THE LANGUAGE OF SPELLS
Written by Garret Weyr
Illustrated by Katie Harnett
(Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews
Interior art from The Language of Spells written by Garret Weyr with illustrations by Katie Harnett, Chronicle Books ©2018.
In the middle-grade novel, The Language of Spells, homeschooled eleven-year-old Maggie lives in a Viennese hotel with her father. She knows many things, but how to make friends isn’t one of them—until she meets Grisha (a dragon who’s spent decades observing humans and has grown up without doing any of the proper dragon things). Born in 1803, he is the last of his kind. “As the world of men built new and extraordinary things, the world of magic began to decline. No creature lives beyond its own world, and a dragon is nothing if not a creature from the world of magic.”
Interior art from The Language of Spells written by Garret Weyr with illustrations by Katie Harnett, Chronicle Books ©2018.
All dragons were summoned to Vienna and, due to the inconvenience of their existence, most mysteriously disappeared. While the Department of Extinct Exotics controls the gold-eyed dragons who were allowed to remain, Grisha struggles to remember what happened to the others. Maggie’s determination to help sets them on an investigative journey. Though they know using magic requires a sacrifice, Maggie and Grisha travel across Europe to fight injustice and face difficult decisions.
The Language of Spells is a different sort of dragon tale—one worth a deliberate read and thoughtful introspection. Each chapter opens with a charming illustration by Katie Harnett. The uplifting scenes enhance the story’s relationships. Weyr’s slow-building, sometimes funny tale has an old-fashioned lyrical feel. The book raises questions about the cost of power, the bonds of families and friendships. When few can see the magic left in the world, does it still exist?
- Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt
Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com
MEET DANIELLE DAVIS,
ZINNIA AND THE BEES
Written by Danielle Davis
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)
Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel.
Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.
On that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.
As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.
The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)
Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.
Author of Zinnia and the Bees, Danielle Davis
Good Reads With Ronna: What was the genesis for Zinnia and the Bees?
Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.
GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?
DD 🐝: I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).
GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?
DD 🐝: While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.
GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?
DD 🐝: Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday.
GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?
DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.
GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?
DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.
GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?
DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of my blog.
And The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.
GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?
DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.
GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?
DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.
GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?
DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)
The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years ago here.
GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?
DD 🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!
Visit Danielle’s website here.
Find her at Twitter here.
Find her at Instagram here.
Click here to see Danielle’s Facebook page
And click here to for her Pinterest boards.
Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.
DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)
When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’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
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!
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?
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
✩Booklist Starred Review
Spirit’s Key written by Edith Cohn, (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, $16.99, Ages 8-12) is a middle grade novel packed with emotion, humor, and mystery.
All Spirit Holden’s dad has to do is hold someone’s key, and he can see their future. Spirit comes from a long line of psychics, but for some reason, even though she’s twelve-years-old, the age when her ancestors received their gifts, she hasn’t gotten her powers. When Spirit holds someone’s key, she feels nothing. She is worried her elders didn’t pass along their gifts to her.
Her dad is unusually tired, and hasn’t been able to do readings for the islanders in a while. Spirit doesn’t know how they’re going to survive without the income from his readings. She’s also preoccupied with the mysterious recent deaths of the Baldies, the wild island dogs that the natives believe to be evil spirits. Spirit doesn’t believe the superstitious islanders. She even had a pet Baldy, her beloved Sky, whom she lost to the mysterious illness that was threatening to wipe out all of them. Now, the illness is spreading to the islanders, and her father is quarantined! Spirit thinks she sees Sky everywhere. She can feel him, smell him, and even hear him barking! Could Sky be trying to help Spirit solve the mystery of the dogs’ deaths?
First time author Cohn has created a page-turner of an adventure with colorful characters and vivid settings. She’s incorporated all the makings of a great novel; a flawed, but likable, main character, high stakes for her to succeed on her quest, and the ability to suspend the reader’s sense of reality.
I’d be remiss to not mention the lovely cover design by Eliza Wheeler in which she so perfectly captures the feel and mood of the book. You can judge this book by its cover, and not be disappointed.
Following is a very brief excerpt from Spirit’s Key:
“It’s easy to be brave, child, when you don’t know any better.You don’t understand about the baldies.” Mrs. Borse shudders like the thought of them, even in all her fur, gives her a chill. “You didn’t grow up hearing their history like I did, because you aren’t from around here. But maybe it’s time someone told you a thing or two about those devil creatures.” She pushes me back onto the couch and gets herself comfortable like we’ll be there awhile.
– Reviewed by MaryAnne Locher
The Worst Witch to the Rescue by Jill Murphy is reviewed by Rita Zobayan.
Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch was one of my favorite books as a child in London, so I was very excited when the sixth book in the series, The Worst Witch to the Rescue (Candlewick Press, 2014; $14.99 for hardback, Ages 8-12) was released.
Mildred Hubble, an earnest yet disaster-prone student at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, must contend with tricky spells, an even trickier classmate, and a very stern teacher. Despite her (well-earned) reputation for being awful at magic, Mildred has had a wonderful summer and returns to the Academy full of hope. Her summer project has turned out splendidly, and she is a natural at the new ceramics class. Even Ethel Hallow, Mildred’s long-time tormentor, is being friendly. Could this be the year when things finally go right for Mildred?! Alas, no. Mildred quickly learns that her luck hasn’t changed, as her good beginning unravels at rapid speed. Miss Hardbroom won’t listen when Mildred’s project goes missing, and even her friends Enid and Maud have trouble believing her theories. With her cat Tabby and tortoise Einstein, Mildred will have to work even harder than usual to set the record straight.
The Worst Witch series is a wonderful entry into fantasy. Mildred is a relatable and sweet character, who tries so hard, but gets things so wrong. However, her plucky attitude and perseverance make her admirable. Jill Murphy has created a fantastical world that is charming, but includes (somewhat) frightening elements that children will understand. Often times the frights are more people than magic based. Unfortunately, just about every story written about a witch or wizard attending a school of magic will be compared to the Harry Potter series. However, Mildred Hubble was the worst witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy a good 23 years before Harry stepped foot in Hogwarts, and she’s been accidentally wreaking havoc ever since.