Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: Killer App by Michael Dahl (Cybils Nominee)

Killer App. by Michael Dahl. 2012. Capstone. 63 pages. ISBN: 9781434232311

Killer App is very different from most early chapter books I have read, because although it is written at a first or second grade reading level, the intended audience is actually grades 4 to 8, and maybe even older. Stone Arch Books publishes a good number of series of Hi-Low novels like this one, which tell stories about high interest topics for older readers who read below grade level. Though I am not familiar with the Return to the Library of Doom series, of which this book is a part, Killer App really impressed me, and I enjoyed reading it.

The storyline centers on a Smartphone app that allows its user to download horror stories.The catch, though, is that this killer app also downloads whatever creepy creatures appear in the selected horror story. As Ivan and his best friend Mark drive along with their girlfriends, Mark’s girlfriend downloads The Raven, and almost instantly they find themselves running from a flock of angry birds. Their only hope of escape is to summon the Librarian from the Library of Doom, who will know how to counteract the birds’ attacks.

What I like most about the book is its design. The cover doesn’t really catch my eye, but the interior illustrations definitely grabbed my attention right away. Many pages have full-color illustrations which have a style similar to a lot of comic books, but even the pages that only have text on them have interesting notations and changes of font that enhance the appearance and meaning of particular words and phrases. When the phone sits gleaming on the asphalt, “gleams” is surrounded by simple images of stars, showing how the word shines. Words like “angry” and “scary” are written in large capital letters with little squiggles under and around them to help decode their meaning. When the boys laugh, the word “Ha!” appears several times around that sentence, visually representing the sound of laughter. These visual cues are so useful to new readers, and to readers who might be learning English for the first time as middle school or high school students.

The use of Smartphone technology adds to the high interest level of this book. Kids are practically addicted to their phones these days, so they will relate to characters who share that obsession, and by demonstrating that phones can be used to download books, the story subtly models print motivation. Kids who struggle with reading might have negative associations with it, but by tying their phones into the reading process, kids might start to see reading books as a more relevant activity. I also appreciate any book that shows librarians as something other than quiet ladies with buns who shush their patrons and punish them for losing their library books. The library in this book is basically a superhero, and he is literally the master of all books.

Though Killer App shares a Guided Reading Level with books from series like Henry and Mudge and Frog and Toad, it is not a story for the typical early reader. Rather, Killer App is an adventure story for tweens and teens, written on a level more easily tackled by kids who don’t yet read proficiently. I think this is a great addition to any library serving ESL students, and for school libraries serving kids at a variety of levels. I don’t know enough Hi Low titles offhand to recommend read-alikes, but pairing this book with English lessons on the works of Edgar Allan Poe would be a great start.

I received a finished copy of Killer App from the publisher.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

NOTE: This book was nominated by the publisher for the 2012 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, but this review reflects my opinions only, not those of any other panelist, or the panel as a whole. Thanks!


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