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Three New Children’s Passover Books for 2024

 

 

NEW CHILDREN’S PASSOVER BOOKS

Passover Clip Art

 

 

 Afikoman Where'd You Go cover kids in treehouse afikoman on roofAFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO?:
A Passover Hide-and-Seek Adventure
Written by Rebecca Gardyn Levington
Illustrated by Noa Kelner
(Rocky Pond Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
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There’s a mischievous personified piece of matzoh on the loose in the pages of Afikoman, Where’d You Go? and I got such a kick out of looking for him. Your kids will too! This picture book is not only written in well-crafted rhyme, it’s also relatable to anyone who’s ever attended a Seder, Jewish or not.
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At the Passover seder, youngsters are always eager to start the traditional search for the afikoman which happens halfway through the meal. The Glossary, helpfully included at the start of the story, defines the afikoman as “The piece of matzoh that is symbolically broken and then hidden, as part of a ritual during the seder.” Children hunt for him around the house or in a particular designated room. The process varies from house to house. In this tale, the kids check out every place indoors with no luck. The wily matzoh, like the Gingerbread Man, is one step ahead. Next up, the backyard.
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Part of the fun is searching every single spread to see where Afikoman is hiding. I have to admit there was one spread where I could not locate the clever cracker! That’s the bathroom scene which I’ve checked multiple times. And when I did spot him, I laughed out loud a few times. The catchy refrain, “Is he hiding somewhere high? Is he hiding somewhere low? Afikoman? Afikoman? Afikoman? WHERE’D YOU GO?” adds to the read-aloudability.
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When the afikoman is finally found, it’s time to return to the table and continue the seder. Here’s where the author and illustrator have included a satisfying surprise ending. The detailed artwork (created using pencil, ink, and Photoshop) includes a determined family dog who, along with a diverse group of kids, team up to track down Afikoman and enjoy themselves the entire time. One of my favorite illustrations is the children’s messy bedroom. It’s hard to know if the kids did that or if it was like that already! Sure to invite multiple readings for the holiday, Afikoman, Where’d You Go? easily gets a thumbs up from me.

 

Everybody's Book cover hiding Haggadah in Mosque bookcase.EVERYBODY’S BOOK: 
The Story of the Sarajevo Haggadah
Written by Linda Leopold Strauss
Illustrated by Tim Smart
(Kar-Ben Publishing; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

A richly recounted nonfiction story as colorful as the history of the titular Sarajevo Haggadah, Everybody’s Book is an enlightening read. I had the good fortune to visit Sarajevo at the end of 1989 before the city was ravaged by war but hadn’t heard about the famous Haggadah. I’m happy to have had the chance to learn. If the topic is of further interest, parents can also learn more by reading Geraldine Brooks’ The People of The Book.

The book opens with an introduction explaining how the storied Sarajevo Haggadah was first given to a bride and group circa 1350. Readers then learn that in “the late 1400s” the expulsion of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition was a scary time. In Spain, Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave. Lives were upended and never the same. Many families fled with nothing but the family that owned what became known as the Sarajevo Haggadah took it with them when they escaped. Over time the Haggadah changed hands multiple times eventually landing in Italy to a new generation of owners and ultimately to Bosnia where it continued to be used “during Passover Seders.”

“By 1894, the family that owned the Haggadah had fallen on hard times …” Alas the treasured family heirloom was sold. It was bought by the National History Museum of Sarajevo, a religiously diverse and mostly tolerant city where it was revered. The museum managed to keep the Sarajevo Haggadah safe until WWII broke out.

When the Nazis tried to get their hands on it, the fast-thinking museum director fabricated a web of lies but that didn’t stop the Nazis from searching the museum albeit to no avail. It is said that the curator then took the Haggadah to “a remote village, where an imam of a small mosque hid it among sacred Islamic texts.” When the war ended the Haggadah was returned to Sarajevo but peace there remained fragile.

After WWII, “Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats became part of unified Yugoslavia under one leader.” Following his death in 1980, tensions that had been simmering over the years reached a climax, and fighting among the three groups began. “In 1991, Serbs attacked Bosnia.” Another war threatened the safety of the Sarajevo Haggadah. When the museum was bombed the following year, a Muslim university professor helped rescue the book once again. This new war saw the destruction of the National and University Library of Sarajevo though citizens “formed a human chain to save whatever books they could. By this time, not just Bosnians knew about the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, and the world worried about this treasure.

One of my favorite spreads is the one that depicts a Passover Seder in 1995, in the midst of the war. “Christian, Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim leaders joined Jews at Sarajevo’s only remaining synagogue …” During the Seder, the Bosnian President, a Muslim, arrived with the Haggadah to assure all those in attendance that it was safe. When the war ended and the Bosnian National Museum was constructed, the Sarajevo Haggadah was restored and placed among other historic treasures for all to see. Everybody’s Book could now truly be enjoyed by everybody. Tim Smart’s watercolor art has a sketch-like, loose quality showing the flow of time and the ever-changing circumstances the Sarajevo Haggadah endured. This picture book is an important one that emphasizes how the power of people from all religions and walks of life can make a difference when they find common ground. How lucky we all are that this marvelous book from a marriage over 670 years ago has survived. Oh, the stories its pages could tell!

ON ALL OTHER NIGHTS:
A
PASSOVER CELEBRATION IN 14 STORIES
Edited by Chris Baron, Joshua S. Levy, and Naomi Milliner
Illustrated by Shannon Hochman
(Amulet Books; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

While there could be a plethora of themes for a Passover anthology, selecting the 14 steps of the Seder as an entry point is perfect. It’s what drew me to this book in addition to the title. It did not hurt that a host of bestselling and award-winning authors and one author-illustrator embraced and wrote about one particular step. Their instructions were only to approach the topic in any way they desired. This made for a fascinating and engrossing read. If I had the time, upon finishing my first read-through, I could have started all over again. It’s just that good!

As I dove in, I never knew what type of story would greet me, and that’s only one part of the magic of this holiday collection. Whatever way you choose to read On All Other Nights, you will be treated to a variety of top-notch middle-grade voices, approaches, plots, and characters. You can read it all in one sitting, devouring every delicious and meaningful step, or take it one short story at a time, savoring each one slowly like the Seder meal itself. At the start of each story, there is a brief, helpful description of the step. I was impressed at how creative the stories tackled each subject. Apropos of the title are also four thoughtful questions (the Four Questions being an important element of the Seder which generally the youngest asks) tweens can contemplate or parents and teachers can use for discussions.

Just like there are many kinds of Jewish ethnicities around the world (e.g. Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and more) and different branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and more), there are many different stories in this collection. Each story has a unique style and appeal. I loved the story featuring an Autistic character, Myra, who could not stand the smell of gefilte fish. It especially resonated with me having a son with sensory processing disorder for whom certain smells can drive him out of a room as it did for the girl in this story. Another story that’s stayed with me is the one about a family of Romanian immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. In it, the brother and sister are tasked with getting the maror (bitter herb) for the Seder from their father’s pushcart. At his sister’s behest, the brother retells a fairy tale about a witch and a memory spell. This relates to the brother’s annoyance that his sister does not seem to remember much of their life in Romania before emigrating. Later on, the younger sister cleverly and courageously helps her brother rescue a new Polish immigrant being beaten up, revealing some surprising truths.

