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BOOK REVIEW: The Colossus Rises (Seven Wonders #1) by @PeterLerangis

colossusSeven Wonders is a new science-fiction/fantasy series from children and young adult author Peter Lerangis. The Colossus Rises is the first installment of the series. It had been on the New York Times Middle Level Best-Sellers list every week back in March, and it has popped back in a couple times in the top-15 over the last month. This book is probably most appropriate for the early middle school reader (grades 5-7). I suspect fantasy fans all the way through high school would enjoy this book.

I am not a big fantasy reader. Most fantasy books I start usually get abandoned, but this book kept me entertained and engaged. I really enjoyed the  narrative voice of Jack. It is humorous and witty and keeps you smiling throughout the story. I thought the book had solid characters as well. Jack, Marco, Aly, and Cass have unique personalities that I think will allow different types of readers to connect to.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the mixture of the history of the seven wonders of the ancient world with the fantasy elements. This novel takes the kids to the Greek island of Rhodes (The Colossus of Rhodes). I love science fiction, and Lerangis has mixed a little bit of science into the plot that helped with my buy-in. The kids all have a special genetic marker (G7W) that will cause the kids to die when they turn 14. To cure themselves they must gather all of the Loculi that are hidden around the world at the locations of the seven wonders.

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Peter Lerangis

There’s nothing groundbreaking about this book, and it is not a book that has deep thematic elements.  In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Lerangis’ editor, David Linker, calls it, “Indiana Jones meets Percy Jackson.” This is a pretty accurate description of the book. There is even an allusion to Indiana Jones as the kids enter a volcano with a hidden maze inside of it. It is a fun read, and would be good for the avid middle level reader that just wants to be entertained. Fans of Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and the Michael Vey series will enjoy this book. Overall, it’s a solid first effort of what looks to be a decent series.

Lexile=580

Check out the official book trailer from HarperKids:

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BOOK REVIEW: Bomb: The Race to Build-And Steal-The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Bomb

by Andrew Palmer

While I do enjoy reading a great fiction book, I would much rather curl up with non-fiction book and learn something. I realize that not all readers are like that, and young adult readers are often very reluctant to read non-fiction texts. If more writers wrote non-fiction books like this one, more of you would want to join me, and more of our teens would be interested in history.

In the biography in the back of this book, it says that Steve Sheinkin “has dedicated his life to making up for his previous crimes by crafting gripping narratives of American history.” On the surface this is a humorous quip, the reality is this is a sad truth about American history textbooks. Frankly, most of them suck. They do not engage students in any meaningful way, and they never inspire kids to investigate more. Add in an uninspiring history teacher, and it is no wonder you have a society that is apathetic and knows very little about its own history. Sheinkin has another book out that has been fairly popular with some of my students, it is called The Notorious Benedict ArnoldBenedictArnold

In Bomb, Sheinkin takes three different story lines surrounding the development and building of the world’s most dangerous weapon and weaves them together. The first is the Americans trying to build the atomic bomb. The second is the Soviets and their attempts to steal the bomb through spies. I was fascinated with this part of the book. I was excited to see this written into a book for young adults. Sheinkin also includes a little information on the reality of who Stalin was. Young adults need to hear the truth on who the Soviets really were. Finally, the third story line was the Allies attempts to sabotage the German bomb program. This was really interesting, too. The details of these missions are sure to impress any reader.

Bomb is written in narrative non-fiction. For those that don’t know what this is, it is a genre that takes a historical event and tells it like a narrative story. It is such a valuable genre for getting readers to be interested in history. Those of us that are passionate about history know that it is best told in a story format. I wish more authors would write books in this manner for the young adult book market.

Bomb was a 2013 National Book Award Finalist, a Newbery Honor Book for 2013, a winner of the Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award from YALSA-ALA, and it won the Robert F. Sibert Medal for best informational text. Sheinkin should be applauded for his work in this text.

Consider buying a copy from our online store!

Sheinkin

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BOOK REVIEW: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

EndersGameI read several of the Ender’s series in high school. I was excited to find out that Ender’s Game will come out as a movie on November 1, so I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this book. Ender’s Game is a book that will satisfy many young adult readers. For the young reader that likes science fiction, this is a book that cannot be missed.

Ender’s Game is set in a dystopian future on earth. The world has already had one fierce battle with a race of aliens referred to as “buggers.” The world is scared. The International Fleet is created to draft and train the next generation of military leaders to fight the “buggers.”

