Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd) by Julie Bowe

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BIG & LITTLE QUESTIONS
(ACCORDING TO WREN JO BYRD)
Written by Julie Bowe
(Kathy Dawson Books; $16.99, Ages 7-9)

 

Big & Little Questions book cover image

 

Find out about this fab new middle grade novel, Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd) in Christine Van Zandt’s glowing review. Good Reads With Ronna also wishes author Julie Bowe a very Happy Book Birthday today!

Over the summer, Wren Jo Byrd, a shy nine-year-old, was abruptly sent to stay with her grandparents while her Mom and Dad split up. Rather than confess what was going on to BFF Amber, Wren ignored her.

At the start of the new school year, Wren finds that Amber is best buddies with Marianna Van Den Heuval, the new girl in town; Wren pretends nothing has changed. However, Wren’s lies about her family become hard to maintain because she must split her time between two households. Wren doesn’t understand how this could be good for them.

Marianna, from the big city of Portland, blows into Wisconsin like a diva with an agenda. She peppers her dialogue with wonderfully realistic preteen talk, such as “We’re going to have So. Much. Fun!” Yet, Marianna’s bravado isn’t all it seems. Wren discovers some of Marianna’s secrets and begins a list of questions for Marianna—the only girl she knows whose parents are divorced. As Amber is swept away in Marianna’s coolness, Wren wrestles with what it means to be a friend and dreads what will happen when everyone discovers the truth.

Julie Bowe’s first-person voice captures Wren’s fears and the complexities in her life. The text is punctuated by definitions Wren looks up on her phone, such as to the word “happy” (meaning “content”) and then “content” (meaning “not needing more”). These lead her to wonder, “When did Mom and Dad stop being happy? . . . How come no one told me we needed more?”

Everyone has secrets; Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd), gives us a glimpse into why we hide our truths and the consequences we must endure when we choose to lie. This heartfelt story is about accepting change as friendships and families evolve beyond our control.

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com


Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy for Readukkah

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DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Dreidels on the Brain car

 

 

When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’s Dreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:

“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.”
There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.

Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.

As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.

Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.

Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.

The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel for #Readukkah

Reluctant Readers Love Timmy Failure and Tom Gates Series

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TIMMY FAILURE & TOM GATES
RECOMMENDED BOOKS FOR RELUCTANT READERS

Huzzah and hooray! A world class detective and a passionate doodler are back in the continuing series of two popular Candlewick Press middle grade books.

If you’re not familiar with either either Timmy Failure or Tom Gates, please take a look at earlier reviews of previous titles right here at Good Reads with Ronna (see below). Both series are a hit with fans of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and employ a diary or journal style novel filled with pen and ink illustrations. The illustrations not only add to both series’ humor, but, as one of my students, a reluctant reader (and now big fan) told me: the illustrations increase his understanding and enjoyment. Both are recommended for ages 8-12.
So check out more hilarious adventures– and misadventures– of Timmy Failure and Tom Gates.

Timmy Failure: Sanitized for Your Protection (#4)Timmy Failure Sanitized For Your Protection book cover
Written and illustrated by Stephan Pastis
Candlewick Press; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

The young “ … founder, president, and CEO of Failure, Inc, the greatest detective agency in the nation …” is forced to go on a road trip to Chicago to help his mom’s boyfriend move, instead of working on his latest case: the theft of money from a school fundraiser. Extremely put out, Timmy endures miles of cornfields and country-western music with his mother, Doorman Bob, his polar bear ex-partner, Total, arch-enemy and “criminal mastermind,” Molly, and her family. Like the Pink Panther’s clueless Inspector Clouseau, the equally clueless Timmy accuses everyone but the actual thief and tries to elicit confessions from the innocent while advising them on their “Carmen Miranda” rights. Can Timmy solve the case while far away in Chicago? Can he trust Molly, one of his many suspects, to help him find the crook? Be prepared for “greatness!” Visit Candlewick Press for information on the books and see Pastis’ wonderful Timmy Failure website for more information on the series, the characters, trailers for each book, and activities.

