Posts tagged ‘book reviews’

March 1, 2012

Review: The Kakapo

Last week for my children’s nonfiction class, we had to read two books about the kakapo, an endangered New Zealand parrot. Neither of the books, strictly speaking, were YA books, but they were both great and the kakapo is an amazing bird and I am going to blog about it. So there.

Hello there, kakapo!

Hello there, kakapo!

Kakapo! Here are some facts about them.

  • They are the only nocturnal, flightless parrots in the world.
  • They naturally smell like honey.
  • There are only 127 known kakapo left in the world.
Kakapo Rescue by Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop

Kakapo Rescue by Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop

So, the first book we read is a children’s book, Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop. These two have written other books in the Scientists in the Field series, and they generally know what they are doing. Kakapo Rescue won the Sibert Medal (which is the ALA’s award for children’s nonficton.) There are great photos of the beautiful kakapo, and I love that these two got to spend 2 weeks on Codfish Island, the kakapo’s reserve. They documented their visit, including tagging along with the various scientists and volunteers who live on the island to monitor the kakapo. They also highlighted several of the kakapo, so you get to know a bit about the birds’ personalities. It also has sidebar information about the history of the kakapo’s brink with extinction. It’s a very well-done introduction to the kakapo itself and current conservation efforts, which are heartwarming–people giving up their jobs to volunteer as full-time kakapo minders. The volunteers and paid scientists alike are clearly extremely passionate about these birds, and it’s hard not to feel the same.

Rat Island by William Stolzenburg

Rat Island by William Stolzenburg

Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue by William Stolzenburg is a very different book. It’s an adult popular science book, though a motivated high schooler could read it too. It’s not just about the kakapo–it’s more broadly about the way island ecosystems encourage the evolution of weird animals like the kakapo, who are pretty much helpless to foreign predators like rats and cats. He talks about how amazingly difficult it is to get rid of rats. Like, so hard, guys. So before Kakapo Rescue could even take place, SOMEBODY had to kill a billion rats to create a safe island for the kakapo. Rat Island also gives much more information about Richard Henry, the first conservationist to pay much attention to the kakapo. He tried to gather up a bunch on to what he thought was a safe island, but somehow a weasel got there and killed most of them. Then Richard Henry tried to kill himself, but failed. Twice. So he gave up on suicide. Poor guy.
Anyway, I thought Rat Island was completely fascinating, but fair warning: pretty much everyone else in my class hated it. (We all loved Kakapo Rescue.) Their complaints: no photos (I mean… it is a “grown up book”…), too much information, and jumps around a lot in time. This is all true, I guess, but it’s such a crazy story! Oh, and also, this guy Bill Wood trained Wishbone’s grandaughter, Freckles, to help him eradicate feral cats in the Baja islands. WHAT.

Finally, here is a BBC video of Stephen Fry making jokes while a kakapo tries to mate with Mark Carwardine’s head. SAVE THE KAKPO PLEASE.

For more kakapo information, check out the Kakapo Recovery Programme. Do it.

Overall, I rate the kakapo a million stars for being so cute and amazing. These two books about them are pretty good too.

September 15, 2011

Kids These Days: Technology in YA

This summer I listened to the audiobook of So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld. I really enjoyed it, but was also surprised by how dated it has already become since its publication in 2005. The datedness is accelerated because of the book’s concept, about a teenager who works for different marketing companies as a “cool-hunter.” And, unfortunately, what was cool in 2005 is different from what was cool in 2011. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you heard anybody bragging about a cell phone with a camera? For me, it was when I read So Yesterday. And before that, it was when I lived in a developing country. And before that, well, it was probably 2005.

So Yesterday

So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld

I think the book’s anti-establishment concept is still cool enough to endure, despite some slightly dated references. (I think it probably would have been mindblowing when it came out.) But, unfortunately, I do think that contemporary fiction has a bit of a shelf life. This is something we talked about in my children’s literature class–how classics like the Ramona books just aren’t as appealing to kids anymore. I’ll buy it. As a kid I remember reading it and being like “Their teacher does what? Why are they acting like a dollar is a lot of money? They’re eating what for dinner?” It wasn’t enough to keep me from enjoying the books, but it did give me several pauses. By contrast, when I read books like the Animorphs series, I remember thinking how cool it was that these kids had AOL and went to a mall that was recognizably like my own mall. I feel you, kids who transform into animals to fight aliens. I feel you.

