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Blog Tour Day 2 for Explorer Academy Vela, The Sailor Cipher

 

BLOG TOUR FOR EXPLORER ACADEMY VELA
Book 1: THE SAILOR CIPHER

Written by Trudi Trueit

Illustrated by Khadijah Khatib

(NatGeo Under the Stars; $10.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

EAVela-BlogTourBanner

 

GoodReadsWithRonna is delighted to share this excerpt from Explorer Academy Vela: The Sailor Cipher (Book 1) available in paperback now. Get ready to get hooked!

 

ABOUT EXPLORER ACADEMY:

Adventure, danger, and school on a ship! In a special school to become an explorer, Cruz Coronado embarks on important global missions with his classmates. But he’s hunted by a murderous threat. A threat that seems linked to his mother’s murder. Cruz hopes that by finding his mother’s clues left around the world, he’ll learn her secret formula and unmask his nemesis.

 

Blogpost #2: Book Excerpt

by Trudi Trueit

 

The first chapter of THE SAILOR CIPHER has Sailor and the rest of Team Cousteau (Cruz, Emmett, Lani, and Dugan), testing the Universal Cetacean Communicator, a helmet which can translate the songs and calls of whales and dolphins into human language! Here, they’re on a boat in the Chesapeake Bay preparing to rendezvous with a pod of dolphins. Cruz is wearing the UCC helmet. The plan is for Sailor to go into the water with him as his dive buddy, while the rest of the team remains in the boat to direct the mission with Fanchon (the tech lab chief who designed the UCC),

Sailor York called it the do-or-die point.

It was the moment right before a mission began. In those tense few minutes, as you waited for the “go” signal, you could either psyche yourself up or psyche yourself out. Everything depended on the choice you made.

It was exciting. It was exhilarating. And it was . . .

Now!

Looking out across the bay, Sailor filled her lungs with one last breath of fresh sea air before lowering the dive helmet onto her head. She was alone but for a fluttering heart and her own thoughts. As her dive buddy, Cruz Coronado, connected the hoses between her rebreathing helmet and oxygen tank, Sailor tried not to think about her shoulders cooking in the September sun or the swim fin pinching her left baby toe or the grilled cheese sandwich doing cartwheels in her stomach. Most of all, she tried not to think about how much was riding on their mission—because the answer was everything.

Do or die.

“Comms check.” Emmett’s voice rang out in Sailor’s helmet. “Oops! Hang on, minor glitch.”

Sailor couldn’t help a snort. In trying to put on a headset thinner than a spaghetti noodle, Emmett had gotten it tangled in his emoto-glasses. Emmett had a passion for technology, and the frames were his own invention. They tapped into his brain waves, changing shape and color based on his moods. At the moment, the circular frames were switching colors faster than a broken traffic light. It was a comfort to Sailor to know that even cool-headed Emmett was as jittery as she was. “Okay, all set,” said Emmett. “Sailor, do you read me?”

“Affirmative.”

When Cruz, Fanchon, Dugan, Jaz, and Lani gave similar replies, Emmett pronounced all comms operational. Jaz let them know the comm link among everyone would remain open throughout the mission.

“My pre-check diagnostic shows all UCC systems are functioning normally,” relayed Fanchon. “Cruz and Sailor, be sure to keep a distance of at least thirty feet between the dolphins and yourselves. Don’t overstay your welcome. Dugan will start the stopwatch once you’re in position. Remember, if you sense any stress or haven’t made contact in fifteen minutes—”

“We’re to break off and return.” Cruz took the words out of her mouth.

Respect for wildlife was their top priority. Everyone knew they were here to communicate with the dolphins, not to disturb or frighten them.

“The pod is a mile northeast of our position, heading due south,” alerted Lani.

“This is it!” Emmett’s voice rose in pitch. “Divers, stand by for ‘go.’”

Sailor’s heartbeat thundered in her ears. She shut her eyes against the blinding diamonds of sunlight reflecting off the water. Exhaling, she pushed away all the thoughts that cluttered her mind—the scorching heat, her throbbing toe, a somersaulting sandwich . . .

“Sailor?” Cruz’s voice was so quiet she barely heard him.

She opened her eyes and turned to him. “Yeah?”

“Thanks for jumping in with me.” Cruz held out his hand.

Sailor grinned and took it. “Any time.”

“GO!”

 

Sailor is in for a BIG surprise over the next few pages. Read THE SAILOR CIPHER to find out what happens next!

 

Author TrudiTrueit 2024
Trudi Trueit, Explorer Academy series author.

AUTHOR BIO:

Trudi Trueit writes the award-winning EXPLORER ACADEMY fact-based fiction series for National Geographic, which has been translated into 20 languages. She is the author of more than 100 fiction and nonfiction titles for kids, including MY TOP SECRET DARES AND DON’TS, THE SISTER SOLUTION, and THE SECRETS OF A LAB RAT series (Simon & Schuster). A Seattle native, she makes her home in Everett, WA with her photographer husband and lives to serve the whims of their three cats. And yes, Trudi Trueit is her real name (by marriage)!

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A New Poetry Middle Grade Graphic Novel – Poetry Comics

 

APRIL IS NATIONAL POETRY MONTH SO …

 IT’S TIME FOR

POETRY COMICS

Written and illustrated by Grant Snider

(Chronicle Kids; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

Poetry Comics cover four panels of tree in four seasons.

 

 

★ Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly

 

Reading a well-crafted poem always fills me with awe. I wonder how the poet made it look so easy. The words flow magically on the page yet I know the great skill involved in composing one. That describes my first impressions of this middle-grade graphic novel. Add to that the joyful comic-style artwork and you’ve got the winning Poetry Comics by Grant Snider, a celebration of seasons and so much more, beginning with spring.
Poetry Comics int1 sprinting through sprinkler.
Interior art by Grant Snider from Poetry Comics written and illustrated by Grant Snider, Chronicle Kids ©2024.
Snider’s book puts four seasons of poetry at children’s fingertips. He captures the everyday world from their perspective. Here’s a short one I love. “Joy is the feeling of sprinting through the first sprinkler of spring.” (See the art above.) It resonated with me even though I no longer partake in this warm weather ritual. Seeing the child’s delight in this activity, filled my heart and reminded me of when my kids were growing up.
Another in this section that will spark imaginations, is the impressive “Shape Story” where the mix of shapes and verse morph into a clever story about a girl flying a kite on a sunny but windy day as rain clouds roll in. (See the art below.)
Poetry Comics int2 Shape and Balloon poems
Interior art by Grant Snider from Poetry Comics written and illustrated by Grant Snider, Chronicle Kids ©2024.
Poems come in vibrant colors and various lengths. They feature end rhymes, subtle internal rhymes, assonance, consonance, and an uplifting lyrical quality that matches the cheerful illustrations. I found myself pausing frequently to admire this engaging approach. As I read I felt this book would have inspired me as a child to try my hand at composing a poem or two along with drawings or doodles. I think it’s going to do the same for young readers today. Teachers can embrace this book for its multiple entry points whether that be for comic and graphic novel fans, reluctant readers, or poetry lovers who want to stretch that creative muscle more.
Poetry_Comics_int3_summer_ferris_wheel Poetry Comics int3 summer ferris wheel
Interior art by Grant Snider from Poetry Comics written and illustrated by Grant Snider, Chronicle Kids ©2024.

 

I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed this unique poetry book but instead, I recommend you see for yourselves and let me know what you think.

Click here for another National Poetry Month review.

