Step Back in Time to the Fantasy World That is Willa of the Wood

WILLA OF THE WOOD
Written by Robert Beatty
(Disney-Hyperion Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

cover illustration from Willa of the Wood by Robert Beatty

 

In Willa of the Wood, a middle-grade fantasy novel, twelve-year-old Willa is one of the last woodwitches in her Faeran clan. Willa lives with her mamaw, who teaches her how to communicate with plants and animals. Their kind are called “the old ones” by the Cherokee and “night-spirits” by the white-skinned homesteaders. Though Willa’s streaked and spotted skin blends into natural surroundings, she is as real as any other creature.

The year is1900 and, in the Great Smoky Mountains, Willa’s world is changing. The day-folk build unnatural dwellings from the carcasses of murdered trees and hunt the forest’s animals with their killing-sticks. The Faeran dwindle under the strict rule of their deified leader, the padaran. He demands that the young ones steal from the day-folk. Willa is the clan’s best thief because those who don’t return to Dead Hollow with a full satchel are denied food or physically punished. The padaran convinces them, “There is no I, only we.”

When Willa’s discoveries make her question the padaran’s decisions, she must choose between subservience to her clan’s new ways or accept the consequences of defiance.

The book’s twists will keep you guessing! Beatty pulls you into this captivating world with depth of setting and by showing us Willa’s many facets. Because of the scenes involving death, the padaran’s cruelty, and other complex issues, younger children may benefit from reading this book with an adult. Rich in story and detail, Willa of the Wood satisfies with its conclusion and promises to make readers eager for the next installment.

Willa of the Wood is the first book in a new series by Robert Beatty, known for his #1 New York Times best-selling Serafina series.

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

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

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

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.

The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas

THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PET BLACK HOLE
Written and illustrated by Michelle Cuevas
(Dial BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

“The story began on an afternoon the color of comets, with a girl dressed all in black. A sad girl. A girl with a hole in her heart, and darkness on the horizon.” The year is 1977 and eleven-year-old Stella Rodriguez, the protagonist in The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas, loves science. She’s fascinated by the upcoming Voyager launch and visits NASA to give Carl Sagan a recording to take to space—one of Stella and her (deceased) father, laughing and telling jokes. The Voyager will carry all the “wonderful sounds of Earth” but Stella’s younger brother, Cosmo, asks “Are there sad sounds too?”

Stella’s turned away at NASA, but a black hole who seems to want to be her pet follows her home. She names him Larry, short for Singularity, a place of infinite gravity at the heart of a black hole. Using puppy training books, Stella learns to care for and train her black hole. When, like all unruly pets, Larry consumes inappropriate things, Stella realizes he could serve as a repository for items she wants out of her life along with their corresponding memories. Maybe nothingness is better than the pain of remembering.

Cuevas’s illustrations intersperse her text, adding visual interest. When Stella enters the black hole, the pages turn black. The interstellar adventure inside Larry is riotous fun involving the kids, their puppy, the smelly classroom hamster, an assortment of discarded things, and the family’s bathtub. The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is an entertaining and lighthearted story surrounding the gravity of Stella’s aching grief.

Eventually, Stella realizes even if she has a hole in her center “that’s okay, because it’s full of such beautiful, beautiful things.” In the clever appendix, “A Beginners Guide to the Care and Feeding of Black Holes,” Stella Rodriguez graciously summarizes all she has learned.

Have a look inside …

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

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

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

Leo, Dog of the Sea Blog Tour Review & Giveaway

LEO, DOG OF THE SEA
Written by Alison Hart
Illustrated by Michael G. Montgomery
(Peachtree Publishers; $12.95, Ages 7-10)

 

Leo Dog of the Sea cover image

 

 

We’re delighted to be included in Peachtree Publishers’ Blog Tour for Alison Hart’s Leo, Dog of the Sea, the fourth installment in this action-packed series available April l. The Dog Chronicles series introduces young readers to the important yet often overlooked roles our canine companions played in major historical events. Please read on for more info about the book and giveaway. 

