The Smoking Mirror / by David Bowles. 7.22.2016

IFWG Publishing, Inc. ISBN 9781925148640

HS Grades 7-12 Rating: 3

A Pura Belpré Author Honor book for 2016, David Bowles’ The Smoking Mirror incorporates Aztec and Mayan mythology into a modern fantasy about 12-year-old twins, Johnny and Carol Garza.

Johnny and Carol Garza are trying to come to terms with the recent loss of their mother, whose abrupt disappearance remains a mystery, as well as their father who is becoming increasingly distant as he likewise struggles to cope with his loss. As a result of these issues, the twins are sent to live with their mother’s family in Mexico. There, they find out about the special powers that are their heritage, and ultimately embark on a quest into the Aztec underworld in search of their mother.

The story provides an informative glimpse into Mexican culture and its Mesoamerican mythology and folklore. The plot moves quickly–once in the Underworld, the twins are thrust from one danger into another. Through their adventures, Johnny and Carol learn about their own strengths and grow closer as they come to rely on each other. With a large caste of gods and monsters, the book has invited comparison to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and will likely appeal to a similar audience, although Bowles’ writing is less polished and character development is lacking.

There is mild violence, shape-shifting, and one scene involving human sacrifice. The characters believe in the Aztec and Mayan deities and mysticism, and seem to treat their Catholic religion on a par with these beliefs. Despite some darker themes, the story is handled with a light touch. The book’s ending sets the scene for more to come in the series.

Angela L. Walsh, CLJ

The Ghosts of Heaven / by Marcus Sedgwick. 7.21.2016

Roaring Brook Press ISBN 9781626721258

HS Grades 7-12 Rating: 5 (not recommended)

Printz Award winner Marcus Sedgwick offers an introduction to his The Ghosts of Heaven which sets forth a brief history of the universe, from its cosmological beginning 4,600 million years ago until the evolution of mankind 4,598 million years later. This is followed by four episodes that can be read in any order but are connected by the image of spirals. Each of the four stories–“Whispers in the Dark,” “The Witch in the Water,” “The Easiest Room in Hell,” and “The Song of Destiny”–has a character that embarks on a journey of discovery and survival. The first story (“Quarter One”) takes place in the era of cave people in prehistory. “Quarter Two” takes place in the 17th century where the reader meets Anna, whom people call a witch. “Quarter Three” is set in a Long Island hospital in the 1920s, where a mad poet watches the oceans and knows its horrors. Finally, “Quarter Four” takes the reader into the future where an astronaut is on a spaceship sent from earth to colonize another world.

Each science and historical fiction story is thought-provoking and provides imagery and writing that makes the reading a pleasure. By tying all four stories tougher with the symbol of the spiral–e.g. found in the shells of snails, the patterns of birds in flight, the seeds in a sunflower, or the strands of the double helix of DNA, the reader is invited to check out both order and mystery. At times it is a challenge to figure out which is which for the spiral means something different to each of the story protagonists. There are situations involving violence, death, and sex (nothing explicit), as well as mild language and an overall sense of darkness.

Leroy Hommerding, CLJ

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras / by Duncan Tonatiuh. 7.20.2016

Abrams Books for Young Readers ISBN 9781419716478

PRI Grades 1-5 Rating: 5

Funny Bones is an insightful and fascinating story about Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, known as Don Lupe Posada, who popularized the use of calaveras in art. Calaveras–clothed skeleton figures performing various activities–are an important part of the Mexican Day of the Dead festival.

From the time Posada was a young child, he loved drawing. He learned the printing techniques of lithography, engraving, and etching, each of which is shown in four-panel layouts. Posada employed these processes to make thousands of drawings. Although only a small number of his drawings are of calaveras, these images are what make Posada famous. Posada used calaveras to reflect both his humorous and serious views on everyday life, politics, social issues, and the Mexican Revolution.

Duncan Tonatiuh is both the author and illustrator of Funny Bones. Tonatiuh’s digital collage and hand drawings are colorful and eye-catching. The skillful blending of Tonatiuh and Posada’s artistic works, along with clear and simple sentences, makes for an appealing book for readers to learn about Posada’s life and his impact on Mexican culture. Some of Posada’s calaveras are open to interpretation, and questions posed by Tonatiuh will encourage readers to draw their own conclusions.

