In Legends of Lotus Island: The Guardian Test, the first book in a new middle-grade seriesby Christine Soontornvat with illustrations by Kevin Hong, young Plum lives on a remote part of the Santipap Islands. An orphan, she lives with her grandparents and helps them tend their home and gardens. Plum is able to communicate with plants and animals and, as a result, the family’s gardens thrive. Seeing this, her grandfather secretly submits an application for her to the elite Guardian Academy on Lotus Island. Guardians are able to transform into magical creatures and are tasked with protecting the natural world.
When she learns that she has been accepted to the Academy, Plum is stunned by her grandfather’s actions. She doesn’t believe that she is that special or magical. Nevertheless, her grandparents convince her to accept the Academy’s invitation and, reluctantly, she leaves her beloved home for an uncertain future.
Once at the Academy, Plum, and the other students are trained in meditation, fighting skills, communicating with animals, and learning how to transform. As the students train, their natural, magical abilities emerge. Based on that, the Masters are then able to assign students to one of the three groups of Guardians: Hand (fast and strong), Heart (healers), and Breath (calming).
However, Plum struggles: she is bullied by another student (who may have a hidden agenda), she can’t focus during meditation, is not much of a fighter, and is unable to transform. The Masters are not sure which Guardian group she belongs in. If Plum wishes to advance to Novice, she must pass the first test which is transformation. Plum’s fears grow –will she be able to pass the test? Or will she fail and be sent home?
Soontornvat fills her short book with a fascinating and lush world, populating it with fantastic creatures, hints of political intrigue, and mysterious ancient legends. The author also does not sacrifice character development. Plum, a kind but unsophisticated girl, blooms into a strong and confident figure. Other students share similar growth, which may be encouraging to readers struggling with their own self-confidence. Along with occasional black and white illustrations, this first in a series is an enticing and accessible read for younger readers who are not yet ready for longer fantasy titles.
Visit the authorhere for a brief book talk and watch the book trailer here. Watch this short video if you’re not sure how to pronounce Soontornvat’s name. Kids can read an excerpt from the book here.
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, 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.
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’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 hereto 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.
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2023 (1/26/23) is in its 10th year! This non-profit children’s literacy initiative was founded by Valarie Budayr and Mia Wenjen; two diverse book-loving moms who saw a need to shine the spotlight on all of the multicultural books and authors on the market while also working to get those books into the hands of young readers and educators.
Ten years in, MCBD’s mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in homes and school bookshelves continues. Read about our Mission & History HERE.
MCBD 2023 is honored to be Supported by these Medallion Sponsors!
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Join us on Thursday, January 26, 2023, at 9 pm EST for the 10th annual Multicultural Children’s Book Day Read Your World Virtual Party! This epically fun and fast-paced hour includes multicultural book discussions, addressing timely issues, diverse book recommendations, & reading ideas. We will be giving away a 10-Book Bundle during the virtual party plus Bonus Prizes as well! *** US and Global participants welcome. **Follow the hashtag #ReadYourWorld to join the conversation, and connect with like-minded parts, authors, publishers, educators, organizations, and librarians. We look forward to seeing you all on January 26, 2023, at our virtual party!
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.
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly
NOTE #1: I meant to write aboutThe Beatryce Prophecy almost a year ago when I first read it. However, being in dire need of a feel-good story, I just reread it so I’m happy to finally share my review of this fairy tale. NOTE #2: You definitely do not need to be between the ages of 8-12 to enjoy every last word of this wonderful novel. Written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, The Beatryce Prophecy is full of promise and a resounding message of love we could all use.
The book begins with:
It is written in the Chronicles of Sorrowing
that one day there will come a child who will unseat a king.
The prophecy states that this child will be a girl.
Because of this,
the prophecy has long been ignored.
The kingdom, readers learn in text running parallel to the main narrative, is at stake due to the disappearance of a young girl according to the “Prophecies,” so the hunt is on. At the same time a child, no more than 10 years old, burning with fever and clinging to the ear of an ordinarily unruly goat, is discovered in the barn. The rescuer is Brother Edik, a thoughtful monk who belongs to the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. He is the monastery illuminator of the “glorious golden letters” that begin the text of each page of the Chronicles. Brother Edik also looks after the goat, Answelica.
