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Middle Grade Book Review – The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter

THE INCREDIBLY DEAD PETS OF REX DEXTER

Written by Aaron Reynolds

(Little Brown BYR, $13.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

Make room on your bookshelves for The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, the middle grade novel debut by Aaron Reynolds. Sixth-grader Rex Dexter always wanted a dog. A chocolate Labrador to be exact. For his birthday, Rex’s parents give him a chocolate cake shaped like a Lab with chocolate ice cream and—finally!—his gift is in a box with air holes so it must be . . . a chicken?! When Rex complains that a chicken isn’t a pet, it’s a Happy Meal, he’s told this is his practice pet. So he does what any kid would: puts a leash on his chicken and heads out with his best friend, Darvish, to buy pet supplies. Then the strangeness begins.

int spot art deadpets
Interior art from The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter written by Aaron Reynolds, Little Brown BYR ©2020.

With a nod to the Tom Hanks movie, Big, Rex finds a vintage carnival game called the Grim Reaper. Thanks to some chicken pee, Rex loses the game and receives a cryptic curse. But, it may be worse news for the chicken who, in Rex’s care for about an hour, has a run-in with a steamroller; the steamroller wins. Rex failed to keep his practice pet safe but, no worries, Rex will have plenty of time to make amends when the squashed, “ghostly fritter” of a chicken returns to haunt him—though the chicken believes their besties and wants to just chill. The now-named Drumstick is merely the first dead animal to accompany Rex through this hilarious story.

Aaron Reynolds is a master at comedy and this middle-grade novel is no exception. He had me at the title. If you like a mysterious ghost story that’s not very spooky, then this is the book for you. Kids will enjoy trying to figure out “who done it” as endangered animals in the zoo start meeting their demise and showing up in Rex’s bedroom as ghostly nuisances. More than two dozen black-and-white images scattered throughout add to the humor.

I’m a big fan of Reynolds’s books and read his releases hot-off-the-press. My favorite book of his had been (picture book) A Creepy Pair of Underwear but The Dead Pets of Rex Dexter is now tied for that spot.

Click here to read an excerpt.

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

 

Click here to order a copy of The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter or visit your local indie bookstore.
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Recommended Reads for the Week of 9/21/20

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Middle Grade Fiction Review – Race to the Sun

RACE TO THE SUN

Written by Rebecca Roanhorse

(Disney-Hyperion; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Race to the Sun cvr

 

In Race to the Sun seventh grader Nizhoni Begay can see monsters—such as Mr. Charles, the tall, skinny, blond man who may become her dad’s new boss. This, obviously, is a problem, especially when Mr. Charles tries to kill her the first time they’re alone together! As if that day wasn’t crazy enough, one of Nizhoni’s favorite stuff animals, Mr. Yazzie, a horned toad, comes alive and explains that her coming-of-age ceremony awakened her monster-slaying powers.

When her father disappears, Nizhoni, her younger brother Mac, and her best friend Davery set out on an adventure that calls on their Navajo heritage. On their perilous quest, the kids encounter many obstacles. As Nizhoni embraces the power within, she also begins to understand the mysteries of her family.

I enjoyed learning about some traditional Navajo stories in this fast-paced, suspenseful book that couples humor with deeper subjects such as the importance of heritage and respect for each other and our land. Mythology with exciting action scenes are an appealing combination for middle-graders who enjoy quest novels. If you like Percy Jackson and Aru Shah books, read Rebecca Roanhorse’s Race to the Sun.

Click here for an event/activity kit.

Don’t forget to visit ReadRiordan.com to find out more about the Rick Riordan Presents series.

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

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Middle Grade Book Review – Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

DOCTOR DOLITTLE:

THE COMPLETE COLLECTION, VOLUME 1

Text and art by Hugh Lofting

Updated by Christopher Lofting

(Aladdin; $59.99 Set, $24.99 each, Ages 8-12)

 

Doctor Dolittle vol1 cvr

 

 

Looking for the perfect stuck-at-home, want-to-read-a-classic book? It’s Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 (three different tales of Dolittle’s world travels, accompanied, of course, by his animal friends). Don’t let the 700+-page size scare you away; the short chapters and Lofting’s comical illustrations move the stories along quickly. A middle-grader will feel a great sense of accomplishment after reading this huge book that’s “fully updated for the modern reader by the author’s son, Christopher Lofting.”

 

Int art from doctor dolittle pg166
Interior illustration from Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting, Aladdin ©2019.

 

Kids may know the various Dolittles represented on the screen, but the real character supplants the others. The literary Dolittle isn’t handsome or debonair; instead, it’s his good-natured, kindhearted personality that quickly wins you over. I like that this Dolittle is a bit on the short and tubby side, it adds to the humorous appeal. Picture a slightly clownish man squished into a matador’s outfit as he tries to bring the cruel sport of bullfighting to an end. Fortunately, he can talk to animals, and always seems to have luck on his side.

 

spot int art from_doctor dolittle pg368
Interior illustration from Doctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting, Aladdin ©2019.

