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Middle Grade Novel Review – Remember Us

 

REMEMBER US

Written by Jacqueline Woodson

(Nancy Paulsen Books; $18.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Remember Us cover graffitied wall and basketball.

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Indie Next, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal

 

In Remember Us by Jacqueline Woodson, twelve-year-old Sage and her widowed mother live in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the house that was her father’s childhood home. She has strong connections to her firefighter father, who was killed in the line of duty. Like him, she loves basketball and dreams of playing professionally.

Sage’s tight-knit community is affected by the near-constant threat of fires breaking out all over the city during one summer in the 1970s. Homes and even lives are lost. Survivors leave, the neighborhood changes and childhood friendships shift. Some of Sage’s friends are more interested in being glamorous than in joining her, as they once did, in a game of basketball. Hardest of all is the revelation that her mother wants to leave the only home, her father’s home, that Sage has ever known.

Basketball is the only constant in her life. Freddy and his family move into the neighborhood and she finds out this kind boy loves basketball as much as she does. They become fast friends. One day, Sage experiences a traumatic event that shakes her to her core and leads to a harrowing act of destruction as she wrestles with doubts about who she is and what she wants to be.

Will she join the girls who paint their nails … or will she remain true to herself?

Using vivid and lyrical prose, Woodson draws on her Brooklyn roots and actual events to poignantly and richly capture the story’s characters and Sage’s neighborhood during a tense and fearful summer. Exquisitely written, Woodson once again explores the theme of memory and storytelling (Brown Girl Dreaming, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014) in this spare novel of a young girl grappling with change and learning the importance of memories and the value of moving on.

Click here for a teacher’s guide.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Review of 2023 Newbery Winner – Freewater

 

FREEWATER

by Amina Luqman-Dawson

(Little, Brown BYR; $16.99, Ages 10+)

 

 

 

Awards: John Newbery Medal, Coretta Scott King Author Award

An Indiebound Bestseller

Starred reviews: Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Connections

 

“A gripping story of friendship, survival, and courage as a group of young children overcome trauma and fear to pursue freedom for themselves and their community.”

 

Freewater is the award-winning novel by Amina Luqman-Dawson published a little over a year ago. It opens with the harrowing flight of two enslaved children, twelve-year-old Homer and his younger sister Ada, from the Southerland Plantation.  Their escape goes horribly wrong when their mother, Ruth, returns to rescue Homer’s friend Anna and is captured. The two siblings,  pursued by slavers and their dogs, stumble into a nearby swamp and flounder in an unfamiliar world.

Bravely forging ahead in the unfamiliar and frightening environment, the children are rescued by Suleman, a formally enslaved man, who takes the exhausted children to Freewater. Homer and Ada are welcomed to this hidden village, a safe haven for its formerly enslaved residents and their freeborn offspring. The supportive community draws the children into their society, beliefs, and traditions, which are based on a complex relationship with the swamp.

Homer, wracked with guilt, is determined to rescue his mother and makes plans to return to Southerland to rescue her. When his new friends learn of this, they help Homer organize a rescue. Meanwhile, at Southerland, clever Anna is making plans to disrupt the plantation daughter’s wedding in order to flee with Ruth. Will Anna manage to escape? Will Homer and his new friends be able to rescue his mother … without getting caught?

In a compelling, multi-voiced narrative, five children, some freeborn, some formerly enslaved, relate the story from their POV. Even the plantation owner’s youngest daughter, Nora, contributes to the narrative, describing her struggle to understand the implications of slavery. Through their narratives, the reader learns about the children’s pasts, secrets, traumas, fears, and dreams.

The author imagines a fascinating world, not just of survival in the swamp, but of a nurturing society and culture flourishing there. Family life and supporting the community are paramount.  Jobs and tasks include weaving vines into rope, hollowing out giant trees for shelters or boats, tending to the crops, and hunting and fishing. Sky bridges made from rope help the community travel safely above the ground where they cannot be seen or caught by slavers or militia. Huge, moving partitions, woven out of branches and leaves are created to close off parts of the swamp for protection.  A few members, like Suleman, stealthily visit the plantations at night to “liberate” supplies (like matches) that cannot be made in the swamp. 

Luqman-Dawson has populated the story with well-developed characters and a richly described setting, both beautiful and deadly. The author does not hesitate to include the horrific treatment of African Americans by white people. Woven into the story’s many dramatic events are moments of friendship, selflessness, joy, and even budding young love. 

The author’s endnote details the historical background including references to African American scholars working on Maroon society in the Great Dismal Swamp, which was the inspiration for this story. Visit Luqman-Dawson’s website to see a video of her summary of Freewater and more resources on the Dismal Swamp.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Middle Grade Book Review – Starfish

STARFISH
Written by Lisa Fipps
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal

 

I soaked up every last word of Starfish, the Printz Honor-winning debut by Lisa Fipps, and could easily dive back in and read it all over again because I felt such a strong connection with the main character, Ellie. This moving middle-grade novel told in verse takes us inside Ellie’s head as she navigates life at school and at home where she is not only bullied by classmates for being overweight but by her mother as well. 

Early on readers learn that Ellie lives by her Fat Girl Rules (e.g. Make yourself small; If you’re fat, there are things you can’t have), finding refuge in her pool at home “starfishing” as she spreads out freely claiming her space. She also finds comfort in the company of her BFF, Viv, who moves away, but remains an ally from afar. Ellie’s father is a psychiatrist, compassionate and loving. On the other hand, Ellie’s mother is a writer whose harsh “words gut me like a fish.” She is always after Ellie to diet, and presses her to consider bariatric surgery, even going so far as to take her to doctors for evaluation. I ached along with Ellie as her mom mistreated her by constantly focusing on the bad rather than loving the good. Home should be a safe place for Ellie but it isn’t. It’s a constant reminder of how she is not meeting expectations between her demanding mother, her insulting older brother, and her non-supportive older sister who dubbed Ellie “Splash” at her fifth birthday party following a cannonballing incident. Tensions spill over into everything Ellie does.

With Viv gone, Ellie and her neighbor Catalina become fast friends with Catalina’s parents and siblings offering her the kind of family life and acceptance she wishes she had at home. A therapist Ellie begins to see, referred to as Doc in the book, provides the kind of insight and strategies Ellie can use to approach the bullies who think nothing of fat-shaming this bright, beautiful adolescent. Doc helps Ellie learn to appreciate herself and her gifts, reminding her that “No matter what you weigh, you deserve for people to treat you like a human being with feelings.” This sentiment will resonate with many young readers who can use so much of what Fipps writes as a reassuring resource for any bullying and self-doubt they may be experiencing.

The intimacy of this book comes from the verse and Ellie’s powerful voice. It’s as if we’re living each experience with her and cheering for her as she takes on the bullies and turns the tables on them without having to compromise by losing a single pound. Fipps drives home the point that bullies are the ones with the issues, not those being picked on. She shows how kids, whether big or small, tall or short, can embrace their uniqueness and love themselves for who they truly are not just how they appear. It’s no surprise how much praise this novel received. I hope you’ll share it with kids you know so they can walk in Ellie’s shoes and understand what size-based discrimination feels like and how to be a part of the change needed.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Link to Teachers Guide here.

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A Review Plus an Interview with Author Dana Middleton

A REVIEW PLUS AN INTERVIEW

WITH

 DANA MIDDLETON

AUTHOR OF

NOT A UNICORN

(Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

 

 

 

REVIEW

Dana Middleton’s third novel will delight middle-grade readers who enjoy a story that blends contemporary issues with just the right amount of magical realism and likable, relatable characters who would be fun to hang out with.

