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The Courage to Hope: One for the Murphys by Linda Mullaly Hunt

Hello!

What is it with me and crying books recently?!

Do I usually like books that make me want to cry?

No.

Well, I recently picked up One for the Murphys by Linda Mullaly Hunt because it is on the 2013-2014 Florida Sunshine State list despite the fact that it is a crying book. In the end it was a pretty good read!

Twelve-year-old Carley ConnorOne for the Murphys by Linda Mullaly Hunts can take a lot. Growing up in Las Vegas with her fun-loving mother, she’s learned to be tough. But she never expected a betrayal that would land her in a foster care. When she’s placed with the Murphys, a lively family with three boys, she’s blindsided. Do happy families really exist? Carley knows she could never belong in their world, so she keeps her distance.

It’s easy to stay suspicious of Daniel, the brother who is almost her age and is resentful she’s there. But Mrs. Murphy makes her feel heard and seen for the first time, and the two younger boys seem determined to work their way into her heart. Before she knows it, Carley is protected the boys from a neighbourhood bully and even teaching Daniel how to play basketball. Then just when she’s feeling like she could truly be one of the Murphys, news from her mother shakes her world.

Yes, I may even have teared up once or twice.

One for the Murphys is a sweet and at times heart wrenching story of courage forged out of an incredibly difficult situation.

Carley, the main character is a storm of emotions. She misses her mother, but is hurt and angry by her. She wants to love the Murphys but resents their happiness. She desires love, but struggles with believing she deserves it. I completely understand Carley’s push/pull emotions. She wants so badly to be loved the right way but it’s so unfamiliar to her that it scares her and she pushes attention away.

The story of a child in the foster system is so often untold that it is nice to read Carley’s (although fictional) perspective. I also appreciate the insight into not only the experience of the foster child, but also the experience of the fostering family. You have Daniel who is resentful of Carley’s presence and Mr. Murphy who is unsure about his wife’s choice to invite this unknown girl into their home.

Without getting spoilery, I really love how the ending is open. One for the Murphys is all about hope when you feel like none is left. Throughout each chapter we see Carley learning to hope, finding the courage to hope and then ultimately fighting for it. In the end, although we do not know what happens exactly, we’re left with an abundance of hope.

This was such a quick read! The chapters are short and poignant, which will appeal to middle grade students (especially mine!). All in all, I think One for the Murphys is a great addition to the Sunshine State list and I recommend it to middle grade readers and up, especially those who enjoy contemporary fiction.

Author: Linda Mullaly Hunt

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Group for Young Readers (May 10, 2012)

Format: Paperback

Length: 224 pages

Series: Standalone

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book:  One for the Murphys

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Sarcasm and Redemption: Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Well hello there!

I’ve been reading some of the 2013-2014 Florida Sunshine State books even though I’m moving out-of-state soon.  One of these books is Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt, which is apparently also on the South Carolina Junior Book Award list as well!

Okay for Now by Gary D. SchmidtOkay For Now explores a seemingly improbable alliance, this one between new outsider in town Doug Swieteck and Lil Spicer, the savvy spitfire daughter of his deli owner boss. With her challenging assistance, Doug discovers new sides of himself. Along the way, he also readjusts his relationship with his abusive father, his school peers, and his older brother, a newly returned war victim of Vietnam.

This was the first of the Florida Sunshine State books that I read this year. Being narrated by a male main character, I wouldn’t have chosen to read it first, but my library had the audiobook so I decided to give it a try.

Okay for Now was incredibly good. Like I want everyone I know to read it good.

First of all, I don’t know why I always shy away from male main characters, but I do! When I do actually take the time to read a book with a male main character, I usually end up enjoying it, so I don’t know whats wrong with me!  Well Doug, the main character in Okay for Now was incredibly refreshing. He was sarcastic and cynical in a way that I can relate to.  As the reader you quickly realize that Doug’s cynicism is just a shell he’s constructed to protect himself because that’s how he thinks real men should behave.

