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Five New Children’s Books for Independence Day

INDEPENDENCE DAY 2020
RECOMMENDED READS FOR KIDS
-A ROUNDUP-

 

Clip Art Independence Day

 

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.

 

Free for You and Me cvrFREE FOR YOU AND ME:
What Our First Amendment Means
Written by Christy Mihaly
Illustrated by Manu Montoya
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

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

VOTE FOR OUR FUTURE!
Written by Margaret McNamara
Illustrated by Micah Player
(Schwartz & Wade; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Kirkus

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

For Spacious Skies coverFOR SPACIOUS SKIES:
Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration
for “America the Beautiful”
Written by Nancy Churnin
Illustrated by Olga Baumert
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

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 coverWE 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

 

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Middle Grade and Young Adult Books Featuring LGBTQ+ Characters

PRIDE MONTH PICKS

 

The Derby DaredevilsTHE DERBY DAREDEVILS: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team
Written by Kit Rosewater
Illustrated by Sophie Escabasse
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

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

 

Burn book coverBURN
Written by by Patrick Ness
(Quill Tree Books; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

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

 

Witches of Ash and Ruin cvrWITCHES OF ASH & RUIN
Written by E. Lattimer
(Little, Brown BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

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’s Witches 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.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – One Last Shot

ONE LAST SHOT

Written by John David Anderson

(Walden Pond Press; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

One Last Shot cover

 

 

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.

Click here to read a sample.

 

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

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Middle Grade Book Review – Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

DOCTOR DOLITTLE:

THE COMPLETE COLLECTION, VOLUME 1

Text and art by Hugh Lofting

Updated by Christopher Lofting

(Aladdin; $59.99 Set, $24.99 each, Ages 8-12)

 

Doctor Dolittle vol1 cvr

 

 

Looking for the perfect stuck-at-home, want-to-read-a-classic book? It’s Hugh Lofting’s Doctor 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.”

 

Int art from doctor dolittle pg166
Interior illustration from Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting, Aladdin ©2019.

 

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.

 

spot int art from_doctor dolittle pg368
Interior illustration from Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting, Aladdin ©2019.

 

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.

Read more about Dolittle’s creator here.

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An Interview with Author Suzanne Kamata About Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR  SUZANNE KAMATA

 

PopFlies CVR

 

POP FLIES, ROBO-PETS, AND OTHER DISASTERS

Written by Suzanne Kamata

Illustrated by Tracy Bishop

(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)

 

 

INTRO

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 Disasters offers 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.

SUMMARY

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.

INTERVIEW

PopFlies int page 031 R
Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

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.

PopFlies page 205 r
Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

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!

BIO

Author Suzanne Kamata
Photo of Suzanne Kamata by © Solveig Boergen

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.

Website: http://www.suzannekamata.com

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.

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Middle Grade Book Review – If We Were Giants

IF WE WERE GIANTS

by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith

Illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo

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

 

If We Were Giants cvr

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MULAN: BEFORE THE SWORD
by Grace Lin
(Disney-Hyperion; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Mulan: Before The Sword cover

 

As much as I love fables, prior to reading Mulan: Before the Sword, my knowledge of Hua Mulan’s story came mainly from movie trailers. Grace Lin’s middle-grade prequel blew me away. I’m a fan of Lin’s prior best-selling middle-grade trilogy and her picture books, so I was expecting to really like this book; instead, I loved it. The fast-paced story is balanced by gorgeous prose, bringing legendary Asian history to life. Lin’s writing beautifully blends myth, action, and suspense. The opening line, “She disliked it when they transformed into spiders” had me hooked. The story’s viewpoints shift between the plotting, treacherous villains and Mulan’s adventure to save her sister Xiu’s life (she’s succumbing to a poisonous bite from the evil nine-legged spider).

Mulan tries to suppress her adventurous nature and struggles to be a more restrained daughter. Contrarily, Xiu exemplifies all the “right” female traits. Yet, Mulan’s abilities allow her to set off on a quest with the legendary Jade Rabbit where she begins to realize that, just maybe, she’s exactly who she needs to be.

It’s easy to care about Mulan and root for her to save the day. The characters and scenery come alive and tension builds as setbacks delay their progress. En route, Mulan learns of the prophecy that a member of her family is destined to, one day, save the Emperor. Figuring that person must be Xiu, Mulan risks her life, sacrificing for the greater good. Yet, all is not as it seems and this tale wends its way to an amazing conclusion. Mulan, a powerful warrior, also finds compassion for her adversaries.

Lin’s Author Note provides interesting historical detail; Mulan may have been a real person, the first know mention of her was in a fourth-century folk song, “The Ballad of Mulan.” Today, Mulan continues to be a cherished character as Lin skillfully adds another layer to the saga.

Click here to read a terrific interview by Christine with Grace Lin at SCBWI’s Kite Tales of Southern California’s Tri-Regions.

 

 

Click here to read another MG book review by Christine.

