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 Sila’s newly withdrawn demeanor prompts her school to pair her with autistic classmate Mateo Lopez in a special program that has the kids spending time together at the end of each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.
Looking for the perfect stuck-at-home, want-to-read-a-classic book? It’s Hugh Lofting’sDoctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1(three different tales of Dolittle’s world travels, accompanied, of course, by his animal friends). Don’t let the 700+-page size scare you away; the short chapters and Lofting’s comical illustrations move the stories along quickly. A middle-grader will feel a great sense of accomplishment after reading this huge book that’s “fully updated for the modern reader by the author’s son, Christopher Lofting.”
Kids may know the various Dolittles represented on the screen, but the real character supplants the others. The literary Dolittle isn’t handsome or debonair; instead, it’s his good-natured, kindhearted personality that quickly wins you over. I like that this Dolittle is a bit on the short and tubby side, it adds to the humorous appeal. Picture a slightly clownish man squished into a matador’s outfit as he tries to bring the cruel sport of bullfighting to an end. Fortunately, he can talk to animals, and always seems to have luck on his side.
Children can explore this world’s appealing mix of reality and fantasy such as the Pushmi-Pullyu, a nearly extinct two-headed creature. These classic tales, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle;” “The Story of Doctor Dolittle;” “Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office,” will especially delight children fond of animals. Lofting connects with readers, drawing them into his imaginary world. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that the stories were originally written as a series of letters to his kids from the front lines during World War I. Though penned in wartime, his entertaining stories resound with the peaceful love of people and animals from everywhere around the globe.
(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)
The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disastersoffers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.
Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?
SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.
GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?
SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.
GRWR:Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?
SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.
GRWR:The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?
SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.
As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.
Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.
While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.
GRWR:A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?
SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.
GRWR:There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.
SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.
GRWR:Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?
SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! — and I wanted to put it into a story.
GRWR:I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?
SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.
GRWR:What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?
SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.
I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!
Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.
Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.
If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giantsby Dave Matthewsand Clete Barrett Smith. You may recognize the first author’s name as that of the world-renowned musician, environmentalist, and humanitarian. He’s teamed up with children’s book author Smith to write this timely middle-grade novel. Its underlying messages are about pulling together as a community, remembering the past, and taking care of nature. Kids will root for Kirra to find her way, and love the fun elements (such as living in trees and using their collective skills to become gigantic).
Hidden inside the walls of a dormant volcano, ten-year-old Kirra’s life is idyllic. Her people, the Zedu, respect nature and collaborate with one another, having assigned tasks. Kirra’s father is the Storyteller, the only Zedu who goes Outside—until recently, when Kirra begins to travel with him and learn this vocation. Her curiosity, however, leads her to make a grave mistake instigating the demise of her village by a violent new group called the Takers who seek only to conquer and destroy.
Jump forward four years and fourteen-year-old Kirra now lives aloft with the Tree People, taken in when she was in dire circumstances and treated with kindness ever since. To get by, Kirra must suppress memories of the past—until those memories become a reality.
The images by Antonio Javier Caparoprovide glimpses into Kirra’s world. Framed by intertwining branches, the natural colors underscore the importance of working harmoniously with nature.
I appreciate how the book engages the reader with quick-moving, interesting scenes yet also tackles big issues affecting us today. This story delves into what family means and how you fit in. For Kirra, it’s also a coming-of-age tale as she finally faces her demons and finds her way. e
INTRO: Last month, my ten-year-old daughter and I attended an amazing event at the LA Zoo, hosted by DC Entertainment. A group of middle-grade graphic writers and illustrators wowed the crowd with their “superpowers” sharing the stories-behind-the-stories and demonstrating their lightning-fast art skills. VICTORIA YING caught our attention with her interpretation of Wonder Woman as a tween so I wanted to know more about the wonderful woman behind Wonder Woman.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT:Your new middle-grade graphic novel, Diana: Princess of the Amazons(DC Comics; $9.99, Ages 8-12) is about Wonder Woman as an eleven-year-old girl. As the only kid on Themyscira, the island of the Amazons, understandably, Diana’s a bit lonely. How did you go about envisioning the famous Princess Diana as a tween?