 

Children can explore this world’s appealing mix of reality and fantasy such as the Pushmi-Pullyu, a nearly extinct two-headed creature. These classic tales, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle;” “The Story of Doctor Dolittle;” “Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office,” will especially delight children fond of animals. Lofting connects with readers, drawing them into his imaginary world. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that the stories were originally written as a series of letters to his kids from the front lines during World War I. Though penned in wartime, his entertaining stories resound with the peaceful love of people and animals from everywhere around the globe.

Read more about Dolittle’s creator here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Alien Superstar

ALIEN SUPERSTAR (Book #1)

Written by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Illustrated by Ethan Nicolle

(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Alien Superstar Book Cover

 

int art152 from Alien Superstar
Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

The first installment of this new middle-grade series by the super-duo Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver (who also delighted us with their Hank Zipzer books) was an instant New York Times best seller. In Alien Superstar, thirteen-year-old Citizen Short Nose escapes from his planet to avoid the removal of his sensory enhancer. He lands at Universal Studios, Hollywood, and, upon emerging from his ship, is crowded by tourists wanting to take selfies. In a series of fortunate opportunities, Short Nose (now Buddy C. Burger) becomes a costar on a show where the ratings were nosediving until his silly, honest acting debut. When his nutritional wafers run out, Buddy must quickly find Earth foods he can eat. Luckily, he’s made some human friends who rush to help him out.

Winkler and Oliver continue their winning combination of sincere, likable characters and laugh-aloud moments. Ethan Nicolle’s endearing illustrations enhance the story’s humor especially the images where we see Buddy lounging in the bath trying to absorb as much water as possible, or caught mid-transformation.

 

int art244 from Alien Superstar
Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

Living in LA, I find it’s not all that outlandish that an alien would walk through our midst and Angelenos wouldn’t bat an eye—that’s the clever charm of this story. Preconceived notions of aliens taking over are soon dispelled when Buddy’s friends realize he’s only here to escape the bad things happening on his home planet and that he very much misses his Grandmother Wrinkle. Kids will enjoy this likable antihero; the suspenseful ending will leave them eagerly awaiting what happens next in Buddy’s wacky, mixed-up world.

 

 

Read another review by Christine Van Zandt here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Wrecking Ball (Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book 14)

WRECKING BALL
(DIARY OF A WIMPY KID BOOK 14)
Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Wrecking Ball DOAWK14 cover

 

 

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.

Visit the Wimpy Kid website here.

Fans can add to their collection with The Diary of a Wimpy Kid spinoff book Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid as well as The Wimpy Kid 2020 Wall Calendar.

 

 

Read another middle grade book review by Christine here.

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Five New Halloween Books for Kids – A Roundup Part 2

BEST NEW KIDS BOOKS FOR HALLOWEEN

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

PART 2

 

 

 

Beneath the Bed coverMISTER SHIVERS: BENEATH THE BED AND OTHER SCARY STORIES
Written by Max Brallier
Illustrated by Letizia Rubegni
(Acorn/Scholastic; $4.99, Ages 5-7)

Acorn books, designed for early readers, brings five scary stories to children in this Mister Shivers series. Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories has 64 pages packed with full-color artwork while some other Acorn books have 48 pages. Either way, there’s something for every new reader seeking “relatable characters and experiences” written and illustrated by some of the best known names in children’s literature.

Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories opens with a letter from Mister Shivers about a mysterious box delivered to him in which he found items pertaining to each story and a promise to share the stories in the book. Like all the stories in this book, evocative, muted illustrations help reinforce the easy-to-read text of these fast paced short stories. That’s certainly the case in “Beneath the Bed” about a boy dared by kids at school to visit the local haunted house. Upon entering the house with his sister who he brought along for courage, the pair discover a sinister doll with glowing eyes under a bed in the attic bedroom.

“A Hair Down to My Stomach” as the title implies, is equal parts gross and unsettling, with just the type of visuals accompanying it to make it succeed. “The Statue” will have kids talking back to the book as they turn the pages and tell the mom in the story as her son tries to do, “Don’t buy the statue!” Of course, she does. What follows is the reason why Mr. Shivers’ mysterious box contained a piece of quilty. He never mentioned if it was smelly like the quilt in “The Statue.” All I know is the young boy should have listened to the statue’s owner when she warned the buyers not to remove the quilt. The same goes for Oliver in “A Dark and Stormy Night” who should have done as his parents’ wished and brought his toys inside. Instead, they were left out in the rain to be ruined by the elements. Toys don’t like being forgotten and seek their revenge when that happens. Poor Oliver! And as for the scraping sound in “The Noise at the Window,” I know this well. Only I’ve been fortunate to find a tree outside where I heard the clawing coming from a branch. The little girl in this tale wasn’t so fortunate!

Okay spine, start tingling because these five stories are guaranteed to make you keep the lights on.

The Okay Witch book coverTHE OKAY WITCH
Written and illustrated by Emma Steinkellner
(Aladdin; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

Get ready to be caught under the spell of Emma Steinkellner’s The Okay Witch, a terrific debut middle grade graphic novel.