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Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2020 – New Kid

NEW KID
Written and illustrated by Jerry Craft
(HarperCollins; $21.99 H/c, $12.99 P/b, Ages 8-12)

 

 

NewKid PB cover

 

Newbery Medal Winner
A New York Times bestseller
Winner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature
Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

 

I began reading author-illustrator Jerry Craft’s outstanding graphic novel, New Kid, last week before it made history winning the Newbery so I was thrilled that it was honored. I read it slowly to savor every illustration, every funny or meaningful moment, and every twist and turn in the story. You know that feeling when you want to stay with characters long after a book has ended? That is the feeling readers will experience with New Kid.

Craft introduces us to the main character, Jordan Banks, and his dilemma, and we’re instantly in his court. He’s been accepted into an elite private school, Riverdale Academy Day School (RADS) for seventh grade. Although Jordan would prefer to attend an art school, he and his dad agree he will give it a try and switch to the art school for ninth grade if things don’t work out. Jordan, who is black, lives in Washington Heights with his loving parents who want to offer him advantages they never had. Jordan must commute via bus to Riverdale to attend classes. The way Craft shows the change in communities and attitudes through Jordan’s hoody, how he wears it and what his posture is like as he travels is eye-opening. Not only will this smart, talented preteen have to navigate public transportation, he’ll also have to figure out a more pressing dynamicwhere he fits in at the new school.

I loved getting inside Jordan’s head via his sketch book packed with cartoons along with Craft’s vibrant illustrations. A pair of angels are depicted in various scenes responding to situations that Jordan encounters and emotions he feels. This adds a humorous dimension to Craft’s multi-layered graphic novel about what it’s like being a person of color in a predominantly white school environment. At RADS, with its mostly wealthy and privileged student body, Jordan quickly realizes who the gossips are, who the jocks are, who the annoying kids are, and who he can ultimately call a friend.

And what about the the teachers and administrators at Jordan’s school? Some reviews have described a culture of behavior at RADS as micro-aggressive and I agree. Readers’ perspectives should change after noticing the undertone of prejudice, racism and ignorance aimed at minority students when teachers don’t make an effort to remember someone’s name or are quick to accuse the wrong student in a fight. The same applies to fellow students who, for example, cannot acknowledge that a classmate is from Nicaragua and not Mexico. The tongue-in-cheek Oprah public service announcement cartoon Jordan creates about kids on financial aid also struck a chord. I’ve known people who’ve felt stigmatized when this confidential arrangement was revealed. While these are some of the hardest issues to read about, they’re also some the most honest, important and compelling. Through Jordan, Craft deftly challenges stereotypes and enlightens kids that other paradigms exist.

New Kid’s 14 chapters take us through an entire school year during which we watch and root for Jordan’s success in the classroom, on the field for P.E. (where it’s often very cold), and in his social life where there’s never a dull moment. We also come to care about his closest pals, Liam and Drew, who have his back and grow along with Jordan. A cast of endearing secondary characters rounds off the novel, and the inclusion of these relationships injects another realistic element into the middle school experience. There are up days, down days, and days when Jordan wonders whether he’ll ever make this private school thing work.

When he leaves behind his Washington Heights buddies to go to RADS, Jordan faces yet another challenge—how to make new friends and keep the old. It’s not a straightforward silver and gold thing and Jordan knows it. It’s great that Craft shows the effort Jordan makes to keep up those relationships because, although he may be in Riverdale during the day, after school and weekends he’s still connected to his neighborhood and that grounds him in the best possible way.

I’m grateful to have been able to spend time with Jordan Banks, his family and friends. I hope you’ll also meet Jordan soon by getting a copy of New Kid at your local indie bookseller!

Disclosure: I was gifted New Kid by HarperCollins to review for the event.

 

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2020 (1/31/20) is in its 7th year! This non-profit children’s literacy initiative was founded by Valarie Budayr and Mia Wenjen; two diverse book-loving moms who saw a need to shine the spotlight on all of the multicultural books and authors on the market while also working to get those book into the hands of young readers and educators.

Seven years in, MCBD’s mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in homes and school bookshelves continues.

MCBD 2020 is honored to have the following Medallion Sponsors on board

Super Platinum

Make A Way Media/ Deirdre “DeeDee” Cummings

Platinum

Language Lizard, Pack-N-Go Girls

Gold

Audrey Press, Lerner Publishing Group, KidLit TV, ABDO BOOKS: A Family of Educational Publishers, PragmaticMom & Sumo Joe, Candlewick Press

Silver

Author Charlotte Riggle, Capstone Publishing, Guba Publishing, Melissa Munro Boyd & B is for Breathe

Bronze

Author Carole P. Roman, Snowflake Stories/Jill Barletti, Vivian Kirkfield & Making Their Voices Heard, Barnes Brothers Books, TimTimTom, Wisdom Tales Press, Lee & Low Books, Charlesbridge Publishing, Barefoot Books, Talegari Tales

 

