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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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Middle Grade Novel Review – Remember Us

 

REMEMBER US

Written by Jacqueline Woodson

(Nancy Paulsen Books; $18.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Remember Us cover graffitied wall and basketball.

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Indie Next, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal

 

In Remember Us by Jacqueline Woodson, twelve-year-old Sage and her widowed mother live in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the house that was her father’s childhood home. She has strong connections to her firefighter father, who was killed in the line of duty. Like him, she loves basketball and dreams of playing professionally.

Sage’s tight-knit community is affected by the near-constant threat of fires breaking out all over the city during one summer in the 1970s. Homes and even lives are lost. Survivors leave, the neighborhood changes and childhood friendships shift. Some of Sage’s friends are more interested in being glamorous than in joining her, as they once did, in a game of basketball. Hardest of all is the revelation that her mother wants to leave the only home, her father’s home, that Sage has ever known.

Basketball is the only constant in her life. Freddy and his family move into the neighborhood and she finds out this kind boy loves basketball as much as she does. They become fast friends. One day, Sage experiences a traumatic event that shakes her to her core and leads to a harrowing act of destruction as she wrestles with doubts about who she is and what she wants to be.

Will she join the girls who paint their nails … or will she remain true to herself?

Using vivid and lyrical prose, Woodson draws on her Brooklyn roots and actual events to poignantly and richly capture the story’s characters and Sage’s neighborhood during a tense and fearful summer. Exquisitely written, Woodson once again explores the theme of memory and storytelling (Brown Girl Dreaming, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014) in this spare novel of a young girl grappling with change and learning the importance of memories and the value of moving on.

Click here for a teacher’s guide.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Pearl of The Sea for Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2023

 

PEARL OF THE SEA

by Anthony Silverston + Raffaella Delle Donne

Illustrated by Willem Samuel

(Catalyst Press; Paperback $19.99, eBook $9.95, Ages 11-14)

 

GoodReadsWithRonna is thrilled to be back for our 10th year supporting Multicultural Children’s Book Day! We hope you’ll visit the Linky below to access all the other great books reviewed.

 

Pearl of the Sea cover girl looking out at sea

 

Pearl of the Sea, a new older middle-grade graphic novel by Anthony Silverston, Raffaella Delle Donne, and Willem Samuel is simply hard to put down. In other words, be prepared to dive deep and fast into this rewarding journey featuring some fantastical elements unfolding off the west coast of South Africa.

Turn the pages to be transported to South Africa where you’ll meet the protagonist Pearl while getting more than glimpses of the economically strapped seaside town where she lives. Most days Pearl sticks to herself and is filled with insecurities as she copes with the reality of her mom having left the family. Still, she manages to help her dad who is struggling to make ends meet.

Pearl of The Sea int1 abolone poachers
Interior art from Pearl of The Sea written by Anthony Silverston and Raffaella Delle Donne and illustrated by Willem Samuel, Catalyst Press ©2023.

 

During one of Pearl’s daily jaunts undersea before school to hunt for fish to feed the family, she spies an ominous fenced-off restricted area. Warning signs caution those who might wish to enter, a temptation Pearl cannot resist. Plus this danger zone is rich with abalone. After a run-in with some abalone poachers, she realizes helping them could bring in some much-needed money. At the same time, Pearl knows this illegal action is wrong on many levels.

Readers are teased with what’s to come by seeing an enormous tentacle that Pearl hasn’t noticed. Soon though she encounters this wounded monstrous sea creature who has been harpooned. Pearl calls him Otto. She brings him food and aids in his recovery but Otto’s safety is not guaranteed. Tension builds in a plot twist spoiler I won’t reveal beyond saying that Otto becomes the target of a vengeful fisherman. If Pearl can save and protect Otto it will ultimately be saving herself and her father too because, like fishermen’s nets, their lives have become so intertwined.

Pearl of The Sea int2 Otto sea monster and Pear
Interior art from Pearl of The Sea written by Anthony Silverston and Raffaella Delle Donne and illustrated by Willem Samuel, Catalyst Press ©2023.

 

Pearl’s sidekick throughout this action-packed novel is an adorable one-eyed dog. There’s also a classmate named Naomi who Pearl may have a crush on. However, because her dad tells her they have to move so he can find work, Pearl figures it’s futile to pursue a friendship or relationship. That’s one aspect of the novel I’d love to see explored in a sequel.

Not only is Pearl of The Sea a compelling read, but it is also a visual treasure that merits multiple reads. The rich art has a theatric feel, with scene after scene pulling you into the story and keeping you gripped. Readers will share Pearl’s joy and satisfaction at her accomplishments that she might have been unable to achieve before befriending Otto. I recommend this unexpected delight for fans of meaningful graphic novels and those new to the genre.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Click here to read more about Triggerfish, the South African animation production company behind this graphic novel.

