Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Light at the End of the Tunnel: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The artistic and financial success of Pixar's Wall-E (see my review of June 28 here), raises hope that the October 10 release of Walden Media's The City of Ember, based on Jean DuPrau's notable post-apocalyptic novel The City of Ember will offer an suspenseful and thought-provoking version of this notable novel for middle readers. With its dark, atmospheric setting and a rip-roaring quest for its young teen protagonists, this is a book which has already amassed a following and which is ideal in plot, setting, characters, and theme for the upcoming movie's intended audience. Now is a great time to put this book into the hands of middle grade readers. They'll enjoy being in the know when the the movie comes out, and it's a great book anytime for intelligent kids who love a great story with a meaningful theme.

A human time capsule, the City of Ember has been constructed deep underground with extensive supplies and a massive hydroelectric generator to maintain a remnant of humankind until Earth is habitable again. The Builders of Ember have provided a mechanized lockbox guarded by the city's mayors and set to open and reveal instructions for a return to earth's surface, presumed to be habitable again after 200 years. When a corrupt mayor hides the box at home and dies before he can pass it on, the means of escape are lost to the future descendants of Ember.

Many years later Ember's future is as dark as its dimly-lit landscape. Light bulbs are hoarded. Food supplies are nearly depleted, and only the very old can recall delicacies like canned pineapple and peaches. The ancient water pipes are constantly leaking or filling with sediment, and the generator which provides for the giant floodlights outside and home lighting inside is failing, with longer and longer blackouts terrorizing the inhabitants. A people with little history and scant science, the citizens of Ember have no one to turn to except their elders' stories and their corrupt officials' self-protective lies.

Twelve-year-old Lina and Doon, new workers just graduated from their six years of public education, feel the threat more than most. Doon secretly trades work assignments with Lina, giving up the coveted job of runner/messenger to become a pipeworks technician, hoping that he can gain the engineering skills to save his city from its approaching demise. A thoughtful girl whose drawings are haunted by visions of a light-filled city under a blue sky, Lina delivers messages from which she learns that things are far worse than Ember's rulers dare reveal.

Then Lina's failing grandmother, obsessed with finding an object that her dying great-grandfather, a mayor of Ember, spoke of as lost on his deathbed, discovers a strange mechanical box with a framented message inside. Lina and Doon decipher enough of the puzzling text to realize that it is the key to the secret way out of Ember, the Instructions for Egress left by the Builders of Ember. The decoded instructions allow them to make a harrowing passage down Ember's underground river to the surface of Earth. Passing on the secret Instructions to the people of Ember, they face life above ground in a world which they could not have imagined.

DuPrau's post-apocalytic tale of Earth's survivors is a spellbinding account of the endpoint of the decline of civilized society. Horrible mistakes have obviously been made in the past which may yet doom the few remaining. Still, intelligence, love, strength of spirit, and hope remain strong in humankind. This is an absorbing and inspiring read for young people, one that will provoke thought as they eagerly race through the suspenseful tale.

The City of Ember is followed by its sequel The People of the Spark and a related prequel, The Prophet of Yonwood. The fourth companion book, The Diamond of Darkhold: The Fourth Book of Ember (Books of Ember), is set for publication on August 26.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Nemo Redux: Gilbert in Deep by Jane Clarke.

Heaven knows, great white sharks need an image re-make, and in Gilbert in Deep Gilbert, an appealing young great white, along with his sidekick Rita Remorra, like Nemo before him, decides to dunk his usual backwater hide-and-seek to play "hide and deep."

Diving into the forbidden abyss beyond the reef, the two runaway youngsters swim into a darkened cavern to continue their game, where they encounter some downright ugly denizens of the deep, a bioluminescent angler fish and a vile-tempered viper fish to name a couple. After a brief confrontation with these toothy guys, Gilbert and Rita quickly do a deep sea version of "I hear my mama calling," and zip back to the safety of their lagoon. An appropriate scolding from Mama Great White ("You're in deep trouble!"), greets the two, who are reconciled to staying out of the depths until they're a bit bigger.

