of the Queen of Sheba, each is layered and real and inspire admiration in very different ways.
D. And I believe that it is a book that many many young readers will find enjoyable….
… among many other reasons — cool magic, interesting twists in the plot, a tinge of melancholy that only a couple-of-thousand-year-old Djinni could experience, etc.


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A Tale Dark and Grimm

A Tale Dark and Grimmby Adam Gidwitz

I really really enjoyed the journey into and out of the dark dark woods that is this book by a new comer of the Children’s books scene. To be honest, because I love and respect traditional fairy tales (mostly Grimms, Jacobs, with some Norse, Arabian Nights, and Russian tales thrown in) to such a degree, I get very suspicious and highly critical when it comes to authors playing with and retelling these tales.

I especially resent the ones that make light of these grim and dark and powerful tales and turn them into cutesy products.

That is not the case with Gidwitz’s offering. It is slated to be published in November and I simply can’t wait to report on it! The frame story, using Hansel and Greta, substituting them as protagonists in several Grimms fairy tales, works brilliantly. As the story progresses, the resemblance to the original versions of the tales is reduced: they are more and more fractured and eventually, you are offered a few original short tales by the current author — but the Faerie, unsettling, and dark tone of the fairy tales tradition remains. As the story follows less and less the constrain of the original tales, the readers who know these tales sense the strength of the two children, rebelling against a cage that tries to tie them down.

For readers who are not familiar with the original tales, they can still vividly experience the growth, physically, emotionally, and worldly of these two characters.

This is not a simple construct, stringing a bunch of fairy tales together, but a successful novel that has a lot to offer to its young readers.

I can’t wait to share the tales — the new and the old — with my students in the fall!

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One Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia

The quiet power of the book builds and builds and builds until at the end, my heart is squeezed and my eyes are wet. I feel for these characters as if they are my closest friends and Delphine’s resilience and vulnerability and her final “triumph” made me want to hug her and tell her how incredibly proud she should feel about herself and also to “be eleven” and to perhaps now relax just a smidgen and to be loved and cuddled once in a while.

My huge appreciation also goes to the author and editor.  What a hard thing to achieve portraying a young woman whose sole focus is on herself and her craft as a poet, who comes off as uncaring and abusive, but the entire time, this reader senses an admirable dedication and stoicism and does not view her as a monster mama. The final explanation of her hard life comes at the right time and gives just the right amount of information to let me know that she is just coming out of her own protective shell and there will be some softening and relationship building in the future. (But, no false hope of her suddenly and irrationally becoming a pampering, snuggling kind of mother.)

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The Red Pyramid

by Rick Riordan

What a romp! Riordan kept all his success formula from the Percy Jackson series: likable and realistic teens who support each other even if they bicker, a lot of cool magic and magical battle scenes (a bit MORE than a single Percy Jackson book and a bit more than I care to read in such details but I imagine many young readers lap them up like pots of chocolate,) quite a few powerful and caring adult figures, and a sprinkle of romantic interests. And he sets up the sequel wonderfully without short changing the current readers. The resolution for the quest is thoroughly satisfying. Now I can’t wait to read the next volume — it sounds so promising… and yet must remain patient for another year… *sigh*

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Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: An Elegantly Written Book?

I started reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin, while it was still in galley form and had never been able to finish the book.  Friends in my Children’s Literature circle have heard from me for almost a year now how baffled I have been regarding the success of the book (a Newbery Honor) and the adoration of the book from so many reviewers, teachers, and librarians.

And today, I read this blog post from Story Sleuths in which the bloggers praise and analyze the strengths of the writing by Lin.  (This is only Part 1, and posted 4 days ago.  I imagine more posts will follow.)

Finally, I feel compelled and brave enough to share some counter points regarding this book.

I am going to focus on my reaction to the usage of words and phrases by the author and demonstrate how I am not convinced that this is an elegantly crafted volume.  (Although, as a woman who grew up in Taiwan and was exposed to countless Chinese folk tales in book, opera, TV forms, I have a lot of discomfort with Grace Lin’s appropriation of the stories she read as an American girl of Taiwanese descent — even if she made it clear that these are NOT simple retellings of the original stories but based on her views on how these stories COULD have been told.)

Now, I was already a bit annoyed by page 4 because of a personal pet peeve.