Ender’s Game is a unique story because the new military leaders in this futuristic world are actually childhood geniuses. To an adult reader, this has an odd feel at times. The characters in this book, especially Ender, have knowledge and wisdom way beyond their years. I found myself trying to remember that this book was written for a young adult audience. The fact that this book was written for young adults is why it matters so much. For a teenager, a challenging part of adolescence is feeling like you don’t have a voice or are not respected by adults. Having a voice requires demonstrating that you actually deserve it. Ender is an intelligent, character-driven leader who shows teens what is required of them to be listened to by adults.

I love the themes in Ender’s Game! Much of this book is about leadership and Ender learning to be a leader. Ender is an advanced kid who is years beyond his peers. Because of this, he has to learn how to deal with bullying from those that are intimidated by his abilities. The discussions that Ender has with himself as he deals with his situations are very valuable to a young adult, especially a student that is “gifted”.

Another theme in the book is the development of the individual. As Ender grows he has to come to terms with the fact that he is a unique individual. Out of the struggles with the other students at battle school, Ender forms an identity that carries him through to his decisions during the climax and the resolution of the story.

Another positive of Ender’s Game is the political themes that run through the book. A reader will think about the relationship between the state, families, and individuals. Ender is a “third.” There are population laws in place. Only the first two children are provided an education. Parents are taxed as they have more children. Religion has been squelched by the international government. People that still practice religion are termed “non-compliant.”

Finally, a lot of the book deals with good versus evil. Ender and his brother, Peter, both walk a fine line between the two throughout the story. The plot events encourage the reader to think a lot about these two concepts and what they mean.

While the book has nothing to do with the topic, Orson Scott Card is an author religious conservatives should be aware of. He has taken much heat for being a defender of traditional marriage and the family. He is also a devout mormon. OrsonScottCard

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Book Review: Thin Wood Walls by David Patneaude

by Andrew Palmer 

ThinWoodWallsSadly, kids and young adults rarely get excited about history. Part of the reason is because history is often not taught to them in a way that engages them. It often comes off as a collection of meaningless dates and facts. As many of us know, history is usually filled with fascinating, engaging stories that illustrate the reality of human nature. I have often found that historical fiction is a way to get a kid to read something on history. David Patneaude should be applauded for his effort with this bookIt is an example of what historical fiction can and should be.

Thin Wood Walls tells the story of a Japanese-American family before and during America’s involvement in World War II. The story is told in the first-person narrative of Joe Hanada, the youngest of two sons in the Hanada family. Joe starts out the story as a normal eleven-year-old kid living in a town near Seattle, Washington. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and suddenly his family is at the center of scorn of an entire nation.

A couple things stood out to me in this book. First, I loved the fact that it tells the truth about this ugly period of American history. The fact is, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the beloved progressive Democrat, through Executive Order and no congressional approval, tossed 120,000 Japanese-Americans into concentration camps in the Mountain West. The first-person narrative really drives the point home of how cruel this was. You really get angry reading this as this young person tells his perspective of what is happening to him and to his family. Not only does this family get put in a camp, but the father is sent to another camp away from his family for three years!

Second, whether intentional or not*, I love the theme of being fearful of your government. Joe’s Grandmother has no love for governments. She left Japan because of the government, and as events unfold, she has no faith that the American government can or should be trusted either. It seems to me that many young adults in America are being conditioned to have way too much trust in their government. This book shows just how dangerous governments can be. They are ran by human beings, and human beings can be quite fallible. Our constitution was designed to actually protect us from the government. FDR and other progressives violated the constitution and trampled the civil liberties of these American citizens during this period of American history.

Thin Wood Walls is appropriate for kids as young as upper elementary. The younger reader may need a little background on the subject matter of the text, but I think they could handle the book quite well.

Lexile=620

Buy a copy of Thin Wood Walls in our Amazon Store!

*By all appearances, the author of this book is not a conservative. You can check out his blog on the second amendment where he demonstrates he has absolutely no clue what he is talking about. Guns are a plague, and our founding fathers had many inappropriate ideas, and the second amendment has something to do with muskets. Oh, brother…. He also gave Rachel Maddow’s book 4-stars on Goodreads. I debated not putting this review up, but I decided against it. This book is a good read. It has its place in the young adult library. Unlike many on the left, we know our history.

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Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

bookthiefby Andrew Palmer

Every so often you read a book that you know will always stick with you. This is one of those books. The Book Thief  had been on the New York Times Children Bestsellers list for over 5 years (The Times finally figured out a several months ago that there is a difference between young adult, middle school and children’s books. As of right now, it’s still on the young adult list.) Having now read the book, I think I understand why.

