Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Boy on the Wooden Box

Leyson, Leon.  The Boy on the Wooden Box : A Memoir by Leon Leyson.  NY: Atheneum, c2013.  225 pages.

From the publisher: Leon Leyson (born Leib Lezjon) was only ten years old when the Nazis invaded Poland and his family was forced to relocate to the Krakow ghetto. With incredible luck, perseverance, and grit, Leyson was able to survive the sadism of the Nazis, including that of the demonic Amon Goeth, commandant of Plaszow, the concentration camp outside Krakow. Ultimately, it was the generosity and cunning of one man, a man named Oskar Schindler, who saved Leon Leyson’s life, and the lives of his mother, his father, and two of his four siblings, by adding their names to his list of workers in his factory—a list that became world renowned: Schindler’s List.

This, the only memoir published by a former Schindler’s List child, perfectly captures the innocence of a small boy who goes through the unthinkable. Most notable is the lack of rancor, the lack of venom, and the abundance of dignity in Mr. Leyson’s telling. The Boy on the Wooden Boxis a legacy of hope, a memoir unlike anything you’ve ever read.

From Mrs. Belknap:  This touching story adds a new layer of awareness about the hardships endured by Holocaust survivors.  Mr. Leyson and most of his family were among the lucky ones who lived, but lucky is not a word to describe the conditions they lived through.  It is important that we know about stories like this one so it never happens again.

This biography is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.  It is recommended for junior high and above.

Monument 14

Laybourne, Emmy.  Monument 14.  Book 1 of the Monument 14 Trilogy. NY: Feiwel and Friends, c2012.  296 pages.

From the publisher:  Fourteen kids. One superstore. A million things that go wrong.  Six high school kids (some popular, some not), two eighth graders, one  tech genius, and six little kids trapped together in a chain superstore build a refuge for themselves inside. While outside, a series of escalating disasters, beginning with a monster hailstorm and ending with a chemical weapons spill, seems to be tearing the world-as-they-know it apart.

It is not hard to imagine a scenario like the one that occurs in this book.  It seems like the weather has been changing for the worse, and one never knows what the governments (ours and others) are going to come up with that is not good for the average citizen.   How the kids  deal with disaster is the focus of this book.  When I came to the end, I wanted to hurry on to the next book in the series because I had come to like some of the characters a lot.

The two following books in the trilogy are  Sky on Fire and Savage Drift.

This book is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.

Recommended for junior high and above.


Stiefvater, Maggie.  Sinner.  Book 4 of the Wolves of Mercy Falls series. NY: Scholastic, c2014.  357 pages.

I was well into this book before I realized it was the 4th book in the series.  I have not read the previous three.  Although it might have made a little more sense to read them in order, I still was able to understand what was going on.  I do think I would have connected to the characters a little better with prior knowledge.  

The story is told in alternating chapters, either by Cole St. Clair, a passionate but damaged musician and Isabel, the girl he can't live without.  Isabel is determined not to get too involved again, and doesn't trust Cole, but she is not happy with parts of her life either.  It doesn't help that Cole is also a sometimes-wolf.  Throw in a reality show where unscrupulous Baby North loves to manipulate and ruin the damaged stars in the show and you will see why Isabel and Cole find it so hard to succeed.  

The first three books in this series are Shiver, Linger and Forever.  

Recommended for 9th grade and above.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

See You at Harry's

Knowles, Jo.  See You at Harry's.  Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, c2012.  310 pages.

You'll need your kleenex ready for this book.  Fern isn't dreading middle school until her father comes up with a zany idea for a tv commercial to advertise their restaurant with the whole family in it.   It gets worse when he decides to put their faces on the side of the company van.  Fern dreads the teasing at school that will result, and she is not wrong.  To make things worse, her older brother, Holden, is having problems that spill into her life, and she can't decide how she feels about sharing her best friend, Random, with another girl who joins their group.  Everything soon pales in comparison to a tragic event that threatens to tear her family apart.  Grief and guilt can be very difficult things to overcome, and moving on takes time and support from friends and loved ones.  You will find it easy to cry with Fern as she struggles to deal with things.

