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Middle Grade Book Review – The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter

THE INCREDIBLY DEAD PETS OF REX DEXTER

Written by Aaron Reynolds

(Little Brown BYR, $13.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

Make room on your bookshelves for The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, the middle grade novel debut by Aaron Reynolds. Sixth-grader Rex Dexter always wanted a dog. A chocolate Labrador to be exact. For his birthday, Rex’s parents give him a chocolate cake shaped like a Lab with chocolate ice cream and—finally!—his gift is in a box with air holes so it must be . . . a chicken?! When Rex complains that a chicken isn’t a pet, it’s a Happy Meal, he’s told this is his practice pet. So he does what any kid would: puts a leash on his chicken and heads out with his best friend, Darvish, to buy pet supplies. Then the strangeness begins.

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Interior art from The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter written by Aaron Reynolds, Little Brown BYR ©2020.

With a nod to the Tom Hanks movie, Big, Rex finds a vintage carnival game called the Grim Reaper. Thanks to some chicken pee, Rex loses the game and receives a cryptic curse. But, it may be worse news for the chicken who, in Rex’s care for about an hour, has a run-in with a steamroller; the steamroller wins. Rex failed to keep his practice pet safe but, no worries, Rex will have plenty of time to make amends when the squashed, “ghostly fritter” of a chicken returns to haunt him—though the chicken believes their besties and wants to just chill. The now-named Drumstick is merely the first dead animal to accompany Rex through this hilarious story.

Aaron Reynolds is a master at comedy and this middle-grade novel is no exception. He had me at the title. If you like a mysterious ghost story that’s not very spooky, then this is the book for you. Kids will enjoy trying to figure out “who done it” as endangered animals in the zoo start meeting their demise and showing up in Rex’s bedroom as ghostly nuisances. More than two dozen black-and-white images scattered throughout add to the humor.

I’m a big fan of Reynolds’s books and read his releases hot-off-the-press. My favorite book of his had been (picture book) A Creepy Pair of Underwear but The Dead Pets of Rex Dexter is now tied for that spot.

Click here to read an excerpt.

    • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

 

Click here to order a copy of The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter or visit your local indie bookstore.
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Recommended Reads for the Week of 9/21/20

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Middle Grade Fiction Review – Race to the Sun

RACE TO THE SUN

Written by Rebecca Roanhorse

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

 

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In Race to the Sun seventh grader Nizhoni Begay can see monsters—such as Mr. Charles, the tall, skinny, blond man who may become her dad’s new boss. This, obviously, is a problem, especially when Mr. Charles tries to kill her the first time they’re alone together! As if that day wasn’t crazy enough, one of Nizhoni’s favorite stuff animals, Mr. Yazzie, a horned toad, comes alive and explains that her coming-of-age ceremony awakened her monster-slaying powers.

When her father disappears, Nizhoni, her younger brother Mac, and her best friend Davery set out on an adventure that calls on their Navajo heritage. On their perilous quest, the kids encounter many obstacles. As Nizhoni embraces the power within, she also begins to understand the mysteries of her family.

I enjoyed learning about some traditional Navajo stories in this fast-paced, suspenseful book that couples humor with deeper subjects such as the importance of heritage and respect for each other and our land. Mythology with exciting action scenes are an appealing combination for middle-graders who enjoy quest novels. If you like Percy Jackson and Aru Shah books, read Rebecca Roanhorse’s Race to the Sun.

Click here for an event/activity kit.

Don’t forget to visit ReadRiordan.com to find out more about the Rick Riordan Presents series.

  •Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Middle Grade and Young Adult Books Featuring LGBTQ+ Characters

PRIDE MONTH PICKS

 

The Derby DaredevilsTHE DERBY DAREDEVILS: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team
Written by Kit Rosewater
Illustrated by Sophie Escabasse
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

In Kit Rosewater’s middle grade book, The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, fifth grader Kenzie Ellington has spent the past three years watching her mom skate in Austin’s roller derby league wanting to join in too. Fortunately, her BFF, Shelly, finds a junior league being formed. The girls eagerly prepare for tryouts, ready to show off their signature Dynamic Duo moves. However, to keep from possibly being split up, they must form a five-person team in only one week.

Finding other skaters proves harder than expected; the girls they’re asking can’t even skate. Shelly wants to recruit Bree, Kenzie’s skateboarding neighbor, but Kenzie struggles with her complicated secret-crush feelings toward Bree. Then, as the team comes together, Kenzie worries when Shelly welcomes new members and seemingly replaces Kenzie.

Sophie Escabasse’s art brings to life the story’s emotions as well as the humor and camaraderie. Even readers who know nothing about roller derby will feel comfortable with this book’s easy explanations of the sport and accompanying illustrations—just take a glimpse at the dynamic cover.

Fans of the graphic novel Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson will enjoy this tale which also focuses on friendship and girl power. The six girls depicted in this book are realistic representations of the fifth graders I know. I applaud Rosewater for showing us a diverse group of girls who sword fight and play basketball. Girls can be any combination of things. I look forward to book 2, out in September. Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal

 

Burn book coverBURN
Written by by Patrick Ness
(Quill Tree Books; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

In 1957 rural Washington state, Eisenhower’s being sworn in for his second term in office, the Russians ready to launch a satellite into space, and dragons are hired for farmwork having forged a no-kill policy with humans. Against her father’s wishes, fifteen-year-old Sarah Dewhurst begins to interact with their laborer dragon, Kazimir. However, Kazimir has his own agenda, needing Sarah for prophecy fulfillment.

