DIJ – Do It Jewish, written by Barbara Bietz and illustrated by Daria Grinevich, makes a unique gift to give tweens who are eager to flex their creativity muscles. It even had me thinking about looking for my Nana’s rugelach recipe to play around with and update.
From filmmaking, songwriting, art, cooking, graphic novels to cartooning, midrash, and Judaica, there’s something here to suit everyone’s creative tastes. This clever nonfiction book jumps right into the first of its seven chapters. While the cooking chapter spoke to me the most, the songwriting chapter might resonate with your child or perhaps the one on painting and art.
Bietz approaches each chapter by first presenting motivational insights from an expert in the respective topic whether filmmaking, catering and cookbook writing, cartooning, or creating Judaica. These pros tell readers how they became involved in their area of expertise which is always interesting. Then they offer suggestions on how to get started, what tools/equipment tweens will need, and what to do next. I can picture kids taking the book along with them as a reference guide when first getting their feet wet in a particular area covered in the book. e
Bietz then goes on to share the individual experiences of someone pursuing a creative field that resonates with them, as a hobby or career. Everything is broken down into manageable steps as seen in the text and illustrations above and below.
I especially liked how certain words are presented in a different font and color so readers can refer to these words in the glossary provided at the end of each chapter.
Every chapter is neatly tied into Judaism so just before Passover is a great time for kids to read this book. I remember recording my family at one seder for a Jewish holidays project I had in my university media class. My professor taught me how to edit the recording so I could add layers of my dialogue on top of my family reading from the Haggadah, sharing jokes, and commenting on the food served. My whole family was on board which added to the festive atmosphere that evening. This book reminds me of that course in that it’s like having a teacher, professor, or mentor at your child’s side as they dive into an area of the arts that they feel passionate about.
Bietz and the professionals she’s interviewed all explain how easy it is to gain experience by seeking help from those closest to us—family and friends fieldwork so to speak. Grinevich’s spot art, as well as occasional photos, nicely break up the text and add colorful appeal. I hope your kids will take advantage of the upcoming holiday to explore some of the topics in DIJ-Do it Jewish by joining you in the kitchen, the synagogue, or out in your community as they gain a better understanding of what Jewish creativity is all about.
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.
This year choosing books to include in our Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month Roundup has been more difficult than ever because there are dozens of excellent ones being published and more on the way. Here is just a small sample of great reads, from picture book to graphic novel to young adult fantasy that are available for kids and teens to enjoy.
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER ★Starred Review – Kirkus
The ABCs of Black History is the kind of inspiring book children and adults will want to return to again and again because there is so much to absorb. In other words, it’s not your mother’s ABC book. Written in uplifting rhyme by Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Rio Cortez, this gorgeous 60-page picture book is at once a look back in time and a look to the future for young Black children. However it is recommended reading for children of all races and their families.
Cortez has shined a lyrical light on places, events and figures familiar and less familiar from Black history with comprehensive back matter going more in depth. Take H for example: “H is for Harlem—those big city streets! / We walked and we danced to our own jazzy beat. / When Louis and Bessie and Duke owned the stage, / and Langston and Zora Neale Hurston, the page.” J is for Juneteenth and S, which gets double coverage, is for scientists and for soul. Adding to the hopeful tone of Cortez’s rhyme are Semmer’s bold and vibrant graphics which jump off the page. The dazzling colors pull you in and the variety of composition keep you hooked.
The ABCs of Black History is a book you’ll want to read together with your young ones and let your older children discover and savor on their own. It’s not only a visual and aural treat, it’s a sweeping celebration and exploration of Black culture and history that is beautiful, compelling, thought provoking and thoroughly unputdownable! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly
Adapted from the final chapter of Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s autobiography Mighty Justice, We Wait for the Sun is an intimate look at a tender moment in Dovey’s childhood. The book opens with a preface about the main character, Dovey, who grew up to be a legendary figure in the fight for racial equality-all through the influence of her beloved grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham. Dovey loved to share stories of Grandmother Rachel; this book is the story she loved best.
In “the midsummer night” when it’s “dark and cool,” Dovey and her grandmother walk “through the darkness toward the woods” to pick blackberries. Lyrical language and textural illustrations awaken the senses and draw us into their adventure.
Other women join in and the trip goes deeper still into the forest. Staring at Grandma’s shoes, Dovey is literally following her grandmother’s steps into the darkness. But Grandma Rachel provides comfort and reassurance. “If you wait just a little, your eyes will learn to see, and you can find your way.”
