The rat is the first animal on the Chinese zodiac and this year you’ll see all kinds of depictions of it as the two weeks of celebrations get underway this weekend. I’ve selected two books to share that are great for all ages. The first one is a board book for the youngest members of your family and the second is a fact and personal-account-filled middle grade picture book that will educate, enlighten and entertain every reader with its comprehensive approach to the Chinese New Year.
This sweet 28 page board book, in both Chinese and English, features adorable photographs of children doing assorted things related to certain Chinese zodiac animal traits pictured on the opposite page. Readers learn that the 12 animals “are in a race to cross the river.” Rat, shown first, thinks about how to win. The picture is of a little boy peering into a pond. We then hear about Ox and Tiger and all the others, my favorite being the bunny. The precious photo of a mom and baby head to head, full on in conversation complements the actions of rabbit who in the race is described as chatting “to everyone along the way. The simple movements and children’s facial expressions and accompanying text for the dozen creatures help convey a bit about the Zodiac character’s personality. The Animals of the Chinese New Yearprovides a gentle introduction to the holiday celebrated around the world and includes a brief note from the author at the end.
This middle grade nonfiction book is part of the Orca Origins series that explores traditions around the globe and has its own dedicated website here: www.orcaorigins.com. This particular title on the Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, aims to be “a snapshot of Chinese culture,” and succeeds beautifully.
The book, with gorgeous color photos throughout, is conveniently divided into four chapters: “What Chinese New Year is All About,” How Chinese New Year Spread Around the World,” How Chinese New Year is Celebrated Today,” and “Chinese New Year Celebrations Across the Globe.” In addition there’s an intro, a final word from the author, a glossary, and resources, making Chinese New Yeara comprehensive and engaging go-to book for fans of the holiday as well as schools and libraries. Children can read the book in one sitting or take it one chapter at a time.
I was quickly hooked from the start after reading about Lee’s family’s story of moving to Vancouver. Her grandfather arrived as a teenager in 1913 and worked hard to establish a life for himself there. I also liked how Lee incorporated into each chapter several other individuals’ personal stories that focused on their connection to the Chinese New Year. By explaining the holiday, its meaning, popularity and traditions, the story of Chinese emigration and the diaspora in places like Canada, the United States and Australia was also revealed. Chinese New Year addresses racism, too, and how the goal of bringing the holiday out into the public was meant to welcome others into the celebration and help them see the Chinese culture with new, more tolerant eyes.
Lee includes CNY sidebars with interesting facts such as why numbers are important in the Chinese culture. For example eight is “the luckiest because when spoken in Chinese it can sound like the word for wealth.” I learned that the number four which can sound like word death is considered the most unlucky number. I now know the significance of the colors red and gold, red symbolizing fire and a color associated with the victory of fending off the mythical beast Nian. Gold symbolizes wealth and the enduring wish that one’s family should benefit from a year of prosperity. And did you know that twenty percent of the world’s population celebrates Chinese New Year? Or that in the United Kingdom 630,000 people of Chinese descent live, mostly in London?
There is something for everyone to get out of reading Chinese New Year whether that be learning where around the world Chinese New Year is celebrated and how, why people left China for a new start in hundreds of countries around the world and what they encountered in their new homeland, or the many different foods associated with the holiday. And with that I wish you Gung hay fat choy!
Acorn books, designed for early readers, brings five scary stories to children in this Mister Shivers series. Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories has 64 pages packed with full-color artwork while some other Acorn books have 48 pages. Either way, there’s something for every new reader seeking “relatable characters and experiences” written and illustrated by some of the best known names in children’s literature.
Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories opens with a letter from Mister Shivers about a mysterious box delivered to him in which he found items pertaining to each story and a promise to share the stories in the book. Like all the stories in this book, evocative, muted illustrations help reinforce the easy-to-read text of these fast paced short stories. That’s certainly the case in “Beneath the Bed” about a boy dared by kids at school to visit the local haunted house. Upon entering the house with his sister who he brought along for courage, the pair discover a sinister doll with glowing eyes under a bed in the attic bedroom.
“A Hair Down to My Stomach” as the title implies, is equal parts gross and unsettling, with just the type of visuals accompanying it to make it succeed. “The Statue” will have kids talking back to the book as they turn the pages and tell the mom in the story as her son tries to do, “Don’t buy the statue!” Of course, she does. What follows is the reason why Mr. Shivers’ mysterious box contained a piece of quilty. He never mentioned if it was smelly like the quilt in “The Statue.” All I know is the young boy should have listened to the statue’s owner when she warned the buyers not to remove the quilt. The same goes for Oliver in “A Dark and Stormy Night” who should have done as his parents’ wished and brought his toys inside. Instead, they were left out in the rain to be ruined by the elements. Toys don’t like being forgotten and seek their revenge when that happens. Poor Oliver! And as for the scraping sound in “The Noise at the Window,” I know this well. Only I’ve been fortunate to find a tree outside where I heard the clawing coming from a branch. The little girl in this tale wasn’t so fortunate!
Okay spine, start tingling because these five stories are guaranteed to make you keep the lights on.
Get ready to be caught under the spell of Emma Steinkellner’s The Okay Witch, a terrific debut middle grade graphic novel.
Tween readers will be charmed by the main character Moth Hush, who at 13 learns she is part witch with special powers, something she had only dreamed of up until that point. Living above her single mom Calendula’s second hand store, Moth has never felt the warm and fuzzies from her classmates in her Massachusetts hometown of Founder’s Bluff nor in the community at large. She soon learns there’s a good reason why and goes exploring back in time via her mother’s diary.
