TAKING OFF by Jenny Moss

I remember sitting in my dad’s car one January afternoon in 1986, listening to the radio news of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and feeling like it was impossible, like it couldn’t really have happened. But it did.

And so I knew how the story of the shuttle launch would end before I opened this book ~

Somehow, I ended up gasping when it happened all the same.

TAKING OFF is about a girl named Annie, a high school senior growing up in a community of NASA engineers but worshipping words instead of numbers, colors instead of computations. She wants to be a poet but sees that dream and college as completely out of reach until serendipity drops her at a dinner party in the seat next to Christa McAuliffe. 

McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher chosen for NASA’s teacher-in-space program, exudes an energy that Annie can almost touch, so different from her own guarded outlook on life.  Inspired by McAuliffe’s charisma, drive, and infectious zest for life, Annie vows she’ll be there for the launch. She sets the wheels in motion for a road trip to Florida with her father and a handsome young friend of his, which doesn’t sit well with Annie’s long-time boyfriend, Mark.

What happens on that trip – in her father’s broken-down art-car, at Epcot, on the beach, and ultimately on a cold morning at Cape Canaveral, will change everything Annie thought she knew.

This book made me laugh and cry. It made me sigh with some of the most beautifully written passages, and it made me think about the connections that art and poetry share with math and science. As a writer married to a weather geek scientist, I particularly appreciated the bridges this book builds between the two.

But mostly, I was swept up in the emotion of this coming-of-age story.
I knew what was going to happen. I did.

But that didn’t stop me from crying.  It didn’t stop me from feeling everything Annie felt when the shuttle exploded.  I might as well have been there with her, watching a teacher’s dream of flying in space come true, then end in cloud of white smoke in a blue sky in a matter of minutes. It didn’t matter that I knew. Not one bit.

That, my friends, is great writing. 

TAKING OFF is due out from Walker/Bloombury in January 2011.

WHITE CAT by Holly Black

Let’s see…where to start with this one…

Well, first of all, there is the fact that Holly Black’s name looks so cool on the cover of a book called WHITE CAT.  But focusing on that too long is doing the inside of the book a disservice.  Because it’s fantastic – one that teachers will want to hand kids looking for a compelling, fast-paced read.

Set in a world where a touch can be powerful and deadly, WHITE CAT is a magical thriller, loaded with curses, organized crime families, and con artists with dangerous talents. I loved this book, especially the ending (It’s perfect – that’s all I’m saying), and I’m excited to share it with my middle school kids. WHITE CAT is the first in a series called CURSE WORKERS, and it’s one of those titles that both boys and girls are going to love.  I am already kind of tapping my fingers on my desk, wishing the next one would show up. Highly recommended.

(Reviewed from an ARC & available from Margaret McElderry today!)

The Hunger Games

I already posted a book review today, but our phone just rang.  It was my mom, home from Thanksgiving dinner at our house, calling to discuss the book that my 12-year-old son and I convinced her to read while she was here. 

"How’d you like it?"  I asked her.

"It was awful," she said.  "Wonderful but just awful. Put the boy on the phone. I need to talk to him about the end."

So Nana and J proceeded to discuss Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games – an amazing dystopian adventure of reality-TV turned nightmare.  Before they had their book chat, Nana had to go upstairs so Papa wouldn’t hear.  She didn’t want to spoil it; he’s reading it next.  That, my friends, is a book that transcends ages.  In fact, when I was at Flying Pig Bookstore this week, The Hunger Games was displayed with a sign listing it as Josie & Elizabeth’s favorite fantasy of 2008.  (And if you know Josie and Elizabeth, you know that they know their stuff.) 

You can check out some of the many glowing reviews on Suzanne’s website — or just trust me.  You must read this book.  When you’re done, share it with a reluctant reader, who will love it, too.

Kate’s Holiday Book Review Note:  I hope you’re shopping with independent bookstores for the holidays!  After all of my holiday season book reviews, I’ll be posting a short note on how each title might fit into your gift list.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Suggested ages:  12+

Buy it for kids who love:  adventure stories, books set in the future, fantasy, and fast-paced action.  My mom is right — The Hunger Games is disturbing, so it’s not a good choice for very sensitive kids who don’t like to read books that are sad or dark.  This is my top pick for reluctant readers this holiday season, though, and it’s one that readers of many genres will stay up late to finish.

Nonfiction Monday – Steel Drumming at the Apollo

As an English teacher, I’m always looking for ways to bring nonfiction to my reluctant readers.  These are kids who haven’t discovered reading for pleasure, and many of them are boys.  If I’m lucky, I can sell them on a novel by Walter Dean Myers, Joseph Bruchac,  David Lubar, or Jack Gantos…but nonfiction?  Good luck.

