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"...Your amazingly spectacular new public library awaits!" And it is spectacular. Chris Grabenstein included just about any element an avid reader with an active imagination could ever have imagined a library would have. While it's been compared with the quirkiness of Willy Wonka, even comparing itself outright, it is more of a joyful homage to the librarians, libraries, children's books, and their authors that gave us a sense of fun and wonder. The well-read kids will love it, and I plan to reread with a notepad to keep track of all the references (and hopefully find the hidden puzzle). (1/30/14)


"The thing about luck is that it's like a fever. You can take fever meds and lie in bed and drink chicken broth and sleep seventeen hours in a row, but basically your fever will break when it wants to break." Summer's family has had a lousy year. Contracting malaria has left her with a dual phobia and obsession with mosquitos (for which she applies a daily liberal dose of DEET). Her parents have left Kansas for Japan to take care of dying relatives, her brother Jaz's only friend moved and the odds don't look good for finding another, and her grandparents are going to be working the wheat harvest to pay the mortgage in her parents' absence. Cynthia Kadohata's true brilliance lies in her ability to make this cast of quirky honest characters come to life. I would be surprised if you can read the verbal sparring between the grandparents or the grandmother and Summer without snorting your coffee out your nose. And all throughout, the relationships help Summer's personality "settle like dust" to let her courage emerge and find the wabi-sabi in her life. (1/31/14)


When I first started The Boy On the Porch, I found the slightly ambiguous setting a little odd, and not what I was expecting from a Sharon Creech novel. I wasn't sure if the storyline was going to go into a Doctor Who-type direction, with the boy being a changeling alien who was telepathically manipulating the couple, John and Marta, into caring for him, or another direction entirely. After a couple chapters of being so focused on who this mysterious mute boy was, I released my Type A "need to figure out where the author is going" feelings and lived in the moment, which is exactly what you need to do when you read this beautiful, emotional, bittersweet story. Sometimes life drops something life-changing and magical into your lap for a brief time, and it's how you choose to move on that can make a difference in others' lives and your own. I can't say any more without robbing you of sharing John and Marta's discovery of the boy on the porch. (1/31/14)


Bee is perceptive. Growing up during WWII in a carnival with a large birthmark has made her watchful and shy. Like "knowing what's in a bologna sandwich without lifting the bread", Bee has a sixth sense for what's on the inside of people. Bullied and orphaned, she has her Pauline to raise and take care of her, but Pauline is young, too, and when Pauline leaves the carnival with a new hire to pursue the promise of love, Bee is left with only Bobby the pig keeper to protect her. Bobby teaches her to run, but he soon leaves to work in a factory since because of a knee injury and his eyesight the military won't take him. Watched by an old lady in a flappy orange hat that no one else can see, Bee takes her stray dog, Peabody, liberates her favorite pig, Cordelia, and runs away with them. Bee finds a home and friends and internal toughness with the help of a couple ghostly old ladies, and uses that new found strength to set her course, gather friends and strengthen bonds. Almost two books in one with multiple subplots, the story of Bee's growth is mesmerizing and the rich language highly quotable. (2/2/14)


I really didn't want to like this book. I started it earlier in the year, and then abandoned it. I thought it was all cutesy word-smithing, no substance, and just another hybrid gimmick. But since it won the Newbery, I felt compelled to put it on my #MustReadin2014 list. And it was sitting on my desk. And it was short. So I read it. I have to say that I loved it. It's not my favorite, but I loved it. The ridiculousness of the characters and the situations (a squirrel being vacuumed and receiving CPR by a kid, cigarette smoking romance novelist mother, fake temporary blindness induced by trauma, really?) made me laugh out loud. The comic segments are brilliantly placed. Descriptions alternating between absurdly overwrought and intelligently simple continually caught me off guard. Now my eight year old is flying through it, snickering in all the right parts. Thanks, Kate DiCamillo and K.G. Campbell. I'm sorry I abandoned it the first time. (2/4/14)


