Reviews

All aboard to Alcatraz! Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Choldenko, G. Al Capone Does My Shirts. Puffin Books, 2006. 228 pages. Hardcover 2004 $15.34, ISBN 978-0-399-23861-1; Hardcover 2000 $15.45, ISBN  978-0-7569-7020-8;  Tr. $6.84, ISBN  978-0-14-240370-9; PLB $13.06, ISBN 978-1-41566-588-6

TL;DR: Do I recommend this book? Yes

Genre: Historical Fiction

Part of a series? Yes — Al Capone at Alcatraz series

Plot Summary:

Moose Flanagan finds himself living on Alcatraz alongside the worst of the worst criminals when his dad needs a new job … and his sister needs a new school. Natalie Flanagan has been ten years old for quite some time, as keeping Natalie “ten years old” is her mother’s best chance at getting Natalie the help that she needs. Natalie is different, and since no one has been able to accurately diagnose her or prescribe a cure, the Flanagans are trying everything they can to give Natalie a normal life. For Moose, this means moving from home in Santa Monica all the way out to Alcatraz, taking a boat into school in San Francisco everyday with Piper, the warden’s daughter and a girl who is more trouble than she’s worth. Can Natalie get the help she needs (and is it the help being given to her?)? (Plus — will Moose ever meet Al Capone?!)

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This book was a great read. There are some elements of it that are tough — namely, how people treat Natalie as well as the focus on “fixing” her, but it also reads as historically accurate, as many of the ways that we as a community discuss autistic people and their differences from “neurologically typical” people are still in the process of acknowledging autistic people as people who think differently, rather than “broken” people who need to be prevented or fixed. The presentation of Alcatraz is delicious, and Moose is as fantastic narrator. His love for his sister is obvious, as is his frustration with Piper, his struggles with his mother’s treatment of him (and his sister), and his desire to live a normal life.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

This is a great historical fiction pick especially for my students as we are located in San Francisco and have a clear view of the island! The neighborhoods discussed in the book are close to our school, so it’s a fun look back at what San Francisco and Alcatraz were like. This would be a fun reading circle book. Perhaps an activity for this book would be to look at photos of “old” San Francisco and to then compare them to photos now … perhaps even taking part in a San Francisco scavenger hunt and/or trip to Alcatraz with parental supervision and permission! (Given our proximity to the island, this could happen for our group.) (Idea from myself)

Grade Level: 5-8

Awards and Starred Reviews:

ALA Notable Children’s Books, 2005

Kirkus Reviews starred 3/1/04

Library Media Connection starred 11/1/04

Newbery Honor, 2005

Publishers Weekly starred 2/2/04

School Library Journal starred 3/1/04

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Reviews

Get out while you can! Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

Grabenstein, Chris. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. Random House, 2013. 291 pages. Hardcover $14.49, ISBN 978-0-375-87089-7; Tr. $4.55, ISBN 978-0-307-93147-4; 2013 PLB $19.99, ISBN  978-0-375-97089-4; 2014 PLB $12.13, ISBN 978-1-48983-367-9

TL;DR: Do I recommend this book? YES!

Genre: Mystery/Game

Part of a series? Yes — Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series

Plot Summary:

Kyle Keeley finds out from his best friend Akimi Hughes that there’s an extra credit essay due that morning — and the winners not only receive extra credit, but they also get to spend the night locked into the brand new, high-tech, super fabulous library opening the next week. Kyle is desperate to have the chance once he finds out that Luigi L. Lemoncello, game maker extraordinaire and donor who helped make the new library happen is one of the essay judges and is hosting the lock-in. Kyle, Akimi, and ten other students from the seventh grade are chosen for the lock-in which becomes an “Escape” game. Will Kyle and his friends solve the clues and win the game?

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This is a fun book for those readers who like puzzles in their books. There is a lot of information, plenty of red herrings and helpful clues, and clever puzzles hidden throughout the text in addition to the ones the students must solve. The only downside is, as many Goodreads reviewers have noted, that the characters feel a little flat. Charles isn’t sufficiently evil. Akimi and Kyle and one-note. Hayley’s change of alliances isn’t handled in an interesting way. For these reasons, I can’t say that this is a fantastic book, but it’s a great one for your reader who enjoys puzzles.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

This would be a great start-of-the-year book club pick. Readers can then do their own real-life Dewey Decimal scavenger hunt in the library and play an Escape puzzle per Heather Booth’s instructions from Teen Librarian Toolbox, linked above (those are popular in my lesson plans, apparently!) (Idea from myself)

Grade Level: 3-6

Awards and Starred Reviews:

ALA Notable Children’s Book, 2014

Booklist starred 6/1/13

Kirkus Reviews starred 5/1/13

Reviews

Dive in! Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Granta Books in association with Penguin Books, 1990. 216 pages. Tr. $13.65, ISBN 978-0-14-015737-6; PLB $20.71, ISBN 978-0-329-78295-5

TL;DR: Do I recommend this? Yes!

