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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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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 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 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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Three Middle Grade Fantasy Book Reviews

 

MIDDLE-GRADE FANTASY NOVELS

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

 

 

The Ghost of Midnight Lake coverTHE GHOST OF MIDNIGHT LAKE
Written by Lucy Strange

(Chicken House; $17.99, Ages 8-12) 

Starred Review – Kirkus

The spooky middle-grade novel, The Ghost of Midnight Lake by best-selling author Lucy Strange, stands out because of its interesting and unpredictable riches-to-rags plot. Set in 1899, the story opens with twelve-year-old Lady Agatha Asquith’s world falling apart after her father, the Earl of Gosswater, dies. Cruel cousin Clarence (who inherited everything) states that since Agatha’s not really an Asquith she must get out. Shocked, Agatha struggles to come to terms with this news as she’s abruptly moved in with her possible biological father, a poor goose farmer, and (maybe) thief. Though Agatha yearns to hear the truth from him, he’s closed-lipped.

At the Earl’s funeral on Skelter Island, Lady Agatha realizes there is no going back and decides to try embracing her new life, renaming herself Aggie. She soon makes her first-ever friend—Bryn, a boy who works on this cemetery island—but cannot find the words to tell him her real identity.

As Aggie tries unraveling her history, she begins seeing a female spirit. Is this her past self? The ingenious plot shows Aggie’s growth from pampered to strong-willed where she bravely takes charge, seeking answers and forging her path forward. Gosswater’s a place with harsh contrasts between the aristocrats and the peasants. In this small community, the paths people live (determined mainly by their social status) differ dramatically.

Aggie and Bryn are very likable characters and their bumpy road as friends feels truthful. Some of my favorite elements include the presence of geese throughout and the contradicting information that Gosswater is either named after the geese there or after the ghosts! Susan the goose is quite a character, playing a significant role in this thrilling story.

Whether it’s a real ghost haunting Aggie or merely her past, this fascinating story about family, friendship, and self-discovery is one that will keep you enthralled as you follow Aggie into the uncertain future filled with lies, secrets, and one charming goose!

 

Secret of the Storm coverSECRET OF THE STORM
Written by Beth McMullen
(Aladdin BYR; $17.99, Ages 9-13))

In Beth McMullen’s middle-grade fantasy, Secret of the Storm, twelve-year-old Cassie King has lost everything lately: her father’s sudden death turned her mother into a shell of herself, and Cassie’s BFF now hangs with the cool girls. The future seems hopeless until some freaky weather, a scraggly kitten, and the school outcast, Joe Robinson, set Cassie on a new trajectory.

A mystery begins to unfold as the kitten, Albert, shows some decidedly un-catlike traits. During Cassie and Joe’s after-school volunteer duties at the town library, they suspect their beloved librarian may be hiding information related to recent, unusual activities. (Take a peek at the cover image for a clue about Albert’s secret!)

Beth McMullen accurately captures Cassie’s pain as well as the relief in her developing friendship with an unlikely classmate—depicting how a person’s perceptions can change. Still, Cassie struggles with whether to be a bystander or to do something when popular kids pick on individuals who don’t fit in. Woven in with the fantastic upheaval brought on by her unusual kitten are realistic friendship and family problems.

Short chapters with lots of action make this an ideal book for young middle-grade readers. Older kids will enjoy this story as well; even if they clue into the “secret of the storm” early on, the book is heartfelt and unpredictable enough to provide engagement throughout.

 

The Mirrorwood coverTHE MIRRORWOOD
Written by Deva Fagan

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 10-12)

I had to read Deva Fagan’s middle-grade fantasy, The Mirrorwood, because of the back-jacket blurb: “I was wearing my sister’s face on the night the hunters came to our cottage.” Awesome, right?! The Mirrorwood is an enchanted land sealed in with a wall of thorns where the inhabitants are locked in time under the rule of a demon-prince—kind of a twisted Sleeping Beauty. The main character, twelve-year-old Fable, has been cursed by magic that leaked from the Mirrorwood and does not have a face of her own; to stay alive, she needs to take faces from others.

