Saturday, May 31, 2014

Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The typical young adult novel today has a tendency to begin with one or more parents being absent, or on drugs or dead. It is an understandable albeit annoying literary concept. The author wants to have the teen in the position of responsibility. Having a parent in the picture reverts the authority to the adult instead of the teen. Just like vampires and zombies books, the missing adult has become an overused concept. So when I read, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, I was pleasantly surprised to find a coming of age young adult novel that begins with both parents who are present, supportive and play a significant role in their children’s lives.

The story revolves around twelve year old twin basketball sensations, Josh and Jordan Bell. These boys learned the game from their father, former professional basketball player, Chuck “Da Man” Bell. Josh, the narrator, focuses squarely on the game of basketball. However his twin brother, Jordan aka “JB” Bell, has shifted his attention away from his brother, finding the new girl in school a lot more interesting. Thus the conflict begins. Josh is confused and jealous by JB’s attention to the girl he nicknames “Miss Sweet Tea”. These inner conflicts lead Josh to impulsively lash out at JB on the court; a move that gets him kicked off the team, not by the coach but by his mother, Dr. Bell, who also happens to be their school’s assistant principal. Add to that turmoil the underlying issue of their father’s health. The boys find out that their father left professional basketball because he refused to go the doctor to have an operation. Although Mr. Bell shows symptoms like fainting spells and nose bleeds throughout the story he refuses to take his health issues seriously. Could this be a precursor to a parental demise? Of course you are going to have to read the story to find out!

Teens and tweens are going to love The Crossover because it’s about teenage boys playing basketball, championship playoffs and girl drama. The cover, showing a silhouetted basketball player in black and orange balancing a basketball on his finger against a simple white background, will draw teenagers into opening the book. The first page begins with a rap verse showing text in various sizes and fonts including words running laterally down the page to mimic the boys’ action on the basketball court. Each development in the story occurs on the page in verse form, sometimes as a rhythmic rap, other times in short phrases; the various styles of verse echoing the action and energy of the story. Between the subject, the play-by-play action and in-verse format, kids are going to grab this one off the shelves!

For adults the draw is author, Kwame Alexander’s, theme of “family” masterfully woven throughout the novel. He focuses his entire story on only the four family members plus the increased presence of the girlfriend; illustrating the shift in the dynamics of the family. The parents provide support for the boys through insightful family “basketball rules; life lessons for the home as well as the basketball court. This novel also breaks through many cultural stereotypes. Their mother, Dr. Bell, is a working woman and a loving mother. Their father’s role is to “coach the house”; providing guidance and support for the family from home. When the boys make mistakes, the parents give them realistic consequences. The family fights, but not about drugs or guns or cheating. They fight about finances, health issues and sibling rivalry.

The publishing company chose to recommend “Crossover” to readers in grades 4 to 7. However, I feel this amazing book will also attract older teens as well as adults. So let’s buck the trend of the absent or dysfunctional parent!  The Crossover demonstrates how positive role models can be successfully added to a young adult novel to enhance, not hinder, a teen’s independent choices. It’s a trend that could ignite a positive movement in young adult literature.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Darius and Twig by Walter Dean Myers

Summary courtesy of
New York Times bestselling author and Printz Award winner Walter Dean Myers once again connects with teenagers everywhere in Darius & Twig, a novel about friendship and needing to live one's own dream. This touching and raw teen novel from the author of MonsterKickWe Are AmericaBad Boy, and many other celebrated literary works for children and teens is a Coretta Scott King Honor Book.
Darius and Twig are an unlikely pair: Darius is a writer whose only escape is his alter ego, a peregrine falcon named Fury, and Twig is a middle-distance runner striving for athletic success. But they are drawn together in the struggle to overcome the obstacles that life in Harlem throws at them. The two friends must face down bullies, an abusive uncle, and the idea that they'll be stuck in the same place forever.

Review - 
145th Street Harlem… No protection from the gangs, violence, and thugs outside the front steps or absent fathers, depressed mothers and abusive uncles behind closed doors.  Unsupportive teachers and counselors at school who have lost faith in motivating their students. No guidance, no faith, no hope…

But two best friends, Darius and Twig, are there to support each other; to find vision and purpose; to find the best in each other.  Darius is a young aspiring writer who has a chance at a college scholarship if he could just revise the story he turned into the college magazine, The Delta Review. Twig is an exceptional middle length runner who sees his for chance for college if he stands out at his high school track meets. Both have dreams of coveted scholarships and the chance to be move beyond the low expectations of the people around them.

This is a story of True friendship!

