Archive for Contemporary

Outside In

Written by Sarah Ellis

Lynn was standing at the bus stop when the Werther’s original toffee got stuck in her throat and blocked any air from coming in or going out. People around her panicked, yelled for help, and dialed 911.  Only one quiet voice said, “I’m going to help you.” The skinny arms removed Lynn’s backpack and did the Heimlich maneuver. But before Lynn or her friends could say thank you, the stranger was gone.

So begins a most engaging story between the haves and the have nots, or the citizens and the Underlanders. It is a tale the causes readers to determine what constitutes a family, as well as what good are our material things.

The secret friendship between Lynn and Blossom causes many problems for both girls as their worlds begin to intersect and collide. A promise lightly given then broken causes fear, betrayal and heartbreak.

A truly wonderful thing about this story is that neither side presumes to save the other. Those that our world might label as the have-nots are able to continue their own lives though. They do have to move.

Subplots include an irresponsible mother who goes from boyfriend to boyfriend without ever growing up, a special needs boy, and a couple of batty professors.

Fifth grade readers and beyond will enjoy this story of discovery and friendship. Reading teachers and librarians will use this book to reinforce literacy skills and fulfill core curriculum standards. It would also be an excellent reader aloud for upper elementary or middle school classes.

  • Outside InTitle: Outside In
  • Author: Sarah Ellis
  • Publisher: Groundwood Books, Toronto, April 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 206 pages
  • ISBN:  978-1-55498-367-4
  • Genre: Contemporary Fiction
  • Grade Level: 5-8


Wake Up Missing

Written by Kate Messner

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This includes a fascinating what-if idea. What if gene therapy were used for the scientists’ own purposes? Can they get away with it? This is a very exciting and often scary story. Fifth grade readers will be fascinated by what kids their age can do when necessary, providing them an opportunity to increase their literacy skills and learn a bit about genetics, neurology, and bird watching.

Twelve-year-old Cat is trying to recover from a head injury suffered in a fall from a bird watching platform. She is constantly dizzy, headache-y, and irritable. Not at all like her former self. In desperation, her parents send her to clinic in Florida, which specializes in her type of injury. At first, everything seems normal, but Cat soon smells a rat. One girl hasn’t been seen for days, and Cat overhears bits of conversations between the doctors that make her suspicious. A boy has been seen, but his entire personality has been changed. Together with three other patients, Cat figures out they’re part of a horrible experiment to change their brains. The kids plot to escape just as the doctors plan to tell their parents they’re dead and move the experiments to Russia. Airboats, wildfires, and alligators all play a role.

The Author’s Note discusses the science behind the idea, including the Manhattan Project team and ongoing gene research. The author’s website ( gives more details and contains a blog. The publisher’s website ( provides more information on the author and the book itself.

  • Wake Up MissingTITLE: Wake Up Missing
  • AUTHOR: Kate Messner
  • PUBLISHER: Walker Books for Young Readers/Bloomsbury, 2013
  • REVIEWER: Sue Poduska
  • ISBN: 978-0-8027-2314-7
  • FORMAT: Hard cover, 255 pages
  • GENRE: Contemporary Fiction, Science Fiction

Counting By 7s

Written by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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This beautifully written story of 12 year old Willow Chance is understandably an Amazon Best Book of the Year. It is filled with truth, hope, and love.

Even though Willow is a genius, it still totally destroys her world when her parents are unexpectedly killed in an automobile accident, as it would for any of us.

For a time, her obsession with the number 7, and all things about plants help her to keep things in focus as she descends inside her personal shell.

An acquaintance that she met in the school counselor’s office takes Willow home with her when she hears about the accident. Only then does Willow realize that some people live in conditions very different from her own. Mai has taken her home to live with them in the garage.

Through many interesting and interconnected events an assortment of people become friends and rely upon one another as family members often do. The extra steps they all take to help care for Willow brings out strengths and qualities they didn’t know they had.

It is a heart breaking story for a while, but then the tiny roots and shoots of hope spring out as this unusual assortment of people save a community garden as well as a young girl.

The short sentences, compact scenes and brief dialogue make this a strong independent read for grade five students. The multi-cultural make-up of the supporting characters would help in meeting core curriculum standards as would the realistic societal differences between them. It is a wonderful story that would hold meaning for readers far beyond grade five.