One of the most unique features about this book is the narrative voice. It is actually told from the perspective of the Grim Reaper as he tells the story of the book thief, Liesel Meminger. As he tells us in the end of the book, “There’s a multitude of stories that I allow to distract me as I work…” We usually conceive of the Reaper as this evil, hate filled creature. Instead, the Reaper in the book really just has a job to do. When we die he comes to harvest our souls. Sometimes we humans like to create a lot of work for him. It makes him a little cranky. The voice is brilliant, and it really makes this story work in ways that are not possible with a normal first or third person narration.

A good example of this voice comes from the chapter “Death’s Diary: 1942” that begins part six of the book. “A SMALL PIECE OF TRUTH: I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold. And I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I truly look like? I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.”

The structure of this book is unique. There are ten parts, a prologue, and an epilogue. Each section of the book is split out into small chapters. Most of the chapters of this book are quite small. Each chapter is then split into numerous smaller sections. There is an insane amount of page breaks in this book. In addition, there are these weird bold sections in each. The only way I know to describe them is to call them important announcements from the Grim Reaper as he tells the story.

Markus Zusak’s writing is amazing! He uses words in ways that sometimes just makes you stop and want to reread because the usage is so appropriate to what is happening in the book. The word choice is very impressive. It is writing that carries you effortlessly to the end of this 552 page text. Once at the end, you want to pick it up and do it all over again.

The title of the book comes from the main character, Liesel. She is, as death names her, a book thief. At the beginning of the book, she is not very literate. With the help of her foster father, she begins to read the first book she ever stole. So begins her love of words and books. As the story goes on, her book thievery plays a prominent role in the story to the backdrop of the events of Nazi Germany and World War II. Over the course of the story, Liesel’s foster parents take in and hide a Jew. This subplot takes a very prominent role in the middle of the book and has a large effect on the character development of Liesel.

I was struck by one of the things that Zusak did in the middle of this book. All of a sudden at the start of part five the Reaper just up and tells you the end of the story. It’s an interesting exercise in something good readers know, we don’t just read for the end of the book. As death states: “Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it….I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.”

The main theme of this book can be summed up as the importance and the power of words. It also is a brilliant commentary on the confusion that can be humanity. We are capable of such great beauty, but at the same time we can be capable of such evil. History is full of stories that demonstrate both. I hate to give the end of this book away, but the closing passage demonstrates the point quite well.

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant….All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know…A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR: I am haunted by humans.

There is a little mature language in this book.
Lexile: 730

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Book Review: Press Here by Herve Tullet

press here

When I was first introduced to Herve Tullet’s Press Here, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  This increasingly popular picture book looks simple at first glance, with instructions that prompt children to poke, shake, and play with the book itself.  Some pages are wordless, while other pages mimic interaction between the book and the child, but I still wasn’t sure I bought into the craze when I first read the book on my own. Yet, after seeing children read this book, I am totally sold on the concept.

This book is pure magic in the hands of a child. When I needed a copy to show my undergraduates, the preschool wouldn’t let me borrow their copy because the kids would have noticed it missing– they re-read it everyday during free play.  The preschool’s copy of the book was mangled and taped together, I could tell it was genuinely well-loved.   I’d seen the book listed on the New York Times Best-Sellers, but I was really impressed when children tried to show me “how to read” the book and encouraged me to shake it and press the “buttons” for myself.

When I was younger, I had the “Speak and Say” series and books that would supplement my reading with music, but Press Here doesn’t rely on technology or sound effects to engage the reader.   This book is no-fuss and entirely based upon the imagination of the reader.  Personally, I am an advocate for books that get children excited about literacy and that foster a passion for reading at a young age.  Press Here is not only fun, but it also gives children a sense of independence and interaction with a book, building self-esteem and encouraging creativity.

If I haven’t convinced you to take a look at this book the next time you’re at your local library, I think the book trailer for Press Here does an excellent job highlighting some of the great parts of this picturebook:

Mary Miller writes picturebook and young adult reviews for Conservative Teachers of America.  She has her MA in English and is studying for her PhD in Children’s Literature, while also teaching undergraduate Education courses in Ohio.  You can find her at her personal blog, Travels with Mary.  The views reflected in this review are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservative Teachers of America.

