Tag Archives: highly recommended

Days of Blood and Starlight

daysofbloodandstarlightby Laini Taylor

I should have read this a LONG time ago. Whoa, what powerful punches Laini Taylor manages to deal to the readers — over and over — so many surprises and things going just the opposite of what one expects. Lots of gore. Tortured romance. Amazing magical inventiveness. Just too much fun in one book. Should not be allowed! But, how happy I am to have read the second installment — and that I HAVE to read the 3rd book because it’s nominated by fellow BFYA members.  So excited.  But I’m reading another book, not yet nominated, first.  Can’t have all the goodies at once!

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Grasshopper Jungle

grasshopperjungleby Andrew Smith

Genre(s): Sci-Fi, Horror

Basic Content Information: 17-year-old Austin from Iowa, our time, records the “history” of The End of the World when he and his best buddy Robbie Bree set off a chain of events that lead to the invasion of 6-foot-tall, hungry and horny, indestructible genetically engineered praying mantises that ravage and take over the human world.  The narrative is full of crude words and thoughts.  Austin is continuously horny, many of the characters are presented through the lens of their sexual behaviors, the descriptions of events are blunt and without the sense of bashfulness.  Austin is also in love with both his girlfriend Shannon and his best friend Robbie, who is openly gay.  There is much tenderness between Robbie and Austin.  There is much confusion and resentment but also acceptance and understanding amongst the main teen characters.  There is a lot of outlandish sci-fi elements that harken to the 50s horror B-Movies and the tone and Smith’s stylistic choices might remind readers of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing.   Most used words in the book: horny, semen, blood, fuck, eat, hungry, penis, and history — much discussion about how history gets to the truth and how it does not.

Edition: Paper Galley

Pub Date: February, 2014

Publisher: Dutton/Penguin

(I’m only recording the bare bone facts about the Young Adult Fiction titles I read in 2014 — Serving on the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee means that I need to be quite cautious in expressing opinions on social media. The safest way is to not express specific reactions publicly. But I’d like to keep reporting the titles I encounter throughout the year. You can always follow the link to Goodreads to see other readers’ reviews.)

Click here for: Goodreads summary and other people’s reviews.

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Saga Volume 2


by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

Every bit as entertaining and thrilling as the first volume.  This one contains chapter 7 to chapter 12 — with beautifully rendered bloody and sexually explicit scenes.  What I reacted most strongly and favorably to are the cast of characters.  I hesitate to call them endearing (except for perhaps Marko and the Lying Cat) since many of them are so severely flawed and I probably will not want to deal with them in real life, but they definitely have sharply defined forms and the plot moves plausibly in accordance with their individual personalities.

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Saga, Vol. 1

saga by Brian K. Vaughan; artwork by Fiona Staples

The first six installments (chapters) of a supposed Space Opera definitely grabbed my attention and my heart. The world is ingeniously built, with interesting and outlandish “races” — I adore the reddish ghost girl who has only top half her body…. not quite sure how I feel about the computer monitor headed royalties… I hope the story unfolds with a lot of creativity and depth. My strong and enamored reaction to this book came largely from Fiona Staples’ lush artwork. I don’t feel like calling her just “the illustrator” because I feel that she did more than mere illustrating what’s given to her — but expanded and enhanced this fictional world and its inhabitants with grace. I look forward to the next volume!

Ah.. this is really not meant for children — even though I know quite a few of my younger teens have read this (on their own, not by my recommendation.)

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We Were Liars

wewereliarsAuthor: E. Lockhart

Genre(s): This is a realistic fiction … and a mystery… and also something else that I simply cannot reveal.  Trust me.  You’ll thank me for not giving it that specific genre label before your journey with it.

Basic Content Information: We have an unreliable, shaky narrator.  We have a privileged family with many untold secrets.  We have drama.  There is a teen romance complicated by a case of class struggle.  There are summers on a private island, by the beach, in big houses, near Martha’s Vineyard.  The writing is both no-nonsense, straightforward and full of hidden meanings and messages.

Edition: Netgalley

Pub Date: May 13th 2014

Publisher: Delacorte Press

(I’m only recording the bare bone facts about the Young Adult Fiction titles I read in 2014 — Serving on the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee means that I need to be quite cautious in expressing opinions on social media.  The safest way is to not express specific reactions publicly. But I’d like to keep reporting the titles I encounter throughout the year. You can always follow the link to Goodreads to see other readers’ reviews.)

Click here for: Goodreads summary and other people’s reviews.