  • Counting by 7sTitle: Counting By 7s
  • Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan
  • ISBN: 978-0803738553
  • Publisher: Dial, August 2013
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Genre:  Contemporary Fiction
  • Format: Hardcover, 384 pages

A King James Christmas: Biblical Selections with Illustrations from around the World

Edited by Catherine Schuon and Michael Fitzgerald
Illustrated by Catherine Schuon

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A King James Christmas: Biblical Selections with Illustrations from around the World is the story of Jesus Christ that is divided into three parts: his birth, his childhood, and his teachings. [button link=”″] Buy on Amazon [/button] For Schuon and Fitzgerald this book comes from their own passion and represents many years of dedicated, selfless devotion to creating a work of art that celebrates the true meaning of Christmas that is intended for the whole family from the pre-schooler, to the second grader reader through teens to adults.

What makes this book universal for Christian readers all over the world is the selection of art that comes far and wide from Russia, Italy, England, Germany, China, the Netherlands, Macedonia, and even from the hands of Catherine Schuon. A list of the illustrations, the time they were painted and by whom, as well as the location where they hang can be found at the back of the book.

A King James Christmas: Biblical Selections with Illustrations from around the World is an heirloom book you will want to read aloud with your family every Christmas and pass down to future generations. Every detail from the tiniest of considerations is thoughtfully executed from the selection of artwork to the large font and insertion of more common expressions to ensure that readers of all ages will understand some of the archaic text taken directly from the King James bible, written and completed in the year 1611.

To learn more about Catherine Schuon, please go to:

To learn more about Michael Fitzgerald, please go to:

To view sample pages of A King James Christmas: Biblical Selections with Illustrations from Around the World, please go to:
[learn_more caption=”Bibliographic Information”]

  • A King James ChristmasTitle: A King James Christmas: Biblical Selections with Illustrations from Around the World
  • Author: from the King James bible
  • Edited by: Catherine Schuon and Michael Oren Fitzgerald
  • Illustrator: Various including paintings by Catherine Schuon
  • Publisher: Wisdom Tales
  • Reviewer: Annemarie O’Brien
  • Paperback: 68 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-937786-03-8
  • Genre: Christian, holiday, Christmas
  • Lexile Score: 1020


The Thing about Luck

Written by Cynthia Kadohata
Illustrated by Julio Kuo

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Summer is a believer in the old saying, “If I Didn’t Have Bad Luck, I’d Have No Luck At All.” She has had malaria, her parents have been called back to Japan to care for ill, elderly  grandparents and there isn’t enough money to pay the mortgage. So now she has to leave school to work at harvesting crops with her grandparents.

Summer and her little brother, who seemingly suffers from some form of autism, go along with Obaachan and Jichan (Grandmother and Grandfather) to help harvest wheat in the Midwest of America for the late summer months. Grandfather drives a combine while Grandmother and Summer cook meals for the workers. They all work for twelve, fourteen and sixteen hour days.

This is a story of immigrant workers in the Midwest and gives readers a flavor for that almost migratory life style. It is also a multicultural story as the family is Japanese American and that combination of cultures shows through in language, habits and foods.

Grandmother and Grandfather are getting too old to work such long hard hours, but if the work isn’t done before the rains come, they won’t get paid. In the middle of one night when Grandfather is worn out with work and Grandmother is overwhelmed by pain, Summer realizes it is up to her to save the day. She needs to do something that scares her, but she finds her courage, follows through and succeeds.

This is a good book for crossing core curriculum with social studies and science. In social studies to study crops, parts of the country and growing seasons. In science to study mosquitoes, the spread of disease and the moisture level of grains.

Literacy skills enhanced include reading for information as students learn how a combine works, where mosquitoes live and breed as well as which ones carry malaria. Students will also enjoy the inclusion of Japanese words, names and terms.

Summer works at overcoming her fear of mosquitoes by drawing detailed sketches of them in order to tell apart the males and females. The book includes beautiful detailed sketches of mosquitoes. It is an interesting coping strategy that could be discussed in book clubs or classes.

  • Thing about LuckTitle: The Thing about Luck
  • Author: Cynthia Kadohata
  • Illustrator: Julio Kuo
  • Publisher: Atheneum, 2013
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 290 pages
  • ISBN:  1416918825
  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Grade Level 5

Prettiest Doll

Written by Gina Willner-Pardo

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A coming-of age story and a story of self-acceptance and acceptance of the world are all packed into this novel. Teens and preteens will appreciate its ease of comprehension.

Liv, Olivia Jean to her Mom, has grown up in the world of beauty pageants. She entered her first pageant when she was three years old. She is thirteen now, a ten-year veteran of the pageant universe, and tired already of its incessant demands and restrictions. This is not how she wants to spend her life.:


Then I stared at the mirror some more. It was the weirdest thing. I wasn’t there. I had disappeared. Suddenly I couldn’t catch my breath. It was like being underwater or buried in the ground, the feeling I had — that I was invisible, that I could scream and no one would hear.


