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Middle Grade Book Review – In the Beautiful Country

IN THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY

Written by Jane Kuo

(Quill Tree Books;  $16.99, Ages 8-12)

In the Beautiful Country cover

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Starred Review – School Library Journal

Novels in verse are powerful. Jane Kuo’s debut middle grade, In the Beautiful Country, is a novel in verse set in 1980 about ten-year-old Ai Shi, an American immigrant from Taiwan. What a good format choice for a novel reflecting the experience of children new to the U.S.! Especially accessible for English language learners and for reluctant or struggling readers, the short, straightforward poems are no less engaging for those who read with ease.

I love how a poem gives me broad strokes of what is happening, takes me to the correct emotional address, and then I get to fill in the details. Wait, that sounds wrong. Kuo’s book, for example, gives me many details, things I wouldn’t know to imagine myself, that help me understand Ai Shi’s experience. It’s more like a connect-the-dots puzzle. Rather than broad strokes, the poems set down carefully-placed images and details, the dots. Then readers use their imagination to get from one dot to the next and draw a complete understanding of who Ai Shi is, what she values the most, and what she goes through as she and her parents face the disappointing reality of their new life.

The story begins when Ai Shi is anticipating moving to “the beautiful country” (the Chinese name for America) and follows her through a year of adjusting to life as Anna, American fifth-grader. Before moving, Ai Shi says America is her “happily ever after place,” but once she’s here, reality hits hard. She dreads going to school with her limited English:

I used to love school,

the place where I was the loudest girl in class.

Now I’m robbed of words.

Suddenly, I have nothing to say.

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In the Beautiful Country int WandererHer family struggles to keep their heads above water financially. They sold everything to buy an American fast food restaurant, depending on a fraudulent profit record the seller provided. Ai Shi thinks the items she left in Taiwan will be replaced with better California models, but that’s not how it goes.

I was particularly touched by a poem about the family’s new apartment. Ai Shi sleeps in the lone bedroom; her parents sleep on a fold-out couch in the living room. The only entertainment is watching television, and Ai Shi thinks their new set is broken. Really, it’s just black-and-white. The poem ends:

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I sit facing the flickering television.

This TV is twice as small as our old one.

Here,

in the land of more,

our world is so small.

Racism adds isolation and a sense of injustice to Ai Shi’s disappointment. She is teased at school: “It’s as if making fun of my food / has become a group lunchtime activity.” When the class is learning about alliteration, a bully waits until they are on the playground to share his example: “Ching Chong Chinaman.” At the store, her parents face customers who have no patience for their problems with English.

Last week, a man became very huffy and puffy,

as if not understanding English

was some kind of insult.

It gets worse when someone throws a brick through the store’s large front window in the middle of the night. The poem “Nothing is Missing” describes the violation, ending, “They didn’t take anything. / They took so much.”

It is painful seeing through Ai Shi’s eyes when her family is struggling. I always say that if a book makes me cry, it had better be for a good purpose. Being sad with Ai Shi is worth it, helping me develop more understanding of and empathy for immigrants, children and adults alike. But I am especially enthusiastic about recommending this book because Kuo doesn’t leave Ai Shi or the reader in insurmountable pain. When the family considers giving up and going back to Taiwan, their dynamics change. It is a pleasure to keep reading and see how their shared values put them on a path to an authentically hopeful future.

  •  Guest Review by Mary Malhotra
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Three Middle Grade Fantasy Book Reviews

 

MIDDLE-GRADE FANTASY NOVELS

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

 

 

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

(Chicken House; $17.99, Ages 8-12) 

Starred Review – Kirkus

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Mirrorwood coverTHE MIRRORWOOD
Written by Deva Fagan

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Singing with Elephants

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS

Written by Margarita Engle

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

 

Singing With Elephants cover

 

 

Starred reviews – KirkusPublishers Weekly

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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A Review Plus an Interview with Author Dana Middleton

A REVIEW PLUS AN INTERVIEW

WITH

 DANA MIDDLETON

AUTHOR OF

NOT A UNICORN

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

 

 

 

 

REVIEW

Dana Middleton’s third novel will delight middle-grade readers who enjoy a story that blends contemporary issues with just the right amount of magical realism and likable, relatable characters who would be fun to hang out with.

Readers learn early on that the main character, Jewel, age 13, has a unicorn horn on her forehead. Her friend Mystic  likes it because it makes Jewel different, the way she feels and Nicholas believes it’s cool and magical. “Are you kidding?” he tells her at one point, “You don’t have to have a horn to be different.” These three spend their time at the “freak” table (where Jewel has found refuge following an unintentional impaling of a fellow student who survived), discussing ‘the horn,’ comics, the upcoming French essay competition, and the popular kids. As the story progresses, Carmen, Jewel’s invisible magical guardian unicorn begins to play more of a role in the plot.

In her apartment, Jewel lives with her mom, and early on her grandmother moves in and shares her bedroom. The family is portrayed as lower-class where money is tight and Jewel’s mother wants her to have a better life. “You are going to graduate from college. Got it? You’re not going to end up like me.” While they clearly care for Jewel, they don’t seem to grasp how much Jewel struggles with the horn and wants to have it removed. But doing so involves great risk. It also means a huge expense, a trip to Los Angeles, and initially going behind her mother’s back.