A number of resources at the back of the book are helpful for enriching the reading experience. The author’s note gives in-depth details about the history and traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead celebration. There are also a glossary, bibliography, art credits, a list of places where Posada’s artwork can be seen in the United States, and an index.

Funny Bones is a good choice for school libraries, for reading aloud to early elementary age children, and for third through fifth grade students to read and discuss.

Dianne Woodman, CLJ

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March / by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley; illustrated by PJ Loughran. 7.19.2016

Dial Books ISBN 9780803741232

HS Grades 7-12 Rating: 4

Told in a straightforward, first-person manner, Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom is a memoir that describes 15 year-old Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s participation in civil rights activities in 1965. The primary source text with primary source photographs and cartoon-like illustrations aid to explain why and how she got involved–first as a helper for older children and then, with the wary permission of her parents, as an active walker in the marches.

The book includes many intricate details, such as what the marchers ate and where they slept, that will keep youth reading. Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom’s wide margins, large font, and visuals for comprehension make this an ideal title for developing readers. From the first sentence (“By the time I was fifteen years old, I had been in jail nine times”) to the last one (“Who has the right to vote is still being decided today”), the appealing narrative is compelling.

Leroy Hommerding, CLJ

A Pig, a Fox, and a Box / by Jonathan Fenski. 7.18.2016

Penguin Young Readers ISBN 9780448485119

PRI K-Grade 3 Rating: 5

In the style of Mo Willems, Jonathan Fenski’s A Pig, a Fox and a Box tells three funny stories of two friends, Pig and Fox. The comic art and simple language encourage kids to stay with the story. A “Level 2” title, this book is ideal for the reader who can figure out unknown words by using picture and context clues and for the reader who can recognize beginning, middle, and ending sounds and distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. The play on words that rhyme will ease the load for little ones learning to read.

The picture clues help children to use the pictures to tell the story. The three separate stories build on each other, with each having longer sentences and more varied words. The layout is clear and the illustrations reinforce the concepts and plot, enabling children to enjoy the story and look for all of Fox’s tricks. This Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor title is a work the progressing reader will look forward to.

Leroy Hommerding, CLJ

The Island of Dr. Libris / by Chris Grabenstein. 7.15.2016

Random House Books for Young Readers ISBN 9780385388443

INT Grades 3-6 Rating: 3

Agatha Award winner Chris Grabenstein, author of several middle school books, pens another humorous novel combining the elements of an adventure and a mystery.

In The Island of Dr. Libris, 12-year-old Billy Gillfoyle’s dad drops him off for a 10-week stay on a private island his mother rented. Billy is unaware that he is actually participating in a field test for Dr. Xiang Libris. When Billy drops his iPhone and is without other forms of electronic entertainment, he is forced to turn to books for his entertainment.

Billy finds the key to a locked bookcase. When he opens one of the books in Dr. Libris’ library, strange things begin to happen. Billy begins interacting with the characters in the text. His adventures take place with Hercules, Robin Hood, Pinocchio, The Three Musketeers, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna, Jack and the Beanstalk, Alice in Wonderland, and more.

As most of the characters originate from classic “boy” stories, this book might not appeal to girls as much as Grabenstein’s Lemoncello books do. While this book is imaginative and humorous, it doesn’t hold the reader’s attention as much as his other books do. The author references over classic books–but readers don’t need to be familiar with these titles to appreciate this book.It is an enjoyable read, especially for fans of Inkheart (Cornelia Funke).

Recommended for school and public libraries for older elementary and middle school students.

Carol R. Gehringer, CLJ

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B / by Teresa Toten. 7.14.2016

Delacorte Press ISBN 9780553507867

HS Grades 8-12 Rating: 5

Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B approaches mental illness in a way that is both respectful and illuminating. The story centers around Adam, a 15-year-old with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). He lives with his mother who has her own challenges–receiving threatening anonymous notes and having a tendency to hoard. He receives help from his champion therapist, his dad and step-family, his best friend, and a kindly neighbor.

Author Teresa Toten has also won the Ruth & Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award, the CBC Bookie Award and was nominated for the 2015 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. She enables the reader to grasp what Adam is struggling with as he lies, abuses his meds, and obsessively counts and taps while dealing with his mother’s shortcomings and his step-brother’s perfectionist tendencies. While offering an insightful door into what Adam and his support group friends are dealing with, Toten mixes humorous and serious moments, giving the novel a realistic feel and one most readers can relate to. Adam’s falling in love with one of the other teens, Robyn, in the OCD support group adds another interesting dimension (and entails moderate descriptions of teen physical attraction).

Teens will find it easy to stay with the story and, along the way, address first love, making friends and struggling with yourself.

Leroy Hommerding, CLJ

Blue Ribbon Trail Ride / by Miralee Ferrell. (Horse and Friends, 4) 7.13.2016

David C. Cook ISBN 9781434707369

INT (MS) Grades 3-7 Rating: 4

Miralee Ferrell, adult historical fiction author, presents the fourth book in her series especially for horse-loving preteens.

In Blue Ribbon Trail Ride, 13-year-old Kate wants to help her brother and others attend a summer camp. Her fundraising idea is to hold a scavenger hunt using horseback riders and their property. Katie and her friends ask local businesses to donate and sponsor prizes. It seems her efforts to help her autistic brother are paying off.

Then her mother’s antique jewelry box disappears–the one that held the entry fees for the hunt. They try their hand at solving the mystery of the missing money, but will they find it before the Blue Ribbon Trail Ride?

Miralee Ferrell’s love for horses is evident in her stories. More character-driven than plot-driven, Ferrell’s books focus on Kate and the challenges she faces every day. Kate is a normal teen who struggles with her attitude and prays for God to help her. The spiritual tone of the books is light, not preachy.

Told from Kate’s perspective but mostly in the third-person, the story will appeal to parents looking for a positive role model for their tween reader. Kate’s friends include a homeschooled boy who is just a friend and a Latina girl who is her best friend. Ferrell’s book has Kate’s reflections to help the reader learn from her experiences.

Recommended for school and public libraries, especially for fans of Dandi Daley Mackall.

Carol R. Gehringer, CLJ

Supertruck / by Stephen Savage. 7.12.2016

Roaring Brook Press ISBN 9781596438217

PRI PS-Grade 1 Rating: 5

A great book for early readers, Supertruck by Stephen Savage has pictures that tell the story with large font and easy-to-read words—a few on a page with plenty of spacing. Savage’s graphic depiction of the snowy metropolis sets the scene, while his use of color gradients allows children to experience the blizzard. The story incorporates two subjects that appeal to young boys: trucks and superheroes.

At first the reader may be surprised that a truck is described as “just collecting the trash.” In the city there are many brave trucks–ones that fix power lines, put out fires, or tow disabled vehicles. But when a blizzard hits the city, it is the garbage truck that saves the day by plowing the falling snow overnight, bringing home the point about not judging people based on the work they do. What is interesting too is that the truck wears glasses and becomes an appealing hero that echoes another cherished character with a secret identity, Clark Kent.

Leroy Hommerding, CLJ

Roller Girl / by Victoria Jamieson. 7.11.2016

Dial Books for Young Readers ISBN 9780525429678

MS Grade 5-8 Rating: 5

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson is a beautifully written and vividly illustrated coming-of-age story set in Portland, Oregon. Through the eyes of the affable protagonist Astrid Vasquez, Jamieson leads readers on an amusing adventure of tweener angst and self-discovery.

Although the narrative plays out predominantly in the niche world of the roller derby circuit in the Pacific Northwest, the themes of perseverance, loyalty in friendship, and being true to one’s self are universally appealing and relatable. Roller Girl tackles complex issues like adolescent bullying, pre-pubescent physical and emotional change, and developing an identity and self-worth with skillful compassion and humor that is nuanced and hopeful, rather than being trite, cynical, or preachy.

Astrid’s journey through the crucible of ever-fickle middle school relationships is both inspiring and entertaining. She must balance the external conflict of taunting and rejection from her peers and the internal conflict of self-doubt, all while balancing on a pair of roller skates. With the help of her new friend Zoey and her idol Rainbow Bite, Astrid learns to overcome obstacles and navigate through the awkward maze of pre-teen social interaction.

All the accolades and critical acclaim that Roller Girl has received are well-deserved. This opus by Victoria Jamieson is both a visual and literary work of art.

Schimri Yoyo, CLJ