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A Review + Interview – Karol Silverstein Interviews Author Elaine Dimopoulos

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MIDDLE-GRADE AUTHOR ELAINE DIMOPOULOS

BY KAROL SILVERSTEIN

 

The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow (Book #1)

Written by Elaine Dimopoulos

Illustrated by Doug Salati

(May 16, 2023, Charlesbridge, Ages 8-11)

 

The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow cover bunnies fleeing.

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The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow (Book #2)

Written by Elaine Dimopoulos,

Illustrated by Doug Salati

(May 21, 2024, Charlesbridge, Ages 8-11)

 

The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow cover rabbit chased by birds.

 

 

INTRO + REVIEWS:

I came to these wonderful books a little backwards—that is, I read book 2 first! The good news is you do not need to have read the first book to thoroughly enjoy the second. The even better news is that both books are equally enchanting!

 

The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow int1 Rabbits in Root Room.
Interior art from The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow written by Elaine Dimopoulos and illustrated by Doug Salati, Charlesbridge ©2023.

In The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow, we’re introduced to expert storyteller Butternut. Storytelling is a way of life for her colony of rabbits, led by the wise Grandmother Sage. Along with storytelling techniques, Butternut and her many siblings are taught to stick to their own kind and avoid unnecessary danger.

The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow int2 Fierce Owl Flying
Interior art from The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow written by Elaine Dimopoulos and illustrated by Doug Salati, Charlesbridge ©2023.

All that changes when Butternut befriends a joyful robin named Piper. Her new first and best friend believes that all creatures have good in them and crave one another’s company. Butternut’s anxieties—which she calls her “brambles”—spin into overdrive when Piper suggests they befriend a wounded faun, but the more she pushes past her fears, the more confident she becomes. When the need for the titular remarkable rescue arrives, Butternut must convince her family to be as brave as she’s become to help save a litter of coyote pups. The experience changes life in the meadow for the better.
 Starred reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly

 

The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow welcomes back Butternut and all her meadow friends. But exciting new creatures, a traveling theater troupe of wild turkeys, enter stage right. The talented turkey thespians are marvelous storytellers, which makes Butternut a bit jealous. When the troupe enlists the meadow dwellers to put on a fabulous play, Butternut’s brambles tell her that something’s not quite right with these grandiose gobblers. She senses her friends and family are in danger but struggles to figure out what, exactly, the wild turkeys are up to and how thwart their plans.   Starred review – Kirkus Reviews

 

The first-person storyteller style employed by author Dimopoulos for both books is pitch-perfect, as are Salati’s delicate illustrations. Butternut herself spins her tales with dramatic precision, utilizing tension, foreshadowing, plot twists, and character building as any great writer would. And though the books’ characters are animals, their emotions and motivations are very relatable to human listeners. In particular, Butternut’s “brambles”—which sometimes are overwrought and hold her back and sometimes grant her heightened and accurate insights—are a wonderful metaphor for young readers who are learning to navigate and interpret their own inner thoughts.

INTERVIEW:

I asked Elaine Dimopoulos to tell me a little more about the creation of this delightful duology. Here’s what she had to say:

Karol Silverstein: The tradition of storytelling, begun by Butternut’s Grandmother Sage, is a way of life for the rabbits of Milkweed Meadow. Why rabbits and why storytelling?

Elaine Dimopoulos: In 2017 I moved to a suburban home near a meadow and saw rabbits frolicking on our lawn every morning and evening. They delighted me and my family. I decided to write about a young rabbit who lives on the border of a lawn and a meadow and who grows curious about the human family in the house although her elders have told her to stick to her own kind. The emphasis on storytelling came from my many years teaching writing. I had been rolling craft concepts around in my head for so long—conflict, tension, voice, character growth—and wanted to create a narrator who was an expert storyteller and who commented metafictively on the story as she was telling it. I had a lot of fun creating Butternut’s narrative voice.

 

The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow int1 Butternut and Piper.
Interior art from The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow written by Elaine Dimopoulos and illustrated by Doug Salati, Charlesbridge ©2024.

 

KS: Butternut’s “brambles”—which readers will likely recognize as similar to their own worries and anxieties—are an important part of her character. Was her anxiety a characteristic you set out to explore from the beginning or did it develop as she revealed herself to you?

ED: I knew Butternut would have anxiety from the very beginning. I’d noticed an increase in anxiety in the students I taught and began to think about how many children out there were having anxious thoughts these days. I wanted to create a character they might see themselves in, who learns to manage her anxiety, act bravely, and live a full life.

 

KS: In the second book, a traveling theater troupe of wild turkeys comes to the meadow, and the Gobblers entrance the inhabitants with their theatricality. Why wild turkey and why theater?

ED: In addition to rabbits, I have gorgeous wild turkeys on my lawn! The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow is a sequel, and I really wanted to get turkeys into the first novel, but there wasn’t room. I’m so thankful I got the chance to include them in Book 2. Here’s a photo I snapped. They’re such divas!

 

Wild Turkeys in yard of Elaine Dimopoulos

 

 

As for theater, I acted through middle school, high school, and college. I love performing and knew I could write about it with expertise. I also loved the idea of the meadow creatures putting on a midsummer show.

 

KS: Redemption—and characters who change and/or turn out to be different than they first seem—is featured in both books. Why is it important to explore this theme in kids’ books?

ED: It seems to me these days that we are quicker than ever to criticize and slow to forgive. We all make mistakes, adults as well as children. If we change our mind about something and apologize, we should be able to earn forgiveness. This is an important part of human connection. We ought not to lose the ability to extend kindness to each other and to turn the page on the past.

The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow int2 Turkeys and Piper.
Interior art from The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow written by Elaine Dimopoulos and illustrated by Doug Salati, Charlesbridge ©2024.

 

KS: Was there always going to be a second book (or more)? If so, how much of the plot for The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow did you have set in place before publishing the first book? If not, how did you and Charlesbrige decide to continue Butternut’s story, and what sort of decision-making went into creating the storyline of The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow?

ED: I wrote the first novel wishing that I could continue the story of these characters. Nothing was guaranteed, however, so I didn’t focus on setting anything up for book 2. The sequel was happily greenlighted before the first book came out, so I was able to influence, of all things, the map endpapers. I figured out that there would need to be a little clearing in the oak forest where the performance in the second novel would take place and also a swing set clubhouse where Butternut and the little female human from the house would meet. Doug Salati was kind enough to add these elements to the endpapers of book 1 so there would be continuity.

I knew I wanted to include a theatrical troupe of turkeys in the sequel, but I was struggling with Butternut’s central conflict. My editor, Julie Bliven, helped me see that Butternut ends the first novel confident in her storytelling abilities, so it would be interesting if this confidence was shattered when a new art form entered the picture. I ran with this idea!

I hope to write even more stories set in Milkweed Meadow. The first two books are set, respectively, in spring and summer, so I’d love to complete a seasonal quartet and write an autumn and a winter book. We’ll see!

 

Huge thanks to Karol and Elaine for this informative interview!  – Ronna

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Belmont Books (signed & personalized): https://www.belmontbooks.com/book/9781623544270

Bookshop.org: The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow a book by Elaine Dimopoulos and Doug Salati (bookshop.org)

Publisher’s Page: The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow – Charlesbridge

 

Elaine Dimopoulos Headshot Photo Credit Ars Magna Studio
Elaine Dimopoulos Photo Credit: Ars Magna Studio

AUTHOR BIO:

Elaine Dimopoulos is the author of several novels for children, including the critically acclaimed Milkweed Meadow series, Turn the Tide, winner of the Green Earth Book Award in Children’s Fiction, and the young adult fast-fashion dystopia, Material Girls. Elaine served as the Associates of the Boston Public Library Writer-in-Residence and has taught writing at Simmons University and GrubStreet. She lives in Massachusetts. She lives in Massachusetts with her spouse, two children, and a Balinese cat named Plato. www.elainedimopoulos.com

 

 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA:

• Author Elaine Dimopoulos

https://twitter.com/ElaineDimop

https://www.instagram.com/elaine_dimopoulos/

• Illustrator Doug Salati

https://dougsalati.com/

Doug Salati Photo Credit: Erin V Carr

ILLUSTRATOR BIO:

Doug Salati is the creator of the picture book Hot Dog, recipient of the Randolph Caldecott Medal and Ezra Jack Keats Award. His first book was In a Small Kingdom by Tomie dePaola, and his second, Lawrence in the Fall by his partner, Matthew Farina, was an Ezra Jack Keats Illustrator Award Honoree, a Society of Illustrators Original Art Show selection and Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection. Doug lives and works in New York City.

 

 

 

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Karol Ruth Silverstein (she/her/disabled) is an award-winning children’s book author and longtime SCBWI member. Her debut young adult novel, Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019), was loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at thirteen and won the Schneider Family Book Award in 2020. Originally from Philadelphia, Karol now lives in West Hollywood, California, with two unmanageably fluffy cats. Find her online at
Author Karol Ruth Silverstein.

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A New Poetry Middle Grade Graphic Novel – Poetry Comics

 

APRIL IS NATIONAL POETRY MONTH SO …

 IT’S TIME FOR

POETRY COMICS

Written and illustrated by Grant Snider

(Chronicle Kids; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

Poetry Comics cover four panels of tree in four seasons.

 

 

★ Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly

 

Reading a well-crafted poem always fills me with awe. I wonder how the poet made it look so easy. The words flow magically on the page yet I know the great skill involved in composing one. That describes my first impressions of this middle-grade graphic novel. Add to that the joyful comic-style artwork and you’ve got the winning Poetry Comics by Grant Snider, a celebration of seasons and so much more, beginning with spring.
Poetry Comics int1 sprinting through sprinkler.
Interior art by Grant Snider from Poetry Comics written and illustrated by Grant Snider, Chronicle Kids ©2024.
Snider’s book puts four seasons of poetry at children’s fingertips. He captures the everyday world from their perspective. Here’s a short one I love. “Joy is the feeling of sprinting through the first sprinkler of spring.” (See the art above.) It resonated with me even though I no longer partake in this warm weather ritual. Seeing the child’s delight in this activity, filled my heart and reminded me of when my kids were growing up.
Another in this section that will spark imaginations, is the impressive “Shape Story” where the mix of shapes and verse morph into a clever story about a girl flying a kite on a sunny but windy day as rain clouds roll in. (See the art below.)
Poetry Comics int2 Shape and Balloon poems
Interior art by Grant Snider from Poetry Comics written and illustrated by Grant Snider, Chronicle Kids ©2024.
Poems come in vibrant colors and various lengths. They feature end rhymes, subtle internal rhymes, assonance, consonance, and an uplifting lyrical quality that matches the cheerful illustrations. I found myself pausing frequently to admire this engaging approach. As I read I felt this book would have inspired me as a child to try my hand at composing a poem or two along with drawings or doodles. I think it’s going to do the same for young readers today. Teachers can embrace this book for its multiple entry points whether that be for comic and graphic novel fans, reluctant readers, or poetry lovers who want to stretch that creative muscle more.
Poetry_Comics_int3_summer_ferris_wheel Poetry Comics int3 summer ferris wheel
Interior art by Grant Snider from Poetry Comics written and illustrated by Grant Snider, Chronicle Kids ©2024.

 

I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed this unique poetry book but instead, I recommend you see for yourselves and let me know what you think.

Click here for another National Poetry Month review.

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Three New Children’s Passover Books for 2024

 

 

NEW CHILDREN’S PASSOVER BOOKS

Passover Clip Art

 

 

 Afikoman Where'd You Go cover kids in treehouse afikoman on roofAFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO?:
A Passover Hide-and-Seek Adventure
Written by Rebecca Gardyn Levington
Illustrated by Noa Kelner
(Rocky Pond Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
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There’s a mischievous personified piece of matzoh on the loose in the pages of Afikoman, Where’d You Go? and I got such a kick out of looking for him. Your kids will too! This picture book is not only written in well-crafted rhyme, it’s also relatable to anyone who’s ever attended a Seder, Jewish or not.
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At the Passover seder, youngsters are always eager to start the traditional search for the afikoman which happens halfway through the meal. The Glossary, helpfully included at the start of the story, defines the afikoman as “The piece of matzoh that is symbolically broken and then hidden, as part of a ritual during the seder.” Children hunt for him around the house or in a particular designated room. The process varies from house to house. In this tale, the kids check out every place indoors with no luck. The wily matzoh, like the Gingerbread Man, is one step ahead. Next up, the backyard.
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Part of the fun is searching every single spread to see where Afikoman is hiding. I have to admit there was one spread where I could not locate the clever cracker! That’s the bathroom scene which I’ve checked multiple times. And when I did spot him, I laughed out loud a few times. The catchy refrain, “Is he hiding somewhere high? Is he hiding somewhere low? Afikoman? Afikoman? Afikoman? WHERE’D YOU GO?” adds to the read-aloudability.
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When the afikoman is finally found, it’s time to return to the table and continue the seder. Here’s where the author and illustrator have included a satisfying surprise ending. The detailed artwork (created using pencil, ink, and Photoshop) includes a determined family dog who, along with a diverse group of kids, team up to track down Afikoman and enjoy themselves the entire time. One of my favorite illustrations is the children’s messy bedroom. It’s hard to know if the kids did that or if it was like that already! Sure to invite multiple readings for the holiday, Afikoman, Where’d You Go? easily gets a thumbs up from me.

 

Everybody's Book cover hiding Haggadah in Mosque bookcase.EVERYBODY’S BOOK: 
The Story of the Sarajevo Haggadah
Written by Linda Leopold Strauss
Illustrated by Tim Smart
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

A richly recounted nonfiction story as colorful as the history of the titular Sarajevo Haggadah, Everybody’s Book is an enlightening read. I had the good fortune to visit Sarajevo at the end of 1989 before the city was ravaged by war but hadn’t heard about the famous Haggadah. I’m happy to have had the chance to learn. If the topic is of further interest, parents can also learn more by reading Geraldine Brooks’ The People of The Book.

The book opens with an introduction explaining how the storied Sarajevo Haggadah was first given to a bride and group circa 1350. Readers then learn that in “the late 1400s” the expulsion of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition was a scary time. In Spain, Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave. Lives were upended and never the same. Many families fled with nothing but the family that owned what became known as the Sarajevo Haggadah took it with them when they escaped. Over time the Haggadah changed hands multiple times eventually landing in Italy to a new generation of owners and ultimately to Bosnia where it continued to be used “during Passover Seders.”

“By 1894, the family that owned the Haggadah had fallen on hard times …” Alas the treasured family heirloom was sold. It was bought by the National History Museum of Sarajevo, a religiously diverse and mostly tolerant city where it was revered. The museum managed to keep the Sarajevo Haggadah safe until WWII broke out.

