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Monday, July 16, 2018

The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly

The Inquisitor's TaleThe Inquisitor's Tale is the story of three magical children, a resurrected holy dog, and religious corruption during the Crusades, all told in the style of The Canterbury Tales. Some people claim that the children, Jeanne, Jacob, and William, are saints because they can perform miracles, while others insist that they must be witches who are using evil magic. The children meet up on the road to the monastery of Saint-Denis, where they set off to try to prevent the burning of a number of sacred Jewish books. The story is told as a series of tales from people who witnessed different parts of the story, and not from the children themselves. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different adult (The Brewster, The Innkeeper, The Nun) as they joke that they need more food and wine to keep up their strength for tale telling.

This is definitely a book for 5th grade and up. Some 4th graders might enjoy it, but there are scenes that might be too scary for younger readers. In the first half of the book, one of the characters witnesses his village being slaughtered due to religious differences, the dog is killed over a misunderstanding (she is later resurrected, but it was still pretty jarring) and then venerated as a saint because she was such a good dog and they were sorry that they had killed her, and a character must endure a bullying teacher preaching religious intolerance and racism. There are a lot of conversations about race: William's father is a French lord fighting in the Crusades, and he fell in love with a Muslim woman. William was delivered to the monastery to be raised by monks as a result, and he endures a lot of prejudice based on his skin color and height. The anti-Semitic opinions of a majority of the characters may also upset younger readers who, like Jacob, will correctly think it is massively unfair that Jews in the book are mistreated and slandered.

Ultimately, The Inquisitor's Tale is a good adventure story that kept me engaged throughout. It is often unexpectedly funny, either from witty text or from sheer goofiness (at one point, the dog poops in a fireplace). Even violent parts are occasionally darkly, over the top funny, such as the scene where William, who has exceptional strength, beats a man to death with someone else's leg. The book also has a number of important messages about tolerance, namely that it is entirely necessary, and points out inequality in race, religion, income, and power. It is an occasionally dark, funny, often hopeful story that will be beloved by young historians, and it may spur an interest in studying the middle ages.

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Monday, July 09, 2018

William Wenton and the Impossible Puzzle by Bobbie Peers

Paper ThingsWilliam Olsen is a ten year old puzzle genius.  He lives a quiet life in Norway with his mom and dad.  Some kids his age like soccer, band practice, chess club, or working on the school musical.  But not William.  He loves puzzles.  He would study cryptography all the time if his father didn't hide any kind of puzzle in the house.  His dad even cuts out the crossword puzzle in the local newspaper so William won't see it.  Now, he has to hide all the things William uses to recreate and solve puzzles, because he's afraid William will come to a bad end just like his puzzle-solving grandfather.

William is really excited that his mom is letting him go on a school field trip.  A traveling exhibit called the "Impossible Puzzle" will be on display when he goes to see the museum with his class.  All his parents want when he goes is to behave and NOT draw attention to himself.  But, he can't resist the temptation of the "Impossible Puzzle".  He sneaks away and solves the world's most difficult puzzle in five minutes.

When his parents find out, they know William is in danger.  Sure enough,  that night, someone attacks William's house and the chase is on.  He runs into the cold night with nowhere to go.  An unmarked white van finds him and takes him to a place called the Institute, a secret place where his long missing grandfather was well known in mysterious circles.

At the Institute for Post-Human Research, William is greeted by a human butler and chef as well as a collection of robots who do most of the day to day things for William.  One robot brings him food, while his talking door tells him his daily schedule.  All William knows is that his parents are safe and he is a candidate for studying at this strange but fascinating place.  

This book combines a mix of action and adventure with a side order of science fiction.  The short chapters are full of things and events that keep you reading to the end.  Oh, did I mention that the sequel is coming : William Wenton and the Secret Portal?  It should be just as fantastic.  

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Monday, July 02, 2018

It Ain't So Awful, Falafal by Firoozeh Dumas

It Ain't So Awful, FalafalZomorod father's job as a petroleum engineer has brought them to America from their native country of Iran in the late 1970s. Her family moves from Compton, California to Newport Beach, where she decides to reinvent herself and become "Cindy."  As they move into their new home in Newport, Cindy becomes friends with her neighbor, Original Cindy.  They have fun during the summer together but when school starts, Original Cindy decides they shouldn't be friends anymore.  Luckily, Cindy meets Carolyn, who is very kind to her and the two share many of the same interests and a passion for reading.  Carolyn's family is very accepting to Cindy and she spends lots of time at Carolyn's house because Carolyn has the type of family Cindy wishes she had.  The political situation in Iran changes and hostages are taken.  Her dad loses his job due to being Iranian and some people in their neighborhood and school give her a hard time.  Since her dad cannot find another job in the United States, they decide they will have to move back to Iran, a country in political unrest and a place where the rights women once enjoyed have been taken away.

The book is based loosely on the author's own life.  In the story, Cindy is often asked by Carolyn's family and some of her other neighbors to explain what is going on in Iran.  The historical pieces of the hostage crisis are very interesting.   The leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, had taken away the rights and independence that women had earned.  My favorite part of the book is when her father talks about having a daughter. He states, "If I had one son and one daughter and could only educate one of them, I would educate my daughter.  You know why?  A girl without an education has no power; she is always at the mercy of others."  There is a father who loves his daughter and knows the value of a good education.