VICTORIA YING:We first looked at the original iconic design for Wonder Woman and then tried to imagine what she would look like as a kid! We wanted to have those shadows of the person she would become without being too obvious about it. She has her bracelets, a simple rope headband, and her pleated skirt. Things that would allude to her future, without showing our whole hand.
CVZ:You’ve illustrated pictures books before and are the author-illustrator of a wordless picture book, Meow! How was illustrating a graphic novel different?
VY:I was so lucky to be able to have Shannon and Dean Hale as collaborators for this project. It is my debut graphic novel project and they are industry veterans who really understand how to write for a visual medium. They left a lot of the decisions up to me, but would keep the important descriptions in the text.
CVZ:Tell us about your process.
VY:For comics, I first lay out my rough sketches with rough text in ComicDraw for the iPad. Then I submit this for approval. Once the sketches are approved, I take them and do a tracing paper style draw over of the rough sketches for a clean finished drawing in Procreate. Lark Pien was our colorist and she takes the work to its finish.
CVZ:Your middle-grade graphic novel, City of Secrets, is coming out in July (Viking, 2020). How does it feel to be both the writer and artist?
VY: I originally wrote City of Secrets as a NaNoWriMo project. I was so afraid to have to draw the city! When my friends commented that I had great story structure and good characters, but terrible description, I realized it was because I relied too much on my illustrator brain and decided to try it as a graphic novel instead. It turned out that I LOVED drawing the puzzle-box city!
CVZ:You’ve worked on films, picture books, middle grade novels—what’s next?
VY:City of Secrets has a sequel coming out in July of 2021, and I’ve just announced a new book with First Second Books called Hungry Ghost, a YA contemporary about an Asian-American girl struggling with an eating disorder. I have a wide range of interests and all kinds of stories I want to tell. I hope that my career will let me tell as many of them as I can handle!
CVZ:Thank you for taking time to talk with us. We look forward reading all your new stories!
BIO: Victoria Ying is an author and artist living in Los Angeles. She started her career in the arts by falling in love with comic books; this eventually turned into a career working in animation and graphic novels. She loves Japanese curry, putting things in her online-shopping cart then taking them out again, and hanging out with her dopey dog. Her film credits include Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Paperman, Big Hero 6, and Moana. She illustrated the DC graphic novel, Diana: Princess of the Amazons. Watch for her authored graphic novel, City of Secrets, out July 2020.
As much as I love fables, prior to reading Mulan: Before the Sword, my knowledge of Hua Mulan’s story came mainly from movie trailers. Grace Lin’smiddle-grade prequel blew me away. I’m a fan of Lin’s prior best-selling middle-grade trilogy and her picture books, so I was expecting to really like this book; instead, I loved it. The fast-paced story is balanced by gorgeous prose, bringing legendary Asian history to life. Lin’s writing beautifully blends myth, action, and suspense. The opening line, “She disliked it when they transformed into spiders” had me hooked. The story’s viewpoints shift between the plotting, treacherous villains and Mulan’s adventure to save her sister Xiu’s life (she’s succumbing to a poisonous bite from the evil nine-legged spider).
Mulan tries to suppress her adventurous nature and struggles to be a more restrained daughter. Contrarily, Xiu exemplifies all the “right” female traits. Yet, Mulan’s abilities allow her to set off on a quest with the legendary Jade Rabbit where she begins to realize that, just maybe, she’s exactly who she needs to be.
It’s easy to care about Mulan and root for her to save the day. The characters and scenery come alive and tension builds as setbacks delay their progress. En route, Mulan learns of the prophecy that a member of her family is destined to, one day, save the Emperor. Figuring that person must be Xiu, Mulan risks her life, sacrificing for the greater good. Yet, all is not as it seems and this tale wends its way to an amazing conclusion. Mulan, a powerful warrior, also finds compassion for her adversaries.
Lin’s Author Note provides interesting historical detail; Mulan may have been a real person, the first know mention of her was in a fourth-century folk song, “The Ballad of Mulan.” Today, Mulan continues to be a cherished character as Lin skillfully adds another layer to the saga.
Click here to read a terrific interview by Christine with Grace Lin at SCBWI’s Kite Tales of Southern California’s Tri-Regions.