Read Good Reads with Ronna’s past reviews of the Timmy Failure series here.
Tom Gates Everything's Amazing (Sort of) book coverTom Gates: Everything’s Amazing (Sort of) (#3) 
Written and illustrated by Liz Pichon
Candlewick Press; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

Tom has a lot on his mind and some big problems. Not his usual problems: an irritating older sister, an obnoxious classmate who is always trying to get him in trouble, school, teachers, and math homework. Actually, any homework.

No, he’s got much bigger worries than that. His birthday is coming up and no one seems to notice the wish list he’s conveniently posted on the refrigerator door. His weird, but sweet grandmother has promised to whip him up a special birthday cake. Not so good … she’s been known to mix jello and peas together. His parents have promised to take him and four of his friends to Dino Village for his birthday (where his father works). Four friends? No problem, he’ll invite best “mate” Derek, Norman, and two others. Things quickly go awry, when Amy, the girl he has a crush on, sees the invitations and asks if she can come … and bring a friend. He agrees before realizing the numbers (there’s that pesky math again) don’t add up to four.

His band, Dog Zombies, which includes Derek and Norman, has been “volunteered” by Principal Keen to perform at the school dance. The inexperienced trio, with only one previous engagement under their belts, is going to need a lot of practice. A lot! Even worse, Tom’s father, a loveable and delightfully quirky man, has been hired to be the DJ at the school dance. He plans to wear his dinosaur costume from Dino Village … and silver disco boots. Positively cringe-worthy.

Will this doodler and homework dodger get what he wants for his birthday? Will he figure out how to include Amy and his four friends at Dino Village? Will the Dog Zombies go up in flames at the school dance? And then there’s his father … and his grandmother’s special birthday cake. Read the book and be prepared for a laugh-out-loud experience!

Oh, in case you don’t speak British (“choon” means an excellent tune), Pichon has included a British to American glossary. Don’t forget to check out the recipe for Tom’s “Doodle Toast” at the end of the story.

Visit Pichon’s and Candlewick’s websites for more information on the author and the series as well as fun activities.

Check out Good Reads with Ronna’s earlier reviews of previous titles in the Tom Gates series:

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates (#1)

Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and other good stuff) (#2)

  • Reviewed by Dornel CerroVisit Dornel’s blog, Mile High Books, here.

Raymie Nightingale written by Kate DiCamillo

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RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE
Written by Kate DiCamillo
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo book cover

 

Reviewer Hilary Taber calls Raymie Nightingale, “A rare and hopeful song.” But after reading her review, you’ll discover, as with all DiCamillo’s books, it’s that and so much more

Raymie Clarke is preparing herself to enter the Little Miss Florida Central Tire competition. Her father has recently run off with a dental hygienist, and Raymie is determined to win so that he will see Raymie’s picture in a newspaper and will, of course, come back to his family. This is the initial plan, but like most plans it doesn’t turn out the way that Raymie originally intended. First of all she needs to learn how to twirl a baton in order to win the competition. It is during those baton twirling classes that she meets her “rancheros”, her new friends who become like family. Gritty, but sweet Beverly, and storyteller extraordinaire Louisiana, help her through this hard time. Maybe, just maybe, Raymie is more than just a little girl with a big dream to get her father to come home. Maybe, just maybe, Raymie is destined for adventures with her new friends that show Raymie that she is the hero of her own difficult time. Raymie finds that somewhere in her is a person who is stronger than the storms of life. She also learns that, with help from her friends, she can manage to make her way to a new life full of goodness and grace. It is a life that she could have never imagined when she began making her plans to turn things around. Kate DiCamillo delivers yet another wonderful novel that makes you believe again in the strong, incredible power of friendship and hope.

It is that rare quality of combining sorrow with sweetness that makes every book she writes life affirming. Every book is like watching a sweet spring creep over a winter world. Often as a children’s bookseller, I see an absolute faith placed in her books by the children who read them. Even though the story might be hard to read, the children show a willingness to take the journey with Kate. Time and time again I wonder what it is that they are feeling when they look at her books in their little hands. I think it’s something akin to knowing that she is telling them the truth. There is a certain peace in that. Kate tells us that life is hard, but you should always hope. Hope is real, hope is something to hold on to, hope is the stuff of life.