You might be excused for thinking that the familiar story line of the little runaway is a bit "washed up," from overuse, but here it provides the vehicle for inventive illustrator Charles Fuge to create some charming underwater scenes in a wonderful deep-water palette. Gilbert is portrayed as a lovable, impetuous little shark, and Rita, with her googly-eyed "I'm a follower" look, is just right as the clueless buddy ready to go along with any plan. For children who love stories of underwater animals, this nearly new book and its predecessor, Gilbert the Great, do a lot to offset the unfortunate publicity generated by that family black sheep of the great whites, cousin "Jaws."

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Scientist At Work: Emi and the Rhino Scientist by Mary Kay Carson

Terri Roth trudges through the thick, dark Sumatran jungle. She's looking for a rhinoceros that's been seen in the area. It's a rare Sumatran rhino, the world's smallest rhino and one of the most endangered mammals on the planet.Suddenly she spots a young female rhino through the tangle of ferns and trees. The stocky animal is covered in reddish hair, and her snout sports two stubby horns. The rhino walks right up to Terri. The scientist slowly reaches out her hand and touches the rhino's big nose. The wild rhino's curiosity and friendliness remind Terri of Emi, the female Sumatran rhino that lives at the Cincinnati Zoo where Terri works. Terri is working with Emi to help save Sumatran rhinos from extinction—one calf at a time.

One positive new strategy in career education is the "shadowing" program, in which students are interns-for-a-day with a professional in their field of vocational interest. Mary Kay Carson's award-winning Emi and the Rhino Scientist (Scientists in the Field) gives middle readers a chance to shadow Terri Roth through several years in which she works steadily to bring about the first birth in captivity of this endangered rhino. Extremely rare, their numbers shrinking in their southeastern Asian habitat, Sumatrans face possible extinction unless they can be bred in animal preserves. But the Sumatrans, the smallest of the world's rhino species, had not had a successful zoo birth in over 100 years.

An animal lover since early childhood, Terri Roth's early experience with horses and her concern for threatened species led her to become one of the world's foremost experts in the esoteric field of rhino reproduction. Roth had done field work in the forests of Asia and the savannas of Africa, gathering knowledge of rhino behavior, and when a young female named Emi came to Roth's base at the Cincinnati Zoo, hopes were high that the zoo would be able to host the second Sumatran zoo birth ever in the same facility which saw the first calf's birth in the nineteenth century.

But little is known about the factors which produce a viable calf among Sumatran rhinos. And it was definitely not love at first sight when the keepers introduced young Emi to Ipuh, their male rhino. Blood tests failed to show hormonal evidence of an ovulating cycle in Emi, and no one really knew whether her diet of hay and alfalfa pellets provided the nutrients for a successful conception and pregnancy. Terri Roth set out on a long course of trial and error investigations, and in the process was able to document new findings about the process. For example, unlike other species of rhinos, Sumatrans are induced ovulators, only releasing an egg after they mate. Drawing on her experience raising horses, Terri also found that horse progesterone was effective in preventing miscarriages after Emi had conceived.

The Cincinnati Zoo was proud to celebrate the successful birth of a 75-pound male calf, born to Emi and Ipuh, as "godmother" Terri watched by video cam, after a 475-day pregnancy in 2001. Emi nursed and mothered her calf Andalas well, and he thrived, gaining 800 pounds in his first year and eventually making his home at the San Diego Zoo to provide space for further births in Cincinnati. And to everyone's joy, in 2004 Emi produced a daughter, Suci, with ease and aplomb without any hormonal interventions. Although there are no certainties, it seems that Roth's successful work with Emi may assure that there will continue to be Sumatran rhinos for a long time to come.