Readers learn early on that the main character, Jewel, age 13, has a unicorn horn on her forehead. Her friend Mystic  likes it because it makes Jewel different, the way she feels and Nicholas believes it’s cool and magical. “Are you kidding?” he tells her at one point, “You don’t have to have a horn to be different.” These three spend their time at the “freak” table (where Jewel has found refuge following an unintentional impaling of a fellow student who survived), discussing ‘the horn,’ comics, the upcoming French essay competition, and the popular kids. As the story progresses, Carmen, Jewel’s invisible magical guardian unicorn begins to play more of a role in the plot.

In her apartment, Jewel lives with her mom, and early on her grandmother moves in and shares her bedroom. The family is portrayed as lower-class where money is tight and Jewel’s mother wants her to have a better life. “You are going to graduate from college. Got it? You’re not going to end up like me.” While they clearly care for Jewel, they don’t seem to grasp how much Jewel struggles with the horn and wants to have it removed. But doing so involves great risk. It also means a huge expense, a trip to Los Angeles, and initially going behind her mother’s back.

As the story unfolds, Jewel’s lost friendship with her former best friend Emma rears its head again at the prospect of her horn being surgically removed and becoming popular. Complicating things is Mystic’s stealing a necklace from Emma’s pal, Brooklyn, the ultimate popular girl. There’s so much for Jewel to consider and weighing heavily on her is having been offered a chance to tell her “horn” story in French at the competition she has dreamed of.  At the same time, calling attention to it will make her feel like she doesn’t fit in even more, and reconciling those two feelings are taking their toll on her. Additionally, it turns out that reuniting with Emma may not be all Jewel hoped it would be.

The good news is that Jewel ultimately gets her wish and has her horn removed in Los Angeles. But the horn, it seems which bonded her to Carmen, will kill the unicorn unless she can find a way to save her.  It’s here Dana has cleverly tied in a graphic novel that Jewel has been working on with Nicholas called Highwaymen. When the storyline mixes the graphic novel into the quest to save Carmen, there is action and adventure around every turn that will keep readers in suspense in the best possible way.

I loved how when the book ended, the characters stayed with me and filled me with hope. The thoughtful and exciting journey Jewel took brought her to a place where she could finally embrace her horn and her uniqueness. Coming to terms with what made her different ends up being the biggest and most satisfying magic Jewel, and readers, experience.

Since I could not put down Dana’s latest book I felt compelled to ask her some questions to satisfy my curiosity. I hope you’ll scroll down now or return to the interview below when you’ve finished reading Not a Unicorn.

INTERVIEW

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome to the blog, Dana. I’m thrilled to discuss your latest middle-grade novel, Not a Unicorn. Do you recall how the idea for it came to you?  

Dana Middleton: Actually, it was all Jewel. This girl with a unicorn horn showed up in my mind and wouldn’t let go.

 

GRWR: Was it a long time until you fleshed out the story? 

DM: It did take quite a while, in part because I thought the idea was so weird and I wondered if people would get it. And then I thought, maybe people would think I was weird, too! Like Jewel, I had to accept all the parts of me (even the weird ones) to be able to write this. I was sure about one thing early on though—that there would be three parts to this story concerning Jewel’s horn. I won’t spoil it here, but that initial structure never wavered. I knew how it had to go, but I wasn’t sure if I could write it.

 

GRWR: One of my favorite parts of the story is the friendship between the main characters, the “different” kids Jewel, Mystic, and Nicholas. I love how they stayed with me after the story ended because I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them. What did you draw upon when writing them?

DM: I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them, too! Nicholas was loosely based on a friend of my nephew’s, and Mystic came from someplace unknown. And then Carmen, Noah, and Tall Ethan wandered in. I felt like it was so important to get these characters right because each of them had such a profound effect on Jewel.

 

Dana signing books OnceUponaTime
Dana signing books at Once Upon a Time bookstore in L.A. Photo Credit: ©Jessica Palacios.

 

GRWR: I’m a Francophile like Jewel. Is there any of you in her or maybe the popular girls like Brooklyn or Emma? 

DM: Like you, I am a Francophile! I studied French and even went to study at the Sorbonne for a summer during college. I always wanted to travel and by imbuing Jewel with this desire, it created conflict because of course, she felt like she couldn’t be seen in big spaces. I always had this picture in my mind of Jewel looking up at the Eiffel Tower because she’d become brave enough to go there.

And as far as Brooklyn and Emma are concerned, I definitely wasn’t either of them. But Brooklyn, that girl turned out okay. She became someone I didn’t quite expect.

 

GRWR: How did your hometown in Georgia influence the setting or anything else in the novel? 

DM: My family moved to the mountains of North Georgia (to a town called Dahlonega) when I was a teenager and that’s the town where Jewel lives. It’s a mixture of Dahlonega past and present, and some of it made up in my mind. I thought if you had a unicorn horn on your head, it would probably be best to live in the relative safety of a small town. That also created for Jewel more fear about the possibilities of venturing into the outside world.

 

GRWR: Can you speak to what it was like incorporating the graphic novel/comic you created called Highwaymen into the plot?

DM: Let me just say that Highwaymen was a complete surprise to me. I had no idea how that would develop in the story but it kept developing into something and I kept following. I really love Highwaymen, and like Jewel, I have a soft spot for Esmeralda. She’s so bad-ass awesome!

 

GRWR: What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing Not a Unicorn?

DM: Trusting that it would all work out. I guess a lot of writers feel this way, but sometimes I wasn’t sure I could make this book what I wanted it to be. I was very blessed to have an agent and editor who believed in Jewel and helped me to make it the best book that I could.

 

GRWR: If young readers took away one thing from your novel, what would you hope that would be? 

DM: The best question for last! I hope this book helps young readers accept who they are more deeply. Because we all have something that we just wish we could change— it may not be a unicorn horn, but it’s something. If Jewel can help someone accept their ‘difference’ and make it into their superpower, then my job is done.

My sincere thanks to Dana for taking the time to chat with me about Not a Unicorn. Here she is below with author Jill Diamond during her virtual book launch.

Dana with author Jill Diamond at Virtual Book Launch

BUY THE BOOK

Purchase Dana’s book here: https://danamiddletonbooks.com/books/not-a-unicorn/ 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA

Website: https://danamiddletonbooks.com/

 

Author Dana Middleton
Author Dana Middleton Photo Credit: ©Peter Atkins

BRIEF BIO

Dana Middleton is a middle-grade author of contemporary novels for young readers who enjoy a dash of fantasy and mystery. Her latest book, Not a Unicorn, is from Chronicle Books. She is also the author of The Infinity Year of Avalon James (a Young Hoosier Book Award nominee and Oregon Battle of the Books selection), and Open If You Dare. Dana grew up in Georgia, but lives in Los Angeles with her British husband. You can visit her online at danamiddletonbooks.com.

 

 

 

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13+ New Halloween Books for 2021

 

 

BEST NEW HALLOWEEN BOOKS

A ROUNDUP

 

 

 

 

 

Spookytale coverSPOOKYTALE (An Abrams Trail Tale)
Written by Christopher Franceschelli

Illustrated by Allison Black
(Abrams Appleseed; $14.99, Ages 0-3)

Christopher Franceschelli’s latest book in his Abrams Block Book series is Spookytale, an interactive board book. We travel along with a boy, girl, and dog to their far-off destination: a haunted house. This journey takes them through the woods, across the bridge, and so forth. Each scene has die-cut pieces that lift to reveal fun Halloween-themed surprises. Fun hole-punched areas add textural interest.

The simple text is offset with rich illustrations by Allison Black. Pages have a lot going on; in subsequent readings, kids will find something new. Done in autumnal tones with pops of bright colors, costumed kids and smiling monsters are equally cute. The final scene is a dramatic quadruple gatefold that reveals all the festivities inside the house.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zant

 

TrickorTreat Bugs to Eat coverTRICK OR TREAT, BUGS TO EAT
Written by Tracy C. Gold
Illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff
(So
urcebooks Explore; $10.99, Ages 4-8)

I love Halloween books and Tracy C. Gold’s Trick or Treat, Bugs to Eat is one of my favorites to date. The words are set to the “Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet” rhyme: “Hear my calls / bounce off walls, / echoing as darkness falls.” From there, Gold has gotten clever by presenting a story about a bat out trick-or-treating, weaving in lots of animals facts. For example, we learn bats are nocturnal, use echolocation, and they sure eat a lot of bugs—up to a thousand insects each night!

Coupled with the exceptional text is Nancy Leschnikoff’s outstanding art. I don’t know how many times I exclaimed, “It’s so cute!” while I read this book, but the expressive bat really is that adorable. Surrounding scenic art is just as great (love the raccoon!). The nightscape is rendered in appealing shades of blues and purples.

At only eight-by-eight inches, this 32-page picture book fits well in small hands. Between the engaging story, excellent art, and informative back matter, this book’s got it all.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Poultrygeist coverPOULTRYGEIST
Written by Eric Geron
Illustrated by Pete Oswald
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

Kids will cluck out loud upon reading this chicken-centric ghost tale children’s book. In a nutshell (or should I say eggshell?), the story opens with an unsuspecting chicken getting run down by a massive truck and becoming a ghost. I mean, why was he crossing the road in the first place, right?

Soon, all the other local animals that have been hit by vehicles gather around the newly dead chicken to explain the ropes. The humor in this fast-paced read is that they want the newly deceased fowl to begin haunting, only this “spring chicken” has no desire to frighten others. In fact, at one point he turns to the reader and asks, “Pssst? Are you OK?” The sweet surprise is when the fryer asserts himself, accidentally scaring off the troublesome spirits.

The story comes hilariously full circle when the scene switches from the pleased poultrygeist to a squirrel crossing the same dangerous roadway. Pete Oswald’s expressive art in Poultrygeist adds another fun layer to this dark and delightful Halloween story that perhaps unintentionally and hilariously drives home the point to look both ways when crossing

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

How to Haunt a House coverHOW TO HAUNT A HOUSE
Written
by Carolyn Crimi
Illustrated by Edward Miller
(Albert Whitman; $16.99, Ages 4-8) 

Carolyn Crimi’s rhyming picture book, How to Haunt a House, features ghosts in a classroom being taught the teacher’s “special ghost technique” for haunting. Groana, Moana, and Shrieky are assigned three houses; all goes well until the last one which proves to be a challenge. The ghosts must figure out something new that will scare the ghouls who live there. It’s got to be tough when, instead of fleeing, “the small girl kissed those scrawny rats.”

Comical illustrations by Edward Miller enhance the text’s humor. His evocative characters are a kick; I especially like the skulking, glaring black cats. The book’s underlying message, “Do not give up! You’ll find a way!” is tackled lightheartedly yet still shows how, sometimes, you need to come at a problem from a new direction in order to solve it.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

If You Ever Meet a Skeleton coverIF YOU EVER MEET A SKELETON
Written by Rebecca Evans
Illustrated by Katrin Dreiling
(Page Street Kids; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

I never thought I would want to meet a skeleton until I met the adorable protagonist in If You Ever Meet A Skeleton written by Rebecca Evans, who was inspired to write this story after meeting a skeleton in a museum.

Sleeping underground with other skeletons and a few bugs, Skeleton climbs to the surface looking for a friend. He finds three kids dressed in costumes on Halloween night. Dreiling illustrates the skeleton with a piece of blond hair giving the reader a feel for what he looked like before his demise. Evans’ rhyming words take what could be a scary topic and turn it into a humorous read. “Skeletons might seem spooky—white bones without the skin, no eyes, no ears, no lips, just one big toothy grin.”

Children dressed as witches, pirates, and ninja warriors with round faces and toothy grins are not sure what to make of this unusual creature, but Evans takes the reader through a wonderful understanding of how a skeleton, thought different from themselves, can be friend material. “Skeletons have no guts, so they aren’t brave like you. They’re scared of nighttime shadows and owls that say ‘whoooo.’”

This is a great addition to the fall reading list for the school classroom. And how great it is to have a friend who will go “trick-or-treating with you then share their chocolate bar, just like best buddies do.”

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Boo Stew coverBOO STEW
Written by Donna L. Washington
Illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
(Peachtree; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

A little girl named Curly Locks who loves to cook is the heroine of Boo Stew, a Goldilocks and the Three Bears fractured fairy tale. This Halloween story features food that won’t tempt your taste buds but just might be the right food to feed a scary soul or three.

It seems the Scares of Toadsuck Swamp might be hungry and while they’re invading homes to steal food, they’re causing chaos, especially at the mayor’s house. After they chase him out with an ominous “Gitchey Boo, Gitchey Bon! Gitchey Goo, Gitchey Gone!” the blacksmith, and the chicken rancher also try to vanquish the scary villains with no luck.

Curly Locks, fearless and clever, steps up and entices the Scares with her Boo Stew. With its moose ear broth, toenail clippings, and gnat juice, Boo Stew does the job. A deal is struck and the creatures head back to the swamp. The townsfolk get a Scare-free Toadsuck and Curly Locks … well she gets to prepare all sorts of concoctions for the appreciative Scares since no one else will eat her cooking anyway! Washington has taken the Goldilocks tale and spun a unique, engaging Halloween story. Ebbeler’s colorful, detailed, and dynamic illustrations set a tone that’s just right for this humorous picture book.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Ghouls' Guide to Good GrammarTHE GHOULS’ GUIDE TO GOOD GRAMMAR
Written by Leslie Kimmelman
Illustrated by Mary Sullivan
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99; Ages 4-8)

Learning proper grammar can be quite daunting for young kids, especially for those still learning over Zoom, but Leslie Kimmelman has created a fabulous storytime picture book that can be read during the Halloween season or any time of the year. The Ghouls’ Guide To Good Grammar is a hilarious take on how different a sentence can read if a comma is misplaced or other grammar isn’t correct. Sullivan’s illustration of a sweet young girl holding a bowl of cat food for Sylvester reads “Time to eat, Sylvester.” But when the giant ghoul with sharp teeth peeks around the corner with all eyes on the little grey and white cat he thinks “Time to eat Sylvester.” A very different and dastardly meaning when the comma is removed!

Turning the page, the reader learns that “contractions are two words shortened and combined with an apostrophe to make one word.” This sounds confusing until the reader visually sees Sullivan’s colorful drawing of six ghouls surrounded by bugs and spilled soda in “Ghouls’ really gross bedroom.” Kimmelman changes the location of the apostrophe to read “Ghoul’s really gross bedroom” and now we see it was one mischievous ghoul who made the mess all on his lonesome.

This treat of a story concludes with a Ghoul Grammar Quiz asking the reader which of the sentences shown has no mistakes. The Ghouls’ Guide to Good Grammar is an ideal teaching tool for a parent or a teacher to use to transform the often tough topic of punctuation into a frightfully fun learning experience.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

There's a Ghost in this House coverTHERE’S A GHOST IN THIS HOUSE
Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
(Philomel Books; $27.99, Ages 4-8)

I may not be the target age range for this creative book but I had a blast reading it. First of all, There’s a Ghost in this House is less a straightforward picture book―although Jeffers has illustrated it with a little girl, some adorable (and giggling in places) ghosts, and lots of striped clothing―and more a seek-and-find interactive story so children can be in control of how many ghosts they’d like to discover over the course of 80 pages.

