(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.
If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giantsby Dave Matthewsand 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).
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 Caparoprovide 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. e
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.
When is a Holocaust book not a Holocaust book? When it’s Searching for Lottie, a contemporary fiction, historical and mystery novel that beautifully and sensitively conveys the connectivity the past has with the present. Author Susan L. Ross’s multi-layered story, which won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award and is a PJ Our Way selection, also emphasizes the importance of individual identity, the supportive role of family and friends, and the power of music.
Twelve-year-old Charlie (Charlotte) Roth has an assignment for 7th grade social studies, a family history project. She’s chosen to research her namesake, Great-Aunt Lottie (Charlotte) Kulka, a violin prodigy who likely died during the Holocaust. While living in Vienna, Charlie’s grandmother, Nana Rose (who was Great-Aunt Lottie’s younger sister) and Lottie’s mother escaped to safety in America. “When the Germans invaded Austria, the Jews were at the mercy of the Nazis.” Far from home, Lottie was not as lucky. She had been sent to continue her music studies in Budapest, Hungary so when her mother and sister fled Austria after her father’s arrest, Lottie vanished without a word and was always presumed dead.
Once Charlie begins digging into the past, her Nana Rose starts to reveal some details from the past that even Charlie’s mom wasn’t aware of. First there is the old black and white photo of her namesake. Then, when Charlie is given a diary and eventually a necklace that once belonged to Lottie, bits and pieces of the past begin rising to the surface causing Charlie to wonder whether her Great-Aunt might still be alive. Could she still be in Hungary? Or America? Charlie’s mom reminds her that “The Holocaust was a tragedy that touched every Jewish family,” and there may not be a happy ending. However, with the encouragement of her friends and family, and despite what she may discover, Charlie vows to find out what really happened to Lottie. It’s clear Charlie is going to be learning about herself and her family as much as she will about her long lost relative as her journey into the past continues.
Unusual incidents and people are discovered along the way that pull the reader into the story and make them feel invested in the outcome. It turns out that Lottie had played with the Vienna Philharmonic. Charlie, also passionate about the instrument, would like nothing more than to please her devoted Nana Rose by being selected for the concertmaster position after her upcoming audition. As Charlie prepares for the big day, her crush on a fellow musician, Devin, could become a distraction from both her violin dreams and her genealogical journey but she perseveres.
The many interesting and exciting things happening in every chapter serve to keep Charlie’s mind off the audition and Devin. There is never a dull moment as Charlie delves deeper into the mystery of Lottie’s disappearance. Exploring every lead for her family history project will ultimately give her a greater understanding of how the Holocaust impacted survivors and children of survivors, in Charlie’s case, her grandmother and mother. “‘After I had children of my own,'” ‘Mom said softly,’ “‘I realized––or at least, I understood a bit better—that my mother had to bury the sad parts of her life in order to live happily.'”
Ross has created a vibrant and resourceful young girl in the character of Charlie. Her hunt through history to uncover hidden truths about Lottie, if successful, will surely solve decades of doubt and we’re all rooting for her. It was hard for me to believe that, though based on Ross’s family, all the characters were fictional. They felt so real, their situations so possible. It’s helpful to read the Author’s Note to learn about Ross’s story inspiration. I found myself heading over to the Ellis Island Archives as I was reading the novel because, like Charlie, and the author, I too, have many unanswered questions about my Eastern European family.
Searching for Lottie will get tweens thinking and hopefully talking about the Holocaust, about their own heritage, and how we often need to look to our past before moving forward. I recommend this novel as it’s not only one of hope and inspiration, but it powerfully demonstrates how one determined young girl can make a difference.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Happy Book Birthday to Searching for Lottie by Susan L. Ross
The dedication in Anna Dewdney’s latest, Llama Llama Gram and Grandpa, reads “For grandparents everywhere, and the little llamas who love them.” And if you’ve got a little llama fan, this sweet tale of a first overnight away from home, is sure to delight.
Dewdney’s rhyme is impeccable and infectious and the premise relatable, making this new picture book the perfect read-aloud and go-to bedtime story for Grandparent’s Day on September 13th.
Mama Llama brings her son to spend the night with his grandparents.
“Mama’s picture in a frame.
Different. Also just the same.”
But, as he settles in, little Llama realizes he’s forgotten to bring along his beloved plushy, Fuzzy Llama!
Rather than dwell on Llama Llama’s disappointment and despair, Dewdney shows young readers all the fun activities he gets up to with Gram and Grandpa. There are some good distractions to be found; A ride on the tractor, pulling up carrots in the garden, woodworking, trying new foods and scanning the night sky, all destined to become cherished memories.
It’s only when Gram spots tears at tuck in time that
“Llama’s lips begin to quiver.
Llama starts to shake and shiver.
Llama needs his Fuzzy near,
but FUZZY LLAMA ISN’T HERE!”
Grandpa comes to the rescue with a more than suitable substitute, his very own “special toy” from childhood to keep his grandson company. Content, cared for, and comfy, little Llama learns that a grandparent’s love can make any house feel like home. Dewdney’s empowering story and sympathetically illustrated characters combine to make Llama Llama Gram and Grandpamy pick not only to allay the fears of any reluctant overnighter, but ultimately to celebrate the joys of grandparenting.
★Starred Reviews – Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews & School Library Journal
A New York Times Book Review EDITOR’S CHOICE!
What more could you want in a book?
Some family secrets? Check!
A faithful new friend? Check!
An impossible quest? Check!
And an Invisible Magic Circus? What?
Grandpa Ephraim has told stories about Circus Mirandus for as long as ten year old Micah can remember. But are they real? Now Grandpa Ephraim is very sick and Micah needs to know the truth before it’s too late. Micah launches himself on an adventure to find out about the circus and the fantastic people and animals that perform there. Is this real magic? And will the man called the Lightbender really grant Grandpa Ephraim a miracle?
With an imaginative story and unique characters, this book takes you on a fast fun adventure. The writing style is emotionally and visually descriptive, and the story pulled me in right away. I immediately fell in love with the characters and their world.
Micah won my heart because of his growing courage and his deep love for Grandpa Ephraim. Jenny was the perfect new friend, enthusiastic, smart, and loyal. And, there was just the right amount of humor to keep my heart light as Grandpa Ephraim became sicker and Aunt Gertrudis became meaner.
Central to the world within this story was Circus Mirandus, a fantastic place that I wish I could visit myself. Seriously, you can’t get much better than this magic circus! And the Lightbender, with his unique but limited magic, kept me guessing till the end.
I could see Circus Mirandus in my head and I could feel Micah and Jenny in my heart. I enjoyed this book all the way through and the magic stayed in my heart when I was done!
Guest Reviewer – Jo Ann Banks
Jo Ann Banks is a writer of children’s stories, poems, and silly songs. Jo Ann has such an incredible love of children’s stories that some people say she never grew up. When she hears that, she just covers her ears and sings, “I’m not listening, I’m not listening …”