Brother Edik, aided by the unusually attentive Answelica, cares for the girl who, when recovered, remembers only that her name is Beatryce. This name also happens to be one that appears frequently in the Chronicles of Sorrowing. Most notable however is that Beatryce can read and write, something forbidden by law for girls in the kingdom. Could this rare ability be a clue to Beatryce’s identity?
It doesn’t take long for the monk to feel a strong bond with Beatryce, but his superior, Father Caddis says she must leave to find her people. As Beatryce is gaining her strength, she encounters Jack Dory. This industrious 12-year-old orphan possesses an excellent memory and gift for mimicry which comes in handy. He’s been dispatched to the monastery by a dying soldier to find a monk to write his confession. But since Father Caddis wants Beatryce gone to keep the Order out of the king’s crosshair, he sends Beatryce instead of Brother Edik.
The pair (with Answelica of course) set out for the village inn where Beatryce, dressed as a monk with shaved hair and pretending to be mute, begins the task committed to. But when the king’s men begin to search, Jack tells his friend they must leave or risk capture.
In the dark woods during their escape, Jack and Beatryce encounter a mysterious but benevolent bearded old man who helps them evade the soldiers and other threats. He then accompanies the children on a journey so Beatryce, who now remembers who she is, can confront the king. As the parallel text unfolds, readers learn the awful truth about what transpired to cause Beatryce to wind up at the monastery haunted by bad dreams and incomplete memories. Tension, which has been building ever since the close call at the inn, continues to grow as the group converges to enter the castle.
Between the gripping and creative DiCamillo storytelling and the detailed, evocative Blackall art, there is so much to enjoy about The Beatryce Prophecy. I rank this novel up there with DiCamillo’s finest novels and my great mood was on par with how I felt after finishing Flora & Ulysses. Not only is the story one of love, friendship, and fate, but it’s also an homage to the written word, the power of books, and how the truth can set you free. There’s a meaningful unexpected twist at the end, too. I always worry about endings after a page-turning book has taken me along on a journey with characters I care about. And while in a fantastical story such as this, anything goes, anyone reading the novel will be more than satisfied with how DiCamillo wraps it up and offers it like one huge hug. I’m curious if you find yourself humming the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” like I did?
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
For all downloads for this book including a sample chapter and teachers’ guide, click here.
If the alliteration in the title was what caught my eye then it was the premise of Willis Wilbur Wows the World, the first book in a new series by Lindsey Leavitt, that made me want to read it. Mature beyond his nine-year-old years, Willis is all pumped to go to band camp for the summer with his best friend Shelley. That is until the plans change and Shelley is off to Hawaii with her family. What will Willis do instead since going to camp without her is out of the question?
A local business competition for kids seems to provide the answer and after a failed initial attempt at interior design, entrepreneurial Willis finds his niche as a life coach to the neighborhood kids. But is he really the right one for the job? And can he win the competition, especially as he needs to contend with bullies, the Rudes, and do it on his own without Shelley by his side? With supportive parents and younger sister Logan behind him, Willis learn the art of life coaching while learning a lot about himself in the process.
Daniel Duncan’sblack-and-white illustrations capture the various personalities of the cast of characters throughout including Willis, the intelligent, kind protagonist who has big dreams about succeeding in life, kid sister Logan who can easily give Willis a run for his money, and possible new friend Margo whom Willis sets out to coach in the area of learning to be a kid, despite a hurtful incident that happened during first grade.
Aside from the illustrations, the text is punctuated with email exchanges between Willis and Shelley and “Pro Tips” in boxes (for example: Dress for the part.) which will draw in even the most reluctant reader to this humorous and entertaining story. Willis Wilbur earns the title in his own right and is a welcome and unique character to enter the middle-grade market. Book #2 comes out in September.
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.
(RH Graphic; HC $20.99, Paperback $12.99, Ages 8-12)
★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 byJennifer L. Holmand 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.
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.”
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.
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.