Jeffers has taken found black and white photos of an imposing 18th-century mansion and then brought in bits of color with the addition of the young girl narrator/guide. Readers join her to tour the house as she looks for ghosts which are printed white on transparent vellum paper throughout the book and appear when the paper is placed against the b+w house interiors. That’s such a fantastic idea because I never knew what poses the ghosts would be in and where exactly they’d show up each time. 

Since the ghouls are not menacing in the least, children can enjoy this book without fear. Parents and caregivers can admire the cleverness of the presentation while also deciding how many ghosts to expose.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Brains! Not Just a Zombie Snack coverBRAINS! NOT JUST A ZOMBIE SNACK
Written by Stacy McAnulty
Illustrated by Matthew Rivera
(Henry Holt BYR; $18.99; Ages 4-8)

Matthew Rivera illustrates a green zombie girl with a red scar across her forehead seeking brains to eat in Brains! Not Just A Zombie Snack. Focusing on the fascinating science of the body, STEM picture book author Stacy McAnulty teaches the reader about the importance of the brain and how, without it, reading a picture book would be impossible. This educational read breaks down the five senses of touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste and how the brain receives messages from these senses. What better time than Halloween to explore this subject?!

Zombie Girl is desperate for some brain to eat and in her search for this delectable snack, the reader discovers “Neurons! They do the work, and you have about 86 billion of them.” Zombie holds up two cans of Neurons and Glial Cells with anxious eyes ready to eat. “When you learn something new, like how to add numbers, play the piano, tie up a zombie, you aren’t making more neurons—you’re making new and stronger pathways.”

My brain took in a whole lot of information that I was not aware of such as a 75-year-old human’s brain is 10 percent smaller than max size (so 2.7 pounds-ish) instead of 3 pounds in a grown-up human. The best advice the reader learns is that “if you want to run away from a zombie later. You’ll want your cerebellum.”

The helpful back matter includes Brain Facts such as A human brain is only about 2-3 percent of an adult’s body weight, but it uses almost 20 percent of the body’s energy. I also was surprised to learn that Albert Einstein’s brain was stolen by Dr. Thomas Harvey and cut into 240 blocks to be studied upon his death. This is something I would like to learn more about!

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Poison for Breakfast coverPOISON FOR BREAKFAST
by Lemony Snicket

Chapter Spot art by Margaux Kent
(Liveright; $17.95, All Ages)

Lemony Snicket’s Poison for Breakfast will certainly be a hit with his fans because the author’s style is quite unique, a word which here means “weird in undefinable ways.” Though marketed to older MG and YA readers, this book appeals to adults as well. This true story begins when Mr. Snicket (as he prefers to be addressed) finds a bewildering and frightening note under his door that reads, “You had poison for breakfast.”

We go along with Mr. Snicket as he reviews each item consumed for breakfast to uncover the culprit. He meanders to locations where the breakfast items originated. Though we eventually discover what’s behind this mystery, the pleasure is in the circuitous journey told in a way that only Lemony Snicket can, complete with endnotes elaborating topics touched upon.

I enjoy the distinctive structure, odd tidbits, and repetition. So, make yourself a poached egg as Mr. Snicket recommends, and settle in for a fun read. A list-maker myself, I find Mr. Snicket’s lists particularly amusing. And, as a writer, knowing the three rules of writing will undoubtedly help me better my craft. They are: (1) Include the element of surprise, (2) Leave something out, and, (3) Well, no one really knows the third rule.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

The Ghoul Next Door coverTHE GHOUL NEXT DOOR 
Written by Cullen Bunn
Illustrated by Cat Farris
(Harper Alley; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

Get your ghoul on with The Ghoul Next Door, a terrific new middle-grade graphic novel featuring just enough ghouls, ghosts, and atmospheric underworld to make you read it in one sitting and then start all over again.

Welcome to Anders Landing, est. 1692, a place sought out by accused witches to avoid the witch hunts and trials of Salem taking place the same year. Things go downhill quickly for main character Grey who, after picking up an unlucky penny, takes a shortcut to school through the local cemetery. Grey doesn’t want to lug his bulky Salem Witch-themed school project the long way like his superstitious friend, Marshall. When Grey trips on an open grave and drops his project in it, he panics. Looking down he sees his cemetery project grasped by a monster-ish hand. Then, it’s gone.

That evening something enters his bedroom and begins leaving gifts, not the birthday present sort, but finger bones, a doll of his likeness, and assorted other items that freak him out. This creature clearly likes Grey and replaces the original cemetery model with an even better one. Grey may score points in class with the new project, but Marshall thinks it’s best to tell some adults about all the creepy goings-on. While he initially didn’t believe Grey, he’s now changed his mind after a trip to the cemetery where he gets a glimpse of the ghoul. Lavinia, as she’s called, saves Grey from an army of rats and a friendship begins. In foreshadowing the story’s conflict, she warns the two humans to keep mum about what they know or they risk the ire of those underground and put her in jeopardy.

Readers learn that the ghoulish creatures that live below the surface (Grey and Marshall are considered human surface dwellers), aside from enjoying eating the newly dead, greatly dislike and mistrust humans and fear discovery. As payback, they kidnap Marshall leading Grey and Lavinia on a dangerous mission underground to rescue him before he’s killed. What ensues is a page-turning adventure with the right mix of dialogue, fantastical and haunting art, and heart, although technically I don’t think a ghoul has one. The friendship of Lavinia and Grey challenges the ‘no contact with humans’ rule laid out by Lavinia’s community and feels satisfying and fresh (although using that word here feels kind of ghoulish). She risks everything for Grey while he also puts his life on the line to help both his old and new friends and ultimately himself. Read this in the daytime if you live anywhere near a cemetery.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

THE HALLOWEEN MOONThe Halloween Moon cover
Written by Joseph Fink
(Quill Tree Books; $16.99, Ages 10-13)

What if time stood still and it could be Halloween forever? The candy part is tempting, but if everyone you loved had fallen into a deep, otherworldly sleep, it might not be so sweet. That’s exactly what 13-year-old protagonist Esther Gold is dealing with in Joseph Fink’s imaginative novel, The Halloween Moon. Blending fantasy and magic in a contemporary Southern California setting, Fink opens the book with a prologue detailing a robbery of something seemingly quite small which proves to have huge significance in the story. 

Esther lives for Halloween but her best friend, Agustín, does not. So when Esther’s parents announce she has aged out of trick-or-treating, having become an adult at her bat mitzvah, she realizes she’ll have to circumvent this new rule. When that plan involves Agustín, he seems game. Did he agree a bit too easily? Did she like that he did? Those are just a few of the questions Esther faces on this very long Halloween night set under a huge orange Halloween moon. 

Odd goings-on occur as Esther and Agustín notice only a motley crew of trick-or-treaters with shadowy faces are out and about. Their clicky sounds are creepy too. Plus all the people usually into the holiday aren’t answering their doors. The pair soon discover that a sleeping spell has been cast over the community. An urgency hits when Esther realizes her little sister has gone missing. That’s also what brings Esther together with bully Sasha Min who has often lobbed anti-semitic and other hurtful insults her way. But since Sasha’s distraught over her kidnapped brother and unwakeable mother, she agrees to team up with the other two intrepid trick-or-treaters to find out what’s going on. Along the way, the teens take the rare awake adult, next-door neighbor, Mr. Gabler, onboard as they try to reverse the spell and bring the interminable Halloween nightmare safely to an end 

I enjoyed this book because, in addition to the mystery the teens hope to solve, readers get inside Esther’s head and learn that she’s been having difficulty accepting change in her life. Whether the change is about her giving up trick-or-treating, her changing feelings for Agustín, watching Grandma Debbie getting older and frailer, or about what might happen when she moves up into high school the following year, Fink ties Esther’s growth into the Halloween adventure in a satisfying way. The dynamic shared between Esther and Sasha as they try to resolve past conflicts is also one that should resonate with readers. Horror fans will note references to John Carpenter and the horror film genre in general.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

HAPPY HOWL-O-WEEN MAD LIBS  
by Mad Libs

(Mad Libs; $6.99, Ages 8-12)

Mad Libs are one of those things: we all know and enjoy them. As a parent, I wholeheartedly encourage playing Mad Libs whenever a boring moment strikes. Yes, they’re hilarious and spark the imagination, but also (secret parent trick) drill home the parts of speech: adverb versus adjective and so forth. And if you’re a little rusty, no fear. Following the instructions, there’s a “quick review” that easily explains that, for example, when an exclamation is called for, they mean something like “Wow!” “Ouch!” or “Ick!”

The Happy Howl-o-ween version takes all the best stuff about this holiday and mixes it up with the fill-in-the-blank fun of Mad Libs. There are 63 themed stories to create in three categories: Monster Mash, Trick or Treat (both by Tristan Roarke), and Day of the Dead (by Karl Jones).

Whether you’ve done these a million times or are just introducing them to a young child, pick up a copy for your car as a way to pass some time with laughs and learning.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

vampires hearts other dead things coverVAMPIRES, HEARTS, & OTHER DEAD THINGS
by Margie Fuston
(Margaret K. McElderry; $18.99, Ages 14 and up) 

Instead of celebrating her senior year, Victoria won’t give up on her terminally ill dad—even when her family is told there are no treatment options left to pursue. Her mom and sister seem better at letting go. Victoria, instead, turns to the passion of all-things-vampire that she shares with her father and decides it’s up to her to save him. Ten years ago, a vampire announced himself to the world, but, after some mishaps, the vampires went back into hiding. Victoria takes that trip to New Orleans she’d planned on doing with her dad and, while there, vows to find and get bitten by a vampire so she can save her father by turning him into one too.

The grief Victoria struggles with is realistically handled, as is the complex connection she has with Henry (her neighbor, former BFF, and maybe boyfriend). As in all good love stories, a bit of a love triangle comes into play, but the heart of the story involves Victoria’s relationships with her family and Henry. Messy emotions are laid bare in a hauntingly beautiful setting. I like how Victoria’s quest leads her through ever-increasing challenges that test her resolve to follow through with this plan.

A new, vital addition to the vampire lore. Not only does this story add its own flair, but it explores previous books and movies—a pleasing touch for vampire aficionados.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

 

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN READS 

 

BOO! BAA! LA LA LA!
Written and illustrated by Sandra Boynton
(Little Simon; $5.99, Age 0-5)

 

 

Vampenguin coverVAMPENGUIN
Written and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

The Haunted Mustache coverTHE HAUNTED MUSTACHE: Book #1 Fright Nights
Written by Joe McGee
Illustrated by Teo Skaffa
(Aladdin; $6.99, Ages 7-10)

 

 

 

 

What Lives in the Woods coverWHAT LIVES IN THE WOODS
Written by Lindsay Currie
(Sourcebooks; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GHOSTLY TALES OF THE QUEEN MARY
by Shelli Timmons
(Arcadia Children’s Books; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Kingston and The Magician’s Lost and Found

KINGSTON AND THE MAGICIAN’S LOST AND FOUND

By Rucker Moses and Theo Gangi

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $17.99, Ages 10+)

 

 

KingstonandtheMagician'sLostandFound cvr

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

This middle-grade book interested me because there are two authors and I find cowriting interesting—but, wait!, one of the co-authors is a pen name for two people writing together making Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Found a collaboration of three writers! (To read more about that, check out their interview on SCBWI’s Kite Tales blog in a link below.) Yet, the story reads seamlessly—what a feat!

Twelve-year-old Kingston hasn’t been back to Echo City, Brooklyn, since his father, one of the world’s greatest magicians, disappeared while performing onstage four years ago. A lot has changed in his old neighborhood, yet Kingston reconnects with his cousin Veronica and childhood friend now known as Too Tall Eddie. Kingston’s mother steers clear magic, yet, his uncles don’t seem to have given it up. What happened to Kingston’s father and whether or not magic truly exists fuels the three kids who follow a series of clues, intent on discovering the truth.

This layered plot cleverly weaves in real nineteenth- and twentieth-century Black magicians to make the story feel believable, an aspect I really enjoyed. I’m also a fan of alternative reality books when they’re done well as in this story. Add in humor, friendship, family, and a fast-paced mystery and you’ll see why this book’s hard to put down. Sign me up for the sequel and conclusion, due out this fall.

Visit the website of Rucker Moses here.

Visit the website of Theo Gangi here.

 

 

https://scbwikitetales.wordpress.com/2021/03/31/interview-with-author-rucker-moses/

 

Read a review of another recommended middle-grade novel by Christine here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Roll With It by Jamie Sumner

ROLL WITH IT

Written by Jamie Sumner

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

Roll With It book cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

Roll With It was an easy choice for my to-read list because it deals with disability. As a disabled author myself, I feel disability representation in books for children is so important and I’m thrilled to see the number of books featuring this element of diversity growing. Author Jamie Sumner has a son with cerebral palsy—the same disability as her main character, Ellie—so I was confident that aspect of the book would be handled with authority and authenticity. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting is a story that packed such an emotional punch on so many different levels.

Ellie and her mom move in with Ellie’s grandparents to help out since her grandfather’s memory issues are getting worse. Life in her grandparents’ trailer park is not exactly ideal for Ellie physically and she dreads starting at a new school as not only “the new kid” but “the new kid in a wheelchair.” Before long though, she connects with two other classmates from the trailer park, the hilarious Coralee and ultra blunt Bert, and Ellie begins to love her new home. She must then convince her mom that they should stay put.

Ellie is relatable and plucky, with a touch of snarky sarcasm, all of which endeared her to me immediately. Her growth as a character had much less to do with the traditional “overcoming her limitations due to her disability” trope and much more to do with making friends, asserting herself, navigating the complex relationship between a tween kid and her mother, and handling her emotions related to her grandfather’s illness. She’s a regular kid with dreams of being a celebrity chef, who experiences the same feelings and challenges as lots of kids her age. The fact that she has CP and is a wheelchair user is neither the main focus of the story nor downplayed. Sumner strikes a perfect balance of making that aspect of Ellie’s life an integral part of the story without it be her only story. Similarly, Ellie’s Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s is treated deftly and not sugarcoated.

Roll With It is not only a fun and interesting read—it’s a great representation for middle grade readers who are wheelchair users themselves and for any reader interested in a moving story which provides insight into a POV not often seen in children’s books.

  • Guest Review by Karol Ruth Silverstein

Karol Ruth Silverstein writes all genres of children’s books and screenplays. Her debut novel Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019) is loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at 13. Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives with her two exceptionally fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo. You can read a review of her novel here.

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Middle Grade Nonfiction Book Review – The Life Heroic

THE LIFE HEROIC

How to Unleash Your Most Amazing Self

By Elizabeth Svoboda

Illustrated by Chris Hajny

(Zest Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

The Life Heroic book cover

 

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and so do heroic actions. The Life Heroic by Elizabeth Svoboda is her first children’s book and follows her adult novel, What Makes a Hero? An award winning science writer, Svoboda weaves what she has learned into stories and books to help kids and adults tap into their highest potential to become everyday heroes.