Disclaimer: This book was #gifted to GoodReadsWithRonna from Catalyst Press for a fair and honest review. 

 


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Middle Grade Book Review – New Kids & Underdogs

NEW KIDS & UNDERDOGS

Written by Margaret Finnegan

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

 

New Kids and Underdogs cover dog doing agility training

 

 

In Margaret Finnegan’s third middle-grade novel, New Kids & Underdogs, she once again convincingly captures the voice of the 10-year-old protagonist, in this case, fifth grader, Robyn Kellen.

Robyn, whose parents are divorced, has moved around a lot because of her mother’s university teaching positions. Now in San Luis Obispo which, according to Robyn’s mom, is going to be the last move, Robyn must yet again learn to navigate a new town, new school, and hopefully new friendships. To do so, she relies upon her handy list of rules for a new kid.

At school, Robyn has initially blended in with two classmates (rule #1 ), Marshan and Lulu, and feels thankful for that. But when Robyn decides to pursue agility training for her beloved dogs Sundae (anxious, and needy of Fudge) and Fudge (almost blind, deaf, and definitely intelligent), it ends up connecting her with kids at school who just might make her break her rules in the best possible way. However, before doing so, she must learn that life experiences do not always fit neatly into a set of rules. And to find true friends, she must stop the rules from taking over.

Early on in the book, Robyn negotiates a trade with cancer survivor, Nestor, and his cousin, Jonathan,  together with “the Grape,” passionate purple wearer and grade-four-skipping, Alejandra. Tutoring and snacks for agility training. The thing is, Robyn ends up enjoying the time she spends with these kids who Marshan and Lulu consider to be sad outsiders.

After Nestor starts successfully teaching Sundae and Fudge to handle an agility, or what he, the most experienced in the group, dubs an “ability” course, Robyn worries she is spending too much time with these kids. If Marshan and Lulu think the agility kids are all sad outsiders, the negative label could stick to her by association. So, Robyn builds an invisible wall to keep her school friends separate from the dog training group and never the twain shall meet.

Eventually this protective wall leads to the kids who meet for agility to stop pursuing a friendship with Robyn when she does not return their interest. But when she changes her mind at Halloween it proves too little too late. Clearly remaining safe behind her wall is what her list dictates. Will Robyn get another chance to befriend the pack of agility training kids and rewrite or even discard those limiting rules?

Readers see that people, like the dogs in this story, are so much more than their abilities or disabilities. They are a whole package, a whole book. And Finnegan has a gift for presenting “underdogs” and empowering them so any kid reading this story will also feel empowered. The challenges Robyn has had to deal with being a new kid time and again ultimately reach a breaking point. “What other people think is their problem, not yours,” Alejandra wisely says near the end. Pretty darn insightful, I’d say.  When Robyn realizes that the underdogs get her and she is one of them, she understands she cannot judge anyone by just one chapter.

This fantastic novel about being seen and accepting one’s worth of true friendship is my recommended read for kids who may be facing friendship issues of their own. It’s a novel I’d have felt comfortable suggesting to my own kids when they were in those often trying middle-school years.

Click here for a discussion guide.

Read my interview with Margaret about her second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down here.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel
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Middle Grade Book Review – Singing with Elephants

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS

Written by Margarita Engle

(Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Singing With Elephants cover

 

 

Starred reviews – KirkusPublishers Weekly

 

Struggling to belong, Cuban-born eleven-year-old Oriol discovers her voice in Singing with Elephants, a beautifully moving middle-grade novel in verse written by Newbery honoree and Pura Belpré Award-winning author, Margarita Engle.  

The story takes place in 1947 in Santa Barbara where Oriol lives with her family. She helps take care of injured animals in her parents’ veterinary clinic, located near a “wildlife zoo ranch” that has connections to Hollywood (6). Grieving the recent death of her grandmother and facing hardships at a school that is unwelcoming to immigrants, she struggles with loneliness–until she befriends “la poeta” Gabriela Mistral who has moved near Oriol’s home (12). While the meeting (and subsequent story) is fictional, the poet is a real person, the first Latin American winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Oriol is relieved to have found someone who speaks her native tongue, but little does she know the unexpected gift she’ll be receiving from her new friend: learning the language of poetry. 

These lessons are for all of us. “There is no better home for emotions than a poem,” la poeta advises, “which can easily be transformed into a song” (27). The book is rich with simple yet profound expressions of love, loss, heartache, and wholeness. As we learn along with Oriol, poetry is the soul’s way of singing, whether that soul is human or animal. This lesson becomes more apparent as Oriol’s connection to the animals she cares for grows stronger and stronger, in particular her relationship with a pregnant elephant named Chandra whose rhythmic sways and sounds remind her of poetry.

Through her mentor’s gentle encouragement and guidance, Oriol’s writing blossoms–from using it as a source of healing to using it as a force for change. Bit by bit, she “no longer yearn[s]” for Cuba and Abuelita “every moment of every day” (106). And when a famous movie star takes special interest in Chandra, Oriol drafts “poetry-petition[s],” eventually organizing a protest against animal abuse (188). Fighting for her beloved elephants, Oriol finds a sense of belonging. 

Singing with Elephants is the kind of book readers will want to read again and again, catching the pieces of poetry missed from the previous read. An author’s note at the end details Cuban cultural traditions as well as Gabriela Mistral’s life. A list of further readings about and by the poet is also included.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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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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Turtle in Paradise Page 08
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 – 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 Book Review – One Last Shot

ONE LAST SHOT

Written by John David Anderson

(Walden Pond Press; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

One Last Shot cover

 

 

In John David Anderson’s One Last Shot, twelve-year-old Malcolm Greeley navigates life carefully. School is endured, and his home life is a minefield where he painstakingly interprets what’s said—and what’s not said—to keep the peace between his contentious parents. He’s sure that if he can just do everything right, then things between his mom and dad will get better, that they have to.

Malcolm doesn’t realize he needs a friend until Lex’s miniature golf ball and her comical call of “Five!” lands at his feet. With an unwanted push from his wacky golf coach, Malcolm soon finds a something in Lex he’s been sorely missing. While his steadfast mother accepts and understands him, Malcolm is unsettled around his father, an award-winning jock of many sports, who pushed Malcolm into Little League. When Malcolm is given an out, he takes it, only to be subtly pressured into competition mini golf. With Dad, it’s all about winning, but Malcolm’s not wired that way no matter how he tries. He’s a natural at putting, yet dreads the competitive aspect. The voices in his head add to the stress of executing each shot perfectly.

Though I don’t typically gravitate stories centered around competitive sports, I picked up One Last Shot because I’m a fan of Anderson’s other books Granted and Posted (also middle grade). One Last Shot’s a winner with its fully developed, imperfect characters. I appreciated the creative manner in which the story unfolds; the structure adds interest. Each of the eighteen chapters opens with the description of a mini golf hole and closes with how Malcolm scored on that hole. Sandwiched between, we’re shown Malcolm’s life in flashback scenes.

This would be an ideal read for a kid with parents in the bitter pre-divorce stage since Malcolm comes to understand his parents’ troubles are not about him and cannot be fixed by him. Sometimes, parents need to split up for their own good—an upsetting time that’s hard to live through, but, hopefully, better in the long run.

Click here to read a sample.

 

•Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Middle Grade Fiction – I’m OK by Patti Kim

I’M OK
Written by Patti Kim
(Atheneum BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

I'm OK book cover

 

In the middle grade novel I’m OK by Patti Kim, twelve-year-old Ok Lee’s world begins to fall apart when his father dies suddenly. Even though his mother works three jobs, they barely get by. To help out financially, Ok starts braiding girls’ hair at school and resolves to win the talent show’s $100 prize—though he doesn’t have a talent in mind.

The flawed characters in I’m Ok weave together realistically in a story about the imperfect lives of recent immigrants and middle schoolers. Ok’s unwitting sidekick is Mickey McDonald, a girl with the biggest hair and a personality to match. Her family’s also poor but she doesn’t care what other people think. Mickey adds a lively, funny element to a story that also depicts race and social class discrimination. Set at an indeterminate time, Americana details such as Enjoli perfume or the TV shows “Charlie’s Angels” and “MacGyver” will resonate with older readers.

The ending feels genuine and opens the door to talking about why life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect or want. Ok is bound to his mother, and her decisions direct their future.

This was June’s book-of-the-month at Chevalier’s Books’ middle-grade book club in Los Angeles. I’m Ok was well liked by all. The animated discussion considered many interesting elements of this novel including nice story-writing details such as how the story is bookended by two similar yet quite different scenes.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – All the Greys on Greene Street

ALL THE GREYS ON GREENE STREET
Written by Laura Tucker
Illustrated by Kelly Murphy
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

All the Greys on Greene Street book cover

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, BookPage, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly
Junior Library Guild Selection

 

In the new middle grade novel, All the Greys on Greene Street, twelve-year-old Olympia is trying to solve a mystery with her two friends, Alex and Richard. She knows her father, an art restorer, has left the country. She knows why her mother hasn’t gotten out of bed since her father left. And she knows something is amiss with an art piece her father and his business partner and devoted friend, Apollo, have been working on restoring. What she doesn’t know is why her father decided to leave so suddenly and why there are people knocking on the doors of her parents’ Soho loft, demanding answers.

All The Greys On Greene St Int3All the Greys on Greene Street is Laura Tucker’s debut novel, a historical fiction story set in 1981 when Soho’s large industrial lofts housed artists instead of chain stores and the subway cost 75 cents. Narrated in first-person by Olympia, (Ollie to her family and friends) Ollie is a keen observer, and tries to make sense of the complex adults in her life. She is devoted to her parents and to Apollo, whose studio she visits and who cares for her like his own child. When her father leaves, Ollie tries but can’t rally her mom to get out of bed. She hides her mother’s depression, trying to move through her world as if everything is fine. For weeks, she gets herself to school, concentrates on school projects and eats lots of canned soup. She refuses to ask for help or even share what’s happening with her mom. She manages to convince the neighbors that things are okay, but her friends discover her secret. Ollie pleads for secrecy, but Richard and Alex refuse, and betray her trust. Ollie is just beginning to work through her feelings when catastrophe rocks their neighborhood.

All the Greys on Greene St int1Like the title suggests, Ollie has the eye of an artist. Everyone in her life encourages her to look closely at her world and really try to understand what is happening. Kelly Murphy’s pencil illustrations help the reader see what Ollie sees and what she draws. And the writing is beautiful. There are no easy answers and there is no villain, just friends trying to do their best with what they have. Tucker offers some very smart history and art lessons imparted with the lightest touch. Apollo teaches Ollie about color and craft and the lessons will stay with the reader, as much as they impact Ollie.

 

All the Greys on Greene St int2Kids and parents were different in 1981 and these sixth graders are allowed to navigate New York City in a way that tween and teen readers with hovering helicopter parents might be surprised by. But even with absent parents and independence, Ollie and her friends are never alone. Their own friendship, their strong community and their neighbors keep them safe. Readers might be tempted to compare Ollie to Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. They both have keen observation skills, but Ollie is softer and savvier than Harriet. Ollie’s biggest lessons are about how to ask for help, and friends who become family and how some of life’s hardest questions have more than one answer.

Interior artwork by Kelly Murphy from All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker courtesy of  Viking Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

  • Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Cynthia Copeland
    Cynthia Copeland is a television and digital producer, who is always writing on the side. She is currently writing a YA contemporary novel. She lives in Pasadena, California with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @listenupbucko and she’ll share the small mystery that author, Laura Tucker revealed to her about the novel, All the Greys on Greene Street
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SEARCHING FOR LOTTIE
Written by Susan L. Ross
(Holiday House; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Searching for Lottie by Susan L. Ross cover art

 

 

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

 

 

 

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Front Desk by Kelly Yang – A Not-to-be-Missed Debut Novel

FRONT DESK
Written by Kelly Yang
(Arthur A. Levine Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

cover art for Front Desk by Kelly Yang

 

Starred reviews – Booklist, Kirkus and School Library Journal

Where do I possibly begin with Kelly Yang’s FRONT DESK?

FRONT DESK is a timely and needed narrative for so many reasons. And Yang, as demonstrated in her debut novel, is one heck of a storyteller. She’s destined to be an author that kids and adults clamor to meet so they can soak up her pearls of wisdom. Drawing from firsthand experiences and keen insights from when she arrived in America as a Chinese child immigrant along with her parents, Yang’s tale provides many kids a chance to find themselves and find hope inside the pages of this moving middle grade historical novel.

It’s 1993 when we meet our heroine Mia Tang. At 10-years-old, Mia is one of the most empathetic, intelligent, persevering characters of this age I have seen in a long time. The truth is there are so many like her whose voices deserve to be heard. I am grateful to Yang that tweens now have a chance to get to know this plucky protagonist and her struggles. Mia’s family are employed at a hotel with unpleasant owners after working for a short time at a restaurant where they were taken advantage of, then fired shortly after. While the hotel seems like a dream come true at first with free rent, the negatives and danger of managing the hotel take their toll on the family.

