In Legends of Lotus Island: The Guardian Test, the first book in a new middle-grade seriesby Christine Soontornvat with illustrations by Kevin Hong, young Plum lives on a remote part of the Santipap Islands. An orphan, she lives with her grandparents and helps them tend their home and gardens. Plum is able to communicate with plants and animals and, as a result, the family’s gardens thrive. Seeing this, her grandfather secretly submits an application for her to the elite Guardian Academy on Lotus Island. Guardians are able to transform into magical creatures and are tasked with protecting the natural world.
When she learns that she has been accepted to the Academy, Plum is stunned by her grandfather’s actions. She doesn’t believe that she is that special or magical. Nevertheless, her grandparents convince her to accept the Academy’s invitation and, reluctantly, she leaves her beloved home for an uncertain future.
Once at the Academy, Plum, and the other students are trained in meditation, fighting skills, communicating with animals, and learning how to transform. As the students train, their natural, magical abilities emerge. Based on that, the Masters are then able to assign students to one of the three groups of Guardians: Hand (fast and strong), Heart (healers), and Breath (calming).
However, Plum struggles: she is bullied by another student (who may have a hidden agenda), she can’t focus during meditation, is not much of a fighter, and is unable to transform. The Masters are not sure which Guardian group she belongs in. If Plum wishes to advance to Novice, she must pass the first test which is transformation. Plum’s fears grow –will she be able to pass the test? Or will she fail and be sent home?
Soontornvat fills her short book with a fascinating and lush world, populating it with fantastic creatures, hints of political intrigue, and mysterious ancient legends. The author also does not sacrifice character development. Plum, a kind but unsophisticated girl, blooms into a strong and confident figure. Other students share similar growth, which may be encouraging to readers struggling with their own self-confidence. Along with occasional black and white illustrations, this first in a series is an enticing and accessible read for younger readers who are not yet ready for longer fantasy titles.
Visit the authorhere for a brief book talk and watch the book trailer here. Watch this short video if you’re not sure how to pronounce Soontornvat’s name. Kids can read an excerpt from the book here.
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.
(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.
Good Reads With Ronna is delighted to be part of the Dear Justice League blog tour celebrating this week’s launch of a rollicking good read and recommended middle grade graphic novel from DC Zoom.
The premise is a simple yet oh so satisfying one. Fictitious kids from all over America pen Dear Abby-type letters to their fave superheroes and then lo and behold, they get replies. Not what you were expecting, right?
Middle grade readers, reluctant and struggling readers as well as fans of graphic novels will enjoy every single page of Northrop’s and Duarte’s fast and uproarious read. It’s playful and action-packed, and who doesn’t love a story where there’s never a dull moment? Northrup delivers dynamic dialogue that pairs perfectly with Duarte’s art. His hilarious illustrations, full of every facial expression possible, jump off the page and pull you in. They deserve to be looked at multiple times.
I got into the novel quickly, intrigued by the first question posed to none other than my childhood hero, Superman. Wondering if the Man of Steel had ever messed up, the letter writer is shown having botched up his attempt at an invention. And while you’d think heroes are especially busy saving the day in multiple ways with no time for correspondence, Clark Kent’s alter ego surprises young Ben Silsby with an answer. Texting, flying and superhero-ing however do not safely go together leading to a hilarious string of close calls demonstrating that it’s not just Kryptonite that can bring him down.
I especially loved having the chance to meet seven other members of the Justice League, each presented in their own chapter addressing a particular issue raised via email, text or snail mail. Hawkgirl, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg, and Batman all make appearances and make you want to spend more time with them. The Dear Justice League questions range from silly (does Hawkgirl eat small mammals, does Aquaman smell like fish) to those that will resonate with the targeted age group about bullying, moving to a new school, being perfect, fitting in, friendship and teamwork.
Another aspect of the book that worked well was the thread running through the entire story about an invasion of evil, insect-like Shock Troopers from the planet Molt-On. Here’s where I was first introduced to Hawkgirl and was impressed by her sense of humor though a bit wary of how much soda she seemed to consume. But most of all, I enjoyed seeing the superheros hang out at HQ, chatting together while revealing snippets of their characters. When they ultimately fought off the Shock Troops through a well coordinated team effort, I felt happy and eager to read more about each of them individually and as a league. Next up for me is definitely Superman of Smallville, available 9/3/19.
The start of a new school year is an ideal time to share this graphic novel showing sometimes serious, yet often tongue-in-cheek adventures that demonstrate how even superheroes have the same vulnerabilities kids have. They may fight foes but are far from perfect. So head to your local independent bookseller to buy a copy of Dear Justice League for your kids because these graphic novels are bound to win new DC superhero fans and delight old ones.
FISH IN A TREE
by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
(Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers, $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
✭Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Booklist & School Library Journal
Dyslexia, and other learning disabilities, can be invisible, isolating, and confusing. For a fifth-grader like Ally, it only adds to life’s problems. She’s also dealing with school bullies, a transient, military lifestyle, and missing her dad who’s been deployed overseas for several months. She copes with these difficulties by acting out in class, working very hard to hide her learning problems, and keeping to herself.
Enter Ally’s hero, 5th grade substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels. In Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Mr. Daniels is the first teacher who’s been able to see through her defiance and acting-out, and identify a learning disability. Mr. Daniels inspires Ally to realize her other strengths and to think of the “IM-possible” as “possible.” After receiving tutoring from Mr. Daniels, Ally finally begins to come out of her shell and enjoy life due to her newfound confidence.
Readers will recognize the authentic and endearing characters who eventually become Ally’s friends. Keisha is a sassy new student who is looking for buddies while trying to avoid mean girl Shay. Albert is a brilliant, kind, and very logical boy who might be on the Autism Spectrum and also has his own after-school bullies to avoid. There’s also Oliver, a hyper-active and kind boy who craves attention; Suki, a new girl from Japan; and Michelle, Shay’s toady who is beginning to see the light.
The author’s description of the teacher, Mr. Daniels, is particularly touching. Hunt has created a realistic character who is fair, intuitive, and devoted to his job. In Fish in A Tree, we read of the many ways Mr. Daniels is able to bring out the best in each of his students (his “Fantasticos”). He creates a secret hand signal to tell Oliver to calm down. He creates class games and projects that reward the kids who might not typically succeed in the classroom. He also takes extra time to work with Ally and help her see her strengths.
Fish in A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt will have you rooting for Ally while gaining an understanding of what it’s like to live with Dyslexia. If you’re looking for a realistic feel-good book about adolescence, this will hit the spot. The characters, their relationships, and their struggles are so real, and the ending will make you smile and wish for a sequel.
– Guest Review by Maggie Moore
Click here for a curriculum guide for FISH IN A TREE