Category Archives: Book Reviews

Mountain Dog

Mountain Dog

Margarita Engle, illustrated by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov

ISBN:  9780805095166

I started out reading all of the 2015-2016 Texas Bluebonnet Award nominees with the best intentions.  Summer reading derailed part of the reading, and now, our copies of the books are almost always checked out.  Which reminds me…I need to start on the 2016-2017 list earlier (maybe right away), although I am still going to try and read all of this year’s nominees.  Anyway, my most recent read:  Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle.  Of all the books I’ve read so far, this one generated some of the most complex emotions.  I alternately loved and hated it, but it’s definitely one not to miss.

Summary:  When Tony’s mother is sent to jail for dog fighting, he goes to live with a great uncle he didn’t even know he had.  He is so used to fear and anger from his old life that he is very hesitant of this new one, made even harder because there is nothing in common between the two worlds.  With the patience of his uncle and his uncle’s search-and-rescue dog, Gabe, Tony slowly learns that there is good to be found in the world, often in unexpected places.

What I Liked:  This book has a beautiful plot.  Tony’s story is heartbreaking, and yet all too realistic.  As I read, I couldn’t help but think of how many Tony’s might be out there without a loving uncle to save them.  I also loved the use of two perspectives:  both that of Tony and of Gabe.  While Tony’s segments teach us about his struggles to embrace his new life and to find trust and love again, Gabe’s narration provides us deeper insight into the complexity of this struggle.  Gabe’s simple happiness provides the perfect foil to Tony’s emotional turmoil, and through his dedication to loving Tony and proving that happiness exists, we can easily see Tony begin to open his heart again.  What I think I loved best about this book is that the emotions are raw and real.  Yes, there is happiness and love.  But there is also anger, and fear, and resentment.  Engle does not shy away from any emotion, and has a more realistic, meaningful story because of it.

What I Didn’t Like:  At first, I wasn’t thrilled that this book was written entirely in free-verse poetry.  I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but from the book’s summary and even the cover, I guess I was anticipating action-packed chapters.  Which, to be fair, this book does provide.  While I initially thought that having the book written in such a poetic format did a disservice to its plot, in reality, I think it provided for a sense of drama and intrigue that focused on the emotions in a way that more traditional writing might not have allowed.  While it did take some getting used to, I didn’t find reading poetry to be nearly as distracting as I thought it would be.  My only other complaint would be with Gabe’s chapters.  While I love his as a foil for Tony’s emotions, at times I thought that he was included too often and without offering anything additional to the plot, as though he were merely repeating ideas from previous chapters.

Overall Feeling:  When I started reading this book, I thought that I would hate it.  By the time I finished reading it, I loved it.  It was actually one of my favorite titles that I’ve read from the list so far.  This book has it all:  emotion, character, drama, and intrigue.  It addresses hard topics fairly, but without shying away from the realities of the situations.  It forces you to think, and, more importantly, to feel Tony’s story as you read it.  I will, however, admit that this book isn’t for everyone.  The poetic writing style may be a turn-off for some readers and discourage them from fully enjoying the text.  I would recommend this book for anyone who enjoys realistic fiction or animal stories.  However, given the complexity of the emotions described and some of the situations Tony encounters, I would recommend this title to the older end of the Bluebonnet audience from a maturity standpoint.  Still, this is one you absolutely MUST read from this year’s list.

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The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life

The Scraps Book:  Notes from a Colorful Life

Lois Ehlert

ISBN:  9781442435711

I recently finished reading another Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee, this time a nonfiction title:  The Scraps Book:  Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert.  I was actually looking forward to getting to this title on the list, mostly because I love Lois Ehlert’s books and often use them in story time.  Although it is an autobiography, the book is presented in picture book format, so it reads quickly.  However, the simple format doesn’t detract from the text; rather, it encourages a deeper understanding of Ehlert’s career as an artist.

Summary:  Lois Ehlert has considered herself an artist since a very young age.  Encouraged by her parents and inspired by all manner of things around her, she has spent many years creating beautiful works of art.  Ehlert outlines not only her development as an artist, but also her process for creating the artwork for her books.  Using examples and illustrations from many of her popular titles, this text provides a beautiful explanation of Ehlert’s life and encourages the reader to develop their own artistic talents.