Luckily, her loving family hides and helps her but there’s only so much they can do before hunters arrive to eradicate people like Fable (who are called “blighted”). Vycorax, an apprentice near Fable’s age is charged with destroying Fable, however, circumstances set these adversaries on a path where they seem to share the goal of freeing the Mirrorwood from its curse. The dynamics between these two girls are tensely portrayed.

One of my favorite characters is Fable’s fearless cat, Moth, who accompanies her into any situation, able to communicate with her telepathically. Cat people will appreciate Moth’s perfectly catty lines as he adventures along with Fable and Vycorax.

Strong female lead characters, friendship, family, coming-of-age, and adventure make this a well-rounded book that will keep you guessing who’s the bad guy and whether Fable’s wish to have her own face will ever come true. Fagan does an excellent job portraying realistic, dimensional characters in a familiar yet modern fairy tale. I would happily follow Fable onto more stories. This book may be better for older middle-grade readers because of the plot turns and creepiness of face-stealing.

 

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Singing with Elephants

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS

Written by Margarita Engle

(Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Singing With Elephants cover

 

 

Starred reviews – KirkusPublishers Weekly

 

Struggling to belong, Cuban-born eleven-year-old Oriol discovers her voice in Singing with Elephants, a beautifully moving middle-grade novel in verse written by Newbery honoree and Pura Belpré Award-winning author, Margarita Engle.  

The story takes place in 1947 in Santa Barbara where Oriol lives with her family. She helps take care of injured animals in her parents’ veterinary clinic, located near a “wildlife zoo ranch” that has connections to Hollywood (6). Grieving the recent death of her grandmother and facing hardships at a school that is unwelcoming to immigrants, she struggles with loneliness–until she befriends “la poeta” Gabriela Mistral who has moved near Oriol’s home (12). While the meeting (and subsequent story) is fictional, the poet is a real person, the first Latin American winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Oriol is relieved to have found someone who speaks her native tongue, but little does she know the unexpected gift she’ll be receiving from her new friend: learning the language of poetry. 

These lessons are for all of us. “There is no better home for emotions than a poem,” la poeta advises, “which can easily be transformed into a song” (27). The book is rich with simple yet profound expressions of love, loss, heartache, and wholeness. As we learn along with Oriol, poetry is the soul’s way of singing, whether that soul is human or animal. This lesson becomes more apparent as Oriol’s connection to the animals she cares for grows stronger and stronger, in particular her relationship with a pregnant elephant named Chandra whose rhythmic sways and sounds remind her of poetry.

Through her mentor’s gentle encouragement and guidance, Oriol’s writing blossoms–from using it as a source of healing to using it as a force for change. Bit by bit, she “no longer yearn[s]” for Cuba and Abuelita “every moment of every day” (106). And when a famous movie star takes special interest in Chandra, Oriol drafts “poetry-petition[s],” eventually organizing a protest against animal abuse (188). Fighting for her beloved elephants, Oriol finds a sense of belonging. 

Singing with Elephants is the kind of book readers will want to read again and again, catching the pieces of poetry missed from the previous read. An author’s note at the end details Cuban cultural traditions as well as Gabriela Mistral’s life. A list of further readings about and by the poet is also included.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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An Interview with Margaret Finnegan Author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MARGARET FINNEGAN

AUTHOR OF 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

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

 

 

 

RONNA’S IMPRESSION

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

 

BOOK SUMMARY 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

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

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

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

 

INTERVIEW

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

GRWR: What’s on the horizon, Margaret?

