Straw Into Gold: Fairy Tales Re-Spun by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Sarah Gibb

Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books

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Summary:  Hilary McKay has created new stories based on ten well-known fairy tales, including Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and more.  Each story has at least one twist; for instance, Rapunzel’s tale is told from the point of view of her twin son and daughter and Hansel and Gretel tell what happened to them in essays for their new teacher on “What I Did In the Holidays”.  Some of the mysteries readers may have wondered about are solved, like what is up with Rumpelstiltskin and that strange king who demands that his bride be able to spin straw into gold–then never asks her to do it again after they’re married (I personally have wondered a lot about Rumpelstiltskin over the years).  The stories are not connected to each other, and can be read on their own or as a collection. Includes an author’s introduction and a brief bibliography. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  These humorous and interesting tales would work well with folktale units, and might inspire kids to try their own.

Cons:  Full disclosure: I only read about half the stories in the collection.

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The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA by Brenda Woods

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary:  Excited by his new birthday bicycle, Gabriel doesn’t pay attention to a red light until he’s directly in the path of an oncoming car.  Fortunately, Meriwether Hunter sees it and pushes Gabriel to safety, then manages to repair the mangled bike. Gabriel introduces Mr. Hunter to his grateful parents, and his dad offers the man a job at his car repair shop.  Hiring a black man is an unusual move for a white man in 1950’s South Carolina, and Lucas, the other mechanic and reputedly a member of the local KKK, doesn’t like it. Gabriel’s eyes are opened to the reality of his hometown as he watches the dynamics between the two men play out.  Meriwether tells Gabriel a secret: he served in World War II but must hide the fact because of the dangerous racism toward black servicemen. A near-tragic act of violence against Meriwether’s young daughter forges the friendship between the two families, but ultimately drives the Hunter family out of town to move north.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will share Gabriel’s discoveries of some ugly truths that lurk in the town his mother calls “a peaceful, pretty place”.  The treatment of African American veterans after World War II is an aspect of racism that many may not be aware of; the author’s note states that it was one of the driving forces of the civil rights movement.

Cons:  The villain’s demise seemed a little unrealistically convenient.

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Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary Schmidt

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  When the doorbell rings on the first day of school, the last person Carter Jones expects to see is a butler wearing a suit and a bowler hat.  But Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, a “gentleman’s gentleman” has come to look after the Jones family. And it turns out, they need some looking after.  Carter, a sixth grader, is the oldest of four, and as the story unfolds, the reader learns that number used to be five. Carter’s younger brother died not too long ago; their father was deployed overseas and didn’t make it home before Currier died.  Carter can’t forgive his father for that, or for another transgression that the reader slowly learns about. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but Mr. B-F helps Carter deal with it through the game of cricket. He takes Carter and his friend Billy to the middle school field one morning after dressing them in cricket whites, and practically hypnotizes the eighth grade cross-country team into joining them.  Before long, cricket fever has swept the school. A final showdown between Team Britannia and Team India provides a satisfying conclusion to the book and a chance for Carter to see the important role he has to play in his family. 224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  In the first book of the year that may get some Newbery consideration, Gary Schmidt adroitly weaves a complicated, funny story that’s told by a reluctant narrator who only slowly reveals his past.  There are several layers to the story, and readers may need some help to appreciate them all, but it would make a perfect sixth-grade book club selection or read aloud.

Cons:  There was an awful lot about cricket in the story.

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Trapped in Room 217 by Thomas Kingsley Troupe

Published by Jolly Fish Press

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Summary:  When Jayla and Dion’s father gets a last-minute request to come do some work in Rocky Mountain National Park, the family goes on a week-long trip to Estes Park in Colorado.  They stay in Room 217 of the Stanley Hotel, which they soon learn is allegedly the most haunted room of a hotel rumored to be full of ghosts. On the first night, both kids see the ghost of a maid who seems to be looking for something in their room.  Further investigations and interviews with staff lead them to other ghostly encounters, including a creepy incident where they are trapped in a dark basement. Jayla’s wrong guess about what Room 217’s guest is looking for almost results in disaster, but with the help of some friendly hotel staff, peace is restored.  Includes a note from the author with more information about the Stanley Hotel. 136 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Goosebumps fans will love this new series, which features real-life haunted places across the U.S. (Stephen King got the idea for The Shining when he stayed in room 217 of the Stanley).  The books are pretty short, with quite a few illustrations, making them a good choice for younger students and reluctant readers.

