Not If I Save You First

Fans of survival and adventure stories will love Not If I Save You First. Throw in humor and a little first-love-romance and this book hits a home run for me!

Chapter book, fiction
Interest level: middle grade and up
5 out of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Ally Carter’s books! She always has strong female main characters, male characters that respect strong women, original plots, humor, adventure, and romance. Her latest work, Not If I Save You First includes all of these features and, as an additional bonus, it is set in the Alaskan wilderness. This is a stand-alone novel.

Madeleine Rose Manchester, aka Mad Dog, is the spunky and very capable main character. The book opens six years earlier, when Maddie was a talkative 10-year-old and her father was the head of the Secret Service. Maddie’s best friend is Logan, the son of the president of the United States, and they are inseparable. When Maddie’s father is seriously injured in the line of duty, he resigns his position and moves Maddie to the wilderness of Alaska where there is no internet or phones and a small one-room cabin becomes their home.

Six years later, Maddie is a young woman who knows how to throw a hatchet, start a fire, and survive in Alaska on her own. She is also completely aware of the importance of lip balm, painted nails, and hair ties. Maddie is a wonderful mix of abilities and doesn’t fit into any stereotypical image of girls. She is a woman of the 21st century who is fully capable of doing whatever she wants.

Logan is sent to Alaska because he has been sneaking away from his security detail and acting up in DC. His parents believe roughing it in Alaska will help him learn to shoulder responsibility. For the past six years, Maddie has been writing letters to Logan that he never answered. She is both hurt and angry and is less than thrilled by his arrival.

After Maddie’s father is called away to deliver supplies before a big storm hits, a terrorist shows up and abducts Logan. It is up to Maddie to save him. The rest of the story is full of the excitement and adventure as Maddie and Logan struggle to stay alive in the Alaskan wilderness, escape the assailant, and work through the hurt feelings that developed after six years apart.

Carter injects humor and romance into a plot filled with adventure and survival. The relationship between characters is well developed. The story is unique and full of surprises. Fans of Carter’s other books will definitely enjoy Not If I Save You First. There is a mention of the Blackthorn Academy and obviously, Maddie would make an excellent Gallagher Girl!

Book Scavenger

This book is such fun with all of the puzzles and ciphers. It’s also a great story about friendship, family, and love of literature.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest level: grades 4 and up
YHBA 2017-2018 intermediate nominee
5 out of 5 stars

Emily and her family has just moved to San Francisco. Emily’s parents have a goal of living in all 50 states, so while Emily is used to moving constantly and usually without any notice, she is not used to making friends. She figures why bother getting attached, since she won’t be staying anywhere.

So it is very different for her when she discovers that the boy who lives upstairs, James, shares her love of puzzles. Emily and James quickly become friends and Emily introduces James to her favorite pastime — playing the Book Scavenger game. Book Scavenger is an online game where participants hide books and then post clues and map locations for others players. The creator of the game, Garrison Griswold, lives in San Francisco, so Emily is thrilled to move to this new city.

The story begins with Garrison Griswold being attacked and a book he was going to use to begin a new scavenger game gets lost. As Griswold lies unconscious in the hospital, Emily and James discover the book, recognize it as one of Griswold’s puzzles, and are determined to solve it. So are the bad guys, which sets up tension as they are searching for the the children they know have the book.

There are similarities to the Mr. Lemoncello books by Chris Grabenstein, with puzzles and ciphers being scattered throughout the story. What makes Book Scavenger a story with depth are the growing friendships, family issues, and historical details that Jennifer Chambliss Bertman has incorporated.

Emily struggles to understand and navigate the dynamics of one of her first good friends ever. She and James have a falling out that makes her examine who she is and what her priorities are. She also confronts her brother who is no longer as close to her as he once was, and ultimately she lets her parents know how she feels about the constant moving. Emily really grows as a character, and many of her struggles can make the reader think about their own actions and feelings.

