Dan Yaccarino’s new picture book, Doug, Unplugged tells the story of Doug, a robot, who learns his daily lessons by downloading data and information (Knopf, $16.99). When he finally notices a pigeon on his windowsill, he knows all sorts of facts, but those facts haven’t told him that pigeons make a funny cooing sound. What else could Doug learn about the city, were he to unplug? Doug ventures outside (!) to find out. His adventures augment his factual understanding with sound, smells, and experiences that he can’t download. He plays with friends, admires the views, but most of all learns to appreciate his family. Doug, Unplugged, contains bright, vibrant illustrations, that convey Doug’s delightful facial expressions as he explores his environment. Technology isn’t absent in Doug’s adventures and the book conveys a balance between the information that Doug has access to via computers and the experiences he acquires when he steps away.

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Patricia Reilly Giff is known for her historical fiction, and her most recent book is an excellent new addition to the genre. Gingersnap is set in New York during World War II (Wendy Lamb Books, $15.99). Jayna lives with her older brother Rob. After their parents’ accident, Rob took custody of his sister as soon as he turned 18. When he’s called to duty, the only person left to care for Jayna is the landlady. Whether inspired by ghosts, voices, or her own intuition — the reader is left to decide — Jayna leaves the landlady’s house, sets off, armed with her turtle, and follows the clues left in an old suitcase in Rob’s room. A recipe book written in French and an old photograph lead her to Gingersnap, a bakery in Brooklyn, and a woman that Jayna desperately hopes is her grandmother. Conveying the realities and hardships of life on the home front, Gingersnap, demonstrates that love and good food are two key ingredients in creating a family.

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Mo Willems’s fans will be delighted to know that he has a new picture book available, entitled That Is Not a Good Idea! (Balzer + Bray, $17.99). The story unfolds like a silent movie with color images interspersed with dialogue on black pages. A dapper male fox meets a demure female goose. The two strangers take a walk through the woods and then decide to have lunch. The audience, comprised of six delightfully cute baby chicks, continually interjects, yelling, “that is not a good idea” at the screen. Like all of Willem’s book, this one has a twist, but just when you think you know what the twist is going to be the story twists off in a completely different direction. Although younger children might not recognize the silent film motif, they will appreciate the humor of this story. Pigeon lovers should make sure to look closely; as usual, he makes a cameo.

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The problems I’m having with this blog aren’t about lack of things to say, or even books to talk about, but time. So many good books out lately and I’m really excited about a few that will be released this summer. In the mean time, these past few weeks have been filled with BEA, post-BEA, trying to write the store newsletter (late), moving, and any number of other things that all just sound like excuses. I don’t know if these are signs of summer or if things will calm down a bit in a few days. So today’s post is about stopping, going outside, and enjoying the slow.


In Bug Patrol, by Denise Dowling Mortensen and illustrated by Cece Bell (Clarion Books, $16.99), Captain Bob, is a police officer:

9 am
Behind the wheel
riding in
my Bug Mobile.

Coffee, cruller
cruise control.
I’m Captain Bob,
Bug Patrol.

The story is narrated in these short rhyming verses, making this book a great read-aloud for younger children. They’ll also enjoy the repetition of the phrase “Wee-o! Wee-o! Wee-o! Woo! Bug Mobile coming through!” It won’t take long for them to pick up on this phrase and say it with you. Captain Bob responds to speeding spiders, picket lines at the roach hotel, and crickets that are partying too late. He keeps the peace, offers wise solutions, and heads home at the end of the day to the bugs he loves best. This book is recommended for kids who like vehicles, admirers of the insect world, and anyone who appreciates a good siren sound. You can read this story together and then head out to the back yard to make up silly stories about the insect communities that live next to you.

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9780062217134Robyn Schneider’s Severed Heads, Broken Hearts (Katherine Teagen Books, $17.99, out today) contains some really horrific and traumatic experiences. The title says it all. There is indeed a severed head, and a multitude of broken hearts. How a book that starts with a decapitation and ends with the death of a dog (via coyote) manages to not be the most depressing books ever is kind of miraculous. Yet the story is a rather light, romantic, and universal quest about how to break away from the facade you’ve somehow created to become the person you really are.

Ezra is a varsity tennis player, slated to become Prom King, with the stereotypical perfect girlfriend. Then the girlfriend cheats on him and he gets hit by a car (see horrific and traumatic). Ezra starts senior year with a cane and a tremendous amount of uncertainty about where he belongs, now that he’s no longer the tennis player/prom king, with a hot girlfriend. Ezra is an interesting character; he’s smarter than anyone (including himself) seems to have realized, he’s witty, he’s more of a leader than he understands, and he’s a defender of children’s playgrounds. He’s a little naive, but that’s where Toby and Cassidy come in. They show him a world beyond the security of his neighborhood and push him outside of his comfort zone. Cassidy is the unique, beautiful girl, who is just out of reach and Toby is the best friend that somewhere in middle school Ezra forgot to be friends with. Ezra sees them as taking him on a new journey. What he doesn’t learn until later is that they are the journey, one he started after the accident with his own first steps.