Author Sponsor Link Cloud

Jerry Craft, A.R. Bey and Adventures in Boogieland, Eugina Chu & Brandon goes to Beijing, Kenneth Braswell & Fathers Incorporated, Maritza M. Mejia & Luz del mes_Mejia, Kathleen Burkinshaw & The Last Cherry Blossom, SISSY GOES TINY by Rebecca Flansburg and B.A. Norrgard, Josh Funk and HOW TO CODE A ROLLERCOASTER, Maya/Neel Adventures with Culture Groove, Lauren Ranalli, The Little Green Monster: Cancer Magic! By Dr. Sharon Chappell, Phe Lang and Me On The Page, Afsaneh Moradian and Jamie is Jamie, Valerie Williams-Sanchez and Valorena Publishing, TUMBLE CREEK PRESS, Nancy Tupper Ling,Author Gwen Jackson, Angeliki Pedersen & The Secrets Hidden Beneath the Palm Tree, Author Kimberly Gordon Biddle, BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 by Mia Wenjen, Susan Schaefer Bernardo & Illustrator Courtenay Fletcher (Founders of Inner Flower Child Books), Ann Morris & Do It Again!/¡Otra Vez!, Janet Balletta and Mermaids on a Mission to Save the Ocean, Evelyn Sanchez-Toledo & Bruna Bailando por el Mundo\ Dancing Around the World,Shoumi Sen & From The Toddler Diaries, Sarah Jamila Stevenson, Tonya Duncan and the Sophie Washington Book Series, Teresa Robeson  & The Queen of Physics, Nadishka Aloysius and Roo The Little Red TukTuk, Girlfriends Book Club Baltimore & Stories by the Girlfriends Book Club, Finding My Way Books, Diana Huang & Intrepids, Five Enchanted Mermaids, Elizabeth Godley and Ribbon’s Traveling Castle, Anna Olswanger and Greenhorn, Danielle Wallace & My Big Brother Troy, Jocelyn Francisco and Little Yellow Jeepney, Mariana Llanos & Kutu, the Tiny Inca Princess/La Ñusta Diminuta, Sara Arnold & The Big Buna Bash, Roddie Simmons & Race 2 Rio, DuEwa Frazier & Alice’s Musical Debut, Veronica Appleton & the Journey to Appleville book series  Green Kids Club, Inc.

We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.

Co-Hosts and Global Co-Hosts

A Crafty Arab, Afsaneh Moradian, Agatha Rodi Books, All Done Monkey, Barefoot Mommy, Bethany Edward & Biracial Bookworms, Michelle Goetzl & Books My Kids Read, Crafty Moms Share, Colours of Us, Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes, Educators Spin on it, Shauna Hibbitts-creator of eNannylink, Growing Book by Book, Here Wee Read, Joel Leonidas & Descendant of Poseidon Reads {Philippines}, Imagination Soup, Kid World Citizen, Kristi’s Book Nook, The Logonauts, Mama Smiles, Miss Panda Chinese, Multicultural Kid Blogs, Serge Smagarinsky {Australia}, Shoumi Sen, Jennifer Brunk & Spanish Playground, Katie Meadows and Youth Lit Reviews

FREE RESOURCES from Multicultural Children’s Book Day

TWITTER PARTY! Register here!

Hashtag: Don’t forget to connect with us on social media and be sure and look for/use our official hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Serafina and the Seven Stars

SERAFINA AND THE SEVEN STARS

Written by Robert Beatty

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

 

 

 

Serafina, our favorite, fierce heroine, is back in the fourth installment of this New York Times best-selling series, Serafina and the Seven Stars, and we sure have missed her. The Serafina books seamlessly blend fantasy, mystery, and thrilling spookiness. Set around 1900 at Biltmore Estate in the Great Smoky Mountains area of North Carolina, these books include real people and historical details.

Serafina once lived unnoticed in the mansion’s basement with her father. Now Master Vanderbilt gives her free roam, counting on her as Biltmore’s protective guardian. While her best friend, Braeden, is seemingly away at boarding school in New York, the estate’s momentary quiet shatters with nonsensical crimes. Serafina prowls the premises trying to keep everyone safe. When someone she trusts appears to have taken an evil turn, Serafina must hurriedly solve who or what is behind the crimes before matters become insurmountable.

The Serafina books are one of my top middle-grade series of all time because of the amazing setting and period details, close family bonds, fierce friendships (with a dash of romance), and mysterious happenings that keep you guessing until the end. In a word, the Serafina books are awesome. The “STAY BOLD” motto echoes strong girl-empowerment messages throughout this series and complementary book, Willa of the Wood.

Because young readers engage with the content, these books are being taught in over a thousand classrooms nationwide; comprehensive teaching material is available online. If you’re new to the series, explore Beatty’s website for video book trailers, interviews, and much more. You can also read my interview with the author.

 

 

Read Christine’s review of another novel by Robert Beatty here.

