I absolutely adored this perfectly polished middle-grade novel about an imperfect yet endearing protagonist, Susie B. Yet aren’t we all imperfect in some way, shape, or form? That’s exactly what Susie B. realizes in this story that cleverly and humorously addresses several relatable tween issues such as popularity and school dynamics, friendship, flawed individuals from the past and present, and being true to oneself. Margaret’s fifth-grade voice feels spot-on as we get inside her ADHD “butterfly brain” while she navigates both a class Hero Project and student council race. Her personality jumps off the pages presented in letter format making the read fast but oh so fulfilling. If your middle grader is looking for a book that will keep them smiling from page one, this is it. See the publisher’s page for an excerpt.
Roll with It meets Absolutely Normal Chaos in this funny, big-hearted novel about a young girl’s campaign for student council president, told through letters to her hero, Susan B. Anthony.
Susie B. has a lot to say. Like how it’s not fair that she has to be called Susie B. instead of plain Susie. Or about how polar bears are endangered. Or how the Usual Geniuses are always getting picked for cool stuff over the kids like her with butterflies in their brain. And it’s because Susie B. has a lot to say about these very important things that she’s running for student council president!
If she’s president, she can advocate for the underdogs just like her hero and fellow Susie B., Susan B. Anthony. (And, okay, maybe the chance to give big speeches to the whole school with a microphone is another perk.) But when the most usual of Usual Geniuses also enters the student council race, Susie realizes this may be a harder won fight than she thought. Even worse, Susie discovers that Susan B. Anthony wasn’t as great as history makes it seem, and she did some pretty terrible things to try to help her own cause. Soon, Susie has her own tough decisions to make. But one thing is for sure—no matter what, Susie B. won’t back down.
GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome back to the GRWR blog, Margaret, and congratulations on your second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down! How does it feel to bring this new book into the world?
Margaret Finnegan:Very exciting! I feel so grateful to my editor and all the people at Atheneum Books for Young Readers who helped usher Susie B. into the world. I have a special fondness for Susie B. I love her gumption and her heart.
GRWR: Please share where the spark for this super engaging and original story came from especially since spark is a prevalent and meaningful word in Susie B. Won’t Back Down.
MF:I started my career as an historian, and a long time ago I wrote a book on the US woman’s suffrage movement. I think about the work I did for that book a lot. You know, it took women almost seventy years of coordinated work to get the vote, and, along the way, some of the women we admire for their activism did some unadmirable things. So what do we do with that? Susie B. was my way of exploring that question.
GRWR:The irresistible and honest voice of Susie Babuszkiewicz (aka Susie B.) pulled me in immediately, in fact, I tweeted that the opening made me literally LOL. “Dear Susan B. Anthony: I have very bad news for you. You’re dead.” Was this always how you planned to start the novel? And were you always going to write in letter format?
MF: From the beginning, I conceived of the book as a series of letters because I always wanted Susie B. to be having a conversation with Susan B. Anthony. However, I don’t think the rough draft started quite that way. But then it occurred to me that some young readers wouldn’t know anything about the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. So I had to get some basic information out there really fast.
GRWR: Susie B. is an insightfully portrayed character who beautifully describes her ADHD as having a butterfly brain or at times getting wiggly. Another character, Carson, also seems to have ADHD, perhaps Asperger’s and Tourette syndrome. Can you speak to your inclusion of neurodiverse characters again as you did in your first novel, We Could Be Heroes?
MF: I’m glad you asked. About one in every seven or eight individuals has some type of neurodiversity. So the real question is, why don’t we see neurodiversity in more books? Also, I guess I’m highly sensitive to this issue because my kids, (both young adults) are neurodiverse.
GRWR: I ran for class secretary in my high school government but don’t remember much except that our very laid-back advisor was called Mr. Lincoln. Did you ever run for student council and what are your thoughts about this part of a student’s school life?
MF:I ran for student council in ninth grade—and I lost! So suck it Henry M. Gunn High School. At last, I’ve achieved my revenge, proving that, in many schools, student government is indeed just another scam to shine a spotlight on the very people who need it the least. (Apologies if your experience suggests otherwise. I may still be a little bitter.)