Of course, kids today would read those books and go “AOL? LOL!” (I talked awhile ago about how they are re-releasing Animorphs and Babysitter’s Club books in a “time neutral” format.) Technology is changing so fast these days; it really impacts the realism of children’s and YA novels. Now if you read a contemporary novel and it doesn’t allude to cell phones and texting, it almost takes you out of it. “What do you mean, you don’t know where your mom is? You didn’t even try her cell!”

So yesterday!

So yesterday!

This is partly why fantasy is so enduring. You don’t have to explain why there are no cell phones in Narnia. It’s because it’s magic there, duh. And they don’t have 4G so why bother? (Sci-fi can sometimes feel dated, if the things that the author has imagined as being very futuristic has already come to pass by the time you’re reading it. Or if the book has chosen 2001 to represent the future, for example.)

And certainly, contemporary fiction can endure even as it grows dated. Look at Little Women. I loved that book as a kid, even though it was written for an audience of children who grew up during the Civil War. I did not understand a lot of it, but I understood enough to be able to fall in love with the Marches. But other books, books whose characters and plot aren’t quite enough to keep them in print forever, those books will fall to the wayside like a Nokia flip phone. And that’s okay. Not every book is or should be Little Women. Sometimes teens (and kids and adults and every age of reader) just want to read something fun and timely, something that feels just like their school with its stupid no-texting rules and its totally low-bandwidth Wi-Fi connection. Something that will feel totally foreign to their children, who will all have routers installed directly into their brainstems and will have no need for external internet connections or text messaging.

September 9, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

OK, so I know this has been out for a few years and it’s already hugely popular. But I totally missed out on this phenomenon until recently. When I went to see the last Harry Potter movie, I saw a preview for Hugo, the movie based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. I wasn’t super impressed by the trailer and I didn’t think much about it. I’d come across the book earlier this summer when I was researching popular graphic novels, but I didn’t look into it because my library puts Hugo Cabret in children’s. (This is kind of arbitrary and some other libraries keep it in teen, or copies in both sections.)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

But then it was assigned reading for my Children’s Lit class, and I read it and was utterly captivated. It’s a completely one-of-a-kind book, part novel, part comics, part silent movie. It’s not a traditional graphic novel, but it’s more than just a novel with illustrations. Every so often the text gives way and the story is completely told through wordless images. Striking, soft, black and white images.

Hugo Cabret

It won the Caldecott Medal in 2008, and apparently it was a very controversial choice in the library world. No one (really) disagrees that it’s a wonderful book, but the Caldecott Medal is for picture books, and not everyone agrees that Hugo Cabret is a picture book. I don’t even know if I agree that it’s a picture book, but I’m not on the Caldecott committee and I don’t care whether or not it’s a picture book. Whatever it is, it’s a work of art and you should absolutely read it, whatever section of the library might be lucky enough to house it.

The book tells the story of a young boy who lives in a train station alone. He’s a skilled clockmaker, having learned from his late father, and he’s trying to reconstruct an automaton. (Which I looked up on Wikipedia after reading the book and could not believe that they are real! They are basically extremely complicated clockwork robots!) It’s part mystery, part… historical techno-thriller, part coming of age story, part thrilling chase scene… it has everything!

Having read and loved the book, I’m a little hesitant about the movie. Part of what made me enjoy the book so much was how astonishing the experience of reading the book was, and how cleverly Selznick made the book mimic a movie. I think that will be lost when it actually is a movie. Anyone can make a movie mimic a movie, after all.


I rate the Invention of Hugo Cabret five automata out of a possible five.

August 25, 2011

Little House Fever (Way Better than Scarlet Fever)

So, my new semester of library school is up and running! I’m taking Children’s Literature, which I’m obviously stoked about. Our professor is really enthusiastic and awesome, and on the first day of class she excitedly told us about one of our assignments. It’s called, “I Never Got Around To…” and we are supposed to pick a classic children’s book that we never read as children and report back on it. She offhandedly said, “I do this assignment too. Last year I did Little House on the Prairie for the first time and hated it. I mean, the way she talks about Native Americans… it’s so dated! Why is this still on shelves?!” And I almost had a rage fit, even though she’s right.

I grew up with the Little House books. (Not the show. I’ve actually never seen the show. And I never will.) A family friend gave me a box set of the books, and they looked so grown-up and special on my shelf. I was a little afraid they’d be boring, since they were set in the past, but I was instantly hooked. To this day I have very clear memories of scenes like Laura and Mary roasting the pig’s tail, or Laura and Mary making designs on the frost on the window with Ma’s thimble.

Little House on the Prairie AudiobookSo, I decided to revisit a few of the Little House books on the way to De Smet, South Dakota. From the library, I got Little House on the Prairie and Little Town on the Prairie (that’s #2 and #7 in the Little House series, if you were wondering). On the trip, I learned that my traveling companion Anna had never read the Little House books!! Only watched the show!! It was like I didn’t even know her. Luckily, she was quickly captivated by the books, and so our friendship survived. First, I have to say that Cherry Jones is a great narrator for these books. She sounds both funny and wise. And Paul Woodiel’s fiddle playing is an excellent touch. Pa Ingalls would undoubtedly approve.

Anyway, the books themselves? As a reasonably well-educated adult, yes, they are a little troubling. The way Laura talks about Indians and their “glittering black eyes,” for example. Or her desire to kidnap a papoose. Weird, Laura.  So here’s the thing. If you, as an adult, read this book with a child–talk to that child about Native Americans, and the way they were treated by white settlers. Have a conversation about it.  I don’t hold Laura Ingalls Wilder accountable for the era she grew up in.

What makes these books racially problematic is also what makes them great: the honest, revealing tone. Laura Ingalls Wilder is incredibly frank about her perceived shortcomings, her secret petty desires, and her sheer delight in tiny pleasures. This is what makes her books timeless. These books will also make you feel like a big spoiled baby. When you hear how excited Laura gets about one piece of candy, or how Ma carries on even after getting a huge log dropped on her leg while helping build their cabin. These people are tough mother-effers. Your 12 hour trip from Illinois to South Dakota, from the comfort of a compact SUV with a huge bag full of snacks, will make you feel like the laziest people ever. You will think twice about purchasing a souvenir T-shirt when you hear Ma fretting about the price of calico. (It didn’t stop me from buying a $14 souvenir bonnet, however.)

Anyway, I took a ton of photos on this trip, which you are officially invited to view in this Flickr set. Here are a few highlights:

Can you imagine living in this with four other people?!

The tires make for a much more comfortable ride than wooden wheels.

I look good in a bonnet if I do say so myself.

View of the whole Ingalls Homestead.

August 23, 2011

Review: Sweetly

,Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time! It’s billed as a “companion novel” to Sisters Red, which I thoroughly enjoyed. (See my “fairy tales with a twist” post.) Sisters Red had great, well-developed characters, exciting plot twists, and a very innovative, modern twist on a classic fairy tale. And Sweetly? Well… in my opinion, Sweetly is no Sisters Red.

You can definitely see how the two books are by the same author, and not just because the Fenris reappear. Gretchen, Sweetly’s protagonist, reminded me of Scarlett and Rosie from Sisters Red. She’s been through a lot and she’s a little scarred. She’s torn between wanting a normal life and knowing she can never have one, not since her identical twin was taken by a witch when they were small children. She’s haunted by her sister’s memory, by wondering if she could have saved her sister, by wondering why the witch didn’t take her instead. Very compelling angst.

And Sophia, the beautiful chocolatier that Gretchen and her brother Ansel end up staying with, is another great character. The book builds up a good deal of tension around Sophia, who seems very sweet and lovable, though many of the townspeople suspect her of being a witch. Good stuff, as is Gretchen’s tentative romance with the rugged local Fenris-hunter.