*** Since the above review was written back in March, the name and cover of this book have changed. I’m of two minds. I liked the title. I can see why it might not be so ‘marketable’, but it was distinctive and true to the story. The new title, The Beginning of Everything, sounds like too many other YA novels. But this title, too, is true to the story. This book isn’t about finding yourself in high school, it’s about figuring out that you need to find yourself. Or discovering that who you’ve been is not necessarily who you are. Or who you will be. And it’s a story about the journey that leads to that journey. I’ve decided to keep the old image in, though along with my original impressions. If nothing else, for a glimpse into the publishing industry, which I find enormously fascinating. But if you walk into your local bookstore and request Robyn Schneider’s new book, be sure to ask for The Beginning of Everything. It still starts with a severed head and it still ends with a dead dog. And there are broken hearts. But that is just the beginning.

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Note: I should have read the marketing materials better! The Beginning of Everything is now due out in September.


Like all booksellers, I get this request all the time, “S/He loved The Hunger Games and wants to read something else just like it”. Well there really hasn’t been anything Just Like It. I end up asking what the reader liked about The Hunger Games: was it the adventure, the dystopian society, the romance, the strong characters, and then I recommend books that match. Well now there is officially a book (which will be a trilogy) for fans who want to read a book that has all the components of The Hunger GamesThe Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau (HMH, $17.99, out today), has it all, oppressive centralized government, violence, teens struggling for survival in a test (game) that they don’t fully understand, romance, shattered American landscape, colonies of the society. The only reservation I had while reading The Testing is that it is *almost* too similar, but with a little less of an edge. Cia is smart and resourceful, but not as fierce as Katniss. Tomas is a complex companion, but not as heroic as Gale or as solid as Peeta. The government is oppressive, but not as brutal as Panem, at least not at first. The testing starts with rather boring school-type tests. It’s like reading about someone taking the SATs, which is even worse than actually taking the SATs. Nevertheless, this first book is clearly laying the groundwork for the trilogy and I’m willing to hold out final judgement until reading the rest of the series. And I will say that once the adventure picked up, and we start to see Cia in action, rather than just hear her commentary, I was very engrossed in the story. I don’t yet fully understand what motivates Cia. Katniss wanted to survive. Against all odds. Cia doesn’t seem to want to win. She’s more collaborative. She does want to live, but not necessarily at the expense of others. Despite the horrors of the test, she still wants to pass, which I don’t fully understand. But again, by the end of the first book, I was hooked. Furthermore, although the testing is officially complete, the first book sets up the next two, with a very intriguing twist. Whether you read The Testing because you loved The Hunger Games, or pick it up on its own merits, The Testing contains a solid story that is likely to get even better in the next two installments. To be fair, I was one of those people who didn’t like adventure of The Hunger Games nearly as much as I loved societal complexities and psychological development of Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

Update: I wrote the above after only reading The Testing, because I wanted to write about the book on its own merits. However, I’ve now had a chance to read Independent Study and my opinions have developed. The second volume takes the story in a very different direction than The Hunger Games, as suspected. In order to avoid too many spoilers, here is my general impression rather than a description.

I’ve been a student and an instructor in higher education. I know that sometimes college and university exams can feel like life and death. In Independent Study, they are life and death. I didn’t mean to, but I stayed up until 2 am and read the book in one sitting. There was no good stopping place and the pace was solid enough to compel me to continue reading. Cia is super smart and I like that about her. She is thoughtful, which I like even more. She takes the time to assess situations and come to conclusions. She trusts her instincts and she’s willing to trust herself, even when others doubt her. The fact that she is often right, is believable because, as readers, we see how she carefully and rationally reasons through situations. At no point did I feel like she ‘knew’ something that she shouldn’t know. I like that she’s collaborative. I like that she has morals and ethics. I didn’t like the fact that she seems hung up on a guy that has not proven himself to be worth her time. So far Tomas is too much of a tell rather than show character. Cia loves him, but the story hasn’t given me any reason to understand why. Also, as someone who is incredibly smart and capable, she expresses these random desires for Tomas’s help, even when she’s achieved so much without it. Those moments, often one sentence in an otherwise interesting scene, were jarring and unnecessary. I hope this relationship resolves satisfactorily in the final volume, because right now it seems arbitrary. Cia is a strong enough character to carry Independent Study on her own, and I’m far more interested in learning more about her other classmates than I am about her relationship with Tomas. That relationship really is my only complaint at this point. It seems like romance for the sake of romance, rather than furthering the story, but again I’ll hold out on final judgement until I read the third volume. Overall, I do recommend this trilogy and I’ll be letting customers know that while The Testing might be somewhat similar to The Hunger Games, Independent Study is very much its own story.