That’s why I was so excited to see a review copy of Steel Drumming at the Apollo from Lee & Low Books.  It’s nonfiction, in the form of a photo essay that follows a group of high school musicians from Schenectady, NY as they compete in a series of Amateur Nights at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.  As soon as I read the premise of this book, I was hooked — a group of city high school kids who get to play at a place so rich in history and so symbolic of the Harlem Renaissance.   Text by Trish Marx and photographs by Ellen B. Sinisi tell the story in vivid color, featuring details of the competition and the kids’ preparation for it, profiles of the young artists, and backstage snapshots at the Apollo.  The photographs and text bring the young musicians’ steel drumming to life.

The book even includes a cd of the band’s music, tucked in a pocket inside the back cover. And these kids can play!  Their story will be an inspiration to other city kids who dream of making it big.  Steel Drumming at the Apollo is a terrific choice for kids who need a fun, accessible introduction to nonfiction.  They’ll be singing its praises and dancing along as they read.

First Light by Rebecca Stead

I’ve had Rebecca Stead’s debut novel First Light in my pile of books to read since November, when I met her at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival.  But then the Cybils came along, and I discovered that being a panelist for middle grade fiction meant reading nothing BUT middle grade fiction from October through the end of the year.  (First Light was actually nominated in the Fantasy & Science Fiction category, so it was in someone else’s pile.)

Once I finally started this book, it was hard to put down.  Peter Solemn’s world is rocked in the very first chapter when his father, a glaciologist, announces the family is going on a research trip to Greenland.  Two chapters later, we meet a second main character, Thea, who lives under the arctic ice in a society created generations ago by a group of people fleeing persecution in Europe.

What I loved most about this book was that it plunged me into not just one, but two fascinating new worlds.  Greenland itself really qualifies as an alien landscape of sorts, and Stead’s rich details bring it to life.  (Is there really a Volkswagon Road there where the company tests new models?  So cool!) Thea’s world beneath the ice is painted vividly as well with terrific  techno-details about the innovations of that new society called Gracehope.  I’ve added Gracehope to the list of imaginary places (along with Hogwarts and Narnia) that I long to visit some day.

I’m not giving too much away if I share that Peter and Thea  cross paths along the way.  Their stories intertwine in ways that are surprising but perfect and believable at the same time.  First Light is a great read — a fantastic mix of science fiction and adventure with plenty of real science mixed in, too.  Teachers looking for titles to integrate with earth science and environmental units will especially love this one.

A Home Run!

Linda Sue Park just hit another one out of the ballpark.

Watch for this book.  It’s due out from Clarion in March, and I predict It’s going to win awards.

Keeping Score is the very best kind of historical novel – one that first introduces kids to funny, dynamic characters they’ll love and then brings in historical elements that are so much more meaningful as they affect the lives of those characters.

Ten-year-old Maggie Fortini loves the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Loves them with a big, fat capital L.  When Jim, a pal at her dad’s firehouse, teaches her how to keep score, she finds a way to be an even better fan and believes she’s helping the team when she keeps track of every play.  But as Maggie cheers the Dodgers in the early 1950s, the Korean conflict rages overseas. The war that isn’t called a war comes crashing into Maggie’s life when her friend Jim is drafted and suddenly stops communicating with her.

Knowing Park’s work, knowing that she’s a Newbery Medalist, I expected this book to be fantastic. Still, there were some passages that took my breath away, some that made me cry, and some that made me feel like I’m missing out on something spiritual because I’m not much of a baseball fan.  Readers will feel like they’ve moved right into 1950s Brooklyn, especially when Park describes Maggie’s walk through her neighborhood on game day:

She would walk past the row of houses that looked just like hers, all built of dull brownish-yellow brick, one window downstairs, two windows up – to Pinky the butcher, or Mr. And Mrs. Floyd at the bakery, or the drugstore, and she wouldn’t miss a single pitch.  Everyone would have their radios on, the sound of the game trailing in and out of each doorway like a long thread that tied the whole neighborhood together.
Keeping Score does for the Korean War what Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars does for Vietnam – contextualizes it through a funny, poignant story of life on the home front, told from a young person’s point of view.

This is a perfect book for baseball fans, so Clarion’s plans to roll it out in time for the first pitch make perfect sense.  But you don’t have to be a baseball fan to love this one.  Like so many great kids’ books, baseball may be the hook, but there’s so much more here.  

Keeping Score
is full of colorful characters, like George at the firehouse, who shares his roast beef sandwiches with Maggie, her dad, who worries about crowd control, and her mom, who prays for the Dodgers while she knits.  It’s about baseball, but it’s also about family and friends and war.  Most, though, Keeping Score is about holding on to hope – something that old-time Dodgers fans knew all about.

