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.
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 Founda 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.
A Book Review, and Interview with Author Chris Baron
by Karol Silverstein
★Starred Review – Booklist
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.
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’sstunning book, After Zerowhich 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.
(Knopf Books for Young Readers; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
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.
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!
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 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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
In The Elephant in the Room, when middle-schooler, Sila Tekin’s mother is stuck in Turkey trying to get her immigration paperwork in order, the loneliness is almost unbearable for her and her father, Alp. Sila’s newly withdrawn demeanor prompts her school to pair her with autistic classmate Mateo Lopez in a special program that has the kids spending time together at the end of each school day. The point is to help both kids socialize more and, after a slow, silent start, they eventually begin getting to know each other.
Life changes dramatically for Sila and Mateo when Alp is hired to fix an old truck owned by widower, Gio, who lives on a non-working farm on the outskirts of town. Sila and Gio seem to form an immediate bond, even before they discover that Gio’s late wife was Sila’s beloved second-grade teacher. When an odd string of coincidences leads to Gio rescuing a young elephant named Veda from a failing circus, Sila and Mateo wind up with the most awesome summer job ever—caring for Veda. Sila connects to the young pachyderm on a deep level, realizing that, like her, Veda must really miss her mother. A reunion of either mother-daughter pair feels out of reach, but with a team of caring friends—maybe it’s not.
Author Holly Goldberg Sloan has another deeply heartfelt hit on her hands. Again employing the multi-POV device she uses so brilliantly, she lets readers see and feel the unfolding of these extraordinary events through various characters’ eyes. Veda’s POV is used sparingly but impactfully, and even the supporting animal characters—a flock of undisciplined flamingos, a ravenous bear, and a loyal dog—whose POVs we’re not privy to, are well-drawn, quirky, and fun.
Both kids are battling quiet storms within, which makes them interesting and empathetic. Gio is wonderfully complex. His desire to rediscover meaning in life, coupled with voluminous lottery winnings, propel him to take on caring for Veda, somehow feeling it’s something he has to do. His connection with Sila seems similarly fated, and their special bond serves as the glue for all of the characters. A story of hope, longing, love, and action, The Elephant in the Room will show middle-grade readers that things—people, animals, situations—are not always what they seem and that they’re not always as powerless over circumstances as they sometimes feel.
In The Great Pet Heist, when elderly Mrs. Food slips on some dog barf and ends up too injured to return possibly ever, her pets must fend for themselves. Walt (don’t call me Lucretia) is an Oriental shorthair and the sly female lead. Her sidekick is lovable but slow at times Butterbean, a male long-haired wiener dog, whose claim to fame is his nostril-probe lick. The main crew is comprised of Oscar the smart mynah bird, and the amiable rats Marco and Polo. e
A girl from their building named Madison comes by to take care of the basics, but the pets know it’s hasta la vista soon. Their situation seems dire until they stumble upon a possible criminal in their building who may have enough gold coins to give the animals riches to care for themselves. Once the heist is launched, a series of funny antics will keep you wondering whether these characters will succeed, or if it’s off to the pound.
Throughout, Dave Mottram’s art is beautifully done, adding another layer of humor to Ecton’s story. Though Walt was my favorite character, I fell for Chad the octopus once I saw him rising out of toilet bowls and tripping up the villain. Take a close look at the image next to the title page of The Great Pet Heist to find Chad.
In book one, Twinchantment, identical twins Flissa and Sara must act as one person (Princess Flissara) to escape the Kingdom of Kaloon’s Magic Eradication Act which cites twinhood as reason for removal and re-homing. Book two, UnTwistedby Elise Allen, picks up on Ascension Day as the girls officially take their individual places in line for the throne. However, the new Magical Unification Act hasn’t been a simple fix for harmonious living. A top priority in the Kaloonification was bringing together the Mages, Genpos (people without magic from the general population), and Magical Animals at a school called the Maldevon Academy. However, cooperation between the groups is easier said than done, and someone is out to destroy the unity.