She recognizes her mother’s struggles, but does not want to live her mother’s dreams. Into this world comes Danny, a seventeen year old who looks like he is ten. Danny’s mother also has dreams for her son’s life, whether he shares those dreams or not. He leaves home, hoping to make his way in the world.

Liv sees that as a way to escape her mother’s demands. She leaves a note for her mother and joins Danny on his journey. But running away is not the only answer. What the two learn about the world, and about their own strengths and capabilities is what gives this book its depth.  Sure to bolster the reading skills of young readers.

Additional information:

Author Bio:

  • Prettiest DollTitle: Prettiest Doll
  • Author: Gina Willner-Pardo
  • Publisher: Clarion Books, 2012
  • Reviewer: Anjali Amit
  • Hardback:  240 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-547-68170-2
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Lexile Score: 680

Lara’s Gift

Written by Annemarie O’Brien

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Above everything else, Lara loves the dogs. Lara works with her father, a kennel steward raising borzoi — a special kind of wolf-hunting dog.  In imperial Russia, where the Tsar still rules, the winters are endless and the wolves must be kept at bay, therfore the dogs are highly valued. Lara knows how the kennel works, but she also dreams of what will happen to the dogs she loves. These dreams let her get to the births faster, and ease their pain earlier. Lara’s mother says the visions are a blessing; her father says they are a curse. Lara herself must come to terms with the visions before she can go to battle for her own destiny. How can she convince her father and herself that despite her gender and her visions, she should continue to work with the dogs?

Lara’s challenging coming-of-age story is also a study of contrasts. The coziness of the kennels contrasts with the vast Russian wilderness. The sweetness of the dogs she works with contrasts with their fierceness when dealing with wolves. And her own image of her work stands starkly against what the norms for a Russian girl at that time. This will make an exciting read aloud for third grade and up, though fifth grade and sixth grade readers may want to zoom ahead on their own too.

We move back into time and across the continents, not only with the story, but with the words O’Brien uses. Her characters use Russian slang, which is explained in the glossary. Their tone feels slightly formal, which also befits the estate they are living in. And in O’Brien’s extensive author’s note, she offers a short history of the area, a history of the dog breed, and a note cautioning readers not to run out and get one of these giant dogs.
Laras Gift

  • Title: Lara’s Gift
  • Author: Annemarie O’Brien
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • Reviewer: Amy S. Hansen
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-307-93174-0
  • Genre: fiction, historical
  • Lexile: 1010

Showtime: Meet the People Behind the Scenes

Written by Kevin Sylvester

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Ever seen Taylor Swift in concert? She’s amazing, so talented. Her concert is sold out months in advance. Do you imagine Taylor just showing up the afternoon of the show, dressed, holding a guitar? If only it was that easy. Showtime: Meet the People Behind the Scenes gives just a glimpse into the work and people that come together to make the Taylor Swift experience become magical for her fans.

When you open the book, don’t expect to see photos and articles about your favorite entertainers. What you will see is exactly how many other people are involved in the production of just one concert or play. Fifth grade readers will be amazed, literally hundreds of people are needed to bring the Taylor Swift concert to you.

Ever give thought to who made the guitar Taylor is playing? Long to know how long it took to make that guitar? Want to know how to become an instrument maker?  All of that information is in Showtime.

Did you know artists’ need songwriters, choreographers, vocal coaches to become and to protect their onstage persona? Yes, Taylor doesn’t just jump on stage and make up everything as she goes along. It takes a lot of time, a lot of creativity and a lot work from a lot of other people to make sure everything is perfect for the entertainer.

Then, there’s set and costume designing. Every single detail of the stage starts as an idea, moves onto a 2D picture, then is modeled at a 1:25 ratio. That means someone has to spend the time to make minature replicas that represent the idea. The model is used to check lighting, see if there is a chair blocking an actor, is the backdrop going to overwhelm the entertainment and much more. Costume designing not only makes the clothes, but searches out for period clothing, tailors the sizes, assures that the costume stays clean after each performance. Details. Details. Details!

Many other professions are highlighted as well. Truckers, critics, advertisers, pyrotechnicians, and promoters all play huge roles in the entertainment industry. All of these people start their job way before Taylor Swift gets on stage.

What is great about this book is the way each profession interviews someone actually doing that job. Readers get a greater level of comprehension with these added features. You get a feel of what life is like to hold down that job. At the end of each chapter/profession is a really informative list of what it takes to be in that field. It says under “Want to be a Pyro Person?” that the top requirement is to “do well in school…do well on tests…know how to study.” In other words, you can’t just wake up in the morning and decide to do this job. To have a career in entertainment takes a true commitment and drive to be the best. Do you have what it takes?

  • ShowtimeTitle: Showtime: Meet the People Behind the Scenes
  • Author: Kevin Sylvester
  • Publisher: Annick Press
  • Reviewer: Ann Norris
  • ISBN:1554514878
  • Genre: Careers, entertainment industry
  • Lexile: 1010

Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom and the Challenges of Bad Hair

Written by C. C. Payne

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“Let your light shine” is the piece of advice from Grandma Bernice that Lula does NOT want to follow.  She is bullied by her former BFF, Kali, and she is afraid to try out for the talent show.  She wants any friend beside Alan who is a confirmed geek.  She wants very badly to fit in and nothing she does brings her closer to that goal.  None of that matters to Grandma Bernice who brings love and joy to Lula’s life along with  a whole lot of instructions.  Lula doesn’t appreciate Grandma Bernice’s sayings until she dies unexpectedly.  Lula has a hole in her life that she doesn’t know how to fill.  Mama doesn’t have the time to do all that Grandma Bernice used to do.  Kali still attacks and the talent show looms.  She feels ready to explode.  When she least expects it, Lula feels that Grandma Bernice is with her, helping her to find a way to “let her light shine.”

Lula’s strong Southern voice takes center stage in this school story.  She puts in little asides by saying “Here’s a little tip for you…” mimicking the way Grandma Bernice gives advice in bite-sized pieces but with her own style.  The characters are lovingly drawn and uniquely individual.  Once Lula finds the courage to go to Kali’s house to give her Grandma Bernice’s last hand-made quilt, she has embraced her grandmother’s teachings and can face the world again.  Because the voice is so strong, this book is a good class read aloud.  Students could make a book trailer using Lula’s tips as a script for a literacy activity.  There are discussion questions on the author’s website: (

  • Lula BellTITLE: Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom and the Challenges of Bad Hair
  • AUTHOR: C. C. Payne
  • PUBLISHER: Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2012
  • REVIEWER: Risa Brown
  • EDITION: Hardcover, 266 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0-7614-6225-5
  • GENRE: Middle-grades fiction, school stories
  • LEXILE: 950, Reading level 5.6

Deviants: The Dust Chronicles

Written by Maureen McGowan

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Get ready for a fast-paced read through a well-thought out dystopian world. Glory, sixteen years old, is left alone in a harsh post-apocalyptic society, not only to fend for herself but also to take care of her crippled brother.

The book follows  the well established tradition of dystopian novels going all the way back to the 18th century, and maybe even earlier. The Brave New World, 1984, The Chrysalids, Fahrenheit 451The Giver are but a few of the novels that depict a society trying to cope with a world gone awry. In more recent memory we have The Hunger Games.

Maureen McGowan crafts a detailed world for her characters to live out their lives. Asteroid showers and volcanic eruptions have almost destroyed the earth. The population of this novel lives in the domed city of Haven. As in all dystopian novels there is the inside, in this case Haven, and the outside. But is inside a comfortable place? The inhabitants comprise the Management, living a life of luxury; the Employees, eking out a miserable existence; the parasites who do nothing; and the Deviants of the title, whose life is in danger. Discussion points can be many; for example, the rise in the number of dystopian novels, world-creation and the evolutionary path.

Brief descriptions paint the complete picture: “Impossible to believe that one family lived alone in the nearly 5000-square-foot space.” This in today’s McMansion world! There is an ease of comprehension.

Glory is a Deviant, her gift (?) that, if emotionally aroused, she can kill merely by making eye contact with another, be it rat or human. Her brother has a different Deviance, and is a parasite besides. In Haven’s harsh society he would probably be expunged. Glory hides him away from the authorities, scrambles to find food enough for two on rations for one. It is a hard world, and a cruel one. The threat of being thrown ‘outside’ where the Shredders roam, and the dust destroys is ever-present.

The story moves along briskly. There is friendship and betrayal, heroism and sacrifice; above all a feisty heroine who keeps us glued to the page, even though we fault her for her faulty decisions. A great read.

  • DeviantsTitle: Deviants: The Dust Chronicles
  • Author: Maureen McGowan
  • Publisher: Amazon Children’s Publishing
  • Reviewer: Anjali Amit
  • Hardback:   312 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-6121-83671
  • Genre: Novel
  • Lexile Score: 970
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