Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence

Written by Ann Downer

This fascinating book asks the question “What is intelligence?” There are many examples of beings that lack a spinal column being able reason and learn. Each chapter outlines the life of a different beast and how it qualifies for the distinction “intelligent.” Charles Darwin was captivated by worms. Ordinary earthworms will increase activity in response to music. They cover the entrances to burrows with pebbles. They will learn to avoid the areas of mazes where electric shocks are introduced and vibrations similar to those made by predators. Jumping spiders know many different ways to approach their prey and can reason out which approach to use. Octopuses are unbelievable escape artists. Honey bees are great communicators. Paper wasps can recognize a friend’s face. Argentine ants build megacolonies. Mantis shrimps are fast and, more importantly, accurate predators. Box jellyfish can accurately navigate mazes. Slime molds seem to form giant brains. Tarantula hawk wasps will measure their prey before digging a hole to bury it for food for hatching babies.

The best use for this book is as a resource. It is so packed full of information, the student will want to return again and again to pick up the details for further study. Sixth grade literacy skills will be enhanced by the frequent use of scientific terms and by the excellent organization of the text. Throughout, the author highlights recent scientific studies. The numerous photos are wonderful illustrations.

Order on Amazon

  • Smart and SpinelessTitle: Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence
  • Author: Ann Downer
  • Published: Twenty First Century Books, August, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 88 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Nonfiction, animals
  • ISBN: 978-1-4677-3739-5
  • Extras: Table of Contents, Source Notes, Glossary, Selected Bibliography, extensive For Further Information section, Index, About the Author, Author Acknowledgments, Photo Acknowledgments

Mark of the Thief

Written by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Riding on the back of a griffin flying over ancient Rome, Nic escapes only to fight again. Without knowing it, the first time Nic saw, Caela, the griffin, deep in the gold mines, it scratched his back leaving the mark of the Divine Star. It gives Nic the powers of Diana, one being his ability to talk to animals. Magic travels through that mark, but even more magic strengthens Nic through the bulla of Julius Caesar that he found and kept for himself.

This is the first in a new series by the New York Times Bestselling author, Jennifer A. Nielsen.  Ancient Rome comes alive through its treatment of slaves in the mines to its treatment of the animals being put to death for entertainment in the arena.

There are factions of senators trying to overtake the emperor and sometimes it all becomes quite entangled, just as it does in real life. The poorest of the poor hide Nic in underground water tunnels to keep him safe from those chasing him. They want his power, his bulla and the precious jewels hidden within it. But at the end of book one, the last laugh belongs to Nic. Except, of course, that it isn’t really the last laugh as even he realizes his battle has just begun.

Fifth grade readers, sixth grade readers and those beyond will strengthen their literacy skills while also finding out what ancient Roman life and government was like. History standards can be met by discovering and discussing this new knowledge.

It is an exciting new series. Many teachers, librarians and parents will be looking forward to the publication of book #2.

Buy on Amazon

  • Mark of the ThiefTitle: Mark of the Thief
  • Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 339 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-56154-9
  • Genre: Fiction, fantasy, history
  • Grade level: 4 to 7

 

Like a River: A Civil War Novel

Written by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Have you ever heard of the steamboat, Sultana? No? Well then it might surprise you to find out when it exploded and sank on the Ohio River in 1865, more people died than died on the Titantic.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman has done excellent research into this mostly unknown event of the Civil War. In like manner she has studied the Andersonville prison daily life. Her ability to take the findings of her studies and turn it all into a compelling story is commending.

Her main characters are well developed and face authentic problems of the day. The tension begins early and draws the reader in quickly, keeping them focused and always wanting to continue to read that one more chapter.

Grade five and grade six students will become enthralled with this story and look for others like it. Teachers and librarians can use the text to fulfill core curriculum standards in the areas of literacy, American history, historical fiction, character development, comparison of fiction and nonfiction as well as the effects of war.