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Book Review: I Want My Hat Back & This is Not My Hat

I want my hat back

Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat won the Caldecott for 2012– I was shocked when I heard the announcement.  I’m currently working on my PhD in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, so I like to think that I’m pretty “in the know” when it comes to great picture books   I’d read (and loved) I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat and had taught both of them in my class, but I never predicted it would win one of the biggest awards in children’s literature!

I was pleasantly surprised.  This is Not My Hat is a great book and I think it totally fulfills the requirements of a Caldecott winner, but I enjoyed it as an adult and I thought it seemed a little too dark to be a winner.   I use both books to introduce my undergraduate students to a different side of children’s literature– they are always surprised that contemporary picture books aren’t rainbows and unicorns but instead can be suspenseful and darkly humorous. 

I Want My Hat Back follows a bear who is searching for his missing hat.  He asks different animals if they’ve seen his hat, and eventually finds a rabbit wearing his red, pointy hat.  The bear doesn’t notice the hat, the rabbit lies, but later the bear realizes “I have seen my hat” and goes back to confront the rabbit.  Children love the dramatic irony of seeing the hat on the rabbit and knowing something important to the story before the bear figures things out for himself.

But the crux of the story is in what isn’t written.  The bear and the rabbit face off… and then children are left to fill in the story for themselves.  The final page shows the bear sitting happily, saying “I love my hat.”  What happened to the rabbit? (All the children I’ve read it to, happily scream “he ate him!!”) The absence of action provides students a place to fill in the story with their own ideas– I’ve known teachers who have used this book as a jumping point for art and writing prompts with children.

This is Not My Hat follows a similar pattern, in which a little fish admits that he is wearing a stolen hat.  A bigger fish follows his path, looking for the hat, and the same gap in plot is shown when both fish are hidden in a two-page spread of seaweed.  The big fish swims out of the seaweed wearing his hat and children are left to interpret what happened to the little fish.  These two books are suspenseful and have children engaged and excited to turn the page, I love seeing children light up when they describe what happened to the little fish or giggle when the bear doesn’t notice that his hat is right in front of him.This is not my hat

I think Klassen’s drawings are brillant– the texture of the images and simple but expressive eyes of the characters set the tone for both books.  I’m delighted that he won the Caldecott, even if I was surprised to hear it!  Here is the trailer for This is Not My Hat— the music really gives you a good sense of the mood of the book.

Mary Miller writes picturebook and young adult reviews for Conservative Teachers of America.  She has her MA in English and is studying for her PhD in Children’s Literature, while also teaching undergraduate Education courses in Ohio.  You can find her at her personal blog, Travels with Mary.  The views reflected in this review are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservative Teachers of America.

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Book Review: Michael Vey 2: Rise of the Elgen

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This is the exciting follow-up to Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 from Glenn Beck‘s Mercury Ink. As I mentioned in my review of that book, I was disappointed with parts of it. With this follow-up I set my expectations low. I am happy to report that this book is everything I expected the first book to be!

When we left Michael in the first book, his mother had been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Hatch and the Elgen. This book is focused on Michael and the other members of the Electroclan going to free Michael’s mother.

One of the best parts of this book is the main character, Michael Vey. Michael is not your typical hero. He struggles with Tourette’s syndrome which often flairs up when he is under stress. At the end of the book, Michael is faced with a dilemma of certain death, or sell out his friends and values to save himself. Michael makes the right choice and faces certain death.

Some will say that Vey is not a believable character because he does not act like a real high school aged student. Maybe, but I tend to find that many teenagers would never make the character driven decisions that Vey makes in this book. We live in a society that seems to view immaturity as a positive. We are led to believe that kids like Michael never exist, or if they do, there is something wrong with them. So, maybe it is a good thing that Vey doesn’t exactly resemble the average high school teenager in America.

One of the things the first book struggled with was that it was poorly edited. Personally, I thought it was poorly written at times, too. This led to plot holes and a story that seemed choppy and forced. The dialogue in this book is still flat at points, but overall this book is a marked improvement from the first one.

I was interested in the science that Evans included in the book. Michael and his fellow Electroclan members all have special electric powers that were the result of a medical device that did not work properly. In this book Evans adds in even more science. The Elgen have figured out how to create genetically modified rats that create energy. It is definitely a unique form of renewable energy, and oddly, it seems to work quite well. The Elgen have these power plants where they put millions of these modified rats into this bowl that acts as a conductor. The feeding of the rats is, well, a little gross, especially when the evil Dr. Hatch tosses in a human.