In 1692 a group of women suspected of being witches, her grandmother Sarah being one of them, was run out of town. They were indeed witches but good ones and many townspeople secretly went to them to avail of magic to help them. When ousted, Sarah led the women to a timeless land she created called Hecate, but Calendula refused to live there. She returned to Founder’s Bluff to live a normal non-witch life for herself having fallen in love with a human. Sadly, Sarah cast a spell to make this man have no memory of Calendula. Pregnant, the brokenhearted, Calendula raised Moth alone with no magic.
In school Moth befriends another fish-out-of-water named Charlie who is new to Founder’s Bluff. Little does Moth know that there’s a connection between her family and Charlie’s that could test their friendship. I got a kick out of the magical cat, Mr. Laszlo, the spirit of Keeper’s Secondhand Store who had taken Calendula in and, when he passed away, left the store to her. The talking feline’s speech is peppered with Yiddish and in my head I heard Billy Crystal doing the dialogue.
Steinkellner must have had such fun writing and illustrating this story which reads quickly and nicely ties all the loose threads together at the end. The artwork wonderfully and convincingly conveys the moments when Moth experiences the power of magic. I especially liked the historical scenes and when Moth visits Hecate, but to be honest, all the illustrations brought the story alive. The novel is filled with humor, sarcasm, action, fantasy, pride and most of all, love as evidenced by Moth’s efforts to navigate the magical world of her grandmother and the real world in which Calendula has chosen to raise her. She’s new to the witch world and she’s far from perfect, making her The Okay Witch we care about and want to see happy and at home with her mom.
Graphic novel fans will quickly be swept up into Moth’s witchy world of time travel, timelessness, tween curiosity and relationships as Moth tries to learn more about herself. Will the way in which her family’s life intersects with that of Founder’s Bluff be a reason to stay or retreat to Hecate? The fun’s in the finding out in this enchanting, recommended read that’s definitely not just for Halloween.
You don’t need to have read Book#1 in order to enjoy Ghoulia and the Mysterious Visitor (Book #2), a chapter book series about a friendly zombie called Ghoulia and the dead and not-so-dead inhabitants of Crumbling Manor. Billed as Clue meets LittleShop of Horrors, this full-color illustrated book is sure to get young readers in a Halloween mood.
The story opens with Ghoulia feeling bored. When cranky cousin Dilbert arrives unexpectedly, Ghoulia looks for her Auntie Departed to explain why this relative she’d never even heard of got invited to Crumbling Manor. But her Chatterbox-Ivy-obsessed aunt is nowhere to be found. Ghoulia thinks it’s odd when more friends turn up, each with an invitation to a surprise dinner the young vampire knows nothing about.
As Ghoulia and her pals search Crumbling Manor for Auntie Departed, a friend Theresa also goes missing. Something weird is happening so the remaining guests split up to find those who’ve disappeared while trying to help Ghoulia figure out who sent the invitations.
This delightful chapter book will hook confident young readers ages 6 to 8 who still love beautifully illustrated stories that aren’t scary yet have an air of mystery about them. I’m not sure kids will recognize famous individuals such as Hitchcock and Poe in framed pictures on Crumbling Manor’s walls, but they’re certainly a treat for adult readers. In fact every illustration is a treat and worthy of a thorough scanning to see what special things Cantini has hung up on the walls or placed in each room. Her prose and pictures provide the perfect foreshadowing for kids quick to pick up clues. At the end there are bonus activities including how to write an invitation and fill out an envelope, how to start a garden and how to make Dilbert’s special pumpkin juice (minus the spiders’ eggs)! Watch out for Ghoulia and the Ghost With No Name (Book #3) coming soon!
Described by Chris Grabenstein, #1 New York Times bestselling author, as “Young Frankenstein meets The Princess Bride in the most hysterically hilarious book I’ve read in years,” and I could not agree more. I smiled my whole way through The Curse of the Werepenguin, a clever, funny and original story within a story. I read it over two days and could not wait to see how author Allan Woodrow would end it. As I suspected, it’s TO BE CONTINUED so now I have to find out where he takes this wild and feathery tale of an orphan boy named Bolt.
Meet Humboldt Wattle (aka Bolt), a twelve-year-old boy abandoned as a baby at The Oak Wilt Home for Unwanted Boys. There’s little about him that makes him stand out except a large bird-shaped birthmark on his neck. When suddenly his life changes overnight, Bolt’s unusual marking will take on tremendous significance in his life. He’s been summoned to the distant land of Brugaria by a wealthy baron who no one wishes to disobey. Could this mean the family he’s been hoping for is finally ready to reunite with him?
The catch is that Baron Chordata is not only a cruel person feared by most inhabitants of Brugaria, he looks like he’s the same age as Bolt. On top of that, he dresses in tuxedos even at home, and consumes massive quantities of fish, every kind imaginable, including live goldfish. Woodraw’s descriptions of eating seafood have to be some of the funniest and disgusting ones I’ve ever read and I lapped up every slimy, slithery sentence. I also may never look at fish sticks the same way again!
In a trance from his first experience playing video games, Bolt unknowingly agrees to a request by Baron Chordata. This eventually leads to his being bitten on the neck. The result? Bolt turns partially into half boy, half penguin or werepenguin, so maybe a quarter … Anyway, after three days the full effect of the transformation will be complete. When the full moon shines, which is every night in Brugaria, the change in Bolt occurs. His feet turn webbed and orange, he sprouts wild tufts of hair, wings, an enormous nose and has cravings for seafood. Then he, along with all the other werepenguins including the baron, bark, wreak havoc and steal fish whenever possible.
