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My Zombie Hamster by Havelock McCreely

When Matt gets a hamster for Christmas instead of the Runesword that he asked for, he’s not a happy camper. Then when Snuffles the Hamster dies, Matt really feels “horrible about the poor thing.” But when Matt realizes that Snuffles has turned into a Zombie Hamster (Anti-Snuffles), things start to get complicated, maybe even dangerous. Anti-Snuffles escapes and begins infecting the pets in the entire neighborhood with zombie-ness. Meanwhile, Matt’s friend Charlie (girl) is acting kind of strange. And the Zombie Police are on the watch for any new zombies, dead or undead.

This 200 page zombie apocalypse novel is pretty silly, but I can see that it might appeal to younger elementary readers, second, third, and fourth graders, who want to get in on the zombie craze. I did manage to get through the book myself, and it provoked a smile in places. Give it to your favorite zombie fanatic.

Another book that belongs in this category of elementary and undead is The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass. This similarly short (131 pages) and easy to read story has the distinguishing feature of a cast of characters who are all African American, including the protagonist, Bakari Katari Johnson. I’ll admit to skimming this one (I’m not a big zombie fan), but again for zombie readers who want something short and sweet, The Zero Degree Zombie Zone might just hit the spot. Read more about Zero Degree at Charlotte’s Library.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins

I didn’t care for Lynne Rae Perkins’ Newbery Award winning book, Criss Cross. As I remember it, the book was partly written in verse, and I don’t care for verse novels. It also was confusing, about teenagers, and I just didn’t “get it.”

Nuts to You is not Criss Cross. It’s not even similar to Criss Cross. If you liked last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt or even last year’s Newbery Award winner, Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures by Kate di Camillo, then Nuts to You should be just up your alley.

It’s a squirrel story. The squirrels talk to each other–in squirrel. One of them speaks English and tells the story to the author who writes it down for us. The moral of the story is, “Save the trees,” for the sake of the squirrels and for humans, too. All of that–the talking squirrels, the environmental message, the author inside the story—should be enough to annoy me, but instead I found the entire story a delight.

First the talking squirrels. I did wonder how the narrator squirrel managed to learn and speak English. But I was willing to suspend disbelief because the squirrels are well, squirrelly, and funny and fun to be with. They have a whole squirrel culture complete with a love for storytelling and for games, a tendency toward conservatism and staying put in one place, and a capacity for bravery and perseverance that is inspiring.

The environmental message is not so heavy-handed that it made me cringe or even disagree. Humans are not the villains of the story. In fact, the squirrels seem to understand that for some reason some of the trees must be cut down, and they just do their best to roll with the punches and get on with their lives when bad things happen to their habitat. THere’s a message of “let’s just all try to live together and share the planet” that was refreshing and welcome in contrast to other books that preach about how human beings are despoiling the planet. I always feel as if I ought to find a hole and curl up and hibernate forever after I read those other sorts of environmental sermon stories.

The author is not too intrusive either. I liked her interaction with the elderly, storytelling squirrel at the beginning and end of the book. And I loved the story in the middle. Nuts to You is a keeper, for sure.

“Nuts to you, my friend. Nuts to us all.”

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Shouldn’t You Be In School? (All the Wrong Questions) by Lemony Snicket

Reading Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler, isn’t about the characters or the plot. The characters are quirky and memorable. The plots are convoluted and confusing. But really the experience of reading a Lemony Snicket book is all about the language. Snicket plays with words like a cat plays with a hummingbird. Dangerously. (You can tell I’m under the influence, but I’m not nearly as skillful as Mr. Handler.)

Anyway, this third book in the All the Wrong Questions series is full of linguistic gymnastics and examples of literary celebration. Here are a few:

“The sun was having a tantrum so fierce that all the shade had been scared away, and the sidewalks of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, the town in which I had been spending my time, were no place for a decent person to walk.”

“I took a bite of the bread and something in the jam made me feel sparks on my tongue. It was a lunch of adventure. I felt my mouth grinning around the spoon.”

