Juana and Lucas by Juana Medina

This is a really delightful book about a girl in Bogota, Columbia who loves Brussels sprouts, likes to draw and has a dog named Juana and LucasLucas. She loves to play futbol, to read late into the night and to be with her best friend. On this first day of school she has some problems. The best futbol player switches from her team because he doesn’t like to lose. Worst of all she has to learn “the English,” which is hard to learn and to pronounce and “nada de fun” or no fun at all. But since her grandfather has promised to bring the family to visit Spaceland in the U.S., she must learn English in order to speak to Astroman, her hero.  Juana goes to all the grown ups she knows to ask their opinions on the matter.

The illustrations are exuberant and sometimes seem to fly across the page. I loved reading the book and look forward to more books about Juana.  The author incorporates Spanish words and phrases in the text in a wonderful manner.

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Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.wolf-hollow

I don’t mean the small fibs that children tell. I mean real lies fed by real fears—things I said and did that took me out of the life I’d always known and put me down hard into a new one….

     The year I turned twelve, I learned that what I said and what I did mattered.”
So begins Wolf Hollow, masterfully written by Lauren Wolk and drawing the reader right in.  It is 1943 and Annabelle and three generations of her family live on a farm in Pennsylvania.  She walks to school in a one room school house, but as the story begins, we learn that a bully has demanded money from her on her way home.  The bully, a new girl named Betty, has been “sent to the country because she was incorrigible.” Betty had stepped out from behind a tree in Wolf Hollow and stood in her path and threatened to beat her with a stick if she didn’t bring her something the next day.  Wolf Hollow had been named because men used to dig pits there to catch wolves who were killing chickens and such.   As Betty’s threats and escalate, she proves herself to be a “dark-hearted girl who came to our hills and changed everything.”
Instead of using the road to go from the hollow to the houses on the other side of Annabelle’s family’s farm, they often would walk across the fields.  Lots of people did.  But one person was different.  Toby was a veteran of WWI with his scarred left hand and his long oilcloth coat, carrying three rifles on his back. Toby lived in an old smokehouse which was hidden among trees and bushes.  annabelle met Toby when she was nine, outside taking photos.  As she slowly realized he was standing there watching her she took one of him.  He asked her if he could borrow it, and she gave it to him.  Toby would in time cover the inside of the smokehouse with his photos of the sky, the woods and the orchards.
Betty continues her hateful deeds, not unnoticed by quiet Toby.  When a rock is thrown and hits  Annabelle’s friend in the eye, Betty accuses Toby.  So when Betty goes missing, and Toby can’t be found, people begin to suspect him.  Not Annabelle though.

Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

Here is a wonderful fantasy filled with riddles that is great for middle grade students, especially ones who like riddles. It is also Gabriel-Finleypacked with animal, or avian, lore as well as being based upon two ravens from Norse mythology, Huginn and Munin. The story alternates between the story of Paladin, a baby raven, and Gabriel. Gabiel Finley is eleven-years old, living in an old part of Brooklyn with his aunt. His mother disappeared when he was very young and his father has been gone for three years. Gabriel is an expert on riddles; he says they create flexible minds. It turns out that ravens also are riddle experts. That is how they can tell if another raven is indeed a raven or a valraven. Valravens have no sense of humor and are “vicious, spiteful creatures.” Nothing is funny to them. The first valraven was created when a raven obeyed a phantom who told him he could live forever if he at the flesh of his master. Since then humans began to shun ravens as soldiers saw valravens eating dead soldiers on battlefields. Before then ravens and humans were friends.

As Gabriel notices that he knows what a raven is thinking, Paladin learns that his grandfather had an amicus, a raven’s human friend, that they could share thoughts and paravolate, merge and fly together. Later, when Gabriel receives his father’s childhood diary, he learns that his father could also communicate with a wounded raven who he took to his father to heal. His father learned that this raven was in danger from Corax and when he asked who Corax was, he was told that Corax was his older brother.

Gabriel and Paladin embark on an adventure to the underground world of Aviopolis, where he must use riddles to rescue his father who is being held prisoner. Traveling with them is an untrustworthy thief, two friends from school and a young violin player named Penelope. They are clearly drawn and unique.

I loved the beginning and the end, but became impatient in the middle. Though set in Brooklyn, it felt like it could have been set anywhere. Except for Aviopolis, which is very vivid, the book lacks a strong sense of place.  The author left room for a sequel.

ALA Youth Media Awards

2014 youth media awardsI was so excited to read the press release of the ALA Youth Media Awards.  Granted, I was late in reading them.  I was up until  7:30 am coughing from bronchitis as well as finishing Laurie Halse Anderson’s fabulous new book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, and the soon to be released middle grade book by Karen Foxlee, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy.

