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.
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.
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In the new middle grade novel, All the Greys on Greene Street, twelve-year-old Olympia is trying to solve a mystery with her two friends, Alex and Richard. She knows her father, an art restorer, has left the country. She knows why her mother hasn’t gotten out of bed since her father left. And she knows something is amiss with an art piece her father and his business partner and devoted friend, Apollo, have been working on restoring. What she doesn’t know is why her father decided to leave so suddenly and why there are people knocking on the doors of her parents’ Soho loft, demanding answers.
All the Greys on Greene Street is Laura Tucker’s debut novel, a historical fiction story set in 1981 when Soho’s large industrial lofts housed artists instead of chain stores and the subway cost 75 cents. Narrated in first-person by Olympia, (Ollie to her family and friends) Ollie is a keen observer, and tries to make sense of the complex adults in her life. She is devoted to her parents and to Apollo, whose studio she visits and who cares for her like his own child. When her father leaves, Ollie tries but can’t rally her mom to get out of bed. She hides her mother’s depression, trying to move through her world as if everything is fine. For weeks, she gets herself to school, concentrates on school projects and eats lots of canned soup. She refuses to ask for help or even share what’s happening with her mom. She manages to convince the neighbors that things are okay, but her friends discover her secret. Ollie pleads for secrecy, but Richard and Alex refuse, and betray her trust. Ollie is just beginning to work through her feelings when catastrophe rocks their neighborhood.
Like the title suggests, Ollie has the eye of an artist. Everyone in her life encourages her to look closely at her world and really try to understand what is happening. Kelly Murphy’s pencil illustrations help the reader see what Ollie sees and what she draws. And the writing is beautiful. There are no easy answers and there is no villain, just friends trying to do their best with what they have. Tucker offers some very smart history and art lessons imparted with the lightest touch. Apollo teaches Ollie about color and craft and the lessons will stay with the reader, as much as they impact Ollie.
Kids and parents were different in 1981 and these sixth graders are allowed to navigate New York City in a way that tween and teen readers with hovering helicopter parents might be surprised by. But even with absent parents and independence, Ollie and her friends are never alone. Their own friendship, their strong community and their neighbors keep them safe. Readers might be tempted to compare Ollie to Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. They both have keen observation skills, but Ollie is softer and savvier than Harriet. Ollie’s biggest lessons are about how to ask for help, and friends who become family and how some of life’s hardest questions have more than one answer.
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Cynthia Copeland Cynthia Copeland is a television and digital producer, who is always writing on the side. She is currently writing a YA contemporary novel. She lives in Pasadena, California with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @listenupbucko and she’ll share the small mystery that author, Laura Tucker revealed to her about the novel, All the Greys on Greene Street.
When is a Holocaust book not a Holocaust book? When it’s Searching for Lottie, a contemporary fiction, historical and mystery novel that beautifully and sensitively conveys the connectivity the past has with the present. Author Susan L. Ross’s multi-layered story, which won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award and is a PJ Our Way selection, also emphasizes the importance of individual identity, the supportive role of family and friends, and the power of music.
Twelve-year-old Charlie (Charlotte) Roth has an assignment for 7th grade social studies, a family history project. She’s chosen to research her namesake, Great-Aunt Lottie (Charlotte) Kulka, a violin prodigy who likely died during the Holocaust. While living in Vienna, Charlie’s grandmother, Nana Rose (who was Great-Aunt Lottie’s younger sister) and Lottie’s mother escaped to safety in America. “When the Germans invaded Austria, the Jews were at the mercy of the Nazis.” Far from home, Lottie was not as lucky. She had been sent to continue her music studies in Budapest, Hungary so when her mother and sister fled Austria after her father’s arrest, Lottie vanished without a word and was always presumed dead.
Once Charlie begins digging into the past, her Nana Rose starts to reveal some details from the past that even Charlie’s mom wasn’t aware of. First there is the old black and white photo of her namesake. Then, when Charlie is given a diary and eventually a necklace that once belonged to Lottie, bits and pieces of the past begin rising to the surface causing Charlie to wonder whether her Great-Aunt might still be alive. Could she still be in Hungary? Or America? Charlie’s mom reminds her that “The Holocaust was a tragedy that touched every Jewish family,” and there may not be a happy ending. However, with the encouragement of her friends and family, and despite what she may discover, Charlie vows to find out what really happened to Lottie. It’s clear Charlie is going to be learning about herself and her family as much as she will about her long lost relative as her journey into the past continues.
Unusual incidents and people are discovered along the way that pull the reader into the story and make them feel invested in the outcome. It turns out that Lottie had played with the Vienna Philharmonic. Charlie, also passionate about the instrument, would like nothing more than to please her devoted Nana Rose by being selected for the concertmaster position after her upcoming audition. As Charlie prepares for the big day, her crush on a fellow musician, Devin, could become a distraction from both her violin dreams and her genealogical journey but she perseveres.
The many interesting and exciting things happening in every chapter serve to keep Charlie’s mind off the audition and Devin. There is never a dull moment as Charlie delves deeper into the mystery of Lottie’s disappearance. Exploring every lead for her family history project will ultimately give her a greater understanding of how the Holocaust impacted survivors and children of survivors, in Charlie’s case, her grandmother and mother. “‘After I had children of my own,'” ‘Mom said softly,’ “‘I realized––or at least, I understood a bit better—that my mother had to bury the sad parts of her life in order to live happily.'”
Ross has created a vibrant and resourceful young girl in the character of Charlie. Her hunt through history to uncover hidden truths about Lottie, if successful, will surely solve decades of doubt and we’re all rooting for her. It was hard for me to believe that, though based on Ross’s family, all the characters were fictional. They felt so real, their situations so possible. It’s helpful to read the Author’s Note to learn about Ross’s story inspiration. I found myself heading over to the Ellis Island Archives as I was reading the novel because, like Charlie, and the author, I too, have many unanswered questions about my Eastern European family.
Searching for Lottie will get tweens thinking and hopefully talking about the Holocaust, about their own heritage, and how we often need to look to our past before moving forward. I recommend this novel as it’s not only one of hope and inspiration, but it powerfully demonstrates how one determined young girl can make a difference.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Happy Book Birthday to Searching for Lottie by Susan L. Ross
THE HAUNTING OF HOUNDS HOLLOW Written by Jeffrey Salane (Scholastic Press; $16. 99, Ages 8-12)
The middle grade novel, The Haunting of Hounds Hollowby Jeffrey Salane, is a recommended read for chilly, dark winter evenings. When Lucas Trainer’s family inherits a house from an almost-forgotten relative they move from the comforting familiarity of the big city to Hounds Hollow. For Lucas, making new friends means explaining his undiagnosed disease (his parents call it the Dark Cloud). Adjusting to being in the middle of nowhere is complicated by their crazy new mansion—akin to the Winchester Mystery House with rooms that lead to nowhere and a construction crew that doesn’t stop building.
The town’s history of people disappearing coupled with what may be a roaming pack of malevolent ghost dogs is enough to scare anyone away, but Lucas and his two new friends, Bess and Lens, decide they must uncover what’s going on before it’s too late. Lucas has a mysterious key that he hopes will unlock secrets from the past that continue to have hold of the house and its environs.
This book is suited for kids who like plots that delve into horror. The Haunting of Hounds Hollow takes some dark turns, particularly at the end. If you think your kid will grow into a fan of stories like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary then this tale will not disappoint.
WILLA OF THE WOOD Written by Robert Beatty (Disney-Hyperion Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
In Willa of the Wood, a middle-grade fantasy novel, twelve-year-old Willa is one of the last woodwitches in her Faeran clan. Willa lives with her mamaw, who teaches her how to communicate with plants and animals. Their kind are called “the old ones” by the Cherokee and “night-spirits” by the white-skinned homesteaders. Though Willa’s streaked and spotted skin blends into natural surroundings, she is as real as any other creature.
The year is1900 and, in the Great Smoky Mountains, Willa’s world is changing. The day-folk build unnatural dwellings from the carcasses of murdered trees and hunt the forest’s animals with their killing-sticks. The Faeran dwindle under the strict rule of their deified leader, the padaran. He demands that the young ones steal from the day-folk. Willa is the clan’s best thief because those who don’t return to Dead Hollow with a full satchel are denied food or physically punished. The padaran convinces them, “There is no I, only we.”
When Willa’s discoveries make her question the padaran’s decisions, she must choose between subservience to her clan’s new ways or accept the consequences of defiance.
The book’s twists will keep you guessing! Beatty pulls you into this captivating world with depth of setting and by showing us Willa’s many facets. Because of the scenes involving death, the padaran’s cruelty, and other complex issues, younger children may benefit from reading this book with an adult. Rich in story and detail, Willa of the Wood satisfies with its conclusion and promises to make readers eager for the next installment.
Willa of the Woodis the first book in a new series by Robert Beatty, known for his #1 New York Times best-selling Serafina series.
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.
FRIDAY BARNES UNDER SUSPICION Written by R. A. Spratt Illustrated by Phil Gosier (Roaring Brook Press; $13.99, Ages 8-12)
Tween sleuth Friday Barnes is back, this time to uncover who set her up and why mysterious things keep happening at her private school, Highcrest Academy.
If you’ve been reading Good Reads With Ronna for awhile you’ll recognizeR. A. Spratt’sname as the author of the popular Nanny Piggins series. With nine of these books under her belt, Spratt tried her hand at middle grade mysteries with the release of Friday Barnes Girl Detective. Today I’m going to introduce you to this über intelligent student sleuth in her second book, Friday Barnes Under Suspicion, out earlier this month. And frankly, it didn’t matter that I started with book 2 since Spratt has included just enough pertinent backstory to make this book succeed even as a stand alone.
This latest installment features 25 short chapters that are filled with action and lots of surprises. Yes, there’s never a dull moment when 11-year-old private investigator Friday Barnes is around. The story moves at a fast pace and is broken down into one large mystery to solve and several smaller ones. Spratt kept me guessing whodunnit throughout the novel and that will appeal to readers who, like me, love the challenge of putting the mystery puzzle pieces together.
Whether she’s helping to prove her own innocence after a setup or that of a vagrant by locating a missing sapphire bracelet, or catching the home economics class cheat who took credit for a quiche she didn’t make, Friday Barnes solves her cases using brains not brawn. Add to all the enjoyable sleuthing just a dash of tween romance, a fun symbiotic friendship, a satisfying amount of Spratt-style tongue-in-cheek banter, and the sudden profusion of large holes around the campus of Highcrest Academy,and you’ve got the makings of one very entertaining novel. What is happening at Highcrest Academy that’s causing people to appear, disappear, or reappear, and could it all be tied to a past secret or something more recent?
