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

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARI LOWE

WINNER OF THE SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD

FOR

THE DUBIOUS PRANKS OF SHAINDY GOODMAN

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

 

stba24 blog tour schedule banner

 

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

 

 

SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD WINNER
NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD WINNER

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

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

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

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

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

INTERVIEW:

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman cover Shaindy in Heelys.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support an independent bookseller and purchase a copy here.

Mari-Lowe-headshotAUTHOR BIO:

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

 

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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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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.

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Authors: Sivan Hong, Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett, Josh Funk , Stephanie M. Wildman, Gwen Jackson, Diana Huang, Afsaneh Moradian, Kathleen Burkinshaw, Eugenia Chu, Jacqueline Jules, Alejandra Domenzain, Gaia Cornwall, Ruth Spiro, Evelyn Sanchez-Toledo, Tonya Duncan Ellis, Kiyanda and Benjamin Young/Twin Powers Books, Kimberly Lee , Tameka Fryer Brown, Talia Aikens-Nuñez, Marcia Argueta Mickelson, Kerry O’Malley Cerra, Jennie Liu, Heather Murphy Capps, Diane Wilson, Sun Yung Shin, Shannon Gibney, John Coy, Irene Latham and Charles Waters, Maritza M Mejia, Lois Petren, J.C. Kato and J.C.², CultureGroove, Lindsey Rowe Parker, Red Comet Press, Shifa Saltagi Safadi, Nancy Tupper Ling, Deborah Acio, Asha Hagood, Priya Kumari, Chris Singleton, Padma Venkatraman, Teresa Robeson, Valerie Williams-Sanchez and Valorena Publishing, Martha Seif Simpson, Rochelle Melander, Alva Sachs, Moni Ritchie Hadley, Gea Meijering, Frances Díaz Evans, Michael Genhart, Angela H. Dale, Courtney Kelly, Queenbe Monyei, Jamia Wilson, Charnaie Gordon, Debbie Ridpath Ohi, Debbie Zapata, Jacquetta Nammar Feldman, Natasha Yim, Tracy T. Agnelli, Kitty Feld, Anna Maria DiDio, Ko Kim, Shachi Kaushik 

 

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Graphic Novel Review: Dear Justice League by Michael Northrop Blog Tour

✹BLOG TOUR✹

DEAR JUSTICE LEAGUE

Written by Michael Northrop

Illustrated by Gustavo Duarte

(DC Zoom/DC Entertainment; $9.99, Ages 6-10)

 

Dear Justice League cover

 

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.

Wonder Woman 7 int art from Dear Justice League
Interior artwork from Dear Justice League written by Michael Northrop and illustrated by Gustavo Duarte, DC Zoom ©2019.

 

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.

Dear Batman 10
Interior artwork from Dear Justice League written by Michael Northrop and illustrated by Gustavo Duarte, DC Zoom ©2019.

 

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.

Dear Aquaman 20
Interior artwork from Dear Justice League written by Michael Northrop and illustrated by Gustavo Duarte, DC Zoom ©2019.

 

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.

Click here to read a preview.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

CHECK OUT MORE BLOG TOUR POSTS HERE:

THE BOOK RAT
BOOKISH REALMS REVIEWS
THE MAGIC OF WOR(L)DS
THE CHILDREN’S WAR
WORD SPELUNKING
THE MAGIC OF WOR(L)DS

 

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All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

ALL’S FAIRE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL
Written and illustrated by Victoria Jamieson
(Dial BYR; $20.99, Ages 8-12)

 

cover image for All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly
A New York Times Editor’s Choice
An Autumn Kids’ Indie Next List top pick

 

Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School, provides a much-needed glimpse into alternative lifestyles. Twelve-year-old Imogene has been homeschooled by parents who work at Florida’s Renaissance Faire. When Imogene starts public school for the first time, she faces a very different world than at the faire where she is a knight-in-training.

Each chapter begins with brief synopsis of the brave heroine’s plight, conveyed in somewhat Old English. With much of the book set at the faire, readers gain insight into this medieval reenactment where people choose which role to play. Imogene never wanted to be the princess, but she questions whether she is destined to be a knight—maybe she’s more like Cussie, the hermit. Sometimes, Imogene behaves like the dragon.