A Book Review, and Interview with Author Chris Baron
by Karol Silverstein
★Starred Review – Booklist
In The Magical Imperfect, Etan has had trouble speaking since his mother checked into a hospital to get well, and his friends at school don’t know what to make of his silence. Baseball is about the only thing he can share with his father, but luckily, 1989 is looking like a good year for their Giants. Spending time with his immigrant grandfather, a shopkeeper in the local village, is much easier for Etan. Though his family is Jewish, their small hometown north of San Francisco is home to many refugees from various countries, so he’s exposed to many different cultures.
On an errand to deliver items for one of his grandfather’s fellow shopkeepers, Etan meets Malia, a girl who has severe eczema and began being homeschooled when the bullying at the local school became too much. These two outcast kids have an instant connection and build a moving friendship. Etan’s grandfather has a small supply of clay from “the old country,” which is supposed to have curative properties. Could the clay possibly cure Malia’s eczema? Etan wonders. Malia has tried many medicines and “cures” and is more interested in connecting with and learning from the nature that surrounds her, particularly the trees. Malia also dreams of singing in the town’s talent contest—unthinkable before she met Etan. As the talent show—and the World Series—draw closer, Malia practices her performance with Etan’s encouragement and Etan secures some of his grandfather’s “magic clay,” hoping it will help a particularly bad eczema outbreak Malia is experiencing. If only the scary tremors would let up…
As was the case in author Chris Baron’s 2019 debut All Of Me, the gentle unfolding of character and emotion through evocative verse is again on full display in The Magical Imperfect. The juxtaposition of Etan and Malia’s small tremors of growth with San Francisco’s devastating 1989 earthquake provides a potent metaphor for how life can shake you up but not necessarily knock you down. I worried a little that this book might delve into “magical cure/disability that needs to be fixed” territory that hampers many books with disabled and/or chronically ill characters and can actually be harmful to that community. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Etan’s clay isn’t really the magic fix he’d hoped for, and I believe both kids come to realize that acceptance and small victories are, in the end, what matter most.
Ultimately, the intertwined themes of love, culture, baseball and just a touch of magic . . . or is it faith? . . . make this a wonderful and wonder-filled read.
Karol Silverstein: The Magical Imperfect is set around the time of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. How and at what point in the writing process did you decide on that time period? What led to this decision?
Chris Baron: This is a great question with a very twisty-turny answer. Let me see if I can straighten it out enough. Just like in All of Me, this book takes place in the Bay Area, where I went to middle school. This place is just a part of me. The setting lives in my heart—from the ocean to the redwoods and beyond. I’d experienced earthquakes before, but somehow this one, in the middle of the World Series seemed to disrupt life in such an unpredictable and deep way. This story is all about the ways in which life is disrupted for the people in the story in unexpected ways by things that are beyond their control. Something as a big as an earthquake is terrifying, but it also has a chance to bring people together.
Karol: Baseball, music, food, and cultural traditions are wonderfully intertwined in your book. Can you talk about how you worked with these themes to tell Etan’s story?
Chris: Intertwined is actually a beautiful word for this. I think all of these things are intertwined in the story. When we hear a song, we feel the beat and hum the melody. We can remember the words no matter how long it’s been. Not only that, if the song has a special meaning to us, the music and the lyrics come together to fuel the memories that bind us together. I think it’s the same with cultural and sacred traditions, (which of course include food). The traditions, the tastes, the people—they become intertwined in who we are. They connect us. Even though Etan and Malia are from different cultures, and even though traditions might look different, they find that their values are actually intertwined.
As for baseball: Baseball is its own tradition—a symbol, an activity played at every level, and just a very fun game. For so many of us, baseball represents normal life, but it’s powerful enough to bring so many kinds of people together. For Etan, baseball is one of the only ways he can connect with his father. When things get tough, they at least can talk about baseball.
In 1989, when a unifying tradition like the world series was shaken by an earthquake, it caused many of us to feel scared and uneasy, but the quake also brought many people together. I tried to weave that into the backdrop of the story. There is so much news coverage from that day, and it’s fascinating to watch. I wanted to explore what it would be like for this close-knit town to experience this event together. I also have to confess that writing poetry about the earthquake was all-consuming. I think I wrote one hundred pages of “moments’ from the quake, but of course only a few made it into the book.