Carson details the wide-ranging skill sets which a reproductive zoologist such as Roth must have to do this groundbreaking work. Because Emi is a gentle and amazingly cooperative subject, she is easy to love and care for, but field work with wild animals can be both dangerous and tedious, and scientists must sometimes tolerate discomfort and long hours. They must master anatomy and physiology and become experts in the use of artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and the latest reproduction science. But as Terri Roth strokes Rose, a friendly wild Sumatran rhino in the forest, she knows that the work she has done far away in Cincinnati will help her fellow scientists in Sumatra working on their own captive breeding program to restore the numbers of these rare animals in the wild.

Although in size and shape and number of illustrations, Emi and the Rhino Scientist (Scientists in the Field) resembles a picture book, its intended readers are middle and high school readers with some classroom knowledge of reproduction science as well as curiosity about and affection for animals. Backmatter includes information on all five types of rhinos (black, white, Indian, Javan, and Sumatran), with maps showing their ranges, a glossary, web sites and books for further research, and a detailed index. Beautiful and detailed photos of Dr. Terri Roth at work and of rhinos both in the zoo and in the wild make this book an exciting and inviting experience for readers who are drawn to the vital work of preserving threatened species.

To visit with Emi at home, check her out here on the Rhino Cam at

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Grace Under Pressure: Still Just Grace by Charise Mericle Harper


1. Having four girls named Grace in the same class, and not letting any of them use the name Grace. Instead, calling them Grace W., Gracie, Grace F. (secretly named the Big Meanie by me, because that is what she is), and Just Grace. The Just Grace name probably being the most dumb name in the whole world ever, which is especially bad and sad because that's the one that is mine.

Some of our Grace's other absolutely good things are her best friend Mimi next door, her own "Empathy Power" which lets her know when someone else is feeling sad or bad about themselves, and her ability to draw comics about whatever is on her mind.

Then, among the not-so-good things are The Big Meanie, who tries to boss everyone around and persists in calling her "Just Grace" even when there are no other Graces around, not to mention her neighbor Max, the new boy who just moved in on the other side of Mimi and whose ability to walk on his hands seems to appeal to Mimi way too much.

When Grace returns from a few days away with her family to help her Grandma relocate to a retirement complex, she discovers that Mimi has chosen to partner with Max and their former nemesis Sammy Stringer on a class language arts project--and the only group who needs an extra person includes two other Graces, dominated by Gracie F., a.k.a. the Big Meanie. Grace watches her best friend and the two boys happily throw themselves into their project together, and she feels like her whole world is slipping away.

Despite herself, though, Grace can't help feeling empathy with her student teacher Mr. Frank, whose idea the language project is, and to keep him from flunking student teaching, she gets down to work with her group. Out thinking The Big Meany, Just Gracie comes up with the best idea for her group and organizes their roles to carry off a highly successful project. In the process, the Graces talk out their feelings about being one of the Four Graces, and Gracie F. agrees not to call her "Just Grace" anymore. Although Just Grace and Mimi discover that they are still best-best-friends, they also learn that they can enjoy being with Sammy and Max and with the other three Graces as well.

In Still Just Grace author Charise Harper provides a meaningful sequel to her first book Just Grace (just out in paperback). Together with her newest installment in the series, Just Grace Walks the Dog (Just Grace) these beginning chapter novels offer a believable third-grader dealing with real-life social and family situations. Grace's comic drawings interspersed through the text give the books extra appeal and her frequent humorous but insightful lists cue readers to what is really going on in Grace's internal life. Reviewers agree that in this series Grace joins her fictional "sisters" Ramona, Junie B., Judy Moody, and Clementine in bringing early middle graders into the novel experience with verve and zest.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Don't Expect Happy Endings: Sarah Simpson's Rules for Living by Rebecca Rupp

Sarah Simpson's Rules for Living

1. Don't lie.
2. Don't trust anybody but cats.
3. Don't expect happy endings.
4. Drink skim milk.
5. Avoid blondes.

Sarah Simpson is always making lists, for herself and for everyone she knows, whether she likes them or not, so when she gets a diary for Christmas from her aunt, she decides to put it to use as a combination journal and list of lists. But first she introduces herself, and we realize that Sarah is a girl with no illusions.