Tween readers will be charmed by the main character Moth Hush, who at 13 learns she is part witch with special powers, something she had only dreamed of up until that point. Living above her single mom Calendula’s second hand store, Moth has never felt the warm and fuzzies from her classmates in her Massachusetts hometown of Founder’s Bluff nor in the community at large. She soon learns there’s a good reason why and goes exploring back in time via her mother’s diary.

In 1692 a group of women suspected of being witches, her grandmother Sarah being one of them, was run out of town. They were indeed witches but good ones and many townspeople secretly went to them to avail of magic to help them. When ousted, Sarah led the women to a timeless land she created called Hecate, but Calendula refused to live there. She returned to Founder’s Bluff to live a normal non-witch life for herself having fallen in love with a human. Sadly, Sarah cast a spell to make this man have no memory of Calendula. Pregnant, the brokenhearted, Calendula raised Moth alone with no magic.

In school Moth befriends another fish-out-of-water named Charlie who is new to Founder’s Bluff. Little does Moth know that there’s a connection between her family and Charlie’s that could test their friendship. I got a kick out of the magical cat, Mr. Laszlo, the spirit of Keeper’s Secondhand Store who had taken Calendula in and, when he passed away, left the store to her. The talking feline’s speech is peppered with Yiddish and in my head I heard Billy Crystal doing the dialogue.

Steinkellner must have had such fun writing and illustrating this story which reads quickly and nicely ties all the loose threads together at the end. The artwork wonderfully and convincingly conveys the moments when Moth experiences the power of magic. I especially liked the historical scenes and when Moth visits Hecate, but to be honest, all the illustrations brought the story alive. The novel is filled with humor, sarcasm, action, fantasy, pride and most of all, love as evidenced by Moth’s efforts to navigate the magical world of her grandmother and the real world in which Calendula has chosen to raise her. She’s new to the witch world and she’s far from perfect, making her The Okay Witch we care about and want to see happy and at home with her mom.

Graphic novel fans will quickly be swept up into Moth’s witchy world of time travel, timelessness, tween curiosity and relationships as Moth tries to learn more about herself. Will the way in which her family’s life intersects with that of Founder’s Bluff  be a reason to stay or retreat to Hecate? The fun’s in the finding out in this enchanting, recommended read that’s definitely not just for Halloween.

Ghoulia and the Mysterious Vistor cvrGHOULIA AND THE MYSTERIOUS VISITOR (Book #2)
Written and illustrated by Barbara Cantini
Translated from Italian by Anna Golding
(Amulet Books; $9.99, Ages 6-8)

You don’t need to have read Book#1 in order to enjoy Ghoulia and the Mysterious Visitor (Book #2), a chapter book series about a friendly zombie called Ghoulia and the dead and not-so-dead inhabitants of Crumbling Manor. Billed as Clue meets Little Shop of Horrors, this full-color illustrated book is sure to get young readers in a Halloween mood.

The story opens with Ghoulia feeling bored. When cranky cousin Dilbert arrives unexpectedly, Ghoulia looks for her Auntie Departed to explain why this relative she’d never even heard of got invited to Crumbling Manor. But her Chatterbox-Ivy-obsessed aunt is nowhere to be found. Ghoulia thinks it’s odd when more friends turn up, each with an invitation to a surprise dinner the young vampire knows nothing about.

As Ghoulia and her pals search Crumbling Manor for Auntie Departed, a friend Theresa also goes missing. Something weird is happening so the remaining guests split up to find those who’ve disappeared while trying to help Ghoulia figure out who sent the invitations.

This delightful chapter book will hook confident young readers ages 6 to 8 who still love beautifully illustrated stories that aren’t scary yet have an air of mystery about them. I’m not sure kids will recognize famous individuals such as Hitchcock and Poe in framed pictures on Crumbling Manor’s walls, but they’re certainly a treat for adult readers. In fact every illustration is a treat and worthy of a thorough scanning to see what special things Cantini has hung up on the walls or placed in each room. Her prose and pictures provide the perfect foreshadowing for kids quick to pick up clues. At the end there are bonus activities including how to write an invitation and fill out an envelope, how to start a garden and how to make Dilbert’s special pumpkin juice (minus the spiders’ eggs)! Watch out for Ghoulia and the Ghost With No Name (Book #3) coming soon!

THE CURSE OF THE WERE PENGUIN
Written by Allan Woodrow
Illustrated by Scott Brown
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

Described by Chris Grabenstein, #1 New York Times bestselling author, as “Young Frankenstein meets The Princess Bride in the most hysterically hilarious book I’ve read in years,” and I could not agree more. I smiled my whole way through The Curse of the Werepenguin, a clever, funny and original story within a story. I read it over two days and could not wait to see how author Allan Woodrow would end it. As I suspected, it’s TO BE CONTINUED so now I have to find out where he takes this wild and feathery tale of an orphan boy named Bolt.