I couldn’t wait to read what escapades the staff and students of this posh private boarding school got up to. Spratt has created an academic environment rife with intrigue. And the fact that Friday uses money earned from prior and current cases to pay her way through school is significant. Friday’s the daughter of physicists who are preoccupied with their own lives so she’s been forced to grow up early and make her own way in the world. She does so with aplomb, occasional embarrassment, and a lot of hilarious dialogue that will keep middle grade readers coming back to Barnes for more. Watch out for book 3, Friday Barnes Big Trouble due this coming January 2017.
Read an excerpt from Friday Barnes Under Suspicion here.
TIMMY FAILURE & TOM GATES RECOMMENDED BOOKS FOR RELUCTANT READERS
Huzzah and hooray! A world class detective and a passionate doodler are back in the continuing series of two popular Candlewick Press middle grade books.
If you’re not familiar with either either Timmy Failure or Tom Gates, please take a look at earlier reviews of previous titles right here at Good Reads with Ronna (see below). Both series are a hit with fans of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and employ a diary or journal style novel filled with pen and ink illustrations. The illustrations not only add to both series’ humor, but, as one of my students, a reluctant reader (and now big fan) told me: the illustrations increase his understanding and enjoyment. Both are recommended for ages 8-12. So check out more hilarious adventures– and misadventures– of Timmy Failure and Tom Gates.
The young “ … founder, president, and CEO of Failure, Inc, the greatest detective agency in the nation …” is forced to go on a road trip to Chicago to help his mom’s boyfriend move, instead of working on his latest case: the theft of money from a school fundraiser. Extremely put out, Timmy endures miles of cornfields and country-western music with his mother, Doorman Bob, his polar bear ex-partner, Total, arch-enemy and “criminal mastermind,” Molly, and her family. Like the Pink Panther’s clueless Inspector Clouseau, the equally clueless Timmy accuses everyone but the actual thief and tries to elicit confessions from the innocent while advising them on their “Carmen Miranda” rights. Can Timmy solve the case while far away in Chicago? Can he trust Molly, one of his many suspects, to help him find the crook? Be prepared for “greatness!” Visit Candlewick Press for information on the books and see Pastis’ wonderful Timmy Failure website for more information on the series, the characters, trailers for each book, and activities.
Tom has a lot on his mind and some big problems. Not his usual problems: an irritating older sister, an obnoxious classmate who is always trying to get him in trouble, school, teachers, and math homework. Actually, any homework.
No, he’s got much bigger worries than that. His birthday is coming up and no one seems to notice the wish list he’s conveniently posted on the refrigerator door. His weird, but sweet grandmother has promised to whip him up a special birthday cake. Not so good … she’s been known to mix jello and peas together. His parents have promised to take him and four of his friends to Dino Village for his birthday (where his father works). Four friends? No problem, he’ll invite best “mate” Derek, Norman, and two others. Things quickly go awry, when Amy, the girl he has a crush on, sees the invitations and asks if she can come … and bring a friend. He agrees before realizing the numbers (there’s that pesky math again) don’t add up to four.
His band, Dog Zombies, which includes Derek and Norman, has been “volunteered” by Principal Keen to perform at the school dance. The inexperienced trio, with only one previous engagement under their belts, is going to need a lot of practice. A lot! Even worse, Tom’s father, a loveable and delightfully quirky man, has been hired to be the DJ at the school dance. He plans to wear his dinosaur costume from Dino Village … and silver disco boots. Positively cringe-worthy.
Will this doodler and homework dodger get what he wants for his birthday? Will he figure out how to include Amy and his four friends at Dino Village? Will the Dog Zombies go up in flames at the school dance? And then there’s his father … and his grandmother’s special birthday cake. Read the book and be prepared for a laugh-out-loud experience!
Oh, in case you don’t speak British (“choon” means an excellent tune), Pichon has included a British to American glossary. Don’t forget to check out the recipe for Tom’s “Doodle Toast” at the end of the story.
Visit Pichon’s and Candlewick’s websites for more information on the author and the series as well as fun activities.
Check out Good Reads with Ronna’s earlier reviews of previous titles in the Tom Gates series:
Fans of The Wig in the Window eagerly awaited the arrival of its companion book, The Tiara on the Terrace, and were rewarded this past January with its release. But even if you’ve never read Kittscher’s first book, her latest, The Tiara on the Terrace, can most certainly be read as a stand alone and is terrifically entertaining and awash in the adventures of Young and Yang.
In this funny, clever novel, perfect for fans of Pseudonymous Bosch and Gordon Korman and a companion to The Wig in the Window, tween sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang go undercover at Luna Vista’s Winter Sun Festival to catch a murderer before he—or she—strikes again. Sophie Young and Grace Yang have been taking it easy ever since they solved the biggest crime Luna Vista had ever seen. But things might get interesting again now that everyone is gearing up for the 125th annual Winter Sun Festival—a town tradition that involves floats, a parade, and a Royal Court made up of local high school girls. When Festival president Jim Steptoe turns up dead on the first day of parade preparations, the police blame a malfunctioning giant s’more feature on the campfire-themed float. But the two sleuths are convinced the mysterious death wasn’t an accident. Young and Yang must trade their high tops for high heels and infiltrate the Royal Court to solve the case. But if they fail, they might just be the next victims.
INTERVIEW WITH THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE AUTHOR, KRISTEN KITTSCHER
Good Reads With Ronna: Are detective stories what you read growing up?