The chapters in the book are quite short and there is a lot of humor in the book along with the emotional frustration and conflicts the family endures.  This is a 2019 Caudill Award Nominee and it rightfully deserves the nomination.  Pick this title up this summer.  It's a good read!

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Paper ThingsAri, the main character of Paper Things, has a big decision to make.  It's not a decision that most 5th graders have to deal with, but to honor her mother's dying wish - that she and her older brother, Gage, always stay together - it's a decision that she must make.  Ari has to decide if she should continue living with her guardian, who she loves, or leave and live with Gage, who she also loves.  She chooses Gage.  That wouldn't be such a big deal in most circumstances, but much to Ari's surprise, Gage reveals that he doesn't have a place to live.  And so the story begins.

For most of the book Ari and Gage are homeless, sleeping at shelters or friends' homes.  Ari tries to act as normal as possible with her friends who don't know her secret, but bit by bit they start to notice things:  Ari's hair isn't beautifully braided anymore, her clothes are not clean, and her schoolwork is not up to it's usual high quality. Eventually, the hardships and stress get to Ari and she makes another big decision.

You're probably wondering what the title, Paper Things, has to do with the story.  Ari has a collection of paper dolls and paper furniture, and paper things that she's been cutting out of catalogs for years.  This collection is very precious to her and plays a big part in her life, but also helps her cope with the challenges she's now facing.

This is a very powerful and emotional book, and you might start thinking, could this ever happen to me? I continued thinking about this story long after I finished reading it. I think most 4th and 5th graders would really like this book.

By the way, Ari loves the library.  Maybe that's why I like this story so much!

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Monday, June 18, 2018

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her MarkI Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark is a picture book biography about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and Ruth spends a majority of the book disagreeing with prevailing wisdom. Introducing children to very basic legal terms like "dissent," and explaining what a dissenting Supreme Court opinion is, Levy frames I Dissent as a common sense biography of a woman who feels that someone needs to disagree with things that are incorrect. Instead of becoming a disagreeable book, I Dissent objects to the status quo, from systemic prejudice against certain groups of people to issues like girls in the 1950s and 60s being required to take home economics instead of shop class.

I Dissent is a great biography! It is straightforward and full of good humor while also containing a lot of stealthy information. For slightly older readers interested in Ruth Bader Ginsburg, check out this year's No Truth Without Ruth: The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Kathleen Krull, which has beautiful illustrations and more detailed text, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R. B. G vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter, which cleverly breaks down the case against gender-based discrimination in a series of legal-esque memos in addition to giving the reader a bit more detail about anti-Semitism. Slightly younger readers might enjoy Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Heather Moore Niver, which is much shorter and has fewer words than the last two books, but it has a lot of information about Ginsburg's life and some excellent photographs.

Readers who are interested in other real life Jewish heroes should check out Portraits of Jewish American Heroes by Malka Drucker (RBG, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Spielberg are all included!) as well as our Biography section for specific life stories. If you want to read more about awesome ladies who did amazing things, check out More Girls who Rocked the World: Heroines from Ada Lovelace to Misty Copeland by Michelle Roehm McCann.

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Monday, June 11, 2018

42 is Not Just a Number by Doreen Rappaport

42 Is Not Just a Number42 is Not Just a Number is a biography about Jackie Robinson's life.  The book does a good job of going through Jackie's early life and the beginning of his major league baseball career.  It goes beyond just the facts and allows us to see the man Jackie became and how hard it was to become that man.  The focus on the early part of his life really helps the reader understand the sacrifices Jackie went through to play baseball in the major leagues. 

There were a few surprises that I learned about Jackie in the book.  His older brother was a phenomenal athlete who competed in the Berlin Olympics.  Jackie also lived in Hawaii for a period of his young adult life and returned to California days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The book is a quick read and definitely worth checking out if you are a baseball fan.  The only thing that could improve it is to add pictures.


Monday, June 04, 2018

By Word of Mouse by Kate Spohn and Kate & Pippin by Martin Springett

By Word of MouseBy Word of Mouse by Kate Spohn is about Lucy, the curious field mouse.  She lives with her family and a  larger group of mice in the country.  Lucy wants to live in that great house with the two human, artistic sisters.  After all attempts to release the mice into the woods fail, the girls learn to live with the Lucy and her mouse friends in their art studio.  The young artists start featuring the mice in their art creations with the mice as models.  Both mice and humans agree that their favorite treat is a plate of sugar lace cookies.Yummy and easy!

Kate & Pippin: an Unlikely FriendshipKate & Pippin : An Unlikely Love Story is just as sweet.  Pippin is a brown spotted fawn who was abandoned by her mother.  Martin and Isobel Springett brings the young deer to her house for some much needed food and safety.  Ms. Springett's dog, Kate, takes Pippin into her large Great Dane heart until Pippin can survive on her own. The photographs tell the true story perfectly as you see the fawn and the black dog play on the grass.

I found two adorable picture books that show how unlikely friendships can help both the animals and the unexpected helper.  Lucy, the mouse, finds that her curiosity gets her a big, human house to call home.  In Pippin's story, readers can see the genuine love, compassion, and the companionship that the connection produces when an unlikely friendship between dog and a deer begins.   

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