The story explores Imogene’s turbulent journey to self-discovery. This is a tale of acceptance, forgiveness, friends, and blossoming sexuality. Imogene is every preteen, learning what it takes to fit in at school. She is teased for wearing thrift-store clothes with the wrong shoes. Imogene’s family becomes an embarrassment to her when they show up still dressed in Elizabethan costume and think nothing of it. Before entering sixth-grade, Imogene hadn’t noticed her family was different and how this is viewed suspiciously.

As with Jamieson’s successful Newbery Honor Book Roller Girl, in All’s Faire, the protagonist is a tough girl struggling with prepubescent emotions. The love of Imogene’s family—including her “faire-mily”—is a constant. Even when at odds with her parents and brother, in the end, Imogene realizes that the bullies and popular kids at school are something to suffer in passing. Her philosophy of what’s important shifts—and that makes all the difference.

Imogene makes unkind choices, acting out against others because of her own frustration. Her journey to finding the right path is a realistically portrayed ongoing battle. In life, there are no easy answers. Family can embarrass us by just being themselves. We all make mistakes, yet, each day, we can choose which character we wish to play. The book concludes with an understanding that, if you believe there are happy endings in sixth-grade, then you haven’t attended middle school—a declaration which will resonate with readers everywhere.

 

 

  • 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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Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy for Readukkah

DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Dreidels on the Brain car

 

 

When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’s Dreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:

“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.”
There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.

Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.

As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.

Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.

Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.

The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel for #Readukkah
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Cold War on Maplewood Street by Gayle Rosengren

COLD WAR ON MAPLEWOOD STREET
Written by Gayle Rosengren
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

ColdWaronMaplewoodStreet

“War was something that happened in other countries, not here in the United States. Not in Chicago on Maplewood Street.” (p. 21).

On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised address to the American people about the discovery of Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba and his response to that threat: a naval blockade of the island. In the tense days that followed, U.S. and Soviet warships sped to the island and the two Cold War superpowers stood “eyeball to eyeball.” The world hovered at the edge of a nuclear precipice.

As the story in Cold War on Maplewood Street unfolds, we meet sixth grader Joanna who loves her dog, Dixie, horses, and mystery books. She lives with her single mom in a basement apartment. Her beloved older brother, Sam, is in the Navy and her best friend, Pam, lives upstairs. She is attracted to the new student in her class, Theo, but too embarrassed to talk to him. However, Joanna has a lot to worry about. A latchkey child, she’s home alone frequently after school and fears that robbers may break into her basement apartment. She wonders about the strange lady in the upstairs apartment who always seems to be watching Joanna from her window … could the old lady be a spy? She misses Sam, but won’t write to him or read his letters, because he broke his promise to her that he would never leave like her father did. One of the popular girls in school is having a boy-girl party that Joanna’s mom feels she’s too young to attend.

President Kennedy’s televised speech triggers unpleasant memories of Joanna’s father and the disastrous last visit she had with Sam. As tensions mount between the two superpowers, fears at home grow. People begin to stockpile supplies and students practice air raid drills at school. Joanna worries about her brother’s safety and she finally begins writing to him. But he does not reply. Has he given up on her? Or is his ship involved in the blockade?

This middle grade historical novel is a dramatic, wonderfully crafted, coming-of-age-story set during a critical moment in history, as one young girl, standing between childhood and adolescence, struggles to understand the changes in her world. The author’s research into early 1960s America and the political crisis creates an authentic setting, which brought back many childhood memories for me. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are references to popular culture such as transistor radios, television shows (Broken Arrow), personalities (First Lady, Jackie Kennedy), and music (The Four Season’ Sherry Baby and Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash).The author mirrors the growing tensions between the two superpowers with Joanna’s fears and concerns, but prevents the story from being swallowed up by events on the world stage. Day-to-day life continues for Joanna: school, homework, running errands, dinners with Pam’s family, and baking cookies with her mother. But life, as her mother reminds her, changes, and while some changes may be scary, others bring hope. Could mom’s new job improve the family’s lifestyle?

