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Middle Grade Book Review – In the Beautiful Country

IN THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY

Written by Jane Kuo

(Quill Tree Books;  $16.99, Ages 8-12)

In the Beautiful Country cover

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Starred Review – School Library Journal

Novels in verse are powerful. Jane Kuo’s debut middle grade, In the Beautiful Country, is a novel in verse set in 1980 about ten-year-old Ai Shi, an American immigrant from Taiwan. What a good format choice for a novel reflecting the experience of children new to the U.S.! Especially accessible for English language learners and for reluctant or struggling readers, the short, straightforward poems are no less engaging for those who read with ease.

I love how a poem gives me broad strokes of what is happening, takes me to the correct emotional address, and then I get to fill in the details. Wait, that sounds wrong. Kuo’s book, for example, gives me many details, things I wouldn’t know to imagine myself, that help me understand Ai Shi’s experience. It’s more like a connect-the-dots puzzle. Rather than broad strokes, the poems set down carefully-placed images and details, the dots. Then readers use their imagination to get from one dot to the next and draw a complete understanding of who Ai Shi is, what she values the most, and what she goes through as she and her parents face the disappointing reality of their new life.

The story begins when Ai Shi is anticipating moving to “the beautiful country” (the Chinese name for America) and follows her through a year of adjusting to life as Anna, American fifth-grader. Before moving, Ai Shi says America is her “happily ever after place,” but once she’s here, reality hits hard. She dreads going to school with her limited English:

I used to love school,

the place where I was the loudest girl in class.

Now I’m robbed of words.

Suddenly, I have nothing to say.

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In the Beautiful Country int WandererHer family struggles to keep their heads above water financially. They sold everything to buy an American fast food restaurant, depending on a fraudulent profit record the seller provided. Ai Shi thinks the items she left in Taiwan will be replaced with better California models, but that’s not how it goes.

I was particularly touched by a poem about the family’s new apartment. Ai Shi sleeps in the lone bedroom; her parents sleep on a fold-out couch in the living room. The only entertainment is watching television, and Ai Shi thinks their new set is broken. Really, it’s just black-and-white. The poem ends:

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I sit facing the flickering television.

This TV is twice as small as our old one.

Here,

in the land of more,

our world is so small.

Racism adds isolation and a sense of injustice to Ai Shi’s disappointment. She is teased at school: “It’s as if making fun of my food / has become a group lunchtime activity.” When the class is learning about alliteration, a bully waits until they are on the playground to share his example: “Ching Chong Chinaman.” At the store, her parents face customers who have no patience for their problems with English.

Last week, a man became very huffy and puffy,

as if not understanding English

was some kind of insult.

It gets worse when someone throws a brick through the store’s large front window in the middle of the night. The poem “Nothing is Missing” describes the violation, ending, “They didn’t take anything. / They took so much.”

It is painful seeing through Ai Shi’s eyes when her family is struggling. I always say that if a book makes me cry, it had better be for a good purpose. Being sad with Ai Shi is worth it, helping me develop more understanding of and empathy for immigrants, children and adults alike. But I am especially enthusiastic about recommending this book because Kuo doesn’t leave Ai Shi or the reader in insurmountable pain. When the family considers giving up and going back to Taiwan, their dynamics change. It is a pleasure to keep reading and see how their shared values put them on a path to an authentically hopeful future.

  •  Guest Review by Mary Malhotra
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An Interview with Margaret Finnegan Author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MARGARET FINNEGAN

AUTHOR OF 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

RONNA’S IMPRESSION

I absolutely adored this perfectly polished middle-grade novel about an imperfect yet endearing protagonist, Susie B. Yet aren’t we all imperfect in some way, shape, or form? That’s exactly what Susie B. realizes in this story that cleverly and humorously addresses several relatable tween issues such as popularity and school dynamics, friendship, flawed individuals from the past and present, and being true to oneself. Margaret’s fifth-grade voice feels spot-on as we get inside her ADHD “butterfly brain” while she navigates both a class Hero Project and student council race.  Her personality jumps off the pages presented in letter format making the read fast but oh so fulfilling. If your middle grader is looking for a book that will keep them smiling from page one, this is it. See the publisher’s page for an excerpt.

 

BOOK SUMMARY 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

Roll with It meets Absolutely Normal Chaos in this funny, big-hearted novel about a young girl’s campaign for student council president, told through letters to her hero, Susan B. Anthony.

Susie B. has a lot to say. Like how it’s not fair that she has to be called Susie B. instead of plain Susie. Or about how polar bears are endangered. Or how the Usual Geniuses are always getting picked for cool stuff over the kids like her with butterflies in their brain. And it’s because Susie B. has a lot to say about these very important things that she’s running for student council president!

If she’s president, she can advocate for the underdogs just like her hero and fellow Susie B., Susan B. Anthony. (And, okay, maybe the chance to give big speeches to the whole school with a microphone is another perk.) But when the most usual of Usual Geniuses also enters the student council race, Susie realizes this may be a harder won fight than she thought. Even worse, Susie discovers that Susan B. Anthony wasn’t as great as history makes it seem, and she did some pretty terrible things to try to help her own cause. Soon, Susie has her own tough decisions to make. But one thing is for sure—no matter what, Susie B. won’t back down.

 

INTERVIEW

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome back to the GRWR blog, Margaret, and congratulations on your second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down! How does it feel to bring this new book into the world?

Margaret Finnegan: Very exciting! I feel so grateful to my editor and all the people at Atheneum Books for Young Readers who helped usher Susie B. into the world. I have a special fondness for Susie B. I love her gumption and her heart.

 

GRWR: Please share where the spark for this super engaging and original story came from especially since spark is a prevalent and meaningful word in Susie B. Won’t Back Down.

MF: I started my career as an historian, and a long time ago I wrote a book on the US woman’s suffrage movement. I think about the work I did for that book a lot. You know, it took women almost seventy years of coordinated work to get the vote, and, along the way, some of the women we admire for their activism did some unadmirable things. So what do we do with that? Susie B. was my way of exploring that question.

 

GRWR: The irresistible and honest voice of Susie Babuszkiewicz (aka Susie B.) pulled me in immediately, in fact, I tweeted that the opening made me literally LOL. “Dear Susan B. Anthony: I have very bad news for you. You’re dead.” Was this always how you planned to start the novel? And were you always going to write in letter format? 

MF: From the beginning, I conceived of the book as a series of letters because I always wanted Susie B. to be having a conversation with Susan B. Anthony. However, I don’t think the rough draft started quite that way. But then it occurred to me that some young readers wouldn’t know anything about the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. So I had to get some basic information out there really fast.

 

GRWR: Susie B. is an insightfully portrayed character who beautifully describes her ADHD as having a butterfly brain or at times getting wiggly. Another character, Carson, also seems to have ADHD, perhaps Asperger’s and Tourette syndrome. Can you speak to your inclusion of neurodiverse characters again as you did in your first novel, We Could Be Heroes?  

MF: I’m glad you asked. About one in every seven or eight individuals has some type of neurodiversity. So the real question is, why don’t we see neurodiversity in more books? Also, I guess I’m highly sensitive to this issue because my kids, (both young adults) are neurodiverse.

 

GRWR: I ran for class secretary in my high school government but don’t remember much except that our very laid-back advisor was called Mr. Lincoln. Did you ever run for student council and what are your thoughts about this part of a student’s school life?

MF: I ran for student council in ninth grade—and I lost! So suck it Henry M. Gunn High School. At last, I’ve achieved my revenge, proving that, in many schools, student government is indeed just another scam to shine a spotlight on the very people who need it the least. (Apologies if your experience suggests otherwise. I may still be a little bitter.)

 

GRWR: You weave such fabulous humor throughout this book which helps to lighten some serious issues middle-graders face daily. We see Susie B. cope or not cope with passive-aggressive bullying or word bombing as she calls it by a mean girl named Chloe (aka Old Fakey Fake), feeling constantly overlooked by teachers and peers in favor of the jocks, the “usual geniuses” and popular kids, along with the struggle to keep her anger at perceived injustices at bay. What did you hope readers would feel after finishing this novel?

MF: As with everything I write, my main goal as a writer is to give readers a good time. If they also pick up an idea or two to wrestle with, so much the better. These are the things I want out of books, so why would I want to give my readers any less?

 

GRWR: I love whenever Susie B. discusses the universal mystery of paragraphs and all things paragraph writing-related. Do you have a favorite scene/letter in the book?

MF: I like it when Susie B. owns her anger, telling Susan B. Anthony, “I WAS AN ANGRY GIRL.” Too often, girls are taught to swallow their anger, and—by that time in the story—Susie B. has been trying to do that for a while. But, finally, she accepts her anger and embraces it, and sometimes that is not a bad thing.