Speaking of Hatch, Evans has done an excellent job of creating a very evil villain. Hatch seems very real, spooky real at times, and Evans has developed him nicely from the first book. In this one he is even more evil and dangerous than the first one.

I rated this book a five because it kept me on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next. The action sequences towards the end of the book are very engaging and entertaining. I enjoy good science fiction that seems believable. I also love a story that has a character that demonstrates integrity and leadership. Michael Vey should be in every middle school library in this country.

Lexile 610

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Book Review: Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25

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Before I get into my review (it is a little critical), I want to explain why I think this book series is so important. Michael Vey is published by Mercury Ink. For those of you that don’t know what Mercury Ink is, it is the book imprint of Glenn Beck‘s Mercury Radio Arts. Beck is one of the few conservatives that seem to grasp the connection between culture and politics. The exciting thing about this series is it is expected to be seven books long, and it’s not political at all. This means there is no reason that this book should not be in every middle school library in the country.

Because of the above, I had really high hopes for this book, but I ended up being a little disappointed by it. My biggest complaint would have to be the writing, it’s careless at times.

Michael Vey is a freshman who lives in Idaho with his single mother. Yes, Idaho, the state with the potatoes, and, well, not much else. Trust me, he is there for a good reason. Michael is not quite like the other kids, he has Tourette’s, and there is that peculiar issue of him being able to shock another person with about 1000 volts of electricity if he chooses to. Michael is one of 17 children that have special powers. You are probably wondering why Michael has these powers. Well, you’re going to have to read it to find out, but let’s just say it involves an evil corporation and a plan to take over the world. We’ll leave it at that.

There are some really good aspects of this text. To begin with, it is a really easy read. It has a Lexile level of 500. This makes it accessible to almost every reader at the middle school level and up. The text of the book is very dialogue rich, and that seems to advance the story quickly. Second, it is a new young adult series, and it is not vampires or fantasy!

The main conflict of the story presents the reader with a clear choice between good and evil, and you find yourself rooting for Michael and the other characters involved in the story. It’s about character, Michael is a great kid that lives in a loving single-family home. Finally, the science fiction part of the story is good science fiction, in other words, it seems plausible. It is not some weird alien story that is off-putting to readers that do not like science fiction.

As I said above, the text is sloppy at times. Plot events seem to advance at inappropriate speeds. There are a couple of specific events in the story that make no sense. The final conflict in the story did not add up to me either. It seemed too easy for the characters’ situation. It struck me as a book that was rushed to deadline, or had an editor that just was not very good.

I also struggled with the characters. They appeared a little immature for their age. I have had several students in my classroom (7th grade English) read this, and that does not seem to bother them. So, it is probably just my perception as an adult reader reading a young adult book. Many of my kids have given this book a five-star review.

All in all, this is a good first attempt at a new young adult series, it’s different, and in today’s young adult marketplace different is good. The good news is the second book is outstanding! I will have a review up for that one in the coming weeks.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lincoln’s Last Days: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever

LincolnsLastDays

This is the first of our book reviews of children’s/teen/young adult literature. We are currently looking for more people to help with this project. Please check out this post to find out more.

This is the young adult version of Bill O’Reilly’s highly successful Killing Lincoln. This book is a great addition to young adult literature.

Lincoln’s Last Days is split into four parts and then further divided into fifty-six chapters. The four parts focus on different aspects of “Lincoln’s last days.” Part one looks at the last days of the end of the Civil War. Part two looks at the conspirators and their planning of the assassination. Part three looks at the day of the assassination. Finally, part four is the chasing of Lincoln’s killers. In addition to the body of the text, there are several additional sections in the back that focus on specific topics.

I really liked the way this book was written. One of the challenges in getting young adults to pick up books on American history is that they are often written like textbooks. This book reads like a narrative story. As mentioned above, the book is split into fifty-six chapters. These chapters are very short, often only two or three pages at times, and they move the reader quickly through the story. One other positive is that this book is full of pictures. For a young reader, these pictures are a huge bonus because they make the history in this book visible. Even as an adult reader, I found myself enjoying the pictures.

Lincoln’s Last Days reminds me a lot of James Swanson’s Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. I read this book a couple of years ago. It also is written in a narrative form. The biggest difference is that it just focuses on the manhunt of John Wilkes Booth.

With its short chapters, engaging writing, and topic that is just interesting to begin with, Lincoln’s Last Days is a great book for any teen/young adult reader. 

Lexile Level: 1020

Listen to the Prologue and Chapter 1 on YouTube:

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