Visit Gayle Rosengren’s website for more information on this book and her previous title, What the Moon Said (Putnam, 2014). Rosengren has many resources for using both books in the classroom or with book clubs, including a list of books that Joanna might have read, and links to websites about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Highly recommended for ages 8-12.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

 

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Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

CIRCUS MIRANDUS
Written by Cassie Beasley
(Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

Starred Reviews – Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews & School Library Journal
A New York Times Book Review EDITOR’S CHOICE!

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What more could you want in a book?
Some family secrets? Check!
A faithful new friend? Check!
An impossible quest? Check!
And an Invisible Magic Circus? What?
Exactly.

Grandpa Ephraim has told stories about Circus Mirandus for as long as ten year old Micah can remember. But are they real? Now Grandpa Ephraim is very sick and Micah needs to know the truth before it’s too late. Micah launches himself on an adventure to find out about the circus and the fantastic people and animals that perform there. Is this real magic? And will the man called the Lightbender really grant Grandpa Ephraim a miracle?

With an imaginative story and unique characters, this book takes you on a fast fun adventure. The writing style is emotionally and visually descriptive, and the story pulled me in right away. I immediately fell in love with the characters and their world.
Micah won my heart because of his growing courage and his deep love for Grandpa Ephraim. Jenny was the perfect new friend, enthusiastic, smart, and loyal. And, there was just the right amount of humor to keep my heart light as Grandpa Ephraim became sicker and Aunt Gertrudis became meaner.

Central to the world within this story was Circus Mirandus, a fantastic place that I wish I could visit myself. Seriously, you can’t get much better than this magic circus! And the Lightbender, with his unique but limited magic, kept me guessing till the end.
I could see Circus Mirandus in my head and I could feel Micah and Jenny in my heart. I enjoyed this book all the way through and the magic stayed in my heart when I was done!

Guest Reviewer – Jo Ann Banks

Jo Ann Banks is a writer of children’s stories, poems, and silly songs. Jo Ann has such an incredible love of children’s stories that some people say she never grew up. When she hears that, she just covers her ears and sings, “I’m not listening, I’m not listening …”

To learn more silly facts about her, go to joannbanks.com

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Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

Chasing Secrets
Written by Gennifer Choldenko 
(Wendy Lamb Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

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⭐︎Starred Review – Booklist

Lizzie Kennedy, 13, lives in a house on her aunt and uncle’s fashionable Nob Hill estate with her widowed father and her brother, Billy, 16, once her best friend, but now surly and secretive. Their beloved servants, Jing and Maggy, also reside with them. A brief prologue gives the readers some insight into Lizzie’s world at the dawn of the 20th century and the ominous developments to come:

 

“In the Palace Hotel, electric lights blaze as ladies in shimmering gowns
and gentlemen in black waistcoats waltz in a ballroom gilded with gold.

In the bay, a steamer from Honolulu is fumigated, scrubbed, and
smoked … and given entry to the port of San Francisco.

At the dock … rats slip off the ship. They scurry onto the wharf
and climb the sewers to Chinatown …”

Thanks to her aunt and uncle’s wealth, Lizzie is able to live a fairly privileged life. However, her strict and proper Aunt Hortense insists that she attend finishing school. Lizzie is not interested in becoming a society lady. She prefers science to etiquette, and, much to Aunt Hortense’s chagrin, enjoys assisting her doctor father with his house calls.

Stories begin to surface about the large numbers of dead rats found in Chinatown, and soon that community is quarantined. Despite her father’s and her uncle’s insistence that there is no plague and the quarantine is unjustified, Lizzie has her doubts. One day she discovers that Jing, the family’s cook, has smuggled his son Noah out of Chinatown and has secretly hidden him in the servants’ quarters. However Jing is now missing. Did he get caught up in the quarantine … or something worse? Stunned by the discovery that Jing has a secret life, Lizzie promises the frightened boy, Noah, that she’ll help keep his secret and try to find out what has happened to his father.

As dead rats and plague rumors mount, Lizzie boldly attempts to determine the veracity of the plague rumors and secretly undertakes some dangerous trips to Chinatown to find Jing. Her friendship with Noah and her trips to Chinatown, help her realize the gender, racial, and class inequalities which exist in her society. When Lizzie realizes she can’t find Jing on her own and illness strikes close to home, help comes from some surprising quarters.