Fortunately or unfortunately for Bolt, a girl named Annika who tried to rob and kidnap him because she’s “the world’s great bandit,” becomes an ally (or not) in trying to help Bolt escape the baron’s wicked clutches and rid himself of the werepenguin curse. The curse is not the only thing Bolt’s dealing with. He’s got this wacky, whale-loving cult leader named Günter determined to destroy him. Günter’s weapon of choice, a loaf of French bread! Plus Bolt’s learned that the werepenguins, led by power and fish hungry werepenguin-in-chief, Baron Chordata, are orchestrating a takeover of Brugaria the same day the curse on Bolt goes into full force. Someone has to do something and Bolt realizes it’s him. What that something is, he’s not totally sure, but still …
You’ll LOL at the Cloris Leachman-like “lowly housekeeper” called Frau Farfenugen, a greenish, warty and miserable woman who is not what she seems, Blazenda, a fortune-telling witch whose cackles drive Bolt crazy, but who may hold the key (or tooth) to Bolt’s freedom, and a cast of colorful characters, some of whom scream and faint whenever the name Baron Chordata is said aloud, that will entertain you and have you sitting on the edge of your seat or wherever it is that you read fantastic books.
Ultimately, Bolt has to decide what real family is. Is it Annika and her bandit dad and his buddies or is it the rook of penguins that, we learn in the novel’s prologue, should never be split up? I’m not going to spoil it by telling you, but I will say that joining Bolt on his journey is something you’ll love doing. So start cooking some fish sticks, grab a baguette and get reading!
I made sure I read this book when my husband was home because I’m a big chicken. When I did read Ghost, I realized the stories are not only fantastic ghost stories for Halloween, but also ones to commit to memory to share around a campfire. You could also bring the book along but you many not want the hauntingly illustrated, white embossed cover to get dirty. “Contributors to this chilling collection include authors Blaise Hemingway and Jesse Reffsin, and illustrators Chris Sasaki and Jeff Turley,” and Kit Turley, and they’ve done a fantastic job of scaring me although, as I said above, I do scare easily.
As I settled down to read each of the thirteen eerie tales, an owl hooted from my back yard adding to spooky feeling the stories exude. The tales, brief but powerfully creepy, are ideal for tweens who love to feel the hair on their necks stand up. The subjects range from a girl getting a tap tap tap from her mirror and then being imprisoned in it by her evil reflection, to two boys going ice fishing who disregard a shopkeeper’s advice to avoid the north of Point Whitney. The reason—it’s haunted by the ghost of Max Whitney, the former owner of the bait and tackle shop. Do the boys catch a lot of fish? Yep. Do they return safely home to share their experience? I’m not telling. There’s another one that takes place by a pond. Suffice it to say that, unlike the main character in this tale, a boy named Samuel who hears his drowned sister call out to him and follows her cries, I would never go out of my house in the middle of the night with a lantern by myself. The artwork throughout Ghost has a spare quality about it with a very limited palette which is appropriate for the collection. And though created digitally, all the illustrations resemble wood block prints and imbue every tale with as frightening an effect as the words themselves.
The tale that particularly resonated with me was about a girl who finally gets a room of her own away from her younger sister. Now alone in her new bedroom, the girl is terrified of the ghostly night noises but thinks if she just huddles under the covers and keeps her eyes tightly closed, everything will be okay. And it is, but how long can she keep her eyes shut? Did I mention that as a child I had my dad install a lock on my bedroom closet door? I will not easily forget the story of the young boy, Michael Alvey deep sea diving to a WWII sub wreck in search of the bodies of his deceased parents. They died just after their last communication was, “Please! Help! They’re coming.” When I found out who “they” were, I was shocked and readers will be, too. I caution young readers to avoid basements, elevators, hiking or making a trip after midnight to a cemetery right after reading Ghost.
Some stories unhinged me more than others, “The Descent” being one of them. That’s not to say they weren’t all good because they were, but certain stories played off of my deepest fears more than others. That being said, it might be best to read this book with a cat curled up on your lap or with a big dog nearby during the day!
WE ARE THE CHANGE: WORDS OF INSPIRATION FROM CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS With an Introduction by Harry Belafonte (Chronicle Books; $17.99, Ages 9-12)
Middle-grade nonfiction book, We Are the Change: Words of Inspiration from Civil Rights Leaders, beautifully weaves together quotations with evocative imagery. Harry Belafonte’s* powerful introduction encourages future leaders to remember that “in citizenship [resides] a profound majesty, an individual dignity, and a lifelong responsibility of each man and woman to one another.”
Sixteen award-winning illustrators have selected and depicted quotes from leaders past and present. Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement “universal human rights begin in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map” is expanded by artist Molly Idle: “lines drawn on maps to divide us into nations, states, and towns are only imaginary.”
Sonia Sotomayor hopes we fix a broken system rather than fight it. Illustrator John Parra adds that “we can accomplish much by reframing our goals of working toward what we believe in, instead of what we are against.”
Raúl the Third’s moving image accompanies Dolores Huerta’s wish that “[people’s] differences should not turn into hatred.”
Khalil Gibran believes “[our children’s] souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.” Artist Innosanto Nagara reminds us “the choices we make today must protect our children’s rights.”
Additional spirited civil rights quotations paired with original artwork by Selina Alko, Alina Chau, Emily Hughes, Molly Idle, Juana Medina, Innosanto Nagara, Christopher Silas Neal, Brian Pinkney, Greg Pizzoli, Sean Qualls, Dan Santat, Shadra Strickland, and Melissa Sweet make this a must-read for tweens.
We Are the Change is a call to action and an opportunity for thoughtful conversation.
*“Harry Belafonte is a Jamaican-American singer, songwriter, actor, and social activist. He has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 1986 and is now the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues.”