Kristen Kittscher: I was a voracious reader. I read all kinds of things so detective stories weren’t the only things I read but they were some of my favorites. I was a big big Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fan as I’m sure many people are. I love Encyclopedia Brown. I just loved solving the puzzles that were involved. One of my very favorite books as a kid was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and that kind of mystery [where] they’re locked in a museum. I always loved solving puzzles but really I read widely. Judy Blume was an absolute favorite of mine. I think Blubber was a one of my all-time favorite books growing up. And Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming was another book I loved.
GRWR: Empowerment is prevalent in both novels. Was this a goal of yours?
KK: It’s interesting. After the book was out in the world I’d hear that a lot and it wasn’t an actual focus of mine when I was writing … I think it’s because I taught at an all-girls school many years and I was swimming in girl power without realizing it. I was teaching 7th grade where girls are starting to become more self-conscious. But at that school they were very much themselves and not worried about how they were coming across. And I think I was definitely trying to write a story for them and was very influenced by their joie-de vivre and general sense of fun and curiosity and smarts as I was writing. I didn’t think about it. It just came out that way.
GRWR: What qualities do Sophie, Grace and their quirky pal, Trista have in common with you?
KK: Well maybe I’ve given them qualities I don’t have because that’s the fun of writing fiction, right? I’m definitely very curious myself and always loved a sense of intrigue. I’m pretty silly and they’re pretty silly. I think in a way they probably have more attributes of my students but Trista’s practicality and her kind of ability to just sort of, kind of plug on no matter what. I definitely have a bit of that as well. She’s a bit like my father was and I’m a bit like him so I always think I definitely have a little bit of Trista in me. The other quality definitely is the lack of confidence that Sophie has in coming into her own. I just started writing late in life – this is the first thing I ever wrote – or ever finished – and I really was focused on teaching and not writing. So, the thought of saying I want to be a writer is like saying I want to become a rock star or something like that. The story of The Wig in the Window is a mystery but it’s also kind of paralleling my journey in finding my voice as a writer.
GRWR: Getting into the heads of two twelve year olds isn’t easy. What helped you?
KK: Well, it helps to kind of be 12 in my head mostly! Well I think it goes back to my teaching middle school for a long time. I can’t remember what I was like before I was teaching 7th grade, whether I was also still 12 or if they helped me get back in touch with my youthful self. But definitely having that be my world day in and day out for a long time definitely rubbed off on me. As to Sophie and Grace, their perspective was relatively easy for me to access. The other part that makes it easy for me is having moved a lot as a kid. I moved almost every two years when I was growing up. So each place at each age I was, I remember it really vividly. I’s a very separate point in time and it’s relatively easy for me to go back to a certain place geographically in my mind and get back in touch with the feelings I had at that time. So it was a blessing in a way having moved so much because then I can remember each place individually.
GRWR: Where were you at age 12?
KK: At age 12, I was in the South Bay so basically Torrance, Palos Verdes area. For those people who don’t know, it’s this beautiful peninsula at the bottom of Los Angeles. It’s one of the most beautiful places I ever lived. You’re right by the beach. I think at the time as a kid you don’t realize how beautiful it is so when I set out to write something that came back to me very much and I knew it would be a fun setting for other people to read about too.
GRWR: Was there any pushback from the Tournament of Roses organization to change the similarities?
KK: No. But definitely the fictional town of Luna Vista is a combination between Pasadena and the place I just described, Palos Verdes and Torrance area. It’s my observing my students here in Pasadena and my own memories back when I was 12. And the town of Luna Vista has AmStar (which is very similar to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) so we have a great deal of scientists, actual rocket scientists as Pasadena does, and that makes it lots of fun to explore lots of technological things. That’s where the idea of Trista having such technological savvy comes from but as far as pushback from the tournament, no. One of my former students was on the royal court and she sat down with me and told me all about her experience as a princess so I actually had a lot of cooperation. Other former students told me about the audition process, other colleagues, longtime Pasadena volunteers and parade goers definitely helped me with all of their memories and observations. And then when the book was finished the Tournament House was considering even doing a launch there as well. Unfortunately the launch of the book came three days after the Rose Parade itself. So I don’t know if their lack of cooperation after the fact had more to do with the fact that they were focusing on their event because, as you know, it’s a huge operation and requires thousands of volunteers and all kinds of things. I haven’t experienced any direct pushback, but there is of course some gentle fun that I’m poking at the parade so we’ll see.
GRWR: How did you know the Wrigley Mansion so well?
KK: Well, for those who don’t know there’s a mansion in Pasadena called the Wrigley Mansion, which is the tournament headquarters and it was donated by Mr. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate you all know so well. So I thought it would be fun to create this sort of parallel world where Mr. Ridley who is a root beer magnate has his whole thing because basically I wanted a literal root beer float in the parade. Right? That makes it much more fun. I definitely had that outside of the mansion in my head as I was writing. Also you can take tours of the mansion and while it’s been renovated into offices, some of the rooms I definitely had in mind as I was writing so maybe that helped add a little flair to the setting.
GRWR: What else did you do for research?
KK: I was also an embedded undercover agent in float decorating. Every year in Pasadena before the parade begins, students pour out to volunteer in what are called the Float Barns which are these huge warehouses where the floats are. Actually before ever writing the story the inspiration where it comes from is my volunteering as a float decorator on the Trader Joe’s float one year. I was there gluing on flowers and climbing around on scaffolding so in the opening of the novel, Sophie, the main character, nearly falls from the scaffolding. Well that’s directly related to my own fear of heights crawling around on the scaffolding which I thought was highly unsafe for a 12-year-old. I also would constantly be Googling and referring back to different news articles just to get more inspiration and details. I don’t know a lot about flowers and obviously flowers are a very important part of the float decorations. So all the different kinds of things that are used to create different colors I would constantly be having to check back on, and say oh they used cinnamon for the brown part. I only knew what my tasks were as the decorator. I didn’t know what other flowers are used and I’m sure I messed it all up.
GRWR:Do they use a lot of different flowers?
KK: Oh, no they’re endless- I mean that’s part of their creativity – every single bit of surface area of a float needs to be decorated with some sort of living material. Even the tires of the float – they’re black, right? But we need to keep them black so they cover the tires with sheets of sea weed. Those little squares of seaweed that you got – that is really what they do. In order to win any of the prizes everything needs to be organic material of some kind.
GRWR: And there are people underneath the float?
KK: Yes, a major plot point of The Tiara in the Terrace is Trista working on a driver-less float because she finds that it would revolutionize the festival not to have people in these cramped compartments. One of the other things that is also very true about the parade is the need for what they call the pooper scooper brigade of kid volunteers who shovel up after the horses. The reason for that isn’t just to keep the parade route clear it’s because if they don’t clean up after the horses the wheels of the float kick up the remains of the horse poop into the eyes of the float drivers and gets in the ventilation system of their float. We’re getting right down to the nitty gritty.
GRWR: Because The Tiara on the Terrace is for middle grade students and includes murder, did you have to diffuse it with humor? How do you go about bringing that into a story?
KK: It’s true. It’s pretty hard to write a murder mystery for kids. You have to make it silly in some cases, but you know that kids also love the stakes being potentially high or real. In this case, you have what’s a potential murder. All the adults believe that the Winter Sun Festival president has been the victim of a tragic accident – a giant dancing animatronic S’more on a parade float has swung down and killed Mr. Steptoe. So you have this really really silly situation but also this tragic accident and that gives that distance and silliness that makes it kind of okay. And also it’s maybe a bit silly that the kids think that this could possibly be murder. Right? As the kids say, seriously? murder by marshmallow? … By giving that distance it helps explore a dark er side.
GRWR: How hard was it to put your red herrings into your story because there are a bunch of them?
KK: Thank you for recognizing that! The Wig in the Window was not hard, because well, it was hard to write for other reasons, but there’s always something, right? But mystery-wise it’s much more of a thriller, like a psychological thriller for middle schoolers where [the questions are] is this person bad, or is my imagination running away with me or not? So that’s a very simple structure, really. The Tiara in the Terrace is much more like an Agatha Christie novel or a typical cozy mystery as they call it, where you have many suspects in a large cast. It was really hard to trickle in all the clues at the same time that we’re exploring all the social dynamics in friendships. I think as you’re reading you can think oh, gosh, here we have some sort of detour, some sort of social friend detour and you don’t realize oh, wow, all the clues are being laid out at the same time. And so it’s kind of hard pacing-wise to keep the tension going at the same time, your reader might not realize that all of those red herrings are being placed in that sense. It takes a lot of outlining and even reverse outlining. Really knowing the crime, if there is a crime.
GRWR: You totally got me … I love being tricked!
KK: And I love tricking people. I think in this one you might know who it is but you might not know why. And then all the why is very, I think, very satisfying and very fun. (Ronna talking). One thing I know about kids is they often don’t just read a book once unlike adults and so it’s very important to me to make sure that everything matches up. That if you’re going to read this again, you’re going to see everything a second time and have just as much fun figuring out how it’s constructed as the reading itself. Also, my favorite scene is the parade scene at the end which of course has to be bombastic and spectacular and I really had the most fun writing that.
GRWR:Do you ever find, when you hear from young readers, that they’re inspired to write their own mysteries after reading yours? Afterall it is inspiring to see these three young girls go about solving mysteries in their own communities.
KK: Oh definitely … I also run some workshops in writing mysteries so I get kids going that way as well. Last summer I was at The James Thurber House in Ohio and they have a summer writing camp and they also go out in the community. All the kids would love trying to create their own mysteries after reading so I had a great time teaching those workshops. I think kids love the idea of uncovering secrets, I mean we all do, but particularly adult secrets because they don’t have full access to that world. It’s fun to imagine what could be happening in worlds they don’t know about.
GRWR: Will the girls be back for another adventure?
KK: Each book was separate. I like that a lot because they stand alone. If you read carefully there might be mild spoilers that you probably wouldn’t remember but each of those books can stand by itself so I didn’t sell The Wig in the Window as a series.
GRWR:So your publisher came back to you after book #1?
KK: Right. So that’s a good transition to say, ” Buy The Tiara on the Terrace, everybody, so there can be a third Young and Yang adventure.
GRWR: Can you speak briefly about the TV show that’s been optioned?
KK: Yeah, I’m really excited that both books have been optioned by a producer and I’m co-writing the first season – the pilot right now. It’s really exciting to be able to imagine giving Young and Yang new life in this form because they can be much more equally represented. You know, both The Wig in the Window and The Tiara in the Terrace are from Sophie Young’s point of view. Now we can step back and look at these families from the outside a little bit and also get much more access to Grace Yang’s point of view and possibly the worlds of the villains. So I’m having a really good time figuring out how to adapt the story and getting a lot of help with it as well. The first season is The Wig and the Window stretched out over 12 episodes so you almost have strangely more opportunity to see more elements of their school life and family life within that kind of episodic structure as opposed to the three act structure of a book. So The Wig in the Window the ongoing mystery travels over the course of the season, but each episode has its own exploration of things that are going on between Young and Yang and their families and school and love interests.
GRWR: Did I leave anything out that you would like to add?