TheLifeHeroic 00 Intro Ribbon
Interior artwork from The Life Heroic written by Elizabeth Svoboda and illustrated by Chris Hajny, Zest Books ©2019.

The colorful emoji like art created by Chris Hajny is woven into each page with bold print highlighting the sentences meant to leave the reader with the most impact. Chapter 1, “What it Means to be a Hero,” includes the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger. He successfully landed Flight 1549 after a power loss to the aircraft’s engines forced a Hudson River landing. Sullenberger then worked with his crew to help the passengers get out safely through the cabin’s emergency exits.

Landing a plane in the river is not the only way to be considered a hero, Svoboda explains. Ten-year-old Ethan had traveled to Mozambique with his father. One day, while kicking a soccer ball, Ethan discovered kids in the village lived on less than a dollar a day. Those children had to create makeshift soccer balls out of things like trash bags wrapped in twine. “I thought to myself, I have six or seven soccer balls just sitting in my garage,” so he decided to give his ball as a parting gift. This one gesture gave Ethan the idea to donate soccer balls to the village. Others had a need that he could help fix.  Eventually he created the non-profit Charity Ball, which now donates soccer balls to countries in need around the world.

TheLifeHeroic 07 Chap7 Toolbox
Interior artwork from The Life Heroic written by Elizabeth Svoboda and illustrated by Chris Hajny, Zest Books ©2019.

Each engaging chapter provides ideas on how to find your own heroism. Chapter 4 is called “Seek Mentors and Role Models.” In it readers are recommended to “always be on the lookout for people whose lives are examples of the way we would like to conduct our own lives, interact with the world, savor joys and overcome challenges.” Svoboda suggests putting a portrait up in your room, or somewhere else you’ll see it often, of your role model so on tough or frustrating days it will help remind you of the heroic qualities you want to demonstrate no matter what challenges you face.

Stories go back and forth from everyday people to heroes from history such as Frederick Douglass. The follow-up section, “Questions for Discussion,” highlights the main talking points of each chapter. For example Chapter 8 talks about how helping others sometimes forces us to face our own pain and hard times. It asks the reader to think about some tough or difficult situations they’ve been through and what advice they would give others going through the same thing.

TheLifeHeroic 07 Chap7 Trophy2
Interior artwork from The Life Heroic written by Elizabeth Svoboda and illustrated by Chris Hajny, Zest Books ©2019.

“Aimed at kids, this book is also fascinating for adults. With thorough research and drawing on her expertise writing about science, Svoboda offers some remarkable takeaways about heroism”:

  • Most heroes are ordinary people
  • There is a hero inside everyone
  • The ability to be courageous can be strengthened, just like a muscle
  • Going through tough times can sharpen heroic instincts
  • Being a hero doesn’t have to involve tackling an intruder or fishing someone from an icy lake—and in fact, most often doesn’t!

This thought provoking guide can be read chapter by chapter or by skimming through the bolded font. Svoboda’s book is a powerful read for tweens and teens interested in the big questions in their minds about what kind of life to lead and what actually creates meaning.

I’d also recommend it for teachers who’d like to develop talking points from the book to ask questions to students. Parents can also use this book as a tool to discuss heroism with their children. The Life Heroic reminds us that wearing a mask and cape is not necessary to be a hero, and encourages us to rethink the assumption about heroism; people who make the biggest impact aren’t always the ones who make headlines, in fact, all of us can embark on heroic quests to make a difference on issues that matter. I know The Life Heroic will resonate with young readers and hope it finds its way onto bookshelves in libraries as well as homes.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

Click here for another review by Ronda.

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Middle Grade Fiction – I’m OK by Patti Kim

I’M OK
Written by Patti Kim
(Atheneum BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

I'm OK book cover

 

In the middle grade novel I’m OK by Patti Kim, twelve-year-old Ok Lee’s world begins to fall apart when his father dies suddenly. Even though his mother works three jobs, they barely get by. To help out financially, Ok starts braiding girls’ hair at school and resolves to win the talent show’s $100 prize—though he doesn’t have a talent in mind.

The flawed characters in I’m Ok weave together realistically in a story about the imperfect lives of recent immigrants and middle schoolers. Ok’s unwitting sidekick is Mickey McDonald, a girl with the biggest hair and a personality to match. Her family’s also poor but she doesn’t care what other people think. Mickey adds a lively, funny element to a story that also depicts race and social class discrimination. Set at an indeterminate time, Americana details such as Enjoli perfume or the TV shows “Charlie’s Angels” and “MacGyver” will resonate with older readers.

The ending feels genuine and opens the door to talking about why life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect or want. Ok is bound to his mother, and her decisions direct their future.

This was June’s book-of-the-month at Chevalier’s Books’ middle-grade book club in Los Angeles. I’m Ok was well liked by all. The animated discussion considered many interesting elements of this novel including nice story-writing details such as how the story is bookended by two similar yet quite different scenes.

 

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Middle Grade Nonfiction – The Stonewall Riots by Gayle E. Pitman

THE STONEWALL RIOTS:
COMING OUT IN THE STREETS
Written by Gayle E. Pitman
(Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

 

Gayle Pitman’s latest, the enlightening middle grade nonfiction, The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets, has a double meaning. Not only is it a meticulously researched recounting of the riots which began on June 28, 1969, and what likely led up to them, it’s also a condensed and highly readable history of being gay in America. Pitman details the societal attitudes toward gays and lesbians beginning in the early 20th century when “Homosexuality was considered to be criminal behavior, and people could be arrested and jailed for it,” to the secret and then open organizations that burgeoned as a reaction to the unjust vilification and mistreatment of the LGBTQ community.

Presented through multiple perspectives in chapters based on images of 50 relevant objects (including photos, posters, flyers, a police hat and even a parking meter), Pitman’s book starts by shedding light on the actual structure of the Stonewall Inn. I’m a former New Yorker still fascinated by its history so I found this approach to be an ideal way to introduce the subject. Learning about the significance of the Stonewall Inn is paramount to understanding the growth of the gay movement ultimately solidified and legitimized by the Stonewall Riots.

 

3 INT StonewallRiots
Text from The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets © 2019 by Gayle E. Pitman. Photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals/Museum of the City of New York (96.127.17). Used with permission from Abrams Books for Young Readers.

 

Comprised of two buildings at 51 and 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, NY, when first built in the 1840s, the Inn has housed many different businesses over the decades, the first being livery stables. We learn that over time, the Mafia became the primary landlords of gay clubs including the Stonewall Inn because no one else would rent to homosexuals. Owning these clubs became a great way to bring in easy income while acting as “a front for other illegal activities.” Plus there was always plenty left over from the sale of stolen or bootlegged booze pedaled as watered down, overpriced drinks to pay off the police and sometimes blackmail the very clientele the club was serving. Talk about racketeering!

You may be surprised to learn that police raids on gay clubs were not uncommon (even if they were on the Mafia’s payroll), however the news of them was often buried deep within a publication and filled with euphemisms for gays because that was the genteel way. Also “reputable newspapers were forbidden to use language that was considered to be profane or obscene, and anything associated with homosexuality fell into that category.” Peoples lives could be ruined if they were arrested and their names and occupations could be printed, not unlike the McCarthy era.

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Text from The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets © 2019 by Gayle E. Pitman. Photo by Kay Tobin © Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. Used with permission from Abrams Books for Young Readers.

 

In 1966 there were several different schools of thought among gay rights activists, some more radical than others. Typically, over the years the Mattachine Society chose to demonstrate peacefully that homosexuals were law-abiding citizens who deserved to be treated the same as heterosexuals. That is until Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell (president and vice president of the Mattachine Society of New York), as depicted in the image below along with John Timmons and an unidentified barman covering a glass, got fed up with being silent about their plight. If being gay meant having to remain in the shadows of society, nothing would ever improve. They decided to challenge one of the existing norms in a more “in your face” way. That particular one was that bars and clubs could deny service to gays or someone they thought was gay or lesbian. The three men decided to go on a pub crawl they called a Sip-In and were eventually joined by a fourth friend. If they were denied service somewhere, “they could make a formal complaint to the SLA (State Liquor Authority)” and garner publicity. They succeeded which was an empowering accomplishment. “… it forced government officials and policymakers to address the issue.”

 

2 INT StonewallRiots
Text from The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets © 2019 by Gayle E. Pitman. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images. Used with permission from Abrams Books for Young Readers.

 

By the time The Stonewall Riots took place in 1969, several other high profile raids had occurred, one in San Francisco in 1966 and one in L.A. in 1967. New York’s Greenwich Village would be next. Pitman acknowledges several times in the book that varying views exist of what exactly happened at The Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28. The same applies to who was there when the riots began. In other words piecing together a complete picture may never happen since so many of those involved or possibly involved are no longer alive but it seems as though this book likely comes close. One thing is clear, patrons were provoked and, rather than going quietly, this time they chose to defend themselves. “The moment a lesbian woman fought back against police, the routine police raid turned into an all-out rebellion.” It lasted three days and fueled the course of gay power and the Gay Liberation Movement.

By studying the assorted objects and photographs presented in Pitman’s engaging book, we see how change was on the horizon, but it would not be a fast or complete reversal of opinion. It took brave, bold individuals willing to face arrest and/or public condemnation to fight the continued discrimination against the gay and lesbian community. Much progress has been made but still much remains including transgender rights, healthcare, and marriage equality.

It’s great that, in addition to the candid Foreward by activist Fred Sargeant, Pitman also includes a helpful timeline, a comprehensive notes section and a bibliography. I feel fortunate for having had the chance to read and be educated more thoroughly on the gay rights movement and what happened during and as a result of The Stonewall Riots thanks to The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in The Streets. On the fiftieth anniversary of the “violent and chaotic demonstrations” that ultimately proved transformative, I hope Pitman’s book finds its way into the hands of middle grade readers as well as onto bookshelves in homes, libraries and schools across the country.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

 

 

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Wild LA: Explore the Amazing Nature in and Around Los Angeles

WILD LA:
EXPLORE THE AMAZING NATURE
IN AND AROUND LOS ANGELES
Written by Lila M. Higgins & Gregory B. Pauly
with Jason G. Goldman & Charles Hood,
Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County
(Timber Press, Inc.; $24.95, Ages 10 and up)

 

Wild LA book cover illustration by Martha Rich

 

Wild LA is an ideal book for a person like me who loves Los Angeles for its many urban activities but needs nature for balance. Consider this new book your go-to guide when tired of the same old thing.

The 332-page full-color book is divided into three parts. The first, “Wild Los Angeles,” reviews ecology and natural history in ten categories such as “Water Writes the History of Los Angeles,” “Fire, Past and Future,” and “Migration” (birds, whales, and insects). “Los Angeles sits right in the middle of a four thousand-mile bird highway, a sort of endless conveyor belt of feathered critters coming and going throughout the year.” Billions of birds use this migration highway each year.

 

int photographs from Wild LA Natural History Museum of LA County
Interior photographs from Wild LA: Exploring the Amazing Nature in and Around Los Angeles written by Lila M. Higgins & Gregory B. Pauly with Jason G. Goldman & Charles Hood, Natural History Museum of LA County, Timber Press ©2019.

 

A favorite section for kids—or anyone who likes looking at pleasing pictures—may be “101 LA Species to Know.” Choose from “Birds,” “Insects and Spiders,” “Mammals,” “Reptiles and Amphibians,” “Snails and Slugs.” “Mushrooms, Slime Mold, and Lichen,” and “Plants.” Each category contains gorgeous photos and summaries. For example, male mallards molt (replace their feathers) in the late summer, becoming a duller color, and are flightless for a few weeks.

 

101 LA Species to Know int artwork by Martha Rich from Wild LA
Interior illustrations by Martha Rich from Wild LA: Exploring the Amazing Nature in and Around Los Angeles written by Lila M. Higgins & Gregory B. Pauly with Jason G. Goldman & Charles Hood, Natural History Museum of LA County, Timber Press ©2019.

 

The final section, twenty-five “Field Trips,” conveniently provides three to four pages of information on each outing, including hand-drawn maps, tips, and trivia. Though I’ve frequented Griffith Park countless times, Wild LA still uncovered a wealth of interesting facts. I wasn’t aware of the three so-called Secret Gardens and will surely search them out on my next walk in the hills.

 

int photographs and artwork from pgs 138_139 Wild LA
Interior photographs from Wild LA: Exploring the Amazing Nature in and Around Los Angeles written by Lila M. Higgins & Gregory B. Pauly with Jason G. Goldman & Charles Hood with artwork by Martha Rich, Natural History Museum of LA County, Timber Press ©2019.

 

interior photographs from Wild LA with map illustration by Martha Rich
Interior photographs from Wild LA: Exploring the Amazing Nature in and Around Los Angeles written by Lila M. Higgins & Gregory B. Pauly with Jason G. Goldman & Charles Hood with artwork by Martha Rich, Natural History Museum of LA County, Timber Press ©2019.

 

Locals and visitors alike will find this guidebook useful and a fascinating read. Keep it on hand or use it as a coffee-table book to page through, admiring the lovely photos which adorn every page.

Wild L.A. Book Launch Event, March 26 | 6 pm – 9 pm, FREE with RSVP https://nhm.org/site/wildla 

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George Washington’s Secret Six (Young Readers Adaptation) by Brian Kilmeade & Don Yaeger

GEORGE WASHINGTON’S SECRET SIX
The Spies Who Saved America
Written by Brian Kilmeade & Don Yaeger
(Viking; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

cover illustration from George Washington's Secret Six Young Readers Adaptation

 

 

George Washington’s Secret Six, a young readers adaptation of the New York Times bestseller about George Washington’s top-secret spy ring that helped defeat the British, is a must-read for history buffs and anyone who relishes a riveting spy story filled with fascinating facts and bravery by the boatload. I’m so glad this book was written so that I could brush up on my Revolutionary War details, many of which I have long forgotten (or never knew!).

The stakes were high for General George Washington in 1776. With the British occupation seemingly never-ending, Washington and the Continental Army needed to get a leg up on the Redcoats who had recently conquered New York City, forcing Washington and his army into a hasty retreat. The British had the clear advantage. They had the might of the Crown behind them and the money, meaning they had ships, weapons, food and an army ready to do all it took to defeat the fledgling nation.

Knowing he had few options, Washington chose a different approach, one that, though financially not expensive, could ultimately cost lives if discovered. The general had to tread carefully and trust was an essential component in his plan. He’d form a team of undercover operatives so he and his troops could gain the advantage over the British. Set against the backdrop of 18th century Manhattan, Long Island and Connecticut, the story of the Culper Spy Ring, which was active until very near the end of the war, is an amazing tale of heroism and stealth, creativity and cunning.

Told in four parts with forty brief but engaging chapters, Kilmeade and Yaeger recount this overlooked intelligence network that played a significant role in America’s success. The Culper Spy Ring was comprised of a reserved merchant, a tavern keeper, a brash young longshoreman, a curmudgeonly Long Island bachelor, a coffeehouse owner, and a mysterious woman, possibly a socialite, known as Agent 355. Together they employed tactics such as using code, invisible ink and even going to work for the Loyalists in order to gain insider knowledge of upcoming battle plans, troop movements and even their secret code.

Middle grade readers will learn about Nathan Hale’s brief attempt to spy and how his lack of fitting in called him out as an imposter. The British’s foiled efforts to disseminate counterfeit money to ruin the economy is also explained. They’ll read about the important role the French played as America’s ally. They’ll find out how hard it was to operate without being detected and the clever ways the spies sent crucial information via land and sea (okay, the Long Island Sound to be exact) under cover of darkness. The authors clearly convey all the risks involved in these missions which could easily culminate in hanging and that’s what will keep kids involved. I constantly found myself wondering if one of the spies was going to be caught. The danger involved was palpable with every page turn. One of the most interesting sections of the book dealt with Benedict Arnold. I knew his name was synonymous with traitor but I honestly never knew the degree to which he sold out the Americans. The devotion to the cause of freedom knew no boundaries for the top-secret spy ring as depicted in George Washington’s Secret Six (Young Readers Adaptation). Who knows how things would have turned out were it not for the six patriotic spies?

Over 25 pages of excellent back matter are included for those who crave more details. Here readers will find several pages devoted to the postwar lives of the Culper Ring, information about the use of invisible ink and alphabetical codes, a comprehensive timeline, sources and an index. Another aspect of the book I liked was how black and white engravings, paintings, illustrations and photos were incorporated to firmly ground readers in the colonial time period. This well-researched true story resonated with me since many of events took place close to where I grew up on Long Island. I’m now eager to visit many of the locales mentioned if they still exist. Kilmeade and Yaeger have written a terrific nonfiction book that provides an accessible way to get tweens and teens interested in our country’s history, if they’re not already. Perhaps it will even prompt further reading about this critical time in the formation of the United States.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Also recommended: Heroes of History Series – George Washington

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Celebrating the Year of The Pig with China: A History by Cheryl Bardoe

CHINA: A HISTORY
Written by Cheryl Bardoe,
The Field Museum
(Abrams BYR; $22.99, Ages 10-14)

 

China A History by Cheryl Bardoe book cover art

 

 

Cheryl Bardoe’s beautiful and educational nonfiction middle-grade book, China: A History, is based on the Cyrus Tang Hall of China exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago. Whether or not you’ve visited the museum, the book serves as a go-to resource for young readers looking to learn more about this powerful nation.

 

int artwork and spread from China A History by Cheryl Bardoe
Interior spread from China: A History by Cheryl Bardoe, The Field Museum, Abrams Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

 

Both a visual feast and a wealth of knowledge, China: A History provides information in a way that’s easily understood, interspersing frequent visual aids. Chapters are enlivened with full-color maps, photos, and illustrations of the people, landscape, artifacts, and rare objects. Kids will be amazed to discover all the remarkable things related to China.

 

int art and spread from China A History by Cheryl Bardoe The Field Museum
Interior spread from China: A History by Cheryl Bardoe, The Field Museum, Abrams Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

 

Attention-grabbing stories include the 8,000 nearly life-sized terracotta warrior statutes buried with the emperor Shi Huangdi for the afterlife. Your feet may ache when reading about the painful custom of female foot-binding (officially banned in 1911). And, fascinating for everyone who loves eating noodles: “The world’s oldest-known noodles were discovered beneath a bowl that tipped over in northwest China, and then was buried under ten feet of sediment that formed a stay-fresh seal for four thousand years.” Those are some old noodles!

 

int art and text spread from China A History by Cheryl Bardoe
Interior spread from China: A History by Cheryl Bardoe, The Field Museum, Abrams Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

 

In honor of the Year of the Pig, it should be noted that pigs were first domesticated in East Asia in 7,000 BC.

All ages will be fascinated by this lovely book. Bold patterns accent pages and bright colors highlight additional material. The text concludes with an interesting 20,000-year Time Line.

 

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

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Dragons, Friendship and Magic – The Language of Spells

THE LANGUAGE OF SPELLS
Written by Garret Weyr
Illustrated by Katie Harnett
(Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

The Language of Spells book cover art

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews

The Language of Spells_Interior Illo 1
Interior art from The Language of Spells written by Garret Weyr with illustrations by Katie Harnett, Chronicle Books ©2018.

In the middle-grade novel, The Language of Spells, homeschooled eleven-year-old Maggie lives in a Viennese hotel with her father. She knows many things, but how to make friends isn’t one of them—until she meets Grisha (a dragon who’s spent decades observing humans and has grown up without doing any of the proper dragon things). Born in 1803, he is the last of his kind. “As the world of men built new and extraordinary things, the world of magic began to decline. No creature lives beyond its own world, and a dragon is nothing if not a creature from the world of magic.”

The Language of Spells_Interior Illo 3
Interior art from The Language of Spells written by Garret Weyr with illustrations by Katie Harnett, Chronicle Books ©2018.

All dragons were summoned to Vienna and, due to the inconvenience of their existence, most mysteriously disappeared. While the Department of Extinct Exotics controls the gold-eyed dragons who were allowed to remain, Grisha struggles to remember what happened to the others. Maggie’s determination to help sets them on an investigative journey. Though they know using magic requires a sacrifice, Maggie and Grisha travel across Europe to fight injustice and face difficult decisions.

The Language of Spells is a different sort of dragon tale—one worth a deliberate read and thoughtful introspection. Each chapter opens with a charming illustration by Katie Harnett. The uplifting scenes enhance the story’s relationships. Weyr’s slow-building, sometimes funny tale has an old-fashioned lyrical feel. The book raises questions about the cost of power, the bonds of families and friendships. When few can see the magic left in the world, does it still exist?

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

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

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

 

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Finding a Way Forward – Tiny Infinities by J. H. Diehl

TINY INFINITIES
Written by J. H. Diehl
(Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

– A Junior Library Guild Selection –

cover illustration from Tiny Infinities by J. H. Diehl

In Tiny Infinities, the debut middle grade novel by J. H. Diehl, the summer when Alice turns thirteen, her family’s structure disintegrates. Her mother has become a bedridden recluse, her father moves out, and Alice’s two brothers are temporarily placed with their aunt. Alice willfully stays at the family home, erecting the Renaissance tent her parents met in, resolving to sleep in the backyard until her father returns. Due to finances, cell phones, internet, and camps are cut. Earning money babysitting is bittersweet—Alice’s parents are too distracted to pay much attention. Alice discovers each family has complications. Piper, the young girl she watches, has an undiagnosed loss of speech and possibly hearing.

This quiet story considers deep issues including how one family member’s illness or injury affects everyone. Because of her parents’ split and her mother’s inability to recover, Alice loses touch with close friends rather than explain.

Swimming keeps Alice centered; she’s determined to get her name on her swim team’s record board. A friendship with the new girl, Harriet, develops. Harriet’s keen observations while somewhat off-putting are also perceptive: she advises Alice to switch to backstroke. While this is another change, Alice eventually realizes that she likes swimming backwards without seeing where she’s going; it gives her confidence in her ability to maneuver the pool, and life. Alice and her friends learn from one another how to find their way—realizing it is their way to find.

Tiny Infinities is an honest coming-of-age middle-grade novel. Alice understands for the first time that there is “no line between hot and cold, or warm and cool, love and not love. Tiny infinities [are] always going to be there.”

Fireflies play a clever role in the novel throughout. Beneath the book’s beautiful glimmering jacket is a stunning smooth casewrap adorned with fireflies. The brightly contrasting endpapers offer a pop of color.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

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

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

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