Book Review: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin


Suzy’s having a pretty rough year. Her best friend died in a tragic drowning accident over the summer, and Suzy becomes convinced that it must have been a rare jellyfish sting that caused it. After all, terrible things don’t just happen for no reason.  Convinced she’s right, Suzy embarks on an extensive research project to prove she’s right, and it culminates with a plan to travel across the world for confirmation of her theory.

Ali Benjamin’s novel about grief and the moving on process holds massive appeal not only for middle grade readers but older ones as well. Told in seven parts, neatly laid out according to the scientific method that Suzy is studying in school, Benjamin allows Suzy to shrewdly analyze both the past and the present.  The result is largely emotional and affecting.  Benjamin writes with a keen eye on the science aspects of her story, but she also shows great care for the emotional development of her characters.

This is not an easy read, but it’s a beautiful one. Zu is a bit of an odd child, and Benjamin lets her be one without judgment and with total authenticity. The book’s final arc subverts reader expectations about what will happen, and the result is satisfyingly realistic. It’s a moving story, and it’s one that younger readers will want to talk about.

Smart, honest, and raw. Recommended.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 2015. Library copy.

Book Review: All Four Stars by Tara Daiman


Gladys Gatsby loves to cook gourmet food. She’s been doing it in secret since she was seven years old, because her parents hate to cook and rely heavily on takeout and fast food. But a disastrous event with some creme brulee, a blowtorch, and the kitchen curtains blow her cover, and her parents forbid her from doing anything “adult” without parental supervision. Devastated, Gladys finds that her luck soon changes when an essay she wrote for a contest gets mistaken for a real restaurant review, and a famous newspaper contracts her to write for them. But it means getting to New York City without her parents knowing what she’s up to or the paper finding out that she’s really only 11, which seems impossible!

This delectable start to a series succeeds on many levels. The story has a strong-willed heroine who is both resourceful and unflappable, and her adventures require her to forge connections with other people in a way that this lonely girl has never had to before.  This part of the story feels very realistic and is heartwarming.  Also lovely is Gladys’s love of cooking and food.  The descriptions of meals she’s made and eaten is fun for any lover of food and works well within the context of the story.

There’s also a lot of humor to be found here, which is nice.  There are some nice characters to be found within the book’s pages, specifically when it comes to her next door neighbors and her Parisian aunt, but there are also characters who fall totally flat, including Gladys’s parents, who seem both cartoonish and one-dimensional.  There is an enormous amount of suspension of disbelief required to believe they could be so obtuse, and it upsets the book’s narrative and diminishes the charm a bit.

Even so, it’s a fun read that will attract middle grade readers looking for books about loners with peculiar hobbies, and there’s plenty of fun to be found in its pages.  There’s plenty of delicious foods mentioned in the book that could translate to learning to cook in real life.  Despite some obvious plotting, it’s overall very enjoyable and the start of an interesting series.

All Four Stars by Tara Daiman. Putnam: 2015. Library copy.

Book Review: Friday Barnes, Girl Detective by R.A. Spratt


Friday Barnes is not a usual 11-year-old. After she solves a bank robbery without breaking a sweat, she uses the reward money to send herself to ritzy boarding school Highcrest Academy.  It isn’t long before she’s made a name for herself as a shrewd sleuth, and Highcrest Academy is positively brimming with crimes and cases to be solved.  Whether it’s disappearing homework or a possibly terrifying swamp Yeti, Friday is on the case.


The first of a mystery series aimed at middle grade readers, this clever, fast-paced book will have readers laughing as they solve the cases alongside Friday Barnes.  There’s enormous appeal here for readers who like their main characters plucky and clever, or who like their mystery stories to be complex and also funny.  I’ve had patrons rave about how much their fourth graders love these books, which is the best indication that a series has kid appeal.

Interspersed in the story are black-and-white illustrations that help break up the text and provide a nice complement to the story as a whole. Spratt’s prose brims with humor that will appeal to kids and adults alike.  There’s a no-nonsense approach to Friday’s detective work, and Spratt presents a logical story that still allows itself to be silly and light.

Totally fun for a variety of readers, no matter what their age.  Recommended.