Like her earlier Newbery award-winning work, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Choldenko’s middle grade novel, Chasing Secrets, is a wonderful coming-of-age-story that blends historical fiction, mystery, and humor, while providing a fascinating glimpse into San Francisco’s colorful past. Complex topics (some sadly similar to today’s concerns) of inequality, medical science, and immunology are made accessible to young readers through Lizzie’s experiences.

The author, a long time resident of the San Francisco Bay area, concludes with a note about the historical background, a chronology of the plague, and notes which provide information for further reading. Visit Choldenko’s website for more information about her work and find a fascinating Writing Timeline and Educator’s Guide for Chasing Secrets too.

Highly recommended for ages 8-12.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Waiting For the Moment to Arrive:

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly
with illustrations by Betsy Peterschmidt
(HarperCollins Books for Young Readers, $16.99, Ages 8-12)

Starred Review – Kirkus
Junior Literary Guild Selection
The Independent Booksellers Association – Kids’ Next Pick for Spring 2015.

Blackbird-Fly-cvr.jpgI love the Beatles! I am a truly devoted fan, so when I came across Erin Entrada Kelly’s debut middle grade fiction novel, Blackbird Fly, I knew I was in for a treat. What I didn’t expect is that the book would address, with truthfulness and clarity, so many of the difficult issues of being in middle school.

After the death of her father when she was four-years-old, Apple Yengko and her mother immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. Apple’s one possession that belonged to her father is his tape of Abbey Road. Now that Apple is in middle school nothing is like what it was in elementary school. In middle school there are now mean girls who used to be Apple’s friends, new friends to make, and Apple is trying to discover who she really is meant to be when she is unexpectedly set apart from the crowd.

More than anything Apple wants to fit in at school, but maybe even equal to that longing is how much Apple really wants a guitar. When social pressures begin to mount up at school, Apple sees no way out of the veritable tornado of difficult times which include being placed on the “Dog Log” at school, a list that the boys make of the ugliest girls. Listening to The Beatles becomes Apple’s way of coping with the changing times she finds herself in. Luckily for Apple her new friends help her to find a way out of all the chaos. She learns that with music and a little help from her friends she can tackle this tough time.

This touching tribute to the power of music to transform a bad time into a better one and how much a true friend can help you had me nodding in agreement many times. I remember these middle school days very well. Who does not remember the days when you just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere, and when friends suddenly turned into popularity seekers? Blackbird Fly speaks right to the middle school student I was.

The message of the book is one that all middle school students should hear. Find out who your true friends are. Find out what you stand for and the kind of person you want to be. Find your passion in life. Follow the truth and be truthful with others. These are hard lessons to learn, but Erin Entrada Kelly presents a sympathetic heroine who is so easy to relate to. Apple is just learning to navigate the tricky waters of growing up. Kelly writes her character so well. Apple is not perfect, but she is trying her best to find her way. I was rooting for this character all the way through the book and the plot kept me so gripped that I read it in one sitting. It’s very seldom that I’ve read a book so perfectly pitched to the middle grade experience that I would hand it to a girl that age and say, “Here, take this book and you will learn so much about the time you are going through. Use this as a guide.” Blackbird Fly is that book.

References to the Beatles are sprinkled thoughout the book. Even though Apple’s favorite Beatle is George, I can still identify with this character. The best Beatle is of course Paul, but I’m open to debate. Still, you don’t have to be a Beatles fan to understand that sometimes you just want to fly away from difficult situations, but you need to learn how to, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” The moment you were waiting to arrive might come after a difficult time. However, if you can be strong like Apple is and stand for what you believe in then I promise you the moment you were waiting for will finally arrive. Blackbird Fly can be pre-ordered now and will be available on 3/24/15.

– Reviewed by Hilary Taber

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Big Nate: Great Minds Think Alike By Lincoln Peirce

Big Nate: Great Minds Think Alike by Lincoln Peirce
is reviewed by Dornel Cerro.

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That mischievous boy with a winning personality is back in a new compilation of colorful comic strips called Big Nate: Great Minds Think Alike (Amp! Comics for Kids/Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014, $9.99 paperback, Ages 8-12). Nate has a lot of big ideas for fun and achieving greatness and tries his hand at Sudoku, life skills coaching, painting, business, and a world record holder of anything (the only record he holds is for detention).

Big Nate fans will be pleased to see favorite characters from past volumes: his clueless dad; Mrs. Godfrey, his strict teacher; teacher’s pet, Gina; and Nate’s best buddies, Frances and Teddy.

Hilarious vignettes include a planned YouTube video of Nate jumping off a shed onto a trampoline while dunking a basketball into a hoop ends in a flop. Attempting to form his own lawn mowing business, he works during a heat wave and is unable to finish even one lawn. Turning to something less strenuous, Nate offers to cool people off with his water hose for $1.00. Unfortunately, he doesn’t adjust the nozzle spray, creating very unhappy customers.

 

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Interior spread from Big Nate: Great Minds Think Alike by Lincoln Peirce, Amp! Comics for Kids/Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014.

Nate also tries to propel his friend Frances to greatness by competing against Nate’s archenemy “brainiac” Gina for “Outstanding Scholar” medal (p. 100). Unfortunately for Nate and Frances, Gina is one step ahead of them.

Nate’s instructions to Teddy on how to write a three page report on the Boston Tea Party in just one page are an absolute riot. Many teachers are on to student tricks like these: large font and dragged out sentences and words. Here’s an example: “When King George III received news of the Boston Tea Party, he flew into a rage.” A super-long “ARRRRRRRRRRRRR” fills up three panels of the strip, and of course, several lines on Nate’s paper.“Just call me Dr. Filler’!” quips Nate (p. 72).

Finally, my favorite: Nate’s outburst in the (quiet) library when teased about reading a comic strip popular with the girls catches the attention of the librarian. “The life of a school librarian is never dull, “ she muses stoically ( p. 79). Amen, sister.

Big Nate fans, those who enjoy comic anthologies, and reluctant readers will appreciate this collection. Also steer them to Peirce’s well-illustrated Big Nate novels. Big Nate is a growing hit at my school library and I look forward to putting this book into eager hands. Recommended for ages 8-12.

Visit Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate website www.bignatebooks.com for info on his books, videos about the author, games, a link to the comic strip, and more. See Lincoln Peirce discuss how he works in this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TOTYCrLKSM

 

 

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The Timmy Failure Series Written & Illustrated by Stephen Pastis

The Terrific Timmy Failure Series
Written and Illustrated by Stephen Pastis
is Reviewed by Dornel Cerro.

Introducing “the greatness that is Timmy Failure,” world class detective.

Timmy Failure MistakesMove over Inspector Jacques Clouseau, author/illlustrator Stephan Pastis has created your youthful equivalent in a humorous series about an overly-confident and hilariously clueless detective who dreams of taking his neighborhood detective agency global. Unfortunately there are some obstacles: his mother – who insists he goes to school, school – where he’s not doing so well, Rollo – his less than brilliant best friend, and Total – his 1500 pound polar bear partner. A polar bear for a partner? Yes, after hooking up with Timmy, Total insisted that the agency name start with his. Hence the less than inspirational agency name of “Total Failure.” (Timmy Fayleure’s name was changed to Failure).

Timmy is also challenged by his evil arch enemy, a fellow student so despised that her “…name shall not be uttered” and her face is blocked out in the deceptively simple illustrations in Timmy’s journal – a history of his invaluable expertise.

Highly imaginative situations, clever word plays, and puns on popular culture are part of the series’ humor and mask some deeper issues. Superficially we have a young bumbling Clouseau-like detective who misses the most basic of clues. When investigating the death of a friend’s hamster, Timmy doesn’t ask obvious questions like has it been fed lately? Rather he asks if the hamster had any enemies. Another friend hires Timmy to find out who toilet papered his house. Timmy initially deduces that only monkeys could have climbed high enough to hang toilet paper from the treetops. Readers will quickly grasp that Total Failure, Inc. is not exactly on the road to international success.

We also see Timmy struggling with an active imagination which causes him to lose focus, impacting his school performance. He has difficulty forming healthy relationships: when frustrated, he refers to other people as “stupid.” He is obsessed with his goal and sees everything in relationship to his detective agency. He treats his mom like an employee, scheduling teleconferences, annual reviews, etc. However, poignant moments emerge: when his detective instincts tell him that his mom seems troubled, he tells her she doesn’t have to read him a bedtime story. Eventually, Timmy benefits from sympathetic adult support. His mom takes charge, structures his life, sends him to a therapist and encourages him to become more involved in the world around him. A new teacher finds an innovative way to engage him in school by “hiring” him to “investigate” the “mysteries” of fractions, and photosynthesis. By the third book, Timmy and the other main characters show much personal and social growth.

While this is not another Diary of a Wimpy Kid spinoff, it will be enjoyed by that series’ fans and reluctant readers. Sophisticated humor, including popular culture references (like “A Hitchhikers Guide to Grade School” chapter title) will tickle the funny bone of older readers. Challenging issues (single parent families, learning styles, and successful relationships) and amazing vocabulary (debilitating, farce, intimidating, and Timmy’s favorite outcry “mendacity”) will engage all readers. This middle grade fiction novel is highly recommended for ages 8-12.

Pastis, creator of the “Pearls Before Swine” comic strip, has an awesome Timmy Failure website with links to YouTube videos, information about the books, author interviews, vocabulary flashcards and more. Visit it here at www.timmyfailure.com.

Series Titles and summary (all titles written and illustrated by Stephen Pastis and published by Candlewick Press):

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (No.1). 2013. $14.99
In which we are introduced to the young CEO and president of Total Failure, Inc., “…the best detective agency in town…” and the obstacles he faces (mother, school, and an evil nemesis) in realizing his goal of global expansion.

Timmy Failure: Now Look What You’ve Done (No. 2). 2014. $14.99
In which our extraordinary detective enters a school contest to find a stolen globe … but is someone trying to prevent him from solving the case? Join Timmy, Total, and his kooky Aunt Colander, as they set out to solve the mystery of the missing globe, avenge the integrity of the competition, and hopefully win the $500  prize.

Timmy Failure: We Meet Again (No. 3). Release date: October, 2014. $14.99
In which we find our intrepid detective on academic probation and forced to collaborate on a nature report with his evil nemesis. He is hired by a desperate student to find the lost Miracle Report, an old research paper that could give Timmy and others an A++++++. Surprises abound!

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Can a Dog Save The Day? Immortal Max by Lutricia Clifton

IMMORTAL MAX by Lutricia Clifton is reviewed by MaryAnne Locher.

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Immortal Max by Lutricia Clifton, Holiday House, 2014.

Middle school can be such a tumultuous time. The difficulties are only compounded when your dad dies, your mom is trying to make ends meet with three children, (one of whom is about to go to college), and wealthy city kids are infiltrating your world and turning your town into the haves and have nots. Thank goodness it’s summer, right?

In Immortal Max by Lutricia Clifton, (Holiday House, 2014, $16.95, Ages 8-12), Sam, a twelve-year-old boy, gets a summer job walking dogs in a gated community so he can save money and buy a purebred, sable colored German Shepherd puppy – the dog of his dreams. The only problem is that Sam already has a dog. Max is a drooling, smelly, supposedly on his last legs mutt, who Sam’s mother thinks will not survive a playful puppy. To top things off, the school bully and Sam’s arch enemy, Justin, will stop at nothing to foil Sam’s plan, including trying to get him fired. It doesn’t help matters that he lives in the wealthy community where Sam will be walking the dogs.

Clifton captures the emotions of the reader with her ability to bring to life, not only the main characters, but the minor players in this tender, though sometimes intense, middle grade novel. Watching Sam grow and develop from a boy with a goal to a young man who has his priorities straight -well, let’s just say, I teared up more than once.

If you’re looking for a book with diverse characters, (Lee, Patel, Wysocki, and Pierce. cheerleaders, geeks, etc.) look no further. This book has them all. As in real life, none of the characters are all good or all bad, they’re perfectly imperfect humans trying to make it through life while having a little fun in the process.

Oh, and then there’s Max. Old, faithful, not-so-scruffy after all, Immortal Max. Before you even open the book, notice how Chris Sheban’s muted gray, green, and gold jacket art focuses on Max’s perspective. In this middle grade story told from the aging dog’s point of view, Sam has always been and always will be the boy of Max’s dreams, but will Sam get the dog of his dreams? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

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