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Favorite Picture Books of 2012

November is Picture Book Month! This is the one time of year I do anything about picture books on this blog. The MG/YA scene is more my thing. Still I read a lot of picture books every year too and this is the perfect time to share my favorites. I said last year and I'll say again, the only criteria used for this list is that I and my test subjects thoroughly enjoy the books.

My test subjects (at Boo in the Zoo):

And Then It's Spring by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead
This is a story of the changing of the seasons and the cycle of life-and the patience and waiting involved in both-as seen through the eyes of a young child. Fogliano's prose are spare and to the point and Stead's art is a perfect match down to every detail.

Chopsticks by Amy Krause Rosentha, illustrated by Scott Magoon

This one is a big hit, I and the kids all prefer it to Spoon. (And we like Spoon quite a lot.) It is "Not exactly a sequel to Spoon. More like a change in place setting." Bit read it on her own before I got to it, chortled all the way through, then demanded I read it aloud immediately. The humor in the book and the double meanings were perfect for her. Little Man didn't get all the humor entirely but he still loves the story and the pictures.

Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri
This book makes the list for being one of the funniest books of the year. It makes both my kids laugh hysterically. They adored the idea that you can make friends with dragons by throwing them a taco party. When the young hero accidentally feeds his guests spicy salsa things really heat up. The first time we read it the surprise of that particular spread had the kids rolling on the floor in mirth. Then they had to read it again and again and again.

The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? by Mo Willems
Little Man is a bit of Mo Willems fanboy. Okay. Not a bit. He's a huge fanboy. The shelf with the pigeon books and the shelf with the Elephant and Piggie books are his first two stops at the library every week. His love for this book (he has own copy) is great and wide. We also very much enjoyed the newest additions to Elephant and Piggie this year, Listen to My Trumpet and Let's Go for a Drive. Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs was also a big hit here, but that was more of a Bit book as it went over Little Man's head. 

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Extra Yarn is a book for the older savvier reader. Little Man doesn't get it, but he likes the pictures. Bit loves everything about it (and so do I). It is rather difficult to describe so you will just have to trust me and read it. 

A Home for Bird by Philip C. Stead
This is a beautiful book with a quirky story. And my kids love it. Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat made our list last year and continues to be one of Little Man's favorites. There is just something about Stead's words and pictures that speaks to the hearts of  young children. He released a second book this year, Bear Has a Story to Tell (illustrated by Erin Stead), which is also delightful.

This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
The follow up to last year's surprising I Want My Hat Back, this is not a sequel despite the similar title. Different setting. Different perspective. Same theme. Still hilarious, if less surprising.

Water Sings Blue by Kate Coombs, illustrated by Meilo So

Water Sings Blue is a book of ocean poems accompanied by amazing and gorgeous water color illustrations. From beginning to end it is a beautiful treasure. The poetry is as good as it gets. The imagery. The figurative language. The poems capture both the light fun and the dark power of the ocean and its creatures. The illustrations reflect the poetry, sometimes bright and colorful, sometimes subdued and calm, sometimes dark.  It is one of Bit's favorite books ever. She has read it multiple times since receiving it for her birthday and takes it in the car just to be able to reread her favorites when we are running errands around town. Her favorite poem in the book is "Oarfish":
Dragon doesn't hide her magic
in a crooked mountain cave.
She dwells down deep and deeper
where the sea feels like a cave.

 What more could I possibly add?

Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Z is for Moose is the funniest alphabet book of all time. No question. Little Man's copy is already falling apart and we've only had it for 5 months. It was not cheaply put together, it is read multiple times a day.

Here is my Pinterest Board with all the recommend 2012 Picture Books I've read so far on it.

Originally posted here.

