Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Insectorama: The Marvelous World of Insects by Lisa Voisard

What worked:

Obviously, this book is about insects and the author indicates there are over 1.3 million of them around the world. The book is divided into four main sections by habitat: Cities and towns, countryside, wetlands, and forests. Each of these sections is formatted similarly. They begin with large pictures, a one-page general description including reproduction, and then two pages with more details. Other pages show the metamorphosis of each insect, the food they eat, and insects they might be mistaken for. The final page of each section displays a labeled drawing of the insect and highlights the wings, antenna, thorax, and eyes. These body parts are keys to identifying the various insects.

The author is also the illustrator and she’s drawn colorful illustrations to fill almost every page. In addition to the sketches mentioned in the previous paragraph, the author illustrates other areas of interest. Most of the insects will be fairly recognizable to young readers but the book includes more unusual examples. A Hercules Beetle is around seven inches long, other insects give off odors or are toxic, and some insects resemble other animals. Several pages toward the end offer suggestions for identifying insects and less common information about select examples. There are different kinds of metamorphosis, ways to communicate, methods of camouflage, and adaptations for self-defense.

What didn’t work as well:

The repetitive format makes the book easy to navigate but it can become more tedious if reading the book straight through. It might be better to use the book as a handbook or reference guide to make the best use of the large amount of information.

The final verdict:

The book doesn’t overwhelm readers with overly detailed information so it’s easily accessible. The abundant illustrations add to the appeal as readers encounter a blend of familiar and uncommon insects. Overall, I recommend you give this book a shot.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Riding Wild by Michelle L. Brown

What worked:

The most unique thing about this book is how it highlights popular rodeo events like bull-riding and barrel racing. Vic is one of the top barrel-racers around and the relationship with her horse feels natural. However, she wants to learn how to ride bulls so the author includes the instruction she receives from her neighbor, Remmy. Vic’s had practice riding bucking horses but getting atop a two-thousand-pound bull is a whole new danger. She is taught how to hold the rope, wave her opposite arm, and spur the bull to jump more. Riders must stay on a bull for eight seconds to get a score but their points are also dependent on the challenge presented by the animal. Riders prod the bulls to jump, twist, and buck, making their rides more difficult.

It's clear Vic wants to feel a deeper connection to her deceased father and she’s willing to take risks to achieve it. This pursuit creates a conflict with her grandfather, Pops, and her mother. Vic’s mother doesn’t want her daughter near bulls and Pops has promised to support the mother’s wishes. Pops becomes increasingly upset when he catches Vic riding bulls on multiple occasions and it’s nice to hear him say her “word” doesn’t make her trustworthy. Vic’s recklessness and poor decisions increase the drama but it seems clear that she’ll eventually be able to compete in bull-riding, one way or another. A bull called El Loco is mentioned multiple times and appears to be the ultimate test. A couple of subplots concern gender expectations and Vic’s encounters with bullying.

What didn’t work as well:

The story lacks any in-depth description and some of it is evident. Vic’s emotions don’t always match what’s happened for example getting mad at her grandfather after she’s just put herself in danger. The attention to bull riding is interesting but readers may want to know more about the characters beyond that. The oversimplification of problems with rapid transformations will appeal to reluctant or emerging readers but more experienced readers will not be satisfied.

The final verdict:

The uncommon setting and problem may draw in young readers and Vic’s determination to prove herself and connect with the memory of her father is inspiring. Overall, this book is a quick, entertaining read and I recommend you give it a shot.

Friday, April 12, 2024

The Longest Night in Egypt (The Shadow Prince 2) by David Anthony Durham

What worked:

Ash became Prince Khufu’s shadow, his bodyguard, in the previous book and he faces new challenges in this new story. The prince’s parents reveal a prophecy to Ash and swear him to secrecy. This information adds more pressure to his role as the prince’s shadow especially since he can’t tell Khufu. The news of Lord Ra’s disappearance forces Ash to take action and travel to the underworld where he’ll most likely never return. Of course, the prince insists on accompanying Ash so his other friends agree to go too.

Prince Khufu’s personality makes him an interesting character. He’s a thrill-seeker as shown by the book’s opening scene. The prince has two new sunwing suits made of suncloth so he thinks it will be exciting to jump off a tower and soar around the city. I picture it as base jumping while wearing a solar-powered suit. The prince’s parents adore him so the consequences for his poor, unsafe decisions aren’t too severe, hardly enough to curb his behavior. The prince’s questionable choices make him a wild card since readers will never know what to expect from him.

Most of the narrative follows Ash and his adventures in the Duat and these chapters are told from his point of view. The characters face a variety of fierce demons that present a wide range of dangers. Ash and his friends encounter physical threats from small and large creatures as well as mental challenges to pass through underworld gates. Ash receives a bag of memories before entering the Duat and some paragraphs describe these past events. Ash doesn’t think this gift is very important as the memories don’t seem special or significant. He discovers they’re more useful than he thought. In addition, some chapters switch to Lord Set so readers will be aware of his revolt against the other gods and the release of demons into the world. These chapters help to understand his anger toward humans and the other gods and his clever plot for revenge. Khufu’s brother is caught up in Set’s plans and this problem will continue into the sequel.