Nearby, FBI agents chase teen assassin Malcolm as he rushes to complete his secret mission for a radical pro-dragon group called the Believers. Nothing sways Malcolm’s devotion to leader Mitera Thea and his probably suicidal mission until his path crosses Nelson’s (who has been thrown out by his mother). Against his training, Malcolm envelops Nelson into the folds of his dangerous world. Yet his ghastly tasks threaten their blossoming relationship.

Best-selling author Patrick Ness once again delivers a complex, action-filled story in Burn. We can relate to Sarah who still aches from her mother’s death and the ongoing prejudice because of their skin color. Sarah’s boyfriend, Jason Inagawa—the only other nonwhite kid in their area—lost his mother to pneumonia during their three-year forced stay in an internment camp. Ness seamlessly blends historical elements with fantasy.

This fast-paced story, told in alternating viewpoint, takes you on a wild journey that includes an alternate universe. Cleverly crafted text amplifies the suspense, allowing for successful verbal sleight of hand. Burn wraps up dramatically, while leaving room to expand into a series. I couldn’t put this book down and look forward to the tale’s continuation in whatever world(s) where I hope to meet more wonderful—and wonderfully awful—dragons.
Starred Reviews Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Publishers Weekly

 

Witches of Ash and Ruin cvrWITCHES OF ASH & RUIN
Written by E. Lattimer
(Little, Brown BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

When seventeen-year-old Dayna Walsh isn’t struggling with OCD, she wants nothing more than to ascend from witchling to full witch. Dayna has strong familial bonds with her coven yet her biological family is disjointed: a religious father and a mother who was mysteriously sent away thirteen years ago to Camp Blood of the Lamb. Mix in witches from another coven plus a nearby serial killer and you’ll get an idea of this fantastic brew of a book.

Latimer’s Witches of Ash & Ruin unfolds in multiple viewpoints providing glimpses inside the heads of others (witchlings, Dayna’s ex-boyfriend, and a witch-hunter named Dubh). I found it interesting that the book opens with Dubh stating his evil intentions—that seemed to solve the puzzle from the start—but knowing the bad guy in no way slows the suspense.

Speaking of tension, the heat between Dayna and a witchling from the other coven is palpable. You’ll root for them to be alive and together at the end.

If you like complex stories without tidy endings, you’ll enjoy this sweeping tale. Some parts are bloody, but that’s expected with a murderer on the loose and a witch or two dabbling with the dark side. Unless you’re fluent in ancient Celtic mythology, pay attention when gods and their histories are mentioned.

 

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Middle Grade Nonfiction – Can You Hear the Trees Talking?

CAN YOU HEAR THE TREES TALKING?:

DISCOVERING THE HIDDEN LIFE OF THE FOREST

by Peter Wohlleben

Translated by Shelley Tanaka

(Greystone Kids; $17.95, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal

Peter Wohlleben has adapted his New York Times adult best seller, The Hidden Life of Trees, into a young readers’ edition, Can You Hear the Trees Talking?: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest. Wohlleben brings his passion to the page and surprises us with interesting facts about trees. This beautifully laid out book is sure to please.

 

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Interior spread from Can You Hear the Trees Talking: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Kids ©2019.

 

Every two-page spread offers a question. In “Can Forests Make It Rain?” we realize that, indeed, some trees do just that. “Do Trees Sleep at Night?” intrigued me; with no sun, trees take a break and let their branches droop until daylight. Kids will get a kick out of “Is There a Forest Internet?” discovering that fungi help trees relay messages to each other through liquid in the roots. I couldn’t put this book down, enjoying unique information including the more typical topics such as respiration, hydration, and reproduction.

 

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Interior spread from Can You Hear the Trees Talking: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Kids ©2019.

 

Subjects are grouped for easy reference while full-color photos, sidebars, and short quizzes keep readers interested. This fun, gorgeous book is nonfiction at its best because it doesn’t feel like learning at all. The “Try This” sections are some of my favorites. I definitely want to blow bubbles out of a birch log!

 

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Interior spread from Can You Hear the Trees Talking: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Kids ©2019.

 

Wohlleben’s decades in the forest service and love of nature enlivens this topic. Showcasing trees allows us to appreciate their amazing abilities and care about their conservation. Grab your kid and explore nature, finding an educational adventure as close as your own backyard. A free Companion Guide for Teachers and Parents is available here.

• Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Middle Grade Book Review – One Last Shot

ONE LAST SHOT

Written by John David Anderson

(Walden Pond Press; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

One Last Shot cover

 

 

In John David Anderson’s One Last Shot, twelve-year-old Malcolm Greeley navigates life carefully. School is endured, and his home life is a minefield where he painstakingly interprets what’s said—and what’s not said—to keep the peace between his contentious parents. He’s sure that if he can just do everything right, then things between his mom and dad will get better, that they have to.

Malcolm doesn’t realize he needs a friend until Lex’s miniature golf ball and her comical call of “Five!” lands at his feet. With an unwanted push from his wacky golf coach, Malcolm soon finds a something in Lex he’s been sorely missing. While his steadfast mother accepts and understands him, Malcolm is unsettled around his father, an award-winning jock of many sports, who pushed Malcolm into Little League. When Malcolm is given an out, he takes it, only to be subtly pressured into competition mini golf. With Dad, it’s all about winning, but Malcolm’s not wired that way no matter how he tries. He’s a natural at putting, yet dreads the competitive aspect. The voices in his head add to the stress of executing each shot perfectly.