When the Nazis tried to get their hands on it, the fast-thinking museum director fabricated a web of lies but that didn’t stop the Nazis from searching the museum albeit to no avail. It is said that the curator then took the Haggadah to “a remote village, where an imam of a small mosque hid it among sacred Islamic texts.” When the war ended the Haggadah was returned to Sarajevo but peace there remained fragile.

After WWII, “Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats became part of unified Yugoslavia under one leader.” Following his death in 1980, tensions that had been simmering over the years reached a climax, and fighting among the three groups began. “In 1991, Serbs attacked Bosnia.” Another war threatened the safety of the Sarajevo Haggadah. When the museum was bombed the following year, a Muslim university professor helped rescue the book once again. This new war saw the destruction of the National and University Library of Sarajevo though citizens “formed a human chain to save whatever books they could. By this time, not just Bosnians knew about the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, and the world worried about this treasure.

One of my favorite spreads is the one that depicts a Passover Seder in 1995, in the midst of the war. “Christian, Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim leaders joined Jews at Sarajevo’s only remaining synagogue …” During the Seder, the Bosnian President, a Muslim, arrived with the Haggadah to assure all those in attendance that it was safe. When the war ended and the Bosnian National Museum was constructed, the Sarajevo Haggadah was restored and placed among other historic treasures for all to see. Everybody’s Book could now truly be enjoyed by everybody. Tim Smart’s watercolor art has a sketch-like, loose quality showing the flow of time and the ever-changing circumstances the Sarajevo Haggadah endured. This picture book is an important one that emphasizes how the power of people from all religions and walks of life can make a difference when they find common ground. How lucky we all are that this marvelous book from a marriage over 670 years ago has survived. Oh, the stories its pages could tell!

ON ALL OTHER NIGHTS:
A
PASSOVER CELEBRATION IN 14 STORIES
Edited by Chris Baron, Joshua S. Levy, and Naomi Milliner
Illustrated by Shannon Hochman
(Amulet Books; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

While there could be a plethora of themes for a Passover anthology, selecting the 14 steps of the Seder as an entry point is perfect. It’s what drew me to this book in addition to the title. It did not hurt that a host of bestselling and award-winning authors and one author-illustrator embraced and wrote about one particular step. Their instructions were only to approach the topic in any way they desired. This made for a fascinating and engrossing read. If I had the time, upon finishing my first read-through, I could have started all over again. It’s just that good!

As I dove in, I never knew what type of story would greet me, and that’s only one part of the magic of this holiday collection. Whatever way you choose to read On All Other Nights, you will be treated to a variety of top-notch middle-grade voices, approaches, plots, and characters. You can read it all in one sitting, devouring every delicious and meaningful step, or take it one short story at a time, savoring each one slowly like the Seder meal itself. At the start of each story, there is a brief, helpful description of the step. I was impressed at how creative the stories tackled each subject. Apropos of the title are also four thoughtful questions (the Four Questions being an important element of the Seder which generally the youngest asks) tweens can contemplate or parents and teachers can use for discussions.

Just like there are many kinds of Jewish ethnicities around the world (e.g. Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and more) and different branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and more), there are many different stories in this collection. Each story has a unique style and appeal. I loved the story featuring an Autistic character, Myra, who could not stand the smell of gefilte fish. It especially resonated with me having a son with sensory processing disorder for whom certain smells can drive him out of a room as it did for the girl in this story. Another story that’s stayed with me is the one about a family of Romanian immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. In it, the brother and sister are tasked with getting the maror (bitter herb) for the Seder from their father’s pushcart. At his sister’s behest, the brother retells a fairy tale about a witch and a memory spell. This relates to the brother’s annoyance that his sister does not seem to remember much of their life in Romania before emigrating. Later on, the younger sister cleverly and courageously helps her brother rescue a new Polish immigrant being beaten up, revealing some surprising truths.

The fourteen On All Other Nights contributors include: Chris Baron, Ruth Behar, Adam Gidwitz, Veera Hiranandani, Amy Ignatow Sarah Kapit, Joshua S. Levy, Mari Lowe, Naomi Milliner, Soifya Pasternack, R. M. Romero, A. J. Sass, Laura Shovan, and Laurel Snyder.

Black and white art accompanies every chapter and the captivating cover invites children to think about their own role in the Seder. Readers are treated to tempting recipes in the backmatter from celebrated chefs and professionals. Contributor bios and acknowledgments can also be found there. At a recent signing event, editor Joshua S. Levy explained that the anthology is a mirror and window book. It communicates core human values to a wide audience with universal appeal. And that same evening, Chris Baron said the challenge with the anthology was “How do you breathe life into these steps?”  To which I say “Exactly like On All Other Nights did. Brilliantly!”

Click here to read last year’s roundup.

Also Recommended:

Why_on_This_Night_cover_Jews_and_Red_Sea_partingWHY ON THIS NIGHT?:
A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration
Written by Rahel Musleah
Illustrated by Louise August
(Kalaniot Books; $19.99, Ages 7-11)

Publisher Description:

The rich traditions of Passover come alive in this contemporary family haggadah. Updated from the original 2000 edition, this holiday favorite is available again for families to treasure. As children and adults gather at the seder dinner to remember the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom, this creative, yet authentic haggadah will guide and engage them. Lushly illustrated, with blessings and text of every major section of the haggadah in Hebrew, English translation, and transliteration, the welcoming and accessible style of Why On This Night? will make it a treasured seder companion year after year.

 

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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Pizza, Pickles, and Apple Pie

 

 PIZZA, PICKLES, AND APPLE PIE:

 The Stories Behind the Foods We Love

Written and illustrated by David Rickert

(Kane Press; $19.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 Pizza Pickles and Apple Pie cover three humorous historical characters with food.

 

 

Though the title, Pizza, Pickles, and Apple Pie: The Stories Behind the Foods We Love, is somewhat serious-sounding, you can tell from the silly antics on the cover that this book is going to be a lot of fun. Beginning with breakfast, we take a trip through time and around the world discovering facts about kid-approved foods from waffles to apple pie.

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Pizza Pickles and Apple Pie int1 before breakfast
Interior illustrations from Pizza, Pickles, and Apple Pie: The Stories Behind the Foods We Eat by David Rickert, Kane Press ©2023.

 

I appreciated the multicultural tidbits such as the wide array of popular pizza toppings: squid and eel (Japan), ginger and tofu (India), or peas, corn, and raisins (Brazil). The evolution of popcorn interested me: all those popping kernels were first contained in an 1800s popcorn popper but it was the invention of the microwave that made popcorn the number two thing people use their microwaves for (heating leftovers is the first). And, birthday parties will never be the same for me now that I know blowing out candles increases the bacteria on the surface of the cake.

The extra sections in the back can give kids hours of busy time. For example, they can research their own favorite food, learn how to create a food comic, and there’s a step-by-step on how to draw people’s facial expressions.

 

Pizza Pickles and Apple Pie int2 ice cream becomes cool.
Interior illustrations from Pizza, Pickles, and Apple Pie: The Stories Behind the Foods We Eat by David Rickert, Kane Press ©2023.

 

 

While the target audience for this book is grades 3-7, I can see younger kids enjoying this book because of its easy-to-follow comic panels. The sections with longer text will appeal to older kids; the activities can be tailored to all ages. Overall, this humorous food history book is one that kids can devour again and again.

Read more about author-illustrator David Rickert here.