As the story unfolds, Jewel’s lost friendship with her former best friend Emma rears its head again at the prospect of her horn being surgically removed and becoming popular. Complicating things is Mystic’s stealing a necklace from Emma’s pal, Brooklyn, the ultimate popular girl. There’s so much for Jewel to consider and weighing heavily on her is having been offered a chance to tell her “horn” story in French at the competition she has dreamed of.  At the same time, calling attention to it will make her feel like she doesn’t fit in even more, and reconciling those two feelings are taking their toll on her. Additionally, it turns out that reuniting with Emma may not be all Jewel hoped it would be.

The good news is that Jewel ultimately gets her wish and has her horn removed in Los Angeles. But the horn, it seems which bonded her to Carmen, will kill the unicorn unless she can find a way to save her.  It’s here Dana has cleverly tied in a graphic novel that Jewel has been working on with Nicholas called Highwaymen. When the storyline mixes the graphic novel into the quest to save Carmen, there is action and adventure around every turn that will keep readers in suspense in the best possible way.

I loved how when the book ended, the characters stayed with me and filled me with hope. The thoughtful and exciting journey Jewel took brought her to a place where she could finally embrace her horn and her uniqueness. Coming to terms with what made her different ends up being the biggest and most satisfying magic Jewel, and readers, experience.

Since I could not put down Dana’s latest book I felt compelled to ask her some questions to satisfy my curiosity. I hope you’ll scroll down now or return to the interview below when you’ve finished reading Not a Unicorn.

INTERVIEW

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome to the blog, Dana. I’m thrilled to discuss your latest middle-grade novel, Not a Unicorn. Do you recall how the idea for it came to you?  

Dana Middleton: Actually, it was all Jewel. This girl with a unicorn horn showed up in my mind and wouldn’t let go.

 

GRWR: Was it a long time until you fleshed out the story? 

DM: It did take quite a while, in part because I thought the idea was so weird and I wondered if people would get it. And then I thought, maybe people would think I was weird, too! Like Jewel, I had to accept all the parts of me (even the weird ones) to be able to write this. I was sure about one thing early on though—that there would be three parts to this story concerning Jewel’s horn. I won’t spoil it here, but that initial structure never wavered. I knew how it had to go, but I wasn’t sure if I could write it.

 

GRWR: One of my favorite parts of the story is the friendship between the main characters, the “different” kids Jewel, Mystic, and Nicholas. I love how they stayed with me after the story ended because I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them. What did you draw upon when writing them?

DM: I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them, too! Nicholas was loosely based on a friend of my nephew’s, and Mystic came from someplace unknown. And then Carmen, Noah, and Tall Ethan wandered in. I felt like it was so important to get these characters right because each of them had such a profound effect on Jewel.

 

Dana signing books OnceUponaTime
Dana signing books at Once Upon a Time bookstore in L.A. Photo Credit: ©Jessica Palacios.

 

GRWR: I’m a Francophile like Jewel. Is there any of you in her or maybe the popular girls like Brooklyn or Emma? 

DM: Like you, I am a Francophile! I studied French and even went to study at the Sorbonne for a summer during college. I always wanted to travel and by imbuing Jewel with this desire, it created conflict because of course, she felt like she couldn’t be seen in big spaces. I always had this picture in my mind of Jewel looking up at the Eiffel Tower because she’d become brave enough to go there.

And as far as Brooklyn and Emma are concerned, I definitely wasn’t either of them. But Brooklyn, that girl turned out okay. She became someone I didn’t quite expect.

 

GRWR: How did your hometown in Georgia influence the setting or anything else in the novel? 

DM: My family moved to the mountains of North Georgia (to a town called Dahlonega) when I was a teenager and that’s the town where Jewel lives. It’s a mixture of Dahlonega past and present, and some of it made up in my mind. I thought if you had a unicorn horn on your head, it would probably be best to live in the relative safety of a small town. That also created for Jewel more fear about the possibilities of venturing into the outside world.

 

GRWR: Can you speak to what it was like incorporating the graphic novel/comic you created called Highwaymen into the plot?

DM: Let me just say that Highwaymen was a complete surprise to me. I had no idea how that would develop in the story but it kept developing into something and I kept following. I really love Highwaymen, and like Jewel, I have a soft spot for Esmeralda. She’s so bad-ass awesome!

 

GRWR: What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing Not a Unicorn?

DM: Trusting that it would all work out. I guess a lot of writers feel this way, but sometimes I wasn’t sure I could make this book what I wanted it to be. I was very blessed to have an agent and editor who believed in Jewel and helped me to make it the best book that I could.

 

GRWR: If young readers took away one thing from your novel, what would you hope that would be? 

DM: The best question for last! I hope this book helps young readers accept who they are more deeply. Because we all have something that we just wish we could change— it may not be a unicorn horn, but it’s something. If Jewel can help someone accept their ‘difference’ and make it into their superpower, then my job is done.

My sincere thanks to Dana for taking the time to chat with me about Not a Unicorn. Here she is below with author Jill Diamond during her virtual book launch.