Genre: Fantasy

Part of a series? No.

Plot Summary:

Haroun, son of Rashid Khalifa, the Ocean of Notions, makes the mistake of asking his storyteller father, “What is the point of stories that aren’t even true?” His father suddenly loses his Gift of Gab, and says that he might as well stop being a storyteller. At this time, Haroun runs into Iff, a Water Genie, who is dismantling the faucet that allows Rashid to be such a master storyteller. In order to secure his father’s storytelling capabilities, Haroun blackmails Iff into taking him to Kahani, the Sea of Stories.

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This is an intricately woven fantasy with elements rooted in real-life places and events. Readers need not know those references in order to enjoy the book, but the way that Rushdie combines real life and fantasy (especially in such an intricate book) is awe-inspiring. Haroun’s bravery (and realness as a boy) make him leap off the page. This book was unputdownable, smart, and funny to boot.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

While Titlewave classifies this as a book for adults, Kirkus Reviews writes that the novel is  “targeted for an audience as large as a bull’s-eye on the side of a barn” (1990). I agree with Kirkus that this book is one that can be read by anyone.

This is a great fantasy book that doesn’t focus on white kids having adventures. Instead, it references places in the Middle East and utilizes a great deal of storytelling elements and figures from that region in the book. I would hand this to any fantasy fan. This book would also be a great read for students who are looking for a more complex book to read — while it is not necessarily an adult-level book, it has more to offer in terms of storytelling nuance and detail than something like Alex Gino’s George, which is another wonderful book with a reading level more accessible to less advanced readers. (Idea from myself)

Grade Level: Titlewave classifies it as Adult; I would recommend this book for students grades 6-9

Awards and Starred Reviews:

n/a

Reviews

Guitar Hero: Kubo and the Two Strings

I know, I know — this is a book blog!!!! Sometimes, however, you just gotta watch a movie. What follows is my review of the movie Kubo and the Two Strings. I’ve struggled with other Laika films (particularly The Boxtrolls) because their casting is often disturbingly non-diverse (ALWAYS AND FOREVER LOOKING AT YOU, BOXTROLLS), and while this movie was still problematic in terms of casting, the storytelling is superb.

 Kubo and the Two Strings. Directed by Travis Knight. 101 minutes. Laika Entertainment. 2016, $17.96 (DVD). ASIN: B01KMKM5NW

TL;DR: Do I recommend this movie? YES

Genre: Fantasy (Animated Movie)

Part of a series? No.

Plot Summary:

Kubo and his mother live in a cave above their village. His mother is fading as her mind drifts away, and Kubo, one-eyed from infancy after his grandfather stole an eye from him, must provide for himself and for his mother. Kubo goes down to the village each day to play his magical string instrument and make origami figures dance and act out his tales, but as soon as the bell before sunset tolls, he packs up and heads straight home. As his mother warns him, he can never let The Moon King (his grandfather) or his mother’s sisters find him, so he must always be home before dark. During the festival, he ignores this rule, desperate for contact from his deceased father. As soon as the moon shines on Kubo, his aunts appear and destroy the village in an attempt to capture Kubo. Kubo must grab only what he has on his back and run.

Critical Evaluation/Viewer’s Comments:

Unfortunately, Laika still struggles with casting nonwhite actors in main roles (Kubo, Monkey, the Moon King, and the Beetle are all voiced by white actors despite being designed as Japanese characters). That said, there are still many more voices from actors of color voicing other Japanese characters in the film, so while I am disappointed by their casting choices yet again (looking at you, The Boxtrolls), at least they have improved slightly.

The storytelling, however, makes me still appreciate the movie despite the casting issues. I will continue to acknowledge the casting situation as I look at Laika films, but Kubo really delivers on storyline. Kubo’s music and magical abilities are delightful to behold, and the animation of the origami figures coming to life and floating through the air is truly stunning. Some twists are guessable from early on, but ultimately, it was still a fabulously animated film.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

This film is more intense in content than I was anticipating, so I would not bust out this movie for younger tweens. Instead, I would perhaps only use this movie with eleven-to-thirteen year olds (and up into teens) given the peril that characters are constantly in. Without spoiling too many elements of the film, people do die and are frequently in frightening situations. The main conflict of the film is that Kubo’s grandfather — who has already stolen one eye from him — is desperate to pluck the other one so that Kubo may be blind to humanity and finally be perfect, fit to sit alongside the Moon King in his otherworldly palace.