GRWR: You weave such fabulous humor throughout this book which helps to lighten some serious issues middle-graders face daily. We see Susie B. cope or not cope with passive-aggressive bullying or word bombing as she calls it by a mean girl named Chloe (aka Old Fakey Fake), feeling constantly overlooked by teachers and peers in favor of the jocks, the “usual geniuses” and popular kids, along with the struggle to keep her anger at perceived injustices at bay. What did you hope readers would feel after finishing this novel?
MF: As with everything I write, my main goal as a writer is to give readers a good time. If they also pick up an idea or two to wrestle with, so much the better. These are the things I want out of books, so why would I want to give my readers any less?
GRWR: I love whenever Susie B. discusses the universal mystery of paragraphs and all things paragraph writing-related. Do you have a favorite scene/letter in the book?
MF: I like it when Susie B. owns her anger, telling Susan B. Anthony, “I WAS AN ANGRY GIRL.” Too often, girls are taught to swallow their anger, and—by that time in the story—Susie B. has been trying to do that for a while. But, finally, she accepts her anger and embraces it, and sometimes that is not a bad thing.
GRWR: Susie B. experiences a gamut of emotions inSusie B. Won’t Back Down which feels so realistic. Let’s talk about the friendship dynamic you’ve created. Without any spoilers, how would you describe the relationship Susie has with Joselyn? Can you also tell us more about the diverse group of classmates who people this story? I particularly enjoy interactions with Soozie and Daniel Rodriguez.
MF: Poor Susie. B. She and Joselyn have been best friends for a long time, but friendships change, and a lot of the time those changes begin in late elementary and early middle school. That’s not a spoiler, that is just the way things are, and that is something Susie B. has to deal with.
Susie does have a diverse group of classmates. They are diverse in all the ways you can be diverse, in all the ways our communities are diverse. And they are also diverse in the things we don’t always think about: their personalities, their goals, and their motivations. They are each the main character in their own story. We just happened to be listening to Susie B.’s.
GRWR: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh? Also, how do you capture the language of fifth-graders so perfectly when you teach college students and have grown-up daughters?
MF:Mostly, I read. I read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, books, long-form journalism, kids lit, adult lit. I try to stay curious. I don’t know how I capture the language of fifth graders. I think fifth graders sound like everyone else, it’s just that they have a more limited vocabulary and a smaller share of prior knowledge to help them understand relationships and the world. I guess I try to write about them with respect?
GRWR: Novel writing-wise, are you a pantser or a plotter? And did you write the ending first and work your way back or do you approach each new project traditionally from beginning to end?
MF: Oh, I definitely start at the beginning and work my way to the end. But I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. I usually start out by writing a page or two summary of what I think the book will be about. That gives me a sense of where things are going, and it identifies a few plot points I want to hit. The problem is, the characters always take over, and if I’m going to be truthful to them, I have to follow them where they go, and that always takes me away from any prior designs I have for things. So plotting too carefully just never really works for me.
GRWR: You have a full-time job as a university professor. How do you find the time to write so prolifically since it feels like it’s one novel a year (can we mention that you’ve already sold your next book?)
MF:You can mention I’ve sold my next book! It is called New Kids and Underdogs and it’s about a new kid in town who gets immersed in the exciting world of agility dog training. I think it’s coming out late 2022 or early 2023. I’ll keep you posted.
I wouldn’t call myself prolific. I would say slow and steady wins the race. I write in the morning. I do university stuff in the afternoon. I do all my school prep in the summer. Sometimes it all falls apart. I do my best. Frankly, I’m a little tired.
GRWR: I know you have something exciting planned for tomorrow, Saturday, November 6 to promote this book. Can you tell readers about it and how they can attend?
MF: Yes! Join me on November sixth (please see below) for a very special Conversation with Susan B. Anthony. Yes! She is still dead! But she is coming back from the grave this one time, just so I can interview her. It will be held live and online on Zoom Webinar. So anyone can join in—and even ask Susan a few questions.
GRWR: What’s on the horizon, Margaret?