KK: I don’t know if I can think of a direct question but something I really like to get across about why I write in general and especially The Wig in the Window and The Tiara on the Terrace is that I love giving kids a sense of adventure and wonder. In my observations as a teacher, kids can be like little business people these days. They have their rolling back packs and their schedules they have their playdates, they have their extra-curriculars. And their world is very constricted much more so then mine was growing up, and I feel that through books or through these adventures you can kind of restore that sense of wonder but also the feeling that kids can have real power and trust themselves to go on all kinds of fun adventures so I like opening that up to them through books and that’s something that I don’t get asked about much but I love to get across. That books have this power to open up some avenues of freedom for kids in their otherwise sometimes overly scheduled world.
Interview by Ronna Mandel (with special thanks to Armineh Manookian for all her help!)
KRISTEN KITTSCHER is the author of bestselling tween mystery The Wig in the Window (Harper Children’s, 2013) which garnered a starred review from School Library Journal and was on ten Best of the Year lists. A graduate of Brown University and a former middle school English teacher, Kristen was named the James Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence in 2014. She lives with her husband in Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade—the inspiration for her latest novel, The Tiara on the Terrace. Visit kristenkittscher.comor follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@kkittscher).
Enter below to win a copy of The Tiara on the Terrace by Kristen Kittscher plus an exclusive spy kit with Moleskine notebook. spy pen, magnets and book marks. Receive an extra entry for following Good Reads With Ronna on Facebook.
Take a bow, Polly Shulman! This latest and final installment in the New-York Circulating Materials Repository series had me turning pages late into the night. In The Poe EstateSukie O’Dare’s life has been turned upside down. After the death of her sister, Kitty, the O’Dare family finds that they have fallen on hard times. It makes financial sense to move in with elderly Cousin Hepzibah, a relative on her mother’s side on the family, the Thornes. What Sukie’s parents don’t know is that the ghost of Sukie’s sister, Kitty, is still a part of Sukie’s everyday life. Kitty was Sukie’s protector in life and Kitty is not going to go back on that promise anytime soon. However, the longer Kitty is around, the less likely it is that anyone will want to be Sukie’s friend. Kitty feels that she should have a say in who is Sukie’s friend and who is not. With financial troubles, a move to a new house, and an overly concerned ghostly sister, it’s a wonder how Sukie is going to reorient her life.
Lucky for Sukie, her gift of being able to sense the supernatural is now going to come in very handy. Ancestors who are missing family treasure haunt the Thorne home! It is up to Sukie to lay the past to rest for all her family, including Kitty. Sukie is a goodhearted heroine with a gift that the New-York Circulating Materials Repository (a lending library of magical objects) finds extremely useful. Sukie is able to tell if an acquisition is haunted enough to be included in the Poe Estate which is a collection of haunted houses and items. The Poe Estate has its own problems with a wily collector of antiques proving to be a worthy nemesis for Sukie. Moreover, the librarians at the repository are trying to find Sukie’s family treasure before the collector does.
Enchanted broom sticks ready for flying, a dip into the literary realm of supernatural tales, making a new friend, and a family treasure hunt all add up to page turning adventure. This reader was kept up past her bedtime because she had to find out what happened next. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy a good mystery that never gets too scary. Although it’s not necessary to read the first two books (The Grimm Legacy and The Wells Bequest) in the series, it is rewarding to find that some of the characters from the previous books make reappearances.
Fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society will find much to love in this latest and last book in the series. The Poe Estate is imaginative, daring and fun reading that suits the upcoming Halloween season perfectly!
Spirit’s Key written by Edith Cohn, (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, $16.99, Ages 8-12) is a middle grade novel packed with emotion, humor, and mystery.
All Spirit Holden’s dad has to do is hold someone’s key, and he can see their future. Spirit comes from a long line of psychics, but for some reason, even though she’s twelve-years-old, the age when her ancestors received their gifts, she hasn’t gotten her powers. When Spirit holds someone’s key, she feels nothing. She is worried her elders didn’t pass along their gifts to her.
Her dad is unusually tired, and hasn’t been able to do readings for the islanders in a while. Spirit doesn’t know how they’re going to survive without the income from his readings. She’s also preoccupied with the mysterious recent deaths of the Baldies, the wild island dogs that the natives believe to be evil spirits. Spirit doesn’t believe the superstitious islanders. She even had a pet Baldy, her beloved Sky, whom she lost to the mysterious illness that was threatening to wipe out all of them. Now, the illness is spreading to the islanders, and her father is quarantined! Spirit thinks she sees Sky everywhere. She can feel him, smell him, and even hear him barking! Could Sky be trying to help Spirit solve the mystery of the dogs’ deaths?
First time author Cohn has created a page-turner of an adventure with colorful characters and vivid settings. She’s incorporated all the makings of a great novel; a flawed, but likable, main character, high stakes for her to succeed on her quest, and the ability to suspend the reader’s sense of reality.
I’d be remiss to not mention the lovely cover design by Eliza Wheeler in which she so perfectly captures the feel and mood of the book. You can judge this book by its cover, and not be disappointed.
Following is a very brief excerpt from Spirit’s Key:
“It’s easy to be brave, child, when you don’t know any better.You don’t understand about the baldies.” Mrs. Borse shudders like the thought of them, even in all her fur, gives her a chill. “You didn’t grow up hearing their history like I did, because you aren’t from around here. But maybe it’s time someone told you a thing or two about those devil creatures.” She pushes me back onto the couch and gets herself comfortable like we’ll be there awhile.
