If the alliteration in the title was what caught my eye then it was the premise of Willis Wilbur Wows the World, the first book in a new series by Lindsey Leavitt, that made me want to read it. Mature beyond his nine-year-old years, Willis is all pumped to go to band camp for the summer with his best friend Shelley. That is until the plans change and Shelley is off to Hawaii with her family. What will Willis do instead since going to camp without her is out of the question?
A local business competition for kids seems to provide the answer and after a failed initial attempt at interior design, entrepreneurial Willis finds his niche as a life coach to the neighborhood kids. But is he really the right one for the job? And can he win the competition, especially as he needs to contend with bullies, the Rudes, and do it on his own without Shelley by his side? With supportive parents and younger sister Logan behind him, Willis learn the art of life coaching while learning a lot about himself in the process.
Daniel Duncan’sblack-and-white illustrations capture the various personalities of the cast of characters throughout including Willis, the intelligent, kind protagonist who has big dreams about succeeding in life, kid sister Logan who can easily give Willis a run for his money, and possible new friend Margo whom Willis sets out to coach in the area of learning to be a kid, despite a hurtful incident that happened during first grade.
Aside from the illustrations, the text is punctuated with email exchanges between Willis and Shelley and “Pro Tips” in boxes (for example: Dress for the part.) which will draw in even the most reluctant reader to this humorous and entertaining story. Willis Wilbur earns the title in his own right and is a welcome and unique character to enter the middle-grade market. Book #2 comes out in September.
Novels in verse are powerful. Jane Kuo’s debut middle grade,In the Beautiful Country, is a novel in verse set in 1980 about ten-year-old Ai Shi, an American immigrant from Taiwan. What a good format choice for a novel reflecting the experience of children new to the U.S.! Especially accessible for English language learners and for reluctant or struggling readers, the short, straightforward poems are no less engaging for those who read with ease.
I love how a poem gives me broad strokes of what is happening, takes me to the correct emotional address, and then I get to fill in the details. Wait, that sounds wrong. Kuo’s book, for example, gives me many details, things I wouldn’t know to imagine myself, that help me understand Ai Shi’s experience. It’s more like a connect-the-dots puzzle. Rather than broad strokes, the poems set down carefully-placed images and details, the dots. Then readers use their imagination to get from one dot to the next and draw a complete understanding of who Ai Shi is, what she values the most, and what she goes through as she and her parents face the disappointing reality of their new life.
The story begins when Ai Shi is anticipating moving to “the beautiful country” (the Chinese name for America) and follows her through a year of adjusting to life as Anna, American fifth-grader. Before moving, Ai Shi says America is her “happily ever after place,” but once she’s here, reality hits hard. She dreads going to school with her limited English:
I used to love school,
the place where I was the loudest girl in class.
Now I’m robbed of words.
Suddenly, I have nothing to say.
Her family struggles to keep their heads above water financially. They sold everything to buy an American fast food restaurant, depending on a fraudulent profit record the seller provided. Ai Shi thinks the items she left in Taiwan will be replaced with better California models, but that’s not how it goes.
I was particularly touched by a poem about the family’s new apartment. Ai Shi sleeps in the lone bedroom; her parents sleep on a fold-out couch in the living room. The only entertainment is watching television, and Ai Shi thinks their new set is broken. Really, it’s just black-and-white. The poem ends:
I sit facing the flickering television.
This TV is twice as small as our old one.
in the land of more,
our world is so small.
Racism adds isolation and a sense of injustice to Ai Shi’s disappointment. She is teased at school: “It’s as if making fun of my food / has become a group lunchtime activity.” When the class is learning about alliteration, a bully waits until they are on the playground to share his example: “Ching Chong Chinaman.” At the store, her parents face customers who have no patience for their problems with English.
Last week, a man became very huffy and puffy,
as if not understanding English
was some kind of insult.