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Three New Children’s Passover Books for 2024

 

 

NEW CHILDREN’S PASSOVER BOOKS

Passover Clip Art

 

 

 Afikoman Where'd You Go cover kids in treehouse afikoman on roofAFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO?:
A Passover Hide-and-Seek Adventure
Written by Rebecca Gardyn Levington
Illustrated by Noa Kelner
(Rocky Pond Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
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There’s a mischievous personified piece of matzoh on the loose in the pages of Afikoman, Where’d You Go? and I got such a kick out of looking for him. Your kids will too! This picture book is not only written in well-crafted rhyme, it’s also relatable to anyone who’s ever attended a Seder, Jewish or not.
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At the Passover seder, youngsters are always eager to start the traditional search for the afikoman which happens halfway through the meal. The Glossary, helpfully included at the start of the story, defines the afikoman as “The piece of matzoh that is symbolically broken and then hidden, as part of a ritual during the seder.” Children hunt for him around the house or in a particular designated room. The process varies from house to house. In this tale, the kids check out every place indoors with no luck. The wily matzoh, like the Gingerbread Man, is one step ahead. Next up, the backyard.
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Part of the fun is searching every single spread to see where Afikoman is hiding. I have to admit there was one spread where I could not locate the clever cracker! That’s the bathroom scene which I’ve checked multiple times. And when I did spot him, I laughed out loud a few times. The catchy refrain, “Is he hiding somewhere high? Is he hiding somewhere low? Afikoman? Afikoman? Afikoman? WHERE’D YOU GO?” adds to the read-aloudability.
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When the afikoman is finally found, it’s time to return to the table and continue the seder. Here’s where the author and illustrator have included a satisfying surprise ending. The detailed artwork (created using pencil, ink, and Photoshop) includes a determined family dog who, along with a diverse group of kids, team up to track down Afikoman and enjoy themselves the entire time. One of my favorite illustrations is the children’s messy bedroom. It’s hard to know if the kids did that or if it was like that already! Sure to invite multiple readings for the holiday, Afikoman, Where’d You Go? easily gets a thumbs up from me.

 

Everybody's Book cover hiding Haggadah in Mosque bookcase.EVERYBODY’S BOOK: 
The Story of the Sarajevo Haggadah
Written by Linda Leopold Strauss
Illustrated by Tim Smart
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

A richly recounted nonfiction story as colorful as the history of the titular Sarajevo Haggadah, Everybody’s Book is an enlightening read. I had the good fortune to visit Sarajevo at the end of 1989 before the city was ravaged by war but hadn’t heard about the famous Haggadah. I’m happy to have had the chance to learn. If the topic is of further interest, parents can also learn more by reading Geraldine Brooks’ The People of The Book.

The book opens with an introduction explaining how the storied Sarajevo Haggadah was first given to a bride and group circa 1350. Readers then learn that in “the late 1400s” the expulsion of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition was a scary time. In Spain, Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave. Lives were upended and never the same. Many families fled with nothing but the family that owned what became known as the Sarajevo Haggadah took it with them when they escaped. Over time the Haggadah changed hands multiple times eventually landing in Italy to a new generation of owners and ultimately to Bosnia where it continued to be used “during Passover Seders.”

“By 1894, the family that owned the Haggadah had fallen on hard times …” Alas the treasured family heirloom was sold. It was bought by the National History Museum of Sarajevo, a religiously diverse and mostly tolerant city where it was revered. The museum managed to keep the Sarajevo Haggadah safe until WWII broke out.

When the Nazis tried to get their hands on it, the fast-thinking museum director fabricated a web of lies but that didn’t stop the Nazis from searching the museum albeit to no avail. It is said that the curator then took the Haggadah to “a remote village, where an imam of a small mosque hid it among sacred Islamic texts.” When the war ended the Haggadah was returned to Sarajevo but peace there remained fragile.

After WWII, “Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats became part of unified Yugoslavia under one leader.” Following his death in 1980, tensions that had been simmering over the years reached a climax, and fighting among the three groups began. “In 1991, Serbs attacked Bosnia.” Another war threatened the safety of the Sarajevo Haggadah. When the museum was bombed the following year, a Muslim university professor helped rescue the book once again. This new war saw the destruction of the National and University Library of Sarajevo though citizens “formed a human chain to save whatever books they could. By this time, not just Bosnians knew about the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, and the world worried about this treasure.

One of my favorite spreads is the one that depicts a Passover Seder in 1995, in the midst of the war. “Christian, Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim leaders joined Jews at Sarajevo’s only remaining synagogue …” During the Seder, the Bosnian President, a Muslim, arrived with the Haggadah to assure all those in attendance that it was safe. When the war ended and the Bosnian National Museum was constructed, the Sarajevo Haggadah was restored and placed among other historic treasures for all to see. Everybody’s Book could now truly be enjoyed by everybody. Tim Smart’s watercolor art has a sketch-like, loose quality showing the flow of time and the ever-changing circumstances the Sarajevo Haggadah endured. This picture book is an important one that emphasizes how the power of people from all religions and walks of life can make a difference when they find common ground. How lucky we all are that this marvelous book from a marriage over 670 years ago has survived. Oh, the stories its pages could tell!

ON ALL OTHER NIGHTS:
A
PASSOVER CELEBRATION IN 14 STORIES
Edited by Chris Baron, Joshua S. Levy, and Naomi Milliner
Illustrated by Shannon Hochman
(Amulet Books; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

While there could be a plethora of themes for a Passover anthology, selecting the 14 steps of the Seder as an entry point is perfect. It’s what drew me to this book in addition to the title. It did not hurt that a host of bestselling and award-winning authors and one author-illustrator embraced and wrote about one particular step. Their instructions were only to approach the topic in any way they desired. This made for a fascinating and engrossing read. If I had the time, upon finishing my first read-through, I could have started all over again. It’s just that good!

As I dove in, I never knew what type of story would greet me, and that’s only one part of the magic of this holiday collection. Whatever way you choose to read On All Other Nights, you will be treated to a variety of top-notch middle-grade voices, approaches, plots, and characters. You can read it all in one sitting, devouring every delicious and meaningful step, or take it one short story at a time, savoring each one slowly like the Seder meal itself. At the start of each story, there is a brief, helpful description of the step. I was impressed at how creative the stories tackled each subject. Apropos of the title are also four thoughtful questions (the Four Questions being an important element of the Seder which generally the youngest asks) tweens can contemplate or parents and teachers can use for discussions.

Just like there are many kinds of Jewish ethnicities around the world (e.g. Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and more) and different branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and more), there are many different stories in this collection. Each story has a unique style and appeal. I loved the story featuring an Autistic character, Myra, who could not stand the smell of gefilte fish. It especially resonated with me having a son with sensory processing disorder for whom certain smells can drive him out of a room as it did for the girl in this story. Another story that’s stayed with me is the one about a family of Romanian immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. In it, the brother and sister are tasked with getting the maror (bitter herb) for the Seder from their father’s pushcart. At his sister’s behest, the brother retells a fairy tale about a witch and a memory spell. This relates to the brother’s annoyance that his sister does not seem to remember much of their life in Romania before emigrating. Later on, the younger sister cleverly and courageously helps her brother rescue a new Polish immigrant being beaten up, revealing some surprising truths.

The fourteen On All Other Nights contributors include: Chris Baron, Ruth Behar, Adam Gidwitz, Veera Hiranandani, Amy Ignatow Sarah Kapit, Joshua S. Levy, Mari Lowe, Naomi Milliner, Soifya Pasternack, R. M. Romero, A. J. Sass, Laura Shovan, and Laurel Snyder.

Black and white art accompanies every chapter and the captivating cover invites children to think about their own role in the Seder. Readers are treated to tempting recipes in the backmatter from celebrated chefs and professionals. Contributor bios and acknowledgments can also be found there. At a recent signing event, editor Joshua S. Levy explained that the anthology is a mirror and window book. It communicates core human values to a wide audience with universal appeal. And that same evening, Chris Baron said the challenge with the anthology was “How do you breathe life into these steps?”  To which I say “Exactly like On All Other Nights did. Brilliantly!”

Click here to read last year’s roundup.

Also Recommended:

Why_on_This_Night_cover_Jews_and_Red_Sea_partingWHY ON THIS NIGHT?:
A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration
Written by Rahel Musleah
Illustrated by Louise August
(Kalaniot Books; $19.99, Ages 7-11)

Publisher Description:

The rich traditions of Passover come alive in this contemporary family haggadah. Updated from the original 2000 edition, this holiday favorite is available again for families to treasure. As children and adults gather at the seder dinner to remember the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom, this creative, yet authentic haggadah will guide and engage them. Lushly illustrated, with blessings and text of every major section of the haggadah in Hebrew, English translation, and transliteration, the welcoming and accessible style of Why On This Night? will make it a treasured seder companion year after year.