On a personal note I feel that Kate DiCamillo is the E.B. White of our generation. Like White she is adept in the art of condensing profound thoughts into short, but amazing sentences. I was honored to meet her recently and to have my copy of Raymie Nightingale signed. I think it’s worth noting that beyond the wonderful writing is a very brave writer. Kate has personally been through the very hard experience of having an absent father, and she has courageously taken up the task of writing about this time in her life. That had to be difficult. Ultimately I think her bravery in writing about this time in her life will help to heal others who have gone though something similar. So, here is to one amazing writer who is also incredibly resilient, just like Raymie.

Come back tomorrow to read Hilary’s interview with Kate DiCamillo to get the inside scoop.
Download a teacher’s guide here.
Download a book discussion guide here.

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

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CRENSHAW
by Katherine Applegate
(Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Crenshawcover


Oh, this marvelous cover. The huge cat, the small boy, the dreamy purple all around them, and the feeling like they have known each other for a long time are all reasons that Crenshaw just pulled me in when I first saw it. Of course I knew that Katherine Applegate was going to write a terrific book because she wrote the Newbery Award winner, The One and Only Ivan. So, I just trust her to write something wonderful and she did!

Jackson, known to the family as Jacks, is a person who likes facts. In fact, he loves them. So when Crenshaw shows up one day Jackson is amazed and more than slightly freaked out. Crenshaw was Jackson’s imaginary friend when Jackson was a little boy. Jackson knows better than to believe in imaginary friends. However, now Jackson has a real problem because even though he wishes Crenshaw would just go away, it’s not going to happen. Crenshaw is going to stay for a while. It’s good that he does because Jackson is going to need his old friend again.

Jackson and his family aren’t doing well financially. Jackson’s family is going to have to make a decision about how they are going to cope with job losses and disabilities. It isn’t going to be easy to be able to make any sort of decision at all when there is hardly any money. Jackson and his family have had to live in the family minivan before, and Jackson is worried that they might have to do that again. While everything around Jackson seems out of control, Crenshaw is there. He’s a giant, imaginary cat and I’m so glad he is there for Jackson. Crenshaw guides Jackson. Crenshaw helps Jackson to find a way to tell a hard truth. Crenshaw likes purple jellybeans. Crenshaw is a cat that can ride a surfboard! In short, Crenshaw is a great friend.

There’s just tons to love about this book. It’s magical, full of facts (that’s what Jackson likes), full of imagination (that’s pretty much what Crenshaw is made from), and it has this amazing warmth to it. Jackson’s family may have financial troubles, but there is no deficit of love in this family. They love each other to the moon and back again. Crenshaw received well-deserved starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Horn Book. I’ll add another of my own. Highly recommended!

Read an excerpt by clicking here.

Click here to purchase CRENSHAW by Katherine Applegate

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

Cold War on Maplewood Street by Gayle Rosengren

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COLD WAR ON MAPLEWOOD STREET
Written by Gayle Rosengren
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

ColdWaronMaplewoodStreet

“War was something that happened in other countries, not here in the United States. Not in Chicago on Maplewood Street.” (p. 21).

On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised address to the American people about the discovery of Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba and his response to that threat: a naval blockade of the island. In the tense days that followed, U.S. and Soviet warships sped to the island and the two Cold War superpowers stood “eyeball to eyeball.” The world hovered at the edge of a nuclear precipice.

As the story in Cold War on Maplewood Street unfolds, we meet sixth grader Joanna who loves her dog, Dixie, horses, and mystery books. She lives with her single mom in a basement apartment. Her beloved older brother, Sam, is in the Navy and her best friend, Pam, lives upstairs. She is attracted to the new student in her class, Theo, but too embarrassed to talk to him. However, Joanna has a lot to worry about. A latchkey child, she’s home alone frequently after school and fears that robbers may break into her basement apartment. She wonders about the strange lady in the upstairs apartment who always seems to be watching Joanna from her window … could the old lady be a spy? She misses Sam, but won’t write to him or read his letters, because he broke his promise to her that he would never leave like her father did. One of the popular girls in school is having a boy-girl party that Joanna’s mom feels she’s too young to attend.