Like Darius’s alter ego, his imaginary Peregrine falcon; Fury… these boys are going to fly!!!

Walter Dean Myers, who grew up in Harlem, is celebrated for an expressive, genuine writing style that depicts the essence of the inner city. Darius and Twig is no exception; care is taken to emphasize the hope for the characters without losing their urban dialect. Characters in the story like Midnight and Tall Boy or Twig’s Uncle paint a harsh picture of their worlds. This relatively short yet gripping novel; only 201 pages will attract reluctant readers.  The language used is strong and the situations are violent. For this reason I would recommend the book to readers in grades 8 and up. I would also recommend listening to this book on audioCD. Brandon Gill does a superb job giving distinct voices to the various characters. I feel it gave me a better appreciation for the novel than if I had just read the book. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Boxers and Saints By Jean Luen Yang


China,1898. Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants.
Little Bao has had enough. Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers - commoners trained in kung fu who fight to free China from "foreign devils."
Against all odds, this grass-roots rebellion is violently successful. But nothing is simple. Little Bao is fighting for the glory of China, but at what cost? So many are dying, including thousands of "secondary devils" - Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity.
----Boxers & Saints is an innovative new graphic novel in two volumes - the parallel stories of two young people caught up on opposite sides of a violent rift. American Born Chinese author Gene Luen Yang brings his clear-eyed storytelling and trademark magical realism to the complexities of the Boxer Rebellion and lays bare the foundations of extremism, rebellion, and faith.
Discover the other side of the Boxer Rebellion in Saints - the companion volume to Boxers.
Summary courtesy of

“Boxers” by Gene Luen Yang follows the life of a Chinese boy in the retelling of one of the bloodiest times in Chinese history known as the Boxer rebellion.  The story begins with Little Bao as a young boy, anxiously awaiting Spring and the arrival of the Little Bao’s passion; operas. Each of the operas tells of the legends of Chinese Gods like Sun-Wu Kong; the monkey god and Guan Yu; the God of War.   Little Bao’s lives with his two brave brothers, and his honorable father in a farming village. Life is not easy; all the villagers are aware that their crops are at the mercy of flooding rains but work as a community when times are tough. Soon a much more dangerous threat comes to the villager’s way of life. “Round-eyed Foreigners” and their Chinese converts, preaching about their “One God” arrive in the village.  These impudent foreign devils take what they want, push their foreign religion and take control the Ch’ing Government. Little Bao’s father attempt to appeal to the magistrate ends when he is beaten senseless by soldiers. This cannot continue!! They feel they must do something! They must fight back!
Passions arise! Little Bao, his brothers and friends join the legendary Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, a band of Chinese Nationals who are fighting to bring justice and control of China back to its people. The decree is noble; resist corruption, honor your parents, give compassion to the weak, and protect each other.  Before battle each of this group elicits the spirit of their Gods with the belief that they will make them invulnerable in battle. Bao, now leader of his group, is guided by the spirit of Ch’in Shih-Huang, the First Divine sovereign, the Son of Heaven. Their noble goal is to eradicate the foreigners and “secondary devils” from the land and unite China again; but at what cost? War rarely remains noble and is always bloody. Bao begins to question his decisions as the conflict turns more and more violent. How will this rebellion end? Who will win? Read “Boxers” by Gene Luen Yang and find out.  

"Saints" shows the rebellion through the eyes of Four-girl. Four-girl is the unwelcome, unwantedfourth daughter born on the fourth month of the forth day; four is a homonym of "death" Finding no friendship or love in her family, Four-girl finds friendship and a name, Virbiana,  in the christian missionaries who have settled in the nearby village. But now is not a good time to be a Christian in China, Bands of vigilantes are scouring the countryside hunting down Christians and their  Chinese converts. When confronted by the rebels, Virbiana will have to decide where her loyalties lie, and whether they are worth dying for.  

Author, Gene Luen Yang meant for this graphic novel to be read as a two book set along with the Christian viewpoint told in the novel entitled, “Saints”.  Yang captures the passions of both sides of the Boxer rebellion showing that no one truly wins in war. In fact, Virbaina and Boa lives are personally entwined in the two novels. The picture below shows Bao's first encounter with Virbaina when they were children. Before this graphic novel I had never heard of the Boxer Rebellion. I found myself researching for information on the rebellion in the library’s encyclopedias. Yang successfully mixes bits of humor with fanatical passions to bring us an amazing epic adventure. The drawings thoughtfully portray Bao’s humbler existence in muted pastels for most of the novel. However, when the story introduces the Chinese Gods and battle scenes the color transforms to more vivid colors. Although the drawings are simple, Yang reveals the battle scenes in bloody detail. For this reason I would recommend “Boxers” to students in grades 8 and up.

