Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them by J. K. Rowling

More Harry Potter? Why yes please, of course!

Synopsis

Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander’s classic compendium of magical creatures, has delighted generations of wizarding readers. Now, in this updated edition with a new foreword by Newt himself and unveiling of six beasts little known outside the American wizarding community, Muggles too have the chance to discover where the Thunderbird lives, what the Puffskein eats, and why shiny objects should always be kept away from the Niffler.

Proceeds from the sale of this book go to Comic Relief and Lumos, which means that the dollars you exchange for it will do magic beyond the powers of any wizard. If you feel that this is insufficient reason to part with your money, one can only hope that passing wizards for more charitable if they see you being attacked by a Manticore.

Review

Sarah’s Review

Laura is one of the few diehard Harry Potter fans who can claim yes, she has had this book since it’s original publication in the early ‘aughts. And so, for the last 17 years, she’s been telling me to read it. Enter the movies with Eddie Redmayne playing Newt Scamander, and a new version of the audiobook from Pottermore with him reading it and I was sold!

Think of Fantastic Beasts as a fantastical encyclopedia more than a textbook. It reminds me a great deal of Cressida Cowell’s Book of Dragons from the How to Train Your Dragons series. The illustrated edition is beautiful, the downside, there’s not a whole lot of information included, the focus is on identifying the creatures. There’s more information in the individual books about creatures like unicorns, basilisks, and dragons.

Laura’s Review

That is true, I am very proud of the fact that I have had the original Fantastic Beasts textbook since it first came out. I love that J.K Rowling published this book, along with Quidditch through the Ages, as it expanded the world of Harry Potter for me as a ten year old kid. My favorite part of the original version was not the information about the animals, but the annotations that Harry and Ron had added for some of the creatures including basilisks and acromantulas.

Due to my love of this book I was thrilled when a movie series was announced starring Eddie Redmayne, even if I had no idea how a textbook would be turned into a 5 part movie series. And with the creation of an illustrated version, I just now want some of these creatures as pets, especially a phoenix and maybe a niffler, as long as I hid my valuables…

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $12.99 • 9781338132311 • 128 pages • originally published 2001, this edition published March 2017 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 3.97 out of 5 stars • read in April 2018

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Fantastic Beasts

Memoir/Autobiography, Middle Grades, Non-Fiction

Four Perfect Pebbles by Lila Perl & Marion Blumenthal Lazan

One of my grandmothers grew up in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, specifically in Nürnberg and the surrounding countryside. She doesn’t talk about it. As such, I have spent my entire life fascinated by the stories of German children between 1933 and 1945. I don’t remember the first book I read that fit the bill for learning more about that time and people’s experiences, but Four Perfect Pebbles was a book that quickly caught my attention. And when I found out that Marion would be coming to the bookstore I work at, I knew it was going to be a moving moment.

Marion Blumenthal Lazan (r) & I (l)

Marion Lazan

Synopsis

Marion Blumenthal Lazan’s unforgettable and acclaimed memoir recalls the devastating years that shaped her childhood. Following Hitler’s rise to power, the Blumenthal family – father, mother, Marion, and her brother, Albert – were trapped in Nazi Germany. They managed eventually to get to Holland, but soon thereafter it was occupied by the Nazis. For the next six and a half years the Blumenthals were forced to live in refugee, transit, and prison camps, including Westerbork in Holland and Bergen-Belsen in Germany, before finally making it to the United States. Their story is one of horror and hardship, but it is also a story of courage, hope, and the will to survive.

Review

Marion describes her story as the one that Anne Frank might have told had she survived past March 1945. Both Anne and Marion spent time in Westerbork and later Bergen-Belsen. Of the 120,000 Jews detained in Westerbork, 102,000 perished before the end of World War II, 18,000 survived. Anne fell into the former group, Marion, the latter. While Anne’s story is typically read by pre-teens and early teenagers in the world today, Marion’s serves as an introduction for those who are just starting to ask their parents and teachers how people can be so mean and intolerant of one another.

In a society that is quickly becoming more divided and more intolerant, Marion’s message of hope, faith, and family strength, is even more important than it was when she first started discussing her experiences a couple decades ago. While most may brush off the striking similarities to the current president’s rise to power and the Nazis, it is hard for those who truly know their history to ignore. It is even harder for those who know that atrocities of WWII still ring loud in their older generation’s ears, and yet their younger generations engage in racist and destructive behavior.

Marion’s story is one of compassion and hope during one of the world’s worst times. My only reason for giving a less than superb rating is that brevity of the book. While written with young children (9-11 years old) in mind, there is only so much that one can remember about those years themselves, particularly 50 years later, as was the case when Marion & Lila wrote Four Perfect Pebbles and Marion recounted her childhood to Lila. Everyone always wants more from a good book, but at 160 pages, Four Perfect Pebbles is incredible concise.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $6.99 • 9780062489968 • 160 pages • originally published March 1996, this edition published October 2016 by Greenwillow Books • average Goodreads rating 3.92 out of 5 • re-read March 2018

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133-Four Perfect Pebbles

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult, Young Adult

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares

I have been best friends with Tibby, Carmen, Lena and Bridget for more than half my life now. The summer before I turned fourteen, I was attempting to walk to the Barnes and Noble of Virginia Beach with Moppy in order to keep ourselves busy while Mom drove Laura home to get her braces off. After wandering the parking lot in sweltering heat for the better part of a half hour, we finally found the beloved bookstore and I managed to stumble upon my four new best friends. I read most of the book that day in the store and I was beyond hooked. In 2011, nearly ten years after the release of the first book, Ann Brashares brought our best friends back, now in their late 20s and living completely separate lives, and gives them the biggest tragedy anyone could experience to cope with.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Synopsis

Four very different friends. One pair of magical pants. And a summer apart… We, the Sisterhood, hereby instate that following rules to govern the use of the Traveling Pants. 1. You must never wash the Pants. 2. You must never double-cuff the Pants. It’s tacky. There will never by a time when this will not be tacky. 3. You must never say the word “phat” while wearing the Pants. You must also never think “I am fat” while wearing the Pants. 4. You must never let a boy take off the Pants (although you may take them off yourself in his presence). 5. You must not pick your nose while wearing the Pants. You may, however, scratch casually at your nostril while really kind of picking. 6. Upon our reunion, you must follow the proper procedures for documenting your time in the Pants. 7. You must write to your Sisters throughout the summer, no matter how much fun you are having without them. 8. You must pass the Pants along to your Sisters according to the specifications set down by the Sisterhood. Failure to comply will result in a severe spanking upon our reunion. 9. You must not wear the Pants with a tucked-in shirt and belt. See Rule #2. 10. Remember: Pants = love. Love your pals. Love yourself.

Series Review

If you broke the foursome into their “stereotypes,” it would certainly be a great curiosity as to how they ever became friends. Fiery Carmen has a temper that would make even the fiercest warrior quake; shy, talented artist Lena is unsure of herself; Bridget’s mom died young and athletic Bridget is extremely reckless, and Tibby, older than her younger siblings by 12 years, feels like no one in her family understands her and rebels accordingly. They really only became friends because their mothers took an aerobics class together while pregnant and they were all born in September.

In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the girls spend their first summer apart and away from Bethesda. Carmen’s off to see her dad in South Carolina (where she learns he’s about to be remarried), Lena’s trekking to Greece with her grandparents (where she meets the love of her life), Bridget heads off to Baja for soccer camp where she flirts with her older soccer coach and Tibby feels neglected, left at home to work a menial job and, while trying to make a video that is worthwhile in an effort to further her directing career, she meets Bailey, a young cancer patient who has a profound effect on her life. Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Girls in Pants and Forever in Blue chronicle each subsequent summer of the girls’ lives in similar fashion, three leave and one girl is at home, and they send the pants around to each other. Each book is written from all four girls viewpoints.

I could, and can still, identify with all four girls and when I first picked up The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I felt like I’d finally found the literary version of my middle school best friends, Ashlyn, Melanie and Nina. Who we each would be and whether we’d fit into the same pair of jeans, I’m unsure, but I do know that there’s a bit of all four girls in me.  The final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, upset many of my friends and my little  sister when they read it – it starts with tragedy, and I’ll say it straight off, one of the four is no longer with us. The girls are 28, living separate lives and barely in touch. Until one reaches out to bring them to Greece to reconnect. It is here that mysteries begin and the gradual reveal of secrets begins as the young women reconnect with each other and other beloved characters from the first four books. Ann Brashares let her girls grow with her readers and for that I am forever grateful. Sisterhood Everlasting is heartbreaking, achingly beautiful, ridiculously sad, and yet, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and our farewell to our best friends is a satisfying one. The books, the friendships, it’s all beautiful and I honestly cannot watch the movies or even the book trailers without tearing up over what happens.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for the series

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385730587 • 336 pages • first published September 2001, this edition published March 2003 by Ember • average Goodreads rating 3.76 out of 5 stars • read in July 2002

Ann Brashares’ Website

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128-Sisterhood Everlasting

Contemporary, Fantasy, Fiction, New Adult

My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares

I picked this book up a few years ago at my favorite local bookstore (where I now work). It was shortly after I moved to the southeastern part of Pennsylvania and I was really lonely, trying to make friends and I was drawn to the story (and admittedly the cover – I’m a sucker for starry nights). I overlooked all the comparisons to the Twilight saga because I knew Ann Brashares writing – she brought the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants into my life so clearly it couldn’t be that similar to Twilight

Synopsis

Lucy is an ordinary girl growing up in the Virginia suburbs, soon to head off to college. On the night of her last high school dance, she hopes her elusive crush, Daniel Grey, will finally notice her. But as the night unfolds, Lucy discovers that Daniel is more complicated than she imagined. Why does he call her Sophia? And why does it make her feel so strange?

The secret is that Daniel has “the memory,” the ability to recall past lives and recognize the souls of those he’s previously known. And he has spent centuries falling in love with the same girl. Life after reincarnated life, spanning continents and dynasties, he and Sophie have been drawn together, and then torn painfully, fatally apart – a love always too short. And he remembers it all. Ultimately the two of them must come to understand what stands in the way of their love if they are to reach their happy ending.

Review

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Spoiler Alert! I loved the first 90% of this book – I love the idea of Daniel following Sophia through the ages, I love the flashbacks and how Ann Brashares did not pick the popular parts of history for Daniel’s past lives but gave him wholly ordinary and typical life experiences every time he came back. She also manages to tell the entire story without any sort of religious slant, a massive achievement for a book that pretty much revolves around the idea of reincarnation. I listened to the audiobook with great interest and wonder, always hoping that all would work out well for the characters in the end. At the back of my mind, however, a feeling of dread kept circling through my thoughts, “This is the woman who killed Tibby, nothing can be ruled out.” And unfortunately, that nagging feeling followed me straight through ‘til its realization in the last few pages.

Never in my life have I wanted to physically tear apart a book as much as I did when reading the last 37 pages of this one. I listened to it in the car up until then and decided to just read the last few pages – I had to know how it ended and what a terrible way it went! I should not have overlooked the Twilight comparison – my blood boiled and I’ve only felt such immense hatred toward a book once – while attempting to read the book to which this one is compared: Twilight. I think it has been well established at this point that I detest books with female characters that I deem to be weak and pathetic and overly-womanly. I loathe plotlines that play out the stereotypical path that a woman’s life can take – love, sex, babies and then that’s it, you’ve completed your mission on this earth, pack up and you’re done – your story is no longer an interesting one to tell.

I was incredibly excited for this story because it is one of few books that I could see myself classifying as “New Adult” – new adult literature (at least for the first 300 pages). It’s a well relayed story and an enjoyable one to read. And I really hoped it ended with Lucy and Daniel finally getting to spend some time together getting to know each other. Lucy and Daniel spend 5 minutes in high school and one car ride in Mexico 5 years later talking to each other before jumping in to bed together. I have no problem with this, I was thrilled when Lucy slept with her best friend’s little brother – that’s normal. It’s a way of life for more than a few people in their 20s. But do Lucy and Daniel really love each other? I don’t see how you can really love someone without getting to know them, not some perceived former version of their soul. Sophia and Daniel loved each other, Constance and Daniel loved each other, and even though Lucy makes a point of differentiating herself from her two former lives, it doesn’t answer the question of how she can love someone she barely knows.

I got the distinct impression that Ann Brashares wasn’t sure how she wanted to end Lucy and Daniel’s story. The last section, the “resolution” of the climax, just spins wildly out of control (Spoiler Alert!) – they survive an ocean storm for hours off the coast of Mexico, their rescue is unbelievable, they had sex once and Lucy’s pregnant after Daniel couldn’t have children for 1500 years, and then he abandons her in Bhutan and she doesn’t think she can even tell him about the baby. Just WHAT??? When did the tone of the story change so completely? Why? Just why does this have to be the direction of Lucy’s life? Not every ending needs to be a happy one, but it would be nice if it made at least a little sense and didn’t sound like it was hobbled together from random odds and ends.

Rating: 4 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781594485183 • 336 pages • first published in June 2010, this edition published June 2011 by Riverhead Books • average Goodreads rating 3.7 out of 5 • read in May 2015

Ann Brashares’ Website

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My Name is Memory

Biography, Middle Grades, Non-Fiction, Sociology

Marley Dias Gets It Done by Marley Dias

For once, I can say that I knew about something from the get go! As a former and hopefully soon-to-be-again middle school teacher, I like to keep up to date on what’s going on with middle schoolers’ reading habits. So when Marley Dias burst onto the scene as a 6th grader with her #1000BlackGirlBooks Campaign, I actually followed quite closely!

Synopsis

Marley Dias, the powerhouse girl-wonder who started the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign, speaks to kids about her passion for making our world a better place, and how to make their dreams come true.

In this accessible guide with an introduction by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Marley Dias explores activism, social justice, volunteerism, equity and inclusion, and using social media for good. Drawing from her experience, Marley shows kids how they can galvanize their strengths to make positive changes in their communities, while getting support from parents, teachers, and friends to turn dreams into reality. Focusing on the importance of literacy and diversity, Marley offers suggestions on book selection, and delivers hands-on strategies for becoming a lifelong reader.

Review

Why am I reviewing Marley’s book now? Well, she came to the bookstore that I manage a few weeks ago and I figured her book would be a good one to have in a future classroom. As a teacher, I was thrilled with her presentation and the fact that I got to interview her. As a bookstore manager, well, it wasn’t the easiest thing to coordinate and when the teenage wunderkind that you’re interviewing has already been on the talk show circuit, coming up with creative questions posed a bit of a challenge!

The book itself is quite spectacular and, as I’m sure you might wonder about a 13 year old author, I can say it’s pretty apparent she wrote it herself. Marley has the presence of someone beyond her years and she is very eloquent. Marley Dias Gets It Done includes a great deal of practical advice for being both a teen activist, but also about surviving those years and keeping yourself on track. It is a wonderful book to have on your shelf as a parent, teacher, or even just an adult who is looking for some helpful and practical advice.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9781338136890 • 208 pages • published January 2018 by Scholastic Press • average Goodreads rating 4.31 out of 5 stars • read in February 2018

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Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades, Retelling

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I’ll readily admit that Ella’s dark green dress on the front cover of the first paperback edition was what first caught my attention. But given my established record as a lover of fairy tale adaptations, it should come as no surprise that this is the book that started my obsession!

Synopsis

How can a fairy’s blessing be such a curse? — At her birth, Ella of Frell was given a foolish fairy’s gift—the “gift” of obedience. Ella must obey any order given to her, whether it’s hopping on one foot for a day or chopping off her own head! — But strong-willed Ella does not tamely accept her fate. She goes on a quest, encountering ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, fairy godmothers, and handsome princes, determined to break the curse—and live happily ever after.