Dana with author Jill Diamond at Virtual Book Launch

BUY THE BOOK

Purchase Dana’s book here: https://danamiddletonbooks.com/books/not-a-unicorn/ 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA

Website: https://danamiddletonbooks.com/

 

Author Dana Middleton
Author Dana Middleton Photo Credit: ©Peter Atkins

BRIEF BIO

Dana Middleton is a middle-grade author of contemporary novels for young readers who enjoy a dash of fantasy and mystery. Her latest book, Not a Unicorn, is from Chronicle Books. She is also the author of The Infinity Year of Avalon James (a Young Hoosier Book Award nominee and Oregon Battle of the Books selection), and Open If You Dare. Dana grew up in Georgia, but lives in Los Angeles with her British husband. You can visit her online at danamiddletonbooks.com.

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Graphic Novel – Saving Sorya

 

SAVING SORYA:

Chang and the Sun Bear

by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung

Illustrated by Jeet Zdung

(Dial BYR; $23.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Saving Sorya cover

 

 

★ Starred reviews – KirkusSchool Library Journal

 

Striking artwork and a timely topic support the compelling story of one girl’s dogged determination to reintroduce a rescued sun bear to its native habitat.

 

 

The author of Saving Sorya, a renowned Vietnamese conservationist, uses the wonderfully creative graphic novel format to present a fictionalized account of events that inspired her career choice.

After witnessing a horrific instance of animal abuse, young Chang decides to become a conservationist. She works hard to learn the many skills she’ll need for this profession including: how to identify and draw forest flora and fauna and wilderness survival skills. Chang faces many challenges due to her youth and societal attitudes towards gender and how conservationists are viewed by traditional medicinal practitioners, who need animals for some preparations. Her efforts and determination pay off when she lands volunteer positions with a rescue center and learns how to take care of wild animals. Eventually, Chang is assigned the responsibility of rehabilitating Sorya, a young sun bear, and returning her to the wild.

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Interior art from Saving Sorya by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung and illustrated by Jeet Zdung, Dial BYR ©2021.

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Together, Chang and Sorya journey through the Vietnamese forests in search of a home for Sorya. In addition to training a frightened animal how to survive on her own, Chang faces challenges created by man-made problems which have impacted the environment: clearing forests for agriculture, logging, construction, and poaching exotic animals to create traditional Vietnamese medicines. Finally, Chang finds a place:

“And when the forest began to fill with the sounds of wildlife … that’s when I knew Sorya could live there.”

Sorya meets and bonds with another sun bear, and finally Chang, sure that Sorya will not only survive but thrive, is able to leave her.

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Interior spread from Saving Sorya by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung and illustrated by Jeet Zdung, Dial BYR ©2021.

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Illustrator Jeet Zdung’s breathtaking illustrations, in the tradition of classical Vietnamese art, capture the forest and the creatures that inhabit it. Eye-popping colors of exotic animals, painstaking details, varying hues, and shadowing create the lushness of the forest with breathtaking beauty.

Chang’s extraordinary field notebook, in which she records her observations, is a STEM teacher’s dream. Zdung uses pages from the notebook to tell the story. Chang details her discoveries as well as some of the equipment and personal things she has brought with her.

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Interior art from Saving Sorya by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung and illustrated by Jeet Zdung, Dial BYR ©2021.

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Zdung’s interest in manga art is evident in some illustrations and how the characters are portrayed, which creates an interesting juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary art styles. Black-and-white illustrations in manga style blur otherwise disturbing images of abuse and death. But Chang’s persistence determination, and passion, distract from the few disturbing images in the story … and give us hope.

Find out more about author and conservationist Trang Nguyen here and illustrator Jeet Zdung here

I highly recommended Saving Sorya which is sure to inspire many children to find out what they can do to protect the environment and save wild animals.

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Middle Grade Graphic Novel – The Legend of Auntie Po

THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO

Written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor

(Kokila; $22.99, Ages 10-14)

 

 

The Legend of Auntie Po cover

 

 

Finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. 

Starred reviews – Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal

 

 

A re-imagined Paul Bunyan legend gives one Chinese American girl
the courage to face adversity. 

 

Thirteen-year-old Mei lives and works in an 1885 Sierra Nevada lumber logging camp in the graphic novel, The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor. Her father, Hao, cooks for the workers, and Mei is famed for her pies. Mei, unlike the other women in the camp, does not wear a dress and is conflicted about her budding sexuality and her feelings towards Bee Anderson, the camp foreman’s daughter.

Within the camp, racial tensions simmer and the Chinese workers face discrimination and violence. Abusive behavior towards women in the camp also adds to an increasingly hostile environment. Camp foreman Hel Anderson, Bee’s father, turns a blind eye to all that is happening.

To help her and the other women and children cope with these injustices, Mei invents a Bunyanesque character, Auntie Po, only she can see. The stories she spins about Auntie Po and her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, give courage and hope to the others.

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Interior art from The Legend of Auntie Po written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor, Kokila ©2021

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Following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese workers are forced to leave the mill. Mei stays with Bee’s family, but Hao and the other Chinese workers leave to find work in San Francisco. When camp conditions severely deteriorate, Anderson travels to Chinatown to persuade his former workers to return. Hao, mindful of Anderson’s acceptance of the discriminatory conditions, negotiates a better deal for the Chinese workers. Anderson agrees and Hao and the others return to the camp. Father and daughter are reunited.