Through such examples of wisdom and encouragement, it’s clear to see why Grandma Rachel was such an inspiration to Dovey and her later work as a civil rights lawyer. As they sit in the forest and listen to its “thousand sounds,” a double page spread shows an aerial view of their meditative moment, immersed in the magic of their surroundings.
And when they reach the berries, they’re every bit worth the wait-plump, juicy, and sweet-like the lush layers of purple, blue, and pink illustrations that display a beautiful berry-colored world as dawn, bit by bit, turns to day. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Grandma and Dovey watch the sun rise in its golden splendor. Grandma’s steadfast waiting for the light, despite the present darkness, is a moving message of hope, resilience, and bravery.
Back matter includes an in-depth note from co-author Katie McCabe chronicling Dovey’s fight against barriers in the law, military, and ministry. For anyone interested in the powerful ways family and history intersect, We Wait for the Sun is a must-have in every library. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
While white Americans eagerly embarked on carefree car travel around the country, in 1930s Jim Crow America the road was not a safe or welcoming place for Black people. In Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, Keila V. Dawson explores the entrepreneur Victor Green and his successful The Negro Motorist Green Book which was borne out of dire need.
Young readers will learn about the limitations that were in place restricting the freedoms of Black Americans to have access to the same conveniences whites did due to segregation laws. For instance, a road trip for a Black family meant bringing food, pillows, and even a portable toilet since most establishments along a route were for whites only. The same applied to hotels, service stations, auto-mechanics and even hospitals. And in “Sundown” towns, where Blacks could work but not live, those individuals had to be gone by sunset or risk jail or worse.
In this fascinating 40-page nonfiction picture book, Dawson explains in easy-to-understand prose exactly what obstacles faced Black travelers and why Green, a mail carrier, together with his wife Alma, decided to publish a directory. Inspired by a Kosher guide for Jews who also faced discrimination, Green began collecting information from people on his postal route about where safe places were in New York.
Eventually, with word-of-mouth expanding interest in Green’s book, he began corresponding with mail carriers nationwide to gather more recommendations for The Negro Motorist Green Book on more cities. Soon everyone from day-trippers to celebrities were using the Green Book. Green even made a deal with Standard Oil for the book to be sold in Esso gas stations where it “flew off the shelves.” Harris’s illustrations take readers back in time with colorful, realistic looking scenes of big old cars, uniformed service station attendants and locations in Black communities that opened their doors to Black travelers. Apart from a break during WWII, the book was sold until the need for it finally ended with the last edition in 1966-67.
Equality both on and off the road was the ultimate goal for Black Americans. That may have improved somewhat from when the first Green Book was published in 1936, but Victor did not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted, having passed away in 1960. However there is still a long road ahead because, unlike Victor’s Green Book, racism has not disappeared and being Black while driving can still be dangerous, even deadly.
Dawson dives into this in her five pages of back matter that include a clever roadway timeline graphic from the beginning of Green’s life in 1892 until the Green Book ceased publication. This is a helpful, thoughtfully written book to share with children to discuss racism, and a good way to begin a discussion about self-advocacy, ingenuity, and how to treat one another with respect. It’s also a welcome example of how Green channeled his frustration and dissatisfaction into a guide that ultimately changed people’s lives for the better. Click herefor an essential Educator’s Guide. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Kadir Nelson, in his interesting introduction to James Otis Smith’s graphic novel Black Heroes of the Wild Westpoints out that cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders and other people from the Old West (west of the Mississippi River “during and after the American Civil War”) were historically portrayed in books, movies and TV through a white lens. In reality up to “a third of the settler population was African American.” I couldn’t wait to find out more about Mary Fields, known as “Stagecoach Mary” in her day, Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, and “mustanger” Bob Lemmons, perhaps the original Texas horse whisperer.
All three individuals were forces to be reckoned with. First there’s Mary Fields, born into slavery in Tennessee. In her lifetime, she maintained fierce loyalty to friends, loved children, was generous to a fault, and had strength and energy second to none. She’s most noted, however, for her reputation as a banjo strumming, card playing, first African American female stagecoach driver who never missed a delivery and was not easily thwarted by wolves or bad weather.
I was blown away learning about Bass Reeves’s bravery in outwitting some murderous outlaws on the Most Wanted List. In the account Smith shares, Reeves single-handedly put himself into a dangerous situation by turning up as an impoverished loner looking for any kind of work to earn his keep. By cleverly offering up his services to the mother of the villains, earning her trust, and ultimately that of the bad guys too, he was able to capture them completely off guard. This plus thousands of other arrests cemented his place in history. The best part was how Smith’s illustrations conveyed Reeves in the particular scenario of capturing the outlaws by surprise which in turn surprised and satisfied me immensely.