 

Read another food-related book review by Christine here.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – The Jake Show

THE JAKE SHOW

Written by Joshua S. Levy

(Katherine Tegen Books; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

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The Jake Show cover featuring three boys Jacob Jake Yaakov e1709342039991.

 

 

I deliberately avoided reading anything about The Jake Show by Joshua S. Levy before uploading it onto my iPad. I’d also committed to reviewing it for Multicultural Children’s Book Day before it received its esteemed Sydney Taylor Honor. I had no idea what a treat was in store for me.

The main character, seventh-grader Jake, is in a tricky situation at home or should I say homes since his parents are divorced and both have remarried. At his mom’s place, he’s called Yaakov and feels pressured to conform to her wishes. She is a religious Orthodox Jew and her husband is a Rabbi. When he’s with his dad he’s Jacob because his dad is a secular Jew, at one point even forgetting some Hanukkah details, and his second wife isn’t Jewish. Readers will understand this boy’s dilemma. Jake, the middle ground name he uses at school, must constantly perform to please each parent while not knowing what he truly wants, only that it’s taking an emotional toll on him. It’s one thing when you’re in a film, TV show, or on stage; when the project is done you go home and cast aside your role. In Jake’s case, that’s when the acting begins.

Jake starts a new school as the book opens and is quickly welcomed by two classmates, Tehilla and Caleb. Jake is pretty sure he’ll be leaving this school since previously he’s had to attend schools either only his mother wanted or his father wanted. So, why bother making friends when you’re just going to leave because one parent is not happy? This begs the question of why the adults in Jake’s life seem to have all the agency and Jake none.

When Jake decides to attend Camp Gershoni for the summer at his friends’ urging, he knows it’s time to take matters into his own hands since neither parent will agree it’s the suitable choice. I was happy Jake chose to go camp but I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the myriad lies he tells. He concocts a wild plan straight out of an “I Love Lucy” episode. That airport scene, which includes outfit changing, is hysterical and I could see the entire scene playing out in my head as I cheered for him. All through his elaborate scheme, Tehilla is urging Jake to come clean but he’s in too deep.

Levy has infused The Jake Show with the perfect amount of humor to counter some of the serious issues presented. Much of the LOL moments are due to his friendship with Caleb and Tehilla who, outliers themselves, may understand Jake better than he can understand himself. I found myself eager to see what antics the trio would get up to next and that was facilitated by chapters that seemed to speed by. Secondary characters including Jake’s stepparents feel well-developed and bring levity into his home life. Jake needed to be seen and they saw him.

Readers learn that Jews come from all walks of life, some well off, some not. Tehilla and her mom struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Caleb, who is wealthy, despite the trying times he’s faced since coming out, can count on the support of his family, Tehilla, and now Jake. Yet the more Jake becomes preoccupied with his elaborate scheme and the more he lies to keep up the pretense, the harder it is to see certain truths: truths about his friendships and his family that he is just one more lie away from losing if he doesn’t own up to his charade.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Middle Grade Novel Review – Remember Us

 

REMEMBER US

Written by Jacqueline Woodson

(Nancy Paulsen Books; $18.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Remember Us cover graffitied wall and basketball.

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Indie Next, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal

 

In Remember Us by Jacqueline Woodson, twelve-year-old Sage and her widowed mother live in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the house that was her father’s childhood home. She has strong connections to her firefighter father, who was killed in the line of duty. Like him, she loves basketball and dreams of playing professionally.

Sage’s tight-knit community is affected by the near-constant threat of fires breaking out all over the city during one summer in the 1970s. Homes and even lives are lost. Survivors leave, the neighborhood changes and childhood friendships shift. Some of Sage’s friends are more interested in being glamorous than in joining her, as they once did, in a game of basketball. Hardest of all is the revelation that her mother wants to leave the only home, her father’s home, that Sage has ever known.

Basketball is the only constant in her life. Freddy and his family move into the neighborhood and she finds out this kind boy loves basketball as much as she does. They become fast friends. One day, Sage experiences a traumatic event that shakes her to her core and leads to a harrowing act of destruction as she wrestles with doubts about who she is and what she wants to be.

Will she join the girls who paint their nails … or will she remain true to herself?

Using vivid and lyrical prose, Woodson draws on her Brooklyn roots and actual events to poignantly and richly capture the story’s characters and Sage’s neighborhood during a tense and fearful summer. Exquisitely written, Woodson once again explores the theme of memory and storytelling (Brown Girl Dreaming, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014) in this spare novel of a young girl grappling with change and learning the importance of memories and the value of moving on.

Click here for a teacher’s guide.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Seven New Halloween Books for Kids

 

 

HALLOWEEN BOOKS 2023

~ A ROUNDUP ~

 

 

 

PEEKABOO PUMPKIN
Written by Camilla Reid
Illustrated by Ingela P. Arrhenius
(Candlewick Press; $9.99, Ages 0-2)

The eight pages of this adorably illustrated interactive board book will easily entertain little ones. On their own or with a parent’s help, children will find the bright, bold Halloween-themed graphics irresistible. Slide the tab and a mouse emerges from a grinning grandfather clock. Friendly-looking flames light up a candelabra and a ghost greets a black cat from behind a door. The text is spare but gently rhymes so a read-aloud is ideal to accompany the fun activity for busy little hands. More books are available in this popular series.

• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

FIRST NIGHT OF HOWLERGARTEN
Written and illustrated by Benson Shum
(Penguin Workshop; $18.99, Ages 4-6)

What’s Halloween without werewolves? The story opens with an invitation “to your first night of Howlergarten.” Children are told they’ll transform into their true were-selves for the first time making me curious to see how Shum would depict this. He does so by introducing readers to Sophie, a sweetly drawn biracial main character worried she won’t transform despite assurances from her parents that they’ll love her no matter what.

The clock on Sophie’s nightstand shows 6 p.m. “Good evening, Sophie.” Her teacher welcomes her to class where she soon meets Emma, an overly confident classmate not concerned in the least about transforming, unlike Sophie. When werewolf skill practice begins, Sophie doesn’t excel at anything. Did this mean she was destined to remain human? Sophie makes new friends and finds the training that follows improves her outlook. But her fears return as the full moon rises. Buoyed by her buddy Teddy, the kids clasp hands and countdown to transformation time. When, in a clever twist, things don’t turn out as expected, the werewolf pack shows empathy and accepts everyone, bushy tails, padded paws or not.

This heartwarming picture book can also be read when starting school for the first time, moving up to a new year, or for its SEL elements about acceptance.  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Skull cover girl holding skullTHE SKULL:
A Tyrolean Folktale

Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen
(Candlewick Press; $19.99, Ages 6-9)

Starred Reviews: Booklist, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Horn Book, Kirkus,
Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness

This eerie tale begins before the title page when we find that, one night, “Otilla finally ran away.” And run she does, into the forest, until she’s someplace unfamiliar and (maybe) someone is calling her name. Coming upon a “very big, very old house,” her knocking is answered by a skull! From there, the story unfolds—but I can’t tell you how, you have to read the book. Let me just say that Jon Klassen’s creepy, unexpected reimagined version of this folktale has crept onto my Top Ten favorite Halloween books. It has heart. It has twists. It has a talking skull!

Klassen’s art feels familiar in Otilla’s wide-eyed expression, yet there’s enough new to keep his illustrations fresh. In one of my favorite scenes, Otilla and the skull don decorative Tyrolean masks (after the skull says they’re just for show!) and dance in an empty ballroom.