I would recommend reading the companion book, Saints to understand the Rebellion from the Christian and their Chinese convert point of view. I would also suggest Gene Luen Yang’s Prinz award winner, American Born Chinese. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Counting by 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Summary (courtesy of Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn't kept her from leading a quietly happy life . . . until now.
Suddenly Willow's world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

Review: Wow! As I began reading about WIllow, my first thoughts were, “She’s such a special gifted girl with caring supporting adoptive parents who supports her passions. She couldn't have asked for a better life” Then…. POW! we are confronted with the worse tragedy a child could encounter; the sudden death of both of her parents. Personally I thought many of the situations that occurred in the story were not realistic. The Social Services officers would not automatically allow a non-relative have custody of someone. Also the chain of events were too predictable, too prepared, especially the conclusion. However, I still loved the compassionate empowering feeling of the story.  I enjoyed the way the author weaved the uniquely individual characters lives toward each other. Each of the secondary characters are imperfect, raw, tainted by life and damaged in their own way. The tragedy of Willow’s loss drives each of them into action to not only help Willow but also to help themselves.

All things Laini Taylor!!

Summary courtesy of 
Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. 

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages--not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out.

When one of the strangers--beautiful, haunted Akiva--fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

Review – This book series has been on my “To Read” list for quite a while! Once I did, I couldn’t help but be swept away by author, Laini Taylor’s, beautiful imagery and masterful storyteller dialog. The first in the series,”Daughter of Smoke and Bone” grabbed me from the first words, “Once upon a time, an angel and devil fell in love. It did not end well”. Karou with her flaming blue hair is artistic and confident, attends art school in Prague. Everyone is impressed by her creative drawings of mysterious horrific beasts. They are so masterfully drawn that you’d think they were real… which of course, they are. Karou is not as she appears, she’s been raised by beasts called “chimaerae”. Her  task is travel through portals scouring the Earth in search of human and animal teeth for her guardian, Brimstone, though in the beginning she’s not sure why. Mysterious black handprints begin to appear above the portal doors and Karou finds herself face to face with a Cherubim, hauntingly beautiful yet deadly to her people. Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone blurs the lines between what is perceived as good and evil, righteousness and oppression, love and obsession. The Trilogy offers the reader a complex plot with multiple twists. A masterfully written mix of realistic fiction and fantasy. I would highly recommend the book series to young adult fantasy enthusiasts.

(Summary from
      Art student and monster's apprentice Karou finally has the answers she has always sought. She knows who she is--and what she is. But with this knowledge comes another truth she would give anything to undo: She loved the enemy and he betrayed her, and a world suffered for it.
      In this stunning sequel to the highly acclaimed Daughter of Smoke & Bone, Karou must decide how far she'll go to avenge her people. Filled with heartbreak and beauty, secrets and impossible choices,Days of Blood & Starlight finds Karou and Akiva on opposing sides as an age-old war stirs back to life. While Karou and her allies build a monstrous army in a land of dust and starlight, Akiva wages a different sort of battle: a battle for redemption. For hope. But can any hope be salvaged from the ashes of their broken dream?

Review: The Days of Blood and Starlight is the second in the “Daughter of Smoke and Bone Series”.  Author Laini Taylor continues her award winning series revolving around Karou, Akiva and a host of other compelling characters. This time I borrowed the audiobook from the library to listen to on my commute. OMG!!! Narrator Khristine Hvam is phenomenal! Ms. Hvam breathes lives into the characters Laini Taylor creates. I would highly recommend listening to this series or, in fact, anything other audiobook which features Khristine Hvam as the narrator. Now that I've experienced Karou and Akiva’s story on through Khristine’s voice, I have to continue to the last of the series, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, in audiobook format. 

What’s next?? Of course…. the last in this series, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, preferably on Audiotape!!!


Laini Taylor author visit at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. 

Rhoda Crowell, Jackie Hart, Laini Taylor and Deanne Goudreau

A couple of friends who are also fellow Laine Taylor enthusiasts, Jackie Hart and Deanna Goudreau, traveled with me to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley Massachusetts for an author visit hosted by the Odyssey Bookshop on Thursday, April 24th. What a great experience to listen to Laini Taylor, ask questions about her experiences as an author or how she developed the characters and plot of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy.
The Odyssey Bookshop also had fun activities like glitter tattoos and costumes for “selfie” pictures. All in all it was a fun experience and a thrill to meet Laini Taylor!