Note to Readers

I have not received any compensation for writing this post other than a free digital or print copy of the book. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

Swept Away - Nicole O'Dell

Released April 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Swept Away is another collection in Nicole O'Dell's Scenarios series. There are two books in this collection, each sets up a dilemma a teen girl faces and readers choose the ending.

High Stakes shares a snippet from Amber's life. She and her best friend are competing for the honor of being class valedictorian, as well as the only girls to not have missed a day of school. Best of all, the winner gets a new car from a local dealer. Rules are the winner must have the highest GPA and never have missed a day of school. Amber goes to school sick to make sure she's in the running. Her parents' car is 12 years old and on its last legs, and she knows how much they need it. When her cousin gives her copies of all the final exams, she knows she can ace the tests, but at what cost?

Essence of Lilly finds Lilly enduring regular fights between her mother and stepfather. She cannot understand why her mother stays in the relationship. Every week there's another screaming match that winds up with dishes or lamps being thrown, her mother on the floor in tears, and her stepfather storming off. Soon, Lilly's boyfriend invites her for a sleepover. Lilly must decide if she's truly ready for a sexual relationship or not.

I really enjoy the Scenarios series. They're not quite as complex as the Choose Your Own Adventure books from my childhood, but they still have that same feel. The author sets up the story and readers choose between two paths. Of course, I always read both paths and figure most readers would. It's a great way for teens to see how their choices do play out.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Three Little Mermaids - Mara Van Fleet

Released 2011

Reviewed by Bob Walch

Featuring glitter, vibrant color illustrations and an irresistible trio of little mermaids, this participation book invites the reader to push or pull a series of tabs to see a series of sea critters maneuver in their watery home. And while doing so the child will also be practicing counting from one to ten.

Little fingers are encouraged to feel the bumpy skin of seven starfish, pull a tab to discover eight little sea horses hiding in the seaweed and look under  a flap to find a missing snail.  The rhymed text is also fun to read aloud as groups of seals, dapper dolphins, smiling sea turtles and sparkling jellyfish parade across the pages of this sturdy volume.

This clever concept book not only involves basic counting skills but also serves as an introduction to a variety of underwater creatures. And, as an added bonus your child will have fun manipulating the pulls and tabs, thus improving his or her dexterity.  

Considering the entire package, this is one of the most intriguing board books I have come across thus far this year. Although any toddler will enjoy the book, it will probably have a special appeal to little girls who can identify with the three mermaids who are introducing all their friends.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Risky Business - Nicole O'Dell

Released April 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Risky Business is a 2 in 1 collection from Nicole O'Dell's Scenario series. Each story finds a teenager facing a difficult decision. Readers choose which path she takes. In essence, these stories capture on the Choose Your Own Adventure aspect.

In Magna, three friends apply for the same job hoping they'll learn money for new clothing while getting to work together. Molly Jacobs is the only one of the group to receive a job offer. Though the rules state clearly that she cannot share her employee discount, Molly's friends and fellow classmates start asking her to bed the rules for them. What happens when her friends ask her to do something that could put her job on the line?

Making Waves shares the story of Kate, a teen whose father died and her best friend just moved away. Kate makes it onto the varsity swim team where she soon struggles with long, tiring practices, school work, and her church duties. Team mates introduce Kate to the wonders of caffeine, but what will she do when they up the stakes to illegal drugs?

In each situation, the teens face tough decisions that test their faith, their common sense, and their loyalty to their friends. The stories in Risky Business share great messages in following your gut instinct, and readers will love getting to see the story play out from both angles.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Boxcar Children - Gertrude Chandler Warner

Released December 2010

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

The Boxcar Children shares the story of four siblings who are forced to fend for themselves following their parents' deaths. Hungry and in dire need of shelter, the children come across an abandoned boxcar near a waterfall. There, they hope to avoid the grandfather they understand to be cruel and hates children. Surviving in the wilderness isn't easy, and it's going to test their skills.

