Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Further Tales Adventure: The Mirror's Tale by P. W. Catanese

As punishment for misbehaving, twins Bert and Will are separated for the summer. Bert is sent off to his Uncle Hugh’s mountain fortress while Will stays home to train with Andreas the knight. While exploring his new surroundings, Bert discovers a secret chamber housing the mirror the Witch Queen used to plot against Bert and Will’s descendant, Snow White. Bert reawakens the mirror and soon he is poisoned by it’s power. But before Bert is fully enslaved, he writes a letter to Will telling him about the mirror. Bert's letter sets in motion a war no one was expecting.

Catanese’s book may be based on fairytale, but the problems Bert and Will encounter—addiction, deceit, and low self-esteem—are real issues many face. When Bert finds the mirror, it’s deluding influence makes Bert forget how it ruined the lives of Snow White and the Witch Queen. Like most addictions, the mirror seems harmless and enjoyable at first. Then, slowly, the mirror breaks down Bert’s reason and turns him against his family. When the mirror betrays Bert, he still feels sickly dependent for the mirror’s attention. Only Will’s love and the ugliness behind the mirror helps Bert to destroy it’s addictive hold on him. A rich read for ages 12 and up.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Further Tales Adventure: The Thief and the Beanstalk by P.W. Catanese

Destitute orphan, Nick, knows the Jack and the Beanstalk legend. While infiltrating a fortress for a band of thieves, Nick sees evidence of Jack’s adventures, including the magic beans. Nick steals the beans to gain his own fortune. The beans sprout into the sky latching onto a cloud island where three giants live: Gullinda, the giantess who protected Jack, and Gnasher and Basher, her two evil sons. Gnasher and Basher have imprisoned Gullinda forcing her to weave beanstalk ropes for the brothers’ future invasion of Earth. Nick meets the captive Gullinda while searching for gold, but his sympathy drives him to free her. Once she escapes, Finch—the leader of the thieves—arrives to force Nick into stealing the giants’ wealth.

In Catanese’s re-released series, readers enter a world decades after Jack’s adventures. No one knows if Jack’s story is true until Nick enters Jack’s fortress. Jack sees himself in Nick and explains the guilt he still feels for betraying Gullinda to become rich. Unfortunately, Nick wants his own wealth. Jack allows Nick to steal the beans to find out what happened to Gullinda and help Nick learn his lesson. On the island Nick is faced with Jack’s same dilemma of helping Gullinda or stealing gold. Jack’s guilt rules Nick’s choice so he becomes a hero and not a thief. The book’s violence level is more appropriate for readers 13 and up.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Blacksouls by Nicole Castroman

Finally reaching Nassau, Anne and her friends, Cara and Coyle Flynn, seek out their uncle, Alastair Flynn, for work and safety. Meanwhile, Teach’s ship, the Deliverance, is attacked by pirates. The captain refuses to fight and is killed, causing Teach to take command and save the ship. Because Teach’s actions can be interpreted as mutinous, Teach and faithful crew members are arrested once they arrive in Nassau. It seems even in the New World, innumerable forces are trying to keep Anne and Teach from being together. But they are determined to find a way, even if it means turning to piracy.

Castroman does not disappoint in her second Blackhearts novel. The suspense, unpredictability, and action is amped up when Anne and Teach enter the New World. Anne becomes a stronger character as she fights for her independence and Teach’s freedom. This is an ironic switch because Teach did the same for Anne while in England. Anne’s profound strength and courage is mostly due to Alastair's wife, Beth. Thanks to Beth, Anne has hope to be with Teach because Beth and Alastair have made a life for themselves in the Caribbean. However, racism, slavery, greed, and Old-World prejudices are still prevalent. When things finally fall apart in Nassau, Anne and Teach realize they must create their own world so they can be together.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming by J. Anderson Coats

After losing her father in the Civil War, Jane Deming gives up her friends and schooling to raise her baby stepbrother while her young stepmother works in the mill. Unexpectedly Jane’s stepmother enlists the three of them in an expedition to bring unmarried women to Washington Territory. Using the expedition’s pamphlet as a textbook, Jane works on developing the social and educational skills needed for surviving in the Pacific Northwest. During their sea voyage, Jane’s stepmother tries to keep Jane from improving her abilities for selfish reasons. Luckily, Jane’s new friends and passengers come to her rescue. When they finally arrive in Seattle, Jane and her stepmother discover that it is a wilder place than they expected. 