What I can’t get out of my head is what an awesome story of personal growth and redemption Okay for Now is. Doug grows and matures so much throughout the course of this book and the reader gets to see how far a little nurturing and love can do to really alter someone’s life. He starts out with an incredibly negative view of life and relationships, but eventually starts to let go of all that negativity with the help of some encouraging friends/mentors. But Doug isn’t the only character who experiences a little redemption in the end and this is probably the most difficult to accept yet beautiful maturation of all.

The difficulty and tension of the father-son relationships in Doug’s family is palpable. You can just feel the wall in Doug’s heart growing taller with every negative word or action from his father. It is amazing that Doug is able to turn into the young man he becomes considering the type of man his father is.

I will say that I was a little thrown for a loop with the sudden plot twist toward the end, but I did enjoy the fact that this surprise didn’t cause Doug to buckle under the pressure, but instead spurs him to love harder than ever.

Okay for Now is a hilariously witty and sarcastic coming of age story that everyone should read. I loved it and highly recommend it, but I don’t know how my students will respond to it since they normally aren’t fond of historical fiction.

Author: Gary D. Schmidt

Publisher: Clarion Books (April 1, 2011)

Format: audiobook

Length: 9 hours and 16 mins

Narrator(s): Lincoln Hoppe

Series: Standalone

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book:  Okay for Now

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Extending Trust: Wild Things by Clay Carmichael

Well hello there!

Is it true? Am I posting a book review?! I know…it’s been a while right?!

Well, it IS true.  In September (yes September…that’s how behind I am!) I read Wild Things by Clay Carmichael.  This is one of the fifteen Florida Sunshine State books and I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed it.Wild Things by Clay Carmichael

A headstrong girl. A stray cat. A wild boy. A man who plays with fire. Eleven-year-old Zoe trusts no one. Her father left before she was born. At the death of her irresponsible mother, Zoe goes to live with her uncle, former surgeon and famed metal sculptor Dr. Henry Royster. She’s sure Henry will fail her as everyone else has. Reclusive since his wife’s death, Henry takes Zoe to Sugar Hill, North Carolina, where he welds sculptures as stormy as his moods. Zoe and Henry have much in common: brains, fiery and creative natures, and badly broken hearts. Zoe confronts small-town prejudice with a quick temper. She warms to Henry’s odd but devoted friends, meets a mysterious teenage boy living wild in the neighboring woods, and works to win the trust of a feral cat while struggling to trust in anyone herself.  Zoe’s questing spirit leads her to uncover the wild boy’s identity, lay bare a local lie, and begin to understand the true power of Henry’s art. Then one decisive night, she and the boy risk everything in a reckless act of heroism.

This was the last Sunshine State book I read this year.  I just wasn’t interested in the summary. It sounded slow and honestly, a little boring. Which is why I was so shocked to find myself liking this book as much as I did.

This is mostly a story about trust and relationships.  Zoe is the main character, but is not the only one learning how to trust and love people better. Everyone from Zoe, to Henry, to the cat, to the boy was grappling with the relationships (or lack there of) in their lives. The side-by-side narratives of Zoe and the cat was perfectly done as Zoe was trying to earn the cat’s trust while also struggling to extend that same trust to the adults in her life.

This book was heartwarming, but not in a “ugh make me vomit way” (how I normally respond to “heartwarming” tales). Zoe has enough sass and sarcasm to give this story humor and the supporting small town characters were lovable and sweet. There is just enough depth to Carmichael’s story, without dragging the reader down.

At times, I did wonder about the dialog, especial the words and phrases Zoe used. It seemed a little false and too mature for a teenage girl to be using-even one as mature and well read as Zoe.

Although I don’t think this is a book that would grab a reluctant reader’s attention, middle graders (and up!) who enjoy reading will find Wild Things to be a rewarding read.

Author: Clay Carmichael

Publisher:  Front Street (May 1, 2009)

Format: Hardcover

Length: 240 pages

Series: standalone

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book:  Wild Things

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Coming of Age Amidst the Storm: Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

Hello there! 

As you may already know, one of my goals is to read all fifteen books on the Florida Sunshine State list every year so I can better promote these books to my students.  Well, I read Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods a few months ago, but hadn’t been able to get around to writing the review until now.

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda WoodsSaint is a boy with confidence as big as his name is long. A budding musician, he earns money playing clarinet for the New Orleans tourists. His best friend is a stray dog named Shadow, and it’s because of Shadow that Saint’s still in town when Hurricane Katrina hits. Saint’s not worried about the hurricane at first – he plans to live to be a hundred just to defy his palm-reader friend Jupi, who told him he had a short life line. But now the city has been ordered to evacuate and Saint won’t leave without Shadow. His search brings him to his elderly neighbor’s home and the three of them flee to her attic when the waters rise. But when Miz Moran’s medication runs out, it’s up to Saint to save her life – and his beloved Shadow’s.

This is a quick read about a teenage boy caught up in the middle of the historic Hurricane Katrina. Saint Louis Armstrong Beach, our main character, is as lovable and energetic as his beloved New Orleans. Although a story about Hurricane Katrina, Saint Louis Armstrong Beach is really a coming of age story where Saint is forced to reckon with the truly meaningful issues in life.

Wood’s writing had me hooked and from the beginning I wanted to read more and more.  She included so much pre-hurricane build up that by the time the storm sets in, you’re already anxious with anticipation. Living in Florida since middle school I’ve experienced my own share of hurricanes (although none as devastating as Katrina) and I can say that Woods hits the pre-storm anticipation and build-up right on the nose!

So far, Saint Louis Armstrong Beach has been very popular with my students.  I have a school full of reluctant readers and this book is high interest and very short in length (heaven in their eyes!).  I sincerely recommend this book if you’re searching for a good read for the reluctant reader in your life, but remember  it is also captivating enough to entertain those middle school book lovers as well.

Author: Brenda Woods

Publisher:  Penguin Books (September 1, 2011)

Format: Paperback

Length: 144 pages

Series: standalone

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book:  Saint Louis Armstrong Beach

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Mixing the Innocent and the Grisly: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Well hi there!
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman was the eleventh of the fifteen Florida Sunshine State books I’ve read this summer.

After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaimanresidents agree to raise him as one of their own.

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family.

I have heard so many good things about this book. After all, it has won tons of awards, so I had very high expectations. To be honest though, I did enjoy the book a lot, but I don’t know if I thought it was as amazing as I expected it to be. Overall, I felt it was pretty slow at times.  Normally a slow start doesn’t turn me off since I like to think I have a good attention span and can push through  slow-moving books, but this one was a bit of a struggle to get through. I wonder how my students will respond to The Graveyard Book if I thought it was slow.

Each chapter is written as a vignette spotlighting a different event in Bod’s life. I liked this way of telling the story of Bod’s experiences and coming of age, as each event has an impact on Bod that will, end the end, him save himself and his friends.

I must mention the illustrations. I completely loved them! I really like it when non picture books use illustrations especially if they’re not overdone and adds to the atmosphere of the story. The drawings in The Graveyard Book are so simple and sweet and creepy all at once – making the mix of the innocent and the grisly that much more palpable.

All in all, although The Graveyard Book wasn’t my favorite of the Sunshine State Books, I did enjoy it and think that others will as well (obviously since it won so many awards!).  Anyone looking for a fantasy mixed with ghost story and coming of age story should give this one a try!

Author: Neil Gaiman

Publisher:  Harper Collins (September 30, 2008)

Format: Hardcover

Length: 320 pages

Series: standalone

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book:  The Graveyard Book

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The Good, the Bad and the Refreshing: Happenstance Found by P.W. Catanese

Well hello again!

Every summer I read the fifteen Florida Sunshine State books and Happenstance Found was officially the tenth Florida Sunshine State book I read this summer.