Gertrude Chandler Warner taught in Putnam, Connecticut. Her interactions with children led to her writing the entire Boxcar series. Written with the advancing reader in mind, the sentence structure and vocabulary in The Boxcar Children is spot on. It's perfect for those in 3rd to 5th grade. There are over 40 pages, so the length is just enough to provide a full story without overwhelming developing readers.

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Month, Open Road Media put together a video of the author's former students.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hey, That's Not Trash - Renee Jablow

Released March 2011

Reviewed by Bob Walch

Here’s an excellent book to teach youngsters the proper way to recycle waste products.  The interactive format of this board book features three recycle bins for paper, plastic and metal cleverly embedded in the cover. Press-out pieces in the shape of common household objects are featured on each page.

As you read the text aloud the child is encouraged to place the objects in the slot of the correct container.  The text follows a little boy through his day. When the plastic milk container needs to be disposed of after breakfast, you can help him get it in the right recyclable bin.

There will be newspapers, soda cans, old metal soccer cleats, and other items that will also need to be handled properly as the child’s busy days continues. And when the story is finished, just slide open the recycle bins and place the pieces back in their proper places so they are ready to go the  next time you enjoy this book.

Of all the consciousness raising picture books about recycling for very young children I have come across, this is the best I have seen thus far. The only down side is that the small “trash” pieces do pose a choking hazard for young children, so be careful the recyclables end up where they should and NOT in your child’s mouth!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sandcastles of Love - Sydell Voeller

Released April 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

For one amazing summer, Logan Becker's family trades their home in Minnesota for a beach front home in Oregon. Logan's thrilled to experience something different, as is Tricia, the teen daughter of the family heading to Minnesota. When she meets the boy of her dreams, she expects her summer is going to really be unforgettable. What Logan doesn't realize is that her dream boy is actually Tricia's boyfriend, and that there's another boy who really wants to be Logan's special someone for the summer.

Sandcastles of Love is a very short teen romance. Despite the short length, the story is solid and definitely well suited to romance readers. Logan does come off as a little selfish, but I remember those days and it comes with the age.

For light summer reading, Sydell Voeller's teen romance is a great choice. I'm betting that many teen girls will relate to Logan and wish they had their very own beach romance.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ghetto Cowboy - Greg Neri

Released August 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Ghetto Cowboy blends fact with fiction. A city is the last place you'd expect to find a horse stable, outside of use by police officers, however they are more common than some might think. In Philadelphia, horse stables are being torn down to make room for growth. This creates the factual basis for Ghetto Cowboy.

After getting into trouble again, Cole's mom decides she's had enough. She travels from Detroit to Philadelphia and leaves him with his father. At first, Cole doesn't take her seriously, but when she drives off he's stunned. How can a mother turn her back on her child?

Cole's father owns horses. This surprises Cole as they are in the middle of the city. Yet, he gets drawn into his father's passion and soon is taking care of horses and even riding them. However, the city planners and many residents want the horses out. Cole decides to join his father's battle to keep the horses in the city.

I'd like to say I loved Ghetto Cowboy, but the truth is it was okay. It's nothing I'd want to add to my keeper shelf. It's well written, but the plot didn't grip me as I'd expected. It meanders along without ever really drawing me in to either the characters or action.

Given that, the subject matter did intrigue me. I didn't realize horse owners existed within the city. Boarding them in abandoned buildings--squatting is what it comes down to for me. Plus, horse owners care for their horses. From articles I read, many shoe their horses themselves. Others even handle veterinary care. I understand their love of the horses, but it raises questions to me. Would you doctor your own children without a degree? For that reason, I can see the city's viewpoint. It becomes a tough situation because many kids turn their lives around because of the horses, but as a former horse owner, I also don't feel an abandoned warehouse is the right environment for these animals. This makes the book's main issue a very debatable topic that would suit a classroom discussion incredibly well.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Never Eighteen - Megan Bostic

Released January 2012

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Quite honestly, don't start reading Never Eighteen until you have a stack of tissues handy. This book broke my heart. Yet, it's so incredibly gripping that I could not put it down. What sucks is that my neighbor came strolling over to chat and I'm sat there with tears streaming down my face. Thankfully, his wife reads as much as I do, so he knew exactly what was going on.

Austin Parker is seventeen. He has great friends, including Kaylee, his best friend since elementary school. Austin loves Kaylee but has never taken the time to tell her. Now it's too late.

Austin's battling a terminal illness. For the next two days, he needs Kaylee to drive him around Washington. He has a few "missions" he'd like to complete before he's too sick.

Kaylee's strength and Austin's sense of making things right create the strong premise in Never Eighteen. The realism in the story made it a very emotional read, but one that I had to read in one sitting. I think every teen could learn a lesson reading Megan Bostic's novel. Life is short and everything you do or say makes a huge impact on the world around you.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

In Trouble - Ellen Levine

In Trouble (Carolrhoda Ya)

Released September 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Sixteen-year-old Jamie isn't thrilled that her best friend moved away. Elaine's parents moved to a new town in hopes of separating Elaine from her boyfriend. When Elaine sneaks back to the city to see him, she ends up pregnant. In the 1950s, teen pregnancy is a major issue. One that labels many girls sluts and brings shame to their family.

Jamie's determined to help her friend make the right decision. Meanwhile, Jamie's got her own problem and she's not sure who to talk to about it. Elaine's busy worrying about pregnancy and Jamie's other friend, Paul, is ready to be more than friends. Can she trust him to help her with her problem and also offer her insight on how to best help Elaine?

I have particular insight into In Trouble because I have a relative who went through a teen pregnancy in the 1950s. It was a shameful thing and an illegal abortion, forced marriage, or secretive adoption really were your only choice. Times have changed, but not as much as you'd think. A few years ago, a neighbor I'd mentored for years confessed he'd gotten his girlfriend pregnant. Both were 15 and determined to keep their baby. They couldn't imagine their baby being raised by anyone else.

As an adult, knowing the realities of what they were about to face, I admit that I was definitely not proud of either of them. He ended up dropping out of school, eventually getting a GED, while she struggled to earn her diploma. Neither had it easy, worse within a year she was pregnant again. Thankfully, they're on the right path today. He's completed a stint in the military and she's in college earning her degree. This is rare, however.

Ellen Levine's novel is an important piece of fiction. It details the struggles in the 1950s regarding abortions and how hard it was to get one. I'm certainly pro-choice and not afraid to admit it. I've watched pro-lifers peg rocks at a friend who was going into Planned Parenthood to get a pap smear because she lacked health insurance and it was the only affordable way for her to get this essential yearly check. Things really haven't changed as much as you'd think in the past 50 years. I think every teen could learn something from this book. One of the key lessons being that there is always someone you can talk to. If you can't talk to a family member, find a counselor. Deciding to undergo an abortion--a D&C is a painful procedure, I had one when a fetus I was carrying died during my fourth month of pregnancy--, keep, or give up your infant is a personal decision that only you can make. It's important to base that decision on as much factual information as possible and truly understand all the risks and benefits.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pregnant Pause - Han Nolan

Released September 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Pregnant Pause is a refreshing take on teenage pregnancy. I've read many books on teen pregnancies and usually adoption or abortion are standard responses. Han Nolan delves into the indecision teens really face. She also takes a strong look at whether a teen is capable of raising a baby. Television glorifies it to an extent, Han Nolan takes an intimate look at the issue with honesty.

Eleanor "Elly" Crowe hates being told what to do. When she becomes pregnant, she's told she's either heading to Africa to remain under the watchful eye of her missionary parents or marrying the baby's father. At sixteen, Elly's not prepared for marriage, but it's the best option in her opinion. Soon, she learns marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Working at her in-law's camp for overweight children turns out to be more rewarding than Elly imagined. Soon, she's bonding with the kids, but her marriage is a different story. Elly's sister wants Elly's baby for herself and the in-law's also want to adopt the baby. Pressure is on, and Elly's not really sure what she wants.

