Mechanica (Betsy Cornwell)

28 Jan

Happy 2016, Squinks! I can’t wait to hear about all the lovely books you read over the past month. Let me get you started with Betsy Cornwell’s Mechanica

 

Mechanica 

I need a second book! This story was just not enough … I want to know more! Mechanica will appeal to many readers, especially fairy-tale lovers like me. Now, hang on. I know some of you are not into retellings, which may be why you will pass up this book, but let me tell you why this version of “Cinderella” works.

Squinklethoughts1. I like happy endings. I like dénouements that tie loose ends tightly to lead into satisfying conclusions. I like knowing that Murdoch, Sherlock, and Sherlock are (usually) going to solve their cases by the time the episode is over and that a happily-ever-after ending awaits me. I feel free. I can enjoy unfettered catharsis until I get to the end of the ride, knowing that everything will be okay. I knew that unless this “Cinderella” was faithful to the Perrault or Grimm publications, I would find a happy resolution, so I had no hesitation filling up my coffee mug and picking up Mechanica.

2. I love strong female characters, and Nicolette Lampton is just that. But she’s not as unrealistic as some of her contemporaries – though she is just as unique and unlikely as they are. Instead of wielding swords and other weaponry, she uses her skills at inventing and innovating to improve not only her life but those of people around her. She is kind and empathetic, worrying about how her words affect others, and despite her disdain for doing the biddings of the Steps, she does her job with sincerity anyway. I think what I really loved most about Nicolette is her loyalty to Mr. Candery, her family’s erstwhile servant and friend. Her devastation at being separated from him shows me the very best of both her character and the human condition.

3. You’ll enjoy the banter between Caro and Fin. You’ll love, even more, the air of mystery that surrounds their characters, especially considering they take to Nicolette quite quickly. The word “soupçon” came to mind while I was reading their first few meetings.

4. My favourite character in the entire book is Jules, the loyal mechanical horse built by Nicolette’s mother and treasured by Nicolette herself. He ranks up there for me, along with the likes of other noble animals in literature like Charlotte, Stuart Little, and Hedwig.

5. Okay, one thing I’m still not quite sure of, in terms of how I feel, is the ending. Remember when I said I like happy endings? Well, there is a happy ending here, but it didn’t quite sweep me off my feet. I guess it’s because I had assumed this would be the only book, so I really wanted lilies to fall from the sky. However, the ending is so different and unexpected that I have to applaud Cornwell for completely shocking me with it. It’s a bold choice, and I know many will agree with it, even if it’s not my jolt of java.

6. If there were no sequel to Mechanica, I’d still be okay with the novel, and I do highly recommend it. The story is intriguing, the prose is beautiful, and the characters are endearing (well, except for the Steps).  Find a rather short, but delightful, excerpt to read online here to get you started on the adventure.

7. But I really, really hope there is a follow-up because Cornwell’s reimagined world is a place I’d love to visit again.

8. ** Update AFTER I had typed up the original review: Click here for some awesome Mechanica news! **

 

4.5 Squinkles

 

Betsy Cornwell’s Online Corners
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Thank you, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for sending me a copy of Mechanica in exchange for an honest review.

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

George (Alex Gino)

6 Nov

This book gets so many things right, but I’m finding it difficult to talk about all the things I liked without revealing the plot of the story because I want this story to open itself for you on its own – without me or anyone else peeling away at the layers for you.

 

George 

Squinklethoughts

1. From the very opening, the narration refers to George as “herself” and “she”, which is just brilliant. Really, the rest of the novel sensitively explores the concept of transgenderism, which is discreetly, confidently, and eloquently stated in the first paragraph.

2. We’ve discussed the concept of names, terms, and labels in class many times, and I stalwartly believe that labels are not always bad. I can’t lecture every day about the importance of using varied language, employing synonyms, and exploring nuances between words, and then spout about the wrongness of labels. In our classroom, the caveat has always been to come from a place of respect. This is something I appreciate in Gino’s storytelling because the story is, on one level, about George being a girl that’s called a boy, but it’s about much more (although, of course, for George, this is something she thinks about a lot); it’s about finding security in one’s own skin. We can’t help how others might label us, but we can absolutely choose how much power we want to give them. We don’t have to accept the labels others place on us.