What didn’t work as well:

For the most part, the author shares a suspenseful quest to rescue Lord Ra but some elements of the plot add confusing levity. Light moments between characters are understandable as their relationships are developed. Some of the demons are cute or seemingly innocent only to become malevolent dangers to the characters. There’s nothing inherently wrong in these scenes but readers’ feelings may become muddled due to inconsistent information. The monsters can be left fearsome but maybe leave the humor to the characters.

The final verdict:

This exciting, dramatic adventure will appeal to many middle-grade readers, especially those interested in mythology and Egypt. Set’s plans are clever and present a tricky conflict to solve. Overall, this book is entertaining and I recommend you give it a shot.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Clara Poole and the Wrong Way Up by Taylor Tyng

What worked:

There are immediate changes and strange occurrences to signal a mystery is brewing. The new students arriving at the Air Academy discover they haven’t been accepted yet and Clara is informed she’s only an alternate. She won’t be a student unless someone else drops out. Students and teachers have been seriously injured due to broken bridges and faulty equipment found in the airborne school. The headmaster’s opening address to students is confusing as he’s forgetful and loses his train of thought. He also suffers from sleep-flying and must be retrieved when he drifts off into the sky. Clara finds cryptic messages and clues so readers will try to figure out what’s happening behind the scenes. A surprising twist awaits when the plot reaches its climax.

As with the previous book, the author includes many characters to either act as Clara’s friends or fill the role of antagonists. Short, little Hatsu has been looking forward to being Clara’s roommate since last year’s great balloon race which proves she’s Clara’s most enthusiastic supporter. Until she’s not. Ophelia still detests Clara although Clara begins to view the girl differently after overhearing a conversation. Their relationship changes. Clara and the academy’s biggest problem might be the assistant headmaster. He divides the new recruits into two groups and the Peregrines are clearly the favored team. He also treats Clara with disdain and puts her in unwinnable situations. A former enemy becomes an ally but Clara’s team is dysfunctional with constant internal drama.

A highlight of the book is how the cast of characters changes as the plot moves along. Students from the past have been injured or traumatized enough to leave the academy and that trend continues. Readers won’t always know if characters are gone for good or if they’ll eventually turn up again. A teacher, assumed to be dead, returns unexpectedly and becomes a mentor to Clara. She raises the concept of gender bias and readers are frequently made aware of her conflicted past with the acting headmaster. The actual headmaster finally disappears from the academy but Clara is almost certain it isn’t an accident. The popular safety director vanishes with him and readers will presume they may be gone forever. A fellow student named Binder loves to joke around and create havoc so he keeps everyone on their toes.

What didn’t work as well:

The main conflict is difficult to identify as the characters are worried about being accepted to the academy when they’re not clashing with each other. The bigger issue is what’s happening behind the scenes and the author provides red herrings, misdirection, and vague observations. The clues Clara finds are often found by accident and they’re then put on the back burner due to some other problem.

The final verdict:

This book is quite different from the previous one as it’s a new, exciting adventure in the skies. Clara encounters animosity, doubt, and jealousy from other characters but readers will admire her efforts to do the right thing. I highly recommend you give this book a shot and I look forward to its sequel. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Penny Draws a Secret Adventure by Sara Shepard

What worked:

The format of this book is easy to read and should appeal to reluctant readers. The narrative is written as if Penny is talking to her dog Cosmo and almost every page has some type of drawing. Many of the illustrations are written as comic strips or with voice bubbles to fill in parts of the story not written in paragraph form. The chapters are fairly short so young readers can quickly finish them and feel frequent success.

A big internal conflict affecting Penny is an overactive brain when it comes to worrying. It’s not as bad as in the previous books but it still magnifies concerns that come up. Luckily, she still has a feelings teacher at school who helps her adjust to the new twin babies who’ve just joined the family. Two new babies in the house almost guarantee one of them will be crying at any time. Another major problem for Penny is that two of her friends are practicing for a spelling bee without her. Penny doesn’t like spelling and she doesn’t think she minds them getting together but she’s afraid she might be losing her importance as a friend. She previously lost her friend Violet to another girl so Penny fears it might be happening again.

The secret adventure arises when Penny finds a treasure map in a box, located in the back of her garage. The map shows locations around town but it was created decades ago. It references places inside her house, at school, and in the neighborhood so Penny wonders how the person knew about them back then. Readers will follow Penny and her friends as they solve the clues left at each location in order to locate the treasure. Penny also learns about the special relationships in her life and the true meaning of friendship. The treasure map takes Penny and readers to places they’d never expect.

What didn’t work as well:

The secret adventure feels more like a neighborhood scavenger hunt than an actual adventure. The biggest drama in the narrative comes from Penny’s lack of self-confidence so some readers may want more.

The final verdict:

This book is best for readers in elementary school due to the writing style and format of the book. The casual tone will be appealing to young readers and Penny is easy to root for. Overall, the book tells a fun tale of friendship and I recommend you give it a shot.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

The Owl Prowl Mystery by Diana Renn

What worked:

The book focuses on a group of nature-conscious kids who call themselves the Backyard Rangers. The story is told through the eyes of Miles and his attitude seems more relatable than the other characters, especially Pia. Pia is gung-ho to save the local owls as she tells Miles that some of his Halloween decorations might endanger the birds living in the neighborhood. Readers will follow these kids as they learn more about owls and try to inform citizens about the best ways to keep them safe. The author includes a couple of subplots involving Miles and a fellow ranger named Delaney. Miles gets caught up in a class competition and lies about something he’s seen. Delaney has a secret of her own that she shares with Miles in confidence. Their relationship will be put to the test when emotions begin to boil over.

The narrative includes many references to animal facts that will educate and interest young readers. The Rangers are very conscious of owl safety so much of the information focuses on it. Readers will learn where they like to live, what they like to eat, and they’re feeding habits. Miles finds many pellets near his home that contain undigestible material owls have eaten. His class learns what was eaten by examining these pellets. His town has a woman who is dedicated to rescuing injured owls and introducing them back into nature. The Rangers learn that humans sometimes do things to help owls that may be harmful to them.

The plot’s mystery involves protecting owls although the actual danger isn’t clear. The biggest concern is generated when the class discovers unnatural materials in some owl pellets that might indicate someone is baiting the owls. Netting hidden in the woods and a pile of feathers add to the mystery and may signal owls are experiencing more serious threats. The Backyard Rangers act like detectives and generate lists of suspects, motives, and opportunities to commit the suspected infractions. Motive is the most puzzling ingredient. What does a suspect gain by baiting or potentially harming the owls?

What didn’t work as well:

The characters sometimes refer to themselves as bird nerds which doesn’t make them immediately attractive to young readers. Nerd isn’t a positive label to them. In addition, the main conflict of the story lacks clarity and urgency which might create tension and suspense for readers. In fact, the “crime” being investigated might not even be illegal.

The final verdict:

Nature lovers should enjoy this book since it focuses on owls and the environment. The Backyard Rangers are an enthusiastic team but the actual conflict doesn’t generate the drama readers might expect. It’s still an entertaining, informative story so give it a shot!

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Spindleheart: Trail of Shadow and Spool by T.I. Avens

What worked:

The book follows two stories told in alternating chapters of two larks, creatures that can talk, with separate journeys to travel. Wynn is a swivel-ear who has quested herself to retrieve an artifact that once protected her people. She is a guardian of it but a moment of cowardice resulted in its theft. The other story involves a magical lark named Calla who is worried about passing her tests to become a caster. This is Calla’s primary focus, especially after she breaks her staff until soldiers show up with a summons to appear before the Keepers of Runnelloom. Readers must wait until the book nears its end for the separate journeys of Wynn and Calla to finally merge.

Young readers will enjoy the variety of wilders especially Calla’s three pet twig-trots. Pye, Mischief, and Thimble look like small bushes but their behavior is reminiscent of three cats, each with its own personality. Other wilders come in a wide range of shapes and sizes that lead to curious encounters. A dead wisteria winged-moose is Calla’s first inkling that something is seriously wrong in the forests. Later, Calla is forced to eat web-tailed toads. She bravely faces a dangerous dande-boar while Wynn is forced to flee from a pack of badger-pines. The author adds horns, wings, sharp claws, and pointy teeth to familiar animals which makes them recognizable and frightening.

The two main characters are motivated to prove themselves due to past disappointments. As mentioned, Wynn is tasked with protecting an artifact but she’s distracted from her duties and cowers instead of stopping the thief. She doesn’t share details of the artifact when speaking to others and she’s determined to locate and stop a powerful caster named Blume. Calla takes a personal interest in discovering the reason wilders are dying across the lands. It seems it might involve magic but she feels insufficient with her casting after breaking her staff. Later, Calla is reunited with an older sister which creates a need to prove herself. However, Calla’s impulsiveness sometimes leads to unwanted consequences and causes old issues to return.

What didn’t work as well:

Each chapter begins with an illustration which is nothing new. However, they’re repeated in a pattern and often have nothing to do with the events in those parts of the plot. Pictures at the start of chapters in other books often give visual previews of what’s to come so the illustrations in this book are confusing.

The final verdict:

The author tenderly develops empathy for Calla and Wynn as they try to prove themselves. Readers should be prepared to read the sequel as the plot isn’t resolved and will carry over into the next book. Overall, the blend of strange characters and mysterious story is entertaining and I recommend you give this book a shot.