Review: Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

81Y+vQ0oq1LBooks serve many different purposes. They give us a fun escape from the demands of daily life. They give us a glimpse into a time from long, long, ago. And often, they give voice to our thoughts as the author so eloquently puts words to what may be going on in our lives.

Young Jackson and his family are having big problems. Dad is ill and unable to work regularly, and Mom pieces together part-time jobs to make ends meet. But it isn’t enough. Jackson and his little sister, Rosie, go to bed hungry more often than not. And when a yard sale that includes all of their belongings doesn’t even bring in enough to cover next month’s rent, they find themselves on the verge of being homeless once again. Just when Jackson thinks his life can’t get any worse, his imaginary friend, Crenshaw, makes a reappearance. And just as when he was younger, Crenshaw is there to help him make sense of things.

Just as she did in “The One and Only Ivan”, Katherine Applegate brings to life the magical world described on the pages. Her descriptions of Crenshaw’s antics are spot-on as any cat owner will recognize. The innocent denial of Jackson and Robin is truly childlike. As it should be. And her underlying message of friendship is timeless as well as ageless. Friendship is what pulls us through, gives us hope when things aren’t going so well. Who cares if that friendship comes in the form of an imaginary human-size cat?

Yes, this is more of a children’s book than a book that is truly meant for adults. But aren’t we all children at heart? I mean, how many of us read ALL of the Harry Potter books? Multiple times? Crenshaw is a story that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Read it by yourself, read it to a special young person in your life, just read it.


Buy It Now: Crenshaw

Review: Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

51gCLikAH0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As another school year winds down, one of the things I’ve been working on is a list of possible books for my kiddos to read over the summer. And no, it’s not a required reading list. Most of you probably know how I feel about those. Instead, it’s a suggested list of titles that I know were good for me, so I can guess that they’ll probably appeal to younger readers as well. And no compilation of such books would be complete for me without The Overlander Chronicles series written by none other than Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games.

Gregor is an unlikely hero, a young boy of just eleven. But when his young sister crawls into an air vent in the laundry room of their New York City apartment building, he doesn’t hesitate before going in after her. So begins their journey into the Underland, a mystical magical land right under the feet of New Yorkers. As magical as the Underland is, however, it’s also a land on the brink of war. And it appears that Gregor is exactly the hero mentioned in the prophecy that guides the Underlanders as they ready themselves for battle.

Oh, and did I mention the giant cockroaches? Yes, that’s right. Cockroaches. Giant ones. And giant bats and rats and spiders. Here’s where some of the story’s deeper messages come into play, as there’s a definite hierarchy in the Underland as well as a lot of prejudices and stereotypes. There are also moral decisions to be made, and there are consequences to some of the choices made by the characters. While some of the books in the series are definitely better than the others, none in the series rated less than four stars out of five for me.

So if you’re thinking about checking out right about now, reasoning that a book of this sort couldn’t possibly appeal to you for whatever reason, please don’t. First and foremost, this is a story that will appeal to readers of all ages. Older readers will appreciate the simplicity and innocence of the story as well as the unbelievable world created by the author. Younger readers will fall into a fantasy world that’s rich in visual imagery and descriptions. And kids who aren’t yet ready to read this one on their own will gladly snuggle up with a grownup for this amazing bedtime story. And fear not, Gregor’s world is nowhere near as scary or as graphic as the one in The Hunger Games. So start with book one, jump right in. And be prepared to move on to the rest in the series one after the other.


Buy It Now: Gregor The Overlander (Underland Chronicles, Book 1)

Review: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

51sM5xQaE4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One of the things that I love most about this blog is the variety of books that we Muses choose to read and review. Our tastes differ from each other, and even vary day to day depending on the mood we’re in. Very reflective of our readers, I do believe! So with that in mind, I’m presenting you with a book that is at first glance a children’s book. However, if you look a bit deeper, you’ll find that it’s a timeless story.