“Solving a mystery is like naming a dog. If enough people call it one thing, that’s the name that tends to stick.”

“I put it in my shirt for safe-keeping, and passed the rest of the time trying to remember everything that happens to a little bunny who appeared in books I didn’t like. He disobeys his mother and eats vegetables out of some man’s garden. He loses his jacket and shoes. He drinks chamomile tea. He gets his clothes cleaned by a hedgehog. He gathers onions. He helps his sister Flopsy. Before I knew it, it was dark.”

“It’s like the difference between what happens in a book and what happens in the world. The world is swirling with so many mysteries and secrets that nobody will ever track down all of them. But with a book you can stay up very late, reading and rereading until all the secrets are clear to you. The questions of the world are hidden forever, but the answers in a book are hiding in plain sight.”

“A skeleton key is like a skeleton. It doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to use it.”

“I limped into Hungry’s like a broken parade.”

“In a way it was the statue that had started the fuss, as I’d learned while investigating my last big case. But the fuss had long ago grown bigger than the statue had ever been, the way an answer to a simple, clear question can turn out to be complicated and mysterious.”

I really enjoy Mr. Snicket’s metaphors and similes and bunny rabbit trails and philosophical musings, but if you don’t or if you don’t have a high tolerance for confusing and unresolved, you’ll want to skip these books. Lots of things are introduced in this book and in the two previous books that are still unexplained by the end of this third book. In this book alone there’s a honeydew melon robbery (why?), a furious, hungry, raging, disappearing dream-monster (how?), and a mysterious basement full of fish tanks (huh?). I didn’t understand any of those parts of this story at all but I just kept reading, lost in the journey.

Lemony Snicket, who is the narrator as well as the author of these stories, says in his introduction that there were “four wrong questions, more or less” that he asked and was wrong to ask. So, the fourth book should have all the right questions or the wrong answers or something. But I’m not holding my breath, a phrase which here means that I’m just going along for the ride.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Spell Robbers by Matthew J. Kirby

Book One of The Quantum League is a spies and robbers story encapsulated in magical abilities to manipulate matter and pseudo-physics and topped with double-crosses and triple agents and lots of anguished decisions about whom to trust and whom to betray.

When Ben goes to science camp at the college where his mother is a newly hired professor, he soon realizes that this camp is unlike any other he has ever attended. The camp director, Dr. Hughes, gives lectures in quantum physics, and then there’s a demonstration that makes Ben doubt his senses. The kids at this camp are learning to actuate, to actually manipulate matter and energy with their minds.

As if that’s not enough to take in, it turns out that there are “bad guys” out there who want to use the ability to actuate for evil, and “good guys” who are wiring to protect the world from the bad guys. However, when the so-called good guys kidnap Ben and cut him off from his family, Ben is not so sure who’s good and who’s bad.

Spell Robbers is a pretty good beginning to a series that will appeal to kids who are interested in science and adventure mixed with magic. Just remember that it’s only the first book in a series. According to his website, Mr. Kirby doesn’t know when the second book in the series will be finished and published. It sounds like it might be a long wait.

The book would be good to recommend to fans of John David Anderson (Minion and Sidekicked), Jeramey Kraatz’s Cloak Society, or Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Time of the Fireflies by Kimberley Griffiths Little

Larissa Renaud lives in her family’s antique shop in southern Louisiana, and she, like many middle grade protagonists, feels misunderstood by her parents and bereft of friends in her new town. So Larissa becomes fascinated with an old, disconnected telephone in the antique shop that somehow rings and connects her with someone who has a message for her. Larissa also develops a compulsion to find out more about the sinister but beautiful doll that her mother displays in the antique shop but refuses to sell because it’s a family heirloom.

If southern Louisiana is really as insular, superstitious, creepy, and dangerous as this book makes it out to be, I don’t ever want to live there. And if the only way to get rid of a family curse is to employ the services of a kindly neighborhood traiteur, I don’t want to go there either.