3. Kelly is a wonderful person, a reliable friend, and a realistic fourth grader. She doesn’t blindly accept what George tells her, which would have been too simplistic and too convenient, but she does explain to her best friend why she reacts the way she does. If we were to read about George’s life 5 or even 10 years after this story ends, I know Kelly will still be there. Through her character, Gino reinforces my belief that one person can make a difference in the life of someone else. I hope that you all have or find your own Kellys.

4. George’s brother, Scott, reminds me of Seyton in Macbeth, who has just a handful of lines, but is the one who announces the significant news of Lady Macbeth’s death. Scott honestly highlights an important notion about how we sometimes think of transgender people when he tells George, “That’s more than being just gay.” He’s not saying it to be mean or insensitive or even ignorant. This is Scott’s way of trying to sort through his own thoughts and feelings about a reality that – if you count back to the time of australopithecus – is only now in its infancy in terms of being acknowledged and discussed. For many children and adults alike, transgenderism is hard to understand. This is why children and adults alike should read this book. Gino doesn’t shy away from this notion or skate over it as if it’s inconsequential; rather, George serves as the beginning of an important conversation.

5. George is a story that tackles a very sensitive, controversial, inherently personal but undeniably public issue. But this is exactly what we need, and Gino writes the story for exactly the right audience. There are many sources of information and assistance available to young adults in high school and beyond, but I think the conversation should begin much younger … at the moment when people start to wonder about things. If we wait until we’ve already decided to squash this important bit of ourselves out of fear or embarrassment, if we wait until we’ve already built up resentment towards people for not understanding our situation because we never let them in, if we wait until we have alienated ourselves from those who love us and who would’ve welcomed us with open arms had we given them a chance, we’ve deprived ourselves of years of happiness. Why should we deny that very essential part of ourselves, which doesn’t even hurt anyone, the chance to be happy? Or even just to exist?

6. There’s a very simple but moving line in the book where Scott looks at his brother “as if his sibling made sense to him for the first time”. This, to me, is the very essence of agape. If Charlotte had witnessed it, she would’ve smiled, too.

7. I read this book during the summer, but I haven’t had the chance to post my review of it until now. But I’m glad of the way the timing happened. A couple of days ago, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was sworn into office. When a reporter asked him why it was so important to have a gender-balanced cabinet, his pith was like the bat flip heard ‘round the world: “Because it’s 2015.”

8. Why do we need Alex Gino’s book about transgender children? Because it’s 2015.

 

4.5 Squinkles 

Alex Gino’s Online Corners
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Thank you, Scholastic, for sending me a copy of George in exchange for an honest review.

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

The Last Kids on Earth (Max Brallier)

29 Oct

Squinks, just in time for Halloween, I’ve got a title to die for (mwahaha). Max Brallier’s The Last Kids on Earth is full of terrifying fun and adventure that’s perfect for this time of year. Oh, and there are zombies.

 

Last Kids On Earth

 

Squinklethoughts1. Okay, so zombies aren’t really my thing. And no, I don’t watch The Walking Dead, but I know many of YOU like it, which is why I gave it a whirl. For someone who’s not into these kinds of stories, I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed it.

2. Brallier is terrifically funny. The humour starts right off the bat with the first page, and it continues all throughout the story. You’ll love Jack Sullivan’s voice, – I can certainly hear many of you in him – for he’s full of amusing one-liners and witty observations.

3. Speaking of Jack, I love how cautiously optimistic he is. I mean, it IS rather a feat to be dealing with monsters and zombies taking over the town. Jack knows where his strengths lie, although he does have some laugh-out-loud moments of delusions (“I’m a zombie-fighting, monster-slaying, tornado of cool … And I will Rescue June Del Toro and complete the ULTIMATE Feat of Apocalyptic Success!”), and his plans to rescue June are not always completely thought out. He is fiercely loyal to his best friend, Quint, though, and for that, he’s a hero in my books.