Review

I LOVE Ella Enchanted. Other than the American Girl books, it was the favorite book of my childhood. When I was home sick in elementary school, this is the book I made mom and dad read to me. When I wanted to find a costume for Halloween, I wanted to be Ella. When I grew up and got married, I wanted it to be to Prince Char. When Laura was making me crazy, I called her Hattie. When I wanted a book to make me happy and cheer me up, I reread Ella Enchanted.

​I had the same copy of Ella Enchanted since it was first published in paperback for the school market in 1998 when I was 8 and in 3rd grade and it finally suffered its last spine crease this summer and I was forced to buy a new copy. So, I bought two! One for me and one to read to Ben’s little sister because I’ll be darned if she misses Gail Carson Levine’s literary greatness! If you are looking for an excellent book for the upper elementary school age girl in your life, look no further than Ella! And please, if you haven’t already, don’t watch the movie.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $7.99 • 9780064407052 • 250 pages • first published 1997, this edition published May 2017 by Harper Trophy • average Goodreads rating 3.97 out of 5 stars • read in 1998

Gail Carson Levine’s Website

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118-Ella Enchanted

Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

A few years ago I was looking for new books to listen to on my long work drives and picked up Eleanor & Park, having seen it all over the book stores and hearing lots of wonderful things about Rainbow Rowell’s work. I almost didn’t bother listening to it after the first 5 minutes – I am not a fan of the 1980s – but I kept listening because my heart started breaking. Eleanor’s life sucks, there’s no way around it, and I had to know if she would find some happiness. 

Now, however, my opinion of E&P has fallen slightly – when I interview people at the bookstore, I ask them to find their favorite book in the store. One day, I did three interviews, and they ALL choose E&P. Each and every one. So now I, unfortunately, associate with unoriginal thought.

Synopsis

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

Review

[warning: potential spoilers ahead]

Eleanor & Park broke my heart. Rainbow Rowell reminded me that people’s lives are real and terrible and wonderful simultaneously. Eleanor is a complex character, deep and shallow, scared, and excited, open to, yet closed off from, the world around her. Park is naïve and loving, shallow and superficial, deep, and inviting, and thoroughly and completely real. They are both so real that it’s a bit terrifying.

I almost stopped listening to Eleanor & Park multiple times, I don’t like books that are so completely realistic. This is not a fairy tale, there is no guarantee of a happy ending because life has no promise of eternal happiness, just hope. All we get from life is the opportunity to hope for something better, something incredible, something that makes us feel like life is worth living – hope. Park gives Eleanor hope that even though her step father is a terrible person and her mother has turned on her and her father doesn’t care about her and the mean kids at school bully her, there’s still some hope that she can find happiness. That she can be herself without needing to hide away in a closet, a completely private place surrounded by walls, so she doesn’t, so she can’t, get hurt. She’s strange and different and, understandably, has some self-esteem issues. But with Park, she can be herself, and that’s all anyone can really hope for, to find that one person with whom we can let all our walls down, call off the guard dogs and open and share our lives.

We’re all just looking for someone to share our lives with, someone who will love us without judging our life choices, someone who understands, who really understands, who we are and where we come from. For Eleanor, that person is Park. But she knows their time is limited, they’re sixteen years old, and the impermanence of their world, their lives, is almost too overwhelming for her to really relax and let him in. Like any sixteen-year-old girl, she doubts him, her life, everything. Does he love her? How could he love her? It’s the question we all ask when we first fall in love – what’s so special about me? How did I get so lucky to have this person in my life?

Eleanor and Park live in a world that is terribly flawed and therefore completely real. And for me, that was too much to handle. I don’t like reading books that remind me that the world can be a terrible place – I want books that give me hope and a happy ending, regardless of whether it’s realistic or not, not books that remind me that hope is all I have and that happy, sunny endings are the stuff of fairy tales. I don’t like to be reminded that when I was 19, I acted exactly like Eleanor, that I ruined something potentially wonderful because my own life was too overwhelming. I wouldn’t share it with anyone and it led to heart break. I hate it, because I want Eleanor and Park to be together, not have to go their separate ways in life. I was lucky and realized that my first relationship was worthless and terrible and that my life now is far better than it ever would have been had I made different choices at sixteen and nineteen. But for Eleanor and Park, I don’t want them to have to wait to find happiness. I want them happy now, unrealistic though that may be, I don’t care.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9781250012579 • 336 pages • published February 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.11 out of 5 • read in April 2015

Rainbow Rowell’s Website

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Eleanor & Park

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Jessica Darling quintet by Megan McCafferty

Jessica Darling helped me survive high school. I was first introduced to the delightfully snarky, sarcastic and spunky teen heroine of Sloppy Firsts when I was a freshman in speech and debate practice after school one autumn afternoon back in 2003. A frenemy of mine was testing out an excerpt from Second Helpings for a speech competition and it was certainly effective: I remember nothing else of the speech and debate season but hearing about Jessica handle the popular girls in a Jersey mini-mall still resonates in my head a decade plus later.

The series consists of five books and originally Megan McCafferty only intended to write the first two and they stand alone very well. I also read Second Helpings before Sloppy Firsts and while slightly confusing, I think it just made me love Marcus even more. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Megan McCafferty my junior year at Pitt and she has now started a Jessica Darling in middle school series which is quite wonderful as well, even though it differs from the originally established timeline.

Sloppy Firsts Synopsis

When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?

Sloppy Firsts looks at Jessica’s predicament as she embarks on another year of teenage torment – from the dark days of Hope’s departure through her months as a type-A personality turned insomniac to her completely mixed-up feelings about Marcus Flutie, the intelligent and mysterious “dreg” who works his way into her heart.

Series Review

There are, thus far, 8 books about Jessica Darling. Therefore, understandably, my review cannot simply be contained to one book, each reading changes and effects how I view the books so it may be a bit garbled and I’ll try to review book by book without any spoilers, but bear with me!

Sloppy Firsts I have read only once and I did so after reading Second Helpings, the stronger of the pair, writing wise. I was introduced to Jessica after Marcus, after her sister’s wedding, and after she’s met, and discovered the truth about, Hyacinth Anastasia Wallace. All of these things take place in Sloppy Firsts but I didn’t know the full story. At the start of Sloppy Firsts, Jessica is broken, though she does her best to hide it. Her best friend Hope has moved away and while Hope does not actually physically enter the story until the end of Second Helpings, I had already met her. But her influence on Jessica’s life is profound – she is her best friend, her confidant. For a young girl to have such a strong friendship is an incredible thing to behold and when that friendship is no longer as present, depression can quickly ensue. Throughout Sloppy Firsts, Jessica must handle changing feelings, embarking on a friendship she fears Hope would disapprove of, and betrayal of her trust by a new friend. The waters of high school are choppy and Jessica must learn how to cross them safely without her navigator and first mate, Hope.

Second Helpings: My copy of Second Helpings is thoroughly beat up. I love the book, I’ve read it over and over and over again whenever I have been in need of inspiration for my own writing, or when I just want to read about characters that I love dearly. So who came up with it first, JK Rowling or Megan McCafferty? Both have a character known as “he who shall not be named” and Jessica is horribly mad at the one who walks around her high school’s halls. Her feelings have been hurt, irrevocably, she claims, and she swears to never forgive the sinner. Second Helpings is set during Jessica’s senior year and from the very start, it seems as if all hell will be breaking loose. She must deal with national tragedy (9/11), personal tragedy when a beloved family member is lost, and coming to grips with her own moral quandaries and whether or not a friendship is still a friendship if secrets are kept.

Charmed ThirdsFourth Comings: In which Jessica follows her heart and goes to her dream college and lands what she believes to be her dream job. Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings are my two least favorite books and for the longest time I would not read them. Laura had started them and was unimpressed. However, when I met Megan McCafferty, I needed a book for her to sign and so I picked up a copy of the new edition of Charmed Thirds. I will cherish it always as it bears McCafferty’s lovely looping signature and I got to meet her with some of my best college friends. However, Jessica, is just not Jessica in these two books. While Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings cover roughly a year and a half between them, Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings span almost 8 years and everything feels so rushed.

Perfect Fifths: When I went to hear Megan McCafferty speak, she read aloud from the recently released Perfect Fifths and I was hooked. It was the first time we the readers get Marcus’ point of view and WOOHOO!!! I powered through Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings just to get to the part Megan McCafferty read in the dimly lit auditorium of Frick on my beloved Pitt’s campus. As the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series did years later, the fifth book takes place when the main characters are in their late twenties. And it is pure literary gold. It’s an ending, without being final but also without fully answering all the questions that have so far gone un-answered. But it is perfect, perfect for you, yes, you to enjoy.

Jessica Darling is a relatable girl for those who grew up feeling pressure in high school, fearing being misunderstood, missing their best friend, wondering when their lives would really begin and if their relationships with others were/are meaningful. Jessica, Marcus, Hope, Bridget, Percy, Bethany and even Mr. and Mrs. Darling make up an unforgettable cast of characters. As is the case with all series, there high points and low points, both within the story and the story telling but all-in-all, Jessica is a character to depend on and a role model for those who don’t quite fit in, feel a little lost or who simply want a shoulder to cry on. She’s your girl.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Sloppy Firsts Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780609807903 • 304 pages • published August 2001 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 • series finished April 2010

Megan McCafferty’s Website

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Jessica Darling

Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

This book came very highly reviewed on GoodReads and seemed like a fun quick in-between book to read while I was student teaching. I figured it wouldn’t require much thought and could help me related to students. But I have since discovered that “young adult” consists of two subcategories – young adult for tweens and teens and young adult for actual young adults (those in their twenties). This, alas, is the former rather than the latter.

Synopsis

Anna is happy in Atlanta. She has a loyal best friend and a crush on her co-worker at the movie theater, who is just starting to return her affection. So she’s not too pleased when her father decides to send her to boarding school in Paris for her senior year. But despite not speaking a word of French, Anna meets some cool new friends, including the handsome Étienne St. Clair, who quickly becomes her best friend. Unfortunately, he’s taken – and Anna might be, too. Will a year of romantic near misses end with the French kiss she’s been waiting for?

Review

According to multiple reviews, Anna and the French Kiss is fabulous. “St. Clair is so dreamy,” and “Anna so relatable.” No one seemed to mention how messed up these two are when it comes to their supposed “friendship.” I did not find the incredibly brilliant characters that I expected to find within the pages. In fact, the secondary characters are much more vivid and our protagonist and her love interest tend to fall flat. But first, a bit more on the synopsis.

Anna is sent off to Paris for her senior year and she is not happy about it. Personally, I would jump at the chance to spend a year exploring a new culture while still in high school but Anna feels like she’s being punished, so this is the first point on which Anna and I don’t see eye-to-eye. Admittedly, Anna does manage to embrace the situation (eventually) and make some pretty cool new friends. But as soon as she starts to feel comfortable, she does what every other girl (at least her roommate) in the school seems to do – fall for the “ever so handsome and dreamy” Etienne St. Clair.

Now I think the physical description of every romantic dreamboat in a novel should be left purposefully vague so that the reader can thoroughly imagine them in a way that suits their own tastes. Therefore, the reader falls in love with the character along with the protagonist. As a fairly tall young woman, I tend to find men taller than me to be most attractive. One of the first descriptors of Etienne? Short. Second, Etienne is supposed to be this caring and cool friend and have a good relationship with his girlfriend. But in reality, Etienne is a moody jerk and a coward. Yes, he is a teenage boy, yes his hormones are running rampant, no he doesn’t have to be perfect, but he should at least be likeable and have some redeeming qualities but the more one reads, the harder they are to find.