This book is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.  Recommended for junior high and above.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Navigating Early

Vanderpool, Clare.  Navigating Early.  NY: Dell Yearling, c2013.  296 pages.

Jackie Baker finds himself traveling from Kansas to Maine after the death of his mother and his father's return from World War II.  He will be attending the Morton Hill Academy for Boys.  Though he gets along with the other boys, he frequently encounters a strange boy named Early Auden.  Early is pretty much allowed to come and go as he pleases, and he quietly goes about his odd activities (like his obsession with the number Pi) without much notice.  Jackie finds him interesting and when Early helps him with his rowing skills, they become good friends.  On a disappointing weekend when Jackie's father backs out of a visit, Jackie agrees to go on a quest with Early.  This quest turns out to be both believable and mystical, following the adventures of Pi and looking for the great bear on the Appalachian trail.   

It is hard to convey the charm of this book in a short description.  As you come to know Jackie and Early, you get a glimpse into the lives of boys who know loss and see the world in a different way.  It is also an adventure in "connecting the dots," where things that are seemingly unrelated, turn out to fit into a bigger picture.  Jackie's mother said to him once "You have to look for the things that connect us all.  Find the ways our paths cross, our lives intersect, and our hearts collide."  I think your heart will collide with theirs as you read this book filled with unpredictable twists and turns.

This book is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.  Recommended for junior high.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper.  Go Set a Watchman.  NY: HarperCollins, c2015.  278 pages.

I had a conversation about this book at a garage sale this morning.  The woman I was talking to said her friend had not liked the book because she said that Atticus had turned into a racist.  I was a little shocked that anyone who had finished the book would come away with that impression.

In this sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird written 55 years later, Scout is 26 years old and living in New York.  She returns home for a two week visit and within days is ready to leave and never return.  I didn't find Jean Louise (Scout) lovable in this book.  While she aged in years, she was still naive and childish in some ways and it diminished her character.  It was not until she finally faced up to some truths that she found painful, that she was able to move beyond the Scout of the past and become her true self.  The quotation from the Bible is key to this novel.  "Every man's watchman, is his conscience."

Because Scout is older in this novel, I think junior high students will have a harder time relating to Scout and the more adult things occurring in the book, but senior high level students should enjoy reading it after they have completed To Kill a Mockingbird.   Review by Mrs. Belknap

Thursday, August 6, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird

Lee, Harper.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  NY: Grand Central Publishing, c1960. 376 pages.

Probably everyone in the world has read this book but me.  I was at the book store to spend a birthday gift card and picked up the new novel by Harper Lee and found that it continued the story of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird.  I decided I should start at the beginning.

While I find that reading about real disturbing events is not fun because of the collective guilt I feel,  I couldn't put this book down.  If there is a soul alive that couldn't love Scout and Jem and Atticus, I don't know who it could be.  The mysterious Boo Radley, the odious Bob Ewell, lively Miss Maudie, loyal Calpurnia, all of these characters come alive in the story of a southern lawyer raising two children alone.  Scout is precocious and a tomboy and Jem is in the transition from boy to man.  When Atticus chooses to defend black Tom Robinson, things in Maycomb, Alabama change for the Finch children. They are puzzled and disturbed by the events and their former innocence is lost.  Aside from being a good story line, the writing of course, won a Pulitzer Prize.  I can't agree more.  I loved the book, and I am loving the sequel, which was published 55 years later.

Recommended (and often required reading in school) for junior high and above.  Review by Mrs. Belknap


Wright, Barbara.  Crow.  NY: Dell Yearling, c2012.  291 pages.  

From the publisher: "The summer of 1898 is filled with ups and downs for 11-year-old Moses. He's growing apart from his best friend, his superstitious Boo-Nanny butts heads constantly with his pragmatic, educated father, and his mother is reeling from the discovery of a family secret. Yet there are good times, too. He's teaching his grandmother how to read. For the first time she's sharing stories about her life as a slave. And his father and his friends are finally getting the respect and positions of power they've earned in the Wilmington, North Carolina, community. But not everyone is happy with the political changes at play and some will do anything, including a violent plot against the government, to maintain the status quo.  One generation away from slavery, a thriving African American community—enfranchised and emancipated—suddenly and violently loses its freedom in turn of the century North Carolina when a group of local politicians stages the only successful coup d'etat in US history."