So what’s the problem with Sweetly?For me, the problem with Sweetly is exactly what made Sisters Red so intense: the werewolves. I don’t want to give away too much here, but all werewolf-related elements of this plot made extremely little sense to me. I’m all for re-telling and adapting fairy tales, but the story of Hansel and Gretel originally contained zero werewolves, and perhaps there is a reason for that. And the–okay, again, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the wolves don’t act exactly the same way here as they did in Sisters Red, and the reason given for that seemed pretty bogus. So there were a few moments that I believe were supposed to provoke shock, but for me, merely provoked confusion and slanty faces. I simply was unable to suspend my disbelief enough to go along with the second half of the plot.

Mm, chocolates

From Encore Chocolates

Alas! As is so often the case, werewolves have ruined an otherwise good time, and so I am forced to rate Sweetly two and a half hand-crafted chocolates out of five.

August 9, 2011

Emerging from the Book Fort

Or something?

Whew! I have fallen behind on blogging. My summer web design class just wrapped up and my final project for that took up a lot of time. Also, I’ve been preparing booklists for the public library TeenSpace as part of my library internship. That has been a really fun project, but also weird! I did research (including asking all my Twitter friends for recommendations) to pick books for different categories, and then the teen librarian wanted me to at least skim every book I recommended. I had already read some of the books I was recommending, but I had at least fifty books stacked up in my living room to skim. It looked like I was building a book fort. (I should have taken a picture–I already returned a lot of the books.)

It was an interesting experience. I almost never quit reading books after I’ve started them, no matter how bad they are. But obviously there was no way I could read every book I wanted to list within the time I had available. And, honestly, there were books that I cast aside after a few pages, having immediately realized that they were not books I wanted to recommend. It was frustrating, though, since most of the books seemed pretty good and I wanted to keep reading!

Here are the lists I made:

(Readers with long memories may have noticed that I am recycling themes I used for projects from YA Lit last semester. I did have to heavily expand on these themes to make the lists long enough, however.)

A few quick picks from all these books I’ve been poring through. (Books that I have set aside to make sure I actually finish reading them.)

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Krug

A super cute, funny book with a diverse cast of characters. My favorite is Augie, a twee little gay boy who loves musical theatre and campy old movies and yet is actually a fully-developed character.

Mercury by Hope Larson

A graphic novel with two coming-of-age stories, one set in the present day and the other in 1859. Funny and poignant, and I learned a few things about Canadian history.

Mare’s War by Tanita Davis

Two black teenage girls reluctantly take a roadtrip with their eccentric grandmother, who tells them stories about her childhood, including how she lied about her age to join the WAC during WWII.

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

The story of a trans boy who decides to transition from Angela to Grady, causing quite a stir at his high school and among his family. It manages to pull of the trick of being informative about gender dysphoria without coming across as too “after school special-ish.” I actually finished reading this one because I got so into it. It’s full of relatable, believable characters.


Anything that made it onto one of my booklists came recommended from somewhere, usually multiple sources, and passed at least a skim from me. Check them out!

July 22, 2011

Review: Fire

Fire by Kristin Cashore is a prequel (sort of) to her brilliant book Graceling. (I don’t think I fully reviewed that book here, so let me just say, it is wonderful and you should go read it ASAP. It’s probably my favorite book that I read this year, and I don’t even generally like non-contemporary fantasy novels.) I’d heard from a few friends that Fire wasn’t as good as Graceling, and that it wasn’t really related to Graceling. That bummed me out, because I wanted more of Graceling‘s protagonist, Katsa. But I’m glad I gave Fire a chance, because it was really great.


The titular protagonist of Fire (and this sounds weird–when I first heard it, I said, what?! But really, it works) is a so-called “monster” woman. (There are “monster” versions of all animals, but monster humans are very rare. Fire believes herself to be the only one living in the kingdom.) Being a monster means being a woman who’s so beautiful that people go crazy for her and her namesake fire-red hair. She also has the ability to control their minds. She resists using this power, and she really just wants to be left alone out in the forest with her childhood friend and sometime-lover Archer. But it’s not to be, and she gets sucked into helping Prince Brigan defend the kingdom against various rebellions and treacheries. (I’m really not going to go into the details of all that–it’s complicated. Just read the book if you want to know more!) Fire’s relationship with Brigan is initially strained. Brigan doesn’t trust Fire, both because of her abilities and because of the terrible deeds her father did. Fire doesn’t trust Brigan because she can’t read his mind, and because he’s a total jerk to her when they first meet. But perhaps they can grow to trust each other… and love each other? Yes, of course they do, effing duh. But their relationship has a sweet and believable progression.

Now, here’s the thing. Parts of Fire kind of reminded me of Twilight (which is not a good thing, in my book). I mean, you have this impossibly beautiful woman who everyone falls in love with. She can read everyone’s thoughts… except one man, in whom she’s romantically interested. Sounds a lot like the Edward/Bella dynamic, right? But here’s the thing: it’s infinity times better than Twilight. Kristin Cashore is an impressive writer and she really gets into the heart of what it would mean to a woman to be so impossibly beautiful. Fire is reflective without being whiny (… most of the time). Also, as in Graceling, Cashore explores sexual relationships and gender roles in an intelligent, interesting way. After you read Fire’s thoughts about motherhood, you will never be able to take Twilight‘s baby Renesmee seriously (… if you ever could).

Besides Fire herself, this book is stuffed full of wonderful, developed side characters who I really cared about. Which is good, because if I didn’t like them, I might have found all of their soap operatic romantic difficulties a little bit much to take. As is, I enjoyed it and rooted for them all to find happiness.

Oh, and the little bit of this book that ties into Graceling is super creepy (as it should be). I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Graceling, but still–a really great read. I rate it four monster cookies (out of a possible five).


July 19, 2011

Review: The Name of the Star

Okay. Here’s a confession. I really like Maureen Johnson as a public figure. Her Twitter is hilariously weird, and she always stands up for YA lit when people like the Wall Street Journal say dumb stuff about it. (Which I guess is in her professional interest to do.) But I’ve been a little ambivalent about the books of hers I’ve read. They’ve been clever and enjoyable, but they haven’t really grabbed me. And then, I completely misunderstood what The Name of the Star was about–I thought it was straight-up historical fiction about Jack the Ripper, and I wasn’t that excited about it.

So why did I even read it? Well… at the ALA conference, the line to get Maureen’s new book was the same as the line to get Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler. And like I said, I like Maureen Johnson, I just don’t love her the way many seem to. And I think part of that is because I am not actually a teen girl, even though it might be hard to tell that just based on my GoodReads and my iTunes. She’s clearly doing something right in terms of her target audience.

Name of the Star

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

Anyway, so, I wasn’t that excited about The Name of the Star, but I still felt cool and insider-y to have an ARC of it, so I decided I had to read it before it comes out for real (September 29th). Then I sat down and read it all in about two days because it was so good and I got so hooked!

The Name of the Star is not actually historical fiction. It’s set in modern-day London, and the protagonist is Rory Deveaux. Her parents are professors at Tulane and they are spending a year in England for some kind of professorial business (I forget and it doesn’t matter), so Rory will be doing her senior year of high school at Wexford, a boarding school in London. I really like Rory as a character. She’s funny and, I think, reacts very believably to her new situation. She’s excited to get out of small-town Louisiana. She’s a little nervous about British boarding school, but she’s armed with Google.

Shortly after Rory arrives at Wexford, there’s a shocking murder in London. It becomes clear that someone is reenacting the Jack the Ripper murders, and London goes into Ripper-mania. Personally, I have never been that excited about Jack the Ripper. I studied abroad in London and was taken aback by just how much Ripper tourism there is. I mean, really, out of all the stuff that’s from London, why go on a Ripper tour? Was the Beatles tour sold out? But I digress.  Johnson clearly did a lot of research into the Ripper and pulled up a lot of interesting details that got me a little more into Ripper-mania than I thought I would.