They say to never judge a book by its cover. Never! That said, go ahead and soak in the deliciously dark and clever art design on Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. The artwork perfectly captures the mood of this caper: a rich, Victorian-era romp led by a cast of seven unforgettable students, topped with dashes of suspense and dark humor. Dark, because the caper revolves around the young ladies of St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls discovering their irritable headmistress and her brother, murdered. Darker still, because for these girls, the thought of being sent away from school and each other is worse than the alternative: covering up a murder.
Therein lies the heart of the story—the sisterhood. These seven spirited girls, living in 19th ,century England, have been made to feel like misfits. It’s why they were sent to boarding school. It’s why each of them was given their own demeaning moniker: Disgraceful Mary Jane, Dull Martha, Dear Roberta, Stout Alice, Smooth Kitty, Pocked Louise, and Dour Elinor. While at school they found comfort in friendship, and strength in their alleged weaknesses. So keeping their sisterhood intact is worth a few morbid shenanigans.
“I suppose they’ll find other schools for us eventually,” Pocked Louise said. “New mistresses, new nasty girls to make us miserable.”
“We have gotten along so beautifully here.” Dear Roberta sighed. “It’s something of a miracle, really. We aren’t simply boarding school mates. We’re like a family.”
“We’re better than family,” Disgraceful Mary Jane corrected. “Families are full of aunts and brothers and parents. We’re sisters.”
But author Julie Berry does not make the cover-up easy on the girls. There are bodies to bury. Nosy neighbors to placate. Financials to attend to. And let’s not forget: their headmistress was murdered, so somewhere, someone is waiting for a sign the poison found its mark. The litany of challenges set before the girls is enough make the book a page turner, but it’s a rewarding read on other merits, too.
Berry does an amazing job with the Victorian period. The school setting, character mannerisms, attitudes, clothing, and dry (yet distinctly biting) humor all wrapped around the who-done-it plotline make it delightful for the senses, too.
The glue that holds this fast-paced romp together is the bond between the girls. They all have different personalities, and at times, have disagreements. As a reader you begin to feel like an unofficial member of the sisterhood, standing quietly by, privy to these high-stakes discussions. You understand the level of loyalty and respect they feel for each other.
For readers who crave a little romance, there are a few moments. There’s the neighboring farm boy, a broad-shouldered constable, and a mysterious newcomer.
But really, this story is about the sisterhood. That, and gasping every few pages, wondering how in the world they’re going to get themselves out of this. I really enjoyed tagging along with this Scandalous Sisterhood.
“WARNING: this book may cause excessive laughter and possible silliness.”
This lively and humorous collection of eight novellas that is Comics Squad: Recess! features comic strip style stories by well-known author and/or illustrators such as Gene Luen Yang, Dav Pilkey, Jarrett J. Krosoczka and Raina Telgemeier. Popular characters like Babymouse and Lunch Lady make their appearance and new characters are introduced. All the stories are tied together by one theme: recess, one of the high points of the school day (second only to dismissal time!).
The stories feature a lively variety of styles, characters and situations from the geeky boy who struggles to join a recess ninja club in Yang’s “Super Secret Ninja Club” to two squirrels who find a rather unusual acorn in Vernon’s “The Magic Acorn.” Pilkey’s “Book ‘em, Dog Man,” features the hero, Dog Man (and lots of invented spelling), who sets out to stop the diabolical Petey from destroying all books in order make the world “supa dumb.” In Telgemeier and Roman’s “The Rainy Day Monitor,” a restless 5th grade class, confined to their classroom on a rainy day, is pleasantly surprised when a “boring” student finds a way to engage her classmates. Two boys struggle to complete an assignment during recess in Santat’s “300 Words” with hilarious and poignant results. Babymouse’s daydreaming makes her late for classes and lands her inside for recess where she takes off on an imaginary quest in the Holms’ “Babymouse: The Quest for Recess.”
Highly recommended for grades 3-6, this anthology serves as a great way to attract new fans and will be enjoyed by those already familiar with the authors’ and/or illustrators’ characters.
GIVEAWAY DETAILS: We’re delighted to be giving away two copies (value $7.99 each) of COMICS SQUAD: RECESS!.
1. Please send an email to Ronna.L.Mandel at gmail.com and write COMICS SQUAD: RECESS! in the subject. Please supply your name and address, too!
2. Be sure to LIKE US on either Facebook and/or Twitter to be eligible and let us know you have. You must be a US or Canadian resident to enter.
3. Contest ends at midnight on August 5, 2014, and (2) winners will be notified on August 6, 2014.
The Terrific Timmy Failure Series Written and Illustrated by Stephen Pastis is Reviewed by Dornel Cerro.
Introducing “the greatness that is Timmy Failure,” world class detective.
Move over Inspector Jacques Clouseau, author/illlustrator Stephan Pastis has created your youthful equivalent in a humorous series about an overly-confident and hilariously clueless detective who dreams of taking his neighborhood detective agency global. Unfortunately there are some obstacles: his mother – who insists he goes to school, school – where he’s not doing so well, Rollo – his less than brilliant best friend, and Total – his 1500 pound polar bear partner. A polar bear for a partner? Yes, after hooking up with Timmy, Total insisted that the agency name start with his. Hence the less than inspirational agency name of “Total Failure.” (Timmy Fayleure’s name was changed to Failure).
Timmy is also challenged by his evil arch enemy, a fellow student so despised that her “…name shall not be uttered” and her face is blocked out in the deceptively simple illustrations in Timmy’s journal – a history of his invaluable expertise.
Highly imaginative situations, clever word plays, and puns on popular culture are part of the series’ humor and mask some deeper issues. Superficially we have a young bumbling Clouseau-like detective who misses the most basic of clues. When investigating the death of a friend’s hamster, Timmy doesn’t ask obvious questions like has it been fed lately? Rather he asks if the hamster had any enemies. Another friend hires Timmy to find out who toilet papered his house. Timmy initially deduces that only monkeys could have climbed high enough to hang toilet paper from the treetops. Readers will quickly grasp that Total Failure, Inc. is not exactly on the road to international success.
We also see Timmy struggling with an active imagination which causes him to lose focus, impacting his school performance. He has difficulty forming healthy relationships: when frustrated, he refers to other people as “stupid.” He is obsessed with his goal and sees everything in relationship to his detective agency. He treats his mom like an employee, scheduling teleconferences, annual reviews, etc. However, poignant moments emerge: when his detective instincts tell him that his mom seems troubled, he tells her she doesn’t have to read him a bedtime story. Eventually, Timmy benefits from sympathetic adult support. His mom takes charge, structures his life, sends him to a therapist and encourages him to become more involved in the world around him. A new teacher finds an innovative way to engage him in school by “hiring” him to “investigate” the “mysteries” of fractions, and photosynthesis. By the third book, Timmy and the other main characters show much personal and social growth.
While this is not another Diary of a Wimpy Kid spinoff, it will be enjoyed by that series’ fans and reluctant readers. Sophisticated humor, including popular culture references (like “A Hitchhikers Guide to Grade School” chapter title) will tickle the funny bone of older readers. Challenging issues (single parent families, learning styles, and successful relationships) and amazing vocabulary (debilitating, farce, intimidating, and Timmy’s favorite outcry “mendacity”) will engage all readers. This middle grade fiction novel is highly recommended for ages 8-12.
Pastis, creator of the “Pearls Before Swine” comic strip, has an awesome Timmy Failure website with links to YouTube videos, information about the books, author interviews, vocabulary flashcards and more. Visit it here at www.timmyfailure.com.
Series Titles and summary (all titles written and illustrated by Stephen Pastis and published by Candlewick Press):
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (No.1). 2013. $14.99 In which we are introduced to the young CEO and president of Total Failure, Inc., “…the best detective agency in town…” and the obstacles he faces (mother, school, and an evil nemesis) in realizing his goal of global expansion.
Timmy Failure: Now Look What You’ve Done (No. 2). 2014. $14.99 In which our extraordinary detective enters a school contest to find a stolen globe … but is someone trying to prevent him from solving the case? Join Timmy, Total, and his kooky Aunt Colander, as they set out to solve the mystery of the missing globe, avenge the integrity of the competition, and hopefully win the $500 prize.
Timmy Failure: We Meet Again (No. 3). Release date: October, 2014. $14.99 In which we find our intrepid detective on academic probation and forced to collaborate on a nature report with his evil nemesis. He is hired by a desperate student to find the lost Miracle Report, an old research paper that could give Timmy and others an A++++++. Surprises abound!
Madeline has had a very rough time lately. Her hippie parents have been kidnapped! The only lead Madeline has is a note left on the refrigerator written in code. She’s also been the witness of a most amazing thing. She thinks she saw a car full of foxes, with a fox for a driver, leaving her small hometown around the time that her parents went missing. With only these leads to go on, Madeline meets Mr. and Mrs. Bunny who are just as astonished as Madeline to learn that she can understand Rabbit. Madeline, amazingly enough, understands every word Mr. and Mrs. Bunny say!
The story takes many amusing detours, and Madeline learns something wonderful about her parents. For all their annoying candle making, jewelry making, and general hippie ways, she loves them dearly. Madeline misses her parents so much that she is willing to trust two sometimes muddled, always adorable (and even occasionally correct) fedora-wearing rabbits in order to get them back.
Mr. and Mrs. Bunny have their own story, of course, as to why they are interested in solving crimes. One day Mrs. Bunny said to Mr. Bunny, “I think we should be detectives!” Mr. Bunny, she firmly believes, should give up his job, they should immediately go buy fedoras, and therefore be detectives. Mr. Bunny does bring up a sore point though, which is that they have no license to prove that they are, in fact, detectives. To that bit of logic Mrs. Bunny replies, “I think fedoras are enough. Anyone who sees a bunny in a fedora will not feel the need to see a license.”
At this point in the story I was more than amused. I was laughing and reading parts of it aloud to my family. Although it is extremely funny, this book delves down deeper. It seeks to answer the eternal question, “Why do I put up with my crazy family? Why do I love them so much that I would do anything for them?” while adding detective bunnies on the side. You just can’t ask much more than that from a book. There is a sequel out now titled Mr. and Mrs. Bunny-Almost Royalty, which I am looking forward to reading very much! Well done, Polly Horvath!
This book would unquestionably make an adorable gift to fans of Mr. Roald Dahl’s or even Mr. Lemony Snicket’s books. Horvath is just as clever, but infinitely sweeter. Additionally, her characters are just as much fun. Mr. and Mrs. Bunny-Detectives Extraordinaire! won a Parent’s Choice Gold Award, and got starred reviews from The Horn Book Review,Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. As if that were not enough, there is a bonus to these books because Mrs. Bunny has her very own blog! It’s not a mystery why your children should be reading these books now, is it? No, it’s more a mystery why we aren’t all reading these books because they are so much fun! Case closed!