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My Favorite 2013 Graphic Narratives

These are just a few of my favorite graphic narratives of 2013 (and a couple from 2012) — from those for fairly young readers to those only for adults.


I already wrote about Boxers and Saints (the two volume set that really must be read together… and I recommend to read Boxers first, Saints second.) And I also greatly enjoyed Avatar: The Promise and look forward to the second storyline The Search (2013).  V Is for Vendetta is a GN classic and richly deserving.  Also almost caught up with the Chew series — read #4, #5, and just finished #6 last week. These new story lines just get more and more incredibly “unappetizing” in a most deliciously gross way by these two twisted and talented minds!  Panel after panel of shocking new developments and gory images — definitely not for those whose minds crave redemption and hope…

Now.. onto those that I loved but didn’t have time to write about in 2013:

nathanhaleNathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party
by Nathan Hale

What I love most about this detailed historical account of the somewhat gruesome chapter of the American westward expansion history is Hale’s mindfulness of his young readers and their potential emotional reactions to some of the events along the way.  The executioner’s extreme sensitivity toward harmed animals and the surprising nonchalance toward human cannibalism added not only humor but relief.

mousebirdMouse Bird Snake Wolf
by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean

This is in between a picture book and a graphic narrative — it’s a poetic allegory, addressing our inner selves. Since I am a huge fan of Dave McKean’s, it’s not surprising that I adore this book!

by Jordan Mechner, illustrated by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland

I had the pleasure and the privilege to read, advocate for, and annotate this powerful tome as a finalist on the CYBILS YA Graphic Novels slate.  It’s historical fiction at its finest: Mechner was compelled to tell an emotionally charged hidden tale of the every day people unrecorded in history texts (in this case, low-ranking Templar Knights).  Readers are treated to an ensemble of well drawn (both in words and illustrations) characters set against a sweeping historical landscape and a bitter-sweet story of loyalty, romance, and the tragic futility against the powers that be.

by Matt Phelan

The tone of the text, gentle, nostalgic, reverent to a time and an art form from the past, is perfectly matched by Phelan’s pastoral paintings that capture both the setting of bygone days and the many emotions experienced by our narrator, expressed by aptly drawn facial features and gestures.  Definitely a gem.

by Lucy Knisley

This is an energetic, often humorous, and delicious memoir of a new adult — and I do think it is for new or older adults — with a “looking back” and learning something from past experiences quality.  Not saying that I don’t think some teens will find the topics (food and cooking and making art and growing up/college life) quite attractive!  It is highly enjoyable and leaves a lasting impression.

delilahdirkDelilah Dirk and the Turkish Gentleman
by Tony Cliff

I fell instantly in love with this book!  The art is exquisite in a very traditional, high-end graphic novel fashion, the storyline is exciting and entertaining, and the two delightful main characters Delilah and Selim have great chemistry as pals in a series of misadventures.  There is a bit of a gender-stereotype reversal here: Delilah is the dare-devil, with martial arts training and an appetite for dangers while Selim is the solemn gentleman who is courteous and practical but couldn’t help following Delilah on all the risky businesses. I just adored it!

lostboyLost Boy
by Greg Ruth

The art is stronger in this strange fantasy/horror tale than the actual storyline which could have been developed neater with more convincing turns of events or final resolutions.  However, the black and white artwork is so gorgeous and breathtaking to behold that I was just happy to witness scene after scene visually. I do think there will be many young readers appreciating the slightly nightmarish but ultimately fun and safe tale.

warbrothersWar Brothers: The Graphic Novel
by Sharon E. McKay, illustrated by Daniel LaFrance

The harrowing, extremely hard to swallow story based on true events involving the terrorist group led by war criminal Joseph Kony that continues to plague young boys in Uganda is important to share with any teen reader!  It does not hurt that the artwork for this graphic narrative edition of McKay’s realistic fiction absolutely captures the range of emotions and the lush and dangerous backdrop.

monsteronthehillMonster on the Hill
by Rob Harrell

This is a story to be shared in families with children from ages 4 to 7!  The scenarios are just outlandish enough to tickle everyone’s funny bones — while townspeople from village to village are proud to have their own effective Monsters, one village sorely misses the time when they had a scary monster!  So the quest is on to cure the Monster on the Hill of its lack of terrorizing abilities or desires!  Adorable (yes, adorable) monsters, a befuddled scientist/doctor, and a wiser than his age little boy are indeed wonderful ingredients for this romp.  Oh, and the cartoony but detailed artwork definitely works to enhance the reading experience.