 

Last Kids on Earth - Jack Sullivan 

4. I’m sure many of you will find a lot to like in Jack and Quint’s friendship. They work well together despite being very different. For one thing, Quint is always tinkering with things and using science to solve problems, while Jack is more about bat swinging and monster jumping. This combination serves them well when they’re two of the last kids on Earth.

5. I’m also happy that June Del Toro is a lovely damsel not in distress. And I’ve always been used to (and enjoyed) being the only girl in a group of boys, so that bit was particularly interesting to me. June’s feisty, but she’s pretty cool to Jack, so I find her a welcome addition to the growing posse that includes Dirk, an erstwhile-bully-turned-friend.

 

Last Kids on Earth - June Del Toro 

6. For those of you who love to draw, I’m sure you’ll find great inspiration in Douglas Holgate’s illustrations. They really add spirit to the story – in fact, much of the tale is told through the images, so not only do the drawings enhance the tale, they are actually vital parts of the plot as well. This book is like part graphic novel, which really adds to its appeal. I particularly like the many faces of Blarg. And I have to admit – Rover is rather cute.

7. What can I say about this book that I didn’t like? Well, except for the fact that there are monsters and zombies, and I now wonder what’s lurking outside my window every time I turn off the lights, not much. This may not have been my cup of tea, but I’m positive many of you will enjoy it nonetheless. I’d give it just under 4 stars … like 3.87, maybe. ‘Cause, as I mentioned, monsters and zombies.

 

4 Squinkles 

Max Brallier’s Online Corners
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Douglas Holgate’s Online Corners
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Thank you, Penguin Canada, for sending me a copy of The Last Kids on Earth in exchange for an honest review.

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile (Marcia Wells)

14 Oct

I was very happy to discover the Eddie Red Undercover series last year, and after reading it with some of my Squinks this past month, I’m happy to tell you that they loved it as well.

 

Eddie Red - Mystery on Museum Mile

 

Eddie Lonnrot is in grade 6 at a private school that he loves to attend. But financial troubles are threatening his attendance for the next school year. How will he find enough money to pay for tuition? Luckily (or maybe not), a situation presents itself in the form of helping to catch a mastermind art thief and his cohorts that have the NYPD stumped. And luckily (though not for the thief), Eddie has a photographic memory, which is just what the detectives need to nail the Picasso gang. With a little bit of reluctant acceptance from his parents and a lot of support from his best friend, Jonah, Eddie Red is born.

Squinklethoughts1. When I read books like Eddie Red Undercover, I always find myself lamenting over the fact that I didn’t have these books to entertain me while I was growing up. I would have loved to have immersed myself in Mystery on Museum Mile if for nothing else but that it was really fun and easy to read.

2. Eddie’s a great character who knows his place. He celebrates his skills, but he knows his shortcomings. He handles Jonah and his sometimes-wacky ways, which I give him a lot of credit for – I definitely do not have the same kind of patience he has. I wasn’t particularly fond of that one scene where he begs his mom to let him work with the NYPD, but I could see how a sixth-grader could do it. I also like that he celebrates his love of knowledge. Eddie likes many of the things that I do, including solving puzzles, looking at maps, and learning languages, which endears me to him. And the fact that he draws so well when I draw so NOT well only makes me applaud him more.

3. I don’t know anyone (adult or child) who doesn’t want to someday visit New York City or who didn’t enjoy his or her trip there. I, for one, really love it when I get the chance to explore the Big Apple because it just doesn’t run out of things to see and do and experience. I liked learning about Fifth Avenue and the various museums on Museum Mile, including the Neue Galerie, which I hear about far less often than the Guggenheim or MOMA.

 

Eddie Red - 5th Ave

 

4. The illustrations in this book are fantastic. I’m really really terrible at drawing, so I always appreciate artists who can draw faces and people without requiring divine intervention of some sort. The only thing I wish is for there to have been more of a variation of pictures. Although there were a few other things, most of the illustrations were of people. At some point, it’d be nice to see what else Eddie sees to really enhance my appreciation of the story.  All that aside, Marcos Calo does a truly phenomenal job.  I encourage you to look at his other works.

5. Wells is funny. The one-liners that Eddie has, especially in reaction to Detective Bovano, are just chortle-chortle funny, which is my kind of humour. It wasn’t only once or twice that I heard giggles from a student reading this book because he had just read another one of Eddie’s gems about Bovano warming up to him.

6. One of my Squinks wants to know what happens to Detective Bovano at the end of the story. We’d like to think that he’ll pop up every once in a while in the other books – maybe if Eddie visits a spaghetti place or something. We had fun coming up with names of these pasta restaurants. “Sauce Boss” and “Meatballs for Mobster Nappers” were at the top of our list.

7. The next two books, Mystery in Mayan Mexico (April 2015) and Doom at Grant’s Tomb (April 2016), will definitely find a home in our school library.

 

Eddie Red - 2nd and 3rd

 

8. Eddie Red is über cool.  You should definitely check him out.

 

4 Squinkles

 

Marcia Wells’ Online Corners
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Thank you, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for sending me a copy of Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile in exchange for an honest review.

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

The Blackthorn Key (Kevin Sands)

7 Oct

I was so pleased to receive a couple of copies of the Blackthorn Key at a blogger event this summer. In fact, the very Monday after the meet-up, I began teaching it because I had already finished reading it, and I knew I just had to share.

 

Blackthorn Key - Poster

 

If you’ve been searching for a book with mystery, heart, and a little bit of history, this is the perfect book for you. I’m happy to say that my students loved this book – and they were very engaged in the culminating tasks I had them do, including a hashtag image (below) and book poster (above). It was the perfect way to end summer school. And now, well, there’s a waitlist for our school copies.

Squinklethoughts

1. I’ve found historical fiction to be hit or miss with younger students, so I was happy that the historical aspect of this novel was not a deterrent for my kids. Personally, I LOVE history and tying dates and events together, so I really enjoyed learning about Oak Apple Day. It became even more interesting to correlate the real feast days with the fictional events to find themes in Sands’ story.

Blackthorn Key - Hashtags

2. I’ve got an unusual affinity for chemistry. Unusual only because I teach humanities and social sciences, and, oh yeah, I hate math. But I LOVE chemistry, so I was particularly drawn to the formulae and concoctions scattered throughout the chapters. And “oil of vitriol” just sounds so old fashioned. I love it! (It also led to a great discussion on vitriolic diatribes …)

3. Speaking of chapters, there are many in this story, and none are too long. It’s got nothing to do with attention span; I think stories are much more exciting with shorter (but more) chapters. It might have to do with the fact that I flip the pages more often.

4. I really admire Christopher’s relationships with both Tom and Master Benedict. The fact that he is loved and respected by both a peer and a superior says a lot about his character, and the banter between the two boys, which only happens when two people are as close as they are, is funny and even enviable.

Blackthorn Key - Quotes 2

5. Christopher is honourable and loyal. He will defend and champion his best friend and master at all costs, and his fealty to them drives many of his choices throughout the novel. He is also exceedingly brave and inquisitive – characteristics that anyone would be lucky to possess. And though his inquisitiveness is what sometimes gets him into trouble, I’d argue that they inform his bravery as well.

Blackthorn Key - Quotes 0

6. I love codes and solving puzzles. Our class had a grand old time trying to solve the clues before reading the answers. It was also a great stepping stone to the various games we ended up playing in class.

Blackthorn Key - Quotes 1

7. There are a great many things that my students and I were able to discuss from this story, including solutions, planets, feast days, history. I can’t help but think that Sands had cross-curricular activities in mind when he wrote it. I love books that can be appreciated across the curricula, so that’s part of what puts this book at the top of my suggestions list. I think this story can be appealing to a wide range of kids.

8. This book seems to be a standalone – and it works well as it is – but my kids and I still wonder what happens after the last chapter. That’s always a sign of a great book.

* Teachers/parents, if you’d like a copy of the chapter-by-chapter reading questions I gave to my students, feel free to email me!

 

4.5 Squinkles

 

Kevin Sands’ Online Corners
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Thank you, Simon and Schuster Canada, for giving me a copy of the Blackthorn Key in exchange for an honest review.

All Squinklethoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

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