Reviews

Fly You High: Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Collins, Suzanne. Gregor the Overlander. Scholastic, 2003. 311 pages. PLB $13.36, ISBN 978-0-329-61400-3; TR (mass market) $6.84, ISBN 978-0-439-67813-1

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

Genre: Fantasy

Part of a series? Yes — the Gregor the Overlander series.

Plot Summary:

Eleven-year-old Gregor shoulders a lot of responsibility. His father disappeared more than two years ago, and even working all of the time, his mother can barely keep food on the table. It’s up to Gregor to take of his two younger sisters Lizzie (age 8) and Boots (age 2) as well as keep an eye on his grandmother, a character who appears to be in the early stages of dementia. 

One day while doing the laundry, Gregor loses Boots behind the dryer. When he goes to find her, he falls down the same chute as his younger sister, and they fall down into the Underland. There, he finds himself in Regalia where a strange group of people live … and have lived there since the 1600s. A mysterious prophecy finds its hero in Gregor from the Overland, and Gregor and his sister must help the Regalians if he has any hope of ever returning home.

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

I loved this one, so while I read it almost a year ago (and have a bit of a fuzzy memory on the details), I know it’s a good one to recommend to kids looking for fantasy and adventure. The peril is real — the rats are vicious, allies can turn at the drop of a hat, and the Underland guarantees no one’s safety. It’s a page turner with fun characters, too.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

I would hand this book to anyone looking for an Alice-in-Wonderland type story. Gregor must quickly adapt to the bizarre world around him, and his New Yorker’s opinion on the goings-on of the Underland are perceptive and often funny.

Grade Level: 3-6

Awards and Starred Reviews:

Booklist starred 11/15/03

Kirkus Reviews starred 08/01/03

Publishers Weekly starred 09/08/03

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Reviews

Keep Calm and Creep On: The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle

Fox, Janet S. The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. Viking, 2016. 388 pages. Hardcover $14.59, ISBN 978-0-451-47633-3; PLB $13.86, ISBN 978-1-51818-650-9; TR $7.69, ISBN 978-0-14-751713-5

TL;DR: Do I recommend this book? Yes … ish

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction, Steampunk (?)

Part of a series? Not at this time.

Plot Summary:

London is in the grips of the Blitz — it is World War II, and children are being sent away from London in order to remain safe from constant bombings. Safety is the foremost concern for the Bateson family; Mr. Bateson is a spy on a mission for MI6 — but before leaving, he secures three places at Rookskill Castle in Scotland for his children. There, the Lady Eleanor has opened an academy for children displaced by the bombings. Kat, the eldest Bateson, feels responsible for her younger siblings and does her best to remind them to “Keep Calm and Carry On” as they must leave their mother and Great-Aunt Margaret behind in London. Before seeing the children off, once-sharp Great-Aunt Margaret passes a family heirloom on to Kat. She gives the girl a châtelaine and explains that it is an extremely magical item that will help keep her safe. Kat, a lover of math, logic, and puzzles, is disturbed by this explanation, particularly since it just goes to show that Great-Aunt Margaret really is losing her marbles. 

Rookskill Castle is creepy from go, and Kat finds herself facing mystery and weirdness galore. Why is there a shortwave radio hidden in a secret room? What is Lady Eleanor trying to hide? And — most disturbing of all — why are so many secrets in the castle unexplainable by logic and common sense? Is there a spy at Rookskill Castle … or is there something much worse at hand?

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This book had a lot of potential. Historical fiction plus fantasy? SOLD! The premise was amazing. World War II plus creepy age-old magic sounds delicious. Unfortunately, the execution of the novel was a tiny bit disappointing. (This caught me by surprise given the starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly.) The start of the novel is very strong, but not long after the Batesons arrive at Rookskill Castle, the story begins to meander. Quixotic episodes repeat with little impact on the plot, and major problems are set up that either fall by the wayside or are resolved in the blink of an eye. Every few pages we are reminded about how logical Kat is … to the point that you start to wonder when it will crop up again (hardly a mysterious thing can happen without the reader being reminded of Kat’s logic). Anachronisms also crop up throughout the text as well as dialectical issues that just don’t sound right. 

That said, however, the book does deliver on tone, so I would still recommend it to my readers looking for something creepy and set in a castle/past period. I also have to think that perhaps the book just didn’t speak to what I wanted from it, especially given its reception by major reviewing outlets.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

I would hand this book to anyone looking for a readalike for Coraline, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, or Elizabeth and Zenobia.

Grade Level: 5-8

Awards and Starred Reviews:

Booklist starred 01/01/16

Kirkus Reviews starred 12/15/15

Publishers Weekly starred 01/04/16

Reviews

Does Perfection have a Purpose? The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Oppel, Kenneth. The Nest. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015. 244 pages. Hardcover $14.49, ISBN 978-1-48143-232-0; Tr. $6.84, ISBN 978-1-48143-233-7; PLB $18.51, ISBN 978-1-51811-847-0

TL;DR: Do I recommend this book? Yes

Genre: Horror

Part of a series? No.