What I Liked:  This book is truly a masterpiece, incorporating not only Ehlert’s personal memories, but also her beautiful artwork.  The combination of childhood photographs and book illustrations seamlessly shows the transition between her artistic beginnings and the growth of her dream.  In addition to the familiar pictures, the book also includes pictures of objects and the creative process in developing them, showing the reader how a single idea or moment can translate into a picture or even an entire story.  The inclusion of simple craft instructions also encourages the reader to attempt their own artistic creations.  I particularly enjoyed the notes accompanying the artwork and photos included.  While reading this information is not necessary for understanding the process, the added information provides extra depth to the narrative.  I also appreciated the photo credits for each of the illustrations, which helped remind me of some of my favorite works.

What I Didn’t Like:  I don’t really have any complaints with this book.  It is informative, engaging, and useful in several contexts.  While at times I wished more information was included, the simplicity of the text added to the overall beauty of the work.  Readers of all ages are sure to enjoy this work.

Overall Feeling:  This autobiography is simple and compelling.  Whether a fan of Ehlert’s work or not, at the very least, the reader can appreciate the development of the artistic process, the use of mixed media, and the inspiration from everywhere in creating art.  One of the most compelling parts of this book is the underlying message:  Anyone has the capability to succeed at their dreams.  Anyone has the capacity to create art and beauty.  At the same time, Ehlert remains realistic that sometimes developing one’s dream requires time and patience, an important reminder for many.  I would recommend this book for anyone interested in art, or anyone interested in the works of Lois Ehlert.  Teachers and students alike will appreciate this work, and the simplicity and engaging illustrations will be appealing to both older and younger readers.

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The Vanishing Coin

The Vanishing Coin

Kate Egan with Magician Mike Lane; illustrated by Eric Wight

ISBN:  9781250029140

In the latest round of Texas Bluebonnet Award nominees, it’s time for another chapter book.  Due up:  The Vanishing Coin by Kate Egan (with assistance from Magician Mike Lane).  Once again, this book is the first in a series.  The book reads quickly (I was able to finish it in a day), but overall, I did not find it to be on the same level as the other nominees.  While billed as a chapter book, I found the text to simple, the story line too simplistic, and the character development too flat to be on par with the other chapter books that I’ve read so far.

Summary:  Mike Weiss has just started fourth grade, and despite his best efforts, the school year is turning out to be as terrible as every year before it.  He’s terrible at staying focused and on task, and, much to his dismay, is in the principal’s office within the first week of school.  Added to his problems, his classmate Jackson is a grade-A bully, and, due to his parents’ new friendship with the neighbors, he has to spend his afternoons with the somewhat nerdy, definitely female Nora.  Just when it seems that all hope for the year is lost, Nora and Mike stumble upon The White Rabbit, a hidden magic shop in a local shopping center.  Has Mike finally discovered something that he can be good at?

What I Liked:  Initially, Mike presented as a very likable character, a fourth-grade boy struggling with attention problems and poor academics.  However, given the brevity of the story, Mike as a character is never fully developed.  The author touches briefly on his struggles in school, and his frustration at always letting those around him down, but these feelings are not fully explored.  Also, I enjoyed the inclusion of the magic tricks that Mike was learning, since it gave the reader a chance to practice magic as well and learn something while reading.  However, I didn’t like that they appeared in the middle of the chapters as Mike was practicing them.  I found them distracting, and think they would have been better served somewhere else in the text.

What I Didn’t Like:  Even though this book was easy to read, I just couldn’t get into the story.  I felt like character development fell short, the plot line was lacking, and the book ended abruptly.  Even though I read this book knowing it was the first book in a series, I expected some conclusions by the end of the book.  However, it ends as if there are more chapters to read, and there is no plot resolution for any of the issues presented.  Readers will have to read the second book if they want to know what happens with Mike and Nora.  While the language is simple and straightforward, I found it too easy to read as a chapter book.  There was nothing to challenge me while reading.  Although the ideas of struggling with what you are good at and disappointing others are good, they lack development to fully explore the issues.  While Mike is a fourth-grade student, the book in no way appeals to a fourth grade audience.

Overall Feeling:  While this story may appeal to some readers, as a nominee for the Texas Bluebonnet Award, it falls short.  The story and its writing and too simplistic to put it on par with the other nominees.  The book, while enjoyable, will not hold the attention or interest of an older audience, and lacks the appeal of some of the picture book titles on the list.  Reading the sequel will be a requirement to anyone who hopes for plot resolution, so I don’t recommend this title for anyone who is looking for a one-and-done read.  I would recommend this book for younger readers and reluctant readers who need something simple and to the point.  An interest in magic is also a must to make this novel more appealing to readers.

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Sky Jumpers

Sky Jumpers

Peggy Eddleman

ISBN:  9780307981271

The latest round in my quest to read the Texas Bluebonnet Award nominees was another chapter book, Sky Jumpers.  From the cover, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the book, which happens to be the author’s debut novel and apparently the first in a series.  While the book was a good read, and enjoyable, I have to say that I didn’t really find anything particularly original or amazing about the book that made it stand out from the other nominees.  However, if you don’t read it, you are missing out on a good book.

Summary:  Hope lives White Rock, a little town in a crater formed by the noxious green bombs of World War III.  The war, and its bombs, changed many things about the world, from the way that elements interact to the creation of the Bomb’s Breath, a dense cloud with air that is impossible to breath.  Because the war decimated everything, the town must now invent what it needs to survive.  Each year, an inventions contest determines who has created the best invention to improve their way of life.  The only problem is that Hope is, well, hopeless at inventing.  She’s good at adventure and taking risks, neither of which her town supports.  Just when Hope feels like there is nothing more she can do for her town, disaster strikes.  Hope may be the only person who is able to save the town from certain destruction, but is she brave enough to take on this risk?

What I Liked:  I liked the overall moral of this story.  Overall, it teaches you that you don’t have to be good at the same things as everyone else to be a useful member of a team.  The story is engaging and fast-paced – just when Hope and her friends overcome one obstacle, something else arises.  Hope is someone identifiable and yet heroic.  It is easy for the reader to sympathize with her struggles, as we’ve all had things that we aren’t good at, and moments when we feel like we’ve let down the team.  The plot is adventurous and yet believable, and forces the reader to think about actions and their consequences.  The alternate setting also raises subtle questions about how our decisions today will impact our future.

What I Didn’t Like:  Overall, while the book was enjoyable, I didn’t find the plot to be particularly original.  Having tasks assigned to characters to better the community seemed reminiscent of The Giver.  While the plot was clearly its own story, in many parts it seemed very intuitive as to what would happen next based on the type of story.  I also didn’t like that while Hope started out as her own character, strong and independent, it seemed for much of the story that she was hopeless without the help of her male counterparts.  She couldn’t save the town on her own – she had to have two men travel with her to assist her.  Ultimately, though, Hope is the real reason for the story’s conclusion, and in the final chapters is able to stand alone as the powerful character I hoped she would be.  Also, while I enjoyed the alternate setting, I didn’t feel like the effects of World War III, or the reasons leading up to the war, were clearly explained enough to provide context for the story.  While the effects of the green bombs are critical to the town and its survival, I would have like more history interwoven in the story to explain the current situation.

Overall Feeling:  This is an enjoyable, adventurous story.  It raises compelling questions, although sometimes reading as an overdone stereotype of the adventure novel.  It is easy to follow and moves quickly, and readers will enjoy the constant action and obstacles.  For a book in a series, the title stands alone as a story, and allows you to feel some resolution to the plot, while still wondering about the future.  Most importantly, the book encourages you to be yourself to be the best help to your community, which is a powerful message.  I recommend this book for anyone who wants a fast-paced, adventurous, sometimes futuristic, and overall fun story.

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Saving Lucas Biggs

Saving Lucas Biggs

Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

ISBN:  9780062274625

After breezing through a picture book on my lunch break for my last Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee, the next on the list was a chapter book.  But, with summer reading now behind us, I have much more free time available for reading, and I had no trouble reading Saving Lucas Biggs in just a few days.  And, while the book was different from anything I’ve read in a while, I have to say that it was quite good, and one that I’m happy to recommend to others.

Summary:  When Margaret’s father is convicted of a crime that she knows he didn’t commit, she doesn’t know how to process it.  Worse, Judge Biggs, the notoriously heartless and evil company judge, has sentenced her father to death.  As the verdict is handed down, Margaret’s father begs her to repeat the foreswearing, although she doesn’t know why.  But when her best friend Charlie and his grandpa Josh propose an idea so crazy that it just might work, Margaret realizes that sometimes, promises must be broken.  Margaret must now go back in time to when Judge Biggs was just a boy, in the hopes of preventing the past that formed his present.  But history resists, and this is no easy task.  Will Margaret be able to change the past and save her father, or will her efforts be in vain?