In her debut chapter book as author-illustrator, Cantini brings young readers Ghoulia, a friendly, warm and purple-loving zombie girl (can a zombie be warm, just asking?) who really has only one wish, to have friends. Stuck inside the grounds of Crumbling Manor, Ghoulia has been forbidden to leave the premises out of fear she and her Auntie Departed, her closest relative, will be made to leave the village should they be found out. In this first book of the series, and at just 64 illustration-filled pages, Ghoulia is a fast and fun read for anyone curious about zombie kids. Ghoulia’s cast of characters includes her Auntie Departed, Shadow the cat, Uncle Misfortune who happens to be a head and ideal candy bucket for Halloween, Tragedy the Albino greyhound and Grandad Coffin, a chess-playing distraction for a zombie granddaughter’s escape on Halloween. Ghoulia pulls off this daring feat (and that could be a pun since her body parts can come off whenever she wants) on Halloween when her brilliant idea to masquerade as herself in order to meet the local children is a huge success. But alas, what will happen when the village trick-or-treaters learn the truth and it’s revealed that Ghoulia’s not dressed up in a zombie costume but actually is one? A secret Monster Society is formed and everyone lives (well that’s not totally true of course) happily ever after. Cantini captures the atmosphere of Ghoulia’s off-beat world with page after wonderful page of whimsical illustrations and a sweet storyline. Book 2, Ghoulia And The Mysterious Visitor is up next in this winning new series so fans won’t have to wait long to find out what’s in store for the charming zombie girl. Several entertaining pages of bonus activities are included in the back matter. • Review by Ronna Mandel
Chapter book, Sam Wu is NOT Afraid of Ghosts is a good match for reluctant readers because of its simple text, frequent illustrations, and funny asides in the margins or footnotes. As the title implies, there will be a lot of ironic humor; Sam Wu must face his fear of ghosts and reestablish himself in the eyes of his peers after a truly embarrassing incident. Luckily he’s learned a lot from his favorite TV program, “Space Blasters.” Now it seems there’s a ghost in Sam’s house, so Sam and his friends must prove they are brave ghost hunters.
Kids can sympathize with how it feels to not fit in. Sam introduces his friends to his favorite meal (roast duck and turnip cake) and urges them to take just one bite—even though the turnip cake does smell a lot like feet. Doing so, he successfully bridges their cultures using delicious food. Regaining some dignity with his classmates is harder, but Sam Wu demonstrates he’s no “Wu-ser” (as Ralph, the class bully, calls him).
In the closing Q&A, authors Katie and Kevin Tsang explain how they’ve woven some of their own childhoods into the story, showing they are “definitely NOT afraid of answering some author questions.”
Nathan Reed livens up the story with hilarious images of the characters including the evil cat Butterbutt, and Fang, the toughest snake ever. There is visual interest on every page to keep kids engaged beyond the text of the story.
Sam Wu is NOT Afraid of Ghosts works well as a Halloween book for kids who prefer not-very-scary ghost stories with plenty of laughs. • Review by Christine Van Zandt
CITY OF GHOSTS Written by Victoria Schwab (Scholastic; $17.99, Ages 9-12)
Looking for a spooky Halloween read? Check out Victoria Schwab’s middle-grade novel, City of Ghosts. The story opens when eleven-year-old Cassidy’s birthday gift sends her over the edge (literally) and she drowns (sort of—a boy-ghost named Jacob retrieves her from death). Soon after, Cass is drawn toward something she calls The Veil and discovers that she can cross over into the place where ghosts dwell.
Jacob and Cass travel to Scotland with Cass’s parents whose book The Inspecters (inspectors of specters) is being made into a television series. Cass meets another girl with the same sort of gift in Edinburgh, the city of ghosts. There, mysterious locales harbor dangerous inhabitants; Cass must quickly learn how to survive.
The reveal-and-conceal relationship between the lead characters in City of Ghostsis fascinating. There’s a lot to learn about the other side when adventures through The Veil become more complex. This book explores historical haunts and interesting folklore as the alluring story unfolds in ethereal delight.
Victoria Schwab is the #1 New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen novels for young adults and adults, including the Shades of Magic series, Vicious, Vengeful, This Savage Song, and Our Dark Duet. • Review by Christine Van Zandt Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Successwww.Write-for-Success.com @WFSediting,Christine@Write-for-Success.com
A clever travel maze of sorts, Around the World in 50 Ways is designed as a “choose-your-own travel adventure” where readers set off from London and try their hand at globetrotting with the goal of finishing up again in London. So much depends on what mode of transport or next destination is selected as to whether they’ll navigate the winning route the first time around. There are myriad means of travel and a plethora of possible routes, but beware of dead ends! Not to worry though because, like any good maze, readers just return to the beginning or the place where they ventured off incorrectly and try again. Along the way, kids will learn about some of the world’s most popular, exotic and interesting places while picking up fascinating facts—did you know Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh or that Hanoi in Vietnam is sometimes called “The Paris of the East”?—and enjoying bright and bold illustrations. From Bangkok, Barcelona, Battambang, Berlin, Brussels, Budapest and Buenos Aires all the way to Tokyo, Toronto, Trondheim, Vancouver, Venice, Victoria, Wellington and Wuppertal with tons of exciting destinations in-between, there’s tons to see and do (164 pages worth to be precise). How to get from point A to point B? Try a bus, a cruise, a rental car, a ferry, a felucca, a tuk-tuk, a canoe, a jumbo jet, a rickshaw, a sled and lots more! Whether going abroad or enjoying a local staycation, fit this book into your itinerary. Click here for a link to cool Lonely Planet quiz.
My Vacation Scrapbook(with over 150 stickers) is full of creative activities that will keep kids entertained for hours and also jumpstart their imaginations as you head off on holiday or even on day trips to the zoo, national parks, Disneyland or other theme parks. Not only is this scrapbook a great way to help kids experience a vacation from a new perspective, it’s also going to become a unique time capsule of special experiences away from home. One of my favorite activities included in My Vacation Scrapbook is the Bar Code Decode where children can play secret agent by using bar codes from various vacation purchases to track down enemy spies around the world. Included for that is a map with starred cities and numbered coordinates making this an inviting game for the entire family. There’s a two-page spread where readers can glue or tape found objects and turn them into art, there’s a place for snack wrappers (never thought of including those in my scrapbooks!), a competition involving meal receipts and loads of pages to stick other prized momentous from the trip. Kids will be able to find lots to do with the stickers provided and at the back, there’s even a “handy pocket to collect your souvenirs” like postcards, stamps, receipts and used museum passes and transportation tickets. An elastic band secures all the treasures for future viewing and reminiscing. The assorted 40 pages are thin enough for doing some rubbings of textured items yet sturdy enough to withstand frequent use. This would make a wonderful going away gift when paired with a pack of crayons, tape, glue sticks and scissors (just remember scissors cannot be brought on an airplane).