Rory’s friend (and crush) Jerome is into the Ripper and he starts poking around in the case. Rory tags along and quickly gets in over her head. I don’t want to say more! But I loved all the twists and turns. This book was not at all what I expected it to be, and I got really into the mystery. I loved all the fun secondary characters. And I’m already looking forward to the sequel that I assume is coming since the cover says “Book 1.” Really. Put this on your radar, even if you don’t think you like Maureen Johnson and/or Jack the Ripper and/or historical fiction and/or books. (Oh, and the title gets explained about halfway into the book. The title frankly confused me before I started reading. Don’t even worry about it. Just read it.)

I rate the Name of the Star 4.5 Haunted History Ghost Tours (out of a possible 5).

Also, permit me a moment to show off:

I can't tell if that's supposed to be "ty" (thank you), "by" (kind of obvious), "mj" (her initials?), or something else. Whatever, though. Thanks, Maureen!

April 28, 2011

Fairy Tales With a Twist

Fairy tales! We loved them as children and there’s no reason we shouldn’t love them now. These classic (if admittedly bizarre, when you really stop to consider the plot of any of them) stories are finding new life as young adult novels. Here are a few of my personal favorite re-told fairy tales.


Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley. Robin McKinley is kind of the fairy godmother of YA retold fairy tales. She has written approximately one million of them (it’s possible that number is closer to ten, which is still a lot), and I have not read them all. But I have read both of her Beauty and the Beast retellings, Beauty and Rose Daughter. She wrote Rose Daughter nearly 20 years after Beauty, and you can really see how much she’s grown as an author between the two books. It develops the magic of Beauty’s world and gives authentic personalities to every character, including her sisters. And the ending has a slight twist, which I love. Beauty is quite good also, and (in my opinion) Disney’s Beauty and the Beast pretty clearly ripped a lot of stylistic elements from it. (Though, of course, they’re both drawn from the same source material.)
Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale (and illustrated by the improbably unrelated Nathan Hale). This is a super fun and funny graphic novel. It takes Rapunzel and sets it in the Wild West, and gives Rapunzel some serious attitude. She escapes the tree the witch has imprisoned her in and uses her long hair as a deadly weapon, Indiana Jones-style. She learns early on that the prince can’t be trusted, so she falls in with Jack (of Beanstalk fame). Together, they ride around on stolen horses and discover how far the witch’s power extends, and come up with a plan to take her down and restore justice to the land. The art is perfect to accompany the story and has a lot of great comic touches. (Note: I described it to some people and they said it reminded them of Tangled, which I have not yet seen, so I cannot comment.)


Sisters RedSisters Red by Jackson Pearce. I first heard about this book when Bitch Media included it on their list of 100 YA Books for the Feminist Reader, and then removed it due to a few reader complaints. After reading it myself, I have to say: Eff you, complaining readers. The argument made was that in the book–which incidentally is a modern-day re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood in which the wolves are werewolves and the titular sisters dress in red to lure them in and kill them–being attacked by a werewolf is an allegory for rape, and the book makes it seem like girls who are attacked by werewolves deserve it, hence the book is saying that girls who get raped have it coming. This, in my view, is a stretch. The book is narrated in alternating chapters by Scarlett, the older sister, who lives to hunt werewolves; and Rosie, the younger sister, who hopes to one day have a normal life that does not require her to strap a knife to her belt every time she leaves the house. Both sisters are great characters who provide contrasting views on events. (And, this is, I think, where the controversy comes in–Scarlett does think that the girls who get attacked by werewolves have it coming. But Scarlett is also seen as over-the-top and consumed by bloodlust. Just because Scarlett thinks something does not mean that it’s the position the book is advocating, duh.) Anyway, I couldn’t put it down. And I’m a feminist reader, so take that, Bitch Media.


Also, it just so happens that I did a project about retold fairy tales for my Young Adult Literature class. I’m uploading the bookmark I designed, which has even more book recommendations! You can print it off, or just, you know, look at it. (By the way, I got an A- on my bookmark, with the feedback that it was kind of hard to read. I opted for smaller font size rather than removing one of my book suggestions. So maybe you should zoom in on it.)



PS: You may have noticed that this post is tagged “John Green” even though he does not actually appear in this entry. That is due to my goal of making John Green the biggest word in our tag cloud.