 

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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Pizza, Pickles, and Apple Pie

 

 PIZZA, PICKLES, AND APPLE PIE:

 The Stories Behind the Foods We Love

Written and illustrated by David Rickert

(Kane Press; $19.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 Pizza Pickles and Apple Pie cover three humorous historical characters with food.

 

 

Though the title, Pizza, Pickles, and Apple Pie: The Stories Behind the Foods We Love, is somewhat serious-sounding, you can tell from the silly antics on the cover that this book is going to be a lot of fun. Beginning with breakfast, we take a trip through time and around the world discovering facts about kid-approved foods from waffles to apple pie.

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Pizza Pickles and Apple Pie int1 before breakfast
Interior illustrations from Pizza, Pickles, and Apple Pie: The Stories Behind the Foods We Eat by David Rickert, Kane Press ©2023.

 

I appreciated the multicultural tidbits such as the wide array of popular pizza toppings: squid and eel (Japan), ginger and tofu (India), or peas, corn, and raisins (Brazil). The evolution of popcorn interested me: all those popping kernels were first contained in an 1800s popcorn popper but it was the invention of the microwave that made popcorn the number two thing people use their microwaves for (heating leftovers is the first). And, birthday parties will never be the same for me now that I know blowing out candles increases the bacteria on the surface of the cake.

The extra sections in the back can give kids hours of busy time. For example, they can research their own favorite food, learn how to create a food comic, and there’s a step-by-step on how to draw people’s facial expressions.

 

Pizza Pickles and Apple Pie int2 ice cream becomes cool.
Interior illustrations from Pizza, Pickles, and Apple Pie: The Stories Behind the Foods We Eat by David Rickert, Kane Press ©2023.

 

 

While the target audience for this book is grades 3-7, I can see younger kids enjoying this book because of its easy-to-follow comic panels. The sections with longer text will appeal to older kids; the activities can be tailored to all ages. Overall, this humorous food history book is one that kids can devour again and again.

Read more about author-illustrator David Rickert here.

 

Read another food-related book review by Christine here.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – The Jake Show

THE JAKE SHOW

Written by Joshua S. Levy

(Katherine Tegen Books; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

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The Jake Show cover featuring three boys Jacob Jake Yaakov e1709342039991.

 

 

I deliberately avoided reading anything about The Jake Show by Joshua S. Levy before uploading it onto my iPad. I’d also committed to reviewing it for Multicultural Children’s Book Day before it received its esteemed Sydney Taylor Honor. I had no idea what a treat was in store for me.

The main character, seventh-grader Jake, is in a tricky situation at home or should I say homes since his parents are divorced and both have remarried. At his mom’s place, he’s called Yaakov and feels pressured to conform to her wishes. She is a religious Orthodox Jew and her husband is a Rabbi. When he’s with his dad he’s Jacob because his dad is a secular Jew, at one point even forgetting some Hanukkah details, and his second wife isn’t Jewish. Readers will understand this boy’s dilemma. Jake, the middle ground name he uses at school, must constantly perform to please each parent while not knowing what he truly wants, only that it’s taking an emotional toll on him. It’s one thing when you’re in a film, TV show, or on stage; when the project is done you go home and cast aside your role. In Jake’s case, that’s when the acting begins.

Jake starts a new school as the book opens and is quickly welcomed by two classmates, Tehilla and Caleb. Jake is pretty sure he’ll be leaving this school since previously he’s had to attend schools either only his mother wanted or his father wanted. So, why bother making friends when you’re just going to leave because one parent is not happy? This begs the question of why the adults in Jake’s life seem to have all the agency and Jake none.

When Jake decides to attend Camp Gershoni for the summer at his friends’ urging, he knows it’s time to take matters into his own hands since neither parent will agree it’s the suitable choice. I was happy Jake chose to go camp but I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the myriad lies he tells. He concocts a wild plan straight out of an “I Love Lucy” episode. That airport scene, which includes outfit changing, is hysterical and I could see the entire scene playing out in my head as I cheered for him. All through his elaborate scheme, Tehilla is urging Jake to come clean but he’s in too deep.

Levy has infused The Jake Show with the perfect amount of humor to counter some of the serious issues presented. Much of the LOL moments are due to his friendship with Caleb and Tehilla who, outliers themselves, may understand Jake better than he can understand himself. I found myself eager to see what antics the trio would get up to next and that was facilitated by chapters that seemed to speed by. Secondary characters including Jake’s stepparents feel well-developed and bring levity into his home life. Jake needed to be seen and they saw him.

Readers learn that Jews come from all walks of life, some well off, some not. Tehilla and her mom struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Caleb, who is wealthy, despite the trying times he’s faced since coming out, can count on the support of his family, Tehilla, and now Jake. Yet the more Jake becomes preoccupied with his elaborate scheme and the more he lies to keep up the pretense, the harder it is to see certain truths: truths about his friendships and his family that he is just one more lie away from losing if he doesn’t own up to his charade.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Middle Grade Nonfiction Book Review – Totally Random Questions Volume 6

TOTALLY RANDOM QUESTIONS VOLUME 6:

101 Fascinating and Factual Q&As

Written by Melina Gerosa Bellows

Full-Color Photo Credits from Multiple Sources

(Bright Matter Books; H/C $12.99, Paperback $8.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

Totally Random Questions Vol6 cover penguins and blackboard

 

Publisher Summary:

How much does a human skeleton weigh? Who was Bluetooth technology named after? What do rabbits do when they’re happy? Discover the answers to these questions and more in the newest installment of this kid-friendly series packed with fun, fascinating Q&As!

 

Review:

Totally Random Questions Vol. 6 by Melina Gerosa Bellows keeps this popular series going strong. Its small size (six-by-six inches) fits perfectly into hands. And it doesn’t take up much room in backpacks because middle-graders will bring this book to school to quiz their BFFs. With a wide range of topics, there’s something for everyone such as information about animals, sports, science, famous people, and then some.

 

Totally Random Questions Vol6 int Photo babies cats pgs170 171
Interior pages 170 and 171 from Totally Random Questions Volume 6 by Melina Gerosa Bellows, Bright Matters Books ©2023.

 

The format alternates between multiple-choice and true-or-false questions. Interesting information served in this fast way makes for an engaging experience. Wanting to test my knowledge kept me immersed as did the gorgeous full-color photos. Facts I found fascinating include: Cats can drink salt water, the average human skeleton weighs about 25 pounds, and pink snow (also known as “watermelon snow”) really exists.

Kids and adults will have fun reading and challenging one another. Books from this series make great gifts for birthdays and beyond. Volumes 7 and 8 will be available this August.

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Middle-Grade Fantasy Novel Review – Legends of Lotus Island Book #1

 

LEGENDS OF LOTUS ISLAND:
The Guardian Test

Written by Christina Soontornvat

Illustrated by Kevin Hong

(Scholastic Press; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

Legends of Lotus Island cover book one heroine running

 

 

In Legends of Lotus Island: The Guardian Test, the first book in a new middle-grade series by Christine Soontornvat with illustrations by Kevin Hong, young Plum lives on a remote part of the Santipap Islands. An orphan, she lives with her grandparents and helps them tend their home and gardens. Plum is able to communicate with plants and animals and, as a result, the family’s gardens thrive. Seeing this, her grandfather secretly submits an application for her to the elite Guardian Academy on Lotus Island. Guardians are able to transform into magical creatures and are tasked with protecting the natural world.

When she learns that she has been accepted to the Academy, Plum is stunned by her grandfather’s actions. She doesn’t believe that she is that special or magical. Nevertheless, her grandparents convince her to accept the Academy’s invitation and, reluctantly, she leaves her beloved home for an uncertain future.

Once at the Academy, Plum, and the other students are trained in meditation, fighting skills, communicating with animals, and learning how to transform. As the students train, their natural, magical abilities emerge. Based on that, the Masters are then able to assign students to one of the three groups of Guardians: Hand (fast and strong), Heart (healers), and Breath (calming).

However, Plum struggles: she is bullied by another student (who may have a hidden agenda), she can’t focus during meditation, is not much of a fighter, and is unable to transform. The Masters are not sure which Guardian group she belongs in. If Plum wishes to advance to Novice, she must pass the first test which is transformation. Plum’s fears grow –will she be able to pass the test? Or will she fail and be sent home?