MF:A bath, a good rest, maybe a real laz-a-bout, and then a whole lot of grading before I pull up my sleeves and start writing again. I’m thinking monkey bars that hang just a little too high from the ground. I’m thinking garden apartments. I’m thinking a kid who learns to take charge when the grown-ups won’t. But we’ll see.
GRWR: It all sounds wonderful! Thanks tons for taking the time to tell us all about Susie B. Won’t Back Down.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony!
Register for A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony,
on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at noon Pacific Time.
Margaret Finnegan is the author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down, a School Library Journal starred review, and We Could Be Heroes, a Junior Library Guild selection. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, with her family and dog Walt. She makes very good chocolate cakes, and while she ran for student council in ninth grade, she lost.
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, UnTwistedby 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.
(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)
The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disastersoffers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.
Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?
SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.
GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?
SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.
GRWR:Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?
SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.
GRWR:The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?
SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.
As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.
Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.
While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.
GRWR:A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?
SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.
GRWR:There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.
SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.
GRWR:Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?
SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! — and I wanted to put it into a story.
GRWR:I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?
SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.
GRWR:What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?
SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.
I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!
Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.
Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.
Written by Fran Wilde
(Amulet Books; $17.99, Ages 10-14)
★Starred Review – Booklist, Shelf Awareness
In Riverlanda debut (older) middle grade novel by Fran Wilde, Momma promises everything will be all right, but sisters Eleanor and Mike know better. Things aren’t OK, no matter how hard they try to be good. The girls weave stories about how “house magic” will fix whatever’s wrong this time. When Poppa breaks the family heirloom (a glass witch ball), a river appears in their secret hiding place and the girls venture to a place where dreams grow in reeds.
A heron made of metal, glass, and driftwood explains that nightmares are made of “failed dreams, smoke, and the river mist” and that “the same magic that kept dreams and reality apart also held back the nightmares.” Anassa, a snake-headed monster, upsets the balance. As the damage in one world seeps to the next, the sisters try to understand their family’s guardian’s agreement while facing new kinds of danger and the possibility of never returning home. Sisterly love fiercely connects them, yet Eleanor worries her temper dooms her to become like Poppa.
Lines between fantasy and reality blurred long before the enchanted river. The girls and their mother live fearfully in denial, unwilling to admit Poppa’s abusive nature. Though Eleanor’s new friend Pendra and Pendra’s mom (school guidance counselor) surmise something’s wrong, Eleanor keeps up the façade and her friend at arm’s length; without confirmation others are powerless to help.
Riverland depicts children trapped in a dysfunctional home and the ways in which they escape reality. This important book shows a family’s coping mechanisms for domestic violence. Older middle graders and YA readers may be best suited to recognize and process the nuances of this story.
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
Be Prepared, a middle grade graphic novel written and illustrated by VeraBrosgol, is the book I needed in middle school. Aside from the fact that I never actually got to go to summer camp, I imagine my experiences would have been eerily similar to the protagonist’s trials and tribulations, including the torture of the unknown when it came to outhouse bathrooms. (I did go camping a lot and have never met a Port-a-Potty I liked, but then, who has?). The expressive and verdant illustrations truly capture the specific tumultuous emotions of tweens and beyond and captured my heart with the integrity and honesty given to this age group.
Even though your kids are back to school with visions of summer lingering in their heads, Brosgol’s novel will help quell some of those summer pangs. Written from the perspective of a young Russian girl named Vera who is trying to fit in with her peers, Be Prepared simultaneously pulls the reader into an immediate place of recognition as well as a fresh perspective from a Russian family.
While her friends have big houses and to-die-for birthday parties, Vera struggles to gain acceptance in her smaller home she shares with her Mom and little brother. When Vera finds out from a Russian friend at Temple that a special summer camp exists geared towards Russian kids, she almost explodes with delight at the thought of going to a camp where she can relate to her peers and make some new friends. Since her school peers have been to sleep away summer camps and trips all over the world, Vera listens intently and absorbs information as they talk extensively about it all, hoping that following this summer she’ll have camp stories to share as well.