The fourteen On All Other Nights contributors include: Chris Baron, Ruth Behar, Adam Gidwitz, Veera Hiranandani, Amy Ignatow Sarah Kapit, Joshua S. Levy, Mari Lowe, Naomi Milliner, Soifya Pasternack, R. M. Romero, A. J. Sass, Laura Shovan, and Laurel Snyder.

Black and white art accompanies every chapter and the captivating cover invites children to think about their own role in the Seder. Readers are treated to tempting recipes in the backmatter from celebrated chefs and professionals. Contributor bios and acknowledgments can also be found there. At a recent signing event, editor Joshua S. Levy explained that the anthology is a mirror and window book. It communicates core human values to a wide audience with universal appeal. And that same evening, Chris Baron said the challenge with the anthology was “How do you breathe life into these steps?”  To which I say “Exactly like On All Other Nights did. Brilliantly!”

Click here to read last year’s roundup.

Also Recommended:

Why_on_This_Night_cover_Jews_and_Red_Sea_partingWHY ON THIS NIGHT?:
A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration
Written by Rahel Musleah
Illustrated by Louise August
(Kalaniot Books; $19.99, Ages 7-11)

Publisher Description:

The rich traditions of Passover come alive in this contemporary family haggadah. Updated from the original 2000 edition, this holiday favorite is available again for families to treasure. As children and adults gather at the seder dinner to remember the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom, this creative, yet authentic haggadah will guide and engage them. Lushly illustrated, with blessings and text of every major section of the haggadah in Hebrew, English translation, and transliteration, the welcoming and accessible style of Why On This Night? will make it a treasured seder companion year after year.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – The Jake Show

THE JAKE SHOW

Written by Joshua S. Levy

(Katherine Tegen Books; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

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The Jake Show cover featuring three boys Jacob Jake Yaakov e1709342039991.

 

 

I deliberately avoided reading anything about The Jake Show by Joshua S. Levy before uploading it onto my iPad. I’d also committed to reviewing it for Multicultural Children’s Book Day before it received its esteemed Sydney Taylor Honor. I had no idea what a treat was in store for me.

The main character, seventh-grader Jake, is in a tricky situation at home or should I say homes since his parents are divorced and both have remarried. At his mom’s place, he’s called Yaakov and feels pressured to conform to her wishes. She is a religious Orthodox Jew and her husband is a Rabbi. When he’s with his dad he’s Jacob because his dad is a secular Jew, at one point even forgetting some Hanukkah details, and his second wife isn’t Jewish. Readers will understand this boy’s dilemma. Jake, the middle ground name he uses at school, must constantly perform to please each parent while not knowing what he truly wants, only that it’s taking an emotional toll on him. It’s one thing when you’re in a film, TV show, or on stage; when the project is done you go home and cast aside your role. In Jake’s case, that’s when the acting begins.

Jake starts a new school as the book opens and is quickly welcomed by two classmates, Tehilla and Caleb. Jake is pretty sure he’ll be leaving this school since previously he’s had to attend schools either only his mother wanted or his father wanted. So, why bother making friends when you’re just going to leave because one parent is not happy? This begs the question of why the adults in Jake’s life seem to have all the agency and Jake none.

When Jake decides to attend Camp Gershoni for the summer at his friends’ urging, he knows it’s time to take matters into his own hands since neither parent will agree it’s the suitable choice. I was happy Jake chose to go camp but I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the myriad lies he tells. He concocts a wild plan straight out of an “I Love Lucy” episode. That airport scene, which includes outfit changing, is hysterical and I could see the entire scene playing out in my head as I cheered for him. All through his elaborate scheme, Tehilla is urging Jake to come clean but he’s in too deep.

Levy has infused The Jake Show with the perfect amount of humor to counter some of the serious issues presented. Much of the LOL moments are due to his friendship with Caleb and Tehilla who, outliers themselves, may understand Jake better than he can understand himself. I found myself eager to see what antics the trio would get up to next and that was facilitated by chapters that seemed to speed by. Secondary characters including Jake’s stepparents feel well-developed and bring levity into his home life. Jake needed to be seen and they saw him.

Readers learn that Jews come from all walks of life, some well off, some not. Tehilla and her mom struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Caleb, who is wealthy, despite the trying times he’s faced since coming out, can count on the support of his family, Tehilla, and now Jake. Yet the more Jake becomes preoccupied with his elaborate scheme and the more he lies to keep up the pretense, the harder it is to see certain truths: truths about his friendships and his family that he is just one more lie away from losing if he doesn’t own up to his charade.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2024- An Interview with Mari Lowe

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARI LOWE

WINNER OF THE SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD

FOR

THE DUBIOUS PRANKS OF SHAINDY GOODMAN

(Levine Querido; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

 

stba24 blog tour schedule banner

 

We’re thrilled to be back for another year, this time sharing a must-read middle grade novel, The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman by Mari Lowe. This novel not only addresses universal issues school girls deal with daily but one that brings the Orthodox Jewish community into the forefront in an insightful and meaningful way for readers of all backgrounds. Click here to see the full list of books and participants on the blog tour this week: 2024 Blog Tour: Sydney Taylor Book Awards – Association of Jewish Libraries

 

 

SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD WINNER
NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD WINNER

Starred Reviews – Horn Book, Shelf Awareness
Kirkus Top 10 Middle Grade Novels for Fall ’23

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

SHAINDY is a twelve-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who struggles in school and has no good friends. She watches with envy as her next-door neighbor, GAYIL, excels socially and academically. They have little to do with each other, and it comes as a surprise when Shaindy looks out her window one September evening and sees Gayil staring out at her from her own window with a sign reading: want to know a secret?

The secret (at first) is that Gayil has a key fob that will allow them to break into their school after hours. Together, they set up a harmless prank in their classroom. But under Gayil’s instigation the mischief becomes malice, and Shaindy sees that the pranks and humiliations are targeted only at certain girls. But what could they have in common?

With the fear of Gayil’s fury and her own reluctance growing, Shaindy comes to the terrifying conclusion that if she can’t figure out how to stop it, the next target could be her.

INTERVIEW:

GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Congratulations, Mari, on winning the 2024 Sydney Taylor Book Award for best middle grade novel, The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman. Two years and two wins in a row, has it sunk in yet?

MARI LOWE: It’s honestly been incredible. I never imagined that Shaindy would be so fortunate, and I’m still kind of shocked by the whole thing! But I’m also grateful that these books have left an impact and I hope that they will continue to do so– it’s every writer’s dream.

 

GRWR: I read that you came up with the story concept while at home with your family. Have they influenced your writing journey or did you always know you wanted to write?

ML: Well, I’ve always wanted to write! I read very young and started making up my own stories soon after that, and writing became as instinctive as breathing for me. But I don’t think that I really considered writing in this genre, with Orthodox Jewish characters, until my kids were old enough to read chapter books. And there were just so few where they could see themselves! What few portrayals there were of Orthodox Jews were fleeting and often inaccurate, and I wanted to give them mirrors– and, for other readers, a window into our world, where children are the same regardless of culture.

 

The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman cover Shaindy in Heelys.

 

 

GRWR: The premise of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman is that 6th grader Shaindy would love to be friends with Gayil Itzhaki, “her tall, willowy with perfect hair” neighbor, so when Gayil surprisingly invites Shaindy to join her in pulling off a bunch of pranks, it’s hard to say no. While they are pitched as harmless “fun between friends” as the pranks increase in hurtfulness, Shaindy begins having doubts. It was clever how you included the class lesson on the four steps of Teshuva, especially given the significance of the girls’ negative actions as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach. It helped ground the story. Can you speak to the dilemma that Shaindy faces?

ML: Those four steps of forgiveness feel so apt in all cases– because it isn’t about saying sorry, paying lip service or just regretting the way you’ve hurt someone, it’s about taking responsibility and vowing to do better moving forward. It’s about growth! For Shaindy, someone who has so often been overlooked and neglected by her classmates, there are two elements in the pranks: both the desire to belong, with Gayil, and this kind of underlying, dismissive sense of well, they’ll be fine, because they have what I don’t. It’s mean-spirited and petty, and I don’t think that Shaindy fully acknowledges that part of it until she really takes that step back midway through the book and evaluates not just the ways that she’s been hurt but the ways that she has hurt, in turn. She has to find strength within herself to break away from Gayil, but also to not become Gayil– someone who lashes out and seeks to continue that cycle of pain.

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GRWR: Your novel resonated with me which is why I could not put it down. Growing up I had a lot of Shaindy in me. That feeling Shaindy describes as “I’m the shadow, the girl no one notices …” And I knew girls like Gayil (“destined to shine” in Shaindy’s eyes) and her BFFs, Rena, and Devorah who seem to have it all. Now, looking back, would you say this story emerged as the result of any past experiences you’ve witnessed as a teacher or encountered yourself when you were in middle school?

ML: Oh, definitely! I’ve had a lot of classes like Shaindy’s, where the girls are all sweet and enthusiastic and a teacher’s dream– but there are those moments of unpleasantness when you know to look for them. There are the girls suffering at the fringes, and there is no easy way to pull them in from the outside, even as a teacher! Maybe especially as a teacher. I’ve spent a lot of time pairing girls up, encouraging new combinations, all in an effort to have every girl find her place. I don’t identify more or less with any of the girls in the book– I think I’ve had my moments when I’ve been each of them. But I definitely remember the Shaindy weeks, the times when I felt completely isolated and inferior, and I drew on a lot of those emotions to construct a girl who feels very universal to me. So many women and girls have told me that they identify with Shaindy. I think that Shaindy is who we feel like in our roughest adolescent moments, and I wanted desperately to give her strength of self in her story.

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GRWR: As writers we’re often told, write what you know, and you’ve done that by using Fairview, the purpose-built Orthodox Jewish community, as the backdrop of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman. I appreciated the loving and respectful glimpse into the school, family, neighborhood, and home lives of the main characters yet did not feel I had to be more religious to understand the novel. The challenges Shaindy coped with were moral and social, things any middle schooler could relate to. Why do you think Shaindy often says her classmates are nice and are not bullies, that’s not something that would occur at Bais Yaakov middle school yet still feels lonely and socially othered?

ML: Thank you! I really try to find universality in my specific cultural experiences. I think that there’s a certain level of expectation in Bais Yaakovs that is inculcated young: that we must be perfect, respectful and kind and caring and inclusive, and it’s an admirable thing, of course! But at the same time, a lot of girls wind up focused on giving off the appearance of those traits, performing them without feeling them. Interestingly, my most religious classes tend to be better-behaved, but also much more competitive and sometimes more likely to ice out an outsider. They rarely bully others– that’s something that can be quantified as Bad, and they are never Bad– but there is a certain level of disdain for those who can’t fit into the perfect mold, who don’t have it all down like they do (and deep down, so few girls do have it all down, and they’re all a little insecure about it– a tale as old as time). And I wanted the girls to confront that, a bit, too, how you don’t have to bully someone to make them miserable.

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GRWR: There is subtle foreshadowing for readers about what’s to come and what big issue Shaindy will ultimately have to deal with, one in fact that I never expected. Did you outline the book so that you knew in advance what would happen to Shaindy and her relationship with Gayil? Or, as her character’s emotional development evolved, did it occur organically and present itself to you?

ML: I started the book knowing a few things– Gayil’s initial proposition to Shaindy, Gayil’s end goal for it, and Gayil’s motivations. I started it knowing very little about Shaindy! But I think that she was easy to understand and to drop into her head. She sees herself as unlovable, but as I spent more and more time with her, I really began to love Shaindy and see her strengths, too. And by the time we get to the moment when everything changes, I was clear on where she would go from there– because I genuinely knew that she had it within her! Though when I initially finished the book, it was with a sweet last few pages which resolved the conflict neatly and left everyone friends. My agent talked me out of that, though! It couldn’t be sweet and simple– it had to feel real to Shaindy’s character growth and the messages of the story. Forgiveness is one thing; friendship and trust are another entirely.

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GRWR: Tzivia is one of my favorite characters. It’s a shame that Shaindy cannot pick up on Tzivia’s friendly overtures because she’s too intent on being friends with Gayil, the “it” girl of the grade. Nor does Shaindy spot Gayil’s meanness (unlike Tzivia) until it’s too late. Shaindy’s loyalty does not serve her well. Are these common friendship errors girls make?

ML: Oh, there are so many girls I want to shake sometimes and tell these girls are not for you. I think that in middle school, it’s so easy to get caught up in the magic of the girls who seem to have it all, who are beloved and surrounded by friends, without realizing that you might just be a bad match. It isn’t about some girls being nice or mean– most girls, I think, are both and neither. But a strong personality might overpower a milder one. A girl who is self-conscious and comes off as competitive because of it won’t mesh well with another girl like that. There are power dynamics and personality conflicts at work in many middle school interactions, and it’s hard to find the right friends for you, even if that person seems like such a good friend to the others around her. And Shaindy is starry-eyed and caught up in Gayil because Gayil is so perfect, to her eyes, that she hardly notices Tzivia until the stars have dissipated. It’s very common, especially while girls are still figuring out who they are– because until you have that confidence of self, it’s easy to be drawn to the girls who are all confidence and overlook quieter, more reliable friends.

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GRWR: Over the course of the novel, Shaindy’s relationship with Bayla, her older sister, improves, and Shaindy also becomes less hard on herself, more open to new friendships. What can readers learn from Shaindy’s rollercoaster (or should I say rollerblades and Heely’s) ride from her brief and tumultuous false friendship with Gayil?

ML: Middle school is a time all about finding your place and yourself. We spend a lot of time searching around us for the key to it all– what will make us stronger, smarter, more popular, happier. Shaindy gets caught up in all of that, looking for the actions and interactions that can change her. But in the end, very few of those changes are really going to come from others but within. We get really immersed in friends and social issues these years because they feel like they’re what define us. But Shaindy comes to understand that it isn’t a friendship with Gayil or the class’s treatment or even her sister’s dismissiveness that defines her: it’s who she is, and what choices she makes. And once she grasps that, the rest falls into place. She finds her real friends, her confidence, and new maturity, and she becomes someone who can take back her own power.

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GRWR: Before I say goodbye, I’m curious what your menagerie of pets consists of and whether any pet in particular keeps you company when you write.