My name is Sarah Simpson. I have orange hair and I am fat.

With that flat statement, that is the last we hear about those issues.

But Sarah has other biggies on her list. Her dad moved out on the previous New Year's Day to marry his "soul mate" Kim, whom Sarah perceptively describes as "having long blond hair she's always flinging around to make sure that everybody notices that she has long blond hair." Her mom Sally has a non-boyfriend boyfriend named Jonah with whom Sarah also find much fault (singing "We Shall Overcome," wearing shirts printed with sea horses, being bald and bearded, among others), and Sarah herself seems to have no friends at all, unless you count dorky Horace Zimmerman who plays Hades to Sarah's Persephone in the school play.

On the anniversary of her father's departure for California with the aforementioned Kim, Sarah makes her own list of New Year's resolutions:

1. Get rid of Kim.
2. Get rid of Jonah.
3. Dye my hair.
4. Move to Australia.

Sarah's yearly nadir comes when, overwhelmed with her own need for her mother's full attention, Sarah tells Jonah's five-year-old son George that his dead mother is not, as he believes, a twinkling star in the sky, just dead and buried and gone. Surprisingly it's Horace Zimmerman who finally consoles George and corrects Sarah as he tells them that all humans really are made of elements from exploding supernovas, so that in a way we are all made from from stars. It's a new cosmic view for Sarah.

As the year progresses, Sarah's wry lists are replaced by new ones which journal the changes in her life. Despite herself, things start looking up, and it seems Sarah won't be going to Australia any time soon. As her closing journal entry says,

Back in January, I felt like my life was over and nothing would ever be happy again. Now I think I was full of crap. Sally says I'm growing up. Horace thinks I'm developing a political conscience. Jonah says time has a way of healing all kinds of wounds. George thinks it has something to do with stars and bears. I'm not sure. But for right now, I'm hoping for the best.


1. It's what you are, not what you look like, that's important.
2. Poeple can make a difference.
3. Things that fall apart have a way of coming back together again.
4. We're all made of little bits of stars.

5. Even Kim.

Sarah Simpson's Rules for Living is a slim little chronicle of a frank and funny girl who, like Persephone (whom she plays in an unbecoming pillowcase toga, with toilet tissue flowers encircling her hair) finds her way out of her own black hole and into something like the spring in her seventh-grade year.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Different Strokes: The Jellybeans and the Big Dance by Laura Numeroff

"Emily loved to dance."

Entering the studio for her first dance lesson, Emily can't wait to meet the other girls, who she just knows must love dancing as much as she does. But she is disappointed when she learns that Nicole is only there because her mother is making her take dancing and that she'd much rather be playing soccer. Bitsy freely offers that she prefers painting to dancing any day, and Anna, nose in book, would obviously rather keep on reading than put her book away and dance.

To make the first lesson even worse, Mrs. Tingly-Weezer, their teacher, tells them that they will soon be dancing in a recital to the tune "Oh, Little Bug!" "Icky!" scoffs Bitsy. "I'm afraid of bugs," admits Anna. "My little brother ate a bug once," volunteers Nicole.

This dance class doesn't look too promising. Dancing about a bug doesn't even appeal to Emily, and she wonders how four girls with such different personalities can ever perform together, not to mention becoming friends! Then as they put their things away in their cubbies, Emily points out that their initials spell out B.E.A.N. "I hate beans!" says Nicole. Emily begins to lose heart as the other three girls stumble through their first class. Emily knows she just has to do something to make this group work together.

A trip to Petunia's Candies gives her an idea. Emily buys a big bag of jellybeans and hands them out at their next class.

"Jellybeans are all different flavors but they still go well together," she tells the other three girls. "Maybe we could, too. We can be the dancing jellybeans."