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Interior spread from The Legend of Auntie Po written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor, Kokila ©2021

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Author/illustrator Khor’s colorful illustrations authentically capture 19th lumberjacking life, demonstrating the amount of research she did to convey the details of daily life and conditions experienced by the workers and their families. In addition, this graphic novel highlights the art of storytelling and how each story can be shaped or reimagined by the experiences of the teller and the listener.

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Interior spread from The Legend of Auntie Po written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor, Kokila ©2021

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As the story concludes, Mei and her father decide it’s time for her to go away to school. Mei has also resolved some of her identity issues: 

 

 “I know who I am. I am a good cook.  I have good friends, I have the best pa in the world” (p. 272).

 

The author’s endnote and her bibliography contain valuable information, as does her video on how this book came about for anyone who wants to learn more about the legends and history behind this engaging graphic novel. This is truly the middle-grade at its finest.

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Cookbooks for Kids – Plant, Cook, Eat!: A Children’s Cookbook

PLANT, COOK, EAT!: A Children’s Cookbook

by Joe Archer and Caroline Craig

(Charlesbridge; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

 

Plant Cook Eat! cover

 

 

Starred Review – Kirkus 

 

Joe Archer and Caroline Craig’s middle-grade Plant, Cook, Eat!: A Children’s Cookbook covers food from seed to table with easy-to-understand text and full-color photos or images throughout. The helpful introduction includes information about plants: what parts we eat, how they reproduce, and how we can help them grow with the right amount of warmth, light, nutrients, and water. Learn what healthy soil and compost consist of, then how to choose and prepare an ideal location for your garden. Before long, you’re ready to harvest, eat, and cook.

 

Plant Cook Eat! int1
Interior spread from Plant, Cook, Eat!: A Children’s Cookbook by Joe Archer and Caroline Craig, Charlesbridge ©2021.

 

Whether it’s tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, or peas, you’ll find an accompanying recipe where that food shines as a star ingredient. Snip some young zucchini then make crunchy Zucchini and Polenta Fries, or dig up those beautiful beets for an indulgent Chocolate Beet Cake.

 

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Interior spread from Plant, Cook, Eat!: A Children’s Cookbook by Joe Archer and Caroline Craig, Charlesbridge ©2021.

 

I like how cookbooks provide recipes to take us beyond our usual fare. This book, however, goes steps beyond by inspiring us to grow vegetables, maybe for the first time. We transformed our abundant crop of Swiss chard into Chard-Noodle Stir-Fry; our towering kale became Kale Pesto Pasta—an appreciated change from the usual basil-dominant pesto.

 

 

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Interior spread from Plant, Cook, Eat!: A Children’s Cookbook by Joe Archer and Caroline Craig, Charlesbridge ©2021.

 

Kids will enjoy the rewarding experience of eating what they’ve grown whether directly from the plant or in a delicious recipe. One of my favorite facts was that cranberry beans are cultivated for their dried seeds; they’re ready to harvest when you give the pods a shake and the beans rattle inside. We’re planting that next!

 

Joe Archer, co-author

Joe Archer works at Kew Gardens as Head Horticulturalist in the kitchen garden and has appeared on BBC in the Kew on a Plate television program with Raymond Blanc. He lives in England.

Caroline Craig, co-author

Caroline Craig is a food writer from London and the author of The Little Book of Lunch adult cookbook (Regan Arts) and The Cornershop Cookbook (Random House UK). She’s also a columnist for Guardian Cook. She lives in England.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review of Turtle in Paradise – The Graphic Novel

 

TURTLE IN PARADISE:

The Graphic Novel

Written by Jennifer L. Holm

Illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau

Colors by Lark Penn

(RH Graphic; HC $20.99, Paperback $12.99, Ages 8-12)

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Starred Review – School Library Journal

An excellent way to introduce middle-grade readers to Holm’s Newbery Honor book of family, friendship, and home.

 

In 1935, eleven-year-old Turtle is sent to Key West, Florida to live with relatives she’s never known in the graphic novel adaptation of Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm and Savanna Ganucheau. Turtle’s single mother, Sadiemae works as a maid for a New Jersey woman who does not want children underfoot. Turtle, protected by the hard shell for which she’s named, is also protective of her flighty mom and worried about being separated from her. 

Over the summer, she hangs out with her cousins and their friends who are part of the boys only “Diaper (babysitting) Club” (they “wurk” for candy) and spends the summer helping them and her Aunt Minnie while meeting the neighbors, fisherman, and rum runners, who speak about a long lost pirate treasure. Hoping to earn money to help her mother purchase a home, she persuades the others in the Diaper Club to search for the treasure. They find the treasure on one of the uninhabited keys but are marooned there for two days during a hurricane. Happily, they are rescued and Turtle is reunited with her mom. 

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Interior illustrations from Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel written by Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau, Random House Graphic ©2021.

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Holm’s graphic novel adaptation of her novel doesn’t lose any of the story’s warmth, humor, and dramatic moments. Told from Turtle’s point of view, the graphic novel conveys her gradual emergence from her shell as a caring and plucky girl. As in the novel, family secrets, such as her father’s identity, rise to the surface. Turtle figures out things out on her own, realizing that the answers may not be so important: “… not all kids are rotten … and there are grown-ups who are as sweet as Necco Wafers. And if you’re lucky, some of them may even end up being your family.”