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I probably should have mentioned this information earlier, but Book Expo America took place over the past week, and I was representing the bookstore for the first time. So although I didn’t post much, I was waist-deep in books, books, books. There are a lot of upcoming titles that I’m very excited about and several of which I have already read and reviewed for this blog. The reviews will be posted when the books are available. I normally try to stay away from reviewing a book too early, because the primary point here is to recommend books that are immediately available. But in the spirit of BEA and because everything is rather fresh in my mind right now, here’s a small taste of some titles that I’m most looking forward to this summer and fall: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (September 10), If You Could be Mine by Sara Farizan (August 20), The Time Fetch by Amy Herrick (August 27), The Dream Thieves by Maggie Steifvater (September 17), and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (August 27). I’m sure you’ll all be seeing lots of information about these middle-grade and YA books, but be sure to check back here for reviews on the day each book is available.

In Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (Arthur A. Levine Books, $17.99, out in June), Rafe is tired of being ‘the gay kid’. He lives in a supportive home with parents who are activists on his behalf and for community in general. His school has protected him, and he regularly speaks at organizations about diversity and education. But he needs a break. He needs a change. He needs to feel like he can be himself without constantly working for ‘the cause’. Rafe applies to a boarding school out East and figures that going there will be his chance to not exactly go back into the closet, but maybe not be so publicly out of it. This isn’t the first YA book to deal with an openly gay teenager, who tries to put on a mantle of not being an openly gay teenager. Pink, by  Lili Wilkinson (winner of a Stonewall ALA honor award), tells a similar story about a girl who changes schools for similar reasons. Ava, however, spends more time questioning her sexuality and the ending leaves her story somewhat ambiguous. In Openly Straight, Rafe never doubts that he is gay. It’s not his sexuality that’s in question, it’s his identity. This story will appeal to anyone who has experienced feeling reduced to one facet of themselves, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ : ‘the honor student’, ‘the athlete’, ‘the Asian girl’, ‘the popular one’, ‘the band geek’, ‘the fat guy’, ‘the new kid’, ‘the singer’, ‘the . . .’. We are all complex individuals. But as much as Rafe wants to be more than a label, he slowly realizes that denying part of himself turns him in to something else entirely: ‘the liar’.

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Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity has been receiving a tremendous amount of accolades recently (Hyperion, $9.99). In addition to receiving starred reviews in a number of publications during 2012, it also received a Prinz finalist award at ALA this year. I couldn’t possibly imagine a better book than The Fault in Our Stars last year, so this book has been on my list of must-reads for a while now. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only recently gotten around to it and I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner. It makes an excellent cross-over book. I’ll be Maddie is a pilot from England and Verity  (code name) is a spy from Scotland. Both women are actively involved in the war effort and they become friends throughout their various assignments. I don’t want to talk too much about plot,because this is the kind of book that you really want to unfold and explore for yourself. Suffice it to say, the book is set in occupied France in 1943. Verity has been captured by the Gestapo. The rest is up to you to discover. One of the things I love about this book is the reminder that women were constantly underestimated in the 1940s. And yet, it’s so interesting to see what they are able to achieve precisely because no one thinks they can.

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Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin, isn’t the first book to contain a character who is intersex, but books on this topic are few and far between (Simon & Schuster, $24.99, out today). Max Walker is the stereotypical golden boy. On the surface. But Max and his family have a secret. He is intersex: a person that used to be referred to as a hermaphrodite. Within this story, Max’s existence falls perfectly between horror (he has never been shamed or punished by his parents for being who he is as many intersex children have been) and complete acceptance (the parents do not make Max’s situation known to the outside world). Max identifies as a boy, but he is a true intersex: half and half. His family did not put him through reconstructive surgery as a baby. He’s known and understood that he was different his whole life, but it’s never really been a big deal. Just something that the family never discusses. At 16, the one childhood friend (boy) who knows about Max, rapes him. Rape is traumatic for anyone, but Max deals with a whole other layer of trauma. How is he supposed to process what happened? Thankfully he goes to a Doctor, one who is smart and sensitive enough to do some research and help Max find the vocabulary he needs to understand himself. This description might sound clinical, but even trying to talk about this book is a reminder of how inadequate our language is.

The narrative moves between Max, his brother, his mother, the doctor, and the girl he starts to fall for. This movement strengthens the story, because as each person struggles to talk about Max, the reader truly starts to appreciate Max’s inability to articulate himself. I most appreciated the Doctor’s narrative voice. She is professional, and remains at a somewhat critical distance, but truly helps Max and the reader navigate this rather uncharted territory. Max’s mom struck me as way too intelligent to be saying such ridiculous things. I liked her when Max talked about her. I started to despise her when she spoke for her self. I think the book would have been much stronger without her first-person chapters or perhaps if her voice had been introduced towards the end of the story, as Max’s dad’s voice is.

I also particularly liked Max’s younger brother’s commentary. Daniel is significantly younger (about 5 years); he looks up to Max and because Max is his older sibling, he knows nothing different. He is the only character (including Max) who doesn’t perceive Max as an aberration, because, to Daniel, Max is perfectly normal. Daniel’s voice, somewhat young and innocent, provides a strong counter to all the confusion that pervades everyone else’s voice. Golden Boy is not an easy book to read, but it is well worth it. I’m delighted that it has found the support of a major publishing house. This is a story that needs to be told.
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