President Kennedy’s televised speech triggers unpleasant memories of Joanna’s father and the disastrous last visit she had with Sam. As tensions mount between the two superpowers, fears at home grow. People begin to stockpile supplies and students practice air raid drills at school. Joanna worries about her brother’s safety and she finally begins writing to him. But he does not reply. Has he given up on her? Or is his ship involved in the blockade?

This middle grade historical novel is a dramatic, wonderfully crafted, coming-of-age-story set during a critical moment in history, as one young girl, standing between childhood and adolescence, struggles to understand the changes in her world. The author’s research into early 1960s America and the political crisis creates an authentic setting, which brought back many childhood memories for me. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are references to popular culture such as transistor radios, television shows (Broken Arrow), personalities (First Lady, Jackie Kennedy), and music (The Four Season’ Sherry Baby and Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash).The author mirrors the growing tensions between the two superpowers with Joanna’s fears and concerns, but prevents the story from being swallowed up by events on the world stage. Day-to-day life continues for Joanna: school, homework, running errands, dinners with Pam’s family, and baking cookies with her mother. But life, as her mother reminds her, changes, and while some changes may be scary, others bring hope. Could mom’s new job improve the family’s lifestyle?

Visit Gayle Rosengren’s website for more information on this book and her previous title, What the Moon Said (Putnam, 2014). Rosengren has many resources for using both books in the classroom or with book clubs, including a list of books that Joanna might have read, and links to websites about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Highly recommended for ages 8-12.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

 


Backwards Moon by Mary Losure & Giveaway

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An Enchanting Story from Mary Losure

Backwards-Moon-cvr.jpgWhen my daughter was 7 or 8 she became infatuated with fairy and witch stories. But that was 13 years ago and the selection wasn’t very exciting. I’m happy to say that now there are so many more interesting books featuring assorted magical creatures and Mary Losure’s Backwards Moon (Holiday House, $16.95, Ages 7-10) is one of them. This recently published middle grade novel is perfectly suited for tweens who want action, adventure, fantasy and a satisfying conclusion, all in just 134 pages.

Cousins Nettle and Bracken are the two youngest witches in a coven made up of mostly older witches (“They were not just old, they were very old. Some were hundreds of years old.”) who live in a hidden valley being encroached upon by humans. The book opens on the very day that the girls discover something has gone terribly wrong with the magic Veil, originally spun to shelter their community from the outside world.

Suddenly it’s looking like the carefree days of playing Catapult are over. Things are about to change forever, thrusting Nettle and Bracken into a mission to save their coven by traveling to the human world. There the witchlings will attempt to find untainted Wellspring Water, crucial for the damaged Veil spell. They’ll also eventually seek out the Door leading to a safer world for all witches, far from the menacing presence of humankind.  Even though the older, more experienced witches would seem like the natural choice to make this dangerous journey, the fear of Fading, or loss of magical powers caused by the proximity to humans, stops them from trying. The cousins’ youth, while providing them with increased protection from the Fading, does not guarantee immunity putting them at considerable risk as well.

Losure_Mary 2014

Backwards Moon Author Mary Losure. Photo credit: Don Losure © 2014

Losure has created a believable world where only young humans can see the witches, initially complicating matters, but ultimately helping the girls on their quest. I found it fascinating how the author was able to convincingly convey the collision of the witch world with that of humans, in fact she had me at Seeking Stones. (magical rocks that will assist the witchlings). There are several engaging characters who help Nettle and Bracken including a young human girl named Elizabeth, a Witchfriend named Ben and a caring raccoon. Losure has included a nemesis for the cousins to evade, as well as many close calls that will keep tweens entranced. In 21 short chapters, we’re whisked away to a wonderfully imagined world where wishes can be used up and time is not necessarily on the side of the plucky main characters. All that makes for a more layered read and a desire to follow Nettle and Bracken into the safety they seek behind the Door, perhaps in a second book? I can wish, too!

Click here to read an excerpt from Backwards Moon.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Buy the book from Indie Bound by clicking here.

GIVEAWAY:

This giveaway will be a bound book giveaway, sent to the winner from Holiday House. The winner must be a U.S. resident and over 18 years of age (parents/guardians can enter for children if they’re interested).

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