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Turtle in Paradise Page 10
Interior illustrations from Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel written by Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau, Random House Graphic ©2021.

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Some minor characters from the novel have been left out (including “Papa” Hemingway) and some aspects of characters are not as deeply developed, such as Aunt Minnie’s true kindly nature. Nevertheless, Savanna Ganucheau (Lumberjanes) captures each character’s nature and circumstances in facial expressions, body language, and actions. Ganucheau’s portrayals of the wisecracking cousin Beans, the overworked Aunt Minnie, and the friendly fisherman Slow Poke (who once loved Sadiemae!) are perfect. The period and the locale of Key West were well researched by both Holms and Ganucheau and that is reflected in both the narrative and the art. Think Necco wafers, sugar apple ice cream (cones are a nickel), Shirley Temple and Little Orphan Annie, the streets of Key West, and the very real 1935 hurricane that stranded Turtle and the Diaper Club and wreaked so much destruction on an area already suffering from economic depression. 

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Turtle in Paradise Page 14
Interior illustrations from Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel written by Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau, Random House Graphic ©2021.

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Back matter includes a note from the author which details her family connection to this story as well as some of the historical background. Also included is a fascinating note from Savanna Ganucheau about the artwork (find out more about what went into the artwork here).

Random House Teachers and Educators has a lovely educator guide with information about the book and art here

This graphic novel adaptation can stand by itself or act as a perfect introduction to the novel for middle graders. It should draw in potential readers who will be well prepared for more nuanced character development and a more complex narrative. 

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

 

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Middle Grade Non-fiction – A Curious Kid’s Guide to the Awesome 50 States

A CURIOUS KID’S GUIDE TO THE AWESOME 50 STATES

by Dinah Williams

(Shelter Harbor Press; $19.99. Ages 8 and up)

 

 

Awesome50states cover

 

 

We are all overdue to pile into the car and get out of the house, and what better book to pack in your suitcase than editor and children’s book author Dinah Williams’ book A Curious Kids Guide to the Awesome 50 States? This cool compendium for kids with curious minds provides more than 1,200 quirky, fun facts about all our states for this summer’s cross-country trips or armchair traveling.

Williams’ colorful, hard-cover book, filled with photos of unique foods, natural wonders, and awesome animals, opens to the map of America’s 50 states and closes with facts about Washington D.C., America Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. Remembering the days of assisting my kids in memorizing the capitals of each state, I was drawn to the layout of the map with stars indicating the name of the capitals. Looking up Georgia, kids find the abbreviation (GA)—a good thing to learn—numbered points of interest, a banner stating The Peach State, and a star next to Atlanta. The Weirdest Roadside Attraction? The world’s largest peanut in Ashburn. And the spookiest spot in the state? Savannah’s Colonial Park Cemetary for those of you looking for a good haunt!

 

TheAwesome50States intspread Indiana
Interior spread from A Curious Kid’s Guide to The Awesome 50 States written by Dinah Williams, Shelter Harbor Press ©2021.

 

The intro lists the states alphabetically to help readers randomly search for a state they may be most interested to learn more about or a state they plan to visit. It’s also a fabulous tool for learning about the state you reside in. With that in mind, I started with California since that is the state I call home. It features a drawing of a brown bear and the Golden Gate Bridge, along with the names of the cities throughout the state, and main highways.

When randomly turning to states I have visited, and states I wish to one day see, I liked how Williams explains, for example, that the Natural Wonder of Kentucky is Mammoth Cave National Park, “site of the world’s longest cave, with 400 miles explored to date.” I then turned to Louisiana, eager to find about the Bayou state and under the Awesome Animal section for that state I read, “Louisiana has the most wild alligators in the country, about two million, with the highest population in coastal marshes.”

 

TheAwesome50States intspread_Texas
Interior spread from A Curious Kid’s Guide to The Awesome 50 States written by Dinah Williams, Shelter Harbor Press ©2021.

 

Each state features a Unique State Food, Spookiest Spot, Horrifying History Site, Thrilling Rides, Funniest Town name, and Weirdest Roadside Attraction. I also liked that a bottom strip includes “Other Stuff to Know” giving extra tidbits, such as in Missouri at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, visitors got their first taste of cotton candy, known as “fairy floss.”

In the “Where in the US?” section, a yellow box in the right-hand corner shows a map where I learned that at 570,641 square miles of land, Alaska is the biggest state in America, bigger than the combined area of the 22 smallest states. And when turning to Hawaii, we are told that this state can fit into Alaska 89 times, and Iowa can fit into Alaska 10 times.

 

TheAwesome50States intspread Maine
Interior spread from A Curious Kid’s Guide to The Awesome 50 States written by Dinah Williams, Shelter Harbor Press ©2021.

 

I enjoyed learning what foods I should order the next time I am in Maine, which will be the Delicious Dessert Whoopie Pie, and it brought back memories of eating the Unique State Food of Lobster Roll. The blueberry muffins were amazing too!

And I have to mention the Bad Joke of every state which really made me giggle. Here goes: Which State Has The Most Pirates? ArrrrrrKansas.  Oh and one other: Why are New Hampshire stonemasons so sad? Their work is taken for granite. LOL!