This was one of several books I read this year about the problems of discrimination in the US.  I can't say that I like reading about the darker side of white treatment of blacks, but I recognize that it is important for me to confront the shame that I feel over what happened in the past and is still a struggle today.  It is important to understand and do my best to make sure it is not repeated, at least by myself.  This book looks at a specific incident called the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 where at least 14 blacks were killed, led by over 500 whites. All the forward strides made by the thriving black community were destroyed and fear took it's place.

This book is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.  It is recommended for junior high and above.  Review by Mrs. Belknap


Lange, Erin Jade.  Butter.  NY: Bloomsbury, c2012.  294 pages.

Another book on the Iowa High School Book Award list this year is titled Skinny.  These two books deal with excessive obesity in very different ways, but a lot of the feelings and issues of being overweight are much the same.  In Skinny, a girl named Ever decides to have gastric bypass surgery.  In Butter, the main character who got his nickname after an awful bullying incident, decides to eat himself to death live on the internet.  Butter is pretty smart, good in school, and he is an excellent saxophone player, but he keeps to himself for the most part.  The only social contact he has at the beginning of the book is a girl from his school that he is involved with online.  He knows who she is, but she thinks he is normal looking and just mysterious about showing his picture.  When he breaks a chair at an assembly, Butter decides to create a website announcing his plan to eat himself to death.  This causes an unexpected consequence and Butter no longer is sure of himself.  This book is a good read for anyone who has been on either side of the weight issue or who has been bullied in some way.  Obesity is only the visible outer sign of deeper issues that have to be resolved.  

This book in on the Iowa High School Book Award list for 2015-2016.  Recommended for high school and above.  Junior High students could benefit from reading this book as long as they have a clear understanding that Butter's idea is a BAD one!  Review by Mrs. Belknap

Counting By 7s

Sloan, Holly Goldberg.  Counting By 7s.  NY: Puffin Books, c2013.  378 pages.

From the publisher:  "Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life... until now.

Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read."

I think this was my favorite book of the summer.  Sometimes when I'm feeling sorry for myself, I just need to read about someone dealing with a big tragedy to make my problems seem trivial.  Willow is a character you will never forget.  She is smarter than smart, a little quirky, and tougher than a 12-year-old should have to be.  If you liked Out of My Mind or Wonder you will like this even better.  

This book is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.  Recommended for junior high and above.  Review by Mrs. Belknap

Okay For Now

Schmidt, Gary D.  Okay For Now.  Boston, MA: Clarion Books, c2011.  360 pages.

From the publisher:  "Okay For Now explores a seemingly improbable alliance between new outsider in town Doug Swieteck and Lil Spicer, the savvy spitfire daughter of his deli owner boss. With her challenging assistance, Doug discovers new sides of himself. Along the way, he also readjusts his relationship with his abusive father, his school peers, and his older brother, a newly returned war victim of Vietnam."

Told in the voice of Doug, the main character, you will find him to be likeable, practical, and talented in non-typical ways.  He makes some unusual friends around his new neighborhood and begins a quest to replace some things that are missing, discovering a special mentor and talent in the process.  While his home life is sometimes painful, Doug makes the best of things, and you will be glad for him when the book ends.

This book is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.  Recommended for junior high and above.   Review by Mrs. Belknap

As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth

Perkins, Lynne Rae.  As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth.  NY: Greenwillow Books, c2010.  352 pages.

In this funny odyssey, Ry heads off to an archaeology camp in Montana while his parents are off on a trip to the Caribbean.  When the train stops unexpectedly and he can't get any bars on his cell phone, he gets off the train and climbs to the top of a hill only to see the train leaving without him.  This begins a humorous and kooky set of events separately affecting himself, his parents and his grandfather who is staying at his house while the parents are gone.  Even the dogs get caught up in the zany adventure.  Along the way, Ry meets up with an unusual fellow named Del who helps him, but on the way back to Wisconsin, things get way more complicated.  You'll love this zany adventure and it's hard to guess what the next twist or turn will be so you will be compelled to read to the end and will not be disappointed.