Friday Barnes: Girl Detective by R.A. Spratt. Roaring Brook Press: 2016. Library copy.

Readalikes: “I Survived Series”


Recently I had a patron come in and ask if I had any suggestions for readalikes for the “I Survived…” series for middle-grade readers. This series by Lauren Tarshis is fast-paced, plot-driven, and focuses each book on a narrator who survived a historical event, ranging from the eruption at Pompeii to the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th to Nazi occupation in World War II.  Because the fictionalized accounts are grounded in real historical events, they provide readers a compelling look at things that actually happened.

For readers who have devoured the entire series, here are some more books that might scratch the itch for adventure, historical fiction, and natural and man-made disasters:

  • Stolen Children by Peg Kehret: Amy’s babysitting class didn’t prepare her for getting kidnapped with her charges and held captive at a remote wooded cabin.  Amy has to strandedthink fast to save her and the baby she’s been caring for.  Fast-paced and featuring a spunky heroine, Kehret is an award-winner who has a compelling story guaranteed to rivet readers.
  • Stranded series by Jeff Probst and Chris Tebbetts: Yes, Survivor’s Jeff Probst has
    written a series of middle grade novels, and they’re a good fit for readers who love the I Survived… series. A group of kids get stranded on a deserted island, and they have to rely on each other–and their wits–to survive.  Perfect for readers who love the idea of kids on their own in the wild without adults.
  • The Dive (and sequels) by Gordon Korman: Four kids on a summer diving expedition discover sunken treasure.  The resulting adventure
    includes a race against time, sharks, and competition.  This will work for readers looking for adventure and survival skills, especially if they’re interested in the depths of the sea.
  • Storm Runners series bystorm-runners Roland Smith: A boy and his father are “storm runners,” which means they travel the country in pursuit of tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. Instead of sitting in a classroom all day, Chase learns while on the road, but when the storm of the century hits, he’s in real danger.  Put this series in the hands of bad weather junkies.
  • The Time Warp Trio series by Jon Scieszka: In this series that blends the fantastical with the historical, three boys use a magical book to hop around in time, visiting places like the knights of the round table and the Jolly Roger pirate ship. Scieszka is known for blending his humor with a fast-paced plot, and readers interested in the historical will gobble this series right up.

Feel free to let me know if there’s something major I’m missing–I’m always happy to add more titles to my list for the voracious readers.

What I’m Reading and Thinking About This Week

I don’t have a lot to say these days, but I’m still reading a lot. These are the things that got me reading and thinking this week.  Without further ado:

Barbie’s Got a New Body (Time)

An interesting look at not only the latest iteration of Barbie, but also of the history of the doll (which I loved playing with when I was growing up).  At any rate, Mattel is releasing different body types as well as dolls with more diverse types of hair and skin tones, and it’s an interesting look at the “gamble” the company is taking by doing so:

But the initiative could also backfire—if it’s not too late altogether. Adding three new body types now is sure to irritate someone: just picking out the terms petite, tall and curvy, and translating them into dozens of languages without causing offense, took months. And like me, girls will strip curvy Barbie and try to put original Barbie’s clothes on her or swap the skirts of petite and tall. Not everything will Velcro shut. Fits will be thrown, exasperated moms will call Mattel. The company is setting up a separate help line just to deal with Project Dawn complaints.

There’s also some interesting tidbits about the history of the doll:

Still, Barbie’s sales took off, but by 1963 women were protesting the same body men had ridiculed. That year, a teen Barbie was sold with a diet book that recommended simply, “Don’t eat.” When a Barbie with pre-programmed phrases uttered, “Math class is tough,” a group called the Barbie Liberation Organization said the doll taught girls that it was more important to be pretty than smart. They switched out Barbie’s voice box with that of GI Joe so that the blonde cried, “Vengeance is mine,” while the macho warrior enthused, “Let’s plan our dream wedding.”

Where is the Diversity in Publishing? (Lee & Low)

Lee & Low did a baseline study on diversity in publishing last year, and the results are in.  The results are not surprising, and definitely alarming:

While all racial/ethnic minorities are underrepresented when compared to the general US population, the numbers show that some groups, such as Black/African Americans, are more severely underrepresented. This mirrors trends among children’s book authors. In 2014, just 2 percent of the books tracked by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center were by black authors. Latinos were similarly underrepresented in both places.

There’s a lot of stuff to parse here, and this is helpful to consider:

Does the lack of diverse books closely correlate to the lack of diverse staff? The percentages, while not exact, are proportional to how the majority of books look nowadays—predominately white. Cultural fit would seem to be relevant here. Or at least in publishing’s case, what is at work is the tendency—conscious or unconscious—for executives, editors, marketers, sales people, and reviewers to work with, develop, and recommend books by and about people who are like them.

Powerlifter (The Morning News)

This is obviously more of a niche piece, but if you’re interested in the world of fitness and weight lifting and women, this is an excellent, thought-provoking piece about the experience of women gaining strength in a traditionally male-dominated world.

Toned yet tiny fitness models likeJen Selter and Kayla Itsines are considered athletic and beautiful, while larger—and stronger—professional athletes like Serena Williams and Karyn Marshall, a prominent figure in female lifting in the US, are mocked for looking masculine.

Part history lesson, part personal musings about weightlifting, this is an excellent piece that tackles eating disorders, exercise addiction, body acceptance, and more:

But, like most things if you look closely, it turns out it wasn’t quite a choice so much as an internalized cultural restriction. I felt I didn’t belong because I was supposed to feel like I didn’t belong. You’ll be unattractive if you lift. Weights are for boys. Muscles aren’t sexy on girls. And so on.

It’s totally worth a read.

What are you reading and thinking about this week?

Waiting on Wednesday: Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

25184383Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky

Expected Release Date: February 23, 2016

Okay, so just know from the start that it wasn’t supposed to go like this. All we wanted was to get near The Ruperts, our favorite boy band.

We didn’t mean to kidnap one of the guys. It kind of, sort of happened that way. But now he’s tied up in our hotel room. And the worst part of all, it’s Rupert P. All four members of The Ruperts might have the same first name, but they couldn’t be more different. And Rupert P. is the biggest flop out of the whole group.

We didn’t mean to hold hostage a member of The Ruperts, I swear. At least, I didn’t. We are fans. Okay, superfans who spend all of our free time tweeting about the boys and updating our fan tumblrs. But so what, that’s what you do when you love a group so much it hurts.

How did it get this far? Who knows. I mean midterms are coming up. I really do not have time to go to hell.

(summary via Goodreads)

This looks pretty silly but also pretty fun.  I love the concept of fans losing control, and I love the darker aspect of obsession and fandom that’s clearly being played around with here.  It looks like a lot of fun.

What are you waiting on this week?



Movie News and Randomness

These are the movie-news related things that got me all worked up this week.  Without further ado:

1. Cloverfield Lane Trailer

J.J. Abrams has described this as a “blood relative” of Cloverfield, and I’m not entirely sure what that means.  But it has a fairly impressive cast and looks pretty impressively dumb, so I’ll probably see it.  I like Mary Elizabeth Winstead a lot, and from what I can tell, the movie will be suspenseful at least for a while.  Which is sort of Abrams’ thing.

2. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is maybe going to be a movie?

Guillermo Del Toro has signed on to adapt the popular children’s book (series), and let me tell you this: I am 100% down for whatever results. (Deadline)

3. The Witch Trailer

Who doesn’t love a good story about a Puritan family convinced evil is afoot when their child goes missing?  It’s definitely in the horror genre, and I am definitely down to watch this and snark and be scared.

4. World War Z sequel not doing well

Shocking absolutely no one, there seems to be more trouble afoot on the World War Z sequel.  The film has lost its director and there’s not a replacement yet lined up.  What a total waste of time and money. (Deadline)

5. Tumbledown trailer

Remember when Rebecca Hall was going to be the next big thing?  It still hasn’t happened, but bless the movie execs for continuing to try.  Here she stars alongside Jason Sudeikis, as a widow who’s trying to avoid a writer who wants to write a book about her late husband.  I mean, they’re going to fall in love and it’s going to be totally obvious, but whatever.  I will probably watch these pretty white people fall in love.

Did you hear any movie news lately that caught your attention?