Vera and her brother have never been to summer camp, and she is determined to convince her mom that they should both go. And they do. As the first day of camp approaches, Vera is bursting at the seams. Her younger brother remains apprehensive. Thrown into the midst of a tent with two older campers who are seasoned participants, Vera’s welcome is not what she had in mind. Initially frowned upon for being so young, Vera’s artistic skills impress the older campers and they start asking for drawings. In return, Vera is suddenly at the center of attention she always thought she wanted. But giving away her art quickly turns into giving away her contraband candy stash as well as turning a blind eye to other campers she might have a genuine connection with. When Vera is caught with candy in her shared tent by the camp counselor, every bunk is raided until all the candy is gone, and Vera’s popularity with the older girls plummets. Adding to Vera’s stress and dismay is the fact that her younger brother seems to be enjoying camp just fine and isn’t anxious to leave as soon as possible like she is.
The turning point for Vera is her camp counselor encouraging her to find friends that don’t ask for something in return for “friendship.” Soon Vera finds out that a young camper with a missing guinea pig is an interesting and fun person to hang out with. At the end of camp both Vera and her younger brother come to terms with some of the pros and cons of summer camp on the drive home and, in a tender moment of sibling connection, find out that they have both struggled.
Check out Be Prepared and feast your eyes on the amazing artistry and storytelling skills of Vera Brosgol, an author your kids are sure to want more of.
Written by Baptiste Paul
Illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara
(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)
“is a debut masterpiece of collaboration and skill,” says reviewer Ozma Bryant.
In a friendly game of soccer (futbol), the magic of not only the sport but the players involved, comes into brilliant light splayed across the pages of The Field, a debut picture book by Baptiste Paul.
With a tropical rainstorm threatening the game, the players band together, solidifying their connection through love of playing ball and sportsmanship. Challenges such as the weather won’t intrude on this precious time together. The story, I might add, is really about a group of kids—the “main character” is never mentioned by name but she’s on all the pages.
My favorite moment is when one of the opposing players is knocked down, and our main character, in her white jersey #3, reaches her hand out to him on the muddy ground asking, “Ou byen? You okay?” He responds, “Mwen byen. I’m good.” You can practically reach out and touch the splattered mud and rain that splashes across the pages as the players muscle on through, seeing the game to completion.
The sun creeps back out as the game continues, even as Mamas call the players home. Hearing a firm command “Vini, abwezan! Come now!” the children end the game then go their separate ways to rest up and rejuvenate for a new day of play.
Caked with mud and filth, children slip into tubs of warm water, smiling … reveling in the magic that is a game well played. Dreams of new games and friendship forming float overhead, as the field lingers even in sleep.
Alcántara’s gorgeous art propels the reader forward with spare language infused with Creole words from the author’s native home in the Caribbean. The author of this amazing story explains in the back matter that Creole is rarely written, mostly spoken, and so new words are constantly being added or old ones modified in this language. A Creole Glossary is also included.
One of my dear friends hails from Haiti, and speaks Creole. He was the initial reason I was excited to read this book and learn from it. One of the first things I learned from him was that soccer was also ‘futbol’. When I saw the young girl on the cover, I wanted to put this book into his young daughter’s hands immediately. I must ask if she plans to watch the FA Cup this weekend!
I am so thankful for this incredible book and hope to share it with many readers who can also identify with its themes of friendship, connection, teamwork and not giving up in the face of adversity.
MEET DANIELLE DAVIS,
ZINNIA AND THE BEES
Written by Danielle Davis
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)
Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel.
Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.
On that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.
As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.
The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)
Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.
Review by Ronna Mandel
Good Reads With Ronna:What was the genesis forZinnia and the Bees?
Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.
GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?
DD 🐝:I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).
GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?
DD 🐝:While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.
GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?
DD 🐝:Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday.
GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?
DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.
GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?
DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.
GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?
DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of myblog.
And The Red Treeby Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.
GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?
DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.
GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?
DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.
GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?
DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)
The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years agohere.
GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?
DD🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!
Visit Danielle’s website here.
Find her at Twitter here.
Find her at Instagram here.
Click here to see Danielle’s Facebook page
And click here to for her Pinterest boards.
Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.
DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)
When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’sDreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:
“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.” There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.
Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.
As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.
Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.
Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.