Though I don’t typically gravitate stories centered around competitive sports, I picked up One Last Shot because I’m a fan of Anderson’s other books Granted and Posted (also middle grade). One Last Shot’s a winner with its fully developed, imperfect characters. I appreciated the creative manner in which the story unfolds; the structure adds interest. Each of the eighteen chapters opens with the description of a mini golf hole and closes with how Malcolm scored on that hole. Sandwiched between, we’re shown Malcolm’s life in flashback scenes.

This would be an ideal read for a kid with parents in the bitter pre-divorce stage since Malcolm comes to understand his parents’ troubles are not about him and cannot be fixed by him. Sometimes, parents need to split up for their own good—an upsetting time that’s hard to live through, but, hopefully, better in the long run.

Click here to read a sample.

 

•Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Middle Grade Book Review – Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

DOCTOR DOLITTLE:

THE COMPLETE COLLECTION, VOLUME 1

Text and art by Hugh Lofting

Updated by Christopher Lofting

(Aladdin; $59.99 Set, $24.99 each, Ages 8-12)

 

Doctor Dolittle vol1 cvr

 

 

Looking for the perfect stuck-at-home, want-to-read-a-classic book? It’s Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 (three different tales of Dolittle’s world travels, accompanied, of course, by his animal friends). Don’t let the 700+-page size scare you away; the short chapters and Lofting’s comical illustrations move the stories along quickly. A middle-grader will feel a great sense of accomplishment after reading this huge book that’s “fully updated for the modern reader by the author’s son, Christopher Lofting.”

 

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Interior illustration from Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting, Aladdin ©2019.

 

Kids may know the various Dolittles represented on the screen, but the real character supplants the others. The literary Dolittle isn’t handsome or debonair; instead, it’s his good-natured, kindhearted personality that quickly wins you over. I like that this Dolittle is a bit on the short and tubby side, it adds to the humorous appeal. Picture a slightly clownish man squished into a matador’s outfit as he tries to bring the cruel sport of bullfighting to an end. Fortunately, he can talk to animals, and always seems to have luck on his side.

 

spot int art from_doctor dolittle pg368
Interior illustration from Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting, Aladdin ©2019.

 

Children can explore this world’s appealing mix of reality and fantasy such as the Pushmi-Pullyu, a nearly extinct two-headed creature. These classic tales, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle;” “The Story of Doctor Dolittle;” “Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office,” will especially delight children fond of animals. Lofting connects with readers, drawing them into his imaginary world. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that the stories were originally written as a series of letters to his kids from the front lines during World War I. Though penned in wartime, his entertaining stories resound with the peaceful love of people and animals from everywhere around the globe.

Read more about Dolittle’s creator here.

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Middle Grade Books – An Interview With Margaret Finnegan About Happy Endings

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET FINNEGAN

AUTHOR OF DEBUT MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL

WE COULD BE HEROES

 

 

For Autism Awareness Day 2020, I’m delighted to share this interview with author Margaret Finnegan about her debut middle grade novel We Could Be Heroes and her take on happy endings. At the end Margaret’s also included some helpful resources for readers.

INTERVIEW

GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Can you tell us a little bit about We Could be Heroes?

MARGARET FINNEGAN: We Could be Heroes is about Hank Hudson and Maisie Huang, two very different kids. They become friends as they try to help a dog with epilepsy—Booler—who is tied day and night to a tree. Their friendship is complicated by the fact that Hank has autism, and so he can’t always tell if Maisie is really trying to be his friend or if she is manipulating him for her own reasons.

GRWR: Your book deals with some very serious issues, but it is always funny and it ends on an adorably happy note. These days, a lot of middle-grade fiction is embracing more complicated and ambivalent endings, what made you decide to go full on happy?

MF: I wrote this book for my daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is not Hank, but she did inspire a few of his qualities, such as his painful aversion to really sad stories. She feels so connected to the characters she reads about—and she feels their heartbreaks and pain so personally—that for a number of years she refused to read new novels. The uncertainty was too much for her. So she read her favorite books over and over. Hank is like that too. When We Could be Heroes opens, Hank is trying to destroy a tragic book his teacher has been reading to the class. He can’t take how sad it makes him.

Since I set out trying to write a book that Elizabeth would read, I knew from the start that it would have to have a big, sloppy happy ending. But Hank needed a happy ending too, and I think he earned it. Like any hero, he is tested and found worthy of reward. But more than that, in a meta sort of way, the story needed a happy ending that would contrast the terrible ending of the story within the story—the one Hank’s teacher is reading the class.

GRWR: Do you think Hank and Maisie’s happy ending can last?

MF: I’m not sure. Maisie’s mom definitely has her doubts. And although Hank and Maisie are “rewarded” something amazing, I think that reward will present Hank—who struggles with change and unpredictability—with challenges. But challenges can help us grow, so I guess that isn’t a bad thing.

GRWR: There are so many challenges that young readers face today—like climate change. How does that factor into thinking about happy endings? Don’t we need books that go to those dark places so kids can see their reality reflected and then face that reality with resiliency? Or is there still a needat least sometimesfor “big, sloppy, happy endings”?

MF: We need all kinds of stories with all kinds of endings—and there are many wonderful middle-grade novels that go dark and yet are filled with transcendent beauty. Those books actually win lots of awards. But unabashedly happy endings also have something important to offer readers. Our kids are not growing up in bubbles. They have a whole world of experiences and entertainments that teach them the complexities and hardships of the world. And it is exactly when things are going horribly that some readers need stories that make them laugh and that instill hope.

