Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title of the book is important: The One and Only Ivan. Ivan, a lowland gorilla who has spent nearly his entire life in a small cage, is the only one. Gorillas live in family groups and males such as Ivan would protect their families in the wild. But in his small cage, Ivan is alone except for the humans who come by to take a look at him in the shopping mall. Although he has grown accustomed to his solitary life in the mall, with only a few friends and little to do except paint. We see Ivan’s heart through his art and feel his memories and longings through his imagination and paintings.

But the arrival of a new baby elephant awakens Ivan’s instincts to live and be alive again. His new little friend Ruby brings changes for Ivan and he begins to see his world in a new way, and his art through her fresh eyes. Ruby reminds him of what their home in the jungle is like and how wonderful it truly is.

The story of Ivan was inspired by a news article the author read about a captive gorilla known the “Shopping Mall Gorilla” who had lived a tiny cage at a shopping mall for 27 years before being moved to a zoo in Atlanta. Ivan became a beloved celebrity at the zoo, which houses the largest collection of western lowland gorillas in the country, and was well known for his paintings, which he “signed” with a thumb-print.

The appeal of this book and its narrative voice through Ivan makes an immediate impact and it is almost impossible to put down. There is sadness and disappointment but also hope as Ivan is moved to create a better “enclosure” for Ruby than the one he has accepted for so long. By changing her world, he changes his as well. It is an inspiring story of the possibility and potential we all have inside to be more and give more and make more of the world around us. The underlying theme of caring for all creatures big and small will appeal to animal lovers of all ages.

Age Range: 8 – 12 years

Grade Level: 3 – 7

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins; 1 edition (January 17, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061992259
ISBN-13: 978-0061992254

Price: $12.00

Literary awards: Newbery Medal (2013), SCBWI Crystal Kite Member Choice Awards for California/Hawaii (2013), School Library Journal Best of Children’s Books (2012), Kirkus Reviews Best of Children’s Books (2012)


Ivan is a a gorilla who has lived nearly his entire life in a small cage behind glass in a shopping mall. Ivan is alone except for the humans who come by to take a look at him in the shopping mall, but the arrival of a new baby elephant awakens his protective instincts and motivates him to live again.

Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is part novel and part cinema. At first glance, it is overwhelming with more than 500 pages but once you open the book you realize this is not like any book you have ever seen before. Woven expertly together by author and illustrator, Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a story told in both words and picture, as the illustrations move the story along just as much as the words do.

Inspired by the earliest science-fiction films of Georges Méliès, Selznick put together a story about a boy who lives and hides in a Paris train station in the 1930’s and who longs to unlock the secrets of the broken mechanical human figure left behind by his absent father. During his search for the key to his father’s automaton, Hugo uncovers secrets, finds true friendship and unfolds more than one mystery in this story and it is through the that readers follow him through his adventure.

This book was recognized for its incredible graphic illustrations with a Caldecott Medal in 2008. Reading pictures can be a challenge for an adult who is not a digital native but the drawings in Hugo Cabret are pencil sketches and extremely detailed, making them visually rich and complex. The story progresses as much through the drawings as through the written text, so readers have to pay attention to both. This book is amazing in its physical form, whether in print or digital, and will change the way any reader sees (and reads) a story.

Age Range: 8 – 12 years

Grade Level: 3 – 7

Lexile Measure: 820L (What’s this?)
Hardcover: 533 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Press; First Edition edition (January 30, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0439813786
ISBN-13: 978-0439813785

Literary awards:

Caldecott Medal (2008), Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children’s Literature (2008), Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award Nominee (2009), Flicker Tale Children’s Book Award (2009), Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis Nominee for Kinderbuch (2009)
Iowa Children’s Choice Award (2010), Boston Author’s Club Young Reader Award (2008), NAIBA Book of the Year for Children’s Literature (2007)


During his search for the key to his father’s automaton, Hugo uncovers secrets, finds true friendship and unfolds more than one mystery in this story and it is through the combined drawings and words that readers follow him through his adventure.

Review: Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet is not very nice. In fact, she is kind of mean. She is sneaky, nosy and generally disregards privacy in the interest of her own desire to uncover the ugly truth (as she sees it). Harriet the Spy is also a classic tale with a character so shocking and hypocritical that young readers cannot get enough of her. She spies on her classmates, her neighbors, her teachers, and when she is found out and her frank observations are exposed by her friends and school mates, she is ostracized by her peers.

The appeal of Harriet is her unwillingness to relent. Even after she has apologized to her friends and classmates, she is unwilling to give up her notebooks and her frank observations. She is a flawed character but one that kids her age (or any age really) embrace because they see themselves in her. She represents a spirit of defiant freedom that middle school kids identify with and her curiosity about the people in her world is universal. Children learn early on that if they want to know what’s REALLY going on, most of the time the grown-ups around them will not tell them directly. Eavesdropping is the oldest method of gathering intelligence and kids learn early. Reading about Harriet’s adventures validates what kids already know about their place in the adult world and although Harriet’s mean streak gets her in trouble, she is unwavering in her right to express herself in her writing. For aspiring authors, she is a hero; for everyone who has ever felt like an outcast looking in on the world, she is a fellow-observer; a kindred spirit. Harriet is a tomboy, a rebel and a spy. Even fifty years later, she speaks to new generations of boys and girls who can be those things with her vicariously.

Publisher: Yearling (May 8, 2001)

ISBN-13: 978-0440416791

Age Range: 8 – 12 years
Grade Level: 3 – 7
Paperback: 320 pages
Price: $5.25

Awards: Sequoyah Book Award (1967)


Who wants a spy as a friend? Follow Harriet as she finds out that sneaking around and taking note of all her friends’ secrets isn’t exactly the best way to keep them as friends.


Review: The Book Thief

The Book Thief
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the greatest things about this children’s/YA story is that it is not really a children’s story at all. It is about children who must think and act like adults in many situations, and it is about adults who often think and act like children, but this story is a human story. And as the narrator puts it, humans are haunting.

Set in the cold of 1939 Germany, WWII is well underway and Hitler has a firm grip on everyone and everything surrounding the main character, 10-year old Liesel and her life as a foster child in a struggling home outside of Munich. Liesel begins her illicit collection of books by taking the copy of The Grave Digger’s Handbook that falls in the snow at her little brother’s funeral and although she cannot read, Liesel sees this book as a treasured reminder of her brother and of that moment in her life and her last days with her mother. Liesel experiences her life surviving the war, learns to read and write with her “Papa’s” help, tries to understand the suffering and injustices she sees everywhere around her. When Liesel is 14, she is given a blank book by the mayor’s wife who has over the years provided Liesel with many books from her personal home library. Liesel decides to write her own life story, titled The Book Thief. When her village is bombed, everyone around her dies and in the chaos, she drops her book. Death picks it up and keeps it until the day comes to collect her soul at the end of her life and then returns the book.

The reader is guided through the story of Liesel’s life, and the lives of others around her, by Death. This unique perspective on human life, shared by one who collects the souls at the end but does not “live” gives this story an objective and almost detached emotion. It is this point of view that makes the literary value of this novel so incredible. Named a Printz Honor Book in 2007, The Book Thief incorporates many interesting literary devices that make it a worthy recipient. The choice of narrator is an obviously intriguing one. The use of bold text to clarify meaning or emphasize certain events or points by the narrator is also an unusual technique. The books gathered by Liesel throughout her young life, some gifts (The Standover Man and The Word Shaker, which are both written by Liesel’s step-father Max on painted-over pages of Adolph Hitler’s Book, Mein Kampf), some stolen (The Grave Digger’s Handbook and The Shoulder Shrug) and Liesel’s own book are all symbols of defiance and survival, of fascination and optimism for the human spirit. Death carries around Liesel’s book and reads it repeatedly before the time comes to collect her soul and return her book, some ways becoming a book thief as well.

The Michael L. Printz Award recognizes teen and YA novels on their literary excellence and this book displays it in many ways. The themes (coming of age, war, tolerance, bravery, family, survival, meaning of life and death) are explored with the kind of writing that makes a reader want to start over on page 1 as soon as you finish the end of page 576.

Age Range: 12 and up
Grade Level: 7 and up
Lexile Measure: 730L (What’s this?)
Paperback: 576 pages
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; Reprint edition (September 11, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0375842209
ISBN-13: 978-0375842207

Price: $6.00

Literary awards:  National Jewish Book Award, Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children’s Literature (2007), Buxtehuder Bulle (2008), Prijs van de Kinder- en Jeugdjury Vlaanderen (2009), Printz Honor (2007), Exclusive Books Boeke Prize (2007), The Quill Award Nominee for Young Adult/Teen (2006), Zilveren Zoen (2008), Teen Read Award Nominee for Best All-Time-Fave (2010), Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for Preis der Jugendjury (2009), ASSOCIATION OF JEWISH LIBRARIES NEW AND NOTABLE BOOK for Teen Book Award (2006), Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2010), Kathleen Mitchell Award, Margaret A. Edwards Award (2014)


The life of a young girl living in Hitler’s Germany during WWII is retold by Death as he watches her steal books and eventually write on of her own telling her own life story. A Haunting look at humanity and hope through the eyes of the one being that must be present for all of it, good or bad.

Sharing the Review of the Week


Hopkins, H. Joseph. The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-loving Woman Changed a City Forever. Jill McElmurry, Illus. Non-fiction. Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, 2013. [32]p. $16.99. 978-1-4424-1402-0.OUTSTANDING. GRADES K-4.

Review of the Week.


Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia TateThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

In this story, we meet Calpurnia Tate, or “Callie” as she is known in her family. At 11 years old, Callie finds herself more interested in the world outside the house than the one inside and after one of her many adventurous explorations of the outside world, happens to discover that her strange and aloof grandfather, who lives out back behind the house, shares her fascination with the natural world and the unusual creatures who live in it. When Callie’s investigations bring her to a conclusion as to why the yellow grasshoppers are more numerous and much larger than the green ones in the surrounding fields, she must overcome the social restrictions of 1899 Texas to bring her scientific findings to the attention of the one society that might actually value them. Natural selection and Darwin’s theories are discussed and examined to help readers understand how Callie comes to her own conclusions in the story.

Henry Holt & Co. (BYR) (2009)

ISBN 9780805088410

Price: $12.00

Quantitative: Lexile Level: 830; ATOS 5.3

Qualitative: A story for Low/Middle Grades (4-8). historical context and themes involve family dynamics and the historic role of women and girls in the U.S. The science described and incorporation of historical figures woven into the story make it fun and authentic.

Content Area: English; Science – Method; Evolution

Common Core Standards: RL.5.1, RL.5.3, RL.6.3, RL.6.6

Additional/Digital Content:  Neo K-12 resources and media:

Literary Awards: Newbery Honor (2010), Bank Street College of Education Josette Frank Award (2010), Audie Award for Children’s for Ages 8-12 (2011), Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (2011), IRA Children’s and Young Adult’s Book Award for Intermediate–Fiction (2010)

Annotation: Can one girl’s curiosity about the wonders of the natural world around her, fueled by the eccentric and sometimes obsessive musings of her oddball grandfather, really mean anything to the scientists of her time? Can one little girl really make any difference? Calpurnia Tate learns that evolution takes on many forms, whether through natural selection or personal growth and experience, the world around us is always changing and it is better to be part of it than turn a blind eye.

Review: Farewell to Manzanar

Farewell to Manzanar
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is based on the real-life experiences of author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who spent three years as a young teen in the Manzanar Relocation Camp in southeastern California. The story starts in 1941 when Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and by 1942, the US War Department had adopted the Japanese-American relocation act and Wakatsuki’s family was forced to move. The horrible conditions, humiliation dehumanizing experiences of those held in the Japanese internment camps is captured in vivid description in this book. Jeanne’s perspective and memories of the toll on families and entire generation of Japanese Americans has great impact for all readers, not just teens.

Farewell to Manzanar follows Jeanne and her family to their life after they are released from Manzanar and this glimpse into the return to “normal” life is an important and impactful one. The prejudice and injustice of the internment camps is easy to comprehend; the subtleties of racism and oppression suffered in quieter ways by Jeanne and her family after their release are more difficult to see right away but once recognized, they are impossible to ignore. The difference in high school experiences for Jeanne and her best friend Radine bring into focus the stark differences for the two girls who share everything but their ethnicity. The prejudices Japanese Americans face, as immigrants to this country before and after the war, are part of the fabric of our country. Stories like this remind us that these prejudices have not all disappeared. Racism and justice, through action and inaction, define who we are as a nation and a species and novels like this help teens shine a light on who they are and who they might want to become.

Age Range: 12 and up
Grade Level: 7 and up
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Ember; 1 edition (February 14, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307976076
ISBN-13: 978-0307976079


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