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5 Jan

Scott’s dream of making it to the NFL didn’t come to fruition, and then his girlfriend of four years dumped him. When we first meet Scott, however, he’s in a much different place: he’s sporting a new look and training in a sumo heya in Japan. The story then jumps back and forth between his time training for and participating in an important bout, his departure from the States, and his arrival at the sumo training quarters and meeting Asami, the daughter of Scott’s trainer. The different time periods are marked by color – blue for his last moments in the States, green for his initial time at the sumo heya, and orange for his training and the important match that will determine whether he stays or returns home. His trainer tells him that the three most important things in sumo are the body, mind, and spirit. He clearly has the body advantage, but will he be able to find the center that he’s been missing for so long? Does he have what it takes?

Thien Pham’s minimalist artwork and the calm pacing of the story make for a rather poetic read. The quiet, slow, gracefulness of sumo wrestling comes across through the visual storytelling. While there is a calmness to the storytelling there is also a bit of action during the training scenes. On first reading, I was drawn to the subtle and efficient style and the overall mood of the book. However, I found Sumo even more enjoyable and interesting upon reread and after learning a bit about sumo wrestling.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author/Illustrator: Thien Pham
Publisher: First Second (Dec. 2012)

Between readings of Sumo my super fabulous cousin Liz became an amateur sumo champ! She competed in her first tournament over the summer representing the USA in the World Games, where she became the first female American to ever win a match! Later in the year she won both the Middleweight Gold and Openweight Gold at the US Open. You can watch her kicking butt in the video below (starting around the 1:40 mark).

Kid Lit Review: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

20 Oct

miraculous journey of edward tulane cover

Edward Tulane is not your average rabbit, nor is he your average child’s toy. Edward Tulane is a china rabbit with real rabbit fur ears and tail. He wears a fancy suit and a pocket watch and he is loved by 10-year-old Abilene. He is very pleased with himself. Abilene’s grandmother is less pleased, as she feels that he should love Abilene as much as she loves him. When Edward is taken on a sea voyage, Abilene becomes involved in a tussle over the rabbit with some boys, which results in Edward Tulane being flung overboard and sinking to the bottom of the sea. Thus begins his journey through life in various settings and with various owners. Throughout his journeys, Edward has no choice but to wait in the hopes that Abilene or some other kind soul will come for him and treat him with care and kindness. In the process, he learns to open his heart and feel genuine love for his caregivers.

Like many stories that have come before, this story centers on the private life of a child’s plaything. Unlike some of these stories, Edward Tulane does not come to life when the children are away. Rather he is always feeling, thinking, seeing, and hearing, though without being able to speak or move on his own. This affects the timeline of his journey, as he waits for days, months, or seasons at a time for someone to discover him and take him with them. The story is punctuated throughout by Edward’s growth as a character as he learns to open his heart to others, and by his deep feeling of loss as he is separated from his various owners without getting to say goodbye. Prepare to be moved, perhaps even to tears.

DiCamillo’s beautiful writing may at times be challenging for young readers, but in a way that is inviting rather than intimidating. The short chapters are accompanied by beautiful, full-color plates and sepia-toned illustrations by artist Bagram Ibatoulline. This along with the many cliffhanger chapter endings and near constant movement from setting to setting will help draw readers in and keep them deeply engaged.

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator: Bagram Ibatoulline
Publisher: Candlewick (February 2006) (ages 7 and up)

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

19 Sep

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong
Nate and Charlie have been friends and neighbors since they were kids, but they hang with different crowds – Nate is President of the Science Club and Charlie is the captain of the basketball team. Their worlds collide when Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Holly, the head cheerleader, tries to call dibs on funding that the Science Club was planning to use to make it to a robotics competition. Turns out the cheerleaders need new uniforms for their “evil dance squad” and since the funds weren’t properly earmarked for the Science Club it’s up to the student council to decide who gets to spend the precious funds. But Nate’s got a plan. It’s simple really: run for student council so that he can control the revenue stream from the inside out. It shouldn’t be that hard, seeing as everyone else running is even less popular than he is (in his mind at least). That is until Holly starts running a campaign of her own: to get Charlie elected as student council president and make him do their bidding. Hard core cheerleaders, a committed science geek, lots of embarrassing childhood photos, and two friends competing for the same student council seat – what could possibly go wrong? Nothing?