Last but definitely not least is Bob Lemmons who was hired to corral wild mustangs and whose humane technique was not deadly to any of the horses, something other mustangers had not been able to manage. Smith takes readers on a journey of the senses along with Lemmons as he follows a group of mustangs he intends to wrangle, and details in both art and text how eventually Lemmons becomes one with the stallion leading the “manada” (mares and colts). “Bob knew their habits, their body language, their sounds. Like them, he flared his nostrils sniffing for danger.” You don’t have to be a horse lover to be impressed how Bob’s slow and steady approach made the mustangs think he was one of them.
Eight comprehensive pages of fascinating back matter round off this excellent middle grade read that will no doubt have tweens eager to find out more about these and other Black heroes. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
★Starred Review – Booklist A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The Gilded Ones is book one of a West African-inspired epic fantasy series that will grab you from its first page. When girls turn sixteen, they must undergo The Ritual of Purity where they are bled to see if they can become a member of their village. However, if a girl’s blood runs gold, then she’s found impure and faces a fate worse than death. If Deka’s father had the money, he would have sent her to the House of Purity the year before the ritual, keeping her protected from sharp objects. Instead, Deka must be careful while she worries and prepares.
When Deka fails, she’s tortured until a mysterious woman she names White Hands offers an option out. The empire’s being attacked by seemingly invincible Deathshriek creatures. Deka becomes an alkali soldier fighting alongside other girls like her with powers that make them nearly immortal.
Namina Forna says, “The Gilded Ones is a book about my anger at being a woman. Sierra Leone was is very patriarchal. There were things I was expected to do as a girl because I was a girl.” This emotion is harnessed into the story, revealing societal inequities in an intricately woven plot that will surprise and enflame you.
Deka has the best “sidekick” ever—a shapeshifter called Ixa. Though there are elements of romance, it’s strong females who rule the plot. This book provides a fresh look at the “gods and goddesses” trope. The Gilded Ones is fierce, brutal, and relevant. Read it. • 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 read another Black History Month review. e
In The Great Pet Heist, when elderly Mrs. Food slips on some dog barf and ends up too injured to return possibly ever, her pets must fend for themselves. Walt (don’t call me Lucretia) is an Oriental shorthair and the sly female lead. Her sidekick is lovable but slow at times Butterbean, a male long-haired wiener dog, whose claim to fame is his nostril-probe lick. The main crew is comprised of Oscar the smart mynah bird, and the amiable rats Marco and Polo. e
A girl from their building named Madison comes by to take care of the basics, but the pets know it’s hasta la vista soon. Their situation seems dire until they stumble upon a possible criminal in their building who may have enough gold coins to give the animals riches to care for themselves. Once the heist is launched, a series of funny antics will keep you wondering whether these characters will succeed, or if it’s off to the pound.
Throughout, Dave Mottram’s art is beautifully done, adding another layer of humor to Ecton’s story. Though Walt was my favorite character, I fell for Chad the octopus once I saw him rising out of toilet bowls and tripping up the villain. Take a close look at the image next to the title page of The Great Pet Heist to find Chad.
In book one, Twinchantment, identical twins Flissa and Sara must act as one person (Princess Flissara) to escape the Kingdom of Kaloon’s Magic Eradication Act which cites twinhood as reason for removal and re-homing. Book two, UnTwistedby Elise Allen, picks up on Ascension Day as the girls officially take their individual places in line for the throne. However, the new Magical Unification Act hasn’t been a simple fix for harmonious living. A top priority in the Kaloonification was bringing together the Mages, Genpos (people without magic from the general population), and Magical Animals at a school called the Maldevon Academy. However, cooperation between the groups is easier said than done, and someone is out to destroy the unity.
Favorite characters of mine from book one continue in UnTwisted: Galric and his adorable black kitten Nitpick, evil lioness Raya, and Loriah—who I’m happy to see has a bigger role. New characters like Zinka enliven the story. Plot misdirection keeps the twins searching for who’s behind the escalating ripples of unrest while they also navigate newfound friendships and how to fit in at school.
Chapters once again alternate viewpoints between Flissa and Sara. Allen successfully extends character development across both books. In UnTwisted, the girls’ individualities take center stage and their sisterly bond fractures. I like how the books show Kaloon progressing from the Magic Eradication Act to the Magical Unification Act, and the problems of both all-or-nothing edicts.
This series will appeal to kids who like books about adventure, magic, and relationships. The delightful Twinchantment novels combine high-stakes action with relatable, dimensional tween issues. It feels there’s more to come from these dynamic twins.