Favorite characters of mine from book one continue in UnTwisted: Galric and his adorable black kitten Nitpick, evil lioness Raya, and Loriah—who I’m happy to see has a bigger role. New characters like Zinka enliven the story. Plot misdirection keeps the twins searching for who’s behind the escalating ripples of unrest while they also navigate newfound friendships and how to fit in at school.
Chapters once again alternate viewpoints between Flissa and Sara. Allen successfully extends character development across both books. In UnTwisted, the girls’ individualities take center stage and their sisterly bond fractures. I like how the books show Kaloon progressing from the Magic Eradication Act to the Magical Unification Act, and the problems of both all-or-nothing edicts.
This series will appeal to kids who like books about adventure, magic, and relationships. The delightful Twinchantment novels combine high-stakes action with relatable, dimensional tween issues. It feels there’s more to come from these dynamic twins.
This seven-book roundup covers wickedly wonderful Halloween season reads. From a gentle book about the fall season to spooky ghouls, goblin-witches, ghosts, vampires, a witch’s hut, and a haunted house, we’ve got you covered.
With whimsical art in blacks, whites, and grays offset with oranges and foil accents, The Little Kittenembodies the spirit of autumn. Leaves blow across the pages, bringing movement that propels Ollie on her adventure. As promised by the title, there is a little kitten, but also Ollie’s cat, Pumpkin. Nicola Killen’s art and storyline
beautifully convey the playful, loving spirit of this book. It’s a pleasure to see a gentle story that’s engaging and fulfilling—it even has a surprise ending, shh!
I’m a sucker for a great book title and just had to read Marcus Ewert’s She Wanted to Be Haunted—plus, what a great idea! As promised, Clarissa, an “adorable and pink” cottage finds herself disappointed with her appearance. Her father is a castle and her mother a witch’s hut, but Clarissa got the short end of the broomstick with her undeniable cuteness. “Daisies grew around her, / squirrels scampered on her lawn. / Life was just delightful! / —and it made Clarissa yawn.”
What kid hasn’t felt bored when things were mellow and nice? Susie Ghahremani’s hand-painted artwork brings Clarissa to life in (dreaded!) upbeat colors. Inside, on Clarissa’s fuchsia, wallpapered walls, we sneak a peek at her family’s photos and, yes, she’s surely the oddball of the bunch. My favorite scenes involve the surprise ending. If you want to know if Clarissa’s attempts to gloom-down her appearance work, you’ll have to read the book. Trust me, the ending is awesome! Click here for a coloring page.
Scritch Scratch—the title of this middle-grade novel by Lindsay Currie will get under your skin as all good spooky books should. Because, of course, this sound is made by the ghost haunting Claire. Prior to this, science-minded Claire absolutely did not believe in ghosts and found her Dad’s ghost-themed bus tour and book embarrassing. So why did this ghost choose her? Claire’s too afraid to sleep and should have plenty of time to solve this mystery. However, since her BFF’s hanging around with the new girl, Claire may need to figure it out alone.
I’ve never been on a haunted bus tour, but, after reading this book I want to if they’re all as interesting as the one in this story. “Forgotten” facts about Chicago are cleverly woven in—what a great way to sneak in a history lesson! Click here for a discussion guide.
This book opens with a warning from the Embassy that “[b]y signing, you hereby accept all responsibility for any death, dismemberment, or condemnation to the Eternal Void that results from reading.” How irresistible! When Jake Green receives a kind of creepy package in error, a fun adventure ensues dodging bonewulfs and their master Mawkins (a grim reaper). Accompanied by ghosts Stiffkey, Cora, and, an adorable fox named Zorro, the unlikely group tries to avoid being sent into the Eternal Void—a fate worse than death.
Will Mabbitt’s well-developed characters are very likable and Taryn Knight’s art plays up the humor. I appreciate the Embassy of the Dead’snew ideas about ghosts and their companions such as Undoers (someone who helps a ghost trapped on the Earthly Plane move on to the Afterworld). Mabbitt nails a perfectly written ending. I’ll gladly follow Jake and his friends onto the next book in the series. Click here to read a sample chapter.