It’s been a Faith Erin Hicks filled year. Not only did I have the pleasure of meeting Hicks at BEA, but I finally got around to reading the fantastic Friends with Boys, loved loved loved The Adventures of Superhero Girl, started reading the new comic series The Last of Us: American Dreams, even read the middle grade Bigfoot Boy: Into The Woods, and then Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, a collaboration with author Prudence Shen, came along and hit all the right notes. She really can’t seem to do any wrong with me. I loved Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong. I can’t give all credit to Faith Erin Hicks of course, though her artwork is hard to beat, because it’s as much the story and character development as it is the visual storytelling that sucked me in. I love the exploration of the friendship between Nate and Charlie, as well as the focus on the Science Team’s robot project.

While Charlie is the character who is most genuinely developed, both Nate and Johanna are solid supporting characters. Nate’s character can be pretty aggravating, but he also has his moments where he shows how much he really cares for Charlie, and these moments give him a little touch of sweetness. Johanna is the only girl on the Science Team and she knows her robots – she’s smart, tough, and hardworking. Her love for The Beast (the robot) is charming too. Even the cheerleaders who mostly come across as stereotypical mean girl cheerleaders, have a few small moments where you can catch a glimpse of their humanity. The only thing that bothered me a little about Charlie’s character development is that he’s apparently this popular kid, but he seems to have no friends except for Nate (at least for most of the story). Perhaps Shen is trying to say something about the image of popularity, that it is an image more than anything, but I’m not sure if that choice was purposeful or accidental. I didn’t mind all too much though, as Charlie’s working through his family issues on his own added some emotional impact, and it was heartwarming to see him find a place with the robotics crew.

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Prudence Shen
Illustrator: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: First Second (May 2013)

Bake Sale

9 Sep

Bake Sale
Cupcake has a great life. When he’s not working at his bakery, he is making music with his band, or hanging out with his best friend, Eggplant. When Eggplant invites Cupcake to go to Turkey with him to visit Aunt Aubergine and to meet Turkish Delight, the internationally acclaimed pastry chef, Cupcake drops everything and gets creative working bake sales all over town and saving up for the trip to Turkey. When the trip falls through, things quickly go down hill, but in the end Cupcake learns a lesson about what is really important.

Sara Varon has created a world for Bake Sale that is occupied by walking, talking food products. They are adorable, albeit somewhat confusing (I’ve heard some readers of this book question whether or not Cupcake running a bakery might be just a bit cannibalistic). While the issues dealt with are serious – the value of helping a friend, working towards a goal, trying new things, dealing with disappointment, cannibalism (ok, I’m kidding on that last one) – the humor, sweetness, and cute characters help balance the story. Varon’s whimsical artwork is delightful as always and the soft colors she uses are inviting. Bake Sale is heartwarming – a nice mix of adorable characters and scenarios, and real emotions and struggles. While this book didn’t have quite the emotional punch that won me over to Varon’s earlier work, Robot Dreams, Bake Sale is still a favorite that I highly recommend.

The book also includes a section of recipes at the end that correspond with recipes made by Cupcake throughout the story. Yum.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Sara Varon
Publisher: First Second (August 2011)

The Adventures of Superhero Girl

29 Apr

Faith Erin Hicks’s Superhero Girl comic strips were originally published in black and white in Halifax’s free alternative weekly newspaper, The Coast. Many fans of the comic artist likely first read these comic strips online at, where they are still available in the original black and white. For those who prefer reading in book form and who like a little color in their comics, Dark Horse recently released the strips in digest form with vibrant colors by Cris Peter. Covering the full Superhero Girl run of comic strips, The Adventures of Superhero Girl is one fabulous and fun book.