ML: Right now, I have NOTHING KIND to say about the cat who is stubbornly napping behind me so I can’t lean back (save my back, please). I’m kidding! He’s fantastic, except for his propensity to walk on the keyboard when I’m trying to write. He generally takes the clacking of my keyboard as an invitation to curl up and nap beside me.

It’s not much of a menagerie anymore. I have a fifteen-year-old friendly corn snake, and at the time of the bio, we had two adorable hamsters (gifted to my son as a sorry-we’re-not-getting-a-cat present) and a cat (who came soon after). Sadly, over two isolated incidents, several months, and accidentally ajar doors apart, we are down to a snake and a cat. Over the years, I’ve kept a variety of pets– frogs, mice, ducklings, kittens, and even, briefly, a hedgehog. We’ve been contemplating chickens– popular in the neighborhood, and I do consume a Gaston-level number of eggs a day, anyway– but none of those yet!

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GRWR: What a treat it’s been having this opportunity to chat, Mari. I hope everyone who reads this gets a copy of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman and enjoys it as much as I did!

Support an independent bookseller and purchase a copy here.

Mari-Lowe-headshotAUTHOR BIO:

Mari Lowe has too little free time and spends it all on writing and escape rooms. As the daughter of a rabbi and a middle school teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school, she looks forward to sharing little glimpses into her community with her books. She lives in New York with her family, menagerie of pets, and robotic vacuum. Find her at Mari Lowe – Books by Mari Lowe and on Twitter (X) @marilwrites.

 

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Children’s Picture Book Review – My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me

MY GRANDPA, MY TREE, AND ME 

Written by Roxanne Troup

Illustrated by Kendra Binney

(Yeehoo Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

My Grandpa My Tree and Me cover granddaughter grandfather sit beneath pecan tree

 

There’s a timeless, feel-good quality to Roxanne Troup’s debut fiction picture book My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me, illustrated by Kendra Binney. After finishing it, I wanted to sit back and imagine myself in the bucolic surroundings where the story takes place.

Binney’s appealing artwork transported me to a pecan orchard for the first time where the action unfolds as a little girl spends time with her grandfather and narrates, “My grandpa planted a tree for me on the day I was born.” She also tells us that, despite having an orchard full of pecan trees, Grandpa’s favorite tree is that particular one, thus establishing the strong bond these two characters share.

 

My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me int1 girl and grandpa spreading mulch
Interior spread from My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me written by Roxanne Troup and illustrated by Kendra Binney, Yeehoo Press ©2023.

 

Through changing seasons starting in winter when it’s pruning time, and the annual growth cycle of the orchard, we learn how pecans mature and are harvested. At the same time, the special relationship between the child and her grandpa exudes from the warm, muted illustrations coupled with Trout’s lyrical prose. I especially felt that each time I read the lovely repeating phrase “But not my tree.” In spread after spread the young girl describes how the other pecan trees are treated en masse as part of the commercial harvesting process, while hers receives individualized care from her grandpa. Together the two tend to her tree with love and respect which also serves as a metaphor for their relationship.

 

My Grandpa My Tree and Me int2 prepping pecans for harvester
Interior illustrations from My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me written by Roxanne Troup and illustrated by Kendra Binney, Yeehoo Press ©2023.

 

At last, when the husks open, it’s harvest time. The joy is palpable on the page. Then “Grandpa attaches a padded arm to his tractor. It hugs the trees’ trunks and shakes until leaves and twigs and pecans rain down.” When it’s her turn and with Grandpa there to savor the experience, the girl uses a long pole to make the pecans drop. The orchard’s pecans will be collected by the harvester for sale but the girl’s pecans will be baked into a scrumptious pecan pie. And, not to spoil the beautiful ending, suffice it to say that Troup and Mother Nature’s miraculous cycle of growth delivers a delightful and very satisfying dénouement in this touching layered tale.

 

My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me int3 eating pecan pie time
Interior illustrations from My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me written by Roxanne Troup and illustrated by Kendra Binney, Yeehoo Press ©2023.

 

 

Troup, who is not a newcomer to writing, knows how to tell an engaging and tender story while infusing interesting information into it, clearly owing to her extensive nonfiction background. The pacing of My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me moves forward easily like the seasons in the orchard. There’s a soothing rhythm to the language that makes the book an ideal read any time of the day, including bedtime. Did you know that pecans are considered a native nut to North America? Find an All About Pecans note detailing the history of the commercial pecan industry along with a helpful glossary in the back matter.

Download a free teacher’s guide here.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

NOTE: I’m thrilled that Roxanne is a reviewer at this blog so subscribe today so you don’t miss her thoughtful coverage.

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Darshana Khiani Interviews Mirror to Mirror Author Rajani LaRocca

 

 

DARSHANA KHIANI INTERVIEWS RAJANI LAROCCA,

AUTHOR OF

MIRROR TO MIRROR

(Quill Tree Books; $19.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

MirrortoMirror cover twin sisters scaled

 

SUMMARY:

Rajani LaRocca, recipient of a Newbery Honor and Walter Award for Red, White, and Whole, is back with an evocative novel in verse about identical twin sisters who do everything together—until external pressures threaten to break them apart.

 

INTERVIEW:

Darshana Khiani: What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

MIRROR TO MIRROR Title PageRajani LaRocca: Mirror to Mirror started with a single poem. In April 2020, I took an online workshop with renowned poet Lesléa Newman in which she talked about several types of formal poetry, including the ghazal—a poetic form, often set to music, that is popular in South Asia and the Middle East. Inspired by the workshop, I wrote a ghazal about a twin lamenting that her sister had changed and the two were no longer close.

So then I started thinking: why did these two grow apart? What happened to them? And I started to create the characters. Because ghazals are often sung, I knew that the twins would be musical. I also thought that one would be hiding a secret that was eating away at her—and that secret would be the heart of her separation from her beloved twin.

 

DK: What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

RL: One challenge I faced was the same one I always face when writing a dual-POV book: how do I make the voices distinct from one another? How do I make sure each one moves the story forward? At first, I wrote Maya’s voice in poetry and Chaya’s in prose, but that felt jarring. When my editor suggested I change it so that both voices were in poetry, that felt much better, but I still had to work hard to make the voices different from one another using the content and attitude in the poems, as well as structure, imagery, and word choice. The book starts with a couple of short paired poems, each titled “She’s the One,” where the twins express how they think about each other. These poems were drafted during that first revision, and I thought they vividly set the tone of the book and established the viewpoints of each twin.

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I interviewed several sets of identical twin sisters for this story, and it was fascinating! Not only were they closer than other siblings, but some described each other as “soulmates.” They told me stories about eerie connections they had, and how no matter what else was going on in their lives, their bond was unshakable.

 

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page 4 continuation of poem

 

But there is room for misunderstanding even in the closest relationships. I tried to create a story where each twin thinks she’s doing something to help the other, but instead drives a wedge between them.

2020-2021 were difficult years for me and my family. Thanks to the pandemic, we had to contend with separation, illness, anxiety, and death. It was challenging to write a book at this time, but I had to keep going.

 

DK: What do you hope young readers get from this book?

RL: I wanted to explore anxiety and mental health in a poetic way. I wanted to show that people can struggle not only with symptoms but also with telling others, even those who know them, that they are struggling. I wanted to depict the helplessness we can feel when someone we love is going through something hard.

I hope that young readers understand that we all go through difficult times, even when we are surrounded by friends and family. I hope they learn that although we may sometimes struggle with anxiety and depression, we don’t have to deal with these feelings alone, and it’s important to share with those we love and trust because only through sharing can we start to get help.

 

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DK: You are a doctor and a prolific award-winning writer, so clearly you’ve got this writing thing figured out. What do you feel are the key ingredients to keep the writing flowing?

RL: You’re too kind, Darshana! I feel very fortunate to be writing books for young people today. Here’s my advice:

  • Write what you love, what you’re interested in, what makes you happy. Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing.
  • Write a lot! I always try to have multiple projects going.
  • Figure out what’s most challenging for you to do, and work on that when you’re at your best. For example, drafting (as opposed to revising) novels is challenging for me, so when I’m working on drafting a novel, I make sure to devote time to this in the morning when I’m refreshed and less likely to get interrupted. In contrast, I find that I can draft a picture book or revise something (long or short) at just about any time. 
  • Live your life! It’s important to do things other than write to feed that writing soul. Spend time with family, friends, and in nature.
  • Support your friends and other creators. 
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. In publishing, there are only so many things we can control—including making our books as good as they can possibly be.
  • Have fun! I always try to write from a place of joy.

 

BUY THE BOOK:

The Silver Unicorn Bookstore: https://silverunicornbooks.com/events/23095

Link to Publisher page including activities, discussion topics, etc.
An educator’s guide is forthcoming.

Purchase Mirror to Mirror on Rajani’s website.

 

Rajani LaRocca Author Photo Credit Carter Hasegawa
Author Rajani LaRocca Photo Credit: Carter Hasegawa

AUTHOR BIO:

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.

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Review of 2023 Newbery Winner – Freewater

 

FREEWATER

by Amina Luqman-Dawson

(Little, Brown BYR; $16.99, Ages 10+)

 

 

 

Awards: John Newbery Medal, Coretta Scott King Author Award

An Indiebound Bestseller

Starred reviews: Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Connections

 

“A gripping story of friendship, survival, and courage as a group of young children overcome trauma and fear to pursue freedom for themselves and their community.”

 

Freewater is the award-winning novel by Amina Luqman-Dawson published a little over a year ago. It opens with the harrowing flight of two enslaved children, twelve-year-old Homer and his younger sister Ada, from the Southerland Plantation.  Their escape goes horribly wrong when their mother, Ruth, returns to rescue Homer’s friend Anna and is captured. The two siblings,  pursued by slavers and their dogs, stumble into a nearby swamp and flounder in an unfamiliar world.

Bravely forging ahead in the unfamiliar and frightening environment, the children are rescued by Suleman, a formally enslaved man, who takes the exhausted children to Freewater. Homer and Ada are welcomed to this hidden village, a safe haven for its formerly enslaved residents and their freeborn offspring. The supportive community draws the children into their society, beliefs, and traditions, which are based on a complex relationship with the swamp.

Homer, wracked with guilt, is determined to rescue his mother and makes plans to return to Southerland to rescue her. When his new friends learn of this, they help Homer organize a rescue. Meanwhile, at Southerland, clever Anna is making plans to disrupt the plantation daughter’s wedding in order to flee with Ruth. Will Anna manage to escape? Will Homer and his new friends be able to rescue his mother … without getting caught?

In a compelling, multi-voiced narrative, five children, some freeborn, some formerly enslaved, relate the story from their POV. Even the plantation owner’s youngest daughter, Nora, contributes to the narrative, describing her struggle to understand the implications of slavery. Through their narratives, the reader learns about the children’s pasts, secrets, traumas, fears, and dreams.

The author imagines a fascinating world, not just of survival in the swamp, but of a nurturing society and culture flourishing there. Family life and supporting the community are paramount.  Jobs and tasks include weaving vines into rope, hollowing out giant trees for shelters or boats, tending to the crops, and hunting and fishing. Sky bridges made from rope help the community travel safely above the ground where they cannot be seen or caught by slavers or militia. Huge, moving partitions, woven out of branches and leaves are created to close off parts of the swamp for protection.  A few members, like Suleman, stealthily visit the plantations at night to “liberate” supplies (like matches) that cannot be made in the swamp. 

Luqman-Dawson has populated the story with well-developed characters and a richly described setting, both beautiful and deadly. The author does not hesitate to include the horrific treatment of African Americans by white people. Woven into the story’s many dramatic events are moments of friendship, selflessness, joy, and even budding young love. 

The author’s endnote details the historical background including references to African American scholars working on Maroon society in the Great Dismal Swamp, which was the inspiration for this story. Visit Luqman-Dawson’s website to see a video of her summary of Freewater and more resources on the Dismal Swamp.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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An Interview with Margaret Finnegan Author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MARGARET FINNEGAN

AUTHOR OF 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

RONNA’S IMPRESSION

I absolutely adored this perfectly polished middle-grade novel about an imperfect yet endearing protagonist, Susie B. Yet aren’t we all imperfect in some way, shape, or form? That’s exactly what Susie B. realizes in this story that cleverly and humorously addresses several relatable tween issues such as popularity and school dynamics, friendship, flawed individuals from the past and present, and being true to oneself. Margaret’s fifth-grade voice feels spot-on as we get inside her ADHD “butterfly brain” while she navigates both a class Hero Project and student council race.  Her personality jumps off the pages presented in letter format making the read fast but oh so fulfilling. If your middle grader is looking for a book that will keep them smiling from page one, this is it. See the publisher’s page for an excerpt.

 

BOOK SUMMARY 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

Roll with It meets Absolutely Normal Chaos in this funny, big-hearted novel about a young girl’s campaign for student council president, told through letters to her hero, Susan B. Anthony.

Susie B. has a lot to say. Like how it’s not fair that she has to be called Susie B. instead of plain Susie. Or about how polar bears are endangered. Or how the Usual Geniuses are always getting picked for cool stuff over the kids like her with butterflies in their brain. And it’s because Susie B. has a lot to say about these very important things that she’s running for student council president!

If she’s president, she can advocate for the underdogs just like her hero and fellow Susie B., Susan B. Anthony. (And, okay, maybe the chance to give big speeches to the whole school with a microphone is another perk.) But when the most usual of Usual Geniuses also enters the student council race, Susie realizes this may be a harder won fight than she thought. Even worse, Susie discovers that Susan B. Anthony wasn’t as great as history makes it seem, and she did some pretty terrible things to try to help her own cause. Soon, Susie has her own tough decisions to make. But one thing is for sure—no matter what, Susie B. won’t back down.

 

INTERVIEW

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome back to the GRWR blog, Margaret, and congratulations on your second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down! How does it feel to bring this new book into the world?

Margaret Finnegan: Very exciting! I feel so grateful to my editor and all the people at Atheneum Books for Young Readers who helped usher Susie B. into the world. I have a special fondness for Susie B. I love her gumption and her heart.

 

GRWR: Please share where the spark for this super engaging and original story came from especially since spark is a prevalent and meaningful word in Susie B. Won’t Back Down.

MF: I started my career as an historian, and a long time ago I wrote a book on the US woman’s suffrage movement. I think about the work I did for that book a lot. You know, it took women almost seventy years of coordinated work to get the vote, and, along the way, some of the women we admire for their activism did some unadmirable things. So what do we do with that? Susie B. was my way of exploring that question.

 

GRWR: The irresistible and honest voice of Susie Babuszkiewicz (aka Susie B.) pulled me in immediately, in fact, I tweeted that the opening made me literally LOL. “Dear Susan B. Anthony: I have very bad news for you. You’re dead.” Was this always how you planned to start the novel? And were you always going to write in letter format? 

MF: From the beginning, I conceived of the book as a series of letters because I always wanted Susie B. to be having a conversation with Susan B. Anthony. However, I don’t think the rough draft started quite that way. But then it occurred to me that some young readers wouldn’t know anything about the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. So I had to get some basic information out there really fast.

 

GRWR: Susie B. is an insightfully portrayed character who beautifully describes her ADHD as having a butterfly brain or at times getting wiggly. Another character, Carson, also seems to have ADHD, perhaps Asperger’s and Tourette syndrome. Can you speak to your inclusion of neurodiverse characters again as you did in your first novel, We Could Be Heroes?  

MF: I’m glad you asked. About one in every seven or eight individuals has some type of neurodiversity. So the real question is, why don’t we see neurodiversity in more books? Also, I guess I’m highly sensitive to this issue because my kids, (both young adults) are neurodiverse.

 

GRWR: I ran for class secretary in my high school government but don’t remember much except that our very laid-back advisor was called Mr. Lincoln. Did you ever run for student council and what are your thoughts about this part of a student’s school life?

MF: I ran for student council in ninth grade—and I lost! So suck it Henry M. Gunn High School. At last, I’ve achieved my revenge, proving that, in many schools, student government is indeed just another scam to shine a spotlight on the very people who need it the least. (Apologies if your experience suggests otherwise. I may still be a little bitter.)

 

GRWR: You weave such fabulous humor throughout this book which helps to lighten some serious issues middle-graders face daily. We see Susie B. cope or not cope with passive-aggressive bullying or word bombing as she calls it by a mean girl named Chloe (aka Old Fakey Fake), feeling constantly overlooked by teachers and peers in favor of the jocks, the “usual geniuses” and popular kids, along with the struggle to keep her anger at perceived injustices at bay. What did you hope readers would feel after finishing this novel?

MF: As with everything I write, my main goal as a writer is to give readers a good time. If they also pick up an idea or two to wrestle with, so much the better. These are the things I want out of books, so why would I want to give my readers any less?

 

GRWR: I love whenever Susie B. discusses the universal mystery of paragraphs and all things paragraph writing-related. Do you have a favorite scene/letter in the book?

MF: I like it when Susie B. owns her anger, telling Susan B. Anthony, “I WAS AN ANGRY GIRL.” Too often, girls are taught to swallow their anger, and—by that time in the story—Susie B. has been trying to do that for a while. But, finally, she accepts her anger and embraces it, and sometimes that is not a bad thing.

 

GRWR: Susie B. experiences a gamut of emotions in Susie B. Won’t Back Down which feels so realistic. Let’s talk about the friendship dynamic you’ve created. Without any spoilers, how would you describe the relationship Susie has with Joselyn? Can you also tell us more about the diverse group of classmates who people this story? I particularly enjoy interactions with Soozie and Daniel Rodriguez.

MF: Poor Susie. B. She and Joselyn have been best friends for a long time, but friendships change, and a lot of the time those changes begin in late elementary and early middle school. That’s not a spoiler, that is just the way things are, and that is something Susie B. has to deal with.

Susie does have a diverse group of classmates. They are diverse in all the ways you can be diverse, in all the ways our communities are diverse. And they are also diverse in the things we don’t always think about: their personalities, their goals, and their motivations. They are each the main character in their own story. We just happened to be listening to Susie B.’s.

 

GRWR: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh? Also, how do you capture the language of fifth-graders so perfectly when you teach college students and have grown-up daughters? 

MF: Mostly, I read. I read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, books, long-form journalism, kids lit, adult lit. I try to stay curious. I don’t know how I capture the language of fifth graders. I think fifth graders sound like everyone else, it’s just that they have a more limited vocabulary and a smaller share of prior knowledge to help them understand relationships and the world. I guess I try to write about them with respect?

 

GRWR: Novel writing-wise, are you a pantser or a plotter? And did you write the ending first and work your way back or do you approach each new project traditionally from beginning to end?

MF: Oh, I definitely start at the beginning and work my way to the end. But I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. I usually start out by writing a page or two summary of what I think the book will be about. That gives me a sense of where things are going, and it identifies a few plot points I want to hit. The problem is, the characters always take over, and if I’m going to be truthful to them, I have to follow them where they go, and that always takes me away from any prior designs I have for things. So plotting too carefully just never really works for me.

 

GRWR: You have a full-time job as a university professor. How do you find the time to write so prolifically since it feels like it’s one novel a year (can we mention that you’ve already sold your next book?)

MF: You can mention I’ve sold my next book! It is called New Kids and Underdogs and it’s about a new kid in town who gets immersed in the exciting world of agility dog training. I think it’s coming out late 2022 or early 2023. I’ll keep you posted.

I wouldn’t call myself prolific. I would say slow and steady wins the race. I write in the morning. I do university stuff in the afternoon. I do all my school prep in the summer. Sometimes it all falls apart. I do my best. Frankly, I’m a little tired.

 

GRWR: I know you have something exciting planned for tomorrow,  Saturday, November 6 to promote this book. Can you tell readers about it and how they can attend?

MF: Yes! Join me on November sixth (please see below) for a very special Conversation with Susan B. Anthony. Yes! She is still dead! But she is coming back from the grave this one time, just so I can interview her. It will be held live and online on Zoom Webinar. So anyone can join in—and even ask Susan a few questions.

 

GRWR: What’s on the horizon, Margaret?

MF: A bath, a good rest, maybe a real laz-a-bout, and then a whole lot of grading before I pull up my sleeves and start writing again. I’m thinking monkey bars that hang just a little too high from the ground. I’m thinking garden apartments. I’m thinking a kid who learns to take charge when the grown-ups won’t. But we’ll see.

 

GRWR: It all sounds wonderful! Thanks tons for taking the time to tell us all about Susie B. Won’t Back Down.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony!

 

Register for A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony,
on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at noon Pacific Time.

 https://calstatela.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_7wiUs6McQJuJMGAdHr6fVA

BUY THE BOOK

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/books/susie-b-won-t-back-down/9781534496361

SOCIAL MEDIA

Website: MargaretFinnegan.com

Twitter: @FinneganBegin
Instagram: @FinneganBegin
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Author Margaret Finnegan
Margaret Finnegan ©2019 Skye Moorhead

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Margaret Finnegan is the author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down, a School Library Journal starred review, and We Could Be Heroes, a Junior Library Guild selection. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, with her family and dog Walt. She makes very good chocolate cakes, and while she ran for student council in ninth grade, she lost.