Karol: Both Etan and Malia have health conditions. What drew you to create characters with selective mutism and eczema, respectively? If you don’t have personal experience with these conditions, what type of research did you do?
Chris: Great question. I have the deepest respect and empathy for those of us who live with these health conditions. Both selective mutism and eczema are extremely complex.
I wrote about the life of an artist’s family quite a bit in All of Me. But there was one behavior that Ari didn’t express that Etan does in The Magical Imperfect. In the book, Etan stops speaking when his mother has to leave because of her severe depression. He didn’t choose it. His anxiety came on suddenly, and like most kids his age (and especially in 1989), he doesn’t know how to recognize it. In Etan, I am writing a character I know well—someone who suffers from anxiety. Because my mom is an artist, we moved all the time. Whenever I moved to a new town, a new state, a new school, I may have seemed calm on the outside, but inside of me was a storm of emotions: There was always joy and excitement of moving to a new place, new friends, new adventures, but of course it was all mixed together with the brutal pain of being taken out of one life (routine, friendships, and environment), and then suddenly dropped into another. I suffered from anxiety. I didn’t know how I would fit. For a kid, it can be a complete loss of control. Often, the way I reacted to this loss of control was to find something I could control. It was sometimes eating, but it was also something quieter. I found myself often unable to speak, so I embraced that. I stopped talking at school. I was quiet. I kept all my words to myself. Eventually, I found friends and teachers I could trust who helped me through it, and slowly the words came out.
Eczema is very complicated. Most people have rashes that itch, but as my wife Ella deCastro Baron explains it, she has itches that rash. Ella has had extreme eczema off and on her whole life. Her memoir,Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment(2012) is all about a life lived with eczema. When we first got married, she had eczema that ravaged her body from head to toe. The triggering effects of the condition caused so many secondary problems: depression, insomnia, isolation, and hopelessness. If you know Ella, then you know that she is a luminous, hilarious person full of life. Watching her deal with chronic bouts of eczema has been some of the hardest parts of our life together (and still are at times). In The Magical Imperfect, Malia experiences a similar bout of eczema. It’s so bad that she is isolated from school because of the way other kids treat her and because of her own discomfort.
The healing process for both of these conditions is not simple magic. In each case, it’s a complex journey, but the hope itself leads to moments of magic that provide joy and healing from the most unexpected places. That’s a big part of what I explored in the book.
I also want to note. Even though these conditions are integrated into my own life, I did more research than I expected. I know that these conditions vary from person to person, so I talked to many. I interviewed doctor friends about both subjects, and a few others who have firsthand experiences with these conditions. I also read Christina Collins’sstunning book, After Zerowhich I highly recommend.
Karol: The “magic” in your book is very much left up to your readers’ interpretation. Can you discuss what role you feel magic plays in helping Etan and Malia get to a better place emotionally by story’s end?
Chris: I know one thing I hope readers don’t take away—the idea that magic is some sort of cure for everything. Without too many spoilers, I would say that the magic in the story connects the many worlds of the characters. There is ancient magic from the worlds more connected to Etan’s grandfather and the other immigrants in town, but also hidden everywhere. This is the part I had the most fun writing. I think the magic is crucial for Etan and Malia—not because it cures things—but because it provides hope and makes it tangible in their everyday lives. The story is rooted in the idea that magic is all around us—that if we might only stop and listen—pay attention—we will see and hear the trees, or discover the ancient things living right beside us.
But also—I love trees—and I know that they are made of magic.
In The Great Pet Heist, when elderly Mrs. Food slips on some dog barf and ends up too injured to return possibly ever, her pets must fend for themselves. Walt (don’t call me Lucretia) is an Oriental shorthair and the sly female lead. Her sidekick is lovable but slow at times Butterbean, a male long-haired wiener dog, whose claim to fame is his nostril-probe lick. The main crew is comprised of Oscar the smart mynah bird, and the amiable rats Marco and Polo. e
A girl from their building named Madison comes by to take care of the basics, but the pets know it’s hasta la vista soon. Their situation seems dire until they stumble upon a possible criminal in their building who may have enough gold coins to give the animals riches to care for themselves. Once the heist is launched, a series of funny antics will keep you wondering whether these characters will succeed, or if it’s off to the pound.