As you might have guessed by the name, The Adventures of Superhero Girl is about the trials and tribulations of a young female superhero. As she explains to a comics fan (who she calls “skeptical boy”), her super powers are like superman, except she can’t fly. She’s very strong, she can leap very high, and she is a mighty fighter. She saves the day many times, whether it is beating up ninjas, stopping bank robbers in their tracks, throwing a monster into space, or saving a kitty from a tree. The trouble is, there’s not much crime in her city and it’s hard being a superhero without any super villains to fight. Sure there are plenty of ninjas, including King Ninja (a ninja who wears a crown), but they aren’t quite arch-nemesis material. The lack of arch-nemesis isn’t her only problem though. She also has everyday life issues to deal with. Superhero work isn’t exactly paying the bills anymore, not since her federal grant dried up. Job searching is made more difficult when you have no prior work experience, except, you know, fighting ninjas and wearing a cape. Her roommate, who is in on her secret, tries to get Superhero Girl to do normal people stuff, like go to parties and date, though with little luck. And then there is her brother, Kevin. Everyone loves beautiful, strong, superhero Kevin. It’s super annoying.

Anyway, you get the point. She has adventures. Some are of the superhero-y variety and some are more of the it could happen to anyone variety. Above all, it’s a fun and funny read. Because it was a weekly strip, each page has it’s own punch line or special feel, but the strips also tie into the larger story. Superhero Girl runs into many obstacles: skeptical boy, ninjas, Canadian winter (all the villains head South, because they’re smart like that), sun exposure while wearing a mask (yikes! mask-lines!), a hipster who wants to shrink-ray her brother, bad hair days, and so on. While she’s skilled in many special ways, these skills are not really helpful in landing her a job, fitting in at parties, or finding a sense of purpose. Her relationship with her brother is sweet. He’s annoyingly perfect and she moans and groans when he’s around, but he’s also someone she can relate to and, well, he’s family (the flashback to when they were kids is adorable). Oh, she also has a cute cat. Bonus points there.

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: Dark Horse (February 2013)
Note: Review copy received from publisher for honest review

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen – Review + Giveaway

2 Apr

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, the latest comic book memoir from Lucy Knisley, recalls her childhood growing up in New York City and New York’s Hudson Valley, her foreign travels, and her college years in Chicago, surrounded by delicious food. Knisley’s mother was a chef (and farmer’s market champ), her father was a culinary connoisseur, her uncle owned a gourmet food store in New York City, and many family friends were also deeply immersed in the culinary world. Not surprisingly, Knisley has strong taste-memories and in Relish: My Life in the Kitchen she explores various moments from her 28 years of life as framed by her diverse culinary experiences. These memories are interspersed with recipes (about one per chapter) for “The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies”, Huevos Rancheros, Shepard (Fairey) Pie, and more tasty sounding meals and treats (and one alcoholic beverage) that connect with the stories/moments shared in the given chapter. It’s not just taste-memories explored here, though they are plentiful, but also memories of changing relationships, getting used to a new home and new way of living, and how our experiences shape us.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen made me feel nostalgic for all my own taste memories. There were several experiences shared in Relish that resonated particularly strongly with me—being the kid who never got to eat “junk food” at home but managed to get it elsewhere, wanting desperately to recreate a favorite food and failing miserably. I also love that a good portion of the book is set in the Hudson Valley, where I’ve spent 15 years of my life – even my favorite indie book store and theater make appearances! While there isn’t much of a story arc, more of a general age progression, Knisley still managed to pull me in and keep me engaged with her food-centric coming of age stories and her humorous and heartfelt visual storytelling. Her brightly colored illustrations are warm and inviting, and each page offers much to explore both visually and textually.

Graphic novel memoirs and food memoirs seem to have solidified their places in the publishing world. With Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, Knisley ties these two popular areas of storytelling together effectively and rather joyously. This is the second First Second release that I have read that included recipes, but it is the first that made me realize how much I would love a graphic novel cookbook. More please!