Coat’s novel is an unpretentious coming-of-age story full of yearning and determination. When Jane’s father dies, she loses the only person who believed in her potential. Immaturely, her stepmother forces Jane to give up her dreams for their family’s survival. But as they embark on the expedition, Jane’s new friends point out that Jane’s stepmother is using Jane. Quietly, Jane fights for any control over her life. In the end, Jane’s stepmother finally releases her hold on Jane, thanks to Mr. Wright. Once that hold is gone, Jane is free to become her true, independent self. One item Coats should have included is an author’s note stating the historical facts behind her story. This would have given the book more validity and richness. Otherwise, Coats’ tale is a fun, enlightening read for ages 12 and up.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

League of Archers by Eva Howard

Elinor Dray can’t handle being a novice nun. Mercifully, the Reverend Mother uses Elinor’s archery skills to supplement the nunnery’s scarce provisions. Escaping the abbey, Elinor rejoins her friends—her League of Archers—to hunt and daydream about Robin Hood’s deeds. One night Elinor meets a mysterious archer. As they talk, he is shot with a poisoned arrow. While the man dies in the abbey, Elinor learns he is Robin Hood and the Reverend Mother is Maid Marion. As if planned, the constable arrives to arrest Marion—still a wanted criminal—and take Elinor to Baron Lord de Lay’s castle. Once she is there, the baron proclaims Elinor killed the well-loved Robin Hood.

There are many stories based on what happened after Robin Hood and his men finished their excusable plundering days. Most have clumsy structures based more on Hollywood fluff and less on the actual Hood legend. League of Archers, however, is a successful exception. Howard shows the real price one pays when playing a thief, even if it is done for righteous reasons. Trust and communication are lost when one is constantly stealing from others. Elinor and the League must learn from Robin’s mistakes because they are all slipping into his lifestyle, whether they like it or not. Only by building on the solid foundation of friendship and integrity can they have a chance at surviving. League of Archers is a suspenseful, stunning start to a new middle-grade series.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Mark of the Plague (Blackthorn Key #2) by Kevin Sands

The plague is sweeping through London’s streets. Christopher Rowe wants to help by using his departed master’s apothecary, but strict rules deny Christopher—still only an apprentice—the right to open the shop to the public. Desperate for money, Christopher finds a cryptic note from Master Blackthorn about a hidden treasure. While Christopher and Tom are out following a clue, an intruder breaks into the apothecary. This break-in entangles Christopher in a deadly conflict between two competing doctors—Melchior and Galen—who claim to be healing plague victims in their own unique ways.

Mark of the Plague seems more like a raw, revealing picture of the past than the code-driven, secret-society fiction used in The Blackthorn Key. Fans of Sands’ codes and cults will still get a taste of these themes with Blackthorn’s cryptic messages and Melchior’s biblically hostile followers. Because Sands based this story on a true event, added selections of the actual Bills of Mortality, and described the crazed, chaotic world Londoners created during the plague, Mark of the Plague has more depth and richness than the first. With such a solid setting, Christopher’s character can be explored and expressed to a greater extent. A little less violent than the first, Sands second book is still a suspenseful ride through Christopher Rowe’s unpredictable world. The next book, The Assassin’s Curse comes out in September.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2017 Warrensburg Children's Literature Festival, Day 3

March 21, 2017

Image result for margi preusEarly in the morning, we headed to see Margi Preus. Preus is a 2011 Newbery Honor winner for her book Heart of a Samurai (see my review).

Preus wanted to be a movie star when she grew up. So when a starring role came up in her elementary school's musical, she tried desperately to get it. Unfortunately, she didn't get the part. But she had a realization that if she wrote her own play and scripts, she could star as the main lead. This pushed her into the writing world early in life. So she said that disappointment led her into writing.

What got her into writing books was rereading the books she loved as a child. This included the book Harriet the Spy.

She gave the advice of reading everything because you just don't know what ideas will inspire you to write. This was true about writing Heart of a Samurai. She was more interested in the friendship between Manjiro and Captain Whitfield than about Japan. But this led her to do more research and write the actual book.