Recommended for junior high and above.  Review by Mrs. Belknap

The Scorpio Races

Stiefvater, Maggie.  The Scorpio Races.  NY: Scholastic, c2011.  404 pages.

From the publisher:  "It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

This book takes place in what might be current times, but the island where Puck and Sean live is very different than the mainland.  The water horses are what sets them apart from the rest of the world.  They live in the sea and they are both magnificent and frightening.  Anyone who loves horses should find this a good read, but if you just like fast-paced, thrilling stories, you will like it as well.  Puck is a character I came to love.  She is the kind of spunky and determined girl who goes for what she wants.  Sean is very quiet, but once you get to know him, you'll like him too.

This book is on the Iowa High School Book Award reading list for 2015-2016.  I would recommend it for junior high and above, with a warning about violent scenes for more sensitive readers.    Review by Mrs. Belknap

The Eye of Minds

Dashner, James.  The Eye of Minds.  NY: Delacorte Press, c2013.  310 pages.  Book 1 in the Mortality Doctrine series.

An avid gamer on the Virtual Net, Michael has two virtual friends that he hangs out with.  The book takes place in a hyper-advanced world where anyone with enough money can experience wild excitement, even the experience of dying without fear because they will be able to wake up in the real world unscathed.  When they begin to hear about a mysterious player who is holding gamers hostage in the virtual world, they are curious, but it is not until the government contacts Michael and issues veiled threats that he agrees to use his hacking skills to help them find the dangerous gamer.  When his friends decide to help him, the biggest danger they face is that the renegade gamer may catch them first and essentially make them brain-dead, unable to wake up in the real world.   Other books in this series are Gunner Skale, Rule of Thoughts, and Game of Lives (not published yet).

This book is on the Iowa High School Book Award reading list for 2015-2016.  It is recommended for junior high and above although there is quite a bit of violence, so younger readers should be aware.  Review by Mrs. Belknap

Code of Silence

Shoemaker, Tim.  Code of Silence.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, c2013.  346 pages.  Book 1 of Code of Silence series.

From the publisher:  "Telling the Truth Could Get Them Killed. Remaining Silent Could Be Worse.  When Cooper, Hiro, and Gordy witness a robbery that leaves a man in a coma, they find themselves tangled in a web of mystery and deceit that threatens their lives. After being seen by the criminals---who may also be cops---Cooper makes everyone promise never to reveal what they have seen. Telling the truth could kill them. Remaining silent means an innocent man takes the fall and a friend never receives justice. Is there ever a time to lie? And what happens when the truth is dangerous? The three friends, trapped in a code of silence, must face the consequences of choosing right or wrong when both options have their price."

If I had been thinking about it when I began reading this book, I would have said the boys would never read it because of it's Christian message, thinking it might be preachy.  It was far from it, but the message was still clear.  Caught up in a situation that gets worse each day, the three boys struggle to figure out what to do.  There is lots of action and suspense and I think boys WILL like it and eager to read the two following novels,  Back Before Dark and Below the Surface.

This book is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.  Review by Mrs. Belknap

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Bennett, Veronica.  AngelMonster.  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, c2005.  234 pages.

From the publisher:  "Veronica Bennett's lush reimagining of the life of Mary Shelley — on the eve of her authorship of the classic gothic novel Frankenstein — is a gripping story of love and obsession.

In the spring of 1814, poet Percy Shelley enters the life of young Mary 
Godwin like an angel of deliverance. Seduced by his radical and romantic 
ideas, she flees with him and her stepsister to Europe, where they forge a hardscrabble life while mingling with other free-spirited artists and poets. Frowned on by family and society, persecuted by gossip, and plagued by jealousy, Mary becomes haunted by freakish imaginings and hideous visions. As tragedy strikes, not once but time and again, Mary begins to realize that her dreams have become nightmares, and her angel . . . a monster. Now the time has finally come for the young woman who would become Mary Shelley to set her monster free."