In Louisiana, the term traiteur (sometimes spelled treateur) describes a man or woman (a traiteuse) who practises what is sometimes called faith healing. A traiteur is Native Creole healer or a traditional healer of the French-speaking Houma Tribe, whose primary method of treatment involves using the laying on of hands. An important part of Creole folk religion, the traiteur combines Catholic prayer and medicinal remedies. They are called to treat a variety of ailments, including: earaches, toothaches, warts, tumors, angina, and bleeding. In the past, they substituted for trained physicians in remote rural areas of Acadiana. Most traiteurs consider their healing abilities a gift from God, and therefore refuse to accept payment in exchange for their services.

Traiteurism is a very old tradition that is dying out, and very few traiteurs now exist. Traditionally, the rituals of the traiteur are passed down to the opposite gender. So a male must pass it down to a female, and vice versa. The traiteur must be asked to perform the treatments and will rarely offer them outright unless the need is great, and they can not ask for a payment of any kind, although it is acceptable to accept gifts for treating a person. However gifts for a true traiteur are never required. Wikipedia, Traiteur

This book reminded me of the worst, as in spookiest and most disturbing, episode of Twilight Zone that I remember. It was called Living Doll, and it starred Telly Savalasas as a step-father who was being threatened by a talking doll. I’m afraid The Time of the Fireflies might give kids nightmares and an unhealthy fear of dolls just as that television program did for me. But if you’re ready to handle voodoo, a doll with a curse, creepy grandma in a wheelchair, alligators, fire and near-drowning, then go for it. The writing was OK, but some of the dialog was forced and manipulated in order to convey information to the reader. The cover should feature that creepy doll in the story instead of being all fireflies and light.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson

A nameless girl dressed only in spiderwebs enters the Pennyroyal Academy, a place where girls are trained to become princesses who do battle with witches and boys are trained to become knights who fight dragons.

If that introduction intrigues you, Pennyroyal Academy is the book for you. If you got stuck, as I did, on imagining the girl dressed only in spiderwebs, then maybe you’ll get stuck again on some of the other rather odd aspects of this book. I just kept wondering how the the whole spiderwebs-as-clothing thing worked. Wouldn’t they be at least translucent, no matter how many spiderwebs you used. And wouldn’t the stickiness of the webs be nasty and uncomfortable? And how would you take them off? Yuck! There were other details that sidetracked me, too, but as these others are spoiler-ish, I’ll save them to discuss with those who have already read the book.

The princesses-in-training learn that to fight witches they must become courageous, compassionate, kind and disciplined. These are the four cardinal virtues of Pennyroyal Academy. Their commander tells them

“A Princess of the Shield is courageous. She is compassionate. She is kind and she is disciplined. Without these four core values, a girl may have all the crowns and castles she wants, but she will no more be a princess than she will a dragon.
You must prepare for battle as any soldier would, though yours are not the weapons of a soldier. Your weapons are pure hearts and steel spines. Your weapons are already inside you. And the only way to wield them is to know yourself. Which is precisely what we will teach you here.”

I liked that little speech and the idea that the girls must be trained for battle with the witches of the kingdom. However, as a Christian, I would quibble with the ultimate source for courage, compassion, kindness, and discipline (self-control). Disney teaches us, “Know yourself, be yourself, and be true to your heart.” The Bible says that the qualities of a Warrior Princess are gifts of the Spirit of God. To battle real witches and dragons, we Christians must be trained in dependence on that same Holy Spirit. In fact, Pennyroyal Academy reminded me of this song:

Deep inside we are children, not strong, self-sufficient warriors. We only war in His might and in His strength.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Thursdays With the Crown by Jessica Day George


To prepare myself for this third book in a series, I first reviewed my review from a couple of years ago of Tuesdays at the Castle. Then, I read Wednesdays in the Tower, for which I received an ARC that I never got around to reading. Then, I was ready for Thursdays With the Crown.

