Princess Academy

Princess Academy is a well-written novel that can possibly fill in for young readers who want to read something like The Selection series by Kiera Cass, which is geared to young adults.

Chapter book, fiction
by Shannon Hale
Interest level: grades 4 through 7
4 out of 5 stars

It is quite common for students, seems to happen a lot in grade 4, to show interest in popular books that are written for young adults. School librarians work to provide appropriate reading material for young readers, and the reality is that some popular books contain material or situations that are too mature to be included in an elementary school library collection. I encourage these young readers to discuss the book they are interested in reading with their parents, and then I try to identify a book in the library collection that might be a similar read.

When several students showed interested in The Selection series by Kiera Cass, I set about to find an alternative for younger ages. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale is the book I recently read that I would recommend.

When it is announced that the Prince will select a bride from her small village, Miri is forced to leave behind her simple life in the quarry and enter the Princess Academy. There she faces a harsh and cruel academy mistress and must navigate the competition among the other girls. Will she learn enough to become the one chosen to be Princess, and is that even what she wants?

The story features intrigue, a little mysticism, and a budding romance as we watch Miri grow from a girl to a young woman. The power of reading and education also changes the life of the girls and the village. Hale has written strong characters and a mystical, yet believable setting.

The Voyagers series

The Voyagers series is full of action and likable characters. Not overly challenging, this would be a good series to recommend to students who want a a quick and enjoyable read.

Chapter book, science fiction
Interest level: grades 4 through 6
4 out of 5 stars

The Voyagers series consists of six books, each written by a different author. There are story threads that carry on throughout all of the books, and each book features adventures on a different planet. The story could be categorized as dystopian fiction for upper elementary readers. The eight main characters of the story, all under the age of 15, must travel to distant planets to obtain six elements needed to create an energy source that will save the inhabitants of earth, which is running out of fossil fuels.

I started reading this series because book one, Project Alpha was a 2017-2018 Young Hoosier Book Award nominee. D.J. McHale wrote the first book, and while he is popular with many readers, I felt the characters were rather two-dimensional and didn’t feel fully developed. I am happy to report that in subsequent books the characters were developed more and I was able to engage with them and wanted to follow their adventures to the end.

It was interesting to read a series that was written by a variety of authors. There were some authors whose writing I personally enjoyed more than others, and I feel that they all worked well together to tell further the plot.

I recommend this book for upper elementary readers who enjoy science fiction, or who are looking for adventure and excitement in a quicker read.

The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown

Mya Tibbs is a young lady with a huge personality who is facing a friendship crisis…sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between a friend and a bully.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest level: grades 3 through 5
YHBA 2017-2018 intermediate grade nominee
3 out of 5 stars

Mya Tibbs is a 4th grader who lives in Texas and loves the rodeo. Her idols are Annie Oakley and Cowgirl Claire. She wears cowboy boots to school, braids her hair to match the calendar, and has a best friend named Naomi. Or does she? Spirit Week Showdown is a story that focuses on friendships, gossip, and misunderstandings that can happen when people don’t really know each other.

Many parts of the story felt very real for characters this age. Mya and her friends struggle with wanting to be popular and with the changing nuances of friendships as new relationships develop. Topics of bullying and gossip are also a central part of the story.

I struggled somewhat with the way Mya deals with her actions as she comes to realize that Naomi is not the friend she thought she was. The reader understands that Mya is changing from a person who is concerned with popularity to someone who understands friendship, but in the story Mya herself never really apologizes to the people she has wronged. At one point she admits to making a big mistake, but then immediately starts whining about how she is now suffering because she can no longer take part in Spirit Week. To me, this did not display the character growth that I felt we were supposed to see in Mya.

Overall, Mya is an engaging character with loads of personality. The themes in the story — bullying, rumors, and friendship — are important topics for young readers to explore, and this story makes a good inroad to those topics.

Edge of Extinction series: The Ark Plan and Code Name Flood

The Edge of Extinction series is an exciting middle grade adventure that is a cross between Jurassic Park and The Hunger Games.

Chapter book, fiction, sci fi
2 book series: The Ark Plan and Code Name Flood
Interest level: grades 3 through 7
5 out of 5 stars

Warning: Do not begin reading book 1 of this series unless you have book 2 available and ready to go!

The Ark Plan is book one in the two-book Edge of Extinction series. The setting and characters are interesting, and the action-packed plot will engage all types of readers.

The setting of the Edge of Extinction series is in the future, when dinosaurs again roam the earth. Sky has spent her entire life in an underground compound because life topside is not habitable. One of the strengths of this series is that it is dystopian fiction for upper elementary and middle grade readers. Most dystopian fiction is geared toward high school readers, so it is great to have more in this genre that is appropriate for the younger crowd.

Sky Mundy is a 12-year-old girl who is strong, spunky, and has a snarky sense of humor. Her father mysteriously disappeared five years earlier, and her mother is not alive, so Sky relies heavily on her best friend Shawn. Shawn is more cautious than Sky, but he is great at supporting her. Sky is a strong female lead who has strong beliefs, but is willing to have those beliefs challenged. She doesn’t need to be protected by a male, she is certainly not a helpless girl, but she recognizes the strengths her friends have and that they are stronger together.

Events in the story have Sky and Shawn venturing topside. The plot is full of action and suspense, and there are tons of interaction with dinosaurs and bad guys with guns. This book keeps you hanging on the edge of your seat, and the plot is full of surprises.

Readers who like dinosaurs or dystopian fiction will enjoy The Ark Plan and Code Name Flood. The author originally wrote the story as one book, so beware that book one ends in a cliffhanger. I immediately began book two because I could not wait to see how the story continued and concluded!

My Diary from the Edge of the World

This is a very original story that combines fantasy and reality in a book about family, life, and death.

Chapter book, fiction, fantasy
Interest level: grades 4 through 7
YHBA 2017-2018 intermediate nominee
5 out of 5 stars

The strengths of this book lie in a very unique setting and a cast of characters who show a family in all of its good times and weaknesses.

The setting is a version of Earth with a twist. The world that the Lockwood family lives on has many of the features we know — towns, forests, Taco Bells, Maine, the Grand Canyon — but it’s a flat earth. And it is inhabited by every mythical, fantastical, or supernatural being you can think of. Dragons, sasquatch, mermaids, ghosts, giants, fairies, unicorns, and Medusa inhabit the US.

The story starts to unfold as we learn that Dark Clouds visit people and take them away when it is time for them to die. A Dark Cloud has come and is sitting outside the Lockwood home.

Gracie is the main character and narrator of the story. The story is told somewhat in diary form, but Gracie tells us near the beginning that she is going to try to make it sound more like a novel. so while each chapter begins with a new date, the text doesn’t read like stereotypical “Dear Diary” entries.

Gracie’s family consists of her older sister, younger brother, mother, and quirky father. The father is a meteorologist who loves science and physics, and often lives in his own brain. When the Dark Cloud shows up, the family knows that it has come for Sam, Gracie’s younger brother. Mr. Lockwood believes they can save Sam from the Dark Cloud by traveling to the edges of the world and then jumping off to the Extraordinary World, which we come to learn is the Earth we live in, without mythical creatures and Dark Clouds.

As the family undertakes this journey, they must learn a lot about themselves as individuals, but also who they are as a team. Is Mr. Lockwood crazy and grasping straw in his belief of an Extraordinary World? Will they be able to save Sam?

This is a longer novel, 419 pages, but it is full of suspense, action, and humor. Readers who enjoy fantasy might enjoy this book, but it is also about life, love and family, so reality fiction fans will enjoy it too.

A 4th grade student bought this book at the book fair, and then returned a few days later to buy an additional copy. She had enjoyed the book so much, consumed it in two days, and wanted an additional copy to share with her friends. I highly recommend My Diary from the Edge of the World.

My Diary from the Edge of the World
by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Scholastic, 2015
ISBN 978-1-338-04508-6

Save Me a Seat

Told in alternating points of view, this book offers several unique teaching points.

Chapter book, fiction, diversity
Interest Level: grades 4-6; Reading Level: 4.8
3 out of 5 stars

This book is told in alternating points of view between two fifth-grade boys: Ravi and Joe. Ravi and his family have just moved to America from Bangalore, India. Joe struggles in school and has Auditory Processing Disorder (ADP) which means he has “trouble listening” and attends therapy “to help my ears and my brain agree about what to listen to and what to tune out.” (p. 54)

At first the boys don’t seem to have much in common, but as they each tell their own stories, the readers are able to glimpse many connections they have before the boys in the story realize it themselves. For example, both boys love the whole class novel, Bud Not Buddy, they have doting mothers who take great pride in preparing their favorite foods, they are both outsiders in their class who struggle to communicate with others, and they are both being picked on by the class bully.

Teachers could read this story as a class read-aloud and find many unique topics that would be good for whole-class discussions:

*Both Ravi and Joe have trouble expressing themselves and communicating with peers. Joe because of his ADP is seen as different, and Ravi is misunderstood because of his accent and differences in culture.

*At first, Ravi’s teacher and classmates viewed him as unintelligent because he speaks with an accent.

*Joe’s ADP means he reacts different than his peers in loud situations.

*The format of the novel is each chapter is told in an alternating point of view.

The unique type of characters and alternating point of view are the strong points of Save My Seat. My one disappointment with the story are the stereotypical way the characters are portrayed. None of the characters display any depth outside of the typical role they were set up to play. Ravi is the smart Indian character who excels in math but is physical weak and unathletic. Joe is large and loves to eat. He is a pushover who never stands up for himself. Ravi’s grandparents live with their family and the grandmother constantly criticizes her daughter-in-law’s cooking.

The bully in the story is not original and every moment he is in the story he is doing nothing but tormenting Joe and Ravi. His character has no depth and exists only to antagonize the main characters. Teachers are oblivious to his constant bullying, such as when he hits Ravi with a fastball to the head when they were playing a game that was supposed to be underhand slow-pitch.

While I was personally turned off by the stereotyped character portrayals, their predictability could be something that young readers find relatable. Having a bully with no redeeming qualities provides a clear good guy/bad guy scenario and gives the reader a sense of justice at the end of the book.

Overall, there are good qualities to Save Me a Seat. I was hoping that the story would provide more of a glimpse into the intricate lives of a recent immigrant or a person with ADP, providing more depth and understanding about different cultures and conditions.

Save Me a Seat
by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Scholastic Press, 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-84660-8

The Princess and the Warrior

Duncan Tonatiuh crafts his own version of the origin story of the two volcanoes that are located just outside of Mexico City.

Picture book, folktale
Interest level: K-5; Reading level: 2.9
Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor, 2017
5 out of 5 stars

Outside of Mexico City there are two majestic volcanoes, Iztaccihautl and Popcatepetl. Duncan Tonatiuh tells the legend of their origin in a well-crafted picture book that pays tribute to the images found in the ancient Mixtec codices. In the Author’s Note in the back of the book, Tonatiuh outlines the research behind the creation of the book, and a bibliography is included.

The story focuses on the love between a beautiful and kind princess named Izta and a brave soldier named Popoca. Many suitors traveled from far away trying to woo Izta with expensive and rare gifts, but she was not interested in them. Even though she was a princess, she preferred to spend her time with people in the field, teaching them poetry.

Popoca comes to see her and promises to love her for who she is and to always stay by her side no matter what. They fall in love, but the king wants Popoca to prove himself worthy to marry his daughter. So Popoca goes off to battle an enemy tribe. As the enemy is about to be defeated, they hatch a plan to defeat Popoca’s spirit and send word to Izta that he has died in battle. Believing this lie, she drinks a potion and falls into a sleep that she cannot be awoken from.

When Popoca returns victorious, he is distraught to find his love could not wake up, so he carries her to the top of a mountain believing that the cool air will revive her. As he laid her on the mountaintop, he knelt beside her and refused to move, even when the snows came and covered them both.

In time, where once there was a princess with her true love by her side, two volcanoes emerged. One is known as Iztaccihuatl, or sleeping woman. The other one is known as Popocatepetl, or smoky mountain. Iztaccihuatl continues to sleep. But Popocateptl spews ashes and smoke from time to time, as if attempting to wake his sleeping princess.

Throughout the story, Tonatiuh has included some foreign words in the Nahuatl language, since that is the language that Popoca and Izta would have spoken. A glossary is in the back to provide translations.

This is a well-done origin story that should be included with any lesson on stories in the oral tradition. Tonatiuh’s attention to detail with regard to the illustrations and language make this book stand above others.

The Princess and the Warrior
by Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4197-2130-4