What I Liked:  While this book is a classic story of good versus evil, the way it is presented offers so much more.  Not only does Margaret learn about right and wrong, she learns about treasuring the moment, never giving up on those you love, and finding strength in each other when you have no strength on your own.  The story is told from three perspectives:  Margaret, Grandpa Josh (as a boy), and, at the very end of the book, Margaret’s best friend Charlie.  The alternating perspectives are not only interesting, and useful in speeding the plot, but they also allow a depth of understanding unavailable otherwise, by presenting the story from many sides.  The plot is multi-layered and beautiful.  While it is the story of Margaret and her hope to save her father, it is simultaneously the story of a downtrodden, abused community that finds strength in doing what is right, even when it is hard.

What I Didn’t Like:  Honestly, there wasn’t much that I didn’t like about this book.  But, one thing that I didn’t like was the inclusion of a chapter in Charlie’s voice at the end of the book.  The story is really that of Margaret and Grandpa Josh, and while Charlie is important, I didn’t feel like his role in the story merited his own chapter told from his perspective.  Other than that, my only complaint is that I would have liked a bit more background about Margaret’s dad and his role at the company.  Since the company’s history is so integral to the story, it would have been interesting to have more insight into how Margaret’s family fit into the company overall.

Overall Feeling:  This book has a stunning, heartfelt message.  It manages to encourage deep thought, while simultaneously lulling the reader into thinking it is just a story.  The triumph of good over evil is not guaranteed, and thus the story doesn’t come across as trite or overdone.  The obstacles against Margaret are realistic and compelling.  While it’s true that history resists, it’s even more true that humans resist, too.  The truth of the struggle lies in the Margaret and Grandpa Josh working through people, and realizing that humanity is much more complex than just changing a single moment.  While time travel is admittedly not something realistic, the story is written in such a way that the reader is completely certain of the ability to move through time.  More importantly, the story gives the reader a strong sense that any individual has the power to exact change in the world.  I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys adventure, realism, and the power of friendship.

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Emily’s Blue Period

Emily’s Blue Period

Cathleen Daly

ISBN:  9781596434691

With summer reading, I have to admit that I’ve fallen behind in reading the Texas Bluebonnet Award nominees.  Luckily for me, the next book up on my list was a picture book, which I was able to read the other day during lunch.  I’m not sure what I expected going into this book, but I was definitely surprised by the depth of the topics covered.

Summary:  Emily loves art and painting, and she loves the way it allows her to express herself.  When her life gets turned upside down, she finds that the art that she has been painting just doesn’t match her feelings.  With the help of her knowledge of art, and the encouragement of her art teacher, Emily finds the perfect the perfect medium to express herself and her mixed-up feelings.

What I Liked:  While this book is a picture book, Daly doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.  Emily’s family life is mixed up, and her dad no longer lives at home.  The book explores not only the raw emotion of this change (Emily wants to paint only in blue to express her deep sadness), but also the complexity.  When faced with the task of painting her home, Emily must confront the fact that she has not one, but two homes.  Even Jack’s response to furniture shopping captures the tumultuous nature of this change.  Throughout, Daly sprinkles artistic facts and information, allowing the reader a glimpse not only into Emily’s mind and heart, but also into the wider subject of art.  Further, the simple illustrations subtly and expertly utilize color and dimension to further capture the emotions in the book, adding a secondary, powerful telling of the story.

What I Didn’t Like:  I didn’t like the use of “chapters” in this book.  The book reads like a picture book, and while the chapters indicate the different phases and periods of Emily’s artistic life, I found that they made the text more choppy and segmented than it needed to be.  I think the story flowed enough on its own, without segments, and pausing throughout detracted from the overall message rather than adding to it.  Although I can appreciate the intent in this layout, I would have preferred the book without it.

Overall Feeling:  This book is simultaneously simple and complex.  At the outset, it seems to be an exploration of artistic styles, but in truth, it is actually a complicated look into the heart and mind of a confused little girl in the midst of a life crisis.  The reader simultaneously learns about grief, emotions, and healing while also gaining further appreciate of art history.  The message of the book is powerful, yet written in such a way that you almost absorb it rather than consciously read it.  Overall, I recommend this book to anyone willing to explore difficult topics, and not afraid to look at their own emotions in the process.

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Always, Abigail

Always, Abigail

Nancy J. Cavanaugh

ISBN:  9781402293030

This is the second chapter book that I’ve read from this year’s Texas Bluebonnet Award nominees, and I have to say that I enjoyed it much more than the first title that I read.  Although I have to admit, you can’t really consider this a chapter book when there aren’t specific chapters in it.  The book is more like a diary, with Abigail’s lists chronicling the majority of the events that happen.  The word bubbles and slight graphics used throughout also help break up the text into different segments, even if there is never a specific chapter.

Summary:  Abigail Walters looks forward to sixth grade as the chance to really begin her life.  From the start, she has lofty aspirations of becoming a pompom girl, gaining the attention of boys, and finding popularity with the other “cool” kids.  But, despite her best ambitions, a place on the pompom squad is not in Abigail’s future, and she finds herself as a mere alternate with a lot of spare time on her hands.  Separated from her best friends Alli and Cami, Abigail finds herself not only not a pompom girl, but not even in the same homeroom or classes.  instead, she’s paired with school outcast Gabby Marco on Old Hawk’s friendly letter assignment.  As Abigail starts to realize that she has very little in common with AlliCam, she discovers that Gabby isn’t quite as bad as she first seemed.  But when Abigail suddenly gets a chance to be a permanent member of the pompoms, she finds she must choose between what she’s always wanted and what she’s starting to become.  Can she successfully navigate the middle school drama and find an answer she can live with?

What I Liked:  Abigail’s quandary – choosing between popularity and what she feels like is the “right” thing to do – is something incredibly relevant.  Cavanaugh does a great job of describing Abigail’s inner battle in a way that makes sense to the audience.  Abigail can feel when she’s being a troll, without fully being able to articulate why she feels that way.  The struggle presented between doing the right thing and being accepted is something that most girls can easily identify with, even if they aren’t cheerleaders in their own right.  Unfortunately, it’s a topic that can be found in just about any school.  As Abigail starts to feel the distance between herself and AlliCam, the reader also starts to discover some of the politics and hard decisions of popularity.  Because Abigail has so many “normal” experiences – sleepovers, going out to eat with friends, being paired up for a class assignment – the reader is able to see her own situations and experiences in Abigail’s story.

What I Didn’t Like:  Although Abigail’s list-making was often entertaining, I didn’t like that the book didn’t have clear divisions between parts.  Sometimes it was hard to tell how many days had passed or when events were supposed to have taken place.  Although the book covers the span of an entire year, it is unclear throughout the book how much time elapses between events.  Also, Abigail’s end choice seems very dramatic.  Instead of finding a way to successfully navigate the two worlds that she wants to inhabit, she is forced to choose between one or the other.  Popularity or Gabby – there is no middle ground.  While I appreciate that this makes Abigail’s decision more dramatic (and emphasizes the importance of making one’s own decisions and doing the right thing), it also seems somewhat unrealistic.  Why couldn’t Abigail be an influence for good with the pompom girls?  Having such a strict division between the “good” and the “bad” in the story undermined some of the overall message.  I think we all know that no one (not even Gabby Marco or AlliCam) is completely good or bad, but in the book, the characters are only given one dimension.  However, the choice between doing what is popular and doing what is right is the more important element of the story, and that is clearly and effectively conveyed.

Overall Feeling:  This book is an enjoyable read, and definitely has a relevant and relatable subject.  Abigail, although sometimes obnoxiously simplistic in her thinking (and very genuinely girly in her approach to some topics), is an endearing character that the reader quickly comes to love.  Her struggle to discover herself, even if it means addressing the uglier parts of her character, is one that we can all relate to, and doing so in the context of middle school makes her even more realistic.  While I doubt that many boys will be interested in this particular title, I think the girls will definitely appreciate both the plot and the characters.  The almost-diary approach of Abigail’s list is also likely to appeal to even reluctant readers, because it breaks the text into small chunks that can be read quickly.  You can read as much or as little of the book in one sitting as you like, depending on how many lists you want to explore.  I recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore what it means to be a good friend.

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