It gets worse when someone throws a brick through the store’s large front window in the middle of the night. The poem “Nothing is Missing” describes the violation, ending, “They didn’t take anything. / They took so much.”
It is painful seeing through Ai Shi’s eyes when her family is struggling. I always say that if a book makes me cry, it had better be for a good purpose. Being sad with Ai Shi is worth it, helping me develop more understanding of and empathy for immigrants, children and adults alike. But I am especially enthusiastic about recommending this book because Kuo doesn’t leave Ai Shi or the reader in insurmountable pain. When the family considers giving up and going back to Taiwan, their dynamics change. It is a pleasure to keep reading and see how their shared values put them on a path to an authentically hopeful future.
Dana Middleton’s third novel will delight middle-grade readers who enjoy a story that blends contemporary issues with just the right amount of magical realism and likable, relatable characters who would be fun to hang out with.
Readers learn early on that the main character, Jewel, age 13, has a unicorn horn on her forehead. Her friend Mystic likes it because it makes Jewel different, the way she feels and Nicholas believes it’s cool and magical. “Are you kidding?” he tells her at one point, “You don’t have to have a horn to be different.” These three spend their time at the “freak” table (where Jewel has found refuge following an unintentional impaling of a fellow student who survived), discussing ‘the horn,’ comics, the upcoming French essay competition, and the popular kids. As the story progresses, Carmen, Jewel’s invisible magical guardian unicorn begins to play more of a role in the plot.
In her apartment, Jewel lives with her mom, and early on her grandmother moves in and shares her bedroom. The family is portrayed as lower-class where money is tight and Jewel’s mother wants her to have a better life. “You are going to graduate from college. Got it? You’re not going to end up like me.” While they clearly care for Jewel, they don’t seem to grasp how much Jewel struggles with the horn and wants to have it removed. But doing so involves great risk. It also means a huge expense, a trip to Los Angeles, and initially going behind her mother’s back.
As the story unfolds, Jewel’s lost friendship with her former best friend Emma rears its head again at the prospect of her horn being surgically removed and becoming popular. Complicating things is Mystic’s stealing a necklace from Emma’s pal, Brooklyn, the ultimate popular girl. There’s so much for Jewel to consider and weighing heavily on her is having been offered a chance to tell her “horn” story in French at the competition she has dreamed of. At the same time, calling attention to it will make her feel like she doesn’t fit in even more, and reconciling those two feelings are taking their toll on her. Additionally, it turns out that reuniting with Emma may not be all Jewel hoped it would be.
The good news is that Jewel ultimately gets her wish and has her horn removed in Los Angeles. But the horn, it seems which bonded her to Carmen, will kill the unicorn unless she can find a way to save her. It’s here Dana has cleverly tied in a graphic novel that Jewel has been working on with Nicholas called Highwaymen. When the storyline mixes the graphic novel into the quest to save Carmen, there is action and adventure around every turn that will keep readers in suspense in the best possible way.
I loved how when the book ended, the characters stayed with me and filled me with hope. The thoughtful and exciting journey Jewel took brought her to a place where she could finally embrace her horn and her uniqueness. Coming to terms with what made her different ends up being the biggest and most satisfying magic Jewel, and readers, experience.
Since I could not put down Dana’s latest book I felt compelled to ask her some questions to satisfy my curiosity. I hope you’ll scroll down now or return to the interview below when you’ve finished reading Not a Unicorn.
GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome to the blog, Dana. I’m thrilled to discuss your latest middle-grade novel,Not a Unicorn. Do you recall how the idea for it came to you?
Dana Middleton:Actually, it was all Jewel. This girl with a unicorn horn showed up in my mind and wouldn’t let go.
GRWR:Was it a long time until you fleshed out the story?
DM: It did take quite a while, in part because I thought the idea was so weird and I wondered if people would get it. And then I thought, maybe people would think I was weird, too! Like Jewel, I had to accept all the parts of me (even the weird ones) to be able to write this. I was sure about one thing early on though—that there would be three parts to this story concerning Jewel’s horn. I won’t spoil it here, but that initial structure never wavered. I knew how it had to go, but I wasn’t sure if I could write it.
GRWR: One of my favorite parts of the story is the friendship between the main characters, the “different” kids Jewel, Mystic, and Nicholas. I love how they stayed with me after the story ended because I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them. What did you draw upon when writing them?
DM: I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them, too! Nicholas was loosely based on a friend of my nephew’s, and Mystic came from someplace unknown. And then Carmen, Noah, and Tall Ethan wandered in. I felt like it was so important to get these characters right because each of them had such a profound effect on Jewel.
GRWR: I’m a Francophile like Jewel. Is there any of you in her or maybe the popular girls like Brooklyn or Emma?
DM: Like you, I am a Francophile! I studied French and even went to study at the Sorbonne for a summer during college. I always wanted to travel and by imbuing Jewel with this desire, it created conflict because of course, she felt like she couldn’t be seen in big spaces. I always had this picture in my mind of Jewel looking up at the Eiffel Tower because she’d become brave enough to go there.
And as far as Brooklyn and Emma are concerned, I definitely wasn’t either of them. But Brooklyn, that girl turned out okay. She became someone I didn’t quite expect.
GRWR:How did your hometown in Georgia influence the setting or anything else in the novel?
DM:My family moved to the mountains of North Georgia (to a town called Dahlonega) when I was a teenager and that’s the town where Jewel lives. It’s a mixture of Dahlonega past and present, and some of it made up in my mind. I thought if you had a unicorn horn on your head, it would probably be best to live in the relative safety of a small town. That also created for Jewel more fear about the possibilities of venturing into the outside world.
GRWR:Can you speak to what it was like incorporating the graphic novel/comic you created called Highwaymen into the plot?
DM: Let me just say that Highwaymen was a complete surprise to me. I had no idea how that would develop in the story but it kept developing into something and I kept following. I really love Highwaymen, and like Jewel, I have a soft spot for Esmeralda. She’s so bad-ass awesome!
GRWR: What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing Not a Unicorn?
DM: Trusting that it would all work out. I guess a lot of writers feel this way, but sometimes I wasn’t sure I could make this book what I wanted it to be. I was very blessed to have an agent and editor who believed in Jewel and helped me to make it the best book that I could.
GRWR: If young readers took away one thing from your novel, what would you hope that would be?
DM: The best question for last! I hope this book helps young readers accept who they are more deeply. Because we all have something that we just wish we could change— it may not be a unicorn horn, but it’s something. If Jewel can help someone accept their ‘difference’ and make it into their superpower, then my job is done.
My sincere thanks to Dana for taking the time to chat with me about Not a Unicorn. Here she is below with author Jill Diamond during her virtual book launch.
Dana Middleton is a middle-grade author of contemporary novels for young readers who enjoy a dash of fantasy and mystery. Her latest book, Not a Unicorn, is from Chronicle Books. She is also the author of The Infinity Year of Avalon James (a Young Hoosier Book Award nominee and Oregon Battle of the Books selection), and Open If You Dare. Dana grew up in Georgia, but lives in Los Angeles with her British husband. You can visit her online at danamiddletonbooks.com.
I absolutely adored this perfectly polished middle-grade novel about an imperfect yet endearing protagonist, Susie B. Yet aren’t we all imperfect in some way, shape, or form? That’s exactly what Susie B. realizes in this story that cleverly and humorously addresses several relatable tween issues such as popularity and school dynamics, friendship, flawed individuals from the past and present, and being true to oneself. Margaret’s fifth-grade voice feels spot-on as we get inside her ADHD “butterfly brain” while she navigates both a class Hero Project and student council race. Her personality jumps off the pages presented in letter format making the read fast but oh so fulfilling. If your middle grader is looking for a book that will keep them smiling from page one, this is it. See the publisher’s page for an excerpt.
Roll with It meets Absolutely Normal Chaos in this funny, big-hearted novel about a young girl’s campaign for student council president, told through letters to her hero, Susan B. Anthony.
Susie B. has a lot to say. Like how it’s not fair that she has to be called Susie B. instead of plain Susie. Or about how polar bears are endangered. Or how the Usual Geniuses are always getting picked for cool stuff over the kids like her with butterflies in their brain. And it’s because Susie B. has a lot to say about these very important things that she’s running for student council president!
If she’s president, she can advocate for the underdogs just like her hero and fellow Susie B., Susan B. Anthony. (And, okay, maybe the chance to give big speeches to the whole school with a microphone is another perk.) But when the most usual of Usual Geniuses also enters the student council race, Susie realizes this may be a harder won fight than she thought. Even worse, Susie discovers that Susan B. Anthony wasn’t as great as history makes it seem, and she did some pretty terrible things to try to help her own cause. Soon, Susie has her own tough decisions to make. But one thing is for sure—no matter what, Susie B. won’t back down.
GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome back to the GRWR blog, Margaret, and congratulations on your second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down! How does it feel to bring this new book into the world?
Margaret Finnegan:Very exciting! I feel so grateful to my editor and all the people at Atheneum Books for Young Readers who helped usher Susie B. into the world. I have a special fondness for Susie B. I love her gumption and her heart.
GRWR: Please share where the spark for this super engaging and original story came from especially since spark is a prevalent and meaningful word in Susie B. Won’t Back Down.
MF:I started my career as an historian, and a long time ago I wrote a book on the US woman’s suffrage movement. I think about the work I did for that book a lot. You know, it took women almost seventy years of coordinated work to get the vote, and, along the way, some of the women we admire for their activism did some unadmirable things. So what do we do with that? Susie B. was my way of exploring that question.
GRWR:The irresistible and honest voice of Susie Babuszkiewicz (aka Susie B.) pulled me in immediately, in fact, I tweeted that the opening made me literally LOL. “Dear Susan B. Anthony: I have very bad news for you. You’re dead.” Was this always how you planned to start the novel? And were you always going to write in letter format?
MF: From the beginning, I conceived of the book as a series of letters because I always wanted Susie B. to be having a conversation with Susan B. Anthony. However, I don’t think the rough draft started quite that way. But then it occurred to me that some young readers wouldn’t know anything about the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. So I had to get some basic information out there really fast.
GRWR: Susie B. is an insightfully portrayed character who beautifully describes her ADHD as having a butterfly brain or at times getting wiggly. Another character, Carson, also seems to have ADHD, perhaps Asperger’s and Tourette syndrome. Can you speak to your inclusion of neurodiverse characters again as you did in your first novel, We Could Be Heroes?
MF: I’m glad you asked. About one in every seven or eight individuals has some type of neurodiversity. So the real question is, why don’t we see neurodiversity in more books? Also, I guess I’m highly sensitive to this issue because my kids, (both young adults) are neurodiverse.
GRWR: I ran for class secretary in my high school government but don’t remember much except that our very laid-back advisor was called Mr. Lincoln. Did you ever run for student council and what are your thoughts about this part of a student’s school life?
MF:I ran for student council in ninth grade—and I lost! So suck it Henry M. Gunn High School. At last, I’ve achieved my revenge, proving that, in many schools, student government is indeed just another scam to shine a spotlight on the very people who need it the least. (Apologies if your experience suggests otherwise. I may still be a little bitter.)
GRWR: You weave such fabulous humor throughout this book which helps to lighten some serious issues middle-graders face daily. We see Susie B. cope or not cope with passive-aggressive bullying or word bombing as she calls it by a mean girl named Chloe (aka Old Fakey Fake), feeling constantly overlooked by teachers and peers in favor of the jocks, the “usual geniuses” and popular kids, along with the struggle to keep her anger at perceived injustices at bay. What did you hope readers would feel after finishing this novel?