 

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Alien Superstar

ALIEN SUPERSTAR (Book #1)

Written by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Illustrated by Ethan Nicolle

(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Alien Superstar Book Cover

 

int art152 from Alien Superstar
Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

The first installment of this new middle-grade series by the super-duo Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver (who also delighted us with their Hank Zipzer books) was an instant New York Times best seller. In Alien Superstar, thirteen-year-old Citizen Short Nose escapes from his planet to avoid the removal of his sensory enhancer. He lands at Universal Studios, Hollywood, and, upon emerging from his ship, is crowded by tourists wanting to take selfies. In a series of fortunate opportunities, Short Nose (now Buddy C. Burger) becomes a costar on a show where the ratings were nosediving until his silly, honest acting debut. When his nutritional wafers run out, Buddy must quickly find Earth foods he can eat. Luckily, he’s made some human friends who rush to help him out.

Winkler and Oliver continue their winning combination of sincere, likable characters and laugh-aloud moments. Ethan Nicolle’s endearing illustrations enhance the story’s humor especially the images where we see Buddy lounging in the bath trying to absorb as much water as possible, or caught mid-transformation.

 

int art244 from Alien Superstar
Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

Living in LA, I find it’s not all that outlandish that an alien would walk through our midst and Angelenos wouldn’t bat an eye—that’s the clever charm of this story. Preconceived notions of aliens taking over are soon dispelled when Buddy’s friends realize he’s only here to escape the bad things happening on his home planet and that he very much misses his Grandmother Wrinkle. Kids will enjoy this likable antihero; the suspenseful ending will leave them eagerly awaiting what happens next in Buddy’s wacky, mixed-up world.

 

 

Read another review by Christine Van Zandt here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Wrecking Ball (Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book 14)

WRECKING BALL
(DIARY OF A WIMPY KID BOOK 14)
Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Wrecking Ball DOAWK14 cover

 

 

The popularity of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid middle grade series is still blazing. Kids at our daughter’s elementary school were counting the days until the release of book 14, Wrecking Ball. Then it was noses in books as they devoured Greg Heffley’s latest escapades. So what’s the appeal of this best-selling series? When I asked kids this question, the answers were simple: the familiar way the book looked, the story’s relatable humor, and its well-known characters. Great reasons since everyone likes comfortably sharing a laugh with a friend.

The title Wrecking Ball refers to construction and destruction to the Heffley’s house. As parents, we can relate to the nightmare of home improvements, remodeling, and house-hunting. Seeing these things from Greg’s perspective is, of course, funny but also very true. From tried-and-true sight gags (plumber’s crack) to the much deeper consequences of starting over elsewhere—the possibilities to reinvent yourself but also the complexity of feelings of being split from your best friend. Kids will be white-knuckled wondering if Rowley’s being written out.

Kinney’s hilarious illustrations accompany every page. I especially enjoyed Greg’s dream house which will be really small (to avoid attracting attention since he’s famous), but include a vast interlinking underground network. [PAGES 40-45] Who hasn’t envisioned what they’d build if they were rich? Greg’s idea of a glass bathtub that sits inside a giant aquarium is a kick. If your tween has some holiday cash to spend, this book is sure to please.

Visit the Wimpy Kid website here.

Fans can add to their collection with The Diary of a Wimpy Kid spinoff book Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid as well as The Wimpy Kid 2020 Wall Calendar.

 

 

Read another middle grade book review by Christine here.

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Five New Halloween Books for Kids – A Roundup Part 2

BEST NEW KIDS BOOKS FOR HALLOWEEN

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

PART 2

 

 

 

Beneath the Bed coverMISTER SHIVERS: BENEATH THE BED AND OTHER SCARY STORIES
Written by Max Brallier
Illustrated by Letizia Rubegni
(Acorn/Scholastic; $4.99, Ages 5-7)

Acorn books, designed for early readers, brings five scary stories to children in this Mister Shivers series. Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories has 64 pages packed with full-color artwork while some other Acorn books have 48 pages. Either way, there’s something for every new reader seeking “relatable characters and experiences” written and illustrated by some of the best known names in children’s literature.

Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories opens with a letter from Mister Shivers about a mysterious box delivered to him in which he found items pertaining to each story and a promise to share the stories in the book. Like all the stories in this book, evocative, muted illustrations help reinforce the easy-to-read text of these fast paced short stories. That’s certainly the case in “Beneath the Bed” about a boy dared by kids at school to visit the local haunted house. Upon entering the house with his sister who he brought along for courage, the pair discover a sinister doll with glowing eyes under a bed in the attic bedroom.

“A Hair Down to My Stomach” as the title implies, is equal parts gross and unsettling, with just the type of visuals accompanying it to make it succeed. “The Statue” will have kids talking back to the book as they turn the pages and tell the mom in the story as her son tries to do, “Don’t buy the statue!” Of course, she does. What follows is the reason why Mr. Shivers’ mysterious box contained a piece of quilty. He never mentioned if it was smelly like the quilt in “The Statue.” All I know is the young boy should have listened to the statue’s owner when she warned the buyers not to remove the quilt. The same goes for Oliver in “A Dark and Stormy Night” who should have done as his parents’ wished and brought his toys inside. Instead, they were left out in the rain to be ruined by the elements. Toys don’t like being forgotten and seek their revenge when that happens. Poor Oliver! And as for the scraping sound in “The Noise at the Window,” I know this well. Only I’ve been fortunate to find a tree outside where I heard the clawing coming from a branch. The little girl in this tale wasn’t so fortunate!

Okay spine, start tingling because these five stories are guaranteed to make you keep the lights on.

The Okay Witch book coverTHE OKAY WITCH
Written and illustrated by Emma Steinkellner
(Aladdin; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

Get ready to be caught under the spell of Emma Steinkellner’s The Okay Witch, a terrific debut middle grade graphic novel.

Tween readers will be charmed by the main character Moth Hush, who at 13 learns she is part witch with special powers, something she had only dreamed of up until that point. Living above her single mom Calendula’s second hand store, Moth has never felt the warm and fuzzies from her classmates in her Massachusetts hometown of Founder’s Bluff nor in the community at large. She soon learns there’s a good reason why and goes exploring back in time via her mother’s diary.

In 1692 a group of women suspected of being witches, her grandmother Sarah being one of them, was run out of town. They were indeed witches but good ones and many townspeople secretly went to them to avail of magic to help them. When ousted, Sarah led the women to a timeless land she created called Hecate, but Calendula refused to live there. She returned to Founder’s Bluff to live a normal non-witch life for herself having fallen in love with a human. Sadly, Sarah cast a spell to make this man have no memory of Calendula. Pregnant, the brokenhearted, Calendula raised Moth alone with no magic.

In school Moth befriends another fish-out-of-water named Charlie who is new to Founder’s Bluff. Little does Moth know that there’s a connection between her family and Charlie’s that could test their friendship. I got a kick out of the magical cat, Mr. Laszlo, the spirit of Keeper’s Secondhand Store who had taken Calendula in and, when he passed away, left the store to her. The talking feline’s speech is peppered with Yiddish and in my head I heard Billy Crystal doing the dialogue.

Steinkellner must have had such fun writing and illustrating this story which reads quickly and nicely ties all the loose threads together at the end. The artwork wonderfully and convincingly conveys the moments when Moth experiences the power of magic. I especially liked the historical scenes and when Moth visits Hecate, but to be honest, all the illustrations brought the story alive. The novel is filled with humor, sarcasm, action, fantasy, pride and most of all, love as evidenced by Moth’s efforts to navigate the magical world of her grandmother and the real world in which Calendula has chosen to raise her. She’s new to the witch world and she’s far from perfect, making her The Okay Witch we care about and want to see happy and at home with her mom.

Graphic novel fans will quickly be swept up into Moth’s witchy world of time travel, timelessness, tween curiosity and relationships as Moth tries to learn more about herself. Will the way in which her family’s life intersects with that of Founder’s Bluff  be a reason to stay or retreat to Hecate? The fun’s in the finding out in this enchanting, recommended read that’s definitely not just for Halloween.

Ghoulia and the Mysterious Vistor cvrGHOULIA AND THE MYSTERIOUS VISITOR (Book #2)
Written and illustrated by Barbara Cantini
Translated from Italian by Anna Golding
(Amulet Books; $9.99, Ages 6-8)

You don’t need to have read Book#1 in order to enjoy Ghoulia and the Mysterious Visitor (Book #2), a chapter book series about a friendly zombie called Ghoulia and the dead and not-so-dead inhabitants of Crumbling Manor. Billed as Clue meets Little Shop of Horrors, this full-color illustrated book is sure to get young readers in a Halloween mood.

The story opens with Ghoulia feeling bored. When cranky cousin Dilbert arrives unexpectedly, Ghoulia looks for her Auntie Departed to explain why this relative she’d never even heard of got invited to Crumbling Manor. But her Chatterbox-Ivy-obsessed aunt is nowhere to be found. Ghoulia thinks it’s odd when more friends turn up, each with an invitation to a surprise dinner the young vampire knows nothing about.

As Ghoulia and her pals search Crumbling Manor for Auntie Departed, a friend Theresa also goes missing. Something weird is happening so the remaining guests split up to find those who’ve disappeared while trying to help Ghoulia figure out who sent the invitations.

This delightful chapter book will hook confident young readers ages 6 to 8 who still love beautifully illustrated stories that aren’t scary yet have an air of mystery about them. I’m not sure kids will recognize famous individuals such as Hitchcock and Poe in framed pictures on Crumbling Manor’s walls, but they’re certainly a treat for adult readers. In fact every illustration is a treat and worthy of a thorough scanning to see what special things Cantini has hung up on the walls or placed in each room. Her prose and pictures provide the perfect foreshadowing for kids quick to pick up clues. At the end there are bonus activities including how to write an invitation and fill out an envelope, how to start a garden and how to make Dilbert’s special pumpkin juice (minus the spiders’ eggs)! Watch out for Ghoulia and the Ghost With No Name (Book #3) coming soon!

THE CURSE OF THE WERE PENGUIN
Written by Allan Woodrow
Illustrated by Scott Brown
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

Described by Chris Grabenstein, #1 New York Times bestselling author, as “Young Frankenstein meets The Princess Bride in the most hysterically hilarious book I’ve read in years,” and I could not agree more. I smiled my whole way through The Curse of the Werepenguin, a clever, funny and original story within a story. I read it over two days and could not wait to see how author Allan Woodrow would end it. As I suspected, it’s TO BE CONTINUED so now I have to find out where he takes this wild and feathery tale of an orphan boy named Bolt.

Meet Humboldt Wattle (aka Bolt), a twelve-year-old boy abandoned as a baby at The Oak Wilt Home for Unwanted Boys. There’s little about him that makes him stand out except a large bird-shaped birthmark on his neck. When suddenly his life changes overnight, Bolt’s unusual marking will take on tremendous significance in his life. He’s been summoned to the distant land of Brugaria by a wealthy baron who no one wishes to disobey. Could this mean the family he’s been hoping for is finally ready to reunite with him?

The catch is that Baron Chordata is not only a cruel person feared by most inhabitants of Brugaria, he looks like he’s the same age as Bolt. On top of that, he dresses in tuxedos even at home, and consumes massive quantities of fish, every kind imaginable, including live goldfish. Woodraw’s descriptions of eating seafood have to be some of the funniest and disgusting ones I’ve ever read and I lapped up every slimy, slithery sentence. I also may never look at fish sticks the same way again!

In a trance from his first experience playing video games, Bolt unknowingly agrees to a request by Baron Chordata. This eventually leads to his being bitten on the neck. The result? Bolt turns partially into half boy, half penguin or werepenguin, so maybe a quarter … Anyway, after three days the full effect of the transformation will be complete. When the full moon shines, which is every night in Brugaria, the change in Bolt occurs. His feet turn webbed and orange, he sprouts wild tufts of hair, wings, an enormous nose and has cravings for seafood. Then he, along with all the other werepenguins including the baron, bark, wreak havoc and steal fish whenever possible.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Bolt, a girl named Annika who tried to rob and kidnap him because she’s “the world’s great bandit,” becomes an ally (or not) in trying to help Bolt escape the baron’s wicked clutches and rid himself of the werepenguin curse. The curse is not the only thing Bolt’s dealing with. He’s got this wacky, whale-loving cult leader named Günter determined to destroy him. Günter’s weapon of choice, a loaf of French bread! Plus Bolt’s learned that the werepenguins, led by power and fish hungry werepenguin-in-chief, Baron Chordata, are orchestrating a takeover of Brugaria the same day the curse on Bolt goes into full force. Someone has to do something and Bolt realizes it’s him. What that something is, he’s not totally sure, but still …

You’ll LOL at the Cloris Leachman-like “lowly housekeeper” called Frau Farfenugen, a greenish, warty and miserable woman who is not what she seems, Blazenda, a fortune-telling witch whose cackles drive Bolt crazy, but who may hold the key (or tooth) to Bolt’s freedom, and a cast of colorful characters, some of whom scream and faint whenever the name Baron Chordata is said aloud, that will entertain you and have you sitting on the edge of your seat or wherever it is that you read fantastic books.

Ultimately, Bolt has to decide what real family is. Is it Annika and her bandit dad and his buddies or is it the rook of penguins that, we learn in the novel’s prologue, should never be split up? I’m not going to spoil it by telling you, but I will say that joining Bolt on his journey is something you’ll love doing. So start cooking some fish sticks, grab a baguette and get reading!

Ghost book coverGHOST: THIRTEEN HAUNTING TALES TO TELL
A Collection by Illustrátus
(Chronicle Books; $21.99, Ages 9-12)
Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal

I made sure I read this book when my husband was home because I’m a big chicken. When I did read Ghost, I realized the stories are not only fantastic ghost stories for Halloween, but also ones to commit to memory to share around a campfire. You could also bring the book along but you many not want the hauntingly illustrated, white embossed cover to get dirty. “Contributors to this chilling collection include authors Blaise Hemingway and Jesse Reffsin, and illustrators Chris Sasaki and Jeff Turley,” and Kit Turley, and they’ve done a fantastic job of scaring me although, as I said above, I do scare easily.

As I settled down to read each of the thirteen eerie tales, an owl hooted from my back yard adding to spooky feeling the stories exude. The tales, brief but powerfully creepy, are ideal for tweens who love to feel the hair on their necks stand up. The subjects range from a girl getting a tap tap tap from her mirror and then being imprisoned in it by her evil reflection, to two boys going ice fishing who disregard a shopkeeper’s advice to avoid the north of Point Whitney. The reasonit’s haunted by the ghost of Max Whitney, the former owner of the bait and tackle shop. Do the boys catch a lot of fish? Yep. Do they return safely home to share their experience? I’m not telling. There’s another one that takes place by a pond. Suffice it to say that, unlike the main character in this tale, a boy named Samuel who hears his drowned sister call out to him and follows her cries, I would never go out of my house in the middle of the night with a lantern by myself. The artwork throughout Ghost has a spare quality about it with a very limited palette which is appropriate for the collection. And though created digitally, all the illustrations resemble wood block prints and imbue every tale with as frightening an effect as the words themselves.

The tale that particularly resonated with me was about a girl who finally gets a room of her own away from her younger sister. Now alone in her new bedroom, the girl is terrified of the ghostly night noises but thinks if she just huddles under the covers and keeps her eyes tightly closed, everything will be okay. And it is, but how long can she keep her eyes shut? Did I mention that as a child I had my dad install a lock on my bedroom closet door? I will not easily forget the story of the young boy, Michael Alvey deep sea diving to a WWII sub wreck in search of the bodies of his deceased parents. They died just after their last communication was, “Please! Help! They’re coming.” When I found out who “they” were, I was shocked and readers will be, too. I caution young readers to avoid basements, elevators, hiking or making a trip after midnight to a cemetery right after reading Ghost.

Some stories unhinged me more than others, “The Descent” being one of them. That’s not to say they weren’t all good because they were, but certain stories played off of my deepest fears more than others. That being said, it might be best to read this book with a cat curled up on your lap or with a big dog nearby during the day!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read another Halloween Books roundup here.

 

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Middle Grade Novel Spotlight Post – The Last Dragon by James Riley

THE LAST DRAGON

By James Riley

Book #2 of The Revenge of Magic

(Aladdin; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

The Last Dragon book cover

 

MY TAKE:

Perfect for fans of Dungeons and Dragons and Stranger Things, THE LAST DRAGON went on sale this past Monday, Oct. 8. This is the second novel, which can be read as a standalone, in New York Times bestselling author James Riley’s thrilling new series The Revenge of Magic.

When I read that this particular installment was “packed with mystery, magic, and mayhem sure to keep readers guessing until the very end,” I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to get started. In doing so I was rewarded with an action-packed story that introduced me to likeable and not-so-likeable characters, the Oppenheimer School for magical training, and an assortment of creatures and adventures that kept me turning the pages of this new middle grade fantasy. I don’t often read the second book in a series without having read the first, but was immediately swept into the main character Fort’s quest to rescue his father who had been taken by evil beings called the Old Ones in an attack on the National Mall in D.C.

Once I was eager to know what would happen to Fort and his friends Jia, Rachel, Cyrus and Sierra, I also became invested in the dangerous and risky journey being planned. When a new student, Gabriel, was introduced, I also had to know how he fit into the picture. Would he be a help or hindrance to his roommate, Fort? What did it mean that he too was haunted by nightmares similar to those that Fort kept having?

The novel has some clever scenes where telepathy plays a big role. If I say too much more it will spoil things. Teleporting also features largely in The Last Dragon and the descriptions are fantastic. I almost felt I could do it. And in some scenes, like those in London or New York, I could easily picture everything because of Riley’s deft writing. The way magic is used in this novel not only advances the plot, but feels believable and that matters when myriad novels include magic. There’s humor that tweens will appreciate too. I love how, for example, before Fort sets off to find his father, he makes sure to take a pee stop. A lot of the banter, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes funny, but mostly important, between the friends also feels real.

If your child is interested in an entertaining and super satisfying fantasy that delivers on all fronts, I’d recommend the The Last Dragon, book #2 in the The Revenge of Magic series. Now I just have to go back and read the first book!

 

SUMMARY:

Fort Fitzgerald can’t stop having nightmares about the day his father was taken from him in an attack on Washington, DC. In these dreams, an Old One, an evil beyond comprehension, demands the location of the last dragon. But other than some dragon skeletons dug up with the books of magic on Discovery Day, Fort has never seen a dragon before. Could there still be one left alive?

And weirdly, Fort’s not the only one at the Oppenheimer School having these nightmares. His new roommate, Gabriel, seems to know more than he’s letting on about this dragon as well. And why does everyone at the school seem to do whatever Gabriel says? What’s his secret?

Fort’s going to need the help of his friends Cyrus, Jia, and Rachel, if he’s going to have any chance of keeping the Old Ones from returning to Earth. Unless, the Old Ones offer something Fort could never turn down …

Buy the book from Once Upon A Time bookstore here to support a local independent retailer.

Buy the book from Indie Bound here.

Find out more about The Last Dragon here.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Roll With It by Jamie Sumner

ROLL WITH IT

Written by Jamie Sumner

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

Roll With It book cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

Roll With It was an easy choice for my to-read list because it deals with disability. As a disabled author myself, I feel disability representation in books for children is so important and I’m thrilled to see the number of books featuring this element of diversity growing. Author Jamie Sumner has a son with cerebral palsy—the same disability as her main character, Ellie—so I was confident that aspect of the book would be handled with authority and authenticity. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting is a story that packed such an emotional punch on so many different levels.

Ellie and her mom move in with Ellie’s grandparents to help out since her grandfather’s memory issues are getting worse. Life in her grandparents’ trailer park is not exactly ideal for Ellie physically and she dreads starting at a new school as not only “the new kid” but “the new kid in a wheelchair.” Before long though, she connects with two other classmates from the trailer park, the hilarious Coralee and ultra blunt Bert, and Ellie begins to love her new home. She must then convince her mom that they should stay put.

Ellie is relatable and plucky, with a touch of snarky sarcasm, all of which endeared her to me immediately. Her growth as a character had much less to do with the traditional “overcoming her limitations due to her disability” trope and much more to do with making friends, asserting herself, navigating the complex relationship between a tween kid and her mother, and handling her emotions related to her grandfather’s illness. She’s a regular kid with dreams of being a celebrity chef, who experiences the same feelings and challenges as lots of kids her age. The fact that she has CP and is a wheelchair user is neither the main focus of the story nor downplayed. Sumner strikes a perfect balance of making that aspect of Ellie’s life an integral part of the story without it be her only story. Similarly, Ellie’s Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s is treated deftly and not sugarcoated.

Roll With It is not only a fun and interesting read—it’s a great representation for middle grade readers who are wheelchair users themselves and for any reader interested in a moving story which provides insight into a POV not often seen in children’s books.

  • Guest Review by Karol Ruth Silverstein

Karol Ruth Silverstein writes all genres of children’s books and screenplays. Her debut novel Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019) is loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at 13. Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives with her two exceptionally fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo. You can read a review of her novel here.

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Middle Grade Nonfiction Book Review – The Life Heroic

THE LIFE HEROIC

How to Unleash Your Most Amazing Self

By Elizabeth Svoboda

Illustrated by Chris Hajny

(Zest Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

The Life Heroic book cover

 

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and so do heroic actions. The Life Heroic by Elizabeth Svoboda is her first children’s book and follows her adult novel, What Makes a Hero? An award winning science writer, Svoboda weaves what she has learned into stories and books to help kids and adults tap into their highest potential to become everyday heroes.

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Interior artwork from The Life Heroic written by Elizabeth Svoboda and illustrated by Chris Hajny, Zest Books ©2019.

The colorful emoji like art created by Chris Hajny is woven into each page with bold print highlighting the sentences meant to leave the reader with the most impact. Chapter 1, “What it Means to be a Hero,” includes the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger. He successfully landed Flight 1549 after a power loss to the aircraft’s engines forced a Hudson River landing. Sullenberger then worked with his crew to help the passengers get out safely through the cabin’s emergency exits.

Landing a plane in the river is not the only way to be considered a hero, Svoboda explains. Ten-year-old Ethan had traveled to Mozambique with his father. One day, while kicking a soccer ball, Ethan discovered kids in the village lived on less than a dollar a day. Those children had to create makeshift soccer balls out of things like trash bags wrapped in twine. “I thought to myself, I have six or seven soccer balls just sitting in my garage,” so he decided to give his ball as a parting gift. This one gesture gave Ethan the idea to donate soccer balls to the village. Others had a need that he could help fix.  Eventually he created the non-profit Charity Ball, which now donates soccer balls to countries in need around the world.

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Interior artwork from The Life Heroic written by Elizabeth Svoboda and illustrated by Chris Hajny, Zest Books ©2019.

Each engaging chapter provides ideas on how to find your own heroism. Chapter 4 is called “Seek Mentors and Role Models.” In it readers are recommended to “always be on the lookout for people whose lives are examples of the way we would like to conduct our own lives, interact with the world, savor joys and overcome challenges.” Svoboda suggests putting a portrait up in your room, or somewhere else you’ll see it often, of your role model so on tough or frustrating days it will help remind you of the heroic qualities you want to demonstrate no matter what challenges you face.

Stories go back and forth from everyday people to heroes from history such as Frederick Douglass. The follow-up section, “Questions for Discussion,” highlights the main talking points of each chapter. For example Chapter 8 talks about how helping others sometimes forces us to face our own pain and hard times. It asks the reader to think about some tough or difficult situations they’ve been through and what advice they would give others going through the same thing.

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Interior artwork from The Life Heroic written by Elizabeth Svoboda and illustrated by Chris Hajny, Zest Books ©2019.

“Aimed at kids, this book is also fascinating for adults. With thorough research and drawing on her expertise writing about science, Svoboda offers some remarkable takeaways about heroism”:

  • Most heroes are ordinary people
  • There is a hero inside everyone
  • The ability to be courageous can be strengthened, just like a muscle
  • Going through tough times can sharpen heroic instincts
  • Being a hero doesn’t have to involve tackling an intruder or fishing someone from an icy lake—and in fact, most often doesn’t!

This thought provoking guide can be read chapter by chapter or by skimming through the bolded font. Svoboda’s book is a powerful read for tweens and teens interested in the big questions in their minds about what kind of life to lead and what actually creates meaning.

I’d also recommend it for teachers who’d like to develop talking points from the book to ask questions to students. Parents can also use this book as a tool to discuss heroism with their children. The Life Heroic reminds us that wearing a mask and cape is not necessary to be a hero, and encourages us to rethink the assumption about heroism; people who make the biggest impact aren’t always the ones who make headlines, in fact, all of us can embark on heroic quests to make a difference on issues that matter. I know The Life Heroic will resonate with young readers and hope it finds its way onto bookshelves in libraries as well as homes.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

Click here for another review by Ronda.

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