Ordinary or Extraordinary? Little Difference in Spelling, BIG Difference in Life!

This new offering by Kekla  Magoon is wonderfully unique. It’s not often that a chapter book features a friendship between a couple of preteen brothers and a sixteen-year-old boy. What’s more, the brothers are naive, living with their mother and  overprotective father, while the older boy, Styx, has been seasoned by a life without parents, instead being bounced from one foster home to another. But it is this juxtaposition of friendship, different ages, different upbringings, that makes for an intriguing story.

When the brothers, Caleb and Bobby Gene, meet Styx, they are enthralled by his “worldliness”, his charisma and ability to persuade. And persuade he does. The brothers come into the possession of a bag of fireworks and Styx immediately sees the explosives as a ticket to trade. Exchanging one item for the next, Styx plans to trade up until they reach their goal………a bright green moped for sale by the owner of the local hardware store.  Along the way and through the trades, Caleb gets a taste of the confidence and  independence Styx possesses and becomes a devoted follower of the teen. Bobby Gene is impressed, as well, but,nonetheless tries to stay within the rules and boundaries set by his parents. Styx talks the pair into increasingly risky actions, including hopping a train to a nearby town. As their parents discover their blatant disregard for family norms, the situation escalates. The brothers,  sneaking out, are involved in the theft of a lawn mower engine. When the theft is revealed, father’s anger leads him to turn Styx in for masterminding the crime.

A decision to relocate Styx to yet another new foster home is made. At this point, the brothers feel they have been disloyal to Styx.  The hurt and loneliness held inside Styx is now evident. Should Caleb and Bobby Gene disobey their parents one more time to make things right? Will their father finally see their need for freedom and the importance of Styx’s friendship?

This realistic chapter book is a real page-turner, with high emotion and action galore. Magoon deftly draws a picture in words of an unconventional friendship in which young brothers expand their world and themselves, while the lonely teenager learns lessons about life and love from his two unlikely young friends. It effectively relates the struggles of kids, families and friendships to stay safe and be loved while also allowing personal growth and enough autonomy to become extraordinary.


Due to some content, I recommend that this book be read aloud by an adult to fourth and possibly fifth grade children.  Sixth graders, reading independently,  may still have questions or need clarification about the following topics: smoking seeming cool to Styx, brief mention of Styx having a girlfriend (the younger boys are confused about the relationship), boy’s nocturnal dreams (also briefly mentioned) , a violent traffic accident and children intentionally disobeying family rules.

Written by Kekla Magoon

Copyright 2018

Accelerated Reader Level: No test exists yet

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Tiny House, Big Family

A determined young girl stars in my latest scout, The House that Lou Built, a debut novel by Mae Respieto. Respieto’s Filipino culture and childhood spent near San Francisco play strongly in her story of Lou, a thirteen-year-old girl living, along with her mother, in her grandmother’s house in San Francisco. Numerous members of Lou’s Filipino family life nearby.  Lou, at times, loves having close cousins and aunts, but at other times, she wonders what it would be like to have more autonomy and be able to have the privacy she sees her friends enjoy. Still, Lou is kept busy planning her dream home, a tiny house she longs to build on her piece of Heaven: some lush, secluded property her grandfather left to her. Lou is laser-focused on her dream. She acquires the skills needed to build, works at a scrap yard and collects items she can use in building and saves money to accomplish her tiny house goal.

Lou’s world is turned upside down when her mother gets offered a job in Seattle and intends to accept. Doubling down on her dream, Lou accelerates her pace of building, hoping the tiny house will change mom’s mind. Complications arise and Lou makes choices that result in deceptions to mom and other family. As the stakes get higher, Lou learns that mom can’t pay the taxes on the property and they will likely lose it. Lou refuses to relent, but it will take the assistance of family to finally perservere.

In a satisfying ending, Lou realizes her dream with the help of family and mom discovers that her dreams are better realized with family in her corner, as well.

FYI: I like to be transparent about content, so there are no surprises and adults have the chance to discuss subject matter.  First, Lou develops a crush and get her first brief kiss.Second, her teacher, mentor and helper is a gay character, although there is little detail other than he lives with his partner.

What I like about this book:

Lou is a great role model. She is comfortable being a young teen who loves tiny houses, building with wood, and embracing her culture by being in a Filipino dance troup. She is independent, strong-willed and dedicated to her goals.

There is a great deal of Filipino culture woven into the tale, from beliefs to cooking to dance, which lends the story more authenticity and gives depth to the characters and their relationships.

Written by Mae Respieto

Copyright 2018

Accelerated Reader Level: No test yet written. Approximate reading level is 5.0

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Best Friends = A Better You

We all know adults who are, well, less than mature. We also know kids who sometimes exceed those adults in wisdom. Such is the case in Barbara O’Connor’s new chapter book, Wonderland.

Mavis is a head-strong girl whose mother is chronically discontent, moving them frequently to the next town and the next job that she thinks will finally bring her happiness. Meanwhile, brave Mavis has only one focused desire: to have and be a best friend.

Rose is the introverted daughter in a wealthy family. She has a marginally involved father and an overbearing mother who constantly complains about trivial matters and people who don’t live up to her standards. Chief among her mother’s disappointments is Rose, who silently absorbs her mother’s cutting remarks and retreats when she can stand no more. Rose’s saving grace is Mr. Duffy, the aging gatekeeper of the housing development in which she lives. Together, they laugh, play and genuinely care for one another, yet lately, he has changed. Since the death of his cherished dog, the luster has gone out of life for Mr. Duffy.

Enter a third character, Henry, a retired greyhound whose future is not bright at Wonderland Race Track. He escapes and hides out, fearfully, in the woods behind Magnolia Estates, where Rose lives.

The tale is told in alternating chapters, narrated by Rose, Mavis or Henry.

When Mavis’ mom takes a job as housekeeper for Rose’s family, Mavis instantly decides that Rose will be her best friend. The friendship is rocky at times. The girls must endure the catty behavior of Rose’s mom, the endless discontent of Mavis’ mom in her new job, Amanda, the snobbish neighbor girl all while devising a plan to capture Henry as a new canine companion that they hope will relight the spark in Mr. Duffy.

Not everything turns out as they may have hoped. Still, in the process, friendships, human and canine,  blossom and people grow.  Mavis develops self-discipline; Rose self-assurance and both learn that friendship can foster positive change that spills over to others in your life. A fun read about determination, evolution and the power of friendship.

Written by Barbara O’Connor

Accelerated Reader quiz not yet available

Copyright 2018

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Loss, Lemonade and (Big Foot)Lore

Lemonade Liberty Witt has a mother who is a free spirit full of love. Lemonade has lots of friends and likes living in the city. But death erases the life she knows. Her mother dies of cancer.  Lemonade is sent to live with Charlie, a grandpa she doesn’t know who lives  in a rural town, Willow Creek, the dorky so-called “Big Foot Capital of the World”. What’s worse, her grandpa runs the Big Foot Souvenirs and More store downtown. All Lemonade wants to do is return to her former existence and stop feeling the overwhelming pain of grief. Then she meets Tobin, an oddball kid who has his own Big Foot Detective Agency.  Like Lemonade, Tobin has struggles. His strict adherence to rules and dedication to finding the elusive Sasquatch make him a glowing target for bullies. He has not seen his father since his dad was freed from imprisonment in Vietnam.  Expected to board a plane to return home, his father, instead, disappears. Tobin is convinced his father will return and soon. Lemonade becomes Tobin’s Big Foot-hunting assistant and, many Sasquatch expeditions and intense disagreements later, they become buddies. Eventually, Lemonade develops more friendships with locals both young and old. Ultimately, she realizes that these caring townsfolk and, most importantly her grandfather, love her and she has forged a new family in this new place.

Melissa Savage, the story’s author, expertly weaves common threads through the tale: we all suffer loss, it gets better over time if we let others in, life’s not fair, but we are strong and love (and friendship) conquer all. The topic of death seems heavy, but the humorous banter between Lemonade and Tobin, along with the adventure of Sasquatch hunting, balances the story. FYI: There is some dialogue about the need to pee in the woods and a brief mention of the difference between male and female Sasquatch (one has stuff up top). Because a main topic is grief, the book is best read by 5th or 6th grade students or shared aloud and discussed with younger readers.

Written by Melissa Savage

Copyright 2018

Accelerated Reader Level 4.1

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She’s No Plain Donut!

A unique and strong-willed girl named Donut is the star of my newest scout, A Stitch in Time, set in the 1930’s and written by Daphne Kalmar. Donut’s name is as unusual as her life. Her mom passes when  Donut is just a baby, she spends her time hanging out with Sam, a taxidermist, learning to stuff birds and mice that she finds in the woods of Vermont and Tiny, her sweet, “not-so-tiny” friend. Her father is a dreamer and that suits Donut just fine. But when he suddenly dies, Donut’s Aunt Agatha arrives from Boston to care for her. Not only does she serve oatmeal for breakfast and turnips at supper, both of which are on Donut’s “don’t-care-for-list”, but she plans to uproot Donut and take her back to the big city to live with her and Aunt Jo. Donut, still grieving for her dad, wants no part of that arrangement, so devises schemes of her own. When those fail, she concocts an ill-thought-out plan to run away and stay in a friend’s cabin. Donut must cross a lake, keep warm, and deal with the woods at night.  Nonetheless, fueled by her anger at everyone, from Sam for not successfully helping her stay, to her aunt, to Tiny, who can’t keep a secret, to, ultimately, her father for leaving her, she stays for days aware of the worry and fear she is causing everyone.  A blazing fire brings the story high drama and propels Donut to make decisions and realizations about her life, future and the people in it.

Kalmar brings Donut’s experiences in the woods to life with depth of  description that will draw in readers. I recommend this book for the older end of intermediate chapter book readers, grades 4 or 5 through 6. Some of the language of the time may need explaining, although it is entertaining, “the cabin was as dull as ditchwater.” But more so, there are references to smoking a pipe, drinking and a sprinkling of words such as damn and, at one point, Donut talks about how swearing makes her feel better. Emphasizing that it’s a work of FICTION, may be in order for impressionable partakers.

Written by Daphne Kalmar

No Accelerated Reader quiz yet exists

Copyright 2018

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Get Ready to Roll!

There are two innovations that I think make Darcy Miller’s book, Roll, a winner. First, the main character is adjusting to numerous changes and trying to make it all work.  Not innovative enough for you? There are lots of books about characters trying to handle change? True, but most of these books feature a girl as the main character. Dealing with developing situations and redefining yourself is not often the topic of a book with a boy as the central character. Featuring a boy going through this makes for an interesting, fresh perspective.. Second, Birmingham Roller Pigeons are an imperative part of the story. Now, that’s intriguing. By the end of the story, I’d learned a lot about them and wanted my own! (not going to happen)

Ren is a boy dealing with change, lots of it. He and his family move away to live in grandma’s house. Ren’s best friend Aiden, once a kindred soul who shared his love of comic books, is now an athlete and joining the popular crowd. His father, a celebrated runner, is expecting Ren to be one, too. Ren tries to cope and meet the expectations of others. Out on a run, he finds himself mesmerized by what appear to be pigeons hurtling toward earth as a group. Following his curiosity leads him to Sutton, a no-nonsense, take-me-as-I-am girl with flaming red hair and a talent for training competitive Birmingham Roller Pigeons. The sport, as well as a friendship with Sutton, spark Ren’s own change and eventual self-acceptance. Fans of realistic fiction will find this story engaging.

By Darcy Miller

Copyright 2017

Accelerated Reader Level 4.0

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Home IS Where the Heart is!

Kate Messner has been conjuring up high-interest stories for years.  I recently scouted out her freshest fare, The Exact Location of Home.  It features Zig, actually Kirby, who goes by a shortened version of his surname, Zigonski. He lives with his mother, a starving nursing student divorced from his mostly-absent-real-estate- developer dad. With a knack for electronics, Zig finds and uses an older model GPS tracker and starts geocaching. Techie readers will be fans of the importance of the gadget to the story. Zig convinces himself, from web clues, trinkets uncovered at sites and a found journal,  that Senior Searcher, a fellow geo-junkie, has so much in common with Zig’s dad that he must, in fact,  BE him. So starts Zig’s quest, with the help of Gianna, his friend and burgeoning crush, to locate his father. Events complicate when money gets seriously tight and mom and Zig lose their apartment. Ending up in a homeless shelter, the story intensifies. Reader’s interest will pique as Messner expertly relays the experience of life in a shelter.  Also engrossing are the secrets kept.  Mom disguises the truth about why dad seems unreachable and Zig hides his homeless status from friends, especially Gianna. Messner weaves not only layers of secrets in this tale, but also embeds sophisticated messages about the environment, disappointment, self-acceptance and love. The unexpected ending will leave readers comforted and accepting that home really is where the heart is!

By Kate Messner

Hard back copyright 2017, paperback copyright 2018.

Accelerated Reader Level 4.1

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Another Gianna? Want to read a book set in autumn about a girl who tries to juggle a science assignment, maintain her position on the track team and deal with family all at once? Don’t miss this story of priorities and passions, procrastination and proving oneself. I enjoyed this story featuring strong-willed Gianna and the life lessons she learns.

Accelerated Reader 4.2

Originally published in 2007 and rereleasd in 2017.

Choices for Change

Sometimes, writing really is a form of art. When I first scouted out the book, Garvey’s Choice, I thought it sounded like a good free-verse story. But I was wrong. It isn’t a no-rules format at all.  Nikki Grimes, the author, wrote the entire story following a Japanese form of poetry called Tanka.  Written in 5-line stanzas, following a five, seven, five, seven, seven pattern of syllables in each line, Tanka is at once a poem and a vehicle to tell Garvey’s story.  To follow a strict pattern, while choosing words that capture the characters and their interactions, is amazing!

The story is short, impactful and touching.

Garvey is a boy who not only loves rhythm and music, but has a soulful singing voice, too. He’s sure his talents would be lost on his father though, who expects Garvey to play football.  As a result, Garvey decides to hide his musical ability and elects to overeat to stuff down his unhappiness. Being taunted at school for his weight only makes matters worse  Yet, Joe, his devoted friend, shores Garvey up and encourages him to try out for choir. With the pressures of football from dad, the unkind remarks from classmates and the insensitive teasing of his own family, Garvey doesn’t know if he has the strength to handle the possible repercussions if he makes the choice to share his voice.

The story is one of deep pain, intense longing and, ultimately,  Garvey’s’ discovery that mustering the courage to make a choice can change his entire world.

By Nikki Grimes

Accelerated Reader Level: 3.6, but with the social issues and self-esteem struggles of Garvey, higher readers should not pass this one up.

Copyright 2016

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It’s a BAT’s Life

With a main character like Bixby Alexander Tam (or BAT for short), a preteen boy on the autism spectrum , it can be hard to effectively communicate to readers what life is like for him. But Elana Arnold does just that. Readers walk beside BAT through his struggles, with school, friends, teachers, his sister and parents. When BAT’s mom, a veterinarian, brings home a skunk that needs care until old enough to go to a wildlife rehabilitation facility, BAT accepts the challenge.  What’s more, BAT plans to show her that he is not only capable of taking care of Thor, the baby skunk, but he has the skills, discipline and capability to keep the skunk as his forever pet. This story, a heartwarming tale of managing difficulties and celebrating successes,  serves as a window into the world of autism and introduces us to one determined boy.

This is a short chapter book with a 4.6 AR level. Reluctant as well as motivated readers should experience the world of BAT.

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In the sequel, BAT’s sister, Janie, is changing.  She has after-school activities and friend sleepovers.  This means changes for BAT and Thor, too.  Read to find out how BAT deals with these new developments in his life.

The sequel is a 5.1 AR level.

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