Some of her writing tips were to 1) Challenge yourself to write; 2) Finish what you start; 3) Don't horde ideas because they may be plugging up other ideas from coming out; 4) Keep digging/revising; 5) Keep your eye on the prize; and 6) Just go for it!

Image result for gennifer choldenkoNext we hurried across campus to see Gennifer Choldenko again. This time she was presenting to a large group of kids.

She based most of her presentation on Chasing Secrets. After talking about the plague coming into 1900s San Francisco, Choldenko did a role play with the kids on making up a fake, deadly disease. The kids got to decide the sounds you make when you have the disease, the weird treatments you do, and the cost for those treatments. The kids were absolutely enthralled and entertained by this part of her presentation.

She then talked about her Al Capone series and the facts behind writing those books.

Image result for janice harringtonAfter an early lunch, we headed to our next presenter, Janice Harrington. Harrington is a librarian, storyteller, and poet. She has mainly written picture books but recently came out with a new middle-grade book called Catching a Story Fish.

Catching a Story Fish is about a young girl who is part of a fishing family. She hates to fish, except with her grandfather. This time to fish with her grandfather is precious to her. He tells her about the story fish that is inside everyone and how when you catch it, your life's story opens up. But when her grandfather has a stroke, he loses the sweetness and humor he once had. So the girl is on a mission to help her grandfather remember who he really is through stories.

Harrington had some advice for kids on becoming a writer. She said to 1) Read; 2) Believe in yourself; 3) Write all the time; and 4) Be determined. She did two very entertaining and interactive stories with the kids. This included a story about her sister using her homework to make a rain hat; fireman's helmet, bucket, boat, and a life-jacket. Then she shared a story about an old couple and their farm animals working together to pull up a stubborn sweet potato. Awesome presentation!

Image result for angela cervantesOur final author for the day was Angela Cervantes. She is pretty new to the children's literature world with only two middle-grade books published: Gabby, Lost and Found and Allie, First at Last. But, she was a fabulous and polished presenter.

Animals have been an important part of Cervantes' life. Living in Topeka, Kansas, Cervantes grew up living behind a Mexican restaurant. The dumpsters of that restaurant attracted many stray animals in the area. Her mother would take these animals in, clean them up, feed them properly, and then call friends or family about adopting these animals.  

Besides loving animals, she loved to read. She labeled herself a "flashlight girl". This means she would stay up late into the night reading her favorite books--like Beverly Cleary's Ramona books and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia--under her blankets by flashlight. Her love of reading led her at an early age to become a writer.

At the University of Kansas, she got her degree in writing and mainly wrote content for websites. During a research trip to Guatemala City, a grey and white cat followed her around the city. This inspired Cervantes to write a story about a Kansas girl who wanted to save the animals at her local shelter. This is the premise behind Gabby, Lost and Found.

Once we were done with Cervantes presentation, it was time to head home.

What a fabulous festival full of great authors and presenters! Make sure to check out any author events in your area. They can be a wealth of knowledge and inspiration.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

Fourteen-year-old Manjiro dreams of the sea. Running away from home, he gets his chance by becoming a fisherman. During one of Manjiro’s fishing trips, his crew's boat is blown off-course by a horrific storm. The remaining crew wash up on a tiny, abandoned island. Even though the island is not too far away from Japan, the crew are destined for death. They know Japan has deadly rules to restrict anyone from reentering the country, including their own people. After several months struggling to survive, an American whaling ship discovers them. The crew is unsure if they should accept the American's help because associating with foreigners also means death. Seeing no other choice, Manjiro courageously chooses sanctuary on the American ship. Making that decision, sets Manjiro on an adventure of a lifetime.

Heart of a Samurai is based on the life of Manjiro Nakahama--the first Japanese person to go to America. Several of the illustrations showcasing Manjiro's adventures were actually drawn by him. This adds great validity to Preus's story, giving Manjiro even more life and depth to his character. Aside from this historical background, the way Preus delivers Manjiro's story is suspenseful, well-paced, and beautifully detailed. One weak point is the book's ending. It seems too quickly resolved where it sounds more like a history textbook than a carefully crafted novel. This causes some cracks in the story's solid foundation and dims some of the luster and life Preus had setup at the beginning. Otherwise, Heart of a Samurai is a great, instructive read for ages 12 and up. For fans of this book, Manjiro returns as a supporting character in Preus's new novel, The Bamboo Sword