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

 

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

 

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

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

BUY THE BOOK

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

SOCIAL MEDIA

Website: MargaretFinnegan.com

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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

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Middle Grade Book Review – Journey Beyond the Burrow

IT’S A TWO-WEEK COUNTDOWN

UNTIL THE PUBLICATION OF …

JOURNEY BEYOND THE BURROW

Written by Rina Heisel

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

 

 

Journey Beyond the Burrow cover

 

 

A JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD GOLD STANDARD SELECTION!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Preorder from Red Balloon for signing copy, bookmark, & sticker: https://bit.ly/JBTB-RB
Twitter: @rinaheisel
Instagram: Rina.Heisel
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Six Kids Books for National Poetry Month

CELEBRATE NATIONAL POETRY MONTH

WITH THESE GREAT KIDS BOOKS

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

A Kirkus Reviews Best Book
An NCTE Notable Poetry Book

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

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

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

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

Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year

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

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

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

 

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

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

Starred Review – Kirkus

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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Middle-Grade Novel Review – The Elephant in the Room

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

By Holly Goldberg Sloan

(Dial Books; 17.99 Ages 10-14)

 

The Elephant in the Room cvr

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

In The Elephant in the Room, when middle-schooler, Sila Tekin’s mother is stuck in Turkey trying to get her immigration paperwork in order, the loneliness is almost unbearable for her and her father, Alp. Sila’s newly withdrawn demeanor prompts her school to pair her with autistic classmate Mateo Lopez in a special program that has the kids spending time together at the end of each school day. The point is to help both kids socialize more and, after a slow, silent start, they eventually begin getting to know each other.

Life changes dramatically for Sila and Mateo when Alp is hired to fix an old truck owned by widower, Gio, who lives on a non-working farm on the outskirts of town. Sila and Gio seem to form an immediate bond, even before they discover that Gio’s late wife was Sila’s beloved second-grade teacher. When an odd string of coincidences leads to Gio rescuing a young elephant named Veda from a failing circus, Sila and Mateo wind up with the most awesome summer job ever—caring for Veda. Sila connects to the young pachyderm on a deep level, realizing that, like her, Veda must really miss her mother. A reunion of either mother-daughter pair feels out of reach, but with a team of caring friends—maybe it’s not.

Author Holly Goldberg Sloan has another deeply heartfelt hit on her hands. Again employing the multi-POV device she uses so brilliantly, she lets readers see and feel the unfolding of these extraordinary events through various characters’ eyes. Veda’s POV is used sparingly but impactfully, and even the supporting animal characters—a flock of undisciplined flamingos, a ravenous bear, and a loyal dog—whose POVs we’re not privy to, are well-drawn, quirky, and fun.

Both kids are battling quiet storms within, which makes them interesting and empathetic. Gio is wonderfully complex. His desire to rediscover meaning in life, coupled with voluminous lottery winnings, propel him to take on caring for Veda, somehow feeling it’s something he has to do. His connection with Sila seems similarly fated, and their special bond serves as the glue for all of the characters. A story of hope, longing, love, and action, The Elephant in the Room will show middle-grade readers that things—people, animals, situations—are not always what they seem and that they’re not always as powerless over circumstances as they sometimes feel.

 

Click here to read Ronna’s review of Karol’s debut YA novel, Cursed.

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New Halloween Books for Kids 2020

NEW HALLOWEEN READS

A ROUNDUP

 

pumpkin freeclipart

 

 

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

 

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

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

Starred Review – Kirkus

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

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

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

(Bloomsbury; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

THE INCREDIBLY DEAD PETS OF REX DEXTER

Written by Aaron Reynolds

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

 

 

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read an excerpt.

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

 

Click here to order a copy of The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter or visit your local indie bookstore.
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Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!

Recommended Reads for the Week of 9/21/20

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Middle Grade Fiction Review – Race to the Sun

RACE TO THE SUN

Written by Rebecca Roanhorse

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

 

Race to the Sun cvr

 

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

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

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

Click here for an event/activity kit.

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

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

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Middle Grade Book Review – If We Were Giants

IF WE WERE GIANTS

by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith

Illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo

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

 

If We Were Giants cvr

 

IfWe WereGiants int insert5
Interior art from If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith with illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo, Disney-Hyperion ©2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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