The explanation within the Author’s Notes pertaining to what is true and what is fiction is valuable. Photographs from the Library of Congress add a richness to this difficult story. This book would be a superb addition to elementary, middle school, and public libraries

Buy on Amazon

  • like a riverTitle: Like a River
  • Author: Kathy Cannon Wiechman
  • Publisher: Calkins Creek, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-62979-209-5
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 3 to 8
  • Extras: Author’s Note, Selected Bibliography, Photographs, Picture Credits

The Cure for Dreaming

Written by Cat Winters

If I said this is Dracula meets Susan B. Anthony, would it sound weird? Maybe, but Cat Winters makes it work. There is enough of Bram Stoker’s opus to pique the reader’s interest without giving away the entire story or being overly graphic. There is enough of women’s rights without being preachy. All the while, the author weaves in hypnotism and the power of words.

In 1900 Portland, Oregon, Olivia Mead turns seventeen only to have her father panic about her independence and strong mind. She attends a show by a hypnotist, Henri Reverie and becomes his main subject, unwittingly allowing him to turn her into a board that gets walked on. Her father decides Henri can make Olivia a more demure, subservient woman. The result is she sees monsters and can’t fight back, even in the face of real danger. She attributes this in part to her love of Dracula, but maybe there really are monsters. Meanwhile, the father of her suitor writes an editorial about why women don’t need the right to vote. Olivia anonymously submits a letter to the editor refuting all his claims. When the letter gets published, a firestorm results. Her own father thinks a man wrote the letter because it was too well written. Everything goes from bad to worse as Olivia and Henri get to know each other and plot to work things out. In the end, Olivia’s father pushes so hard, she is forced to find her voice (literally) and declare her independence.

Sixth grade readers will learn about Bram Stoker, life in 1900, women’s rights, and mesmerism.

  • Cure for DreamingTitle: The Cure for Dreaming
  • Author: Cat Winters
  • Publisher: Amulet Books/Abrams, 2014
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Fiction, women’s suffrage, Dracula, hypnotism
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1216-6

 

Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal

Written by Tonya Bolden

Capital Days is a stunning new look at the beginnings of our Capital City, Washington D.C.  This goes beyond a regular history of the Capital building and city because this is a personal view of what was happening day by day on the streets as experienced by one man.

Many of the excerpts come from the diary of a finally freed man named, Michael Shiner. He wrote what he saw, felt, and believed. The primary research undertaken by Tonya Bolden, a highly awarded nonfiction author, is very well done. Everything in the book is backed up with actual photographs and explicit citations. Primary sources are quoted throughout.

Readers are treated to an inside look at daily life from the early to the mid-19th century. In Michael Shiner’s last entry in his book, he noted that he had witnessed eleven Presidents take office.  He witnessed the burning and rebuilding of Washington, the labor disputes, the slave struggles to become free, Lincoln’s inauguration, even the workmen dropping the cornerstone for the Washington monument into the river by accident. The inclusion of real photographs from the time, as well as newspaper clippings, will help readers keep in constant mind this is about things that really happened.

From his work inside the Navy yard Michael sees and hears things that others would not. He witnesses an early labor strike and is affected when workers are not allowed to take their lunch baskets into the yard because of too much theft. Michael is not afraid to write what he sees. It is, after all, just a book for himself, to help him remember what happened. But now, generations later, we can see through his eyes our Capital struggling to be built.

After his retirement from the Navy yard he continues to work within the city as a contractor himself until he is infected with smallpox and dies. It is no small miracle that his personal book is and has been in the Library of Congress since early 1900. We are all fortunate that it was found by Tonya and used to create this marvelous, readable nonfiction narrative.

Throughout the book, a timeline of the Capital is included. While many of the points have to do with the Capital building itself, such as inaugurations and passed bills, it also includes news from around the city like the burning of the theater or the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington monument.

Abrams published this volume with heavy, glossy paper, clear reproductions of lithographs and woodprints from hundreds of years ago.  It is a stunningly beautiful volume worthy of the high level of scholarship that went into its creation.

The end papers contain a marvelous collection of selected source material, glossary, index, author’s note and chapter by chapter notes. This book can be used to meet all the core curriculum standards in history, nonfiction reading and research. It would be very useful to grade five and grade six readers and beginning researchers. Teachers and librarians will be thrilled to add this to their collection of American history books.