I love everything about travel, the new sights, smells, tastes, and sounds. And getting there is also a big part of the excitement. But right now, staying home during the pandemic means we have to find other ways to get that thrill. There are travel programs and international webcams to watch, online museums to visit, and best of all, there are books to read. Take advantage of the variety of books that kids of all ages can enjoy for unique vicarious experiences. I hope you’ll share these books so that, while at home, your children can adventure both near and far simply by turning a page.
Help your kids become global citizens by introducing them to a vast array of fascinating destinations in this fabulous board book series. The 28-pages in Tiny Travelers Treasure Quest: India provide an engaging illustrated journey into the heart of India. My first trip to India was over 30 years ago and yet that trip has remained with me all these years because of the scenic beauty, the delicious food, the warm, welcoming people, and the majesty of the monuments such as the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. Kids, parents, teachers, and librarians will love how the book is filled with facts about the “language, history, food, nature, music, and more,” in every colorful spread. There’s a seek-and-find element woven into the text that parents can choose to play with their children during the first reading, or return to the next time. Top that off with the rhyming prose, “Bollywood movies / are one of a kind. / They have dancing, singing / and costumes combined!” and kids will be hooked. Find more info and books in the series including China, Mexico, Puerto Rico atTinyTravelers.com.
Covering 15 topics, My First Book of London, a large-format picture book, is just one title in this fun series that combines vibrant graphic illustrations, brief narrative and simple words to give an overview of the most well-known attractions and things to do in this beloved city. I actually laughed out loud when on the first spread I saw that for Buckingham Palace not only was Queen Elizabeth II included, but also a Corgi! I wasn’t quite sure why a fire engine was featured, (must look that up) but I’m glad that the “flag-waving crowd” and “Changing of the Guard” were depicted. Arrhenius has zeroed in on London’s museums, too, one of my favorite things about this city. There is a museum for everyone’s interests, from the famed British Museum with its mummy collection to the V&A Museum (Victoria & Albert), my personal fave. Use the book as a dictionary, as a seek-and-find book, or simply as a wonderful way to get familiar with what makes this English city so popular.
The fourth book in this beautifully illustrated U.S. travel series is Lulu and Rocky in Indianapolis, informational fiction that is part story, part travelogue, and 100% interesting! The books all feature fox cousins, main characters Lulu and Rocky, and their penguin pal Pufferson. There is a welcome consistency in how each story begins the same way making it easy to read the books out of order. First readers get a sneak peek at Aunt Fancy composing a letter, then comes a map of the featured city (in this Indiana’s state capital), followed by Lulu receiving the purple envelope in which Aunt Fancy invites her to bring Pufferson to meet up with Rocky at the destination. Once together the trio embarks on an adventure in a different city that will make you want to pack your bags and hit the road to join them. Kids’ll discover that there is so much more to the “Hoosier’s paradise” than the famed motor race. In the backmatter’s two-paged “More to Know” section, each attraction visited is described in more detail so you can plan a future trip to Indy. Make sure to include the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the largest children’s museum in the world!
Another picture book for armchair travelers is the detailed 50 Maps of the World, recommended for tweens. Not your mother’s atlas, this large-format book is an easy way for kids to connect with our world through travel, culture, historical and current famous personalities, geography and animals without leaving home. There is a helpful intro so kids know what to expect before diving in. What I love about this book is not just how good it feels to hold in your lap, but I also appreciate how much info has been packed into every page so there are multiple ways to approach it. Take South Africa for example. Sometimes you may pick up the book to learn the key facts about its largest cities, population, official languages, etc. Other times you may want to find out about its natural attractions such as Hole in the Wall, Tugela Falls, or Kruger National Park. You can even study a timeline or discover who once called this country home such as Elon Musk, cricketer De Villiers, Nelson Mandela, inventor Thato Kgatlhanye, or actress Charlize Theron.
What makes Cities in Layers so cool and accessible is how it takes kids back in time to two previous eras in history per city in addition to the present time via fact-filled pages, bright visual maps, as well as info about people who lived there. There’s even a cleverly designed “die-cut element,” that “allows readers to really peel back layers of time.” This visually appealing large-format, 64-page picture book will delight tweens as they see the changes in the six famous cities unfold right before their eyes. Starting with an intro and a timeline, the book then covers Rome, Italy; Istanbul, Turkey; Paris, France; Beijing, China; London, U.K.; and New York City, U.S.A. Cities in Layers would be the perfect companion to stories from those time periods. When looking at London from 1863, kids could learn about authors from the Victorian era, or they could read about the Great Depression when checking out the map of NYC from 1931. What’s interesting is that Steele has chosen different centuries to focus on for each city so while the pages for Paris zero in on 1380, 1793, and today, the section on Istanbul covers 550 ce, 1616 as well as the present day. A two-page spread at the end ponders what future cities will look like while addressing population growth, the scarcity of resources, and technology. This fascinating read combines history, maps, architecture, and progress with its unique perspective that will no doubt spark interesting discussions.