I have been very open about the challenges Elizabeth has had with autism and epilepsy. There was a long stretch of years where she was being bullied, experiencing lots of seizures, and dealing with horrible medication side effects. And what were the books she turned to repeatedly during this time? The Fudge books by Judy Blume. They made her feel good. They made her believe that better was possible. She knows about the pain of the world. She lives it. She—like many others—longs for stories that remind her that there is joy and fun in the world and that sometimes—just sometimes—everything turns out great. 

Read a review in Publishers Weekly about We Could Be Heroes here.

Click here for a link to the Epilepsy Foundation.

Click here for autism information from the National Institutes of Health.
Click here for autism information from the Autistic Self Advocacy network.

ABOUT MARGARET

Author Margaret FinneganMargaret Finnegan is the author of We Could Be Heroes.
Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon,
and other publications. She lives in Southern California, where she enjoys
spending time with her family, walking her dog, and baking really
good chocolate cakes. Connect with her @margaretfinnegan.com
or on Twitter @FinneganBegin.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – If We Were Giants

IF WE WERE GIANTS

by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith

Illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo

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

 

If We Were Giants cvr

 

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Interior art from If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith with illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo, Disney-Hyperion ©2020.

If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith. You may recognize the first author’s name as that of the world-renowned musician, environmentalist, and humanitarian. He’s teamed up with children’s book author Smith to write this timely middle-grade novel. Its underlying messages are about pulling together as a community, remembering the past, and taking care of nature. Kids will root for Kirra to find her way, and love the fun elements (such as living in trees and using their collective skills to become gigantic).

IfWe WereGiants int insert
Interior art from If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith with illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo, Disney-Hyperion ©2020.

Hidden inside the walls of a dormant volcano, ten-year-old Kirra’s life is idyllic. Her people, the Zedu, respect nature and collaborate with one another, having assigned tasks. Kirra’s father is the Storyteller, the only Zedu who goes Outside—until recently, when Kirra begins to travel with him and learn this vocation. Her curiosity, however, leads her to make a grave mistake instigating the demise of her village by a violent new group called the Takers who seek only to conquer and destroy.

Jump forward four years and fourteen-year-old Kirra now lives aloft with the Tree People, taken in when she was in dire circumstances and treated with kindness ever since. To get by, Kirra must suppress memories of the past—until those memories become a reality.

The images by Antonio Javier Caparo provide glimpses into Kirra’s world. Framed by intertwining branches, the natural colors underscore the importance of working harmoniously with nature.

I appreciate how the book engages the reader with quick-moving, interesting scenes yet also tackles big issues affecting us today. This story delves into what family means and how you fit in. For Kirra, it’s also a coming-of-age tale as she finally faces her demons and finds her way.
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An Interview with Author Illustrator Victoria Ying

AN INTERVIEW WITH

AUTHOR ILLUSTRATOR

VICTORIA YING

BY CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT

 

DPotA Cv_C1 C4 1

 

INTRO:
Last month, my ten-year-old daughter and I attended an amazing event at the LA Zoo, hosted by DC Entertainment. A group of middle-grade graphic writers and illustrators wowed the crowd with their “superpowers” sharing the stories-behind-the-stories and demonstrating their lightning-fast art skills. VICTORIA YING caught our attention with her interpretation of Wonder Woman as a tween so I wanted to know more about the wonderful woman behind Wonder Woman.

 

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Victoria Ying sharing her art at the DC Comics LA Zoo Event. Photo ©Christine Van Zandt 2020



INTERVIEW:

Interior illustrations by Victoria Ying from Diana: Princess of the Amazons
Interior art from Diana: Princess of the Amazons written by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale with illustrations by Victoria Ying, DC Comics ©2020.

CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Your new middle-grade graphic novel, Diana: Princess of the Amazons (DC Comics; $9.99, Ages 8-12) is about Wonder Woman as an eleven-year-old girl. As the only kid on Themyscira, the island of the Amazons, understandably, Diana’s a bit lonely. How did you go about envisioning the famous Princess Diana as a tween?

VICTORIA YING: We first looked at the original iconic design for Wonder Woman and then tried to imagine what she would look like as a kid! We wanted to have those shadows of the person she would become without being too obvious about it. She has her bracelets, a simple rope headband, and her pleated skirt. Things that would allude to her future, without showing our whole hand.

CVZ: You’ve illustrated pictures books before and are the author-illustrator of a wordless picture book, Meow! How was illustrating a graphic novel different?

VY: I was so lucky to be able to have Shannon and Dean Hale as collaborators for this project. It is my debut graphic novel project and they are industry veterans who really understand how to write for a visual medium. They left a lot of the decisions up to me, but would keep the important descriptions in the text.

CVZ: Tell us about your process.

VY: For comics, I first lay out my rough sketches with rough text in ComicDraw for the iPad. Then I submit this for approval. Once the sketches are approved, I take them and do a tracing paper style draw over of the rough sketches for a clean finished drawing in Procreate. Lark Pien was our colorist and she takes the work to its finish.

CVZ: Your middle-grade graphic novel, City of Secrets, is coming out in July (Viking, 2020). How does it feel to be both the writer and artist?

VY: I originally wrote City of Secrets as a NaNoWriMo project. I was so afraid to have to draw the city! When my friends commented that I had great story structure and good characters, but terrible description, I realized it was because I relied too much on my illustrator brain and decided to try it as a graphic novel instead. It turned out that I LOVED drawing the puzzle-box city!

CVZ: You’ve worked on films, picture books, middle grade novels—what’s next?

VY: City of Secrets has a sequel coming out in July of 2021, and I’ve just announced a new book with First Second Books called Hungry Ghost, a YA contemporary about an Asian-American girl struggling with an eating disorder. I have a wide range of interests and all kinds of stories I want to tell. I hope that my career will let me tell as many of them as I can handle!

CVZ: Thank you for taking time to talk with us. We look forward reading all your new stories!

 

BIO:
Victoria Ying is an author and artist living in Los Angeles. She started her career in the arts by falling in love with comic books; this eventually turned into a career working in animation and graphic novels. She loves Japanese curry, putting things in her online-shopping cart then taking them out again, and hanging out with her dopey dog. Her film credits include Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Paperman, Big Hero 6, and Moana. She illustrated the DC graphic novel, Diana: Princess of the Amazons. Watch for her authored graphic novel, City of Secrets, out July 2020.

Author Illustrator VictoriaYing
Author/illustrator Victoria Ying.

CityofSecrets CoverReveal FBInstaLINKS:
Twitter: @victoriaying
Instagram: @victoriaying
Website: http://www.victoriaying.com

Check out a preview here.

INTERVIEW BY CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT:
(www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting,
Christine@Write-for-Success.com

 Check out a DC graphic novel review here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Mulan: Before The Sword

MULAN: BEFORE THE SWORD
by Grace Lin
(Disney-Hyperion; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Mulan: Before The Sword cover

 

As much as I love fables, prior to reading Mulan: Before the Sword, my knowledge of Hua Mulan’s story came mainly from movie trailers. Grace Lin’s middle-grade prequel blew me away. I’m a fan of Lin’s prior best-selling middle-grade trilogy and her picture books, so I was expecting to really like this book; instead, I loved it. The fast-paced story is balanced by gorgeous prose, bringing legendary Asian history to life. Lin’s writing beautifully blends myth, action, and suspense. The opening line, “She disliked it when they transformed into spiders” had me hooked. The story’s viewpoints shift between the plotting, treacherous villains and Mulan’s adventure to save her sister Xiu’s life (she’s succumbing to a poisonous bite from the evil nine-legged spider).

Mulan tries to suppress her adventurous nature and struggles to be a more restrained daughter. Contrarily, Xiu exemplifies all the “right” female traits. Yet, Mulan’s abilities allow her to set off on a quest with the legendary Jade Rabbit where she begins to realize that, just maybe, she’s exactly who she needs to be.

It’s easy to care about Mulan and root for her to save the day. The characters and scenery come alive and tension builds as setbacks delay their progress. En route, Mulan learns of the prophecy that a member of her family is destined to, one day, save the Emperor. Figuring that person must be Xiu, Mulan risks her life, sacrificing for the greater good. Yet, all is not as it seems and this tale wends its way to an amazing conclusion. Mulan, a powerful warrior, also finds compassion for her adversaries.

Lin’s Author Note provides interesting historical detail; Mulan may have been a real person, the first know mention of her was in a fourth-century folk song, “The Ballad of Mulan.” Today, Mulan continues to be a cherished character as Lin skillfully adds another layer to the saga.

Click here to read a terrific interview by Christine with Grace Lin at SCBWI’s Kite Tales of Southern California’s Tri-Regions.

 

 

Click here to read another MG book review by Christine.

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Kids Arts + Crafts Book Review – Playing With Collage

 

PLAYING WITH COLLAGE
by Jeannie Baker
(Candlewick Press; $16.00, Ages 8-12)

 

Playing With Collage cover

 

 

Junior Library Guild Selection

Whether you have a budding artist or are just looking for something to do on a rainy day, Jeannie Baker’s beautiful picture book, Playing with Collage, provides hours of entertainment. Baker opens with a short explanation about her process, then the fun begins with pages of tips, tricks, and ideas. I like how she doesn’t just list what you need, but, rather, gives helpful advice such as using an old paintbrush to apply PVA glue and then soaking the brush in water after each application—who knew??

 

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PLAYING WITH COLLAGE. Copyright © 2019 by Jeannie Baker. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

 

Collage is all about texture and you can lose yourself exploring her amazing, creative images. Playing with Collage is a feast for the eyes and an education. Even the supplies are pieces of art; Baker has arranged them for visual interest, showcasing everything from orange peels to baked clay. Kids learn via seemingly simple questions: “Do those pieces of torn tissue remind you of clouds?”

 

Playing With Collage.int.2
PLAYING WITH COLLAGE. Copyright © 2019 by Jeannie Baker. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

 

Divided into four main sections—Paper, Out in Nature, On the Beach, and In the Kitchen—the underlying message is to play. While geared for kids between the ages of 8 and 12, some of the ideas require adult supervision (noted accordingly). Even before we had any of the “starter” items at home, my ten-year-old was off collecting and arranging, gluing and layering, proving you can do much with found materials and a little inspiration from Playing with Collage.

 

 

Find a review for another tween arts & crafts book here.

 

 

 

 

 

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Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2020 – New Kid

NEW KID
Written and illustrated by Jerry Craft
(HarperCollins; $21.99 H/c, $12.99 P/b, Ages 8-12)

 

 

NewKid PB cover

 

Newbery Medal Winner
A New York Times bestseller
Winner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature
Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

 

I began reading author-illustrator Jerry Craft’s outstanding graphic novel, New Kid, last week before it made history winning the Newbery so I was thrilled that it was honored. I read it slowly to savor every illustration, every funny or meaningful moment, and every twist and turn in the story. You know that feeling when you want to stay with characters long after a book has ended? That is the feeling readers will experience with New Kid.