hereville2Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite
by Barry Deutsch

I was so thrilled to find that this second installment of Mirka’s story is even more enjoyable than the first one.  I wrote the annotation for CYBILS:

Mirka– the 11-year-old, troll fighting, singularly charming Orthodox Jewish girl–appears in her second, even more daring adventure in How Mirka Met a Meteorite, where she has to face a much more dangerous adversary: her own dark side, which manifests as a duplicate of herself. This “copy” is better groomed, more talented, and self-assured, and it means to stay on and obliterate Mirka’s existence. Deutsch and team deliver a humorous and action-packed tale with theatrical facial expressions, effective uses of varied panel designs, and bold strokes and skilled shading techniques.

And there are more stellar aspects to mention: this is a book with a great message that is delivered in such a way that does not feel forced or dryly didactic.  Mirka’s experiences will speak to many young readers and give them strengths to be the perhaps “less than perfect” but “full of individual flavors” selves!

mameshibaMameshiba: Enchanted
by James Turner, illustrated by Jorge Monlongo

I have to admit that I was very skeptical when I received the review copy of this slim volume — it definitely has a supermarket-cheap-impulse-buy-at-the-check-out counter look.  But since I loved all the short videos imported from Japan of these weird “beandogs,” I decided to give it a try.  And boy were the stories FUN!  None of the three stories is really all that original: the Kitchen is Haunted, a Mameshiba is punished for being too self-centered and has to learn a lesson to in humility and compassion, and the magic of stories sucks a host of beandogs into the storybook for them to battle the monsters.  But the cute creatures and the often silly remarks just make me smile (or laugh out loud.)  So glad it didn’t disappoint!

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The Thing About Luck

the-thing-about-luckby Cynthia Kadohata

Kadohata once again proves that a book does not have to have an outlandish or extremely inventive premise to capture the reader’s attention and interest.  Once I started reading this book about a young girl’s simple wishes and dreams, her family’s struggle to stay afloat as seasonal wheat harvesters, and her brother’s difficulty in connecting with his peers, I could not stop.  I cared so deeply about Summer, her brother, and her elderly grandparents.  It’s really quite a feat for such a slim and quiet book!  Its inclusion as one of the five finalists of the 2013 National Book Award Young People’s Literature category is well deserved!

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The Grimm Conclusion

grimmby Adam Gidwitz

I waited for a while to read this one.  Was somewhat apprehensive.  When one becomes friendly and very fond of an author, one sometimes also becomes worried.  What if… What if the book isn’t as good as you’d hoped?  As good as you  believe that particular author could have made it?  What it…

So, I didn’t read the galley.  I did attend an overwhelmingly successful event at Book Court in Brooklyn with Adam entertaining a host of young readers and their parents.  And then, finally, after I started seeing my students toting around this third volume and hearing that they really really enjoyed it (one of them read it more than twice in the week of its publication) I braced myself and delved into it!

What a treat!  I couldn’t put the book down.  Adam not only featured some of MY favorite Grimm tales, he even used one of my favorite STORY TIME staple (Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock!)  And not only Adam continues with the intrusive and flippant (but often kind and comforting) storyteller/narrator, he brings this narrator INTO the story (or, rather, brings the protagonists OUT of the story and into current day Brooklyn.)  I was worried when I knew that there is a metafiction element of the tale that it would have seemed trite or forced — but Adam did it in a natural and fluid way that really works.  The story as a whole seems a bit darker than the first two, but it is to my liking.  And as in so many stories for children (and adults) the power of storytelling is celebrated at the end!

Same as in the first two books, there are definitely some very sticky moral dilemmas that the two kids have to face and conquer.  I am happy to report that the messages do not get in the way of the enjoyment of the tales. And I suspect that these important “lessons” are being absorbed and are strengthening child readers everywhere as I type!

Finally, the new “Kingdom of Children” that the narrator refers to in the end of this book is an apt metaphor for the realm of imagination, for stories and books, and especially for the Grimm trilogy, where children venture in to “run, to play… to tell their tales and face their fears and let whatever is inside out.”

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The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

truebluescoutsby Kathi Appelt

(narrated by Lyle Lovett for Audible)

This is what outstanding, distinguished, and thoroughly enjoyable children’s books should be!  And of course, I had the additional pleasure of listening to Appelt’s narrative voice brought to live by Lyle Lovett: folky, hilarious, tender, with just the right amount of controlled drama.  This environmental tall tale set in the swamp land, featuring anthropomorphized critters, caricatured villains, down home, real but also realer than life characters, and mythical beings is perfect for a family and classroom read aloud!  One of my favorite 2013 books for sure!

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Rose Under Fire

roseunderfireby Elizabeth Wein

I have only read three books by Elizabeth Wein.  Years ago, The Winter Prince, last year, Code Name Verity, and now Rose Under Fire.  But, I now know, unwaveringly, that this is an author who can steal people’s hearts and cleanse their souls with her storytelling wizardry.

Elizabeth Wein, my friends, has a creative mind that goes forever deepr and her stories always take you to unexpected but exciting places — no matter their subject matters.  Her mind is so incredibly nimble that she can organize very complex threads into easily followed paths through intricate mazes she has devised for her readers. And, oh, the hearts and souls of her characters and the epic scale of their sufferings and triumphs! They linger on and sustain you like the LIFT under the wing of an airplane and a soaring kite! Read this book NOW and tell everyone else to read it.

I know that young teen readers will take to Rose’s story more readily than they with Verity and can’t wait to recommend this to them all!


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rithmatistby Brandon Sanderson

with illustration by Ben McSweeney

I have had the best time reading this book: discovering a completely new and fresh world that is a twist of our real world with alternative histories and a wonderfully naive yet sinister kind of magic: two dimensional chalk drawings turned to life battling creatures.  Sanderson once again  proves his skills in creating a compelling magical system completed with intricate and convincing rules that makes the reader wish to encounter such magic in the real world.  The kind that will excite young readers to learn and master: drawing those Rithmatic defense circles and lines and dreaming up potential new designs and patterns.  The kind that will inspire game makers to create a wonderful board or video game based on the world, characters, and strategies found within the story line.  The kind that I am actually pleased to wait for the next installment in the series because I want to venture further with the characters to explore the unknown territories beyond the confine of the magical academy and the town.  I hope the next book comes out soon!  Can’t wait!

Oh, and the two teenaged protagonists are also authentic and their relationship often brings a smile to my face.

I also love the helpful and fun line drawings of the Rithmatic designs and chalklings, and the intriguing map of the United Isles with island names like Coronado, Zona Arida, Maineford, and DaKote.

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Response to NPR 100 Must Reads for Ages 9 – 14 — Part 2

It turned out that I have more to say and more wish lists to compile:

First off, According to a child_lit member, “In the first 50 books, there are only 8 books published since the turn of the century.  The average age of the first 50 books?  44.  The average publication date is 1969.”

And I noticed that some of the titles/series seem to belong on another, slightly younger recommended list, such as, Sarah Plain and Tall, Romana, the Little House series and Hundred Dresses.  Or perhaps I’m off base here?  I’m also surprised that there is no School Life section — perhaps it should be grouped with Family Life.

Here are the rest of the sections and my Wish Lists!


Family Life (I want School Life to be added here)


Walk Two Moons (11, 12, 13)

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 (10, 11, 12)

One Crazy Summer (10, 11, 12)


Casson Family series (Saffy’s Angel and sequels) (10, 11, 12)

Frindle (if School Life is here) (9, 10)

Al Capone Does My Shirts (9, 10, 11)

Bell Prater’s Boy (9, 10, 11)

A Corner of the Universe (11, 12, 13)


Fantasy Worlds


The Chronicles of Prydain (10, 11, 12)

Peter Pan (11, 12, 13, 14)

Oz, The Complete Collection (10, 11, 12)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (9, 10, 11)

The City of Ember (shouldn’t this be SciFi?) (9, 10, 12)

A Wizard of Earthsea (12, 13, 14)

The Chronicles of Narnia (10, 11, 12)

The Giver (11, 12, 13, 14)

His Dark Materials (11, 12, 13, 14)

The Hobbit, Or, There And Back Again (9, 10, 11, 12)


(Fantasy is my favorite genre, so I can probably come up with about 50 Must Reads just here.. haha… )

Gregor the Overlander series (9, 10, 11, 12)

Bartimaeus series (10, 11, 12, 13, 14)

Howl’s Moving Castle (10, 11, 12, 13)

Inkheart (11, 12, 13)

The Neverending Story (11, 12, 13)

Friendships And Finding Your Place (probably school stories can go here, too)


The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (9, 10, 11)

Are You There, God? (10, 11, 12)

The Secret Garden (9, 10, 11, 12)

Harriet the Spy (9, 10, 11)

Wonder (9, 10, 11, 12)

Bridge to Terabithia (10, 11, 12)

Holes (9, 10, 11, 12)

Maniac Magee (10, 11, 12)


Hope Was Here (11, 12, 13)

So B. It (10, 11, 12)

A Mango Shaped Space (10, 11, 12, 13)

Olive’s Ocean (10, 11, 12)

Six Innings (10, 11, 12)

Black and White (13, 14, and older)


Good For A Laugh

Agreeing.. sort of:

Matilda (Not really just funny.. should be in Everyday Magic) (9, 10, 11)

The Phantom Tollbooth (should be in Everyday Magic) (9, 10, 11)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (9, 10)

Joey Pigza series (9, 10, 11, 12)

The Grand Escape (9, 10, 11)

Jack and the Seven Deadly Giants (9, 10, 11)

Graphic Novels

Bone (9, 10, 11)

The Arrival (9, 10, 11, 12)

American Born Chinese (13, 14, older)


Rapunzel’s Revenge (9, 10, 11)

Amulet series (9, 10, 11, 12)

Persepolis (I know. this is a memoir… but) (13, 14, older)

Mysteries And Thrillers


Wolves of Willoughby Chase (9, 10, 11)

The House With a Clock in Its Walls  (9, 10, 11)

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (9, 10, 11)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (9, 10, 11)

When You Reach Me (9, 10, 11)


The Westing Game (9, 10, 11)

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (11, 12, 13)

The Face on the Milk Carton (11, 12, 13)

Killing Mr. Griffin (13, 14, older)

Coraline (10, 11, 12)

And Then There Were None (yup.. I went there!) (12, 13, 14)

Myths And Fairy Tales


The Dark Is Rising Sequence (11, 12, 13)

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (9, 10, 11)

The Little Prince (10, 11, 12, 13)

Ella Enchanted (9, 10, 11, 12)

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (9, 10, 11)

Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (9, 10, 11, 12)


A Tale Dark and Grimm (9, 10, 11)

Fairy’s Return (containing 6 stories (9, 10, 11)

Science Fiction (weird to have only 3 titles!)


Ender’s Game (12, 13, 14)

The House of the Scorpion (11, 12, 13)

A Wrinkle in Time series (10, 11, 12)


The Hunger Games (12, 13, 14)

The Boy Who Reversed Himself (11, 12, 13)

Epic (11, 12, 13)

Incarceron (12, 13, 14)

Airman (11, 12, 13)

The Dead (series) (12, 13, 14)

Ender’s Shadow (12, 13, 14)

Atherton (11, 12, 13)

Survival And Adventure


Julie of the Wolves (11, 12, 13)

Island of the Blue Dolphins (11, 12, 13)

Hatchet (11, 12, 13)

The Twenty-one Balloons (9, 10, 11)


Trash (10, 11, 12)

Peak (11, 12, 13)


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Response to NPR 100 Must Reads for Ages 9 – 14 — Part 1

I don’t know whether I’ll have time to finish this since we’re getting ready to travel and I have too many chores (including shopping.. ugh! my least favorite thing to do.) But, some initial reactions:

1st Reaction: I wish that they had indicated ages for each title — a 9-year-old probably should wait a few years to read An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; and a 14-year-old probably will not be the ideal reader to be introduced to Bunnicula for the first time.

2nd Reaction: WHAT? No, Nonfiction???? Really? Are we saying that there are no worthy, must reads for kids ages 9 to 14? Or are we saying that they do not have to read Nonfiction. Period? Actually.. there is a Biography, Memoir, and History section — just no general knowledge or science. So they go on my short wish list here IF they had included a Nonfiction section:

Swords: An Artist’s Devotion (9-14)

Scientists in the Field series (9-12)

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (10-14)

Fossil Fish: Found Alive (10-14)

3rd Reaction: WHAT? Only ONE book in POETRY???? And Linda Sue has that amazing Soji poetry collection that’s so worth reading by EVERY school child! So, her book gets on this wish list:


Inside Out and Back Again (9, 10, 11)


Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems): (8-12)

Blue Lipstick (12-14)

Diamond Willow (9-12)

Keeping the Night Watch (11-14)

God Went to Beauty School (11-14)

Peace, Locomotion (10, 11, 12)

4th Reaction: WHERE ARE THE FUNNY BOOKS? Doesn’t it deserve its own category? Oh, well.. probably not — but that’s what the kids constantly ask for by APPEAL TERM. There are enough humor sprinkled throughout the list I guess… (It is pointed out to me that there IS a Good for a Laugh Section. My bad!)

I also went through the first few sections and marked down which ones I strongly agree that they belong on MY list of top 100, tagged them with recommended ages, and added my own WISH LISTS:

American Stories


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian — (14+)

Caddie Woodlawn — (8, 9, 10)

The House on Mango Street — (12, 13, 14)

The Birchbark House — (11, 12, 13)

To Kill a Mockingbird — (13, 14, +)

The Witch of Blackbird Pond — (10, 11, 12)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry — (11, 12, 13)


Weedflower (11, 12, 13)

Out of the Dust (11, 12, 13)

Count Down (11, 12, 13)

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (12, 13, 14)


Animal Kingdom


The One And Only Ivan (8, 9, 10)

Poppy (8, 9, 10)

Because of Winn-dixie (8 , 9, 10)

Redwall (9, 10, 11, 12)

The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh (10, 11)

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (9, 10, 11, 12 — should be in SciFi)

Charlotte’s Web (8, 9, 10)


Little Gentleman (10, 11, 12)

The Tale of Despereaux (9, 10, 11)

Babe, the Gallant Pig (9, 10, 11)

I Was a Rat (9, 10, 11)


Biography, Memoir And History


Anne Frank the Diary of a Young Girl (13, 14)

Eleanor Roosevelt (11, 12, 13)

Bomb (11, 12, 13, 14)


This Land Was Made for You and Me (12, 13, 14)

Bill Peet (9, 10, 11)

Guts: The True Story Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books (9, 10, 11, 12)

True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall (13, 14, older)

Maus (13, 14, older)

Horrible Histories series (9, 10, 11)

We Are the Ship (11, 12, 13)

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies (10, 11, 12, 13)


Everyday Magic


Tuck Everlasting (10, 11, 12)

James and the Giant Peach (8, 9, 10)

Half Magic (8, 9, 10)

The Graveyard Book (10, 11, 12, 13)

Harry Potter series (9, 10, 11, 12)

A Series of Unfortunate Events books (9, 10, 11, 12)


The Spiderwick Chronicles (9, 10)

Savvy (9, 10, 11, 12)

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat (9, 10, 11)


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Boxers / Saints (Boxset)

boxersandsaintsby Gene Luen Yang

As I said in my notes earlier, my reactions to this two-book graphic novel set are complex and still unresolved even after several days’ reflection.  Partly because that I found so much of it outstanding, so I did not want to be nitpicking about certain details and I don’t want to color anyone’s reaction to this historical fiction based on my largely emotional reactions as a Chinese American reader who wants everyone to know THE WHOLE STORY!!  I also don’t want anyone to think that I KNOW the WHOLE STORY.  In fact, I had to do some research as I read the book since my textbook history knowledge of this rebellion was also mixed with folklore and stories I saw on tv when I was little.

I am quite aware that Yang did not set out to write a historical treatment of the entire movement, but to personalize individual experiences so that he, and the readers, can explore the impacts of these events.  He couldn’t have been more successful in reaching his goal.  I greatly appreciate how there are never easy answers in Gene Luen Yang’s stories — the readers are left to wonder whether to be angry or sympathetic toward the characters; to admire or abhor what they do; and to be enlightened or perplexed by their reasons for their actions.

I’m glad that Yang included a list of the books he used to create this narrative since the origin of the Boxers and their practices are much debated topics amongst Chinese historians.  The references to the boxers’ being spiritually possessed by powerful deities based on folk beliefs are in agreement with most historians’ findings and there was a real leader of the movement named Red Lantern Chu.  I wish, however, that some sources translated from Chinese scholars were consulted and that the main sources have more balanced views from both sides.

I wish that I could have been convinced of Bao’s ignorance of Qin Shi Huang who is one of the most famous personalities in Chinese history — even if he might not have featured greatly in the opera — but was glad that the First Emperor is portrayed with a complexity of his own.

I wish that I had not cringed so much by Yang’s referencing/highlighting the more exotic but less significant aspect of the rebellion: how some boxers believed that foreign forces’ success was due to their utilizing the “yin power” (usually refers to the female spiritual power) which is evil and undesirable (drinking menstrual blood, flags woven from women’s pubic hair, etc.)  Even if these were documented facts (as Diana Preston claims in her The Boxer Rebellion,) I simply couldn’t help feeling ashamed and hoping fervently that young readers won’t mistake such “foreign” notions as typical of my fellow countrymen in the 21st century. (Does the inclusion of such claims enhance the storytelling and the power of this book?  I am too shaken by it emotionally to see it… perhaps someone else could convince me otherwise!?)

I wish that the slogan on the war banner had been written out in traditional Chinese characters because the events happened way before the simplification of the characters.

The above are all pretty much about Boxers — and I didn’t really get a chance to talk about Saints — which, for some odd reason, I found thoroughly convincing and more intense, although it is only half the length of Boxers.  I found the timeline crisscrossing of the two books very effective and the two pages (282 in Boxers and 158 in Saints) depicting compassionate deities (Guan Yin and Christ) with the same visual design absolutely breathtaking.

These two books can generate so much discussion and are so thought provoking that I have to tag them Highly Recommended even if I had some personal reservations…


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Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

farfromthetreeby Andrew Solomon, read by the author

This book took me 40 days to listen — the audio book version is about 42 hours long.

There were days that I just couldn’t get myself back to listen to the next segment because the emotional exhaustion experienced in a previous segment prevented me from delving back into the book — mostly because some of the personal stories that Solomon reported are incredibly intense and affecting.

My reaction toward the book changed several times through this long journey: at first, I was just in awe and was glad that I got to learn something about situations that I don’t have personal experiences with — that I learned about Deaf Culture and the polarized opinions on whether deafness should be cured; about families with Little People and the historical and medical aspects of Dwarfism — and the perils and blisses of “cures” such as limp lengthening procedures; about children and adults with Down Syndroms, their defeat and success and what researchers are still finding and what life is like for so many of them…

Then, my relationship with the book changed slightly, listening to the chapters on DS, Autism, Schizophrenia, and Disability.  Even though the conditions described differ from chapter to chapter, some recurring themes emerge. Mainly we are shown (and told) by Solomon repeatedly that just because two people or two families have the same “problem” does not mean that they have the same views and reactions on the situation.  Indeed, it’s proven over and over and over (yes, there are a lot of repeating patterns in the book, both in the reporting and the reflecting from the author, although there were always new expressions to say the same thing) that each and every situation is inherently complex: there are the matters of the illness (condition,) the matters of the economics, the matters of the societal views, and definitely matters of the heart: the heart of the parents and the children.  I complained a bit then about how each chapter seems to repeat itself… and was reminded that perhaps very few readers of this tome would have gone through the book the same manner I did.  The way Solomon put together the book allows for essential information and themes to not be lost even if a reader only reads one or two chapters.

I settled down then and became more open minded to the worlds of Prodigies, Rape victims and their children, Criminals and their parents, and Transgender people.  I don’t know whether these chapters were better put together or whether my mind was more willing to appreciate them. Nonetheless, I found myself constantly finding revelations and new information worth learning in these final segments.  They let me consider situations and hardships and joys that I NEVER contemplated.  Yes, I felt like I was made a slightly “better” person by sharing the author’s empathetic and compassionate views and by being more educated about situations that I didn’t really understand before.

The final chapter of Solomon’s personal story of fatherhood (3 families, 5 children, fathered by himself and his partner for others and for themselves) serves as a wonderful and hopeful conclusion to a heavy — in all senses — book.

Since the reports are so thorough and the stories so well told, there might be an illusion that after reading this book, one could feel quite an expert in the ins and outs of these various conditions and their ramifications.  I cautioned myself to not “just take Solomon’s words for it” since even though I found myself agreeing with him a LOT, I don’t really know enough about anything presented here (socio-economic, historical, societal, medical, ethical, etc.) to judge the book’s validity in its entirety.  Did I learn a WHOLE lot about all these conditions?  I sure did.  But to me, there is an even more important added value: Solomon’s book is a great reminder for me to pay attention to wide angles on many issues and to consider the multitude of outcomes that changing of one or few small factors could cause.

I am so glad that I got to experience this book this summer.  I hope some others do too!

There is a full website with rich content that one can explore, too: Here – http://www.farfromthetree.com/

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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

malcolmxby Manning Marable
audio book: read by G. Valmont Thomas

I listened to this historically detailed and intimate personal portrait of Malcolm X over a month: while washing dishes and walking to and from subway stations.  I never read the autobiography which has been the prescribed text on school curriculum about Malcolm X, and only encountered him as a historical figure in other nonfiction books, mostly for children, about the Civil Rights Movement.  So it is that this is how I got to know the man and his many phases on the road to becoming the internationally influential personality.  I learned much about the Nation of Islam (NOI,) and much about the inter-plays between him and other leaders of the civil rights movement — especially Bayard Rustin, whose story has just begun to surface as another major thread of the Movement.