Throughout, Dave Mottram’s art is beautifully done, adding another layer of humor to Ecton’s story. Though Walt was my favorite character, I fell for Chad the octopus once I saw him rising out of toilet bowls and tripping up the villain. Take a close look at the image next to the title page of The Great Pet Heist to find Chad.
Written and illustrated by Jerry Craft
(HarperCollins; $21.99 H/c, $12.99 P/b, Ages 8-12)
Newbery Medal Winner A New York Times bestseller
Winner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature ★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness
I began reading author-illustrator Jerry Craft’s outstanding graphic novel, New Kid, last week before it made history winning the Newbery so I was thrilled that it was honored. I read it slowly to savor every illustration, every funny or meaningful moment, and every twist and turn in the story. You know that feeling when you want to stay with characters long after a book has ended? That is the feeling readers will experience with New Kid.
Craft introduces us to the main character, Jordan Banks, and his dilemma, and we’re instantly in his court. He’s been accepted into an elite private school, Riverdale Academy Day School (RADS) for seventh grade. Although Jordan would prefer to attend an art school, he and his dad agree he will give it a try and switch to the art school for ninth grade if things don’t work out. Jordan, who is black, lives in Washington Heights with his loving parents who want to offer him advantages they never had. Jordan must commute via bus to Riverdale to attend classes. The way Craft shows the change in communities and attitudes through Jordan’s hoody, how he wears it and what his posture is like as he travels is eye-opening. Not only will this smart, talented preteen have to navigate public transportation, he’ll also have to figure out a more pressing dynamic—where he fits in at the new school.
I loved getting inside Jordan’s head via his sketch book packed with cartoons along with Craft’s vibrant illustrations. A pair of angels are depicted in various scenes responding to situations that Jordan encounters and emotions he feels. This adds a humorous dimension to Craft’s multi-layered graphic novel about what it’s like being a person of color in a predominantly white school environment. At RADS, with its mostly wealthy and privileged student body, Jordan quickly realizes who the gossips are, who the jocks are, who the annoying kids are, and who he can ultimately call a friend.
And what about the the teachers and administrators at Jordan’s school? Some reviews have described a culture of behavior at RADS as micro-aggressive and I agree. Readers’ perspectives should change after noticing the undertone of prejudice, racism and ignorance aimed at minority students when teachers don’t make an effort to remember someone’s name or are quick to accuse the wrong student in a fight. The same applies to fellow students who, for example, cannot acknowledge that a classmate is from Nicaragua and not Mexico. The tongue-in-cheek Oprah public service announcement cartoon Jordan creates about kids on financial aid also struck a chord. I’ve known people who’ve felt stigmatized when this confidential arrangement was revealed. While these are some of the hardest issues to read about, they’re also some the most honest, important and compelling. Through Jordan, Craft deftly challenges stereotypes and enlightens kids that other paradigms exist.
New Kid’s 14 chapters take us through an entire school year during which we watch and root for Jordan’s success in the classroom, on the field for P.E. (where it’s often very cold), and in his social life where there’s never a dull moment. We also come to care about his closest pals, Liam and Drew, who have his back and grow along with Jordan. A cast of endearing secondary characters rounds off the novel, and the inclusion of these relationships injects another realistic element into the middle school experience. There are up days, down days, and days when Jordan wonders whether he’ll ever make this private school thing work.
When he leaves behind his Washington Heights buddies to go to RADS, Jordan faces yet another challenge—how to make new friends and keep the old. It’s not a straightforward silver and gold thing and Jordan knows it. It’s great that Craft shows the effort Jordan makes to keep up those relationships because, although he may be in Riverdale during the day, after school and weekends he’s still connected to his neighborhood and that grounds him in the best possible way.
I’m grateful to have been able to spend time with Jordan Banks, his family and friends. I hope you’ll also meet Jordan soon by getting a copy of New Kid at your local indie bookseller!