Picture Books of 2011

It's Picture Book Month! Did you know? If not, you can read all about it. I don't write about picture books often on this blog, but they are very much a part of my everyday life. In celebration of Picture Book Month, I bring you my favorites of the year. Yesterday the NY Times revealed its 2011 Best Illustrated Children's Books. This post is unrelated to the NY Times list. This post has been scheduled for today for weeks. Great minds think alike and all that. My list is very different from the NY Times one. I don't know what criteria they used. My criteria: I had fun reading/looking at the book and, most importantly, my test subjects approved.

My Test Subjects (ages 7 and 3):

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These books were taken from a greater list I made of books I've enjoyed reading in the past year. I made the list because I often start to receive emails from friends and family around this time of year asking for new book recommendations. I compiled a master list this year to make things easier. It is here if you are interested in seeing it in its entirety.

Originally posted here.

The Flint Heart

The Flint Heart is a "freely abridged" version of a story written by Eden Phillpotts. Katherine Paterson  and her husband, John Paterson, did the abridging. Katherine Paterson is a beloved by me (and many others) author so I was naturally intrigued. Add to that I had heard buzz long before the book came out that John Rocco's illustrations for it were beautiful. Rocco's illustrations are indeed beautiful and the best thing about the book. The best thing by far because they were they only thing about the book I actually enjoyed. (They are very beautiful color illustrations and I'm sad they were wasted on this story.)

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
An ambitious Stone Age man demands a talisman that will harden his heart, allowing him to take control of his tribe. Against his better judgment, the tribe’s magic man creates the Flint Heart, but the cruelty of it causes the destruction of the tribe. Thousands of years later, the talisman reemerges to corrupt a kindly farmer, an innocent fairy creature, and a familial badger. Can Charles and his sister Unity, who have consulted with fairies such as the mysterious Zagabog, wisest creature in the universe, find a way to rescue humans, fairies, and animals alike from the dark influence of the Flint Heart? This humorous, hearty, utterly delightful fairy tale is the sort for an entire family to savor together or an adventurous youngster to devour.

Looking at that last sentence I have to say that the youngster in question would have to be very young indeed. Except the language of the story is rather prohibitive for the very young. I can see this best being enjoyed by adults who like Victorian fantasy. (But even then....)  I love Katherine Paterson to pieces but I really have to question why she wanted to abridge this story in the first place. I am not at all familiar with the source material so I went into this with nothing more than the information in the synopsis. This is one of those absurdly quirky fairy stories which is not my cup of tea. I don't like my fairies to frolic and flitter about. I may have been able to get past that as I really enjoyed the first two chapters and the idea of the flint heart. I may have even been able to get past how the story journeyed far far away meandered away from the point at times. Might have. If it had not been for the introduction on page 124 of the walking talking hot water bottle as a character. Yes, you read that correctly. A walking talking hot water bottle. Seriously. This hot water bottle is actually a rather important character too. That was it for me. I skimmed the rest of the book but there was no recovering any enjoyment at all from it for me after that.

Originally posted here.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick resembles, not so much a book, as a treasure box. Just look at its cover, complete with the lock. Even it's size and heft resemble a box. Don't be fooled by its size though, it is a quick read as more than half of it is pictures. Beautifully detailed emotive pictures. And the prose works with them to magically bring the story to life. You know those times when you finish a book and sit there holding it for a moment knowing you have something precious in your hands? Something that came from the mind of a  master whose genius you could never hope to comprehend? Finishing this was one such time for me.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Orphan Hugo Cabret lives in a wall. His secret home is etched out in the crevices of a busy Paris train station. Part-time clock keeper, part-time thief, he leads a life of quiet routine until he gets involved with an eccentric, bookish young girl and an angry old man who runs a toy booth in the station. The Invention of Hugo Cabret unfolds its cryptic, magical story in a format that blends elements of picture book, novel, graphic novel, and film. Caldecott Honor-winning author-illustrator Brian Selznick has fashioned an intricate puzzle story that binds the reader like a mesmerist's spell.

Selznick won the 2008 Caldecott for this book and it is well deserved. I don't generally comment on art in books because what I know about art I could write on my little finger nail. I know what I like though, and it is this. The details, the facial expressions, the light, the feelings they evoke. I love everything about them. There are several pictures of Hugo, wrapped in a threadbare coat, on the snowy streets of Paris at night that made me shiver.

The pace of the book very much reminded me of the trains that arrive and depart from Hugo's home. The story starts out slow, little pieces of information being handed out like pieces of a puzzle, and then the pace builds until you are speeding along rapidly. The puzzle pieces seem to come together and then are jostled apart. Soon the pace has reached such a speed you just know it is going to lose control and crash. Except you are in the hands of a brilliant conductor and he knows his machine well. How this pace mimics the story itself is brilliance.

The prose works with the pictures to fill in the gaps and completes the life of the story. Hugo is a sympathetic character and the reader can feel his sadness, desperation, anger, hope, and  yearning. The pictures and words work together to give the reader an entirely different experience than most novels (or even graphic novels). I have not been as annoyed with a character as I was with Isabelle at times. Or as angry as I was at Georges. Or as afraid of the elusive and shadowy figure of the Station Master. Everything Hugo was feeling was projected in me which is the power of a great story teller.

Selznick's new picture novel Wonderstruck will be released on September 13 and I can't wait.

Originally posted here.

Leepike Ridge

Originally posted here.

N.D. Wilson is one of my favorite writers but I've never reviewed any of his books because I read them all  before I started blogging. I have been rereading Leepike Ridge  because I 've been using it in a
class I teach and thought this would be a perfect time to review it, especially since Wilson's newest book hits the shelves tomorrow. (I can not wait for mine to arrive!)

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD THOMAS HAMMOND has always lived next to Leepike Ridge. He never imagined he
might end up lost beneath it! What Tom finds underground will answer questions he hadn’t known to ask and change his life forever.

Leepike Ridge is an adventure, mystery, treasure hunt, and survival story all rolled
into one. There are dubious characters aplenty who are up to no good. There is a worried and beleaguered mother, a man whose been living in a cave for three years, and a very loyal dog. At the center of all of this there is Tom, an ordinary boy who only wanted some peace and ended up on the adventure of a lifetime. Tom is the perfect protagonist because of his normalcy. He is completely average and has emotions any reader can sympathize with. He is a survivor though and when it is needed his
instincts kick in to help him through his adventure. The book is brilliantly told written with words that paint pictures in the mind. Wilson has a true gift with language and his descriptions are beautiful, gritty, harsh, exactly what they need to be to convey the atmosphere of the scene. It is also a book that grow with a child. It is a perfect
adventure story for the 8-10 year old crowd. Yet it can also be used with older kids who are studying The Odyssey as Wilson used many characters and scenarios from it when weaving this new tale. It is not a retelling or even a reworking though. Leepike Ridge is its own wonderful story.

A Day of Book Talks

I was able to go to a workshop today on children's literature. I didn't know any one and I bet I was the only person in the room who wasn't a professional librarian or (paid) teacher but I had tons of fun. Let me say right now that my ability to do this came because my husband used his July 4 comp day to take the day off work, do Bit's homeschool with her, chase after Destructo-Boy, and do things in the kitchen he is unused to doing. (Have I mentioned lately that I have an awesome husband?) The workshop was given by the Center for Children's and Young Adult Literature at the University of Tennessee and the Knox County Public Library. It was on the best new books released from October 2010 until now (or soon). Six hours of people talking up books. Book nerd paradise. I thought I would share some of the titles that I haven't read that caught my eye and ones I have read and reviewed. I do have to say books for middle graders were largely unrepresented which is why The Penderwicks at Point Mouette (my review) wasn't mentioned I'm sure. Also, I'm not really sure what I think about a presentation of best of YA books that didn't include Chime (my review).

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I really think the day would have been better if one of the afternoon presenters had concentrated on middle grade books. I liked the graphic novel presentation and the bulk of the YA selections came from a HS librarian who really knew what was out there for teens. The third presenter concentrated on dystopian which is mostly HS as well. As a result a lot of really great books for the 6-9 grade range didn't get mentioned. Books such as The Visconti House (my review), Kat Incorrigible (my review), Small Persons with Wings (my review),  and The Coming of the Dragon (my review).

I so hope I can return when they do this again next year.

Summer Reading

Despite how I sometimes complain about their slowness in acquiring new YA titles I am very grateful for my county's library system.  For a city this size our library system is amazing and well supported.  Every year on this weekend in May the library kicks off its Summer Reading program with the Children's Festival of Reading.  There are crafts, live music, local storytellers, the Friends of the Library used children's book sale, places to bounce and it is all free.  (Even the parking because our city has free parking downtown on the weekends).  What makes this even more remarkable to me is that they also bring in some great authors and illustrators to give talks and sign books.  This year's line up included Robert Sabuda, Grace Lin, and Patricia McKissak.  This is an event our family looks forward to every year.  We get up and get around fast on this Saturday in May so we can be the first to browse the books and get our bearings before the massive crowd shows up.  Yesterday was the day this year and we had as good a time as usual.  Unfortunately we couldn't be there very long (it goes from 10-3) because Bit had her final softball game of the year, but we divided and conquered and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

While the kids were with their dad making pipe cleaner bookworms at the craft tent, I acquired some nice books for $6.00:  Bud, Not Buddy, Now We are Six, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, The Ballad of Belle Dorcas, East O' The Sun and West O' The  Moon (P.J Lynch), and Rumpelstiltskin  (Zelinsky).  All hardcover and in wonderful condition.

After that the husband and Destructo-Boy set off to the tent where the Quartet from the Symphony had set up shop.  That is something else that we are fortunate beyond measure in.  Our city has an awesome symphony orchestra and four of its members go around to all the libraries to do story time with music.  They even have written their own book called Better Than Cookies, As Good as Cake to introduce their  instruments and the sounds they make.  DB loves music and they absolutely entrance him every time they play.  And few things make that boy sit and be still. 

Bit feels like she has seen this enough and as Grace Lin was speaking at the same time that is where we headed.  Bit is a big fan of Lin's Ling and Ting books and was pretty excited.  Grace Lin read to them the story of the Chinese years and animals from her book The Year of the Rat.  Bit learned lots about the Chinese zodiac and was thrilled when Grace Lin taught them all how to do some drawings of a rabbit and tiger.  She is also now very interested in reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
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So now we are all signed up for Summer Reading and looking forward to a time when we have no school work to distract us from this.  I'm very ready for a break and am glad we are at the final week.  Bit is already asking when we are starting second grade (she is very excited about her History block this year).  Apparently I need the break more than she does.

As far as my own summer reading goes I have big plans to knock out many books during The 48 Hour Book Challenge.   More on that to come.  I will also be attempting reread all the  Harry Potter books between now and when the final movie comes out.  

Anybody else have any books they are really looking forward to for the summer?

Birthday Books

I hear all the time people say that May is just as busy for them as December.  There is something about the rush of the end of the school year and all it entails plus the anticipation of summer that has people running around like crazy.  For our family we add to this mix three birthdays (mine and both kids), our anniversary, and we have to manage Mother's Day too.  We have the only grandkids in either family so that means we also have many visitors in May.  They want to be here to celebrate with us and we love it.  It does make for one crazy month though.  As in December, I buy a lot of books in this month, for the kids, and some for myself as well.  Here are some of the books that will be coming into our home over the next couple of weeks:

For the youngest (I need a good nickname for him on here...maybe Destructo-Boy?):
Bats at the Ballgame by Brian Lies:  We are big fans of Mr. Lies' Bat books around here.  Bit has Bats at the Library and we often check out Bats at the Beach from our library.  I'm sure this one will be just as big a hit.
LMNO Peas by Kieth Baker: An adorable Alphabet book where those cute little peas are doing something that begins with each letter.
The Three Little Pigs by James Marshall:  I foresee much three year old huffing and puffing and giggling.  Possibly lego houses being destroyed as well.