So I wound up sleeping till mid afternoon, but I was so excited to see that Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures which I recently gushed over, won the Newbery Medal.   Paperboy  by Vince Vawter was the one Newbery Honor book that I’ve read and reviewed.

As to the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults, I was also excited to see that Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick won  and that Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner were named as Honor Books.  I haven’t read Navigating Early by Claire Vanderpool, but I have it on hold at my library along with P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia, winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award  This important award for such a crucial age group, and most of the others besides the Newbery, is sorely left out of many newspapers.

I can’t wait to listen to the audiobook of Scowler by Daniel Kraus and narrated by Kirby Heyborne, winner of the 2014 Odyssey Award.  When I was on the Odyssey Award Committee in 2012 we picked Rotters by Kraus, also narrated by Kirby Heyborne.  It is the terrifying, but compelling story of the descent of a high school boy who has recently moved in with his father after his mother’s death into the world of grave robbing.  I know Scowlers will be just as exciting.

Another book that won an award that is not as well known, the Schneider Family Book Award for books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience, is Rose under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, a heart rending book about women who were experimented upon at Ravensbrück.  It was selected in the teen section.

I would be remiss not to congratulate Australian writer Marcus Zuzak, winner of the 2014  Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults.  His most well known book is The Book Thief, but his other books, I am the Messenger, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and Getting the Girl also deserve praise.

Congratulations to the authors of all these books and the many others that were winners and honor recipients.  A full list can be found here.  Congratulations also to all the committee people who have worked long hours all through the year, reading or listening to hundreds of books.  I though I had posted more of my reviews here, but I guess not.  While I was still working, I was lucky if I got to put them on GoodReads.

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

The Thing about Luck is a quiet, beautiful book that needs the right readers. It’s written for youth, but is not the thing about luckkind of book that most kids are looking for. Indeed I had never read a book quite like it.

This has been a year of bad luck for the family and when their parents have to suddenly depart for Japan, Summer and her brother wind up as the charges of their grandparents Obaachan and Jiichan. It is getting near to wheat harvest time and Obaachan and Jiichan will have to do the work of their parents. Of course Summer and Jaz work hard too. They work for a family, the Parkers, that own combines, and the grandparents drive them to Texas rushing all night to get in the harvest before the rains come. Summer and her grandmother do the cooking for the crew. But when the crew has to split up and she and her Obaachan go to Oklahoma to beat the rain, her grandmother drives the combine.  Knowing how important this harvest is, Summer sneaks out at night to do her share of harvesting.

It’s an incredibly hard life, working against time and weather, bringing along homework and falling in love with the Parker’s son, all while living with her strict yet ailing Obaachan who nags Summer all the time, but who really loves her.

Flora and Ulysses by Kate diCamillo

flora and ulyssesOne of my favorite books of the year is Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures.  It is an absolutely fantastical book about Flora, a lover of comic books, whose mother,  an author of romance novels,  makes her sign a contract to stop reading comics and “turn her face … toward the bright light of literature.”    Flora who hates romance books, to say nothing of romance,  rescues a poetry writing, super hero squirrel whom she names Ulysses from the next door neighbor’s vacuum and thus begins the book.  It is filled with references to her favorite comic series, The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!   They’ve done issues on everything and Flora has a knack of coming into contact with lots of terrible things.  Her other favorite comic is The Criminal Element and she considers everyone she meets capable of nefarious deeds.

Flora and Ulysses radiates a joy of words, of finding the right word to express a feeling, as when Dr. Meerschaum surreptitiously teaches Flora the word ‘capacious’ to describe Flora’s father’s heart. It is also filled with lovely, somewhat old fashioned illustrations as well as comic strips by  K. G. Campbell that tell part of the story.

The characters include the next door neighbor great nephew, William Spiver, who thinks he is blind.  As he says to Flora, “it’s not even that I bump into things.  It’s more that things leap out of nowhere and bump into me.  My mother says that this is because I live in my head as opposed to living in the world.  But I ask you: don’t we all live in our heads?”  Among the other great characters is Dr. Meerschaum, doctor of philosophy, to whom Flora brings Ulysses when he’s had a concussion.  She is full of non sequiturs, but leads Flora to understand how sad her father is to live apart from her. When Flora tells her she’s a cynic, Dr. Meerschaum replies, “bah cynics…cynics are people who are afraid to believe.” (P. 129)

“Holy unanticipated occupancies!”  “Holy begumba” as Flora and her father would say, this is a great book.  We couldn’t have a better National Ambassador  of Young People’s Literature, a position to which DiCamillo was just named and which lasts for two years.