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Lucy Knisley
Publisher: First Second (April 2, 2013)
Note: Review copy received from publisher

And now for the giveaway! I just so happen to be going to a stop on Lucy Knisley’s Relish Book Tour later this week, where I’m planning to pick up at least three signed copies (one for me, one for my library, and one for YOU!). Enter to win a copy below!

One winner will be chosen at random on April 9, 2013 to win a copy of Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. One entry per person, US mailing addresses only, 15 years of age or older (I’m going with the publisher’s suggested age range for this one). Winner will be contacted by email.

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The Prey

11 Feb

WARNING: there will be SPOILERS for Andrew Fukuda’s The Hunt in this review

In The Hunt, a young man named Gene lives among vampiric creatures, passing as one of their own, and living by a strict set of rules that his father taught him before he disappeared. When he is chosen as one of the lucky few to take part in the annual Heper Hunt, a competitive hunt for humans, he is whisked away to The Institute to prepare for and take part in the games. Keeping his secret safe at The Institute is hard enough, surviving the Heper Hunt, seems nearly impossible. But when his secret gets out, the hunt begins sooner than planned and he becomes one of the prey rather than one of the hunters. On the run with a group of heper youth raised at The Institute, Gene learns that the man that had been helping the hepers, the one known as The Scientist, was none other than his long lost Dad. [cliffhanger y’all!]

The Prey picks up just where The Hunt left off, diving the reader right back into the action. Gene and the heper youth, lead by the tough, dagger wielding Sissy, make their escape on a riverboat, while the creatures try to track them downstream. The Scientist had talked about a place he called “the land of milk and honey, fruit and sunshine”, and the crew dreams that this is where the river leads them. Eventually they find their way to The Mission, a community of humans living high in the mountains, separated from the dangerous world outside. The crew feels an immediate sense of relief and are welcomed, wined, and dined by the community’s elders. The boys feel that this might be the place that The Scientist had spoken so highly of, but Sissy and Gene notice that not everything is as it seems. As they search for the truth about The Mission, they begin to question whether this “safe haven” may be even more dangerous, more evil, than the world they left behind.

I really appreciate what Andrew Fukuda did with this second installment of The Hunt Trilogy. While the 2nd book in a trilogy often suffers from feeling like “just more of the same” or an interlude before the big finale in book 3, here Fukuda really changes things up and keeps the danger, mystery, and action building to yet another thrilling cliffhanger of an ending. It’s in this installment too, that the love triangle hinted at in the first book, comes to life. While Gene is growing closer to Sissy every day, the growing distance between him and Ashley June, the girl he had to leave behind at The Institute, weighs heavy on his mind. I’ll admit, I’ve frequently caught myself rolling my eyes about love triangles in YA, but Fukuda does it well and though it isn’t what I’m most anticipating in book three, I do want to see what happens next for these three. All in all this is a fun and exciting series that is perfect for those who prefer their monsters terrifying rather than sexy. I’m scared (in a good way) to see where Fukuda takes us next.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Andrew Fukuda
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin (January 29, 2013)
Note: Copy sent from publisher for honest review

Level 2

16 Jan

Felicia died in an accident just shy of her 18th birthday. Ever since, she has been passing her time in Level 2, the space between our world (Level 1) and heaven. There she spends her time in her memory chamber visiting and revisiting memories from her life on earth, as well as the rented memories of other inmates of Level 2. One day, a girl disappears from a neighboring chamber and Felicia seems to be the only one who is concerned that she is gone. In fact, no one else seems to remember that the girl even existed in the first place. As it’s becoming clear that something is wrong in Level 2, a boy shows up, and not just any boy, but a boy from her past – a part of her past she had hoped to leave behind. When he offers to break her out of Level 2 with the promise of helping her find her boyfriend Neil, she leaves the hive, sets off on an adventure, joins a rebellion, and finally visits memories that she has avoided all her afterlife.

What I liked most about Level 2 was the focus on memories and how we are able to learn about Felicia through both her memories of her life on earth and her responses to these memories now in the afterlife. The world of Level 2 is very sci-fi/fantasy, but the memories are pure contemporary, so there is a nice balance between these different genres. As a sci-fi lover, I’m fascinated by the memory pods and the world that is Level 2. As a lover of contemporary fiction, the memory scenes are what in the end are the most vivid and memorable scenes in Level 2, aside from possibly the end scene. While this is the first book in the series, the story ends at a logical and fascinating place. It’s the kind of ending that both allows the book to work as a stand-alone, but that will also lead you wanting more.

I’m guessing that a lot of readers will be drawn to the tension of the Felicia and Julian dynamic, while also loving Neil, our memory boyfriend, because he’s so gosh darn lovable. For me, however, the anger directed at Julian was a bit too much. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine when a character start to sound like a broken record in expressing their hatred for another. I liked Julian and I liked Felicia. I just didn’t like the way that she talked to him. While it sounds like this book brings us yet another YA love triangle, with the bad boy and the good boy battling for the young lady’s heart, that’s really not the case, at least in this first book in the series. Felicia and Julian have a past, Felicia and Neal have a past, but because these pasts don’t coincide, it isn’t really a triangle. To me, this was extremely refreshing. While I wasn’t especially fond of Neil, because he seems a bit too perfect, I appreciate that all we know of him is through Felicia’s memories that she visits. These of course are likely the best of her memories of Neil rather than memories of their biggest arguments or his worst habits or that time he hurt her feelings. I’m curious to see what more we get of Neil in the 2nd book, and in general what on earth (or wherever) comes next.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Lenore Appelhans
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (January 15, 2013)
Note: Review copy received from publisher for honest review

Ask the Passengers Review + Giveaway

1 Jan

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King Book Cover

“She leans in to kiss me good-bye, and when she does, I wish I lived on the right planet where kissing Dee Roberts wasn’t a big freaking deal. Where it didn’t mean I have to affix a label to my forehead so people can take turns trying to figure out what caused it or what’s wrong with me. And I wish I didn’t have to lie so much. I don’t think Frank Socrates would approve of all this lying. I think Frank would want me to cause a lot more trouble.” (78)

Astrid Jones has a lot of love to give but doesn’t know who to share it with. She has secrets, but isn’t sure who she can confide in. Her relationships with her parents and sister are strained; her mom is always working or stealing away for mother-daughter sessions with her sister, her father is stoned most of the time, and she and her sister aren’t as tight as they once were. She has a secret girlfriend, although she’s not sure if she’s ready to accept that label yet, or if she even identifies as gay. Her best friends are also closeted gay teens (her best girl and boy friends are believed to be the hot couple at school), but opening up to them about her feelings for her girlfriend would mean accepting a label and she’s not sure that she’s ready to be boxed in. So instead of confiding in family or friends, she often finds herself lying outside and sending her love to passengers flying high above, or seeking guidance from her buddy Socrates.

Astrid has read books where there are gay/straight alliances in schools. Because these are fictional books and because there is nothing of the sort in her town, she believes GSAs must be fictional as well. The bigotry in her town ranges from her mother’s referring to a a non-gay bar as a “normal bar” to her classmate joking about how the Nazi’s at least got one thing right when the class learns that the Nazi’s targeted homosexuals during the Holocaust. Her sister calls Astrid’s girlfriend’s field hockey team a “dyke picnic” and compares homosexuality to an infectious disease (“it’s like, spreading”). Even with such an unsupportive, judgmental environment, Astrid does have gay friends who she could confide in, but she’s not questioning her sexuality and feelings so much as her need to label them and she worries about coming out even to those who would most support her decision.

And this is where Socrates comes in. Her favorite class is humanities where they are studying philosophy. While she’s not a fan of Zeno and his (crazypants) theory that motion is impossible, she is quite fond of Socrates. She even gives him a first name, Frank, because she wants him to feel more familiar (having a first name “makes him more huggable”). Yes, she and Socrates are tight. He shows up at home, at school, he’s there for her when she needs him. He is her hero and her confidant. As her class enters into a Socratic Method project, her teacher explains that “‘this will be a time of asking questions and not rushing to answer them. A time of poking holes in your own theories. A time of thinking and not knowing.'” (44) As “the not knowing queen” she’s ready to keep asking questions and not worry so much about the answers. She feels a lot of pressure from loved ones to come up with answers though, and she recognizes that for whatever reasons they have needs around her self-indentification. Still, she’s determined to do things on her own terms.

Astrid frequently escapes to a picnic table in her backyard, lies down, and sends her love and questions to the passengers flying in airplanes up above. As readers, we get the opportunity to witness brief scenes with the airborne recipients of Astrid’s love and questions. While these scenes are diversions from the general plot, the experiences of the passengers add a feeling of universality to the themes of love, self-acceptance, self-discovery, and belonging. These vignettes are charming, touching, and in some cases quite powerful.

I think A.S. King might be the perfect author for me. I love her writing style, her characters, her use of magical realism, and the quirkiness of her characters and dialogue. She has a gift for making seemingly ordinary characters both realistic and highly memorable. With each book, she manages to delve deep into a character’s experience, creating an emotional read that’s also joyous and fun. In a year filled with amazing reads, Ask The Passengers was easily my favorite.

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: A.S. King
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (2012)
Note: Review copy received from publisher for honest review

I loved this book so much that I want to share the wealth, so here’s a nice little giveaway to start off the new year! One winner will be chosen at random on January 9, 2013 to win a copy of Ask the Passengers by A.S. King. One entry per person, US mailing addresses only, 13 years of age or older. Winner will be contacted by email.

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Dream More (and read more too)

17 Dec

A few years back, the University of Tennessee’s Class of 2009 had the opportunity of a lifetime. Dolly Parton was their commencement speaker. I honestly can’t think of a single living person who I would be more excited to hear give an inspirational speech (I admire her so much, my friend Irit and I once shared a Dolly Parton-themed birthday party). The speech she gave to this graduating class not only inspired the audience and web viewers, but also inspired her latest book Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You, in which she elaborates on the four main hopes that she introduced in her commencement speech, also the basis of the mission of her Dollywood Foundation. Her hope for us all is that we dream more, learn more, care more, and be more.

As a physical book, like Ms. Parton herself, Dream More is a tiny little thing at just 128 pages. As an audio-recording, which is how I enjoyed this book, it is a slim two-disc set. While Dolly fans will surely enjoy this book in any format, I highly suggest listening to the audiobook. While they are her words either way, it is an absolute pleasure to hear them shared in her own voice. She’s warm, inviting, thoughtful, and funny. She even breaks into song now and again. While I found the first half of the book/audiobook to be more focused, her messages are clear and sincere and inspiring throughout. It was a pleasure to listen to the full audio recording. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I’ve listened to it twice already.

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library

There’s also a significant focus on the importance of reading and in particular on encouraging reading at a young age. Dolly Parton talks about her work with her Imagination Library and how proud she is to be known as “The Book Lady.” In her words, “If I’m remembered 100 years from now, I hope it will not be for looks but for books. I don’t want the responsibility of any boobs in the future! I had to get that off my chest.”

Dolly Parton is an amazing woman with a lot of life experiences to share. While Dream More will be of most interest to her fans, those unfamiliar with her aside from her popular hits or her famous physique or her Dollywood theme park will find much to love here too.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author & Reader: Dolly Parton
Publishers: Penguin Audio (November 2012)
Note: Review copy received from publisher for honest review

On a side note, this book brought to my mind Nas’s “I Can“, with his lyric “Read more. Learn more. Change the globe.” Worth a listen if you haven’t heard it (recently or ever)!