Here’s the story of a rabbit named Edward. But Edward is not just any rabbit. He’s a very special china rabbit who is loved and adored by young Abilene. Edward has a wonderful life and enjoys all the finest things that money can buy. But one day, he is lost at sea. I won’t tell you how because that’s one of the best scenes in the book. Still, his journey overboard leads him on a long series of adventures. Some of his adventures are not so bad, and some are downright horrible. Along the way, he begins to understand the meaning of love and hope. He realizes that love can be different things to different people. And sadly, he finds out that sometimes hope is lost.

This book is listed as appropriate for grades 2-4, but I would dare to say it can be enjoyed by all ages. Most definitely older kids would fall under Edward’s spell as well. And as a read-aloud, it just can’t be beat. I read this one to my students over a period of several weeks, and each day they begged for “just one more chapter.” The chapters are short, but each one leaves you wanting just a bit more.

Kate DiCamillo is a highly acclaimed children’s author, one whose stories have received numerous awards. Her gifts to us have included Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux among others. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is another of those books destined to become a favorite on bookshelves everywhere, a story to be read over and over again.


Buy It Now: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Review: Flunked (Fairy Tale Reform School) by Jen Calonita

21996359Books can make you feel many different things. They can make you feel sad. They can make you feel melancholy. They can make you feel passionate about something. And sometimes books can be just plain fun. This one definitely falls into that last category.

What happens when evil fairy tale characters have a change of heart? They start a reform school for other fairy tale characters gone bad, of course. There’s a mishmash of favorites and familiars in this story. We meet Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White, the Evil Queen, and a cast of others.

Our protagonist, however, is a simple commoner, the Shoemaker’s daughter, Gilly. Being one of many children in a poor family, she resorts to theft to help her family make ends meet. But when she’s caught in the act one too many times, off to reform school she goes. The school is run by Flora, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, under the premise of helping wayward souls find their way back onto the right path. But things aren’t what they seem, and Gilly finds herself right in the middle of it.

This one’s a fun read, safe and enjoyable for all ages. It’s full of magic and myths with a good dose of humor thrown into the mix. I’m definitely looking forward to more in this series!


Buy It Now: Flunked (Fairy Tale Reform School)

Review: The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff

9781405268288When I was a kid, I loved simple horror stories. Just enough to raise the goosebumps on your arm, maybe a bit more to keep you awake at night. And I still love those kinds of stories today. The problem is, especially for me as a teacher, most scary stories don’t fall within the acceptable range for younger readers. This one by Jane Hardstaff is an exception to that rule.

Meet Moss, a young girl who lives alone with her dad. Dear old Dad just happens to be the executioner of the Tower of London. And Moss is responsible for collecting the heads after each beheading, catching them as they drop and putting them in a basket. It’s the only life she’s every known, and her dad is the only parent she’s ever had since her mom died during childbirth.

But there’s more to that story than Moss has ever been told, and it’s the reason they can’t leave the Tower of London. When Moss finds a way out, she’s inexplicably drawn to the river. The river is slow and steady some days, fast and unpredictable on others. And there’s something lurking just under the surface, something that’s taking young children. Moss discovers that she’s tied to the river in a way she never dreamed possible, going all the way back to her mom’s death.

This book was a pleasant surprise. Not that I was expecting bad things, but you just never know. It’s historical, most definitely, but it has a healthy dose of paranormal/thriller thrown in. And I have to say, this is the first book I’ve read that’s set in Tudor times. This is a story that I’ll definitely be recommending to some young readers who I know. And the sequel, River Daughter, is high at the top of my TBR list.


Buy It Now: The Executioner’s Daughter

Review: Nest by Esther Ehrlich

I generally don’t read children’s fiction, but I wanted to read Nest to get an idea of the usefulness of a book about children grieving. I can report with confidence this: I believe Nest would be helpful for 10-14 year olds with a mentally unstable or absent parent. They would see they are not alone, people grieve and cope in myriad ways, and anger is natural. Young readers could see that maintaining connections — family ties, friendships, or even looser relationships — help distract as well as move a person through his or her bucketful of emotions. Moving forward is key.