Fans of the beautifully made Ologies series won’t be disappointed in the latest addition, Ghostology. Packed full of stories, this book will keep you haunting its pages because there’s so much information from psychics and mediums, to fakes and frauds. Want to know what’s in a ghostologist’s field kit (sketchbook, accurate timepiece, and, of course, a ghost-detecting device, just to name a few items), or how to hunt ghosts? You’ve come to the right place. Pay attention to the “Types of Ghosts” chapters.
Beyond reading, the book is a sensory experience with its sealed pages, official documents envelope, flaps, and textures. If there’s such a thing as a coffee table kid’s book, this is it. The icy blue color scheme of the cover is offset by a large faceted red “gem.” Raised letters just beg you to run your hand over them and invite you to look inside. The thought and detail in this book are phantom-astic!
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
In Aliza Layne’s middle-grade graphic novel, Beetle & the Hollowbones, Beetle is a twelve-year-old goblin-witch being homeschooled by her gran. Beetle, however, would rather hang out with her current BFF Blob Ghost at the old mall (where they are inexplicably trapped). When Beetle’s previous BFF, Kat Hollowbones, returns home after completing her sorcery apprenticeship at a fast-track school, their friendship isn’t the same. Kat’s aunt Marla is the wonderfully drawn skeletal antagonist.
With well-developed characters and plenty of action, this fast-paced book will bewitch you. The struggles of moving through school and friendships falling apart are accurately depicted. The panels, grouped into chapters, capture your attention with their fantastic illustrations, engaging colors, and lively text. I like how Layne includes some concept art at the end, inspiring other artists with a behind-the-scenes peek.
Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite is a YA short story anthology with the goal to “expand on and reinvent traditional tellings.” How awesome is that?? Editrixes Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Porter’s story, “Vampires Never Say Die,” is a suspenseful, modern tale about a teen and vampire who meet online. They also provide the introduction and insightful commentary after each piece, delving into the many areas of the vampire myth. There are so many wonderful things in this collection; I’ll give you a few nibbles to whet your appetite.
“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is set in a near dystopian future; Jude works at the zoo and has a special connection with animals. This story stood out for me because the reader must piece together the truth. It’s quite a different twist on thirst and the theft of blood and humanity.
“Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton opens with the line, “Esmael told me that teenage girls make the best vampires” (because they’re “both highly pissed and highly adaptable, and that’s what it takes to survive the centuries”). We follow Esmael’s chosen girl through a week of uncertainty as she considers joining the undead. This cleverly layered story demands to be reread to truly appreciate Gratton’s well-crafted words.
Weaving in old superstitions, “The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig expands upon the Victorian tradition of burying their loved ones with a bell (allowing them to call for help if mistakenly buried alive). Set at the turn of the century, Will is a graverobber for all the right reasons—he wants to become a doctor, and “acquiring” freshly buried bodies allows him to trade for a spot at the back of the amphitheater where dissections take place. With only a few glimpses at Will’s thoughts, we find out volumes about his struggles.
This anthology breathes life into the short story and lets readers appreciate the many perspectives and styles from a very talented array of writers. My favorites tend to have unexpected endings. There’s something for everyone. Just read it already!
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS FROM RONNA e IT’S HALLOWEEN, LITTLE MONSTER Written by Helen Ketteman Illustrated by Bonnie Leick (Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7) e When I began reading It’s Halloween, Little Monster, one of the Little Monster series of picture books, I thought I was reading about the first time I took my son out trick-or-treating 15 years ago. All he had to do was see one or two kids in scary costumes and he hightailed it home before anyone could say boo! I’m so glad Helen Ketteman wrote this picture book because I’m sure it’s going to help make the first Halloween experience for reluctant little ones a lot easier.