Meet Humboldt Wattle (aka Bolt), a twelve-year-old boy abandoned as a baby at The Oak Wilt Home for Unwanted Boys. There’s little about him that makes him stand out except a large bird-shaped birthmark on his neck. When suddenly his life changes overnight, Bolt’s unusual marking will take on tremendous significance in his life. He’s been summoned to the distant land of Brugaria by a wealthy baron who no one wishes to disobey. Could this mean the family he’s been hoping for is finally ready to reunite with him?

The catch is that Baron Chordata is not only a cruel person feared by most inhabitants of Brugaria, he looks like he’s the same age as Bolt. On top of that, he dresses in tuxedos even at home, and consumes massive quantities of fish, every kind imaginable, including live goldfish. Woodraw’s descriptions of eating seafood have to be some of the funniest and disgusting ones I’ve ever read and I lapped up every slimy, slithery sentence. I also may never look at fish sticks the same way again!

In a trance from his first experience playing video games, Bolt unknowingly agrees to a request by Baron Chordata. This eventually leads to his being bitten on the neck. The result? Bolt turns partially into half boy, half penguin or werepenguin, so maybe a quarter … Anyway, after three days the full effect of the transformation will be complete. When the full moon shines, which is every night in Brugaria, the change in Bolt occurs. His feet turn webbed and orange, he sprouts wild tufts of hair, wings, an enormous nose and has cravings for seafood. Then he, along with all the other werepenguins including the baron, bark, wreak havoc and steal fish whenever possible.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Bolt, a girl named Annika who tried to rob and kidnap him because she’s “the world’s great bandit,” becomes an ally (or not) in trying to help Bolt escape the baron’s wicked clutches and rid himself of the werepenguin curse. The curse is not the only thing Bolt’s dealing with. He’s got this wacky, whale-loving cult leader named Günter determined to destroy him. Günter’s weapon of choice, a loaf of French bread! Plus Bolt’s learned that the werepenguins, led by power and fish hungry werepenguin-in-chief, Baron Chordata, are orchestrating a takeover of Brugaria the same day the curse on Bolt goes into full force. Someone has to do something and Bolt realizes it’s him. What that something is, he’s not totally sure, but still …

You’ll LOL at the Cloris Leachman-like “lowly housekeeper” called Frau Farfenugen, a greenish, warty and miserable woman who is not what she seems, Blazenda, a fortune-telling witch whose cackles drive Bolt crazy, but who may hold the key (or tooth) to Bolt’s freedom, and a cast of colorful characters, some of whom scream and faint whenever the name Baron Chordata is said aloud, that will entertain you and have you sitting on the edge of your seat or wherever it is that you read fantastic books.

Ultimately, Bolt has to decide what real family is. Is it Annika and her bandit dad and his buddies or is it the rook of penguins that, we learn in the novel’s prologue, should never be split up? I’m not going to spoil it by telling you, but I will say that joining Bolt on his journey is something you’ll love doing. So start cooking some fish sticks, grab a baguette and get reading!

Ghost book coverGHOST: THIRTEEN HAUNTING TALES TO TELL
A Collection by Illustrátus
(Chronicle Books; $21.99, Ages 9-12)
Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal

I made sure I read this book when my husband was home because I’m a big chicken. When I did read Ghost, I realized the stories are not only fantastic ghost stories for Halloween, but also ones to commit to memory to share around a campfire. You could also bring the book along but you many not want the hauntingly illustrated, white embossed cover to get dirty. “Contributors to this chilling collection include authors Blaise Hemingway and Jesse Reffsin, and illustrators Chris Sasaki and Jeff Turley,” and Kit Turley, and they’ve done a fantastic job of scaring me although, as I said above, I do scare easily.

As I settled down to read each of the thirteen eerie tales, an owl hooted from my back yard adding to spooky feeling the stories exude. The tales, brief but powerfully creepy, are ideal for tweens who love to feel the hair on their necks stand up. The subjects range from a girl getting a tap tap tap from her mirror and then being imprisoned in it by her evil reflection, to two boys going ice fishing who disregard a shopkeeper’s advice to avoid the north of Point Whitney. The reasonit’s haunted by the ghost of Max Whitney, the former owner of the bait and tackle shop. Do the boys catch a lot of fish? Yep. Do they return safely home to share their experience? I’m not telling. There’s another one that takes place by a pond. Suffice it to say that, unlike the main character in this tale, a boy named Samuel who hears his drowned sister call out to him and follows her cries, I would never go out of my house in the middle of the night with a lantern by myself. The artwork throughout Ghost has a spare quality about it with a very limited palette which is appropriate for the collection. And though created digitally, all the illustrations resemble wood block prints and imbue every tale with as frightening an effect as the words themselves.

The tale that particularly resonated with me was about a girl who finally gets a room of her own away from her younger sister. Now alone in her new bedroom, the girl is terrified of the ghostly night noises but thinks if she just huddles under the covers and keeps her eyes tightly closed, everything will be okay. And it is, but how long can she keep her eyes shut? Did I mention that as a child I had my dad install a lock on my bedroom closet door? I will not easily forget the story of the young boy, Michael Alvey deep sea diving to a WWII sub wreck in search of the bodies of his deceased parents. They died just after their last communication was, “Please! Help! They’re coming.” When I found out who “they” were, I was shocked and readers will be, too. I caution young readers to avoid basements, elevators, hiking or making a trip after midnight to a cemetery right after reading Ghost.