I appreciate the craftsmanship of his writing with the parallels he alludes to between the two main characters. This book will be one I return to for many Halloweens to come.

It’s written as a chapter book of sorts with sections and clever subheadings, but the book will also appeal to picture book readers. It’s flawlessly executed, an example of an author-illustrator at a career peak.

After the story, Klassen explains the history of how he came to write this story and how tales evolve in the telling.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Scariest. Book. Ever. cover haunted castle flying bat skullSCARIEST. BOOK. EVER.
(Goosebumps House of Shivers #1)
by R.L. Stine
(Scholastic Paperbacks;  $7.99, Ages 8-12)

If anyone knows how to tell a scary story, it’s R.L. Stine. Scariest. Book. Ever. grabs hold of you from the first page when the twins, Billy and Betty, are left in the remote Wayward Forest where their Uncle Wendell (probably) lives. They have no memory of him but hear he’s quite the storyteller of strange and frightening tales. When he finally shows up and says he’s got the scariest book ever they don’t quite believe him until they come face-to-face with nightmarish creatures and must help their uncle keep the book out of the wrong hands lest true terror be unleashed.

This book is like a roller-coaster ride: once you turn that first page, you’re along until the end, holding your breath, wondering what’s around the next turn.

As a kickoff for Stine’s new Goosebumps House of Shivers series, Scariest. Book. Ever. does not disappoint. It has frightful creatures, plot twists, fast-paced action, and, in true Stine fashion, humor. I’m a fan of his books but was still impressed that he can keep conjuring intriguing tales to scare us with.

There’s a reason this best-selling author is one of the most popular children’s authors in history. Pick up this book; you won’t be able to put it down.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Crimson Twill Witch in the Country cover Crimson frog apple treeWITCH IN THE COUNTRY|
(Crimson Twill series)
Written by Kallie George

Illustrated by Birgitta Sif
(Candlewick Press; $14.99, Ages 7-9)

Crimson Twill is a likable young witch who does very non-witchy things from the way she dresses to brewing lemonade in her cauldron. In Witch in the Country, the latest installment in the series, Crimson’s friends Mauve and Wesley and Dusty the broom are coming to visit her from New Wart City. Crimson has everything planned, a list of her favorite things from ripening rotten apples and gathering broom straw to croaking the frogs (to catch their misty, green frog breath!). When things don’t work out, Crimson is disappointed until she remembers something important.

As with the other books in Kallie George’s beloved series, the stories are heartfelt and fun. Crimson’s unique witchiness is adorable and she’s a likable character that I will keep following as the books explore more of her world.

The evocative black-and-white illustrations throughout give us a thorough glimpse into Crimson’s country lifestyle. Can I come visit and croak frogs too?

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

The Cursed Moon cover scary tree and kids riding bikeTHE CURSED MOON
by Angela Cervantes
(Scholastic Press; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

Sixth-grader Rafael “Rafa” Fuentes loves writing and telling ghost stories but when his strange cat-lady neighbor begs him not to do so on the night of the eerie, blood moon, Rafa doesn’t listen to her. He soon realizes her crazy warning may be true when his tale about The Caretaker (who drowns unsuspecting kids in the pond) seems to come true.

Beyond this, we learn about Rafa’s family and how he doesn’t really feel like he fits in at school. Telling terrifying tales has gotten him a tiny bit of social status but, at best, it’s wobbly.

I like how Angela Cervantes develops the connection and community of Rafa’s family, friends, and neighbors. That Rafa’s mom is finally coming back from being incarcerated adds a unique angle as we see the complex (and opposite) emotions he and his sister have about this homecoming.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Nightmare King cover very scared looking ShaneNIGHTMARE KING
by Daka Hermon

(Scholastic Press; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

The nightmares Shane’s been having make him not want to sleep, but he can only do that for so long. As he fights with the scary images in his mind, he begins to wonder if the Nightmare King will capture him in this winner-takes-all game of tag. Dream scenes become increasingly scary and it seems there’s no escape for Shane the next time he slumbers.

Daka Hermon accurately shows us Shane’s love of playing basketball. Since his recent near-death accident, he wants nothing more than to get back to the top of his game and avoid butting heads with the bully who’s more than ready for Shane’s permanent removal.

Just as in Hide and Seeker (Scholastic, 2020), Hermon takes a seemingly fun game and imbues it with sinister twists and turns.

 

MORE RECOMMENDATIONS:

Check out this interview about The Book Crew Needs You!, another great new Halloween book.

Happy Halloweenie cover vampire hot dogHAPPY HALLOWEENIE
Written and illustrated by Katie Vernon
(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 1-5 )

Cute or Scary? All Black or All White? Weenie is trying to decide what to wear for Halloween in this adorably illustrated board book with spare text.

 

 

 

 

Lila and the Jack-O'-Lantern cover girl observing glowing pumpkin in windowLILA AND THE JACK-O’-LANTERN:
Halloween Comes to America
Written by Nancy Churnin
Illustrated by Anneli Bray
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

“An Irish immigrant moves to America bringing a now beloved Halloween tradition.”

 

 

 

How to Spook a Ghost cover kids in Halloween costumesHOW TO SPOOK A GHOST
(Magical Creatures and Craft series)
Written by Sue Fliess
Illustrated by Simona SanFilippo
(Sky Pony Press; $19.99, Ages 3-6)

Brave kids investigate a strange noise and make a new ghostly friend.
A rhyming picture book with added Halloween history, puppet craft, and costume-making tips.

 

The October Witches cover witches flying over treeTHE OCTOBER WITCHES
Written by Jennifer Claessen
(Simon & Schuster BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

“Practical Magic meets Hocus Pocus in this sweet and enchanting middle-grade fantasy novel about a young witch who must uncover the secrets of her family’s past to end their longstanding internal feud.” A debut novel ideal for the Halloween season.

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Middle Grade Nonfiction Book Review – Who’s Got Mail?

 

WHO’S GOT MAIL?
The History of Mail in America

Written by Linda Barrett Osborne

(Abrams BYR; $22.99, Ages 10-14)

 

 

Who's Got Mail cover assorted US stamps

 

Starred Review – Kirkus

 

REVIEW:

Long before there was email, there was V-mail. Short for “Victory mail” it was a system used during World War II as a way to save space for delivering other items, such as military supplies and equipment. This is just one of the many fascinating bits of information presented in Linda Barrett Osborne’s latest offering, Who’s Got Mail?: The History of Mail in America.

 

Who's Got Mail cover int pg5 intro
Interior spread from Who’s Got Mail? The History of Mail in America written by Linda Barrett Osborne, Abrams BYR ©2022.

 

Divided into ten chapters, the pages are cleverly designed to look like stamps themselves, with perforated borders. With photographs punctuating almost every page, it is very easy for middle-grade readers to remain interested in this nonfiction book and want to learn about the history of America and its postal service.

Although there is much to praise the USPS for throughout its long history, the author herself is to be praised for not shying away from addressing their treatment of African Americans and women, who each have a chapter dedicated just to them. Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans are grouped together in their own chapter as well, depicting clearly the discrimination that these minorities faced within the hierarchy of employment.

 

Who's Got Mail int pg129 women in the post office
Interior spread from Who’s Got Mail? The History of Mail in America written by Linda Barrett Osborne, Abrams BYR ©2022.

 

But it is not just the large issues that are written up so vividly. The small details are just as noteworthy. For example, this Canadian reviewer was truly surprised to learn that mail is delivered six times a week in America (as opposed to five times a week in Canada.)

