Front Desk by Kelly Yang – A Not-to-be-Missed Debut Novel

FRONT DESK
Written by Kelly Yang
(Arthur A. Levine Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

cover art for Front Desk by Kelly Yang

 

Starred reviews – Booklist, Kirkus and School Library Journal

Where do I possibly begin with Kelly Yang’s FRONT DESK?

FRONT DESK is a timely and needed narrative for so many reasons. And Yang, as demonstrated in her debut novel, is one heck of a storyteller. She’s destined to be an author that kids and adults clamor to meet so they can soak up her pearls of wisdom. Drawing from firsthand experiences and keen insights from when she arrived in America as a Chinese child immigrant along with her parents, Yang’s tale provides many kids a chance to find themselves and find hope inside the pages of this moving middle grade historical novel.

It’s 1993 when we meet our heroine Mia Tang. At 10-years-old, Mia is one of the most empathetic, intelligent, persevering characters of this age I have seen in a long time. The truth is there are so many like her whose voices deserve to be heard. I am grateful to Yang that tweens now have a chance to get to know this plucky protagonist and her struggles. Mia’s family are employed at a hotel with unpleasant owners after working for a short time at a restaurant where they were taken advantage of, then fired shortly after. While the hotel seems like a dream come true at first with free rent, the negatives and danger of managing the hotel take their toll on the family.

One of the moments that broke my heart is when Mia is sitting with one of the “weeklies” at the motel she helps run with her parents. The “weeklies” stay at the hotel for a week at a time, paying a lump sum. An older Black gentleman, Hank, is sitting slumped over, defeated by yet another instance in his life where he is targeted for a crime he did not commit simply because he isn’t White. He’s been labeled for so long that at this point he has no more will to fight. He exposes this vulnerability to Mia, and it is a powerful and haunting exchange. Hank isn’t feeling sorry for himself, nor is he bitter or angry when he has every right to be. He’s just tired, the kind of tired you cannot possibly understand unless you’ve been judged by the color of your skin your whole life. Mia later advocates for him and shows us how you are never too young or too old to stand on the side of justice and equality for all.

Resiliency. Mia and her family, along with the “weeklies” and some other friends, have this in abundance. Even when their own families decline to help them in their hour of need, their community rallies around them so they can take control of their destinies.

I dog-eared many pages to go back and look over for this review, and I’m still at a loss as how best to describe my favorite parts because there are so many. I’ve also purchased more than one copy of this book to give to others. It is one of those stories that will creep into your heart and linger there for quite a while.

FRONT DESK needs to be in every school library and as many homes as possible.

  • Reviewed by Ozma Bryant

Read another recent review by Ozma here.
Check out Kelly Yang’s new global issues video series for teenagers: www.facebook.com/kellyyangproject or www.youtube.com/kellyyangproject.

Can World Cup Aspirations be Found Here? The Field by Baptiste Paul

THE FIELD
Written by Baptiste Paul
Illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara
(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)

 Cover illustration from The Field

 

“is a debut masterpiece of collaboration and skill,” says reviewer Ozma Bryant.

In a friendly game of soccer (futbol), the magic of not only the sport but the players involved, comes into brilliant light splayed across the pages of The Field, a debut picture book by Baptiste Paul.

 

The Field written by Baptiste Paul int. art by Jacqueline Alcántara

Interior artwork from The Field written by Baptiste Paul with illustrations by Jacqueline Alcántara, NorthSouth Books ©2018

 

With a tropical rainstorm threatening the game, the players band together, solidifying their connection through love of playing ball and sportsmanship. Challenges such as the weather won’t intrude on this precious time together. The story, I might add,  is really about a group of kids—the “main character” is never mentioned by name but she’s on all the pages.

 

Int. illustrations by Jacqueline Alcántara from The Field written by Baptiste Paul

Interior artwork from The Field written by Baptiste Paul with illustrations by Jacqueline Alcántara, NorthSouth Books ©2018

 

My favorite moment is when one of the opposing players is knocked down, and our main character, in her white jersey #3, reaches her hand out to him on the muddy ground asking, “Ou byen? You okay?” He responds, “Mwen byen. I’m good.” You can practically reach out and touch the splattered mud and rain that splashes across the pages as the players muscle on through, seeing the game to completion.