 

GRWR: Susie B. experiences a gamut of emotions in Susie B. Won’t Back Down which feels so realistic. Let’s talk about the friendship dynamic you’ve created. Without any spoilers, how would you describe the relationship Susie has with Joselyn? Can you also tell us more about the diverse group of classmates who people this story? I particularly enjoy interactions with Soozie and Daniel Rodriguez.

MF: Poor Susie. B. She and Joselyn have been best friends for a long time, but friendships change, and a lot of the time those changes begin in late elementary and early middle school. That’s not a spoiler, that is just the way things are, and that is something Susie B. has to deal with.

Susie does have a diverse group of classmates. They are diverse in all the ways you can be diverse, in all the ways our communities are diverse. And they are also diverse in the things we don’t always think about: their personalities, their goals, and their motivations. They are each the main character in their own story. We just happened to be listening to Susie B.’s.

 

GRWR: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh? Also, how do you capture the language of fifth-graders so perfectly when you teach college students and have grown-up daughters? 

MF: Mostly, I read. I read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, books, long-form journalism, kids lit, adult lit. I try to stay curious. I don’t know how I capture the language of fifth graders. I think fifth graders sound like everyone else, it’s just that they have a more limited vocabulary and a smaller share of prior knowledge to help them understand relationships and the world. I guess I try to write about them with respect?

 

GRWR: Novel writing-wise, are you a pantser or a plotter? And did you write the ending first and work your way back or do you approach each new project traditionally from beginning to end?

MF: Oh, I definitely start at the beginning and work my way to the end. But I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. I usually start out by writing a page or two summary of what I think the book will be about. That gives me a sense of where things are going, and it identifies a few plot points I want to hit. The problem is, the characters always take over, and if I’m going to be truthful to them, I have to follow them where they go, and that always takes me away from any prior designs I have for things. So plotting too carefully just never really works for me.

 

GRWR: You have a full-time job as a university professor. How do you find the time to write so prolifically since it feels like it’s one novel a year (can we mention that you’ve already sold your next book?)

MF: You can mention I’ve sold my next book! It is called New Kids and Underdogs and it’s about a new kid in town who gets immersed in the exciting world of agility dog training. I think it’s coming out late 2022 or early 2023. I’ll keep you posted.

I wouldn’t call myself prolific. I would say slow and steady wins the race. I write in the morning. I do university stuff in the afternoon. I do all my school prep in the summer. Sometimes it all falls apart. I do my best. Frankly, I’m a little tired.

 

GRWR: I know you have something exciting planned for tomorrow,  Saturday, November 6 to promote this book. Can you tell readers about it and how they can attend?

MF: Yes! Join me on November sixth (please see below) for a very special Conversation with Susan B. Anthony. Yes! She is still dead! But she is coming back from the grave this one time, just so I can interview her. It will be held live and online on Zoom Webinar. So anyone can join in—and even ask Susan a few questions.

 

GRWR: What’s on the horizon, Margaret?

MF: A bath, a good rest, maybe a real laz-a-bout, and then a whole lot of grading before I pull up my sleeves and start writing again. I’m thinking monkey bars that hang just a little too high from the ground. I’m thinking garden apartments. I’m thinking a kid who learns to take charge when the grown-ups won’t. But we’ll see.

 

GRWR: It all sounds wonderful! Thanks tons for taking the time to tell us all about Susie B. Won’t Back Down.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony!

 

Register for A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony,
on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at noon Pacific Time.

 https://calstatela.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_7wiUs6McQJuJMGAdHr6fVA

BUY THE BOOK

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/books/susie-b-won-t-back-down/9781534496361

SOCIAL MEDIA

Website: MargaretFinnegan.com

Twitter: @FinneganBegin
Instagram: @FinneganBegin
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Author Margaret Finnegan
Margaret Finnegan ©2019 Skye Moorhead

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Margaret Finnegan is the author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down, a School Library Journal starred review, and We Could Be Heroes, a Junior Library Guild selection. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, with her family and dog Walt. She makes very good chocolate cakes, and while she ran for student council in ninth grade, she lost.

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Middle Grade Graphic Novel – Saving Sorya

 

SAVING SORYA:

Chang and the Sun Bear

by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung

Illustrated by Jeet Zdung

(Dial BYR; $23.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Saving Sorya cover

 

 

★ Starred reviews – KirkusSchool Library Journal

 

Striking artwork and a timely topic support the compelling story of one girl’s dogged determination to reintroduce a rescued sun bear to its native habitat.

 

 

The author of Saving Sorya, a renowned Vietnamese conservationist, uses the wonderfully creative graphic novel format to present a fictionalized account of events that inspired her career choice.

After witnessing a horrific instance of animal abuse, young Chang decides to become a conservationist. She works hard to learn the many skills she’ll need for this profession including: how to identify and draw forest flora and fauna and wilderness survival skills. Chang faces many challenges due to her youth and societal attitudes towards gender and how conservationists are viewed by traditional medicinal practitioners, who need animals for some preparations. Her efforts and determination pay off when she lands volunteer positions with a rescue center and learns how to take care of wild animals. Eventually, Chang is assigned the responsibility of rehabilitating Sorya, a young sun bear, and returning her to the wild.

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Interior art from Saving Sorya by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung and illustrated by Jeet Zdung, Dial BYR ©2021.

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Together, Chang and Sorya journey through the Vietnamese forests in search of a home for Sorya. In addition to training a frightened animal how to survive on her own, Chang faces challenges created by man-made problems which have impacted the environment: clearing forests for agriculture, logging, construction, and poaching exotic animals to create traditional Vietnamese medicines. Finally, Chang finds a place:

“And when the forest began to fill with the sounds of wildlife … that’s when I knew Sorya could live there.”

Sorya meets and bonds with another sun bear, and finally Chang, sure that Sorya will not only survive but thrive, is able to leave her.

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Interior spread from Saving Sorya by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung and illustrated by Jeet Zdung, Dial BYR ©2021.

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Illustrator Jeet Zdung’s breathtaking illustrations, in the tradition of classical Vietnamese art, capture the forest and the creatures that inhabit it. Eye-popping colors of exotic animals, painstaking details, varying hues, and shadowing create the lushness of the forest with breathtaking beauty.

Chang’s extraordinary field notebook, in which she records her observations, is a STEM teacher’s dream. Zdung uses pages from the notebook to tell the story. Chang details her discoveries as well as some of the equipment and personal things she has brought with her.

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Interior art from Saving Sorya by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung and illustrated by Jeet Zdung, Dial BYR ©2021.

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Zdung’s interest in manga art is evident in some illustrations and how the characters are portrayed, which creates an interesting juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary art styles. Black-and-white illustrations in manga style blur otherwise disturbing images of abuse and death. But Chang’s persistence determination, and passion, distract from the few disturbing images in the story … and give us hope.

Find out more about author and conservationist Trang Nguyen here and illustrator Jeet Zdung here

I highly recommended Saving Sorya which is sure to inspire many children to find out what they can do to protect the environment and save wild animals.

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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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 of Turtle in Paradise – The Graphic Novel

 

TURTLE IN PARADISE:

The Graphic Novel

Written by Jennifer L. Holm

Illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau

Colors by Lark Penn

(RH Graphic; HC $20.99, Paperback $12.99, Ages 8-12)

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Turtle in Paradise cover

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Starred Review – School Library Journal

An excellent way to introduce middle-grade readers to Holm’s Newbery Honor book of family, friendship, and home.

 

In 1935, eleven-year-old Turtle is sent to Key West, Florida to live with relatives she’s never known in the graphic novel adaptation of Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm and Savanna Ganucheau. Turtle’s single mother, Sadiemae works as a maid for a New Jersey woman who does not want children underfoot. Turtle, protected by the hard shell for which she’s named, is also protective of her flighty mom and worried about being separated from her. 

Over the summer, she hangs out with her cousins and their friends who are part of the boys only “Diaper (babysitting) Club” (they “wurk” for candy) and spends the summer helping them and her Aunt Minnie while meeting the neighbors, fisherman, and rum runners, who speak about a long lost pirate treasure. Hoping to earn money to help her mother purchase a home, she persuades the others in the Diaper Club to search for the treasure. They find the treasure on one of the uninhabited keys but are marooned there for two days during a hurricane. Happily, they are rescued and Turtle is reunited with her mom. 

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Turtle in Paradise Page 08
Interior illustrations from Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel written by Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau, Random House Graphic ©2021.

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Holm’s graphic novel adaptation of her novel doesn’t lose any of the story’s warmth, humor, and dramatic moments. Told from Turtle’s point of view, the graphic novel conveys her gradual emergence from her shell as a caring and plucky girl. As in the novel, family secrets, such as her father’s identity, rise to the surface. Turtle figures out things out on her own, realizing that the answers may not be so important: “… not all kids are rotten … and there are grown-ups who are as sweet as Necco Wafers. And if you’re lucky, some of them may even end up being your family.”

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Interior illustrations from Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel written by Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau, Random House Graphic ©2021.

