Chickens and Chess

I’m going to keep this one short and sweet, just like its title.  Bob, by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, is a cute story about almost eleven-year-old Livy.  It’s been five years since she last visited her grandmother in Australia.  She can’t remember much from her stay, until she walks into her old room.  This is where she finds her long forgotten little green friend, Bob.

At first it seems like Bob is an imaginary friend, except the story is partly told from his point of view.  The years he spent waiting for Livy involved hiding in the closet and reading the dictionary.  He still wears the chicken costume that Livy made for him back then.

Together, they work to unravel his true home, and are ultimately able to get him back to where he belongs.  But not without leaving a lasting imprint upon one another.

They Are Watching

Sadness is kicking in because my time to read is about to slow WAY down.  I go back to work in less than two weeks!

Meanwhile, I finished Small Spaces by Katherine Arden. Funny how sometimes books connect in weird ways.  While this book is nowhere near as disturbing as my previous read, it definitely registers on the creepy scale!

Ollie (Olivia) comes across a distraught woman who is throwing a book into the river.  Ollie grabs the book and discovers that it gives the history of a farm.  Namely that a deal was made with the “smiling man” to bring back a lost brother.  Strangely enough her sixth grade class is taking a field trip to this same farm.  The woman who she saw at the river is the woman who owns the farm.

The bus breaks down as her class is heading home.  This is when everything goes horribly wrong.  Ollie’s deceased mother is able to communicate with Ollie through her old broken watch, which helps Ollie and a couple of her classmates to escape the smiling man’s helpers.  His helpers are all disguised as scarecrows that come alive at night.  Ollie (with some help from her friends) is able to outsmart the bad guy and help release all of her classmates from the alternate dimension they have been trapped in.

This was an entertaining story.  It had some creepy elements and twists, but all manageable for younger readers.  My daughter who is going into seventh grade really enjoyed it!

Batter Up

The Hero Two Doors Down by Sharon Robinson was a pleasant surprise for me. I cringe to admit that I am not a baseball fan.  I would not normally select this book; but chose it since it’s a 2019 Nutmeg nominee.  The Prologue evoked an emotional response from me and basically hooked me into the story.

Sharon writes about her dad and his young neighbor Steve.  It is a mostly true account of Steve’s love of the NY Dodgers and his hero Jackie Robinson living just a couple houses away from him.  Steve had a rough time controlling his emotions and behavior in school.  His love for his dad, baseball and Jackie Robinson’s friendship as a neighbor greatly helped him gain some control in his life.

This story is narrated for younger readers.  Important topics such as discrimination, religion and learning self control are all parts of this book.  These topics are explained in an approachable, understandable way.  Through all the events is the friendship between Steve and Jackie (along with his family).  The story ends with photographs of the family members which makes the story and Steve’s voice even more palpable.  This book will definitely be a hit to baseball fans and beyond.

Souls of War

It is difficult for anyone to fully comprehend what it feels like to be in war unless they’ve been through it themselves.  To me, Alan Gratz’s book Grenade represents the turmoil, aggression, fear, survival instincts, and desperation of war quite well.  The story takes place in WWII Okinawa, where the Japanese army is hoping to slow down the advancement of the American soldiers into Japan.  The author’s afterword is worth a read to get more context too.

The plot shares perspectives between an American soldier named Ray, and Blood and Iron Student Corps soldier Hideki.  Both are young men thrust into this brutal war.  Hideki’s tale begins when his Student Corps are given two grenades; one is to kill as many Americans as possible and the other is to kill themselves.  Hideki’s grenades become a strong symbol throughout the story.  His first grenade is used (SPOILER AHEAD) and it takes Ray’s life.  He contemplates using the second at numerous points in the story, but ultimately places it down before he surrenders.  In doing so, he hopes to spare his life and his sister’s.  His sister is his only remaining living relative, and finding her was his final promise to his dad before he died.

Through the story, first Ray and then Hideki, collect pictures of fallen soldiers with their family members.  These represent the humanity lost from both sides.  The Okinawan people were very much in the middle of this battle.  They were used as sacrifices by the Japanese Army, and they became expendable to both sides fighting around them.  Hideki took note many times of the fear that makes man a killing machine.  It is kill or be killed.  The photos are an important reminder that underneath these “killers” are someone’s brother, father, and son.

Also enmeshed in the story is Okinawan culture.  Mubui is a term that to me is described as a person’s soul.  At first, Hideki has an ancestor’s mubui attached to him which makes him cowardly and afraid.  Throughout the story, Hideki conquers this cowardice by making strong choices for the survival of himself and of others.  Ray’s mubui also attaches to Hideki, and he must make amends with Ray’s death in order to free his soul.

