Monday, September 1, 2014

NONFICTION MONDAY: Two Graphic Nonfiction Titles


In The Red Baron, graphic artist and author Wayne Vansant illustrates the incredible story of Manfred von Richthofen, whose unparalleled piloting prowess as a member of the Imperial German Army Air Service made him a World War I celebrity, both in the air and on the ground. In his signature style, enjoyed by readers of Normandy and Bombing Nazi Germany, Vansant beautifully depicts the fearsome intelligence and mid-flight awareness that would earn Richthofen eighty documented air combat victories over the Western Front in the halcyon days of military aviation. From his beginnings as cavalry member and a pilot-in-training to the years he spent commanding Jasta 11 from the cockpit of his fabled red plane, to his eventual leadership of the ultra-mobile Jagdgeschwader 1 (aptly nicknamed "Richtofen's Flying Circus" by nervous foes because of the group's colorful airplanes and mobile airfields), The Red Baron brings the story of this legendary figure to life. Richthofen died young under controversial circumstances, but the Red Baron's astonishing skill and tactical acumen lived on far long after his death and helped usher in a new type of warfare that would reign supreme twenty-five years later: war in the air.


This is one of a series of graphic novels dealing with war created by Wayne Vansant. And considering the popularity of the topic and the popularity of graphic novels its sure to be popular.  I'd heard of The Red Baron long before picking up this book but it was interesting to read his story in the graphic format.  Student readers will be fascinated by the depictions of early air warfare, the techniques and strategies used as well as the personal prowess of Richthofen.  I think the one thing that came through loud and clear was how dangerous it was to be a pilot during the war.  Vansant does a nice job of covering different aspects of the air war including the flying, scouting, fighting, guarding, and other activities of the different units, but also how the units operated.  Other famous flying aces of the war from the various participating nations are also included in the story.  This is a great way to introduce young readers to the importance of and impact of the past.


Ernest Shackleton was one of the last great Antarctic explorers, and he led one of the most ambitious Antarctic expeditions ever undertaken. This is his story, and the story of the dozens of men who threw in their lot with him - many of whom nearly died in the unimaginably harsh conditions of the journey. It's an astonishing feat - and was unprecedented at the time - that all the men in the expedition survived.

Shackleton's expedition marked the end of a period of romantic exploration of the Arctic and the Antarctic, and this is as much a book about the encroaching modern world as it is about travel. But Nick Bertozzi has documented this remarkable journey with such wit and fiendish attention to detail that it's impossible not to get caught up in the drama of the voyage. Shackleton is a phenomenal accompaniment to Bertozzi's earlier graphic novel about great explorers, Lewis & Clark.


Nick Bertozzi's Shackleton makes for a great adventure story told in graphic format.  He does a remarkable job of including a lot of details and keeping the story moving.  A story like this can easily get bogged down in details, especially considering how much time Shackleton and his men spent waiting.  The black and white illustrations work well for an environment that was mostly white and gray.  I think what came through strongest to me was the sheer determination of Shackleton, there is no other reason that the whole crew would have survived the brutal conditions.  It's not only a great survival story, but a story about the importance of having good leaders.  The sheer amount of detail in the illustrations is amazing although it does make some of the illustrations kind of small.  Despite the lack of color, Bertozzi still manages to convey the difficult conditions the men had to live with, the cold, the wet, and the lack of a variety of foods (who wants to live on dog, seal, and penguin for months, yuck!).

Friday, August 29, 2014

FANTASTIC FRIDAY: Dreamwood by Heather Mackey


Lucy Darrington has no choice but to run away from boarding school. Her father, an expert on the supernatural, has been away for too long while doing research in Saarthe, a remote territory in the Pacific Northwest populated by towering redwoods, timber barons, and the Lupine people. But upon arriving, she learns her father is missing: Rumor has it he’s gone in search of dreamwood, a rare tree with magical properties that just might hold the cure for the blight that’s ravaging the forests of Saarthe.

Determined to find her father (and possibly save Saarthe), Lucy and her vexingly stubborn friend Pete follow William Darrington’s trail to the deadly woods on Devil’s Thumb. As they encounter Lupine princesses, giant sea serpents, and all manner of terrifying creatures, Lucy hasn’t reckoned that the dreamwood itself might be the greatest threat of all.


Another great middle grade fantasy, Dreamwood takes the reader on a fascinating journey into the heart of a most unusual forest.  Lucy makes for quite a character, she's strong-willed, courageous, and loyal.  She's also a bit of a know-it-all and her pride and impulsivity causes problems all over the place.  Once Lucy determines where her father has gone, she will stop at nothing to get him back, even facing the unknown terrors of Devil's Thumb, a peninsula that no one has come back from in years.  But Lucy refuses to accept that her father might be gone for good and an encounter with a local eccentric leads her to believe that dreamwood might be the cure to the blight destroying the local forests.  With the help of her father's inventions and her new found friend Peter, she sets out to determine her destiny.