NEW KID Written and illustrated by Jerry Craft (HarperCollins; $21.99 H/c, $12.99 P/b, Ages 8-12)
Newbery Medal Winner A New York Times bestseller Winner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature ★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness
I began reading author-illustrator Jerry Craft’s outstanding graphic novel, New Kid, last week before it made history winning the Newbery so I was thrilled that it was honored. I read it slowly to savor every illustration, every funny or meaningful moment, and every twist and turn in the story. You know that feeling when you want to stay with characters long after a book has ended? That is the feeling readers will experience with New Kid.
Craft introduces us to the main character, Jordan Banks, and his dilemma, and we’re instantly in his court. He’s been accepted into an elite private school, Riverdale Academy Day School (RADS) for seventh grade. Although Jordan would prefer to attend an art school, he and his dad agree he will give it a try and switch to the art school for ninth grade if things don’t work out. Jordan, who is black, lives in Washington Heights with his loving parents who want to offer him advantages they never had. Jordan must commute via bus to Riverdale to attend classes. The way Craft shows the change in communities and attitudes through Jordan’s hoody, how he wears it and what his posture is like as he travels is eye-opening. Not only will this smart, talented preteen have to navigate public transportation, he’ll also have to figure out a more pressing dynamic—where he fits in at the new school.
I loved getting inside Jordan’s head via his sketch book packed with cartoons along with Craft’s vibrant illustrations. A pair of angels are depicted in various scenes responding to situations that Jordan encounters and emotions he feels. This adds a humorous dimension to Craft’s multi-layered graphic novel about what it’s like being a person of color in a predominantly white school environment. At RADS, with its mostly wealthy and privileged student body, Jordan quickly realizes who the gossips are, who the jocks are, who the annoying kids are, and who he can ultimately call a friend.
And what about the the teachers and administrators at Jordan’s school? Some reviews have described a culture of behavior at RADS as micro-aggressive and I agree. Readers’ perspectives should change after noticing the undertone of prejudice, racism and ignorance aimed at minority students when teachers don’t make an effort to remember someone’s name or are quick to accuse the wrong student in a fight. The same applies to fellow students who, for example, cannot acknowledge that a classmate is from Nicaragua and not Mexico. The tongue-in-cheek Oprah public service announcement cartoon Jordan creates about kids on financial aid also struck a chord. I’ve known people who’ve felt stigmatized when this confidential arrangement was revealed. While these are some of the hardest issues to read about, they’re also some the most honest, important and compelling. Through Jordan, Craft deftly challenges stereotypes and enlightens kids that other paradigms exist.
New Kid’s 14 chapters take us through an entire school year during which we watch and root for Jordan’s success in the classroom, on the field for P.E. (where it’s often very cold), and in his social life where there’s never a dull moment. We also come to care about his closest pals, Liam and Drew, who have his back and grow along with Jordan. A cast of endearing secondary characters rounds off the novel, and the inclusion of these relationships injects another realistic element into the middle school experience. There are up days, down days, and days when Jordan wonders whether he’ll ever make this private school thing work.
When he leaves behind his Washington Heights buddies to go to RADS, Jordan faces yet another challenge—how to make new friends and keep the old. It’s not a straightforward silver and gold thing and Jordan knows it. It’s great that Craft shows the effort Jordan makes to keep up those relationships because, although he may be in Riverdale during the day, after school and weekends he’s still connected to his neighborhood and that grounds him in the best possible way.
I’m grateful to have been able to spend time with Jordan Banks, his family and friends. I hope you’ll also meet Jordan soon by getting a copy of New Kid at your local indie bookseller!
Disclosure: I was gifted New Kid by HarperCollins to review for the event.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2020 (1/31/20) is in its 7th year! This non-profit children’s literacy initiative was founded by Valarie Budayr and Mia Wenjen; two diverse book-loving moms who saw a need to shine the spotlight on all of the multicultural books and authors on the market while also working to get those book into the hands of young readers and educators.
Seven years in, MCBD’s mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in homes and school bookshelves continues.
MCBD 2020 is honored to have the following Medallion Sponsors on board
We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHostsHERE.