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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.