The other girls get the jellybean spirit: Anna find books in the library about cute-looking bugs; Bitsy throws herself into designing their costumes; Nicole devises some high-kicking exercises based on her best soccer moves; and soon the Jellybeans are rehearsing with Emily leading them in her best spins and steps.

The recital is a resounding success, and the four dancing Jellybeans celebrate by making another trip to Petunia's Candies together after the performance.

Fans of the Fancy Nancy and the Angelina books will have a natural taste for the sparkly pink and lavender leotards and tutus in The Jellybeans and the Big Dance. Laura Numeroff, author of the best-selling If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (If You Give...) series, and Lynn Munsinger, illustrator of the award-winning Hooway for Wodney Wat fame, join their considerable talents to craft this gentle story of sweet teamwork in the corps de ballet.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bye-Bye, Baby Brother! Mail Harry to the Moon by Robie H. Harris

Before there was Harry,
There was ME!

Before Harry, nobody in my family spit up smelly, yucky, cheesey stuff.
Yesterday Harry did, so I said...


To the disgruntled and obviously jealous preschooler, Harry is nothing but a mess-making spoiler, sent to take slobbery bites out of his banana, chew on his gorilla's nose, and usurp Grandma's lap. Big brother, of course, knows what is to be done about each transgression.




And when Harry start to scream late at night, there's just one thing left to do.


But when big brother checks his laundry basket spacecraft, Harry is hiding almost unseen among the dirty clothes. Worried, Brother begins to search all the places of banishment. Toilet? No way. Trash can? Not a trace. In the tummy under Mommy's T-shirt? Noooo! Oh, gee. Could Mommy and Daddy really have mailed little Harry all by himself to the moon?

Big Brother readies his rocket ship, adjusts his colander helmet, and takes off to look for himself.


Of course, when he lands, Brother finds little Harry where he's been all along, hiding right beside the basket. Placing him protectively in the front of his moon lander, the two blast back home, just in time for a fraternal snooze together, with Harry snuggling, head on his brother's shoulder, toy gorilla's foot in his little hand.

Before Harry was born, there was ME.
Now there's ME and HARRY!

Robie Harris' Mail Harry to the Moon is a gently humorous tale of sibling rivalry resolved. Michael Emberley's illustrations are at once both comical and emotionally evocative of the all-too-real feelings between first-born and second-born sons.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Two Cool for School: Cool Zone with the Pain and the Great One by Judy Blume

Sometimes two heads are better than one, even if it is your big sister or (heavens forbid) your little brother who helps you out of a sticky situation at school. Jacob and Abigail (a.k.a. the Pain and the Great One) are back in a fast follow-up to last year's Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One (Pain & the Great One), which re-introduced Judy Blume's popular picture-book characters to early chapter readers.

In Cool Zone with the Pain and the Great One (Pain & the Great One) Blume shows Jake and Abigail, still sibling rivals at home, pulling together to help each other at school. In the opening chapter, Abigail ruluctantly agrees to keep up with the baby tooth Jake loses on the bus on the way to school. Ever conscientious, Abby even avoids jumping rope at recess to prevent dropping the tooth, but scatterbrained Jake loses it before bedtime and and has nothing to leave for the Tooth Fairy. Reluctantly Abigail agees to write the fairy a signed excuse note in return for half of Jake's take from the tooth, but when she demands half of the dollar Jacob finds under his pillow the next morning, she is disgusted when Jake grabs the scissors and whacks the bill in two. "Fifty-Fifty, right?" he says with a grin.

In Jacob's chapter titled "The Soggy Egg Roll," Abigail rescues Jake and his new magnifying glass from the school bully Roger Culley, and in "Bruno's Ear," Abigail has to break away from her gym class to salvage Jake's beloved purple elephant, taken to school for "Bring Your Pretend Pet to School Day," from the jaws of a huge runaway dog named Baby, whose owner didn't quite understand the "pretend" part of the assignment.

Jake returns the favor when Abigail decides to change her name to Violet Rose. Her "Two Flower" name starts a fad for serial name changing among her friends. Trendy new Jasmines, Sierras, Keeshas, and Tiffanys are showing up daily until Jake helps "Violet Rose" find a face-saving way back to her real name again. As always, Fluzzy the Cat gets the last chapter to himself when the bell the family puts on his collar begins to drive everyone crazy.

Apparently, Blume has been busy. Book 3 of this series, Going, Going, Gone! with the Pain and the Great One (The Pain and the Great One) is set for publication on August 8, 2008. Notable cartoonist/illustrator James Stevenson (of New Yorker fame) provides just-right illustrations for this gently light-hearted series. Beginning chapter readers will enjoy these tales of a big sister and little brother who find that having a sibling as backup comes in handy--especially at school.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Vampires in Manhattan: Vampire Island by Adele Griffin

The Livyngtone family, transformed in medieval times into hybrid fruit-bat vampires by a roving purebred, have hoped to leave the evil Old World vamp scene behind when they emigrate to New York City. Giving up immortality and some of their powers for a quasi-normal life in the Big Apple, the now vegan and NYC-renamed Livingstone kids try to blend into the everyday life of school kids in the big city.

Lexington (nicknamed Lexi) hopes to tame her fangs with braces, loves to quote from the works of doomed poets, and longs to attract the exclusive attention of the cutest boy in eighth-grade, Dylan. Sixth-grader Madison (Maddy) has few special powers but is gifted with a restless and investigative mind. Nine-year-old Hudson, the handsomest boy in fourth grade, is the only Livingstone who retains his shape-shifting powers: by night he becomes a high-flying fruit bat and by day he works diligently to persuade his peers to recycle and save the planet.

When the ever inquisitve Maddy observes a pair of peculiar new neighbors moving in across the street, she suspects that they are purebred vampires, the sworn enemies of hybrids. Concocting a batch of faux Elf Scout white chocolate chip macadamia cookies containing holy water and garlic cloves and sends Hudson, in drag as a cutesy scout dressed her old uniform, over to sell them to the Van Krik's butler. When the cookies fail to do away with the vampire pair, Maddy is surprised to be invited over for tea with the toothsome two. Lexi and Hudson caution Maddy against taking on the purebred vamps alone, but when Maddy is adamant, big sister Lexi insists that she fortify herself with a plate of fruits and veggies and a big glass of water. Hudson plants himself nearby and urges to Maddy to echolocate him if she's feels endangered.

Once inside the gloomy Von Kirk mansion, however, Maddy realizes that she's been tricked into become a fruit flavored soft drink for the blood-thirsty purebreds. Luckily the water Lexi made Maddy drink was holy water left over from the ill-fated macadamia nut cookies, and Maddy survives the vamp attack by the, um, skin of her teeth and the content of her blood. The Von Kriks, however, expire from the imbibation of holy water and dissolve and vanish just as Hudson, alarmed by his inability to communicate with Maddy, flies to the rescue.

National Book Award finalist Adele Griffin's Vampire Island is sure to please the fang-tasy crowd with its humorous take on the Manhattan tweener scene with a vampire twist. Fans of Sienna Mercer's hilarious My Sister the Vampire books or Heather Brown's darker middle school series beginning with Eighth Grade Bites (Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, Book 1) will appreciate this light-hearted take on the traditional vampire genre.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hocus Pocus Hero: Shots at Sea: A Nate & Houdini Mystery by Tom Lalicki

Following up on his first book, Danger in the Dark: A Houdini & Nate Mystery in the history mystery series Houdini & Nate Mysteries, Tom Lilicki brings together his crime-busting pair, twelve-year-old New Yorker Nate, and master of illusion Harry Houdini, this time on a historic crossing of the Atlantic on the luxe liner Lusitania.