This book got me excited to return to travel, and I know kids and parents will enjoy the fun facts as well as ideas for the best thrilling ride to lose your breath over. That would be the Soaring Eagle Zipline in South Dakota. Teachers will also enjoy turning this book into a fun game of Did you know? Okay, one last joke: How do you measure a Texas rattlesnake? In inches, because they don’t have any feet. Wishing you happy, humor-filled travels!

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Click here to see more of what’s on offer from Shelter Harbor Press.

 

 

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Journey Beyond the Burrow

IT’S A TWO-WEEK COUNTDOWN

UNTIL THE PUBLICATION OF …

JOURNEY BEYOND THE BURROW

Written by Rina Heisel

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

 

 

Journey Beyond the Burrow cover

 

 

A JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD GOLD STANDARD SELECTION!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Preorder from Red Balloon for signing copy, bookmark, & sticker: https://bit.ly/JBTB-RB
Twitter: @rinaheisel
Instagram: Rina.Heisel
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Middle Grade Book Review – Kingston and The Magician’s Lost and Found

KINGSTON AND THE MAGICIAN’S LOST AND FOUND

By Rucker Moses and Theo Gangi

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $17.99, Ages 10+)

 

 

KingstonandtheMagician'sLostandFound cvr

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

This middle-grade book interested me because there are two authors and I find cowriting interesting—but, wait!, one of the co-authors is a pen name for two people writing together making Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Found a collaboration of three writers! (To read more about that, check out their interview on SCBWI’s Kite Tales blog in a link below.) Yet, the story reads seamlessly—what a feat!

Twelve-year-old Kingston hasn’t been back to Echo City, Brooklyn, since his father, one of the world’s greatest magicians, disappeared while performing onstage four years ago. A lot has changed in his old neighborhood, yet Kingston reconnects with his cousin Veronica and childhood friend now known as Too Tall Eddie. Kingston’s mother steers clear magic, yet, his uncles don’t seem to have given it up. What happened to Kingston’s father and whether or not magic truly exists fuels the three kids who follow a series of clues, intent on discovering the truth.

This layered plot cleverly weaves in real nineteenth- and twentieth-century Black magicians to make the story feel believable, an aspect I really enjoyed. I’m also a fan of alternative reality books when they’re done well as in this story. Add in humor, friendship, family, and a fast-paced mystery and you’ll see why this book’s hard to put down. Sign me up for the sequel and conclusion, due out this fall.

Visit the website of Rucker Moses here.

Visit the website of Theo Gangi here.

 

 

https://scbwikitetales.wordpress.com/2021/03/31/interview-with-author-rucker-moses/

 

Read a review of another recommended middle-grade novel by Christine here.

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A review of The Magical Imperfect and an Interview with Author Chris Baron

THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT

by Chris Baron

(Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 9-12)

 

A Book Review, and Interview with Author Chris Baron

by Karol Silverstein

 

 

MagicalImperfect_CVR

 

Starred Review – Booklist

 

REVIEW:

In The Magical Imperfect, Etan has had trouble speaking since his mother checked into a hospital to get well, and his friends at school don’t know what to make of his silence. Baseball is about the only thing he can share with his father, but luckily, 1989 is looking like a good year for their Giants. Spending time with his immigrant grandfather, a shopkeeper in the local village, is much easier for Etan. Though his family is Jewish, their small hometown north of San Francisco is home to many refugees from various countries, so he’s exposed to many different cultures.

On an errand to deliver items for one of his grandfather’s fellow shopkeepers, Etan meets Malia, a girl who has severe eczema and began being homeschooled when the bullying at the local school became too much. These two outcast kids have an instant connection and build a moving friendship. Etan’s grandfather has a small supply of clay from “the old country,” which is supposed to have curative properties. Could the clay possibly cure Malia’s eczema? Etan wonders. Malia has tried many medicines and “cures” and is more interested in connecting with and learning from the nature that surrounds her, particularly the trees. Malia also dreams of singing in the town’s talent contest—unthinkable before she met Etan. As the talent show—and the World Series—draw closer, Malia practices her performance with Etan’s encouragement and Etan secures some of his grandfather’s “magic clay,” hoping it will help a particularly bad eczema outbreak Malia is experiencing. If only the scary tremors would let up…

As was the case in author Chris Baron’s 2019 debut All Of Me, the gentle unfolding of character and emotion through evocative verse is again on full display in The Magical Imperfect. The juxtaposition of Etan and Malia’s small tremors of growth with San Francisco’s devastating 1989 earthquake provides a potent metaphor for how life can shake you up but not necessarily knock you down. I worried a little that this book might delve into “magical cure/disability that needs to be fixed” territory that hampers many books with disabled and/or chronically ill characters and can actually be harmful to that community. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Etan’s clay isn’t really the magic fix he’d hoped for, and I believe both kids come to realize that acceptance and small victories are, in the end, what matter most.

Ultimately, the intertwined themes of love, culture, baseball and just a touch of magic . . . or is it faith? . . . make this a wonderful and wonder-filled read.

 

INTERVIEW:

Karol Silverstein: The Magical Imperfect is set around the time of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. How and at what point in the writing process did you decide on that time period? What led to this decision?