The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”
THE WISHING WORLD
By Todd Fahnestock
– A Virtual Tour –
(Starscape Books; $17.99, Ages 8-12)
Join Lorelei, the eleven year old heroine of The Wishing World, as she goes in search of her missing parents and brother and ends up in Veloran, a place made up of children’s dreams, fantastical creatures and adventure on every page. Tweens who love action, adventure and fantasy will find that Fahnestock’s new novel successfully combines all three elements, key ingredients of a page turning read.
Narolev’s Comet and a necklace made from comet stone are clever clues the author introduces early on following the abduction of Lorelei’s family by a mysterious monster. These clues, coupled with Lorelei’s indomitable spirit, lay the foundation for a quest that she will mount with the help of a Disney movie-like crew of magical creatures named Gruffy (a griffin), Squeak (a mouse), Pip (a toucan), and Ripple (a water breathing princess). Yes, this fast-paced story is packed with the most unusual characters, some human, others not. What stands out the the most is how imaginative the plot is. If wishes can come true, like they do in the Wishing World, are all wishes good ones? And if not, what conflicts will ensue when good wishes encounter bad ones? That’s exactly what Lorelei is up against as she must navigate the unpredictable world of Veloran. In fact, there’s never a dull moment making this a go-to read for those with short attention spans in need of instant gratification.
Lorelei learns from her devoted cohorts that she is a Doolivanti, one with magical powers that are soon realized when she writes imagined words and thoughts in the air that help save her and her friends more than once. As she traverses Veloran in pursuit of her family, Lorelei finds her wish to locate her parents and bring them home is thwarted by the wicked Ink King, another Doolivanti who has caused wanton suffering and death. Together with a brave army of assorted Veloranians (my terminology), Lorelei must face off against the Ink King in order to rescue her family and head home. In doing so, this plucky young heroine makes some important choices that will have far reaching and lasting consequences for her future and for the future of Veloran.
There’s good news at the conclusion of The Wishing World and that’s that a second volume is due out in 2018 for those like me who want to see where Fahnestock goes with this engaging premise and endearing cast of characters.
Review by Ronna Mandel
TODD FAHNESTOCK won the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age Award for one of his short stories, and is the author of the YA bestseller Fairmist as well as The Wishing World. Stories are his passion, but Todd’s greatest accomplishment is his quirky, fun-loving family. The Wishing World began as a series of bedtime stories for his children.
In the Wishing World, dreams are real. You can transform into your own hero, find wild and whimsical friends, and wield power as great as your imagination. But Lorelei doesn’t know about any of that. All she knows is that a monster took her family.
It happened during a camping trip one year ago. Hiding inside the tent, she saw shadows, tentacles and a strange creature. By the time she got up the courage to crawl outside, the monster–and Lorelei’s mom, dad, and brother–were gone.
Lorelei is determined to find her family. When she accidentally breaks into the Wishing World, she discovers a way. It’s a land more wonderful than she could have imagined, a land of talking griffons, water princesses, and cities made of sand, where Lorelei is a Doolivanti–a wish-maker–who can write her dreams into existence.
There’s only one problem: the monster is a Doolivanti, too. What he wishes also comes true, and he’s determined to shove Lorelei out, keep her family, and make the whole Wishing World his. To save them, Lorelei must find the courage to face him, or her next wish may be her last.
“War was something that happened in other countries, not here in the United States. Not in Chicago on Maplewood Street.” (p. 21).
On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised address to the American people about the discovery of Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba and his response to that threat: a naval blockade of the island. In the tense days that followed, U.S. and Soviet warships sped to the island and the two Cold War superpowers stood “eyeball to eyeball.” The world hovered at the edge of a nuclear precipice.
As the story in Cold War on Maplewood Street unfolds, we meet sixth grader Joanna who loves her dog, Dixie, horses, and mystery books. She lives with her single mom in a basement apartment. Her beloved older brother, Sam, is in the Navy and her best friend, Pam, lives upstairs. She is attracted to the new student in her class, Theo, but too embarrassed to talk to him. However, Joanna has a lot to worry about. A latchkey child, she’s home alone frequently after school and fears that robbers may break into her basement apartment. She wonders about the strange lady in the upstairs apartment who always seems to be watching Joanna from her window … could the old lady be a spy? She misses Sam, but won’t write to him or read his letters, because he broke his promise to her that he would never leave like her father did. One of the popular girls in school is having a boy-girl party that Joanna’s mom feels she’s too young to attend.
