Monday, December 5, 2011


Title: Starcrossed
Category: Fantasy
Grades: 7-10
Author: Josephine Angelini
Publisher: HarperTeen
Date: 2011
Pages: 487
While all her friends drool and obsess, Helen hates the gorgeous new boy, Lucas, on sight.  Even worse, if less embarrassing than her public displays of animosity, are the gory, hideous weepers that materialize to goad Helen on when Lucas is around and haunt her dreams at night when he isn’t. When a near-death experience frees the duo from the Furies’ persecution, Helen discovers herself in a world she thought had ended with the Ancient Greeks, and drawn to the one boy in the universe she can never have.  With rival clans closing in, and Helen’s long-lost mother returning to carry out a scheme of her own, Helen must learn to control her own amazing power, and determine where her loyalties lie.  Sometimes, perhaps, love really cannot conquer all… or can it?

Fans of Twilight, look no further for your next obsession.  A gorgeous boyfriend who’s more than human, hate at first sight, a huge and boisterous family clan, rival factions all intent on killing both each other and the girl, and a star-crossed love affair that transcends all boundaries, Starcrossed, like its predecessor, has it all.  While this book has taken a beating for its similarities to both Twilight and the Percy Jackson books, both earlier series indicated that an audience for this type of fiction not only exists but is clamoring for more, and Starcrossed certainly helps to fill that gap.  The romance between Helen and Lucas is beautifully written, sensual and delicate without crossing too many lines.  If Angelini has one flaw (other than following in other authors’ footsteps), it is her tendency to give readers too much information and spoil her own surprises.

The Water Seeker

Title: The Water Seeker
Category: Historical
Grades: 5-10
Author: Kimberly Willis Holt
Publisher: Christy Ottaviano Books
Date: 2010
Pages: 305

Amos’s mother died giving birth to him, and his father, a dowser, has been away most of his life.  When his aunt and the only mother he’s ever known dies of the pox, Amos’s life becomes unstable as he is shuffled from one family to another.  Finally his father, remarried to an Indian woman, prepares to take Amos on the Oregon Trail along with a band of pioneers ready to make a new life for themselves in the West. Along the way, Amos falls hard for the pretty minister’s daughter, Jubilee.  As the scarred and ugly Gwendolyn looks on with envy, Amos attempts without success to court Jubilee while navigating the hazards of the Trail.  Eventually, Amos must make some difficult decisions, both about the Trail and about love in this touching coming-of-age novel.

The Water Seeker is not the novel most readers will expect.  The fantastical gift of dowsing plays only a minor role, making this novel more readily classified as historical fiction than fantasy.  Most of the story focuses on Amos’s growing years and coming of age on the Oregon Trail.  Young teens will empathize with Amos’s love and eventual loss of the unobtainable Jubilee, and Holt handles his growing and more subtle love for Gwendolyn, in spite of her physical appearance, with tact and grace. Readers of books like Worth and Avi’s The Barn will grow naturally into this story, but Amos’s romance is contemporary enough to appeal to a broad range of readers.  A story with merit and substance, Water Seeker will be a great addition to classrooms and libraries.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Title: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Category: Historical
Grades: 4-6
Author: Joan Aiken
Publisher: Delacorte
Date: 1962
Pages: 181

Wolves have always terrorized Willoughby Chase, but young Bonnie has grown used to them over the years.  Now, however, an entirely different kind of wolves threaten her beloved home in the form of her horrible governess, Miss Slighcarp, and her accomplice, Grimshaw.  When Bonnie’s parents leave on an extended vacation, Bonnie and Sylvia are left in Miss Slighcarp’s care.  Soon dumped into a dreadful, abusive home for orphans, and believing her parents dead, Bonnie finds a way to escape with Sylvia.  The goose boy, Simon, comes to their rescue, but Bonnie must find a way to expose the evil Miss Slighcarp’s plot if she is ever to return to her home.

Though the story is set in an alternate history of England, its plot and time period are reminiscent of Jane Eyre, albeit for children, while the children’s battle against villains like Miss Slighcarp and Mrs. Brisket will strike a chord with fans of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. While adults and older readers may find the book predictable and oversimplified, the targeted age will appreciate the children’s trials and eventual conquest over evil.  Indeed, younger children down to perhaps second grade would be likely to enjoy the story but the vocabulary is likely to require it to be shared as a read-aloud.  A little mystery, a little terror, and a lot of adventure combine to make Wolves an engaging and enjoyable read for intermediate students.

The Christmas Magic

Title: The Christmas Magic
Category: Picture Book
Grades: 3-5 years
Author: Lauren Thompson
Illustrator: Jon J. Muth
Publisher: Scholastic
Date: 2009

In his little house, Santa prepares himself and his reindeer for the arrival of the Christmas magic.

This story is a lyrical and sweet depiction of a little old man who loves the children of the world. The illustrations are soft watercolor and pastel that lend a surreality and timeless, lonely feel to the pictures.  Young children will warm to Santa in his bare feet darning his socks or in his bunny slippers selecting their presents with care, and adults will appreciate the gentle and touching reminders of this old legend.  Detractors for some children may include the limited plot – the book is more descriptive than narrative – and Santa’s isolation.  The elves and workshop are not depicted, making Santa’s life seem slow, secluded, and quiet.  

Strega Nona's Gift

Title: Strega Nona’s Gift
Category: Picture Book
Grades: PreK - 2
Author: Tomie dePaola
Illustrator: Tomie dePaola
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Date: 2011

The holidays are coming to Calabria, Italy and Strega Nona is preparing.  Big Anthony is helping, but when he eats the gift for Signora Goat on the Eve of Epiphany, Signora Goat becomes angry and eats his blanket.  Big Anthony must find a way to make amends, and the Day of Epiphany will bring just the opportunity he needs.

Tomie dePaola’s whimsical illustrative style and well researched stories of traditional legends and lore are no stranger to those who work with children’s literature.  Nor does he disappoint in this new tale of his original characters, Strega Nona and Big Anthony.  Children will enjoy the return of Big Anthony, whose bumbling ways are not unlike Amelia Bedelia and sure to incite laughs from preK and early elementary children, whose developing sense of humor will appreciate both Big Anthony’s mistake and Signora Goat’s revenge.  This book is also useful for teachers looking for material on multicultural Christmas traditions, as it covers several of the Italian celebration days through the winter holiday season.  The only minor drawback to this story is that dePaola tries to both tell a story and give a lot of information about the Italian traditions; the first half of the book is more expository than narrative.  Nevertheless, an educational and entertaining read for the holiday season.

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