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Middle Grade Book Review of Turtle in Paradise – The Graphic Novel

 

TURTLE IN PARADISE:

The Graphic Novel

Written by Jennifer L. Holm

Illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau

Colors by Lark Penn

(RH Graphic; HC $20.99, Paperback $12.99, Ages 8-12)

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Turtle in Paradise cover

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Starred Review – School Library Journal

An excellent way to introduce middle-grade readers to Holm’s Newbery Honor book of family, friendship, and home.

 

In 1935, eleven-year-old Turtle is sent to Key West, Florida to live with relatives she’s never known in the graphic novel adaptation of Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm and Savanna Ganucheau. Turtle’s single mother, Sadiemae works as a maid for a New Jersey woman who does not want children underfoot. Turtle, protected by the hard shell for which she’s named, is also protective of her flighty mom and worried about being separated from her. 

Over the summer, she hangs out with her cousins and their friends who are part of the boys only “Diaper (babysitting) Club” (they “wurk” for candy) and spends the summer helping them and her Aunt Minnie while meeting the neighbors, fisherman, and rum runners, who speak about a long lost pirate treasure. Hoping to earn money to help her mother purchase a home, she persuades the others in the Diaper Club to search for the treasure. They find the treasure on one of the uninhabited keys but are marooned there for two days during a hurricane. Happily, they are rescued and Turtle is reunited with her mom. 

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Interior illustrations from Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel written by Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau, Random House Graphic ©2021.

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Holm’s graphic novel adaptation of her novel doesn’t lose any of the story’s warmth, humor, and dramatic moments. Told from Turtle’s point of view, the graphic novel conveys her gradual emergence from her shell as a caring and plucky girl. As in the novel, family secrets, such as her father’s identity, rise to the surface. Turtle figures out things out on her own, realizing that the answers may not be so important: “… not all kids are rotten … and there are grown-ups who are as sweet as Necco Wafers. And if you’re lucky, some of them may even end up being your family.”

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Interior illustrations from Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel written by Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau, Random House Graphic ©2021.

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Some minor characters from the novel have been left out (including “Papa” Hemingway) and some aspects of characters are not as deeply developed, such as Aunt Minnie’s true kindly nature. Nevertheless, Savanna Ganucheau (Lumberjanes) captures each character’s nature and circumstances in facial expressions, body language, and actions. Ganucheau’s portrayals of the wisecracking cousin Beans, the overworked Aunt Minnie, and the friendly fisherman Slow Poke (who once loved Sadiemae!) are perfect. The period and the locale of Key West were well researched by both Holms and Ganucheau and that is reflected in both the narrative and the art. Think Necco wafers, sugar apple ice cream (cones are a nickel), Shirley Temple and Little Orphan Annie, the streets of Key West, and the very real 1935 hurricane that stranded Turtle and the Diaper Club and wreaked so much destruction on an area already suffering from economic depression. 

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Interior illustrations from Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel written by Jennifer L. Holm and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau, Random House Graphic ©2021.

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Back matter includes a note from the author which details her family connection to this story as well as some of the historical background. Also included is a fascinating note from Savanna Ganucheau about the artwork (find out more about what went into the artwork here).

Random House Teachers and Educators has a lovely educator guide with information about the book and art here

This graphic novel adaptation can stand by itself or act as a perfect introduction to the novel for middle graders. It should draw in potential readers who will be well prepared for more nuanced character development and a more complex narrative. 

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Kingston and The Magician’s Lost and Found

KINGSTON AND THE MAGICIAN’S LOST AND FOUND

By Rucker Moses and Theo Gangi

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $17.99, Ages 10+)

 

 

KingstonandtheMagician'sLostandFound cvr

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

This middle-grade book interested me because there are two authors and I find cowriting interesting—but, wait!, one of the co-authors is a pen name for two people writing together making Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Found a collaboration of three writers! (To read more about that, check out their interview on SCBWI’s Kite Tales blog in a link below.) Yet, the story reads seamlessly—what a feat!

Twelve-year-old Kingston hasn’t been back to Echo City, Brooklyn, since his father, one of the world’s greatest magicians, disappeared while performing onstage four years ago. A lot has changed in his old neighborhood, yet Kingston reconnects with his cousin Veronica and childhood friend now known as Too Tall Eddie. Kingston’s mother steers clear magic, yet, his uncles don’t seem to have given it up. What happened to Kingston’s father and whether or not magic truly exists fuels the three kids who follow a series of clues, intent on discovering the truth.

This layered plot cleverly weaves in real nineteenth- and twentieth-century Black magicians to make the story feel believable, an aspect I really enjoyed. I’m also a fan of alternative reality books when they’re done well as in this story. Add in humor, friendship, family, and a fast-paced mystery and you’ll see why this book’s hard to put down. Sign me up for the sequel and conclusion, due out this fall.

Visit the website of Rucker Moses here.

Visit the website of Theo Gangi here.

 

 

https://scbwikitetales.wordpress.com/2021/03/31/interview-with-author-rucker-moses/

 

Read a review of another recommended middle-grade novel by Christine here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Happily For Now

 

HAPPILY FOR NOW

Written by Kelly Jones

Illustrated by Kelly Murphy

(Knopf Books for Young Readers; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

Happily For Now book cover

 

 

Happily for Now written by Kelly Jones and illustrated by Kelly Murphy follows Fiona who is sent away for the summer to live with relatives she’s never met because her mother is entering a treatment program for an unspecified addiction. In addition to her mother, Fiona is leaving behind Ms. Davis, who is like a guidance counselor to her (although the text doesn’t state that) but whom Fiona describes as her fairy godmother and whom she wants to emulate. Throughout the summer, she will be able to speak with Mr. Rivera who will also be able to help her with anything she might want to discuss.

Although the storyline involves Fiona’s addicted mother, this is not the main plot of the book and the focus is really on how Fiona tries to lend an eager hand to her quirky extended family, making this middle-grade novel a more light-hearted read.

With the help of her new friend Julia, Mr. Rivera’s daughter, Fiona sets out in her new town to try to help her relatives with their problems, or rather, try to help them help themselves, like any good fairy godmother (although she prefers the term fairy godperson because she is not a mother) who grants wishes might do, since she doesn’t want to just sit around being a princess. Her Aunt Becky’s bakery hardly has any customers because she keeps baking the same boring desserts she’s always made. Her great-uncle Timothy hardly ever speaks but has a secret talent and her great-aunt Alta is all doom and gloom. Can Fiona help them? And if she cannot get her happily ever after, can she at least get happily for now? She’s sure going to try.

Text is interspersed with emails between Fiona and her mother and between Fiona and Ms. Davis, which readers will enjoy, as the story progresses through these exchanges. I eagerly looked forward to reading these email conversations which provided updates on how Fiona’s mother was faring in her treatment program, as well as further guidance from Ms. Davis on Fiona’s fairy godperson training. Fiona, is at times both childlike, as she discusses fairy tales, witches, and the like, and like an adult, as she deals with her mother’s addiction and has to convince her to stay with her treatment program when she wants to leave early. Fiona easily makes us care about her and all the people in her life so that we enjoy spending time with her and want to see her have a happy ending.

Murphy’s black-and-white illustrations are a welcome addition to the pages, adding a lightness to Happily for Now and its tough subject matter. I do think it’s important since it’s not mentioned on the book jacket, for parents and young readers to be aware that, despite the lightness of this story, addiction is still included. However, young people who are living with a parent who is struggling with any sort of addiction or other illness will take comfort in reading such a thoughtfully crafted and thoroughly engaging book in which the protagonist is dealing positively with similar circumstances as they are.

  •  Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
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Middle Grade Novel – The Sisters of Straygarden Place

 

THE SISTERS OF STRAYGARDEN PLACE

Written by Hayley Chewins

(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 10-14)

 

The Sisters of Straygarden Place cvr

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

 

I love books that don’t fit into a mold, where you can’t guess what comes next. Hayley Chewins’s The Sisters of Straygarden Place fulfills those things, plus it’s beautifully written.

This middle-grade novel stands alone—in an amazing house that cares for three seemingly trapped sisters, Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine. Years ago, their parents left the girls this note, “Wait for us. Sleep darkly.” Outside, the house is surrounded by silver grass seeking opportunities to slither in—and it talks!

How have the stranded sisters gotten by? We learn in the opening line, “The house dressed Mayhap Ballastian in blue on the day her sister disappeared.” What a great way to start the story! I don’t want to reveal all the crazy-wonderful things, but have to share my favorite: the droomhunds, loyal doglike creatures. Since the sisters are unable to sleep (I can’t tell you why), each hund “could press itself into the tight space of a person’s mind.” Brushing them first helps because “the softer the droomhunds’ fur was, the more restful the girls’ sleep would be.” Cool stuff, right?

When fourteen-year-old Winnow, the eldest sister, leaves the house, problems arise. Upon her return, Mayhap (twelve-year-old middle sister and main character) questions the rift between them. However, Winnow falls into a troubled sleep, her eyes turning silver, her droomhund missing. Plot twists ensue.

Chewins’s writing is too lovely to rush reading through. This imaginative literary fantasy seeped in strangeness is also very much a siblings story. The relationship between the girls feels truthful and honest, even when set in such an unusual world.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – UnTwisted

UNTWISTED:
Twinchantment Series #2

Written by Elise Allen

(Disney-Hyperion; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

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In book one, Twinchantment, identical twins Flissa and Sara must act as one person (Princess Flissara) to escape the Kingdom of Kaloon’s Magic Eradication Act which cites twinhood as reason for removal and re-homing. Book two, UnTwisted by Elise Allen, picks up on Ascension Day as the girls officially take their individual places in line for the throne. However, the new Magical Unification Act hasn’t been a simple fix for harmonious living. A top priority in the Kaloonification was bringing together the Mages, Genpos (people without magic from the general population), and Magical Animals at a school called the Maldevon Academy. However, cooperation between the groups is easier said than done, and someone is out to destroy the unity.

Favorite characters of mine from book one continue in UnTwisted: Galric and his adorable black kitten Nitpick, evil lioness Raya, and Loriah—who I’m happy to see has a bigger role. New characters like Zinka enliven the story. Plot misdirection keeps the twins searching for who’s behind the escalating ripples of unrest while they also navigate newfound friendships and how to fit in at school.

Chapters once again alternate viewpoints between Flissa and Sara. Allen successfully extends character development across both books. In UnTwisted, the girls’ individualities take center stage and their sisterly bond fractures. I like how the books show Kaloon progressing from the Magic Eradication Act to the Magical Unification Act, and the problems of both all-or-nothing edicts.

This series will appeal to kids who like books about adventure, magic, and relationships. The delightful Twinchantment novels combine high-stakes action with relatable, dimensional tween issues. It feels there’s more to come from these dynamic twins.

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An Interview with Author Suzanne Kamata About Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR  SUZANNE KAMATA

 

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POP FLIES, ROBO-PETS, AND OTHER DISASTERS

Written by Suzanne Kamata

Illustrated by Tracy Bishop

(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)

 

 

INTRO

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 Disasters offers 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.

SUMMARY

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.

INTERVIEW

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Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

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.

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Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

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!

BIO

Author Suzanne Kamata
Photo of Suzanne Kamata by © Solveig Boergen

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.

Website: http://www.suzannekamata.com

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.

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Middle Grade Book Review – If We Were Giants

IF WE WERE GIANTS

by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith

Illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo

(Disney-Hyperion; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

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Interior art from If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith with illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo, Disney-Hyperion ©2020.

If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith. You may recognize the first author’s name as that of the world-renowned musician, environmentalist, and humanitarian. He’s teamed up with children’s book author Smith to write this timely middle-grade novel. Its underlying messages are about pulling together as a community, remembering the past, and taking care of nature. Kids will root for Kirra to find her way, and love the fun elements (such as living in trees and using their collective skills to become gigantic).

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Interior art from If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith with illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo, Disney-Hyperion ©2020.

Hidden inside the walls of a dormant volcano, ten-year-old Kirra’s life is idyllic. Her people, the Zedu, respect nature and collaborate with one another, having assigned tasks. Kirra’s father is the Storyteller, the only Zedu who goes Outside—until recently, when Kirra begins to travel with him and learn this vocation. Her curiosity, however, leads her to make a grave mistake instigating the demise of her village by a violent new group called the Takers who seek only to conquer and destroy.

Jump forward four years and fourteen-year-old Kirra now lives aloft with the Tree People, taken in when she was in dire circumstances and treated with kindness ever since. To get by, Kirra must suppress memories of the past—until those memories become a reality.

The images by Antonio Javier Caparo provide glimpses into Kirra’s world. Framed by intertwining branches, the natural colors underscore the importance of working harmoniously with nature.

I appreciate how the book engages the reader with quick-moving, interesting scenes yet also tackles big issues affecting us today. This story delves into what family means and how you fit in. For Kirra, it’s also a coming-of-age tale as she finally faces her demons and finds her way.
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Middle Grade Book Review – Wrecking Ball (Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book 14)

WRECKING BALL
(DIARY OF A WIMPY KID BOOK 14)
Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

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The popularity of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid middle grade series is still blazing. Kids at our daughter’s elementary school were counting the days until the release of book 14, Wrecking Ball. Then it was noses in books as they devoured Greg Heffley’s latest escapades. So what’s the appeal of this best-selling series? When I asked kids this question, the answers were simple: the familiar way the book looked, the story’s relatable humor, and its well-known characters. Great reasons since everyone likes comfortably sharing a laugh with a friend.

The title Wrecking Ball refers to construction and destruction to the Heffley’s house. As parents, we can relate to the nightmare of home improvements, remodeling, and house-hunting. Seeing these things from Greg’s perspective is, of course, funny but also very true. From tried-and-true sight gags (plumber’s crack) to the much deeper consequences of starting over elsewhere—the possibilities to reinvent yourself but also the complexity of feelings of being split from your best friend. Kids will be white-knuckled wondering if Rowley’s being written out.

Kinney’s hilarious illustrations accompany every page. I especially enjoyed Greg’s dream house which will be really small (to avoid attracting attention since he’s famous), but include a vast interlinking underground network. [PAGES 40-45] Who hasn’t envisioned what they’d build if they were rich? Greg’s idea of a glass bathtub that sits inside a giant aquarium is a kick. If your tween has some holiday cash to spend, this book is sure to please.

Visit the Wimpy Kid website here.

Fans can add to their collection with The Diary of a Wimpy Kid spinoff book Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid as well as The Wimpy Kid 2020 Wall Calendar.

 

 

Read another middle grade book review by Christine here.

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