I wouldn’t recommend reading these books out of order or reading just one, unless it’s the first one. Wednesdays in the Tower ends on a cliffhanger, and I’m glad I didn’t read it back when I would have had to wait for the third book. In Wednesdays, Princess Celie imprints or tames or bonds with a baby griffin. It’s sort of like Dragonriders of Pern, except for kids and with griffins. Yes, Celie eventually rides the flying griffin. The entire book is about Celie and the griffin that she names Rufus. At the end of that book, Celie and some of her friends and family are transported to the land where the Castle originated, and from that point on things take a more serious turn as the friends try to find out why the Castle is behaving so oddly and what they can do to fix things there and back in the land of Sleyne.

My favorite part of these two books in the series is not the plot, not the theme of “war is evil and griffins are great”, not even the characters exactly, although I like them all. My favorite part is when Prince Lulath of Grath talks. Lulath is from another country, and he speaks Sleynth only as a second language, rather brokenly. I absolutely love the way he talks. I don’t know if a few examples will give you the idea, and I’m not really supposed to quote from the ARC. Nevertheless, Lulath’s speech is so broken and funny that it can’t be a problem to quote just a little:

“Oh so much fear,” Lulath said. “But then I would look to myself in the mirror and say, Lulath, you silly big man! Here is being two beautiful princesses and a noble prince in so much the danger! Have they food? Have they warmth? You must be putting on your shoes like a very man, and going forth! And so I am!” He nodded firmly. “It is why also I am studying the strategying when I am young. I am having so much fear in the night, I think, I will learn all that is brave and very, and will also go forth with strongness!”

“I thank you, Friend Pogue,” Lulath said cheerfully. “It is because I am looking such a silly man. I am liking the clothes too much, it is a thing that I know. You are not thinking that I am having much brain.”

The stories are fun and a little bit dramatic towards the end, but it was Lulath that kept me reading. I wish I could write him into a play for my children’s drama group to perform. Or I could impersonate him for (next) Halloween, but no one would know who I was imitating. Anyway, Lulath is very being my favorite.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Fat & Bones and Other Stories by Larissa Theule

A one-legged, limping pig and a dancing pig and a pot-bellied fairy and singing maggots and a murderous tulip and a victorious daisy and a clumsy poet spider and a flat-as-a-pancake farmer’s wife (hung out to dry on the clothesline) and a whispering meat cleaver and a farmer named Bald and his son named Bones and Alfred the sneezing dog and a philosopher cat . . . Oh. my. goodness.

By the time I had wrapped my head around all those rather horrible and bizarre characters, this short 100-page book was over, and I was trying to go back and re-read to figure out exactly what happened. Sometimes I can compare the children’s fantasy books I read to others: this one might be like Harry Potter, and that one is similar to Tolkien or the dystopian novels or some fairy tale. Fat & Bones has the distinction of being unique in my reading experience.

It’s as if the author had a series of nightmares that she wrote into a series of interlocking tales, for children. To give them nightmares? It’s not exactly scary. No one would believe in and be afraid of the world that Ms. Theule has given us. It’s world in which a dog’s sneeze can move mountains. A world in which a maimed pig gives up her last foot to the whispering meat cleaver. And spiders give up their blood to make a Bluebell Blindness Inducer Potion. Frightening, no, but definitely creepy and surreal. The illustrations by Adam S. Doyle add to the hallucinatory, ink-blot atmosphere.

If any of that weirdness intrigues you, you should take a look at Fat & Bones. I can’t really say that I recommend it, but I am still thinking about it three days after I read the book. It’s a story that will stick in your brain, for better or for worse.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman

The blurb says that this story is “set in 1949 and tak[es] inspiration from E.B. White’s Stuart Little.” The mouse hero Stuart Little is certainly mentioned repeatedly and is an important role model for the mice in the story. However, even though she is not mentioned, the human fictional heroine Little Orphan Annie certainly must have been lurking in the background as an influence for the author of this orphan tale. Kirkus Reviews says the story is surely a tribute to Paul Gallico’s The Abandoned, a story I’m not familiar with although I know the author (The Poseidon Adventure, Mrs. ‘arris Goes to Paris). The plot also echoed Aesop’s fable of The Lion and the Mouse. So it’s a story of many sources and influences.

Cherry Street Children’s Home is the domicile of about thirty some odd orphans, including ten year old Caro McKay. Caro is not very pretty, and she has a severely scarred right hand from the house fire that took her mother’s life. Caro knows that her mother’s death was her fault, and she tries every day to make up for her cowardice in not saving her mother from the fire by being “too good, too studious, too obedient, too nice.” The orphanage director, Mrs. George, depends on Caro to keep the peace and to be a good influence on the other orphans.

Meanwhile, in “mouse territory” behind the baseboards and under the floors, a whole colony of mice forage for food, care for their families, watch for predators, and steal art. Art has become very important to this particular mouse colony, and the postage stamps that the Official Art Thief takes from the orphanage director’s desk adorn the walls of mouse territory and bring to the mice a sense of wonder.

When Mary Mouse, art thief, and Caro McKay, model orphan, meet, they immediately form a bond that transcends their inability to communicate completely. And when Caro helps Mary escape from the dreaded predator Gallico the cat, then Mary knows that she must return the favor by helping Caro, even though Caro doesn’t know the danger she faces.

I thought this story was a delight. The point of view alternates between that of Caro and her mouse friends, and both vantage points feel spot on and give the reader a different perspective on events in the story. The plot moves along at a good clip, but each development fits into a pleasing whole as Caro discovers her true self in terms of “a new story, a true story.” The villains get their just deserts, and the book ends with lasting friendships and more stories. What more could one ask for?

The Orphan and the Mouse would be an excellent read aloud book. Fans of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little, Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse, or Kate diCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux should enjoy this book as another tale in that same classic tradition.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe

The setting for this speculative fiction is an imagined world, but the feeling is Eastern European or former Soviet Union. The characters in the book have mostly Jewish-sounding names—Sarah, Marah, Caleb, Shaul, Miriam, Leah—with a few of the names (for a different ethnic group) sounding vaguely Persian or Arabic—Azariah, Melchior, Nasim. There’s a marketplace with a book stall and other small merchant stalls and stands, and the children go to a mysterious forest to find peddlers of rare herbs and spices. The main character plays the violin. Shades of Fiddler on the Roof.

However, this world isn’t exactly your babushka grandmother’s home back in Mother Russia. Marah Levi is halani, a member of the non-magical, servant class in the city-state of Ashara. She accidentally becomes friends with a younger kasiri girl, Sarah, but feels uncomfortable as Sarah and her brother Azariah invite Marah to their home and ask for help with projects. Kasiri, the ruling magician class of Ashari society, just don’t associate with “sparkers”, the pejorative term for the halani.

Again, the whole ambience reminded me of early twentieth century Poland or Ukraine with the halani as an unfairly treated lower class (Jews), and the kasiri as the ruling class with inherited power. Then, a plague called “dark eyes disease” comes to attack the city, and kasiri and halani both are desperate for a cure or at least some treatment that will be effective against the deadly disease.

SPOILER: I found it difficult to believe that Marah and Azariah just happened to have a very rare book with the cure for “dark eyes” in their possession—and they also, coincidentally, had the ability to read the almost forgotten language that the book was written in. Oh, and by accident, they happened to meet each other at just the right time for all this hidden knowledge to come to light, just in time to cure at least some of the victims of the “dark eyes”.

But if you can accept a lot of rather fortuitous events, then the story is rather intriguing. I enjoyed seeing how it would all come together, and I was surprised by some of the dramatic events at the close of the story. I got the sense that things were not really settled and happily-ever-after in Ashara, although the story ended with the main characters sorted well enough. I wouldn’t mind reading a sequel to see what happens to Marah and Caleb and the other inhabitants of Ashara.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.