Happenstance Found by P.W. CataneseTwelve-year-old Happenstance awakens in a cave with no memory of who he is or how he came to be there. Soon a mysterious trio arrives to take him away: the explorer Umber, the shy archer Sophie, and Oates, whose strength and honesty are both brutal. Hap and his new acquaintances narrowly escape the cavernous underworld and make their way to Lord Umber’s bustling jewel of a harbor city, Kurahaven.

Once there, Hap learns that Lord Umber is an extraordinary man — he’s a merchant, adventurer, inventor, royal adviser, and chronicler of all things monstrous and magical. But Umber’s accomplishments can’t answer the question closest to the boy’s heart: Who is Happenstance?

Desperate to uncover clues in his new, baffling surroundings, Hap accompanies Umber on dangerous and unusual missions. But Hap soon learns that there are powerful enemies inside the kingdom, and a ruthless assassin is hot on his trail. Faced with many unknowns, Hap knows one thing is certain: There’s a reason Umber has chosen him…if only he could determine it.

There is always a fantasy novel on the Sunshine State list but I’ve never been they’ve never been ones that I really, really enjoy, until now.  I completely loved Happenstance Found! But I must confess that I totally judged this book by its cover and thought “Ugh. Not the book for me!” I’m glad to report that I was so pleasantly surprised!

Although this is a fantasy story, there are also elements of science fiction thrown in. In this way Happenstance Found reminded me a little of Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron, because it was a strange (but good!) amalgamation of fantasy story elements with sci-fi themes woven in.

Let me say that the characters just made me smile.  I think I’m pretty cynical when it comes to loyal characters because the whole time I kept expecting someone to back-stab Hap or Lord Umber,  but it never happened.  The good guys are good guys and the bad guys are  bad guys, which was actually incredibly refreshing! I was a straight forward good story. And speaking of good guys, Lord Umber is by far my favorite character. He is so intriguing and I’m interested to learn more about his back story (although we do get quite a bit in Happenstance Found) in the other two books in the series.

In general fantasy doesn’t do so hot in my Media Center, but I’m going to promote Happenstance Found like crazy because I think that if my students gave it a try they’d end up pleasantly surprised like I was. I’d actually recommend this book to upper elementary grade readers and older who prefer fantasy.

Author: P.W. Catanese

Publisher: Aladdin (December 22, 2009)

Format: Hardcover

Length: 368 pages

Series: First in the Books of Umber trilogy

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book:  Happenstance Found (The Books of Umber)

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Perseverance and Hope: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Hello there!

I’m trucking away at reading all fifteen Florida Sunshine State books and A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park is the ninth I’ve A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Parkfinished.

A Long Walk to Water begins as two stories, told in alternating sections, about a girl in Sudan in 2008 and a boy in Sudan in 1985. The girl, Nya, is fetching water from a pond that is two hours’ walk from her home: she makes two trips to the pond every day. The boy, Salva, becomes one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, refugees who cover the African continent on foot as they search for their families and for a safe place to stay. Enduring every hardship from loneliness to attack by armed rebels to contact with killer lions and crocodiles, Salva is a survivor, and his story goes on to intersect with Nya’s in an astonishing and moving way.

Having friends who recently moved to southern Sudan I was intrigued when I saw that this story of Civil War in Sudan made the Sunshine State list this year. I’m going to have to send this book to her because it was a really beautiful read.

Linda Sue Park tells the true story of Salva, a “lost boy”, interwoven with a story of a young girl, Nya in such a way that the reader can’t help but be moved. There is so much sadness and hardship in this book but in Salva and Nya’s stories are also full of perseverance and hope. A Long Walk to Water can be a difficult read at times, as it does detail the horrors and difficulties of war and death, but Parks does not linger on these scenes and her careful timing and inclusion of them makes them that much more powerful.

I would definitely recommend A Long Walk to Water to middle school aged readers to adults. Also, I believe this quick read could be an incredibly helpful book in the classroom to bring more contemporary examples of civil war to students.