I found this to be a very interesting book, and had never thought much about the background surrounding the author of Frankenstein.  When I fact-checked details, I found that the book of fiction followed her real life pretty closely.  With so many dark things happening to her, it is not surprising that she was able to give life to the monster of her famous book.

Recommended for grades 10 and above.  Review by publisher and Mrs. Belknap

The Eleventh Plague

Hirsch, Jeff.  The Eleventh Plague.  NY: Scholastic, c2011.  278 pages.

Fifteen-year-old Stephen Quinn, his father and grandfather are among the few who survived the influenza strain that killed 2/3 of the population after the country was ravaged by war.  Things go from bad to worse as Stephen has to take charge and try to find help for his father.  He ends up in a place called Settler's Landing, where for a while he thinks things will work out, but events happen that cause a different outcome.  Like many dystopian novels, this book makes it clear that having courage and having the fierce drive to look for better alternatives is what makes the difference between those who survive and those who don't.  

This book is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.  Recommended for junior high and above.  Review by Mrs. Belknap


Cooner, Donna.  Skinny.  NY: Scholastic Point, c2012.  260 pages.

Ever Davies is 15 and she weighs 302 pounds.  While her mother was alive, she was slightly overweight, but after her mother died, she began a slow climb into obesity.  She has a two voices.  One is a beautiful singing voice, which she hides from most everyone.  The other is a vicious voice that tells her what everyone thinks about her, how fat she is, how ugly, how boring.  She lives with her dad and his second wife and her two daughters.  Ever doesn't feel close to anyone but her dad, thinking that everyone, even he, is repulsed by her fatness.  Her only real friend is a boy named Rat who she's known for a long time, even at the long-ago time that Jackson kissed her.  It is partly the memory of that kiss that spurs Ever to finally have gastric bypass surgery which changes her life forever, in more ways than one, and brings her nasty voice along with it.  As Ever struggles to deal with weight loss, new people come into her life, and she must make some hard choices about who she wants to become and which people are her real friends and support.   If you've ever struggled with a negative voice in your head like Ever's, you will empathize with her and cheer for her to succeed.  This book is written by a woman who had gastric bypass surgery herself and speaks from experience.

Skinny is on the Iowa Teen Award reading list for 2015-2016.  It is recommended for junior high and above.   Review by Mrs. Belknap

The Selection

Cass, Kiera.  The Selection.  NY: HarperTeen, c2012.  327 pages.

Sixteen-year-old America Singer lives in the nation of Illea which was formed after the war that destroyed the United States.  Illea is divided into a caste system where changing levels is nearly impossible until Prince Maxson needs to find a wife.  That is when "The Selection" is begun and one eligible girl from each province will join others at the palace to live and spend time with the prince.  America, who has a secret love from a lower caste, only agrees to fill out the paperwork because she is sure she won't be selected.  When she is chosen, the opportunity to help her family is too great to refuse.  While life at the palace is luxurious, America is sure she will not suit the prince and does not want to.  There is danger, as several groups of rebels stage attacks during her stay there.  This book is often light-hearted and not as grim as other books in the dystopian category like Hunger Games but it is still interesting to imagine a life without the things we take for granted in our lives today.  You will like both America and the Prince and I think you will enjoy this lively romance.  It is the first in a series of five books.  

This book is on the reading list for the Iowa High School Book Award for 2015-2016.  It is recommended for grades 9 and above.

Review by Mrs. Belknap

The Moon and More

Dessen, Sarah.  The Moon and More.  NY: Viking, c2013.  435 pages.

Emaline begins the summer following graduation with a perfect long-time boyfriend and expectations of a normal summer filled with work at  the family owned Colby Realty, where they rent beach houses to a variety of clients.  Emaline has a pretty carefree life whenever she can forget about her elusive "father."  When she hits a bump in her romantic life,  a client from New York brings new excitement  and her mom is worried that Emaline is going to repeat a mistake from the past.  If you like light romance with surprise endings, you will enjoy this book.  There are also enjoyable elements of beach life, art, and film production as well as dealing with the various trials of growing up and preparing for college.

This book  is on the Iowa High School Book Award reading list for 2015-2016.  Recommended for grades 9 and above.

Review by Mrs. Belknap