Soontornvat fills her short book with a fascinating and lush world, populating it with fantastic creatures, hints of political intrigue, and mysterious ancient legends. The author also does not sacrifice character development. Plum, a kind but unsophisticated girl, blooms into a strong and confident figure. Other students share similar growth, which may be encouraging to readers struggling with their own self-confidence. Along with occasional black and white illustrations, this first in a series is an enticing and accessible read for younger readers who are not yet ready for longer fantasy titles.

Visit the author here for a brief book talk and watch the book trailer here. Watch this short video if you’re not sure how to pronounce Soontornvat’s name. Kids can read an excerpt from the book here.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Children’s Books for Earth Day 2023

 

A ROUNDUP OF CHILDREN’S BOOKS 

FOR EARTH DAY 2023

 

 

 

The Tree and the River cover bucolic river scene with industry reflectionTHE TREE AND THE RIVER
by Aaron Becker

(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 5-9)

Starred Reviews – Horn Book, Foreward Reviews, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Connection

Aaron Becker’s wordless picture book, The Tree and the River, shows how humans impact a specific plot of vibrant land. The time-lapse process he uses is fascinating and powerful. Some of the imagery is fictionalized yet this doesn’t take away from the understanding that people’s cities, industry, and war wreak havoc on the land.

I like how the almost totally destroyed landscape can, with a simple acorn, reestablish itself, giving the book (and our world) the possibility that we can recover from damage inflicted.

Beyond the stunning illustrations, Becker did so much more: he prepared by constructing a scale model which he then slowly transformed with clay and wood over many months. The book was inspired by “the rich history of layered civilizations” in Granada, Spain. Be sure to peek under the dust jacket for an alternate image.

 

The Forest Keeper cover Jadav Payeng in forestTHE FOREST KEEPER:
The True Story of Jadav Payeng

Written by Rina Singh
Illustrated by Ishita Jain
(NorthSouth; $18.95, Ages 5-9)

Rina Singh’s picture book, The Forest Keeper, introduces us to a tribesman from Majuli named Jadav Molai Payeng who labored in isolated anonymity for thirty years, growing a forest on an abandoned sandbar in a remote corner of northeastern India. He began in 1979 when the river burst its banks and left hundreds of water snakes to perish in the hot sun. When he sought help from elders and the forest department, he was told “trees don’t grow on sandbars” and was given a bag of bamboo seedlings. His diligence and dedication created habitats for a number of creatures in this 1,359-acre oasis—larger than New York’s Central Park.

The soft-focus illustrations by Ishita Jain bring India’s beauty alive. I particularly like the tiger, elephants, and dramatic trees filled with birds in the twilight.

This book reminds us that Earth Day truly is every day, and that one person can make a huge difference. Be sure to look under the dust jacket for a bonus image that reinforces this story’s humble beginnings. Read an exclusive interview with illustrator Ishita Jain here.

 

Water: How We Can Protect Our Freshwater cover children in village pumping waterWATER: How We Can Protect Our Freshwater 
Written by Catherine Barr

Illustrated by Christiane Engel
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 5-9)

Catherine Barr’s picture book, Water: How We Can Protect Our Waterways, is broken down into easy-to-follow sections from “The First Water on Earth” through “It’s Water Action Decade!” The facts are thorough yet explained simply. It’s mind-blowing that only 3% of all water on Earth is freshwater; three-quarters of it exists in glaciers and polar ice sheets. I like how each section has an item that relates to a specific place: “These girls in sub-Saharan Africa can go to school because they have a water pump and tap in their village.” This makes the issues feel real and connects us all around the planet.

Christiane Engel’s detailed illustrations bring the world and its water sources to life such as the polluted rivers in India and salmon leaping up a fish ladder in Scotland (because their migration path has been dammed). The brightly colored art is something kids can look over again and again, finding new things each time.

The “How Can I Use Water Wisely?” section at the end is conveyed in a fun, wraparound style. Suggestions include realizing that most everything we use takes water to make and visiting local lakes or rivers to discover the animals and plants living there—if we care about something, we’re more likely to want to help protect it. Taking a few minutes to better understand our water is time well spent.

 

Something Happened to Our Planet cover kids cleaning trashSOMETHING HAPPENED TO OUR PLANET
Kids Tackle the Climate Crisis (Something Happened series)
Written by Marianne Celano and Marietta Collins 
Illustrated by Bhagya Madanasinghe
(Magination Press; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

In Marianne Celano and Marietta Collins’s Something Happened to Our Planet: Kids Tackle the Climate Crisis (Something Happened series), a young girl is worried about the far-reaching effects of plastics in our waterways. Encouraged by her family, she decides one person can make a difference so she starts an Earth Control group at her elementary school to make improvements in the cafeteria.

I enjoyed the illustrations by Bhagya Madanasinghe, especially the facial expressions of the unnamed main character. We feel the ups and downs these kids experience as their desire to help is met with setbacks.

Truly remarkable is the information provided in the Reader’s Note: facts beyond what’s found in similar texts, including a Q&A section to help parents answer hard questions posed by kids. While this section is huge, it’s manageably divided and the possible steps we can all take to mitigate climate change are surprisingly doable with suggestions such as reducing food waste, eating less meat, and using “art and music to give hope and remind others about the importance of nature and a sustainable planet.” This book is a must-have in classrooms, libraries, and at home. The publisher’s website contains several helpful downloadable pdfs.

 

Total Garbage cover kid sitting on trash pileTOTAL GARBAGE:
A Messy Dive into Trash, Refuse, and Our World

Written by Rebecca Donnelly
Illustrated by John Hendrix
(Henry Holt BYR; $21.99, Ages 8-12) 

Starred Reviews -Hornbook Magazine, Kirkus Reviews

Being able to “talk trash” in a way that’s engaging and even funny at times is quite an accomplishment. Rebecca Donnelly succeeds in her middle-grade book, Total Garbage: A Messy Dive into Trash, Refuse, and Our World. It is messy because we’re talking about the mountains of things we cast aside.

The text is guided by simple questions: “What is garbage, where does it come from, where does it go, why do we make so much of it, and how can we do better?” For such an overwhelming issue, the underlying message is hopeful yet does not shy away from the massive scope of this problem, acknowledging there’s no quick solution. Something we can all do is to buy less and use less, keeping in mind what it took to make that item and understanding that things don’t just go away because there’s not such place as “away.”

The book’s blue font is appealing and illustrations by John Hendrix add some levity. I would love to see informative and optimistic books like this one being used in classrooms because being oblivious about the garbage problem really stinks.

 

 

the day the river caught fire cover children watch flames on riverTHE DAY THE RIVER CAUGHT FIRE
Written by Barry Wittenstein
Illustrated by Jessie Hartland
(Simon & Schuster BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

In award-winning author Barry Wittenstein’s eye-opening narrative nonfiction picture book, children are brought back in time to the year of a moon landing, Woodstock, the Vietnam War, and the Stonewall Rebellion. But do they know that this was also the year before Earth Day was founded? Or that a big event that led to its creation was the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire?

Yes, the river caught fire and it wasn’t the first time! “Since 1886, it happened thirteen times.” Pollution from big industry covered the water in “a thick, gooey layering of sludge, oil, and sewage …” So when KABOOM! flames rose in what would ordinarily have been rather frightening, most citizens viewed it as no big deal. Only it was a big deal! Rivers are not supposed to burn. However, since the Industrial Revolution, rivers around the world were treated as dumping sites with no concern for the health of their inhabitants in the water or nearby.

Thankfully, Cleveland’s Mayor Carl Stokes made his voice heard. The “exploding river” even made it to the cover of Time magazine, but Cleveland was not alone. Fires on rivers were happening in other cities too. Ultimately, Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, though these are still under attack today.

Not long after, on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day took place and more people made their voices heard. It was time to start caring for the planet we all call home. Earth Day is now celebrated around the world with a billion or more people taking part in hundreds of cities. The history of the fire and the lead-up to the first Earth Day is illustrated by Jessie Hartland in colorful gouache. The folk art style spreads will especially resonate with young readers with their warmth and whimsy. I cannot pick a favorite scene since there were multiple spreads I loved, particularly due to her depiction of people (Note: big hair lady on riverboat cruise).

53 years on, this important global movement continues with efforts to curb climate change and all forms of pollution. Seven pages of back matter include a compelling author’s note, a time line, reads and resources, and a black and white photo of an earlier Cuyahoga River fire in 1952. And though the Cuyahoga River eventually got cleaned up, and fish returned, that can easily change if enforcement of environmental laws grows lax and restrictions that help the environment get lifted. Wittenstein’s informative prose is a call to action that none of us can ignore.

 

Another Band's Treasure cover recycled instrument orchestra on landfillANOTHER BAND’S TREASURE:
A Story of Recycled Instruments
by Hua Lin Xie
Translated by Edward Gauvin
(Graphic Universe; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

Xie’s graphic novel debut was inspired by the true story of Favio Chávez, a musician and educator from Paraguay who founded the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in 2006. To me, this quote at the end speaks volumes, “The world sends us its garbage. We give it back music.”

The story’s main characters are Diego, a musician and music instructor, his friend, Nicolas, a carpenter, and Ada and her younger brother Daniel. They come from a single-parent home, and they, like many of the residents in this poor village likely live hand to mouth. The kids find entertainment treasure hunting on the landfill while their mother would like them to contribute to the household. There is little excitement or motivation in the children’s lives. That is until Diego puts out a flyer offering music lessons. In hopes of helping the kids grow emotionally by exposing them to music and self-expression, Diego and Nicolas also hope this will keep local kids out of trouble.

The graphic novel is divided into seven chapters as the relationships with the students, Diego and Nicolas develop. At first, it’s only Nicolas who scavenges amongst the discards of the landfill for usable items to turn into instruments. Before long, as the kids’ pride in what they’re a part of blossoms, it’s wonderful to watch them start searching for potential musical instruments. Maybe this could be a drum, or maybe a violin.

When Diego receives an invitation from the mayor for the orchestra to perform at a musical event in Asunción, everyone is not only thrilled for a chance to visit the capital but honored at being recognized. So much so that Ada and Daniel tell every single person they meet heading home and shout it from the top of the landfill. “Hey, clouds! We’re going places!!” Of course, they’re a hit and so begins a journey to play concerts all over the world! In an epilogue, Daniel has grown up and now, when he is on summer break, he and other children from the first class come back to Diego’s new class to help out new students and return the kindness that changed their lives.

Seamlessly translated from the French original, this English version has almost no color. Executed in muted greyish-black tones, the art looks like pen and ink but may have been created digitally. The choice of color or lack of it conveys the dullness of life alongside a landfill. The only time color appears apart from the cover is when a guitar is made from an orange-striped paint can. This middle-grade graphic novel is a hopeful story and a beautiful tribute to the dream and dedication of Favio Chávez. Find out more at www.recycledorchestracateura.com.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Additional Recommended Reads for Earth Day

 

No World Too Big cover children holding up EarthNO WORLD TOO BIG: 
Young People Fighting Global Climate Change
Written by Lindsay H. Metcalf 
Written by Keila V. Dawson
Written by Jeanette Bradley
Illustrated by Jeanette Bradley
(Charlesbridge Publishing; $18.99, Ages 5-9)

 

Climate Warriors coverCLIMATE WARRIORS:
Fourteen Scientists and Fourteen Ways We Can Save Our Planet
by Laura Gehl

(Millbrook Press; $24.99, Ages 9-14)

 

 

 

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Darshana Khiani Interviews Mirror to Mirror Author Rajani LaRocca

 

 

DARSHANA KHIANI INTERVIEWS RAJANI LAROCCA,

AUTHOR OF

MIRROR TO MIRROR

(Quill Tree Books; $19.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

MirrortoMirror cover twin sisters scaled

 

SUMMARY:

Rajani LaRocca, recipient of a Newbery Honor and Walter Award for Red, White, and Whole, is back with an evocative novel in verse about identical twin sisters who do everything together—until external pressures threaten to break them apart.

 

INTERVIEW:

Darshana Khiani: What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

MIRROR TO MIRROR Title PageRajani LaRocca: Mirror to Mirror started with a single poem. In April 2020, I took an online workshop with renowned poet Lesléa Newman in which she talked about several types of formal poetry, including the ghazal—a poetic form, often set to music, that is popular in South Asia and the Middle East. Inspired by the workshop, I wrote a ghazal about a twin lamenting that her sister had changed and the two were no longer close.

So then I started thinking: why did these two grow apart? What happened to them? And I started to create the characters. Because ghazals are often sung, I knew that the twins would be musical. I also thought that one would be hiding a secret that was eating away at her—and that secret would be the heart of her separation from her beloved twin.

 

DK: What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

RL: One challenge I faced was the same one I always face when writing a dual-POV book: how do I make the voices distinct from one another? How do I make sure each one moves the story forward? At first, I wrote Maya’s voice in poetry and Chaya’s in prose, but that felt jarring. When my editor suggested I change it so that both voices were in poetry, that felt much better, but I still had to work hard to make the voices different from one another using the content and attitude in the poems, as well as structure, imagery, and word choice. The book starts with a couple of short paired poems, each titled “She’s the One,” where the twins express how they think about each other. These poems were drafted during that first revision, and I thought they vividly set the tone of the book and established the viewpoints of each twin.

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page3

I interviewed several sets of identical twin sisters for this story, and it was fascinating! Not only were they closer than other siblings, but some described each other as “soulmates.” They told me stories about eerie connections they had, and how no matter what else was going on in their lives, their bond was unshakable.

 

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page 4 continuation of poem

 

But there is room for misunderstanding even in the closest relationships. I tried to create a story where each twin thinks she’s doing something to help the other, but instead drives a wedge between them.

2020-2021 were difficult years for me and my family. Thanks to the pandemic, we had to contend with separation, illness, anxiety, and death. It was challenging to write a book at this time, but I had to keep going.

 

DK: What do you hope young readers get from this book?

RL: I wanted to explore anxiety and mental health in a poetic way. I wanted to show that people can struggle not only with symptoms but also with telling others, even those who know them, that they are struggling. I wanted to depict the helplessness we can feel when someone we love is going through something hard.

I hope that young readers understand that we all go through difficult times, even when we are surrounded by friends and family. I hope they learn that although we may sometimes struggle with anxiety and depression, we don’t have to deal with these feelings alone, and it’s important to share with those we love and trust because only through sharing can we start to get help.

 

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page5

 

 

DK: You are a doctor and a prolific award-winning writer, so clearly you’ve got this writing thing figured out. What do you feel are the key ingredients to keep the writing flowing?

RL: You’re too kind, Darshana! I feel very fortunate to be writing books for young people today. Here’s my advice:

  • Write what you love, what you’re interested in, what makes you happy. Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing.
  • Write a lot! I always try to have multiple projects going.
  • Figure out what’s most challenging for you to do, and work on that when you’re at your best. For example, drafting (as opposed to revising) novels is challenging for me, so when I’m working on drafting a novel, I make sure to devote time to this in the morning when I’m refreshed and less likely to get interrupted. In contrast, I find that I can draft a picture book or revise something (long or short) at just about any time. 
  • Live your life! It’s important to do things other than write to feed that writing soul. Spend time with family, friends, and in nature.
  • Support your friends and other creators. 
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. In publishing, there are only so many things we can control—including making our books as good as they can possibly be.
  • Have fun! I always try to write from a place of joy.

 

BUY THE BOOK:

The Silver Unicorn Bookstore: https://silverunicornbooks.com/events/23095

Link to Publisher page including activities, discussion topics, etc.
An educator’s guide is forthcoming.

Purchase Mirror to Mirror on Rajani’s website.

 

Rajani LaRocca Author Photo Credit Carter Hasegawa
Author Rajani LaRocca Photo Credit: Carter Hasegawa

AUTHOR BIO:

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – New Kids & Underdogs

NEW KIDS & UNDERDOGS

Written by Margaret Finnegan

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

 

New Kids and Underdogs cover dog doing agility training

 

 

In Margaret Finnegan’s third middle-grade novel, New Kids & Underdogs, she once again convincingly captures the voice of the 10-year-old protagonist, in this case, fifth grader, Robyn Kellen.

Robyn, whose parents are divorced, has moved around a lot because of her mother’s university teaching positions. Now in San Luis Obispo which, according to Robyn’s mom, is going to be the last move, Robyn must yet again learn to navigate a new town, new school, and hopefully new friendships. To do so, she relies upon her handy list of rules for a new kid.

At school, Robyn has initially blended in with two classmates (rule #1 ), Marshan and Lulu, and feels thankful for that. But when Robyn decides to pursue agility training for her beloved dogs Sundae (anxious, and needy of Fudge) and Fudge (almost blind, deaf, and definitely intelligent), it ends up connecting her with kids at school who just might make her break her rules in the best possible way. However, before doing so, she must learn that life experiences do not always fit neatly into a set of rules. And to find true friends, she must stop the rules from taking over.

Early on in the book, Robyn negotiates a trade with cancer survivor, Nestor, and his cousin, Jonathan,  together with “the Grape,” passionate purple wearer and grade-four-skipping, Alejandra. Tutoring and snacks for agility training. The thing is, Robyn ends up enjoying the time she spends with these kids who Marshan and Lulu consider to be sad outsiders.

After Nestor starts successfully teaching Sundae and Fudge to handle an agility, or what he, the most experienced in the group, dubs an “ability” course, Robyn worries she is spending too much time with these kids. If Marshan and Lulu think the agility kids are all sad outsiders, the negative label could stick to her by association. So, Robyn builds an invisible wall to keep her school friends separate from the dog training group and never the twain shall meet.

Eventually this protective wall leads to the kids who meet for agility to stop pursuing a friendship with Robyn when she does not return their interest. But when she changes her mind at Halloween it proves too little too late. Clearly remaining safe behind her wall is what her list dictates. Will Robyn get another chance to befriend the pack of agility training kids and rewrite or even discard those limiting rules?

Readers see that people, like the dogs in this story, are so much more than their abilities or disabilities. They are a whole package, a whole book. And Finnegan has a gift for presenting “underdogs” and empowering them so any kid reading this story will also feel empowered. The challenges Robyn has had to deal with being a new kid time and again ultimately reach a breaking point. “What other people think is their problem, not yours,” Alejandra wisely says near the end. Pretty darn insightful, I’d say.  When Robyn realizes that the underdogs get her and she is one of them, she understands she cannot judge anyone by just one chapter.

This fantastic novel about being seen and accepting one’s worth of true friendship is my recommended read for kids who may be facing friendship issues of their own. It’s a novel I’d have felt comfortable suggesting to my own kids when they were in those often trying middle-school years.

Click here for a discussion guide.

Read my interview with Margaret about her second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down here.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel
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Best New Christmas Books for Kids 2022

BEST NEW CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR KIDS 2022

~A ROUNDUP~

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas With Auntie cover bunniesCHRISTMAS WITH AUNTIE
Written by Helen Foster James
Illustrated by Petra Brown
(Sleeping Bear Press; $17.99, Ages 0-4)

My Aunt Shirley wasn’t my real aunt but she treated me as if I were her niece and I loved her the same as all my other aunts. Since Aunties can be blood relations or close family friends, Christmas With Auntie should find a large readership.

When Auntie picks up little bunny for the day, preparations for Christmas get underway. “Bunny-kins bunny, we’ll make and then bake/gingerbread goodies, sweet cookies, and cake.” Taking time to nibble carrots together, Auntie and little bunny spend quality time together. I love the snow bunny they build together and how attentive Auntie is to all bunny’s needs. Foster James writes in gentle rhyme and coupled with Brown’s tender illustrations, Christmas  With Auntie exudes warmth and love like hugs and kisses in book form. What’s extra nice is this Keepsake Edition provides a page to write a letter and add a photo so this copy will be a personalized family treasure.

 

Moo Baa Fa La La cover farm animalsMOO, BAA, FA LA LA LA LA!
Written and illustrated by Sandra Boynton
(Little Simon Books; $6.99, Ages 1-3)

If you or your kids are fans of that perennial fave, Moo, Baa, La La La!, you’ll be happy to know the adorable farmyard friends are back with a rollicking animal-centric altered rendition of “Deck the Halls.” While the meter may not be spot on in this board book, the silliness of what Boynton does best—cows, sheep, ducks, pigs, ducks, doggies, and chickens having a blast— is too good to miss. See the animals sing while they decorate the barn and get in a holiday mood along with them.  The playfulness of the pigs getting piggy with it, the bock, bock, bock of the chickens looking like they are about to Rockette it out, and the touch of the final fa la la la la fun at the end promises to entertain readers young and old.

 

 

Christmas Street cover

CHRISTMAS STREET
Written by Jonathan Emmett
Illustrated by Ingela P. Arrhenius
(Nosy Crow; $17.99, Ages 2-5)

This fold-out, lift-the-flap, two-sided board book is one your children will return to again and again every Christmas until they outgrow the make-believe play this book invites. My daughter would have asked me to make cut-out characters to insert into all the scenes when the street is completely unfolded. But I can also see kids using little animal figures they might already have to join with those in the cheerful art.

Penguins, bears, dogs, cats, bunnies, tigers, reindeer, giraffes, foxes, frogs, and walruses populate the pages of this rhyming alphabet book. Youngsters lift the flaps as they travel from store front to store front on bustling Christmas Street to discover what’s happening inside the shops and above them. “I is for icing on freshly baked cakes. J is for jingle, the sound a bell makes.” A snow-covered festive park scene is on the reverse side where a band practices beneath a gazebo, Christmas carols are sung, vendors sell hot drinks, and animal children skate and toss snowballs. This book makes a great gift for toddlers and pre-schoolers learning the alphabet and into pretend play. The nice thing is that it can be read simply as a board book or opened up for a longer interactive experience depending on how much time you have.

 

The Night Before The Nutcracker coverTHE NIGHT BEFORE THE NUTCRACKER
(American Ballet Theatre Presents)
Written by John Robert Allman
Illustrated by Julianna Swaney
(Doubleday BYR; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

As a huge Nutcracker fan, I found myself totally enthralled while reading this behind-the-scenes look as four young dancers go through auditions, rehearsals, costume fittings, and ultimately the opening night performance of the beloved Nutcracker ballet. Not only does Allman manage to pull off the upbeat rhyme based on “The Night Before Christmas,” but he’s done so while using an abundance of ballet and theatre terminology which is not easy. This is such a captivating way to engage young readers!

Our first introduction to the characters is as they lay sleepless in their beds thinking about opening night and then we go back to the different stages of getting ready for the big event. When at last we’re back on stage just before “Places!” is called, the excitement is palpable and we’re rooting for these kids. I especially liked how The Nutcracker story unfolds with glimpses backstage. Children who are not familiar with the plot can easily follow along with Clara and her nutcracker. In full-page bleeds, Swaney’s art depicts movement and magic with a diverse group of performers in colorful costumes and graceful poses. Backmatter includes “Richard Hudson’s original costume designs for the ABT’s production” while explaining Act 1 and Act 2. If you or your child has never attended a performance of The Nutcracker, this book might just be what gets you to finally reserve tickets. Enjoy!

 

Through the North Pole Snow cover Santa fox in sleighTHROUGH THE NORTH POLE SNOW
Written by Polly Faber
Illustrated by Richard Jones
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

This delightful picture book is quiet (except for some loud noises in the beginning), calming and heartwarming. It’s perfect for when you’re winding down your child’s day and are ready to snuggle. A small white fox seeks shelter and food amidst a snowy scape. It crawls down a chimney where it gets stuck and is aided by a jolly man with a white beard that little ones may not recognize despite the cover illustration. The art along with the old fella offers hints that he’s been on his Christmas rounds and is exhausted. Still, the fox doesn’t realize who he’s living with! Santa and the fox sleep until the season has changed and the man awakens to begin work on a new batch of toys. With the fox close by, Santa reads the letters, makes lists, and prepares his sack and sleigh for the night run. The fox is thrilled to be invited along. Then, as toys are delivered, Fox at last understands. “And when the sleigh was empty, the fox’s heart was full.” Jones’s warm tones and folksy style enrich Faber’s sweet text and make us feel good all over about this very special newfound friendship.