Author: Linda Sue Park

Publisher: Clarion Books (November 15, 2010)

Format: Hardcover

Length: 128 pages

Series: Standalone

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book: A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story

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Geocaching Adventures: Hide and Seek by Katy Grant

Well hello again!

Hide and Seek by Katy Grant is the eighth of the fifteen Florida Sunshine State Books  I’ve read this summer.

Hide and Seek by Katy GrantAfter a summer cooped up in his family’s store selling bait, tackle, and soft drinks to tourists, Chase is excited to be on his own for the day. He’s cycling into the foothills of the White Mountains of Arizona, looking forward to his first solo geocaching adventure.

Using his GPS, he uncovers the geocache – a small metal box – hidden in the woods. Inside, along with a few plastic army men and a log book, is a puzzling message.  WE NE. 

When Chase returns later to the geocache, he finds another message. WE NEED FOOD.

Who are the mysterious individuals leaving the messages? Are they hopelessly lost? Or hiding from something-or someone? Is this an opportunity to be a hero, or is Chase in way over his head?

I don’t think there are many middle grades books out there that make geo-caching a central theme, so this was a fun new thing for me.  I’ve done some letter boxing in the past, which is similar to geo-caching without the GPS.  I’m actually pretty intrigued with geo-caching now, and would like to try it out sometime! Hopefully Hide and Seek will also inspire some of my students to do the same!

I really did enjoy the story, but although the beginning was creepy at times and the ending was fast paced and intense, most of the middle was just so-so.  It seemed that this part of the book was pretty slow and that some of it could have been cut out.  Now, don’t get me wrong I still enjoyed this story as a whole, I just really wonder how my students will like it, especially when the middle section drags a bit.

If you’re a middle schooler who enjoys the great outdoors and adventure, Hide and Seek may be the book for you. If you’re a social studies teacher, I really believe you could use Hide and Seek and geocaching to tie into a unit on latitude and longitude.

Author: Katy Grant

Publisher: Peachtree Publishers (September 1, 2012)

Format: Hardcover

Length: 240 pages

Series: Standalone

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book: Hide and Seek

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Cringe-Worthy Decisions: How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen

Well hello there!

As you may already know, every summer I read all fifteen of the Florida Sunshine State books so I can better promote them to students at school and because I love middle grades fiction. Well,  How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen is the sixth How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal AllenSunshine State book I’ve finished this summer.

Thirteen-year-old Lamar Washington is the maddest, baddest, most spectacular bowler at Striker’s Bowling Paradise. But while Lamar’s a whiz at rolling strikes, he always strikes out with girls. And his brother, Xavier the Basketball Savior, is no help. Xavier earns trophy after trophy on the basketball court and soaks up Dad’s attention, leaving no room for Lamar’s problems.

Until bad boy Billy Jenks convinces Lamar that hustling at the alley will help him win his dream girl, plus earn him enough money to buy an expensive pro ball and impress celebrity bowler Bubba Sanders. But when Billy’s scheme goes awry, Lamar ends up ruining his brother’s shot at college and every relationship in his life. Can Lamar figure out how to mend his broken ties, no matter what the cost?

How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy has this rhythm to it that is just awesome.  Seriously, just read this first paragraph:

“Since Saturday, I’ve fried Sergio like catfish, mashed him like potatoes, and creamed his corn in ten straight games of bowling. And it’s just the middle of the week. People call Wednesday “hump day,” but for Sergio it’s “kicked-in-the-rump day.” I’m his daddy now, the maddest, baddest, most spectacular bowler ever.”

I literally re-read that over and over again because I just love the way it rolls off the tongue!  Allen writes this way throughout the whole book.  There are so many sentences and paragraphs that you can’t help but re-read out loud because they just sound so good!

Lamar is an incredibly likable character.  He’s your average kid struggling to get out from under his brother’s shadow and deal with life after his mother died. He’s awesome at bowling, but bowling isn’t basketball and in his town, basketball is king. Lamar is hilarious and the dialog between him and his best friend Sergio is laugh out loud funny! I don’t know if my students will get Lamar’s love for bowling, but Lamar is so personable they will definitely like him. You just can’t help but like him.