BOOK SUMMARY:

Leo Dog of the Sea interior artwork by Michael G. Montgomery

Interior illustrations from LEO, DOG OF THE SEA by Alison Hart copyright © 2017 by Michael G. Montgomery. Used with permission from Peachtree Publishers.

After reading the first few pages of Leo, Dog of the Sea, prepare to be instantly swept aboard the Trinidad, one of five ships in the Spanish armada under the command of Captain General, Ferdinand Magellan. The date: August 1519. In 14 fast-paced, engaging chapters, readers will join the ship’s rat-catching canine, Leo, who narrates the treacherous voyage around the globe as Magellan navigates the seas looking for a route to the Spice Islands. They’ll also meet a motley crew and a colorful cast of characters and can decide for themselves who is worthy of friendship and loyalty and who is not to be trusted. While Leo certainly becomes the most endearing of the lot, Pigafetta, Magellan’s Italian scribe, and Marco, a young stowaway are sure to be favorites, too.

Hart has once again created an observant and compelling character, this time in Leo, a dog reluctant to get close to any human. Now embarking on his fourth voyage to foreign lands, Leo has a wealth of seafaring experience making his detailed descriptions of all things sailing related both realistic and believable. And while five vessels set out in search of a westward route, only one will complete the entire three year journey intact. 

Interior artwork by Michael G. Montgomery from Leo Dog of the Sea

Interior illustrations from LEO, DOG OF THE SEA by Alison Hart copyright © 2017 by Michael G. Montgomery. Used with permission from Peachtree Publishers.

When the armada sets off, readers learn that reporting directing to Magellan is master-at-arms, Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa who will, according to Magellan, “… carry out my orders and assure that the laws of Spain and navigation are obeyed.” This man is the epitome of cruel and Leo and Marco must steer clear of him to save their skins. Keeping notes on everything that occurs, good and bad, is Pigafetta who takes to the boy and dog early on, helping them survive during the perilous trip. It doesn’t hurt that Leo displays bravery in the face of adversary on numerous occasions. And Marco, stoic and astute, proves to be an invaluable companion and page. The story revolves around all the various ports of call visited, the inhabitants encountered and the obstacles faced by Magellan and his crew along the way. Those include every type of weather condition imaginable including violent storms or lack thereof, thievery, hunger, deadly disease, mutiny and murder. 

I knew little about Magellan before beginning the book and found myself eager to find out more as I approached the story’s end. Fortunately there are 19 pages of information Hart has included to fill interested readers in on the rest of what happens after her story finishes as well as other fascinating facts about seafaring in the 16th century. From ship dogs to conditions onboard, the back matter in Leo, Dog of the Sea is as riveting and educational as the rest of the book. Illustrator Michael G. Montgomery’s artwork adds to the book’s appeal. His pencil illustrations provide just enough detail to give readers a real taste of the clothing and equipment of the time period, while zeroing in on the key action of a chapter. I guess in closing I have to say that, unlike days out a sea for Magellan’s armada, with no wind blowing for weeks on end, this middle grade historical fiction chapter book is never, ever boring. Get a copy today at your local independent bookseller or enter our great giveaway below. Thanks for stopping by the blog tour. Here are more blog posts to check out, too! 
3/27: Kid Lit Reviews
3/28: Librarian’s Quest
3/30: Boys to Books
3/31: Ms. Yingling Reads

Interior artwork by Michael G. Montgomery from Leo Dog of the Sea

Interior illustrations from LEO, DOG OF THE SEA by Alison Hart copyright © 2017 by Michael G. Montgomery. Used with permission from Peachtree Publishers.

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Other books in this series: Darling, Mercy Dog of World War I; Murphy, Gold Rush Dog; Finder, Coal Mine Dog.
Please read our review of Darling, Mercy Dog of World War I, Book One in the Dog Chronicles series by clicking here.

Click here for a Teacher’s Guide.
Click here to read a Q & A with author, Alison Hart.

GIVEAWAY DETAILS:

Please leave a comment on this blog post for your chance to win one (1) copy of Leo, Dog of the Sea, courtesy of Peachtree Publishers, MSRP value $12.95. One or two words for comment will not be considered valid entries. Giveaway ends 11:59p.m. on April 18. The winner will be chosen via Random.org on April 19th. For an extra chance to win, follow Good Reads With Ronna on Facebook here and let us know you did. Want to increase your chances? Get an additional entry into the giveaway by following this blog on Twitter or tweeting about the giveaway. Must be U.S. resident to enter. The winner will be notified via email. Good luck!

 

 

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

Nice Work, Franklin! by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain

 

In this lead up to Presidents’ Day, and with the presidential primaries in full swing, it’s the perfect time to share Nice Work, Franklin!, a dee-lightful and uplifting picture book.

NICE WORK, FRANKLIN!
Written by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain
Illustrated by Larry Day
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 5 and up)

 

Nice_Work_Franklin

This historical fiction book asks the question, “Do Presidents Have Challenges?” and answers with “You’d better believe it.” Jurmain goes on to explain that those challenges can be personal or national or sometimes both. For Franklin Delano Roosevelt or FDR as he was known, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it would not seem that life would present him with many challenges notes Jurmain.  “He was rich. He was smart. He was popular.” He also happened to be the cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, who served as an important role model for the career-driven FDR. Destined to do “big stuff,” the younger Roosevelt got into politics first in New York then moved on to running the Navy. It was even looking like he might make a run for governor.

Then, in 1921, at age 39, FDR’s legs were paralyzed by Polio, an illness that at the time had no cure. Rather than wallow in self-pity, the solution-oriented Roosevelt was determined not to give in to the disease. He used leg braces and crutches and exercised to strengthen his leg muscles as best he could. And when he wasn’t up to task, Franklin’s popular wife, Eleanor, got involved making speeches on his behalf. As his health improved, Franklin decided to run for governor of New York, making him the first disabled person to seek office. Franklin, when hearing people’s objections, responded with his typical can do attitude. “The governor of New York State does not have to be an acrobat.”

The start of the Great Depression immediately following the NYC Stock Market crash of 1929 or Black Friday as it was known, meant millions of people lost their jobs. Not one to be easily discouraged, Franklin felt he could do something to lift America out of its troubles. In 1932 he became the 32nd President of the United States. At his inaugural speech, FDR gave hope to Americans with his famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Then he got about the business of putting Americans back to work by creating a government jobs program, giving seniors Social Security benefits and creating funding for the unemployed. He even took to the radio with his “Fireside Chats” to speak directly to the American public. He went on to be elected (a total of four times) and watched the nation rise from the depths of despair. And though he still could not walk, he was responsible for putting the country back on its feet again.

Nice Work, Franklin! reminds readers of the power of positive thinking. Thanks to his can do approach and record of success, FDR will always be a role model for students. Jurmain aptly chose to highlight some of Roosevelt’s most important contributions to American society in a straight forward manner that is both informative and encouraging. Rather than attempt to cover his entire presidency, the author has concentrated on his first term in office, a pivotal time in U.S. history. Day, who has twice teamed up with Jurmain on some other presidential themed picture books, captures not only Franklin’s appearance, but his personality as well. The scenes he illustrated depict a nation desperate to recover and on the verge of great change. Two outstanding spreads for me were the one showing the endless lines of jobless men waiting for soup, and the inspiring image of Roosevelt standing up at his swearing-in ceremony ready to give his inaugural address. Between Jurmain’s anecdotes that demonstrate Franklin’s determination to overcome his challenges, and Day’s artwork resulting from “weeks sketching at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park,” Nice Work, Franklin! will make a welcome addition to any classroom.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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