In this gentle rhyming story, Little Monster heads out for Halloween accompanied by his dad. The reassuring presence of a parent sets the tone. Dad will be right there to calm Little Monster’s fears no matter who or what they encounter. “Don’t fret Little Monster. / See there in the street? / That’s not really a ghost— / it’s a kid in a sheet!” e Together the pair see all kinds of spooky creatures while trick-or-treating, but the dad anticipates what might frighten his child and is always one step ahead. I like how the papa monster not only comments on assorted pirates, witches, and vampires but scary sounds, too. Leick’s muted blue and purple toned palette of the detailed illustrations will only add to the enjoyment of this charming Halloween read. It’s an enjoyable pairing of prose and art. By the time the surprise ending happens, Little Monster’s smiling just like the children having this story read to them. e e
OTHER RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN SEASON READS: e CHRISTOPHER PUMPKIN by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet with art by Nick East (Board Book for Ages 0-3, Little Brown BYR) e THAT MONSTER ON THE BLOCKby Sue Ganz-Schmitt with art by Luke Flowers (Picture Book Ages 4-8, Two Lions) e THE REVENGE OF THE WEREPENGUINby Allan Woodrow with art by Scott Brown (Middle Grade illustrated novel for Ages 8-12, Viking BYR)
Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks! e Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/26/20
Today we’re happy to be heading out into the woods.
So put on some shoes and grab a sweater.
Then feast your eyes on this beautiful cover!
JOURNEY BEYOND THE BURROW
Written by Rina Heisel
•Coming July 13, 2021•
To survive in the deep woods, a mouse needs to know a thing or two. That’s why Tobin knows the Rules of Rodentia like the back of his paw. Trust scent before sight. Avoid predictable paths. Always do what’s best for the Great Burrow.
As long as he can remember, the Rules have kept Tobin, his family, and all the mice of the Great Burrow safe. Or, as safe as mice can be. Things do happen. Like the night a powerful thunderstorm knocks down a tree, creating a bridge over a nearby creek. The tree-bridge becomes a path for a new predator: one with eight legs, a voracious appetite, and a mission. No one is prepared as a pair of the monstrous arachnids march upon the Great Burrow. Hiding in a tiny alcove, Tobin watches as the spiders trudge through the tunnels and then scuttle away…with his brand-new baby brother in tow.
The Rules of Rodentia say never follow a predator. Never cross the creek. Never trust a non-rodent, let alone team up with one. Ever. But in the face of this new threat, Tobin will have to journey beyond the burrow and stretch the boundaries of the Rules if he wants to save his newborn brother.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rina Heisel has written the scripts for many natural science-themed documentaries and magazine segments, a few of which have links on her website,rinaheisel.com. She is also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. After eleven years producing educational television programs for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Rina found she especially enjoyed writing segments centering on natural sciences. She found lots of inspiration in the animals she filmed, feeling as if she was getting a sneak peek into their secret worlds.
“The cover is just so epic and enthralling. Paul made the most of every inch of cover space. Every toadstool, creature, the colors … everything is tied to the story. It’s amazing. Even his early sketches brought tears to my eyes because he captured the mood and urgency so strongly. He gave my characters souls and personality, and I could not be happier.”
RONNA’S REACTION TO THE COVER:
I couldn’t take my eyes off of this gorgeous cover. It glows and immediately pulls your attention onto the mice. Then the hawk swooping in from above adds tension. And that’s smart since these birds of prey play an important role in the story. Illustrator Paul Scott Canavan has put the main character, Tobin, front and center, placing little sister Talia to the right, and his bff Wiley to his left. The combination of the trees, the mushrooms and the water work together to highlight the mice and set the stage for this deep woods animal fantasy adventure tale. Please note: There will be snakes! e
ABOUT THE COVER ARTIST:
Paul Scott Canavan is a Bafta award-winning artist from Edinburgh, Scotland.
Over the course of his 12-year career, Paul has worked as an illustrator and concept artist for clients including Wizards of the Coast (Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons), Valve and Games Workshop, and as Art Director at Axis Animation creating AAA cinematics for studios like Bungie, Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games, Skybound and ArenaNet. http://paulscottcanavan.
Make room on your bookshelves for The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, the middle grade novel debut by Aaron Reynolds. Sixth-grader Rex Dexter always wanted a dog. A chocolate Labrador to be exact. For his birthday, Rex’s parents give him a chocolate cake shaped like a Lab with chocolate ice cream and—finally!—his gift is in a box with air holes so it must be . . . a chicken?! When Rex complains that a chicken isn’t a pet, it’s a Happy Meal, he’s told this is his practice pet. So he does what any kid would: puts a leash on his chicken and heads out with his best friend, Darvish, to buy pet supplies. Then the strangeness begins.
With a nod to the Tom Hanks movie, Big, Rex finds a vintage carnival game called the Grim Reaper. Thanks to some chicken pee, Rex loses the game and receives a cryptic curse. But, it may be worse news for the chicken who, in Rex’s care for about an hour, has a run-in with a steamroller; the steamroller wins. Rex failed to keep his practice pet safe but, no worries, Rex will have plenty of time to make amends when the squashed, “ghostly fritter” of a chicken returns to haunt him—though the chicken believes their besties and wants to just chill. The now-named Drumstick is merely the first dead animal to accompany Rex through this hilarious story.
Aaron Reynolds is a master at comedy and this middle-grade novel is no exception. He had me at the title. If you like a mysterious ghost story that’s not very spooky, then this is the book for you. Kids will enjoy trying to figure out “who done it” as endangered animals in the zoo start meeting their demise and showing up in Rex’s bedroom as ghostly nuisances. More than two dozen black-and-white images scattered throughout add to the humor.
I’m a big fan of Reynolds’s books and read his releases hot-off-the-press. My favorite book of his had been (picture book) A Creepy Pair of Underwear but The Dead Pets of Rex Dexter is now tied for that spot.
Click hereto order a copy of The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter or visit your local indie bookstore. e Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
In Race to the Sun seventh grader Nizhoni Begay can see monsters—such as Mr. Charles, the tall, skinny, blond man who may become her dad’s new boss. This, obviously, is a problem, especially when Mr. Charles tries to kill her the first time they’re alone together! As if that day wasn’t crazy enough, one of Nizhoni’s favorite stuff animals, Mr. Yazzie, a horned toad, comes alive and explains that her coming-of-age ceremony awakened her monster-slaying powers.
When her father disappears, Nizhoni, her younger brother Mac, and her best friend Davery set out on an adventure that calls on their Navajo heritage. On their perilous quest, the kids encounter many obstacles. As Nizhoni embraces the power within, she also begins to understand the mysteries of her family.
I enjoyed learning about some traditional Navajo stories in this fast-paced, suspenseful book that couples humor with deeper subjects such as the importance of heritage and respect for each other and our land. Mythology with exciting action scenes are an appealing combination for middle-graders who enjoy quest novels. If you like Percy Jackson and Aru Shah books, readRebecca Roanhorse’sRace to the Sun.
In Kit Rosewater’s middle grade book, The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, fifth grader Kenzie Ellington has spent the past three years watching her mom skate in Austin’s roller derby league wanting to join in too. Fortunately, her BFF, Shelly, finds a junior league being formed. The girls eagerly prepare for tryouts, ready to show off their signature Dynamic Duo moves. However, to keep from possibly being split up, they must form a five-person team in only one week.
Finding other skaters proves harder than expected; the girls they’re asking can’t even skate. Shelly wants to recruit Bree, Kenzie’s skateboarding neighbor, but Kenzie struggles with her complicated secret-crush feelings toward Bree. Then, as the team comes together, Kenzie worries when Shelly welcomes new members and seemingly replaces Kenzie.
Sophie Escabasse’s art brings to life the story’s emotions as well as the humor and camaraderie. Even readers who know nothing about roller derby will feel comfortable with this book’s easy explanations of the sport and accompanying illustrations—just take a glimpse at the dynamic cover.
Fans of the graphic novel Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson will enjoy this tale which also focuses on friendship and girl power. The six girls depicted in this book are realistic representations of the fifth graders I know. I applaud Rosewater for showing us a diverse group of girls who sword fight and play basketball. Girls can be any combination of things. I look forward to book 2, out in September. ★Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal
In 1957 rural Washington state, Eisenhower’s being sworn in for his second term in office, the Russians ready to launch a satellite into space, and dragons are hired for farmwork having forged a no-kill policy with humans. Against her father’s wishes, fifteen-year-old Sarah Dewhurst begins to interact with their laborer dragon, Kazimir. However, Kazimir has his own agenda, needing Sarah for prophecy fulfillment.