Pregnant Pause has a strong storyline. Elly's growth from the start of the book to the final  page is tremendous. There are a few twists thrown in during pivotal moments and they help Elly mature. If anything, its the parents that drove me nuts. I have little tolerance for parents who become so determined that they're right, no matter what, that I found myself wanting to shake some sense into them. However, it was their determination that really led me to root for Elly. Despite her past errors, I really felt like she had more maturity than anyone realized.

I've mentored a couple pregnant teens in my life. In both cases, the teens really felt they were the best parent for their unborn child and didn't cave to pressure from their parents. As a result, their parents alienated them, much like Elly's parents did with her. When one of the two girls went into early labor and her twins' lives were at risk, she remained in the hospital on a bed that tilted her head to the ground to reduce pressure off her cervix. This is not something a teen is prepared to experience, but she did it. I'm happy to say 20 years later that she kept her twins and became an RN. It's certainly not easy, but with support of a family, it is possible. Abortion and adoption are options, but not the best option for everyone.

Kudos to Han Nolan for painting a look at teen pregnancy from a different angle. I think Pregnant Pause is a must-read.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bluefish - Pat Schmatz

Released September 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Travis Roberts lost everything when his dog disappeared. His parents died when he was young. His grandfather is an alcoholic. Moving to a new home isn't helping Travis feel like he fits in.

Velveeta lost everything when her neighbor died. All he left behind were his wife's scarves. These colorful scarves and his empty trailer are the only way Velveeta finds solace.

Despite their troubles, Velveeta and Travis become friends. Travis hides a secret that he doesn't want anyone to know. Velveeta learns of Travis's secret and is determined to help. With the guidance of Mr. McQueen, one of their teachers, the pair find common ground and begin to come out of their shells.

Bluefish is simply mesmerizing. Though Travis does have anger issues, the reader gets a good look at what he's endured and the challenges he faces. It's pretty easy to sympathize with him. Velveeta is more of an enigma. I didn't feel her past was quite as fleshed out as Travis's. Yet, there are events that infuriated me and caused that instinctive "mom" reflex that had me wanting comfort her. Teens won't have that same reaction, but I'm betting they'll definitely find they have more in common with Velveeta than they first thought.

Alcoholism does play a role in this story. I think Pat Schmatz did an exceptional job with Travis's grandfather. I wasn't sure what to think of him at first, but the more the story progressed, the more I liked him. My aunt was an alcoholic. The nuances of the grandfather are incredibly realistic and had me thinking back to my aunt's struggles.

This isn't your typical teen read. In a day where everything is sparkly vampires, werewolves, or laced with some aspect of the paranormal, I found it refreshing to have a simple coming-of-age story. Kudos to Pat Schmatz for coming up with something a little different in Bluefish.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Long, Long Sleep - Anna Sheehan

Released August 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Rosalinda Samantha Fitzroy awakens from stasis to learn 62 years have passed. Her parents never woke her up. Now they're dead, and Rose fears her boyfriend met the same fate. The teen boy in front of her, Brendan, is shocked to have discovered her. His grandfather puts him in charge of watching out for her, a task Brendan finds much harder to handle when it becomes clear that someone has put a hit on Rose. The robots after Rose were banned years ago, but they're persistent and virtually impossible to defeat.

A Long, Long Sleep is futuristic, a genre I usually don't like, but in this case it really works. I really became connected to Rose and the dilemmas she faced. She's a very strong, likable character, maybe a touch naive. As she becomes stronger following the 62-year dormancy, she really comes out of her shell.

The author creates a lingo that the current teens use in Rose's new school. One is the frequently used "coit," which I guessed is a swear word derived from coitus. I learned after that "coit" is an Australian slang word that means "asshole." Most teens hear curse words on a regular basis from their peers, teachers and television/movies, so I don't think many parents will object to this one.

Without giving away any spoilers, the ending of the book makes me wonder if there may be two more stories to come. There's a secret revealed towards the end that intrigued me. I hope this isn't the last we'll hear of Rose and her new life.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Capstone Digital to Award $2 Million in Grants to Improve Literacy in Schools


MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – May 9, 2011 – Capstone Digital, developer of personalized learning environments for students, announces CARE (Capstone Assisting Remarkable Educators), a $2 million grant program focused on improving literacy in schools.

As a result of the massive cuts in federal government programs, including the Improving Literacy through School Libraries Program, all K-12 public, private, parochial or charter schools in the United States are encouraged to apply for more than $2 million in matching CARE grants towards the purchase of myON reader, a personalized literacy environment that focuses on increasing student literacy rates.

“Many educators spent valuable time both in and out of the classroom developing their applications for federal funding only to be left in the dark when the federal government cut these educational programs,” said Todd Brekhus, President of Capstone Digital. “We feel that it’s extremely important to help these remarkable educators and give their schools access to programs that will help improve student reading scores.”

The CARE matching grant program will match schools funding dollar for dollar towards the purchase of myON reader, an online personalized literacy environment that matches student interests and reading levels to a recommended book list with more than 1,100 digital books. myON reader provides students with a unique online environment where they have access to the largest digital library with reading supports, gives teachers access to  personalize reading programs for their students, and gives administrators the ability to monitor and forecast reading growth based on class, grade, building and district.

Over the past 20 years, Capstone has built a rich history of philanthropy in local schools and those abroad. In 2010 alone, the company supported more than 250 initiatives through book donations, sponsorships, scholarships, and employee volunteer time. 

“Capstone offers many programs to help support school librarians stretch their budget to put more books—print or digital—in their libraries and schools.  We are excited about providing resources and tools to students, educators, and administrators to help provide unlimited reading and learning opportunities for students,” said Matt Keller, Chief Marketing Officer of Capstone.

The application and more information are available at  


About Capstone Digital
Capstone Digital, a division of Capstone, develops personalized learning environments and interactive resources. Offerings include digital books, research databases and audio books, all designed to increase fluency and reading levels for PreK-9 students. Using Capstone Digital products, students gain confidence in their abilities, take ownership in their reading growth, and achieve success across the curriculum. For more information, visit  

About Capstone
Capstone is the leading publisher of children’s books and digital products and services, offering everything from nonfiction, fiction, and picture books to interactive books, audio books, and literacy programs. Imprints and divisions include Capstone Press, Compass Point Books, Heinemann-Raintree, Heinemann-Raintree Classroom, Picture Window Books, Stone Arch Books, and Capstone Digital. For more information, visit Connect with them at  

Monday, May 9, 2011

Pirate vs. Pirate: The Terrific Tale of a Big, Blustery Maritime Match - Mary Quattlebaum

Released March 2011

Reviewed by Bob Walch

Within the pages of this humorous picture book you’ll find two of the most fearsome, loathsome and reckless pirates to ever sail the Seven Seas. Bad Bart is the biggest, burliest boy pirate in the Atlantic. Mean Mo is the maddest, mightiest girl pirate in the Pacific.

When they finally meet it becomes a no-holds-barred contest to see which of them is the best pirate in the world. After engaging in a number of “competitions” which end in a draw the two are down to counting up their treasure trove to see who has the most pieces of illicit goodies.

Once again it is a tie! What will Bad Bart and Mean Mo do to settle this amusing dispute? You’ll be surprised by the clever ending and, obviously, I don’t intent to give it away.
Lots of sea-dog lingo, cute illustrations and a totally ridiculous situation make this a story you and your family will get a chuckle from as you read about the misadventures of this pair of seagoing  misfits!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Favorite Band Does Not Exist - Robert Jeschonek

Released July 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Honestly, I don't know where to begin. I struggled with My Favorite Band Does Not Exist. I had a hard time getting into the swing of things. The basic story is this, teenager Idea Deity believes he lives in a novel and he's going to die in chapter 64. Idea spends his free time creating a  website for the band Youforia. The thing is Youforia is solely fictional. They don't exist.

The novel starts with Idea being chased by strange men. A mysterious girl, Eunice, helps him escape. Soon, Idea and Eunice learn that Youforia is really out there. They're performing live, have a song available for download and merchandise is readily available. Idea's not thrilled that someone's making money off his fictional band.

Meanwhile, the lead singer of Youforia, Reacher Mirage, cannot understand why someone created a website about him. He's especially annoyed that the person seems to know things about the band before Reacher does. The basis of the story then delves into a fictional book, Fireskull's Revenant, and how it ties their worlds together.

The promotional material I read compared the book to Alice in Wonderland meets School of Rock. I loved School of Rock and didn't get that warm, cozy feeling from this book. I have to say it struck me more as a Spinal Tap meets Alice in Wonderland.

There were aspects of the story that intrigued me. I love the idea of a character knowing he's trapped within a book. It's that whole dream within a dream premise. I also liked seeing things from Reacher's side of the spectrum, though I still preferred Idea. Throw in Fireskull's Revenant and I got too antsy to get away from that storyline and back to the others.

I hate when I struggle to read a book. Had I been more involved with every character and not struggling to figure out the three storylines, it might have worked better for me. But quick chapters jumping back and forth from Idea to Reacher to Fireskull's Revenant made it difficult to catch on. By the time I did, I found myself just not caring anymore.

Now pushing that aside, I can see my teen son, who I admit is a lot more philosophical than I am, really getting into the depth of My Favorite Band Does Not Exist. This is the type of story that I see both him and his friends reading and discussing. Given that, I have to say I know the book will have an audience and make for some interesting discussions between those who dislike it and those who really love it.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Dare to Be Different - Nicole O'Dell

Released April 2011

Reviewed by Tracy Farnsworth

Dare to Be Different contains two stories in one. The stories in this collection were originally released as single titles in 2009. If you've read past Nicole O'Dell Scenarios, you may have already encountered "All that Glitters" and "Truth or Dare." Enjoy the choose-your-own-ending set-up with this book. Each story builds to the climatic aspect where the heroine is forced to make a tough decision. After that, the reader picks how she will respond. I'm betting most girls will read both endings regardless.

In "Truth or Dare," Lindsay Martin, an eighth grader, must choose between her friends or her Christian morals when a game of Truth or Dare gets out of hand. In "All that Glitters," Dani finds her twin sister Drew pulling away to become one of the popular crowd, but at what cost?

Both stories carry strong messages about faith and not caving to peer pressure. The stories carry strong emotional impact with the reader. The problems encountered in these stories include issues like teen drinking, dating, and even bullying. I think there are great lessons to be learned and highly recommend the stories to young girls.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I'll Be There - Ann Stott

Released March 2011

Reviewed by Bob Walch

Not only does Ann Stott's picture book celebrate a child’s accomplishments such as bathing alone, reading, and getting dressed by himself,  but it also offers reassurance that Mom will always be there just in case she is needed.

As the little boy featured here goes from being very reliant on his mother to being able to do things for himself  we see his confidence grow and the pride that accompanies being able to do “big kid stuff”.

At the same time, though, there’s a little fear or doubt. “Will you still take care of me when I’m big?” the child asks with a troubled expression on his face.

“Even when you’re big, I’ll be there,” is her reassuring reply.

A lovely book with gentle, warm illustrations, I’ll Be There offers an honest, warmhearted portrait of a child taking those first steps towards independence. And, more importantly, he discovers a fact we all come to
realize - Mom will always be there for you no matter how old you are!