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Some minor characters from the novel have been left out (including “Papa” Hemingway) and some aspects of characters are not as deeply developed, such as Aunt Minnie’s true kindly nature. Nevertheless, Savanna Ganucheau (Lumberjanes) captures each character’s nature and circumstances in facial expressions, body language, and actions. Ganucheau’s portrayals of the wisecracking cousin Beans, the overworked Aunt Minnie, and the friendly fisherman Slow Poke (who once loved Sadiemae!) are perfect. The period and the locale of Key West were well researched by both Holms and Ganucheau and that is reflected in both the narrative and the art. Think Necco wafers, sugar apple ice cream (cones are a nickel), Shirley Temple and Little Orphan Annie, the streets of Key West, and the very real 1935 hurricane that stranded Turtle and the Diaper Club and wreaked so much destruction on an area already suffering from economic depression. 

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Turtle in Paradise Page 14
Interior illustrations from Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel written by Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau, Random House Graphic ©2021.

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Back matter includes a note from the author which details her family connection to this story as well as some of the historical background. Also included is a fascinating note from Savanna Ganucheau about the artwork (find out more about what went into the artwork here).

Random House Teachers and Educators has a lovely educator guide with information about the book and art here

This graphic novel adaptation can stand by itself or act as a perfect introduction to the novel for middle graders. It should draw in potential readers who will be well prepared for more nuanced character development and a more complex narrative. 

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Journey Beyond the Burrow

IT’S A TWO-WEEK COUNTDOWN

UNTIL THE PUBLICATION OF …

JOURNEY BEYOND THE BURROW

Written by Rina Heisel

(Harper/Harper Collins Children’s Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

Journey Beyond the Burrow cover

 

 

A JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD GOLD STANDARD SELECTION!

 

What an action-packed journey! In Rina Heisel’s riveting debut middle-grade novel, Journey Beyond the Burrow, you’ll find yourself entering a world way down low, perhaps a place you don’t often look. After being so caught up in the forest floor escapades while reading, I found myself wanting to tread carefully when putting down the book and stepping onto my bedroom rug.

Readers are quickly introduced to the main character, a resourceful weather scout mouse named Tobin. Everyone in his burrow has a role to play and Tobin takes his responsibilities quite seriously. In fact, he often quotes from the Rules of Rodentia and is a stickler about following them. Not so for his best bud Wiley. He couldn’t be more opposite of Tobin, taking risks and thriving from them. Talia, Tobin’s younger sister, just wants to be accepted by her older brother and his pal. Her fearlessness and smarts make it hard to turn her down on their eventual mission.

When a storm and downed tree threatens the burrow and allows menacing spiders called Arakni to cross a creek into their territory, life suddenly changes for this “little band of misfits.” Spotting a web sack on the back of one escaping Arakni in which Tobin and Talia’s newborn baby brother has been wrapped, the trio embark on a dangerous journey to rescue the “pinkling.” Encounters with hawks, chipmunks, catfish, snakes, foxes, falcons, possums, woodchucks, owls, snapper turtles, and beavers will get your pulse racing since every new woodland creature is a potential predator.

Following the foul scent of the Arakni that stole their baby brother, Tobin and Talia along with Wiley are determined to find the Arakni lair and rescue the pinkling. Things get even more interesting when the mice team up with an unexpected and unlikely ally named Hess. Weaving animal facts with fascinating storytelling, Heisel takes readers across creeks, past orange toadstools, through tunnels, across gorges and hilltops to challenge the Arakni, a formidable enemy every reader will want vanquished.

One close page-turning call follows another and mimics what life must be like for animals in the wild. Each time the team of determined characters seem to be goners, the Rules of Rodentia are put to the test. I wondered at what point Tobin would abandon his rule-following resolve and wing it. When he finally realizes that making up their own rules as they go might be the only option for this risky rescue mission, Tobin, with the help of the others, becomes destined for success. It’s clear how much this journey helped Tobin grow within himself and as a son, a friend, and older brother. This brave weather scout might have to add some new rules to the list after this harrowing but also exciting experience.

It was so great spending time with Tobin, Talia, Wiley, and Hess that when I reached the end I wasn’t ready to leave them. Heisel has introduced a group of well-defined characters to care about and root for. And as Talia says to Hess, “I don’t want to say goodbye, either.” Here’s to reunions!

 

Publication Date: July 13, 2021, but Journey Beyond the Burrow is available for preorder now.

Preorder from Red Balloon for signing copy, bookmark, & sticker: https://bit.ly/JBTB-RB
Twitter: @rinaheisel
Instagram: Rina.Heisel
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Middle Grade Book Review – Happily For Now

 

HAPPILY FOR NOW

Written by Kelly Jones

Illustrated by Kelly Murphy

(Knopf Books for Young Readers; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

Happily For Now book cover

 

 

Happily for Now written by Kelly Jones and illustrated by Kelly Murphy follows Fiona who is sent away for the summer to live with relatives she’s never met because her mother is entering a treatment program for an unspecified addiction. In addition to her mother, Fiona is leaving behind Ms. Davis, who is like a guidance counselor to her (although the text doesn’t state that) but whom Fiona describes as her fairy godmother and whom she wants to emulate. Throughout the summer, she will be able to speak with Mr. Rivera who will also be able to help her with anything she might want to discuss.

Although the storyline involves Fiona’s addicted mother, this is not the main plot of the book and the focus is really on how Fiona tries to lend an eager hand to her quirky extended family, making this middle-grade novel a more light-hearted read.

With the help of her new friend Julia, Mr. Rivera’s daughter, Fiona sets out in her new town to try to help her relatives with their problems, or rather, try to help them help themselves, like any good fairy godmother (although she prefers the term fairy godperson because she is not a mother) who grants wishes might do, since she doesn’t want to just sit around being a princess. Her Aunt Becky’s bakery hardly has any customers because she keeps baking the same boring desserts she’s always made. Her great-uncle Timothy hardly ever speaks but has a secret talent and her great-aunt Alta is all doom and gloom. Can Fiona help them? And if she cannot get her happily ever after, can she at least get happily for now? She’s sure going to try.

Text is interspersed with emails between Fiona and her mother and between Fiona and Ms. Davis, which readers will enjoy, as the story progresses through these exchanges. I eagerly looked forward to reading these email conversations which provided updates on how Fiona’s mother was faring in her treatment program, as well as further guidance from Ms. Davis on Fiona’s fairy godperson training. Fiona, is at times both childlike, as she discusses fairy tales, witches, and the like, and like an adult, as she deals with her mother’s addiction and has to convince her to stay with her treatment program when she wants to leave early. Fiona easily makes us care about her and all the people in her life so that we enjoy spending time with her and want to see her have a happy ending.

Murphy’s black-and-white illustrations are a welcome addition to the pages, adding a lightness to Happily for Now and its tough subject matter. I do think it’s important since it’s not mentioned on the book jacket, for parents and young readers to be aware that, despite the lightness of this story, addiction is still included. However, young people who are living with a parent who is struggling with any sort of addiction or other illness will take comfort in reading such a thoughtfully crafted and thoroughly engaging book in which the protagonist is dealing positively with similar circumstances as they are.

  •  Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
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Six Kids Books for National Poetry Month

CELEBRATE NATIONAL POETRY MONTH

WITH THESE GREAT KIDS BOOKS

 

 

 

TheBonYourThumb coverTHE B ON YOUR THUMB:
60 Poems to Boost Reading and Spelling
Written by Colette Hiller
Illustrated by Tor Freeman
(Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; $19.99, Ages 3-8)

The title and cover pulled me in and I could not wait to read this hilarious poetry book meant for children and parent, caregiver or any adult to experience together. It’s done so well that kids will laugh while learning some unusual things about the English language that grown-ups may now take for granted. “The illustrated rhymes and delightful ditties” will definitely boost early reading “as each poem teaches a specific sound, spelling, or rule.” There is clever wordplay and just so much to enjoy. I found it hard to narrow down the poems that I wanted to share here, but I’ll try with this one about sounds.

 

The Man in the Moon
The Man in the moon
dropped into our school,
just yesterday morning
round about noon.
You may not believe me
but I have the proof:
there’s a man-in-the_moon
shaped hole in the roof!

 

Some poems in the section on silent letters that I loved include The K on Your Knee, Answer This, Why is That?, A Secret Number, and Christmas at the Castle. In the spellings sections, I’m sure kids will LOL at A Clue, Separate, and A Lot. And in the homophones section, Two, Too, and To is a great one to share as is Which Witch, and A Whole Donut. Especially helpful is the backmatter with exercises and activities to do with children. Tor Freeman’s personified letters and cheerful art bring the poems to life with their quirky charm and vibrant colors. As adults we may have forgotten how hard the peculiarities of our English language are for youngsters to grasp. This book makes it not only educational and entertaining but utterly irresistible! 