Nearby, FBI agents chase teen assassin Malcolm as he rushes to complete his secret mission for a radical pro-dragon group called the Believers. Nothing sways Malcolm’s devotion to leader Mitera Thea and his probably suicidal mission until his path crosses Nelson’s (who has been thrown out by his mother). Against his training, Malcolm envelops Nelson into the folds of his dangerous world. Yet his ghastly tasks threaten their blossoming relationship.
Best-selling author Patrick Ness once again delivers a complex, action-filled story in Burn. We can relate to Sarah who still aches from her mother’s death and the ongoing prejudice because of their skin color. Sarah’s boyfriend, Jason Inagawa—the only other nonwhite kid in their area—lost his mother to pneumonia during their three-year forced stay in an internment camp. Ness seamlessly blends historical elements with fantasy.
This fast-paced story, told in alternating viewpoint, takes you on a wild journey that includes an alternate universe. Cleverly crafted text amplifies the suspense, allowing for successful verbal sleight of hand. Burn wraps up dramatically, while leaving room to expand into a series. I couldn’t put this book down and look forward to the tale’s continuation in whatever world(s) where I hope to meet more wonderful—and wonderfully awful—dragons. ★Starred Reviews– Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Publishers Weekly
When seventeen-year-old Dayna Walsh isn’t struggling with OCD, she wants nothing more than to ascend from witchling to full witch. Dayna has strong familial bonds with her coven yet her biological family is disjointed: a religious father and a mother who was mysteriously sent away thirteen years ago to Camp Blood of the Lamb. Mix in witches from another coven plus a nearby serial killer and you’ll get an idea of this fantastic brew of a book.
Latimer’sWitches of Ash & Ruin unfolds in multiple viewpoints providing glimpses inside the heads of others (witchlings, Dayna’s ex-boyfriend, and a witch-hunter named Dubh). I found it interesting that the book opens with Dubh stating his evil intentions—that seemed to solve the puzzle from the start—but knowing the bad guy in no way slows the suspense.
Speaking of tension, the heat between Dayna and a witchling from the other coven is palpable. You’ll root for them to be alive and together at the end.
If you like complex stories without tidy endings, you’ll enjoy this sweeping tale. Some parts are bloody, but that’s expected with a murderer on the loose and a witch or two dabbling with the dark side. Unless you’re fluent in ancient Celtic mythology, pay attention when gods and their histories are mentioned.
In John David Anderson’s One Last Shot, twelve-year-old Malcolm Greeley navigates life carefully. School is endured, and his home life is a minefield where he painstakingly interprets what’s said—and what’s not said—to keep the peace between his contentious parents. He’s sure that if he can just do everything right, then things between his mom and dad will get better, that they have to.
Malcolm doesn’t realize he needs a friend until Lex’s miniature golf ball and her comical call of “Five!” lands at his feet. With an unwanted push from his wacky golf coach, Malcolm soon finds a something in Lex he’s been sorely missing. While his steadfast mother accepts and understands him, Malcolm is unsettled around his father, an award-winning jock of many sports, who pushed Malcolm into Little League. When Malcolm is given an out, he takes it, only to be subtly pressured into competition mini golf. With Dad, it’s all about winning, but Malcolm’s not wired that way no matter how he tries. He’s a natural at putting, yet dreads the competitive aspect. The voices in his head add to the stress of executing each shot perfectly.
Though I don’t typically gravitate stories centered around competitive sports, I picked up One Last Shot because I’m a fan of Anderson’s other books Granted and Posted (also middle grade). One Last Shot’s a winner with its fully developed, imperfect characters. I appreciated the creative manner in which the story unfolds; the structure adds interest. Each of the eighteen chapters opens with the description of a mini golf hole and closes with how Malcolm scored on that hole. Sandwiched between, we’re shown Malcolm’s life in flashback scenes.
This would be an ideal read for a kid with parents in the bitter pre-divorce stage since Malcolm comes to understand his parents’ troubles are not about him and cannot be fixed by him. Sometimes, parents need to split up for their own good—an upsetting time that’s hard to live through, but, hopefully, better in the long run.