Back matter includes a timeline beginning in 1753 with the British government appointing Benjamin Franklin as the deputy postmaster general of its colonies, to the present day, with the delivery of free in-home COVID-19 tests, and the signing of the Postal Service Reform Act into law by President Joe Biden thereby canceling USPS’s large debt.

 

Who's Got Mail int pg159 Asian American Firsts_
Interior spread from Who’s Got Mail? The History of Mail in America written by Linda Barrett Osborne, Abrams BYR ©2022.

 

In keeping with the subject matter of the book, both the jacket and the front and back covers are decorated with a variety of images of stamps courtesy of the National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution’s, 4000+ collection adding much information and interest. One celebrates abolitionist Harriet Tubman; another pays tribute to the Pony Express, which lasted for nineteen months beginning in 1860, using relays of riders on horses to deliver the mail.

A selected bibliography and index round out this must-read for both young (and old) history buffs who want to read about a unique and captivating subject.

  •  Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
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Middle-Grade Fantasy Novel Review – Legends of Lotus Island Book #1

 

LEGENDS OF LOTUS ISLAND:
The Guardian Test

Written by Christina Soontornvat

Illustrated by Kevin Hong

(Scholastic Press; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

Legends of Lotus Island cover book one heroine running

 

 

In Legends of Lotus Island: The Guardian Test, the first book in a new middle-grade series by Christine Soontornvat with illustrations by Kevin Hong, young Plum lives on a remote part of the Santipap Islands. An orphan, she lives with her grandparents and helps them tend their home and gardens. Plum is able to communicate with plants and animals and, as a result, the family’s gardens thrive. Seeing this, her grandfather secretly submits an application for her to the elite Guardian Academy on Lotus Island. Guardians are able to transform into magical creatures and are tasked with protecting the natural world.

When she learns that she has been accepted to the Academy, Plum is stunned by her grandfather’s actions. She doesn’t believe that she is that special or magical. Nevertheless, her grandparents convince her to accept the Academy’s invitation and, reluctantly, she leaves her beloved home for an uncertain future.

Once at the Academy, Plum, and the other students are trained in meditation, fighting skills, communicating with animals, and learning how to transform. As the students train, their natural, magical abilities emerge. Based on that, the Masters are then able to assign students to one of the three groups of Guardians: Hand (fast and strong), Heart (healers), and Breath (calming).

However, Plum struggles: she is bullied by another student (who may have a hidden agenda), she can’t focus during meditation, is not much of a fighter, and is unable to transform. The Masters are not sure which Guardian group she belongs in. If Plum wishes to advance to Novice, she must pass the first test which is transformation. Plum’s fears grow –will she be able to pass the test? Or will she fail and be sent home?

Soontornvat fills her short book with a fascinating and lush world, populating it with fantastic creatures, hints of political intrigue, and mysterious ancient legends. The author also does not sacrifice character development. Plum, a kind but unsophisticated girl, blooms into a strong and confident figure. Other students share similar growth, which may be encouraging to readers struggling with their own self-confidence. Along with occasional black and white illustrations, this first in a series is an enticing and accessible read for younger readers who are not yet ready for longer fantasy titles.

Visit the author here for a brief book talk and watch the book trailer here. Watch this short video if you’re not sure how to pronounce Soontornvat’s name. Kids can read an excerpt from the book here.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Review of 2023 Newbery Winner – Freewater

 

FREEWATER

by Amina Luqman-Dawson

(Little, Brown BYR; $16.99, Ages 10+)

 

 

 

Awards: John Newbery Medal, Coretta Scott King Author Award

An Indiebound Bestseller

Starred reviews: Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Connections

 

“A gripping story of friendship, survival, and courage as a group of young children overcome trauma and fear to pursue freedom for themselves and their community.”

 

Freewater is the award-winning novel by Amina Luqman-Dawson published a little over a year ago. It opens with the harrowing flight of two enslaved children, twelve-year-old Homer and his younger sister Ada, from the Southerland Plantation.  Their escape goes horribly wrong when their mother, Ruth, returns to rescue Homer’s friend Anna and is captured. The two siblings,  pursued by slavers and their dogs, stumble into a nearby swamp and flounder in an unfamiliar world.

Bravely forging ahead in the unfamiliar and frightening environment, the children are rescued by Suleman, a formally enslaved man, who takes the exhausted children to Freewater. Homer and Ada are welcomed to this hidden village, a safe haven for its formerly enslaved residents and their freeborn offspring. The supportive community draws the children into their society, beliefs, and traditions, which are based on a complex relationship with the swamp.

Homer, wracked with guilt, is determined to rescue his mother and makes plans to return to Southerland to rescue her. When his new friends learn of this, they help Homer organize a rescue. Meanwhile, at Southerland, clever Anna is making plans to disrupt the plantation daughter’s wedding in order to flee with Ruth. Will Anna manage to escape? Will Homer and his new friends be able to rescue his mother … without getting caught?

In a compelling, multi-voiced narrative, five children, some freeborn, some formerly enslaved, relate the story from their POV. Even the plantation owner’s youngest daughter, Nora, contributes to the narrative, describing her struggle to understand the implications of slavery. Through their narratives, the reader learns about the children’s pasts, secrets, traumas, fears, and dreams.

The author imagines a fascinating world, not just of survival in the swamp, but of a nurturing society and culture flourishing there. Family life and supporting the community are paramount.  Jobs and tasks include weaving vines into rope, hollowing out giant trees for shelters or boats, tending to the crops, and hunting and fishing. Sky bridges made from rope help the community travel safely above the ground where they cannot be seen or caught by slavers or militia. Huge, moving partitions, woven out of branches and leaves are created to close off parts of the swamp for protection.  A few members, like Suleman, stealthily visit the plantations at night to “liberate” supplies (like matches) that cannot be made in the swamp. 

Luqman-Dawson has populated the story with well-developed characters and a richly described setting, both beautiful and deadly. The author does not hesitate to include the horrific treatment of African Americans by white people. Woven into the story’s many dramatic events are moments of friendship, selflessness, joy, and even budding young love. 

The author’s endnote details the historical background including references to African American scholars working on Maroon society in the Great Dismal Swamp, which was the inspiration for this story. Visit Luqman-Dawson’s website to see a video of her summary of Freewater and more resources on the Dismal Swamp.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Pearl of The Sea for Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2023

 

PEARL OF THE SEA

by Anthony Silverston + Raffaella Delle Donne

Illustrated by Willem Samuel

(Catalyst Press; Paperback $19.99, eBook $9.95, Ages 11-14)

 

GoodReadsWithRonna is thrilled to be back for our 10th year supporting Multicultural Children’s Book Day! We hope you’ll visit the Linky below to access all the other great books reviewed.

 

Pearl of the Sea cover girl looking out at sea

 

Pearl of the Sea, a new older middle-grade graphic novel by Anthony Silverston, Raffaella Delle Donne, and Willem Samuel is simply hard to put down. In other words, be prepared to dive deep and fast into this rewarding journey featuring some fantastical elements unfolding off the west coast of South Africa.

Turn the pages to be transported to South Africa where you’ll meet the protagonist Pearl while getting more than glimpses of the economically strapped seaside town where she lives. Most days Pearl sticks to herself and is filled with insecurities as she copes with the reality of her mom having left the family. Still, she manages to help her dad who is struggling to make ends meet.

Pearl of The Sea int1 abolone poachers
Interior art from Pearl of The Sea written by Anthony Silverston and Raffaella Delle Donne and illustrated by Willem Samuel, Catalyst Press ©2023.