 

Catch the Sky coverCATCH THE SKY:
Playful Poems on the Air We Share
Written by Robert Heidbreder
Illustrated by Emily Dove
(Greystone Kids; $17.95, Ages 3-8)

All around the world, one thing there’s no denying, is we all can look up and see the moon in the night’s sky because, in addition to sharing the air we breathe, we also share the sky and all its treasures. Heidbreder captures the marvel of nature and more in bite-sized poems filling 40 pages of pure delight. In his opening poem, Catch The Sky he writes

Look up! Gaze round!
Cast eyes to air.
Catch the sky
that we all share.

Two-page spreads with poems on opposite pages cleverly take readers around the world to meet diverse characters finding so much wonder everywhere. Whether that’s a squirrel walking a power line or crows heading for home in the evening, there’s always something to enjoy with every page turn. One particular spread I like is a city buildings scape with the first poem showing people on rooftops flying kites. In the foreground of the same spread is a birthday celebration and the poem is about balloons. With the story moving from sunrise throughout the day to nightfall, Catch the Sky can also be an ideal bedtime read that, with the lovely and calming art, should inspire beautiful and sweet dreams.

 

A Poem is a Firefly cvrA POEM IS A FIREFLY
Written by Charles Ghigna
Illustrated by Michelle Hazelwood Hyde
(Schiffer Kids; $16.99, Ages 5-8)

This gentle introduction to poetry is a rhyming tale that tips its hat to nature when describing all the things a poem can be. What perfect inspiration for the littlest poets in your family! A bear and his forest friends share their impressions about what makes a poem which teachers can use as a jumping-off point for creative writing prompts.

A poem is a wild rose,
a promise just begun,
a blossom new
with fragrant dew
unfurling in the sun.

Even without the vibrant art, Ghigna’s words are easy to imagine. Yet Hyde’s illustrations are not only cheerful and packed with adorable animals—the moose is my fave—they’re lush with a jewel-toned palette that complements the rich colors of all the animals. Kids will love how poems can be found everywhere, from a laugh to a sigh or in the stars in the sky. Talk about poetry at your fingertips! 

 

This Poem is a Nest coverTHIS POEM IS A NEST
Written by Irene Latham
Illustrated by Johanna Wright
(Wordsong; $17.99, Ages 7 and up)

A Kirkus Reviews Best Book
An NCTE Notable Poetry Book

I have never read a poetry book quite like This Poem is a Nest. Its brilliance will stay with you long after you’ve finished your first reading. I want to emphasize first because you will want to return to it again and again, especially as your moods change. I could not put it down, eager to see how Latham would take her original 37-line, four-part poem, “Nest,” then create what she calls nestlings, 161 smaller poems within it on topics as broad as the seasons, space, the alphabet, relationships and emotions. I read in awe how she took the nest concept and then soared. It begins in 1. Spring 

This poem has twigs in it, and little bits of feather-fluff.
It’s got wings and birdsong stitched together with ribbons of hope. 

Consider this book a key to an alchemist’s lab. It will take children to magical places they have never imagined words could take them, places where they will definitely create gold. Using the concepts of found poems or blackout poetry that Latham explains in the beginning of the book, she makes it all look so easy. But clearly it was not effortless. It obviously takes patience and commitment. This Poem is a Nest resonated with me because I could feel the love and devotion she put into each and every nestling. Latham includes tips in her conclusion to set readers off to find their own nests of inspiration. Wright’s simple black and white spot art is a treat, full of children dreaming, birds flying, and animals playing. I’ll leave you with this beautiful one called Parent Poem: this poem has endless faith in you. ENJOY!

ICE!PoemsAboutPolarLife cvrICE! POEMS ABOUT POLAR LIFE
Written and illustrated by Douglas Florian
(Holiday House; $17.99, Ages 7-10)

Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year

Author-illustrator Douglas Florian deftly tackles those two remote places on our planet known as the Arctic and Antarctica in the most whimsical and unexpected ways in his poetry and art. At the same time he adds important factual information below each poem making this a must-read picture book. In other words, kids can come for the verse, but they’ll stay for the info since there is so much to learn, especially since these areas and their flora and fauna are threatened by climate change. There are 21 poems ranging from those about animals such as the polar bear, blue whale, the Arctic hare, and musk ox to ones about the polar regions, the tundra and climate change. Florian’s included clever wordplay and makes every poem a joy to read aloud especially the one about a ptimid bird called the Ptarmigan whose home is the rocky tundra. I pfound this one about krill especially pfunny:

Fish and penguins, squids and seals,
all find krill make splendid meals.
Blue whales eat krill by the millions:
Millions! Billions! Trillions! Krillions!

Describing his original artwork, The Poetry Foundation said, “Florian’s illustrated poetry books for children often incorporate elements of collage, watercolor, and gouache on a surface of primed paper bags.” Kids will find the humor in the art pairs perfectly with the characteristics of the animals presented whether it’s the Arctic Hare toting an umbrella on a bad hare day or with the menace to small creatures, the very TALONted Snowy Owl. Backmatter includes info about Florian, his interest in natural science, and his engaging art style.

 

Spiku coverSPI-KU:
A Clutter of Short Verse on Eight Legs

Written by Leslie Bulion
Illustrated by Robert Meganck
(Peachtree Publishing; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

Starred Review – Kirkus

If you have a child that loves to learn while enjoying all different kinds of poems, Spi-Ku is the book for you to share with them. As wonderful as the poems are, so too is the variety of factual information included.

Middle-grade readers quickly learn that “all spiders are arachnids, but some arachnids mite not be spiders.” I always thought a daddy long legs was a spider, but it’s not. I also had no idea that a mite and a tick are part of the arachnid family. For some reason, I thought spiders have antennae but they don’t. What they do have are two main body regions and are “the only arachnids that have a narrow waist called a pedicel connecting the two main body parts.” How closely do you look at spiders? I honestly don’t take the time. At home, when I see a spider, I usually grab a plastic container to catch them and set them free outside.

Bulion breaks down different aspects of spiders. In Spiders on the Move this funny poem says it all.

 

Fishing Spider
Row, row, row my legs,
Pairs two and three are oars,
My first legs feel the way ahead,
Which do no work? My fours!

One of my favorite sections details in poems and prose how clever spiders are. Masters of disguise and creating ploys to catch their prey, these eight-legged creatures are not to be underestimated. There are sections on Spider Mamas, Spider Enemies and topics you might not ever have considered when thinking about spiders such as senses or their interesting courting rituals.

The plethora of poems are presented alongside descriptive paragraphs, and illustrations that are both whimsical, and scientifically accurate. Each one is so distinct and full of character. I applaud Meganck for not creeping me out with his spider art, and I think even mild arachnophobes will likely agree. Readers will find limericks, concrete poems, haiku, free verse, cinquains throughout the book with explanations about these and other poetic forms used in the comprehensive backmatter. Teachers can take advantage of the glossary of common and scientific names, a relative size chart, and more. Here’s a link to a teacher’s guide.

 

 

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Our Favorite Children’s Books for Earth Day 2021

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EARTH DAY 2021 

∼ A ROUNDUP

 

download for Earth Day 2021

 

 

 

Zonia's Rain ForestZONIA’S RAIN FOREST
Written and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal

Meet Zonia who is Asháninka, the largest Indigenous group that calls the Peruvian Amazon home. While her mom nurses her new baby brother, Zonia frolics among the lush flora and fauna of her beautiful neighborhood, the Amazon Rain Forest, the world’s largest. 

This slice of life story introduces young readers to a part of the world whose existence is in danger of extinction as its natural resources are abused. As Zonia plays on her own, she is joined by a butterfly, a sloth, a bird, a jaguar, a dolphin, an anteater, and other local animals whose lives are also in peril if the over-development of the Amazon continues at its current rate. This point is emphasized when at the end of Zonia’s outdoor adventure, she is shocked and angered to see a forest decimated by illegal logging. With their homeland threatened, the human inhabitants will have no choice but to fight back. The red face paint on Zonia’s face, shown “on the last page of the story,” signals strength and determination, symbolic of the struggle ahead. 

In promotional material from Candlewick, I learned that Peruvian-born author-illustrator Martinez-Neal created her art on “paper fashioned from banana bark by the hands of the people of the Amazon.” The rich colors have a pastel quality and bleed a bit onto the page, with soft edges and a warmth much like the Amazon itself.

Zonia’s Rain Forest is a call to action to people everywhere. We need to pay attention to what is happening in not only Peru, but the other eight countries the Amazon occupies which includes Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana before their ecosystems are beyond repair. The extensive back matter goes into more detail about what is happening in Amazon and why. Children are given selected resources if they want to learn what they can do. There is also a translation of the story to Asháninka, one of the approximate “three hundred and thirty different languages spoken among the four to five hundred different indigenous groups living there.” The story ends with Zonia telling her mama that the forest needs help. “It is speaking to you,” says Zonia’s mama.
“Then I will answer,” says Zonia, “as I always do.” And finally, “We all must answer.”
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Lucys Blooms coverLUCY’S BLOOMS
Written by Dawn Babb Prochovnic
Illustrated by Alice Brereton
(West Margin Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)

Dawn Babb Prochovnic’s picture book, Lucy’s Blooms, is an upbeat multigenerational tale. Lucy wants to win the town’s annual flower-growing competition and receives advice from Gram, but things don’t go as expected. I appreciated Lucy’s family’s love of nature and belief that’s it’s perfectly fine to do things your own way.