Craft introduces us to the main character, Jordan Banks, and his dilemma, and we’re instantly in his court. He’s been accepted into an elite private school, Riverdale Academy Day School (RADS) for seventh grade. Although Jordan would prefer to attend an art school, he and his dad agree he will give it a try and switch to the art school for ninth grade if things don’t work out. Jordan, who is black, lives in Washington Heights with his loving parents who want to offer him advantages they never had. Jordan must commute via bus to Riverdale to attend classes. The way Craft shows the change in communities and attitudes through Jordan’s hoody, how he wears it and what his posture is like as he travels is eye-opening. Not only will this smart, talented preteen have to navigate public transportation, he’ll also have to figure out a more pressing dynamicwhere he fits in at the new school.

I loved getting inside Jordan’s head via his sketch book packed with cartoons along with Craft’s vibrant illustrations. A pair of angels are depicted in various scenes responding to situations that Jordan encounters and emotions he feels. This adds a humorous dimension to Craft’s multi-layered graphic novel about what it’s like being a person of color in a predominantly white school environment. At RADS, with its mostly wealthy and privileged student body, Jordan quickly realizes who the gossips are, who the jocks are, who the annoying kids are, and who he can ultimately call a friend.

And what about the the teachers and administrators at Jordan’s school? Some reviews have described a culture of behavior at RADS as micro-aggressive and I agree. Readers’ perspectives should change after noticing the undertone of prejudice, racism and ignorance aimed at minority students when teachers don’t make an effort to remember someone’s name or are quick to accuse the wrong student in a fight. The same applies to fellow students who, for example, cannot acknowledge that a classmate is from Nicaragua and not Mexico. The tongue-in-cheek Oprah public service announcement cartoon Jordan creates about kids on financial aid also struck a chord. I’ve known people who’ve felt stigmatized when this confidential arrangement was revealed. While these are some of the hardest issues to read about, they’re also some the most honest, important and compelling. Through Jordan, Craft deftly challenges stereotypes and enlightens kids that other paradigms exist.

New Kid’s 14 chapters take us through an entire school year during which we watch and root for Jordan’s success in the classroom, on the field for P.E. (where it’s often very cold), and in his social life where there’s never a dull moment. We also come to care about his closest pals, Liam and Drew, who have his back and grow along with Jordan. A cast of endearing secondary characters rounds off the novel, and the inclusion of these relationships injects another realistic element into the middle school experience. There are up days, down days, and days when Jordan wonders whether he’ll ever make this private school thing work.

When he leaves behind his Washington Heights buddies to go to RADS, Jordan faces yet another challenge—how to make new friends and keep the old. It’s not a straightforward silver and gold thing and Jordan knows it. It’s great that Craft shows the effort Jordan makes to keep up those relationships because, although he may be in Riverdale during the day, after school and weekends he’s still connected to his neighborhood and that grounds him in the best possible way.

I’m grateful to have been able to spend time with Jordan Banks, his family and friends. I hope you’ll also meet Jordan soon by getting a copy of New Kid at your local indie bookseller!

Disclosure: I was gifted New Kid by HarperCollins to review for the event.

 

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2020 (1/31/20) is in its 7th year! This non-profit children’s literacy initiative was founded by Valarie Budayr and Mia Wenjen; two diverse book-loving moms who saw a need to shine the spotlight on all of the multicultural books and authors on the market while also working to get those book into the hands of young readers and educators.

Seven years in, MCBD’s mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in homes and school bookshelves continues.

MCBD 2020 is honored to have the following Medallion Sponsors on board

Super Platinum

Make A Way Media/ Deirdre “DeeDee” Cummings

Platinum

Language Lizard, Pack-N-Go Girls

Gold

Audrey Press, Lerner Publishing Group, KidLit TV, ABDO BOOKS: A Family of Educational Publishers, PragmaticMom & Sumo Joe, Candlewick Press

Silver

Author Charlotte Riggle, Capstone Publishing, Guba Publishing, Melissa Munro Boyd & B is for Breathe

Bronze

Author Carole P. Roman, Snowflake Stories/Jill Barletti, Vivian Kirkfield & Making Their Voices Heard, Barnes Brothers Books, TimTimTom, Wisdom Tales Press, Lee & Low Books, Charlesbridge Publishing, Barefoot Books, Talegari Tales

 