MF: As with everything I write, my main goal as a writer is to give readers a good time. If they also pick up an idea or two to wrestle with, so much the better. These are the things I want out of books, so why would I want to give my readers any less?
GRWR: I love whenever Susie B. discusses the universal mystery of paragraphs and all things paragraph writing-related. Do you have a favorite scene/letter in the book?
MF: I like it when Susie B. owns her anger, telling Susan B. Anthony, “I WAS AN ANGRY GIRL.” Too often, girls are taught to swallow their anger, and—by that time in the story—Susie B. has been trying to do that for a while. But, finally, she accepts her anger and embraces it, and sometimes that is not a bad thing.
GRWR: Susie B. experiences a gamut of emotions inSusie B. Won’t Back Down which feels so realistic. Let’s talk about the friendship dynamic you’ve created. Without any spoilers, how would you describe the relationship Susie has with Joselyn? Can you also tell us more about the diverse group of classmates who people this story? I particularly enjoy interactions with Soozie and Daniel Rodriguez.
MF: Poor Susie. B. She and Joselyn have been best friends for a long time, but friendships change, and a lot of the time those changes begin in late elementary and early middle school. That’s not a spoiler, that is just the way things are, and that is something Susie B. has to deal with.
Susie does have a diverse group of classmates. They are diverse in all the ways you can be diverse, in all the ways our communities are diverse. And they are also diverse in the things we don’t always think about: their personalities, their goals, and their motivations. They are each the main character in their own story. We just happened to be listening to Susie B.’s.
GRWR: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh? Also, how do you capture the language of fifth-graders so perfectly when you teach college students and have grown-up daughters?
MF:Mostly, I read. I read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, books, long-form journalism, kids lit, adult lit. I try to stay curious. I don’t know how I capture the language of fifth graders. I think fifth graders sound like everyone else, it’s just that they have a more limited vocabulary and a smaller share of prior knowledge to help them understand relationships and the world. I guess I try to write about them with respect?
GRWR: Novel writing-wise, are you a pantser or a plotter? And did you write the ending first and work your way back or do you approach each new project traditionally from beginning to end?
MF: Oh, I definitely start at the beginning and work my way to the end. But I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. I usually start out by writing a page or two summary of what I think the book will be about. That gives me a sense of where things are going, and it identifies a few plot points I want to hit. The problem is, the characters always take over, and if I’m going to be truthful to them, I have to follow them where they go, and that always takes me away from any prior designs I have for things. So plotting too carefully just never really works for me.
GRWR: You have a full-time job as a university professor. How do you find the time to write so prolifically since it feels like it’s one novel a year (can we mention that you’ve already sold your next book?)
MF:You can mention I’ve sold my next book! It is called New Kids and Underdogs and it’s about a new kid in town who gets immersed in the exciting world of agility dog training. I think it’s coming out late 2022 or early 2023. I’ll keep you posted.
I wouldn’t call myself prolific. I would say slow and steady wins the race. I write in the morning. I do university stuff in the afternoon. I do all my school prep in the summer. Sometimes it all falls apart. I do my best. Frankly, I’m a little tired.
GRWR: I know you have something exciting planned for tomorrow, Saturday, November 6 to promote this book. Can you tell readers about it and how they can attend?
MF: Yes! Join me on November sixth (please see below) for a very special Conversation with Susan B. Anthony. Yes! She is still dead! But she is coming back from the grave this one time, just so I can interview her. It will be held live and online on Zoom Webinar. So anyone can join in—and even ask Susan a few questions.
GRWR: What’s on the horizon, Margaret?
MF:A bath, a good rest, maybe a real laz-a-bout, and then a whole lot of grading before I pull up my sleeves and start writing again. I’m thinking monkey bars that hang just a little too high from the ground. I’m thinking garden apartments. I’m thinking a kid who learns to take charge when the grown-ups won’t. But we’ll see.