Chris Baron: This is a great question with a very twisty-turny answer. Let me see if I can straighten it out enough. Just like in All of Me, this book takes place in the Bay Area, where I went to middle school. This place is just a part of me. The setting lives in my heart—from the ocean to the redwoods and beyond.  I’d experienced earthquakes before, but somehow this one, in the middle of the World Series seemed to disrupt life in such an unpredictable and deep way. This story is all about the ways in which life is disrupted for the people in the story in unexpected ways by things that are beyond their control. Something as a big as an earthquake is terrifying, but it also has a chance to bring people together.

 

Karol: Baseball, music, food, and cultural traditions are wonderfully intertwined in your book. Can you talk about how you worked with these themes to tell Etan’s story?

Chris: Intertwined is actually a beautiful word for this. I think all of these things are intertwined in the story. When we hear a song, we feel the beat and hum the melody. We can remember the words no matter how long it’s been. Not only that, if the song has a special meaning to us, the music and the lyrics come together to fuel the memories that bind us together. I think it’s the same with cultural and sacred traditions, (which of course include food). The traditions, the tastes, the people—they become intertwined in who we are. They connect us. Even though Etan and Malia are from different cultures, and even though traditions might look different, they find that their values are actually intertwined.

As for baseball: Baseball is its own tradition—a symbol, an activity played at every level, and just a very fun game. For so many of us, baseball represents normal life, but it’s powerful enough to bring so many kinds of people together. For Etan, baseball is one of the only ways he can connect with his father. When things get tough, they at least can talk about baseball.

In 1989, when a unifying tradition like the world series was shaken by an earthquake, it caused many of us to feel scared and uneasy, but the quake also brought many people together. I tried to weave that into the backdrop of the story. There is so much news coverage from that day, and it’s fascinating to watch. I wanted to explore what it would be like for this close-knit town to experience this event together. I also have to confess that writing poetry about the earthquake was all-consuming. I think I wrote one hundred pages of “moments’ from the quake, but of course only a few made it into the book.

 

Karol: Both Etan and Malia have health conditions. What drew you to create characters with selective mutism and eczema, respectively? If you don’t have personal experience with these conditions, what type of research did you do?

Chris: Great question. I have the deepest respect and empathy for those of us who live with these health conditions. Both selective mutism and eczema are extremely complex.

I wrote about the life of an artist’s family quite a bit in All of Me. But there was one behavior that Ari didn’t express that Etan does in The Magical Imperfect. In the book, Etan stops speaking when his mother has to leave because of her severe depression. He didn’t choose it. His anxiety came on suddenly, and like most kids his age (and especially in 1989), he doesn’t know how to recognize it. In Etan, I am writing a character I know well—someone who suffers from anxiety. Because my mom is an artist, we moved all the time. Whenever I moved to a new town, a new state, a new school, I may have seemed calm on the outside, but inside of me was a storm of emotions: There was always joy and excitement of moving to a new place, new friends, new adventures, but of course it was all mixed together with the brutal pain of being taken out of one life (routine, friendships, and environment), and then suddenly dropped into another. I suffered from anxiety. I didn’t know how I would fit. For a kid, it can be a complete loss of control. Often, the way I reacted to this loss of control was to find something I could control. It was sometimes eating, but it was also something quieter. I found myself often unable to speak, so I embraced that. I stopped talking at school. I was quiet. I kept all my words to myself. Eventually, I found friends and teachers I could trust who helped me through it, and slowly the words came out.

Eczema is very complicated. Most people have rashes that itch, but as my wife Ella deCastro Baron explains it, she has itches that rash. Ella has had extreme eczema off and on her whole life. Her memoir, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment (2012) is all about a life lived with eczema. When we first got married, she had eczema that ravaged her body from head to toe. The triggering effects of the condition caused so many secondary problems: depression, insomnia, isolation, and hopelessness. If you know Ella, then you know that she is a luminous, hilarious person full of life. Watching her deal with chronic bouts of eczema has been some of the hardest parts of our life together (and still are at times). In The Magical Imperfect, Malia experiences a similar bout of eczema. It’s so bad that she is isolated from school because of the way other kids treat her and because of her own discomfort.

The healing process for both of these conditions is not simple magic. In each case, it’s a complex journey, but the hope itself leads to moments of magic that provide joy and healing from the most unexpected places.  That’s a big part of what I explored in the book.

I also want to note. Even though these conditions are integrated into my own life, I did more research than I expected. I know that these conditions vary from person to person, so I talked to many. I interviewed doctor friends about both subjects, and a few others who have firsthand experiences with these conditions. I also read Christina Collins’s stunning book, After Zero which I highly recommend.

 

Karol: The “magic” in your book is very much left up to your readers’ interpretation. Can you discuss what role you feel magic plays in helping Etan and Malia get to a better place emotionally by story’s end?

Chris: I know one thing I hope readers don’t take away—the idea that magic is some sort of cure for everything. Without too many spoilers, I would say that the magic in the story connects the many worlds of the characters. There is ancient magic from the worlds more connected to Etan’s grandfather and the other immigrants in town, but also hidden everywhere. This is the part I had the most fun writing. I think the magic is crucial for Etan and Malia—not because it cures things—but because it provides hope and makes it tangible in their everyday lives. The story is rooted in the idea that magic is all around us—that if we might only stop and listen—pay attention—we will see and hear the trees, or discover the ancient things living right beside us.