That’s my opinion as a mother and a former schoolteacher.

My emotional response to Nest was pretty much bawling my eyes out. A child without two loving parents just kills me… though I know it is so, so common. I felt for Chirp and her sister, for Chirp’s friends Dawn and Joey… Why did they have to suffer? Why did their lives have to be upended?

Yet they found ways to cope. They found ways to hope. They found ways to stick together to fill up a little bit of what was missing.

Nest is well-written, from the sentence structure to the easy flow to the authentic characters. The only niggling detail was about prayer: the author had Chirp uncomfortable saying grace before a meal, or saying the name Jesus. But I’m pretty sure Jewish people say grace (to G-d, not Jesus) and they believe Jesus existed, just that he wasn’t the Messiah. Besides that, Nest was wonderful. The 1970s were portrayed just as I remember them, without being contrived or hokey. And though the ending was sad, I finished the book with the thought that those children were going to make it. They had hope, they had strength, and they had each other.

buy NEST

Review: The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story, by R.J.Palacio

01won Choose kind.

I decided to take a break from the romance books I’ve been reading lately. So I was searching Amazon and cam across this little book. I was pleasantly surprised to see it. I had no idea this was coming! But if you haven’t read Wonder, please stop and go do that first. I’ll wait………

Done? Good. Wasn’t it beautiful?? I read it last year and then made me kids read it. I personally think every child should read it. Bullying is a very real thing. No matter what it’s about- looks, color, speech, whatever- bullying is a very real issue and should be stopped.

This little book, is from Julian’s point of view. He was the lead bully. We never knew what he was thinking., We only saw his actions. Now, I know some people think, “He’s just in 5th grade.” “It’s what boys do.” “He’s only playing around.” Well, it’s not right. Teasing and joking is WAY different than bullying.

Julian had so much going on, behind the scenes, I honestly felt bad for him. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to throttle him, while he was being mean, but after reading this book, I get it. I got him. I understood why he acted the way he did. I understood the fears that he felt. I understood the confusion that was swarming around him.

I highly recommend this little extra chapter, after you’ve read Wonder. If you are dealing with bullying, this may give you a bit of insight as to why kids do the things they do. We may not agree with them, but we will have a better understanding of them.


Buy The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story (Kindle Single)

Buy Wonder

Preorder 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts

Review: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

20140524-182651.jpgTo reread or not to reread…that’s a question that I rarely ask myself. Although many people may disagree, I hardly ever find myself with the urge to reread a book, regardless of how good it was the first time around. Books just don’t usually hold my attention if I already know how it’s all going to end. This book is an exception to that self-imposed rule.

Ivan is a gorilla. Not just any gorilla, but instead a silverback, the most majestic of all gorillas. But instead of reigning over his tribe in the jungles of Africa, Ivan has spent the better part of his life behind a glass wall. For 27 years he’s been the star attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Arcade. He spends his days watching humans, who in turn watch him. He’s formed a low opinion of most humans who he has come in contact with, but he holds the other animals around him in high regard. There’s Stella, a wise and gentle soul in an elephant’s body. There’s Bob, a stray dog who has found his way into the mall and on top of Ivan’s belly for naps. And then comes Ruby, a baby elephant brought into the mall to revive lackluster ticket sales.

The story is told completely from Ivan’s point of view, complete with some of his gorilla-created vocabulary. He’s often puzzled by humans and the things they do, but until Ruby arrives he’s never really questioned his circumstances. Then the memories begin to come along, subtle at first. The taste of a mango, the colors of the jungle, the feel of his mother’s fur, the sound of his father’s voice. Suddenly Ivan’s no longer content with his dismal yet predictable life at the Big Top Mall.