Crossing to England with his mother and wealthy Aunt Alice, Nate is surprised to discover among the passengers former President Teddy Roosevelt and his old mentor and partner in crime solving, Harry Houdini. Nate has been practicing his observation skills as the other passengers are boarding, hoping for some excitement during the five day trip, and he soon gets his wish when during a morning constitutional around the deck, an apparent anarchist terrorist fires his pistol at close range at the ex-president. As a heroic guard shields Roosevelt with his body, Houdini and Nate move to try to stop the fleeing gunman. Houdini is slightly wounded and Nate suffers a quick blow to the head as the gunner escapes. Although the man's bearded face is shielded by a low-brimmed hat, Nate is certain that his physique and manner match one of the passengers he had observed on the gangplank the day before.

Working together, Nate, President Roosevelt, and Harry Houdini conceive a brilliant but dangerous plan to flush out the terrorist by scheduling a gala costume party aboard ship on the final night of the voyage. Houdini promises to entertain the President and guests with his most amazing illusion, as armed stewards and a Scotland Yard detective in disguise are scattered among the crowd, hoping to capture the anarchist when he makes his move. Although ordered for his own safety to remain in his stateroom with his friend, bellboy Phineas, for a guard, Nate convinces Phin to procure a bellboy uniform as a disguise in which he can attend as a virtually invisible servant at the fete.

Moving surreptitiously among the lavishly costumed celebrants, Nate spots the anarchist smeared with coal dust and disguised as an engine room stoker with his shovel. Nate knows he must warn the armed Scotland Yard detective before the gunman can strike, but how can he do it without alarming the would-be assassin? Watching Houdini skillfully beginning to work his illusion, Nate suddenly knows what he must do!

The deluxe steamship Lusitania was the fastest passenger liner in 1909, boasting the most avant garde technology of its time, and this intriguing historical setting gives the appealing character of Nate and his clever partner Harry Houdini a fascinating stage upon which to carry out their political sleuthing.

Shots at Sea: A Houdini & Nate Mystery (Houdini and Nate Mysteries) is mystery which weaves the historical setting and real-life characters of Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Houdini into a suspenseful story with an adventurous young detective who will have strong appeal for middle readers.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Nonfiction That Makes the Grade: Volcanoes by Melanie Waldron

What can hurl lumps of melted rock hundreds of feet into the air? What can blow itself apart and destroy everything in its path?

The answer is a volcano.

Luring young readers to pore over nonfiction books is not easy. Publishers, however, were not born yesterday, and they know how to use the pull of the sensational to appeal to kids. Heinemann Library's Mapping Earthforms series is no exception. Exploring the intriguing science on the borderline between geology and physical and human geography, these books take readers beyond their generic "wow" response to powerful natural phenomena to think about how humans have historically interacted with these powerful forces of nature. Among the solid science titles in this group, one standout is the eye-catching Volcanoes (Mapping Earth Forms).

The book offers an in-depth discussion of the nature and causes of volcanoes, types of volcanoes (shield, caldera, and strato) and the location of these types around the globe. Attention is given to plate tectonics and their role in the formation of volcanoes, as well as the behavior of magma and even the possible effect of low pressure, such as is noted in typhoons, as a potential trigger for eruptions.

A full chapter is given to the science of volcanic eruption, documenting the forms of eruptive substances--lava flows, volcanic bombs, pyroclastic flows, and lahar flows. --with the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens used as an example. Strategies for predicting volcanoes--seismic and gas monitoring, historical patterning, and landscape changes--are discussed, along with ways people near volcanoes can prepare for evacuation and rescue operations if they become necessary.

Another section discusses the effects of volcanoes upon life in its immediate area, from lava barrens where nothing flourishes to fertile volcanic soil which provides vegetation, cropland, and wildlife alike with favorable habitats. The way of life of people "living in the shadow" of volcanoes provides examples of human coping in Chile, Peru, Indonesia, Monserrat, and Mt. Etna. The chilling possibility of "supervolcanoes," whose eruptions might have the ability to alter earth's climate for years, are also touched upon in the final chapters, and an accompanying map shows that three of these are in the western United States.