The sun creeps back out as the game continues, even as Mamas call the players home. Hearing a firm command “Vini, abwezan! Come now!” the children end the game then go their separate ways to rest up and rejuvenate for a new day of play.

 

Int. illustrations by Jacqueline Alcántara from The Field written by Baptiste Paul

Interior artwork from The Field written by Baptiste Paul with illustrations by Jacqueline Alcántara, NorthSouth Books ©2018

 

Caked with mud and filth, children slip into tubs of warm water, smiling …  reveling in the magic that is a game well played. Dreams of new games and friendship forming float overhead, as the field lingers even in sleep.

Alcántara’s gorgeous art propels the reader forward with spare language infused with Creole words from the author’s native home in the Caribbean. The author of this amazing story explains in the back matter that Creole is rarely written, mostly spoken, and so new words are constantly being added or old ones modified in this language. A Creole Glossary is also included.

One of my dear friends hails from Haiti, and speaks Creole. He was the initial reason I was excited to read this book and learn from it. One of the first things I learned from him was that soccer was also ‘futbol’. When I saw the young girl on the cover, I wanted to put this book into his young daughter’s hands immediately. I must ask if she plans to watch the FA Cup this weekend!

I am so thankful for this incredible book and hope to share it with many readers who can also identify with its themes of friendship, connection, teamwork and not giving up in the face of adversity.

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus

Click here for educator and librarian resources.

Read another review by Ozma Bryant here.

 

Zinnia and the Bees, An Interview with Debut Author Danielle Davis

MEET DANIELLE DAVIS,
AUTHOR OF
ZINNIA AND THE BEES
Written by Danielle Davis
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)

 

Cover image from Zinnia and the Bees written by Danielle Davis

 

Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel. 

REVIEW

Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.

Zinnia and the Bees book with wool and some beesOn that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.

As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.

The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)

Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel

INTERVIEW

Photo of Zinnia and the Bees author Danielle Davis

Author of Zinnia and the Bees, Danielle Davis

Good Reads With Ronna: What was the genesis for Zinnia and the Bees

Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.

GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?

DD 🐝: I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).

GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?

DD 🐝: While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.

GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?

DD 🐝: Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday. 

GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?

DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.

GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?

DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.

GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?

DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of my blog.

And The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.

GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?

DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.

GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?

DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.

GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?

DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)

The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years ago here.

GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?

DD 🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!

Visit Danielle’s website here.
Find her at Twitter here.
Find her at Instagram here.
Click here to see Danielle’s Facebook page
And click here to for her Pinterest boards.
Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel by Kimberly Willis Holt

BLOOMING AT THE TEXAS SUNRISE MOTEL
Written by Kimberly Willis Holt
(Henry Holt and Company BYR/A Christy Ottaviano Book;
$16.99, Ages 8-14)

cover image for Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel

 

In Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motelwhen thirteen-year-old Stevie’s parents are killed in an accident, she’s uprooted from her New Mexico home and sent to live in the Texas Sunrise Motel with a grandfather she doesn’t remember. Though grandfather Winston is standoffish, Stevie quickly connects with the motel’s eclectic group of people, including a cute boy her age named Roy.

Living in the same room where her mother grew up sparks Stevie’s curiosity about her parents’ kept-quiet past; grandfather Winston coolly avoids personal topics. Instead of enrolling Stevie in public school, she’s sent to the same woman who homeschooled her mother—the ancient and narcoleptic Mrs. Crump. Here, Stevie finally begins to piece together the puzzle about what her mother was like as a girl.

In this moving middle grade novel, Stevie struggles to cope with choices that are being made without her consent. Just as she’s settling into Texas, an unknown aunt invites Stevie to Louisiana. Now it’s up to her to decide between living with fun and loud cousins or returning to her seemingly detached grandfather and the motel’s motley cast of characters. Stevie’s comfortable world has ended; she’s adrift in new beginnings and explorations.

Kimberly Willis Holt‘s effective use of plant imagery throughout will not be lost on readers. Stevie parents ran a fruit and flower stand, her Louisiana cousins are in the nursery business—digging in the dirt is in Stevie’s genes. Discovering where Stevie puts down roots is the heart of this gentle, character-driven, and finely crafted story.

Click here to see Holt’s book tour schedule.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

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

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

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

 

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

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
%d bloggers like this: