Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Books from Quarantine: BenBee and the Teacher Griefer

BenBee and the Teacher Griefer (The Kids Under the Stairs #1), by KA Holt, (Sept. 2020, Chronicle Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9781452182513

Ages 10-14

KA Holt is just amazing. Her approach to middle grade novels is creative and exciting, keeping readers engaged with verse, throwing scribbled notes and blackout poetry, drawings and doodles in to catch readers where they live. I loved Rhyme Schemer and ended up using blackout poetry in my library at the time to get kids looking at words differently. Now, Holt takes on “divergent” kids and uses Sandbox, a game similar to Minecraft, to reach readers. Four characters: BenBee, BenY, JordanJ, and Javier are four kids in summer school for failing a Florida state standardized test (not-so affectionately referred to as the FART). Their teacher is Ms. J, a librarian-turned-teacher who’s got her own assessment she’s sweating over; she has to turn these “divergent thinkers” into readers that can pass the FART. The book unfolds through each tween’s narration, told in their very individual styles: free verse, stream of consciousness, and art. Ms J isn’t your normal type of teacher, and these kids – “the kids under the stairs”, as that’s the area where their classroom is shoehorned – aren’t your typical students. Each is grappling with bigger issues than the FART, and Ms. J eventually understands that she’s got to meet these kids where they live: namely, Sandbox.

BenBee and the Teacher Griefer has it all: grief and loss, learning disabilities and overbearing parents, a teacher willing to do the unconventional work to reach her students, and… Spartacus. The characters are realistic and relatable, fully realized on the page; the frustration with standardized testing and the “one student size fits all” approach, and the pressure on teachers to cram students into that one-size-fits-all model. The book is voraciously readable and deserves a spot next to the most popular Minecraft adventures and the best new kidlit.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Teen, Tween Reads, Uncategorized, Young Adult/New Adult

Two more original DC graphic novels! Gotham High and My Video Game Ate My Homework

I missed the boat on this one when they pubbed on April 7th, but now, you have no excuse: two more DC original graphic novels have been out for a month now, and I am about to rave them. I picked up these advance copies at ALA Midwinter earlier this year, and had the best conversation with the folks at the DC Booth. I hope you’re all safe and sound, if you’re reading this, and trust me, I’m working my way through the stack o’graphic novels you were kind enough to send me home with.

Gotham High, by Melissa de la Cruz/Illustrated by Thomas Pitilli, (April 2020, DC Comics), $16.99, ISBN: 9781401286248

Ages 12-17

Melissa de la Cruz is a YA powerhouse: my middle graders can’t get enough of her Descendents novels, and my teens and YA readers devour her Alex and Eliza books. She can navigate complicated relationships between her characters, and who gets more complicated than the Joker, Catwoman, and Batman? Right? Gotham High is a YA take on Bruce, Selina, and Jack as teens – no capes, no superpowers, just the baggage they already come with (SO much baggage). Bruce is 17, just kicked out of boarding school, and has too many ghosts, in the form of memories, inhabiting stately Wayne Manor. Selina Kyle used to be the girl next door, now a Gotham High student that hangs out with Jack Napier, class clown with a heck of a mean streak. Bruce falls in with the two, and finds himself involved in a love triangle of sorts. But a kidnapping rocks Gotham High, and Bruce is thrust into the role of detective to get to the bottom of things.

Taking away the capes, gadgets, and makeup, Melissa de la Cruz gives us three incredibly complex, flawed characters, and brings us into their contentious friendship. She gives us chilling moments and dread realizations about the people each character will eventually become – with or without a costume. She makes them easily relatable and recognizable, and artist Thomas Pitilli gives us realistic characters with his artwork, with all the rah-rah high school spirit we expect to find in a high school hallway to the anger always simmering below the surface for each character. He captures the spirit of high school, in all its internal chaos, with style.

 

My Video Game Ate My Homework, by Dustin Hansen, (Apr. 2020, DC Comics), $9.99, ISBN: 9781401293260

Ages 8-12

This is a fandom-filled graphic novel that kids and grownups alike will love Dewey is a 13-year-old kid on the verge of flunking science when he and his friends gets sucked into a video game adventure that presents them with challenges, fights with digital monsters, and puzzles to solve. Loaded with sight gags and wink-nudges to video games, con life, and overall fandom, kids (and big kids, like me) will see themselves in Dewey and Co.

The book encourages readers to problem solve and emphasizes the importance of cooperation and teamwork. The cartoony-realistic style and fantasy monsters are so much fun – perfect story to introduce if you have Dungeons & Dragons fledgling fans. If you have Secret Coders readers, give them this book, which will continue challenging their problem-solving skills and captivating them with a fun storyline.

Dustin Hansen’s also written the Microsaurs series, which never stays on my library shelves. (Which means I probably need to order them for my kid, because he would LOVE them.) I got to talk to him at Midwinter, and he’s one of the nicest people ever.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Horror, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Great TBR Readdown: Hello, Neighbor and The Land of Broken Time

My Great TBR Readdown continues!

Hello Neighbor: Missing Pieces (Hello Neighbor, Book 1), by Carly Anne West/Illustrated by Tim Heitz, (Sept. 2018, Scholastic), $7.99, ISBN: 978-1-338-28009-8

Ages 10-14

Based on the horror video game, Hello Neighbor, this is the first book in a middle school-and-up series introducing Nicky Roth, a new kid in the town of Raven Brooks, and their neighbors, the Petersons. Nicky and Aaron, the Peterson’s son, become friends over their shared interest in tinkering, but when Nicky visits Aaron’s home, he’s uncomfortable. Aaron’s father makes him uneasy, and Nicky notices that Aaron, his mother, and sister are equally uncomfortable around him. The kids at school seem afraid of Aaron, and secrets and rumors about his father run wild. What’s the Peterson family’s dark secret, and why does Nicky feel like Aaron’s father is stalking him?

Knowing nothing about the Hello Neighbor game, I picked this book up and discovered a quietly creepy, light horror novel for tweens. If you have horror fans, this should be a good book to hand them. There are three in the series so far; the characters have a good background to build on, and the suspense builds nicely throughout the book. Illustrations throughout keep the pages turning.

 

In the Land of Broken Time, by Max Evan/Illustrated by Maria Evan, (Aug. 2016, self-published), $7.99, ISBN: 978-1520569291

Ages 8-10

A self-published novella by husband-wife team Max and Maria Evan, we’ve got a time-traveling fantasy starring a boy, a girl, and a talking dog, taking place in a fantasy land ruled by time – or the lack of it. Christopher sneaks out of his house to go to a nearby traveling circus, meets a girl named Sophie, and ends up hijacking a hot-air balloon, where the two meet a talking circus dog named Duke. They end up in a land where sibling scientists work at opposite ends: one seek to help them repair time, while the other wants to use time to manipulate his own power struggle.

The books is only about 50 pages, and is a quick enough read. I’d like to see something a little more fleshed out, because the world-building felt a little rushed, but was promising. Where is this land? What are the origin stories for the scientists, gnomes, and townspeople who waited for the prince? How did this power struggle between the two scientists begin? There are Narnian influences here that I enjoyed spotting, and there’s obviously more backstory to draw on; the story’s end leaves a sequel – or a prequel? – open to possibility. Maria Evan’s illustrations are beautiful, bright, and colorful, and brought the land and its characters to life. I’d like to see more. Let’s hope we get it.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Intermediate

5-Minute Stories for Minecrafters: Extreme Stories!

5-Minute Stories for Minecrafters: Extreme Stories from the Extreme Hills, by Greyson Mann/Illustrated by Grace Sandford, (Sept. 2017, Sky Pony Press), $7.99, ISBN: 978-1-5107-2370-2

Recommended for readers 7-10

Buddies Zack, Sophia, and Anthony are Minecraft adventurers on the hunt for treasure. Over the course of eight short stories (or short chapters, since they do follow one adventure), the friends encounter zombies, spiders, exploding Creepers, and a dreaded Enderman! Written for a more intermediate audience, these are fun for a quick read-aloud during a circle time or for kids who are in the mood for something fast that doesn’t require a lot of commitment; something they can pick up during a homework or study break. Themes of working together and friendship frame the relationship between characters and influence choices they make while adventuring. Illustrations throughout the text keep kids in the story’s world, holding their interest.

Overall, a fun book to have available for Minecrafters. My library is loaded with them.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Gamer Squad takes on video game monsters in the real world!

Gamer Squad: Attack of the Not-So Virtual Monsters, by Kim Harrington, (Aug. 2017, Sterling), $6.95, ISBN: 9781454926122

Recommended for readers 8-12

Bex is a gamer, and her game of choice is Monsters Unleashed: an augmented reality game where you hunt and capture monsters using your smartphone and the game app. (Pokemon Go players, you got this.) She and her best friend, Charlie, love playing the game until a mishap with a strange machine at Charlie’s grandfather’s place causes a WiFi gitch and empties Bex’s monster catalog… into the real world! Now, it’s up to Bex, Charlie, and a frenemy Willa to track them all down and get them back before the monsters overrun their town.

Gamer Squad is one of those series you just know the kids are going to swarm when you get them on the shelves. It brings handheld gaming to middle grade fiction with fun and adventure, and author Kim Harrington manages to give us a strong female protagonist, a story about friendship, and addresses bullying all at once. It’s a fast-moving story with likable characters, excitement, and leaves you ready for the sequel, which in this case, released on the same day.

Gamer Squad: Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind, by Kim Harrington,
(Aug. 2017, Sterling), $6.95, ISBN: 9781454926139

A no-brainer for your gamer kids and a nice fiction-y wink to add to your STEM program displays. I’ve just ordered both for my library; the third book hits shelves this Fall.

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, geek, Humor, Middle Grade, Puberty, Tween Reads

Win at Life! Insert Coin to Continue

insert-coinInsert Coin to Continue, by John David Anderson, (Sept. 2016, Aladdin), $16.99, ISBN: 9781481447041

Recommended for ages 9-13

Bryan Biggins is a middle school kid who’s obsessed with his favorite video game, Sovereign of Darkness, and obsessed with finding the secret advanced level of play once he beats the game. Time and again. His friends try to tell him to give it up, but Bryan’s not having it; sure enough, one night, he thinks he’s accessed the secret level, but the game just shuts off. When he wakes up the next morning, he’s discovered that his life is the new level! He’s got stats, and more importantly, he gains and loses HP (health points, hit points). People at school are talking to him weirdly, like the teacher that sends him on a quest to get a Twinkie from the teacher’s lounge, past a group of dieting teachers. What happens if all his hit points are used up – or worse, if he runs out of coins to continue? Is this the way the rest of his life is going to go?

This is one of those books that’s too much fun to read and booktalk. A kid wakes up living his own videogame, but the videogame is life as we know it? That’s perfect class trip or reading group discussion material! Bryan is EveryKid, and his friends are fun, along for the ride. Bryan is center stage here, and that’s just fine, because he’s a funny, upbeat narrator that readers will like going on the adventure with. Give this to your gamers, display with C.J. Farley’s Game World, and the insane amount of Minecraft fiction that’s out there.

Posted in gaming, Graphic Novels, Non-Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Box Brown gives us the real story of Tetris, the most addictive game EVER

tetris_1Tetris: The Games People Play, by Box Brown (October 2016, First Second), $19.99, ISBN: 9781626723153

Recommended for ages 12+

If you spent the better part of the early ’90s glued to your keyboard/gaming console/handheld, immersed in the video game Tetris, you’re not alone. I have logged many hours in front of my NES, rotating those little blocks to achieve the perfect fit. Box Brown’s graphic novel tells the story behind Tetris: the men who created it, and the game developers that almost went to war over bringing it to the masses.

We meet Alexey Pajitnov and his colleague, Vlad Pokhilko, computer scientists at the Moscow Academy of Science. In 1984, Alexey created Tetris in his spare time; it began life as freeware, being passed from friend to friend, coworker to coworker. This game was a phenomenon waiting to happen: it was addicting from the start; people were mesmerized. One story in the book illustrates a manager providing copies to his workplace colleagues, only to take the discs back and destroy them when office productivity declined.

We see the struggle between game developers and the tangled weave of rights for the game: Nintendo, Atari, and Sega all wanted it, and rights 0wnership was downright sketchy, with miscommunication and under the table deals leading to lawsuits. The story reads like an international thriller in parts, with all the trips to Moscow, international dealings, and theft and intrigue.

The story unfolds in two-color art, with game screen renderings and simple character drawings keeping readers focused on the story and the complexity of the game itself. In the story of Tetris, Box Brown also gives us the story of gaming: the pursuit of fun, and the role of gaming in art, culture, commerce, and intellect. From Lascaux cave paintings, which depict games, to artifacts of gaming pieces rendered in bone, to Senet, an Ancient Egyptian board game, to dice games, and finally, to smartphone gaming (where Tetris still lives on), the pursuit of fun, the joy of gaming, is part of human history.

This will go over well with gamers and history fans, graphic novel fans and anyone interested in business. There’s some good advice for businesses in the story of Tetris, especially for anyone interested in international licenses. Box Brown’s graphic novel is multilayered and well-rounded, with an abundance of information presented in an interesting and easy to digest format.

Box Brown is a New York Times–bestselling author. He wrote the best-selling graphic biography, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. Take a look at some more of Tetris here, and head over to Box Brown’s author webpage and see more of his illustration work.

tetris_2 tetris_3 tetris_4

 

And now, you can’t get the Tetris music out of your head, either. You’re welcome.

Posted in Media, Video Games

Game Review: Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap Games, 2009)

Recommended for ages 8-up

Plants vs. Zombies is a tower defense game by PopCap Games where the objective is fairly simple – using different plants as defense, keep the zombies out.

With every wave the player successfully fends off, the zombies increase, as do the plants at the player’s disposal. Originally starting with pea shooters and sunflowers, who draw sunlight and allow you to grow more plants, the game also provides such defensive fauna as cherry bombs, walnuts, and exploding potatoes. The zombies start out in the classic shambling style and whispering “Braaiins”, but get craftier – some ride zambonis, some dance, Saturday Night Fever-like, onto the scene, and some drop from the sky. They will eat through the plants if they make it through the wave of attacks, and if they eat their way through, lawnmowers stand by as a last line of defense. Increasing levels take the battle from the front lawn to the backyard (setting up defense by the pool) and the roof. A neighbor,  “Crazy Dave”, appears periodically to give the player a chance to purchase additional bonuses.

The game is available for limited play on PopCap’s site; it is also available as a download for Apple iPod and iPad systems, Android, Nintendo DSi, PlayStation 3, XBox, and the multiplayer platform Steam. PC and Mac users can also buy a copy for their computer. There is a Plants vs. Zombies wikia where players can read about walkthroughs, cheats, and new releases.

The game is shoot-’em-up fun without any horrific or realistic violence. Zombie’s heads pop off, but this is no George Romero film. The flowers are cute animated characters, and the zombies are ugly-cute more than horrific. If the zombies make it into the house, there are crunching sounds and red letters appear on the screen saying, “The zombies ate your brains!” but that is the extent of the horror in this game. The game helps kids plan strategies, figuring out how much they want to spend on their flowers, placement to best fend off their zombies, and when to spend funds with “Crazy Dave”.

The game is the fastest-selling PopCap video game and has been nominated for Interactive Achievement Awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (“Casual Game of the Year” and “Outstanding Achievement in Game Design”). The game has also received nominations in “Best Game Design”, “Innovation”, and “Best Download Game” for the Game Developers Choice Awards. (Wikipedia)