This “fold-out, fact-filled poster” is a map of North America meaning included are Canada’s 13 provinces, America’s 50 states and 21 other countries plus 22 dependencies (territories that are governed by, or make up part of, another country.The range of destinations spans from Antigua and Barbuda to the U.S. Virgin Islands. If you’re a fan of geography this is a definite must-have, but even if you are unfamiliar with the map, it’s an interactive, educational and entertaining way to get to know North America. It’s easy to personalize the map with the over 180 stickers that say things like GOING HERE SOON, BEEN HERE!, I LIVE HERE plus hearts, stars, arrows, modes of transportation, sun, rain, clouds and other assorted weather stickers, as well as blank stickers to customize. When you’re done exploring, turn the map over for interesting details about places you’ve traveled to, plan to visit or may have on your “dream destination” list. Bring My Family Travel Map along on any upcoming road trips or play armchair traveler from the comfort of your home.
OPEN IF YOU DARE Written by Dana Middleton (Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 9-12)
is reviewed by Colleen Paeff.
Open if You Dare by Dana Middleton begins at the end. It’s the last day of elementary school and three best friends Birdie, Rose, and Ally are about to embark on their very last summer together. Rose is moving back to England in August and Ally and Birdie will attend different middle schools come September. Nothing will ever be the same again and the girls know it.
They are looking forward to a blissfully predictable summer of swimming, softball, selfies, and lots of time together on their secret island. But the discovery of a mysterious box and its sinister contents takes the trio on an unexpected search for the identity of a dead girl and the villain who killed her.
Middleton expertly weaves mystery with coming-of-age, as the girls experience crushes and rivalries, bad decisions and harsh consequences, parental expectations and annoying siblings – in other words, Life – in the midst of their search for answers. When the clues run dry, Rose and Ally would happily give up the hunt in favor of milking as much fun as possible out of their last summer together, but Birdie, our narrator, can’t let it go. Perhaps it’s because, for her, solving the mystery of the dead girl seems easier than solving the mystery of what life will be like without Rose and Ally by her side.
Like any good mystery, there are twists and turns and startling connections. And the setting, based on Middleton’s hometown in Georgia, comes to life with evocative details and fully realized characters of all ages. Ultimately, though, Open if You Dare is a story about friendship and where Middleton truly shines is in her depiction of the joys and complexities of building relationships with the people who understand us most in the world and the heartbreak of letting them go.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that, by the end of the book, the mystery of the dead girl is solved. But the mystery of what life will be like in middle school? Alone? Let’s just say Rose, Ally, and Birdie are ready to take it on. Let the adventure begin.
Review by Colleen Paeff – Colleen lives in Los Angeles, California, where she writes fiction and nonfiction picture books. She hosts the monthly Picture Book Publisher Book Club and its companion blog, Picture Book Publishers 101. Look for her on Twitter @ColleenPaeff.
Here’s the first of several roundups full of great new Christmas books for kids that we hope you’ll enjoy. There’s really something here for everyone under age 10 who’s interested in a great story or activity during the long holiday break. Let us know which ones ended up being your family’s favorites. Merry Christmas!
In A World of Cookies for Santa: Follow Santa’s Tasty Trip Around the World, Santa takes a journey across the globe to drop off gifts and savor treats children leave for him.
The story begins appropriately on Christmas Island in the South Pacific where Santa finds the children’s gift of chewy coconut macaroons. From Christmas Island, Santa visits Asia, Africa, Europe, South American and North America before heading home to the North Pole. Santa’s entire journey may be traced by using the map at the beginning of the book.
Splashes of orange and dashes of red flood the 48 pages and create warm cheery scenes. The joy of giving and receiving is vividly expressed on the faces of smiling children. Parents may stumble over a few foreign words, but there’s lots of opportunities for fun-learning. Furman provides recipes for baking Santa’s cookies which may inspire children and families to try new multicultural holiday recipes. Countries may have different Christmas customs, but they are similar in keeping the traditions of preparing and enjoying treats. • Reviewed by Randi Lynn Mrvos
Growing up, I was always a fan of the “find the hidden objects” puzzles, so it’s no surprise that I love Bear’s Merry Book of Hidden Things even now as an adult. As the title suggests, the reader is invited to help bear find the items he needs for his upcoming holiday party. Children will enjoy the challenge of perusing through the crowd of cute critters, the jumble of gingerbread, and the sea of snowmen to get bear’s party going. The 32 pages of colorful confections, gift bags galore, and a multitude of mittens make a Christmasy camouflage that will keep the young ones engaged while they look for ice-skates, an ornament, and an array of other goodies. Some things are easier to spot than others so don’t be surprised if this turns into fun for the whole family.
If you’re looking for something to keep the kids entertained while you’re planning a party of your own, Bear’s Merry Book of Hidden Things should do the trick. And don’t worry, this is not a one-and-done book either. Even after they’ve found everything for Bear, little ones will enjoy looking through the wintery scenes again and again to see what else they might have missed. • Reviewed by MaryAnne Locher
Will this be the year your child learns the truth about Santa? You may want to hold off sharing this purposely green foil-banded book until your youngest is ready to have “that conversation” with you about whether or not Santa is real. While Scholastic suggests that this picture book may be appropriate for children aged 5, another publication recommends it for ages 6-9 and still another says it’s for kids ages 9-12. To be honest, only a parent knows when their child will appreciate the heart felt message Brockenbrough so beautifully and thoughtfully conveys.
The story is interactive in that a little girl does her annual correspondence to Santa and young readers can actually open an envelope, pull out the letter and then have it read to them or read it themselves. Naturally she’s curious about all things North Pole, until she turns eight. That’s when she leaves Santa’s note for her mother instead, inquiring whether she is actually the wondrous world traveler. Her mom’s response will no doubt resonate with all readers of a certain age. “Santa,” replies the mother, “is bigger than any one person. He always has been.” The message that the truth and tradition of Santa is carried on by all who cherish the magic of believing in something good and selfless is one that will touch everyone this Christmas. Certain to be treasured by all who receive it, Love, Santa is THE book to reach for whenever a child questions the existence of Mr. Claus. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
MEET DANIELLE DAVIS, AUTHOR OF ZINNIA AND THE BEES Written by Danielle Davis Illustrated by Laura K. Horton (Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)
Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel.
Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.
On that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.
As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.
The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)
Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.
Review by Ronna Mandel
Good Reads With Ronna:What was the genesis forZinnia and the Bees?
Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.
GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?
DD 🐝:I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).
GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?
DD 🐝:While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.
GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?
DD 🐝:Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday.
GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?
DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.
GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?
DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.
GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?
DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of myblog.
And The Red Treeby Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.
GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?
DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.
GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?
DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.
GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?
DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)
The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years agohere.
GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?
DD🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!
Visit Danielle’s website here. Find her at Twitter here. Find her at Instagram here. Click here to see Danielle’s Facebook page And click here to for her Pinterest boards. Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.
THE SCENT OF SOMETHING SNEAKY By Gail Hedrick (Tumblehome Learning; $9.95, Ages 9-12)
In The Smell of Something Sneaky, Emily Sanders, the small town heroine from Hedrick’s first middle grade novel, Something Stinks!, is back to solve another mystery, only this one’s a lot more dangerous. In this well-paced, satisfying sequel, Hedrick’s 14-year-old main character begins noticing suspicious incidents occurring at a North Caroline B & B owned by her friend Mary’s grandmother. While everyone around her thinks these incidents are unrelated, Emily can’t shake off the feeling they’re connected.
It’s summer break and peak season for the popular getaway, Baird’s Den, where Emily’s working alongside her friend to fill in during a temporary staff shortage. The action begins quickly when a guest gets hurt from a loose step board. But nails don’t just pop out and Emily begins to wonder if the nails she discovers nearby were deliberately removed. Her friend Mary thinks otherwise and remarks that just because Emily solved one crime doesn’t mean there’s anything sneaky going on this time around. It’s true that accidents do happen, but in this case it’s starting to look a lot like they’re being made to happen, and if so, why? A neighbor, and Baird’s Den helper, Alex, is more easily convinced than Mary, that something’s up when a septic tank begins to stink, then a swarm of bees make a hive on top of the house followed by an electrical fire in the B & B’s carriage house. Alex even tells Mary that Gigi, Mary’s grandma, had a fall down the cellar steps due to a faulty light bulb before the girls arrived in North Carolina. Yes, something’s surely amiss and Emily’s determined to get to the bottom of it. So, by presenting some convincing evidence, Emily recruits her pals to help get to the bottom of things and save Baird’s Den from a string of costly setbacks and possible closure. But the closer Emily’s sleuthing takes her to uncovering the culprit or culprits, the more at risk she puts herself and her friends.
Hedrick has woven in clues and several red herrings to keep budding tween detectives on their toes, my favorites being the “Audubon guy” who keeps appearing all over the place, and the overly cheerful “realtor girl.” There is a great cast of characters readers will enjoy getting to know including innkeeper extraordinaire Grandma Gigi, neighbor Alex Ortiz and his crafter mom, Mariella, Pete the Plumber, bee wrangler Barb Blackstone, shopkeeper Evan Moss of Mountain Artisans along with the ever changing list of B & B guests. It’s also much ado about all things olfactory in this middle grade mystery and not all of it is sneaky. I could smell the trees from Hedrick’s description of Baird’s Den situated near the edge of the woods where trails invited “hikers, bikers, and horses.” And then there’s lots about the cinnamon Gigi uses both in drinks and for special guests’ gifts as well as the enticing aroma of candles on display at Mountain Artisans handmade crafts store. In fact, scent even plays a role in detecting part of a crime scene!
The Scent of Something Sneaky makes for entertaining summer reading and may just set your mind wandering the next time you step foot in a craft store while on holiday.
My kids have been tinkering around with Scratch since they were about 6-years-old. For those unfamiliar with Scratch, it’s a free visual programming language that comes from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). You can find out more about it at www.scratch.mit.edu. Anyone can create stories, games, and animations and share them. Plus, you can download it onto your computer or play connected to the Internet.
I decided to start with Coding in Scratch: Games Workbook first. Reading through it, I became more familiar with how the games are supposed to work. There are handy arrows to all the parts you see on your screen as well as detailed instructions. This is really helpful for kids or adults who are not apt to explore all the buttons. In a way, I think both the Coding in Scratch: Games Workbook and Coding Games in Scratch: A Step-by-Step Visual Guide to Building Your Own Computer Games are also terrific or adults to read so they know what their kids are doing when they play and how they can assist if needed.
I had never played with Scratch before, but as I used both the book and workbook to make the suggested games, I learned a lot! The great thing about these books as well as Scratch is that readers see how it applies so many math concepts with the simple coding!
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has said, “Learning to code makes kids feel empowered, creative, and confident,” and I agree. After following the directions and learning how to make a sample game, I wish I’d had more time to tinker around with it and make my own creative game or animation. You might think that making a computer game is not a good use of time (I know I’ve been guilty of this), but after seeing all the math and logical thinking that goes into making a complete game in Scratch, I can tell you it is an educational and helpful exercise. I found it interesting that many of the big names in the computer industry – Jobs, Wozniak, and Zuckerberg – all made computer games as children.