 

Hello Tree coverHELLO, TREE
Written by Alastair Heim
Illustrated by Alisa Coburn
(Little Bee Books;  $17.99, Ages 3-8)

Between the sly fox’s antics and the pages packed with visual treats—look closely—the hilarious Hello, Tree merits multiple reads. We meet Fox, fond of the five-finger discount, in the process of taking whatever strikes his fancy. The problem is he likes a lot of what he sees whether that’s a Christmas tree, a snowman’s nose (to munch on), gingerbread, candy canes (one of my fave illustrations),

ornaments, poinsettias, or a string of lights, all to decorate his home at everyone else’s expense. He swipes, and swipes to his heart’s delight! And though his intentions may be good, since he clearly wants to create an inviting atmosphere when giving presents as indicated by the many stockings hanging from his fireplace mantel, stealing is not the way. So, when Santa drops in, he makes Fox give back his ill-gotten goods. Only then can the true Christmas spirit shine. I love all the subtle and not-so-subtle humor in Heim’s rhyming read-aloud. I’m thinking of the illustration showing bear parents kissing under mistletoe with their kid sticking out his tongue. “Hello, kissy mistletoe.” I know kids will get a kick out of scenes like this too. It’s such fun to also find details in Coburn’s illustrations upon a second read that I didn’t catch the first time and I know there are more treats waiting for me to discover. Don’t miss the surprise on the endpapers!

 

The Little Toymaker coverTHE LITTLE TOYMAKER
Written and illustrated by Cat Min
(Levine Querido; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

The Little Toymaker, though not a Christmas book per se, still feels like it delivers all the feels a holiday book should. This boy has a magical talent and it’s not for making children’s toys like the guy with the white beard and red garb. He repurposes old toys from grandparents and other older people’s childhoods. Kids probably don’t realize the elderly like toys too, in fact, I bet if you’re reading this you have a particular childhood fave too.

One day an old woman arrives at his toy-making tower and hands him a candy tin to fix. As he worked he chats with the woman learning about each other’s likes and dislikes. When his first attempt does not please her, the little Toymaker tries again. His second attempt also leaves something to be desired so it’s back to the drawing board. Over tea, the two talk some more. The boy gleans insight into exactly what he needs to do with the candy tin after hearing the old lady recollect a special time in her past full of love and romance. Finally, the little Toymaker’s last attempt succeeds because he listened. Inside the tin, he’s captured enough cherished memories to fill her heart for all her days. That sweet little bit of magic moved me as I remembered toys and happy times from my childhood. Watch your little ones create new memories playing with the toys and sharing experiences this holiday season. Min’s exuberant art is an added bonus to this lovely heartwarming tale.

 

THE CHRISTMAS PINE
Written  by Julia Donaldson
Illustrated by Victoria Sandøy
(Scholastic Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Told from the point of view of the pine tree, this story found its start as a poem by beloved British author, Julia Donaldson for the UK Poetry Society “to celebrate the 2020 Christmas tree” which was a gift from Norway to the British people.

The Christmas Pine, now a picture book with spare rhyming text, was inspired by a true story. A young tree recalls how it grew and then came to find a home in London, a tradition that began in 1947, one that I, having lived there for over seven years, was not aware of. When it’s old enough for felling, the tree (back matter explains it’s usually a Norwegian spruce) journeys via sea to reach the UK. Eventually, it takes its place in Trafalgar Square near Nelson’s column and other statues and monuments. The spread of Londoners and perhaps visitors too, gazing upon the tree is my favorite because it shows people from all walks of life admiring nature’s beauty and majesty. The Christmas Pine, on the other hand, would probably tell us the illustration featuring children caroling at its base is its favorite.

 

The Christmas Book Flood coverTHE CHRISTMAS BOOK FLOOD
Written by Emily Kilgore
Illustrated by Kitty Moss
(Farrar, Straus Giroux BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Kirkus

This is a story about a good flood, a flood of books in Iceland that get published in autumn. Many of the books are then bought, and gifted annually on December 24 since WWII. This stunningly illustrated book uses collage mixed with newsprint/book text that captures the spirit of this wonderful tradition. The palette is warm, dark, and rich reflecting the magical short days and long nights in this northern country leading up to Christmas. Kilgore’s lyrical language conveys the anticipation building among the people like a dam about to burst. The search for the right book to give friends and family is almost as exciting as the pleasure of getting to read the books at last. If you know a book lover, young or old, consider gifting this lovely picture book celebrating the joy of reading and starting your own book flood!

 

THE PERFECT TREE
Written by Corinne Demas
Illustrated by Penelope Dullaghan
(Cameron Kids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

This story unfolds on the day before Christmas as Bunny is searching for the perfect tree. Each kind forest friend she encounters tells her the different things the perfect tree should have. Squirrel, Mole, Cardinal, and Skunk suggest a tree that’s bushy, has a point at the top, and has the right color, and smell. When Bunny has looked high and low with no luck, Deer posits that perhaps there is no perfect tree but Bunny is not about to give up. Heading back home as night falls, Bunny spots a tree she hasn’t seen before and realizes it’s too perfect to cut down. With her friends helping, Bunny decorates the tree and celebrates the perfect Christmas Eve with the perfect tree. While the story is a simple one, it flows easily from scene to scene. Dullaghan’s sweet illustrations bring the right amount of winter chill and charm to each spread. Add this feel-good Christmas tree tale that’s perfect for storytime or bedtime to your Christmas book list.

 

Celebrate With Me! coverCELEBRATE WITH ME!:
Recipes, Crafts, and Holiday Fun From Around the World
Edited by Laura Gladwin
Illustrated by Dawn M. Cardona
(Magic Cat Publishing/Harry N. Abrams; $22.99, Ages 8-12)

This time of year when it seems there’s a party around every corner, the perfect book to keep this mood going is Celebrate with Me! Recipes, Crafts, and Holiday Fun from Around the World. Beginning with January 1st, middle-graders learn fun facts that span the globe. Each holiday is presented by a different contributor which gives the book a wonderful range of information.

In February or March, make a papier-mâché mask to celebrate Portuguese Carnival.

On April 13th, learn about Songkran (or Thai New Year) when Thai people literally wash away anything negative by splashing each other with water. What kid won’t get behind this holiday?! The accompanying recipe for Thai-Style Congee is simple and delicious.

In Spain, Christmas is celebrated with the chewy and nutty Turrón de Navidad. Make a batch, then pop it in the fridge to set up while you sing festive songs called villancicos together.

Every page’s amazing information is accompanied by Dawn M. Cardona’s cheerful illustrations showcasing our world in a rainbow of colors. I like the closing pages which encourage kids to ask each other what holiday they celebrate, what’s important about it, and why it’s special to them. This is a great way to get to know a new friend or learn something new about someone already in your life. • This book was reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.WriteforSuccessEditing.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@WriteforSuccessEditing.com

 

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS:

CRINKLE BELLS
by Jay Fleck
(Chronicle Books; $8.99, Ages 0-3)
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PEEK-A-FLAP JOLLY 
Illustrated by Kathrin Fherl
(Cottage Door Press; $9.99, Ages 1-5)
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WHEN SANTA CAME TO STAY
Written by Billy Sharff
Illustrated by
Eda Kaban
(Dial Books; $18.99, Ages 4-7)
e

HOW TO CATCH A REINDEER
Written by Alice Walstead
Illustrated by Andy Elkerton
(Sourcebooks Wonderland; $10.99, Ages 4-8)

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Middle-Grade Graphic Novel – Agent 9: Mind Control!

 

AGENT 9: MIND CONTROL!

by James Burks

(Razorbill; Hardcover $18.99, Paperback $12.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

Agent 9 Mind Control graphic novel cover

 

 

I knew I was going to love James Burks’s latest graphic novel, Agent 9: Mind Control! (book #2) from the opening sequence alone. A slick sports car races up swerving roads to the secret lab location of DiViSiON, an evil organization headed by Octopus (aka IQ). Wolf, the novel’s nemesis, emerges from the vehicle and traverses a bridge as a nasty storm unleashes its fury. The dark tones, pounding rain, and the familiar spy tropes of a James Bond film instantly assure us that, like most good spy stories, we’re in for an enjoyable but rocky ride. 