Buy on Amazon

  • Capital DaysTitle: Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal
  • Author:  Tonya Bolden
  • Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 96 pages
  • ISBN:  978-1-4197-0733-9
  • Genre: Nonfiction, History, Washington D.C.
  • Grade level: 4 to 7
  • Extras: Glossary, Index, Author Notes, Selected Sources, Notes (chapter by chapter)

Fleabrain Loves Franny

Written by Joanne Rocklin

Pittsburgh, 1952. Recovering from polio, Franny Katzenback listens to the sounds of her friends playing outside as she lies in bed and wishes her legs would move. With only books for comfort, she falls in love with the newly published Charlotte’s Web. If only she had a Charlotte in her life, she thinks. Her wish comes true when she receives a mysterious letter written in blood-red ink. The author happens to be a highly intelligent flea named Fleabrain, who lives on her dog’s tail.

The two strike up a correspondence. Fleabrain shares with Franny a love of literature as well as music and languages. Not only can he talk, but his saliva contains superpowers, which allow him to take Franny on all kinds of fantastical adventures based on his extensive reading. He flies her around at night on a magical horseback ride, he miniaturizes her á la Alice in Wonderland, and he zooms her around the globe to tour the Seven Wonders of the World. Their relationship strains, however, when she learns he cannot use his powers to cure her of polio. Issues of social injustice are touched upon when Franny faces discrimination upon her return to school.

Sixth graders will likely find the historical elements of this story interesting as it paints a solid picture of the polio scare during the 1950’s and what it was like to be on the receiving end of that terrible disease. While there certainly is enough advanced vocabulary and thematic elements to enhance one’s comprehension and literacy skills, the overreaching plot and fantastical elements may leave readers scratching their heads just like the poor dog who hosts Fleabrain.

Buy on Amazon

  • FleabrainTitle: Fleabrain Loves Franny
  • Author: Joanne Rocklin
  • Publisher: Amulet Books / Abrams, 2014
  • Reviewer: Lauren Abbey Greenberg
  • Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1068-0
  • Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

 

September 17

Written by Amanda West Lewis

War, as seen from the eyes of 10, 13 and 15 year olds is quite different from that of adults. In this carefully researched historical fiction we find that many children being sent away to Canada from England on a large cruise ship see it as an adventure.

This startling tale is about a time when England was so sure it would fall to the Nazis that a plan was established to send away a whole generation of children. Some would be sent, supposedly, to Canada. Others would go to Australia or New Zealand.

The alarming rate of bombing in London caused parents to make very fast decisions under duress. Children were sent away with only a change of clothes and, if lucky, one packed lunch.

Unfortunately, the title of the book is the date that one such ship carrying a group of over 90 children was torpedoed and sunk by the Nazi U-boat. There were survivors, but very few. Perhaps the most breathtaking part of the story is the several days that one group of children spent in a tiny lifeboat dreaming of survival. One of the things that still kept the children going was their thought of having an adventure at sea with real sailors.

Core curriculum standards for history, geography and literacy skills can be met for grade 6 readers and beyond whether the book is used in a classroom, library or book club setting. It is history we have not read before and it is provided in a fascinating narrative style that puts the reader right in that scary frigid water.

Buy on Amazon

  • September 17Title: September 17
  • Author: Amanda West Lewis
  • Publisher: Red Deer Press, 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Paperback, 313 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-88995-507-3
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 6 and up
  • Extras: Afterward, Recommended Reading, Interview and Photograph of the Author

Pink & Green is the New Black

Written by Lisa Greenwald

13-year-old Lucy Desberg is back in the third book of the Pink & Green series, and, on the outside, things couldn’t be better. Her initiative to have the school cafeteria go green is a success, her family’s pharmacy and spa are thriving, and she has a boyfriend in high school. What she’s not telling everyone, however, is that Yamir hasn’t called or texted her in weeks, and she has no idea why. To take her mind off him, she and her best friend, Sunny (Yamir’s sister), agree to help plan the upcoming school dance, the Eighth-Grade Masquerade, even though mean-girl Erica Crane is in charge. At least Erica has been acting like a normal human being lately, but Lucy wonders if that will last.

Like everything else she does, Lucy puts her heart and soul into making the masquerade perfect. She offers to do everyone’s makeup at the spa and works hard to make sure all her friends have dates. But as hard as she tries to ignore the Yamir problem, the more frustrated she becomes. To make matters more complicated, a cute boy named Travis, who’s new to the school, shows interest in her. Lucy puts on a happy face and pretends like she can handle it all, but it doesn’t take long until the cracks in her armor begin to show.