 

During one of Pearl’s daily jaunts undersea before school to hunt for fish to feed the family, she spies an ominous fenced-off restricted area. Warning signs caution those who might wish to enter, a temptation Pearl cannot resist. Plus this danger zone is rich with abalone. After a run-in with some abalone poachers, she realizes helping them could bring in some much-needed money. At the same time, Pearl knows this illegal action is wrong on many levels.

Readers are teased with what’s to come by seeing an enormous tentacle that Pearl hasn’t noticed. Soon though she encounters this wounded monstrous sea creature who has been harpooned. Pearl calls him Otto. She brings him food and aids in his recovery but Otto’s safety is not guaranteed. Tension builds in a plot twist spoiler I won’t reveal beyond saying that Otto becomes the target of a vengeful fisherman. If Pearl can save and protect Otto it will ultimately be saving herself and her father too because, like fishermen’s nets, their lives have become so intertwined.

Pearl of The Sea int2 Otto sea monster and Pear
Interior art from Pearl of The Sea written by Anthony Silverston and Raffaella Delle Donne and illustrated by Willem Samuel, Catalyst Press ©2023.

 

Pearl’s sidekick throughout this action-packed novel is an adorable one-eyed dog. There’s also a classmate named Naomi who Pearl may have a crush on. However, because her dad tells her they have to move so he can find work, Pearl figures it’s futile to pursue a friendship or relationship. That’s one aspect of the novel I’d love to see explored in a sequel.

Not only is Pearl of The Sea a compelling read, but it is also a visual treasure that merits multiple reads. The rich art has a theatric feel, with scene after scene pulling you into the story and keeping you gripped. Readers will share Pearl’s joy and satisfaction at her accomplishments that she might have been unable to achieve before befriending Otto. I recommend this unexpected delight for fans of meaningful graphic novels and those new to the genre.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Click here to read more about Triggerfish, the South African animation production company behind this graphic novel.

Disclaimer: This book was #gifted to GoodReadsWithRonna from Catalyst Press for a fair and honest review. 

 


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Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2023 (1/26/23) is in its 10th 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 books into the hands of young readers and educators.

Ten 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. Read about our Mission & History HERE.

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Middle Grade Book Review – New Kids & Underdogs

NEW KIDS & UNDERDOGS

Written by Margaret Finnegan

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

 

New Kids and Underdogs cover dog doing agility training

 

 

In Margaret Finnegan’s third middle-grade novel, New Kids & Underdogs, she once again convincingly captures the voice of the 10-year-old protagonist, in this case, fifth grader, Robyn Kellen.

Robyn, whose parents are divorced, has moved around a lot because of her mother’s university teaching positions. Now in San Luis Obispo which, according to Robyn’s mom, is going to be the last move, Robyn must yet again learn to navigate a new town, new school, and hopefully new friendships. To do so, she relies upon her handy list of rules for a new kid.

At school, Robyn has initially blended in with two classmates (rule #1 ), Marshan and Lulu, and feels thankful for that. But when Robyn decides to pursue agility training for her beloved dogs Sundae (anxious, and needy of Fudge) and Fudge (almost blind, deaf, and definitely intelligent), it ends up connecting her with kids at school who just might make her break her rules in the best possible way. However, before doing so, she must learn that life experiences do not always fit neatly into a set of rules. And to find true friends, she must stop the rules from taking over.

Early on in the book, Robyn negotiates a trade with cancer survivor, Nestor, and his cousin, Jonathan,  together with “the Grape,” passionate purple wearer and grade-four-skipping, Alejandra. Tutoring and snacks for agility training. The thing is, Robyn ends up enjoying the time she spends with these kids who Marshan and Lulu consider to be sad outsiders.

After Nestor starts successfully teaching Sundae and Fudge to handle an agility, or what he, the most experienced in the group, dubs an “ability” course, Robyn worries she is spending too much time with these kids. If Marshan and Lulu think the agility kids are all sad outsiders, the negative label could stick to her by association. So, Robyn builds an invisible wall to keep her school friends separate from the dog training group and never the twain shall meet.

Eventually this protective wall leads to the kids who meet for agility to stop pursuing a friendship with Robyn when she does not return their interest. But when she changes her mind at Halloween it proves too little too late. Clearly remaining safe behind her wall is what her list dictates. Will Robyn get another chance to befriend the pack of agility training kids and rewrite or even discard those limiting rules?

Readers see that people, like the dogs in this story, are so much more than their abilities or disabilities. They are a whole package, a whole book. And Finnegan has a gift for presenting “underdogs” and empowering them so any kid reading this story will also feel empowered. The challenges Robyn has had to deal with being a new kid time and again ultimately reach a breaking point. “What other people think is their problem, not yours,” Alejandra wisely says near the end. Pretty darn insightful, I’d say.  When Robyn realizes that the underdogs get her and she is one of them, she understands she cannot judge anyone by just one chapter.

This fantastic novel about being seen and accepting one’s worth of true friendship is my recommended read for kids who may be facing friendship issues of their own. It’s a novel I’d have felt comfortable suggesting to my own kids when they were in those often trying middle-school years.

Click here for a discussion guide.

Read my interview with Margaret about her second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down here.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel
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Middle-Grade Graphic Novel – Agent 9: Mind Control!

 

AGENT 9: MIND CONTROL!

by James Burks

(Razorbill; Hardcover $18.99, Paperback $12.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

Agent 9 Mind Control graphic novel cover

 

 

I knew I was going to love James Burks’s latest graphic novel, Agent 9: Mind Control! (book #2) from the opening sequence alone. A slick sports car races up swerving roads to the secret lab location of DiViSiON, an evil organization headed by Octopus (aka IQ). Wolf, the novel’s nemesis, emerges from the vehicle and traverses a bridge as a nasty storm unleashes its fury. The dark tones, pounding rain, and the familiar spy tropes of a James Bond film instantly assure us that, like most good spy stories, we’re in for an enjoyable but rocky ride. 

 

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int1 S4 Headquarters
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

After the scenes switch to a meeting at the headquarters of S4 (Super Secret Spy Service – this book’s equivalent to Bond’s MI6, British Intelligence) Agent 9 and his flying fish sidekick, Fin, learn their new covert mission from O, the big boss. They must thwart the efforts of DiViSiON to steal crucial components needed to construct a menacing Mind Control Device. The Wolf has been contracted to retrieve these items so Nine must get them first. O also informs Agent 9 that he must partner with Traps, a mouse, on this assignment. Used to only being with Fin, Agent 9 is not a happy cat. After all, he’d had visions of winning a spot as Spy of the Month. Working with Traps meant he could kiss that thrill goodbye.

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int2 9 meets Traps the mouse
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

Burks blends humor into both the dialogue and the art throughout this adventure all while keeping the pace going at breakneck speed. We follow Nine and Traps first to the Rail-Con event on a high-speed train to substitute the real deal with a fake electromagnet. Unfortunately, that does not go as planned. The team thing is also proving difficult despite Traps trying her hardest to help out.

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int3 uncoupling train
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

Next up is a visit to Quark Labs to grab the compact-sized nanotech battery with unlimited power and infinite possibilities. But “Once again, it appears I have outsmarted you, Agent 9,” says Wolf snarkily who always manages to show up and foil things. Only this time he’s outsmarted by Nine, Traps, and Fin, who sputter away in a slow-moving vehicle in a funny sequence of panels that pit the gang of good guys and gal against the cunning canine. And though it looks like they might succeed this time …

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int4 car chase
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

… things go south for the trio when Nine is forced by Wolf to choose between the battery or Traps. Soon on his trail again, the spies track Wolf to DiViSiON where he pulls some outrageous moves on Octopus in an effort to wrest sole ownership of the MCD (Mind Control Device). He then turns it on Nine in an act of pure malice. What Wolf doesn’t expect is how teamwork comes through in the end with some clever plotting and a daring and satisfying rescue.

 

Agent 9 Mind Control int5 Wolf controls 9
Interior art from Agent 9: Mind Control! written and illustrated by James Burks, Razorbill ©2022.

 

This top-secret tale takes middle-grade readers into a world of good versus evil where humor adds levity, and characters full of personality promise to keep them hooked. Keep your eyes peeled for some suspicious insect-like creatures lurking around some corners that lead us to a secret lair and a hint of book #3’s next villain. I can’t wait. And remember, there’s no I in team!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Middle Grade Book Review – Starfish

STARFISH
Written by Lisa Fipps
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

 

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

 

I soaked up every last word of Starfish, the Printz Honor-winning debut by Lisa Fipps, and could easily dive back in and read it all over again because I felt such a strong connection with the main character, Ellie. This moving middle-grade novel told in verse takes us inside Ellie’s head as she navigates life at school and at home where she is not only bullied by classmates for being overweight but by her mother as well. 

Early on readers learn that Ellie lives by her Fat Girl Rules (e.g. Make yourself small; If you’re fat, there are things you can’t have), finding refuge in her pool at home “starfishing” as she spreads out freely claiming her space. She also finds comfort in the company of her BFF, Viv, who moves away, but remains an ally from afar. Ellie’s father is a psychiatrist, compassionate and loving. On the other hand, Ellie’s mother is a writer whose harsh “words gut me like a fish.” She is always after Ellie to diet, and presses her to consider bariatric surgery, even going so far as to take her to doctors for evaluation. I ached along with Ellie as her mom mistreated her by constantly focusing on the bad rather than loving the good. Home should be a safe place for Ellie but it isn’t. It’s a constant reminder of how she is not meeting expectations between her demanding mother, her insulting older brother, and her non-supportive older sister who dubbed Ellie “Splash” at her fifth birthday party following a cannonballing incident. Tensions spill over into everything Ellie does.

With Viv gone, Ellie and her neighbor Catalina become fast friends with Catalina’s parents and siblings offering her the kind of family life and acceptance she wishes she had at home. A therapist Ellie begins to see, referred to as Doc in the book, provides the kind of insight and strategies Ellie can use to approach the bullies who think nothing of fat-shaming this bright, beautiful adolescent. Doc helps Ellie learn to appreciate herself and her gifts, reminding her that “No matter what you weigh, you deserve for people to treat you like a human being with feelings.” This sentiment will resonate with many young readers who can use so much of what Fipps writes as a reassuring resource for any bullying and self-doubt they may be experiencing.

The intimacy of this book comes from the verse and Ellie’s powerful voice. It’s as if we’re living each experience with her and cheering for her as she takes on the bullies and turns the tables on them without having to compromise by losing a single pound. Fipps drives home the point that bullies are the ones with the issues, not those being picked on. She shows how kids, whether big or small, tall or short, can embrace their uniqueness and love themselves for who they truly are not just how they appear. It’s no surprise how much praise this novel received. I hope you’ll share it with kids you know so they can walk in Ellie’s shoes and understand what size-based discrimination feels like and how to be a part of the change needed.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Link to Teachers Guide here.

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Middle Grade Fiction – The Beatryce Prophecy

 

THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY

Written by Kate DiCamillo

Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

(Candlewick Press; $19.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

The Beatryce Prophecy cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly

 

NOTE #1: I meant to write about The Beatryce Prophecy almost a year ago when I first read it. However,  being in dire need of a feel-good story, I just reread it so I’m happy to finally share my review of this fairy tale. NOTE #2: You definitely do not need to be between the ages of 8-12 to enjoy every last word of this wonderful novel. Written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, The Beatryce Prophecy is full of promise and a resounding message of love we could all use.

The book begins with:

It is written in the Chronicles of Sorrowing
that one day there will come a child who will unseat a king.
The prophecy states that this child will be a girl.

Because of this,
the prophecy has long been ignored.

 

The kingdom, readers learn in text running parallel to the main narrative, is at stake due to the disappearance of a young girl according to the “Prophecies,” so the hunt is on. At the same time a child, no more than 10 years old, burning with fever and clinging to the ear of an ordinarily unruly goat, is discovered in the barn. The rescuer is Brother Edik, a thoughtful monk who belongs to the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. He is the monastery illuminator of the “glorious golden letters” that begin the text of each page of the Chronicles. Brother Edik also looks after the goat, Answelica.

 

The Beatryce Prophecy int.1
THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY. Text copyright © 2021 by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sophie Blackall. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

Brother Edik, aided by the unusually attentive Answelica, cares for the girl who, when recovered, remembers only that her name is Beatryce. This name also happens to be one that appears frequently in the Chronicles of Sorrowing. Most notable however is that Beatryce can read and write, something forbidden by law for girls in the kingdom. Could this rare ability be a clue to Beatryce’s identity?

It doesn’t take long for the monk to feel a strong bond with Beatryce, but his superior, Father Caddis says she must leave to find her people. As Beatryce is gaining her strength, she encounters Jack Dory. This industrious 12-year-old orphan possesses an excellent memory and gift for mimicry which comes in handy. He’s been dispatched to the monastery by a dying soldier to find a monk to write his confession. But since Father Caddis wants Beatryce gone to keep the Order out of the king’s crosshair, he sends Beatryce instead of Brother Edik.

 

 

The Beatryce Prophecy in tree int.2
THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY. Text copyright © 2021 by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sophie Blackall. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

The pair (with Answelica of course) set out for the village inn where Beatryce, dressed as a monk with shaved hair and pretending to be mute, begins the task committed to. But when the king’s men begin to search, Jack tells his friend they must leave or risk capture.

 

The Beatryce Prophecy dark woods int.3
THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY. Text copyright © 2021 by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sophie Blackall. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

 

In the dark woods during their escape, Jack and Beatryce encounter a mysterious but benevolent bearded old man who helps them evade the soldiers and other threats. He then accompanies the children on a journey so Beatryce, who now remembers who she is, can confront the king. As the parallel text unfolds, readers learn the awful truth about what transpired to cause Beatryce to wind up at the monastery haunted by bad dreams and incomplete memories. Tension, which has been building ever since the close call at the inn, continues to grow as the group converges to enter the castle.

Between the gripping and creative DiCamillo storytelling and the detailed, evocative Blackall art, there is so much to enjoy about The Beatryce Prophecy. I rank this novel up there with DiCamillo’s finest novels and my great mood was on par with how I felt after finishing Flora & Ulysses. Not only is the story one of love, friendship, and fate, but it’s also an homage to the written word, the power of books, and how the truth can set you free. There’s a meaningful unexpected twist at the end, too. I always worry about endings after a page-turning book has taken me along on a journey with characters I care about. And while in a fantastical story such as this, anything goes, anyone reading the novel will be more than satisfied with how DiCamillo wraps it up and offers it like one huge hug. I’m curious if you find yourself humming the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” like I did?

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

For all downloads for this book including a sample chapter and teachers’ guide, click here.

 

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