In the book, Chapter One covers computer games: the various types of games, what makes a good game, and how coding works. Chapter Two talks about getting Scratch, either onto your computer or playing online, along with a tour of what the basic screen and controls look like. Chapters Three through Ten are directions for games that you can make. Chapter Eleven explains what can be next for you and your programming child, followed by a Glossary and Index.
I went ahead and made the first game in Chapter Three and just in that first game alone I learned how to: – assign sound effects – put the code directions for the sprites (characters) using if-then blocks and repeating blocks – pick a background – make sprites, name them, and move them in different directions (using degrees of rotation) – add chance (assign it to pick a random number between 1 and 6) – use the coordinate system along the x and y axis (including negative numbers) – create variables for sprites, and – run the complete project and check for bugs (mistakes in the program)
I noticed that as the chapters progressed the games got a bit more complex, even though they’re all actually simple games. If you use this book, it can expedite the learning curve for making your own games. You’ll also discover all the intricacies that Scratch games have to offer. My 10-year-old and I started to do another chapter and it was a fun activity to do with him. It’s amazing to see how fast children learn how to use the program.
After reviewing the Coding Games in Scratch: A Step-by-Step Visual Guide to Building Your Own Computer Games and Coding in Scratch: Games Workbook, I’d easily recommend getting both. Though the publisher’s recommended age for these books is ages 9-12, in my opinion even younger children would enjoy it. The book is extremely helpful to accelerate the learning of what fun, creative games you can make in Scratch, and the workbook makes sure you know the terminology and applications of the components of Scratch. I hope your children enjoy coding and that you can join them in discovering how fun and educational it is to create computer games!
You’ve read Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods and loved it, so now you’re ready for Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes and it will not disappoint. Here’s why …
“… We’re going back about 4,000 years to decapitate monsters, save some kingdoms, shoot a few gods in the butt, raid the Underworld, and steal loot from evil people.” (p. ix).
Oh no! Percy Jackson has “sold out” again. For free pepperoni pizza and blue jelly beans, Percy followed up his book on the ancient Greek gods with one on Greek heroes. So, for those who want to be famous monster fighters, Percy advises reading this book to learn from the heroes’ mistakes and to remind oneself that:
… no matter how much you think your life sucks, these guys and gals had it worse.
Percy embellishes the adventures of twelve ancient Greek heroes and heroines with lively commentary, snappy observations, and amusing references to contemporary culture. The irreverent Percy refers to Jason and his Argonauts as the “demigod dream team” (p. 237) and writes that:
Theseus was the original ADHD poster child. He was hyper in diapers (p.149).
Witty chapter titles, such as “Atlanta vs. Three Pieces of Fruit: the Ultimate Death Match,” are sure to keep young readers chuckling and turning the pages. In addition to recounting the tales of well-known heroes like Hercules, Percy shares those of lesser known heroes and heroines. Riordan’s inclusion of two heroines, Otrera and Cyrene, allows readers to see girls and women as heroes, something not often seen in ancient Greek society.
Rocco’s vivid and powerful illustrations will surely catch the attention of even reluctant readers, pulling them into the book. The breath-taking illustrations of Hercules slaying the hydra and Daedalus pulling Apollo’s chariot (on the inside front and back covers) reminded me of the Renaissance masters’ red chalk drawings. Two eye-popping and highly readable maps of the ancient Mediterranean world and the locations of Hercules’ twelve tasks are included along with background reading and websites.
Percy’s final words for would be heroes and heroines:
“… if you’re still determined to be a hero, you are beyond hope. Then again, I’m beyond hope and so are most of my friends, so … welcome to the club (p. 383).
Visit Riordan’s website to learn more about the author of Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes and check out his educational resources and event guides that tie into the popular Percy Jackson series. It’s also worth checking out the Percy Jackson website and Riordan’s blog. To learn more about Rocco’s work visit his website and Goodreads blog.
When approached by a New York publisher to “tell all” about the gods, Percy Jackson asks:
“Can we do this anonymously? Because I don’t need the Olympians mad at me again (Percy Jackson, p.ix).”
Despite his understandable concerns (irking the gods can be dangerous to your health), Percy, in typical teen fashion, humorously narrates nineteen stories about the Greek gods, weaving in snarky comments and observations. Surprisingly, blending these dark and grim stories with irreverent humor makes the myths (a little) less horrific. Here’s Percy’s interpretation of an exchange between Kronos and Rhea concerning their children and …um…. Kronos’ food choices:
“He [Kronos] stuffed Hestia in his mouth and swallowed her whole. Just like: GULP. She was gone. As you can imagine Reha completely freaked. “My baby!” she screamed …” “Oh wow,” Kronos belched. “My bad …(p. 23).”
Percy’s title for each myth, not only reflects his wit and humor, but lets the reader know how Percy will interpret that myth. Demeter Turns Into Grainzilla puts a spin on a pop culture monster (Godzilla) when Demeter becomes a monster and daughter, Persephone, is abducted by Hades.
I’m ashamed to admit that I laughed while reading stories about kidnapping, infanticide, and cannibalism. Good gods! What kind of mother does that make me?
John Rocco, who has illustrated three of Rick Riordan’s series, is the 2012 Caldecott honor for Blackout. Rocco’s dramatic illustrations depict robust and muscular gods (recalling Classical Greek statuary), powerfully pulsing with light and energy. His strange and grotesque monsters should satisfy horror fans without overly frightening gentler souls. Visit Rocco’s website to learn more about the books he’s illustrated. Also check out his blog which includes his artwork and sketches and links to painters who have influenced him (including Frank Frazetta and N.C. Wyeth).