In this coming-of-age novel, Greenwald creates a realistic depiction of middle school girl drama, where saving face and fitting in sometimes makes it challenging to do the right thing. Sixth graders will identify with winsome Lucy and her friends as they navigate the turbulent waters of balancing friends, crushes, family and school.

Order on Amazon

  • Pink & GreenTitle: Pink & Green is the New Black
  • Author: Lisa Greenwald
  • Publisher: Amulet Books / Abrams
  • Reviewer: Lauren Abbey Greenberg
  • Format: Paperback, 272 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1225-8
  • Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary Fiction
  • Release Date: October 2014

Winterkill

Written by Kate A. Boorman

Part Divergent, part Giver, this story of an alternate reality follows some believable and loveable characters as another harsh winter approaches their community. Emmeline, just short of sixteen, tries to be a model citizen but doesn’t quite make the cut in a society where a series of seemingly minor infractions can land you in caged exile. Emmeline’s grandmother was punished years earlier for supposedly propositioning a married. This leaves the entire family in a precarious position. With some of her duties taking her outside the fortification, Emmeline is drawn to the woods by curiosity and by her vivid dreams. Are there really monsters in the woods that can snatch a person? If not, what is out there? What can harm you and what can help? The surprising answers lie in both the past and the future. No one is sure why the settlement’s leader chooses her as a life mate. Is it to keep her under control? Meanwhile, she is falling in love with someone else. Choosing the path between what is right and what is safe is nearly impossible.

Sixth graders can appreciate all the subtleties in Emmeline’s struggle to help her community, her father, and herself. Reading activities include many discussions of Emmeline’s decisions, as well as those of the other characters. Readers are also invited to speculate about the exact location and time of the story and the identity of the Lost People. The story is fast-paced and riveting.

 

  • WinterkillTitle: Winterkill
  • Author: Kate A. Boorman
  • Publisher: Amulet/Abrams, 2014
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
  • Genre: Dystopian, autocratic rule, survival
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1235-7
  • Release date: September 2014

 

The Stepsister’s Tale

Written by Tracy Barrett

Sixth graders and above will love this quirky re-take on the familiar story of Cinderella. Looking beyond the unambiguous version where Cinderella was the good little servant and the stepsisters were malevolent, Barrett wonders what might have happened if all the characters were well-developed. Maybe Cinderella was a spoiled brat who told lies to elicit sympathy. Maybe the family was destitute after years of trying to live without the men who had promised to take care of them. (High-born women, in fact, weren’t allowed to do men’s work.) Maybe the prince was also spoiled and not even worthy of further thought.

Young Jane Montjoy is doing her best to keep her family together. Mamma is ineffectual and Maude is much younger than she is. Both Jane and Maude work very hard making butter and cheese and taking care of the house. They share with the people who live in the forest. One day, Mamma goes to market and comes back with a new husband and a new stepsister. The man does not live long. He was in debt and his daughter has no skills. A harsh winter nearly kills them all, until Jane has the good sense to ask the forest people for help. When the prince tries to marry Ella, adventure ensues.

The many details the author uses to explain away Cinderella’s story make this extra delightful and also very funny. It’s the humor which will make many boys enjoy this book. The pumpkin coach and the glass slippers are items Ella’s father spoils her with before his death. Ella doesn’t even think the coach looks like a pumpkin. The beautiful dress was Ella’s mother’s, which hasn’t been touched in years. Ella plays in the ashes in order to be close to where the heat was. Of course, some details remain unexplainable. Fairies?

As I said, the characters are well-developed, making this great for extending literacy skills and comprehension. There is a lot in this book about not taking things at face value and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Wonderful new book worth a look.

  • Stepsisters TaleTitle: The Stepsister’s Tale
  • Author: Tracy Barrett
  • Publisher: Harlequin Teen, 2014
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 272 pages
  • Genre: Retold fairy tale
  • ISBN: 978-0-373-21121-0
  • Extras: Discussion questions to keep the thinking going

 

« Older Entries Recent Entries »