So, as the title suggests, Lamar makes some really bad choices and one awful one that affect everyone he knows.  Lamar is like any kid (myself at that age included) where life is all about what you feel at the moment. Sometimes this running off emotion thing leads to horrible decisions with major consequences, which Allen portrays well in this book.  Lamar knows it was wrong the second he follows through with his choice and is forced to deal with what happens after.  Some things get wrapped up nicely, and some don’t, but Lamar knows himself better because of his mistakes.

How Lamar’s Band Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy will resonate with anyone who has ever been an emotionally driven teenager (ummm everyone at some point!) who has made some cringe-worthy decisions and had to deal with the aftermath. Middle grade readers and up will enjoy this book about “the maddest, baddest, most spectacular bowler ever”!

Author: Crystal Allen

Publisher: Balzer & Bray/Harper Teen (February 22, 2011)

Format: Hardcover

Length: 288 pages

Series: Standalone

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book: How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy

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It’s Real Life: The Trouble with Half a Moon by Danette Vigilante

Howdy!

The Trouble with Half a Moon by Danette VigilanteI’ve been working my way through the fifteen Florida Sunshine State books this summer like I usually do.  I was recently able to finish my fourth book out of the fifteen, The Trouble with Half a Moon by Danette Vigilante.

Ever since her brother’s death, Dellie’s life has been quiet and sad. Her mother cries all the time and Dellie lives with the horrible guilt that the accident that killed her brother may have been all her fault.
But Dellie’s world begins to change when new neighbors move into her housing project building. Suddenly men are fighting on the stoop and gunfire is sounding off in the night. In the middle of all that trouble is Corey, an abused five-year-old boy, who’s often left home alone and hungry. Dellie strikes up a dangerous friendship with this little boy who reminds her so much of her brother. She wonders if she can do for Corey what she couldn’t do for her brother-save him.

I’m predicting now that this will be a popular one at school based on two things. First, the cover and second the story itself.  A lot of my students pick fiction covers based on if the characters look like them or not. It happens. It is what it is and I sometimes do the same thing. I know my students, and what they check out and talk to their friends about and they’ll like this book for the story too. I’ve mentioned before that a very popular book in my Media Center is A Boy Called It, which tells the  story of a young boy who is abused by his mother. Because The Trouble with Half a Moon deals with a similar narrative, I’m pretty sure my students will be interested. What can I say, they’re intrigued by other people’s pain. I think its part of trying to understand the world we live in.

The Trouble with Half a Moon is the deeply moving and also troubling story of a girl named Dellie who is struggling with intense guilt over her little brother’s recent death, and simultaneously trying to save an abused little boy, Corey, in her apartment building. Dellie is a realistic character dealing with two very real situations. She is compassionate and knows when to stand up against wrong doing, but she is also struggling to break free from the sadness that has overtaken her family, especially her mother. )

The most troubling thing about this book is Corey’s story.  Troubling because it is real life.  Corey’s story happens all the time, I know because I work in the public school system and come in contact with kids who have stories like Corey’s.  His mother, in all her badness and sadness is real too.

What I really appreciate about The Trouble with Half a Moon is that solutions don’t come easy for these characters and the ending is not wrapped up in a tight and pretty bow. The reader is left wondering at the possibilities but is allowed a snapshot into the beginning of Dellie’s family’s road to recovery.  There is hope, which is what is most important, I think.

This book was at times, difficult to read, but I’m so glad I did.  I’d recommend The Trouble with Half a Moon to middle school aged readers and up, but because there is some tough stuff in this book parents you should really read it too and talk about the subject matter with your kids.

Author: Danette Vigilante

Publisher:  Putnam Juvenile (January 6, 2011)

Format: Paperback

Length: 181 pages

Series: Standalone

YA/MG: MG

Buy the Book: The Trouble with Half a Moon