While stories about war are not normally top picks for me, this one was so well written.  There is attention to detail and realism in the representation of both soldiers’ and civilians’ deaths.  My recent visit to the Scholastic Book Summit gave me the early copy of Grenade.  Before even receiving this book, two other people mentioned Gratz’s other book, Refugee.  This author is getting good buzz, and I will definitely be looking to read Refugee soon.

Into the Woods

This is a two in one post- Saint Louis Armstrong Beach and The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond are my last two reads; both are by Brenda Woods.

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach is Saint’s story of the time building up to and during Hurricane Katrina.  Saint is an extremely enterprising kid (I think 11 year old?).  He plays his clarinet along the Louisiana streets to make money and is saving for a new clarinet.  He is an outgoing, helpful and extremely likable character.  The book gets quite dramatic when Saint ditches his uncle and cousins to find his dog Shadow.  He heads back to his home (even though the area has been evacuated). He ends up finding the dog and needing to weather the storm with an elderly neighbor, Ms. Moran.  The storm descriptions are intense and the drama continues as Ms. Moran is diabetic and needs medical attention. Luckily, they are whisked away by helicopter in time.  Saint is reunited with his parents at the end.  They are so happy that he is okay that he seemingly gets away with everything.

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond was my preference between the two.  Violet is an innocent, and also outgoing eleven year old.  She is not as street savvy as Saint.  She is a biracial girl in a town that is primarily white.  Her older half sister (different father) is a beautiful white girl.  Violet questions herself and how she fits in.  She has no connections to her African roots because her dad died when she was young and his family has no contact with her mom (or her).  Until she reaches out to her grandmother.  She is able to spend a couple weeks with her artist grandmother in California and learns more about her dad and herself in the process.  This book has many deep, thoughtful points for a younger reader. Race is definitely one of these points, plus so much more.  Family, life and death, forgiveness, understanding oneself, being inquisitive about one’s roots.  I loved it.



The book Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin (another 2019 Intermediate Nutmeg nominee) opens by recalling the weather.  It was a beautiful day in which nobody could have possibly foreseen the tragedy about to occur.  We sometimes talk about the weather when we are not quite sure what is the right thing to say.  It is a fitting start to the horrors of 9/11; a day we will never forget.

Baskin does a phenomenal job of weaving together four very different characters.  Their stories begin on Sept. 9th at O’Hare Airport.  Sergio is an African American teen who is returning to NYC after receiving a special math award in Chicago.  He lives with his grandmother in NYC.  Naheed is a Middle Eastern Muslim girl from Columbus, Ohio.  She is with her family waiting to pick up her visiting aunt and uncle.  Aimee is transplanting  from Chicago to California due to her mother’s new job.  Will is a boy from Shanksville, Pennsylvania who is still healing from his father’s death one year ago.  His family is just returning from a trip to Disney that was donated by their town.

The book moves everyone to their individual homes, with their own situations to work through.  Timing is critical in that a couple of these characters almost lose loved ones to the events.  Sergio’s newly met mentor is a firefighter who rushed to the scene to help.  Aimee’s mom is scheduled to have a conference in the World Trade Center that very morning.  The author captures the fear, chaos and heavy sadness of this day.

The characters come together at Ground Zero to conclude the story.  The message that we are all connected is a powerful part of the book and one that touched me in the ending quite a bit (definitely some tears).

Fitting In

This is my first Intermediate Nutmeg 2019 read (well, slightly true, I already read Fuzzy Mud and A Handful of Stars with a mother-daughter book group a couple years ago)!  This book, Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova, created a lot of buzz among the 4th and 5th grade students who previewed it during my year-end book tasting.  The title itself is appealing!  I knew I had to read this one first, and did so in one sitting during the afternoon of my last day of school.

Awkward is a graphic novel that immediately hooks you with its personable voice.  The cardinal rules of starting school somewhere new are introduced and mentioned throughout the story; keeping it relatable.  Peppi moved to a new school and manages to trip in front of everyone the first day.  Then, she draws even more attention when the school “nerd,” Jaime, stops to pick up her books.  She is so worried about being targeted by bullies that she pushes her only helper down and yells at him.  She avoids Jaime at all costs after this even though she wants desperately to apologize.

The story goes on to show how she manages to find where she fits in: Art Club.  Her friends in Art Club are the best part of her day.  Meanwhile, Art Club and Science Club have an ongoing battle about who is best.  They are competing against one another to earn a table at the school’s club festival.  It turns out that Jaime is part of the Science Club.  He is assigned to tutor her and they are in a group for a science field trip.  A friendship begins to form as she finally makes amends, and they navigate through the turmoil between their two clubs together.

There are quirky characters who you can’t help but like.  I found the frazzled art teacher pretty comical.  The author enjoyed creating her characters (it shows), and her notes at the end of the book are worth reading.  This book is a light, fun read for students and has some depth in its topics of belonging, doing the right thing, and speaking up.