Alice Brereton’s vibrant illustrations enhance Lucy’s vivacious personality with facial expressions ranging from delight to frustration (pretty accurate, as any gardener knows).

This book’s joyful celebration of gardening and life resonates with me, as do its moments of humor. My favorite part is the ending—but you’ll have to read the book yourself, I’m not telling!

 

Old EnoughtoSave thePlanet CVOLD ENOUGH TO SAVE THE PLANET:
Be Inspired by Real-Life Children Taking Action Against Climate Change

Written by Loll Kirby
Illustrated by Adelina Lirius
Foreword by Kallan Benson (teen, cofounder of FridaysForFuture, youth/climate activist)

(Magic Cat Publishing / Abrams; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

In Loll Kirby’s nonfiction picture book, Old Enough to Save the Planet, we meet twelve kids (age 7+) from around the world who are taking action against climate change and becoming environmental advocates.

Because bees are in trouble, nine-year-old Eunita in Kenya created a garden to attract pollinators. She posted signs in town, explaining what she was doing for community education and to encourage involvement.

Twelve-year-old Adeline in Indonesia also works with her community. When humans destroyed the natural habitat, flooding problems ensued. Adeline’s group replants native mangrove trees “to create protected areas in the sea to allow new coral reefs to form.”

Each child’s earth-saving contribution is illustrated in great detail by Adelina Lirius using colors found in nature. I appreciate how this book highlights global climate-change problems, while showing how we can pitch in to make a difference. Actions listed in the back matter include eating less meat, thinking carefully before traveling by airplane, setting up a group of people working toward a similar goal, and speaking out at every opportunity. While listed for ages 8-12, please note that it would still be appropriate for ages 6-9.

 

TheExtraordinaryBookThatEatsItselfc vrTHE EXTRAORDINARY BOOK THAT EATS ITSELF:
Every Page Turns Into an Eco Project That Helps You Save the Planet
Written by Susan Hayes and Penny Arlon
Illustrated by Pintachan
(Earth Aware Editions Kids; $16.99, Ages 7 and up)  

The Extraordinary Book That Eats Itself by Susan Hayes and Penny Arlon is a 64-page reusable, recyclable picture book. In each of the thirty activities, kids take action to safeguard the environment and have tearing the book apart!

Learn how to build a worm bin or bug hotel. Conserve electricity in a clever section called “Chase Away Vampires” which includes cut-out reminders: “Don’t forget to unplug!”

“Have an Eco-Picnic” and meet up with friends or family. (During the pandemic, maintain a safe distance.) Pack mindfully; opt for reusable bottles and cutlery. Skip the plastic and see if you can find a spot you within walking or biking distance—how about your backyard?

Each page has lively art by Pintachan. You’ll want to cut out and use the bookmarks because of their cute illustrations. The creative projects in this book will keep kids busy for hours while teaching them earth-friendly ideas.

 

DO YOU KNOW WHERE THE ANIMALS LIVE?:DoYouKnowWhereTheAnimalsLive cvr
Discovering the Incredible Creatures All Around Us

Written by Peter Wohlleben
Translated by Shelley Tanaka
Photo selection for the English edition by Antonia Banyard
(Greystone Books; $24.95, Ages 8-12, available early May)

Peter Wohlleben follows up his successful middle-grade nonfiction book, Can You Hear the Trees Talking?, with Do You Know Where the Animals Live? It’s clear that animals are important to him and he wants to share his love of them. When asked how young children can help make the world a better place for animals, Wohlleben replied, “The best thing is to be curious. The more we know about animals, the more we learn to treat them with respect. Every animal is a great wonder that deserves to be allowed to live their life.”

This book explores much more than just where animals live—that’s only the first section! You’ll also learn what animals eat, all about animal babies, how animals grow up, animal survival techniques, animal language, [note it’s not plural in the book for some reason] and animal emotions. My favorite section is Animal Language because it explores sounds, body language, sense of humor, and showing off. Remarkably, fish grind teeth and fart to communicate. I was also amazed that “scientists have to use special microphones to hear the laughter of rats.”

Something that’s not a laughing matter is the chapter about how harmful human garbage is to animals. Plastics are a huge problem, from the Texas-size floating mass in the Pacific Ocean to the microplastics ingested by many creatures. Pesticide use kills animals throughout the food chain because, when insects die, then birds starve. However, “farmers who grow food without using pesticides leave part of the fruit behind for animals like caterpillars. Because the animals don’t pay money for this fruit, people have to be willing to make up for the difference.”

With color photos on every page, this book is beautiful as well as informational. Who doesn’t like to look at cute animal pictures?! Throughout, short quizzes test your knowledge. Whether reading or admiring images, this book will entertain and engage kids for hours.

 

You Can Change The World cvrYOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD:
The Kids’ Guide to a Better Planet
Written by Lucy Bell
Art by Astred Hicks 
(Andrews McMeel Publishing; $19.99, Ages 8-12)

Lucy Bell’s middle-grade nonfiction book, You Can Change the World, belongs in every home and classroom. Problems we’ve created in the world are offset with simple steps we can take to make our planet a healthier place for everyone.

The 224 pages are easy to follow, filled with lively, full-color art and cleverly arranged content to keep kids engaged. Topics include plastic, ethical and environmentally friendly clothing, waste, food, gardening and the outdoors, energy, electricity, and water, animal activism, and an act of kindness. The Group Activities section offers suggestions on how to work alongside friends and family. For example, choose from the environmental documentaries listed and host a movie party offering plastic-free snacks, or just start a conversation about how you have made changes.

Young environmentalists from around the world are featured throughout. At age nine Felix Finkbeiner from Germany discovered that Wangari Maathai in Kenya planted thirty million saplings in thirty years to cover some of Africa’s bare land. Inspired, Felix founded Plant-for-the-Planet with the goal of one million trees per country to offset harmful carbon dioxide emissions. “More than seventy thousand of the children who help Felix are ambassadors for climate justice, and they are between nine and twelve years old.”

This is a book my family will turn to again and again because it offers many useful suggestions: sprout cilantro from those coriander seeds in the spice rack, pay attention to where our food comes from, and put a bucket in the shower to save a little water each time. We’ve given up plastic straws, but I’d hoped that paper to-go drink cups were recyclable—they’re not because most cups are plastic-coated paper! This book puts facts at my fingertips so our family knows the truth before ordering that next hot chocolate. “Worldwide, people use over sixteen billion to-go cups every year.” Think about what a difference we could make if we just used our own drink containers. I’ll enjoy my latte more, knowing I’m not part of this billion-cup problem.

 

Planet Ocean coverPLANET OCEAN:
Why We All Need a Healthy Ocean
Written by Patricia Newman
Photographs by Annie Crawley
(Millbrook Press; $31.99, Ages 8-12)

Patricia Newman’s middle-grade nonfiction book, Planet Ocean, delves into our relationship to the sea explaining “how to stop thinking of ourselves as existing separate from the ocean and how to start taking better care of this precious resource.” Chapters explore the Coral Triangle, Salish Sea, and the Arctic. People worldwide are highlighted for their beneficial contributions. Eben Hopson started his own film company in high school to show how the melting ice affected his people’s (the Iñupiat) ability to hunt; at eighteen he became an Arctic Youth Ambassador to further explain the problems of climate change.

This 64-page middle-grade book is as informative as it is gorgeous. Photographer Annie Crawley captures the many aspects of the ocean, from its sheer beauty and wonderful creatures to people interacting respectfully with our environment. Crawley states, “We live in an absolutely incredible world which exists because of our ocean. But it is misunderstood, misrepresented, and undervalued by our society.”

The section “Go Blue with Annie” discusses committing to zero waste, taking climate action, thinking before you eat, and being the voice of our ocean. Examples of these items involve reducing or eliminating the plastics we use, choosing vegetarian meals, and joining with others to bring attention to the need to stop polluting the planet.

I’ll remember Crawley’s words, “What we do on land impacts our source of life. Every drop of water we drink and much of the food we eat starts with the sea. Breathe in and you breathe the ocean.” This book will help young readers better understand and appreciate our ocean’s importance, learning how our daily decisions have far-reaching consequences.