Plot Summary:

Steven is a nervous kid. He has nightmares that something creeps at the edge of his bed, watching him. He washes his hands to keep germs away, and he keeps prayer-like (but not prayers, since he isn’t sure he believes in God) lists asking for protection of his family and friends. He worries all the time — about the scary knife man who rides through the streets, offering to sharpen knives; about the wasps that have always terrified him, but that he now finds out he is allergic to; and now, about his family when his parents bring home their new baby boy. His new little brother has a long and difficult road of surgeries and struggles ahead of him; he is born very sick, and doctors diagnose him with a rare congenital disease. Steven knows that adults tell him that he can’t catch it, but he still worries. He also hesitates to call the baby by his name, because what if the little boy dies from his condition? Consumed with worry (and guilt), Steven struggles with sleeping…until an angel-like being comes to him in a dream, dispersing the scary dark shape that lurks at the edge of his bed, and promises to fix the baby if Steven agrees to the fix. His brother can be made perfect by these beings, but it is up to Steven to make that call. Is this really the answer to his family’s problems? 

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This book is unputdownable. It moves forward like a thriller. The angelic beings show more and more of themselves as the book progresses, and choices become much more difficult. Mysterious figures appear, and no one believes Steven when he talks about his dreams and how nervous they are making him. The book also presents the important idea that no one is “perfect.” Everyone is “a little bit broken,” even if not everyone looks it.

This book also reminded me a great deal of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. That book is devastating and beautiful, and it also deals with some very difficult topics and frightening figures.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

This would be a fantastic reading circle book. It tackles some really tough topics (OCD, anxiety, babies living with disabilities), but it does so in a way that I haven’t seen before. The book makes you think about difficult topics while also keeping you on the edge of your seat to find out what happens next. Illustrations by Klassen are gorgeous and eerie. I would love to have students read and discuss this one. (Idea from myself)

Grade Level: 5-8

Awards and Starred Reviews:

Booklist starred 7/1/15

Horn Book Guide starred 4/1/16

Horn Book Magazine starred 9/1/15

Kirkus Reviews starred 8/1/15

Publishers Weekly starred 7/20/15

School Library Journal starred 8/1/15

Reviews

Leave it on the court: The Crossover

Alexander, Kwame. The Crossover. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 237 pages. Hardcover $14.49, ISBN  978-0-544-10771-7; PLB $18.51, ISBN 978-1-48985-855-9

 

TL;DR: Do I recommend this? Yes

 

Genre: Sports Novel/Novel in Verse

 

Part of a series? No, but Alexander’s Booked is similar in style and content for readers who want more like this book.

 

Plot Summary:

Josh (Filthy McNasty) and Jordan (JB) Bell are twins and stars of their middle school basketball team. Their father Chuck Bell, former basketball star, helps them prepare for their goals of eventually playing on all-star college teams. When Josh loses a bet, his bald-headed brother gets to cut off a precious lock from Josh’s hair. Joking around, JB doesn’t pay attention to his cutting and ends up chopping off five locks, forcing Josh to get his hair cut short. Deprived of his prized hair, Josh’s mood can only worsen when JB falls for the new girl in her pink Reeboks; with both his hair and the company of his brother taken from him, Josh loses his temper during a game and hits his brother in the face with a ball so hard he nearly breaks JB’s nose. Their mother suspends Josh from the team, leaving him more free time to worry about his father’s failing health — and the fact that his father refuses to see a doctor.

 

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

Alexander’s poetry flies across the page. Moments can be slow and contemplative, or words can explode, grow, smash together, and slide around as Josh describes the game he plays. The story progresses at a good clip, and the passage of time marked by holidays and the food shared is a powerful way to return readers to the thought of food and how it affects the family.

 

This is a fantastic book; writing a novel in verse is not easy, and this book is gorgeous. The action, the thought behind those actions, and the characters themselves are brought to life. I would recommend this to any reader; sports fans may love the play-by-play details, but anyone can enjoy the poetry.

 

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

This would be fantastic for a poetry unit. Readers can also make poems out of alphabet soup and cookies, adding a 3-D level to the poetry creation. Students can also go out into the school community for fifteen minutes and just listen, then come back and write a poem incorporating when they heard on campus; Alexander uses this onomatopoeic technique frequently, and those are always exciting poems to read. (Ideas from myself).

 

Grade Level: 5-8

 

Awards and Starred Reviews:

ALA Notable Children’s Book, 2015

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books starred 2/1/14

Coretta Scott King Author Honor, 2015

Kirkus Reviews starred 1/15/14

Library Media Connection starred 8/1/14

Newbery Medal, 2015

Publishers Weekly starred 1/20/14

School Library Journal starred 3/1/14

Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) starred 8/1/14

 

Reviews referenced:

Clarke, T. (n. d.). The crossover (Review of the book The Crossover). Common Sense Media. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/the-crossover

Kirkus Reviews. (2013, Dec. 18). The crossover (Review of the book The Crossover). Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kwame-alexander/the-crossover/

Vardan, E. (2015, Apr. 26). The crossover by Kwame Alexander  |  Book review (Review of the book The Crossover). The Children’s Book Review. Retrieved from https://www.thechildrensbookreview.com/weblog/2015/04/the-crossover-by-kwame-alexander-book-review.html