  • The book is set against a nondescript mystical China, by the way the village is described and the people are portrayed.  Yet, in this fantasy land, in “Ancient” China, Minli’s father replies to her request for a story with “Okay” — an unfortunate word choice that carries strong western and contemporary flavors.  (p. 4)  This is a strong personal pet peeve, as explained in my About Fantasy — Is it OK to say “Okay”? post.

Grace Lin really loves using the word “seemed” in delivering her descriptive sentences.  It occurs with such frequency that it becomes monotonous and because “seem” is such an uncertain word, it often weakens the impact of the imagery.  (p. 110 “… the silence of the room seemed to ache with loneliness.” p. 111 “She seemed to glow like a pearl…” p. 117 “light of the moon seemed to bind the magistrate still.” p. 140, “The king’s words seemed to hang in the air.”  p. 141, “The moon seemed to tremble…” and on and on… and in this one page, the narrative contains three “seemed” in three short paragraphs.

  • . . . Minli’s footsteps seemed to hush the night as she made her way toward the Jade River.  (This one works all right for me because her footsteps could not have hushed the night but could have created the sense of hushing the night.)
  • . . . The moon shone above so even in the darkness of the night, the fish seemed to burn a bright orange.  (This one puzzles me.  I know that the fish did not burn but was it bright orange?  If the sentence were “the fish seemed to burn with an orange flame” or “the fish seemed to burn, glowing bright orange”  it would have delivered a clearer imagery.)
  • . . . For the moment the fish seemed shocked and was still, like a flickering flame on a match.  (It would have worked if the fish was simply socked or in shock.  And we wouldn’t have had three consecutive “seemed’s” on one page.)

Now, that last sentence kind of “shocked” me when I first encountered it.  How could a fish that is shocked into “stillness” be also “flickering” like a flame on a match that does not stop moving?  (After considering this several times, I could have explained that perhaps the water has been moving moments before so that the water makes the brightly lit orange fish scales sparkle and flicker.  But this figure of  speech did not make the imagery clear.  It does not illustrate or illuminate.)

Here are two more examples of odd similes:

  • On page 42 … “only barely could he see the faint footprints on the ground — it was like searching for a wrinkle in a flower petal.”  I did a triple-take and quite a bit of head scratching when I read this sentence: Many flowers have petals that are full of wrinkles.  Did the author mean that it is extremely EASY to make out the faint footprints on the ground? If so, does not it contradict the “barely” sentiment proposed in the first portion of the sentence?
  • On page 61 … “Under his gaze, Ma and Pa suddenly felt like freshly peeled oranges, and their words fell away from them.”  To this day, after re-reading this sentence countless times, I still could not quite figure out how a “freshly peeled orange” might feel.  I guess that it addresses the notion of their “words falling away” from them.   Does that make them feel naked?  Does it have something to do with the speed of the peeling (which does not happen instantly but can be pretty fast, unlike peeling an apple)?  This figure of speech confounds this reader and conceals the full meaning from view.

Of course, plenty of readers disagree with my reaction and I am eager to hear from others who can shed some light on these and other passages from the book that, to me, seem to be on the “Composition 101/Figure of Speech Exercise 5” level and do not always flow organically to tell a vivid story.

I probably will post more musings on how metaphors and similes should only appear to illustrate, interpret, and illuminate the scenes and emotions and should be avoided at all cost when they contradict, confound, or conceal the underlying, true meanings of the passages.  (My 3-Is and 3-Cs rule!)


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Half-Minute Horrors: A Librarian’s New Best Friend!

I’ve been scaring, confounding, disgusting and delighting my 4th and 5th graders (and some older kids, even high schoolers) with the short short stories (we timed them — the way I read, many of them are more than half-a-minute long but seldom more than 2.5 minutes long) crammed into this slim volume for several weeks now.  It’s not Halloween Season, but we all still welcome a spine-chilling experience in the Library’s Reading Room.  We love M.T. Anderson’s EWWWWWW-inducing “An Easy Gig” where an innocent baby-sitting job turned menacingly tragic and we collectively are repulsed by Dean Lorey’s “Hank” where a beloved pet turns out to be.. um… not so endearing at all.  Sarah Weeks isn’t all that sweet penning “One of a Kind” and Jack Gantos’ half-page “Up to My Elbow” makes us think twice and come to the “OMG” revelation on our own.  With 72 stories in words and pictures, this proves to be the “best buy” of the school year for my library.

My students and I owe so many hours (minutes?) of reading and sharing pleasure to this cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed volume and HarperCollins and Susan Rich for putting the book together.

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