Disclosure: I was gifted New Kid by HarperCollins to review for the event.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2020 (1/31/20) is in its 7th year! This non-profit children’s literacy initiative was founded by Valarie Budayr and Mia Wenjen; two diverse book-loving moms who saw a need to shine the spotlight on all of the multicultural books and authors on the market while also working to get those book into the hands of young readers and educators.
Seven years in, MCBD’s mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in homes and school bookshelves continues.
MCBD 2020 is honored to have the following Medallion Sponsors on board
We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHostsHERE.
(DIARY OF A WIMPY KID BOOK 14)
Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)
The popularity of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid middle grade series is still blazing. Kids at our daughter’s elementary school were counting the days until the release of book 14, Wrecking Ball. Then it was noses in books as they devoured Greg Heffley’s latest escapades. So what’s the appeal of this best-selling series? When I asked kids this question, the answers were simple: the familiar way the book looked, the story’s relatable humor, and its well-known characters. Great reasons since everyone likes comfortably sharing a laugh with a friend.
The title Wrecking Ball refers to construction and destruction to the Heffley’s house. As parents, we can relate to the nightmare of home improvements, remodeling, and house-hunting. Seeing these things from Greg’s perspective is, of course, funny but also very true. From tried-and-true sight gags (plumber’s crack) to the much deeper consequences of starting over elsewhere—the possibilities to reinvent yourself but also the complexity of feelings of being split from your best friend. Kids will be white-knuckled wondering if Rowley’s being written out.
Kinney’s hilarious illustrations accompany every page. I especially enjoyed Greg’s dream house which will be really small (to avoid attracting attention since he’s famous), but include a vast interlinking underground network. [PAGES 40-45] Who hasn’t envisioned what they’d build if they were rich? Greg’s idea of a glass bathtub that sits inside a giant aquarium is a kick. If your tween has some holiday cash to spend, this book is sure to please.
Roll With It was an easy choice for my to-read list because it deals with disability. As a disabled author myself, I feel disability representation in books for children is so important and I’m thrilled to see the number of books featuring this element of diversity growing. Author Jamie Sumner has a son with cerebral palsy—the same disability as her main character, Ellie—so I was confident that aspect of the book would be handled with authority and authenticity. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting is a story that packed such an emotional punch on so many different levels.
Ellie and her mom move in with Ellie’s grandparents to help out since her grandfather’s memory issues are getting worse. Life in her grandparents’ trailer park is not exactly ideal for Ellie physically and she dreads starting at a new school as not only “the new kid” but “the new kid in a wheelchair.” Before long though, she connects with two other classmates from the trailer park, the hilarious Coralee and ultra blunt Bert, and Ellie begins to love her new home. She must then convince her mom that they should stay put.
Ellie is relatable and plucky, with a touch of snarky sarcasm, all of which endeared her to me immediately. Her growth as a character had much less to do with the traditional “overcoming her limitations due to her disability” trope and much more to do with making friends, asserting herself, navigating the complex relationship between a tween kid and her mother, and handling her emotions related to her grandfather’s illness. She’s a regular kid with dreams of being a celebrity chef, who experiences the same feelings and challenges as lots of kids her age. The fact that she has CP and is a wheelchair user is neither the main focus of the story nor downplayed. Sumner strikes a perfect balance of making that aspect of Ellie’s life an integral part of the story without it be her only story. Similarly, Ellie’s Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s is treated deftly and not sugarcoated.
Roll With It is not only a fun and interesting read—it’s a great representation for middle grade readers who are wheelchair users themselves and for any reader interested in a moving story which provides insight into a POV not often seen in children’s books.
Guest Review by Karol Ruth Silverstein
Karol Ruth Silverstein writes all genres of children’s books and screenplays. Her debut novel Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019) is loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at 13. Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives with her two exceptionally fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo. You can read a review of her novel here.
BEACH BATTLE BLOWOUT WELCOME TO WONDERLAND #4
by Chris Grabenstein, Illustrated by Kelly Kennedy, (Random House BYR; $13.99, Ages 8-12)
If you’re looking for an upbeat beach read or a book that keeps the summer feeling going strong as back-to-school time begins,Beach Battle Blowout is it. The fourth installment in the Welcome to Wonderland series continues with fast-paced silliness. Likeable main character P.T. Wilkie lives in “the funnest place on Earth” (a funky motel) with his mother and his grandfather who is Florida’s “other Walt.” P.T.’s best friend, Gloria Ortega, lives there too because her sportscaster dad moves around a lot for TV gigs.
Previous books focused more on P.T. wondering about the identity of his father; here, his questioning is mentioned in passing but with significance. Dad or no Dad, something exciting is brewing again. This time, the Hottest Family Attraction contest, hosted by Florida Fun in the Sun magazine, focuses on smaller attractions like the Wonderland Motel. To find winning strategies, Gloria serves as the brains and financial whiz, while P.T. follows in his grandfather’s footsteps weaving wacky stories that entertain the guests. Their competitors have larger, newer, and fancier offerings, but the Wonderland has heart.
Short chapters and 70+ comic-style illustrations engage even reluctant readers. Mix a cast of friendly characters—and maybe a few “villains”—with adventure and mystery and you get this middle-grade page-turner. Don’t miss the funny and spot-on Storytelling Tips at the end.
The first book in the Welcome to Wonderland series is a New York Times best-seller, a winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award, and on the Sunshine State Young Readers Award list. Chris Grabenstein is also author of the successful and popular Mr. Lemoncello series.
Good Reads With Ronna is delighted to be part of the Dear Justice League blog tour celebrating this week’s launch of a rollicking good read and recommended middle grade graphic novel from DC Zoom.
The premise is a simple yet oh so satisfying one. Fictitious kids from all over America pen Dear Abby-type letters to their fave superheroes and then lo and behold, they get replies. Not what you were expecting, right?
Middle grade readers, reluctant and struggling readers as well as fans of graphic novels will enjoy every single page of Northrop’s and Duarte’s fast and uproarious read. It’s playful and action-packed, and who doesn’t love a story where there’s never a dull moment? Northrup delivers dynamic dialogue that pairs perfectly with Duarte’s art. His hilarious illustrations, full of every facial expression possible, jump off the page and pull you in. They deserve to be looked at multiple times.
I got into the novel quickly, intrigued by the first question posed to none other than my childhood hero, Superman. Wondering if the Man of Steel had ever messed up, the letter writer is shown having botched up his attempt at an invention. And while you’d think heroes are especially busy saving the day in multiple ways with no time for correspondence, Clark Kent’s alter ego surprises young Ben Silsby with an answer. Texting, flying and superhero-ing however do not safely go together leading to a hilarious string of close calls demonstrating that it’s not just Kryptonite that can bring him down.
I especially loved having the chance to meet seven other members of the Justice League, each presented in their own chapter addressing a particular issue raised via email, text or snail mail. Hawkgirl, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg, and Batman all make appearances and make you want to spend more time with them. The Dear Justice League questions range from silly (does Hawkgirl eat small mammals, does Aquaman smell like fish) to those that will resonate with the targeted age group about bullying, moving to a new school, being perfect, fitting in, friendship and teamwork.
Another aspect of the book that worked well was the thread running through the entire story about an invasion of evil, insect-like Shock Troopers from the planet Molt-On. Here’s where I was first introduced to Hawkgirl and was impressed by her sense of humor though a bit wary of how much soda she seemed to consume. But most of all, I enjoyed seeing the superheros hang out at HQ, chatting together while revealing snippets of their characters. When they ultimately fought off the Shock Troops through a well coordinated team effort, I felt happy and eager to read more about each of them individually and as a league. Next up for me is definitely Superman of Smallville, available 9/3/19.
The start of a new school year is an ideal time to share this graphic novel showing sometimes serious, yet often tongue-in-cheek adventures that demonstrate how even superheroes have the same vulnerabilities kids have. They may fight foes but are far from perfect. So head to your local independent bookseller to buy a copy of Dear Justice League for your kids because these graphic novels are bound to win new DC superhero fans and delight old ones.
Written by Patti Kim
(Atheneum BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
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.