GRWR: It all sounds wonderful! Thanks tons for taking the time to tell us all about Susie B. Won’t Back Down.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony!
Register for A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony,
on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at noon Pacific Time.
Margaret Finnegan is the author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down, a School Library Journal starred review, and We Could Be Heroes, a Junior Library Guild selection. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, with her family and dog Walt. She makes very good chocolate cakes, and while she ran for student council in ninth grade, she lost.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
The first installment of this new middle-grade series by the super-duo Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver (who also delighted us with their Hank Zipzer books) was an instant New York Times best seller. In Alien Superstar, thirteen-year-old Citizen Short Nose escapes from his planet to avoid the removal of his sensory enhancer. He lands at Universal Studios, Hollywood, and, upon emerging from his ship, is crowded by tourists wanting to take selfies. In a series of fortunate opportunities, Short Nose (now Buddy C. Burger) becomes a costar on a show where the ratings were nosediving until his silly, honest acting debut. When his nutritional wafers run out, Buddy must quickly find Earth foods he can eat. Luckily, he’s made some human friends who rush to help him out.
Winkler and Oliver continue their winning combination of sincere, likable characters and laugh-aloud moments. Ethan Nicolle’sendearing illustrations enhance the story’s humor especially the images where we see Buddy lounging in the bath trying to absorb as much water as possible, or caught mid-transformation.
Living in LA, I find it’s not all that outlandish that an alien would walk through our midst and Angelenos wouldn’t bat an eye—that’s the clever charm of this story. Preconceived notions of aliens taking over are soon dispelled when Buddy’s friends realize he’s only here to escape the bad things happening on his home planet and that he very much misses his Grandmother Wrinkle. Kids will enjoy this likable antihero; the suspenseful ending will leave them eagerly awaiting what happens next in Buddy’s wacky, mixed-up world.
(DIARY OF A WIMPY KID BOOK 14)
Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)
The popularity of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid middle grade series is still blazing. Kids at our daughter’s elementary school were counting the days until the release of book 14, Wrecking Ball. Then it was noses in books as they devoured Greg Heffley’s latest escapades. So what’s the appeal of this best-selling series? When I asked kids this question, the answers were simple: the familiar way the book looked, the story’s relatable humor, and its well-known characters. Great reasons since everyone likes comfortably sharing a laugh with a friend.
The title Wrecking Ball refers to construction and destruction to the Heffley’s house. As parents, we can relate to the nightmare of home improvements, remodeling, and house-hunting. Seeing these things from Greg’s perspective is, of course, funny but also very true. From tried-and-true sight gags (plumber’s crack) to the much deeper consequences of starting over elsewhere—the possibilities to reinvent yourself but also the complexity of feelings of being split from your best friend. Kids will be white-knuckled wondering if Rowley’s being written out.
Kinney’s hilarious illustrations accompany every page. I especially enjoyed Greg’s dream house which will be really small (to avoid attracting attention since he’s famous), but include a vast interlinking underground network. [PAGES 40-45] Who hasn’t envisioned what they’d build if they were rich? Greg’s idea of a glass bathtub that sits inside a giant aquarium is a kick. If your tween has some holiday cash to spend, this book is sure to please.
Roll With It was an easy choice for my to-read list because it deals with disability. As a disabled author myself, I feel disability representation in books for children is so important and I’m thrilled to see the number of books featuring this element of diversity growing. Author Jamie Sumner has a son with cerebral palsy—the same disability as her main character, Ellie—so I was confident that aspect of the book would be handled with authority and authenticity. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting is a story that packed such an emotional punch on so many different levels.
Ellie and her mom move in with Ellie’s grandparents to help out since her grandfather’s memory issues are getting worse. Life in her grandparents’ trailer park is not exactly ideal for Ellie physically and she dreads starting at a new school as not only “the new kid” but “the new kid in a wheelchair.” Before long though, she connects with two other classmates from the trailer park, the hilarious Coralee and ultra blunt Bert, and Ellie begins to love her new home. She must then convince her mom that they should stay put.
Ellie is relatable and plucky, with a touch of snarky sarcasm, all of which endeared her to me immediately. Her growth as a character had much less to do with the traditional “overcoming her limitations due to her disability” trope and much more to do with making friends, asserting herself, navigating the complex relationship between a tween kid and her mother, and handling her emotions related to her grandfather’s illness. She’s a regular kid with dreams of being a celebrity chef, who experiences the same feelings and challenges as lots of kids her age. The fact that she has CP and is a wheelchair user is neither the main focus of the story nor downplayed. Sumner strikes a perfect balance of making that aspect of Ellie’s life an integral part of the story without it be her only story. Similarly, Ellie’s Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s is treated deftly and not sugarcoated.
Roll With It is not only a fun and interesting read—it’s a great representation for middle grade readers who are wheelchair users themselves and for any reader interested in a moving story which provides insight into a POV not often seen in children’s books.
Guest Review by Karol Ruth Silverstein
Karol Ruth Silverstein writes all genres of children’s books and screenplays. Her debut novel Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019) is loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at 13. Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives with her two exceptionally fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo. You can read a review of her novel here.
Angelenos will home in onThe Echo Park Castawaysfor its title—Echo Park—because we know that place! This neighborhood is where the story’s characters converge in their latest foster-care home. Quentin, a boy on the autistic spectrum, is the newest addition to Mrs. K’s house. Though almost nonverbal, he clearly communicates his desire to go home to his mom. Nevaeh, Vic, and little Mara may be veterans of the system but they understand Quentin’s need.
The reader is shown how each character struggles to get by since the story is told in three viewpoints. “Loud Boy” Vic lives in a fantasy world where he’s a superspy spinning tales about his father’s absence—anything is better than accepting the fact he was deported to El Salvador. “Quiet Girl” Mara barely speaks English but can get through to Quentin. As Vic plots how to reunite Quentin with his mom, “Tall Girl” Neveah has to put aside her already too-full workload of chores and college prep to keep the younger kids out of trouble; she’s their caretaker, like it or not.
Circumstances beyond their control bring these kids from different walks of life together. Though obstacles face them in everyday life, they forge connections and make a family for themselves. This fast-moving story illuminates how children with limited options adapt to a flawed system.
The Echo Park Castaways is a deeply personal book for the author, M.G. Hennessey, who volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in the L.A. foster care system. In that position and as a youth mentor for the Lifeworks program, Hennessey has witnessed the system responsible for society’s most vulnerable children. The book presents characters based on case stories that illustrate the very real challenges foster children face every day. There are 30,000 kids in L.A.’s child welfare system—the largest in the nation.
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.
Written by Patti Kim
(Atheneum BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
In the middle grade novel I’m OK by Patti Kim, twelve-year-old Ok Lee’s world begins to fall apart when his father dies suddenly. Even though his mother works three jobs, they barely get by. To help out financially, Ok starts braiding girls’ hair at school and resolves to win the talent show’s $100 prize—though he doesn’t have a talent in mind.
The flawed characters in I’m Ok weave together realistically in a story about the imperfect lives of recent immigrants and middle schoolers. Ok’s unwitting sidekick is Mickey McDonald, a girl with the biggest hair and a personality to match. Her family’s also poor but she doesn’t care what other people think. Mickey adds a lively, funny element to a story that also depicts race and social class discrimination. Set at an indeterminate time, Americana details such as Enjoli perfume or the TV shows “Charlie’s Angels” and “MacGyver” will resonate with older readers.
The ending feels genuine and opens the door to talking about why life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect or want. Ok is bound to his mother, and her decisions direct their future.
This was June’s book-of-the-month at Chevalier’s Books’ middle-grade book club in Los Angeles. I’m Ok was well liked by all. The animated discussion considered many interesting elements of this novel including nice story-writing details such as how the story is bookended by two similar yet quite different scenes.