The book is full of painstakingly gathered details of Malcolm’s life — from his parents’ struggles before he was born, the family’s roles as Garveyites, Malcolm’s youthhood filled with brushes against the law and his inevitable imprisonment, his extreme attachment and final rebellion against the Nation of Islam and its doctrines, his many international trips to observe first hand the Orthodox Islam’s practices, and to his final days when he adopted Pan-Africanism and evolved into a much more open-minded commentator on social struggles: that the color of one’s skin does not necessarily dictate one’s political or social views and status.

I cannot but wonder, just as the biographer historian did in the epilogue, how more influential Malcolm would have been to the Movement if he had been given the chance to live beyond his 40th birthday…. (he was murdered just 3 months short of it.)  It’s with a heavy heart that I stopped the audio player…

Marable’s words brought Malcolm to life and actor Thomas’ skillful reading of the narrative did the text justice, or perhaps even enhanced it.  I really appreciated both for their art.

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The Dead


by Charlie Higson

I am not an aficionado of zombie stories.  Yes, I’ve had a few books and movies under my belt: thoroughly enjoyed World War Z and Zombieland.  But I am in no urgent need for yellow pus, green liquidy drippings, splattered red blood, or all sorts of creatively severed  body parts — any time, anywhere.  I did greatly appreciate the first book in Higson’s zombie series, The Enemy.  And finally got around to read the second installment, a prequel, a “history,” of The Enemy. 

I cannot be more pleased by The Dead.  There is everything I love: exploration of loyalty, what makes someone a leader or a follower, what gives people courage, survival strategies — all told in a highly realized, logically plausible setting and string of events.  Tension and surprises keep the reader incredibly involved and the passages describing the mind deterioration of some characters are simply brilliant.

In a few weeks, I know I’ll be ready for book 3 – The Fear. 



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Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Finally finished it… and after 545 pages (in the ARC) I want it to keep going… so the wait begins, again, for the next installment.

How does an author touch one’s heart so profoundly? What did she do that’s just right? The pacing is perfect – without much battle or fight scenes. I knew the general direction that the story must follow and felt rewarded, rather than bored, when the story arc falls neatly where I anticipated — but, also surprised along the way with many little bits and pieces that Cashore masterfully inserted into the story to make it even more intriguing and the world even more realized.

The book is, though, filled with so much sorrow that one can almost not bear reading through. I hope young people (14 and up?) will not be as horrified as us older readers by Leck’s astrocity on his victims and his forced accomplices. I am amazed at the sympathy I felt toward him — the pure evil embodiment through the 3 books — and how damaged a mind and what a torture chamber that mind is for himself.

Glad to see the other beloved characters from Graceling and Fire and can’t wait to see what the next, culminating kind of story Cashore will bring us.

And — Kristin, please don’t worry about publishing the next book right away. We can wait. And if you are having trouble telling the next story, go do something else. Go write something else. Go present your insights on Fantasy world building, on character development, on capturing emotional truths, etc. to the world. Thank you so much for a most affecting story!

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Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck

Who would have thought? Richard Peck: the 21st Century Austen for the 8 to 10 set? But he IS! This little gem of a book has all the good stuff:

A cast of talking mice whose actions and living conditions are completely believable and are in tune with children’s fantasy play; a twisting, surprising, and humorous upstairs/downstairs comedy that involves Royalty and seafaring; the perennial favorite plot progression allowing the lower class main characters go up the social ladder due to good luck and hard work; and clean grown-up romances.

Peck’s deft hand also created a great protagonist in the no-nonsense Helena and made her think and speak properly like one would have from the late 1800s. I was completely charmed!

(And the full-page incidental illustrations add to its charm even more!)

Quick – go and get a copy and treat yourself and your young readers!!

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Okay for Now

 by Gary Schmidt

Tenderness.  As a reader, I felt surge after surge of tenderness toward this 14-year-old young man, emotionally and physically abused by a few, supported and understood and nurtured by many.  And, so tenacious, so strong, and so smart, not to mention, so talented.  Yes, Schmidt did create a character that is much larger than life whose story would have been implausible or unbelievable.  In Schmidt’s apt hand, however, with genuine emotions and a large dosage of wit, Doug’s 8th grade year in Marysville feels archetypal and heroic.  Like the Audubon paintings that serve as the scaffolding for the plot, the artistic stitchings and planning for the storytelling are visible every step of the way, and yet the final outcome is a pure force of nature.  How does one explain it except that the story obviously came from both deep within a compassionate heart and a practiced and diligent hand.

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