Some stories unhinged me more than others, “The Descent” being one of them. That’s not to say they weren’t all good because they were, but certain stories played off of my deepest fears more than others. That being said, it might be best to read this book with a cat curled up on your lap or with a big dog nearby during the day!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read another Halloween Books roundup here.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Beach Battle Blowout by Chris Grabenstein

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.

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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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Mr. Wolf’s Class – A Graphic Novel by Aron Nels Steinke

MR. WOLF’S CLASS: The First Day of School 
Written and illustrated by Aron Nels Steinke
(Graphix; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

Mr. Wolf's Class book cover art

 

Mr. Wolf’s Class: Book #1 The First Day of School  by Aron Nels Steinke is not your mother’s back-to-school middle grade chapter book. It’s a smart, funny, insightful look at fourth-grade in graphic novel format and I enjoyed every page. From the realistic, contemporary dialogue to the perfectly captured facial expressions on the diverse line up of teachers and students, Steinke succeeds in helping readers connect with and care about an assorted and appealing cast of characters. And that’s a good thing since this is Book #1 in a new series that is sure to captivate even the most reluctant kid.

In this first book, we’re introduced to Mr. Wolf, a new teacher at Hazelwood Elementary. In fact, even before Chapter One (there are eleven chapters in total), anthropomorphic artwork full of color and movement shows Mr. Wolf conscientiously preparing his classroom followed by frames of each student, with illustration clues, as a quick and clever way to hint at their personality or issue. There’s new-in-town student, Margot, eager to start school but nervous about making friends; there’s Penny, poor, wiped out Penny, whose constantly crying baby sibling is keeping her from getting a good night’s sleep; there’s Aziza, a dedicated student but slightly snarky; and there’s Sampson, who’s brought something special to school to share at show-and-tell.

As an elementary school teacher and parent, Steinke totally gets this age group and the ever-changing dynamic of the classroom. One minute there’s silent reading and the next there’s chaos. All types of conflicts caused by all kinds of kids can occur throughout the day and Steinke’s chosen a few good ones to portray in Mr. Wolf’s Class. He’s included geeks and smart alecks, thoughtful and mean kids. He’s also got bossy and meek ones, tattle tales and show offs. With that kind of composition, anything can and does happen under Mr. Wolf’s supervision including a missing student, show-and-tell, and a burgeoning friendship. 

I’d like to emphasize here that this book can be appreciated year round for its wit, its engaging illustrations and the delightful depiction of fourth-grade from multiple perspectives. Join Mr. Wolf and his students to see first-hand what’s happening at Hazelwood Elementary.

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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World Domination Atomic Frenchie Style

ATOMIC FRENCHIE: SIT. STAY. RULE.
by Thomas E. Sniegoski & Tom McWeeney
(Insight Editions; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

ATOMIC FRENCHIE SIT STAY RULE cover illustration

Have you noticed that French Bulldogs are everywhere these days? Perhaps they’re up to something … making the timing for Atomic Frenchie: Sit. Stay. Rule. just right. This non-stop funny middle grade mashup that is part graphic novel, is a perfect late summer read for every kid that aspires to greatness and world domination. You know one, don’t you?

 

int spread with artwork 01 from Atomic Frenchie Sit Stay Rule
Interior illustrations from Atomic Frenchie: Sit. Stay. Rule. by Thomas E. Sniegoski & Tom McWeeney, Insight Editions ©2018.

 

Kirby is no ordinary dog. He’s a power hungry French Bulldog with big plans. He’s just waiting for his chance to escape the prison of his home and his overbearing humans. When his humans pack up the car and strap him into a car seat, Kirby’s life changes forever. At his new home, the dog discovers a secret laboratory and his dream of becoming a super villain begins to be realized. Can his dastardly schemes come to fruition or will his huge ambition be thwarted?

 

int spread with artwork 06 from Atomic Frenchie Sit Stay Rule
Interior illustrations from Atomic Frenchie: Sit. Stay. Rule. by Thomas E. Sniegoski & Tom McWeeney, Insight Editions ©2018.

 

Atomic Frenchie: Sit. Stay. Rule. has a mad scientist with bizarre secrets, a loyal and loveable sidekick turtle, rogue robots, and a host of crazy comic book characters. It’s a fast paced adventure with a super villain that you might actually start rooting for. The best news: this is just the first book in a series so get your kids hooked today by heading to your local independent bookseller to pick up a copy.

 

Learn more about Thomas E. Sniegoski here.
Visit Inside Editions here.

 • Reviewed by Jo Ann Banks 
   www.joannbanks.com
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Two Dogs In a Trench Coat Go To School by Julie Falatko

TWO DOGS IN A TRENCH COAT
GO TO SCHOOL

Written by Julie Falatko
Illustrated by Colin Jack
(Scholastic; $9.99, Ages 8-12 )

 

Cover illustration from Two Dogs in a Trench Coat Go To School

 

Julie Falatko’s new chapter book, TWO DOGS IN A TRENCH COAT GO TO SCHOOL with pictures by Colin Jack and edited by the incredible Matt Ringler at Scholastic, is a book you will want to hug after you finish howling with glee.

int art of dog and kids in cafeteria from Two Dogs In a Trench Coat Go To School
Interior artwork from Two Dogs In a Trench Coat Go To School written by Julie Falatko and illustrated by Colin Jack, Scholastic ©2018.

I know this book is MEANT for kids (8-12) but I would hand this book to anyone: The Bus Driver. Grandpa. Children of all ages (I understand the audio version is hilarious, making it perfect for summer road trips). Squirrels. Okay, maybe not squirrels, because, as the story’s heroes, Sassy and Waldo, know—like good dogs do—squirrels are unpredictable to say the least. In fact, in TWO DOGS IN A TRENCH COAT GO TO SCHOOL, the squirrels that drive Sassy and Waldo to extreme lengths to protect their home remind me of how many other unpredictable areas of life tween-aged kids go through.

int illustration from Two Dogs In a Trench Coat Go To School
Interior artwork from Two Dogs In a Trench Coat Go To School written by Julie Falatko and illustrated by Colin Jack, Scholastic ©2018.

We can’t predict what goes on around us in the world all the time or even half the time. And, if you’re like me, you’re a parent who has no idea when the next bought of tears or drama will unfold at your child’s school. Well, this is a book you can confidently and lovingly put into their hands to give them a break from the intensity the world so often places on their young shoulders.

Meet the doggedly delightful Sassy and Waldo. They’re on a mission to help their boy, Stewart deal with stuff at school. The evil overlord (aka The Dreaded Information Sheet and Big Project Coming Up At School) is causing undue anxiety for their beloved kid. How can they help? When Waldo stands on top of Sassy and covers them with a trench coat, they turn into Salty, a new student at Bea Arthur Elementary School where Stewart is enrolled.

The side-splitting, laugh-out-loud dialogue alone will keep you and your kids eagerly flipping pages and ready for book two in the series so I won’t overshare. This is definitely a book that should be enjoyed to the fullest with fresh eyes.

int art of dog chasing squirrel from Two Dogs In a Trench Coat Go To School
Interior artwork from Two Dogs In a Trench Coat Go To School written by Julie Falatko and illustrated by Colin Jack, Scholastic ©2018.

I will tell you though that Sassy and Waldo have already secured a place in my heart, being the incredible doggy heroes many of us need right now. They deserve all the meatballs they desire and will probably share them with the author of this brilliant new series. Reminiscent of HANK THE COWDOG by John R. Erickson, only instead of two cowdogs from the South caring for a ranch, here we have two dedicated pups keeping their home and favorite human safe.

Julie Falatko’s TWO DOGS IN A TRENCH COAT GO TO SCHOOL will melt your heart. Unless you’re a squirrel just trying to get by in a world that is nuts.

  • Reviewed by Ozma Bryant

Look for Two Dogs in a Trench Coat Start a Club by Accident (book #2 in the series) due out early 2019.

Ozma Bryant dog Rugged and plush toy photo
Reviewer Ozma says ”Here is Our family dog, Ruggedo, with a plush co-conspirator ready to save the day should my own child ever need it at school.”

Visit Julie Falatko’s website here.

Visit Colin Jack’s website here.

See the book trailer here.

Read Ozma’s review of another Julie Falatko book here.

 

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An Interview With MG & YA Author Deborah Lytton

THE FANTASTIC LIBRARY RESCUE
AND OTHER MAJOR PLOT TWISTS
Written by Deborah Lytton
Illustrated by Jeanine Murch
(Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $7.99, Ages 8 and up)

Cover art of Ruby Starr from The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists


Read Our Q & A With Author Deborah Lytton

On today’s post I’m excited to share a recent interview I had with author, Deborah Lytton, about book #2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, which came out earlier this month. Having thoroughly enjoyed this chapter book for middle grade readers* that includes illustrations of Ruby’s active imagination at work, I can see how much tweens and bibliophiles will gravitate to the series, and this new book in particular, especially since it tackles two important issues: libraries losing funding and friendship predicaments. I especially like that Ruby’s friend Will P is also in a bookclub, something I don’t usually see depicted in stories. Here’s how Sourcebooks Jabberwocky describes Lytton’s latest:

The second book in this fun series that’s perfect for younger fans of the Dork Diaries and Story Thieves series. Ruby Starr is an older Junie B. Jones with a big imagination and a love of reading.

Ruby Starr’s life is totally back on track. Her lunchtime book club, the Unicorns, is better than ever. And she and Charlotte, her once arch enemy, are now good friends. The only thing that’s really causing any drama is her upcoming poetry assignment. She’s a reader, not a poet!

But disaster strikes when Ruby learns that her most favorite place in the world, the school library, is in trouble. Ruby knows she and the Unicorns have to do something to help. But when Ruby’s plans end up hurting a friend, she’s not sure her story will have a happy ending after all.

