RIVERLAND Written by Fran Wilde (Amulet Books; $17.99, Ages 10-14)
★Starred Review – Booklist, Shelf Awareness
In Riverlanda debut (older) middle grade novel by Fran Wilde, Momma promises everything will be all right, but sisters Eleanor and Mike know better. Things aren’t OK, no matter how hard they try to be good. The girls weave stories about how “house magic” will fix whatever’s wrong this time. When Poppa breaks the family heirloom (a glass witch ball), a river appears in their secret hiding place and the girls venture to a place where dreams grow in reeds.
A heron made of metal, glass, and driftwood explains that nightmares are made of “failed dreams, smoke, and the river mist” and that “the same magic that kept dreams and reality apart also held back the nightmares.” Anassa, a snake-headed monster, upsets the balance. As the damage in one world seeps to the next, the sisters try to understand their family’s guardian’s agreement while facing new kinds of danger and the possibility of never returning home. Sisterly love fiercely connects them, yet Eleanor worries her temper dooms her to become like Poppa.
Lines between fantasy and reality blurred long before the enchanted river. The girls and their mother live fearfully in denial, unwilling to admit Poppa’s abusive nature. Though Eleanor’s new friend Pendra and Pendra’s mom (school guidance counselor) surmise something’s wrong, Eleanor keeps up the façade and her friend at arm’s length; without confirmation others are powerless to help.
Riverland depicts children trapped in a dysfunctional home and the ways in which they escape reality. This important book shows a family’s coping mechanisms for domestic violence. Older middle graders and YA readers may be best suited to recognize and process the nuances of this story.
Be Prepared, a middle grade graphic novel written and illustrated by VeraBrosgol, is the book I needed in middle school. Aside from the fact that I never actually got to go to summer camp, I imagine my experiences would have been eerily similar to the protagonist’s trials and tribulations, including the torture of the unknown when it came to outhouse bathrooms. (I did go camping a lot and have never met a Port-a-Potty I liked, but then, who has?). The expressive and verdant illustrations truly capture the specific tumultuous emotions of tweens and beyond and captured my heart with the integrity and honesty given to this age group.
Even though your kids are back to school with visions of summer lingering in their heads, Brosgol’s novel will help quell some of those summer pangs. Written from the perspective of a young Russian girl named Vera who is trying to fit in with her peers, Be Prepared simultaneously pulls the reader into an immediate place of recognition as well as a fresh perspective from a Russian family.
While her friends have big houses and to-die-for birthday parties, Vera struggles to gain acceptance in her smaller home she shares with her Mom and little brother. When Vera finds out from a Russian friend at Temple that a special summer camp exists geared towards Russian kids, she almost explodes with delight at the thought of going to a camp where she can relate to her peers and make some new friends. Since her school peers have been to sleep away summer camps and trips all over the world, Vera listens intently and absorbs information as they talk extensively about it all, hoping that following this summer she’ll have camp stories to share as well.
Vera and her brother have never been to summer camp, and she is determined to convince her mom that they should both go. And they do. As the first day of camp approaches, Vera is bursting at the seams. Her younger brother remains apprehensive. Thrown into the midst of a tent with two older campers who are seasoned participants, Vera’s welcome is not what she had in mind. Initially frowned upon for being so young, Vera’s artistic skills impress the older campers and they start asking for drawings. In return, Vera is suddenly at the center of attention she always thought she wanted. But giving away her art quickly turns into giving away her contraband candy stash as well as turning a blind eye to other campers she might have a genuine connection with. When Vera is caught with candy in her shared tent by the camp counselor, every bunk is raided until all the candy is gone, and Vera’s popularity with the older girls plummets. Adding to Vera’s stress and dismay is the fact that her younger brother seems to be enjoying camp just fine and isn’t anxious to leave as soon as possible like she is.
The turning point for Vera is her camp counselor encouraging her to find friends that don’t ask for something in return for “friendship.” Soon Vera finds out that a young camper with a missing guinea pig is an interesting and fun person to hang out with. At the end of camp both Vera and her younger brother come to terms with some of the pros and cons of summer camp on the drive home and, in a tender moment of sibling connection, find out that they have both struggled.
Check out Be Prepared and feast your eyes on the amazing artistry and storytelling skills of Vera Brosgol, an author your kids are sure to want more of.
Mr. Wolf’s Class: Book #1 The First Day of School by Aron Nels Steinke is not your mother’s back-to-school middle grade chapter book. It’s a smart, funny, insightful look at fourth-grade in graphic novel format and I enjoyed every page. From the realistic, contemporary dialogue to the perfectly captured facial expressions on the diverse line up of teachers and students, Steinke succeeds in helping readers connect with and care about an assorted and appealing cast of characters. And that’s a good thing since this is Book #1 in a new series that is sure to captivate even the most reluctant kid.
In this first book, we’re introduced to Mr. Wolf, a new teacher at Hazelwood Elementary. In fact, even before Chapter One (there are eleven chapters in total), anthropomorphic artwork full of color and movement shows Mr. Wolf conscientiously preparing his classroom followed by frames of each student, with illustration clues, as a quick and clever way to hint at their personality or issue. There’s new-in-town student, Margot, eager to start school but nervous about making friends; there’s Penny, poor, wiped out Penny, whose constantly crying baby sibling is keeping her from getting a good night’s sleep; there’s Aziza, a dedicated student but slightly snarky; and there’s Sampson, who’s brought something special to school to share at show-and-tell.
As an elementary school teacher and parent, Steinke totally gets this age group and the ever-changing dynamic of the classroom. One minute there’s silent reading and the next there’s chaos. All types of conflicts caused by all kinds of kids can occur throughout the day and Steinke’s chosen a few good ones to portray in Mr. Wolf’s Class. He’s included geeks and smart alecks, thoughtful and mean kids. He’s also got bossy and meek ones, tattle tales and show offs. With that kind of composition, anything can and does happen under Mr. Wolf’s supervision including a missing student, show-and-tell, and a burgeoning friendship.
I’d like to emphasize here that this book can be appreciated year round for its wit, its engaging illustrations and the delightful depiction of fourth-grade from multiple perspectives. Join Mr. Wolf and his students to see first-hand what’s happening at Hazelwood Elementary.
TINY INFINITIES Written by J. H. Diehl (Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
– A Junior Library Guild Selection –
In Tiny Infinities, the debut middle grade novel by J. H. Diehl, the summer when Alice turns thirteen, her family’s structure disintegrates. Her mother has become a bedridden recluse, her father moves out, and Alice’s two brothers are temporarily placed with their aunt. Alice willfully stays at the family home, erecting the Renaissance tent her parents met in, resolving to sleep in the backyard until her father returns. Due to finances, cell phones, internet, and camps are cut. Earning money babysitting is bittersweet—Alice’s parents are too distracted to pay much attention. Alice discovers each family has complications. Piper, the young girl she watches, has an undiagnosed loss of speech and possibly hearing.
This quiet story considers deep issues including how one family member’s illness or injury affects everyone. Because of her parents’ split and her mother’s inability to recover, Alice loses touch with close friends rather than explain.
Swimming keeps Alice centered; she’s determined to get her name on her swim team’s record board. A friendship with the new girl, Harriet, develops. Harriet’s keen observations while somewhat off-putting are also perceptive: she advises Alice to switch to backstroke. While this is another change, Alice eventually realizes that she likes swimming backwards without seeing where she’s going; it gives her confidence in her ability to maneuver the pool, and life. Alice and her friends learn from one another how to find their way—realizing it is their way to find.
Tiny Infinities is an honest coming-of-age middle-grade novel. Alice understands for the first time that there is “no line between hot and cold, or warm and cool, love and not love. Tiny infinities [are] always going to be there.”
Fireflies play a clever role in the novel throughout. Beneath the book’s beautiful glimmering jacket is a stunning smooth casewrap adorned with fireflies. The brightly contrasting endpapers offer a pop of color.
THE FANTASTIC LIBRARY RESCUE AND OTHER MAJOR PLOT TWISTS Written by Deborah Lytton Illustrated by Jeanine Murch (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $7.99, Ages 8 and up)
Read Our Q & A With Author Deborah Lytton
On today’s post I’m excited to share a recent interview I had with author, Deborah Lytton, about book #2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, which came out earlier this month. Having thoroughly enjoyed this chapter book for middle grade readers* that includes illustrations of Ruby’s active imagination at work, I can see how much tweens and bibliophiles will gravitate to the series, and this new book in particular, especially since it tackles two important issues: libraries losing funding and friendship predicaments. I especially like that Ruby’s friend Will P is also in a bookclub, something I don’t usually see depicted in stories. Here’s how Sourcebooks Jabberwocky describes Lytton’s latest:
The second book in this fun series that’s perfect for younger fans of the Dork Diaries and Story Thieves series. Ruby Starr is an older Junie B. Jones with a big imagination and a love of reading.
Ruby Starr’s life is totally back on track. Her lunchtime book club, the Unicorns, is better than ever. And she and Charlotte, her once arch enemy, are now good friends. The only thing that’s really causing any drama is her upcoming poetry assignment. She’s a reader, not a poet!
But disaster strikes when Ruby learns that her most favorite place in the world, the school library, is in trouble. Ruby knows she and the Unicorns have to do something to help. But when Ruby’s plans end up hurting a friend, she’s not sure her story will have a happy ending after all.
Q & A:
GOOD READS WITH RONNA:Ruby is a charming, book-loving outgoing yet introspective fifth grader. And while she is not perfect she certainly is someone any parent would be proud of. Do you happen to know any Rubys? And if not, how did you wind up with her as a main character for your series?
DEBORAH LYTTON: I do know a Ruby. My inspiration for this series came from my younger daughter who was in fifth grade when I began writing the first book. My YA SILENCE had just been released, and my older daughter was reading it. My younger daughter wanted me to write something for her to read. She asked for a story that would make her laugh. I based the character of Ruby on her initially, but then as I began to write, the character took on her own qualities. My favorite part of writing is when the characters begin to shape themselves. That definitely happened with Ruby Starr.
GRWR:What do you love most about her?
DL:I love that Ruby makes a lot of mistakes, but always tries to fix them. My favorite thing about Ruby is her kindness. She thinks about other people and their feelings and tries to help them when she can. This is a quality I truly admire. I also enjoy writing Ruby because she is so imaginative.
GRWR:I realize this is book #2 in the series but yet I felt fully up-to-speed. Can you please tell readers briefly what happens in book #1?
DL: I am so happy to hear that you felt up-to-speed! It was really important to me to write a second book that would let readers jump right in. Book #1 establishes Ruby’s character and her love for reading. The story centers on friendship troubles. When a new girl joins Ruby’s fifth grade class, she begins pulling Ruby’s friends away from her. Then she threatens to destroy Ruby’s book club. Ruby has a difficult time, and then she learns something about the new girl that changes everything. Ultimately, books bring the friends together.
GRWR:Is there a book #3 on the horizon?
DL:Yes, I am really excited about Ruby’s third adventure. I have just finished the manuscript and I can tell you that Ruby and her friends get into a little bit of a mix-up and that it all begins with a very special book.
GRWR:As a kidlit reviewer I love that Ruby is in a book club (The Unicorns), and as a writer I love Ruby’s vivid imagination. Did your own childhood inform these traits or did you feel she’d need these qualities to be a role model for tweens or someone many young readers could relate to?
DL:Growing up, my sister and I were like Ruby. We loved reading. Both of us cherish books and have saved many of our favorites from when we were young readers. My own daughters also love to read. In spending time helping out in their school classrooms and libraries, I have seen how many students enjoy books. I loved the idea that a fifth grade student would be independent enough to start her own book club at school to celebrate reading. Then I thought it would be fun to see where her imagination would take her, especially since she would be inspired by all the books she had read and loved. I hope young readers who have stayed up late just to read the next chapter of a book will connect with a character who is like them.
GRWR:The hero’s journey that Ruby embarks on is to save the school library where the hours have been reduced and new book purchases have been shelved due to funding cutbacks. Was this plot line inspired by stories you’ve seen in the news or even closer to home here in L.A.?
DL:I have volunteered in the libraries at my daughters’ schools so I have seen first-hand the way that budget cuts have impacted the libraries. I have also helped students search for the perfect book to read and then watched their faces light up when they discover something really special. Libraries are so valuable to our youth. I wanted to highlight that message in this story.
Until now, Stacy McAnulty has been best known for her picture books. (EXCELLENT ED is one of my favorites.) But her middle grade debut, THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL, puts her squarely in the category of must-read middle grade author, as well.
12-year-old Lucy Callahan narrates the book. Thanks to a chance meeting with a bolt of lightning, Lucy is a math genius. She’s been homeschooled for the four years since the accident and, technically, she should be going to college. Lucy’s grandma just has one requirement before sending her young charge off to university: “Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!).” The mysteries of calculus, algebra, and geometry are easy for Lucy to solve. But the mystery of how to survive middle school? It’s an impossible equation—especially for Lucy.
Lucy’s not very good at making friends. And, though she’d prefer to blend into the background, a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (another result of the lightning strike) makes her stand out. For example, she can’t just sit down. She needs to sit, stand, sit, stand, sit (otherwise she incessantly recites the numbers of pi in her head). And a germ phobia means she goes through a good number of Clorox wipes during the school day. (Lucy would want me to give you an exact here, but I can’t.) However, in spite of this, Lucy is comfortable with herself and I love that. In fact, McAnulty never gives the impression that the things that make Lucy so unique (and make middle school so difficult for her) are problems to be solved. They’re just part of Lucy—for better or worse. There are other problems too. Lucy’s mom is dead; her dad is absent; and her grandmother struggles to make ends meet. But these are all just part of Lucy’s life. McAnulty doesn’t let them become the focus of the book, which is just as it should be.
I don’t want to ruin the fun of reading this book by giving too much away. I will just say that I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the world through Lucy’s eyes. You don’t need to love (or even understand) math to love THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL. It’s a book for anyone who has ever felt out of place, vulnerable, or just plain weird. And I’m pretty sure that’s all of us.
★Starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal.
ALL’S FAIRE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL Written and illustrated by Victoria Jamieson (Dial BYR; $20.99, Ages 8-12)
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly A New York Times Editor’s Choice An Autumn Kids’ Indie Next List top pick
Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School, provides a much-needed glimpse into alternative lifestyles. Twelve-year-old Imogene has been homeschooled by parents who work at Florida’s Renaissance Faire. When Imogene starts public school for the first time, she faces a very different world than at the faire where she is a knight-in-training.
Each chapter begins with brief synopsis of the brave heroine’s plight, conveyed in somewhat Old English. With much of the book set at the faire, readers gain insight into this medieval reenactment where people choose which role to play. Imogene never wanted to be the princess, but she questions whether she is destined to be a knight—maybe she’s more like Cussie, the hermit. Sometimes, Imogene behaves like the dragon.
The story explores Imogene’s turbulent journey to self-discovery. This is a tale of acceptance, forgiveness, friends, and blossoming sexuality. Imogene is every preteen, learning what it takes to fit in at school. She is teased for wearing thrift-store clothes with the wrong shoes. Imogene’s family becomes an embarrassment to her when they show up still dressed in Elizabethan costume and think nothing of it. Before entering sixth-grade, Imogene hadn’t noticed her family was different and how this is viewed suspiciously.
As with Jamieson’s successful Newbery Honor Book Roller Girl, in All’s Faire, the protagonist is a tough girl struggling with prepubescent emotions. The love of Imogene’s family—including her “faire-mily”—is a constant. Even when at odds with her parents and brother, in the end, Imogene realizes that the bullies and popular kids at school are something to suffer in passing. Her philosophy of what’s important shifts—and that makes all the difference.
Imogene makes unkind choices, acting out against others because of her own frustration. Her journey to finding the right path is a realistically portrayed ongoing battle. In life, there are no easy answers. Family can embarrass us by just being themselves. We all make mistakes, yet, each day, we can choose which character we wish to play. The book concludes with an understanding that, if you believe there are happy endings in sixth-grade, then you haven’t attended middle school—a declaration which will resonate with readers everywhere.
How exciting to be participating in this cool Click’d giveaway! Disney-Hyperion sent Good Reads With Ronna a copy to check out, and is partnering with us on this great giveaway opportunity for readers!
Scroll down to get the lowdown!
GENERAL DETAILS …
Click’dby Tamara Ireland Stone Release Date: September 5, 2017 Recommended for ages 9+
FIND OUT MORE …
Visit the Official Click’d Site here. Follow Disney-Hyperion on Twitter here. on Instagram here. Like Disney Books on Facebook. Spread the Word UsingHashtag #ClickdBook
HERE’S AN EXCERPT TO GET YOU PSYCHED!
Read an excerpt from Click’d here. Get ready to see how Click’d will click with you.
ABOUT THE BOOK …
New York Times best-selling author Tamara Ireland Stone combines friendship, coding, and lots of popcorn in her fun and empowering middle-grade debut.
Allie Navarro can’t wait to show her best friends the app she built at CodeGirls summer camp. Click’d pairs users based on common interests and sends them on a fun (and occasionally rule-breaking) scavenger hunt to find each other. And it’s a hit. By the second day of school, everyone is talking about Click’d.
Watching her app go viral is amazing. Leaderboards are filling up! Everyone’s making new friends. And with all the data Allie is collecting, she has an even better shot at beating her archenemy, Nathan, at the upcoming youth coding competition. But when Allie discovers a glitch that threatens to expose everyone’s secrets, she has to figure out how to make things right, even if that means sharing the computer lab with Nathan. Can Allie fix her app, stop it from doing any more damage, and win back the friends it hurt-all before she steps on stage to present Click’d to the judges?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Tamara Ireland Stone (www.TamaraIrelandStone.com) is the author of Time and Time Again, a collection of her two novels Time Between Us and Time After Time, and the New York Times best seller Every Last Word. A Silicon Valley-native, she has worked in the technology industry all her life, first testing Atari game boards in her parents’ garage, and later, co-founding a woman-owned marketing strategy firm where she worked with some of the world’s largest software companies. She enjoys skiing, hiking,and spending time with her husband and two children. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
THE PRIZE …
One (1) winner receives: a copy ofClick’d Please note that this Giveaway is open to US addresses only. The Rafflecopter giveaway will end on 10/11/17 at 12:00a.m. PST. Prizing and samples provided by Disney-Hyperion. Thanks for stopping by and good luck! If you’re not a winner, you can find this fab book for $16.99 at your local independent bookseller. We know you’re going to love getting Click’d!!
MEET DANIELLE DAVIS, AUTHOR OF ZINNIA AND THE BEES Written by Danielle Davis Illustrated by Laura K. Horton (Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)
Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel.
Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.
On that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.
As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.
The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)
Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.
Review by Ronna Mandel
Author of Zinnia and the Bees, Danielle Davis
Good Reads With Ronna:What was the genesis forZinnia and the Bees?
Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.
GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?
DD 🐝:I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).
GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?
DD 🐝:While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.
GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?
DD 🐝:Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday.
GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?
DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.
GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?
DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.
GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?
DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of myblog.
And The Red Treeby Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.
GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?
DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.
GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?
DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.
GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?
DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)
The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years agohere.
GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?
DD🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!
Visit Danielle’s website here. Find her at Twitter here. Find her at Instagram here. Click here to see Danielle’s Facebook page And click here to for her Pinterest boards. Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.
BLOOMING AT THE TEXAS SUNRISE MOTEL Written by Kimberly Willis Holt (Henry Holt and Company BYR/A Christy Ottaviano Book; $16.99, Ages 8-14)
In Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel, when thirteen-year-old Stevie’s parents are killed in an accident, she’s uprooted from her New Mexico home and sent to live in the Texas Sunrise Motel with a grandfather she doesn’t remember. Though grandfather Winston is standoffish, Stevie quickly connects with the motel’s eclectic group of people, including a cute boy her age named Roy.
Living in the same room where her mother grew up sparks Stevie’s curiosity about her parents’ kept-quiet past; grandfather Winston coolly avoids personal topics. Instead of enrolling Stevie in public school, she’s sent to the same woman who homeschooled her mother—the ancient and narcoleptic Mrs. Crump. Here, Stevie finally begins to piece together the puzzle about what her mother was like as a girl.
In this moving middle grade novel, Stevie struggles to cope with choices that are being made without her consent. Just as she’s settling into Texas, an unknown aunt invites Stevie to Louisiana. Now it’s up to her to decide between living with fun and loud cousins or returning to her seemingly detached grandfather and the motel’s motley cast of characters. Stevie’s comfortable world has ended; she’s adrift in new beginnings and explorations.
Kimberly Willis Holt‘seffective use of plant imagery throughout will not be lost on readers. Stevie parents ran a fruit and flower stand, her Louisiana cousins are in the nursery business—digging in the dirt is in Stevie’s genes. Discovering where Stevie puts down roots is the heart of this gentle, character-driven, and finely crafted story.
Over the summer, Wren Jo Byrd, a shy nine-year-old, was abruptly sent to stay with her grandparents while her Mom and Dad split up. Rather than confess what was going on to BFF Amber, Wren ignored her.
At the start of the new school year, Wren finds that Amber is best buddies with Marianna Van Den Heuval, the new girl in town; Wren pretends nothing has changed. However, Wren’s lies about her family become hard to maintain because she must split her time between two households. Wren doesn’t understand how this could be good for them.
Marianna, from the big city of Portland, blows into Wisconsin like a diva with an agenda. She peppers her dialogue with wonderfully realistic preteen talk, such as “We’re going to have So. Much. Fun!” Yet, Marianna’s bravado isn’t all it seems. Wren discovers some of Marianna’s secrets and begins a list of questions for Marianna—the only girl she knows whose parents are divorced. As Amber is swept away in Marianna’s coolness, Wren wrestles with what it means to be a friend and dreads what will happen when everyone discovers the truth.
Julie Bowe’s first-person voice captures Wren’s fears and the complexities in her life. The text is punctuated by definitions Wren looks up on her phone, such as to the word “happy” (meaning “content”) and then “content” (meaning “not needing more”). These lead her to wonder, “When did Mom and Dad stop being happy? . . . How come no one told me we needed more?”
Everyone has secrets; Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd), gives us a glimpse into why we hide our truths and the consequences we must endure when we choose to lie. This heartfelt story is about accepting change as friendships and families evolve beyond our control.
DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN By Joel ben Izzy (Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)
When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’sDreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:
“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.” There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.
Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.
As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.
Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.
Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.
The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”
TIMMY FAILURE & TOM GATES RECOMMENDED BOOKS FOR RELUCTANT READERS
Huzzah and hooray! A world class detective and a passionate doodler are back in the continuing series of two popular Candlewick Press middle grade books.
If you’re not familiar with either either Timmy Failure or Tom Gates, please take a look at earlier reviews of previous titles right here at Good Reads with Ronna (see below). Both series are a hit with fans of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and employ a diary or journal style novel filled with pen and ink illustrations. The illustrations not only add to both series’ humor, but, as one of my students, a reluctant reader (and now big fan) told me: the illustrations increase his understanding and enjoyment. Both are recommended for ages 8-12. So check out more hilarious adventures– and misadventures– of Timmy Failure and Tom Gates.
The young “ … founder, president, and CEO of Failure, Inc, the greatest detective agency in the nation …” is forced to go on a road trip to Chicago to help his mom’s boyfriend move, instead of working on his latest case: the theft of money from a school fundraiser. Extremely put out, Timmy endures miles of cornfields and country-western music with his mother, Doorman Bob, his polar bear ex-partner, Total, arch-enemy and “criminal mastermind,” Molly, and her family. Like the Pink Panther’s clueless Inspector Clouseau, the equally clueless Timmy accuses everyone but the actual thief and tries to elicit confessions from the innocent while advising them on their “Carmen Miranda” rights. Can Timmy solve the case while far away in Chicago? Can he trust Molly, one of his many suspects, to help him find the crook? Be prepared for “greatness!” Visit Candlewick Press for information on the books and see Pastis’ wonderful Timmy Failure website for more information on the series, the characters, trailers for each book, and activities.
Tom has a lot on his mind and some big problems. Not his usual problems: an irritating older sister, an obnoxious classmate who is always trying to get him in trouble, school, teachers, and math homework. Actually, any homework.
No, he’s got much bigger worries than that. His birthday is coming up and no one seems to notice the wish list he’s conveniently posted on the refrigerator door. His weird, but sweet grandmother has promised to whip him up a special birthday cake. Not so good … she’s been known to mix jello and peas together. His parents have promised to take him and four of his friends to Dino Village for his birthday (where his father works). Four friends? No problem, he’ll invite best “mate” Derek, Norman, and two others. Things quickly go awry, when Amy, the girl he has a crush on, sees the invitations and asks if she can come … and bring a friend. He agrees before realizing the numbers (there’s that pesky math again) don’t add up to four.
His band, Dog Zombies, which includes Derek and Norman, has been “volunteered” by Principal Keen to perform at the school dance. The inexperienced trio, with only one previous engagement under their belts, is going to need a lot of practice. A lot! Even worse, Tom’s father, a loveable and delightfully quirky man, has been hired to be the DJ at the school dance. He plans to wear his dinosaur costume from Dino Village … and silver disco boots. Positively cringe-worthy.
Will this doodler and homework dodger get what he wants for his birthday? Will he figure out how to include Amy and his four friends at Dino Village? Will the Dog Zombies go up in flames at the school dance? And then there’s his father … and his grandmother’s special birthday cake. Read the book and be prepared for a laugh-out-loud experience!
Oh, in case you don’t speak British (“choon” means an excellent tune), Pichon has included a British to American glossary. Don’t forget to check out the recipe for Tom’s “Doodle Toast” at the end of the story.
Visit Pichon’s and Candlewick’s websites for more information on the author and the series as well as fun activities.
Check out Good Reads with Ronna’s earlier reviews of previous titles in the Tom Gates series:
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
★Starred Review – Kirkus Junior Literary Guild Selection The Independent Booksellers Association – Kids’ Next Pick for Spring 2015.
I love the Beatles! I am a truly devoted fan, so when I came across Erin Entrada Kelly’s debut middle grade fiction novel, Blackbird Fly, I knew I was in for a treat. What I didn’t expect is that the book would address, with truthfulness and clarity, so many of the difficult issues of being in middle school.
After the death of her father when she was four-years-old, Apple Yengko and her mother immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. Apple’s one possession that belonged to her father is his tape of Abbey Road. Now that Apple is in middle school nothing is like what it was in elementary school. In middle school there are now mean girls who used to be Apple’s friends, new friends to make, and Apple is trying to discover who she really is meant to be when she is unexpectedly set apart from the crowd.
More than anything Apple wants to fit in at school, but maybe even equal to that longing is how much Apple really wants a guitar. When social pressures begin to mount up at school, Apple sees no way out of the veritable tornado of difficult times which include being placed on the “Dog Log” at school, a list that the boys make of the ugliest girls. Listening to The Beatles becomes Apple’s way of coping with the changing times she finds herself in. Luckily for Apple her new friends help her to find a way out of all the chaos. She learns that with music and a little help from her friends she can tackle this tough time.
This touching tribute to the power of music to transform a bad time into a better one and how much a true friend can help you had me nodding in agreement many times. I remember these middle school days very well. Who does not remember the days when you just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere, and when friends suddenly turned into popularity seekers? Blackbird Fly speaks right to the middle school student I was.
The message of the book is one that all middle school students should hear. Find out who your true friends are. Find out what you stand for and the kind of person you want to be. Find your passion in life. Follow the truth and be truthful with others. These are hard lessons to learn, but Erin Entrada Kelly presents a sympathetic heroine who is so easy to relate to. Apple is just learning to navigate the tricky waters of growing up. Kelly writes her character so well. Apple is not perfect, but she is trying her best to find her way. I was rooting for this character all the way through the book and the plot kept me so gripped that I read it in one sitting. It’s very seldom that I’ve read a book so perfectly pitched to the middle grade experience that I would hand it to a girl that age and say, “Here, take this book and you will learn so much about the time you are going through. Use this as a guide.” Blackbird Fly is that book.
References to the Beatles are sprinkled thoughout the book. Even though Apple’s favorite Beatle is George, I can still identify with this character. The best Beatle is of course Paul, but I’m open to debate. Still, you don’t have to be a Beatles fan to understand that sometimes you just want to fly away from difficult situations, but you need to learn how to, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” The moment you were waiting to arrive might come after a difficult time. However, if you can be strong like Apple is and stand for what you believe in then I promise you the moment you were waiting for will finally arrive. Blackbird Fly can be pre-ordered now and will be available on 3/24/15.