Welcome to My Book Bag!

I'm Susan Aikens. Welcome to my blog about kids' books, My Book Bag. I'm one of those people who is always "selling" books to friends, relatives, and even to strangers in bookstores who mistake me for an employee. This blog is an extension of that. Here you'll find impartial reviews of new and time-tested fiction and non-fiction books for kids, ages 6 through teen. I'll also let you know about promising new authors and emerging trends in children's literature. Hopefully, you'll find these reviews helpful as you select titles for your child, your classroom, or yourself.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

New Carl Hiaasen book for kids



Chomp by Carl Hiaasen
Random House Children's Books, $16.99, isbn 978-0-375-86842-9, release date 3/27/12.  Best for ages 8-12

How could you not want to read this book!  For Chomp, as with 3 previous Carl Hiaasen kids' books (Hoot, Flush, and Scat), Random House has created a bright, iconic cover with tons of kid appeal. The single word title, bright yellow cover, & graphic alligator image will lure kids to explore the thrilling story within.

Of course, the contents have to live up to a great cover.  Be assured that Carl Hiaasen always delivers an exciting, fast-paced story full of great characters and a unique sense of place.  Hoot, Flush, and Scat are set in Florida and focus on the environmental issues affecting that state; from off-shore dumping to urban sprawl. It is evident in every word that Hiaasen loves Florida and the animals and people who live there.  Florida has been facing very tough economic times and Hiaasen added that element to Chomp to better reflect the lives of his young readers. 

Chomp is the story of young Wahoo Cray and his dad, Mickey Cray, an exotic animal wrangler who provides snakes, alligators, and other animals for TV shows and movies.  The Cray family is in danger of losing their home and their animals because they are $8000 behind on their mortgage. While Mrs. Cray takes a job in China  teaching Mandarin to American executives, Wahoo and Mickey reluctantly accept a job with a survivalist TV show called Expedition Survival.  The arrogant and foolish star of the show, Derek Badger, repeatedly ignores Mickey's and Wahoo's warnings about handling their animals, thus putting himself and others in danger.  Before long, the Crays, Wahoo's new friend Tuna, and the TV crew are searching the Everglades for a lost and injured Derek Badger. 

There is lots of exciting stuff in Chomp including animal attacks, snake handling, & air boat rides through the Everglades. Hiaasen also packs in lots of facts about animals, ecology, and science; kids will learn about snake behavior and the problem of exotic animals like iguanas and Burmese pythons being released into the wild in Florida.  Yet Hiaasen never forgets the emotional heart of his story. In one poignant scene, Wahoo's friend Tuna, who sports a black eye given to her by her father, tells Wahoo how her family lives in an RV in a Walmart parking lot.  Her family has already lost their home. The same could happen to the Crays if Wahoo and Mickey give up the job with Expedition Survival.  Wahoo frets over whether to call the police to report Tuna's injuries and whether or not it is better for Tuna to live with an abusive parent or to enter foster care.

I've been a Hiaasen fan for years, first reading his adult mysteries and then falling in love with Hoot, his first kids' novel for which he won a Newbery Honor award. Middle grade boys and girls will relate to Wahoo and Tuna and despise the ignorance and fakery of Derek Badger.  I strongly recommend Chomp, as well as Hiaasen's other middle grade novels. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I love this book!!!


Fred Stays with Me! by Nancy Coffelt, illustrated by Tricia Tusa, $16.99, published by Hachette Book Group. Best for ages 3-6.

Fred Stays with Me is a picture book about a little girl, her dog, and her parents who share custody.  This is a tough subject to write about and it isn't appropriate for, or even intended for, every family.  However, there are many children and parents looking for comforting stories to help them deal with the challenges of shared custody.  As a single parent, this story's underlying message of consistency, understanding, and empowerment deeply resonated with me.

In Fred Stays with Me, a little girl casually tells the reader that sometimes she lives with Mom and sometimes with Dad.  She never mentions the reasons why she travels between her homes. The word "divorce" is never used in the book, nor is the word "visit".  Whether Mom and Dad were divorced, separated, or never married is irrelevant; she just knows that she lives at two homes.  She goes on to describe the differences between her two houses; she has a bunk bed at Dad's and a single bed at Mom's.

The things that stay the same in her life are school, friends, and Fred, her beloved dog. No matter where she stays, Fred sleeps on the floor beside her bed. Of course, Fred is not always a good dog and he causes problems at both parents' houses. He barks too much and gets into all kinds of mischief. When Fred's antics make him unwelcome at both houses, the little girl must pointedly reminds her parents that Fred is her dog and that he stays with her.  To Mom's and Dad's credit, they decide to better train Fred to behave.

Everything about this simple story appealed to me. It is touching and funny with a subtle message about how families must adapt to change and the importance of stability and consistency. This little girl knows she is loved; she obviously feels safe and comfortable reminding her parents of her feelings and helping them to fix Fred's bad behavior problem. She actively participates in the plan to train Fred. 

Nancy Coffelt's concise text is limited to a sentence or two on each page so it can be read to even the youngest children.  Tricia Tusa's cartoon-like illustrations perfectly capture the love and devotion between Fred and his young mistress and Fred's penchant for trouble.  My favorite page is where Fred looks up, with goofy, floppy-eared joy, after he's emptied Dad's sock drawer.  As a dog owner, I am quite familiar with that look.

Of course, not all young children have dogs, but they do need stability, patience, and room to voice their feelings.  As a bookseller, I was often asked for books explaining specific issues to kids.  The death of a family member, the birth of a sibling, and divorce were the most often requested topics.  Fred Stays with Me! is a lovely story for parents looking to take some of the scary out of shared custody, whatever the cause.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Too much YA...

Just reread my posts so far & I seriously need to lighten up.  I promise that the next book I review will be for a younger audience & will be of a less fantastic & depressing tone

Partials by Dan Wells, Harpercollins, 2/28/12


Partials, by Dan Wells, Harpercollins, $17.99, due 2/28/12. Best suited for ages 14+.

Although I haven't posted recently due to my frantic job search efforts, I have been reading several YA & middle grade fiction titles.  Last week, I finished reading the ARC of Partials by Dan Wells (Harpercollins, 2/28/12), a dystopian thriller with a unique premise.  I was intrigued as soon as I saw the fantastic cover image & read the plot summary.

Partials is set in 2076, eleven years after humanity has been ravaged by war with the Partials, super-human clone warriors who turned on their human creators. During the war, the Partials released the RM virus.  Since then, all human babies die a few hours after they are born.  The small, surviving human population is desperate to develop immunity to the virus to prevent the eventual extinction of humanity.  In a world without children, all women & girls over the age of 17 are required by law to get pregnant as often as possible to increase the chances of having a baby immune to the RM virus.  Kira, the novel's protagonist, is a 16-year-old medic who vows to find a cure before she is required to get pregnant.   

While I enjoyed Partials (I read most of it while sitting in a hotel room in Columbus),  I made the inevitable comparisons with Hunger Games & The Giver, both of  which provide more complete depictions of post-apocalyptic societies.  I found many of the adults in Partials one-dimensional.  As authority figures, they practically beg the teen protagonists to rebel. At almost 500 pages, the author had plenty of time to develop his story, yet I found several aspects rushed or under-developed. When Kira decides to cure RM, she goes out to capture a Partial for study.  I kept wondering at the ease with which she accomplished this.  Her Partial, Samm, doesn't seem very warrior-like.  Kira's relationships with her friends, particularly her boyfriend Marcus, lack depth & emotion. Where are Peeta & Gale when you need them?

On the positive side, Partials is fast-paced & action-packed, although quite violent. There's no shortage of explosions or confrontations. Kira's dread of getting older & having to get pregnant to satisfy the Hope Act permeates the story.  The cliff-hanger ending & the unresolved questions about Kira's past perfectly set up the story for the next installment.  If you're looking for a good dystopian read while waiting for the Hunger Games movie, you may enjoy Partials.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

iBoy by Kevin Brooks


Chickenhouse, an imprint of Scholastic Inc
$17.99 cloth, due 11/11.  Young adult, intended for ages 14-18.

I've been a huge Kevin Brooks fan ever since I read his first novel, Martyn Pig.  His books are not for everyone; his teen characters are often caught in dark, violent, & morally ambiguous situations. iBoy, which is due to release in November, is definitely for the older teen or young adult as it deals with murder, rape, & gang violence.   That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book which should be subtitled, "With great power comes great responsibility".  Yes, that is a Spider Man reference.

In iBoy, a 16- year-old boy named Tom is hit in the head by an iPhone thrown from the 30th floor of his public housing building.  Parts of the iPhone are embedded in his brain.  After his release from the hospital, Tom discovers that he has all the abilities of an iPhone, including access to the web, the ability to make calls, & the ability to serve as his own camera. He is also able to defend himself by emitting an electrical charge that disables attackers. 

Tom puts all his new found powers to use as he attempts to avenge the gang rape of his best friend, Lucy.  Tom & Lucy's neighborhood is rife with drugs & gang violence.  After Lucy's attack, both she & her brother are afraid to identify her assailants because of the real threat of further retaliation. 

Yes, this plot sounds far-fetched, but Brooks saves it from being just a sci-fi thriller by grounding his characters within their world & by realistically portraying their emotions, reactions & moral dilemmas.  Tom is devastated by his inability to protect Lucy & he struggles with how far he can or should go to bring her attackers to justice.  In one scene, Tom sends a fake text to the girlfriend of one of the attackers that implies his involvement with another girl.  The ensuing confrontation ends with the boy being stabbed.  Tom is horrified & realizes that he is ultimately responsible for the boy's injuries.  Just because he can, doesn't mean he should. 

I loved Tom & Lucy. Their conversations as they try to reestablish their friendship after Lucy's rape are very moving.  Tom's questioning of a gang member about why he blindly follows the gang leader is chilling & disturbing because it is so mundane.  Once I got past my disbelief over the opening chapter which establishes the "iPhone in the head" premise, I was sucked into this gripping story.  I strongly recommend iBoy for older teens & adults.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shine by Lauren Myracle


Just bought the e-book of Shine by Lauren Myracle after reading about the National Book Award hubbub.  When the selection committee announced the 5 nominees, someone mixed up the names of 2 books, Chime & Shine, so there were 6 books on the publicized list.  Initially, the committee was going to keep both titles as nominees, but then decided to ask Ms. Myracle to withdraw her title from consideration.  Lauren Myracle has now withdrawn Shine due to pressure from the NBA committee.  I bought a copy in support of this wonderful author.  I'll have a review of Shine next week.

Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper


I  was emotionally overwhelmed by Out of My Mind, a middle grade novel by Sharon Draper. This is the story of Melody, a 10 year old girl with Cerebral Palsy so severe that she can neither speak nor move independently. Trapped inside Melody's uncooperative body is a brilliant mind with a cutting wit.
Melody is relegated to a classroom of special needs kids because she can't communicate & her teachers assume that she is also mentally handicapped.  Her world suddenly opens up when she gets a computer with a voice program that allows her to speak. Unfortunately, the rest of the school is not ready to accept Melody.
I cheered for Melody while I read this book as I sat at my kitchen table. The conversations she has with her parents and caregivers about being different are gut-wrenching. Melody knows exactly how she is perceived by other kids and adults, including teachers. The conversations between Melody's parents as they comtemplate the birth of their 2nd child moved me to tears.
This is more than a book about a girl with special needs. It holds up a mirror for all of us to see how we react to people with disabilities that make us uncomfortable.
I encourage everyone to read this.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick created a new art form with his illustrated novel, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret". Now, he's followed up with his 2nd novel, "Wonderstruck".  Perhaps the title hints at the reaction that readers will have to the many intricately rendered pencil drawings.  "Wonderstruck" is actually 2 intertwined stories set many years apart.  Selznick uses his hundreds of drawings to tell the story of Rose, a deaf girl living in 1920's New York.  The text tells the story of Ben, a boy living in Minnesota in 1977.   "Wonderstruck" is as thick as a brick,  but don't let the size deter you from experiencing this marvelous read. This is a perfect book to share with reluctant readers or for parents to read at bedtime. 

I've been a Brian Selznick fan for years, ever since I saw him "put on a show" to promote his picture book, "The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins". He's talented, personable, & a born promoter.   "Hugo Cabret", which won a Caldecott Award, is one of my favorite books of all time.  I hope the movie by Martin Scorcese due at Christmas does it justice.

My first post!

I've always thought that there was something inherently noble about selling books, especially kids books.   I was Borders Senior Buyer for Children's books.  I bought thousands of new titles for all the Borders & Waldenbooks stores.  I can honestly say that I learned something new every day & that I had the best job in the world.  Borders ceased to exist in September 2011 & with it went my job. 

After 6 weeks of unemployment, I'm going through withdrawal. Admittedly, I'm enjoying  reading whatever I want, but  I so miss the excitement & sense of community prevalent in the world of kids publishing.  I still remember the on-sale dates for the big books I'd hoped to market & sell this fall.  I wonder how many copies of the new Rick Riordan book we'd have sold on day one. I wonder if Wimpy Kid 6 will set a new sales record. I gnash my teeth over the lost opportunity to introduce new readers to Hunger Games & Hugo Cabret because of the upcoming movies. 

Now, I want to use my knowledge to help parents, teachers & kids book lovers find the best reads.  I hope to use this blog to bring talented new authors to the fore & contribute in some small way to promoting literacy.   I will regularly post impartial reviews & comments about kids books, movies, & other happenings. 

I hope you find this blog useful & enjoyable.

Susan