So why was this one a reread for me? One simple reason-I wanted to share the innocence, joy, and sadness of Ivan’s story with my students as a read aloud. The story brings to mind questions that young children seem to innately know the answers to. What are animals thinking? Can they feel emotions such as sadness? Do they remember? And what right do we, as humans, have to dictate how and where they live? Although the book is intended and marketed toward a younger audience, it’s such a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that it will resonate with readers and listens of all ages. The chapters are short, the language is beautiful yet simple, and the well-spaced illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the story. Buy it for yourself, buy it for a friend, or buy it to read to a young person in your life.


Buy it Now: The One and Only Ivan

Review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

20140302-140802.jpgI don’t even know where to begin with this one. Counting by 7s was recommended by a friend several weeks ago, and I dutifully added it to my ever-growing but never-diminishing TBR list. Didn’t give it any more thought. Then, several days ago, I was browsing my list and it caught my eye. I went back and read some of the reviews and decided, why not? Now I’m wondering why I waited so long and why everyone isn’t praising this book from the top of every roof.

Willow Chance has always been an unusual child, but that suits her just fine. She adores her parents, and they adore her. She rarely even thinks about the fact that she’s adopted. She loves her books, her garden, and her current obsession with medical conditions. A highly gifted child, she’s never really fit in at school. The teachers just don’t understand her. When she’s accused of cheating on a test, her punishment is meeting with the school counselor. It’s at this point that her comfortable little world comes crashing down when her parents are killed in an automobile accident. What follows is Willow’s journey to find her place in a strange, unfamiliar world all the while relying on the help of strangers.

Written in the same line of thinking as Wonder and Out of My Mind, this book had me hooked from the first sentence. My heart was aching for Willow and the sorrow she had to go through. At the same time, I was filled with admiration for this little girl who persevered in spite of such insurmountable odds. The other characters in this book are no less important and just as enjoyable. I especially loved the transformation of the characters during the course of the story, all because of the impact of one very special little girl. A gruff, lackadaisical school counselor finds himself actually caring. A juvenile delinquent teenage boy begins to find his passion in things other than criminal endeavors. And a misfit group of strangers begins to band together to form a ragtag sort of family. This is the kind of story that will make you laugh at Willow’s quirky sense of humor one minute while crying with heartache for her at the next. This one needs to be at the top of the list for readers both young and old!


Buy it now: Counting by 7s

Review: Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick

20140112-094215.jpgThe cover got me. As soon as I saw this sad yet beautiful illustration I needed to know more. Described as a “gripping yet poignant novel about a boy and his dog trapped in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina”, I was immediately intrigued.

Twelve-year-old Zane has been sent to visit his newly discovered great-grandmother in New Orleans. Not a fan of the city he calls “Smellyville”, he nevertheless begins to enjoy the time spent getting to know his long-lost relative. As luck would have it, however, his visit coincides with one of the worst natural disasters in history. After the levees fail, he and his grandmother attempt to leave the city. Zane gets separated from his grandmother and is rescued by a kindly musician and his young charge. Along the way, they encounter much of the horror and lawlessness that pervaded the city during this time. As a young man of mixed race, Zane’s eyes are opened to many societal and racial issues he’s never seen in his home state of New Hampshire.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons. Realistic fiction is always a favorite of mine if it’s packed full of historical facts, and this books fits that description. Although Zane is a fictional character, much of his experiences are based on factual information gathered by the author and others. The book explores the issues of economic and racial disparities without being preachy. There’s no question that people are often treated differently because they’re poor or black. Mr. Philbrick did an excellent job of researching facts and conditions of that horrible time in America’s recent history. As a Newbery Honor author, he knows how to speak to his audience of young readers. Although this book’s intended audience is listed as 10 to 14 years, don’t let that dissuade you from reading it.


Buy it Now: Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina