Category: elementary


Life’s too short to read bad books.  They’re sometimes unavoidable; we’ve all had to read a book for a class at some point that we absolutely couldn’t stand.  But once you get past the requirements, there’s no reason to waste your time on books that aren’t worth reading.

Here are the books I simply could not finish in 2011.

It’s Elementary: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

This book won the Newbery Medal in 2010.  Normally, that’s a sure sign of quality.  You can typically rely on books that win the medal, or honor (runners-up), to be excellent.  When You Reach Me just bored me, though.  I put it down at about page 39.

No-Nonsense Nonfiction: In the Company of Cheetahs by S. K. Niel

Oh, I wanted to like this book!  I love cheetahs, and practically did a happy dance in the public library when I found this on the shelves.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get even ten pages into this book.  I really wanted to read about the Cheetah Conservation Fund and its work.  This is badly in need of proofreading!  I could not get past the horrible writing or the overuse/misuse of italics.

Guilty Pleasures: Hit List by Laurell K. Hamilton

(Sorry, this one gets a little long and rant-y.)

I put up with the Anita Blake series as long as I could.  (Granted, I started reading the series only a couple years ago, but I read 19 and a half books.)  The first several books, written before 2000, were really good.  Anita was an interesting character – a strong heroine that could really kick butt, and had high morals.  Back then, she was a good necromancer who had a lot of plots surrounding her job for a company that helps settles wills and the like by raising zombies to answer questions and such.  She was a love interest to a powerful vampire in her hometown of St. Louis, Jean-Claude, who she inadvertently helped into power in the excellent first book, Guilty Pleasures.  A few books in, a hot new guy by the name of Richard Zeeman entered the picture.  He was not only hot, but also a closeted werewolf who was powerful enough that Anita didn’t realize for most of the book that he was a werewolf.  A love triangle emerges, then a power triangle, bonding the necromancer, werewolf, and vampire together.

Then around 2000, Laurell K. Hamilton went nuts.  There’s an interesting obsession with rape that crops up in both this series (despite the author’s insistence to the contrary, we fans know that when Micah didn’t take “no” for an answer in Narcissus in Chains, it was rape) and in the first book of the Meredith Gentry series.  The series took a turn from good plots and enjoyable writing to erotica with a dash of plot.  One or two books after this were okay to good, such as Skin Trade.

I kept holding out hope for the series because I liked Anita Blake so much as a character, despite how much I hated what the author was doing to her.  After the nineteenth book (Bullet), I was fed up with the lack of plot – or in that book, the recycling of old plot – and the lack of proofreading/fact-checking against previous novels.  But then I read good reviews of this year’s release, Hit List.  It features Edward, the all-human, mostly-psychopath, bounty hunter that trained Anita and would love nothing more than to have a fight to the death with her someday.  I gave it a shot.

Really, I got two-thirds of the way through this before I gave up.  I was probably being far too generous with my time on this one.  But then the book introduces a character for a second time, and when a mixed-color weretiger up and loses one of his established colors, 100 pages after he’s been established, I just can’t take anymore.  Plus, Edward’s been pretty much neutered.  But hey, that’s what this series has gone and done with every flipping male in the series.


Don’t worry.  Laurell K. Hamilton hates her fans as much as we hate her.  I’m glad I never bought one of her books.  She has nothing but contempt for her readers, and there’s proof on her web site.

OMG, it’s a post on a Wednesday!  Today was the last day of school before winter vacation, and I survived not only the library times with wired students and a few class parties, but also got done checking in and cataloging books in a timely enough manner to read a book, get home, and write this review before 9 p.m.  Be amazed.

My elementary students adore the Magic Tree House series.  It’s written for about a second grade reading level, but the Kindergarten teacher introduced her class to them and her students just love to check these books out and bring them home to read with a parent.  Bless her heart, she got a bunch of the series from Scholastic, let the students choose one book for Christmas, and gave me the rest for the library!  What an awesome present.

With all that in mind, I decided to take ten minutes and read the first in the series.  Here’s my review before I end up typing more words than are in the book!

Statistics
Checkouts, Dinosaurs Before Dark: 7
Series checkouts: 49 (over ten books, before the new additions)
Typical reader: Any elementary student, especially K-3
Sources: Various

Synopsis: Jack and his little sister Annie discover a tree house full of books.  When they point to a picture in a book, they find themselves in a new place!  Good thing there’s a book with a picture of their hometown, so they can return.  In the first adventure, they go back to the Cretaceous Era.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This series really is cute, and appropriate for all elementary students!  Jack and Annie are curious adventurers, with distinct personalities that I could get a feel for in just the first book.  The use of a brother and sister helps to appeal to both boys and girls, which is great.

There are two awesome things about these books.  First, they’re educational.  Jack and Annie learn about what they encounter, with both their experiences and the books from the tree house.  Second, the books don’t pander like some at this reading level do.  You’re not going to have an explanation in every story about how Jack and Annie found the tree house, and what it does, blah blah blah.  There’s a simple page or so in every subsequent volume with a quick explanation about what happens in this series.  The Magic Tree House series lacks the boring repetition I’ve found in series like Junie B. Jones or the Baby-Sitters Club: Little Sister.  You’re not wasting any of the story itself on a recap of “last week’s episode,” or whatever.

There are even Magic Tree House Research Guide volumes that complement many of the chapter books, full of facts about the topics mentioned in the matching novel.  Fabulous.

My little naming scheme for books suitable for children is quite appropriate for this review.  The Wizard of Dark Street by Shawn Thomas Odyssey is a mystery novel.

Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Children who enjoy the Harry Potter series, or like mysteries
Source: Superiorland Preview Center

Synopsis: Oona Crate is a Natural Magician, born with the rare gift of being able to cast magic at will, rather than having to learn to do so.  But due to some unfortunate past events surrounding her magic use, she wants to give up being her uncle’s apprentice and become a detective like her father was.  The evening she signs the paperwork to give up her apprenticeship and meets the candidates for the position, however, her uncle is stabbed by a magical dagger and disappears.  Whodunit?  Is her uncle, the Wizard of Dark Street, still alive?

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I must say, I love this cover.  It actually completely fits the story!  You have Oona and her magical pet raven, Deacon, on her shoulder, in front of the Wizard’s house.  The house is pretty much just as the prose describes it, complete with all its eccentricities.

The pace of the book is a bit slow, particularly for the first third of the book, and some young readers may be put off by that.  In place of a fast-paced read is some great world-building.  I’m almost hesitant to describe it, because so much of the effort is put toward the setting that to do so seems like a bit of a spoiler.  The gist of it is that Dark Street is a magical location that for one minute every night, when the clock strikes midnight, a huge set of gates opens to connect Dark Street to the mundane world.

Once you do get into the meat of the plot, it’s a pretty good mystery.  Or rather, it’s a pretty good set of mysteries, possibly intertwined.  I’m not much of a reader of this sort of novel, but the twists and added information kept me guessing until the caper was solved.

Yesterday was the first library day of the new school year.  Wow, was it busy!  There were scheduling mishaps, library etiquette to teach, shelves to straighten throughout the day, and a Scholastic order to catalog and shelve.  What happens on the shelf with R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series is usually a good indicator of my day, and at one point, it was a complete mess, with the series going every which way and partially in a heap.  Yup, the new 2nd graders were excited to be able to check those previously taboo (by teacher ruling) spooky books that have remained popular since my youth.

A new book is also on that shelf as of yesterday.  I read it before the big day, and now that I have some breathing room, here’s my review!  This is Zombie Winter, by Jason Strange.

Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library, courtesy of the Superiorland Preview Center
Typical reader: Elementary students who also like Goosebumps

Synopsis: Kane goes to school one winter’s day, and ends up being the sole human in a zombie-infested town.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I was never a reader of scary stories as a child.  I can recognize their lasting popularity, though, and not just by how messy the shelf with all the Goosebumps novels is by the end of a library day.  Kids like things that spook them.  This is such a book.  It’s a quick read, aimed at children aged 8-11.  The sentences are simple, and the plot is pretty easy to follow.  It’s a chapter book with illustrations scattered throughout; the artist behind these did a good, realistic job.

I enjoyed it for its different zombie background.  These zombies were chocolate zombies, of all things!  Kane is allergic to chocolate and doesn’t partake of the lunch lady’s hot cocoa, unlike the rest of his friends and classmates.  This saves him from becoming a mind-controlled zombie, and the burden of curing the town falls on his shoulders.  The zombies were not undead, but more along the classic Haitian voodoo zombies – alive but under a spell that saps their free will.  I liked that.

In late July, there are several annual art fairs that draw tourists, locals and artisans of all sorts to the city of Marquette.  It was at one of these that I ran into Gretchen Preston, who was selling copies of her book, Valley Cats: The Adventures of Boonie and River.  I introduced myself as a school librarian, and the next thing I knew, she was signing a book to my students and giving it to the school for free!  That was a really magical experience, and “magical” could also describe this book.

Statistics
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Aimed at upper elementary students but great as a bedtime reader for younger students; cat-lovers are going to enjoy this too.

Synopsis: Boonie and River are two cats that live on Valley Road.  They meet one summer day when their mistresses enter them in a pet parade, become friends, and have all sorts of adventures together.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This book is positively saccharine.  The illustrations by Karin Neumann are lovely, and made me chuckle at times.  They go very well with the stories of the two cats and their adventures.  My favorite might be the one where River falls out of an apple tree onto the dog he was hiding from, as Boonie cowers and covers his eyes in another tree.

The book is broken into chapters, each with a different tale of the mischief Boonie and River get into.  It’s a bit reminiscent of books like Frog and Toad.  This format is great, especially if you’re looking for a short story to read.  I can easily see this book as one for a young elementary student to take home and have his or her parent read a chapter every evening before bed.  There’s also a glossary for words the child might not know.

Some of the adventures are a bit of a stretch of the imagination when one considers these are house-cats – I don’t know any cat who would go swimming – but that’s okay.  The intended audience is going to love these stories because kids have similar experiences as they explore the world around them.

I would like to note that this is the first book in a planned series of four.  According to the web site for Preston Hill Press, the second is currently going to print.

President Barack Obama visited Marquette in February, and he bought this book for his daughters when he stopped for lunch at Donckers Restaurant.  Valley Cats is available throughout the Upper Peninsula and as far south as Traverse City, but anyone can buy it through the online store.

Thank you for the book, Ms. Preston!

I’m getting back on task!  Here is a review of Dee Garretson’s debut novel, Wildfire Run.

Statistics
Checkouts: Not owned by the library
Typical reader: Adventurous boys, mid- to upper-elementary

Synopsis: Luke Brockett, the son of the president of the United States of America, is on vacation at Camp David with a friend and his entourage of Secret Service agents when a wildfire spreads, threatening their very lives.  Luke, Theo, and interloper Callie must use their wits to escape after the agents are incapacitated or are on the other side of the security fences.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

What brought me to read this book was social networking at its best.  I entered a Goodreads drawing for Dee Garretson’s second book, Wolf Storm, which will be published next month.  I haven’t won anything yet, but I enter the drawings in hopes of getting books to review and to add to the school library.  My Goodreads account is connected to Twitter (jdholmangldl), and when I added the book to my “to-read” list, this was shared on Twitter.  Ms. Garretson tweeted to me, hoping that I enjoy the book!  So, happily shocked that an author was so personable (Jonathan Maberry is as well), I went and found her first book, Wildfire Run.

There are elements of this book that are really strong.  First, it has a lot of appeal to the target audience.  There’s adventure, suspense, science, robots, presidential children, and kids using their wits in a situation where there are no adults to help.  That’s all great for the average reluctant reader, or even the average boy.  Second, the pacing is very good, especially in the beginning.  I felt like the lead-up to when the people at Camp David discovered the approaching fire was as good as any adult suspense novel (though definitely aimed at a younger audience).  Third, Luke and his former pal Callie are well-rounded, believable characters.  Fourth, as one can find out from the book jacket and the author’s note, Ms. Garretson did her research on everything.  The details of Camp David are fictional, of course, but she and her children actually tested the solutions to obstacles Luke and his companions faced.  Mega kudos!

Unfortunately, there are also parts that fell flat.  The strengths outweigh them, but there was a point in the book where I felt the suspension of disbelief shatter.  There are some things in this novel that just … no.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but some events leading up to Luke’s separation from his agents and/or their incapacitation were a bit shaky, and then there’s this part where the “perfect storm” just seemed too out there.  The level of incompetence in the adults versus the problem-solving skills is unreal.  And speaking of unreal, Luke’s friend Theo is out of this world.  His knowledge is too vast, and too adult.  If you take the different parts of his repertoire separately, it’s believable; I have some students obsessed with some of his interests like ancient warfare and robotics.  Taken all together, with a knowledge of Latin phrases and who the heck Virgil was and what can be attributed to him … no.

The negatives could possibly be chalked up to the fact that I’m roughly 20 years older than the intended audience.  I’m sure at least some kids would think it’s cool that Luke and his friends can do so much on their own, and tweens will be approaching that age where adults don’t know anything, anyway.  But for me, some of it was just beyond what I could believe.

Would I recommend this book?  To certain audiences, sure.  The writing is solid, the main characters real, and the research put into the book admirable.


Next up: On the subject of Presidential kids, I have a book for the school library that was selected by President Obama for his daughters when he visited this city last winter!  The author generously signed and donated a copy for the library, so I simply must share this book with the world.  Stay tuned for Valley Cats: The Adventures of Boonie and River by Gretchen Preston!

I tend to read a lot of teen/young adult literature.  However, over half the school population is in the K-6 wing, and the youngsters check out far more books than the older students.  So, welcome to the inaugural segment of my new feature, “It’s Elementary,” where I will review books aimed at young to middle readers.  First up, I’d like to talk about the premiere book in the Goddess Girls series by Joan Holub, Athena the Brain.

Statistics
Checkouts: Not owned by the school
Typical reader: Aimed at girls, ages 8-12

Synopsis: Greek middle school student Athena is invited by the father she’s never known, Zeus, to be a student at Mount Olympus Academy, where she can learn to be a goddess.

My Goodreads rating: Undetermined; probably a 3 or 4

I picked up this book on a mythology kick, in search of more novels in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians vein.  Also, I’ve got a bunch of girls moving up from Kindergarten that really need to expand their horizons from just reading princess and Barbie books – what better way than with goddesses, right?

Okay, so I may have fallen flat with both intentions.  Despite claiming to be for ages 8-12, I highly doubt the students that are reading Percy Jackson would stoop to this reading level.  On the other hand, it’s probably above what my little princesses can handle on their own.  It might work when they’re a bit older, or maybe this series would be a good one to share with their moms and dads at bedtime.  I’ll try steering them toward the easier American Girls series first.

The story itself has me baffled as to how to rate it.  If you’re a purist when it comes to Greek mythology, stay away!  Zeus is principal at the school, yet his classically older brother Poseidon is a hunky student who most of the “goddessgirls” swoon over.  But if you’re looking for some clever rewriting and don’t mind playing fast and loose with the Greek myths, this really isn’t bad.  Athena the Brain features stories about how the gods influenced the Trojan war (in the “Hero-ology” class) and why Athena has a city named after her (her invention fair debut of olives bested Poseidon’s water park).  There’s also a nice story of making friends and dealing with mean girls.  And the cover art is fantastic.

I’ll keep this series in mind for if the budget allows, but it’s not a must-have.