The intensity and mystery of this story make it a compelling read.  The character interactions were fascinating and enjoyable with plenty of tension.  They felt very real.  All the characters had mixed motivations for doing what they did and it all came together in a believable way, very important in a book with fantastic elements like this one.  The world building that the author does comes together is some very intriguing ways, emphasizing the interconnectedness of the world the characters live in with each of their actions leading to future events. With themes of friendship, greed, nature, and morality all playing a strong role, Dreamwood is a wonderful addition to middle grade speculative fiction.  However, there is enough violence (including several deaths) that make it more appropriate for slightly older readers. I look forward to reading more from this author.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

EARLY READER SERIES: Boris by Andrew Joyner




Meet Boris! He lives with his mom and dad in Hogg Bay. Their home is a van that once traveled all over the world. Then one morning, Boris feels a jolt. Could it be? Is the van really moving? Is Boris on an adventure at last?

But when Boris ends up on a trip to a wildlife refuge instead of the jungle safari he'd imagined, he ends up having an adventure he'll never forget. Because for this little warthog, life never quite turns out as he plans.


Boris loves pets! And he already has lots of them. All he's missing is his favorite animal, a Komodo dragon--the biggest lizard in the world!

When Boris brags to the kids in his class that he's getting one, everyone wants to see it. Boris needs to come up with a Luckily, he's got his friends by his side and a lizard up his sleeve!



It's Sports Day and Boris is ready to run like he's never run before. He wants to beat Eddie, who always wins everything. All Frederick wants is not to come last—again. Who will make it across the finish line first? Ready, set . . .


Boris is having a sleepover.

He's camping in the backyard with Frederick and Alice. They are not one bit scared of the dark. No way . . . But what is that strange light moving around outside the tent?


This is part of a new program by Scholastic called Branches.  These books are for early readers but they look and feel like chapter books.  So while there are only a few sentences per double page spread, they feel like a longer read.  The stories are cute and fun and the fully colored illustrations are great.  The challenges that Boris faces are all ones that children can relate to, things such as competition, friendship, fears, and dreams.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

EARLY CHAPTER BOOK: The Vanishing Coin by Kate Egan with Magician Mike Lane


Want to see something cool?
I can make that quarter vanish.
All it takes is a little magic…

Fourth grade was supposed to be a fresh start, but Mike’s already back in the principal’s office. He’s not a bad kid. He just can’t sit still. And now, his parents won’t let him play soccer anymore; instead he has to hang out with his new neighbor Nora, who is good at everything!

Then, Mike and Nora discover the White Rabbit. It’s an odd shop—with a special secret inside. Its owner, Mr. Zerlin, is a magician, and, amazingly, he believes Mike could be a magician, too. Has Mike finally found something he’s good at?


Mike makes for a fun character, one I think kids will be able to relate to easily.  Mike doesn't mean to get in trouble all the time but he has a hard time focusing and sitting still in class.  He and his parents have tried a number of different strategies to try to overcome this problem but without lasting success.  Even worse, he has to spend his afternoons with Nora, the girl who can do everything well (at least in Mike's opinion).  His frustration boils over in the dentist's office and he and Nora go for a walk where they discover The White Rabbit.  On first glance the store appears to sell antiques but with closer examination its clear that there is more to the store than there appears.

When Mike discovers that he may have a knack for doing magic he throws himself into it whole-heartedly and discovers that maybe, just maybe, he has more magic inside of him than he ever knew.  The inclusion of magic tricks and the fun illustrations make this quite appealing to the target audience.  The way Mike uses his new found magic skills to face the boy who likes to torment him is a nice touch, but what I like the best is how Mike discovers that he too can do something well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

GRAPHIC NOVEL: Cleopatra in Space #1 by Mike Maihack


When a young Cleopatra (yes, THAT Cleopatra) finds a mysterious tablet that zaps her to the far, REALLY far future, she learns of an ancient prophecy that says she is destined to save the galaxy from the tyrannical rule of the evil Xaius Octavian. She enrolls in Yasiro Academy, a high-tech school with classes like algebra, biology, and alien languages (which Cleo could do without), and combat training (which is more Cleo's style). With help from her teacher Khensu, Cleo learns what it takes to be a great leader, while trying to figure out how she's going to get her homework done, make friends, and avoid detention!


I can practically guarantee that this graphic novel is a winner.  It's perfect for elementary age students who like lots of action with fun characters.  The idea of putting one of the most famous female rulers in history into the future and space is a clever one.  Cleopatra reminds me of many children, fiery and impulsive but bored with school.  Her skill with a slingshot transfers nicely into skill with a raygun but her problems with school carry over into her new school as well.  She just doesn't see the value, except in her target practice class and her combat class.  But with the help of her history professor (who happens to be a cat), her awesome sphinx space ship, and her fighting skills she may find a way to fulfill the prophecy that seems to have brought her to the future in the first place.

The bright, colorful illustrations are very appealing and expressive.  While there are some intense fighting sequences, they involve robots and are not graphic at all.  Readers who have enjoyed the Lunch Lady series, the Zita the Spacegirl series, and Babymouse are sure to like this fun new series.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

MMGM: A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck


An intrepid boy teams up with Alfred Hitchcock himself in this rollicking mystery rife with action, adventure, intrigue, and all the flavor of film noir.

After the mysterious death of his mother, eleven-year-old Jack Fair is whisked away to San Francisco's swanky Fairmont Hotel by his wicked Aunt Edith. There, he seems doomed to a life of fetching chocolates for his aunt and her pet chinchilla. Until one night, when Aunt Edith disappears, and the only clue is a ransom note written... in chocolate?

Suddenly, Jack finds himself all alone on a quest to discover who kidnapped Aunt Edith and what happened to his mother. Alone, that is, until he meets an unlikely accomplice: Alfred Hitchcock himself! The two embark on a madcap journey full of hidden doorways, secret societies, cryptic clues, sinister villains, and cinematic flair.


Jim Averbeck is the author and illustrator of the picture books Oh NO, Little Dragon! and Except If.  A Hitch at the Fairmont is his first novel.  He studied Children's Book Writing and Illustration at the University of California Berkeley and now makes his home in San Francisco.  You can visit him at


I've read many children's mystery books in my time and unfortunately many of them start to blur together after a while because so many of the elements are similar.  I always love it when I come across one that is different enough to stand out.  A Hitch at the Fairmont is different enough to stand out. 

The book starts with Jack attending his mother's funeral at a funeral home, but their's no body to bury. After getting caught checking out the dead bodies in the basement, Jack is whisked away to the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco by his Aunt Edith.  Unfortunately for Jack, his Aunt Edith is not at all a nice person and she keeps hounding him about a code or series of numbers that he knows nothing about.  All he has left of his old life is his ability to remember everything he sees and draw it accurately and the dog tags and coffin necklace from the father he never knew.

Everything changes when Aunt Edith disappears and Jack must find her quickly before he ends up in an orphanage.  The inclusion of Alfred Hitchcock in the book creates a really interesting subplot, especially with each chapter named after one of Hitchcock's movies (it took me a while to notice this).  I developed a sudden urge to watch some of Hitchcock's movies.  The inclusion of storyboard illustrations at the beginning of each chapter was another clever touch that I enjoyed.  I also learned a lot about Hitchcock and how he made such successful movies.  It was also nice to read Averbeck's notes at the end about what he fictionalized and what he didn't.

The Fairmont Hotel was a great setting for a mystery and Averbeck takes every advantage of it.  I would love to visit the place.  

As I read the book I quickly figured some things out before the characters did, it made me want to leap into the book and show Jack some things he's missed (luckily he does eventually figure it out).  And so I thought I knew where the book was going until, BANG, the author through in some very unexpected twists that changed the direction of the story altogether.  The best mysteries do this, creating an enjoyable story that still manages to surprise you without leaving you completely in the dark.

A great book for readers who like longer more involved mysteries with lots of intrigue and humor.

Be sure to check out Shannon Messenger's blog for more great Middle Grade recommendations.

Friday, August 22, 2014

FANTASTIC FRIDAY: The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson



Piper has never seen the Mark of the Dragonfly until she finds the girl amid the wreckage of a caravan in the Meteor Fields. The girl doesn't remember a thing about her life, but the intricate tattoo on her arm is proof that she's from the Dragonfly Territories and that she's protected by the king. Which means a reward for Piper if she can get the girl home. The one sure way to the Territories is the 401, a great old beauty of a train. But a ticket costs more coin than Piper could make in a year. And stowing away is a difficult prospect--everyone knows that getting past the peculiar green-eyed boy who stands guard is nearly impossible. Life for Piper just turned dangerous. A little bit magical. And very exciting, if she can manage to survive the journey.

Photo: Mark Jones

Jaleigh Johnson is a fantasy author born and raised in the Midwest. Her novels for the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms fiction line include The Howling Delve, Mistshore, Unbroken Chain, Unbroken Chain: The Darker Road, and Spider and Stone. Her first book for middle grade readers is The Mark of the Dragonfly, from Delacorte Press.  In her spare time, she enjoys gaming, gardening, and going to movies with her husband.  Visit her online at  


I'll just say upfront that I really enjoyed this book, in pretty much every way. The cover is gorgeous, the characters intriguing, the plot action-packed, and the setting well-presented. Sometimes in these plot-driven middle grade fantasy novels it's easy for the character development to get lost in all the action, but in this one the character development blends in beautifully with all the action.  

There are three main characters, starting with Piper, a thirteen-year old girl living by herself in Scrap Town 16, just scraping by.  But everything changes when she discovers an unconscious girl in the Meteor Fields. But it turns out that Anna, the girl Piper found, not only has an unusual tattoo on her arm, but she loves to talk about stuff she knows and she remembers little of her life prior to meeting Piper.  When they hop the 401 train to escape the man that is after Anna they meet Gee who is an interesting character in his own right. 

I loved the setting of the train (most of the story takes place on the train).  It works well to move the plot along. Frankly, I'd love to hop on the train and explore its intricacies.  To me that is sign of a well-designed book.

All in all a fun read with plenty of secrets, lots of action, and some interesting surprises along the way. Fantasy lovers are sure to fly through this one. Definitely going on my favorites shelf.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wild & Wonderful Wednesday: Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor by Jon Scieszka


Frank Einstein loves figuring out how the world works by creating household contraptions that are part science, part imagination, and definitely unusual. After an uneventful experiment in his garage-lab, a lightning storm and flash of electricity bring Frank’s inventions—the robots Klink and Klank—to life! Not exactly the ideal lab partners, the wisecracking Klink and the overly expressive Klank nonetheless help Frank attempt to perfect his Antimatter Motor . . . until Frank’s archnemesis, T. Edison, steals Klink and Klank for his evil doomsday plan! Using real science, Jon Scieszka has created a unique world of adventure and science fiction—an irresistible chemical reaction for middle-grade readers.


One always knows that a book with the name Scieszka on is bound to be entertaining.  And Frank Einstein is no exception.  The boy scientist/inventor and his grandfather have much in common with their namesake Albert Einstein, including their love of science (not to mention the wild hair).  Frank and his best friend, Watson, are determined to win the Midville Science Prize in order to save Grandpa Al's house/lab.  After inadvertently creating a couple of robots it seems that the Prize may just be within reach.  But unbeknownst to Frank, his rival T. Edison is determined to thwart his efforts and take the prize for himself and Frank's project could change both their worlds in the process.

There is a lot of science mixed in with the story and that could have bogged the story down, but thanks to Scieszka's explanations and Bigg's diagrams, it doesn't.  In fact, I learned some things I didn't know, even after all my schooling.  This book is perfect for budding scientists and for all readers just starting to realize that one doesn't need big muscles to be a hero.  Recommended.

Monday, August 18, 2014

NONFICTION MONDAY: Master of Deceit by Marc Aronson


A fascinating and timely biography of J. Edgar Hoover from a Sibert Medalist.

"King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. . . . You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

Dr. Martin Luther King received this demand in an anonymous letter in 1964. He believed that the letter was telling him to commit suicide. Who wrote this anonymous letter? The FBI. And the man behind it all was J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI's first director. In this unsparing exploration of one of the most powerful Americans of the twentieth century, accomplished historian Marc Aronson unmasks the man behind the Bureau- his tangled family history and personal relationships; his own need for secrecy, deceit, and control; and the broad trends in American society that shaped his world. Hoover may have given America the security it wanted, but the secrets he knew gave him— and the Bureau — all the power he wanted. Using photographs, cartoons, movie posters, and FBI transcripts, Master of Deceit gives readers the necessary evidence to make their own conclusions. Here is a book about the twentieth century that blazes with questions and insights about our choices in the twenty-first.


Before reading this book I had heard of J. Edgar Hoover and the control he wielded over the FBI as well as the illegal activities he and his agency engaged in in their pursuit of 'justice.'  But after reading this book I now have a much better understanding of exactly the sort of things Hoover and the FBI accomplished, both good and bad.  Aronson does a great job of showing that while Hoover went too far in many cases the threats he feared were all too real. As I read this, the question that presented itself to me over and over was, Do the ends justify the means?  In my opinion, the answer is no.  If we use the same methods that our enemies use then we become just like them. But Hoover didn't agree and it shows in the atmosphere of secrecy and illegal procedures that Hoover created.

One thing that I really liked about Aronson's presentation was his detailed presentation of the environment in which Hoover lived.  The gangster era, the Depression, World War II, and the anti-Communist era all helped create Hoover and the other men in power.  That does not of course justify the often illegal means they used to get their way or the lives they ruined along the way, it just creates a clearer picture of the time period.

Interestingly enough, Hoover himself generated numerous rumors and secrets that even today don't have definitive answers. Aronson does not shy away from these issues that would have been very scandalous during Hoover's time.  This creates a book that presents many issues that would make for some very interesting discussions.  As always, I appreciated the author's note at the end that explained the approach the author took in researching and presenting his subject.

For other nonfiction recommendations check out the Nonfiction Monday blog.
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