This would be great movie for a tween group that is interested in storytelling; ultimately, Kubo knows his “story” (i.e., Hanzo the samurai warrior versus the Moon King), but he doesn’t know how that story ends. Play this movie, talk about stories and the craft of storytelling, and fold origami! We could also look into bringing in a storytelling expert and have a storytelling workshop after we watch Kubo. San Francisco Public Library offered some storytelling classes this summer, so this could be doable if we found good storytelling instructors. (Ideas from myself)

Grade Level: 4+ (Common Sense Media approves this one for kids ages 9 and older)

Awards:

n/a

Reviews

Friends for Ever-After: Friends For Life by Andrew Norris

Norriss, Andrew. Friends For Life. David Fickling Books/Scholastic, Inc., 2015. 234 pages. Hardcover $15.34, ISBN 978-0-545-85186-2

TL;DR: Do I recommend this book? Yes

Genre: Fantasy (ghosts)

Part of a series? No.

Plot Summary:

Francis is having a tough time; he sits alone frequently because no one at his school thinks that fashion design is a normal hobby for a boy. When Jessica sits with him at lunch, he is surprised by their pleasant conversation … and more surprised to learn that she is a ghost. Jessica is equally surprised; no one can ever see her. Together, Jessica and Francis bond, and when more people are able to see Jessica, the friends must find out if their ability to see Jessica means that they have something they need to do.

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This was a very sweet book. I had no idea what it was about when I started it, so I was very surprised by some of the twists. Without giving away too much, the book is about bullying and suicide. The topics are handled very thoughtfully, and the idea that life is worth living is upheld throughout the novel. I would be careful about how young of a reader I would hand-sell this too; suicide is a tough topic, and I would want to ensure that a reader was properly emotionally mature to read this one, but for many middle-graders, this will be a powerful read.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

This would be a really great reading circle group. I wonder if it would be fun for people to (perhaps anonymously) submit things they are interested in (in the event that they are as shy as Francis is about his hobby). Alternately, we could have a non-anonymous sharing of talents and a kind of “teach your hobby” day in the library for kids to showcase their abilities and help teach friends how to do those things (i.e., fashion design or coding or … anything!). (Ideas from myself)

Grade Level: 5-8 (Titlewave says 3-6, but given the topic >>> suicide , I’m leaning more towards Kirkus Reviews’ age range)

Awards and Starred Reviews:

Library Media Connection starred 2/1/16

Publishers Weekly starred 5/18/15

Reviews

Documentary time: A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table. Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. 84 minutes. Motto Pictures/Participant Media. 2012, $9.90 (DVD). ASIN: B00B119H1A

TL;DR: Do I recommend this movie? Yes

Genre: Documentary (film)

Film Summary:

This documentary focuses on the hunger crisis in America. Fifty million American people have inadequate access to food and go hungry. By following the stories of a doctor fighting the crisis, mothers trying to feed their children, teachers trying to help their students, and other individuals, the creators of this documentary show viewers the very real human faces of this issue.

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

A Place at the Table gives a very detailed look into the hunger crisis in America. While the topic and information can get very complex, the film always feels like something a tween could absorb and understand. By alternating speakers and showing different families who struggle with hunger, the filmmakers do a great job of showing that this issue is not isolated to one part of the country or age bracket. Furthermore, the filmmakers follow one mother in particular as she struggles with making too much to qualify for food stamps, then being able to qualify but having no job, and finally (after a year-long search) getting hired into a full-time position only to lose her food stamp qualification and have less food than ever for her family. It’s an extremely sad and thought-provoking film, and I agree with Caroline Knorr of Common Sense Media in that this film will help inspire kids to change the world.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

I found this documentary while looking for good documentaries for tweens. Caroline Knorr of Common Sense Media includes this film in a list of twelve documentaries that will inspire children to change the world. I would use this documentary as a part of a library unit (ideally in collaboration with a class at school) on hunger in the United States. In our collection, we also have Eric Schlosser’s Chew On This, so if a unit with a class were not doable, I would perhaps try to do a book club event utilizing Schlosser’s book and this documentary. (Idea from myself)

Grade Level: YA according to Titlewave; I would say 5-8.

Awards and Starred Reviews:

n/a