 

Q & A:

GOOD READS WITH RONNA: Ruby is a charming, book-loving outgoing yet introspective fifth grader. And while she is not perfect she certainly is someone any parent would be proud of. Do you happen to know any Rubys? And if not, how did you wind up with her as a main character for your series?

DEBORAH LYTTON: I do know a Ruby. My inspiration for this series came from my younger daughter who was in fifth grade when I began writing the first book. My YA SILENCE had just been released, and my older daughter was reading it. My younger daughter wanted me to write something for her to read. She asked for a story that would make her laugh. I based the character of Ruby on her initially, but then as I began to write, the character took on her own qualities. My favorite part of writing is when the characters begin to shape themselves. That definitely happened with Ruby Starr.

GRWR: What do you love most about her? 

DL: I love that Ruby makes a lot of mistakes, but always tries to fix them. My favorite thing about Ruby is her kindness. She thinks about other people and their feelings and tries to help them when she can. This is a quality I truly admire. I also enjoy writing Ruby because she is so imaginative.

GRWR: I realize this is book #2 in the series but yet I felt fully up-to-speed. Can you please tell readers briefly what happens in book #1? 

DL: I am so happy to hear that you felt up-to-speed! It was really important to me to write a second book that would let readers jump right in. Book #1 establishes Ruby’s character and her love for reading. The story centers on friendship troubles. When a new girl joins Ruby’s fifth grade class, she begins pulling Ruby’s friends away from her. Then she threatens to destroy Ruby’s book club. Ruby has a difficult time, and then she learns something about the new girl that changes everything. Ultimately, books bring the friends together.

GRWR: Is there a book #3 on the horizon? 

DL: Yes, I am really excited about Ruby’s third adventure. I have just finished the manuscript and I can tell you that Ruby and her friends get into a little bit of a mix-up and that it all begins with a very special book.

int art from The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists
Interior illustration from The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists by Deborah Lytton with art by Jeanine Murch, Sourcebook Jabberwocky ©2018.

GRWR: As a kidlit reviewer I love that Ruby is in a book club (The Unicorns), and as a writer I love Ruby’s vivid imagination. Did your own childhood inform these traits or did you feel she’d need these qualities to be a role model for tweens or someone many young readers could relate to?

DL: Growing up, my sister and I were like Ruby. We loved reading. Both of us cherish books and have saved many of our favorites from when we were young readers. My own daughters also love to read. In spending time helping out in their school classrooms and libraries, I have seen how many students enjoy books. I loved the idea that a fifth grade student would be independent enough to start her own book club at school to celebrate reading. Then I thought it would be fun to see where her imagination would take her, especially since she would be inspired by all the books she had read and loved. I hope young readers who have stayed up late just to read the next chapter of a book will connect with a character who is like them.

GRWR: The hero’s journey that Ruby embarks on is to save the school library where the hours have been reduced and new book purchases have been shelved due to funding cutbacks. Was this plot line inspired by stories you’ve seen in the news or even closer to home here in L.A.? 

DL: I have volunteered in the libraries at my daughters’ schools so I have seen first-hand the way that budget cuts have impacted the libraries. I have also helped students search for the perfect book to read and then watched their faces light up when they discover something really special. Libraries are so valuable to our youth. I wanted to highlight that message in this story.

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The Explorers: The Door in the Alley by Adrienne Kress

THE EXPLORERS:
THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY
by Adrienne Kress
(Delacorte Press; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

THE BLOG TOUR

The Explorers: The Door in the Alley book cover image

 

Allow me to take the liberty, given the wit and wildly sassy style of Adrienne Kress’s fantastical middle grade novel, The Explorers: The Door in the Alley, to share with you, readers, the several unused openings that I toyed with before settling upon something completely different though perhaps a bit more mundane:

Can a pig ever be considered precocious?

Teeny hats off (and I mean that in the best possible way) to author Adrienne Kress for her latest novel!

Kress had me at Explorers.

REVIEW:
Now, all those intros aside, I thoroughly enjoyed being taken inside the thrilling walls, doors, rooms and slide (yes, slide!) of The Explorers Society, one of the most marvelous places I’ve been to in a long time, and the driving force (to say the least) behind this very imaginative adventure. Getting to know the cool cast of characters whose journey kept me turning the pages as more and more secrets were revealed, was also tons of fun.

The story of The Explorers unfolds with the rescue of a pig in a teeny hat by a 12-year-old, rule-respecting, STEM scholar named Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also got a photographic memory. The pig, it turns out, belongs to a member of The Explorers Society, located in a seemingly innocuous building in a back alley near Sebastian’s routine route home. Rather than being rewarded for his helpful deed as logic would dictate, logic being another characteristic that can be attributed to young Sebastian, he is punished by the society’s president. Sebastian must now, to avoid arrest (yes, arrest!), do chores daily after school at the society in order to learn to take risks and expand his limited horizons.

As he becomes familiar with the amazing interior of the society (trust me, it is absolutely unreal!), Sebastian, prodded by the president Myrtle Algens, seeks to do something inappropriate that only someone who thrives on appropriateness can do. Just what that is, he hasn’t a clue. So, while unsure exactly how to push these boundaries, Sebastian accidentally uncovers a small hidden door behind which sits a box. Sebastian takes this box home and discovers in its contents assorted articles, photographs and other information about a disbanded group of explorers called the Filipendulous Five. When he asks Algens about them he is less than politely asked to leave the society’s premises and never return!

Upon departing, Sebastian encounters a forlorn-looking girl sitting outside. The girl, we learn, is Evie, an orphan on the run from some scary-looking dudes, one with a jaw wired shut, the other with (I kid you not!), a partially melted face. According to a letter she was given before she escaped the bad guys, Evie discovers she has an important connection to the The Explorers Society. This letter, written by her grandfather who she didn’t know was alive, indicates he’s in grave danger. Somehow though, this information, when shared with Algens, has gotten her kicked out of the building despite believing it would be a place of refuge. Things become even more confounding for the poor girl when Sebastian explains that her grandfather is none other than Alistair Drake, the head honcho of the Filipendulous Five! Soon Evie and Sebastian team up and take off on a series of exciting and risky exploits (it’s true, Sebastian skips school!) at the local zoo, the university, as well as inside The Explorers Society, all in an effort to find a mysterious key mentioned in the letter and save Evie’s grandfather while trying to elude wired-jaw guy and melted-face man.

The Explorers is a fabulously funny, fast-paced read with 27 chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter contains just the right mix of mayhem, dialogue, description and derring-do. Kress’s imagination is boundless, something I’m certain middle graders looking to lose themselves in an adventure/mystery will appreciate. Her sense of humor is also spot on. I must mention here that I had the good fortune to be sent an advanced readers copy for the blog tour so the artwork that is due to accompany the novel wasn’t included. But I can’t wait to see it since the story itself is quite visual and would lend itself well to film or TV.

Now dear readers, the story doesn’t end here because there is definitely more to come in an as yet unnamed sequel that, I have to admit, is the appropriate thing to do when the author leaves you with a cliffhanger making you wonder what’s to become of Sebastian, Evie and the rest of the characters you’ve grown to care about. I’m also very curious as to whether Sebastian’s school ever calls his parents, that is unless all the action occurs on weekends. That would certainly calm his nerves. Watch this space! 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

More upcoming stops this week and next for the blog tour include:

Tuesday 5/9/17 – Geo Librarian
Wednesday 5/10/17 – Life by Candlelight
Thursday 5/11/17 – Jumpin Beans
Friday 5/12/17 – Always in the Middle

Monday 5/15/17 – Librarians Quest
Tuesday 5/16/17 – The Book Wars
Wednesday 5/17/17 – Middle Grade Mafioso
Thursday 5/18/17 – Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Friday 5/19/17 – Tween You & Me

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Go Big or Go Gnome by Kirsten Mayer

GO BIG OR GO GNOME
Written by Kirsten Mayer
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Imprint, $16.99, Ages 3-7)

is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.  

 

Cover image of Go Big or Go Gnome by Kirsten Mayer

 

 

There may be princess stories and fairy tales a plenty, but good goblin or troll tales can be difficult to find. Now Go Big or Go Gnome, written by Kirsten Mayer and illustrated by Laura K. Horton provides a lighthearted and entertaining look at life from a verdantly impish perspective.

A tiny gnome named Al lives and works in a lush green garden. He trims shrubbery alongside a crew of friendly fellows who bathe birds, fluff dandelions, and rake rocks. While the gnomes keep busy tidying the sweet scenery, they are also grooming impressive “imperial beards and illustrious mustaches.” Everyone, that is, except Al. Al has nary a whisker on his smooth pink cheeks. This bothers Al tremendously, because he dreams of participating in the Beards International Gnome-athlon.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Al attempts to enter the contest by faking a beard using tiny white butterflies. They fly away and expose his trickery, so he tries again with a squirrel tail, and then with some moss. Thinking he’s doomed to be a plain, bare-faced gnome forever, Al heads home to trim some topiary and keep himself busy. Luckily he still has his clippers in hand when his best friend Gnorm has an emergency – sap is stuck in his beard! He snips, clips and trims Gnorm’s whiskers into an award-winning look. What will the other gnomes think of Al now?

Mayer’s sweet and upbeat tale is a funny fantasy addition to the beard-book genre. Clever language and gnomish word puns add to the appeal. Her text is a delightful set-up for illustrator Horton, who maximizes the opportunity to create inventive, elaborate and impressive beard styles on a pleasant array of diminutive creatures. She also establishes a imaginative garden setting accented with birds, flowers and mushrooms, using a green and blue palette that offsets the gnomes’ de rigueur red pointed caps and boots.

Clever and cute, Go Big or Go Gnome is an encouraging tale for young readers in search of their special talents and ready to embrace their true selves far before they reach the whisker-sprouting years.

 

  • Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey

Where Obtained:  I reviewed a preview copy of Go Big or Go Gnome from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

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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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