At my school library, this middle grade book is already a big hit with Percy Jackson fans, as well as those who love Greek mythology. As both the 5th/6th grade classes are studying Greek mythology, one of the resources I used (in addition to this book) was the publisher’s excellent event kit. Activities include Percy’s Snarky Word Search, Get Your Greek On (trivia), party games, and more. Such a fun-and funny-way to learn about Greek mythology!
Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly is reviewed by the newest member of our team, Mary Malhotra.
Deep Blue, (Disney Publishing Worldwide, $17.99, Ages 9-12), released May 6, 2014, is the first in a planned four-book fantasy series, The Waterfire Saga, about six gifted teen mermaids from different realms who come together to save the ocean from an ancient monster. The story takes readers on an adventure exploring diverse cultures under the sea (and inside mirrors, too — a shadow world that has always fascinated this reviewer!). The mermaids do magic by singing, a skill they call songcasting. In addition to enchanting Mer creatures, the book features ghosts, zombies, and other supernatural figures, and some explicit battle gore.
The world of Deep Blue, first envisaged by a creative team at Disney, is brought to life by New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Donnelly. Donnelly is the author of A Northern Light, a historical fiction YA set at the turn of the nineteenth century (winner of Britain’s Carnegie Medal and a Printz Honor), and Revolution, a story about a troubled present-day teen pulled into the world of a girl living in revolutionary France. Deep Blue will probably appeal most to a tween audience. Disney suggests the book for ages 9-12.
In the book’s prologue, water witches summon the six mermaids, warning that a four thousand-year-old monster capable of destroying entire civilizations has been awakened. As the story begins, we meet two Mer princesses, Serafina of Miromara and Neela of Matali. Sera and Neela are best friends, together for Sera’s betrothal to Neela’s brother Mahdi, the crown prince of Matali. Sera and Mahdi’s betrothal, intended to unite the two underwater kingdoms in peace, is interrupted by a brutal attack led by the cruel Captain Traho. Many at the party, including Sera’s parents, are injured or killed, but Sera and Neela escape.
The princesses soon discover they have both dreamt of the witches and the monster. Now they must find the four other mermaids described in the witches’ chant and join up to battle the monster. Captain Traho pursues Sera and Neela, so they have to use their wits and their growing special talents to stay a step ahead of him and figure out who or what is behind his evil ambitions. Destined to lead the other mermaids, Sera tightly holds on to the hope that her mother, the queen of Miromara, is still alive and will return to make everything all right. Will Sera grow to accept her role as leader? Can the six chosen mermaids gain the confidence and skill needed to battle the monster?
Deep Blue is a fun read, and a doorway to imagining a complex and magical world under the sea. Author Donnelly says Disney’s The Little Mermaid was a favorite at her house when her daughter was younger. Now her daughter is ten, an age Donnelly says is “fearless and full of wonder. Bemused by boys. Fierce about friendships. Standing at the borderlands of childhood, suitcases in hand.” Donnelly hopes her readers will find Sera and her fellow teen mages to be “worthy travel companions” as they embark on the soul-searching and increasing independence of their own teen years.
About Reviewer Mary Malhotra – After your typical career as a database designer/schoolteacher/small-business CFO, Mary Malhotra is focusing on the next obvious thing, short story and novel writing for the YA market. A member of SCBWI, she has participated in writing workshops at UCLA Extension and the Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD). Her YA novel COMMON HOURS is on its first full revision (and fourth working title). She lives in La Canada, California with her husband and lots of pictures of her grown kids. Find her on Twitter @MCMalhotra or at www.Facebook.com/MCMalhotra.
I am guilty of judging a book by its cover. Having read nothing about it, I picked out Zebra Forest(Candlewick, $15.99, ages 9-12) by Adina Rishe Gewirtz because I thought it was a middle grade novel about WWII with the forest alluding to children escaping from Nazis and hiding out in the woods. I could not have been more wrong and more pleasantly surprised.
When I discovered the book was about a brother and sister living with their depressed grandmother as the Iran hostage crisis of Jimmy Carter’s presidency played out, I had to read on having followed it closely back in ’79. Plus the characters of Annie and Rew were so compelling and real, that I had to learn their story.
Zebra Forest is so much more than a sibling story. It’s a clever, well-crafted novel that captures the voices of the children, their roller coaster emotions along with the ambiguousness of their past and present, and hence their identities.
Annie had three real wishes that summer when Zebra Forest begins.
1. Get tall. 2. Have an adventure. 3. Meet my father.
Only she could never meet her father because he was dead, killed in a fight with an angry man who was then sent away. And her mom, claiming it was the dad who’d wanted her to have kids, had deserted the family, leaving her two little ones with their paternal grandmother. What a legacy for two children to carry around. Couple that with a grandmother who had more bad days than good ones, mostly leaving the children to fend for themselves and you have the makings of an engaging, dramatic story. Infused with just the right amount of suspense, humor and pathos, Zebra Forest is a different sort of page turner. There are lies to unravel and family secrets to uncover. When a nearby prison break occurs and an escapee barges into the children’s home and holds them hostage, relationships will be tested and truths will be told.
The metaphor of the Zebra Forest being a place of camouflage mimics the lives of Annie and Rew who have been trying to sort out what is real and what is fiction in their own lives. Living without TV and limited contact with the outside world, brother and sister have created their own imaginary worlds where the identities of people are also not what they seem. Here, Gewirtz’s intertwining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island throughout the novel is brilliant and apt. Rew and Annie have taken the limited resources available at home and filled their daily lives with adventure and play acting, but when the intruder’s presence creates tension between Annie, Rew and Gran, what can be done to keep this family together?
I recommend this bittersweet tale because it’s a great conversation starter if parents take the time to read it, too. As middle graders are moving more towards asserting their individualism, Zebra Forest will prove a perfect companion for this complicated time of life.