Extensive scientific terms are introduced and defined within the text and, thankfully, duplicated in the glossary. Written at higher levels (e.g., Accelerated Reader levels 5.1-7.0) than most science nonfiction sets, this series is a valuable resource for middle readers for research writing or simply browsing An appendix ("Volcano Facts"), a bibliography ("Find Out More"), glossary, and index round out the backmatter.

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Blimey O'Reilly!: Stop in the Name of Pants by Louise Rennison

"It is vair vair hard work being the girlfriend of a Luuurve God. Constant grooming is required. The people expect it."

Being the notorious girlfriend of the Luuurve God Masimo is a tough job, but in the just published ninth book in the hilarious Brit teen queen series, Stop in the Name of Pants! (Confessions of Georgia Nicolson)
Gee is bearing up under the strain of her public appearances with the "Italian Stallion," lead singer for the local rock group Stiff Dylans and man about town on his glitzy scooter, thanks to the support of her girlfriends, the Ace Gang, and, as always, her cat Angus.

Still, Georgia can't get that kiss beside the pond with her friend Dave the Laugh off her mind. Despite getting all swoony knickers for Masimo, Georgia has so much fun when Dave is around that she wonders if he really is the treat from the cakeshop of love for her. And when she gives in to temptation and dances the twist with Dave at the Dylans' concert, Masimo stops the performance and challenges Dave to a fight. Does this mean that Georgia's love life is back on the rocks, er, racks?

"Oh, marvelous. I am once more on the rack of love with no cakes.

All aloney on my owney.

Again. PANTS!!

Getting a brand new sequel in the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson is like finding a shiny box of petits fours on your doorstep. Drama queen extraordinaire and the world's funniest diarist, Georgia has one of the most unique voices in teen lit. Do yourself a favor and read the glossary first, because teen Brit slang is a world all to itself, and so is its most famous native speaker, Georgia Nicolson.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dog Days of Summer: No Dogs Allowed!

Sonia Manzano's No Dogs Allowed! is the story of an outing with an extended family who definitely know how to take life's lumps and lemons and make sweet lemonade.

Six-year-old Iris narrates a family day trip from their home in the Bronx to an "enchanted lake" in an "enchanted state park," an expedition which includes seven cars, trailers, her parents Mami the Busy and Papi the Clever, cousins Carmen the Beautiful and Marta the Smart, the wise old people who doggedly continue their domino game (which "they started 100 years ago when they were young in Puerto Rico"), her sister Shorty the Fortune-Teller, a drama queen who always rolls her eyes and proclaims, "I knew this was going to happen!" Oh, and also Iris's lazy dog El Exigente.

After a repairing a car breakdown and getting lost, the crowd arrives, only to discover a tragic sign in the enchanted park's parking lot, "NO DOGS ALLOWED." "I knew it. I knew it! I knew this was going to happen," declaims Shorty, the Fortune-Teller. While everyone laments and dithers, Mami unloads the picnic lunch and dinner, the swim toys, and and the chairs and umbrellas, and the wise old people wisely set up their domino table. Finally, Papi declares that they must take turns staying with El Exigente in the parking lot while they decide what to do.

So El Exigente gets his hair done by Carmen the Beautiful, read to by Marta the Smart, included in the game by the wise old people, and dog-sat in turn by the rest, while the off-dog-duty relatives enjoy the enchanted lake, the park, and put away a plentiful picnic lunch and dinner. By the time dark falls and there is nothing left to eat, El Exigente has had a wonderful day in the parking lot and the rest of the family are tired, sandy, happy, and ready to head for home--just the right way to feel after an enchanted day.

Manzano's portrayal of the large and varied family, each agreeably playing out their assigned roles in the clan, is a delight to watch as the story develops, but John Muth's wonderful illustrations really carry the load in expressing the humor and joy of a family that really works together. This family comes alive in their real individuality and predictability on each page, giving the reader something new to see each time through, right down to the final page which shows Iris and her dog sleeping, heads in the back window of the car whose license plates read THE END.

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