PS – Thanks,

!  I loved this book almost as much as Maggie loves the Dodgers!

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie is  brilliant.  But you probably already knew that.

This week, I finally got to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Wow.  Just wow.

I won’t write a traditional review here, because plenty of other people have praised this book up and down, and there was that whole award thing, too….  What I do want to talk about is how this book impressed me by nailing some aspects of poverty that are rarely addressed in YA novels.

As a teacher in a small city school district, I know that about a third of my students are living in poverty, carrying with them each day the baggage that goes along with it.  We have breakfast programs and free lunch and a good library, and that helps.  Some.  What we can’t always do, no matter how hard we try, is provide that new way of thinking that Junior figured out in Alexie’s book – that moment when living in poverty becomes so unbearable that a person has to make the painful choice to leave.  In Junior’s case, it’s the decision to leave his reservation school to attend a more privileged white school in a nearby town.

There’s a scene in Part-Time Indian where Junior gives a lengthy and funny-but-true list of rules for fighting.  His rules.  The rules of the reservation.  Among them…

  • If somebody insults you, then you have to fight him.
  • If you think somebody is thinking about insulting you, then you have to fight him.
  • If somebody beats up your father or your mother, then you have to fight the son and/or daughter of the person who beat up your mother or father.

When Junior starts at the white school, one of the big guys insults him, and sure enough, Junior punches him.  He’s stunned when the guy doesn’t fight back but walks off with his posse, all of them staring at Junior as if he were a monster…

I was absolutely confused.

I had followed the rules of fighting.  I had behaved exactly the way I was supposed to behave.  But these white boys had ignored the rules.  In fact, they had followed a whole other set of mysterious rules where people apparently DID NOT GET INTO FISTFIGHTS.

“Wait,” I called after Roger.

“What do you want?” Roger asked.

“What are the rules?”

“What rules?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood there red and mute like a stop sign.  Roger and his friends disappeared.

I felt like somebody had shoved me into a rocket ship and blasted me to a new planet.  I was a freaky alien and there was absolutely no way to get home.

The whole concept of different sets of rules is inherent to any study of the impact of poverty on learning.  Some of my middle school colleagues and I participated in a study group focused on that topic last year, using Ruby Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty.   It’s a fantastic book – one that should be required reading for anyone who works with kids in poverty, and especially for those of us who enjoyed more privileged middle class upbringings.  The rules are different.  Payne, like Sherman Alexie, does a great job demystifying this aspect of poverty and helping us to understand why it’s not so easy for Junior – or anyone – to just walk away.

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Jennifer Harris used to be that poor, chubby kid who sat alone in the cafeteria. Well, almost alone. There was Cameron Quick, another social outcast. Another kid living in poverty and living on the fringe of third grade society. He was her only friend and the only person who ever understood Jennifer Harris. And then he disappeared.

Years pass. Jennifer gets a new stepfather, a new house, a new school, a new name, a new life. She reinvents herself as Jenna Vaughn. Jenna Vaughn is one of the pretty, thin popular girls. She has friends and a hot boyfriend. But she also has a secret – a dark memory that ties her forever to Cameron Quick and to the old Jennifer Harris, who never really left. SWEETHEARTS is the story of Cameron’s return to Jennifer’s life and what happens when her two worlds meet.

As a National Book Award Finalist, Sara Zarr has a lot riding on this next novel, scheduled for release in February 2008. There will be inevitable comparisons to STORY OF A GIRL. Can this second book live up to that standard? Truth be told, I liked SWEETHEARTS even better. The characters in this novel absolutely shine, from the insecure third grade Jennifer and the third grade Cameron whose generosity and fierce loyalty made me want him for a friend, to the high school version of these kids, still haunted by their grade school selves. The minor characters shine, too. One of my favorites was Jenna’s stepfather, whose quiet support helps Jenna and her mother rebuild what was broken so many years ago.

Some character-driven novels sacrifice pace and tension, but that’s not the case with SWEETHEARTS. From the very first chapter, readers sense there’s a story from Jennifer’s childhood that’s not being told in its entirety. Zarr reveals that story in bits and pieces, snippets of memory and elegantly woven flashbacks throughout the book. All the while, the parts of the story left unspoken create powerful tension.

I read SWEETHEARTS in just a few sittings. When I was away from the book, I spent half my time thinking about the characters and hoping things would go well for them. They grow on you like that. Sara Zarr has written another fantastic novel –- one that celebrates the power of childhood friendships, loyalty, and inner strength. Like STORY OF A GIRL, Zarr’s new release is loaded with realistic characters, hope, and heart. The fabulous cookie cover art delivers on its promise – SWEETHEARTS an absolutely delicious read.