For Bit:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling:  Her very own hardcover copy so she can stop reading mine.  It's about to fall apart.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Mayer:  This is Bit's favorite version of this fairy tale.  She loves the illustrations, which are beautiful. 
A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine:  Bit is always wanting more stories about girls and dragons.  She can't get enough.  I actually pre-ordered this so I could read it, but it should be perfect for her. 

The books I bought for me:
Caddy Ever After by Hilary McKay:  I am planning on buying all the Casson books at some point. I'm starting with this one because our library doesn't have it.
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall:  I pre-ordered this one too because I can't wait.  I love the Penderwicks. 
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson:  I love Andrew Peterson's songwriting and have been wanting to try out this book for some time.  It was bargain priced on Amazon so I decided now was a good time to buy it.  

Moon Over Manifest

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool won the Newbery for 2011.  If it had not been recognized by that committee I probably wouldn't have read it because I'm actually pretty tired of Depression era novels.  This would have been too bad as the book is delightfully charming.

Synopsis (from Goodreads)
Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.
Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”  Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past. It seems that Manifest’s history is full of colorful and shadowy characters—and long-held secrets. The more Abilene hears, the more determined she is to learn just what role her father played in that history. And as Manifest’s secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story into the fabric of the town.

Manifest is a town that has seen better days.  Although not nearly as bad off as some other midwestern towns during the Depression, the  people have lost hope and have little binding them together.  Abilene enters this atmosphere longing to find her father's footprints on the town and inquires of the "diviner", Miss  Sadie.  What she gets is the story of a boy named Jinx and the town of Manifest in 1918.  I confess that it was this story that kept me reading the book.  Miss Sadie paints a vivid picture of the town and life in small town America in the early 20th century.  There were times I couldn't help thinking of The Music Man, particularly as Jinx is quite the conman.  The characters of the town in 1918 were real and vivid, if  a tad cliche'.  It was them I was invested in and made me care about what happened to those who were still around in the 1936 portion of the story.  Jinx and Ned both captured my imagination the same way they did Abilene's.

Abilene's story was not quite as enjoyable to me.  I never really connected with her character  or cared much about what happened to her.  She is very much your typical middle grade Depression era novel heroine.  Spunky, street smart, missing at least one parent, living in a small town, looking to connect with her dad.  This story has been told so many times I am heartily sick of it.*  I found myself skimming the parts where the story focused on her for mention of the people from the 1918 story and to move on more quickly  to the next part of that.  It was almost as if her entire function was to be the vehicle for the older story making her a cypher.  Nothing about her was all that memorable.

I enjoyed Vanderpool's descriptive voice and use of language.

Overall I found the book charming and fun.  There are not that many books for middle graders that depict the World War I era well.  The fact that this is one separates it from the sea of other MG Depression era novels it might otherwise have been lost in.

*Seriously, one of the Newbery Honor books for this year, Turtle in Paradise, tells this same story.  That was two in one year, and they aren't the first two.  I find it interesting that everyone on the committee this year seems to have the same genre bias.  Four of the five books are historical fiction.  Three of those four are 20th century American.  Two out of those three are Depression era novels that play off the same tropes.  I prefer it when the committee has more diverse taste. 

Two Grimm Novels

"I don't know-I always loved fairy tales.  They seem so-so realistic....What I mean is, all the terrible things that happen in fairy tales seem real.  Or not real, but genuine.  Life is unfair, and the bad guys keep winning and good people die...Evil is real, but so is good.  They always say fairy tales are simplistic, black and white, but I don't think so.  I think they're complicated.  That's what I love about them."  So says Elizabeth, the heroine of Polly  Shulman's novel The Grimm Legacy .  I couldn't agree more.  This is exactly why I love fairy tales too.  Which means whenever there is a chance for me to read a retelling or reworking of one I will take it.  This week I read two books that both take on the tales of the Brothers Grimm, A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz and the aforementioned The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman.

  Synopsis (from Author's Website): 
Reader, beware.  Warlocks with dark spells, hunters with deadly aim, and bakers with ovens retro-fitted for baking children lurk within these pages.  But if you dare, Follow Hansel and Gretel as they walk out of their own story and into the wilds—where magic, terror, and a little bit of humor shine like white pebbles lighting the way.  Come on in. It may be frightening, and it’s certainly bloody, but, unlike those other fairy tales you know, this one is true.  Once upon a time, you see, fairy tales were awesome.

I give Gidwitz high marks for creativity and humor.  He took several Grimm tales and bonded them into a single narrative by sending Hansel and Gretel through all of them.  The prose is simple but engaging and witty at the same time.  If I had received this book for my classroom library while teaching it would have been one of those that required the drawing of sticks to see who got it first.  The waiting list for it would have been the length of the roster.  Look at that cover.  Add to that the synopsis that promises horror and blood and most kids would be salivating.  This is the sort of book even reluctant readers would be eager to get their hands on.

It was, however, not personally my cup of tea.  The characterization of Hansel and Gretel was flat and two dimensional.  When a Fairy Tale is transformed into a full length novel, I expect the characters to be developed more.  There are several places where the Narrator interrupts the narrative to give warnings and commentary.  Sometimes he is funny, but mostly he comes across as if he is saying them with a superior sneer on his face.  Some of his commentary was brilliant.  A lot of it was superfluous.  There is a lot of action in the plot and much of it is violent.  There is, as promised, a lot of blood.  So much in fact that it became a bit ho-hum after a while.  I got a bit bored, "Oh look someone else is bleeding/dying/being, what next?"  The chapter in which Hansel is gambled away to the Devil and visits Hell was when I really began to lose interest in the story.  (Note to my fellow Christian parents:  This chapter is rife with bad theology.  If your kids are reading the book, you might want to read this chapter and discuss it with them.)
Synopsis (from Author's Website):
Lonely at her new school, Elizabeth takes a job at the New York Circulating Material Repository, hoping to make new friends as well as pocket money. The Repository is no ordinary library. It lends out objects rather than books—everything from tea sets and hockey sticks to Marie Antoinette’s everyday wig.  It’s also home to the Grimm Collection, a secret room in the basement. That’s where the librarians lock away powerful items straight out of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales:  seven-league boots, a table that produces a feast at the blink of an eye, Snow White’s stepmother’s sinister mirror that talks in riddles and has a will of its own. When the magical objects start to disappear, Elizabeth and her new friends embark on a dangerous quest to catch the thief before they’re accused of the crime themselves—or the thief captures them.

I enjoyed the time I spent reading this.  It is a delightful read, a combination of mystery and adventure with magic and romance thrown in for good measure.  It is not without its flaws, there are times at the beginning when the story moves a bit slow and some of the dialogue sounds a little forced at times.  But it sure is fun.  Elizabeth is a Cinderella type but the story, rather than being a retelling of one or more tales, is a story with a  magic of its own that incorporates the magic of the Grimm tales too.  I liked the concept of the Repository and the magic it contains.  The magic is not explained and there are several mysteries not totally resolved by the end.  It requires a suspension of belief but that is what Fairy Tales are all about.  The story concentrates on Elizabeth and her three closest friends at the library and I was excited to see the multiple races displayed in this quartet.  Non-white prevalent characters are not easily found in fantasy.  The kids themselves are teens trying to fit in, suffering from unrequited crushes, discovering requited romance, dealing with annoying siblings and learning how to be a true friend.  They are characters to which the audience can relate despite their magical circumstances.  The two romances in the book are believable.  (And one of the boys is my kind of hero, that made it even better.)  The romantic entanglements are limited to flirting and kissing.  There is more than one kissing scene, though they are done tastefully.  I think this novel would be perfect for middle grade girls who are not quite yet ready for the more mature content of some YA novels.