 

 

Additional Recommended Reads for Earth Day

Everything Grows coverEVERYTHING GROWS
Written by Raffi
Illustrated by Nina Mata
(Knopf; $7.99, Ages 0-3) 

 

 

A Garden to Save the Birds cvrA GARDEN TO SAVE THE BIRDS
Written by Wendy McClure
Illustrated by Beatriz Mayumi
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 5-8) 

 

 

 

 

PLASTICUS MARITIMUS:
An Invasive Species
Written by Ana Pêgo and Isabel Minhós Martins
Illustrated by Bernardo P. Carvalho
Translated by Jane Springer
(Greystone Books; $24.95, Ages 10-14)

 

 

 

 

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Five Kids Books about Words and Language

A ROUNDUP OF FIVE KIDS BOOKS

ABOUT WORDS AND LANGUAGE

Free Clipart words graphic

I love wordplay, puns, and books about the English language in general. If you do too, did you know that means you’re a linguaphile, a word nerd so to speak? I just learned that. This roundup of five kids books reviewed by Ronda Einbinder has something for everyone, word nerd or not.

 

 

No Reading Allowed cvrNO READING ALLOWED: 
The Worst Read-Aloud Book Ever
Written by Raj Halder & Chris Carpenter
Illustrated by Bryce Gladfelter
(Sourcebooks Kids; $17.99; Ages 4 and up)

Raj Haldar, aka American rapper Lushlife and co-author Chris Carpenter (creators of the #1 New York Times bestseller P Is For Pterodactyl) have teamed up for another LOL look at the English language in No Reading Allowed: The Worst Read-Aloud Book Ever with hilarious illustrations by Bryce Gladfelter.

When I first read the title, I was surprised and interested to read The Worst Read-Aloud in the sub-title. However, I immediately understood the meaning when I opened the first page and read “The hair came forth,” with a drawing of a fancy waiter picking a hair out of a girl’s spaghetti and meatballs. The hilarity hit me again when the next page presented “The hare came fourth,” with a drawing of a hare finishing number four in a race with other animals. The imaginative use of homophones, homonyms, and tricky punctuation is a great way to bring parent and child together in learning and loving the meaning of various English words.

 

The Invisible Alphabet cvrTHE INVISIBLE ALPHABET
Written By Joshua David Stein
Illustrated by Ron Barrett
(Rise x Penguin Workshop; $17.99; Ages 2-5)

“An ABC of things unseen: from Air to Zero, and Nothing in between” is how this book is described by the publisher. The Invisible Alphabet is a cleverly illustrated picture book by Ron Barrett of the classic Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It teaches the alphabet with an invisible message using illustrative clues to find what is missing on the page. Written by Joshua David Stein, host of The Fatherly Podcast, the book goes beyond the words allowing readers the opportunity to explore the meaning themselves.

Barrett repeats a bus stop scene with the letters D, J, T, and Z using different word choices, but a similar scene. D is for Delayed shows people waiting on a corner next to a sign that reads bus stop. Hmm, but what are they waiting for you may ask? T is for Too late illustrates rain and two people standing under an umbrella with that same Bus Stop sign on the corner. And the last page in the book reads Z is for Zero again with a Bus Stop sign alone covered in snow. The pen and ink style Barrett uses to illustrate this book is a beautifully crafted take on teaching the alphabet.

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The Mighty Silent e cvrTHE MIGHTY SILENT E!
Written by Kimberlee Gard
Illustrated by Sandie Sonke
(Familius.com; $16.99; Ages 5-8)

The Mighty Silent e! is a delightfully clever way to teach words that end in a letter that is actually silent, but without it, there would be no word! Writer Kimberlee Gard brings humor and poise in her words, while Sandie Sonke’s humorous illustrations of bright reds, yellows, and greens open up a whole new possibility of teaching sounds to young readers.

Gard’s learning disorder was a great inspiration in the telling of this story. This book put a smile on my face as brave Little e, who goes unnoticed at school, realizes he actually is a much-wanted friend. The importance of Little e is in more than just him knowing that he came from a long line of E’s, with upper case E’s framed in his family home, but in the lower case classmates Little c, Little a, and Little k unable to make a word for a type of dessert. Besides being a great tool to teach silent vowels, this book also provides an added layer of deeper meaning for kids to understand the importance of noticing and respecting quiet children at school.

 

Flibbertigibbety Words coverFLIBBERTIGIBBETY WORDS:
Young Shakespeare Chases Inspiration
Written by Donna Guthrie
Illustrated by  Åsa Gilland
(Page Street Kids; $18.99; Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Kirkus

“Some are born great” wrote William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, and his legacy and body of work continue to broaden the minds of young readers to this day. The beauty of the written word is poetically and engagingly captured in Flibbertigibbety Words by by Donna Guthrie, with colorful detailed illustrations by Åsa Gilland.

After chasing words that flew out of his bedroom, and into the streets, young Shakespeare learns that writing words down with paper and pen is the best way to get them to stay with him. Guthrie repeats the wild goose chase in this irresistible repetitive read-aloud. “They vaulted over a wall, took a turn on the old king’s carriage, floated through the sailor’s net, scrambled up a greenwood tree …”

And Gilland’s art tells a charming story all on its own. This picture book was not only a fun read but educational to me as well. I learned that the word flibbertigibbety, not one of his most commonly used words, was created by Shakespeare. So were bedroom, embrace, eventful and lonely. This is an especially terrific picture book for teachers to share with students and a wonderful first look into the language of Shakespeare. Click here for an activity guide.
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Sounds All Around coverSOUNDS ALL AROUND:
A Guide to Onomatopoeias Around the World
Written and illustrated by Dr. James Chapman
(Andrews McMeel Publishing; $14.99; Ages 8-12)

This unique and hard-to-put-down book will not only be a mainstay on writers’ shelves but a book that will be frequently revisited by parents and teachers. Sounds All Around: A Guide to Onomatopoeias Around the World written and illustrated in graphic novel format by Dr. James Chapman, is an entertaining nonfiction book listing a plethora of words used for various sounds we know in English. But do you know their equivalents in Korean or Hebrew? Well, they’re here too!

Thump Thump is a well-known word sound to describe a beating heart in English. In Hindi, it’s Dhak Dhak; in Japanese, it’s Doki Doki, and in Chinese Peng Peng. Chapman draws dancing red hearts that look the same, but sound differently around the world. He explains that big noises need big sounds and asks the reader to think how they would draw it in a comic book. My teacher’s mind went all over the place with the fun projects that could be created in a classroom with this book. Onomatopoeia is such a wonderful way to add excitement to a story. Now knowing how to create it in a variety of languages makes me want to keep this book on my desk to read over and over again.

 

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
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Middle Grade Nonfiction Book – DIJ-Do It Jewish

 

 

DIJ-DO IT JEWISH:
USE YOUR JEWISH CREATIVITY!

Written by Barbara Bietz

Illustrated by Daria Grinevich

(Intergalactic Afikoman; $24.95, Ages 8-12)

 

DIJ-DoItJewish cover

 

 

DIJ – Do It Jewish, written by Barbara Bietz and illustrated by Daria Grinevich, makes a unique gift to give tweens who are eager to flex their creativity muscles. It even had me thinking about looking for my Nana’s rugelach recipe to play around with and update.

From filmmaking, songwriting, art, cooking, graphic novels to cartooning, midrash, and Judaica, there’s something here to suit everyone’s creative tastes. This clever nonfiction book jumps right into the first of its seven chapters. While the cooking chapter spoke to me the most, the songwriting chapter might resonate with your child or perhaps the one on painting and art. 

Bietz approaches each chapter by first presenting motivational insights from an expert in the respective topic whether filmmaking, catering and cookbook writing, cartooning, or creating Judaica. These pros tell readers how they became involved in their area of expertise which is always interesting. Then they offer suggestions on how to get started, what tools/equipment tweens will need, and what to do next. I can picture kids taking the book along with them as a reference guide when first getting their feet wet in a particular area covered in the book.
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DIJ Do It Jewish int2
Interior text and art from DIJ-Do it Jewish: Use Your Jewish Creativity! written by Barbara Bietz and illustrated by Daria Grinevich, Intergalactic Afikoman ©2020.

 

Bietz then goes on to share the individual experiences of someone pursuing a creative field that resonates with them, as a hobby or career. Everything is broken down into manageable steps as seen in the text and illustrations above and below.

I especially liked how certain words are presented in a different font and color so readers can refer to these words in the glossary provided at the end of each chapter.

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DIJ Do It Jewish int3
Interior text and art from DIJ-Do it Jewish: Use Your Jewish Creativity! written by Barbara Bietz and illustrated by Daria Grinevich, Intergalactic Afikoman ©2020.

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Every chapter is neatly tied into Judaism so just before Passover is a great time for kids to read this book. I remember recording my family at one seder for a Jewish holidays project I had in my university media class. My professor taught me how to edit the recording so I could add layers of my dialogue on top of my family reading from the Haggadah, sharing jokes, and commenting on the food served. My whole family was on board which added to the festive atmosphere that evening. This book reminds me of that course in that it’s like having a teacher, professor, or mentor at your child’s side as they dive into an area of the arts that they feel passionate about.

Bietz and the professionals she’s interviewed all explain how easy it is to gain experience by seeking help from those closest to us—family and friends fieldwork so to speak. Grinevich’s spot art, as well as occasional photos, nicely break up the text and add colorful appeal. I hope your kids will take advantage of the upcoming holiday to explore some of the topics in DIJ-Do it Jewish by joining you in the kitchen, the synagogue, or out in your community as they gain a better understanding of what Jewish creativity is all about.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Our Country’s Presidents – Best Books for Presidents’ Day

OUR COUNTRY’S PRESIDENTS (2020 Edition):

A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency

Written by Ann Bausum

(NatGeoKids; $24.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Our Countrys Presidents cover


PRESIDENTS’ DAY 2021

 

This excellent sixth edition of Ann Bausum’s comprehensive coverage of our nation’s presidents aptly titled Our Country’s Presidents makes this the go-to book for at home or in school. It also includes the 2020 election so readers will be up-to-date if using the book as reference material. While Joseph R. Biden was recently elected 46th President of the United States, this book spans all the way back to the nascent days of the U.S. presidency with fascinating facts, all meticulously researched and presented in 224 color pages.

 

Our Countrys Presidents 58-59
Interior spread from Our Country’s Presidents (2020 Edition): A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency written by Ann Bausum, NatGeoKids ©2021

 

Our Country’s Presidents can be read in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons and can be enjoyed by children as well as adults. I appreciate how at the start readers are provided with a full page describing how to use the book. This follows a Foreward by author and 60 Minutes correspondent John Dickerson and an Introduction. Then the book is broken down into six historical time periods from 1789 to the present making it easy to jump around depending on the era or president in question. There is an illustrated timeline at the start of each section to help frame all of the events that impacted the period, from “wars to inventions, explorations to protests.” 

 

Our Countrys Presidents 78-79
Interior spread from Our Country’s Presidents (2020 Edition): A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency written by Ann Bausum, NatGeoKids ©2021

 

Additionally, those keeping up with current events can learn about the electoral college, the role of the vice presidency, the two-party system, plus first ladies, the White House construction and things you didn’t even realize you wanted to know! ” I decided to look up different presidents I knew little about and found interesting facts: Did you know that Martin Van Buren, our country’s 8th president, was the first one to be born a U.S. citizen? Previous presidents had been born during colonial America making them British subjects at birth. Or that Andrew Johnson, our 17th president, went on to become a U.S. senator? He was the only one to do so after his presidency.

Key features include:
  • Information about the 2021 president-elect and the 2020 election results as of the publication date
  • A brand-new thematic spread on the impeachment process and its history
  • Revised terminology around the language of slavery and analysis of early presidents who benefitted from and relied on enslaved labor
  • Comprehensive profiles of all the former presidents along with timelines and descriptions of crucial events during their terms
  • Thematic spreads covering a variety of topics from the history of voting rights to how to write a letter to the president
  • Full-page portraits, famous quotes, and fascinating facts to help kids get to know each leader

 

Our Countrys Presidents 162-163
Interior spread from Our Country’s Presidents (2020 Edition): A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency written by Ann Bausum, NatGeoKids ©2021

 

I have always been a fan of National Geographic nonfiction books for kids and this one is no exception. You may have to wait your turn to read it because I bet your tween will be hooked. It’s entertaining, educational, timely and is packed with 400 illustrations, famous quotes, presidential portraits and nicknames and so much more. Our Country’s Presidents provides the chance to find out about a plethora of presidential “scandals and shining moments” you won’t soon forget.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Click here to read a review of another middle grade book for Presidents’ Day

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Middle Grade Cover Reveal – Susie B. Won’t Back Down

 

      IT’S TIME FOR ANOTHER EXCITING

            MIDDLE-GRADE COVER REVEAL

 


SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

Written by Margaret Finnegan

Publication Date:  10/5/21 From Atheneum BYR

 

SusieBWontBackDown cvr

 

 

Can you tell how excited we are to share the middle-grade cover reveal for Susie B. Won’t Back Down, Margaret Finnegan’s second middle-grade novel?

 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THE COVER:

This upbeat middle-grade book cover shouts “I mean business!” Today readers get their first look at Susie B., Finnegan’s 10-year-old protagonist who’s determined to bring about change by running for student government. The bold, bright colors in a variety of geometric shapes convey a sense of optimism, that anything is possible. I love how artist Bev Johnson incorporated the title into a campaign poster and positioned Susie B., in a confident pose looking directly at the reader. Is she as capable as she appears? We may not know just yet how she’ll approach her candidacy, but there’s every indication her experience will be as colorful as the novel’s cover.

 

SUMMARY:

When fifth-grader Susie B. decides to run for Student Council President, she thinks she’ll finally earn herself some eternal glory, just like her hero Susan B. Anthony, the famed women’s rights activist. But winning won’t be easy, especially when everyone is already voting for Susie’s opponents, one of whom begins to make some pretty stinky choices just to get elected. And when she learns that the heroic Anthony made some pretty stinky choices of her own, it just makes everything harder.   

 

Author Margaret Finnegan
Margaret Finnegan ©2019 Skye Moorhead

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Margaret Finnegan is the author of We Could Be Heroes, a Junior Library Guild selection. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, with her family and dog Walt. She makes very good chocolate cakes, and while she ran for student council in ninth grade, she lost.

LEARN MORE ABOUT MARGARET’S WORK:

Website: http://www.margaretfinnegan.com

Follow on Twitter: @FinneganBegin

Follow in Instagram: @FinneganBegin

Add Susie B. to your TBR list on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55768357-susie-b-won-t-back-down

 

ABOUT THE COVER ARTIST

Susie B. Won’t Back Down cover artist, Bev Johnson, is a graduate of RISD who enjoys swimming, chocolate, writing, and being inspired by music. She has designed many children’s book covers, including Best Babysitters Ever by Caroline Cala and Pippa Park Raises her Game by Erin Yun. Learn more about her work at www.bevsi.weebly.com and on Instagram @beverlylove.

 

See Margaret’s previous cover reveal for We Could Be Heroes here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – UnTwisted

UNTWISTED:
Twinchantment Series #2

Written by Elise Allen

(Disney-Hyperion; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Untwisted Twinchantment2 cvr

 

 

In book one, Twinchantment, identical twins Flissa and Sara must act as one person (Princess Flissara) to escape the Kingdom of Kaloon’s Magic Eradication Act which cites twinhood as reason for removal and re-homing. Book two, UnTwisted by Elise Allen, picks up on Ascension Day as the girls officially take their individual places in line for the throne. However, the new Magical Unification Act hasn’t been a simple fix for harmonious living. A top priority in the Kaloonification was bringing together the Mages, Genpos (people without magic from the general population), and Magical Animals at a school called the Maldevon Academy. However, cooperation between the groups is easier said than done, and someone is out to destroy the unity.

Favorite characters of mine from book one continue in UnTwisted: Galric and his adorable black kitten Nitpick, evil lioness Raya, and Loriah—who I’m happy to see has a bigger role. New characters like Zinka enliven the story. Plot misdirection keeps the twins searching for who’s behind the escalating ripples of unrest while they also navigate newfound friendships and how to fit in at school.

Chapters once again alternate viewpoints between Flissa and Sara. Allen successfully extends character development across both books. In UnTwisted, the girls’ individualities take center stage and their sisterly bond fractures. I like how the books show Kaloon progressing from the Magic Eradication Act to the Magical Unification Act, and the problems of both all-or-nothing edicts.

This series will appeal to kids who like books about adventure, magic, and relationships. The delightful Twinchantment novels combine high-stakes action with relatable, dimensional tween issues. It feels there’s more to come from these dynamic twins.

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New Halloween Books for Kids 2020

NEW HALLOWEEN READS

A ROUNDUP

 

pumpkin freeclipart

 

 

This seven-book roundup covers wickedly wonderful Halloween season reads. From a gentle book about the fall season to spooky ghouls, goblin-witches, ghosts, vampires, a witch’s hut, and a haunted house, we’ve got you covered.

 

The Little Kitten coverTHE LITTLE KITTEN
Written and illustrated by Nicola Killen

(Paula Wiseman Books; $16.99, Ages 3-6)

Starred Review – Kirkus

With whimsical art in blacks, whites, and grays offset with oranges and foil accents, The Little Kitten embodies the spirit of autumn. Leaves blow across the pages, bringing movement that propels Ollie on her adventure. As promised by the title, there is a little kitten, but also Ollie’s cat, Pumpkin. Nicola Killen’s art and storyline

beautifully convey the playful, loving spirit of this book. It’s a pleasure to see a gentle story that’s engaging and fulfilling—it even has a surprise ending, shh!

She Wanted to be Haunted cvrSHE WANTED TO BE HAUNTED
Written by Marcus Ewert
Illustrated by Susie Ghahremani

(Bloomsbury; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I’m a sucker for a great book title and just had to read Marcus Ewert’s She Wanted to Be Haunted—plus, what a great idea! As promised, Clarissa, an “adorable and pink” cottage finds herself disappointed with her appearance. Her father is a castle and her mother a witch’s hut, but Clarissa got the short end of the broomstick with her undeniable cuteness. “Daisies grew around her, / squirrels scampered on her lawn. / Life was just delightful! / —and it made Clarissa yawn.”

What kid hasn’t felt bored when things were mellow and nice? Susie Ghahremani’s hand-painted artwork brings Clarissa to life in (dreaded!) upbeat colors. Inside, on Clarissa’s fuchsia, wallpapered walls, we sneak a peek at her family’s photos and, yes, she’s surely the oddball of the bunch. My favorite scenes involve the surprise ending. If you want to know if Clarissa’s attempts to gloom-down her appearance work, you’ll have to read the book. Trust me, the ending is awesome! Click here for a coloring page.

Scritch Scratch coverSCRITCH SCRATCH
Written by Lindsay Currie
(Sourcebooks; $16.99, Ages 9-12)

Scritch Scratch—the title of this middle-grade novel by Lindsay Currie will get under your skin as all good spooky books should. Because, of course, this sound is made by the ghost haunting Claire. Prior to this, science-minded Claire absolutely did not believe in ghosts and found her Dad’s ghost-themed bus tour and book embarrassing. So why did this ghost choose her? Claire’s too afraid to sleep and should have plenty of time to solve this mystery. However, since her BFF’s hanging around with the new girl, Claire may need to figure it out alone.

I’ve never been on a haunted bus tour, but, after reading this book I want to if they’re all as interesting as the one in this story. “Forgotten” facts about Chicago are cleverly woven in—what a great way to sneak in a history lesson! Click here for a discussion guide.

Embassy of the Dead cvrEMBASSY OF THE DEAD
Written by Will Mabbitt

Illustrated by Taryn Knight
(Walker Books US; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

This book opens with a warning from the Embassy that “[b]y signing, you hereby accept all responsibility for any death, dismemberment, or condemnation to the Eternal Void that results from reading.” How irresistible! When Jake Green receives a kind of creepy package in error, a fun adventure ensues dodging bonewulfs and their master Mawkins (a grim reaper). Accompanied by ghosts Stiffkey, Cora, and, an adorable fox named Zorro, the unlikely group tries to avoid being sent into the Eternal Void—a fate worse than death.

Will Mabbitt’s well-developed characters are very likable and Taryn Knight’s art plays up the humor. I appreciate the Embassy of the Dead’s new ideas about ghosts and their companions such as Undoers (someone who helps a ghost trapped on the Earthly Plane move on to the Afterworld). Mabbitt nails a perfectly written ending. I’ll gladly follow Jake and his friends onto the next book in the series. Click here to read a sample chapter.

Ghostology coverGHOSTOLOGY: A True Revelation of Spirits, Ghouls, and Hauntings
Written by Dugald A. Steer; Lucinda Curtle
Illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert; Garry Walton; Doug Sirois
(Candlewick Press; $27.99, Ages 10+)

Fans of the beautifully made Ologies series won’t be disappointed in the latest addition, Ghostology. Packed full of stories, this book will keep you haunting its pages because there’s so much information from psychics and mediums, to fakes and frauds. Want to know what’s in a ghostologist’s field kit (sketchbook, accurate timepiece, and, of course, a ghost-detecting device, just to name a few items), or how to hunt ghosts? You’ve come to the right place. Pay attention to the “Types of Ghosts” chapters.

Beyond reading, the book is a sensory experience with its sealed pages, official documents envelope, flaps, and textures. If there’s such a thing as a coffee table kid’s book, this is it. The icy blue color scheme of the cover is offset by a large faceted red “gem.” Raised letters just beg you to run your hand over them and invite you to look inside. The thought and detail in this book are phantom-astic!

beetleandthehollowbone cvrBEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES
Written and illustrated by Aliza Layne
Coloring by Natalie Riess and Kristen Acampora
(Atheneum BYR; $21.99, Ages 8-12)

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

In Aliza Layne’s middle-grade graphic novel, Beetle & the Hollowbones, Beetle is a twelve-year-old goblin-witch being homeschooled by her gran. Beetle, however, would rather hang out with her current BFF Blob Ghost at the old mall (where they are inexplicably trapped). When Beetle’s previous BFF, Kat Hollowbones, returns home after completing her sorcery apprenticeship at a fast-track school, their friendship isn’t the same. Kat’s aunt Marla is the wonderfully drawn skeletal antagonist.

With well-developed characters and plenty of action, this fast-paced book will bewitch you. The struggles of moving through school and friendships falling apart are accurately depicted. The panels, grouped into chapters, capture your attention with their fantastic illustrations, engaging colors, and lively text. I like how Layne includes some concept art at the end, inspiring other artists with a behind-the-scenes peek.

vampiresnevergetold cvrVAMPIRES NEVER GET OLD: Tales With Fresh Bite
Editrixes: Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker
Other authors include Tessa Gratton, Rebecca Roanhorse, Julie Murphy, Heidi Heilig, Samira Ahmed, Kayla Whaley, Laura Ruby, Mark Oshiro, Dhonielle Clayton, and Victoria “V.E.” Schwab
(Imprint/Macmillan; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite is a YA short story anthology with the goal to “expand on and reinvent traditional tellings.” How awesome is that?? Editrixes Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Porter’s story, “Vampires Never Say Die,” is a suspenseful, modern tale about a teen and vampire who meet online. They also provide the introduction and insightful commentary after each piece, delving into the many areas of the vampire myth. There are so many wonderful things in this collection; I’ll give you a few nibbles to whet your appetite.

“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is set in a near dystopian future; Jude works at the zoo and has a special connection with animals. This story stood out for me because the reader must piece together the truth. It’s quite a different twist on thirst and the theft of blood and humanity.

“Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton opens with the line, “Esmael told me that teenage girls make the best vampires” (because they’re “both highly pissed and highly adaptable, and that’s what it takes to survive the centuries”). We follow Esmael’s chosen girl through a week of uncertainty as she considers joining the undead. This cleverly layered story demands to be reread to truly appreciate Gratton’s well-crafted words.

Weaving in old superstitions, “The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig expands upon the Victorian tradition of burying their loved ones with a bell (allowing them to call for help if mistakenly buried alive). Set at the turn of the century, Will is a graverobber for all the right reasons—he wants to become a doctor, and “acquiring” freshly buried bodies allows him to trade for a spot at the back of the amphitheater where dissections take place. With only a few glimpses at Will’s thoughts, we find out volumes about his struggles.

This anthology breathes life into the short story and lets readers appreciate the many perspectives and styles from a very talented array of writers. My favorites tend to have unexpected endings. There’s something for everyone. Just read it already!

 

  •  ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS FROM RONNA
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    IT’S HALLOWEEN, LITTLE MONSTERIts Halloween Little Monster cvr

    Written by Helen Ketteman
    Illustrated by Bonnie Leick
    (Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7)
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    When I began reading It’s Halloween, Little Monster, one of the Little Monster series of picture books, I thought I was reading about the first time I took my son out trick-or-treating 15 years ago. All he had to do was see one or two kids in scary costumes and he hightailed it home before anyone could say boo! I’m so glad Helen Ketteman wrote this picture book because I’m sure it’s going to help make the first Halloween experience for reluctant little ones a lot easier.

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    In this gentle rhyming story, Little Monster heads out for Halloween accompanied by his dad. The reassuring presence of a parent sets the tone. Dad will be right there to calm Little Monster’s fears no matter who or what they encounter. “Don’t fret Little Monster. / See there in the street? / That’s not really a ghost / it’s a kid in a sheet!”
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    Together the pair see all kinds of spooky creatures while trick-or-treating, but the dad anticipates what might frighten his child and is always one step ahead. I like how the papa monster not only comments on assorted pirates, witches, and vampires but scary sounds, too. Leick’s muted blue and purple toned palette of the detailed illustrations will only add to the enjoyment of this charming Halloween read. It’s an enjoyable pairing of prose and art. By the time the surprise ending happens, Little Monster’s smiling just like the children having this story read to them.
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  •  OTHER RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN SEASON READS:
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    CHRISTOPHER PUMPKIN by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet with art by Nick East
    (Board Book for Ages 0-3, Little Brown BYR)
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    THAT MONSTER ON THE BLOCK by Sue Ganz-Schmitt with art by Luke Flowers
    (Picture Book Ages 4-8, Two Lions)
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    THE REVENGE OF THE WEREPENGUIN by Allan Woodrow with art by Scott Brown
    (Middle Grade illustrated novel for Ages 8-12, Viking BYR)
  • Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
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    Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/26/20

 

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