Author Sponsor Link Cloud

Jerry Craft, A.R. Bey and Adventures in Boogieland, Eugina Chu & Brandon goes to Beijing, Kenneth Braswell & Fathers Incorporated, Maritza M. Mejia & Luz del mes_Mejia, Kathleen Burkinshaw & The Last Cherry Blossom, SISSY GOES TINY by Rebecca Flansburg and B.A. Norrgard, Josh Funk and HOW TO CODE A ROLLERCOASTER, Maya/Neel Adventures with Culture Groove, Lauren Ranalli, The Little Green Monster: Cancer Magic! By Dr. Sharon Chappell, Phe Lang and Me On The Page, Afsaneh Moradian and Jamie is Jamie, Valerie Williams-Sanchez and Valorena Publishing, TUMBLE CREEK PRESS, Nancy Tupper Ling,Author Gwen Jackson, Angeliki Pedersen & The Secrets Hidden Beneath the Palm Tree, Author Kimberly Gordon Biddle, BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 by Mia Wenjen, Susan Schaefer Bernardo & Illustrator Courtenay Fletcher (Founders of Inner Flower Child Books), Ann Morris & Do It Again!/¡Otra Vez!, Janet Balletta and Mermaids on a Mission to Save the Ocean, Evelyn Sanchez-Toledo & Bruna Bailando por el Mundo\ Dancing Around the World,Shoumi Sen & From The Toddler Diaries, Sarah Jamila Stevenson, Tonya Duncan and the Sophie Washington Book Series, Teresa Robeson  & The Queen of Physics, Nadishka Aloysius and Roo The Little Red TukTuk, Girlfriends Book Club Baltimore & Stories by the Girlfriends Book Club, Finding My Way Books, Diana Huang & Intrepids, Five Enchanted Mermaids, Elizabeth Godley and Ribbon’s Traveling Castle, Anna Olswanger and Greenhorn, Danielle Wallace & My Big Brother Troy, Jocelyn Francisco and Little Yellow Jeepney, Mariana Llanos & Kutu, the Tiny Inca Princess/La Ñusta Diminuta, Sara Arnold & The Big Buna Bash, Roddie Simmons & Race 2 Rio, DuEwa Frazier & Alice’s Musical Debut, Veronica Appleton & the Journey to Appleville book series  Green Kids Club, Inc.

We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.

Co-Hosts and Global Co-Hosts

A Crafty Arab, Afsaneh Moradian, Agatha Rodi Books, All Done Monkey, Barefoot Mommy, Bethany Edward & Biracial Bookworms, Michelle Goetzl & Books My Kids Read, Crafty Moms Share, Colours of Us, Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes, Educators Spin on it, Shauna Hibbitts-creator of eNannylink, Growing Book by Book, Here Wee Read, Joel Leonidas & Descendant of Poseidon Reads {Philippines}, Imagination Soup, Kid World Citizen, Kristi’s Book Nook, The Logonauts, Mama Smiles, Miss Panda Chinese, Multicultural Kid Blogs, Serge Smagarinsky {Australia}, Shoumi Sen, Jennifer Brunk & Spanish Playground, Katie Meadows and Youth Lit Reviews

FREE RESOURCES from Multicultural Children’s Book Day

TWITTER PARTY! Register here!

Hashtag: Don’t forget to connect with us on social media and be sure and look for/use our official hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Serafina and the Seven Stars

SERAFINA AND THE SEVEN STARS

Written by Robert Beatty

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

 

 

 

Serafina, our favorite, fierce heroine, is back in the fourth installment of this New York Times best-selling series, Serafina and the Seven Stars, and we sure have missed her. The Serafina books seamlessly blend fantasy, mystery, and thrilling spookiness. Set around 1900 at Biltmore Estate in the Great Smoky Mountains area of North Carolina, these books include real people and historical details.

Serafina once lived unnoticed in the mansion’s basement with her father. Now Master Vanderbilt gives her free roam, counting on her as Biltmore’s protective guardian. While her best friend, Braeden, is seemingly away at boarding school in New York, the estate’s momentary quiet shatters with nonsensical crimes. Serafina prowls the premises trying to keep everyone safe. When someone she trusts appears to have taken an evil turn, Serafina must hurriedly solve who or what is behind the crimes before matters become insurmountable.

The Serafina books are one of my top middle-grade series of all time because of the amazing setting and period details, close family bonds, fierce friendships (with a dash of romance), and mysterious happenings that keep you guessing until the end. In a word, the Serafina books are awesome. The “STAY BOLD” motto echoes strong girl-empowerment messages throughout this series and complementary book, Willa of the Wood.

Because young readers engage with the content, these books are being taught in over a thousand classrooms nationwide; comprehensive teaching material is available online. If you’re new to the series, explore Beatty’s website for video book trailers, interviews, and much more. You can also read my interview with the author.

 

 

Read Christine’s review of another novel by Robert Beatty here.

 

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Alien Superstar

ALIEN SUPERSTAR (Book #1)

Written by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Illustrated by Ethan Nicolle

(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Alien Superstar Book Cover

 

int art152 from Alien Superstar
Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

The first installment of this new middle-grade series by the super-duo Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver (who also delighted us with their Hank Zipzer books) was an instant New York Times best seller. In Alien Superstar, thirteen-year-old Citizen Short Nose escapes from his planet to avoid the removal of his sensory enhancer. He lands at Universal Studios, Hollywood, and, upon emerging from his ship, is crowded by tourists wanting to take selfies. In a series of fortunate opportunities, Short Nose (now Buddy C. Burger) becomes a costar on a show where the ratings were nosediving until his silly, honest acting debut. When his nutritional wafers run out, Buddy must quickly find Earth foods he can eat. Luckily, he’s made some human friends who rush to help him out.

Winkler and Oliver continue their winning combination of sincere, likable characters and laugh-aloud moments. Ethan Nicolle’s endearing illustrations enhance the story’s humor especially the images where we see Buddy lounging in the bath trying to absorb as much water as possible, or caught mid-transformation.

 

int art244 from Alien Superstar
Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

Living in LA, I find it’s not all that outlandish that an alien would walk through our midst and Angelenos wouldn’t bat an eye—that’s the clever charm of this story. Preconceived notions of aliens taking over are soon dispelled when Buddy’s friends realize he’s only here to escape the bad things happening on his home planet and that he very much misses his Grandmother Wrinkle. Kids will enjoy this likable antihero; the suspenseful ending will leave them eagerly awaiting what happens next in Buddy’s wacky, mixed-up world.

 

 

Read another review by Christine Van Zandt here.