 

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int1 S4 Headquarters
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

After the scenes switch to a meeting at the headquarters of S4 (Super Secret Spy Service – this book’s equivalent to Bond’s MI6, British Intelligence) Agent 9 and his flying fish sidekick, Fin, learn their new covert mission from O, the big boss. They must thwart the efforts of DiViSiON to steal crucial components needed to construct a menacing Mind Control Device. The Wolf has been contracted to retrieve these items so Nine must get them first. O also informs Agent 9 that he must partner with Traps, a mouse, on this assignment. Used to only being with Fin, Agent 9 is not a happy cat. After all, he’d had visions of winning a spot as Spy of the Month. Working with Traps meant he could kiss that thrill goodbye.

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int2 9 meets Traps the mouse
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

Burks blends humor into both the dialogue and the art throughout this adventure all while keeping the pace going at breakneck speed. We follow Nine and Traps first to the Rail-Con event on a high-speed train to substitute the real deal with a fake electromagnet. Unfortunately, that does not go as planned. The team thing is also proving difficult despite Traps trying her hardest to help out.

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int3 uncoupling train
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

Next up is a visit to Quark Labs to grab the compact-sized nanotech battery with unlimited power and infinite possibilities. But “Once again, it appears I have outsmarted you, Agent 9,” says Wolf snarkily who always manages to show up and foil things. Only this time he’s outsmarted by Nine, Traps, and Fin, who sputter away in a slow-moving vehicle in a funny sequence of panels that pit the gang of good guys and gal against the cunning canine. And though it looks like they might succeed this time …

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int4 car chase
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

… things go south for the trio when Nine is forced by Wolf to choose between the battery or Traps. Soon on his trail again, the spies track Wolf to DiViSiON where he pulls some outrageous moves on Octopus in an effort to wrest sole ownership of the MCD (Mind Control Device). He then turns it on Nine in an act of pure malice. What Wolf doesn’t expect is how teamwork comes through in the end with some clever plotting and a daring and satisfying rescue.

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int5 Wolf controls 9
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

This top-secret tale takes middle-grade readers into a world of good versus evil where humor adds levity, and characters full of personality promise to keep them hooked. Keep your eyes peeled for some suspicious insect-like creatures lurking around some corners that lead us to a secret lair and a hint of book #3’s next villain. I can’t wait. And remember, there’s no I in team!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Middle Grade Fiction – The Beatryce Prophecy

 

THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY

Written by Kate DiCamillo

Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

(Candlewick Press; $19.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

The Beatryce Prophecy cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly

 

NOTE #1: I meant to write about The Beatryce Prophecy almost a year ago when I first read it. However,  being in dire need of a feel-good story, I just reread it so I’m happy to finally share my review of this fairy tale. NOTE #2: You definitely do not need to be between the ages of 8-12 to enjoy every last word of this wonderful novel. Written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, The Beatryce Prophecy is full of promise and a resounding message of love we could all use.

The book begins with:

It is written in the Chronicles of Sorrowing
that one day there will come a child who will unseat a king.
The prophecy states that this child will be a girl.

Because of this,
the prophecy has long been ignored.

 

The kingdom, readers learn in text running parallel to the main narrative, is at stake due to the disappearance of a young girl according to the “Prophecies,” so the hunt is on. At the same time a child, no more than 10 years old, burning with fever and clinging to the ear of an ordinarily unruly goat, is discovered in the barn. The rescuer is Brother Edik, a thoughtful monk who belongs to the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. He is the monastery illuminator of the “glorious golden letters” that begin the text of each page of the Chronicles. Brother Edik also looks after the goat, Answelica.

 

The Beatryce Prophecy int.1
THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY. Text copyright © 2021 by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sophie Blackall. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

Brother Edik, aided by the unusually attentive Answelica, cares for the girl who, when recovered, remembers only that her name is Beatryce. This name also happens to be one that appears frequently in the Chronicles of Sorrowing. Most notable however is that Beatryce can read and write, something forbidden by law for girls in the kingdom. Could this rare ability be a clue to Beatryce’s identity?

It doesn’t take long for the monk to feel a strong bond with Beatryce, but his superior, Father Caddis says she must leave to find her people. As Beatryce is gaining her strength, she encounters Jack Dory. This industrious 12-year-old orphan possesses an excellent memory and gift for mimicry which comes in handy. He’s been dispatched to the monastery by a dying soldier to find a monk to write his confession. But since Father Caddis wants Beatryce gone to keep the Order out of the king’s crosshair, he sends Beatryce instead of Brother Edik.

 

 

The Beatryce Prophecy in tree int.2
THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY. Text copyright © 2021 by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sophie Blackall. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

The pair (with Answelica of course) set out for the village inn where Beatryce, dressed as a monk with shaved hair and pretending to be mute, begins the task committed to. But when the king’s men begin to search, Jack tells his friend they must leave or risk capture.

 

The Beatryce Prophecy dark woods int.3
THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY. Text copyright © 2021 by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sophie Blackall. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

 

In the dark woods during their escape, Jack and Beatryce encounter a mysterious but benevolent bearded old man who helps them evade the soldiers and other threats. He then accompanies the children on a journey so Beatryce, who now remembers who she is, can confront the king. As the parallel text unfolds, readers learn the awful truth about what transpired to cause Beatryce to wind up at the monastery haunted by bad dreams and incomplete memories. Tension, which has been building ever since the close call at the inn, continues to grow as the group converges to enter the castle.

Between the gripping and creative DiCamillo storytelling and the detailed, evocative Blackall art, there is so much to enjoy about The Beatryce Prophecy. I rank this novel up there with DiCamillo’s finest novels and my great mood was on par with how I felt after finishing Flora & Ulysses. Not only is the story one of love, friendship, and fate, but it’s also an homage to the written word, the power of books, and how the truth can set you free. There’s a meaningful unexpected twist at the end, too. I always worry about endings after a page-turning book has taken me along on a journey with characters I care about. And while in a fantastical story such as this, anything goes, anyone reading the novel will be more than satisfied with how DiCamillo wraps it up and offers it like one huge hug. I’m curious if you find yourself humming the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” like I did?

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

For all downloads for this book including a sample chapter and teachers’ guide, click here.

 

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Middle Grade Fiction Series – Willis Wilbur Wows the World

 

 

WILLIS WILBUR WOWS THE WORLD

Written by Lindsey Leavitt

Illustrated by Daniel Duncan

(Penguin Workshop, $13.99,  Ages 8 -12)

 

 

 

Willis Wilbur Wows the World cover

 

If the alliteration in the title was what caught my eye then it was the premise of Willis Wilbur Wows the World, the first book in a new series by Lindsey Leavitt, that made me want to read it. Mature beyond his nine-year-old years, Willis is all pumped to go to band camp for the summer with his best friend Shelley. That is until the plans change and Shelley is off to Hawaii with her family. What will Willis do instead since going to camp without her is out of the question?

A local business competition for kids seems to provide the answer and after a failed initial attempt at interior design, entrepreneurial Willis finds his niche as a life coach to the neighborhood kids. But is he really the right one for the job? And can he win the competition, especially as he needs to contend with bullies, the Rudes, and do it on his own without Shelley by his side? With supportive parents and younger sister Logan behind him, Willis learn the art of life coaching while learning a lot about himself in the process.

Daniel Duncan’s black-and-white illustrations capture the various personalities of the cast of characters throughout including Willis, the intelligent, kind protagonist who has big dreams about succeeding in life, kid sister Logan who can easily give Willis a run for his money, and possible new friend Margo whom Willis sets out to coach in the area of learning to be a kid, despite a hurtful incident that happened during first grade.

Aside from the illustrations, the text is punctuated with email exchanges between Willis and Shelley and “Pro Tips” in boxes (for example: Dress for the part.) which will draw in even the most reluctant reader to this humorous and entertaining story. Willis Wilbur earns the title in his own right and is a welcome and unique character to enter the middle-grade market. Book #2 comes out in September.

  • Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
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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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