Most books with a stereotypical romantic trope for a plot usually make up for it by creating spectacular characters and it was difficult to find Anna or St. Clair likeable, they were both too annoying. And who knows (aside from my mom) if I was just as obnoxious, insufferable and annoying as the two of them when I was in high school. Maybe I was. That’s not a part of my life I care to return to (so why did I read this book?). But I have to say, Stephanie Perkins has a charming way with words and I would thoroughly consider reading some of her other works, so long as I can relate a bit more to the characters.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142419403 • 400 pages • first published December 2010, this edition published August 2011 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 • read in October 2013

Stephanie Perkins’ Website

Anna and the French Kiss on Goodreads

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Anna and the French Kiss

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle & Emily Jenkins

One of my coworkers really enjoyed the Upside-Down Magic series and recommended, as a former teacher who worked with students with unique learning needs, I would appreciate it as well, and she was right!

Synopsis

It’s never easy when your magic goes wonky. For Nory, this means that instead of being able to turn into a dragon or a kitten, she turns into both of them at the same time — a dritten. For Elliott, the simple act of conjuring fire from his fingertips turns into a fully frozen failure. For Andres, wonky magic means he’s always floating in the air, bouncing off the walls, or sitting on the ceiling. For Bax, a bad moment of magic will turn him into a… actually, he’d rather not talk about that.

Nory, Elliott, Andres, and Bax are just four of the students in Dunwiddle Magic School’s Upside-Down Magic class. In their classroom, lessons are unconventional, students are unpredictable, and magic has a tendency to turn wonky at the worst possible moments. Because it’s always amazing, the trouble a little wonky magic can cause…

A brief social commentary before my review

When looking at the kid’s literature available to me as a child, it is safe to say that the characters were not diverse, not in their skin color, gender identity, or abilities. They were pretty much all white, slightly above average, blond, white girls. And when I was a kid, I didn’t take any notice because, as my German grandmother put it, had I been alive in 1939 like her, I would have been the poster child for the Aryan race. Blond hair, blue grey eyes, ethnically German, slightly above average height and intelligence. It is something that I find I now hate about myself, especially ass I find myself listening to speeches from of the members of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I constantly want to apologize for continuing to fuel the problem, I write characters like me, the characters that they have been rally against, because they’re just like me.

I never realized the lack of diverse books because I could relate to pretty much every main character I came across. Shortly after returning home after BookCon last year, I asked my fiance, who’s heritage is primarily Chinese and English, if he ever came across human characters he identified with as a child. His answer? His favorite books were Redwall and Watership Down. The only characters he identified with were animals, because they only had emotional descriptions and those he could relate to. He understood their feelings and with race out of the picture, he felt like he could understand their motivations because they were all inherently different than the mainstream characters, simply by being animals.

And it is because of these reasons and so many others, the Upside-Down Magic should be required reading for all elementary school students.

Review

As someone who has worked in special education and with children of multiple ethnicities, I immediately read deeper into Upside-Down Magic than most people. Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins are mad brilliant. They took a girl’s worries about being different and forced her to accept them instead of following the typical narrative of self-discovery and being mainstreamed and everyone liking her, they were much more realistic with how they handled the politics of education and the fact that all students’ needs are different, whether it be in learning math or magic. They also incorporated the fact that most minority and special needs student are often taught by a white, female teacher that the students have difficulty relating to. And while the teacher may have people in her life that have unique needs, rarely did/does the teacher.

​I recommend Upside-Down Magic to children at the store that feel like they don’t really fit in or who really like magic stories, but I also recommend it to each and every teacher that walks through the bookstore doors because, whether the authors intended or not, they have written a brilliant piece of social commentary on our education system in the United States and how imperative it is to teach every child in a manner that best fits their unique needs and style.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $5.99 • 9780545800464 • 208 pages • originally published September 2015, this edition published August 2016 by Scholastic Inc. • average Goodreads rating 4.1 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Sarah Mlynowski’s Website

Upside-Down Magic on Goodreads

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Upside-Down Magic