Spring Reads

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With some unseasonably cold weather this spring, I was easily able to curl up with a book and get lots of Spring reading done these last few months including picture books, graphic novels, novels for 9-12 year olds and YA fiction.  Here is a brief snapshot of the titles I’ve read since February.  I highly recommend all of them.

Winter:Spring reads

Fall & Winter Reads

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Yesterday a Gr. 8 student asked me what books I’ve read lately.  She explained that she checked the website but couldn’t find any recent posts.  And she’s right!  Even though I’ve done quite a bit of reading, the Fall and Winter have gone by so quickly and I never stopped to take a moment to update this section of our website.  My sincere apologies.  Unfortunately, I feel too much time has passed for me to thoroughly write about all the books I’ve read over the last few months.  So today, here is a brief snapshot of the YA and Youth titles I’ve read since November.  I promise to check in more often and keep you up to date with what I am reading more regularly as the rest of year progresses.

Diego’s Crossing

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In Diego’s Crossing, seventeen-year-old Diego dreams of a brighter future in his small town near the Mexican-United States border. He tries to resist following the path of his criminal older brother but reality offers little hope. After a slow-paced opening, the novel quickly moves into high gear as the brutality of the Mexican drug trade begins to truly make a mark on the family as an unfortunate accident forces Diego’s hand as he must deliver drugs across the border in order to protect his family and save his brother’s life.

In his first young adult book, Robert Hough has done a solid job creating tension on the page with an ever-growing sense of danger from all angles of the story. The realities of the Mexican-United States border and the negative impact on those living near it are especially well examined. Readers will undoubtedly feel the heavy weight of the stress Diego carries on his shoulders: concern for his parents, anger at his brother, pressure from the drug cartel and the uncertain nature of his own future.  Teens readers will connect to themes of conflict, decision-making, and determining right from wrong. Yet the novel doesn’t preach a preferred solution to it’s audience nor does it attempt to identify the correct path for the main character to take. Instead, Diego’s Crossing offers an opportunity to view the rocky path of male adolescence as it climbs through new terrain and into the transition to manhood.

With it’s open-ended conclusion, Diego’s Crossing leaves it up to the reader to determine what direction Diego’s life path will take: will he follow in his brother’s footsteps and enter the drug trade for himself or will he find another way out of the shadows and away from the small-town and limited choices that confine him? This short but impactful novel is sure to engage all readers, including reluctant ones, and get them talking not only about Diego’s choices but also the decision they themselves face as they begin to cross into adulthood.  Recommended for our Gr. 7 & 8 students.

Hot Summer, Cool Reads

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One of my favourite parts of Summer Break is getting a chance to dig into the books on my ever-growing “To-Read” list. These titles often include books recommended during the school year by students, popular check-outs in the library, and items found on “Best Book” lists throughout the year.  During the heat waves of July and August, I stayed cool with some pretty spectacular reads.

Here’s a quick glance at some of the books I read this summer:

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Land of Stories #4 – Beyond the Kingdoms by Chris Colfer.

Fairy tales and classic stories collide in this fourth adventure in the bestselling Land of Stories series as the twins travel beyond the kingdoms and into the literary lands of Camelot, Neverland, Oz, and Wonderland. Although this title was not my favourite in the series, it successfully leaves readers wanting more with yet another “Colfer cliffhanger”. A great choice for middle grade readers.

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Paper Towns by John Green.  

With an influx of YA books focusing on female protagonists (think Hunger Games, Divergent, and Cinder), it was refreshing to follow the journey of teen life, love and friendship from Quentin’s male perspective. I loved that this story is as much about the friendship between Quentin and his buddies Radar and Ben as it is about Quentin’s love for Margo, and his quest to find her after she disappears … yet again. So many great themes, so many memorable lines. Yet another phenomenal teen read from best-selling author John Green. Highly recommended for Gr. 7 & 8 students.

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Three Good Things by Lois Peterson

Not yet published, I was offered the opportunity to read an advanced copy and review this book for CM Magazine. Part of the Orca Currents series of high-interest novels with contemporary themes for reluctant readers, Lois Peterson’s short yet effective novel offers readers a glimpse into the experience of having a family member struggle with mental illness. A solid choice for students in Gr. 5 to 8 in helping to breaking down barriers and start up conversations around mental health.

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Fat Angie by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Winner of the Stonewall Book Award, Fat Angie is an emotional book about a high school students turbulent journey in finding herself and finding out the truth about the ones that matter most. There is A LOT going on in this book including issues of mental health, the tragedies of divorce and untimely death, and the nasty underbelly of high school popularity and social dynamics. Riddled with pop-culture references and inclusive to multi-dimensional LGBTQ characters, this is sure to be a book of great interest for our intermediate students.

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The School for Good & Evil by Soman Chainani

One of most popular middle grade books in our library last year, I finally had the opportunity to read the story of best friends Sophie and Agatha and the dazzling world of The School for Good & Evil.  A twist on the origin of fairytales, the book reveals that ordinary boys and girls are trained to be the heroes and villains of the stories children love to read. Told in alternating points of view, Sophie – the picture perfect of a true princess – fights against face warts and drab clothes in the School for Evil while her strange and dark-clothed friend Agatha is stuck in a perfect pink dress amongst the Cinderella-to-be’s in the School for Good. The unexpected role reversal is refreshing as it helps to demonstrate that what’s on the outside doesn’t always reflect a person’s true self.  A highly recommended fantasy read for students in Grade 5 and 6.

The Invisible Boy

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In connection with Pink T-Shirt Day in February, many of my recent read-alouds in the library have focused on anti-bullying, empathy and inclusion.  My go-to author for picture books with these themes is Trudy Ludwig.  An award-winning author who specializes in writing children’s books that explore the colorful and sometimes confusing world of children’s social interactions, Ludwig’s work offers an engaging opportunity to address relational aggression (the use of relationships to manipulate and hurt others) to an elementary aged audience.

Without question, my favourite Trudy Ludwig book is The Invisible Boy which asks students to consider which is worse: being laughed at or feeling invisible.  Many students respond with the belief that one is nor better or worse than the other – a great provoking question to start critical conversations.  In the story, we meet Brian, the invisible boy.  Nobody ever seems to notice him or think to include him in their group, game, or birthday party…until, that is, a new kid comes to class.  When Justin, the new boy, arrives, Brian is the first to make him feel welcome.  And when Brian and Justin team up to work on a class project together, Brian finds a way to shine.  This message of the story is further highlighted by Patrice Barton’s beautiful illustrations.  Slight changes in colour and shading offer visual cues to the perceptive and/or struggling reader to help infer the state of Brian’s emotional well-being as the plot progresses.  Students love sharing what they see on the page and the meaning they can make from these illustrations.

The Invisible Boy is one of my all-time favourite books in the library.  It beautifully illustrates how small acts of kindness can help children feel included and allow them to flourish.  I highly recommend this book for students from Kindergarten to Grade 8 as well as any parent looking for material that sensitively addresses the needs of quieter children.

Looks Like Daylight

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Mirroring the themes in many of her award-winning fiction novels, Deborah Ellis’ non-fiction book “Looks Like Daylight: Voices of Indigenous Kids” is a powerful portrait of the children often marginalized by our own society. A collection of personal stories written first-hand by forty-five First Nations youths from across North America, Ellis provides a forum for each individual to have their voice heard without restriction. As a result, we encounter a wide range of stories – from the genuinely heart-breaking to the absolutely inspiring.

As I am sure many of your will agree with, this book was emotionally heavy but so is the history of Indigenous peoples in North America. It’s a history that includes many atrocities and great oppression. There is valid reason for pain that resides in these pages but reading about rampant drug-use, suicides, and foster homes is just one side of the coin. There are also great moments of beauty including sacred cultural traditions, family strength, and redeeming spiritual faith.

Several of these stories have stayed with me: I think of Pearl and her Fancy Shawl dancing, Cohen eating homemade venison stew, and Tingo struggling to do homework on the floor of a small cheap motel. Yet, it is Miranda’s voice that I hear most often – whispering in my ear as I look out the windows at school or drive home at the end of the day. Living on a reserve close to Sarnia, Ontario, her community falls victim to the petrochemical plants on the edge of their land. Despite company assurance that there is no pollution, Miranda describes the effects of living so close to such environmentally dangerous factories: “Sometimes the air is hard to breath. It hurts my throat. Lots of people have coughs that never do away”. Understanding that the First Nations people are deeply connected to the environment, this takes on a greater level of tragedy and disrespect. Chemical workers wear head-to-toe safety gear as Aamjiwnaang children play in the grass just a few steps away in a place known to the rest of Canada as “Chemical Valley”. It’s a harrowing vision I can’t forget.

Although these are the stories of Indigenous youth, some of the experiences described are also ones that are sure to connect with many Intermediate readers: dealing with divorced parents, struggling with academics in school, and finding oneself. In her Author’s Note, Ellis comments that “statistics don’t tell us everything”, and these stories certainly encourage readers to look beyond numbers and think about the wide range of experiences and worldviews of these children.  A recommended read for our Grade 7 & 8 students (also a nominated title for the 2015 Red Maple Non-Fiction program).

The Night Gardener

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Next up on my 2015 Forest of Reading book list is The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier.  This title is by far the one I’ve been most looking forward to since the Forest of Reading nominations were announced in the Fall.  The title, cover, and summary all grabbed my attention immediately and as I cracked open the book yesterday morning, I found my anticipation was indeed on the mark.  This book is absolutely fantastic!

In the style of an old-world fable or fairytale, The Night Gardener tells the story of two abandoned Irish siblings, Molly and Kip, and their experience working for the Windsor family at their creepy and crumbling English manor.  The family members are all thin, pale and sickly.  One day while cleaning the library, Molly is astonished to find a portrait of the smiling, healthy-looking family painted only a year earlier.  What could have happened to change the residents of this house in such a short time?  The siblings quickly learn that something is indeed quite off and begin to suspect that the large and unusual tree that is literally rooted to the house is somehow involved.

The language and dialogue spread across the pages of Jonathan Auxier’s book are intoxicating, often compelling you to continue reading way past your bedtime.  The writing is simply superb.  The author has created a fluid and fascinating gothic tale filled to the brim with mystery, fantasy, and emotion.  I am equally impressed with how well Auxier has weaved a truly dark and fascinating tale with the real-world exploration of difference between stories and lies and the difficulty we often have in deciphering between the two.

I have approximately 100 pages left to read and I am left with mixed emotions.  Although I am eager and excited to see how this tale ends, I am also met with great disappointment to know that the my fantastical journey with Molly and Kip is almost at it’s end.  As we all prepare to return to school tomorrow and the Forest of Reading programs begin start-up, I am anxious to know if Silver Birch readers at Bruce Trail will agree with my deep admiration for the book.  Time will tell…

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