One of the moments that broke my heart is when Mia is sitting with one of the “weeklies” at the motel she helps run with her parents. The “weeklies” stay at the hotel for a week at a time, paying a lump sum. An older Black gentleman, Hank, is sitting slumped over, defeated by yet another instance in his life where he is targeted for a crime he did not commit simply because he isn’t White. He’s been labeled for so long that at this point he has no more will to fight. He exposes this vulnerability to Mia, and it is a powerful and haunting exchange. Hank isn’t feeling sorry for himself, nor is he bitter or angry when he has every right to be. He’s just tired, the kind of tired you cannot possibly understand unless you’ve been judged by the color of your skin your whole life. Mia later advocates for him and shows us how you are never too young or too old to stand on the side of justice and equality for all.

Resiliency. Mia and her family, along with the “weeklies” and some other friends, have this in abundance. Even when their own families decline to help them in their hour of need, their community rallies around them so they can take control of their destinies.

I dog-eared many pages to go back and look over for this review, and I’m still at a loss as how best to describe my favorite parts because there are so many. I’ve also purchased more than one copy of this book to give to others. It is one of those stories that will creep into your heart and linger there for quite a while.

FRONT DESK needs to be in every school library and as many homes as possible.

  • Reviewed by Ozma Bryant

Read another recent review by Ozma here.
Check out Kelly Yang’s new global issues video series for teenagers: www.facebook.com/kellyyangproject or www.youtube.com/kellyyangproject.

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The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET
Written by David Barclay Moore
(Random House BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore cover image

 

Starred Reviews: Bulletin, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness, VOYA

The Stars Beneath Our Feet  by David Barclay Moore introduces us to Wallace “Lolly” Rachpaul, a twelve-year-old boy reeling from his older brother’s recent murder. Lolly almost thinks it’s a joke, that Jermaine will reappear and everything will be fine. However, the heaviness in Lolly’s chest makes him realize life is unfair: “it’s all about borders. And territories. And crews.”

For years, Lolly built Legos per the box’s instructions because they provided relief from the real world. When Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend begins giving him garbage bags full of Legos, it unleashes his imagination but their apartment isn’t big enough for his artistic endeavor. At his community center after-school program, Lolly finds the storage room a peaceful retreat where he can build alone, forgetting about everything else until he must share his space and blocks with a quiet girl the kids call Big Rose.

When Rose does speak, she repeats comforting words to herself: “Your mama, your daddy—they were buried under the ground, but they’re stars now, girl, stars beneath our feet.” Her seemingly obscure statements affect Lolly. Their unlikely friendship evolves to include an understanding of shared pain. In the Harlem projects, death is too commonplace.

Throughout the book, Lolly and his best friend, Vega, feel pressure to join a gang for protection; yet, that’s what led to Jermaine’s death. Lolly wavers between fear, anger, and acceptance of what seems to be his only path. The question of how to fit in pulls Vega away as they search for their own answers, boys on their way to becoming men.

Moore’s book reveals our world’s imperfections and complications. Yet, hope shines through. We relate to Lolly’s conflicting emotions and understand his worries about the future. We all must decide how to best live our lives. The Stars Beneath Our Feet shares a glimpse of one boy’s journey.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel by Kimberly Willis Holt

BLOOMING AT THE TEXAS SUNRISE MOTEL
Written by Kimberly Willis Holt
(Henry Holt and Company BYR/A Christy Ottaviano Book;
$16.99, Ages 8-14)

cover image for Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel

 

In Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motelwhen thirteen-year-old Stevie’s parents are killed in an accident, she’s uprooted from her New Mexico home and sent to live in the Texas Sunrise Motel with a grandfather she doesn’t remember. Though grandfather Winston is standoffish, Stevie quickly connects with the motel’s eclectic group of people, including a cute boy her age named Roy.

Living in the same room where her mother grew up sparks Stevie’s curiosity about her parents’ kept-quiet past; grandfather Winston coolly avoids personal topics. Instead of enrolling Stevie in public school, she’s sent to the same woman who homeschooled her mother—the ancient and narcoleptic Mrs. Crump. Here, Stevie finally begins to piece together the puzzle about what her mother was like as a girl.

In this moving middle grade novel, Stevie struggles to cope with choices that are being made without her consent. Just as she’s settling into Texas, an unknown aunt invites Stevie to Louisiana. Now it’s up to her to decide between living with fun and loud cousins or returning to her seemingly detached grandfather and the motel’s motley cast of characters. Stevie’s comfortable world has ended; she’s adrift in new beginnings and explorations.

Kimberly Willis Holt‘s effective use of plant imagery throughout will not be lost on readers. Stevie parents ran a fruit and flower stand, her Louisiana cousins are in the nursery business—digging in the dirt is in Stevie’s genes. Discovering where Stevie puts down roots is the heart of this gentle, character-driven, and finely crafted story.

Click here to see Holt’s book tour schedule.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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