"We got meager particulars of a shooting scrape which occurred at Soda Springs on Tuesday afternoon...a ten year old boy of Baker's who was behind the bar, stepped out with a pistol in hand, and aiming at Williams, shot him through the heart." Idaho Register May 2, 1885 
Based loosely on a true story, rough-living, neglected Jake was sentenced to five years on a guilty plea to a manslaughter charge after defending his drunken father in a bar brawl. A combination of inadequate representation, a harsh judge and an indecisive jury sends Jake, after being tried as an adult, to the Idaho State Penitentiary with grown men convicted of everything from unlawful cohabitation (in the case of a Mormon polygamist) to murder. Gritty, well-researched and heart-wrenching, I was passionately rooting for the sensitive, scrappy Jake as he's made to learn to read and brings out the paternal and the predator nature of different men in the prison. Pileggi's balance of Jake's pugnacious impudence with buried hope and resilience makes him an honest, believable character. (2/6/14)


Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool was not a disappointment. I read Moon Over Manifest last year, and was drawn into the richness of plot and character that felt like Fanny Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Cafe and left me with the same contented sigh at the end. Jack and Early, Fisher, and the other characters were real and solid and mythical at the same time. I found myself comparing again, this time to Stand By Me, Big Fish, and Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?. The farther I read, the more clever connections and foreshadowing I saw, and while I couldn't believe that Early wouldn't be disappointed in his strange, impossible quest, like The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I was thrilled and satisfied that the story ended exactly the way it should have. Semper Fi. (2/8/14)


Billy Miller takes his entrance into 2nd grade with his new teacher's lesson on the Chinese New Year to heart. For Billy, 2nd grade is going to be his year. As each section takes the reader through the year with a focus on his relationship with a member of his family, Billy's worries, high points, and friendships are told in a warm, simple style accompanied by black and white line drawings by Kevin Henkes. I was conflicted about this book. While I appreciate the simple craft which reminded me of some Keven's recent picture books like Old Bear, My Garden, and A Good Day, I was, as an adult reader, frequently bored. I read this book aloud to my third grade daughter, however, and she related to the characters and situations well, which I think is the main strength of this book. It is an approachable, readable book for your average 2nd or 3rd grade child that is longer and has more character substance than many of the chapter books for that age. All in all, I enjoyed it, but wasn't entirely sure why it received a Newbery Honor. (2/11/14)


Sugar was a thoroughly lovable character set in a time that I've seen rarely addressed in such an approachable way in children's literature. Sugar, who detests her name at the beginning, is a ten-year-old girl living on a sugar plantation in Louisiana five years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. Many of those former slaves have left for the North, but those that are too fearful or weak to make the journey have stayed behind to continue working the sugar cane for the former master. Sugar's mother has died, and her father, sold away from her and her mother years ago, has never returned. Sugar and the ten-year-old son of the white plantation owner strike up an illicit friendship which gradually becomes accepted reluctantly by both blacks and whites as the two children continue risking punishment to continue the relationship. The lives of the former slaves are complicated with the arrival of Chinese workers, and they fear for their livelihood. Sugar, the girl, is the catalyst that manages to bring whites, blacks, and Chinese together in the changing times. Jewell Parker Rhodes tackles the societal and historical complexities of the story in Sugar's authentic character in a way that will be highly accessible to children who are not familiar with the times between Lincoln and Dr. King. (2/23/14)


The List
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata
The Boy On the Porch by Sharon Creech
Prisoner 88 by Leah Pileggi
Better Nate Than Ever by Nate Federle
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein
The Apprentices by Maile Meloy
Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton
Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm
The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord
Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L'Engle, adapted by Hope Larson

(Warning: this list is subject to growth.)

How I Chose My List
Last year I hit a dry spell. I had a difficult time staying engaged with books, which was the first time I ever experienced that feeling. It was terrifying. I abandoned more than I started, and so after struggling with guilt and disappointment with myself, I stopped reading unless I absolutely had to. That dry spell lasted almost a full year. What brought me out of it was nonfiction. It started with binging on documentaries on Netflix. Then I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and went from there. The last few months have seen a gradual return to my love of stories (and the interest in nonfiction has stayed). As I talk with kids occasionally about knowing yourself as a reader, I think one of the things I need to keep in mind is that it is not "knowing yourself as a READER", but "growing YOURSELF as a reader." My growth plan for myself this year is to follow my interests and feelings, even when they take me in unexpected directions, so that I read what is meaningful to me when I need it. I'm a better teacher and librarian when I'm passionate about books. So my first draft of my #MustReadin2014 list includes middle grade novels (because that's what I'm feeling passionate about at the moment).

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