But also—I love trees—and I know that they are made of magic.

 

AUTHOR BIO:

Chris Baron is the author of the middle-grade novels in verse, ALL OF ME and THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT (2021) from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, a Junior Library Guild Selection. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center. Learn more about him on Twitter: @baronchrisbaron, Instagram: @christhebearbaron, Facebook:  Chris Baron – Author, Poet, Educator, and on www.chris-baron.com.
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WHERE TO BUY THE BOOK:

Click here to purchase from Run For Cover Bookstore
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Click here to purchase from Mysterious Galaxy

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Happily For Now

 

HAPPILY FOR NOW

Written by Kelly Jones

Illustrated by Kelly Murphy

(Knopf Books for Young Readers; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

Happily For Now book cover

 

 

Happily for Now written by Kelly Jones and illustrated by Kelly Murphy follows Fiona who is sent away for the summer to live with relatives she’s never met because her mother is entering a treatment program for an unspecified addiction. In addition to her mother, Fiona is leaving behind Ms. Davis, who is like a guidance counselor to her (although the text doesn’t state that) but whom Fiona describes as her fairy godmother and whom she wants to emulate. Throughout the summer, she will be able to speak with Mr. Rivera who will also be able to help her with anything she might want to discuss.

Although the storyline involves Fiona’s addicted mother, this is not the main plot of the book and the focus is really on how Fiona tries to lend an eager hand to her quirky extended family, making this middle-grade novel a more light-hearted read.

With the help of her new friend Julia, Mr. Rivera’s daughter, Fiona sets out in her new town to try to help her relatives with their problems, or rather, try to help them help themselves, like any good fairy godmother (although she prefers the term fairy godperson because she is not a mother) who grants wishes might do, since she doesn’t want to just sit around being a princess. Her Aunt Becky’s bakery hardly has any customers because she keeps baking the same boring desserts she’s always made. Her great-uncle Timothy hardly ever speaks but has a secret talent and her great-aunt Alta is all doom and gloom. Can Fiona help them? And if she cannot get her happily ever after, can she at least get happily for now? She’s sure going to try.

Text is interspersed with emails between Fiona and her mother and between Fiona and Ms. Davis, which readers will enjoy, as the story progresses through these exchanges. I eagerly looked forward to reading these email conversations which provided updates on how Fiona’s mother was faring in her treatment program, as well as further guidance from Ms. Davis on Fiona’s fairy godperson training. Fiona, is at times both childlike, as she discusses fairy tales, witches, and the like, and like an adult, as she deals with her mother’s addiction and has to convince her to stay with her treatment program when she wants to leave early. Fiona easily makes us care about her and all the people in her life so that we enjoy spending time with her and want to see her have a happy ending.

Murphy’s black-and-white illustrations are a welcome addition to the pages, adding a lightness to Happily for Now and its tough subject matter. I do think it’s important since it’s not mentioned on the book jacket, for parents and young readers to be aware that, despite the lightness of this story, addiction is still included. However, young people who are living with a parent who is struggling with any sort of addiction or other illness will take comfort in reading such a thoughtfully crafted and thoroughly engaging book in which the protagonist is dealing positively with similar circumstances as they are.

  •  Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
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Six Kids Books for National Poetry Month

CELEBRATE NATIONAL POETRY MONTH

WITH THESE GREAT KIDS BOOKS

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

A Kirkus Reviews Best Book
An NCTE Notable Poetry Book

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

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

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

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

Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year

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

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

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

 

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

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

Starred Review – Kirkus

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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Middle Grade Novel – The Sisters of Straygarden Place

 

THE SISTERS OF STRAYGARDEN PLACE

Written by Hayley Chewins

(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 10-14)

 

The Sisters of Straygarden Place cvr

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

 

I love books that don’t fit into a mold, where you can’t guess what comes next. Hayley Chewins’s The Sisters of Straygarden Place fulfills those things, plus it’s beautifully written.

This middle-grade novel stands alone—in an amazing house that cares for three seemingly trapped sisters, Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine. Years ago, their parents left the girls this note, “Wait for us. Sleep darkly.” Outside, the house is surrounded by silver grass seeking opportunities to slither in—and it talks!

How have the stranded sisters gotten by? We learn in the opening line, “The house dressed Mayhap Ballastian in blue on the day her sister disappeared.” What a great way to start the story! I don’t want to reveal all the crazy-wonderful things, but have to share my favorite: the droomhunds, loyal doglike creatures. Since the sisters are unable to sleep (I can’t tell you why), each hund “could press itself into the tight space of a person’s mind.” Brushing them first helps because “the softer the droomhunds’ fur was, the more restful the girls’ sleep would be.” Cool stuff, right?

When fourteen-year-old Winnow, the eldest sister, leaves the house, problems arise. Upon her return, Mayhap (twelve-year-old middle sister and main character) questions the rift between them. However, Winnow falls into a troubled sleep, her eyes turning silver, her droomhund missing. Plot twists ensue.

Chewins’s writing is too lovely to rush reading through. This imaginative literary fantasy seeped in strangeness is also very much a siblings story. The relationship between the girls feels truthful and honest, even when set in such an unusual world.

 

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