Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Grades 6-8’ Category

Mariana Weber is so passionate about global warming that she used to regularly write letters to the president. Then she realized that his replies were all the same and that a co-worker had probably drafted a form letter for such requests as hers. Undeterred, Mariana decided to both form an organization for environmental protection and to write a book. For the latter, she enlisted her illustrator friend Joanna Whysner, whose colorful drawings add to the charm of The Global Warming Express.

Through an easy-to-read fantasy, Weber entertains while also making a plea for change. Earth is in peril. Several animals and two young people decide to join forces. They ride a magical train to the White House, where they hope their cry will be heard by the president.

The adventure begins in Antarctica, where an emperor penguin named The Fluff has just lost his mom, who died after swallowing a piece of plastic from the ocean. The girls also meet other animals whose stories engage while also drawing upon sympathies: a harp seal named Creamy who almost drowned when the ice she called home melted before she could learn to swim, a bear named Tomas and a salamander named Sally whose homes have been destroyed by fires caused by drought, a polar bear named Flora who found herself separated from her parents due to melting ice, a mountain goat named Edgar who has nowhere left to migrate, a caribou named Lauren who has no place to call home due to the destruction of muskeg, a duck named Zolo whose feathers have been permanently damaged by oil, a fish named Bobbi Sue whose aquatic home is toxic, and a rat named Zingo whose home is being destroyed by hurricanes that have become increasingly severe. One would be hard-pressed to read the tales of all these animals and not be stirred to action.

Weber has done her research. In her introduction, she explains why the Earth is heating up and why we need to slow down the effects. Through a parrot named Inoah, she teaches reading about multiple issues related to global warming such as the burning of fossil fuels, drilling of natural preserves, releasing of carbon monoxide into the air, and dumping of oils. And, on her resources page, Weber provides multiple links to articles and websites related to climate change. Anyone who is stirred to action by The Global Warming Express will have obvious reasons and solutions.

The Global Warming Express isn’t simply a cautionary tale. It’s also a fun story of a cross-country adventure where several animals and two young people visit unfamiliar places and face dangers such as fires and hurricanes. One minor complaint is I’m not sure why the train takes them into Canada, given that their mission is to plead with the United States president to pass environmental protection laws. While on this ride, the train becomes a character too. If the passengers are sad it slows down and even stops, but if the passengers are happy it speeds up.

In addition to writing a book, Weber started The Global Warming Express program. Its website explains global warming, tells how adults can help, and provides updates on small and big goals that young people in the group have made towards climate change.

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From the ravaged tiny Polynesian island of Vaitea arises a hero and heroine for our times. Based on his ten years of Easter Island research, Edward Stanton has written an inspiring adventure about a brother and sister, their island, and how they saved it. In Wide as the Wind, Miru and Renga face tough choices and much hardship when they set sail to a distant island to find the seeds and shoots of trees that could reforest their homeland. Their return to Vaitea reaps romance and additional challenges in this teen historical novel.

Adventure is at the forefront of this tightly-written novel. Prior to embarking on their journey, Miru and Renga learn the sailor’s craft. Their grandfather teaches them to weave sails of pounded bark, cut full-sized paddles, make nets of mulberry cloth, and fashion birdbone hooks. He also teaches them to coast the island in a longboat, navigate by the sun, moon, and stars, recognize winds, currents, and constellations, and to fish. After recruiting a third crewman, the brother and sister duo set sail. On their journey, they brave the elements. The wind gusts. The sea roars. Supplies are washed overboard. The sun burns, parching their throats. They encounter sharks and their third crewman is attacked. Miru, Renga, and their third crewsman sail fifty-two days before finding land, and this is just the beginning of their adventure.

At the heart of Wide as the Wind also lies a theme. Years of tribal wars have devastated Vaitea. Tribes people who survived are now facing starvation. To save them, Miru must personally sacrifice romantic love, suffer injury and loss, and even risk his life. Even when they return from their journey to a distant island with the seeds and shoots of trees necessary to reforest their homeland, the tribal wars threaten to continue. Although some historical accounts suggest that extinction of natural resources of the real-life Easter Island inhabitants started long before internal conflicts, the latter certainly didn’t help. In basing his story on a real place, Stanton has crafted a parable that shows how mankind’s violence can lead to environmental destruction and even the end of a world.

Wide as the Wind has many other positives. The characters are realistic. Miru and Renga are likeable teens to which every reader can relate. Miru disagrees with his father’s choices, enjoys swimming with dolphins, and sneaks away to spend time with his girlfriend. The descriptions are vivid; the diction is strong. Here’s just one phrase for example: “He sat down with them on paving stones that glittered with brine and fish scales….” There are even moments of humor. One of the funniest is when birds poop on Miru’s head, just after he’s received the call to save his people. My one complaint is that I felt at times the action moved too fast and kept me at an emotional distance from the characters.

Author Edward Stanton has written eleven books. His fiction, poems, and essays have appeared in publications across the world. He is a professor of literature, and has won grants for his travel, research, and writing. Wide as the Wind is a worthy addition to his literary accomplishments. It has won the 2017 silver Moonbeam Award for Young Adult Fiction and the 2018 silver Feathered Quill Award for Teen Fiction.

I believe no one should be labeled as ‘crazy’ for loving a pet.—David Williams, MIC

Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship is a fun collection of photos and stories by David Williams that breaks the stereotype that only crazy ladies care for cats. Williams himself is a freelance photographer who lives in New York with his wife and their two cats. Men With Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship was recognized as a New York Times Best seller shortly after its release in 2016.

Each two-page spread of this 140-page delightful photo book consists of a professional photo, identification of the male cat owner and his cat companion(s), and a quote that highlights the feline friendship. How each met differs: A mother cat followed Louis home; A burned cat slated for euthanasia was rescued by Al; Cats abandoned at an auto shop catch Alex’s attention. How the bond developed is unique: Brent loves how his cat jumps on his chest, kneads his paws in his beard, and licks his face; Reuben appreciates how relaxed his cat is and tries to emulate that lifestyle; Dennis admires the array of sounds his cat will use to communicate, with his favorite being a chirrup that acknowledges his presence. The way the men describe the friendship devotion varies: Benn refers to his relationship with his cat at being like an old married couple; Brian jokes that his cat is a dog except evil instead; Dustin shares that when he and his cat make eye contact there is a deep inner connection.

Photo books are not my typical fare. I’m more of an information sort of reader. One of my favorite parts of Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship is the section labeled “What is the hardest part of cat ownership?” I wanted to see several other spreads like this. But I must admit that a couple rereads of Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship revealed more than I expected about living with cats.

Williams started this photography project back in 2009 not only to shuns stereotypes, but also to celebrate feline friendship. In his preface, he expressed the hope that his book would inspire readers to rescue and adopt pets or donate time and resources to animal welfare groups. Men with Cats: Intimate Portraits of Feline Friendship certainly increased my appreciation for the quirky and intense bonds that can exist between men and their cats.

A good owner is just anyone that shows love and compassion towards their pet — whether it be a cat, dog, or rabbit.—David Williams, Refinery 29

If you like cats, romances, and mysteries, check out Mayhem and Mystery at the Kitty Kastle by Malynda McCarrick. The downside is the writing could use some editing and polish. The upside is a portion of the proceeds from the purchase of this short fun read goes to support Midwest cat shelters.

Too many strange things were happening at the Kitty Kastle for anyone to dismiss them as just anyone’s imagination. First, there were the unexplainable noises such as that of footsteps when there’s no one else around. Then there was the lack of noise. On the fourth floor, especially in an old house, one should the wind or the rain but instead the build is sound proof. Third, there are walls that are located where they shouldn’t be and a foundation that doesn’t line up with the rest of the building. Finally, there are the gifts that mysteriously appear. The mystery is my favorite part.

One black cat knew that something was afoot and kept trying to provide clues to Jay Carpenter, the man hired to bring the shelter up to code. He’s also a growing source of comfort to Miranda, the owner of Kitty Kastle. She’s recovering from a messy divorce, but apparently can’t resist a hunk in a toolbelt. Jay turns out to strong in build and gentle in character. Soon, the two are dreaming up a multitude of ideas for how the building could be renovated. Moreover, because Jay knows the shelter couldn’t cover the cost of major repairs, Jay has volunteered to help for free. Just as important, a dog lover at heart, Jay is slowly being converted to a cat lover. The romance is unrealistic but does make for a light-hearted read, which we all need at times.

Finally, there are the cats of Kitty Kastle. They live in a dream shelter. Each floor has varying levels of padded condos. In addition, the walls have ledges and cubby holes in which the cats can play and hide. On the first floor is a central playroom, filled with climbing structures and tunnels for the cats to explore. There’s also a large kitchen with multiple refrigerator for the specialty foods and various medicines the cats would need. Finally, the owner lives on the premises and so she is available 24/7 to check on the feline residents. The shelter’s inhabitants serve as a pleasant backdrop and the mystery wouldn’t have been resolved without Minx.

Author Malynda McCarrick is Midwestern country girl who grew up with a love for books. She’s also an avid animal lover. One day, the arrangement of vendors at a cat show put her and The Cat House (a no-kill cat shelter) next to one another. Afternoon conversations between the two led to McCarrick taking an interest in The Cat House and eventually self-publishing a cat cozy dedicated to its hard-working volunteers. Run-on sentences, missed punctuation, and some stereotype characters diminished some of my enjoyment of Mayhem and Mystery at the Kitty Kastle. Otherwise, McCarricks’ novel served as an evening of escapism.

Before I started to blog, if you had asked me to name jobs that pets do, I could have named several … and all of them would have been related to dogs. Should I have even thought of cats, I might have pointed out their ability to catch rodent. Yet cats are much more clever and versatile that most of us give them credit. You just need to read Lisa Rogak’s Cats on the Job to discover not just one or ten but fifty ways that cats purr, mouse, and even sing for their supper. In her colorful and photo-rich book, Rogak shares well-written true tales of cats around the world who are happily earning their keep.

Through blogging, I had heard of a few famous cats. Granted most of them were known for their quirky looks or unique talents such as the ability to play a piano. But there were also cats who starred in movies and even those who had run for mayor. The more I kept my ears open, the more stories I heard. And so, I knew about cats in bookstores, hospitals, libraries, and train stations. I’d also glimpsed stories of the current trend of cat cafes. I highly enjoyed reading Rogak’s examples of cats performing these jobs, as well as multiple accounts of cats that catch rodents.

Rogak also wrote about a host of jobs that cats perform which are new to me. One is that of Acro-Cats, a group that is devoted to “promoting the mental and physical health benefits of cat training through clicker training…a positive reinforcement based training method”. Learning about them inspired me to renew my own efforts at clicker-training my cats, and seeing the circus act in-person is on my bucket list. Another story that piqued my curiosity is that of rescued cats in Australia that create paintings. I’m sure at least one of my cats would be up to the challenge! I also found intriguing the idea of catflexing, a fitness routine that involves exercising with a cat. One of my cats has already shown interest in this! Another notable tale is of Carlow, a cat who works at a firehouse. Anyone remember Esther Averill’s story The Fire Cat from their childhood? Sometimes there’s truth in fiction!

Aside from the quality writing and design of Cats on the Job, what stands out most to me is the broad scope of jobs that cats can perform. To name a few in America: In Washington, a cat named Sable shows up like clockwork twice a day to serve as a school crossing guard; In Michigan, two lucky cats serve as furniture testers; and in New York, cats have a long history of acting as hotel concierge. Rogak didn’t just limit her tales to American cats either: In England, a toy company hired a cat to guard its warehouse of toys; In Great Britain, a cat named Jessi helps an autistic boy to express himself. In Japan, a cat named Iemon serves on the police force and helps fight crime. For some of these positions, it may seem obvious how the cat does its job. For example, cats who test furniture are cats who are encouraged to scratch, bite, and jump on furniture to test its durability. For other positions, such as that of how a cat that serves on the police force, you’ll have to check out Rogak’s book to learn how exactly cats can fight crime.

Now that I’ve read Rogak’s book, if anyone were to ask me to name jobs that pets do, most of them would be related to cats. Cats on the Job is an informative and fun read about an idea which is gaining popularity. Working cats are both a way to help the homeless cat population and to develop comradery with cats.

Through email, I asked Rogak how she found out about the cats she profiled. Her answer?

“I found the cats online, in older books–many of them were sadly long deceased–and by posting queries online. There were several that didn’t make it in because there wasn’t enough information or the photos weren’t great.

“The occupational hazard of writing books about cats is that several are not going to be around by the time the book comes out. The train stationmaster cat died a few months before publication date… but I’ve also discovered that having their stories immortalized in the pages of a book is a great way to honor their memory.”


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2018

I am focusing this year on other commitments. Once a month, I’ll post reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. Titles will include: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.

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