President Kennedy’s televised speech triggers unpleasant memories of Joanna’s father and the disastrous last visit she had with Sam. As tensions mount between the two superpowers, fears at home grow. People begin to stockpile supplies and students practice air raid drills at school. Joanna worries about her brother’s safety and she finally begins writing to him. But he does not reply. Has he given up on her? Or is his ship involved in the blockade?
This middle grade historical novel is a dramatic, wonderfully crafted, coming-of-age-story set during a critical moment in history, as one young girl, standing between childhood and adolescence, struggles to understand the changes in her world. The author’s research into early 1960s America and the political crisis creates an authentic setting, which brought back many childhood memories for me. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are references to popular culture such as transistor radios, television shows (Broken Arrow), personalities (First Lady, Jackie Kennedy), and music (The Four Season’ Sherry Baby and Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash).The author mirrors the growing tensions between the two superpowers with Joanna’s fears and concerns, but prevents the story from being swallowed up by events on the world stage. Day-to-day life continues for Joanna: school, homework, running errands, dinners with Pam’s family, and baking cookies with her mother. But life, as her mother reminds her, changes, and while some changes may be scary, others bring hope. Could mom’s new job improve the family’s lifestyle?
Visit Gayle Rosengren’s website for more information on this book and her previous title, What the Moon Said (Putnam, 2014). Rosengren has many resources for using both books in the classroom or with book clubs, including a list of books that Joanna might have read, and links to websites about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Highly recommended for ages 8-12.
While Paul Revere is probably rolling in his grave, Pichon’s American fans will be rolling over with laughter as they read the next book in the hilarious saga of British fifth grader, Tom Gates.
Those who read Pichon’s first book, The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, will find that Tom, now on a two week break, is still up to his usual hijinks: finding new and improved ways of annoying his sister, Delia, devising the most ingenious excuses to get out of troublesome situations, eating his favorite snacks (caramel wafers), doodling, and hanging out with his best mate (friend), Derek.
Tom’s biggest hope is to find a drummer for his band, DOGZOMBIES and secure the band’s first gig. But in typical Tom Gates fashion, there’s a whole lot of everyday life – and his reaction to it – swirling around: a bad tooth, his prank-playing cousins, the ongoing rivalry with class smarty pants, Marcus, and the field trip from hell. Oh, and as Mr. Fullerman, his teacher, keeps reminding him, there’s still an overdue homework assignment to turn in. To give Tom a little incentive, Mr. Fullerman (who’s wise to this procrastinating day dreamer) has sent one of his prize worthy, tongue-in-cheek notes home to his parents. So now Tom’s got his parents on his back about that (and undone chores),
The DOGZOMBIES land their first gig, thanks to Tom’s zany grandfather, at the Leafy Green Old Folks Home (where many of the residents truly don’t mind loud music). Their success at Leafy Green even inspires Tom’s principal to ask the band to play at an all school assembly (Tom puts him off by claiming Delia injured his arm when she punched him).
In one of the book’s many subplots, Tom becomes suspicious about the growing number of gold stars Marcus has earned on the classroom Gold Star Award Chart. So he begins to spy on Marcus and observes him purchasing gold stars. Aha! Tom brilliantly exposes Marcus’ cheating and finally finishes his homework assignment. In the process, he earns three gold stars, putting him ahead of all his classmates.
Tom’s clever doodles are a treasure and often visually extend the narrative, supporting young readers with additional clues about the story and characters. And for those readers who don’t know “British” check the handy (and well doodled) glossary in the back.
Visit Pichon’s website for more information about the author and the series. You can also find several videos, including book trailers, “How to Draw Like Tom Gates,” and “Fun Stuff” to do. Visit The World of Tom Gates website, too. Click here for a sample chapter.
New to Tom Gates? Read my previous review of The Brilliant World of Tom Gates on the Good Reads With Ronna blog to get acquainted with this terrific series. Highly recommended for tweens, ages 8-12, who enjoy the humorous, diary-style series.