Cons:  The writing is a bit stiff, and there are some unexplained plot holes.

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One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

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Summary:  Fifth-grader Liam has a lot on his plate, what with divorced parents, a third-grade sister, Dakota, who loves science but lacks people skills, a second-grade sister, Izzy, who has Down syndrome and is a champion hugger, and a dog. Cupcake, who has started peeing on the carpet.  The last issue results in their landlord threatening eviction if they don’t get rid of Cupcake. The vet has told them that they need to see a $3,000 specialist, and the kids are determined to raise the money. Dakota tries by entering a science fair and by selling the family’s possessions on eBay (without their permission), but it’s Izzy who comes up with the idea that saves the day.  The ending is happy, if not necessarily happily-ever-after. 224 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Readers will quickly warm up to Liam, who is frustrated by his family members, but ultimately a loyal and protective big brother.  The story is both funny and heartwarming; the illustrations (which channel Hilary Knight) make it a good choice for younger middle-grade readers.

Cons:  Sorry, Cupcake, if I were the mom, you would have probably ended up moving to a farm in the country.

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The Unteachables by Gordon Korman

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  55-year-old Zachary Kermit was once a superstar teacher on the rise, but after being falsely accused of taking part in a cheating scandal, he became disillusioned.  Now he’s just putting in his time until he can retire and collect his pension. His final year, he’s assigned to room 117, the class of “unteachable” eighth graders who are basically being warehoused until the school can pass them on to the high school.  At first, Mr. Kermit just passes out worksheets, then spends the rest of his day with a crossword puzzle and oversized cup of coffee, while the students entertain themselves however they want. But slowly, against his will, he starts to connect with the students, and vice versa.  When the kids learn that the superintendent plans to fire him, trying to save the district from having to pay his pension, they find hidden resources within themselves to try to save his job. Will Mr. Kermit get another shot at teaching, or is it too late for him? 288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A classic Gordon Korman story, with a fast-paced plot, plenty of humor, and a story told from multiple points of view.  Fans will not be disappointed.

Cons:  While I enjoyed the story, I didn’t feel it was quite up to the standards of some of my Korman favorites like Restart and Schooled.

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Max and the Midknights by Lincoln Peirce

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Max serves as Uncle Budrick’s apprentice, learning to be a troubadour, but really wants to be a knight instead. When the two arrive at the city of Byjovia, Uncle Budrick tells of his idyllic childhood there, under the rule of kindly King Conrad.  But when the two arrive, they discover that Conrad is missing, presumed dead, and that his evil brother Gastley has taken over. Most of the townspeople are under a spell that makes them nasty, but kids are immune.  Max and Uncle Budrick meet up with Kevyn, Simon, and Millie; Max reveals that she’s really a girl, and the five of them begin their adventures as the Midknights. They meet up with a wizard, zombies, dragons, and an evil sorceress who’s the real brains behind Gastley.  Eventually, they discover and rescue Conrad, and help him defeat his brother to take his rightful place on the throne once again. Having witnessed Max’s courage and fighting skills as well as Millie’s magic, Conrad decrees that boys AND girls are free to become whatever they want.  Kevyn aspires to be a writer; Millie will train as a magician; and Simon and Max head off to knight school, as all involved prepare for a happily-ever-after ending. 288 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  This combination chapter book/graphic novel by the author of the popular Big Nate series is sure to be a huge hit across a wide spectrum of elementary readers.  

Cons:  Everything wraps up neatly at the end, and there’s no mention of a sequel in the book or on Amazon.

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