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Kids Book Review – Growing Up Gorilla Blog Tour

GROWING UP GORILLA
Written by Clare Hodgson Meeker
(Millbrook Press; $31.99 Library Binding,
$9.99 Kindle, Ages 8-12)

 

Growing_Up_Gorilla-book-cover

 

Good Reads With Ronna is the second to last stop on a month long blog tour comprised of assorted great posts about Growing Up Gorilla. The goal is to help get the word out about this terrific new nonfiction book that will change the way you look at gorillas, their familial bonds and their socialization while you root for baby gorilla Yola and her mother Nadiri.

BOOK SUMMARY:
Growing Up Gorilla chronicles the story of Yola, a baby gorilla at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, and what happened after her mother gave birth for the first time and walked away from her. It is also the story of the dedicated zoo staff who found innovative ways to help Yola bond with her mother and with the rest of the family group.

Growing Up Gorilla is a nonfiction chapter book for ages 8-12 that focuses on the social structure of gorilla families and how they learn from each other as well as demonstrating the challenges zookeepers face when helping the animals they love. Filled with great photos, this will be a popular book for animal-lovers of all ages. With a durable library binding, it’s a must for any classroom or library collection.

BOOK REVIEW:
As a reviewer I often try to read as little as possible about a book before I set eyes on it so that I can experience it the same way a reader would. Now that I’ve read Growing Up Gorilla I can report that I was hooked from the first page and can’t say enough good things about it.

Recounted chronologically in six chapters with additional info about gorillas plus an author note, a bibliography/further reading, and a glossary in the back matter, this nonfiction book makes for compelling reading. Meeker starts off by introducing readers to Nadiri, a nineteen-year-old gorilla who is about to give birth. The zookeepers and other pros who work with Nadiri are concerned that she will not bond with her baby because she herself was rejected by her birth mother. Nadiri was actually looked after for her first nine months of life by infant-care expert, Harmony Frazier. Eventually a surrogate mother for Nadiri was found, but the early days of mothering hadn’t been modeled for her by another gorilla.

 

Excerpt from GrowingUpGorilla(1)
Interior excerpt pages 28 and 29 including text and full-color photographs from Growing Up Gorilla by Clare Hodgson Meeker, Millbrook Press ©2019.

 

I loved not knowing where the story would take me and found Meeker’s writing kept me turning the pages to see whether newborn Yola and Nadiri would connect right away. I was also eager to find out how the zookeepers and experts would plot their course of action should things go south. It was fascinating to see the commitment and selflessness of the zoo staff pay off. Like me, readers will realize how much they are learning while also being totally engrossed in the story.

As expected, Nadiri showed no interest in her offspring so the plans to win her over were launched. A den for Yola and her carer, Harmony, was made nearby Nadiri’s. This was so she could see the attention being paid to her baby by Harmony 24/7 for the first three days following birth. Perhaps that would spark her own maternal instincts. This also allowed the other gorillas to be introduced to Yola as the newest member of the troop safely from afar.

At first there were small victories like when Nadiri visited the den that Harmony and Yola inhabited. However, once Yola cried after not being held, Nadiri grew anxious and left. Another time she came over and patted the baby’s head and tucked her security blanket around her. That was considered quite a breakthrough moment. Still more was hoped for.

Zookeeper Judy Sievert took charge of Nadiri’s visits in an effort to get her interested in picking up and nursing the newborn before her milk dried up. Although the nursing window quickly passed, Nadiri began responding positively to other actions. The keepers would provide food treats and encouragement that Nadiri did not ignore. One of my favorite anecdotes was when Judy offered Nadiri apple pieces on a spoon. She placed the spoon right beside Yola’s face to lure her close to the baby. Nadiri approached but cleverly tried to grab the fruit with her hand. Judy gestured and said that Nadiri had to use her mouth and offered the spoon again. It worked! “Nadiri leaned in next to the baby’s face and ate the apple.” I was delighted when that happened so I can just imagine how Judy felt.

Many middle grade readers will relate to the tense dynamic between Nadiri and her attention-seeking half-sister, Akenji. I worried that Akenji might hurt Yola as she was more dominant than Nadiri, and perhaps jealous of her baby. Fortunately that never happened. Early on we also meet Leo, the silverback and another member of the troop, because he appears to be intrigued by Yola frequently watching her through a gate. Meeker makes sure to update us on how these relationships fare over the course of the book, too.

In Growing Up Gorilla, Meeker engagingly details the coordinated efforts of everyone at Woodland Park Zoo who was invested in Yola’s and Nadiri’s relationship. So much was at stake in their successful reunification and the emotion behind the efforts was palpable on every page. The fantastic full-color photos make it hard not to fall for baby Yola. Nadiri’s difficult past also invites our compassion. There are helpful sidebars throughout on interesting topics ranging from gorilla dens, gorilla families, gorilla vs. human development and gorilla talk, all designed to further educate us and help us to appreciate the complexity and importance of gorillas who “share 97.7 percent of the same genes” as humans. Since finishing the book, I’ve been sharing the uplifting story with everyone who loves a happy ending. I recommend this for animal lovers, budding zoologists and anyone who cares about the preservation of our primate cousins.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Find links below to Clare Meeker’s website and social media:
Read what the reviewers have said about Growing Up Gorilla below:

Kirkus Reviews

School Library Journal

Midwest Book Review

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READ A REVIEW OF ANOTHER NONFICTION ANIMAL BOOK HERE.

BLOG TOUR LINKS:

 Growing Up Gorilla Blog Tour Update

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