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.
With whimsical art in blacks, whites, and grays offset with oranges and foil accents, The Little Kittenembodies 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!
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—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.
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’snew 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.
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!
★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.
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 e IT’S HALLOWEEN, LITTLE MONSTER Written by Helen Ketteman Illustrated by Bonnie Leick (Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7) e 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.
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!” e 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. e e
OTHER RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN SEASON READS: e CHRISTOPHER PUMPKIN by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet with art by Nick East (Board Book for Ages 0-3, Little Brown BYR) e THAT MONSTER ON THE BLOCKby Sue Ganz-Schmitt with art by Luke Flowers (Picture Book Ages 4-8, Two Lions) e THE REVENGE OF THE WEREPENGUINby 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! e Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/26/20
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.
Click hereto order a copy of The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter or visit your local indie bookstore. e 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!
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, readRebecca Roanhorse’sRace to the Sun.
The selection of books here, while not necessarily being about July 4th or the Revolutionary War, all have to do with our country, and what it means to have gained our independence and become a democracy. I hope the books inspire children to read more on the topics covered, and to think about how they can make a difference, no matter how small, in their own communities.
When at last America declared itself free from British rule, the Constitution was written “with rules for every institution.” However, something more was needed to guarantee five “of the most fundamental American freedoms,” and so the First Amendment, along with nine others (and making up the Bill of Rights) was drafted.
Using verse, occasional speech bubbles, and bright, diverse, kid-centric illustrations, Free for You and Me explains in easily understandable language just what these powerful 45 words represent. Kids will enjoy seeing other kids on the pages debating the meaning of the expression, “It’s a free country” making this picture book ideal for classroom discussion or for any budding historians and legal scholars.
Mihaly explains how our First Amendment means “we the people of the United States have five important freedoms,” many of which we see at work on a daily basis. Americans are guaranteed “freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to gather in a peaceful rally or protest, and the freedom to tell our leaders what we want them to do.” If your child has recently marched with you in a protest, that’s due to our First Amendment rights.
In this book, kids learn the importance of the First Amendment through the example of a mayor who wants to shut down their playground. They organize a rally and get signatures on a petition in an effort to save it. Other good examples are presented as in the case of Freedom of Speech. Readers find out about Congressman Matthew Lyon who was arrested and spent four months in jail in 1798 for criticizing President John Adams. This would never have happened were it not for a law Adams and his Federalist government passed called the Sedition Act. Once Jefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired. I had never heard about this before, but my 19-year-old son had so a lively conversation ensued.
The timeliness of this educational picture book will not be lost on those who support a free press, the right to free speech and to assemble peacefully, as well as the freedom of religion and freedom to petition the Government for redress of grievances. Mihaly, a former lawyer, understands the principles upon which our democracy was established. With her knowledge of the First Amendment, she succeeds in conveying the freedoms it entails in an engaging and accessible way for young readers. We can never take these hard-fought for liberties for granted. Four pages of back matter go into more detail. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
The students of Stanton Elementary School aren’t old enough to vote when their school closes every two years on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November. That’s when it turns into a polling station. They are, however, are old enough to spread the word in Vote for Our Future!
The diverse cast of characters, energetically represented in bold and vivid illustrations, introduce a topic that is timely for all ages. McNamara’s sweet and intuitive children first ask “what’s a polling station?” The children’s eyes widen as they learn that “the reason people vote is to choose who makes the laws of the country.” LaToya with her big pink glasses raises her hand and says, “we should all vote to make the future better.” But Lizzy reminds her that they just aren’t old enough.
So what are they old enough to do? Player illustrates boys and girls from all backgrounds looking through books and “searching online to find all kinds of information. They even took a trip to their local election office and picked up forms.” The research shows that “kids have to live with adult choices. The kids of Stanton Elementary School were ready to spread the word.”
McNamara takes the reader through the small town where Cady and her mom make flyers. They pass them out to a busy dad, who didn’t even know there was an election, to Nadiya and her auntie, wearing hijabs on their heads, who go door to door telling neighbors that “voting is a right.” Player’s vibrant and colorful art of people from various ethnic groups shows the reader that all people have the right to vote.
With each excuse from adults that the children are given, an even better comeback is heard in return. “I don’t like standing in lines,” one lady tells Nadiya. Nadiya’s auntie doesn’t like standing in lines either, but Nadiya says if you can stand in line for coffee you can stand in line to vote. I love how fearless the kids are when the adults come up with excuses for why they aren’t voting and how the kids don’t take no for an answer.
Player shows “people voting for the first time, and the fiftieth time, with their sons and daughters, their nieces and nephews, their brothers and sisters, their cousins and friends.” When voting was complete and the ballots were counted, Stanton Elementary went back to being a school and “the future began to change.”
McNamara writes in the back matter titled Get Out The Vote! that when adults vote for people and causes they believe in, they speak for us and make laws that are good for everyone in the country. She lists various Acts that have been signed to prompt further discussions between adults and kids. Player’s drawings of stickers such as Yes, I Voted help to get the message across that voting does matter and that every vote really can make a difference. Have the primaries happened in your state? If not, get out and vote! • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
I loved getting to know the origin story for the beloved song so many people think is our national anthem, but isn’t. I also learned that not only was the poem that was later turned into a song, written by a woman, but a very independent one at that.
Katharine Lee Bates was raised by her widowed mother who “grew and sold vegetables to help Katharine go to school.” Katharine’s smarts led to higher education and her passion for the written word led to her career as an author and professor at a time when young women were encouraged to pursue marriage and homemaking. She was also a reformer. In addition to teaching, Katharine worked hard to improve the lives of those most vulnerable in society, while also using her talents to help the suffrage movement.
A summer teaching job took her across the country by train from Boston to Colorado where she first glimpsed America’s boundless beauty. On July 4, 1893 Katharine’s mind was flooded with “memories of the ocean” as she set eyes on amber stalks of wheat swaying in the Kansas fields. A trip up to Pike’s Peak and its majestic views clearly inspired her to compose the poem we know and love. It was first published on July 4, 1895 and, with each additional publication, underwent several revisions. In 1910 it was paired with the famous melody by composer Samuel A. Ward we still sing today. This terrific and inspiring biography with its glorious Grandma Moses-esque illustrations perfectly blends the story of Katharine Lee Bates’s life and career, and country with the poem that celebrates its expansive splendor. Back matter and a timeline round out this recommended read. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
WE THE PEOPLE: The United States Constitution Explored and Explained Written by Aura Lewis and Evan Sargent Illustrated by Aura Lewis (Wide Eyed Editions; $24.99, Ages 10-14)
Even adults can take advantage of this comprehensive look at our Constitution because of the colorful and inviting picture book format designed with middle grade readers in mind. Plus it’s the kind of book you’ll want to keep on hand to refer to, especially when kids ask questions you may be unable to answer.
This quote from the authors on the intro page speaks volumes about what you can expect when you pick up a copy of We the People: “… we believe that having a deeper understanding of our Constitution can inspire change. Anyone can understand how the government works, and every single person has the power to get involved and make a difference.”
The 128 pages of the book are divided up into brief, digestible chapters, with plenty of white space so that your eye can travel to the most important parts quickly. The authors have included excerpts from the Constitution which have been paraphrased in kid-friendly English so they’re easily understood especially when presented as they relate to our daily lives.
One of my favorite sections was about the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, intended to guarantee that “no one can be denied the right to vote because of their gender.” The chapter features a bottom border illustration of both the suffragettes on the left holding signs and modern day protestors on the right also carrying signs. The spread (like those throughout the book) has interesting factoids such as the one about young conservative Tennessee politician, Harry Burns, whose mother influenced his decision “that tipped the scales in favor of the 19th Amendment.” On the four pages devoted to this amendment there are also thought provoking questions that a teacher or librarian can pose to their students.
There is so much wonderful information to absorb that I recommend readers take in a few chapters at a time to let the facts sink in. One particular chapter that, leading up to this year’s presidential election, might prompt discussion is about the 12th Amendment and the electoral college. Everyone who reads We the People will likely find something covered that will resonate with them whether it’s about the rights of the accused, term limits, or D.C.’s residents (now looking for statehood) being given the right to vote for president. Get this book today and you’ll get the picture! •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
STAR-SPANGLED: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem Written by Tim Grove (Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 10-14)
★Starred Review – Kirkus
Okay, I’m going to embarrass myself here and admit I did not know the “Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem, was about a battle against the British over a fort in Baltimore. I mean I knew it was about a battle based on the lyrics and I knew the battle fought was with the British, and that’s it. I’m not even sure I was taught the anthem’s history in school. Now, thanks to Tim Grove’s well-researched historical nonfiction novel, I’ve been educated and kids can be, too. Oh and by the way, this occurred during the War of 1812 (which incidentally lasted until 1815).
Told from various perspectives, because what better way to convey the complexity of history than from more than one angle, Grove’s book introduces readers to a host of British and American characters. We meet Mary Pickersgill, (a sewing business owner specializing in flags or colors), Thomas Kemp (a Baltimore shipyard owner), Francis Scott Key, (a thirty-five-year-old lawyer with six children), Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn (a top British military officer in the Chesapeake Bay region), and 10 others whose stories are woven together to bring the full picture of the intense battle to light. Star-Spangled also addresses the background of the war and events leading up to battle to help put its significance in context. If America lost Baltimore, our young country’s independence could be at stake. Grove notes that Pickersgill, Kemp, and Key were all slave owners and that Key, was a “tireless opponent of the slave trade” yet in his role as a U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., opposed abolitionists. He was also “a leading proponent” of the colonization movement, something I definitely did not know about.
As we meet each person, we learn the role they played in the the book’s subheading, The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem. In fact, Star-Spangled reads like an Erik Larson novel where all the events are building up to the major one so anticipation is high despite knowing the outcome. And don’t be surprised if you become so engrossed that you finish the book in one go!
I had an advance review copy so I was unable to see the full-color photographs from the final edition, but my copy did contain the fascinating archival material interspersed throughout the book. There’s actually a photo of the “flag that Key saw. Over the years, before the flag came to the Smithsonian Institution, people cut various pieces off for souvenirs.” There’s also a photo of Francis Key’s “original draft of his poem.” This contains four verses and is preserved at the Maryland Historical Society.
Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline, a glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Don’t miss your chance to get a copy of this enlightening book. I hope it finds its way onto bookshelves in classrooms and libraries around the country so our rich history can be better understood and discussed. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
In Kit Rosewater’s middle grade book, The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, fifth grader Kenzie Ellington has spent the past three years watching her mom skate in Austin’s roller derby league wanting to join in too. Fortunately, her BFF, Shelly, finds a junior league being formed. The girls eagerly prepare for tryouts, ready to show off their signature Dynamic Duo moves. However, to keep from possibly being split up, they must form a five-person team in only one week.
Finding other skaters proves harder than expected; the girls they’re asking can’t even skate. Shelly wants to recruit Bree, Kenzie’s skateboarding neighbor, but Kenzie struggles with her complicated secret-crush feelings toward Bree. Then, as the team comes together, Kenzie worries when Shelly welcomes new members and seemingly replaces Kenzie.
Sophie Escabasse’s art brings to life the story’s emotions as well as the humor and camaraderie. Even readers who know nothing about roller derby will feel comfortable with this book’s easy explanations of the sport and accompanying illustrations—just take a glimpse at the dynamic cover.
Fans of the graphic novel Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson will enjoy this tale which also focuses on friendship and girl power. The six girls depicted in this book are realistic representations of the fifth graders I know. I applaud Rosewater for showing us a diverse group of girls who sword fight and play basketball. Girls can be any combination of things. I look forward to book 2, out in September. ★Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal
In 1957 rural Washington state, Eisenhower’s being sworn in for his second term in office, the Russians ready to launch a satellite into space, and dragons are hired for farmwork having forged a no-kill policy with humans. Against her father’s wishes, fifteen-year-old Sarah Dewhurst begins to interact with their laborer dragon, Kazimir. However, Kazimir has his own agenda, needing Sarah for prophecy fulfillment.
Nearby, FBI agents chase teen assassin Malcolm as he rushes to complete his secret mission for a radical pro-dragon group called the Believers. Nothing sways Malcolm’s devotion to leader Mitera Thea and his probably suicidal mission until his path crosses Nelson’s (who has been thrown out by his mother). Against his training, Malcolm envelops Nelson into the folds of his dangerous world. Yet his ghastly tasks threaten their blossoming relationship.
Best-selling author Patrick Ness once again delivers a complex, action-filled story in Burn. We can relate to Sarah who still aches from her mother’s death and the ongoing prejudice because of their skin color. Sarah’s boyfriend, Jason Inagawa—the only other nonwhite kid in their area—lost his mother to pneumonia during their three-year forced stay in an internment camp. Ness seamlessly blends historical elements with fantasy.
This fast-paced story, told in alternating viewpoint, takes you on a wild journey that includes an alternate universe. Cleverly crafted text amplifies the suspense, allowing for successful verbal sleight of hand. Burn wraps up dramatically, while leaving room to expand into a series. I couldn’t put this book down and look forward to the tale’s continuation in whatever world(s) where I hope to meet more wonderful—and wonderfully awful—dragons. ★Starred Reviews– Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Publishers Weekly
When seventeen-year-old Dayna Walsh isn’t struggling with OCD, she wants nothing more than to ascend from witchling to full witch. Dayna has strong familial bonds with her coven yet her biological family is disjointed: a religious father and a mother who was mysteriously sent away thirteen years ago to Camp Blood of the Lamb. Mix in witches from another coven plus a nearby serial killer and you’ll get an idea of this fantastic brew of a book.
Latimer’sWitches of Ash & Ruin unfolds in multiple viewpoints providing glimpses inside the heads of others (witchlings, Dayna’s ex-boyfriend, and a witch-hunter named Dubh). I found it interesting that the book opens with Dubh stating his evil intentions—that seemed to solve the puzzle from the start—but knowing the bad guy in no way slows the suspense.
Speaking of tension, the heat between Dayna and a witchling from the other coven is palpable. You’ll root for them to be alive and together at the end.
If you like complex stories without tidy endings, you’ll enjoy this sweeping tale. Some parts are bloody, but that’s expected with a murderer on the loose and a witch or two dabbling with the dark side. Unless you’re fluent in ancient Celtic mythology, pay attention when gods and their histories are mentioned.
In John David Anderson’s One Last Shot, twelve-year-old Malcolm Greeley navigates life carefully. School is endured, and his home life is a minefield where he painstakingly interprets what’s said—and what’s not said—to keep the peace between his contentious parents. He’s sure that if he can just do everything right, then things between his mom and dad will get better, that they have to.
Malcolm doesn’t realize he needs a friend until Lex’s miniature golf ball and her comical call of “Five!” lands at his feet. With an unwanted push from his wacky golf coach, Malcolm soon finds a something in Lex he’s been sorely missing. While his steadfast mother accepts and understands him, Malcolm is unsettled around his father, an award-winning jock of many sports, who pushed Malcolm into Little League. When Malcolm is given an out, he takes it, only to be subtly pressured into competition mini golf. With Dad, it’s all about winning, but Malcolm’s not wired that way no matter how he tries. He’s a natural at putting, yet dreads the competitive aspect. The voices in his head add to the stress of executing each shot perfectly.
Though I don’t typically gravitate stories centered around competitive sports, I picked up One Last Shot because I’m a fan of Anderson’s other books Granted and Posted (also middle grade). One Last Shot’s a winner with its fully developed, imperfect characters. I appreciated the creative manner in which the story unfolds; the structure adds interest. Each of the eighteen chapters opens with the description of a mini golf hole and closes with how Malcolm scored on that hole. Sandwiched between, we’re shown Malcolm’s life in flashback scenes.
This would be an ideal read for a kid with parents in the bitter pre-divorce stage since Malcolm comes to understand his parents’ troubles are not about him and cannot be fixed by him. Sometimes, parents need to split up for their own good—an upsetting time that’s hard to live through, but, hopefully, better in the long run.
Looking for the perfect stuck-at-home, want-to-read-a-classic book? It’s Hugh Lofting’sDoctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1(three different tales of Dolittle’s world travels, accompanied, of course, by his animal friends). Don’t let the 700+-page size scare you away; the short chapters and Lofting’s comical illustrations move the stories along quickly. A middle-grader will feel a great sense of accomplishment after reading this huge book that’s “fully updated for the modern reader by the author’s son, Christopher Lofting.”
Kids may know the various Dolittles represented on the screen, but the real character supplants the others. The literary Dolittle isn’t handsome or debonair; instead, it’s his good-natured, kindhearted personality that quickly wins you over. I like that this Dolittle is a bit on the short and tubby side, it adds to the humorous appeal. Picture a slightly clownish man squished into a matador’s outfit as he tries to bring the cruel sport of bullfighting to an end. Fortunately, he can talk to animals, and always seems to have luck on his side.
Children can explore this world’s appealing mix of reality and fantasy such as the Pushmi-Pullyu, a nearly extinct two-headed creature. These classic tales, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle;” “The Story of Doctor Dolittle;” “Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office,” will especially delight children fond of animals. Lofting connects with readers, drawing them into his imaginary world. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that the stories were originally written as a series of letters to his kids from the front lines during World War I. Though penned in wartime, his entertaining stories resound with the peaceful love of people and animals from everywhere around the globe.
(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)
The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disastersoffers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.
Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?
SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.
GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?
SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.
GRWR:Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?
SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.
GRWR:The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?
SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.
As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.
Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.
While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.
GRWR:A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?
SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.
GRWR:There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.
SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.
GRWR:Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?
SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! — and I wanted to put it into a story.
GRWR:I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?
SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.
GRWR:What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?
SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.
I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!
Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.
Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.
If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giantsby Dave Matthewsand 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).
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 Caparoprovide 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. e