Book Review: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando


Eleven years ago, six kids in kindergarten went missing without a single clue as to where they went. The town called it “The Leaving.” Today, five of those missing kids returned. They’re teens now, and they don’t remember a single thing about where they’ve been. But they seem okay. The only missing kid who doesn’t return is Max, and his little sister Avery is desperate for answers.

Tara Altebrando’s mystery about missing kids returning to a place they no longer fit into should have been a stay-up-late, absolutely riveting read. But despite the captivating premise and strong start to the story, the execution as a whole fell very flat. An overly-long narrative, an overly-complicated premise, and a stagnant middle make for an uneven reading experience.

One thing that does work well here is Altebrando’s multiple narrators. Told from the perspectives of Scarlett, Lucas, and Avery (the still-missing Max’s younger sister), each voice is distinct enough to keep them straight, and the different structures of each narrative helps separate them further.

The eventual reveal is fairly satisfying, but it takes so long to get there that it feels like a bit of a letdown. Some readers will still find this whole story captivating, but those looking for a super-fast-paced thriller should look elsewhere. The middle of this drags on, and a tighter editing hand could have done a great service.

Twisty and complicated.

The Leaving by Tara Altebrando. Bloomsbury: 2016. Library copy.


Book Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker


Pax is a fox, rescued when he was a tiny kit after his family was killed.  Peter, his “boy,” rescued him. He’s lived in domesticity with Peter ever since, and the two are inseparable.  But war is coming, and Peter’s father has enlisted, which means Peter is being shipped off to live with his grandfather. Pax is left by the side of the road, hundreds of miles from where Peter ends up. Determined to make it back to each other, each one embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

Sara Pennypacker’s moving story about a boy and his fox is a heartbreaking page-turner of a novel.  Interspersed in the beautiful prose are black and white illustrations from Jon Klassen, and these help bring the story right off the page. Told in alternating chapters by both Peter and Pax, the story remains grounded in reality even though one of the book’s narrators is a fox.

Beautifully paced and artfully told, Pennypacker allows the reader insight into the horrors of war not through the eyes of Peter, but through those of Pax, who sees woodland creatures blown up by mines.  The underscoring of how far-reaching the terrors of war can be is done successfully, with subtlety and grace.  Because so few of the characters in the story are actually named, the book feels very much like a fable.

Every moment in this novel feels real, and authentic, and emotionally resonant. It’s a sad story that is also full of hope, and it is one that begs to be read by young readers as well as adults. Kids will want to talk about this one, so be ready for hard questions about life and death, war, and much more.

Highly, highly recommended.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker. Balzer + Bray: 2016. Library copy.

Toddler Storytime: Owls

Last week’s storytime focused on owls.  Kids were excited about the theme, and one boy told me that he and his mom read “Owl Babies” almost every night before bed.  That was one of the books I picked for the storytime, but we didn’t end up getting to it.  Instead, we read a couple other books and did some fun owl songs.  Here’s some of what we explored:


hoot-and-peepHoot and Peep by Lita Judge: I love this book about owl siblings and differences in personalities, and some of the kids loved it, too. But it turned out to be on the long side for the wiggly toddlers, so I think I might save it for family storytime or even preschool storytime, when the kids can sit a little longer.good night owl.jpg

Good-Night, Owl! by Pat Hutchins: This one worked much
better with the kiddos because it relies so heavily on repetition and is much shorter. I had the caregivers and the toddlers help me read the book by repeating the line, “And Owl tried to sleep” at the end of every page. It was a hit!

Action Rhymes:

We did “Wide-Eyed Owl” and I had the caregivers and the toddlers help me act out all the parts, which went over well.  In the future, I might repeat the rhyme 1-2 more times so the kids have enough time to get used to the switching motions. (Credit)

We also did a variation of “5 Little Owls” with felt owls I made based on a pattern I found on Pinterest. A lot of the kids wanted to hold the felt owls as I peeled them off the board. I wish I had had the resources to make a tree and some other scenery to help build the story, but since this is my very first round of storytimes and I’m working with a meager collection of felt pieces, I had to go with what I had time to make. (Credit)


We did the Owl Hokey Pokey because the kiddos were super restless.  They liked it, but it didn’t seem to calm them down at all–it may have made it worse!

How did it go?

On the whole, it was a rocky storytime for me. The kids couldn’t sit still for all of Hoot & Peep and the caregivers weren’t proactive in helping to regulate the bodies of their toddlers. For the time being, I need to plan for short books and more songs and action rhymes with a group this wiggly.  I also need to look into developing a set of rules for the half hour as part of a classroom management strategy.

I’m still new at this, so we’ll see how this develops moving forward.

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.