Bertman has included a lot of information about San Francisco, as well as historical writers, including Edgar Allen Poe. The information is presented in a way that is authentic to the story and educational at the same time.

The strong characters and plot, as well as the fascinating world of ciphers and puzzles, make this a well-written story that will be popular with many young readers.

The Book Scavenger game is also a real online game. You can participate by going to

Ada’s violin: the story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay

This is an amazing story about a young group of magicians who discovered compassion, creativity, and music among the trash in a landfill in Paraguay.

Picture book, non-fiction, informational
Interest level: K-5; Reading level: 4.0
5 out of 5 stars

Ada’s Violin is an absolutely amazing story of a young girl who lives in Cateura, Paraguay. Her town is the main garbage dump for the capital city of Asuncion, and her family works in the landfill, picking through the trash and hauling away items that can be recycled and sold.

For the youth of Cateura, there is not much to do so gangs and fighting are a way of life. Until Favio Chavez comes to town and offers to teach the children to play music. There are not enough instruments to go around, so he got the people in the community to help him make instruments out of trash they could recycle from the landfill.

Word of this amazing Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay began to spread, and the children were invited to travel all over to play. They have performed in concerts around the world, and even opened for Metallica.

Sally Wern Comport’s collage illustrations perfectly fit the tone and style of the book.

The back of the book contains an Author’s Note with more details about the Recycled Orchestra, a photo, and sources for more information.

Book trailer:

Ada’s Violin: The story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
by Susan Hood; illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 9781481430951

Blue Sky White Stars

Sarvinder Naberhaus and Kadir Nelson have created a picture book that conveys a feeling of strong patriotism and pride in the diverse people and landscapes that make the United States a great country.

Picture book
Interest level: All ages
5 out of 5 stars

Two things come together to make this picture book so amazing — sparse, well-chosen text and absolutely stunning illustrations by one of the best illustrators alive today. Sarvinder Naberhaus selects powerful words to make patriotic statements that apply to both the flag, a symbol, and the majestic landscapes and diverse people that make up the United States. The same words describe both.
Each two-page spread contains an image that focuses on the flag, paired with either a landscape or person who conveys the same ideal. “Red Rows” is illustrated by a row of red-leaved trees, set beside a close-up of the red stripes of the flag. “All American” applies to a stadium hosting a baseball game, as wel as an African-American war veteran sitting on the porch with his grandson listening to the game on a portable radio while eating Cracker Jacks.
Nelson’s photorealistic oil paintings showcase beautiful landscapes, but his forte is depicting people. This book is full of expressive illustrations featuring diverse faces. The fact that this patriotic and inspiring book contains such a variety of skin tones, hair, and eye colors reminds us to celebrate the ethnic diversity that makes up our country.

Notes from the author and illustrator are included in the back of the book, and additional background material about the flag and phrases Naberhaus chose to include can be found on the author’s website:

Be sure to check out the back cover of the book. The front cover shows a group of Americans watching a firework show in rapt fascination. I was expecting the back cover to be more of the same, but instead it shows the crowd from the back, as if the reader has joined the scene.

Blue Sky White Stars
by Sarvinder Naberhaus; illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Gone Camping

This should be a must-have book for anyone who teaches poetry writing at the elementary or middle school level.

Novel in verse, fiction, poetry
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 2.5
5 out of 5 stars

Sam and Lucy, the siblings we originally met in Tamera Wissinger’s first book, Gone Fishing are looking forward to a family camping trip. Dad wakes up with a horrible cold and needs Mom to take care of him, so Grandpa gamely steps up and takes Sam and Lucy.
Wissinger narrates Sam and Lucy’s story using short poems. Some poems are told from Sam’s point of view and others are from Lucy. Each poem fits on a page or two and identifies whose voice is featured at the top. Gone Camping is more Lucy’s story, while previously Gone Fishing was Sam’s story.
All is good during the day, but Lucy worries about the creatures and critters who might visit their tent once the sun goes down. Lucy’s anxiety is deftly told by poems titled “The Walls of our Tent” and “Sleeping Bag Charm,” where through a charm poem, Lucy tries to ensure her sleeping bag will be a safe haven.
Wissinger’s deft poetry is accompanied by the charming illustrations of Matthew Cordell. His pen and ink illustrations are whimsical and fun and match the tone of the poems perfectly. I especially love how Cordell indicates the sun has set by shading the background of the night poems in gray. When the page turns white again, we know that Lucy has made it through the night.

Both Gone Fishing and Gone Camping are excellent stories that are told in verse. These books would both make excellent mentor texts for poetry units. The short poems are accessible to young writers and illustrate some of the many styles that poems can appear in. Wissinger also includes information about various poetry techniques in the back.

Gone Camping: a novel in verse
by Tamera Will Wissinger; illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
ISBN 978-0-544-63873-0

The Best Man

Richard Peck is a master storyteller who delivers laughs, tears, and a full cast of well-developed characters who can all teach us about becoming the best people we can be.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest Level: 4-7; Reading Level: 4.1
Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Winner 2017: Fiction & Poetry
5 out of 5 stars

Richard Peck is truly an amazing creator of stories. His characters are well-developed and he doesn’t require huge actions or majestic scenarios to create a storyline that compels you to keep reading. The Best Man is the story of Archer Magill. Most of the story takes place during his 5th and 6th-grade years at school, where we see Archer start to really notice the world around him.

Archer has three very important men in his life — his grandfather, father, and Uncle Paul. Each of these men, in different ways, contributes to Archer’s understanding of life and development of who he is as a person. Most of the story takes place in school, but school and home life intersect throughout the story.

I love the tone of Richard Peck’s writing. I imagine in real life that he has a very sarcastic sense of humor and his dry wit makes for many laugh out loud moments in this story. Like life though, the laughter is balanced by moments of insight as well as sadness. One of the best ways to describe it is to say this book feels very real.

Archer confronts bullying and homophobia during the story. Peck has his main character navigate these harmful scenes with openness and an insightful manner that encourages readers to not slap labels or definitions on people, but to celebrate everyone’s right to happiness and acceptance.

At 232 pages, the book is a nice length for a full-class read-aloud, and the humor and cast or characters will engage students. I highly recommend this book for the wonderful story, strength of characters, humor, inclusion of diversity, and willingness to address homosexuality.

The Best Man
by Richard Peck
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016

BIG CAT, little cat

A deceptively simple book that tackles the short life span of pets.

Picture book
Interest Level: Pre-K through grade 3; Reading Level: 2.0
5 out of 5 stars

Using mostly black and white line illustrations, Elisha Cooper has crafted a beautiful story that perfectly portrays cats and the joy and meaning they bring to our lives. The story begins with a white cat enjoying life as an only pet. One day a black kitten joins the family, and the big cat shows the kitten what to do — “When to eat, when to drink, where to go, how to be, when to rest.”
Time passes and the reader sees the black kitten grow bigger than the white cat, and then watches as the white cat ages. Cooper does not specifically address that the old cat died, but states that one day he left the house and “didn’t come back.” I think the death of the cat is handled very well. The next page shows the black cat sitting all alone and states, “And that was hard.”

Cooper doesn’t dwell on the death of the pet and friend, but does validate the feelings of sorrow and loss that happen. The story is perfect for young children with pets. They need to understand that our beloved pets do not live as long as humans do and that death and grief are part of life. Cooper provides a book that will not overwhelm young readers, yet he doesn’t whitewash the facts and doesn’t talk down to young children.

The story ends on a happy note as the family gets another kitten and the black cat now assumes the role of “big cat.”
The illustrations manage to be very simple and expressive at the same time. Like the story itself, they balance the line between providing the reader with enough information and not overwhelming the text.

The entire story is very well-done!

Big Cat, Little Cat
by Elisha Cooper
Roaring Book Press, 2017
ISBN 978-1-62672-371-9